In the 1940’s *Howard argued that the widespread application of chemicals and fertilizers would disrupt mycorrhizal associations, the means by which “the marriage of a fertile soil and the tree it nourishes …. is arranged’. The consequences of such a breakdown would be far reaching. [ …. ] Howard’s tone is dramatic, but eighty years on his questions cut deep. By some measures, modern industrial agriculture has been effective: crop production doubled over the second half of the twentieth century. But a single minded focus on yield has incurred steep costs. Agriculture causes widespread environmental destruction and is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Between twenty and forty percent of crops are lost each year to pests and diseases,despite colossal application of pesticide. Global agricultural yields have plateaued despite a 7oo-fold increase in fertilizer use over the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide thirty football fields worth of topsoil are lost to erosion every minute. Yet a third of food is wasted , and demand for crops will double by 2050. It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this crisis.
Merlin Sheldrake “Entangled Life” – published 2021 by The Bodley Head
*Sir Albert Howard – organic farming pioneer and author of “An Agricultural Testament” published in 1940 and still in print.
I don’t think I’ve ever seen the numbers above so succinctly organised and for that reason alone I recommend the book; but it’s also full of research on fungi, bacteria and plants and their often poorly understood relationships. If you read it and go out into the garden; take a good handful of soil and consider that it contains more microorganisms than the total cumulative population of the earth across the whole of human history.
I had a comment from an old friend today after my mention (24 hours early it seems) of a supermoon. He’s spent a lifetime on space research and is a seriously experienced astronomer as well. He said I might get into astronomy if I went on in this way. Well Chris, I reckon my handful of earth is a worthy counterbalance to mind-bogglingly complex thoughts of space. Either subject invites awe!
Actually the photo is a bit of a cheat because I took it exactly a year ago to the day. On the other hand after a few days of work this week, the allotment looks uncannily – or rather – exactly the same, because in truth there’s nothing at all uncanny about the yearly routine since with small variations from year to year it just happens that way.
A friend emailed today with a link to an Imboic celebration she’d taken part in. I’d never heard of Imboic before but it’s described both as a Wiccan and a Celtic festival to celebrate the beginning of spring and takes place at the beginning of February, coincidentally the date when Candlemas is celebrated in the Christian church. The religious are a larcenous lot with regard to festivals and this is obviously an ancient, probably pre-Christian festival that’s been repackaged to suit successive orthodoxies. What it does achieve is to touch the very deep need in our lives to recognise and celebrate the seasonal turning points. Looking at the YouTube video it’s clear that everyone was having a grand time and that, in my usual latitudinarian way I don’t give a stuff if they all believe different things; the fact is, the crowds knew why they were there and what they were celebrating.
And the crowds were entirely right. The year has turned decisively and even if there were no humans left to celebrate it (a distinct possibility if we don’t change our ways) the plants and wildlife certainly would. Today on the allotment we heard and saw – wrens and robins, jays, magpies, rooks, and a green woodpecker; all without making the least effort. We allotmenteers seem to have an instinctual drive to make ready for the new season and Madame and me have been afflicted by the urge to work all day and think about work all night. The beds are all ready, bar a tiny bit of weeding, and the second propagator will be switched on tomorrow (rainy day job). The pile of pernicious weeds and roots – mostly bindweed and creeping buttercup since the couch has been vanquished – has not dried out, and so the vexed issue of whether to burn them in a couch fire or drive them to the tip and let someone else burn them, hasn’t arisen – but it will. The battle of the composts has been resolved, and a new bag of Sylva Grow is in the back of the car. I would have tried to get a bag of Carbon Gold, about which I’ve heard good things, but it’s not widely distributed in garden centres yet. We are astonished that they are still apparently selling mountains of peat based composts, and it occurred to me this morning that it’s no use grumbling about the way things are; this is a capitalist society and the one thing, the only thing agribusiness is interested in is the bottom line. So if we’re concerned about peat extraction we just stop buying it, and put the garden centres on notice that we’ll take away their greenwashed credentials if they don’t stop.
Anyway, enough bolshy gardener stuff – I really wanted to write about the absurd pleasure of prepping the ground. Our allotment is at the bottom of a steep slope, probably about 30 vertical feet below the access track, and that means that wheelbarrowing materials down the grass path is pretty hard work. In the last few days I’ve trucked down 20 bags of horse manure, 4 bags of topsoil, 2 bags of horticultural sand, a week’s kitchen waste and maybe ten loads of wood chip. Then today as I surveyed the flattened remains of the autumn leaf pile, I realized that there was a good eight inches of almost black topsoil, full of old leaf mould and it was calling out to me – take me now! When we took on our hillside allotments, the only thing we could do was terrace them. Timber is expensive, but we bit the bullet and gradually built proper beds as funds permitted. Some topsoil was salvaged as we dug out deep paths for drainage, but our so-called raised beds have spent much of their lives being a bit sunken. Filling them with topsoil would have been outrageously expensive and so our strategy has been to recycle every gram of dirt, every plant pot’s worth of compost and to acquire more whenever the chance arose. A neighbour over ordered and so I bought the surplus from him. Today yielded four full barrow loads of marvellous topsoil and at last the most needy bed is genuinely raised. The hotbed is fully charged and has reached 13C at the surface of the earth layer, and I added the surplus horse manure to the compost bin as a bit of extra nitrogen, and turned it all in. This was truly hard work and yet it gave me the most absurd amount of pleasure. It was, in the words at the top of this post, dragging the elk back to the cave kind of work. The purple sprouting broccoli is ready to harvest, and we’ve still got potatoes and parsnips- we dug the last today. I swear if the government ever found out how much joy and pleasure this gives, they’d tax it or ban it.
