Potato planting day

IMG_5105This is one of those days that – for me at least – seem to carry a weight of memories which almost demand a moment or two of reflection. Traditionally potato planting took place on Good Friday, but there are a couple of flaws  in that association.  Firstly we now live in a determinedly post-Christian society when the majority of people have little idea of when Good Friday falls.  The second problem is that the reason most people don’t know exactly when it is, is because – being tied to the moon’s phases –  it wanders around all over the calendar. There are some early Easters when it would be inviting disaster to plant on Good Friday and others when you might miss a couple of weeks of delicious new potatoes. So the last week in March – in our part of the world – seems about right.  The young leaves won’t be appearing above ground until the last frost has passed – although for us last year there was a late frost on May 3rd, and we lost all the runner beans, but the spuds were fine. Runner beans, for US readers – are a bit of a British obsession.

So today’s the day. This year we’re growing them on a 20 square metre piece of our neighbour’s allotment.  He’s having a hard time at the moment and he’ll have the patch back when he’s up and running again. He’s an inveterate and very neat digger, and although he didn’t actually make a face when I described our plans not to dig it, I could sense he wasn’t keen and so, yesterday it was cleared, dug and fed.  It’s spent the winter under plastic sheeting, so there were no weeds to speak of. Because it’s down at the bottom, in the wettest part of the ground, I’ve given it most of last year’s compost supplemented with two or three bags bought in to open up the texture with organic material. The biggest harvest during digging was a crop of green ‘bio-degradable’ caddy liners.  It’s true, very slowly (I mean glacially slowly) they are breaking down but I can see it might take several years yet.  True to my experimental self I returned a number of them back to the new compost heap to see if a second season will finish them off.

But why is potato planting so significant? Back in the day, and still happening in one of my old farming parishes to this day, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th January) was recognised as “Plough Monday” and celebrated in Church by the local Young Farmers who carried a old Ransomes plough into the church to have it blessed. It was a single share mouldboard plough such as might have been pulled by one or two horses – not a team of oxen! They (the young farmers not the oxen) would file in with storm lanterns and hand tools and celebrate the new season with some acceptably jolly hymns and a sermon with more humour than hellfire followed by tea and sandwiches. How on earth do you persuade thirty or forty teenagers to turn up at church on a freezing January night? For me, as for them, it seemed like the right thing to do – to mark the turning of the seasons in formal terms. So long as they had a reason – however obscure – for turning up, we all thought it was worth doing.

IMG_5103So is potato planting the horticultural equivalent?  Does all the sowing that’s been going on in propagators and on windowsills for weeks, demand a formal marking of the new season?  and doesn’t potato planting – occasionally associated with a Christian festival but more likely with a long weekend bank holiday – doesn’t that make the planting of potatoes the ideal candidate? Compared with sowing a row of seeds, planting potatoes is a much bigger deal.  It takes longer, gives you backache and feels especially significant.  Needless to say I didn’t have enough space – entirely my own fault.  The 2 Kg of left over seed potatoes correlated exactly with the 2Kg of Arran Pilot seed potatos that I bought on impulse.  What’s the point of all that planing if even I don’t follow it? IMG_5107So tomorrow there will be a discussion about which bed to raid. But spring is here, the equinox is past and the days are longer and warmer. Our autumn sown onions, which had been looking a bit sorry for themselves, have suddenly perked up and thrust upwards. The garlic, similarly, is looking well and the elephant garlic in particular looks like a stand of leeks (to which they’re related).

At this time of the year, as a postwar child, when rationing was still happening, and everybody grew their own vegetables, I can vividly remember walkng down to my friend Eddie’s house, and being intoxicated by the smell of fresh warm earth being turned. Planting potatoes is powerful by association, and this past week as our fellow allotmenteers have been getting on with it, there’s an unspoken but shared feeling that -with or without any religious ritual – this is the beginning of the allotment year, regardless of all the plants we’ve already sown and overwintered.



