Nothing serious – more like R&R in the form of a brief field trip to Cornwall to catch up with some old friends – mostly plants – and do a pile of reading in the sun. It’s tough but someone etc …..
woke up this morning to heavy rain in Bath – many thanks – and drove down quietly in advance of the Glastonbury hordes. There’s no internet on the campsite so this posting is by phone. If it all works I’ll be unable to resist another list, this time hopefully focusing on medicinal herbs. But right now it’s a camp chair, a cider and sunshine while we look out to sea. The only fly in the ointment is the shit tanker pumping out the tank right next to us. Pretty niffy I promise!
I photographed my favourite shed as we left the allotment this morning. Below is my favourite wheelbarrow.
Recycled plastic turf makes a brilliant breathable and long lasting cover for compost.
Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.
I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy. So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.
Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes. They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected. Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher. Better still the ground was easier to work by far. We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.
So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess. However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings. What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.
Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone. The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.
If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time. Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well. Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms. Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.
At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention. Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure. It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.
So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family. A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour. I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots. There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.
The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat. The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves. I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting. But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers, we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river. The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.
There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!
I’m still not completely sure I’m doing the right thing by passing so many of my books on, but the decision stands and the total I’ve disposed of is in excess of 350 – or nearer 750 if you count the ones I got rid of when we moved here. But they were the easiest ones, and now it feels like I’m eating ino my own history as box after box goes into the car boot. The ‘disposed of’ group includes a surprise hoard of college library books that I’d completely forgotten I ever had, but felt obliged to return to their rightful owner – which I did yesterday, and then discovered another four stowaways.
It’s feels like a rather revealing thing to do, as I hand them over a box at a time to the woman in the Oxfam shop. She was kind enough to say what interesting books they were, and inadvertently threw me into a bit of a tail spin because I felt I’d handed over something immensely personal – like a secret diary – to a complete stranger who would be listing them in some kind of inventory. No different than Google or Amazon and every other internet company who steals my most revealing information and then sells it on, but this was more personal and almost intimate. When I was an early teenager and because I was incredibly shy, buying books or clothes became an absolute torment because I couldn’t shake off the feeling that I’d be judged by what I was buying. It was only through the kindness of a bookseller called John- he was a bit of a legend – that I was given permission to browse all day if I wanted and buy whatever I wanted, but I never realized that disposing of my books would land me in the same place.
So now each book that goes into the boxes leaves me second guessing what the reaction will be – goodness knows what today’s four boxes of rather arid theology will have done to my street cred – especially after four similar ones on Monday. So not for the first time I blurted out the first thing that came into my head, and I wondered aloud why on earth I’d kept them all, and postulated that it was in case I forgot who I was. I could almost see her thinking I was trying to tell her I’d got some sort of dementia, not least because on Monday I’d said (in another moment of brain fade) that I was doing this so our children wouldn’t have to “when I popped my clogs”. I’m half expecting a letter of condolence from Oxfam and then my pointless shyness will turn into a clusterblurt.
So four more boxes of books and two guitars gone today, and my oldest son has contacted a removal company to take the piano to his house, while enquiring anxiously about the philosophy books which I promised I wouldn’t get rid of because I know that (eventually) he’ll give them good home. Meanwhile Madame has jokingly accused me of fancying the woman in the Oxfam shop, but I think I’m suffering a bit from some weird variant of Stockholm syndrome.
So the reason for the reference to log rafting in the title is that the raging flume of my unconscious has also to allow for the fact that this is busy busy time on the allotment. Now the crops are coming in earnest, and we’re struggling to cope with the pace of things. The overwintered broad beans have, at last, all been harvested and so we’ve had two sessions in which the Potwell Inn kitchen is transformed into a freezer production line. The three experimental plantings of garlic have now also been taken up and it’s clear that of the three varieties we tried the early purple bulbs were far and away the most successful. The batch of five elephant garlic yielded four real lunkers.
As the beds are emptied and become clear, our aim is to hoe the weeds off, give the beds a covering of composted manure and a handful of chicken pellets or fish blood and bone and get them back into production as soon as we can. This year we’re able to try the no-dig idea more easily because after three seasons of hand weeding we’re pretty much on top of most unwanted perennials, and the annuals are hoed off as they germinate. Today while I prepped the beds, Madame planted more runner beans raised in root trainers and also some modules of celery. After a bit of a wobble with the weather last week, the sun shone and after a few hours we were able to celebrate the solstice with the allotment looking at its most productive. “Blimey” – said Madame – “this feels more like a market garden”.
