Spring, glorious spring, has arrived, with little bits of winter and summer thrown in here and there. It is the busiest time of year for food gardeners, as we struggle to control weeds and grass while sowing seeds, caring for our seedlings and preparing beds from which will grow many ingredients for our summer meals and beyond. Amongst all the work, every morning and most late afternoons recently I have been reading one of three books lent to me by a friend.
Observe and interact
The first principle of permaculture shows its true worth in one paragraph from the book ‘Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At work in the wild and cultivated world’ (by Wendy Johnson), which I paraphrase here…. Harry, part Native American, part Irish, was a wise and knowledgeable man who taught food gardening at Green Gulch Farm, north of San Francisco. Every Sunday for a year he took his students out into the garden and asked them what they saw, as they looked across to a hill beyond the gardens. “Deer tracks”, “ripening grasses” they replied. After 8 months of making no comment, he jumped with glee when one student said, “A tiny bit of green grass amongst the brown grass” and got them to mark that exact spot with a stick. For 3 months, no more comment was made then, one Sunday, he brought a young, ‘King David’ apple tree and asked one student to plant it where they had marked the spot. The rest of the area was also planted up with apples and became the orchard. Now, 25 years later, the only tree surviving voles, deer, drought, erosion and wind is the King David. It has its roots in a spring, evident that day as a few blades of green, amongst a sea of brown.
The world before flowers
‘Seeds: time capsules of life’ (by Kesseler & Stuppy) is at once a history of life on earth and a photographic wonderland of seeds under the microscope. If you would like to understand the journey of plants, animals, fungi and microbes, through many hundreds of millions of years, and how they developed in relation to one another, then please do find and read this incredible book.
As we sow seeds now, for our food, it is quite mind expanding to try to imagine a time before seeds and, therefore, before flowers. During the early dinosaur period (150 million years or so ago) there were no flowering plants yet, at all. The forests were only trees with cones, cycads, gingkos, ferns, mosses, fungi, bromeliads etc. Most life on the planet was still in the water; seaweeds, various sea creatures and fish were well established.
By the end of the dinosaur period, flowering plants had flourished so much that many of the pre-flower plant species disappeared. The reasoning behind all this is in the book.
Since humans evolved much more recently, early foraging included a huge range of seed producing plants, leading to the beginning of seed sowing about 10,000 or more years ago. Phew. We didn’t have to live on fungi, seaweed and fish every day! However, our ancient roots tell us that eating those things are still some of the best ways to feed our modern bodies. As you sow your seeds, think about a world before seeds and you will realise how vitally important they are to human existence on earth.
Planting with tomato frames
· One 30m roll of wire mesh will make 10 - 12 circles. Each roll is 1200mm high and the mesh is 100mm square. (I bought a 50m roll at Hollanders in Hobart, to make a good 15 - 18 circles).
· Cut the roll into 2.8m lengths and join the ends to make circles. You will make 10 circles, with a bit left over. So, each circle will be 900mm across, suitable for 1 tomato plant. (If you cut 2.4m lengths, you will get 12 circles of 750mm diameter, which is also ok.)
· Place all the circles, side by side, wherever your tomatoes will go. This way you can lay it all out and select one bed or several.
· Move one of the circles aside. Plant your tomato. I push in one tall, curly rod (from Shiploads) in the hole with the tomato but a long bamboo stick would do. In France they are called tomato stakes.
· Replace the wire circle. Bang in a stake inside the windward side of the circle (or preferably 2, for those unexpected gales from another direction!) Staple the name tag to the top of that stake. Move to the next circle and repeat until all 10 tomatoes are planted.
· Next, tie all adjacent circles together, to give strength from the wind.
· Water in your tomatoes.
· Get a coffee and your camera and share your amazing tomato planting photos!
· When your tomatoes finish, use the circles for all sorts of other things in the garden. I used all mine up last year so had to go and buy another roll this year!
· ‘Always Home’ by Fanny Singer….. growing up with Alice Waters for a mother. Fabulous book!
· ‘Seeds: time capsules of life’ (by Rob Kesseler & Wolfgang Stuppy)…. Like no other book. Beautiful, fascinating.
· ‘Gardening at the Dragon’s Gate: At work in the wild and cultivated world’ (by Wendy Johnson). Wendy spent 25 years growing food at the Zen buddhist, Green Glulch Farm, near San Francisco. Another incredible, enlightening book.
Jobs for November
Sow indoors to plant out later:
Cucumbers (Lebanese or Dragon’s Egg), zucchinis (Romanesco), tromboncino, corn, pumpkins.
Sow in the garden:
Beans (after frosts), salad leaves (not just lettuce!), brassicas (cover with moth netting), most herbs, salad and spring onions, beetroot, fennel, carrots, celery, parsnip, sunflowers and lots of flowers.