Tag Archives: gardening

February in Karel Čapek’s gardening year

February is a dangerous time which threatens the gardener with black frosts, sun, damp, drought and wind. This shortest month, this whippersnapper among months, this premature, leap-year and altogether unsound month surpasses all the others in its cunning tricks… The devil only knows why in leap years one day is added to precisely this fickle, catarrhal, crafty runt of a month. (29)

The illustrations are by Josef Čapek, and this is a beautiful rendition of myself yesterday experiencing ‘Storm Doris’, though Salford experienced more wind I think:

…if you look properly (you must hold your breath as you do), you will find buds and sprouts on almost everything; with a thousand, tiny pulses life is rising from the soil. We gardeners do not give in now; we are rushing into new sap. (35)

My own little yard — rented, so I cannot take a hoe to it as Čapek suggests is necessary in February in an obsessive attempt to make its soil as fertile as it can be. But there are fine buds and sprouts, and life is rising.

Longsight Garden

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Gilbert White on changing customs around gardening (and London)

I need to finish up thoughts on Gilbert White — his writings on nature are here, on superstitions here, a few things about his perceptions of how people were dressing, eating and gardening are to be found here — linked to how they foraged from the commons, but not quite same.

In talking about leprosy, he notes not just the superstitions surrounding it, but the changes in habits and dress that he believes have reduced the frequency of skin ailments — the change in clothing and the growing of fresh vegetables and fresh meat (the aristocracy at least ate SO MUCH meat):

This happy change perhaps may have originated and been continued from the much smaller quantity of salted meat and fish now eaten in these kingdoms; from the use of linen next the skin; from the plenty of better bread; and from the profusion of fruits, roots, legumes, and greens, so common in every family. Three or four centuries ago, before there were any enclosures, sown-grasses, field-turnips, or field-carrots, or hay, all the cattle which had grown fat in summer, and were not killed for winter-use, were turned out soon after Michaelmas to shift as they could through the dead months; so that no fresh meat could be had in winter or spring. Hence the marvellous account of the vast stores of salted flesh found in the larder of the eldest Spencer** t in the days of Edward the Second, even so late in the spring as the third of May. It was from magazines like these that the turbulent barons supported in idleness their riotous swarms of retainers ready for any disorder or mischief. But agriculture is now arrived at such a pitch of perfection, that our best and fattest meats are killed in the winter; and no man need eat salted flesh, unless he prefers it, that has money to buy fresh. (** Viz.: Six hundred bacons, eighty carcasses of beef, and six hundred muttons.)

I found this even more fascinating on the growth of gardening, and the widening availability of vegetables for sale (and clearly, a corresponding growth of markets, transportation links between town and country, and the ability of people to buy them where they cannot grow their own).

As to the produce of a garden, every middle-aged person of observation may perceive, within his own memory, both in town and country, how vastly the consumption of vegetables is increased. Green-stalls in cities now support multitudes in a comfortable state, while gardeners get fortunes. Every decent labourer also has his garden, which is half his support, as well as his delight; and common farmers provide plenty of beans, peas, and greens, for their hinds to eat with their bacon; and those few that do not are despised for their sordid parsimony, and looked upon as regardless of the welfare of their dependents. Potatoes have prevailed in this little district, by means of premiums, within these twenty years only; and are much esteemed here now by the poor, who would scarce have ventured to taste them in the last reign.

And to throw in just a few fun observations on London!

20 Nov 1773

Martins love to frequent towns, especially if there are great lakes and rivers at hand; nay, they even affect the close air of London. And I have not only seen them nesting in the Borough, but even in the Strand and Fleet- street; but then it was obvious from the dinginess of their aspect that their feathers partook of the filth of that sooty atmosphere.

On the great frost of 1776 — amazing

On the 22nd the author had occasion to go to London through a sort of Laplandian-scene, very wild and grotesque indeed. But the metropolis itself exhibited a still more singular appearance than the country; for, being bedded deep in snow, the pavement of the streets could not be touched by the wheels or the horses’ feet, so that the carriages ran about without the least noise. Such an exception from din and clatter was strange, but not pleasant; it seemed to convey an uncomfortable idea of desolation

The lost garden, and hogweed

No baby animals today, the Steiner wonderchild did them (very very slowly, like everything else), but I did get to start work recovering a lost garden. Hopefully I’ll have time to clear it and start some lovely things growing between other chores before I go!