Worm Moon

IMG_3480Aparently tonight’s full moon is called – who knows where?- a worm moon.  It’s also a super moon, which is to say it’s very close to the earth and so appears very large.  Possibly it’s a worm moon because this is the time of year when the worms come up from their hidey holes deep in the earth and make their presence felt on the surface. But today there wasn’t much time for gardening or anything else because both Madame and me were at the local hospital – Madame overnight and me for some tests – neither of us needing overmuch concern.

So things to be grateful for today:

  • It’s the spring equinox.
  • We love the NHS and feel very cared for.
  • We love our bus passes  and the wonderful bus service here.
  • People are so much bigger, better, kinder than we’re led to imagine by the media.
  • The trees are in bud.
  • As I walked home tonight from the bus stop the moon was peeping through the clouds and it was very beautiful.
  • The word ‘orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of ‘right glory’ and not ‘right belief’.
  • Tomorrow the Potwell Inn will be functioning on a full staff – even if we’re a bit creaky.

A bucket full of carrots

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of the last gasp, last season crop of carrots?

A: Cook em.

Q: What do you do with a bucketful of last gasp etc. misshapen carrots?

A: Scrub em and cook em.

Q: What do you do with the aforementioned when you’re feeling fed-up?

A: Make stock!

So that’s half the carrots gone, and there’s 1/2 gallon of lentil soup, 1litre of super concentrated chicken stock and three meals worth of casserole in the freezer. Doubtless Madame will compete with her carrot soup, and one way and another we’ll eat them all up.  There is something very special about your own veg – honestly they taste so much better and you know exactly what went into their production, so there’s no worrying about pesticides and insecticides. I’m not taking a cheap shot at farmers, goodness knows they’ve plenty to worry about and if there’s a vegetable we need but can’t grow I’d buy it (preferably organically grown) without hesitation, this is an allotment not a religious institution.

One great failure in the kitchen, however, was the last batch of sauerkraut.  It was doing fine in its tall fermenting jar, but that was too tall to get into the fridge while we went away so I split the batch into two jars but left the pressure valves open, and then kept them in the fridge.  I knew (don’t you always?) that the brine level was too low and so inevitably the fermenting sauerkraut was exposed and dried out. Then it went genuinely mouldy and when I opened the jars the dreadful smell of dead sheep filled the kitchen. It was all laid to rest in a double sealed bag and – as people always say when they’ve screwed up – “lessons will be learned”. No, really they will. So sauerkraut and the Mark 5 watering device joined each other in the bin.

Good news, however, from the hot bed.  We sowed the same salad veg in the unheated greenhouse a week in advance of sowing them in the hotbed. Nonetheless, the hotbed plants are now twice the size of the greenhouse sown. It’s not that the hotbed is dramatically hot – it chugs along at 12-15C but of course the temperature remains the same, day and night. The early crops of broad beans and peas are looking well, and the cordon apples in their second season are also coming to life along with the asparagus. It’s all very exciting but with so many perennials in their first fruiting season we’ll need to hold back and give them every chance to get their roots down.

The bad news is that the slugs have woken up too and so we’ll need to take up the cudgels again.  Most gardeners will be aware that metaldehyde slug pellets are being withdrawn from the market and so if it’s pellets you want, they’ll have to be ferrous phosphate about which there are still some worries. We’ve found that beer traps are brilliant as long as you tend them regularly, emptying and refilling them with fresh beer.  They’re not cheap but used properly they’re killing machines.

But stock? It’s so healing to make, and the closest thing you can get to pixie dust in the kitchen. I could make the recipe available freely in the certainty that I’ve been making it for so many years no-one else could quite replicate it. All our three sons have cooked ragu to my recipe and yet it never quite tastes the same. There’s no mystery there, I’m sure, but just the thousand and one tiny decisions and adjustments that happen unconsciously when you’re cooking a dish that’s evolved over decades. Sadly though the oven door is broken and I’m waiting for a phone call from an engineer with the bad news about the cost of repairing it.

How to compost a bicycle

IMG_1267.jpgIt’s not particularly difficult to compost a bicycle, but there are certain special compost heap designs that favour the process. Obviously this can be a very slow form of composting and so it’s important not to rush the process since partially composted bicycles can make the formation of a fine tilth for seed sowing very difficult. The easy ingress of air and rainwater is known to favour rusting, and of course the addition of iron to the soil is of some benefit to maintaining colour in hydrangeas.  The impact of aluminium and rubber is less well, known but leather saddles are favoured by some species of worm.

