Sunday, January 10, 2010

Double Digging

When I’m done writing this post, I’ll be going out to “toil in the fields,” the phrase we throw around the house to mean that I’m going to work in the garden.

Last year I planted a small plot, about 115 square feet of red spring wheat. This year, using the fruits of that field, I’m going to plant a much larger plot of about 600 square feet.

The 'before' picture

Last year, I prepared that plot in the spring by mowing the grass short, covering the area with newspaper, spreading manure and topsoil over the paper and planting onto that. That technique was neither historical nor did it work particularly well. The weeds were able to push through the newspaper, the wheat roots were unable to penetrate the newspaper and firmly anchor themselves and a nearby tree seemed to create a shadow over about a third of the plot that little grew in.

So I wanted to try something different. What I wanted to do was to plow, but that was unrealistic because of the small area that I do have and the costs associated. So, I decided to do the next best thing: Double Dig.

What is double digging? Essentially, you’re turning the soil by hand. You dig a trench and set that earth aside. Then you dig another trench the same size, adjacent to the first, filling the first trench with the dirt. You keep doing that over the entire plot until you’re left with just a trench, and then you fill that hole with the dirt you set aside from the very first trench.

The initial trench

It does several things. First it turns the soil. The sod from the top of each fresh trench goes in the bottom of the trench (and I’ve been being very careful to deposit the sod upside down) and is then covered by 8-10 inches of dirt. It loosens the soil and de-compacts it, making it more suitable for planting. And thirdly, it plows under the grass, allowing those nutrients to return to the soil.

The second trench and the filled first trench

Is it historical? I don’t know. Nothing I have read so far has mentioned it, but I have yet to read anything that specifically discusses Medieval or Iron Age agricultural techniques. I suppose that is a huge oversight on my part and I should really do that before next year. But, there is nothing about the technique that couldn’t have been done, since all it requires is a shovel and a strong back. And a lot of time.

It is very slow though, at least for my city-living, unathletic, desk-job of a physique. It tales about an hour to do two trenches, each 18” wide and 15 feet long. The first day I put in four hours straight of work and it left my arms and back aching for several days after. Since then, in between bouts of bad weather and the holidays, I’ve been putting in an hour here or there and today I should get to the halfway point.

Three trenches

My experiences? It’s hard work, but I enjoy it. Maybe it’s the novel aspect of it, but I’d much rather be digging than running on the treadmill. It does strain my 40-year old back, which is probably good for it. I do wonder how historical it might be in this one area: I have read in several places that wooden tools were the norm for the Early Middle Ages. Even if those wooden shovels were iron shod, I am a little dubious that they could withstand the abuse that I throw at my steel one. Stomping on it to cut through the sod, jamming it into the dirt, prying/lifting the heavy, damp soil . . . The wooden handle has survived so far, so maybe, but I don’t know. It does at least make me wonder.

Near the end of that first, four-hour day. Six or seven trenches.

OK, so off to work. But before I go, here’s two pictures of me, in my costume, toiling in the fields.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

A New Year

So here it is, 2010. My biggest regret for 2009 is that I let this blog slide into no-use in the last quarter of the year. I will try to do better this year.

So a quick little look back and look forward. I’ll come back to each point eventually, until I’m all the way caught up.

I bottled the batch of mead I was making on Sept. 1st. Tasting at the time made it out to be very sweet and not overly alcoholic. I also started a batch of Blackberry wine (with the donation of blackberries from my neighbor). I know they’re not medieval (Blackberries are a New World plant), but I’ll continue to mention it here because it’s related, at least tangentially, to the other wines.

I went to a meeting/seminar held at the local community garden about planting winter vegetables. They handed out fava bean and kale starters which I planted. The kale didn’t survive the transplanting, and the beans were never able to produce beans before we had an early frost and they immediately turned black and died.

My birthday, a few days off from Michelmas, was wonderful and I was surrounded by the best of friends. They gave me a medieval send off, complete with gifts of gardening implements, a cheese-making kit and and a pair of linen trousers and leg wraps.

[Hmmm. The link for the winningas doesn't seem to work anymore. Maybe they've stopped carrying them? Or maybe it will work again whne they re-stock?]

Decked out in my Anglo-Saxon costume, complete except for shoes and gloves, I started getting the backyard ready for the planting of winter wheat. The plan was to double dig (that subject gets its own post) about 600 sq. feet of the backyard. I got maybe 1/6th of it done before exhausting. After that, rain and life hit very hard and I still haven’t finished (but I’ll go out a bit and work on it more today if the weather holds). So no winter wheat this year. Spring wheat again!

[Pictures will come later. I'm such a tease....]

I tried making cheese twice, with difficulties both times, but I do right now have a very ugly-looking blob a wax wrapped around some proto-cheese sitting in my kitchen. Hopefully it will turn out. I did manage to make some ricotta as well, and used some to make Libum with. I came out very good, a little more sour than with the store-bought cheese.

The plan for 2010 is to make more cheese, more wine/mead/beer, and do a lot more gardening. I will have sextuple the area of wheat planted and last year’s field I want to plant with beans. I’ll try some other veggies as well, but I’ll have to find a way to use them in food that I’ll actually eat. A garden plan will certainly be forthcoming.