From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

I discuss the idea that humanity has boxed itself into what I call the ‘arable corner’ in Chapter 5 of A Small Farm Future, and in this post I’m going to draw out some implications of that discussion.

The idea behind the ‘arable corner’ (perhaps I should have called it the ‘grain corner’) is that we’ve become over-reliant on a handful of arable/grain crops – 75% of global cropland is devoted to just ten crops, of which six are cereals and two grain legumes. And now it seems like we’re boxed in, because it’s hard to discern how to wean ourselves off them.

There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with these crops. One reason we grow them in such abundance is that they meet our needs so well. But it’s possible to have too much of a good thing. Boxing ourselves into the arable corner isn’t great for human health, for livestock health, for ecosystem integrity or for socio-political wellbeing, as I document in Chapter 5. Here, I’ll reflect briefly on how we got into this mess, and how we might escape it.

Our key arable crops are all pretty much short-lived annuals, quickly producing seeds that pack a heavy punch of energy and protein to help the next generation get started – and it’s upon this inter-generational generosity in the plant tribe that humanity has built its civilizations. As I wrote a while back, were it not for this ecological quirk, we probably wouldn’t be facing many of our present intractable problems.

Some of these problems stem precisely from the annual habit of our arable crops, so one approach to solving them – on which I’ve previously written, and discuss a little in my book – is attempting to perennialize these crops. I’m not convinced this will work biologically. And if it does, I’m not convinced it’ll get us out of our socioeconomic predicaments. Nor do I fully understand why it’s presented as a more ‘natural’ way of farming compared with, say, breeding annual grains for fast, high yield, which is much more consonant with their life history. But I’m all in favour of experimentation – I just don’t think the perennializing folks should call the adoption of annual crops a ‘mistake’ in human history, as they sometimes do.

Going way back, perhaps even beyond the origins of Homo sapiens, people have understood that early successional ecosystems involving habitat disturbance and high plant nutrification are propitious environments for human provisioning, and they found numerous ingenious ways to push things in that direction. The swiddening that I mentioned in my last post is but one example. I think these are better regarded as elegant solutions to people’s contemporary problems rather than ‘mistakes’ – but it nevertheless seems unlikely that we’ll solve today’s problems in the same way, by doubling down on habitat disturbance and nutrification.

So if I’m proposing neither annual arable as usual nor perennial arable as an alternative, then what? I’ll come to that in a moment. But first I want to sketch a little social history around the arable corner. The old-time orthodoxy of the human turn to farming was that nomadic hunter-gatherers figured out how to sow and resow cereals, then settled down into sedentary villages to grow them, producing such a surplus of food and therefore people that occupational specialization became possible, and thence quickly thereafter the emergence of complex states that kickstarted humanity on its journey to all the benefits of modern civilization.

But newer scholarship as outlined by James Scott in his book Against The Grain suggests that much of this is wrong. Sedentism preceded grain domestication, which was only one of several flexible strategies of self-provisioning along the continuum of foraging and farming that stretches much further back into the human past than the putative ‘origins’ of agriculture within roughly the last 10,000 years. And grain domestication predated the emergence of complex states by several millennia. When complex grain-based states did emerge, the ordinary people commanded by them were generally worse off – worse off in their nutrition and health status, and worse off in their susceptibility to violence, economic exploitation and enslavement.

It’s true that by the time the early states got going, alternative games were almost up – population pressure and declining options for foraging impelled people towards arable, as per the old orthodoxy. But in the hands of Scott and similar authors this can be rendered as a tale of loss, not progress: “planting and livestock rearing as dominant subsistence practices were avoided for as long as possible because of the work they required. And most of the work arose from the need to defend a simplified, artificial landscape from the resurgence of nature excluded from it: other plants (weeds), birds, grazing animals, rodents, insects and the rust and fungal infections that threatened a monocropped field”1.

Scott argues that the architects of the early states such as Sumer were able to capture or ‘parasitize’ this arable sedentism, making its farmers the subject citizens of their hierarchical apparatus. Initially this required various forms of direct coercion to prevent people fleeing from drudgery and subjection but when population pressure on land passes a critical point, direct coercion can turn economic or legalistic, merely depriving the working class of the right to be independent cultivators.

The main counterviews to such negative appraisals of central state power within our modern system of states turn on either amplifying the productivity or mitigating the inequality orchestrated by the state, or both, so that even the humblest citizen might live like the kings of the past. But I think the jury is now in on this. Amplifying productivity has generated deep ecological problems. Inequalities remain stark and stubborn, and the most thorough attempts to remedy them have failed to endure and have involved numerous coercions of their own.

