On a Cold Day

A cold day, and with rain a distinct possibility. We’ve finished the hurdles, separating planting areas in the physic garden; we’ve been weeding, transplanting, generally tidying. In this late winter light, the Stinking Hellebore are luminous; violets are flowering, the wild strawberry is just beginning to put out flowers.
Delicate, unassuming, a source of food and medicine, and an ancient plant. There is archaeobotanical evidence for the consumption of wild strawberry in the Mesolithic period (about 10,000 to 5000 BCE). Evidence too, from the Anglo Saxon period, whether wild, or cultivated in gardens and orchards […] the Saxons utilised a considerable range of fruit, including the strawberry. Faecal material from a dig in Beverley, Yorkshire, produced, walnut, hazel (Corylis Avellana), plum, strawberry (Fragaria vesca), as well as a range of other fruit.
Stephen Pollington argues that, for the Anglo Saxons, dependent on an intimate knowledge of their environment, requirements of specific activities such as dyeing, thatching, […] baking, tanning and so on, would have encouraged the development of cultivated plots. An essential part of that knowledge would be the medicinal uses of plants. Medical texts form a substantial part of what survives of the vernacular writing from this period; glossed remedies, short treatises, and four long works, three of which are unique manuscripts. Translated into modern English, in three volumes, by the Rev. Thomas Oswald Cockayne, in the nineteenth century, one of these books, The Leechbook of Bald includes this prescription for an eye salve:

Thus shall a man work an eye salve, take the nether part of strawberry plants and pepper, pound them well, put them on a cloth, bind them fast, lay them in sweetened wine, make somebody drop one drop into the eyes.

And this prescription, from the Herbarium of Apuleius, translated into Old English from a fifth century Latin text, changed in the process, to make it a more useful pharmacopeia for the Saxon leech.

Medicinal value of strawberry
This wort which is named fraga (fragaria) and by another name strawberry, is produced in secret places and in clean ones, and also on downs.
For sore milt (spleen), take the juice of the same wort, which we named fragaria, honey; give to drink; it benefits wonderfully.
Juice of the same wort, mingled with honey, along with pepper benefits much when drunk, for oppression of the chest and sore inwards.

In the preface to the first volume, Cockayne indicates that these medical texts were intended for trained physicians, the frequent expression, “as the leech knows how,” shows that they received professional education.

Eleanor Rhode suggests this rich medical knowledge was abandoned after the Norman Conquest, but perhaps the reality was more complex, as society adjusted to the cultural shifts that took place from the eleventh century onwards. The Rev. John Earle, in English Plant Names from the Tenth to the Fifteenth Century (1880), states that, early botany is inseparable from medicine […] rested mainly upon a knowledge of Herbs […]. This priority of herbal medicines has left its trace in the vocabulary of our language.
And the wild strawberry continued to flourish; at least as early as the fourteenth century wild plants were collected, and brought into gardens for cultivation. Strawberries were being sold; The London Lackpenny dating from the early fifteenth century, and attributed to John Lidgate, includes these lines;

Then unto London I dyde me hye,
Of all the land it bearyeth the pryse;
‘Gode pescode,’ one began to cry —
‘Strabery rype’, and ‘cherrys in the ryse’.

Gerard’s Herball informs this garden; in the choice of plants, and the descriptions of their medicinal uses. But an earlier, and perhaps more interesting figure, is William Turner. His major work, A New Herball (1551) is considered to mark the beginnings of the serious study of botany in England, post Conquest.
In an earlier, slimmer volume, The Names of Herbes (1548), there is a short entry; Fragraria is called in English a Strawbery […] Every man knoweth wel inough where strawberries grow. It would seem the plant was familiar enough, to make identification of habitat unnecessary. In the preface, he states that he had intended to publish his little boke in Latin, but on the advice of physicians delayed until, I had sene those places in Englande, wherein is most plentie of herbes, that I might in my herbal declare to the greate honoure of our countre what number of sovereine and strang herbes were in Englande. […] and because men should not thynke that I writue of it that I never saw. He published in English, not Latin as originally intended. Answering criticisms for writing in English, he asks, in A Newe Herball; How many surgianes and apothecaries are there in England which can understand Plini in Latin or Galen and Dioscoridies? saying that anyway, they rely on the old wives who gather herbs; on old and local knowledge. And a herbal, written in English, will benefit everyone concerned with medicine; is for the comon profit. His Protestantism shines through; his reasoning resonating with the production of the Old English manuscripts, begun under Alfred’s programme of translation, to make significant texts accessible in the vernacular.

