Known unknowns and unknown unknowns.

The advice from the BSBI (Botanical Society of Britain and Ireland) is pretty unequivocal.  Don’t submit a record for a plant unless you’re absolutely certain of it, or if it’s been counter-checked by someone who actually knows what they’re doing. There was me galloping through the Pembrokeshire list and today I suddenly got cold feet.

It all started so well when I spotted a plant on the wall in the middle of St Davids, as we were going to the supermarket. I didn’t know exactly what it was but I was sure what family it belonged to, so – easy peasy – straight to the books where I just couldn’t find it where I expected it. So I go into pondering mode – what does it remind me of? ….. Coltsfoot ……… they’re an early spring flower so it can’t be that.  OK then – it sort of reminds me of Stonecrop when I look at the fleshy leaves.  Bingo – it’s a Rock Stonecrop – Sedum forsterianum – a two star or even three star rarity growing on a wall in a busy street near a supermarket.  But here’s the thing, it’s nice to find a rarity but it’s one of those plants that it would be hard to confuse with anything else.

I’ve had a busy time and the list has now reached a tantalising 99 plants identified – BUT – looking through my notes today I discovered a couple of ID’s that I made when we were here in May and now I’m not so sure. Yesterday I ID’d a plant and accidentally wrote down the wrong name.  I only discovered my mistake when I found a close relative today and had to double check yesterday’s work. In the midst of feeling rather pleased with myself I realized that competency in field botany is a much slower process than I thought. Any progress I’m making is at a more general level, and I’m much better at reognising families of plants – which brings a bonus in saving time when it comes to sorting out the species. As for species and sub-species, I discovered when I found the exquisite little Eyebright on the top left photo, that it belongs to a large bunch of subspecies (75) that even baffle experts. I’ll have to let it go at Eyebright and remember how beautiful it was, nestling on the clifftop. I think I’m a while away from feeling confident enough to submit my own records.

IMG_5783But after a damp start early this morning (with a view like this even damp starts are magical), the sky cleared slowly and by the time we got back from St Davids and had a greedy bacon sandwich, the sun was shining, we whacked on our boots and went for a long walk with me ticking off plants as we went. I’ve now found four of the five Plantains here and I found the other one in the middle of Bath a couple of years ago, so that’s a botanical royal flush. As we walked we wondered if we’d somehow wandered into paradise:  the sea, the sun, the wildlife and flowers  feeding our souls as we went along. Even the discovery that the Willowherbs are a much more complicated family than I’d imagined couldn’t dampen my enthusiasm – every dificulty became an opportunity  – hooray, more features to look at and absorb – even my knackered knees felt as if they were enjoying themselves.

Why should anyone be remotely interested in all this? Search me! I only know that this is a blog about being human, and when I do this kind of thing – when I can call plants by their names, when I can draw and paint them and grow them and understand their properties and something about the lives they lead and how they survive, it makes me feel more human, more embedded in this staggeringly, promiscuously over-generous world.

When I was a curate, training to be a parish priest, my boss thought that every moment not spent working was a moment wasted. I became friends with the owner of a fishing tackle shop who seemed to take to me. I would go out on an imaginary ‘visit’ and drink cups of coffee with him and his wife in their back room behind the shop – needless to say they never darkened the door of a church.  Bob would collect me every Wednesday morning after the ten o’clock communion.  I would wear my fishing clothes under my cassock and at the end of the service I would bolt across the churchyard, through the house and out into the back lane where Bob would be waiting (hiding) in his three wheeler (honestly!)  to take me to one of his favourite spots.  One day we were sitting in complete silence on the riverbank and he said “you know, I never felt the need for church when I could come here and watch the water and listen to the birds singing”.

He wasn’t wrong.

And to finish, a little bunch of purple numbers we spotted today – two are in the same family, but which two?

Midsummer sky – China Blue

img_5757

I have a very particular name for this sky that I can’t explain and I can’t bring myself to change. “China Blue” is a very potent complex of meanings for me that evokes all manner of happy times and places. There isn’t a watercolour name for it, although cerulean blue comes a bit close – it’s a cool blue that lends the pale summer clouds a faintly rose-violet hue and it’s filled with faint longing and melancholy.  It’s the sky that goes away and the season that can’t last after the carnival colours of late spring. The days grow shorter, the hay and silage have been cut, and the harvest is almost upon us.  Maybe I should call it the sky of the holiday romance, the smell of suntan oil and ice creams. Or maybe I should just say that yesterday was a lovely day.

