Tag Archives: Seed Saving

a writer’s day

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Life has become more highly ritualised now that production of my doctoral creative artefact – my permaculture travel memoir – has begun to ramp-up.

In the morning, it goes like this…

5am or 5:30am rise. Empty potty (it’s too far to walk outside to the composting loo during the night). Get dressed. Wash face. Boil kettle. Pick fresh sprigs of mint; dodge bees drinking from flowers; brew pot of mint tea. Simultaneously brew a fresh cafetiere of coffee… carry both into the writing studio, place them on the heat-proof ceramic tile on my desk. Back to the kitchen to fetch a mug.

How can I impress upon you the importance of choosing the right mug? Which one today? So much depends upon it – the success of the written word.

Shall I choose this one or that? The green, or the midnight blue Japanese mug… the mottled, sandy-coloured oldies that came with the house… or my favourite, the cream-coloured Korean mug with the picture of the purple and yellow plums on the side?

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Start work.

Three to four hours of generating ‘fresh’ words. I call this process ‘seeding’. It’s how I flesh out the narrative and get words down on paper.

Break. 

Usually about 1 hour, during which I undertake a combination of the following: wash dishes (whilst listening to Margaret Throsby’s midday interview); make bed; browse the garden; eat lunch; prepare the evening meal.

Afterwards I resume work for another 2-3 hours. Time to edit the ‘old’ work I produced last week during my ‘seeding’ sprees. I call this part ‘weeding’, though sometimes it’s more like turning over the compost, trying to make the various elements disperse and break down more evenly. Integrate. Obtain a fine tilth. A perfect growing medium.

The final hour is of gentler, less intensive work. Sometimes it’s note-taking from secondary texts I’m working with: travel memoirs; natural histories; permaculture handbooks; or ethnographies…  This is the most brain-dead part of the day, reserved for things like notetaking or backing-up. 

Eventually, it’s time to finish. How to break the intensity of the day? 

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I try to leave the studio neat and tidy for tomorrow. Coming into an orderly space helps. I neaten the piles of books, pages, pens, drafts and drafts of drafts. They’re piling up. Soon I’ll have to confront them and file them away. When the doctorate is over I’ll probably mulch the garden with the seeding pages. I’ll be eating my words!

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Let There Be Flowers

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

Richie inspects the overgrown kitchen garden upon our return from England

It has come to my attention this spring how important it is to let annual vegetable plants flower and go to seed. It’s a common habit among kitchen gardeners to remove plants after produce has been harvested, that is, before the plants flower and set seed. The reason being that most of us have limited space in our kitchen gardens and would rather see the precious space devoted to new planting (which represents new yields), as opposed to ‘unproductive plants’ that are past their best.

I write this post with one of mine and Richie’s own kitchen garden beds in mind – the one closest the back door. Because Richie and I weren’t here to harvest the plants during peak productivity this particular bed of mixed lettuce, broccoli, bok choi, kale and rocket has gone to flower.

A  few mature cabbages are the only things that haven't gone to flower in this particular garden bed

A few mature cabbages are the only things that haven’t gone to flower in this particular garden bed

It has been three weeks now since we returned from England. Every day I wake thinking that today will be the day I remove the flowering plants, add them to the compost heap and sew some new vegetable seeds in their place: radish, lettuce, carrot, fennel and basil all do well at this time of year.

But when I step outside and lay eyes on the blossoming tumble-down brassica plants I invariably can’t bring myself to do it. Why? Because the plants are literally humming with bees. Hundreds of them! European honeybees (Apis mellifera) as well as Australian native bees (Tetragonula – previously called Trigona). It’s such a joy to see and hear them at work that so far I have stayed my hand, allowing the plants (and bees) to keep on doing what they’re doing. At various time throughout the day I pause in my work to watch the native bees queuing at the entrance to the yellow broccoli flowers, one waiting for another to exit before making its own way inside.

What harm will it do, I ask, to leave the bed another couple of weeks until the flowers have faded and the seed heads – which have already formed – go crisp, brown and mature? Normally I’d make some attempt to save the seeds, but Richie tells me brassicas cross-pollinate promiscuously, so I’m reluctant to save seeds that might not grow true to type. What bastard children might these inter-species brassica unions beget?

Rocket-broccoli: brocket?

Bok-choi-kale: kak-choi?

Which brings me back to the ethics of the matter. Is it best to replant the flowering brassica-bed ASAP? This would ensure a steady supply of garden produce and would mean we don’t have to succumb to buying produce off the supermarket shelf. Or, should I leave the bed in question alone until all the plants in it have flowered and are dead? Perhaps I could go part-way, removing, say, half of the flowering plants, thereby freeing-up half the space in the bed for new plantings?

Keeping a steady supply of fresh produce coming from the garden into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners

Keeping a steady supply of fresh garden produce coming into the kitchen is one of the priorities of kitchen gardeners – here’s one of Richie’s famous multi-leaf and herb salads

When I find myself in one of my more compassionate moods I wonder if removing plants before they’ve reached the natural conclusion of their lives is ‘right’ under any circumstances? Is killing a plant mid-cycle in any way similar to slaughtering an underage animal – a yearling cow or a calf raised for veal? And just as importantly, don’t we have an obligation, as gardeners, as human-animals, to share our garden produce with other non-human animals once we’ve received our ‘fair share’ of the produce – with bees for instance?

