One of the first principles that I learnt, when I completed a Permaculture Design Course, was to Observe and Interact. I’ve heard of many projects taking a year to observe their land, and a year is what you need to watch a full change of the seasons. I’ve also heard of lots of projects taking less time, but still making sure that they do lots of observation and thinking, before they jump in the deep end and build anything that they would later want to move.
I moved to my new home in Tavistock two months ago, and I specifically bought it because it gave me the biggest garden that I could get with my budget. As an end of terrace cottage, the garden is three times bigger then the other cottage’s gardens. I have one of 66 Duke of Bedford cottages, built in parallel terraces in 1850, to home the miners and their families. Each one comes with a piggery, a kitchen garden, and I’ve recently learnt that they also used to have allocated allotments on the other side of the road. Not surprisingly, the allotments have now been built over!
When I moved in, I base mapped my garden. I sat in it for hours and hours, and wondered around. I met all my neighbours, and made connections with those who had chickens, or fancied growing fruit trees. I asked for help in identifying the species of the mature trees, and I took a soil sample – I put some soil in a jam jar with water, shook it, and left it to settle so that I could see what type of soil I had by the layers of sediment that settled out. I watched the sun and the shade. Preparing myself for the possibility that the lead levels could be high, because I am next to a road, I researched plants that would be safer to grow. I learnt that fruit trees are good at absorbing toxins into their bark, and not so much into their fruit. So I made lists of forest garden species that I fancied eating, and lists of fruit trees that were hardy and native to Devon.
With the offer of a month of help, from a wonderful young lady, I decided to get stuck in after only a month in my home. A little too soon maybe? I made an initial map of what I wanted, but decided not to do anything too drastic. Charlie and I have been working hard. We sent a soil sample off to a lab to be analysed for heavy metals. We built a chicken run all the way along the side of the garden that was next to the road, and built raised beds on the other side. We sifted through a mountain of compost. We planted seeds, and prepared the green house. I guess I figured that if my soil turned out to be too high or low in pH, then I would just add whatever I needed to it, to bring it back into balance…..
I got my soil test back from the lab the other day. Lead is nearly twice the EU guidelines. Zinc is about one and a half times, and copper is nearly twice the guidlines….Big deep breath. Breathing? Arsenic is over ten times the EU maximum safe level (My level is 516.07mg/kg, the EU guideline is 50 mg/kg). I had a glass of wine.
I called the soil scientist, who spoke to me for close to an hour. He told me not to grow food unless it was in containers. Not even fruit trees. He told me to contact my neighbours. I finished my wine, and knocked on some doors. Not many people were in, so this will have to be an ongoing project. One neighbour, Jane, was in her garden, and I sat down with her and had a long chat. She has lived in her cottage for 20 years, and told me that she hasn’t been able to grow anything except trees. She always assumed that the pH was too high. She told me that she had done some research years ago, and found out that the council had done soil tests on the toll house, a building just on the other side of the road. They had found high levels of arsenic in their soil, and it was because back in the day, the people of Tavistock were mining arsenic, and this is where they dumped all of their spoilings (the waste material after the “majority” of the arsenic had been removed). Apparently a lot of land around here is contaminated. I believe that our cottages may have been built on top of arsenic spoilings.
I didn’t sleep, while I tried to process all of this. I have brainstormed everything I think I need to do, such as contacting my neighbours to see who else will do soil tests. I need to contact the council to find out what they know. I need to say yes to the neighbour who offered me an old bath to use for container growing. I need to chuck away the dandelion wine that I was busy brewing.
But maybe there is a light. Maybe there is a reason why I have spent the last month reading a book called Mycellium Running. I’ve been reading it because I wanted to inoculate some logs with mushroom spores, to grow them under a hedge at the end of my garden. I didn’t know that it would teach me all about Mycoremediation – a technique of using specific fungi in mats, spread across contaminated land. Particular fungi thrive on heavy metals. They absorb the metals and can then be picked off, dried, and dealt with in a concentrated form. It’s a new science with an incredible scope for research, but maybe there is a fungi that eats arsenic. I have a lot more reading to do – I found an article about someone who died from arsenic poisoning from eating morels, and another article that my friend Peter sent me on Bioremediation of Arsenic and Selenium. I have no idea what the cost could be, but maybe my arsenic problem is the fungi solution? I have the permaculture tool box at my side.
Any help, advice, and support on this would be appreciated – If you know anyone who might know anything that could help me, please let me know.
I’m still breathing.