Saturday morning in Argokhi. There is work to be done: water butts to fill; pigs to feed; floors to sweep; tea to brew – but there’s no hurry. I sit on the steps cracking hazelnuts, listening to the sounds passing up and down the lane on the opposite side of the above-head-high metal fence. I hear ducks squawking, the lazy turning of cartwheels, neighbours fussing, the crank of the timber grape press, and the occasional sound of apples falling from the tree. It’s mid-autumn. Every warm day between now and Christmas is worth its weight in gold.
Working on Momavlis Mitsa (Future Earth) farm in Argokhi has ameliorated the discomfort of waiting for visas in Tbilisi. Instead of sitting like ghosts in some disembodying hostel, milking the wifi and kicking stones down Marjainishvili on the way to the Metro, we’re working outdoors, using our lungs and hands to lift things, fix things, bake things, grow things.
In the garden we’re asked to do things we’d never do at home, in our own garden: pull weeds, hoe earth, turn soil, plant monocultures and raise new beds without mulching them. I bite my lip as Inken, the 18-year-old longterm German volunteer, instructs me on how to break the ‘crust’ that has formed on the surface of the soil due to successive phases of watering and sunshine. We work the hoe forward while simultaneously walking backwards down the aisles. I wonder if I’m disturbing the roots of the small plants, and why there are no bugs or worms in the soil.
“How often do you do this,” I ask Inken, mystified by the ritual of ‘breaking crust’.
“About every three days,” she tells me. “It’s hard work but someone’s got to do it.” I agree that it’s hard work but not that someone has to do it.
“Why don’t you just mulch it?” I ask the girl, “then you wouldn’t have to water it so often and the soil wouldn’t dry out in the sun.” Inken looks at me suspiciously, as if I’ve suggested she inform on her grandparents or something. She wants to suffer for this salad. And we do – after one and a half hours bent over the hoe my lower back is seizing up and my forearms burning. I agree, it feels noble, but it just ain’t sustainable!
During the next week I observe, with wonder and a little scepticism, the techniques used at Momavlis Mitsa to cultivate the beds of zucchini, fennel, cabbage and lettuce. I have ample time, while watering, weeding, ‘breaking crust’ and potting-up seedlings, to consider where ‘modern’ ideas about agriculture come from, and where they’re leading us – up the garden path! The farm is organic and biodynamic, to be sure, but in these two respects alone is it different to a chemically treated conventional plot: it requires a huge amount of energy to maintain – water, time and effort. There’s no way these lettuce are worth the 1 lari they’ll earn at market. Is it really worth the effort?
As the week wears on I begin to grasp why people, when they first hear about my passion for growing and my desire to become self-reliant in food and energy, dole out pitying glances, and why people who live and work on the land wish ardently for another, easier, existence for their children. Farming is repetitive, tedious and back-breaking. What’s more, it makes you feel as if you’re pitted against nature, rather than working with it.
I’m a novice in the garden and an idealist in all realms of my life but I do think it is possible to live lightly on the land, providing, for the most part, for your own needs and the needs of your local community, and still have time to do nothing. True, I have no first hand experience of such a life, but it’s something I aspire to, and something that I think permaculture (and Richie) will help me to achieve. First off, you have to be ready to accept a different aesthetic than the one represented by rows of ‘tidy’ weed-free veg, and learn to love wildness, sharing your yield (with bugs, animals and other people), a readiness to adapt to new circumstances, and an ability to perceive the wisdom in nature’s way.
I’m lazy and I like reading and baking, so naturally I like the idea of ‘minimum input, maximum effect’, ‘no dig gardening’, perennial agriculture and the principle of ‘harvest as maintenance’. Through experiences such as working for Jean-Jacque at Momavlis Mitsa I am also beginning to grasp just how important intelligent, sensitive permaculture design is, not least the initial phase of ‘Observation’ in the design methodology known as OBREDIMO (Observe-Boundaries-Resources-Evaluate-Design-Implement-Maintain-Observe). The idea is: by spending 80% of our time observing and understanding the site, including our own needs and boundaries, designing an intelligent low-input system that mimics natural patterns, in time, only 20% of our energy will be required to maintain and tweak the system – that is, once the intensive hard-work of establishing the system is complete.
“A good permaculture design should mean doing 80% of the work at the beginning in terms of putting down infrastructure so that the system can then be maintained with just 20% input.” – Beth, Applied Permaculture Design student
When I suggest to Inken that we use the pigs and then the chickens, who are housed in a field adjacent to the garden, to prepare the soil in the overgrown field which we are about to commence weeding in readiness for cultivation next spring, I’m met with a look of distrust. I know that look, I’ve encountered it many times on this journey. It is usually accompanied by the words ‘mad’ or ‘crazy’. But there’s method in the madness: pigs eat everything, they also turn the soil in their search for tasty roots, and poo everywhere, adding nutrients and organic matter to the soil. Likewise chickens, who are expert at removing seeds – which at this time of year, are dropped by mature plants across the entire surface of the soil, and which unless removed, will turn this field into a recurring weed nightmare. By utilising the unique skills of animals we lazy humans get to save our backs and do something better with our time than weeding, like read books or eat cake!
Later that night, over a slice of walnut and sour cream cake, I am comforted to hear that Jean-Jacque intends on planting a winter grain crop in the new field, and then lying the crop down before it seeds, to provide a green manure into which he will plant successive crops. As he tells me this he pulls an oversized glass jar down from on top of the cupboard. It contains grains of heirloom Georgian wheat, an old variety called ferrug ineum. He’s promised to give us some for our journey: the very same he uses to bake his delicious woodfire sourdough bread. He wraps a loaf for us to take with us. It’s the only crust I intend on breaking during the weeks to come!!!
Thank you Jean-Jacque, thank you Inken, thank you Angelina, Ginger, cats, pigs, chickens, ducks, horses, donkeys, microbes and the people of Argokhi for your companionship, hospitality, good humour, and time spent together in the garden, kitchen and vineyard.