And as I type the title ‘Madame’ once again, I’m reminded that a friend said recently that she didn’t like me calling her by that name because it made her sound like a brothel keeper. Although nothing would delight me more than the thought of the Daily Mail reporting something like “retired priest found dead in Bath brothel” I’m afraid the explanation is much simpler. Madame prefers not to have her name published in the blog because she doesn’t want to lend her implicit imprimatur to the words I publish before she’s seen them, any more than I would suggest improvements to her drawings before they’re finished. There are certain subjects over which we do allow forceful dissenting views – not least the planting, disposition and maintenance of the allotments because we are both very srong willed and neither of us wants to assign agency to the other. It must work pretty well beause so far I’ve never had to remove a sharpened fork from my back, and it’s never got beyond the withering look and toss of the head stage.
And so we’re in ‘second crop” mode while we’re feasting on the first, almost at the stage of being able to choose what to eat off the allotment and then taking it home, while the autumn harvest is beginning to take shape in the ground. When I built the line of compost bins I was convinced they were far too big and we’d never fill them – but as you see the first bin is now pretty much full and in a couple of weeks it will be ready to turn.
In a perfect world – i.e. not the one we’re actually living in, crops would come along like parts in a car factory, perfect, exactly on time and in just the right quantities. The Potwell Inn allotment, on the other hand, is a boom and bust operation subject to the vagaries of weather, impulse buying and whatever pests happen to blow, creep or slither in. Therefore we are unable to impress anyone with photographs of complete gourmet meals straight off the allotment with no more than a rinse in our private springwater supply. The potatoes, which were worryingly slow to get going have now all flowered at once. The strawberries are in the midst of producing a glut, as are the Hungarian hot wax chillies, and don’t even mention salad leaves, but the onions were a lost cause, the tomatoes grew leggy while we waited for it to warm up and most of the squashes died at the seed leaf stage. We are – categorically – not experts
Apart from the glamorous world of coffee table gardeners, this time of year is relentless in its demands. The ground, which was thick with bindweed three years ago, is still capable of growing a towering six foot specimen in a week even after we thought we had picked every tiny piece of root out. Couch grass is easier to tame – provided you conduct a vengeful campaign of uprooting every time it pokes a leaf out above ground. But the worst ones are the annuals that grow from seeds blown across from the unlet plots. Willowherb is a particular and common villain, but we have a problem with a much less common plant which, notwithstanding its name – “common ramping fumitory” is not at all common in our area and so uprooting it seems like a small crime except for the fact that it has secret plans to take over the world – hence the “ramping” bit of the name.
In the winter I was slaving over the ‘civil engineering’ of beds, paths and bins and longing for the summer. Now it’s almost the solstice and every day, it seems, we’re unable to complete all the jobs that need doing because there just isn’t time and so neither are we able to doze in the deckchairs and listen to the bees humming – which is what most people think gardening is for, although – to paraphrase Ghandi – it would be a good idea.
AND – I’ve also been trying to sort out my study which, as I’ve already written, involves getting rid of several hundred books that I’d been clinging to in case I forgot who I was. Consequently the twin planets of the allotment and the study have swung into malevolent alignment. That said, though, the business of handing over boxes of books at the Oxfam shop and then rearranging the survivors in proper order on the shelves has had a very happy effect. I hadn’t realised how reproachful a shelf of unread books can be, and if – like me – you’re an olympian self-doubter, the constant look of unread-ness relating to a past enthusiasm can sap the will dreadfully. I’m sure this is the blindingly obvious core of the decluttering movement – old stuff ties you down, keeps you looking backwards. I’ve had persistent images of my (suitably sad) children taking the exact same books to the same Oxfam shop after my death and, frankly, I’d rather spare them the pain and reward myself with the sense of release that comes from sitting at my desk and being surrounded by books I use constantly and love.
Of course there are many that I’ll hang on to – Edward Johnston’s “Writing Illuminating and Lettering” which I bought when I was about thirteen; Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book” which I chanced on accidentally when I was nineteen and which changed the course of my life – just two of the milestones that I could never part with. My Grandfather’s copy of “The History of Mr Polly” where I found the Potwell Inn, has been promoted to glory among the very special novels.