Turner studied plants in their locality, writing from careful observation; proper identification being essential to the physicians and apothecaries who would use his herbal, and in this he echoed the desire to inform that characterises the Anglo Saxon Leech Books.
In A Newe Herball, under his entry for strawberry, he notes the rough stalk, and in the toppe of it grow whyte floures; the berries turning from green to red; the leaf indented, and always thre of them grow together,
[and some of] The Vertues of Strawberries.
Strawberies leaves taken in meate, helpeth thê that are diseased in the milt, and so doth also the juice dronke wyth hony. The same is good to be geven wyth peper for them that are short winded. Strawberryes quenche thirst, and are good for a cholerike stomack.

There are striking similarities between the medicinal use of strawberries in Turner’s Herball, written in the sixteenth century and their medicinal value in the Herbarium, dating to the tenth century.

And then there was a break in the clouds, a brief scattering of sunshine, before they closed again, the sky darkened and it started to rain, heavily.




Bumblebee larders

Despite the bitter winds and rain showers, the recent sunshine has awoken the bumblebees. They’re everywhere, zipping around our plot, searching out pollen and nectar. Narratives about declining bee populations focus almost exclusively on honey bees, while Bumblebees seem quite neglected. Perhaps the development of bee keeping on an industrial scale and the potential for industrial-scale financial losses when colonies collapse is at the root of this preoccupation. Bumblebees are the most significant pollinators in the Northern hemisphere for field beans, fruit and tomatoes; however, according to research by Dave Goulson, there has been a serious decline in Bumblebeess and 13 species became extinct between 1950 and 2000.

Frequent Bumblebee nesting sites include holes in the ground, tussocky grass, bird boxes and under garden sheds. Their nests are quite small and don’t create a store of honey, hence are more sensitive to the availability of pollen and nectar-rich flowers. We can provide early flowers on our plots to help bumblebee Queens survive when they emerge in the early spring weather, when sources of pollen and nectar are often scarce. Without that early source of food, they can die.

The key is to have a succession of accessible bee-friendly plants that are rich in pollen and nectar flowering from early spring through to late summer. The greater the number of suitable flowering plants the better, with at least two bee-friendly plants for each flowering period, while the next wave of flowers are in bud, ready to take over. Highly bred cultivars with double flowers are not ideal as many have had the nectar and pollen content bred out, the plants are often sterile and therefore useless to pollinators; when they do produce pollen or nectar, the complicated petal structures are also difficult for insects to negotiate. Stick to flowers with simple structures, local wild flower selections often being the best choice, while annuals such as Nigella, Calendula and Limanthes douglassii (poached egg plant) are prolific self-seeders, ensuring there will be flowers next year without your labour.

Crucial times in the Bumblebee lifecycle:

  • When queens emerge from hibernation in early spring, having spent the whole winter underground where they will have survived, for up to six months, on stored body fat. They need access to nectar to quickly rebuild their energy reserves, before they fly off in search of a suitable nest site.
  • When establishing their nests in early spring, the queens collect pollen, which they mix with wax they secrete to form a mound in which to lay their 1st brood of eggs.
  • While they incubate the eggs for several days, the queens survive on nectar stored in a pot-like structure they create in front of their nest mound.
  • When the eggs hatch into larvae, they are fed on pollen and nectar; after 2 weeks of feeding the larvae spin cocoons before they develop into adults.
  • In late summer, when the queens fatten up ready for hibernation.