Not today, though.  We knew the rain was coming and set up the campervan for a 24 hour siege with a full water tank and empty cludger, milk and bread, a barra brith loaf and a couple of projects.  Madame had gathered a bag of shells and seaweed from the beach to draw and I was going to complete the plant records for the last three days. When the rain finally came at around three am – beating loudly enough on the roof to wake us it lasted for only two hours and then diminished to a fine drizzle that brushed rather than rattled the van in the brisk winds. It was slightly disappointing after all the build-up.  On several occasions in the past, the roof has leaked just enough to drip on to the bed, allowing us to be heroically galvanised with bowls and paper towels while thunder and lightning shook the van. The only consolation was to wake up in a thick, glowering mist (I know it’s a cliché, but mists have their moods and this one was decidedly edgy).

So yesterday was as blue and expansive as today is clenched grey. First thing we took our favourite bus to St Davids to stock up at the supermarket.  We used to shop in the bijou artisanal organic sourdough deli which survives by charging twice as much as anybody else; but now we have joined the local middle classes in sneaking around to the supermarket and pretending we’re ‘just looking’. Along with the staples I’ve already written about I was charmed by a display of very retro ‘pastes’ – sardine and tomato, tuna and mayonnaise (an upstart) and beef.  My heart pounded at the thought of paste sandwiches and so I brought them back to the van. I wouldn’t normally check the ‘best by’ dates on canned and bottled food, but there was a thick layer of dust on the top of the beef paste and so I became suspicious and checked.  It was over a year out of date! Naturally I was too fired up not to make the sandwich but it had no flavour, in fact it probably never did have any flavour even sixty years ago when it was a treat. Packed lunch was abandoned in favour of another walk in the sunshine.

This time we took the footpath across to Treginnis and on to Porthlysgi Bay past a pond that was alive with large powdery grey-blue dragonflies – I haven’t got the field guide here so no name I’m afraid, but elsewhere there were abundant electric blue damselfiles. As we walked we heard a very loud voice in conversation with another, quieter one. we paused for a bit but there was no alternative but to overtake them. She of the very loud voice was taking a photo and so – out of politeness I asked if she was photographing the dragonflies. No, and then she laboured at great volume and length to explain that in fact she was photographing the reflections that were ……. my eyes glazed over – anyone with a milliwatt of social radar could tell I was exchanging a pleasantry not asking for a tutorial. Madame had taken the wiser course and waited by a stile for me to escape. Porthlysgi Bay was alive with a different sound, the joyful screams and shouts of about twenty children who were having the time of their lives, courtesy of a local adventure centre. Onwards then to Porthclais via the coast path and back home on the brilliant little bus that always has Radio Wales playing at full volume, and a driver so used to the road that he takes the idea of slowing down as an affront to his skills.

IMG_5763

However, field botanists, even extremely lowly ones like me, walk very slowly with eyes swivelling wildly from side to side, as if we’ve forgotten our medication. Keen walkers crash by thinking only of the twenty miles ahead. Some people pause to see what I’m doing, some even ask what I’m looking at- the honest answer is usually ‘no idea but I’m keen to find out”. On one remarkable occasion in Marloes I inadvertently gathered a party of five together and they followed me on an impromptu guided walk. I thought they’d soon find me out and rough me up a bit before handing me over to the Warden to have my binoculars confiscated, but no such luck.  I was barely a sentence ahead of them in the textbook, but, come the end, they were having such a good time I feared they would pass the hat around and give me a tip.