Back on the allotment it’s pleasing to be able to say that the seaweed mulch that we applied in the winter to the asparagus bed has had the most astounding effect, and it’s growing taller all the time – I mean over five feet tall and climbing! We’ve been keeping a close eye on it because last year it was ravaged by asparagus beetles, but all we’ve been finding is lacewings which must have got there first. One painful lesson learned once and (hopefully) never forgotten is that asparagus beetles are not the same as lacewing larvae – so look before you squeeze. Luckily the presence of the adult lacewings and innumerable other pollinators working the flowers has prevented us from any spraying with soft soap, and so no harm was done by the misidentification.
We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –
Jazzy (first early)
Arran Pilot (first early)
Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.
The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes. But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week. The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up. We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.
As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant. It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.
Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth. So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.
However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop. This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go. These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.
By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden. Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia. Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.
My favourite shed on the allotment site. I’ve been photographing it regularly as it slowly collapses and it occurred to me that perhaps this is what I’m supposed to do. Well I’m not!
My study is a tip; it’s been that way for ages (for ever as my friends know) and I realized that it’s becoming alarmingly like that shed – full of memories but gradually sinking into senescence. I’ve already posted about getting rid of my piano which I can’t play anyway because we live in a concrete biscuit tin and you can hear someone opening a can of beans four floors up. Sound carries alarmingly well and soon after we moved here I played it just once and our downstairs neighbour was kind enough to say he’d heard me playing and it was rather nice. How typically English to use kind words to send a warning, and so I’ve never played it since.
In fact my room was becoming a kind of memorial to what I’d done in the past. When we moved here we got rid of hundreds of books, we even burned masses of old radio scripts that I knew I’d never read again. Years of bank statements, receipts, correspondence all went into the incinerator, and I wore a car out driving back and forth to the recycling centre. I burned thirty years worth of diaries – full of meetings that seemed important at the time, but full of the pain of illnesses and bereavements as well as weddings and baptisms I’d taken.
But there were many things I brought to Bath, not least yet more books. So many books, in fact, that they were stacked two deep on the shelves. The question is – was I ever going to read them again? They were comforting, they reminded me of times and enthusiasms past and yet they began to feel like a load that was cluttering up my future, and so today they started to go down to the Oxfam shop in order to make way for new books, new projects and enable me to open the shutters and let the light in. So first thing we walked down with two bags of books and the women at the Oxfam shop said they’d be delighted to take as many more as I’d like to bring.
All this all involved a division of labour at the Potwell Inn and Madame went up to the allotment to pick four and a half kilos of broad beans and two kilos of garden peas, the first strawberries, a tiny taste of very sour blackcurrants and some new season garlic, while I battled with my instincts to cling on to the books to the point where I reliquished another five boxes. Naturally my room looks worse than ever now, but when the piano goes I’ll have space to set up my botanical painting worktable. Lest this all sounds terribly worthy, I have to confess that I also ditched five boxes of absolute junk including a lifetime collection of old mains connectors and several heritage satellite TV boxes and broadband routers – oh and some power tools that died years ago and a load of rusty screws and bolts that I have no recollection of acquiring.
I think I’m supposed to say that I experienced some kind of catharsis and suddenly felt energised. Well no, as I took the last load of books down to the car, I had to fight the urge to go through them all again and my back ached. Yesterday we had a horrible drive back from RHS Rosemoor, with standing rain on the motorway reducing visibility so much one van driver had somehow managed to drive up a bank on the inside of the crash barrier. I don’t think they were much damaged, except in the pride department, but it was suprising how many drivers were ploughing up the outside lane at over 70mph.
Does any of this matter to anyone else? I truly don’t know except I do know that I’ve no intention of going quietly.
Do not go gentle into that good night, Old age should burn and rave at close of day; Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor. We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail. In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.
Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today. While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.
Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people. Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.
This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.
So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day. Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year. So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were. Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out. The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.
As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense. Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.
I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.
Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds. That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.
And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.
However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art. A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley. I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.
So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats. If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction. It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources. Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.
And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.
