Dig for Sanity!

By the end of November we are past the season of ‘mists and mellow fruitfulness’[1] and have entered a time of short days, low clouds and occasional bright skies, with breath-taking displays at dawn and dusk. Even without Covid, these weeks can be melancholy, but I’m also far from certain that melancholy is necessarily about sadness alone. I’ve always regarded it as a type of introspection in which you don’t dwell on yourself. I know that’s hard to comprehend, but it’s something that poets have been wrestling with for a very long time – and I’m certainly no poet. For me, there’s something very comforting and yes, a bit melancholy, in an ordinary autumn view, without the breathtaking colours that have become so obligatory in every gardening magazine at this time of year. I think this photo sums up what I’m trying to capture: an atmosphere of peace and reflection, with hints of something quite spectacular in the middle distance.

A view of the Small Border in late November.

A few hours ago we learnt that despite the Lincolnshire Fens having Covid infection rates that were around the national average, the Westminster government, in their lofty wisdom, had placed the entire county of Lincolnshire in Tier 3 (or Tear 3, as all the tabloid newspapers prefer it), which has the most severe restrictions. Lincolnshire is the second largest county in England, and should probably have been sub-divided; but I think the Government’s advisors were worried about the lack of hospitals (there are just three!) in such a huge county. Having said that, I can’t say it bothers us much, as we’re both in a sort of voluntary lock-down, for the simple reason that we’re both over 70. Unlike our political leaders, we also use our common sense. So later this morning I plan to head into Long Sutton (open-air) market, where I’ll buy fresh shrimps, mussels, fruit and a few bright bedding plants for winter pots and tubs. I think we all need cheering up. And there are a few hopeful signs: at least three vaccines are on the way and across the Atlantic the ghastly Trump has been sent packing. Sadly, things are still looking pretty grim in Britain: in just over a month we will probably crash out of the EU. Already banks are heading out of London and god alone knows what will happen to the rest of the economy. The United Kingdom might well break-up, with Scotland (who voted to remain in the EU) becoming independent. My sympathies are entirely with our Scottish friends. It’s a complete mess and all of our own making. The biggest long-term problem of all is that there’s still no effective Parliamentary Opposition: the Labour Party is hopelessly split and the Lib Dems are a shadow of their former selves and also seem to have lost their once-clear voice. Sadly, I feel far less optimistic than I did back in early May, when I wrote the up-beat blog post ‘Dig for Victory!’. So how do I cheer myself up when everything is so gloomy? Simple: I’m an archaeologist and gardener: so I walk down to the shed and take my best spade off the rack. Then I head out to the muck-heap and start to fill a wheelbarrow.

The muck-heap. This view shows the trimmed and weeded face I have been digging for the vegetable garden. A few minutes later, the chickens had all been released and were feeding enthusiastically on the heap’s many worms and grubs.

I love muck. Manure, to give it a more sanitised label (these days, there’s always a bottle of word-sanitiser dangling in my brain when I write) [It took Maisie years to get you to call it muck. – Ed.] is just sheep poo, mixed with old bedding straw and other scrapings off the barn floor at the end of winter. It’s then left for at least a year to ferment and convert itself to muck (manure). The actual process of conversion is quite complex, but it involves fungi and various types of earthworms, which I always try to avoid chopping with my spade when I break-up the larger lumps in the barrow. I love the smell of freshly exposed manure as I dig into the muck-heap. It’s hard to describe, but it’s rich, earthy, fertile and full of promise. We work a four-course rotation in the vegetable garden. Muck is dug into one of the four plots every year, usually in early December, so that the hard frosts of mid-winter can break-down the larger clods of earth. Then, in March, I plant four or five rows of potatoes, which thrive in the rich, damp, freshly-dug soil.

I empty barrows of muck in rows across the plot. This year there are five rows, each one composed of five barrowfuls. I have just started the process of spreading and digging on the far right, by the white bucket (for persistent weeds, such as dandelions) and the spade.

The parts of the freshly dug plot without potatoes are used for growing tomatoes, as they too like wet, fertile ground and are also susceptible to blight, both being members of the Solanaceae (nightshade) family, originating in North America. I don’t normally like spraying vegetables, but in June and July blight spreads from the many potato fields around us, so experience has shown me that I have to spray against it, or I’d lose both crops.[2] I never use systemic sprays – usually something based around copper sulphate, which we can wash-off tomatoes, later. In some very dry years, I can get away without spraying, but such seasons are rare.

In the first of the following years I use the plot to plant leeks and onions, then brassicas (cabbages etc.), then summer vegetables (runner beans etc), before digging-in more muck again, in year 4. So the annual winter digging gives me a chance to examine the state of the soil in different parts of the vegetable garden. When we began the garden, back in 1993, I was frankly appalled by the state of the soil, which was essentially dead. There were no earthworms, nor any visible insects, Consequently there were no moles who like to feed on earthworms and other soil insects. I don’t like moles in the garden, but they’re part of being a gardener: you work out ways of dealing with them. But to have none whatsoever was very, very strange. At first, the digging-in of muck seemed to have no effect, but quite soon – even the second year of manuring a plot, I started to note small improvements.  There were a few worms, but more importantly the soil had started to acquire structure: it wasn’t so heavy in winter and didn’t get quite so hard in hot sunny weather. I wouldn’t describe it as exactly crumbly, but it had definitely improved. By the third digging of each plot (i.e. after 12 years) the vegetable garden had improved beyond my wildest dreams: tomatoes leapt out of the ground; runner beans were rampant and onions grew as large as tennis balls – more importantly they also tasted delicious. I certainly noticed the difference when we ran out and had to buy supermarket replacements, which looked very nice, but had no flavour whatsoever.

A closer view of the plot during digging, with rows of un-dug muck to the left. The paler, silty dug soil, to the right, will break down more fully with the sharper air frosts of late December, January and February.

These are some of the reasons why I regard the annual winter muck-digging as such a key part of the gardening year. To be frank, the winter trip to the muck-heap has become something of a pilgrimage for me. I look for the worms and there they always are. I won’t say they wave their tails in welcome, but that’s how it sometimes feels. Then I load them into the barrow and dig them into their new home. I don’t know how they manage to do it every year, but in the spring the first peas, broad beans and pointy cabbages taste even better than in the previous seasons. So can I take this opportunity while our own species is quaking in the shadow of a nasty invasive virus, to thank those nameless earthworms who do so much to keep our soil healthy and make home-grown food taste so utterly gorgeous. For me, they are little wiggly miracle-workers: mankind’s very best and most loyal of  friends. And yes, they also help to keep us healthy, not just physically – and I’m sure I speak for all gardeners here – but mentally, too. Long live earthworms!

[2] Please don’t tell me about alternatives for blight: I’ve tried most of them and they don’t work. Believe me, south Lincolnshire is very intensively farmed!

[1] From the first line of John Keats’ Ode to Autumn.

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