Just add flowers

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Even a concrete blockhouse constructed in brutalist neo-Georgian can benefit from a few window boxes and the Potwell Inn fits that description pretty well.  This line of thought was prompted when we dropped off at a country pub yesterday, after a bruising encounter with the till at a garden centre.  It happened that we’d just spent (as always) more than we intended on filling our window boxes for the summer.  They always look as lovely from the inside as they do from the road, and it’s our little gift to the neighbours, so window boxes join the other protected budgets like books, art materials and the campervan. Oh and wine too, I suppose.

However, the pub was clearly in trouble since their hanging baskets were pretty much dead and there was an advert on the door appealing for bar staff, a chef, in fact anyone prepared to throw themselves under the oncoming train of HMRC and all the other creditors.  Best bitter – flat; crisps – not available (“we had a busy weekend”). Negotiations with an agency chef were being conducted in the empty bar but we were far too polite actually to crane our necks in order to listen in.  Sad, isn’t it, to see a fellow licensee going under even when your own pub is virtual?  We could have planted up their window boxes in an hour and the place would have looked like a going concern.

IMG_5298Back at the Potwell Inn we too have deceased window boxes, hence the trip to the garden centre, and the generally decrepit look outside the Gulag. Dead daffodils don’t have the same attraction as their younger selves. Inside, on the other hand, is a different matter.  It looks like the morning after a student party but the mess comprises hundreds of plants in different stages of development, and unsteady piles of garden reference books – far too many of both.  The kitchen is all but unuseable except for picking the supply of basil and brewing tea. IMG_5299The simplest meal involves a tremendous amount of moving  – gravel trays, root trainers and any receptacle that can be pressed into service cover the table and much of the floor.  This period is always a great boon to the freezer which needs emptying in the next couple of months ready to store fresh produce. Truth to tell however, there’s only so much chard, broccoli and frozen borlotti beans a person can cheerfully consume – even in a good cause – and I found myself looking lustfully at a ready meal in the supermarket today.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

Yesterday while I was adding some kitchen waste – tea leaves, peelings and discarded leaves – nothing cooked – to the compost heap.  I pulled off the layer of cardboard on top, and there was a scurrying of little feet followed by a dirty great rat that leapt upwards and away in one athletic bound. I don’t know which of us was more scared. It’s almost impossible to eradicate them entirely but the danger of leptospirosis is very real and so strong measures have been taken to discourage them. Vegetarians please look away now, although I doub’t anyone would eat a rat except from dire necessity!

IMG_5303So today at the allotment I extracted the first victim from a trap with a tinge of sadness mitigated by the knowledge that this one at least wouldn’t be peeing on our lettuces. Elsewhere, with the help of a decent amount of rain, the potatoes have roared ahead. It is a true conundrum, the way that however hard we water, a couple of hours of rain brings on the allotment far better.  What is the magic ingredient in rainwater that trumps the expensively processed stuff that comes out of the tap? Or is it precisely the expensive chlorine enriched processing that holds tapwater back from giving our plants what they really need?  Yesterday I planted some companionable nasturiums amongst the apples. They’d been languishing in a half tray in the cold frame but had never thrived. I transplanted them with no great hope of success but the alternative was to throw them away.  This afternoon we took another look and an unbelievable transformation had taken place. In fact everything in the fruit cage looked as if it had been given a dose of steroids during the night.  The strawberries had drawn up to their full height and were seeming to invite me to ‘step outside’ if I even mentioned the possibility of straw to hold their fruit above the ground. The nasturtiums had picked up so much I wondered whether we’d be spending the rest of the summer getting them under control.  Plants have this way of talking to us – if only we’d listen. Perhaps that’s all that ‘green fingers’ amounts to, the capacity to listen to what they’re saying.

And so the summer window boxes are all planted up.  The logistical problems of taking the spent ones down two floors to the garage and carrying the new ones up the same way are a tiny bit intimidating when your knees are shot, but the rewards are immense. When those trailing plants get underway they can go right down the wall and past the lintels of our downstairs neighbour’s windows too. All good, then.