So maybe it’s worth looking for answers elsewhere. To my mind, a key hunting ground raised in Scott’s account is those long millennia of sedentary mixed cereal cultivation preceding the emergence of centralized states. Likewise, it seems there were long periods in British history of mixed sedentary cultivation during the Neolithic without state centralization. Even more interestingly in the British case, this was succeeded by greater status differentiation and centralization in the early Bronze Age, before reversion to more dissipated household-based organization thereafter2. There are similar examples from many other parts of the world – although predatory would-be states were often waiting in the wings in many of these cases, and were sometimes able to strike when conditions favoured them. But they didn’t necessarily endure, and what I find especially tantalizing in these examples is that there seemed to be supra-local political organization without centralized statehood.

And this is essentially the approach that I think commends itself today, partly by force of circumstance and partly by choice. Growing annual grains locally, predominantly on garden scales, along with a wide range of other annual and perennial, dryland and aquatic food and fibre crops in small-scale guilds that limit the ecological destructiveness of any one crop. Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

This links to another phrase I coin in my book – the recaptured garden. Elites and centralized states have often creamed off as much surplus as they possibly can from ordinary people – and one way they’ve maximized the return is by making ordinary people responsible for their own welfare, not least by making them grow their own food. Historian Steven Stoll calls this the ‘captured garden’3. Again, a modernist response is that people shouldn’t have to do this. Specialist farmers should release us from this captivity by growing our food for us, and governments should ensure that everybody has a tolerable income to pay for the necessities of life. Ask an average farmer or an ex-farming slum dweller in an average country of the modern world about their income and see how well that’s going.

I argue instead for reclaiming or recapturing the garden for ourselves. Globally, governments have at best a patchy record for freeing people from economic misery, and to this day a lot of people try to hang on to small patches of land as a risk-spreading strategy in the face of state hostility or indifference. Again, partly through force of circumstance and partly through choice I think people will need to press harder upon this recapturing, because governments will be increasingly unable to offer alternatives.

So, to escape the arable corner, the forms of state coercion associated with it and the ecological problems it creates I argue that our best chance is by becoming our own arable farmers, or rather mixed-arable gardeners, and by recapturing our gardens and the politics of our households from centralized states. I hope to fill out some of the details of this in future posts.


  1. James Scott. 2017. Against the Grain, p.96.
  2. Francis Pryor. 2014. Home.
  3. Steven Stoll. 2017. Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia.

28 thoughts on “From the arable corner to the recaptured garden

  1. A small editorial niggle! You write:
    Likewise growing mixed political institutions locally that limit the sociological destructiveness of the monocrop central state – but nevertheless actively growing those institutions, rather than assuming an inherent human ability towards anarchist or collectivist concord.

    Might I suggest developing mixed political institutions, and actively tending those institutions? Growing makes it sound a bit like we want them to get bigger. I’m not sure that’s what you mean.

    Incidentally — we gave a copy of your book as a Christmas gift to my father-in-law, who grew up on a farm in Ireland in the 1930s and 40s before moving to England and working first in the auto industry and then in nuclear health and safety. I’m not sure how he’s getting on with it, but he did bring it up while talking to my spouse last night.

  2. Great post. But anarchism and collectivism aren’t about not having any institutions, they’re about the collective development of institutions that reflect the will of the people.

  3. Lots to think about here.

    It strikes me that population pressure is not the only thing that leads to or increases the subjection of working people; it’s fairly straightforward to temporarily lower the human carrying capacity of the land via strategic violence (as in the Harrying of the North; or the use of land mines in more recent warfare). So, it isn’t only from weeds, deer, rodents, rust, snails and insects that we may need to defend our small household recaptured gardens: there will always be a few other humans around who figure that warfare is less work than farming. Obviously, I don’t believe humans have a substantial inherent tendency toward anarchist, collective, or any other sort of concord, and so I agree that we need some kind of political organisation. It seems clear to me that if we don’t create a good political system, we will end up with a violent and exploitative one by default.

    But I don’t really have any idea what that good political organisation should look like. I think it probably needs to be more participatory and direct than what passes for democracy in much of the West: elections every handful of years and the odd referendum clearly aren’t sufficient. I want to say there should be some relational aspect to it, where if we do have people engaged as specialists in the work of politics they are also people we have day-to-day conversations with. I’m also aware that informal, relational power dynamics are still power dynamics, abolishing official hierarchical structures only brings about unofficial ones.

