Growing on the Edge

by frankbeswick

Dedicated farmers and gardeners have found a variety of ways to cultivate difficult, marginal land.

Land is divided into prime agricultural land and marginal land. The Britain of green fields that we know is prime land, and it sells for large amounts, way beyond the reach of ordinary people. But marginal land is easier to purchase, though hard to work. As you go further north and west in the British Isles you find that the land is more likely to be marginal, and much of the Western shore of Ireland is marginal, as is much of Scotland beyond the highland line. Yet even poor land has been cultivated.

The Cliff Farmers of Branscombe

In 1966 "Cliffie" Gosling took his donkeys up the cliff for the last time before he acknowledged that his seventy six year old body was no longer fit for the ascent, and as he retired a traditional occupation that had endured over a hundred years was terminated, for there were no young men willing to carry on where their fathers left off. Cliffie was the last of the cliff farmers of Branscombe, farmer-fishermen who tilled the crumbling sandstone cliffs, ever alert to the presence of a shoal that would bring them racing down to their ever-prepared boats to harvest the riches of the sea.

 Cliff farming originated from the need to provide fishermen with an alternative source of income for when weather forbade their going to sea, but a source near enough for them to drop work at a moment's notice to snatch the opportunity of a shoal, whether it be of mackerel or sardines [pilchards in Devonian parlance] or any of a wide range of fish that come close to England's southern shore.] But land near the sea was hard to obtain, so someone had the idea that they could utilize the  steep, sloping and crumbling cliffs, on which they allocated each fisherman a platt, [Southwestern English pronunciation of plot.] These plots were regularly redefined, as cliffs crumbled away and took some plots and their cabins with them. Key to the whole process was the huer, a man with a loud voice on permanent lookout for the signs of mackerel and sardines, ready to boom down the shoreline and the small valleys, "A shoal, a shoal" and the men would race down the sandy paths and rush out to sea. 

The cliff was an extreme environment, but it made for fit men. Vehicles were useless, so men used donkeys to bear the manure and seaweed needed to fertilize the poor quality sandstone soils and ferry down vegetables for market. Cliffie and his mates grew potatoes, that flourished in the moist, warm conditions the south coast, and they and other vegetables were sold at Branscombe market twice a week. The vegetables were all staples, nothing unusual, cabbage, leeks, onions carrots, which grow well in sandy soil, etc. 

Cliffiie was a popular attraction for the children who played on Branscombe beach, for they loved his three donkeys. But the young were keener on tourism than on the arduous task of eking a living from the cliffs, so the edge was abandoned for farming and its cabins, which sometimes housed men for a whole week, given over as tourist lets. Something good died when cliff farming ended. Will it come again? Life goes in cycles, and pressures on food supplies may revive it. Who knows?  

Image courtesy of David Hughes
Branscombe, showing the sloping cliffs
Branscombe, showing the sloping cliffs

Lazy Beds

The long history of Ireland is a tale of dispossession of the native population at the hands of an intruding ruling class. For millennia before the troubled years the Irish had primarily been pastoralists, but the Cromwellian intrusions into Ireland changed things. Land ownership was substantially changed and the old pastoral system became extinct. Irish were pressed into a system whereby they grew potatoes and wheat/barley [which was sold to fund rents] and kept pigs, leaving the potato as the Irish staple.  As population rose, pressures on land intensified, and many Irish were pushed into taking marginal land whose cultivation was a challenge to them. Along the western fringe of Ireland a system of cultivation developed, the lazy bed. 

There is nothing lazy about a lazy bed. Its name derives from the fact that the potato was known by the English as the lazy root, so lazy bed means potato bed. Lazy beds are a form of cultivation particularly apt for the western fringe, where the sea could provide the fertilizer that could compensate for the dreadfully poor fertility of some of the soil. 

There is much land on the Western fringe that is marginal, the soil is thin and acidic, exposed to salty winds that make cultivation poor and arduous. Some soil is rocky. There are soils that are substantially peaty, derived from bog soils, and it was onto these soils that many native Irish were driven by poverty. Lazy beds were an attempt to build soil where there is little of it, and to grow above ground level. 

The technique is to dig a trench two boots wide for as long as you need, even to field length. You then measure three boots width. The next stage is another  trench. The land between the trenches is spread with manure, seaweed and sand, all of which are mixed together. The potatoes and other vegetables are laid within the mixture, and then the sods from the trenches are heaped over the mixture. This technique is then repeated across the whole field. The advantage to the trenches is that cold air settling on the potatoes settles down into the trenches and protects them from frost. The modern potato drill, in which potatoes are grown in long ridges, is a direct descendant of the lazy bed. 

This technique, even if it did not prevent all starvation in Ireland, at least enabled the Western fringe of Ireland to be cultivated and provide a living for some of the population. 


