I’ve been aware for a while that with half a million words written in over 625 posts, finding pieces on specific topics was becoming increasingly slow and difficult for readers. When I started writing I assumed that because it was a form of journal people would read the entries in sequence, but it’s clear that I was quite wrong and every day I see that folks have been searching out old entries on specific topics (like borlotti beans for instance!) The site has become more of a library and less of a diary. I’m quite happy with that – it seems like an evolutionary development – and so I’ve tweaked it with an upgrade that makes searching for topics, keywords or even single words much simpler and vastly faster. Hopefully you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for much more easily by clicking on one of the categories or tags at the top or simply by typing a word in – so happy hunting!
Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.
By way of absolute contrast see this –
This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.
Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.
They were playing;
Making patterns with stones
looking for frogspawn
Making mud pies
building swings in a tree
meeting school friends
helping parents on allotments
wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
watching the grownups gardening
learning how to thrive as humans
even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch
Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.
The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.
During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.
When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.
The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.
We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.
Bright sunshine, frogspawn, daisies and a small tortoiseshell butterfly bathing in the sun. We’re out on the allotment every day and the flat is full of seedlings as the propagators encourage them into dangerously precocious growth under artificial lights. That’s the easy bit. Keeping them all alive and thriving for the next few weeks is a harder job altogether.
Every year we suffer from traffic jams for the simple reason that plants get bigger and we’re left trying to find space near a warm window to compensate for the move out of the ITU. The slow procession from the propagators to the ground on the allotment is one of the absorbing challenges of gardening. We’re always trying to steal a march on nature by persuading our late January chilli seeds that it’s really May in the tropics – i.e. warm, humid and with a constant 12 hours of sun – which, being a first floor flat in Bath requires a degree of cunning coupled with a few bits of kit. But once the plantlets move from their snug beginnings into our living room. the only thing they’ve got going for them is the fact that we have three large south facing windows; the spring equinox is only three weeks away and as long as we keep the room temperature at around 21C they seem to do well. We, on the other hand. soon reach the point where for two months we can’t close the shutters because they’re behind a wall of green.
However, with the polytunnel up and running (I put up a large suspended shelf yesterday), the progression will be propagator – living room – unheated hallway – greenhouse – polytunnel – and then wherever they’re intended to grow. It’s hardening off at a glacial timescale but happily it works for us.
I was pondering all this in the week when we happened to watch a TV programme on Cornish fishermen and I realized that, just like them, 90% of our skill (if we have any) is in obsessively reading weather forecasts, looking at the sky, feeling the temperature of the earth, flaring our nostrils in the late winter air and being willing to venture it all on a kind of informed hunch that this is the moment. We like to pretend that we’re flowing with the Tao, but our unspoken purpose is to beat the Tao at its own game. One year in four we win some; but then a late frost or an unexpected snowstorm gives us a massive reproachful slap and our humility knows no bounds. Winter and spring are locked in a battle over custody of the weather and they can both be spiteful. The balmy protective warmth of the greenhouse can become both freezer or furnace in the few hours snatched to go for a walk without opening/closing the doors. The tunnel is an unknown quantity in terms of its response to the weather, but we already know that the protection offered by warmer nights as the soil radiates back its stored heat can be followed by a temperature rise to 25 C in the morning sun – even with a cool wind blowing.
We’re so busy at the moment that it’s hard to find an hour to write, and I’m writing this with one ear on the sounds from the kitchen where Madame is potting out tomato seedlings. Later I’ll be turning the compost bins again, ready for a new start in a couple of months. We’re not yet self-sufficient in compost and neither do we have the amount of land we’d need to grow crops just for composting. I think John Jeavons, living in a country where space is plentiful, underestimates the challenge. So we buy in composted horse manure and also hot fresh manure in normal times – so not this year. But with anything bought-in there’s a risk of chemical residues than can harm tender plants or soil life like worms – and so we’re careful but we have to accept that we don’t garden in a perfect world.
With the big civil engineering projects on the allotment all finished – pond, irrigation and water storage and the tunnel are complete – we’re back to delightful pottering. More later – as my old friend Joan Williams would have said – God willing and a fair wind!
The window boxes looked so pretty today we decided to plonk them down beside the pond which, besides having a couple of aquatic plants literally chucked in has had nothing done to it since I dug it. We’ve spent so much time at the allotment that we get more pleasure from the early flowers where they are, than we would in the windows back at the Potwell Inn where they’re supposed to be.
