We plough the fields, and scatter the good seed on the land;
But it is fed and watered by God’s almighty hand:
He sends the snow in winter, the warmth to swell the grain,
The breezes and the sunshine, and soft refreshing rain.
(‘Wir pflügen und wir streuen’ written by Matthias Claudius 1782, music by Johann Schulz 1800, translated and published in English in “A Garland of Songs” 1861.)
I never once imagined, as a young boy taking a box of tinned food, bread and home grown vegetables up to the harvest festival table at St Peter’s Methodist Church in Canterbury, that the words of this famous hymn would have such a literal importance for us.
According to our neighbours the land around our place has not been cultivated for over 10 years. Before we came along the land went through the natural cycle of weed/grass growth, then it dying, and then being incorporated into the soil. So although the underlying soil is predominantly clay, there is a very good layer of rich dark surface soil – so weeds, tree seeds, nettles, thistles and other nasties all grew fantastically. There was also a large number of buried tree stumps all over the place, large stones buried below the surface, building rubble and – even in the past 3 years – our development has added to the bad condition of the soil where concrete has been mixed in various places and the ground chewed up by cars, delivery vehicles and the digger!.
So, after lots of thinking, we decided that we would plough the three main areas of cultivation. The plan is to plough just one time, and then use the crops we sow and the animals we get to manage the land without any further ploughing, just the occasional harrowing and raking of the surface if necessary. Our variation on “no till” cultivation. It took a while clear the land of a lot of large tree stumps, buried rocks, stones and big logs. We then had to find a ploughman prepared to do the job because all the locals said the land would be too hard and break the plough. Well, we found a man with a plough and managed one field before we broke the plough – and after we paid for the repair the ploughman finished that one field then went away and never came back!!
In order to get the other two, smaller, areas of land dug up we used a JCB! and then found a farmer who has a powered disc harrow to go over all the areas to break up the large sods, and then bring his horse and a rake (well it was actually a tree trunk) to level it all out. It’s not a perfect “tilth” for sowing into but good enough to sow some cover crops on.
At the same time we’ve had 3 areas fenced off in preparation for livestock. The orchard, the main hay/grazing paddock, and an area that we hope to use initially for our first pigs while we learn how to manage and raise them later this year. Many thanks to Dan the Rotavator Man for doing a great job with the fencing and tree planting.
And then we got around to tree planting. We planted a small orchard with 20 fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, plum, cherry) and a windbreak of 12 hazel saplings which will also provide nuts as well as livestock fodder. We also planted nearly 40 paulownia trees around 3 sides of the grazing/hay paddock, both for wood production and also their leaves which can be dried, stored and fed to livestock. Later this year, maybe October, we hope to also plant some Alders as well as a few legacy trees like Chestnut and Walnut.
Finally we sowed some cover crops. In the orchard we sowed clover, onion, leeks, chives, basil and nasturtiums in between the new fruit trees. In the other two areas we’ve sown a mixture that will hopefully help to break up and condition the soil and maybe provide some forage for livestock and poultry (and the local bird population we expect) later this year – stubble turnips, forage kale, rape, chicory, linseed and marigolds – and what is left will help to further build up the soil.
So it’s been really really exciting to actually put something into the ground. We hope and pray that what we have planted and sown will bear some fruit and, more importantly, we will learn from it so that in the Autumn and next Spring we will be a bit better informed when we plant our next crops.
We thank Thee, then, O Father, for all things bright and good,
The seed time and the harvest, our life, our health, and food;
No gifts have we to offer, for all Thy love imparts,
But that which Thou desirest, our humble, thankful hearts.