This morning really started with Molly providing some comic relief by standing on the roof of the wood shed:

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But then we came to where I hope I will be able to point to and say I left this place better for having been here.

You come to a wire gate alongside some of the sheds, keeping the herbs and veg that once grew here safe from marauding chickens that run loose in the yard.

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It’s some time since anyone spent any time down here, as you can see from the passage down to the gardens — though of course these weeds come up so ridiculously fast:

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Arriving at the end of this passage is a very long lost garden, a huge undifferentiated swath of nettles and docks and hogweed and others.

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This is looking back from the other direction:

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The wunderkind began an attack on this later in the day with a strimmer — again, I so so missed the scythe. It is so much more useful as it cuts closer to the soil, apart from the noise and the petrol. You work your way along the edge of this towards a garden a little less lost, a series of raised beds, and bark put down between some of them to preserve the paths. What I also wouldn’t give for the little semicircular blade that would clear the paths…ah well.

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Continue further — on your right, and down below you find Lilly and her mean father, Arthur:

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You turn left to see six or eight more beds, with a polytunnel behind them needing reclaiming:

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The view from the other side:

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Quite a task! But first, I had to focus on cutting off all the flowering heads of the dock and hogweed before their seeds were dispersed across the farm.

Hogweed is quite interesting — I missed the media frenzy about Giant Hogweed, imported here from Georgia — this grows over ten feet, sending up huge white umbrels of flowers and its sap can cause horrible burns across your skin that may take days, weeks or years to heal properly.

from the Royal Horticultural Society:

The giant hogweeds are usually referred to by one name, Heracleum mantegazzianum. Research by RHS and other botanists shows that, while this is one of the species, there are as many as four other giant hogweeds at large in Britain some of which are biennial and others perennial. However, when tested all these had high levels of furanocoumarins (the chemicals which cause burning by making the skin sensitive to sunlight) and so all pose a risk to public health.

There is also a native hogweed, Heracleum sphondylium, which will be a familiar plant to gardeners and those who like to go walking in the UK. It can grow to six foot or so when in flower but is nevertheless a much smaller plant than giant hogweed. It can cause rashes and other skin complaints but reactions tend not be as severe as with the larger species.

The giant hogweeds were introduced into Britain and Europe from the Caucasus Mountains in the nineteenth century. The earliest documented reference to their introduction into Britain that has been traced is from the Royal Botanic Gardens Kew Seed List of 1817 where giant hogweed, under the name of Heracleum giganteum was listed among seeds supplied to Kew by the Russian Gorenki Botanic Gardens. They were soon introduced into the horticultural trade and being aesthetically impressive plants, were widely planted in ornamental gardens throughout Britain. Unfortunately they quickly escaped from cultivation with the first naturalised (‘wild’) population recorded in Cambridgeshire in 1828, and are now widely naturalised as invasive species throughout much of Britain and Europe.

What they don’t note is that the shoots of the native hogweed are apparently quite delicious steamed and buttered. I definitely want to try that. In picking them, however, they are still not pleasant to handle so gloves must be worn. They can’t be strimmed, because that can send the sap shooting across your skin (again a scythe wouldn’t have that problem) with force, which makes it even more painful. They have to be dug out one by one — I didn’t do that today, just walked around the very considerable field that has recently been mowed picking off the flower tops.

Here is some alongside the little bit that has been left as woodland, and where willow grows aplenty for use by the wood and willow-worker who has workspace here.

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I picked a plethora, and tiring as it was, I got to explore the far end of the field where I had not yet been (except when I was sitting in the tractor). I found another badger sett! A lone one, but seems to be well used.

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The views are stunning, back down across the farm:

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Across the other field that will at some point become hay:

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It started raining in the middle of this, and has not yet stopped. I did a little more work on the lost garden, but left my ipod in the caravan so have no work-done picture. We have a half day tomorrow, so I will get one then I suppose.

Long day, but a good one. In other news, my last rejection apparently wasn’t quite as bad as I thought it was yesterday as I skimmed it over. But I still haven’t been able to read it again myself. Time for all things.

