‘Here’s quite flat, not too weedy.’
‘Yeah but we’re gonna mulch there, its in the main growing space.’
Ben and I had been at Ragmans Farm for barely an hour, and were already grappling with a new design issue - where to pitch our tent.
A group of four of us, Nat, Danny, Ben and myself (Jon), are renting a few acres and four polytunnels from Ragmans to set up a small organic market garden business. We will be sowing seeds from next spring, and will initially be marketing our produce through local pubs, restaurants, farm shops and markets - as well as of course welcoming visitors to Ragmans to come and see what we have available. Over time, our dream is to work with local residents to establish a community supported agriculture (CSA) venture. This would provide a regular ‘share of the harvest’ to members, as well as a space where people can come together to experience the joys of growing food, and of course the joys of celebrating the harvest! We are also very interested in hosting educational visits in the future. These ideas are very much in their embryonic stage at the moment, but if you are interested in getting involved please get in touch (see contact details below).
The four of us will be renting a house nearby and working on the land from next February, but there is a lot of work that needs to be done before that so Ben and I have spent much of the last 6 weeks camping on the land and preparing the site for next year. After all the thinking, planning, meetings and cost estimates it was a relief to actually be here, getting our hands dirty and starting to get to know this verdant piece of land and its abundant wildlife.
The fields we are renting have been cultivated as a market garden in the past, which is hugely beneficial for us as a lot of the infrastructure (polytunnel frames, rabbit fencing, water supply) is in place, if in some cases in need of repair. The site has not been in productive use for the last few years, but luckily for us the main growing areas have been regularly mown. However, the terraced areas and strips along fences which are not tractor-accessible are a good example of how quickly grassland turns to scrub without the intervention of livestock or machinery. Rabbits are a major pest here and we needed to get a good look at the fencing to see what needed replacing, so the first job to get down to was clearing. A lot of clearing. The Ragmans team have generously allowed us to use their tools, so armed variously with slash hook, sickle, loppers and strimmer we set to work. Although there are definitely bits that need replacing, most of the rabbit fencing seems to have held up well. The worrying thing is how many holes they seem to have dug underneath it. Perhaps we’ll have to be supplementing our smallholder diets with rabbit stew...
The polytunnels also needed clearing, but as well as weeds these were full of various sorts of treasure. One tunnel still has its polythene cover, and when we arrived this tunnel was filled to head height with self-seeded rocket and other salad brassica plants that had been watered in the spring but had now gone to seed and completely dried out. Brassica seeds are very easy to save by stripping the dried seedheads off the stems onto a tray, and then shaking the tray to separate the denser seeds from the lighter pods. Whenever it was raining heavily outside, Ben and I retreated to the polytunnel for a seed-saving session. Many of the different crops in the brassica family are members of the same species and can therefore cross-breed, so we can’t be sure all of our saved salad brassica seeds will grow true to type, but we have tried germinating some and results are so far, so tasty.
We managed to cover a decent chunk of our growing space with black plastic salvaged from the site and from friendly nearby farmers, but we ended up having to buy several rolls new as well. This is not ideal from an ecological point of view, but because the site has a pretty severe weed burden, we felt that it was a better way of getting it under control than with the repeated cultivations needed to knock out the weeds mechanically. We managed to get all our main outdoor areas mulched by the 22nd of August, with a dressing of well-rotted cow manure from a neighbouring farmer underneath the black plastic. Hopefully, as well as nourishing the soil, the muck should speed up the decomposition of the grass and weeds as micro-organism will be digesting them from below as well as from above. Ideally we would have got the black plastic on several months earlier to kill the weeds more thoroughly, but if we leave this on until spring it should get most of them, for now it’s a case of wait and see. In the meantime I think we can be proud of our work, beautifying the fields with a nice crop of plastic and tyres….