The opening days of 2021 were burdened with low temperatures, sullen Tupperware skies, cold winds, and sleeting rain. The flattened tips of daffodil leaves and tiny grey-green points of snowdrops broke through the soil, while mustard and herb seedlings in the greenhouse pushed their heads into the world regardless.
The experiment of constructing a small, tented area of bubble wrap protecting the most tender houseplants within the greenhouse proved inadequate; so much heat from the single radiator was being lost through the high slanted glass, without the addition of bottom-heating the staging the temperature difference inside the structure was negligible. Out came the swathes of last year’s bubble wrap, thoughtfully numbered by Karen and a day was spent transforming the space into a plastic version of a Bedouin tent. There are now biodegradable bubble wraps available which we’ll look to replace with next year as we continue to find ways to make the garden a sustainable endeavour.
Pulled inside by the chilly downpours, we had the time to catch up on courses and reading. The seed saving course from Vital Seeds emphasised how important it is to preserve genetic diversity by growing from organic, open pollinated seed and ensuring seed sovereignty. In the opening pages of Leah Penniman’s book ‘Farming While Black’ an image depicts seeds being braided into women’s hair before their forced boarding onto slave ships: the earliest rice varieties found in South Carolina were the African Oryza glaberrima, grown by women in their provision gardens. The prominence of last year’s Black Lives Matter movement had prompted us to look deeper into traditional ways of growing from other countries and cultures, from methods of healing degraded soils in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake to the global diversity of nitrogen fixing plants used as cover crops. Finding solutions through shared stories and experimenting with other’s ideas will be our New Year’s resolutions.
In the garden Anthony and Alan continued to carve out the ‘dirty paths’ [a soil and gravel mix beneath a gravel mulch], and finish laying the loop of irrigation pipe. They battled the weather and the diminishing access for the digger as the central solid pathways became too narrow to navigate with heavy machinery. We have kept a slightly wider passage around the large vegetable bed to enable the continuing addition of organic matter in the Autumn. Suzi, Yas and I pressed on with the pruning of all those lower limbs of the climbing roses, ornamental vines, clematis and jasmine adorning the house as well as honeysuckles and a star jasmine that has become seriously entangled with a downpipe. We have found this preparation for the cherry pickers arrival later in February means we manage to finish the higher stems of more than twenty plants within the week. With the national lockdown now in its sixth week, plugged in to a podcast pruning at the top of a ladder feels like the height of entertainment.
Storm Christoph set off more than sixty flood warnings in the North of England causing widespread damage and evacuations. We were lucky to escape with some thorough drenchings and the winds soughing through the cedars while we clung to our rungs. Half an eye was trained overhead at the great oaks as we wheelbarrowed back to the walled garden, their dead limbs poised to fly like rafts at the edge of a torrent.
There followed soon after another cold snap, and while much of the rest of the country delighted in a picture postcard snowscape West Grinstead belligerently refused; ice shards lay in the hard ruts left by digger tyres and needle-like rain blew in gusts. We retreated to the greenhouse and potted on young apple trees awaiting estate planting. A morning was spent in a fantastic training meeting with Vidacycle, where Annie Landless embedded the ways and wherefores of their Soilmentor app with all the Knepp elements, the rewilding, cattle, ecology, regenerative farming, and the garden. It will be a fascinating story as the data builds across the landscape. The app makes for ease of surveying as well as being able to interpret results and compare them with different territories within Knepp, the locality and nationwide.
When Anthony began to level out the vegetable plot, adding our own and a rich dark mushroom compost next to the duns and greys of the rest of the garden, it was a sensory medicine. Having talked soil for a few hours, the image of all that teeming microbial life held within it was a balm after gravel and machinery and hard clay trenches.
As our journey continues the narrative becomes ever more apparent: learn to read and understand the garden beneath our feet and the landscape it creates above.
Moy Fierheller Joint Head Gardener January 2021
What we are reading;
On the Wild Side: Experiments in New Naturalism: Amazon.co.uk: Keith Wiley: 9780881926361: Books