“And as he was sowing, some seed fell along the path, and the birds came and devoured it. Some fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil. They sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun rose, the seedlings were scorched, and they withered because they had no root..."
So says Matthew 13:5. I’m probably missing the point but, in my experience, seed can do pretty well in stony ground; far from withering at the first challenge, the adversity can give strength and resilience lacking in those pampered by an easy start in life. My issue with stones is a practical one; those stones make for hard work and a lot of machinery repairs when it comes to cultivating, weeding and harvesting vegetables. So much so that veg-growing visitors from the flat, largely stone-free east of England, and the even flatter Holland, invariably think we are mad to even attempt to coax a crop from such steep, thin, stony fields.
On the plus side, the slopes do drain well, allowing us to get on our south-facing fields early – and the stones allow the soil to warm faster in the sun and maintain an open structure, facilitating water percolation and air movement. I am also convinced that the slight challenge, and perhaps the minerals released as the stones weather, make for healthier crops, better flavour, and (I hope to be able to prove one day) more nutritious food.
I also have a fondness for the stones’ variety; somehow the contortions of tectonic plates, erosion and a meandering river have given us a mix of smooth, rounded granite (river pebbles, as the previous farmer called them), limestone, slate, and some I can’t identify. The shapes and colours tell a story in our farm walls, that were all made from the land’s own stones, mostly built in the 19th century but created over countless millennia.
Last year, I bought a fancy Italian machine to weed my artichokes; within an hour we had broken it. As children, my four siblings and I would spend hours with our father filling trailers with stones by hand – and every year, the plough would bring up more.
Enough of our folly. I am writing this while watching a stone picking machine through a cloud of dust, as it rakes and sieves out a tonne of stone every minute. All I need to do now is sort out the thieving birds of Matthew’s story, or in our case rabbits; after their 60-year pandemic of myxomatosis, they are back with a vengeance.