OK – so bare ground isn’t very photogenic, but this is a most enjoyable part of the allotment year because all the while we’re clearing last season’s crops, weeding and covering the ground with compost and a winter coat we’re chatting away about what went well, what went badly and what we’ll sow next season. The new seed catalogues are dropping into the postbox almost every day now and after three full seasons getting to grips with a new kind of soil we’ve got a much better idea what will work and what won’t. We’ve moved from a very difficult but typical Cotswold mixture of stone and clay, to a clay loam that – in its pristine state – balls up easily in a sticky mess.
In addition, we’ve watched the way our patch of land behaves over three full years. We’ve dug drains to conduct the worst of the water away; we’ve raised beds to get them above the water table because we’ve got an underground stream passing right beneath the allotment – you can see the water flooding across the pavement below after heavy rain. I suppose it’s a good thing to have some extra soil moisture in the hottest weather, but most plants don’t enjoy having wet feet for weeks on end. The strategies we’ve employed – draining, raising soil levels, adding organic matter to hold the surplus and adding some grit to improve water flow have all had some beneficial effects. By keeping careful notes of the way the sun tracks across the allotment over a year, we now understand that we get full sun (when there is any) for part of every day between the spring and autumn equinoxes. We also know where the frost will settle and we’ve even devised a few strategies for holding the cold air back or diverting it around. We know where the bad wind and the good rain come from and which direction is full of threat to our grapevines.
Today we decided to move some lavender bushes to a border which was previously full of camomile. The camomile was greatly overshadowed by taller herbs which inhibited its flowering, so this afternoon I lifted as many plants as I could and then topped up the bed with a mixture of 50.50 topsoil and horticultural grit which will suit the lavender much better and attract many pollinators to the edge of the allotment where, hopefully, we’ll lure them in with other plants.
While I was prepping the borders and tending the incinerator, Madame was sowing broad beans and planting onions and shallots. Obviously most of the sowing goes on in the spring, but beans, peas, garlic onions and shallots all tolerate or even appreciate a bit of a cold spell, and with a bit of luck give us an early crop.
Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen we cooked another veggie meal from Jamie Oliver’s new book and I lashed up a roasted tomato, onion and garlic soup for tomorrow’s lunch. This was the second meal from the same book this week. On Monday I cooked a white risotto with roasted tomatoes and today Madame made an aubergine curry. Both recipes were delicious – doing the right thing really is more fun. If I’m honest I started this year with an instinctive dislike of both aubergines and courgettes, but during our exploration of vegetarian food we’ve found ways of cooking them that I really like. There’s something about the range of colours, flavours and textures available from vegetables that makes my previous commitment to meat eating much easier to leave behind than I ever expected. I haven’t spent hours daydreaming about bacon sandwiches, and nothing would induce me to use meat substitutes which are, like it or not, industrial foodstuffs. I did make a veggie burger once with rice and beetroot to make it look like real meat – it was the most tremendous faff and didn’t taste very nice anyway. But even that didn’t taste nearly as bad as the vegan cottage pie from a National Trust cookbook. I think if vegetarian cooking is ever going to be mainstream, it needs to put all thoughts of imitating meat dishes completely to one side. My biggest reservation is the widespread lack of basic cooking skills. Not knowing what to do and having very little time and, in many small flats – almost no cooking facilities, is driving people into the dubious hands of the industrial producers of ready meals.
We’re nowhere near fully vegetarian yet, but the prospect of moving in that direction is more attractive than it’s ever been, and growing our own vegetables has given us a huge push in that direction. When we were both working full time we could never have given either the garden or the kitchen the attention we do now. Tomorrow there’s rain forecast so we’ll deliver the pumpkin to our grandchildren and collect a new battery for the campervan. Not much sitting around and reading is going on at the Potwell Inn!
Mind you, sometimes our unglamorous lives has its compensations. Two friends have just returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Japan where they watched the first three World Cup matched played by Wales while all the time expecting the arrival of a typhoon. Then they travelled on to Hong Kong where the riots inhibited their sightseeing. We just watched the council mend a hole in the road outside – very cheap and nobody got hurt.