“Plants and people – Google garden”

puutarhakuva

In the beginning of 2014 we decided to start growing food in Mustarinda. In other words, it became a farming project. 

After spending two summers in Mustarinda I decided to take advantage of the opportunity, changed my mind about becoming a hermit in a hut and chose to build a communal garden instead. The shortness of the growing season on one of the snowiest hills in Finland makes the place perhaps the most challenging of all for growing food – but at least all city dwellers were guaranteed an authentically character-building experience.

In addition to producing food and learning how to maintain a garden our aim is to find out – also physically – how much energy it takes to grow one’s own food. In the spring 2014 we started off by finding out about the traditions of the area; however, the central aim of the project is also to learn by doing and to invent something new. 

The purpose of the garden is to raise the level of Mustarinda’s self-sufficiency. Full self-sufficiency isn’t at the moment feasible, as the house isn’t inhabited all year round, and it’s impossible to estimate next year’s need for food. 

During the first year we organised an international volunteer camp at Mustarinda; in addition, the resident artists and trainees helped us to maintain the garden. We sowed and planted species which thrive in the north: root vegetables, beans, peas, cabbages, salads and herbs. We also learned to pick and make use of not only berries and mushrooms but also wild vegetables and other natural produce. 

We cultivate our garden without oil-based fertilisers, organically. We aim to organise the nutrient cycle as locally as we can.

A wooden frame which had once formed the artwork Museum of Dead Trees in a clearing was given a new lease of life as a greenhouse. The greenhouse was also provided with a mosquito-free extension, which added considerably to our enjoyment of summer.

During the summer, I added the most important gardening tips to mustarindagarden.wordpress.com blog. 

* * *

As a basic need, food is a central topic every day. It is also discussed with some emotion, and food trends flow through social media in a never-ending stream.

The production of food is the biggest industry on our planet. People are still looking for a solution to global problems concerning the uneven distribution of food, from famine to waste. More problems are added by the seasonal uncertainty brought on by global warming, the pollution of soil, erosion and the lack of fresh water, the extinction of pollinators, and the rise in the price of fertilisers and transport caused by the rise in the price of oil. The solutions offered to these problems aren’t completely unproblematic, either. 

As the chains of meaning are obscured, I have found it the best solution to find out and learn how to live ’outside the system’. 

I got ideas for the planning of the garden by taking a two-year basic course in Environmental studies. I have also done voluntary work throughout the summer season in different gardens; last year was for me the first summer ‘in one place’. 

I studied the combining of theory and practice during the spring sowing in Valtimo in the first week of May at the farm of Lasse Norlund and Maria Dorff, who live quite self-sufficiently. The things we discussed during and around our work in the garden are a part of the dream I have for the Mustarinda garden, too. 

* * *

During our first summer of gardening at Mustarinda we began to find out how small farmers from Kainuu have traditionally grown their food. We got information and stories from the former teacher and pupils of Paljakanvaara school and the people of the surrounding area. We learned that in the place of Mustarinda’s garden there had been a kitchen garden and a potato plot when the building was a school. When the snows melted, we found out to our delight that the plot of land was still in very good soil at places. 

In our pursuit of a post-fossil way of life we abandoned the idea of borrowing our neighbour’s tractor to turn the field. Also, renting a part of a professional greenhouse in order to maximise the production of food wasn’t an option.

One of the options would have been to plough the field by horse, but there weren’t any competent workhorses available in Northern Kainuu. Using a horse would have also blurred the chain of meaning. As one of our main ideas was to produce physical experiences amid the information overload on how much it takes to produce one’s own food from zero, we attacked the field with the help of borrowed hoes made by our neighbour the smith.

* * *

A remarkable amount of oil was used in order to get the labour force to our garden. In the spring, we considered for a long time whether it made sense to organise an international workcamp from the point of view of the project’s ecological footprint. In the end, we had seven international volunteers to help us for two weeks in late May – early June. Because of the camp, at least there are now enthusiastic roof gardeners and composters in Mexico. 

In mid-May, I melted the last of the snow from the field with the help of ash. At the same time, the ashes helped to reduce the acidity of the soil which has a coniferous forest base.