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The Terrible Truth About Ducks

Yesterday started with ducks. They get shut in at night, to protect them from the fox. When released, they erupt from their prison with a joyful waddling quacking, leaving their little wooden hut in a waddling quacking line of joyfulness.

I thought to myself, how wonderful ducks are! They headed straight for the water.

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I don’t know if it was the waddling or the quacking, but I really loved ducks at that moment.

After feeding them, all of their water gets emptied out and refilled — the three of these and a large almost -paddling-pool size one in the larger enclosure. They’re allowed into the larger enclosure where they can hunt for slugs and snails (the main practical reason you want ducks possibly) if they’ve laid eggs. They had laid two eggs. Out they went. More waddling and quacking. More joy.

We were refilling the water here and a sudden splashing made me turn around. I am sorry to say that possibly the most violent sex scene I have possibly ever seen was being enacted in the paddling pool. Apparently this is just the way it is for female ducks. More than one male was involved, and I would not be surprised to find that more than one female ends up drowning in such encounters.

Lady ducks of the world unite, is all I have to say.

It was a bit anticlimactic, but realising I personally wouldn’t be able to organise the lady ducks effectively to overthrow patriarchy, I agreed to continue to rescue the herb bed, and when done we used hazel from the hedges to build cages to support the great sprawling valerian

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and the soon to be sprawling elecampane, which will soon send forth great yellow flowerheads.

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If you build the cages early enough, they will disappear into the foliage as it grows ferociously in the spring and summer. The valerian was my hazel weaving work, but because these branches were cut from the hedge which has been lopped many times, they were quite unideal for such a weaving. Still, they were usable. You use all that is usable, and most things can serve multiple purposes over the course of their development, this is the philosophy of permaculture.

We had weeded these beds while Rob was mowing the orchard with the scythe — necessary before the docks flowered and seeded. So we spent some time raking up the leavings, which we will at some point use to mulch the apple trees. This is where the chickens live, along with Gandalf the Grey (gander) and Galadriel the white (goose).

I have stared my gander fear in the face and won.

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Today we weeded a different bed full of herbs and flowers, transplanted some comfrey, and began work on a new bed using a brilliant tool called an azada, which scrapes the root-matted tops off of the earth infested with the terrible cooch grass, allowing you to turn over the earth and rid it of the deep clinging roots of said grass. It went from this (we’d started a bit here):

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To this:

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You can see how the roots infest this beautiful soil. This is the grass that makes no-dig permaculture gardening impossible here (after reading Masanobu Fukuoka I was so excited about that, but ah well). You have to turn it over and over and pick it through, and still you know it will be returning. I did most of the azada work, so I am happily tired.

I quite love hard work.

Also, yesterday, we picked a huge amount of beautifully ripened strawberries — the lovely varieties you can’t buy in supermarkets because they bruise and don’t last forever and will make other strawberries pale in comparison.

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So today we made some jam. Well, I watched Diana make some jam. I think I will be able to make jam in future. A kilo of strawberries, a kilo of sugar (yep, half and half), some lemon rather than pectin for it to set. Boil, stir, get it up to temperature. Boil a minute or two more. Let it sit a minute and the fruit settle. Fill jars sterilised with boiling water. After a little while, turn the jars upside down. A few hours later turn them right side up and that creates a seal.

Also today I sent off yet another job application and made dinner which people actually enjoyed. A good day.

To end by continuing the herb lessons from Mrs. M. Grieve’s A Modern Herbal, here is some awesome info on valerian and elecampane:

Valeriana officinalis – Valerian

It was afterwards found to be useful in certain kinds of epilepsy. The plant was in such esteem in mediaeval times as a remedy, that it received the name of All Heal, which is still given it in some parts of the country.

The drug allays pain and promotes sleep. It is of especial use and benefit to those suffering from nervous overstrain, as it possesses none of the after-effects produced by narcotics.

During the recent War, when air-raids were a serious strain on the overwrought nerves of civilian men and women, Valerian, prescribed with other simple ingredients, taken in a single dose, or repeated according to the need, proved wonderfully efficacious, preventing or minimizing serious results.

