I am absolutely full of admiration for this little plant. Three years ago someone further up the street planted some in a container and ever since then it’s made a slow march towards us, colonising every spare crack in the pavement. It’s tough, that’s for sure – forget anything the books say – it’s enjoyed relentless heat during the summer on the south facing terrace outside, and after the first hard frost I popped downstairs to see how it was and, as you can see, it’s still going strong. Every summer our caretaker, in her relentless pursuit of a sterile landscape, douses it in Roundup despite our protestations. The man from the council – if he’s got a minute – hoes it off too and the dear old fleabane shrugs its shoulders in a planty sort of way and gets on with its long march to the western seas. Interestingly, its cousin the Canadian fleabane keeled over after the frost – which seemed counterintuitive, but then, plants don’t read textbooks.
Meanwhile the allotment is in winter mode. Apart from the turnips, celery, celeriac, beetroot, spinach – actually I’ll take back what I just wrote – what I should have said was that much of the allotment is in winter mode. In truth the early purple sprouting is just beginning to push out little buds where the crop will soon appear. Every year we say it’s a waste of space because they take so long to grow, and every year we change our minds when we eat the spears.
We’re well into the winter truce, and while the allotment takes a deep breath and digests all the compost we’ve put on, Madame and me negotiate next year’s ideas. We’ve agreed (without rancour) that we’ll grow more cut flowers and increase the number and quantity of culinary herbs because they’re so expensive to buy. Whether I’ll get away with any more medicinal herbs remains to be seen but Calendula, lavender, thyme and hyssop will be there with many others in any case and most of the ‘wilder’ ones are great pollinators – plus they’re beautiful.
Many of the typical ‘medicine chest’ herbs grow wild locally and could be foraged carefully without any adverse impact. I’m not entirely sure why I’m doing this – it’s not as if I’m a great consumer of herbal remedies, in fact I’m a bit scared of some of them, but they’re a part of the ‘gift’ of nature; deeply entrenched in our culture – especially our literary culture – and to know some of the properties of plants helps to foster a non-dualistic, non religious worldview. That sound much grander than it’s meant to – when looking at a plant becomes a kind of beholding, something happens at a level much deeper than the rational. I suppose I could resort to that overused term spiritual, but I’d rather think of it as a deeper level of being human – no supernatural concepts are needed.
Anyway, the advantage of a bit more time is that it means a bit more time in the kitchen and the beginning of the annual war on black mould. Living in a concrete building means learning some new skills and avoiding using the filthy smelling chemicals used for combating mould has been a priority. But we’ve been experimenting with white vinegar which must work by changing the pH of the plaster. Initial results look good and diluted vinegar is brilliant for cleaning the windows as well. Meanwhile it’s been bread, cakes, and pancake experiments for me. The winter is a real change of gear, with abundant lectures, talks and exhibitions here in Bath. Tonight we’re off to a book signing by Celia Paul, who has an exhibition on at the same time as her book is published and was Lucian Freud’s muse. I’m wondering how she’ll handle it because she’s reputed to be rather shy and not given to small talk. Her sister, Jane Williams, was my tutor for a while.