During the workcamp we fixed Mustarinda’s kitchen compost and built new composts for garden waste. In addition to the composted soil we add to the field, the growing power of the soil is enhanced with crop rotation, in which plants which fix nitrogen and improve the texture of the soil are placed in the same bed at a few year intervals. In the rotation process, the changing of the planting places also stops the spread of soil-carried diseases and the transmission of pests to the same species next year. In pest control and fertilisation we use companion plants and self-made plant-based mixtures and fermented liquids. We also plan to renovate the outhouse, which is a crucial element in the cycle of nutrients. 

In the nutrient cycle it’s also elemental that the organic matter used for food is replaced, and that the soil remains nutritious.

* * *

Although it’s important to understand how things have been done in the past, it’s not our intention to be trapped by tradition. In the future, we mean for instance to apply more of the principles of permacultural farming. 

Permaculture refers to the planning of a constructed environment through respecting nature. The term comes originally from the words permanent agriculture; it has, however, been adopted by other areas of planning, for instance ecology, architecture and town planning. 

Permaculture endeavours to develop ways of farming which don’t drain the soil and make it unfarmable through for instance the exploitation of nutrients, condensation or erosion. In practise, this means designing the locations of different elements and their relations to be as efficient as possible. In a garden we can for example grow perennials or use mulch or permanent raised beds. The idea was first developed in the mid-seventies by the Australians Bill Mollison and David Holmgren. The basis of permacultural farming comes from the teachings of indigenous peoples. 

There are many ideas in permacultural farming which can be applied to the conditions of Kainuu. For instance, we built a version of a herb spiral which rises towards the centre. To the horror of those generations who have spent their lives removing stones from their fields, we used a pile of rocks from the far end of the garden to line the bed. The lining stones store heat and help keep the bed intact. At the top of the herb bed we planted those perennial herbs which thrive in dry conditions; the shadier part of the spiral was reserved for plants which don’t enjoy sunshine. 

There are many similarities between permaculture and the traditional Finnish natural economy, and it’s my goal to come up with the perfect combination of these elements for Mustarinda’s garden. At the moment, however, self-sufficiency or permaculture alone aren’t fit for the title of the project. 

* * *

Gardening brings to Mustarinda more of the ’field research’ which I’ve longed for, and also some meaningful practical activity. Nowadays there’s an endless (and easy) supply of information, which can’t all be internalised. Often, the mere re-organisation of information leaves us cold. Nothing needs to be remembered, as it can be re-checked online. In the flood of information it becomes important to know how values and meanings are born, and how for example people’s thinking can be influenced. 

Experientiality, and informal (common) activity seem to maintain their magic. Instead of reading endless books and blogs on gardening, it’s priceless to have someone show you how things are done. Sometimes, it’s also the case of just having someone say, ‘Google how it’s done, and do it.’ At its simplest, the purpose is to plant potatoes, not to observe or theorise on the basis of what’s been written about potatoes. 

The societal model based on specialisation doesn’t work on fields during the busiest periods. Securing the food supply for next winter is more important than philosophising. A few hours of physical, fundamentally sound work in the open air can also help in the forming of new ideas. If we talk about the experientiality of energy, and people’s alienation from where things come from, information should also stem from the physical work itself. 

* * *

Compared to learning knowledge, learning practical skills is easy: when you know how to do something, the skill stays with you for the rest of your life. It’s of course possible to refine your skills by varying the angle of limbs, the order of tasks, the connection of tools and materials. There’s also a challenge in teaching your skill. 

During the workcamp we made little progress in learning together. People are often so institutionalised – perhaps as a result of long studies – that they need an authority to be able to function. Mustarinda, however, is often a very different kind of working environment: people come here with the motivation to work. As an inexperienced teacher it surprised me that many volunteers didn’t share their ideas openly, or weren’t interested in sharing the things they had learned with others. 