    My personal tendency is probably toward theocracy, since so many of the ways I think people should behave toward one another are underpinned by my faith. I’m aware that this is not a popular option, though! I’m very interested in what Christianity (arguably a religion developed in the context of arable farming, certainly a religion that has been involved in conquest and colonialism and violence, though I and many of my co-believers think this to have been idolatrous and sinful) might look like in a mixed-arable gardening world. This may seem like an irrelevance, but it’s easier for me to imagine what Small Farm Christianity might look like than Small Farm politics. Perhaps that is a red herring, given the historic association of Christianity and political power. Perhaps it’s simply that I know Christianity better than I know politics (though I wouldn’t claim to be expert at either). But perhaps there is something in it: Christianity, like any other religion, or indeed political system, is a cultural phenomenon, and any profound shift in how we farm and what we eat is going to influence and be influenced by our culture.

  4. Thanks. First two comments homing in on the same sentence. Happy to accept Kathryn’s suggestion – in fact I say much the same myself on pp.83-4 of my book 🙂

    Guess I just used the word ‘growth’ in that paragraph because it was rhetorically pleasing in its parallel with the previous point about growing crops. Though perhaps I might press on that parallel – we grow crops until they reach the right size, then we use them. Maybe something similar with politics?

    To lg’s point … well, ye-es. I’m well aware that anarchism & collectivism aren’t just about the absence of institutions. However, I’m unpersuaded by the notion that those institutions emerge unproblematically out of the will of the people, since I don’t believe such a will exists – therefore, I see growing/developing local non-state politics as a lot of hard work, rather than assuming that everything will go swimmingly once the state is out of the way. FWIW if I were only allowed one word to describe my politics I’d probably say ‘anarchist’. But I’d prefer to have seven: civic republican anarchist agrarian populist left libertarian.

    To Kathryn’s longer comment – indeed, subjection of working people most certainly isn’t only caused by population pressure. But it probably had quite a bit to do with the stabilization of the earliest states, and it’s relevant to the options available to ruling elites in maintaining their rule. Your comments on Christianity are interesting but I’m going to hold off on that topic for now until their proper place in Part III (Chapter 16). But do remind me to come back to them…

    • Sure, we harvest crops when they are the “right” size. We also plan where to put them. We prune trees, encourage bees, pull weeds, build soil types according to what we want to grow and — at least in the Small Farm vision — we put quite a lot of labour into getting results that can sustain us. Cultivation is so much more than growth.

      I get nervous of population pressure arguments because of the “Lebensraum” justifications of the Nazi party. I don’t for a moment think you endorse that, but it’s always in the back of my mind in these conversations. I agree that population pressure probably helped with stabilization of the earliest states. I also think it interacts very badly with financial market crapitalism and fossil fuel use: in a situation where there are more workers than available labour, the collective power of unions etc to act for their members is massively decreased. Who cares about workers striking after all, if you can just fire them and hire others who are desperate to work for next to nothing, or get decomposed dinosaurs to do the work instead?

      I suppose I think carrying capacity is variable enough and humans reproduce slowly enough (and these days, at least theoretically have enough reproductive choice) that population pressure shouldn’t be the issue that it is, or the issue it is made out to be. Maintaining such inequality that many people in the world don’t have reproductive choice, or don’t have access to land that is safe to farm, is an ideological problem — one that begets practical problems, for sure, but looking at the way delayed or reduced reproduction tracks educational opportunity for women is sobering.

      I will try and sit on my hands regarding Christianity and culture until it’s time!

      • I think we’re in agreement. I went through the population issue pretty carefully in my book to critique the notion that population was ‘the’ problem, or the major cause of our present predicaments. But that’s a different thing to the suggestion that, in given historical/human-ecological contexts, population increase has sociological effects and consequences, where I think we’re on firmer ground. But there are always a range of possible responses to those consequences, which are not simply determined by population.

        Hope to hear more about your father-in-law’s thoughts on the book!

