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Growing with the Flow

"When seeking the Tao, look to Mother Nature,

Rivers flowing to the sea, trees turning with the seasons,

the earth bringing forth food ... Following Mother Nature is the Tao ...

Understanding is in the way things are".

from the Tao of Women*

There has been a marriage in our garden, the bedfellows are well suited and their joining was inevitable.

Some background to explain: Ella had an organic small holding from 1976 - 79 but the pressures of motherhood and other problems forced her to leave the garden and move to a town house . But gardening was in her blood and the craving to return to the land remained strong over the years while her life as a healer, counsellor and workshop leader unfolded. Andy became familiar with the Taoist way in his early twenties, while studying Shiatsu and Macrobiotics. After moving on to facilitating deep emotional healing and becoming a workshop leader, the simple Taoist way of understanding the universe strongly influenced his work. After we met, since we were both healers/ counsellors with a strong love for the earth, we started running Wild Soul Healing camps amongst other transformational workshops. The emphasis was healing with the elements, in nature, awakening to the source of your own beingness - the Tao. But the more we lived at camp and loved the closeness to the Earth, the more strongly we felt the urge to immerse ourselves in her cycles, on the land. For a long time we looked for ways to do this, then two years ago this plot came up for sale.

Flowing with the Universe

The rather bare rectangle of closely grazed, windswept grass, albeit with stables and a polytunnel, was not quite what we had envisaged. We had imagined hills, wilderness, some woodland, glistening streams and perhaps a sparkle of sea. But standing on

the field a few days before the auction, looking at the wonderful view over the vale of Avalon, we felt somehow it could work and that this was our way to a full time relationship with the land. The ancient hedge with some mature trees and a part time run off stream cascading down one side of the land helped as well.

Over the years we had both immersed ourselves in Permaculture literature, had small permaculture garden plots in our various houses. In 1993 Andy had also co - led the relationships and community section of a Permaculture, Relationships and Community course (part 1 Permaculture design). So it was clear that this 2.6 acre field was to become a

permaculture plot.

And so the stage was set for the marriage of two strands in our life, Permaculture and Taoism. Central to both is the aim of flowing with the natural universe rather than against her, so while Taoist wisdom aided us in finding the way to garden in the flow of nature, permaculture gave us practical models, and the garden became a place of learning and awakening.

On the land

Once here we felt like children let loose in a wonderful playground. OK a pretty bare playground at first but space to run around and breathe. And then play with as we wanted to. The first November, in wind and rain, found us planting hedges - 400 yards in all of mixed native to act as windbreaks. Shortly afterwards we found many of the hedge plants nibbled to a few inches. Rabbits. So the next game was to dig in rabbit wire around the whole two and half acres. This took us about two months and required a certain patience and muscle building -but we knew without it we wouldn't be able to grow anything here. Sometimes it felt gruelling as the wind swept up from the moor - there was so little shelter. But these were good opportunities to practise digging from the hara (belly), to meditate, become empty minded and be really in the present with such repetitive tasks. There were some ecstatic moments as we found ourselves getting to know the land's physical boundary inch by inch, and in that really landing here.

From then on permaculture principles and ideas have helped keep it fun. Creating new beds with no digging from layers of manure, cardboard and straw worked wonders in our first garden area. This had been used as a 'starvation' paddock for the ponies before us and being a clay soil it was very compacted, but this was the most sheltered area so seemed a good starting point. We covered it in early December and by May we were planting out veg - mainly potatoes, squash, sweet corn, onions sets and also globe artichokes, yum, and later kale, purple sprouting, leeks and broad beans. We found we needed to put a fork in the ground and wiggle it to loosen the soil to help the plants get established. Now in its second season with additions of worm compost, some horticultural sand and more well rotted horse manure the soil is coming on well. We were lucky to find a good source of manure, a mixture of pony and goat from a friendly neighbour. We also found that the meadow plants around the beds were delighted to grow after years of close cropping - wild flowers and wonderful grasses were springing up everywhere- so we left a big patch in that garden to be wildly exuberant. And everywhere else on the field was ablaze with colour in that first spring and early summer. There were brilliant dandelions, clover, buttercups, self heal, vetch and lots of others including bee and pyramidal orchids to our great delight. Butterflies danced everywhere. There were even more orchids this year and we are now registered as a county wild life site.