Finally then, back to the walk, and what about plants?  Well Tuesday yielded 31, Wednesday 33 more and yesterday another 27 making a grand total of 91 plants recorded and that’s about 15% of the total on the recording card. Is it wrong to be a bit proud of that?  Favourites of the day were the large patch of Dodder – Cuscuta epithymum,  on the clifftop, and which is a ‘vulnerable’ species not recorded on the county list; Scented Mayweed – Matricaria camomilla, which looks like a garden weed but smells heavenly; Greater Sea Spurry – Spergularia media, because I’d never heard of it – let alone seen it which made it a laborious plant to identify; Betony – Betonica officinalis, because I saw it for the first time two weeks ago in a very similar location on a clifftop in Cornwall. Although it’s also a heathland plant, it’s described as a plant of ‘woodland rides, grassy rides and hedgerows – very definitely not windswep clifftops.  I was delighted to read in Stace that when these plants find themselves in unfavourable situations they can become quite dwarfed.  And finally I was pleased to see Buckshorn Plantain – Plantago coronopus, just because it’s always nice to find one of the more unusual plantains. It’s always possible to make identification mistakes, and mortifying when you’ve already published them, but I feel pretty secure about this list because I’ve checked it so carefully and even been back for second look. Anything doubtful went back to Stace (3rd edition).

IMG_5781That’s it for now.  The internet connection here is very temperamental, and the phone signal pretty spasmodic too. I snatched a photo of Madame’s drawing in progress  and then took another of my notebook – “Rite in the Rain – Model 973T – as previously drooled over, as proof that I actually do write things down. Finally some pictures of yesterday’s finds.

IMG_5780

 

 

Field trip? Well, we’re in a field

But the photo was taken yesterday and today, as I write this, it’s raining, Ramsey Island has disappeared into the mist, the St David’s lifeboat just launched and I hope no-one’s in trouble out there because the sea is fierce in a brisk SW wind.

The idea was to take a break from the allotment, and so we watered thoroughly on Sunday afternoon and set out first thing Monday morning to come to the most westerly point in Wales. I’ve got bit of a thing about West.  I’ll compromise with Devon and Cornwall which are South West, but North and East don’t do it for me. This is a favourite campsite, not least because the wildlife is so rich. In fact the gauntlet was thrown down as we parked when I spotted a whole group of Woundworts growing three feet away. I’ve still yet to find Betony, and yet the plants in question shared the leaf shape but that made it most likely taht they were/are Marsh Woundwort.  It’s taken 48 hours to establish that this apparently dry hedgerow is actually quite wet at times, wet enough to support several specialist plants.

I’ll just check out the plants in front of the van.

IMG_5751.jpgThe road to hell being paved with good intentions I thought I’d make a start with the grasses – principally because I’m not very good at them and since they’re ubiquitous it would immediately up my success rate.  This is one everyone will recognise – it’s the grass that you pull the seeds off between thumb and finger when you’re a child, and it’s called False Oat Grass – Arrhenatherum elatius – and when I pulled a bit up because I was curious about how it spreads I discovered these beautiful bulbules at the root. Of course five grasses in and my appetite was well and truly whetted and so I started listing all the plants in the hedge – which brought it up to 32 before Madame threatened to throttle me.

Since it was raining when we got up, I was searching out my waterproof jacket to pack, and I discovered my favourite pen inside the lining.  I lost it three weeks ago and it’s been bugging me. Quick confession time, my obsessive traits don’t end with gardening and botany.  I’ve also had a lifelong thing about stationery and I reckon I have the perfect tools for field botany, bird/butterfly watching, and shopping lists. The pen is called a Space Pen – designed for US astronauts, and writes upside down in rain or snow and at any temperature.  It even writes underwater.  The notebook is another American invention called “Rite in the rain” and I particularly like the 973T size and the combination means I can take notes at any time regardless of the weather.

And so today when we went for a walk I had a bit of a spring in my step and managed to get the total number of identified plants up to over sixty.  It might go up or down when I finish double checking tomorrow – I had no idea there was more than one Hedge Bindweed because I’ve never really looked at them that closely before.  I have to go back and check whether the epicalyx overlaps ……. I told you I was obsessive.  Back at the van I double checked and then filled in a County record card for the first time in my life. There are probably over a thousand plants this county, but to have found 6% of them in one day feels like an achievement.

I didn’t photograph what, for me, was the highlight of the day – a very small pink umbel of Upright Hedge Parsley peeping through the gorse, neither the Smith’s Pepperwort which I’d never even heard of, but I like the mundane just as much.  Here’s some Water Mint and, on the right, part of an enormous flock of sheep a farmer was moving to another field. He had three dogs working and he simply put them into the field and let them gather the sheep and and take them into a lane without uttering a single command. It was magical to watch, just as it was thrilling to see Cormorants diving in Ramsey Sound. The sky has finally cleared and the sun is dazzling across the water.

