At Middelmost the farming year ends at the Winter Solstice. My thoughts are, 'If I haven't got it done by then, it's not going to be done'. From New Moon to Full Moon I take a break and head off to do things differently. It's a time to do a bit of retail therapy, some ski-ing, or a show in a beckoning metropolis. I paint my fingernails; get my hair done and LIE-IN-BED until at least seven o'clock every morning!
Everything is organized and settled outside. Everything can be checked and fed in the twinkling of an eye, there's only one cow to milk and the garden hasn't any calls to duty. I can, without any guilt whatsoever, fold my prickles up and hibernate by the fire. I can, without remorse for anything unattended, curl my lips around a rich blackcurrant wine and graze selectively across a range of homegrown produce. I can, without any concern for my charges, indulge in a good book or succumb to superb music. Outside there is NOTHING-TO-DO. Apart from an hour night and morning, I can luxuriate in the warmth and companionship to be found INSIDE. This time is mine. It's a time to ponder the past, indulge in the present and plan the future, and I use this time of the year to reflect and to say thank you for the things that have helped Middelmost survive another year. Because we tend to bounce from one trauma to another, as we gallop frantically from this month to the next, we sometimes forget the tremendous successes which do punctuate the calendar, and this is the time I celebrate them. I salute my co-operative cows, my fine pigs, my handsome horses, and my full freezer, and I unashamedly pat myself on the back for all the things (big and little) that were achieved in the last farming year.
The frosty mornings and crisp sunny days this week have given everything a clean, healthy feeling. Any ground in the garden, not being used, has been turned over to get a dose of the disease-killing cold, the paddocks have been harrowed flat, and composting is high on the agenda. I have two main compost bins, one that is completely emptied in the autumn and the other that has taken a year to fill up. When the compost bin I am using has been emptied, the full one next to it is turned over into the empty one and left until the next Autumn. Although this means any compost is two years in the making the wait is worthwhile. The new bin is seeded with compost worms from the old bin and the old bin still has plenty of worms left to help seed the garden and the paddocks. When I first came to Middelmost the soil was dead but now each fork full reveals a host of creatures all busy doing their thing. Last year the land at Middelmost gave me meat, fruit, vegetables, and milk and, because I should repay the land, I have decided to try and make compost for each paddock.
Nature bases all of her life forms on humus and attempts nothing without it. There is no substitute for humus and, until it is created, the process of plant and animal life cannot go on. Humus is Nature's currency. She does not supply water-soluble minerals to the soil but, instead, she ensures an automatic and ample application of organic matter which, in the process of decay, releases mineral nutrients in a form that is steadily, and readily, available for plants. Our farming methods take this humus away (have you noticed how agricultural land is higher around the fence lines?) and, in the effort to replace so-called deficiencies, scientists and the marketing sectors have combined to talk us into reaching for a 'vitamin fix'. When land is treated chemically with an artificial nutriment, in a water-soluble form, the plants have no alternative but to absorb it, be stimulated by it, and develop forthwith, short-circuiting some of the vital growth process needed to produce pest and disease-free food. Attention to the organic content of the soil is the only certain means of ensuring the natural balance of nitrogen, phosphorus, calcium, and potash, along with a host of unpaid helpers in the form of bacteria, fungi, and millions of minute living creatures, organic material is the only currency with which I should repay the land at Middelmost.
I saw, many years ago, a compost heap being made in the centre of a large hen house. The heap was started with a layer of hedge trimmings to allow a flow of air under the heap during maturing. Then came a layer of straw to prevent the next layer, which was horse manure, from falling through. A good dressing of ground limestone was scattered on top with sawdust on top of that. The layers were repeated, with the straw layer sometimes consisting of wilted vegetation (tomato plants, weeds, comfrey leaves, etc), until the heap was of the required size. Each layer was dampened down and worms were put into the top layer. The heap was covered with about four inches of sawdust and a roll of chicken netting was pulled right over it and pinned down to the ground. Later that year, with the chicken wire removed, the hens had an ideal dining table teeming with free protein food full of numerous soil organisms and other health and production essentials. The worms continued to breed under the chook litter giving the hens a continuous 'self-service canteen' and a wonderful stimulus to egg production. At the end of the season, the chook house was emptied out into the garden and the process was started again.
I have based my compost making on this recipe ever since and, with the idea of making my own farm fertilizer, I have enlisted the cows for help. At the moment they come into the cowshed paddock twice a day for straw, cut grass, and feed. The straw they leave is mulching down nicely on the metal pad outside the cowshed and it is getting mixed up with cow dung, leftover bits of cut grass, and anything else I chuck out there for them to mumble through. In the spring this should form the bulk of a wonderful compost heap that I intend building just at the end of the pad. There is a small space there - perfect for a round compost heap about eight feet across and I hope to be able to build it up to about five feet high. With luck, this should be ready to sprinkle around the paddocks before Winter next year. I have started a heap in the orchard and I am amazed at how quickly the layers are growing. You tend to think 'compost' as you go about your daily chores. For example, an old and very favourite woolen jersey destined for the bin was shredded with the kitchen scissors and given a suitable ceremony on top of the chopped up rhubarb leaves and crushed walnut shells.
Who knows, the whole venture may be a disaster but, in the meantime, I am visualizing my own top dressing. I shall tell my land it's money in the bank and keep on building.