Moving day for chillies

It’s been an extraordinary Easter weekend and weather records are being broken all over the UK.  Given that the Easter is a moveable feast, it’s hardly surprising that it’s warmer when it’s three weeks later than last year, but even so it’s been exceptionally hot, feeling more like June than April.

We had a binge on beetroots, sowing five small blocks of different varieties for a bit of a flavour experiment, and as I was sowing I noticed just how expensive the so-called ‘heritage’ seeds are. It manifests itself not in price, but in the feeble quantity of seed you get for your money. I’m rapidly converting to seed saving, I think.  We’ve grown quite a few things from saved seed this year, and it seems to me that once you’ve ensured proper name and date labelling and storing seed properly, there’s everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Obviously the big companies would just love you to spend pounds on new seed every year, and they love to hint at forbidding difficulties, but this year’s overwintering onion sets have been a sad waste of time and money and next season we’ll grow onions from seed – wider choice and a fraction of the price. Beside saving money, it seems that plants adapt to local conditions much quicker than we normally assume and so seed, soil and situation can converge to give excellent results. In our last parish there was a gardener called Tim Brommage – a retired firefighter – who had a variety of small tomatoes saved year by year since the 1940’s and quite delicious.  Sadly he died in his nineties and took the seeds and the knowledge with him.

No doubt F1 hybrids and commercial varieties have their uses if you want to grow vegetables exactly like the ones in the supermarket, but it’s likely to be disappointing if you don’t follow the same intensive regime – chemicals and all. Commercial varieties have to be as tough as old boots to survive long journeys in a lorry and high yields often leads to poor flavour. Time to welcome the quirky, the knobbly and downright weird open pollinated plants  – after all, allotmenters aren’t only interested in profitability, thank goodness!

Early on Sunday morning when I went up to the allotment early to water and open the greenhouse, the Abbey bells were ringing.  It was a hauntingly beautiful sound and somewhere at the back of my mind the last piece of a jigsaw dropped into place and I realized that the feeling of listlessness I’d been feeling since Thurday coincided exactly with the fourth anniversary of the last Easter I’d celebrated in my parishes. I really thought I was over it, and yet the sense of bereavement had insinuated itself into the depths of my mind, so I watered and sang easter hymns to myself and that was that.  The allotment is a great consolation and I’m glad not to be tearing around the countryside taking services on four hours sleep.  Madame too is pleased that I’m not collapsed in a chair exhausted after days running on empty.  But it’s over – sometimes I miss it so much, but there’s no looking back.

So the bank holiday Monday was supposed to be at least a bit of a break, but the Potwell Inn is so overrun with growing plants we simply had to get some of them out to make room for the newcomers. This year we bought a second set of propagator lights, and that’s been very useful but it’s given rise to several horticultural traffic jams. The chillies have done so well in the warm sunshine of our south facing windows that several of them have set their first fruits. With the second wave of plants close to being potted on, we had to move the first twelve large plants up to the greenhouse.  So they all went into the lift and down to the lobby, and thence to the allotment where I carried them down a tray at a time in the wheelbarrow.

But the greenhouse was running at a steady 35C despite our best effort to cool it down, and so one of the aubergines immediately fainted with heat stress.  A & E procedures were immediately adopted and the aubergine slowly recovered during the afternoon. Beyond that I spent a pleasant afternoon hoeing where it was safe, and hand weeding where it wasn’t. For the most part the couch grass is vanquished to the edges of the plot, but the bindweed never seems to give up, and it can grow a foot in an hour if it thinks I’m not watching. This is probably the busiest time of the gardening year, and it’s all too easy to let things slip.  The payoff comes later.

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Cast not a clout ’till may be out.