I suppose what I am saying is that I don’t rightly know the answer to any of these pesky questions. But more than ever, I feel there should be a place in Richie’s and my garden for vegetables that are flowering and setting seed – for them to stay in the ground until they effectively ‘die’.

The more wrinkles I get and the more grey hairs appear on my head the more I think it’s artificial (dare I say ‘unnatural’) to see a garden full of plants in their prime – no ‘unsightly’ or ‘old’ plants in view. To me, it’s the garden-equivalent of going to a party or a club where  over-thirties aren’t permitted entry. What fun is that?

In the name of diversity, I reckon it’s nice to nurture garden beds where babies, adolescents and geriatrics are crammed in together: creating pleasing variations in texture, colour, size. Inclusive multi-generational gardens serve a spiritual as well as an ecological function – seeing plants growing old and dying reminds me in a gentle way that I too will gradually stiffen, grow old and die. My body, like the bodies of the elderly plants in my garden, will return eventually to the soil, replenishing the earth, providing fertility for something else to grow.

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peak through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England

The beautiful and decorate casings of dried poppy seed heads peeking through the fence in a Norfolk churchyard, England – isn’t it time to live in the presence of death and dying, both in our gardens and in our own minds?

Personally, I think it’s time to live in the presence of visual evidence of death and dying, and to celebrate the entire life-cycle of plants, human-animals and non-human animals from birth to death, start to finish, AND that we should grow food not only for ourselves but for other beings who have lives and minds and bodies of their own to sustain, for instance, bees. Which is why the flowering lettuce, rocket, broccoli and kale plants persist in our garden and are flowering right now as I write, and why the bees continue to be their favourite customers.

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River Life

“The river is everywhere.” 
– Hermann Hesse, Siddhartha

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In Laos rivers are everywhere. They run like long legs down the length of the country, carrying life on their broad backs, travelling swiftly in places, and in others, slow. Life on the banks of the Nam Ou in Northern Laos is fluid and slow, vigorous and languid in turn, changing with the seasons. For children there’s ample time to play and for adults, time enough to discuss the minor calibrations of the day, which is configured around the rituals of washing and harvesting. For the water buffalo, there’s no work but swatting flies.

The appeal of river life draws travellers in large numbers to tiny Nong Khiaw and Mong Ngoi Neu, villages 100km upstream from the northern capital, Luang Prabang. In January and February, when the Nam Ou is at its lowest, tourist numbers peak, and when the waters swell in June, the number of tourists ebb. This is the time the river renews itself, absorbing into its stream the reams of water that uncoil from the mountainside, gathering like snakes among river rocks, fingering into the cliffs, boring caves deep enough to accommodate whole villages. The shores, where corn and beans grow during dry season, are inundated, and when the waters recedes, a shimmering shelf of silt is revealed, ready to coax the sap to rise in another season of crops.

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Life in the more remote villages of the Nam Ou has changed very little in the last century: boys are eligible to marry only after they have mastered the art of building, and the boat builder is one of the most important citizens in the village. As soon as boys are tall enough to hold their fathers’ fishing nets clear of the sand, they learn to cast, and even the smallest child, male or female, knows how to hold his or her head above water while diving with hands outstretched to grab thick tufts of vivid green river weed that their mothers transform into crisp savoury sun-dried snacks, encrusted with tamarind juice, sesame seeds, and slices of tomato and garlic.

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kae paen, river weed

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Breaking crust

The farmhouse, Momavlis Mitsa

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.

Creating new raised beds

Richie and Sam adding rotted compost to the soil

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.

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Season of the harvest

We arrived in Plovdiv’s Yug Bus Station feeling grateful for having escaped the intensity of Istanbul and the foot-swelling all-night bus journey.

Bulgaria – our seventh country in as many months!

As we sat in the bus station chewing greasy breakfast pastry we speculated about the many permutations of fried bread we’ve eaten during our 7 months on the road, and wondered what was ahead in the way of fat and flour.

Thankfully, in Bulgaria, there’s no reason to live off grease, cheese and coffee. Gripped by a late-season glut of tomatoes, capsicums, eggplants, grapes, peaches, plums, apples and pears, Bulgaria’s towns and villages were awash with colourful market stalls. To impoverished tastebuds acclimatised to the bland horrors of English supermarket food there was no doubt that this was some of the best food we’d ever eaten. Who knew tomatoes could be this good?

In a region of central Bulgaria known variously as the Valley of the Thracian Kings and the Valley of Roses we were delighted to find that not one household had neglected to fill their backyard with a variety of fruit trees and heirloom vegetables. Walking the streets of Kran was a moveable feast, hands darting between railings and over fences to snatch mouthfuls of red currants, black grapes and marble-sized cherry plums.

“Incredible edible” exclaimed Richie, marvelling at the absence of ‘ornamentals’. Not a single municipal council-planted acer, plane tree or horse chestnut was in sight. Instead, sour cherries, walnuts, plums and sweet chestnuts lined the village streets, flaunting their exceptional ornamental value while at the same time, dropping fruits and nuts into the palms of passersby. Not wanting to be outdone, even the pavements yielded a crop; enough fat succulent purslane to furnish many a late-summer salad. Continue reading

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