We’re in Devon in Little Torrington for a couple of days at RHS Rosemoor, but after a sunny drive down, the promised weather closed in and we enjoyed a magnificent thunderstorm coming in from the north west. The last two days have been very exciting and challenging and I’ll probably write more about them tomorrow, but several days of gallery visits, and a wonderful afternoon at one of my old parishes plus some pretty ruthless gardening by Madame have precipitated a good crisis – the origin of the word is a Greek word ‘crino’ – to choose. And so yesterday I gave an old friend most of my church music and today I gave away my piano and all my other music. Then I think there are many other books that need to go to the Oxfam shop. I need space and (because I’m pretty ancient) I need to focus on the things I really want/need to do. Time to let go of some precious things so I can focus on even more precious things. Far from being sad about letting these things go, I’m quite exhilarated.
I once met a man on a tram in Lisbon. In the course of a five minute conversation he told me how he had become very ill and he had given everything – and I mean everything away, and started to travel in faith that things would work out for him. I’ll never forget the end of the ride when he entreated me to pay attention. He meant it, I remember his eyes and the way he held my hands.
So we’re here in the rain in Devon and I’ve brought the laptop, a camera, three pencils, a notebook and some good paper and we’ll see what happens. Instead of coming down all the way on motorways, we split off and came down the B roads. Now we really understand the idea of the rolling hills of Devon, but the rivers we crossed were running red with soil, presumably being washed from fields – most likely fields growing maize. The whole soil-wealth of this place seems to be in the process of being washed into the sea.
After weeks of near misses, with the rain slipping past us up the Bristol Channel and into South Wales, today the rain gods smiled on us. Only 8.9 mm – less than half the forecast amount but nonetheless the best we’ve had for ages and when it dried up after lunch, we could almost hear the allotment gratefully guzzling it down.
However much you water by hand, it’s never as good as a natural soaking. I don’t know whether plants are affected by chlorinated water – it used to be the case that if you stood the water in a trough or even in a watering can overnight, the chlorine would evaporate leaving pretty much pure water (apart from the innumerable chemicals that couldn’t be filtered out). However I read recently that there are new ways of treating water with chlorine that persists for a longer period. I suspect that chlorine in any form has a deleterious effect on soil micro-organisms – the ones it’s used to kill in the pipes drrrr..
So rainwater is good and thunderstorm rainwater is even better as long as it’s not heavy enough to beat the plants flat. In fact, gardeners could probably furnish a whole vocabulary of rain types based on their usefulness. This occurred to me this morning as I looked out of the window at the Green and was faintly disappointed with the rain at first, until it increased a little and suddenly I could hear it falling on the leaves.
We instinctively judge rain and its qualities by sound and smell as much as by any other more scientific quality. Compare, for example the first few drops of rain falling in a summer storm – big fat, heavy drops, with – let’s say – the sound of misty rain drifting down on to a window, or driven rain coming in almost horizontally in a winter storm. Any gardener would opt for a prolongued spell of the gentle but continuous rain that falls on a windless day, followd by warm sunshine – perfect growing weather.
And it was while I was imagining those big fat drops I remembered a pub we used to drink at, on a busy crossroads opposite a stand of very tall elms – before Dutch elm disease took its toll. There was a big rookery up in the trees, and if you were lucky enough to be sitting on the bench outside the pub on a hot summer day when the raindrops started to fall, whack, whack, whack on the leaves and then gathered in intensity as the sky turned to Paynes Grey straight from the tube, and the agitated birds called and chattered, and that unique smell of rain on hot tarmac and parched grass rose into the air, then you might have been transported to the Potwell Inn for a moment, until the rain drove you inside. The very thought of it left me pining for a lost age, and given half a chance I’d have got ino the car with (protesting) Madame and driven straight there. But the pub has shut down, the elms have all gone and a housing estate covers the fields almost to the edge of the road. Nostalgia eh? rubbish emotion!
And so the allotments have been properly watered at last with the right kind of rain. The rain you don’t want is the stuff they get in North Wales where it rains sideways and each drop is encrusted with industrial diamonds that saw you in half; or in Cornwall where it rains every day, but only just enough to be annoying, or up the M5 along the ridge north from Bristol where it often doesn’t rain at all but just sits there in a cloud sulking in a fog. You don’t want the rain that comes with gusting winds, or anything that comes with hailstones, and especially not snow that breaks your nets and snaps off branches.
Moderation in all things is the name of the game, and the only way to do that is to protect the crops as best you can with nets and windbreaks and if you’re luckier than us, polytunnels, and save every drop of rainwater you can. Oh and concentrate on drought resistant varieties species and varieties. There’s always a way: except there isn’t when things get past the tipping point, and then it all gets ugly. But unlike buses, you can save rain until you neeed it.