The Modern Edge

Nowadays the Edge for many people is not a remote spot, but a concrete urban environment, in which plants grow less easily than they do on cliffs or seashore. There is also in my home country the shameful spectacle of poorer people having to visit food banks to feed themselves, even though the economy is strong, as it is the rich who are hoarding the gains in wealth that the country has made.  In circumstances such as these people must be as innovative as their rural forebears. 

While growing in pots is well known, there are other ways of utilizing space. We find, for instance, the green wall. This is particularly apt for people who have little horizontal area in which to grow, such as a tiny yard. The technique is to make a trellis that is affixed  to a wall and grow climbing plants, such as vines and beans, upon it. The plants are rooted in a container at the bottom, which is watered from rainwater directed from the roof. The technique of green walls is being developed by some progressive architects and some are now quite advanced, as design has become more sophisticated. 

There is also the green roof. For some people who cannot afford a garden the roof or balcony might be the only space that they have available. Roof gardens are subject to important constraints, as are balconies, for their weight must not exceed the load bearing capacity of the structure, so an inspection by an engineer must be made before any roof or balcony garden above a few small pots is attempted. Soil is a heavy weight, and so such gardens benefit from having light containers. They also need protective netting for some plants, as they are a magnet for birds that will eat certain vegetables, such as cabbages and cauliflowers. 

The edge is land marginal for cultivation, and there are many areas on  mountain and shore which are edge regions, but our urban regions are in some ways more challenging than rural regions, as there are population pressures on growing space, while green spaces are often for recreation and allotment land is in short supply. But people flourish when growing plants, be they for food or ornamentation, and so many of us have an urge to grow things, and such an urge has to be channeled and allowed to flourish rather than be  allowed to wither away in frustration.  

Updated: 05/04/2015, frankbeswick
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frankbeswick on 01/18/2024

They rented the land, but plots were often rearranged to compensate for loss through coastal erosion.

DerdriuMarriner on 01/17/2024

The first subheading, The cliff farmers of Branscombe, has me pondering insecure, unsafe places where people may live.

Might the cliff farmers have owned or rented their land? Might there have been any compensation, private or public, for damaged or destroyed habitations and lands?

frankbeswick on 03/22/2023

They were thought to be very easy to grow.

DerdriuMarriner on 03/22/2023

The second paragraph under your second subheading, Lazy Beds, describes potatoes as being designated as "lazy" roots.

Was it considered easier or more difficult to grow year after year such edibles as potatoes? Why would potatoes be termed as "lazy" roots?

frankbeswick on 10/16/2015

Bear in mind that the population of Ireland has never recovered. It is now just over four million, but in the famine time it was eight million, so the pressures on food were severe. Furthermore, there are areas of the West which are boggy and not rich in edible plant resources, Take Connemara, the land is degraded and is split between thin, acidic soil and bogland. Even relying on farming in that area is not a safe way of life.

frankbeswick on 10/15/2015

I had considered this, but the problem is that you cannot sustain anything like a modern population by forage, which is at best a supplement to cultivation. People did eat from hedgerows, but they are limited and seasonal, with fruit only in Autumn. The Irish have never been averse to poaching, and some did, but transportation could ensue, leaving families worse off if the bread winner was sent to Australia. Salmon are also limited and seasonal, for their lives are most of the time in the sea. Some people scoured land for bog butter, which was often stored in bogs and lost. It is still occasionally found today, but there was not enough of it. Seaweed was eaten by some on the Western fringe, it still is, and shellfish were sometimes taken, but even in the nineteenth century population size was such that mere forage was insufficient.

I will give you the example of the book The Wild Life by John Lewis-Stempel. He lived for a year on his on land in Wales on what he could hunt, fish or shoot, and it was hard to cope, and he was only one relying on it.

Veronica on 10/15/2015

I know that millions died in the famine and millions had to leave their beloved homeland of Ireland. I am Irish by ethnicity and have compassion and affinity for anything Irish. But having spent time there, I am at a loss to see how the people would absolutely starve. The streams are teaming with wild salmon, the loughs are full of eels and fish, the byways and hedgerows are full of blackberries, wild raspberries, there are wild apple trees, pear trees, damsons, wild garlic. Why didn't they feed themselves when the potato failed?

Great article as always.

jptanabe on 10/15/2015

Fascinating! I love the way people find creative ways to use whatever is available.

blackspanielgallery on 07/21/2015

Need is a great motivator. Well presented, and an aid to understanding a land I have not yet visited.

frankbeswick on 05/06/2015

You are quite correct, and you have brought something back to me. When I was four and living in an area of Manchester where the houses were condemned for eventual slum clearance many people had window boxes. But what sticks in my mind was my infant delight when my mother showed me a pea seedling growing in a crack in the paved yard. A single pea, but to a child fascination. Did it inspire my interest? I don't know, but I remember it. That was sixty one years ago.

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