Fortunately most dedicated allotmeteers have innumerable old wooden pallets lying around awaiting a purpose and so I have photographed a number of suitable designs below. Please note in the above illustration that the bicycle tyres have been deflated for safety reasons.

Bicycles also make excellent supports for summer displays of bindweed.


Speaking of sheds and storms ….


As you may be able to see, storm Gareth has wrought his worst with some of these sheds on the site.  The new one that just blew over was so heavy I couldn’t even lift it a single inch.  The rest – to be fair – had seen a bit of life previously but the storm delivered what’s probably the coup de grâce for most of them. What’s surprising is that most of the damage was done the day after the worst of the storm was supposed to have passed by. Even today there were some thumping gusts but the sun shone brightly.  The place was half deserted because of the the Bath half marathon which puts us in lockdown between 10.00am and 3.00pm.  Anyone planning to drive there would have to have to have come very early or waited until later. We walked up at 9.00am but the stewards were all in position already. We watched thousands of runners pass us just the other side of the trees while a rock band on the skateboard park played its entire repertoire over and over.  We must have heard “Losing my religion” about 100 times. Somewhere a long way away a thundrous drum ensemble celebrated the fastest and encouraged the slowest runners – and quite a few walkers too as they entered the second lap.

Having been kept off the ground for much of the last fortnight, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon planting out sowing and netting the succession crops and the overwintering peas. At last it’s OK to sow carrots and leeks straight into the ground, and while Madame was doing that I cleared the carrot patch ready for a salad catch crop.  I dug up a bucket full of a mixture of Nantes and Chantenay carrots.  It seemed a good idea to clear them out before the carrot fly arrives again. There wasn’t a trace of fly in last season’s crop which we grew under Enviromesh from sowing to harvesting. The succession broad beans have rooted wonderfully well in the root trainers and they went in during the afternoon.  By lunchtime we’d installed the pea netting and supplemented the mouse and slug eaten gaps in the overwintering plants with healthy ones grown in the greenhouse. Then there were innumerable little jobs that we needed to catch up with. It was a lovely day but we’ve both come home with backache!

Sometimes, when words fail



Yesterday, before the news of the Christchurch killings came in, I was hunting for something in my room and I found a watercolour brush that had fallen on the floor. I don’t know, because I’ve never painted in oils or acrylic, whether painters in those media treasure particular brushes, but I know watercolourists do. Brushes for particular purposes, there’s one brush I only use for correcting and removing paint, it’s a cheap as chips student range brush but it’s perfect for the job. The brush on the floor was a top of the range sable brush.  When I picked it up it seemed to speak to me – use me. I put it back in its tube and thought no more of it until this morning. Then the hate words started spilling into the room through the internet and I felt suddenly that words – the medium I’ve lived and worked with all my life – had become tainted by association.  There’s no more devilish weapon than the tongue, and its works. Words have consequences, but  drawing and painting are silent, contemplative and so much more eloquent about the experiences that lie beyond language.

So, with due consideration for the weather forecast, we took the bus into Bristol today to see a couple of exhibitions.  On the bus stop there was a person dressed in fatigues, with a bedouin style scarf completely covering their head and the whole assemblage topped by a pair of blue-tinted motorcycle googles. There was not a square centimeter of human being exposed anywhere.  They were genderless and without any clue as to who they were. They got on to the bus carrying a snooker cue and got off the bus at Temple Meads.  Puzzling.

We went to see an exhibition of new sculpture and one of Henri Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings and sculpture at the RWA. Sculpture, after years of playing second fiddle to almost any other visual art form seems to be in rude health at the moment, and Gaudier Brzeska’s drawings have not dated in the same way as his sculptures. Does that sound like faint praise? It’s not meant to.  We agreed that his drawings are really wonderful.  One of the faintly condescending comments on the wall suggested that he was “self taught” – as if that accounted for some deficiency in his work. Come on – all great artists are self-taught, only the mediocre ones rely on tricks they learned at art schools.