Though in ordinary doses, it exerts an influence quieting and soothing in its nature upon the brain and nervous system, large doses, too often repeated, have a tendency to produce pain in the head, heaviness and stupor.

Inula Helenium – Elecampane

The herb is of ancient medicinal repute, having been described by Dioscorides and Pliny. An old Latin distich celebrates its virtues: Enula campana reddit praecordia sana (Elecampane will the spirits sustain). ‘Julia Augustus,’ said Pliny, ‘let no day pass without eating some of the roots of Enula, considered to help digestion and cause mirth.’ The monks equally esteemed it as a cordial. Pliny affirmed that the root ‘being chewed fasting, doth fasten the teeth,’ and Galen that ‘It is good for passions of the hucklebone called sciatica.’

Elecampane is frequently mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon writings on medicine current in England prior to the Norman Conquest; it is also the ‘Marchalan’ of the Welsh physicians of the thirteenth century, and was generally known during the Middle Ages.

It was formally cultivated in all private herb-gardens, as a culinary and medicinal plant, and it is still to be found in old cottage gardens. Not only was its root much employed as a medicine, but it was also candied and eaten as a sweetmeat. Dr. Fernie tells us, in Herbal Simples:

‘Some fifty years ago, the candy was sold commonly in London as flat, round cakes being composed largely of sugar and coloured with cochineal. A piece was eaten each night and morning for asthmatical complaints, whilst it was customary when travelling by a river, to suck a bit of the root against poisonous exalations and bad air. The candy may still be had from our confectioners, but now containing no more of the plant Elecampane than there is of barley in Barley Sugar.’

In Denmark, Elecampane is sometimes called Elf-Doc. Here one sometimes comes across the name Elf-Dock locally, also Elfwort.

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From Mines to Market Gardens — The Tamar Valley

Sovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar ValleySovereigns, Madams and Double Whites: Fruit and Flower Pioneers of the Tamar Valley is a wonderful book I found in the library here. It emerged from a 2001 project to uncover the market gardening landscape, and is full of oral histories and quite wonderful photographs. It is the story of the long-gone smallholdings up and down the Tamar valley. They were built up and down the steep south-facing hills for the earliest flowers and strawberries.

Almost all of them have now become grazing and farm land, or woods.

There is so much here of England’s industrial and agricultural history that is long forgotten. It is so strange to think of this area as a centre of copper mining, much less arsenic refining, but so it was:

For a brief period of twenty years in the mid nineteenth century the Tamar Valley became the copper centre of England, the river crowded with shipping carrying ore to be smelted in South Wales. However by 1868 the largest mine, Devon Great Consols, was nearly exhausted and metal prices slumped putting hundreds of families out of work. Arsenic refining took over but in turn was abandoned. By the 1930s mining was dead leaving a strange and dramatic landscape of waste tips and ruinous buildings half hidden in lush woodland and intricately mixed with villages, farms, riverside quays and market gardens. (1)

Apart from copper, the Tamar Valley was known for cherry and apple orchards, and had the earliest strawberries in the country — that was where the money once was. Early strawberries and the famous Tamar Double Whites, a lovely fragrant daffodil planted here by the thousands and their remnants now left forgotten in hedgerows and bordering fields. But the market gardens along the slopes here reached their height in the 1950s, when they supported an industry of 8-10,000 people, more than the entire population today. Special tools to work the hillsides were invented (a special dibber!), and diggers to move soil up slopes.

It is amazing to think smallholdings could provide so much work, and that they once sent flowers and fruit all over the country. Somehow it pleases me greatly to imagine early daffodils from Devon arriving to bring joy in Birmingham.

Also fascinating is the role that changing transportation links played in this story. In many ways this agricultural revolution was due to the arrival of the Great Western Railway. It reached Plymouth in 1849 and bridged the Tamar to Saltash in 1859 — before this, the river Tavy had been the main way of transport. But the trains allowed a much faster movement of fruit — allowing it to be sold within 24 hours of picking. Because of the warm micro-climates here in Devon allowing the very early growing of fruit, the possibility of transport opened up new possibilities just after the waves of lay-offs from mining.

