While every uber-shed in the countryside contains a ride-on mower, in contrast our equipment of choice is the sycthe.

Edward Budding invented the lawnmower in Stroud just a mile from here, a machine that would put gangs of skilled scythemen out of work the world over. And so scything today is a relic craft. One we are slowly re-discovering, through skill sharing, self teaching and YouTube videos.


Sharpening stones are out for honing the blades. Fingers are feeling the burr and gingerly checking for ‘keenness’. It has been sunshine and heavy showers but Nigel has managed to get the job done with some helping hands.


Why do we scythe? – to avoid chopping up the insect population, huge numbers of crickets and grasshoppers here. Our petrol mower cannot manage waist high grass. The key to good wildflowers is annual cutting and removal of hay to leave low fertility conditions.

When? – from early August onwards having given the wildflowers, especially the orchids time to set seed.

With what? – a Simon Fairlie standard Austrian scythe with wooden handle and 60 cm steel blade. (he is Mr Scythe in the UK).

The hay? – gets placed 15cms deep in wide circles around the bases of trees and hedge plants as a feeding mulch mat.


Then? – once the hay is off we use the mower to run over the meadow and these grass clippings are picked up and used as mulch in the garden.

And then I need a cup of tea and a long lie down!


Stroud is so much fun and full of totally wholesome people. Among my crafty circles we have been knitting for the Wool Against Weapons protest this Saturday – my friend Roma has done 12 metres of pink, I did 1 metre and contributions have been arriving from all around the world. It is making a seven mile long pink scarf for the protest and then we are turning it into blankets for refugees.

pink scarf

The hot topic among the meadow aficionado ladies is Yellow Rattle, and little packets of seed are getting passed around among those of us who ‘do’ grass. Why do we all want yellow rattle in our handbags? Well, it is the ultimate ‘must have’ for the scythwoman’s wildflower meadow – it suppresses coarse grasses and lets the wild flowers flourish. It’s my best friend plant. Yellow Rattle is an annual and I will be sowing it over my wildflower meadow after scything. I mentioned in May that this is the first year I have had the plants in my field, seed having been gifted to me by Sheila last year. The plants have grown well in isolated patches and I have carefully collected a good quantity of seed from these new plants which I can now distribute around. A great result.

I have also been out collecting seeds of cow parsley, greater knapweed, quaking grass and cowslips. This way I can spread round the local seed bank population, rather than bringing in an imported gene pool with commercial seeds. Fine tuned local adaptations/variants are really common in flowering plants. Also fresh seeds are much easier to get to ‘take’ – sprinkled freshly collected from their dispersing pods is what nature intended after all, and this leads to ideal conditions for germination. It reminds me of being a child, collecting little packets of nasturtium and marigold seeds – I have always loved it. I never leave home without a freezer bag in my handbag – I might see some collectable seeds!

Seeds saved wild

It is not illegal to collect wild flower seeds as far as I know, but I never would take them all from a particular place, or from a rare plant. Usually I find I have to wait longer than I expect for seeds to be really mature and ripe. It is no good collecting while they are soft and green, they must be hard and dry. Hence the Yellow ‘Rattle’ when the seeds are ripe they do indeed rattle! It is also known as ‘hay rattle’ and traditionally would have been spread around in hay bales.


If you want to get in touch with where your food comes from then pick up a handful of soil. Although it looks brown it’s alive and living. A whole micro- ecosystem of its own. How could anyone call such a remarkable resource ‘dirt’?

Soils have been a bit of a Cinderella topic, but are currently getting an airing for all sorts of reasons. One is evidence of catastrophic damage to our soils from intensive arable farming, (flooding and runoff leading to soil erosion), and then increasingly the realisation that soils are massive storage systems for carbon on the earth. We need to look after our soils carefully so that they store water and carbon while giving us abundant crops.

Gardeners mostly bat along quite happily without knowing too much about soil. Gardening books usually have sections on soils, but they look dull, complicated, ‘sciency’ and best to flit over!

Soil rain drops

It’s my mission to make this fascinating

One great joy of the Stroud Permaculture Course is that I get the chance to teach the soils topic. It is about understanding something of what makes up a soil, what type it is, how to look after it and more. We learn about soil types, fertility, nutrient sources and feeding crops by organic methods. Applying Permaculture design principles to making food growing systems, caring for the earth and looking after the soil are central to the process.

I have been cajoled (nicely) into leading a walk at Stroud Summer Street Allotments on Sunday July13TH  at 3.00pm., entitled ‘Caring for our Living Soil’. We will be looking at the soil, feeling it, peering into a hole or two hopefully, walking up and down the slope and discussing what’s going on in the soil there. We will find out how fertile the soil is and what the challenges are. I know that in general allotment site soils are always well cared for, and I know how much love Summer Street gets. I’m really looking forward to my afternoon there. (And I hope to see the Silk Weaver’s Plot).

GUEST BLOGGER – Sue from HelpX

I love coming to work in the garden at Tin Bath House. Here there is a sunny Cotswolds hillside simply teeming with life. This is a garden where every little thing you do adds a brushstroke to Helen’s masterpiece. That brushstroke is initially unnoticeable but soon settles into the whole. The garden boundaries are carefully barricaded against deer, rabbits and even badgers and are checked every evening. At the moment the enemy lies within and attention has been turned to the nightly visitations of slugs and snails. Their most recent target has been the young leaves and growing tips of the Pink Fir Apple potato crop. Torchlight patrols with associated squishings and slingings have kept the slimy ones in reasonable control, along with bio slug pellets. If all else fails, then it will be all hands to the beer traps.