  5. This article by Steven Stoll gives more explanation about the “captured garden” concept.

    “The Captured Garden: The Political Ecology of Subsistence under Capitalism”

    Here’s the abstract (page 1 of the article can be viewed for free):

    “Household subsistence food production did not disappear under capitalism; instead, it functioned within the circulation of capital. British lords and American mining company managers realized that the same practices that once resulted in autonomy for peasants and mountain-dwelling households could be absorbed, “captured,” to subsidize wages. This article considers the captured garden in two forms. The first resulted in capital accumulation, while the second sustained the unemployed without public assistance. Both appeared in West Virginia between the 1880s and the 1930s. Gardens moved into the coal camps, encouraged and compelled by the companies. During the Great Depression the Roosevelt administration established the Division of Subsistence Homesteads, combining gardens and factory wages as a relief program. Both forms illustrate the paradox of subsistence production under capitalism: A practice that for centuries created no surplus value could be made to do just that; an institution once the stronghold of the household could cause dependency and immiseration.”

    • Thanks for that Steve. I haven’t read that article, but I thought his book was really great. Not sure I’d agree with the abstract that the institution CAUSED dependency & immiseration, but I agree that it was used thus. So indeed the challenge is to recapture the garden and make it the stronghold of the household…

  6. I am basically in agreement, with the addition that there are many different ways to develop self sustaining cultures. While I certainly agree that under most conditions the “garden” is the most appropriate way of farming, there are other situations where a larger share of hunting and gathering, swiddening or other practices are still appropriate. Not to forget pastoralism, which I believe in many ways is a very interesting way of landscape utilization. And pastoralist have been fiercfully independent and hard to control as well as not very likely to build empires, with the Mongols as the main exception (not sure about the Arabs, but I think theirs was more of a trading empire). And there are many forms in between, such as seasonal migration practiced in Scandinavia, the alps, Balkan and many other places. Of course, the higher the population density, the more likely it is that intensive garden farming becomes the norm (I am with Boserup in this).
    I believe there will be, and needs to be, concord between the material conditions, the social organisation (including a “state”) and the culture (of which religion is an expression) while not necessarily taking a materialist determinist stand on this. People who are materially more independent, whether in a “household” a “village community” a “clan”, while most certainly resist an authoritarian state also in the future, and create the institutions they need. The trick I guess is also to make the culture and institions resilient enough to meet new challenges, internal or external. I guess or companion evolution also works on social organisms in such a way that instititions that have seen better days wither, which can easily be seen in reality both now and historically (the nobility, the guilds, the monasteries).

    • Interesting points, Gunnar. I agree there’s more to be said about pastoralism. Scott does in fact discuss it at some length in the context of predatory ‘barbarian’ pastoralism as a kind of alter ego to the agrarian state. In more comprehensively settled statism the complementarities between cropping & herding of the kind you mention are also interesting – for example here in Somerset, which got its name from seasonal grazing on the low-lying wetlands, or the arable/pasture complementarity of ‘chalk and cheese’.

      The later part of your comment nails it – the challenge is exactlly in creating that local independence and all it entails plausibly out of present circumstances.

  7. To me, the interesting question is whether, now thinking we understand that societal structures that lead to power concentration should be avoided, can we intentionally set a path to minimize the chance, and will that choice be passed on from generation to generation so that a less coercive and extractive economy is avoided long term.

    Our past would would predict low likelihood, but maybe we have learned a more enduring lesson this time?

    Your sketched out concepts sound promising, but the path forward to them is but dimly perceived to me.

    • Yes, I’d go along with that – the chances are low, the path is dim. And the ideology that the surrender of political autonomy is beneficial is strong (and arguably not entirely fallacious?). I hope to write some more about this presently, but indeed there are few easy answers.

    • Dang, I didn’t proof read well enough. That should read ” …….so that a less coercive and extractive economy is maintained long term…..”

  8. This is a subtle and thoughtful post as usual, Chris. (And I must say you startled me a few weeks ago in “Can the Peasant Speak?” when you took things to an almost poetic level and started sounding a bit like W.G. Sebald!)

    And thanks to everyone else here for comments that keep the level of the conversation at a high mark — Gunnar, you are always a pleasure to read, and it’s great to hear your thoughts as well, Kathryn.

    So I am not a frequent commenter, but I did feel called upon to post a comment to the version of “Arable Corner” that appeared at The anthropological and political context is extremely important, but when we start talking about growing wheat and other grains at the garden scale there seems to be a bit of incomprehension and skepticism. I’ve copied my comment below, if you are interested in reading it. It didn’t seem to make much of an impact.