The promised warm spell arrived yesterday, and so I checked the various soil temperatures. The open ground is at 10C – just below ambient, but gradually warming as the weather improves. The hotbed was miraculously running at 17C which, considering there’s no horse manure at all in it, shows what can be done with hay, woodchip and urine. Even the soil in the polytunnel has crept up to 12C after a couple of days with the cover on. The air temperatures were respectively outside 10C, greenhouse 14C until the sun got up; but the tunnel raced up to 25C while I was putting compost on the beds. I think we’re on a steep learning curve as we try to understand how the tunnel behaves, and this is the most dangerous time of the season because things go from boom to bust so quickly.
All day there were a dozen or more allotmenteers busy on the site. It’s more like a small village than anything else I can think of. We have gossip and sharing and all manner of dynamics going on – even while socially distanced – and for many of us this has been our sole human contact over the past year. Through the winter it’s been really quiet but today, lured by the sunshine, many more people showed up and started preparing for spring which, in meteorological terms is only a few days away on March 1st. Being a traditionalist I prefer the equinox because it’s that bit closer to the reliably warm spring weather. Tonight, for instance, with clear skies the temperature is likely to go down to freezing.
But the warm sunshine is more than welcome. The purple sprouting broccoli which looked all but dead last week has come roaring back to life and given us our first feed. For me that first taste is as good as the first cut of the asparagus; sweet and tender in a way that should make supermarket broccoli bow its head in shame.
When we got home we had a chat and we’ve decided to plant out the forty broad bean plants in the tunnel in case the overwintered ones aren’t much good. I have to say, though, they’re all tillering away like mad. I think they mostly make good roots during the winter months, ready to grow rapidly in spring. Having gone to all the trouble of building the tunnel we want to make maximum use of it before the tender plants go out in mid May.
So we’re as happy as could be. Tomorrow we’ll also be preparing the potato bags and they’ll begin life undercover to get the earliest possible crop.
At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.
The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.
Lost in translation
As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.
I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bête noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.
But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.
Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.
Not the best photo ever, but I spotted this little daffodil under the grape vine as we were leaving the allotment this afternoon. We mightn’t have gone up today because the weather was pretty wet and there was a strong but warm wind blowing in from the south under lowering grey skies – but a day indoors is never enough and when our son rang to say he could bring some old bricks over we jumped at the opportunity. We have a supply of heavy stones and slabs that we use to hold down sheets and fleece which have a way of working free from pegs, and so the offer of a few more was too good to miss – especially when he turned up with partner and grandchildren in tow and we were able to see them at last. No hugs and kisses, of course so our pleasure was tinged with an ache that any grandparent will understand, and when the middle child said “I miss you granny” we bit our lips and said we missed them all too. Of course we made plans to meet up properly for a big family picnic some time soon. At last there is the faintest light at the end of this awful year- which, ironically, makes it harder than ever.
But once you’re there you might as well work, and so I wheelbarrowed four loads of wood chip to restore the emergency drain that we’d dug when the apple trees were in danger of becoming waterlogged. The buds are all swelling now, which is good and bad news because we were pleased to see that the trees were still healthy in spite of the wettest winter ever, but on the other hand we’re still waiting for a delivery of five more bare root trees and we’re growing fearful that they’ll be out of dormancy before they can be despatched. I emailed the nursery last week and they rather fobbed me off with an anodyne “trust us” response.
After remedial work on the paths we trimmed back the frosted and dead leaves from the Swiss chard and a bed of brassicas. The purple sprouting broccoli have made an excellent recovery from their sorry state after being hammered by the prolonged east wind at -6C. Then we adjusted the fleece cover on the asparagus bed and hand weeded a couple of squatters. All the while a blackbird was singing up at the top of the site – a little bit rusty, so maybe it was a young male; but the sheer complexity of his song was breathtaking – with some unusual trills. Overhead a buzzard – quite a common visitor – was circling and ignoring the gulls that were halfheartedly mobbing it. There was no one else on the site. I’ve never minded working in the rain, not since I was a groundsman. In fact, laying hedges in filthy weather with a big bonfire was always one of my favourite jobs. With decent (breathable) waterproofs I’d rather be outside in the midst of it than watching the rain run down the windows – however warm it might be inside the flat.
