It’s March, and most of the prevailing madness at Stonegate Farm these days is focused underground. Besides fretting over tender seedlings in the greenhouse, I’m preoccupied with soil: Top dressing, tilling, broad-forking, sampling. Managing the health and fertility of the land is a strange kind of rural hypochondria, particularly here at the OCD Farm (Obsessive, Compulsive Dirt Farm).
We’re obsessed with dirt because it is mysterious, with a deep and secret life of its own. It’s the most complex and abundant ecosystem on earth; a dark universe of fungi, bacteria and micro-organisms, all interacting with plant roots and rhizomes in a language that’s still arcane to science. In a spoonful of dirt, there are more than a million species of microbes, mostly unknown: a cosmos of dreams beneath your feet.
“I have spread my dreams under your feet / Tread softly because you tread on my dreams” said Yeats.
If I had any issues last season, they were largely subterranean, with soil lacking in certain trace elements or nutrients, with water-logging leading to root-rot on brambles in the orchard, with not having rotated my crops and therefore depleting the soil’s vitality.
Of course, there’s always the usual flotsam the land heaves up in the thaw of Spring: bricks, metal scrap, cistern caps, tires, carriage linkages, not to mention the constant scree of glacial rock that lies reliably just 10 inches below my topsoil. There’s nothing quite as bone-shuddering as hitting a twenty-pound chunk of stone with the business end of a shovel.
It turns out, my farm was, in fact, never farmed. The collection of 19th century outbuildings were all there to support the lifestyle of estate owners. Carriage house, stable, ice house, manger, barn, gate house, greenhouse – all there to make life in the 1850s a pleasure for the patrician class. The cows surely grazed, as did the horses, but the estate’s 35-plus acres were landscaped in a picturesque English style by contemporaries of Andrews Jackson Downing. Meant to be meandered through by carriage, appreciated in evening jackets and jodhpurs, but never plowed under.
So I’ve been breaking new ground, and my metaphorical back, with my compulsion for agricultural order and fertility. And this season in particular, after a Winter spent in the Bavarian countryside just south of Munich, where “ordnung muss sein” (order must be), I’m more determined than ever to reign in the wild and scrappy. Bavaria, with its carefully cultivated farms and fields and charming villages, is postcard quaint; a place where the stewardship and care of agricultural lands is a communal act. If ever there was an argument to be made for agriculture integrated into community, you’ll find it there. If I achieve a fraction of what the Bavarians have accomplished here at Stonegate Farm, I’ll consider this whole OCD experiment a success. -Mb