Oooh you little showoff

IMG_5746.jpg

IMG_5747.jpgWe only clocked the lovely Pyramidal Orchid as we were leaving Dyrham Park this morning.  It was hiding behind a fence on the road out and right next to it was the flowering spike from an Agrimony plant – that photo’s a bit out of focus because I was blocking the exit road and rushed it.  The occupants of the car behind didn’t even pause to look what I’d just been on my knees photographing.

IMG_5740

Here’s a photo of Whitefield Meadow, the object of our attention this morning. It’s a prime example of what can happen on unimproved land  – and if ever there was a revealing oxymoron it’s that one. Here’s another one, the so-called ‘green revolution’ which involved replacing perfectly sustainable agricultural systems with a fatal combination of fertiliser and pesticides.

A few years ago I did a 23 mile walk aross this part of the Cotswolds using public footpaths the vast majority of the time.  One of my companions that day was a retired grain merchant who had  bought and sold grain off the field, while it was still growing, and we fell into a conversation about what constituted good and bad land. In his view he could only give his seal of approval to half a dozen fields, the rest were – frankly – not improved enough. Half a dozen fields in 23 miles! So it depends what you mean by ‘improved’. The temptation to improve yield at the expense of biodiversity is a feature hard wired into our economic system. If the ‘cash value’ of the crop is allowed to dominate all other less tangible but equally significant values then monoculture and biologically barren land is inevitable. It’s all about culture: farming culture but equally the supermarket food culture that’s grown up bringing with it the demand for ever more diversity of choice but ever more uniformity in flavour, texture and appearance plus, of course, the lowest possible price. We quite literally get what we pay for, and we – through successive governments – have poured subsidies into the wrong farming systems. It’s no use blaming farmers or supermarkets or customers for the pickle we’re in, we have seen the enemy and it is us.

Meanwhile on the remaining three percent of proper meadow like Whitefield, we can see what we’ve lost. We didn’t find the longed-for Bee Orchids but we will one day, and in any case who could resist the sight of hundreds of Mabled Whites stuffing themselves silly on Knapweed nectar.  The whole meadow is waiting for its annual cut and, to be honest, parts of it are looking very dry. We spent an hour wandering around and during that hour the whole of the main car park filled up, and yet we were the only people in the meadow for three quarters of the time.  Later we met another solitary orchid hunter but she had not found the elusive plant either. As we move into high summer, many of the plants have lived their entire cycle and can only be identified by their seed heads.  The Yellow Rattle is rattling, The Goats Beard  – Tragopogon pratensis – looked as if it had finished early.  One of the fences was amost lined with Lady’s Bedstraw enough to stuff a paliasse for a fragrant but uncomfortable night.  Maybe a little Fleabane might thicken it up a bit. Cow Parsley and Hogweed both seemed to have run their courses, and were dying back leaving their seeds as the most reliable indicator of species,  but I spotted one plant of Fools Parsley peeping through. My work with the Apiaceae seems to be paying off and Fool’s Parsley is a new one on me.  Three years ago they all looked the same.

The daisy family were at their most perplexing best, and seem to be jealous of the time I’ve given to the umbellifers – I will get there eventually I promise. And the Knapweed – I could go on for ever!

IMG_5742

And then back to the allotment where we harvested the last of the peas with the first of the French beans, a  bunch of carrots, a container’s worth of the Red Duke of York potatoes and some courgettes. Early summer on a plate. I stuffed a chicken with nothing but a lump of butter and a big bunch of Tarragon for stuffing – I even made some gravy but in the end didn’t have any of it because the vegetables, unadorned, were so delicious.  I’ve never been a great fan of courgettes but today I coooked them in the simplest way I could –   finger thick and three inches long straight off the plant and sliced into 1cm rounds rinsed, patted dry and fried in butter. So many vegetables taste so much better straight out of the ground that they don’t need any fancy treatment.