    I wonder if anyone has any other thoughts on how to make a more compelling case for including grains within the vision of the “recaptured garden.” I suppose this is a question about possible rhetorical strategies, because it seems that many people who are otherwise sympathetic to re-localization and the idea of a small farm future want to part company at this point (and I think that says something about the ways in which we have gotten ourselves into a corner in the cultural and psychological sense.) Thanks!

    [Resilience comment, in reply to earlier comment:]

    “just what ‘growing grains on a garden scale’ means is beyond my comprehension”

    I think growing grains on a garden scale is entirely conceivable, and I would add that it is quite easy to do and well worth the doing. The late Gene Logsdon wrote an entire book on the subject, and Will Bonsall of the Scatterseed Project has written about it as well. Lots of youtube videos are out there as well.

    All you need are a couple of 150-200 sq.-foot rows of wheat or oats interspersed among the other annual garden beds, and you will have enough grain for dozens of loaves of bread (plus free straw mulch and most of the soil-building benefits of a cover crop). I recommend spreading some good-quality wood ash to provide potassium for stem strength and prevent late-season lodging. (Keep the nitrogen-rich poultry manure for the tomatoes).

    Also worth mentioning is the exciting work of John Letts and others at the Heritage Grains Trust. Emmer and Einkorn are two increasingly popular varieties of heritage wheat, and they are remarkably easy to grow on a very small scale. They are far more nutritious than commodity wheats, and they are also far more resistant to drought and fungal diseases that will almost certainly impact world food supply in the coming decades.

    Yes, there is some labor involved in the harvesting and processing of home-grown wheat (a bit more with most heritage grains). I personally enjoy the work on many levels. I sometimes think the joy of self-provisioning needs more publicity than the how-to details…

    • Thanks for that Derrick. I have to admit that I rarely read the comments under my, or other, Resilience posts due to social media overload and my inclination to prioritize discussion here. But thanks for posting over there!

      The resistance to backyard grain growing is indeed a little odd. Plenty of people are happy to grow backyard potatoes and of course many other things that are grown at scale, but grains always seem to be a sticking point …

      I must admit that I haven’t really mastered backyard grains myself, despite messing around with it for years. Processing is certainly an issue, though this is surely in large part just a matter of building demand for small-scale equipment (I remember once harvesting my wheat with a pair of scissors, while the farmer next door was combining his…) Seed availabilty is another issue. But I’m confident this will be my breakthrough year 🙂

      Indeed publicizing the joy of self-provisioning seems to me increasingly of the essence…

      • Well, a pair of Fiskars is truly mightier than the combine! (So long as you keep the blades sharp and keep snipping away at it for ten hours straight… 🙂 )

        There are lots of cool things out there for small-scale grain harvesting and processing. I’ve custom-fitted a cradle on my scythe, inspired by a fellow over there in England who posted a series of youtube videos, and there are adaptations you can make even to a simple food mill that expedite the de-hulling and processing pretty dramatically. It’s nice to be able to mill flour on demand, which of course preserves a large amount of nutrients in the grain. And then there are the distinctive flavors…

        Good luck with your grain growing experiment! I am growing several non-commodity grains this season in addition to Emmer and Einkorn and would be happy to send you some seed if you can’t find any.

        I recently read John Letts’ piece in The Land on continuous grain cropping, and now I’m all fired up about the cause. What an inspiration he is.

        And on the theme of pastoralism, I never worry too much about lodging of my grains or not having the time to harvest and process. My milk goats and chickens will happily process them for me, and they don’t care whether it was planted as a cover crop or meant for bread. There are no real failures on my present small farm, and very little waste “on animal farm…” (segue to Kinks song)

        Looking forward to your next post. Take care!

    • It’s definitely the processing that puts me off. That and the rodents — the allotment cats do their best but I can imagine heavy losses to mice and rats given what they do to our other crops.

      That said, I’m planning on growing some quinoa this year. Not so good for baking as wheat, but the saponins apparently put the birds off, and I figure I can handle soaking and rinsing. I’ve considered growing some maize for drying and grinding (rather than eating on the cob as sweetcorn) but I’m not sure about varieties adapted to this latitude, and importing seed brings its own problems (plus, on the allotment, there are cross-pollination issues with corn). And we’ve had two “I’ve never known the site to flood this badly!” years in a row, and I’ll admit I have wondered at times if I should be growing rice rather than attempting to raise the level of the plot with massive additions of (free, delivered to the allotment car park) woodchips.

