Green Manures: Why Don’t We Learn From Old Wisdom?

clover green manure crop nutrients soil leguminous nitrogen-fixing
Above: clover, a common nitrogen-fixing green manure crop used to return nutrients to the soil

Approaching a new plot of land is a daunting matter. Particularly in London. I have heard of people uncovering mattresses, televisions, and all manner of things lodged deep in this damp, clay soil.

Sadly, at a time when ‘vintage’ remains vogue, I doubt I am going to uncover any butler sinks any time soon. A shame, as they are lovely things in which to grow more vigorous species, like mint and nasturtiums.

The garden to which I’m tending this year is less than ten years old. The soil, whilst full of happy, healthy worms and traces of mycorrhiza (the parts of mushrooms we don’t tend to see), is very clay, clumpy, and generally in need of a lot of love. I can see where the garden is trying to come into its own, and have observed which species are doing well, but it could still do with a helping hand when it comes to building the soil.

It is no accident that we are starting to pay more attention to our soils and the way that we grow our crops, at a time when we are having to refine our growing and farming practices to meet the demands of burgeoning populations and climate change.  We are only just beginning to examine soil composition and its flora and fauna in earnest, and it is perhaps our increased understanding of these relationships that has led to zero-till and no-dig methods gaining popularity. Both are topics that I will examine in future.

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A Sordid History of Seeds: Swapping, Swindling & Why We Must Save for the Future

swap seeds: borlotti, painted lady, carlin peas, mr bounds
Seeds swapped and saved this year, including (L-R): Borlotti, Painted Lady, uknown, Carlin Peas and Mr Bounds

Despite the biting cold and the snow, February is a time of year that I always look forward to. It is the time when the scribbles and marginalia of the previous year’s notebooks start to turn into the shoots and leaves that will eventually make the crops of the coming year. It is a time when I get to enjoy the excitement of cracking open last year’s bean pods, enjoying each little snap of nature’s answer to bubble wrap. It is also the time of year that major seed companies most look forward to, as growers around the world buy seed in anticipation of Spring.

The unquestioned hegemony of seed companies over what people grow is something that I have always found very strange. When so much of what we grow willingly offers its seed, it seems weird and wasteful to buy new seed year after year. So why do we do it? Well, naturally, the problem started with the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution led to a number of major advancements in the practice of agriculture and horticulture, including the mass-production of glass, the invention of chemical fertilizers, and the birth of the large-scale seed supplier. The impact of these changes was unprecedented, allowing growers around the world to produce bigger, more resilient crops earlier in the year.

The scientific spirit of some of these plant breeders was commendable, with a number of their observations contributing to our current understanding of botany and plant reproduction. Some of them even enjoyed correspondence Charles Darwin.

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