Food, food culture, food as culture and the cultures that grow our food

Weedy plot, commuting, cover crops and humble pie

January 11, 2006

People who know me well would never say that I’m a practical woman. Now, all the more so. I’ve left my winter quarters in Occitania to return to the Polar Circle, where paid work is calling. Screaming, really. In gardening there’s a time and a place for everything, and ever since I’ve had this garden, my commuting life-style has forced me to ignore this simple rule of nature and do things at the wrong times. Sunday, I finished turning the earth by hand on both allotments. One hundred and sixty square metres. That’s seven in dog years, carry the three, and if you’re not impressed, I don’t care. I’m totally impressed with myself.

It’s a funny thing in our allotments, all the women are organic gardners, and all the men are not. I don’t know if that corresponds with some kind of hippy statistic, but that’s the way it is. And there’s a great deal of social control, you can’t just let your garden go to pot, just because it’s yours. I decided for this reason to experiment with growing cover crops, a crop just meant to keep out the bad weeds and condition the soil in the process. It’s absolutely unconventional around here, and for this reason, I’d been preparing my neighbour, spending time talking to him about my experiment, to let him get used to the idea.

I’m talking about my very sweet neighbour AlGouche. The one who built the retaining wall/serre without my even asking for it, the one who waters my garden when I’m up north, the one who makes me sit down and eat a lunch of barbequed chicken and wine that he’s prepared on his little fire when he thinks I’m working too hard (il faut manger), the one that feeds his garden little red and blue pills. I’ve been telling him for a week now, that before I leave Occitania, I’m going to plant a crop full of weeds, on purpose. Buckwheat, alfalfa, mustard, soybeans and adzuki beans, not for eating, but to improve the soil composition, keep down the real weeds, and give me an excuse to use that turquoise blue rototiller that we just bought. (I read that each time you use a rototiller you have to add 6% organic material to the soil so as not ruin it’s texture.)

Plants not for eating? Al Gouche shakes his head, and tells me in a Moroccan-Occitanian dialect that I’m meshuggah.

The last days, I turned one hundred and sixty square metres of earth with a spitfork. The men of the allotments, bored out of their skulls with winter-lack-of-work, gather daily at AlGouche’s shed for gossip and beer. That’s ‘man’ for tea and sympathy, I guess. But on Monday, my last day in the garden, before departing for Amsterdam, I was completely shocked to overhear AlGouche defending me to the other men. ‘She’s not planting real weeds, just some plants that will improve the soil.’ My heart lept.

And now I’m praying, and looking at the Occitanian weather report from Amsterdam, that the seeds that I have ever-so-crazily planted in January, and that really is meshuggah, will somehow sprout and thrive, beat the weed-race on my little plot of land, between now and March.

Subsistance farming really is a nerve wracking affair, part-time susbsistance farming, even more so. I keep telling myself that if this experiment doesn’t work, nothing will be wasted but a few handfulls of seeds, one day of planting and a huge amount of pride. Which is expensive. Upon leaving the garden Monday evening, I say a little prayer for all the microbes and the earthworms, hoping they enjoy the oysters shells I crushed into the soil, hoping they enjoy the leaves and rotted corn husks, hoping the little legume seeds will grow, and win the growing race for the most light, water and nutrients. Please little legumes, winter cover crops, fix the nitrates in my soil, and produce as much biomass as you possibly can. I’m counting on you.

debra at 0:34 | | post to


  1. What a wonderful post. I hope all your dreams come true.

    Comment by Tana — January 12, 2006 @ 6:18

  2. Thank you very much Tana from Smallfarms! I am a huge fan of the Smallfarms blog by the way! You must be laughing your tuchas off to hear of my January planting escapades, but I read that these crops were the winter ones, and… who knows, it might not freeze again this year hard enough to kill the little babies.

    Oh that’s right. You’re from the land of good weather, so you don’t know what freezing is. Freezing is when it gets so cold that water can become solid. Occitania (the Cevenne foothills) is probably more like el Valejo Centro and the Sierra Foothills than the SFBay Area, weather-wise. ; )

    Warm regards to you,


    Comment by Debra — January 12, 2006 @ 21:44

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