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Survival farming in the historic UK

Nick Maclaren nmm1 at cus.cam.ac.uk
Wed May 28 05:44:51 EST 1997

In article <1997May27.123742.17495 at jarvis.cs.toronto.edu>, bae at cs.toronto.edu (Beverly Erlebacher) writes:
|> How about kale?  That's a traditional Scottish veg of the same species
|> as cabbage.  They may have had collards or other loose-heading cabbage
|> forms.  Did they have turnips or turnip greens?  

Yes to kale and turnips, though only the former reliably overwinters.

|> Btw, no reason that heading cabbages couldn't be propagated in that climate.
|> Cabbage is biennial, you just have to overwinter the stumps after you harvest
|> the heads.  If it's too cold to do that in the open, you can bury the stumps
|> or heap earth or straw over them.

I am afraid that you are making a classic mistake that is a FAQ
on uk.rec.gardening!  Cold is NOT the issue.  Here is a summary
of why survival farming was so hard in the UK (and especially in
the Scottish Highlands):

You got the choice of storing seeds hot and dry (near the stove)
or cold and damp - this means that only the toughest (e.g. broad
aka field aka fava beans) will germinate well a second spring or
at all a third one.

If you sow in a warm period and it then turns cold and wet (as it
did this year), the seeds germinate and rot.  I have had complete
(100%) germination failure with some seeds, and 90%+ with several
others.  And I live in a much warmer climate than the Highlands!

If you have a long, cool, wet winter, there is 4-6 months where
even the hardiest plants are not growing, but the bacteria and
fungi are.  This can be mixed with short periods of hard frost
on open ground (i.e. no snow), which causes cell damage and lets
the fungi and bacteria start (but the plants aren't growing, and
so can't heal first).  Cabbages are particularly subject to this.

If there is a warm spell in spring followed by a cold snap with
a wind (as there was 15 years ago), even the hardiest plants can
be killed.  My broad beans survived that year, but produced less
than 20% of their normal crop, and I lost a lot of very hardy

If there is a gale with heavy rain (especially followed by a week
or so of continual rain), it can flatten the crop and cause the
seeds to germinate or rot before they ripen.  This is particularly
serious for cereals, and can cause near-complete (90%+) failure
(as it did some 25 years ago).  Farmers were ploughing in barley
instead of harvesting it.

Forget drought - that rarely causes more than a 50% loss!

Nick Maclaren,
University of Cambridge Computer Laboratory,
New Museums Site, Pembroke Street, Cambridge CB2 3QG, England.
Email:  nmm1 at cam.ac.uk
Tel.:  +44 1223 334761    Fax:  +44 1223 334679

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