In the change to market gardening, many followed the pioneer James Lawry. On a visit to Crystal Palace in London in 1862 (I do so very much love accounts of Crystal Palace), he heard of Covent Garden market. Visiting it, he discovered their earliest strawberries arrived in June, while back home in Tamar Valley their crop was much earlier. Upon learning the  difference in price for Strawberries in London as opposed to Devon, there seemed little to lose. He started sending his fruit to a Mr. Israel in 1863.

Lawry helped establish not just strawberries, but also punnet-making, and thus began a thriving networks of smallholdings and associated employment for the whole family.

In 1966, Beaching’s cuts to train services and closure of multiple stations ended what was left of this industry as transportation costs became too high, fruit could no longer arrive to markets within 24 hours at a low enough price. I already felt like spitting whenever his name is mentioned. Of course, globalisation, and the flying in of fruit from countries around the world did not help either.

In 1971 there were still 250 viable holdings, by 1979 only 140 growers left, and the extreme slopes fell out of cultivation for the easier flats where mechanization could be brought in. Now they are all but gone.

We probably won’t be able to fly in strawberries forever, so perhaps this shall be full of smallholdings once again. Interesting thought.

The oral histories are short–a few paragraphs of key memories–but so interesting. Alan Rickard’s father had been to Canada to work in the mines there, then returned to work five acres growing cherries, dahlias, rhubarb, irises, strawberries and daffodils. This was apparently true of many families, John Snell’s father went to the mines first, then Ford’s Detroit plant and then returned home. Almost all of the gardens sold a similar variety, though most seemed to specialise in one or two. There are a few fishermen, who gardened on the side. Others seemed to be more gardeners who fished. A few German POWs who remained after the war. A number are still in the business, generally where their children and grandchildren have taken over — though in large modern greenhouses or polytunnels.

One of my favourite quotes from Alan Langsford:

When I was a little boy I wanted to be a Dutchman when I grew up. [The bulb-salesmen] all wore suits, drove nice cars and didn’t work outside on the land! (142)

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On Salad

It takes a lot of work, salad.

So. Much. Work.

This is because today we worked picking for the market, for the ‘city folk’, not for our own meal. I know now I never appreciated enough where my usual salad came from.

It took two of us much of the morning to harvest two boxes of spinach and one of chard. True, it’s near the end of the harvest and they are just at the point of bolting, but still. So much work. Back — aches. Hands — itch from that one sneaking nettle. Bending over to pick leaf by leaf, not too much on any one plant so more can be harvested. I know spinach disappears when you cook it, but it does the same damn thing filling a box.

I also picked and washed and de-slugged lettuce. I thus discovered today there are not two kinds of slug — the fat round kind and the long slithery kind with antlers. The slitherers roll up. Life was all right when I didn’t know that.

Mizuna, roquette (this is the same as arugula, who knew? Maybe I knew, but I have also been known to state I’ve never had ‘rocket’ in the US. Perhaps this forgetfulness arises from the fact I don’t care so much for it…) and a third I can’t remember. Those you can just cut all the leaves in a satisfying bunch about an inch and a half above the roots and they will grow back better than ever. Those were a pleasure to harvest. A little chicory, endive, some calendula petals and my salad bags for market tomorrow were a pleasure to behold.

There is, of course, also the choosing of varieties, preparing of beds, planting, watering and etc. Today’s labour was only the end of a much longer labour of hours and thought.

The afternoon we spent weeding around the chard and spinach, and weeding and weeding. But these polytunnels are amazing.

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Today’s moral: appreciate your damn salad.

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South London Botanical Institute

Amazing that South London has a botanical institute, I had never heard of it until perusing the tours for Open House London — a pretty exciting weekend that I should have booked up far in advance. A brief description from the SLBI website:

indexFounded in 1910 by a keen botanist, Allan Octavian Hume (1829-1912), the aims of the Institute have remained almost unchanged in 100 years. Hume’s lasting contribution has been to provide an environment where those interested in plants, be they amateur or professional, may meet and develop their knowledge of plants.