And then to the garden centre to look for seeds and (inevitably) we spent more than we should because to an allotmenteer a packet of seeds or a new garden tool has more than paid for itself before you even reach the till! So a new draw hoe attached itself to me and begged me to buy it – how could I refuse?
Is gardening good for your mental health? of course it is! It’s good for your spiritual health as well, oh and your physical health too, provided you steer clear of the sirens on the chemical stands. We shall dine on parsnips and elk tonight and I’ll put on my best bison skin to impress Madame. Just to cap it all, I’ve been reading Adam Nicholson’s book “The Seabird’s Cry” – I like to take a break from frightening myself now and again. This is a wonderful book and it would make a birdwatcher out of a stone. If you take my advice and buy it, you’ll never look a sea bird in the eye again without awe and respect.
I’m referring to the title of Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is a compilation of his articles for the Daily Telegraph – (well nobody’s perfect). He’s both a gardener and a plant ecologist, but above all he’s a proper scientist who applies his properly scientific scepticism to many of the assumptions that guide public policy towards land use. He’s on our side. Here’s a quote from his book (Page 167):
During the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, allotments and gardens provided around 10 per cent of food consumed in the UK, despite covering less than 1 per cent of the area of arable cultivation. Recent research also shows that gardens and allotments produce yields of fruit and vegetables four to eleven times higher than conventional agricultural crops.
There’s much worthwhile reading in his books, but let’s focus on that figure for a moment. The article from which the quotation is taken is focusing on the quality of allotment soil, but the takeaway point for me is the potential contribution that small gardens and allotments can make to rescuing the environment from the destruction being wrought by industrialised extractive farming whilst simultaneously providing a secure food supply. If you’ve ever driven down through France you’ll have seen the endless convoys of heavy freight lorries bringing crops up from Spain, grown by virtual slave labour under a sea of plastic.
Two points arise from this that I think are worth some serious thought. Firstly, we allotmenteers would probably bridle at the thought that we are using land intensively, but the fact is we are doing just that, and the only difference between us and the arable strip-miners is the way we go about it. The increased yield we obtain is only possible so long as we replace what we have taken from the soil or, better still, add more until the soil positively sings with vitality.
The inevitable conflict of world views will always set the organic allotmenteers and gardeners against the non organic approaches. There’s abundant evidence that organic methods are a win-win for those of us who eat our own produce and for the environment too. If you’ve ever tried to read the small print on a bottle of proprietry insecticide, you’ll know that you need a magnifying glass and a handbook to guide you through the process. What’s the difference between pyrethrum and pyrethroids and are they equally safe? How, when you get to the allotment, are you going to measure the exact dilution of some chemical or other when all you’ve got is a watering can or a jug graduated in fluid ounces? and where exactly are you going to rinse the containers and discard the washings? Human nature being what it is, it’s overwhelmingly likely that many people are getting the dose rates wrong and ignoring the tiny print warnings on the packaging, and it’s unfair to blame the non organic gardeners who probably lament the loss of wildlife and the pollution of watercourses as much as we organic allotmenteers do.
When we were at art school in the seventies we lived in a rented eighteenth century farm cottage with a large garden front and rear. We grew one of our best ever vegetable patches there, in deep soil that was black with generations of night soil and constant cultivation. When we took it on it was very neglected but all we needed to do was scrape the top off and compost it while we reaped the reward of the previous generations. Just across the fields there was one of the most magnificent cottage gardens we’d ever seen. Mr Maggs, the gardener lived alone and the washing line was usually populated like a Himalayan prayer flag with all his snuff stained handkerchiefs. After spending months peering over the wall I asked him one day “How do you get these wonderful results?” His answer was instantaneous – “DDT” he said.
So that’s one issue we need to take seriously. When you grow intensively, as we do, it brings responsibilities and temptations and sometimes we get it wrong. But the second issue is one that’s looming just around the corner in the UK. We have a housing crisis and the Local Authorities have no money. Where do we think they’re going to come looking for land when the crisis boils over? Our allotments are easy pickings for cash strapped local authorities, and allotmenteers are about as easy to organise as cats. We’re fiercely independent and resistant to groups and campaigns, and when they come looking for land they’ll be armed with arguments that make us look and feel bad. Why should we indulge ourselves at the expense of the homeless. Well the answer to that is “because you sold off all the decent land to property developers who built buy-to-lets and cleaned up, and now you’re expecting us to solve the problem.
We simply have to start building the case for allotments and gardens from a wider perspective than personal satsfaction. Yes it keeps us fit and healthy into old age, yes it’s vital to biodiversity, especially in cities. Yes it make a contribution to food security and yes it’s a major vehicle for carbon capture. That’s just four reasons and there are many more. But if we don’t start to organise and make our case we’ll be a pushover and then everyone will suffer.