Lazy Beds

The background behind lazy beds

Lazy beds were the traditional way of growing potatoes in the west of Ireland (Roaringwater Journal, 2021). Lazy beds are often the physical remains of the Great Famine, which began in 1845, and which caused about seven years of emigration, disease, and starvation in Ireland. Another name for lazy beds is ‘potato ridges.’ During famine times, land holdings were extremely small, with around 60% of all families having control of only about one to fifteen acres each (Michigan State University, 2009).

To add insult to injury, during British occupation, landlords required tenants to grow crops on the better land for export. This left the native Irish with little land left for their own domestic use. Instead, they were forced to use land which was not very good to grow their own food, but this land was not suitable for farming. Only the potato was suitable for growing on this land, and the only vegetable that was able to feed a family was the potato (Michigan State University, 2009).

Having said all that, a potato blight—a water mould that causes potato plant disease—swept over Ireland causing potato crops to fail. Starvation ensued, especially here in the west of Ireland. Along with the panic and fear, many hundreds of thousands of Irish died of starvation and disease—often being buried in mass graves—while over a million people tried to escape to America and Britain (Michigan State University, 2009).

The origins of lazy beds:

Ireland’s population grew rapidly in the 1700’s. Many farmers were forced to find new land for growing food, as the land became more crowded. Unfortunately, the only available areas were barely arable uplands which had thin, poor-quality soils. Out of this necessity came the invention of lazy beds, which are sometimes also known as ‘ridge and furrow.’ This cultivation method was used traditionally for sowing potatoes. In parts of the west of Ireland you can still to this day see the ‘rippled effect’ on the landscape—which points to the greatly disastrous Great Famine (Gibbons, 2012).

Traces of the parallel ridges—also known as lazy beds-- can still be seen on the west of Ireland terrain—some even on coastal cliff areas. And, it is a rather cruel irony that the lazy beds were very labour intensive. It is well known that potatoes were the staple in the Irish diet up to famine times, but reliance on potatoes continued after the crops recovered. (Roaringwater Journal, 2021).

How lazy beds were created:

Gibbons (2012) writes, that “Low trenches were dug with spades at about three-foot intervals with the extracted sod and dirt piled in between creating the raised beds. The beds were then enriched with some form of fertiliser depending on the resources at hand e.g. manure, rotted straw, sea weed. This method was well suited to locations lacking warmth, deep soil, and drainage; hence, they’re prevalence in the upper boglands of the west. The raised beds are drier and therefore warmer than the moist flat ground around them. The beds warm up more quickly in the morning and retain heat longer. At night they protect crops from frost by draining the denser cold air into the ditches and compared to flat fields. According to both researchers and farmers, lazy beds reduce labor time and raise the yield per acre adding to their importance during these times.” It is worth noting that there is a clear difference between the remains of lazy beds, and the type of soil movement known as soil creep. Lazy beds run down hillsides in vertical lines, whereas soil creep is the sliding of soil down a hillside (naturally) causing a ripple effect. Soil creep are horizontal lines running down a hillside (Gibbons, 2012).

Have you wondered why lazy beds run vertically down hillsides? It is because, that orientation allows water to run off, thus preventing water logging (Louth field names project, 2015).

Hard work and knowledge required to create lazy beds:

Have you ever asked why these aforementioned ridges are called ‘lazy beds?’ Writers at a certain point in history viewed this method as a lazy way of farming. However, as the ‘Louth field names project’ (2015) lays out, this slur was far from true. Every ridge had to be dug by hand, turning over the heavy sods with spades, and fertilizer in the form of sea weed or manure had to be collected and moved up to the mountain-side fields. There was also much variation in the way that ridges were created. A certain expertise was involved in creating lazy beds because they were created to suit the drainage, the exact soil quality, the aspect of the plots and the hill slope. The farmer had to know what crops to plant and also what time of year he had to plant them. And, to protect the crops from the prevailing wind, some ridges were even built asymmetrically (Louth field names project, 2015).

References:

  1. Gibbons, P. (2012) Lazy-beds, Memories in the landscape. Available at: https://www.oughterardheritage.org/content/topics/lazy-beds Accessed 8th of December, 2023.

  2. Louth field names project. (2015) ‘Lazy Beds’ in the Cooley Mountains. Available at: https://louthfieldnames.wordpress.com/2015/04/24/lazy-beds-in-the-cooley-mountains/ Accessed 12th of December, 2023.

  3. Michigan State University, Study Abroad Programme. (2009). Lazy Beds. Internal Report: Folder 3, Croagh Patrick Heritage Trail—Clogher Environmental Group Ltd. Unpublished.

  4. Roaringwater Journal. (2021). Lazy-Beds. Available at: https://roaringwaterjournal.com/tag/lazy-beds/#:~:text=As%20we%20know%2C%20potatoes%20were,in%20the%20West%20of%20Ireland. Accessed 8th of December, 2023.