Sue HelpX June 14

The next task will be the weeding of the “Olympic” steps which run almost the length of the garden. In a few years’ time they will be bordered by trees and create a vista through to the meadow below. I have painted an image in my mind of a return visit, perhaps in five years’ time, when I will be able to pick a a ripe apricot from the flourishing tree in the front garden and take it to eat under what will by then be the shaded avenue of the Olympic steps. I may even catch a glimpse of a great green bush cricket. Thank you Helen and Nigel for your fine hospitality and friendship and the dream of summers to come.

See – volunteering opportunities around the world.

The Ruth Stout Method Update

For three summers all the hay and grass path clippings from our 2/3rd acre meadow have been brought up into the garden and composted or used as a surface mulch. It must have been several tonnes of organic material, but there is not much sign of it now – odd bits of grassy mulch are hanging around from last year. But it has entered the growing system and having started my veg plot with thin layer of poorish topsoil on a rock base, there is real evidence that the fertility is building up. I can see it in the fact that the soil is darker now and moist, we are seeing plenty of worms and the crops are simply huge – massive spinach leaves, big lettuces, wide broccoli plants – in fact these are the most vigorous vegetable plants I have ever grown! They positively ooze fecundity and abundance. Everything I am growing is prolific. All this shouts at me that there is a natural fertility boom here .

Indeed new gardens like mine, which began from scratch in 2012, take a certain amount of time to settle in and for the natural balance of organic systems to develop. The soil life here was trashed by our digger excavations, but now it should be recovering. I expect to see this evolution continue.

And I have been trying the Ruth Stout method. She bought in hay and used it as a deep mulch on un-dug veg beds. Likewise I have done that with the hay from our field. I am absolutely committed to no dig and to surface mulching, but I find that grass clippings are easier to use than the hay. The problem with hay here is that in our warm damp climate, the seeds of grasses which it bears tend to germinate and become a troublesome nuisance.

Meadow late May 14

The meadow in May

I have been told that if we soak the hay in water for 2 weeks before using it, then that will suppress the weed germination, so we are going to try that.

In fact we have plenty of grass mowings from the paths we cut in the field and these are very easy to use, and relatively grass seed free.

The piles of hay are best used here as mulches on fruit trees, fruit bushes, ornamental trees and shrubs, hedging plants and new trees.

So really the ‘Ruth Stout method’ of hay mulching is not necessary here. I feel that with grass clippings as mulch, comfrey, green manures and composting our kitchen waste I will able to maintain fertility. Like any organic garden mine should be self sustaining. The Ruth Stout model is very useful, but the flaw is that she was ‘buying in’ fertility, by purchasing her hay. Her practises of using surface mulches and no dig gardening are the ones I embrace, and will continue to use here. Taking the heavy labour out of food growing and making it fast and fun are essential for me, and Ruth inspires me to forge ahead undaunted by my physical limitations. She was hopping about growing food well into her eighties!

I certainly will never need to buy in any fertilizers or manures for vegetable growing, as we can collect enough natural fertility from the plants growing around us. Currently cleavers (the sticky bur plant) are an easy catch – they are romping away now, and I pull them up, roll them into big footballs and stuff them into the compost bins.

In addition, I have a notion about my introduction of Yellow Rattle to the hay meadow. It is already species rich, but this parasitic plant suppresses the vigour of grasses and will give the wild flowers an even better run. I have been told that when I get Yellow Rattle well established here, it will really cut down the yield of grass/ hay with the meadow becoming, much ‘thinner’ and more flowery. If this is true, then in time the hay output here will diminish. This is the first year I have established Yellow Rattle – it is growing in scattered patches.

Yellow rattle

My first Yellow Rattle plants

The Big Allotment Challenge

I have to say how much I enjoyed watching the Big Allotment Challenge on television in April and May.

I particularly liked the way it illustrated how much skill, determination, dedication and knowledge is required to produce good food and flowers from the land. Growing your own food is a real commitment.

I enjoyed seeing both sexes tackle flower arranging, and how they took on the ‘floral display’ challenges.

The cooking challenges highlighted how ‘grow your own’ also requires dedication to ‘cook your own’. I spend a great deal of time washing vegetables and then being in the kitchen with them, making interesting things. (This week’s special is dahl soup with spinach in it).

Nigel kept asking me whether I would have been a winner – he’s so competitive! I thought I could have done very well on the growing and flower arranging but would have not been anywhere up to scratch on the cooking and preserving front!

Growing Update

My web log has had a lapse caused by family circumstances, but my story at Tin Bath House continues and I am picking up the threads. I froze through the RHS Malvern Show and Chelsea has gone past in a TV fog.

Our annual cycle of eating is completed and the hungry gap has gone past un-noticed here. In fact we have had to eat quite hard to get through the vegetables we froze last year. Just a few ratatouilles to go! The ‘gap’ here was plugged with ample supplies of cauliflower, kale, chard, perennial broccoli, purple sprouting broccoli and spring cabbages.


Cauliflower – my best ever.

And the new season of eating is well under way, with mange-tout peas coming now from plants started indoors in February and spinach as well in quantity.

Mangetout may 14 sown indoors feb

Mange-Tout Peas