With few other flowers available, hedgerow trees and shrubs, such as willows, wild cherry, hawthorn and blackthorn, are important food sources for emerging bumblebee queens in spring. Beneath the tree and shrub layer, key plant species include dead-nettles, knapweed and foxglove, phacelia and crimson clover. Winter flowering honeysuckle, early hellebores, pulmonaria and native primroses are good early food plants with alliums and English bluebells following on. Plants such as red clover, yellow rattle and bird’s-foot-trefoil are good pollen sources for queen and new worker bumblebees, while knapweed and scabious provide nectar.

In planning your bee-friendly garden or plot, about now (mid-spring) is a good time to plant out winter aconites and snowdrops for next year as they establish more strongly when planted ‘in the green ’, meaning in full leaf, after flowering. But, do ensure your plants are not wild gathered but from reputable cultivated stock. I’ve just planted out clumps of snowdrops ‘in the green’ to establish for next spring, and am mapping out what’s flowering where and when across our plot so I can ensure we’re providing successional pollen and nectar sources.

We have clumps of white and purple comfrey in the hedges, which began flowering in late February, along with primroses, daffodils and crocus. Daffodils are not a favourite with Bumblebees, which only seem to visit them as a last resort. Cuttings of winter flowering honeysuckle from our last garden are now scattered around the plot and in the hedges, and we noticed early bees visiting the flowers during warm late winter and early spring days. The Hellebores are still all in flower, along with the primroses beneath the hedges, while the flowering currants (Ribes sanguineum) are covered in flowerbuds opening into pink cascades, and wreaths of blackthorn blossom ripple up the hillside where the young hedging whips were planted last autumn.

We should give as much thought to the flowers we plant as we do to our food crops, planning successional flowering to sustain a healthy population of pollinating insects. Our plots and food crops will benefit from the resulting increase in beneficial insects.

Some useful websites:









wild primroses_1

A Fox Wanders By

We often see lone foxes drifting across this landscape, following familiar trails; ours is a large site situated in a valley, bounded by a wood on its western side. At the head of the valley there is a golf course and beyond that fields, stretching off towards Ditchling Beacon. And we’re happy for fox to take on the role of pest control. One of our neighbours further down the valley told us about a fox family living under an old shed on the plot bordering theirs. They didn’t have any problems with rats in their compost bins. Fox is welcome.

Yesterday was different; three foxes. The first, a dog fox, disturbed while collecting wood chip to cover paths; the second, a vixen, encountered while filling the kettle for tea; and the third, another vixen, sitting by the gate at the top of our plot. We’d walked up to the back of the plot to get bags of seaweed for the potato beds. Fox was sitting by the gate, watching; only when we got too close did she turn away along the top path.

Fox wanders through our lives, elusive, disruptive, its classification problematic. Although its behaviour patterns and anatomical features identify fox as a member of the family Canidae, it also shares several features with cats, creating difficulties for the naturalist, the red fox’s long, very thin canine teeth and its ventrally slit pupils with their well developed tapetum lucidum are extremely obvious cat-like features. […] One other cat-like behavior, though, that is not so easily explained is the lateral threat display used by foxes in aggressive displays (stand sideways, back arched, fur erect etc). This very classic “cat pose” seems out of place in the behavioral display of a canine. David J. Henry suggests that fox’s fluid nature can be accounted for in evolutionary terms.

This ambiguity, that vexes scientific certainty, is also central to the fictional fox. The European tradition begins in antiquity via writings of natural history by the Elder Pliny, Aristotle, and Claudius Aelianus, and through writers of comedies such as Aristophanes, or historians like Herodotus (Uther, 2006: 134). For Martin Wallen, the problem begins with Aristotle:
For a systematic observer like Aristotle, an animal that conceals itself from plain view is wicked, since it represents the limit beyond which empirical observation cannot reach. […] The identification of the fox as wicked and belonging to some primordial chthonic order reverberates throughout descriptions and stories of all centuries and cultures (Wallen, 2006: 11-12).