Weed therapy

For Andy the weeds have been a lesson in how to trust:- When I was a child,my father always kept his attractive gardens super neat, as a matter of pride and principle. Whenever the job of weeding was given to me and I hated it, partly from lazyness, partly from an inherent dislike of controlling nature. It put me off gardening until I found organic gardening at the community I lived in in the eighties. But I was imprinted with an emotional response to weeds - "get rid of them or else be a bad gardener". So here in a field of grass, creeping buttercup and dandelions was a recipe for total self torture. Mulching was a great help, but some dandelions would always survive, and then thrive, buttercups would creep back in along with the couch grass. I was diligent at first, righteously going into battle with the weeds, lest I be shown up for a lack of gardener's moral fibre. A very different aspect of my personality had emerged in response to the weeds. But there were so many - it was totally overwhelming, and it made me very irritable and the joy, bliss and equanimity that had developed in our rural idyll was temporarily lost. I knew that any form of battling with nature is always futile and even though I understood it in my mind and spirit, emotionally and with my imprinted mental attitude I was still battling away. So I learnt to pause and meditate a while before gardening, especially weeding, to get a feel for what really needed to be done, which weeds to pull, which ones to leave. I discovered how dandelions helped break up and deepen the soil, as well as being good in salad, dandelion coffee and as a medicine. I saw how the vegetables thrived amongst the weeds with this level of care, but most importantly I learnt to relax into gardening intuitively with nature. The vegetables and me were growing in the flow of nature, with the Tao, rather than struggling in the turbulence of fighting against her.

Poly-tunnel magic

The sixty by twenty eight foot poly-tunnel was a major initial project. This was already here and had been used to grow bedding plants. The soil had been covered with black polythene for five years with pots standing it. Uncovering it revealed compacted inert clay, slimy and grey in places, cracked in others. Oh boy. Was it dead? Would it live again? Our first actions were with a fork and mattock to try and break up the clods as much as possible. We added manure - then planted various green manures - we tried grazing rye, clovers, buckwheat and later broad beans. Adding worm compost and horticultural sand and more horse manure and growing a rotation of crops has meant two years on that the beds are pretty good now.

Also in the poly-tunnel we made our first pond.This was for tadpoles to hatch into frogs to eat slugs and also for love of frogs. It also acts as a heat collector - collecting heat on sunny days and releasing that heat at night. This is a great help in the spring when clear sunny days are followed by cold frosty nights, just when lots of tender seedlings need protection. It also acts as a humidifier when it is hot and dry. This has all worked very well. The slugs are well taken care of by frogs and froglets in froggy paradise. We have no go areas which are frog sanctuary zones around the pond which are a mass of flowers, water mint, creeping herbs and other wandering pond plants, all overlooked by what is now a good size fig tree. Madeira vine, American ground nut, Chinese yam and Kiwi fruit are all starting to grow well. Together with 8ft high dill, 10 foot tomatoes, cucumbers and French beans together with peppers, melons, salads, herbs and marigolds, they make a towering leafy, fruity, flowering tumbling jungle of our dreams, as well as a useful income. Next year we plan to add all sorts of other wonders.

Creating new gardens

This spring, outside, we added two ponds - one in each garden area. We surrounded these with wild flowers and grasses to make protected areas for wild life and planted them with native water plants. And we made a new garden at the top of the field. The ground was first prepared last summer by our neighbour's little pigs. These were amazing characters who got past the electric fence and had a day in paradise trying out all our veg while we took our first day off at the sea side....aargh. They looked so happy. After this the ground was covered by black polythene for about six months and in the early spring we took this off and formed the raised beds and added horse manure and covered the beds - some with straw and some with hay from our field. This time we did curvy beds rather than the straight ones we did last year, the whole garden forming round the pond in the middle.