The only fly in the ointment was finding our neighbour (we call him Trigger) inundating his runner beans with some kind of chemical for the second time in a fortnight. Is there some kind of etiquette that calls us to remain silent when a neighbor is spraying his plants at exactly the wrong time, just when the pollinators are at their most active. I felt as if he was killing our bees. If you can actually smell these chemicals they’re already on your allotment, and you have to wonder whether it’s safe to browse your own organic veg and eat them raw. There was a ghastly management phrase that cropped up regularly in meetings in the past – “culture eats strategy for breakfast” . It’s all the more annoying for being true.  Whether it’s Trigger with his allotment, or a grain merchant insisting on 99.9% purity, or a farmer struggling to make a profit it’s all part of the same culture and it needs to change.

 

Meet the neighbours

 

“These are not weeds, they’re habitat.” – Rose

That’s Rose my friend,  rather than Francis Rose whose book “The Wildflower Key” goes with me on all my expeditions. With surgical skill she reorganised my prejudices and enabled me to see that these ‘pernicious weeds’, growing less than ten feet from the Potwell Inn allotment are a haven to wildlife of all kinds. Let’s start with the Ragwort (“Stinking Willie”), which carries the additional burden of being listed as poisonous to livestock and a favourite hate plant for lazy gardening journalists.  So dangerous, in fact that Norman Tebbit in his days of pomp wanted to force unemployed youths to uproot it as a form of community service. A typical example of the politician rising above the facts, because it’s likely that uprooting the plants would be more likely to spread them further.  Even HRH Prince Charles had a poke at them and wanted something to be done about it, as did Adam Henson of Countryfile fame.  Mercifully, the lineup of the outraged is such an offense to common sense I’m only hardened in my determination to leave it alone. It was the host plant for the first caterpillar I learned to identify when I was a child, when we would collect jam jars with a few stalks of the plant with their caterpilars and hope to see them hatch later as Cinnabar Moths. They are fantastic attractors of nectar loving insects and they look beautiful.  Yes they are poisonous to cattle – like many other plants – but cattle won’t eat them green, which is why you often see them standing tall in fields that are otherwise grazed flat. They are poisonous in hay admittedly, but that’s not an excuse to exterminate the species by dousing every field with agent orange.

The Rosebay Willowherb, the Hedge Bindweed, the grasses including Cocksfoot and even Couch, the Stinging Nettles the list goes on and on – they are all important habitat for the very same insects, the Hoverflies, Lacewings, Ladybirds that predate on the pests we really do want to discourage, and the butterflies and moths  we’re fighting to save from extinction.

These photographs, taken feet away from the allotment could so easily be regarded as the ‘enemy at the gate’ – that favourite trope of the agrichemical industry whose devoted attention to productivity and profit over the last fifty years has brought us to the brink of disaster. But these so-called weeds are not the problem, they’re the solution.  Good allotmenteering depends (as does all great human endeavour) on minute attention to detail.  Industrial farming has no idea how to do this because it works from inside an airconditioned cab without the faintest idea of what’s being destroyed.  Getting to know the weeds gives us the ability to keep them out of the places where they’re a nuisance while giving them space to help us in the bigger picture. There’s a heartbreaking correlation here between our obession with “alien” plants and “alien” people. 90% of these nuisance weeds can be controlled by attention and a little hard work. The annual seedlings are easily hoed off as they germinate and if you learn to recognise the leaves they can be added to the compost since there are no seeds to cause trouble later on. Even Bindweed gets fed up in the end – it can’t survive without making chlorophyll and so we pick the leaves off as they appear. Looking across at the abandoned plot next door demands that we recognise that it’s a gift, an opportunity rather than a threat. Hello all you pollinators, welcome aboard.

Tomorrow is the last chance this year for a look around Whitefield meadow.  I’ve printed off the Vice-County list – these are an incredibly useful resource obtainable online from BSBI. I’ll take Rose – the other one – and a hand magnifier, but what I’m really after is a Bee Orchid. Oh and I’d love to see a Marbled White butterfly again, they’re so beautiful.

We’ve had family commitments for five days out of the last seven so we’ll be there as the park opens, with a picnic. Bliss on steroids.

