We write monthly for the magazine Bridport Times. To see this article as originally published, view the pages on Issue.
Taking on a National Trust tenancy of 200 acres immediately adjacent to our farm 20 years ago was a chance for us to expand our arable production. Perhaps we should have been warned by the name of the farm, Labour in Vain, and better remembered the history of it: more than 30 years of continuous intensive grain production had eroded the top-soil and lost organic matter so that over most of the area the soil had become a glue-like clay.
We knew it would be difficult to improve, but taking on this land meant we could increase the arable rotation from the 20 acres we had on the home farm so we were keen to try. It has worked for us in many ways but the soil is improving more slowly than we hoped. In the autumn we sow wheat and rye, to harvest next summer. Some is sold to watermills around the South-West and the rest is milled here on the farm for sale as flour. The stubble from these crops stands over-winter to provide food and shelter to small native birds. Come spring, it is time to plough, harrow, sow and roll and we put in barley and oats, and more recently also peas.
Having used no agricultural chemicals we now have a wonderful variety of arable weeds. We are proud of these: round leaved and sharp leaved fluellen, nit-grass – an aptly named but nonetheless pretty grass with glossy golden-green flower-spikes – sun spurge and dwarf spurge, hearts-ease, blue scarlet pimpernel (a sub-species of Anagallis arvensis, not the rarer Anagallis foemina), the pretty pink small flowered catch-fly. We are less fond of some of the bigger, more thuggish weeds, the wild oats, docks and charlock and the insidious bent-grasses but accept them as part of our commitment to organic growing.
But even working this land as carefully as we have, improving the soil is slow. In the winter and spring we can see how difficult it is and how far we still have to go: the drainage is poor, the humus is sparse and the stones still rise. It hits our eyes as we look at the crops and it hits our plans for the spring. We would like to graze our sheep on the wheat to clean it of weeds and induce it to “tiller”, to make more shoots, but the wet clay is both cold and air-less, so the wheat is slow. The ground may not be ready for ewes graze there before they lamb in April. The fields waiting for spring sowing are showing how much we still need to give structure to the soil. When it finally dries it will happen quickly, so we are waiting, poised to catch the short window of time when we can get on with plough, harrow and drill.
If we dig down in this land, we see a little darker soil near the surface but soon we are in yellow clay. We need to build up humus and we want to build up plenty. We work at it by growing cover crops and herb-rich leys, the plants using the sunlight and the atmosphere to create fresh growth which, taken into the soil by the worms, increases humus. This feeds the worms so more can live here and in turn, they help with drainage. The fertility building crops are sometimes grazed by the sheep, adding the richness through the age old technique of manure spreading without machinery. No-till systems, now in use in many arable farms worried about this, help soil structure but choosing not to use herbicides makes our experiments with this challenging.
In other parts of the farm we do not need to wish for humus: we have it. The longer established arable ground at home, though it has the same geology, is darker and better drained, easier to work in late autumn and in winter. Here we will see the crops getting going sooner in the month. The soil under the flower-rich permanent pastures and meadows is darker again, with a leaf-litter layer below the grass with lots of invertebrates and beneath that, rich loam which despite the clay below it drains well and can warm up more quickly. As March is starting this is already beginning to grow good grass and the daisies and violets are already coming into flower, together with the sweet vernal grass and the early sedges.
The soil on the market garden is better again, ready to be worked within short hours after rain, with leafy vegetables showing how good they feel by growing almost before our eyes on any warm dry day we get. Even better is the soil under the scrub on the hillside. We don’t often encounter this soil directly because we don’t have reason to work it. But we do encounter it in odd ways from time to time; we may have to crawl under the blackthorn to find a missing sheep. When we do, firstly the smell of the leaf mould strikes us, then the richness of the ground. Here we will see perhaps the greatest productivity on the farm at this time of year. We see the start of the spring growth; in the few places we have them, the broad spears of ramsons (wild garlic) are pushing through and so are the narrower, fleshier leaves of the bluebells. Our earliest orchids, the twayblade and early purple are not in flower yet but they are finding their way to the light; there are more violets flowering here than in the open grass and the ferns are putting out fresh fronds, uncurling them slowly. Overhead, the blackthorn is in flower and the hawthorn is freshly green and the sallow and willow pollen have been feeding the bees for weeks.
Spring is almost in full swing. We will be ready for the next stage of the year as soon as the soil is ready for us.