It’s been 35 years since I dug my first lazy-bed. After just two years teaching in an Inner City London Comprehensive school I’d had enough: friends were dropping out, tuning in, and getting back to the land. My friends had chosen a Bally-Go-Backwards little place in mid West Cork. It was my home for a couple of years – little cottages with no running water but lots of land.
The first thing we did was get up a lazy-bed. Digging one today brought it all back. Turning in the grassy sod to the centre is the method. Pile on the manure in the middle – then cut and heave the turf-sod to cover it. It’s all pegged lines and squares of heavy grass-turf. I miss the turfing-iron we had then: it cut so sweetly. But there’s nothing lazy about it: the word may have come from ‘laissez’, or fallow pasture.
* A * B * C * D *
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You spread squares B and C with manure/seaweed/compost – then fold squares A and D over onto squares B and C, grassdown. The sprouted seed-potato is inserted down the middle about a foot apart, and a few inches of soil from the A and D channels is heaped on top. More soil then is hilled up every month, plus some nutritious mulch if you have it.
It’s known as ‘run-rig’ in Scotland, and the practice was widespread throughout the northern lands, where sun was scarce and water too abundant. By breaking into grassed-over pasture, disease and blight were avoided. By hilling-up a raised ridge-bed, sun and wind were allowed in to warm and dry the bed. By earthing-up from the channels either side of the bed, drainage and soil-tilling were achieved. It was an efficient practice – until fashions changed in the early 18th. century, and level-beds and animal-power came to the fore.
For me it was a revelation. For the first time in my life I felt I was performing a function that fitted my body. I’m not big-built but I have big hands and a muscular body. None of this had been called on as I plodded through school and university. It was not a moment too soon: I could have lost what were actually the most precious elements of myself by staying on in teaching – become a flabby clock-watcher, with soft hands and a bad back. I’m close to 60 now, but my hands are hard and my stomach flat – and more important – I have a clear and beady eye on what is coming and what I can do about it, here and now in the garden.
Compared to flat fields, according to both researchers and farmers, the lazy beds yield more per acre with greater consistency. Lazy beds reduce gardeners’ labor time and raise the yield per acre. One year when we went to great lengths to count and weigh everything carefully, Main Brook and Conche gardeners harvested an average of 353 kilograms of potatoes from an average garden only 193 square meters in size, after investing 54-67 hours total in labor and from nothing to $78 total in cash. This yield – in a region notorious for poor farming within a province importing many of its potatoes – is more efficient with land and labor than some subsistence potato farmers elsewhere in the world. (Omohundro 1994).