It seemed to me quite quintessentially British, this place. The white middle classes thronged, generations of them — I suffered a little class anxiety but I am always made happy seeing grandparents out for the day with their grandchildren I confess. There was tea, and I had some quite nice cake that I took away wrapped up in a napkin that involved zucchini and cream cheese frosting. There was a lovely garden, despite the time of year, with an offering of a number of well marked flowers and herbs. My love of plants has never yet led me into an herbarium, but I discovered their massive collection of beautifully pressed plants, preserved for study in rows of custom built containers, and frozen now and again to ensure there are no insects feasting on them like aged cheddar. They also had a lovely library with the most wonderful books lining the walls, and treasures in these giant old herbals lying open on the table.

First, The Gardener’s Dictionary: containing the best and newest methods of cultivating and improving the kitchen, fruit, flower garden, and nursery, as also for performing the practical parts of agriculture, including the management of vineyards, with the methods of making and preserving wine, according to the present practice of the most skilful vignerons in the several wine countries in Europe, together with directions for propagating and improving, from real practice and experience, all sorts of timber trees .

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Put together by Phillip Miller, curator of the Chelsea Physic Garden, the first version was published in 1731. It was a foundational book in forming the knowledge, practice and taste of gardening, or so it is said by the wonderful University of Toronto’s Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library, where you can see all of it .

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One of the other books was entirely London plants, a beautifully illustrated financial disaster: The Flora Londinensis [electronic resource] : or plates and descriptions of such plants as grow wild in the environs of London: with Their Places of Growth, and Times of Flowering; their several Names according to Linnaeus and other Authors: with A particular Description of each Plant in Latin and English. To which are Added, Their several Uses in Medicine, Agriculture, Rural Oeconomy, and other Arts. By William Curtis, Demonstrator of Botany to the Company of Apothecaries. Again, based in Chelsea.

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A wonderful description of the book and its publishing can be found here. The pictures are exquisite, as is the book.

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Financial disaster came because the book proved expensive to publish and not a big seller. The public was not interested in local flora, desiring pictures of the bizarre and the exotic instead.

Hume, the founder of the South London Botanical Institute, knew all about the ‘exotic’, having been a collector of flora and fauna in India for many years — as well as playing a prominent role in the Indian civil service, and having served in military actions during the rebellion of 1857. Despite the way it feels so rooted here in South London soil, this building and its collections are intertwined with notions and practices of Empire — even if in some ways a return to more familiar plants. The Open House London description is here, notes written by Judy Marshall, Council Member of the Institute in 2006. An extract:

His natural history collections from India were legendary, with the bird and animal collections being presented to the British Museum Natural History as it was then called. Back in England, with help from his friends, he immediately started collecting British plants. These collections form the nucleus of the Institute herbarium. He also designed the herbarium cabinets. The library was started with books owned by him. The garden was to be used partly to grow alien species missing from the herbarium. We do not know whether there was an original conservatory: the present one replaced the existing one, riddled with dry rot, in 1990. This was made possible with a grant from the Stanley Smith Horticultural Trust. The Institute was cared for by resident curators.

It is interesting to speculate on why such a very distinguished and energetic man as Hume should have spent his final years, then aged over 80, pursuing such an unusual aim. According to the original Memorandum of Association, ‘The sole object for which the Institute is established is to promote, encourage and facilitate, amongst the residents of south London, the study of botany exclusively’.

I wonder what it meant to him to return to his own country, specialise in its own plants in a way that the explorations in service of empire demanded abroad. Hume’s history in India seems to be one of liberal action pushing democracy and improvement as far as the framework of empire would go, founding free schools and promoting agricultural improvements. Not radical enough to challenge the empire itself, he did enough to earn himself a demotion and eventual dismissal. So I like him. He also went on to help form the Indian National Congress…there are a number of interesting talks to be found on his role in India and his ornithological and botanical interests here. It somehow all came to rest in this place, on Norwood Road.

This is an interesting place to think through some of London’s connections to Empire, our natural love of, and curiosity about, the incredible world we live in, and how it can be structured and appropriated by imperialism and exploitation. The role of botany and cataloguing and scientific exploration in conquest as well as furthering human knowledge. The corresponding influence of a role as civil servant and political figure in the pursuit of natural history and collecting. The study of botany and the collection of plants are irrevocably tangled in these imperial histories, even when not as tied to such a career as that of Allen Octavian Hume. There is so much more to explore here, and there is a little more here.