Although I had to tell the volunteers each morning that tools need to be picked up from the shed, and tried to trick them into understanding the purpose behind the work, we also experienced some wonderful moments of insight in the garden. The volunteers made new friendships; we turned about an acre of land for a vegetable patch. We finished the sowing by Midsummer. According to the feedback, everyone was very happy with the workcamp, and I’m sure we all learned a lot. The blog has images and stories also on the founding of a garden.   

By ending up leading the volunteer camp, I rose in the Mustarinda ‘hierarchy’ to the position of a specialist, as I become more and more useful in the teaching position. Instead of wielding a shovel myself, I spent my days looking for and fixing tools, overseeing the work and planning and gathering materials for lessons. At the same time I lost touch with the physical dimension I was looking for. 

I’m not yet a seasoned garden-founder, and I had been hoping to spend more time in the garden. In that way I could have concentrated on the work itself and observing in peace. 

The gardening project has taught me a lot about plants, but also about people, and how to work with them. 

The project has also opened a door to interaction with locals: it’s often easier to ask for advice on how to sharpen a scythe than to talk about contemporary art. Yet, I’ve also had my share of prejudice. 

There were a record number of locals at Mustarinda’s first Helajuhla celebration in May. Conversation flowed over traditional foods and bonfire. We organised a walk to see wild vegetables and received good gardening tips. The general wish was that Mustarinda’s Helajuhla would continue the old tradition of mid-May celebrations. 

* * *

Growing food without artificial fertilisers is a long process, and one summer doesn’t yield many results. It’s necessary to learn the growing conditions of one’s chosen plot; it also takes many years to enhance the soil. 

In spring 2014 I attended a discussion event on an anarchistic gardening project, which openly pondered what went wrong with their experiment. The biggest reason for people’s lack of motivation in their case was that the participants didn’t learn to understand the chain of cause and effect because they weren’t present at all stages of the project. 

For the time being Mustarinda isn’t meant for year-round habitation: all inhabitants are only visitors there. Because of this the garden plot should be seen more as a laboratory. 

Personally, I would be interested in growing food in a place where I could also live with other people over a number of years. Time will show whether that kind of place will be in Kainuu, or somewhere else. 

* * *

During the first year, I experimented on what kinds of species should be grown, and which plants would be easy enough to look after. We enjoyed the produce of the garden already in the first autumn. There were plenty of root vegetables, peas and beans, herbs and cabbages. Next year we’ll need to try pre-growing root vegetables so that they’ll be big enough in the autumn. 

In the summers to come, a well-tended compost will be nutritious. Because of raised beds and crop rotation, turning the earth won’t be so strenuous. The garden could also be bigger: all the food it provides will definitely be eaten. Perhaps in the future we’ll end up growing plants which are suitable for making biofuel. 

Out of the produce of the garden, and the wild vegetables collected from nearby we volunteers prepared a fantastic five course Harvest dinner.  

It would be useful to spend more time distributing information on the project, but after a day spent out of doors, it’s often difficult to sit down quietly in front of a computer. 

During the first year, the weather conditions weren’t favourable: on Paljakanvaara only July and August were completely snow-free. It would be great to get a greenhouse which would make use of the waste energy from the Mustarinda energy system; this would make the growing season significantly longer. 

The next spring sowing will be done by the people of Mustarinda in May. 

* * *

In Mustarinda, the otherwise ’untouched’ nature has been looked at from the point of view of profit in the gardening project. The work with different species and the surrounding ecosystems in a way deepens one’s understanding of and connection with the environment. Yet I hope that I can still walk on Paljakanvaara without seeing just gardens, herbal infusions and resin salve ingredients. 

It seems that plants do grow without human help. 

 – Pauliina Leikas

* * *

The article was written in spring 2015 and it’s published in Mustarinda 2015 – Jälleenrakennus -magazine.

To read:

Nordlund, Lasse & Maria Dorff. Foundations of Our Life
http://www.ymparistojakehitys.fi/susopapers/Lasse_Nordlund_Foundations_of_Our_Life.pdf
Kaihovaara, Riikka. 2012. Riippumaton puutarha. Vihreä sivistysliitto.
Lehtonen, Ulla, 1984. Ullan mullat: opas luonnonmukaiseen kasvisten viljelyyn ja asumiseen + other books.

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