A creature of the earth, fox is associated with primordial chthonic forces. Aesop’s fables developed and focused these powers into fox’s defining characteristics: intelligence and cunning, it’s ability to work outside the norms of society. Early Christian and Medieval thought condemned fox’s fluid nature, associating it with the Devil; an association transmitted in part, through Bestiaries, allegorical texts that articulated a world view with God at its centre. These often lavishly illustrated books, attributing moral and symbolic qualities to animals, exerted a profound influence on Medieval art and literature. The Physiologus stands at the beginning of this tradition. As Hans-Jorg Uther points out: The equation fox = heretic, as it is transmitted through the Physiologus (a work of the fourth century CE), for example, has had a particularly long term effect.

But, then there is Reynard, who, for almost 800 years […] provided a distinct mythos for literature, drama and ecclesiastical allegory depending on whether the poet, scribe or woodcarver saw the fox as entertainer or as allegory of Satan (Wollen, 2006: 52). Reynard’s subtle nature has proved extremely durable, but the negative associations persist, the crude equation still has currency, the heretic still a disruptive anti social element, a creature to be hunted.
The relationship is curious; wild creature, adversary, vermin, a pest to be controlled, not exterminated. Intimately enmeshed in the rural economy, fox is managed & bred to maintain its presence for the hunt. Viewed through this lens, it’s not too difficult to imagine the significance of the ritual role attributed to fox hunting, by the ‘custodians of the countryside’, in symbolically maintaining the social hierarchy of the rural environment. And when the hunting lobby points out that hounds, not humans, kill foxes, they deny the obvious, humans train fox hounds to pursue and kill foxes.

So, fox remains an outsider, populating our imagination as much as the environment we often share with it. It therefore seems fitting that fox should be a welcome transient, drifting across an allotment landscape characterised as marginal, under the constant threat of development.

Beetroot & Orange Bread/Cake

A couple of weeks ago we picked the very last of the beetroot, Devoy, a heritage variety we saved seed from last year. They were smaller roots but still tasty, and they shouldn’t have survived so long in the ground. If we’d had any real cold weather they would have perished. But, no, they hung on, so we decided to make something with them, to celebrate their tenacity:

Over time I’ve developed a gluten free bread recipe & tend to use whatever oranges we have, so rarely weigh them, but I aim to use fruit or veg that weigh approximately 4-6 oz. although, don’t worry too much if its over that weight.
I always thought of this as a bread/cake until Teresa tried some & said it tasted like soda bread. And then when I was looking through the soda breads section in English Bread and yeast Cookery I came across a reference to ‘[…] soda bread is called in most parts of Ireland-cake or ‘a cake of bread’ […]

My bread/cake.

1 orange.
3 small beetroot.
9 ozs. mixed rice flour/cornmeal/gluten free bread flour. Try different combinations of flours to see which you prefer (the bread/cake in the photograph is made with mainly cornmeal and a little left over rice flour).
1 teaspoon bicarbonate of soda.
1 medium egg.


  • Heat the oven to mark 7, 425 F, 220 C.
  • If you have a food processor, process the orange, after giving it a good scrub, and peeled raw beetroot; if you don’t have a processor, juice the orange, and mince the pulp, then grate the beetroot, into a large bowl. The results will be different, but equally tasty.
  • Combine flours, bicarb & salt & add to processed fruit & veg.
  • Mix all ingredients, adding egg and enough milk to make a dropping consistency.
  • Pour into a square 6-7” cake tin; bake in a preheated oven for 30 minutes, or until risen & a skewer comes out clean.
  • Eat within a couple of days, like soda bread this bread/cake doesn’t last.


gluten free soda bread_cake




Dew Ponds: Folk Memory or Green Nostalgia?

There’s a thin layer of chalky soil covering the base of the hole in the ground that will soon be our pond. It won’t take much clearing and anyway I need to dig a little deeper before we think about lining it. We considered and discounted puddled clay. It’s seen as a traditional alternative, with its rich reference in folk memory. Stories resonate, have currency for a reason; contemporary environmental anxieties, reflected in the desire to create green spaces that offer a glimpse into an imagined past, a return to Eden without the commodification. We are no different, we have our HortusLudi, our garden of delight, our retreat, that also happens to generally meet our vegetable needs.

