Twenty years ago I’d have thought this was an unholy mess – purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn, courgette and nasturtium all growing through each other in a kind of uncontrolled wilderness. Today? – well, today it seems the most natural thing in the world. Here are some more glimpses of the allotment, photographed today –
This year we made the policy decision to sow companion plants out of curiosity mainly – would they help? Would they reduce pest attacks? blah blah blah …… what we realized in the end is that our plants are happier, much happier, and the whole allotment looks more like a work of art and less like a military display. We’ve had blackfly but it was quickly wiped out by a large population of voracious ladybird larvae. We’ve seen a few asparagus beetle larvae but, by and large, they haven’t damaged the plants. Cabbage White butterflies haven’t penetrated the brassica netting, flea beetle had a brief munch at the radishes but were not really a problem. We can only compare our own allotment with the immediate neighbours, and it seems clear that stress – be it through weather or lack of nutrients – seems to weaken plants and so (surprise surprise) the strongest and least stressed plants don’t get attacked. As for birds, we combined netting the most vulnerable plants like brassicas and the Apiaceae , with providing access to the ones that love to eat grubs slugs and snails and – later in the season – seeds. Because we’ve scattered so many pollinator attractors around the plot, the increase in yield makes up for the extra pests. Tagetes, Nasturtium and Calendula function as repellants and diversions, beer traps get the slugs the birds and (hopefully hedgehogs) miss, and there are many other speculative flowers spread around the beds.
You can either treat growing food in an allotment as a battle or a party. Our gamble seems to suggest that nature prefers a party.
As soon as we got back from Cornwall we unloaded the bags, had a cup of tea and went straight out to the allotment. Our youngest son had watered while we were away and everything looked – cheerful! – we were particularly pleased to see that the tomatoes that had had a pretty bad start in life, were going tremendously well and had their first trusses in flower. Madame had simply hacked off the straggly tops of a number of bush tomatoes and they too had thrown out side shoots and they too were going well. And so within twenty minutes we’d gathered potatoes, carrots and peas and set off back home.
The peas deserve a paragraph all to themselves. We’ve grown three varieties this year – we overwintered Douce Provence and then sowed Alderman and Kelveden Wonder in the spring. The Douce Provence were early and perfectly good; the Kelvedon Wonder aren’t quite ready yet but last night we harvested some of the Alderman. This is a heritage variety and really does better on beansticks as it will grow to over 5 feet. The favour of the Alderman was soooooo good – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better fresh pea. If you’re used to the frozen ones then you would probably think this is a different vegetable in a blind tasting. The pods were long and full of larger peas that were so sweet and tender they only really needed steaming for about a minute. Bliss! – and there are still many more to eat. Our food culture insists that it’s best to have our favourites available the year round (at hideous cost to the environment), but the allotment suggests that the greatest pleasures are the seasonal ones, the asparagus, the new potatoes, the apple off the tree and, of course the peas and beans and all the rest. The fact that it’s a fugitive pleasure seems to make it all the more intense – every dish is a holiday romance on a plate!
Back home then to deal with the Mugwort and the Pellitory of the Wall I’d gathered as medicinal herbs in Cornwall. It seemed to me that the best way to deal with them, given that I know next-to-nothing about how to use them, is to dry them and store them until I am a lot better informed. Even drying them turned ut to be something of a challenge, and much weariness of the eyes later I decided to dry them at 45C in the oven overnight. I would be able to see from the results whether they had lost their colour from overheating. And so they spent the night in the oven and emerged more or less unscathed at lunchtime today.
But during our morning session at the allotment today, Madame discovered a pretty well perfect specimen of Greater Plantain in the hotbed and that too will be added to the household pharmacopeia via the oven (and a great deal more study). Needless to say I shall be careful in my consumption of these remedies and not let the gathering of herbs exceed my botanical knowledge.
And so, without wanting to bang on about it too much, the natural world, upon which we rely absolutely, is abundant, glorious and healing. Shame you couldn’t possibly say that about our politicians. Were it not for the fact that I’m firmly attached to democracy I might go with the graffiti I saw years ago on a wall –
Don’t vote, it only encourages them!