We’re just waiting now for a sequence of dry days to finish tensioning the polytunnel and hang the door so we can mark out the beds inside and start composting them. We discovered that the uneven surface under the ground rails was preventing us from tensioning the polythene cover properly, so there are some adjustments still to be made before we can turn our attention to filling it.
At home the rapid germination of the tomatoes – 100% successful – took us rather by surprise and filled us with foreboding because we’d factored in a much longer wait for them. Only yesterday I went through the diary and marked the six countdown Saturdays before the predicted last frost – which means we’re going to have to protect them until after May 12th. The danger is that we land up with very leggy plants, not to mention having every window occupied by pots for weeks on end. Just in case, we bought more seed yesterday as an insurance against the young plants blowing our crop.
At this time of year the earth feels like a huge slumbering dynamo slowly waking up. We all sense it; the birds and the insects too. Everywhere you look there are old friends poking their leaves above the soil. The weeds need no gardeners to tell them when to grow. Maybe instead of diaries, journals, weather forecasts and spreadsheets, we should follow the plants in the hedgerows and ask them what to do next. We do make use of garden planning software to get some kind of a rough hold on the coming season, but I’ve had to invent imaginary beds alongside the main plan to house the last minute additions and impulse buys. Every day new seed catalogues come through the post, tempting us so it’s not easy.
One supplier of gardening tools did come to my notice this week. I stumbled on Blackberry Lane after a bit of a Google search for a UK supplier of some of the hand tools that crop up regularly in the American books I’ve been reading. Biointensive gardening, permaculture, organic and no-dig gardening all use a specific set of implements that don’t seem to exist in any typical garden centre. Being a born-again tool geek I just love finding tools that I’ve never seen or used. Anything that makes our allotment lives easier is worth at least a look. So I logged on to their website and then followed up with an email to Dave Taylor who, with partner Val runs the business and received a most encouraging and helpful reply within hours. So if you’ve ever wondered what a broadfork is, or what’s so special about Eliot Coleman’s hoes, I thoroughly recommend a look at their website. It’ll probably tempt you to make a purchase or two – who could resist an oscillating hoe? – and I’m not on commission and neither is he my cousin!
And now the wet boots are out in the hall and the Barbour, board stiff, is drying in the hall. The flat is full of the aroma of a cassoulet warming in the oven. Life is good. Spring is coming!
It’s always the same. The seed order goes in some time in December – that’s the sensible list. At that point we congratulate ourselves on being supremely organised whilst during the next weeks we order one or two extras. Then a sunny day in February offers a tantalizing glimpse of spring and we consult the diaries and decide that Valentine’s day is perfect for sowing the tomatoes and chillies; spark up the propagators, sow seeds and then comes a flurry of doubt in case we’ve missed something out – a chink opens in the flimsy armour and voila! we seem to have ordered some outrageous outliers. Melon? ….. why not? A few more lavender plants – not just ordinary ones, the scour the catalogue types, oh and bee plants – we can never have too many bee plants. In the mind’s eye the allotment must resemble Chatsworth by now because there’s not a chance of finding enough space to plant them all out.
It’s been a harsh winter for all sorts of non allotment reasons with record breaking rainfall as well, but suddenly we notice an extra hour of daylight – a precious gift. The first tomatoes have germinated, there are daffodils about to blossom on the allotment hedge and some lovely miniature irises in the spring window boxes. There’s a barely contained excitement in the air fuelled by the tiniest glimpse of the sun.
So when’s the last frost date? the little voice in my head asks. I whisper May 14th. What! May 14th …. Are you completely crazy? That’s two months away!
The mere thought of spring is intoxicating and we’re ready to drink a full crate of it. It’s a year today since we last spent a day on the Malverns with our son from Birmingham – the photos came up today and made me feel sad. We haven’t seen our grandchildren face to face since the summer and our other two boys have had to socially distance, so the closest we’ve been to them is in the car park. We’re not allowed to walk in the Mendips, go on field trips or take the campervan out, so the allotment is having to fill the empty emotional spaces in our lives.
And it does more or less do the job. We get up in the morning full of plans and with things to do, and we decorate the gaps with imaginary melons. In our heads the allotment will be the Garden of Eden come July – and although it won’t quite get there, it won’t be far off.
