Composting Education

My allotment has always been a source of refuge and inspiration, far more than just growing food. Recently I’ve dug through 18months worth of weeds and grasses to resurrect from near abandonment. A sizeable task that also felt like failure, having to start again after 10 years of graft, growing and slug patrol. But the skimmed off bramble and nettle revealed rich dark layers of goodness. The soil had a memory, year after year of compost, cardboard, grass clippings, mulching, manure, seaweed and kitchen scraps had done their work. Well that’s not strictly true, the microbes and fungi have done theirs. The hidden magicians for every gardener.

The soil culture of my allotment is a memory of the intentional and unintentional past. The weather variations of Cornish mizzle, dry Aprils, cracking summer storms. The activity of worms aerating and mixing, blown seeds germinating, mice, the occasional rabbit! My gardening mistakes and successes, the essential chats with the resident expert, (every allotment group has at least one) Pete was a gem. A life’s wealth of experience and an expert too, national award winning flowers and veg. All of this mingles in the soil, the new layers with the old, networking, making connections in all directions for a rich culture. Even the weeds have their place, the short term opportunists composting down to help the next layer of earthy goodness.

I often think of the similarities between the allotment and education. It literally is my field of study, a place where mind has many places to tether. The better prepared the field the better the fruits of the students’ labour. The challenge is to provide the right soil culture for a student’s root system.

The recent TEF has caused much spin across institutions, the usual sound bites of student centred learning and life long learning are bouncing off ministers and department heads alike with the customary lack of detail, noise instead of actually engaging with the complexity of learning. Having studied at a school of education and life long learning, navigated two OFSTEAD inspections and a QAA visit, lifelong learning has come to resemble a non accountable value judgement on education practice. Grasping smoke with bare hands springs to mind.

Depth and breadth of learning should be the metric of success. Measured at the end of a life not at the start. Completely incompatible with our systemic reliance on instant measurable success criteria, but this doesn’t mean we shouldn’t shift towards them.

Breadth of learning from encouraging the learner to travel sideways through the soil culture. Follow and grow networks across many strata in multiple directions and dimensions. Institutional boundaries and subject specificity have little meaning in this process.

Depth of learning from our own composting systems. Allowing the day to day surface to be fluid, to compost it, recycle and reflect, to build layers of knowledge, theories and practice where experience will eventually be the stuff of worms and microbes supporting our own root structures.

Mini Polytunnel and Strawberries

These strawberries are becoming quite a challenge. Not only do I need enough fruit for at least 50 people, it needs to ripen and ready for picking 2 July. My usual approach of stick it in the ground and see if it grows isn’t going to cut the mustard this time. I’ve built a mini poly tunnel for half of the Marshmallow plants to bring them on early, the other half are outside in pots and my existing plants are now in a bed.

Hopefully with this mixture I have some chance of some plants fruiting at the right time.


Blue water pipe, bamboo and 2"x2" frame for the mini polytunnel.
Blue water pipe, bamboo and 2″x2″ frame for the mini polytunnel.


Complete frame of hazel triangle supports and bamboo lengths
Complete frame of hazel triangle supports and bamboo lengths all held together with white duck tape


Taped together the 2m wide sections of plastic to make a 4m x 6m sheet. Covered the frame and tucked the ends around the door frames with battons and dug in the edges into the trench.
Cut the 2m x 12 m roll of plastic sheet in half and joined with 3″ plastic bonding tape to make a 4m x 6m sheet. Covered the frame and tucked the ends around the door frames with battens and dug the edges into the trench to make it tight.


Complete with strawberries.
Complete with strawberries.


The remaining Marshmallow hardening off in pots with the other plants.
The remaining Marshmallow hardening off in pots amongst the other plants in the new strawberry bed.

Allotment as Laboratory, a slow approach

Autumn Kale ©Tom Ingate
Autumn Kale ©Tom Ingate

Whilst clearing through the beds trying to find the squash and autumn veg I had time to ponder the coming winter and how best to prepare for next year. The summer has been amazing but I’ve little had time up the allotment to keep things in check so the nettles and brambles have moved in, ant nests have mounded up and field mice have well established runs through the long grass safe from owls and the occasional kestrel.

My allotment is small so I tend to use long garden scissors instead of strimming, it takes longer but I like it, it’s partly the point and why allotment time is so important, I rarely get time to think and ponder. Today whilst snipping round the paths, mentally I had redesigned the beds, decided where the bonfire will go, relocated the saplings and considered the best place for a soil sensor. By the time I got to uprooting the cankerous cabbage I had left the future plans of the allotment and was considering the multitude of relationships in the soil in front of me. The microbes, fungi, plants and insects.

I finished the job as the rain came in, the tail end of a hurricane. This really was the quiet before the storm. Deakin describes the pleasure of cutting his meadow with a scythe rather than strimmers. Today I felt the same quiet but I was on my hands and knees with the garden scissors observing all the small stuff.

I’ve decided that my collection of apple trees, veg patch and pond is no longer my allotment but a place of observation, experimentation and thought. It has become my laboratory.

Rog Ur, the apple from Tian Shan

Update on the Ur apple.

The Wild apple is somewhere between a bush and a tree and Rog is certainly bushin’ out nicely.

It’s amazing the growth in just 12 months. This tree started life in a pot under a hedge in Deakin’s meadow.  After a few years under the hedge it was ready to stretch its legs,  and now he’s off.

Still waiting for flowers and fruit but it’s looking very healthy. Not bad for a tree/bush that’s had such a journey.

Extract from Wild Wood by Roger Deakin where he collects the seeds from the Tian Shan.

A very excellent read, not just for tree lovers.

Link: The Guardian review

Link: Google books preview

New Apples for the new Orchard

After a fine collection of seed from the Russet, Tommy Knight and Cornish Mother back in September only four of them germinated. In previous years I’ve had 80% germination so no idea what happened there. So here are the four new members of the orchestra.

The older seedlings are doing well, really need to find a patch of land to turn into an orchard.


Rog Ur, a 12 month check up

It’s just over 12 months since Rog Ur was donated to the orchestra and he’s doing well.

Rog Ur June 2011 and January 2012 © Copyright Tom Ingate 2012 all rights reserved

It’s quite amazing how resilient this little tree is. Traveling from the Tian Shan Mountains as a seed in a pocket. Germinated in a pot under a hedge in Suffolk then planted out in Cornwall. Stunted and root bound Rog Ur almost tripled his branches last year with the majority of the growth coming from near the base. The original whip lost its leaves about a month before the new growth, not sure if this is a bad sign, will have to see what happens this year.



Fruits of the Orchestra, Cider, CO2 & DNA

It’s been a busy few days, drying, storing, preserving and freezing end of season veg from the allotment. The apples are ripe and falling consistently off the trees and the score is slowly coming to an end. But my first thought at sight of all these apples was cider. So with brewing tips from friends in the village, a borrowed press, demijohns and a trip to the local brew shop I set to work making my first batch of appletreeorchestra cider. After much chopping, cleaning, squeezing and mixing with more luck than judgment we managed to make three gallons of apple juice. Added some yeast and like all parents transfixed by a new born baby I was transfixed by my demijohns and the bubbles traveling through the airlock, safe in the knowledge that fermentation was well underway and the cider was alive.

Next years saplings
The first batch of appletreeorchestra cider