On our knees – literally!

We knew that this part of the growing season would be tough – it always is – but it’s been more demanding than ever for a number of reasons. There was the weather which has set us back by around three weeks for the tender plants; then there was the polytunnel which has been both a joy and a challenge to use; but then, finally, there’s the fact that we’ve made a dramatic change in the emphasis of the allotment this year; building the pond and changing the planting scheme to include a large number of insect and bee attractors; making companion plantings in the vegetable beds, introducing more fruit trees and reorganising the fruit garden. We’re not rich (that’s an understatement) so most of the plants we’re introducing were grown from seeds which has been an experience in itself. Some of the seeds were saved from our own crops last year too, in fact the Calendulas (pot marigolds) from which we harvest the flowers to make creams were more successful than the packet of seed we paid for.

When we got back from our mini break on the Mendip Hills we knew that as soon as the weather cheered up a bit we would have three or four days of pretty relentless planting out. Passing the last frost date was the starting gun for moving tomatoes, peppers, a small variety of melon (Minnesota Midget) and aubergines into the tunnel. We’ve companion planted them with Calendula, Tagetes and four types of basil. We’d scanned YouTube for hints on how to support the tomatoes in particular and by the third plant I’d refined it to a number of bold steps approach; digging and preparing the planting holes and fixing the supporting polypropylene strings – which we shall re-use year on year – and dropping the plants into their places. We’ve managed to clear sufficient space for the newcomers without sacrificing too many of the existing plants. The Japanese turnips will be harvested in a couple of days, the radishes had raced past their best, as had the spinach and the carrots were just about big enough to eat – more on that later. Some of our lettuce surplus we gave away to our allotment neighbours. That’s one of the nicest things about allotments, they’re highly cooperative, collaborative little micro communities.

Planting up the tunnel has taken three days, what with moving all the plants out of the flat, and the working environment hovered around 30C ( 86F in America) and nurturing them through those crucial 24 hours while they get accustomed to the radical temperature swings. There’s nowhere in the flat to replicate even a moderate degree of temperature swing to harden them off, and all we can do is clog up the communal hallway with them for a few days. Happily they all seem to like their new surroundings. The strawberries certainly do – they’re ripening already and as soon as they’ve finished they’ll go into a spare corner outside (if we can find one) and we’ll propagate some more by runners so we can double up next year for free!

Outside, the rather regular plantings have been broken up by inserting dozens of marigolds and other plants between them. Our neighbour was digging out a problem patch of borage and so I’ve put two clumps of them under the water butts where they’ve got full sun and nowhere much to invade. Right now the beds still look quite regimented but in a month or so they’ll probably look quite messy. Excellent! Today I also found time to empty the spring window boxes and remove all the bulbs for next year. We had filled them with a mix of compost and about 50% grit to allow them to drain freely, and all the spent medium went straight on to bottom of the plot where we’re slowly creating a long, narrow bed of freely draining and poor soil which houses the Mediterranean herbs. Nothing ever gets thrown away at the Potwell Inn – we even save the ashes when we sacrifice the bindweed to the garden gods in November. They’re full of free potash.

The war on slugs has been a losing battle, and so today the heavy artillery arrived in the post, and the worst of the beds will be watered with nematodes tomorrow before we plant any more beans outside.

The last job today was to prep a bed for the three sisters planting experiment, mixing Crown Prince winter squash, Painted Mountain corn and borlotti beans. It’s the only patch of the allotment that we’ve never cropped because it lies above one of the underground watercourses. I’ve spent a year adding compost and sand to open up the heavy clay loam and improve drainage and I think (hope) it’s the ideal place to grow water greedy plants. We used the same technique to drain the beds below it on the slope with pretty reasonable results, although nothing would have coped with the amount of rain we had after Christmas.

But to go back to the thinnings. On Monday we were both exhausted when we got back and we knocked together a mixture of the thinnings we’d gleaned during the day. Together – although they looked like nothing you’d ever think of buying in a supermarket – they made a delicious and rather thought-provoking meal. Something has happened over the past 12 months of lockdown. Previously, eating our own produce has induced a degree of pride; the – look what we grew – pleasure and an almost aesthetic experience. But on Monday, remembering how disrupted the food chain had become, feeding ourselves narrowly crossed the line into an altogether different sense of the daunting challenge of providing food for ourselves. I remember reading a short story by Seán O’Faoláin many years ago, which described beautifully and rather desolately the struggles of an Irish peasant farmer. You couldn’t and never should try to romanticise how difficult subsistence farming is. We call it self-sufficiency and imagine it allows us to claim the high moral ground. It doesn’t, of course, it just makes us look like over indulged rich people.

I’m posting this without spellchecking because there’s a programme on Psilocybin treatment for depression I want to see on television – draw your own conclusions on that! Corrections to any egregious errors will be made tomorrow.

Author: Dave Pole

I've spent my life doing a lot of things, all of them interesting and many of them great fun. When most people see my CV they probably think I'm making things up because it includes being a rather bad welder and engineering dogsbody, a potter, a groundsman and bus driver. I taught in a prison and in one of those ghastly old mental institutions as an art therapist and I spent ten years as a community artist. I was one of the founding members of Spike Island, which began life as Artspace Bristol. ! wrote a column for Bristol Evening Post (I got sacked three times, in which I take some pride) and I worked in local and network radio and then finally became an Anglican parish priest for 25 years, retiring at 68 when I realised that the institutional church and me were on different paths. What interests me? It would be easier to list what doesn't, but I love cooking and baking with our home grown ingredients. I'm fascinated by botany and wildlife in general, and botanical illustration. We have a camper van that takes us to the wild places, we love walking, especially in the hills, and we take too many photographs. But what really animates me is the question "what does it mean to be human?". I've spent my life exploring it in every possible way and the answer is ..... well, today it's sitting in the van in the rain and looking across Ramsey Sound towards Ramsey Island. But it might as easily be digging potatoes or making pickle, singing or finding an orchid or just sitting. But it sure as hell doesn't mean getting a promotion, beasting your co-workers or being obsequious to power, which ensured that my rise to greatness in the Church of England flatlined 30 years ago after about 2 days. But I'm still here and still searching for that elusive sweet spot, and I don't have to please anyone any more. Over the last 50 or so years we've had a succession of gardens, some more like wildernesses when we were both working full-time, but now we're back in the game with our two allotments in Bath.

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