      But really the issue is that I don’t want to give up the space I currently devote to squash, tomato and bean varieties which are impossible to buy other than as seed, and taste ten times better than what comes from the shops. It’s possible the same might apply to wheat, of course, but at the moment flour is still relatively affordable and keeps relatively well, and the 150 square feet you mention would be getting on for a quarter of my available annual growing space. Maybe if we take on a second allotment…! (I’ve joked that I would like a second allotment just for winter squash. Other members of my household rightly suspect that it’s only half a joke.)

      I think part of the issue with grains, then, is that people mean different things by “garden-scale”. To start out with I would want to grow maybe two square metres, though one would be more realistic; I don’t know whether the yield in that case would be worth it, but it’s an amount of space I’d be willing to tie up to find out. The problem then is that sorting out specialist tools for a comparatively small harvest isn’t cost effective, especially as I then have to store those tools for the rest of the year when they aren’t in use. Winnowing is probably doable with a couple of buckets — we are not short of wind at the plot — but I’m not at all sure about threshing, or drying the grain properly for storage. The only way I can see it being anything other than an amusing, expensive, labour-intensive experiment is if I could convince some other allotment holders to do the same, and share equipment. And I’m probably more open to the idea of self-provisioning grains than most!

      I’ll have a look at the various projects you’ve mentioned, all the same.

      • Thanks, Kathryn! I love when our talk of big-picture questions (the history of civilization, etc.) gets mixed in with practical how-to matters. I think you have captured many of the motives and reservations about garden-scale grain growing that I have heard even from those who take the idea seriously enough to give it a hearing (and maybe a try). If I may, I’ll just say a couple of things in reply…

        — I do think scale matters in all senses, and I don’t think it always makes sense to grow wheat or oats or rye at the scale of a small garden plot, except perhaps as a cover crop. (I love winter wheat for soil building…) You can certainly harvest wheat with a sickle (or scissors, I suppose!). But harvesting goes much faster if you are swinging a scythe, and one obviously needs a minimum amount of clearance for the swinging. So maybe there is a minimum space requirement that needs to be acknowledged, and “garden scale” with regard to wheat means something like farmstead/homestead. (I love the semantic ambiguity of “garden,” but space matters and there are distinctions to note all along the scale.)

        — Yes, quinoa and amaranth are fine grain crops, although herbicide-wielding commercial farmers are sometimes appalled to hear that people like you and I plant these crop weeds in our garden (and have a fondness for lambsquarters as tasty greens)! As you know, the protein content of amaranth is quite high. My one reservation about growing it is that it does not serve multiple default functions — i.e., I like to be able to feed to my animals any crops that I do not get around to eating myself. And the saponins, etc. in amaranth/quinoa that you note in your post have anti-nutrient effects that make it impossible to use as chicken feed (unless you go to the trouble of heating the seed in the oven — which is where I decide it’s not worth the trouble). But for humans, amaranth is well worth growing and in my opinion has almost as much aesthetic vertical appeal as sunflowers in the garden.

        — Root crops like potatoes (and jerusalem artichokes) can be easier to keep over the winter vis a vis mice and birds. I love growing potatoes, and I love not having to use fungicides or other chemicals in my high-yielding garden plot. I get the sense that some people have almost the same attitude toward growing potatoes in the garden as they have toward the idea of growing grains; tomatoes and basil make sense, but for some reason potatoes and grains and other staple crops have different connotations. Small Farm Future has an interesting chapter that reviews the bad reputation that potatoes came to have in Europe (the famous lines of William Cobbett on potatoes being “the root of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery.”) But while I love growing potatoes as much as their blight-prone cousin tomatoes, and while potatoes do not need processing beyond air curing, it must be said that potatoes do not add organic matter to the soil or build soil tilth the way annual grains do. I would also add that in North America potato growing is not altogether labor-free. For several weeks during the season, my fingers are stained orange from picking off the eggs and young of the Colorado potato beetle. (Do you have them over in the UK? How about squash vine borers? I hope you have not made their acquaintance…)

        — You mention growing corn, which has gotten a lot of bad rap as the commodity grain but is still a great crop to grow at the garden scale. Corn does cross easily, as you point out, sometimes crossing legal paths with Monsanto varieties. Wheat varieties have the advantage of NOT crossing, or at least not easily, and that means you can grow several different varieties within close proximity and not worry about seed saving. Grain biodiversity and resilience are also important bigger-picture issues, and right now the economics of commodity grain production means that this genetic diversity needs to be promoted and sustained mostly by small-scale growers working at the margins. (John Letts makes this important point.)