These strands, environmental anxiety, green capitalism, and whatever else lies between, throw into relief real concerns over exploitation of natural resources, and loss of habitat, with allotments, domestic gardens, and ponds, acknowledged as increasingly important to wildlife. These green spaces are intermediate enough to make us think they are nature and not simply embellishments or enhancements of it, and it’s easy to understand, in this context, how ‘tradition’ becomes attractive, a brooding over the past as if it harboured some secret message or inspiration.

It’s over twenty years since we moved to Brighton. The boys were young then, and we’d walk on the Downs most weekends. We’d just taken on the allotment too, and it was neglected during those years.
Dew ponds are a prominent feature of the Downs, and were favoured resting places during our rambles. The boys were fascinated by the life of the ponds, wanted to know, ‘How come the pond’s always full? Why are they called dew ponds, is that how they’re filled?’ Question after question tumbling over each other with barely the space to answer before the next one was voiced.

Although most dew ponds appear to date from the 19th. & early 20th. centuries, the Parliamentary Enclosures during mid 18th to mid 19th. centuries are suggested as a cause for many of the upland ponds. The naturalist Gilbert White wrote about them in the 18th. century, and there is evidence of earlier ponds, one recorded in a Saxon Charter of 825 at Oxenmere on Milk Hill, in Wiltshire. Whether it would, or should, be described as a dew pond is unclear, but there was certainly a desire amongst archaeologists and antiquarians, based on thin evidence, to locate dew ponds in a remoter past. What was commonly known as a cloud pond, or mist pond, at least on the Sussex Downs, is first named as a dew pond, by the Rev. J. Clutterbuck, in an 1865 essay on Water Supply.
In the broader context of improving supply to rural areas, he raises questions about the nature of the sustained supply of water to dew ponds, while acknowledging the need for further investigation. He also commented on an established industry: These ponds are constructed by persons of experience and skill. […] There cost varies from 30-50 shiliings. Dew pond making was definitely a business.

As late as 1922, in an article published in the Wiltshire Gazette, the Rev. Edward Glanfield reflected on the decline of the industry. Drawing on the oral testimonies of two elderly master dew pond makers and their assistants, in his parish, he writes, Up to ten years ago the dew pond makers started upon their work about the 12th of September, and they toured the country for a period of six or seven months, […] six to fifteen ponds, […] in a season of winter and spring […] They travelled throughout Wiltshire and Hampshire, and occasionally into Somersetshire arid Berkshire, and even into Kent. […] The dew pond maker with three assistants at 18s. a week, would require about four weeks to make a pond 22 yards […] square. Providing all his own tools and appliances he would charge about £40 for the work. His central concern was to record disappearing skills, attributed partly to the greatly increased cost of the making of the ponds, and partly to the fact that they have been superseded by the windmill pumping water from wells.
While the Rev. Glanfield was primarily concerned to record a vanishing process, antiquarians and archaeologists continued to be fascinated with theories associated with water supply to upland ponds. In April 1909, Edward A. Martin, in a paper given to the Research Committee of The Royal Geographical Society, outlined observations and experiments he conducted to support the theory that many downland ponds were dew ponds; that is they were replenished principally from dew. The following year he read a second paper concluding: Rain is undoubtedly the all-important replenisher of these, as of all ponds, which are not fed by springs. It is almost with a feeling of regret that I abandon the theory of dew-filled ponds.
To conduct his research Martin and his family rented one of the Clayton Windmills, on the Downs above Brighton, during the summers of 1908-10. The windmills aren’t too far from one of the ponds we used to stop at on our rambles, a pond that would have been familiar to him. Funded by the Royal Society, I have lately had under my special observation a tract of downland in Sussex […] from Devil’s Dyke to Plumpton, and in this area are included some excellent ponds. It’s an area we often walked, and still do, passing ponds he knew.