 

 

Another day, a different grandchild

IMG_5733

Dyrham Park, today, with our youngest grandson. I love this place – it’s run nowadays by the National Trust, but sixty years ago when I first climbed over the wall, as a young trespasser, I fell in love with it. Ten years later there was a riding centre in the grounds and once more we (yes we were a ‘we’ by then) – explored it legally on horseback and I had my first experience of a runaway horse attempting to scrape me off its back by galloping under a low branch. I (just) won that round but lost reins and stirrups in the process, and clung on for dear life until it was over.  The horse, called ‘Copper’, gave me a bit of a funny look and we reached an understanding.  Later the same horse threw a friend and dislocated his shoulder – so not an easy ride!

We come here often these days. It’s a wildlife paradise, with roe and fallow deer, cattle today – which was a first – and some extraordinarily rich plant life. Sadly I couldn’t tempt our little grandson up to Whitefield which is a quite marvellous unimproved meadow very close to the place I first climbed over the wall.  There are bee orchids there, and I’ve never seen one.  Many other plants as well, spotted while driving past it on the way out.  My heart was aching to be in there with the orchids – were they Pyramidal or Southern Marsh – hard to tell from a car, even at ten miles an hour. If you’ve never seen an unimproved meadow it’s like plant heaven, and you want to lie, like the young Laurie Lee, amongst the grasses and flowers with a cheek on the cool earth, while the myriad bees, flies, butterflies and hoverflies go about their business. “Jack go to bed at noon”, Marbled Whites”  and so many yet-to-be-named flora and fauna. In all these sixty years I’ve never been inside the house.

Grandchildren give us permission to see the world through a child’s eyes once again. There were many children there with grandparents – free childcare you might say, except grandparents offer something different.  Some of the mums there with children looked pretty tired, and they mostly had one eye on the phone as if the loss of autonomy and status was not compensated for by the relentless demands of parenting.  I remember that stage so well – for both of us the demands were almost overwhelming.  Grandparenting is an entirely different thing. We’re untroubled by any worries about whether we’re doing it right because we know we’re probably not.  We give in to them, feed them unsuitable food without a twinge of conscience (parents do it secretly and feel guilty afterwards) and for some inexplicable reason they love us as unconditionally as we love them.

My biggest worries are for the future of these children. We worry about it because they’ll have to live in it and we’re leaving it in a dreadful state. I’m so pleased that our two year old grandson lets me take him around the gardens offering him leaves and flowers to smell.  Our six year old is already a wildlife fanatic and the middle one is an absolute toughie, untroubled by the challenges she faces as a SWAN, carrying but never suffering from a syndrome without a name.

IMG_5735

Madame’s Grandparents were the single stable influence in her peripatetic life, and my maternal grandfather was, notwithstanding my most strenuous efforts, the greatest influence in mine. We are formed by our histories, just as this tree was formed by its own.  Constricted by a fence that’s now been removed, the trunk is scarred by the experience but nothing daunted it went on to grow to a full sized tree.  Even after being partly felled, it still refuses to give up and has started to grow new branches.

On Sunday we’ll go back alone to Whitefield and I’ll bend my thoughts to all the plants I can’t yet name.  In a week it will have been mown and baled so some fortunate animals can dine on the richest hay to be had anywhere, and I’ll dream of another year when I can make even more friends among the plants.  The Tao that can be spoken is not the Tao.  Wise words, but I still want to thank the Tao that cannot be spoken with words that cannot be written.

IMG_5734

 

The hazards of babysitting allotments, and more thoughts on water.

IMG_5730

Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away.  But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago.  He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.”  Mission accomplished,  and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.

The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them.  We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions.  When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling.  Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled.  Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.

IMG_5731.jpgHappily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.

Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.

Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater.  When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres.  That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres.  That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater.  The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year.  That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers.  Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!

So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward.  What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off.  I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.

But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost.  Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus.  There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.

Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows.  Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of  the romcom – not much reality.

Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water.  While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally.  Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there.  For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.

 

Worrying about water

IMG_5341.jpg

Yesterday morning early I was trudging back and forth to the water trough, worrying about just how dry the soil has become over the past couple of weeks.  We had a decent spell of rain before that, but my impression is that we’re distinctly down over the average. Here in Bath the average annual rainfall figure is given as 761mm.  I did a bit of investigating and soon realized that I had no idea what that figure really meant, and so it came as a surprise to me that the figures given in mm aren’t ‘per square metre’ – in fact they’re not related to area at all. If you want to find out how many litres of water fall on your patch of ground in an average year, it seems that 10mm of rain is equivalent to 10 litres of rain per square metre – that’s to say, in average year our 250 square metres of allotment receives very roughly 20,000 litres of rainwater.