        — May I also throw in a word for hybrid chestnut trees as a perennial “grain crop”? Chestnuts are low in protein but remarkably high in carbohydrates for a tree nut, and they make a fine substitute for many other flours. Planting chestnuts is not something you would do on a small allotment, but I do think they are worth planting as long-term investments in the future. It’s always good to have backups on hand. Mixed use = greater diversity = greater security. (I almost think “A Mixed-Use Farm Future” would be a better title for the book, but it doesn’t roll off the tongue as well…)

        Good luck on the allotment this year!

        • Thank you for the response, Derrick, there’s lots of practical stuff here for me.

          Jerusalem artichokes — I’m still deciding where to put the patch, but I definitely intend to grow these. I’ve read that scorzonera (black salsify) can also be grown as a perennial root here, so will probably give that a try, too.

          I’ve planted 71 seed potatoes this year, some blight resistant, some not. For around two fifths of those, I’m experimenting with a “no dig” method involving putting the potatoes into the soil, then topping up with lots and lots of woodchips (with some purchased organic pelletised chicken manure to prevent too much nitrogen robbery, since I failed to manage a legume cover crop). It will be interesting to see whether the ease of harvesting given by woodchips as a substrate is balanced by possible yield issues and the greater accessibility of the tubers to mice; and while the potatoes themselves don’t add anything to the soil, giving
          the woodchips a head start on breaking down isn’t terrible. This is is only low labour because the woodchips get delivered for free, though. We don’t get many Colorado potato beetles in the UK, no squash vine borer to speak of either that I know of.

          We aren’t allowed animals on the allotment, and it’s just far enough away that even if we were allowed to keep a few chickens, getting there every day to check on them would be a struggle. So I really have no worries about not being able to feed quinoa to my animals. All waste organic material gets composted, some hot and some cold, as we try to build up the soil to stop the plot flooding so badly. So one of the things that appeals to me about grains is the long stems…

          I am pondering a patch of winter wheat on the (currently designated) tomato bed come autumn. There are some mixed variety landrace-type things available, which might be a good bet on our heavy clay, and the bed is well above this year’s flood line. I’m thinking of something like sowing an annual cover crop (buckwheat maybe?) under the tomatoes in mid-summer to reduce rain splashback spreading blight, then when the tomatoes are done, cut everything down and leave it there, then sow some wheat. I’d need to choose a cover crop that doesn’t inhibit germination, or cut it down a few weeks before sowing the wheat. The timing could be iffy; some years we’re still harvesting tomatoes well into October in the back garden, though the allotment is cooler. By early November we’ve lost most of the useful light and everything slows right down even if the weather is mild. I’ve seen online recommendations of threshing by putting the grain in a linen bag and thwacking it against a brick wall, or treading on it with boots, so maybe I’m in with a chance. If I can’t grind it, I can always cook it like rice. I’ll do some more research before committing, though…

          I don’t own any land at all that I could plant chestnut trees on. I do forage chestnuts from trees in London parks some years, and find that they are pretty variable depending on the weather. I never really got the hang of peeling them, but Martin Crawford of the Agroforestry Research Trust suggests that drying them first makes this easier; I might give it a try. They are certainly tasty, at any rate.

          And yes, I agree re: diversity and security. This is also part of why I tend to grow lots of varieties of what I do grow. As I get to know the site I’ll have a better idea of what works well there — I’ll always find a use for varieties that can put up with a bit of wind, for example.

  9. Kathryn, you sound like a kindred spirit! I love to hear about what people like you are doing and trying out. I believe the thread we have created is fully relevant to the idea of growing grains and other staple foods in a recaptured the garden, and I hope I am not overstaying my welcome with one more reply. (Our benevolent moderator will decide!)

    “If I can’t grind it, I can always cook it like rice.” Yes: Emmer wheat is one example of an ancient farro grain, which means that you can grind it into flour OR easily cut out that step and cook it up like rice or quinoa. It has a lovely nutty flavor/texture, and there are many recipes out there for cooked Emmer wheat with summer veggies.

    I am pretty ignorant about growing rice in a temperate climate, although many people do it… it would be interesting to hear from others about how it is done on a small scale.