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Permaculture in Urban Farming: An LA Experiment

Once upon a time I was lucky enough to move into a house with a small and completely overgrown garden. So my then-partner and I decided we would reclaim it and try to grow as much of our own food as possible. Just to learn what that would take.

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We grew some delicious vegetables — and if you know me that will make you laugh — but I deeply enjoyed them after they were cooked. We also had loquats and kumquats and pomegranates. We had fresh eggs from the chickens we also raised up there in the Forgotten Edge, perched between Echo Park and Chinatown. But what we managed to grow? I’m afraid it was nowhere near enough to sustain us and this is partly why (apart from size, as of course that does matter).

Grocery stores have brutally erased the agricultural seasons for us, so you have to relearn a lot (which also means your diet and your cooking repertoire have to completely change). You can’t plant seeds all at once, rather you have to do it in waves, so as to have a continuous harvest. Preparation of the ground is key: digging deep, breaking up clay (of which we had tons and it sucked but it sure as hell was better than caliche), adding what you can to improve its lightness along with your organic fertilizer which should come as much as possible from your own compost pile.

We aimed for all organic but it was rough, and involved things like wiping down each individual plant to get rid of aphids and other pests. We bought ladybugs, but did not have a garden they seemed to enjoy sticking around in. That required more thought and work and planting. We had to water; to do it efficiently required putting in a drip system or a way to collect rainwater, and treat and reuse gray water, which we investigated but never managed to do. We didn’t have money even for the drip system all at once, so watering regularly was one more thing (though adding mulch reduced that burden). We had to fertilize regularly. We had to tie up our tomatoes and our cucumbers, and insulate our squash from the ground. We had to rotate crops as we constantly planted new ones. Planting certain combinations — like the famous triad of squash, corn, and beans — helps ensure each variety grows better than they would alone and puts them at less risk of pest infestation, so we planned that into our rotations. And every day we had to be out there weeding, watering, tending, planting. Every. Day.

All of it required planning and thought and work and more planning. It was joy and pain all mixed together, even if we didn’t do it all that well and I discovered I’m lazier than I thought. I remember reading something in the middle of this that referred to subsistence farmers as unskilled labour, and I almost threw the book across the room. The ability to survive on what you grow on the land is knowledge passed down from generation to generation. To try and relearn it all through books that are never specific to the land you are working? I just wonder when we will awaken to the tragedy of what we have already lost, and what we continue to lose.

I started reading  Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual by Bill Mollison during this grand attempt, the only textbook I’ve ever loved. I’ll acknowledge that for the present I’m far too busy, and very happily so, to reattempt such a labour intensive project for now. But permaculture as a way of being in the world has stuck with me. In it’s most concrete sense it is an approach to planning and implementing sustainability, creating systems that provide for their own needs and recycle their waste. It has very practical rules to live by. In a quote from Bill Mollison:

“Permaculture turned very rapidly into a system of design so that everything you put in had a multiple purpose and was in the right place to carry out its job. It’s a peculiar thing to say that you put the tree there to give shade; every tree gives shade; so that’s not a unique characteristic of this tree you put there, to give shade, but if it also gives you something like oranges or dates as well, that’s good, and also has an excess of oranges to feed your pig . . . then it’s doing three things. And I always say that everything you place should do at least three things.”

But more philosophically, it is entirely about getting to know your place: finding out where the sunlight spends most of its time in summer and winter, where the cold air collects, where the soil changes and moisture collects. It’s about acknowledging all of your assets, seeing how you — and everything around you — fit together, work together, improve or help each other. You can only live this way by constantly working to see the world around you holistically, deepening how you understand it. You no longer see just a chicken, but what a chicken eats, how it lives, what it produces as the picture above shows. This requires deep reflection on experience, in preparation for acting, building, creating, before reflecting again in a perfect popular education spiral.

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Clearly I haven’t even scratched the permaculture surface here; I’ve just read a book or two and talked to some people and tried to implement some principles, so find out for yourself and explore! I’m particularly excited about urban permaculture, so read more here. I’ll leave you with an awesome design I look forward to one day building, as I’ve already mentioned spirals once and I surely love them:

 

herb spiral
It reminds me of this from my own hometown:

and the house I grew up, built of adobe by my parents and called at different times ‘mud house’ and ‘nautilus house’. This stuff runs deep.

 

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