So these two photos are taken in different years and from opposite ends of the allotment; the first photo shows what the plot looked like at the weekend – it’s the same photo I used yesterday – and the other was taken on the day (in April 2016) when we took on the first half plot, just shy of five years ago. Having endured for 25 years a 1/3 acre garden that we never had time to garden properly because we were both in more than full time work, I always used to say that I’d like to retire to a flat in a tower block with no more than a single window box to maintain. Madame on the other hand was the real gardener – RHS trained and all that. My only horticultural training was as a groundsman (I checked just now and it seems that non discriminatory job titles like ‘groundskeeper’ or ‘groundsperson’ have not penetrated the arcane world of killing everything except proper grass – i.e. the kind you can play manly games on!).
We had always gardened over the years, with a big garden while we were at art school; a couple of allotments and various backyards and plots that occasionally rewarded and always absorbed us, but Madame would not be diverted from her ambition to create a proper allotment after we retired. We joined the waiting list the moment we knew where we were going to live, and I remember standing in a Bristol bookshop with two books on allotmenteering which were my way of backing down without actually saying so.
As always she was right and I have never been so wrong in my life. My dispiriting experience of not having time to garden very well was overwhelmed the first time we stood there in the corner of the plot with our newly signed agreement, and I realized that for the very first time we had genuine agency over a piece of land, and crucially, abundant time to tend it properly. No-one could lean over the garden wall and make snarky remarks like “another day off vicar?” The right hand photo at the top is taken from the spot where I first stuck a spade into the ground and fell in love all over again with the smell of the earth, and just above, here, is the very first thing we grew – a radish.
We had learned the hard way that trying to manage too large a plot of land is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Pests and diseases would take hold before we had time to notice; and my timesaving wheeze of rotavating the plot to clear it quickly merely distributed the bindweed, couch grass and brambles across the whole plot. The greatest mistake of all was to import a tractor load of horse manure infested with creeping buttercup roots. Our best efforts thereafter were confined to fighting a guerilla war with the weeds. There were a few successes and we gained the resilience to survive the inevitable failures and disappointments but I could never shake off the thought of the tepid testimonial – “Could do better“. One year we even freakishly won six classes in the village flower and veg show and for the next twelve months we had a small gilded plastic cup on the dresser with the prize cards behind it – but I always felt that we’d be exposed as frauds. The village stalwarts at the show made their feelings clear by rewarding us with lukewarm applause.
Time, energy, experience and opportunity have made all the difference, especially during the three lockdowns – actually in our case it’s been one long one. I’ve often said that the argument that gardening is good for the soul and good for mental health has been a bit over-egged these past months. In fact I think that the one thing gardening is supremely good at is teaching us a form of radical patience and relieving us of any illusions that we can control nature. It’s that sense of being able to take a step back from endlessly patrolling the ramparts that nurtures us. Faith in nature is free but not cheap; a kind of non dogmatic Taoism that gives us courage to bend to the will of the earth. This morning we stood and watched as a female blackbird searched the margin between the gravel boards and the wood chip path, removing a feast (for her) of slugs and eggs – no chemicals, no traps. Gardening is less like being the conductor, and much more like sitting in the third strings of a symphony orchestra counting the beats and waiting for your turn to play just a couple of notes.
And so we’re hovering on the edge of the new season – all prepped and ready to go. The beds are clear and composted, the greenhouse cleaned and already housing the hardy early birds and the polytunnel is ready. Of course, we’re never truly prepared because only time will tell what the seasons and the climate will throw at us this coming year. It looks as if the hungry gap will at least be covered by plentiful brassicas in their second season and we are looking forward (no – I am looking forward) – to learning an entirely new gardening language because, with our rapidly changing unpredictable climate, the more strategies we have learned the more resilient we shall be. The aim – as ever – is to put something good on the Potwell Inn plates every day of the year. Our parents and grandparents were all gardeners like us and I often think of my grandfather who was drafted into the Air Force during the First World War because he was a carpenter whose skills were needed to build the wooden frames of aeroplanes! It was on his smallholding in the Chilterns that my sister and I first met Charlie the toad who lived in the greenhouse, and watched as hay was cut and stooked in the field. Something is nagging me at the back of my mind that suggests we might soon be having to re-learn some of the skills he celebrated through his hands; and if not his skills, then possibly the skills of countless other gardeners, farmers and smallholders in different ages and cultures who may have something important to teach us as the oil runs out.
Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.
……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence
I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….
Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.
Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.
Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.
John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.
We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.
As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.
If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.
Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!
Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.
However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.
The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.
Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.
Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.
It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman