It's exciting when a new course begins on a Friday to imagine the interesting people (the students) I'm going to be working with in the coming week. On the spring course this year my students came from the USA, Holland and Scotland – an airline pilot, a project manager, a ex-marine and a human resources manager from banking. All had plans for major changes in their lives but had yet to turn all the new pages in their life's story.
It's a busy time at the end of April in the garden. We began in the (warm) greenhouse pricking out lettuce seedlings and taking the many pots of sweet corn, courgettes and squashes (now about 6 inches high) outside onto the patio to harden off. The young tomatoe plants are already growing fast so the students could see how to provide them with support by winding strings around the stems (securely fixed onto battens screwed to the greenhouse roof). The grape vine is now bursting with new growth and requires drastic intervention (by pinching off growing tips) to keep it under control – there are already dozens of bunches of embryo green flowers. We used the same techniques out in the garden to “train” the espaliered plum and apple trees – trying to keep growth at the tips of the horizontal branches.
In the garden itself the first job is to show the students how properly designed compost bins provide the essential food for healthy soil. There is no “waste” on a sustainable Earth – all must be recycled. The large brick structures allow us to pile up green material (much of it cut from the orchard and surrounding field) right up to the top of the 9 foot high garden wall. It takes about 12 months for the heaps to become lovely brown compost – which we spread after Christmas each year. We can put clods of earth and turf onto the heap too because all will go back into the garden when the bin is emptied. The closed composter for household kitchen waste is working well – only about half full after 4 years use by 3 households (I reckon it will take another 4 years to fill before we start filling the adjacent second composter).
Next I can demonstrate how effective the rotavator is in controlling weeds and working compost into the soil. The long seedbeds make it easy to make long passes over of the soil without the labour of too many turns. Of course we go over the area carefully first to dig out any perennial weeds (there are very few now in this 4 year old garden). Managing the little rotavator is a bit of a battle for students to begin with but they soon learn to manage the job easily.
Now we have seedbeds which can simply be raked over to smooth them out before we plant. The beds need to be level and free of stones so we can hoe between the rows of growing plants more easily. I think the students are surprised to find how much care is taken to control weeds BEFORE any weeds actually appear. If we rotavate 2 or 3 times over a 2 or 3 week period – always on a dry breezy sunny morning – we will knock out most of the crop of annual weeds. We then try to plant on the same afternoon after rotavating in the morning. And when we plant we make sure we leave nicely friable loose soil in between the rows (not trampled down which makes hoeing more difficult). Straight lines of seedlings make it easy to hoe the rows just as soon as the first tiny leaves appear – we don't want to wait until we see the weeds! By constantly moving the soil we will prevent any weeds taking root – and we need to do this (on dry mornings) throughout May and June. Once we get to July our own plants will hold their own and any weeds will not have time to drop seeds before we clear the garden in Autumn.
Of course we don't let the work in the garden monopolise our time! There's bread to bake, sausages to make and beer to brew. And there is much talking and debate around the big table in our cottage where students can share their ideas and listen to my “lectures”. We have to talk about many things – top of the list is probably the choice, planning and design of any future smallholding.
What infrastructure does our smallholding need? Where should trees and orchard be planted? Where will the chickens run and where will we site our pig sty and compost heaps? How will we convert rough pasture with brambles, nettles and thistles into garden and how long will it take?
These are extremely important questions because if we get these things wrong it will be much harder to put things right later.
Not all our work in the garden is comfortable or easy. It's important for students to experience some “test” of their patience, strength and stamina so they can assess for themselves how far they can push themselves when the going gets tought – as it surely will from time to time.
This week we give the students a chance to lay paving slabs – brutally rough and heavy work which requires patience and skill. We will also spend at least one half day digging a new deep bed (double digging or “bastard trenching”) - it's not a job for the faint hearted.
Finally we always give our students a chance to experience (and try to master) the skills of scything with a traditional Northumbrian scythe. This is a magnificent tool not just for cutting grass and hay but especially for controlling the big weeds and brambles which can easily take over un-managed grassland. Students always find this challenge quite addictive – nasty blisters are the usual result!
One other “heavy” task in the garden involves driving in wooden posts (using a heavy post rammer) to make the supports which will serve for the runner beans and the garden peas.
Even after teaching self-sufficiency for 25 years I still find it amazing how quickly the students forge friendships through tackling new challenges together in the garden. And these friendships are one really important intangible benefit from the course. It fires people's enthusiasm to share their dreams with others who are embarking on the same mission to change their lives. We will share many stimulating discussions and debates over this week – both around our dining table in the evening and during the several outings we always make to convivial local pubs.
As on all our courses we enjoy taking the students on many outings to see local castles (there are plenty here in Northumberland), gardens and beaches. We sample wonderfully beer in the Old Ship at Seahouse, tasty toasted sandwiches in the cosy Ship Inn at Low Newton and amazing cakes and tea in the Earl Grey teahouse in the beautiful gardens at Howick. Bamburgh castle and the scrumptious pies make by Carter's the butchers are also part of our excursions.
Throughout there are always lively discussions about topics of mutual interest. On our first Saturday night we are lucky enough to find ourselves at a lively pub music session in the Tap and Spile – this is all part of the annual Morpeth gathering which celebrates Northumbrian folk traditions.
We also venture out to enjoy an evening pub meal at the village pub in Embleton, the Grey's Inn, where the students can puzzle over their efforts to understand conversation in wonderfully broad Northumbrian dialect.
Other evenings we feast at home in the cottage and the students are keen to learn new card games – including “Oh Hell” and even Bridge.
After all we want to have “self-sufficiency” in our entertainment as well as our food!
Six days and seven nights pass all too quickly. Friday morning sees the cottage tidy and students packed ready to leave. It has certainly been an enjoyable and (very) productive week. I think we are all rather sad to say our “good-byes”.