So far so boring, you may think, but many allotments are completely dependent on a water supply that can be turned off if there should be a drought.  Most of us are familiar with the need to have a waterbutt attached to the shed and/or the greenhouse but when you look at the data, a single waterbutt is hardly going to save the day – and that’s where I came in. Yesterday, let’s say I used 20 cans of water (it’s peak watering season), and so that’s 200 litres of water – or pretty much one whole water butt full – that’s to say if the Council or the water companies decided to pull the plug, on our allotment we’d have four good waterings left. So, at a pinch, we could probably survive for a month, but what about a three month drought? It’s a fairly simple calculation – we’d need 12 water butts – 3000 litres of stored water.  However, gathering that amount of water in order to store it would be a huge challenge – we have about 7 square metres of roof altogether, so we would need somewhere in the region of 500mm of rain allowing for some inefficiency.  Not only that, water butts take up a lot of space – we’d need to go for 1000L caged containers.  Any way you look at it, making provision for a drought is both complex and expensive.

IMG_5682The only way to mitigate our water use is to increase the water capacity of the soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and making use of mulches to reduce surface evaporation. It’s clear from our experiments with mixed plantings, that covering the ground completely (courgettes, for instance under sweetcorn) lashings of leafmould and so-on really increase the moisture holding capacity.  The Potwell Inn allotment needs most watering on the areas where the soil is exposed – it’s obvious really. Another approach – one which I’m sure the seed merchants will soon be all over – is to develop drought resistant varieties, but we could also start to develop extremely locally adapted plants through seed saving.

The take home lesson from all this, so far as I can see, is that in the teeth of global heating, we allotmenteers are going to have to adapt very quickly. It’s easy to feel virtuous when we grow our own organic food, but we need to be modest about our potential.  Collective action across a whole allotment site could be worth investigating – we’ve got three underground streams running through the site – it would take a lot of work and investment but at the moment it’s just running into the river.

When I sat down to write this I felt a bit glum, but now I’ve done the maths and given it some thought, sustainability is a real possibility on the allotment. It seems almost a crime to be pouring purified drinking water on our plants when alternatives are possible. It’s easy to think that the only harvest that matters on an allotment is the stuff we can eat, but we need to harvest every scrap of green waste we can get our hands on, and every available fallen leaf so we can make quality moisture retaining composts and mulches; and then every possible harvestable drop of rain to reduce our tapwater consumption.

To repurpose an old saying – “We have seen the enemy – it is us!”

 

On the allotment, always look a gift horse in the mouth.

I thought I might post a photo of the Hungarian Hot Wax plant that I transplanted into open ground a couple of days ago – as you can see it’s a really happy bunny now. The other photo is of the garlic crop that Madame has finished peeling and dressing. We’re continuing the drying in the shed because it’s still seriously smelly and a bit much for the landing in the flats we live in. This was all being accomplished while I was with our middle son dismantling a greenhouse he’d found online and going free to anyone willing to collect it. We were very fortunate today because this was an 8X6 greenhouse with only one pane missing a corner and, by coincidence, I took along my tool box with exactly the right set of spanners.  He provided 30m of bubble wrap, a can of WD40 and a roll of gaffa tape.

Free greenhouses can cover a multitude of sins, anywhere between free ground clearance of a no-hope structure held up by old bindweed, and a a shining, almost new one that turned out to be slightly the wrong colour for a fussy and very wealthy gardener. On a scale of one to ten, this one was a definite seven. In fact there were two greenhouses there for the taking but three and a half hours in, and on a baking hot day, we settled for the one, knowing that there were six other bidders willing to take it. Really it’s just a matter of patience, a bit of common sense and the right tools for the job. There was, for instance, a mild steel addition to the ridge that was so rusty the bolts had to be drilled out. Brambles had grown inside, and really  needed taking out before we began, but we had strong gloves, and next time I’d take a pair of secateurs. You’ll need a step ladder to reach the bolts in the ridge.  But the first advice is to take a good hard look at it and if it’s not right – too big or too small, bent, corroded or otherwise compromised by missing pieces just say no.  There are plenty of better ones out there and in any case you’ll be buying a whole bunch of new bolts, clips, rubber strip and springs so the free greenhouse is going to cost you transport, about two days of your time plus the cost of the new components which, honestly, are well worth it.  If you can get hold of the assembly instructions online from the manufacturer that would be an absolute bonus. Then take out all the glass first and dismantle the structure carefully making sure that vulnerable uprights don’t flop about and bend when the horizontal bars are removed.