    Gene Logsdon seems to have had a fondness for growing buckwheat; he dedicated a portion of his garden to what he called his “pancake patch.”
    I am not too big on pancakes and have only grown Buckwheat as a summer cover crop/insect attractor, filling a nice late-summer niche after the harvesting of garlic and onions. I must say that planting it alongside tomatoes for the reason you state may not be the best idea. Buckwheat is slightly allelopathic, though its root exudates do not have the powerful stunting effects of rye. And while buckwheat forms a nice protective canopy over bare soil, I don’t think it would grow well in the shade of tomato plants.

    If you are looking for nitrogen fixation and protection from rain splash, I would consider planting hairy vetch in the Fall and lightly tilling it in just before you transplant your tomatoes. (You can also do the same with Spring-planted field peas.) The root nodules of vetch will give a slow release of nitrogen to the tomatoes. A good mulch of grass clippings over the cut-down vetch is probably the best way to protect foliage from being splashed.

    Many people intercrop corn with clover planted in the early Spring, the clover slowing its growth in the shade of the corn and then taking off after harvest to replenish nitrogen for the following season. John Letts seems to be doing something similar with continuous grain cropping, adapting the well-known model of Masanobu Fukuoka.

    I would love to hear how your potatoes do this year with the wood chips, especially since tying up nitrogen is not such a big deal with potatoes. I remember one year I tried the Ruth Stout “no work/no dig” method, tossing seed potato onto the surface and covering with a canopy of coarse straw. The voles gave the Ruth Stout method very positive reviews. 🙂

    I look forward to hearing more from you in the future! Let’s see where Chris takes this conversation with his next post…

    • One more garden scale grain comment? I think I know of the gent that Derrick is referring to. Stephen Simpson. He has excellent info that is the right scale for an allotment. Here is a link to my description of homestead scale processing, but the link to his youtube videos is there.

      And back to Chris’ main point, grains should only be part of a well balanced diet. Our garden has around twenty-five different veggies. We harvest food from several tree types, and more are maturing each year. The scale of transitioning our food systems back to more diversity is massive, but the pandemic caused a huge surge in gardening this past year, seeds were in short supply, so maybe awareness has bumped up a notch. A million gardens here, a million gardens there, pretty soon you’re talking real acreage.

      • That’s the gent! Thanks, Steve. I love the videos he has posted. Hats off to you, Stephen, if you are reading this…

  10. Thanks for keeping the discussion going while I’ve been somewhat offline. I’m very happy to host conversations & links to practical matters – keeping together big picture politics and small picture ecology is something I’m more than keen to do.

    Not an awful lot to add to the discussion of garden-scale grains. Gene Logsdon’s book is great, but needs a little translating into British terms on this side of the ocean. On super-small scales, I think a lot of the processing issues disappear – but I’d definitely like to look into homestead scale kit at some point. Derrick makes a good point about the superior soil-building properties of cereals over potatoes, though I’d incline to the view that this might be more of a problem at broadscale than at garden scale. I only tried growing buckwheat for grain once, though I’ve often grown it as a green manure. Unfortunately the deer got it. It’s also rated for its phosphate cycling properties – any views on that?

  11. Perhaps time to move on to other conversations, but I will throw out an answer to your question on buckwheat — yes, the evidence is pretty clear that buckwheat “fixes” significant amounts of plant-available phosphorus (and some calcium). Buckwheat therefore has an important role, since rock phosphate fertilizer (as we all know) is a finite resource. Phosphorus also leeches into water systems quite easily if it is not tied up in stable forms at root level; I live near one of the Finger Lakes in upstate New York, and nutrient runoff is a major ecological problem (phosphorus, not nitrogen, is the chief culprit with lake-level eutrophication and algae blooms, etc.).

    Buckwheat is a great summer cover crop in part because its rapid growth allows it to be squeezed in between summer harvest and Fall planting. I sometimes plant two rounds of buckwheat back to back (in 6-8-week cycles from germination to setting seed). Another very attractive feature of buckwheat is that its tiny blossoms attract parasitic wasps, which do a lot of work in the garden keeping unwanted pest populations in check. (As a green manure, however, I would give buckwheat a low rating … it is fairly insubstantial and almost melts away on the surface once it has been cut down.)

    Forgive me if I am preaching to the choir! There are multiple benefits to planting grain crops, and there are so many differences between members of this family that I think are worth appreciating. The notion of “stacked functions” is not widely appreciated by the general public, and grain cover crops — grown at the right scale, in mixed-use settings — certainly have a place in a post-monoculture, small farm future.

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