We walk a vastly different landscape to the one Edward Martin would have known. The old chalk grassland he walked accounted for 40-50% of the eastern Downs. Beginning with the Dig for Victory campaign in 1941, and continuing into the 1950s, large tracts of grassland were ploughed up for arable farming. It’s estimated that only 3-4% of that old chalk grassland still survives.

Downs path [2]

Resilience through Seed Saving

You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.

I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses.  Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.

bean seeds

Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.

Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.

Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.

The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!

Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.




Pond Life

The pond is still a hole in the ground. The weather’s been miserable and we both have hacking coughs we can’t seem to shift.

A week or so ago when we last worked on it, a neighbour passing by asked if we’d be puddling clay to line the pond. It’s a possibility, a nod in the direction of older methods, but labour intensive and would need some thinking about. The cost can be prohibitive too, and there’s also the aftercare to think about. The pond will need to be kept, full to the brim so that the clay never dries out and cracks around the edge. It seems, from our reading that the puddled clay technique might work for a community garden/allotment, where a number of people can be called on to work the clay, compacting it until all the air is removed forming a dense watertight material. Although, relying on voluntary help can bring its own issues. So, constructing a pond using puddled clay is probably unrealistic, but an interesting idea and it set us thinking about what is meant by a traditional technique; what its values are in a contemporary context.

As a construction technique in Western Europe puddling clay is relatively recent. In the mid 18th century, James Brindley is credited with developing the technique in the UK, the process used extensively in early canal construction.
During the same period, Catherine the Great of Russia encouraged an open door policy of immigration to Russia. Germans, particularly those suffering from religious intolerance, took advantage and colonised the Lower Volga region and other areas in Western Russia, absorbing the vernacular style of building on the Southern Russian Steppes; low-roofed, and rectangular, the houses were constructed of puddled clay amongst other materials.

The repeal of the open door policy in the late 19th century resulted in a shift to migration to the USA. In the early 1870s two GermanRussian subgroups began emigrating to America: The Volga Germans settled primarily in Kansas and Nebraska, and the Black Sea Germans located in North and South Dakota. Members of both groups, particularly Mennonites, later settled in the western Canadian provinces of Alberta, Manitoba and Saskatchewan. Unlike many other ethnic cultures, German-Russians were accustomed to the harsh environment and relatively flat, treeless Great Plains landscape, which topographica lly is similar to the steppes of western Russia. Using indigenous resources in a region notorious for inadequate building materials, the settlers erected sturdy clay and stone residences, churches and outbuildings in both rural and urban areas. […] Two techniques were used for constructing load-bearing walls: puddled clay, in which clay was layered on a stone foundation, and rammed earth, in which an earthen mixture was compacted between wooden forms.

The vernacular style absorbed by German-Russians during the 18th & 19th centuries is part of much older construction traditions. In a blog outlining the History of Khwarazm, an area covering the present day regions of Usbekistan, Turkmenistan, and Tajikistan in the north, to Iran and Afghanistan in the south, the writer states that as early as the 5th & 4th centuries BC The characteristic features of Khwarazmian architecture—its massive scale and sparing use of exterior ornamentation—derive from the general use of building materials made of loess clay, such as pakhsa (unfired puddled clay) and mud bricks.

In Ten Sketches of Russian Peasant Life 1916-18 published in The People of Great Russia, John Rickman, a country doctor with the Friends War Victims Relief Unit, observed that peasant huts, will be fashioned out of clay and mud, puddled together by the feet of the girls, who […] stamp and churn the slime to the accompaniment of songs until it reaches the right consistency, and then tread in straw as a binder, […] The stiff clay and straw mixture is then laid out on a smoothed piece of level ground, patted to an even thickness and cut with the edge of a spade. He describes the subsequent construction of a house using these sun-dried blocks.

It’s questionable whether such construction methods can easily sit alongside modern time-constraints, as well as the evident physical efforts needed. We’re not sure we want to develop ‘thighs of iron.’ So although puddled clay has a long history as a construction material, we think we’ll give the technique a miss. Time spent growing vegetables to eat seems a better use of our efforts.