Horticultural glass is very fragile and sharp, and for safety’s sake is better carefully bubble wrapped and taped before moving it.  If you’re really anally retentive you can number all the bits but it’s going to take an eternity to re-erect anyway.  Finally, don’t skimp on the foundations where it’s about to be re-erected because if they’re not rectangular and level and if they’re not deep enough, the pieces will not bolt up easily, and the glass will start to crack as it subsides. The rubber strip to hold the glass in the frames is essential but a pain to install – there’s a knack to it that you will have to learn. But don’t let me put you off, you’ll get a great greenhouse for fifty quid and a couple of days work – what’s not to like?

Other freebies are not quite such good value. We’ve seen so many people spend a great deal of money on second hand scaffolding planks.  Scaffolders know they’re on to a good thing and will try to charge you far more than they’re worth, but they never sell them on until they’re totally knackered and you’ll be lucky to get three years out of them.  New, pressure treated gravel boards are often half the price if you get them from a local sawmill, and they’ll last ten years.

Water butts, old nets and especially old carpets are often (in order) leaky and needing new lids and taps, full of holes of the kind that badgers can stroll through, and poisonous and rightly banned on sensible allotment sites. If, on the other hand, a local stately home or disgraced member of parliament is disposing of pure wool carpets without underlay, take them without hesitation, although you might have to prove their provenance to the site rep.

I could go on for ever about free manure.  There are hundreds of well meaning stables out there who think they’re acting charitably getting you to dig out their muck and spread it on your allotment. Sadly most weed seeds seem to pass through horses digestive systems merely strengthened and rendered more potent. “Well rotted” all too often means “just cooled down” and so if cheap manure is offered, see how long it’s been stacked, or take it home hot for hotbeds and make sure it gets even hotter – enough to kill the weed seeds. Beware also that they’re not full of wormer – it kills the good ones as well as the baddies! We once introduced Creeping Buttercup into one of our gardens by spreading manure from a local farmer whose fields were notorious for being overstocked with horses that consequently picked up and passed on all manner of parasites.  They were also starved of decent grass and comprised mainly noxious weeds.

There are plenty of really useful free things out there – not least brandling worms. I know there are lots of suppliers out there who would love to sell you a small box of worms for twenty quid – don’t bother – just make a good compost heap and they’ll appear all on their own.  All they seem to think about is food and sex, so not only do they digest your compost and turn it into something wonderful, the also multiply to meet the amount of food you supply them with.

Cardboard is great – especially the brown stuff.  Worms absolutely love it and you’d be amazed how much free cardboard can be found outside shops.  Bike shops are the absolute tops because one box will line a whole path, or bed, or you can tear it into shreds to add carbon.  When you turn the heap the worms can always be found amongst the cardboard.

Free mushroom trays are so useful as well – we’re lucky, two of our sons are also chefs and one of them supplies us from wood-ash from the pizza oven.  Ask around – there are loads of cafes that would love to save money by giving you their coffee grounds – but remember in compost terms they’re a ‘green’ component.

Human urine – you know it makes sense! – bio-available nitrogen, enough for one person (at ten to one dilution) to fill a watering can with plant food.

And best of all – free advice. Every allotment site has a few people who really know what they’re doing. Pay attention to what they say.

Happy gardening!

 

 

Shed – free

 

 

Well it had to happen.  I spoke to the new allotmenteer yesterday and she told me that my favourite shed was about to be demolished.  I begged one final photo before this aged example of of the genre disappeared – I had hoped that it would be allowed to continue its slow collapse unaided so I could carry on taking photos, maybe make a silent documentary, but it was not to be. Farewell old friend, but don’t worry about me – I’ve found another one already.

IMG_5080