We had to give this new garden wind protection - we are on a gentle slope which is north facing and windswept sometimes. We planted a hedge but while this is young surrounded it with a mixture of brush wood screen, straw bales and Jerusalem artichokes. We then planted broads beans, potatoes, lots of wonderful Japanese type squash, courgettes, sweet corn, purple sprouting, various kales, peas, onions, French and haricot beans, carrots, beetroot and parsnip plus some green manure/ set aside mix that attracts pollinating insects. It has become a sea of vegetation - waist to head high in green. Flowers came on their own to this garden - self heal starting marching along the paths, scarlet pimpernel ran everywhere and marigolds and borage popped up all over the place. Frogs found the pond as did dragonflies, damsel flies, may flies and a newt. Yield wise this garden has produced abundantly this summer and together with the first garden and the polytunnel we have had masses to eat, barter, sell and give to family and friends.

Slugs and exhaustion or... arduous tasks become a pleasure.

We soon found we would have very little in the way of crops if we didn't control the rampant slugs. Though the frogs were mainly sorting out the polytunnel, I, Ella, found the only way I could really control slugs outside is to pick them off every night. Starting around April each evening would see me spending an hour or so with a torch and bucket. This year this has carried on all summer and into the autumn as it has been so wet. Two years of doing this almost every evening would, one might think, wear thin. But I have found that I really enjoy the time spent in the garden at night. It is very different then: seeing worms mating on top of the soil by moonlight, beetles and spiders scurrying around, owls hooting, bats whisking around the night sky. On a few nights I even saw hundreds of worms climbing up plant stalks, waving around two feet in the air - honest!

I make a pact with the slugs as I gather them that I won't hurt them. I take them for a walk to the bottom of the field each day and let them go under some shrubs. They may come back but it will take them some time. It seems to work because we've had little slug damage. They certainly left alone what are now foot long carrots and huge long forono beetroot which have astounded me in this new garden's first growing season.

Because this garden is a dream come true I've had lots of enthusiasm, but also much frustration because of my physical limitations, mostly from injuries from a major car crash in 93. I've been seeing clearly how I drive myself, mainly through fear of failure. When I'm tired I've learnt to stop, sit or squat down and look around me. I've learnt to breathe deeply and take in the presence of the plants, soil, sky, clouds, birds, insects, everything that happening and then draw strength up into me from the earth. Then after a while I can carry on renewed, recharged. I have found a strength through this that I never had before.

Apples, pears, sun and wind,

An orchard was also a long dreamed of project that came into being at the start of this year. We planted twenty two apple and pear trees, a mixture of traditional and modern - the basis for a forest garden which will develop over the years. This winter we will plant more trees - and our soft fruit patch will be much expanded. Andy created a unique solar hot water system and baths and showers outside are great. Sun and wind power via solar panel and a Whisper wind generator were added over the winter. These were costly - but so worthwhile. We run lights, CD player, lap top computer,12 volt tools and a fridge when it is very windy or sunny. A 12 volt propagator is next. A compost loo was an essential installation last year. The rainproof shelter added to our comfort this spring. The composted contents are emptied after 6 months composting, onto fruit and hedge plants. It is dark rich compost and not at all smelly which amazed us.

Testing, challenging and truly wonderful it has been and we have got fitter physically, emotionally and spiritually by the day. Last winter didn't seem so long or so hard or cold, being out in it more than we ever had been. We had no winter blues. The summers have been glorious, whether the sun has shone or not.

Taking the courage to do this is the best thing we have ever done - and we are so glad we didn't leave it a day later. Taoist spiritual perspective and permaculture practices together in unison have helped us do it, enjoy it and learn so much in the process. Everything we need is here, we have such riches in this simple life.

*quote from the Tao of Women, adapted from Nu Shu ( Women's script) a thousand year old secret language used by women in China, by Pamela Metz and Jacqueline Tobin.

All text and images © Ella & Andy Portman 2000

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