The Leonardo drawings at the City Museum were so small, and the gallery so crowded that you’d have done better with a decent book.  As we left we were directed into the inevitable ‘experience room’ where there were drawing materials and books available for anyone to have a go.  I was absolutely ready to dismiss this as yet another attempt to make art relevant and educational at the same time until I spotted a man who didn’t fit at all into the usual suspects category (like us) who was copying a drawing with rapt attention. If I eat my hat can I spit the label out? I should have remembered the extraordinary gifts of some of the men I taught in prison. As I write this I can see him, completely unselfconscious and absorbed in his task, putting me and my selfconciousness to shame.

IMG_5070Back down then to the bus station via Christmas Steps where we stopped for me to photograph a building that my grandfather came out of retirement to work on when he was 72. He was what’s known as a ‘generic builder’ – a carpenter by trade, for whom timber framed buildings were familiar from decades of experience. At the base there used to be a very good chippie but it’s gone now.  Bristol was our ‘home city’ for many decades but now it’s easier to catch a bus than to negotiate its ever more sclerotic traffic system. When we got home I found a box of Jiffy 7 modules on top of the piano so while I cooked, Madame sowed seeds. Tomorrow we’ll be marooned in the flat for most of the day by the Bath Half Marathon, but if we defy the stewards and run across the road we might be able to get to the allotment for a few hours.





Our first proper garden

Pickwick Lodge CottagesThis photo of our first real garden was taken in 1970.  We were students at Bath Academy of Art and we rented this cottage on a farm in Corsham, Wiltshire for two and a half years.  The art school was a twenty minute walk across the fields. You can just see through the doorway to the back garden where we kept a goat. We had an outside toilet, a very deep well which must once have been the water supply and a gigantic water cistern which we discovered by accident when we were ploughing there and the plough caught on a large metal ring which, when we levered the stone up led to a two chamber storage cistern big enough to swim around. The connection betwen the two chambers involved diving through a small hole – I was thin in those days!

There may be some small correlation between the garden and the fact that I was on probation for the whole of the second year for failing to attend! These were magical gardening days that all came to an end when a herd/drove/drift/sounder of pigs somehow got in and rooted it all up in an hour. It was a good training in philosophical patience! – and I resumed my studies in ceramics in the nick of time.


A wet and windy day day today – the opportunity for searching through the albums this afternoon – but the temperature stayed in double figures so we managed a couple of hours on the allotment where we installed the insect mesh over the overwintering onion sets. It’s been so windy we haven’t worried too much about allium leaf miner, but this is the beginning of the season when the females lay their destructive eggs.  Storm Gareth has had a very long tail but the forecast is for improving weather after a last wet weekend and so we felt that regardless of the weather we needed to protect the alliums. The insect mesh is expensive but since we took to protecting all our vulnerable crops with it we’ve been mercifully spared the maggots that cost us our entire crop of leeks in the first season. It should be said that we’re also growing from seed now, meaning the young plants are not out in the open and exposed to the flies in garden centres. Madame checked the stakes on the tallest brassicas to protect them from the wind.

The biggest point of interest now is the possibility of a small crop of asparagus quite soon. Storm Gareth seems to have slowed things down but the Mondeo – the early variety is showing signs of producing its first spears.  We’ll harvest each variety for a month, enough for a few tasters we hope, and then let the plants continue to establish themselves. We’re hoping that the thick mulch of seaweed over the winter will help them to grow vigorously. Elsewhere we’re harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, savoy cabbages, kale, carrots Swiss chard and rhubarb.  Next week the weather looks fine and we’re hoping to get a good number of seeds in.

Every time we go to the supermarket now we buy any variety of pears we can find because we’re taste testing them before ordering some container grown cordons in the summer. At the moment the front runners are Doyenne du Comice and Conference but there’s a cross, bred from the two parents, called Concorde.  I’ve never seen it in the shops but it’s billed as a heavy yielding pear with the best qualities of flavour and texture from both its parents.  We’re looking to plant five more cordons and a damson, a plum and a greengage are the fruits I’d most like to grow.