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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Cross

Digging for Victory: Part 1

Updated: Mar 22, 2020

A momentous decision was made this morning. One that will no doubt have serious ramifications for my family and I for years to come...

I'm going to start growing some vegetables.

Before anybody leaps to the assumption that I've joined the panic about food supply in the face of C-19, I haven't. But it has got me thinking about / re-assessing quite a few things. And one of those things is food, which also happens to be one of my favourite topics more generally.

In late 2018, my family and I moved from the south Midlands to South Wales. To be honest, the exact chain of events that led to us moving has already faded from memory, but we basically wanted a change and a bit more space for the boys to grow up in. Mission accomplished. It's a smallholding in the hills north of the Towy valley in Carmarthenshire, not far from Brechfa Forest. The people who owned the property before us were livestock farmers, and they evidently also grew a lot of veg. So much of it in fact that it grows out of my lawn like some kind of weed. At least that's how I'd been thinking about it until recently...

There's nothing quite like a row of empty shelves at a supermarket to bring home to you quite how complacent you are about the range and availability of food. As an archaeologist I spend a lot of time talking about subsistence; the change from hunting and gathering during the Mesolithic to transhumance and cultivation during the Neolithic / Early bronze Age, followed by the massive agricultural expansion of the Later Bronze Age and Iron Ages. In a nutshell, this latter set the tone for the mixed agricultural lifestyle and settlement patterns that persisted here in Britain through until the Industrial Revolution.

And why does subsistence loom so large in our history? Because it was fundamental to our survival. The crops failed and there was a fair chance you were going to starve. The herds disappeared and you were going to lose some serious weight. Where did you build your village? Adjacent to the most fertile soils and widest resource base, ideally on a gentle south-facing slope overlooking a watercourse, above the floodplain. Why did you live in a longhouse? So that you could shelter your cows at one end during winter. Life was all about food and ensuring a steady supply.

Fast forward to today, and the change is stark. Most of us (at least in the west) take our full bellies more or less for granted. To use myself as an example, as I fast approach 40 I can hand on heart say that I have never grown a carrot. I think I may have grown about 10cm squared of cress in a small tub when I was at school. But even that might just be me mis-remembering someone else doing it while I was in the general area. Wheat? No chance. Barley? Forget about it. Hay? Surely hay? It's just grass forgodsake! Nope.

So this morning the above struck me, and with the full force of its 38 year absence from my MO. Like a man possessed, I pulled my boots on, grabbed a spade and garden fork and made a start. It was never my intention to plough the entire area over and start again. Let's be honest. My horticultural pedigree ruled that out from the start. Instead I went with the 'why re-invent the wheel' strategy and spent the first half hour wondering around and working out what the hell was actually growing out of my lawn. This is what confronted me (brace yourself):

Yes, that is a moss-covered path at the bottom of the shot, which tells you all you need to know about my relationship with the garden to that point. Anyway, it turns out there were quite a few different things on the grow, including rhubarb, asparagus, strawberries and cabbage. I picked on rhubarb (don't ask).

Now, as an avid gardener (!) this state of affairs plainly wasn't good enough for my prize rhubarb. So I started removing the surrounding turf and using it to define the edge of the bed.

When I'd slugged all of the turf off, I used the garden fork to dig a good half foot of soil up across the whole bed, turn it over and mash it up into... wait for it... a fine 'tilth'. First time I've ever had cause to use that word.

Job done. Don't get me wrong - I appreciate that it's a modest result at best after 4 or 5 hours of graft, and nothing to write home about for a seasoned horticulturalist. But for somebody that's never grown anything before, I'll take it. And it's also a work in progress. My plan is to create a new bed, pretty much on the same scale, each week from now until I've got the whole lawn covered. Wish me luck...

The next thing I've got to decide is whether to go with carrots, butternut squash, parsnips or spinach in this particular patch. I'm leaning towards butternut squash, but in the interest of keeping things interactive I'm open to suggestions? Carrots, butternut squash, parsnips or spinach? Whichever gets the most votes from those of you who follow my blog is the one that I'll plant, so speak now or forever hold your peas.

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