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May, in this case, being not the month but the hawthorn flower – notwithstanding the pedants who claim it refers to the begining of June.  Of course it’s the flower, silly, hawthorn might well be flowering earlier and earlier due to climate change and it seems appropriate to pay attention to that inconvenient fact rather than go by the (disputed) Roman calendar. Whatever – today we took off the last of the winter clothes from the new beds and at last the allotment looks like a garden rather than a recycling centre. A early morning trip to the sawmill saw me drive back with a precarious load of stakes ready for the new peas.  This year we’ve decided to grow a heritage variety called Alderman which reaches five or six feet in height and therefore needs a different form of support.  We decided to go for biodegradable Jute netting which we could buy in 10 metre lengths at 2 metres high – just right for our beds.

While I was at the sawmill, Madame was repotting the chillies, peppers and aubergines in the kitchen.  They’re growing so quickly it’s a struggle to keep up, but it’s going to be at least a fortnight until we dare to take them up to the greenhouse.  So then, this afternoon, we got on with clearing beds of their winter wrapping, watering the many seedlings that need lots of TLC at this time of the year and planting out successional sowings in anticipation of a week of warm weather.

I was daft enough to take a book up, thinking I might grab some time in the sun but – at this time of the year particularly –  the jobs are queueing up to be done.  It was so good to wake up this mornng to the news that Mark Carney was warning businesses to take climate change seriously or face enormous losses. There’s definitely something in the air, and the present wave of demonstrations seem to be resonating with many people rather than just annoying them.

As the allotment matures, and (the first half) enters its third season it’s settling down and looking – dare I say – as if it’s been there forever, which goes to show just how unnatural nature generally is.  As Sam Goldwyn once said, it’s all about sincerity and once you’ve learned to fake that you’re made. But walking around amongst the plants they feel more and more like children  You can see when they’re pleased with themselves and you can see when they’re not doing so well and need a bit of help or encouragement. There’s an old saying that the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer and it’s absolutely bang on.  Plants don’t just die, although blight can make it feel that way, but generally they tell you when something’s wrong. The time spent looking at our plants is never wasted and may well be as important as hoeing on some days.

But our biggest problem – as always – is that we’ve propagated many more plants than we can concievably  find space for so a bit of bartering is inevitable.  As I write, my shoulders are burning from the first touch of sunburn of the year – I really shouldn’t, given my risky history, but the sun warms the soul as much as it threatens the skin, and I’ll promise to be more careful in the future. The conditions in the hotbed are provoking a surplus of growth – particularly among the beets and radishes, and luckily the leaves of both taste pretty good too.  Tomorrow we’ll plant out the heritage peas and maybe I’ll even sit down and read for half an hour! The first photo is of the remarkable sweet cicily plant which has survived infinite hardships and just come into flower.  The other flowers are wallflowers which were alive with bees all afternoon.

How about raw rhubarb in a salad?

IMG_5267There aren’t many occasions when we eat out when I don’t come home with an idea to try out. I must confess I’d never even thought of eating rhubarb raw before we were offered it in a mixed salad at the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  To be fair it was just one ingredient but it tasted pretty good – I just had no idea whether it had been prepared in some way. My first thought was that it could have been fridge pickled, but it’s already pretty sour and so I experimented this morning by chopping the rhubarb into chunks and pouring over it a boiling mixture of water, raspberry vinegar (home made) and a little salt – and then allowing it to cool completely. I tasted it and it still seemed to need a little sweetness, so I stirred in a tablespoon of undiluted rasperry vinegar. It tasted very good and would add a tart component to any mixed salad.  My guess is that it would be even better using early season forced rhubarb but this year we relocated all our plants on the allotment and so forcing was out of the question.

IMG_5268Back in the flat, the chillies, peppers and aubergines have all left the propagators and are sitting in the south facing windows waiting for the temperature outside to allow them into the cold greenhouse. They’ve been replaced by the whole second wave of tender seedlings and so this begins the period when we can’t close any of the shutters and every available inch of floor space is in use.

Up at the allotment it was mostly routine stuff – not least mending a puncture on the wheelbarrow caused by a gooseberry pruning on the path. But I love it just pottering around and doing a bit of hand weeding or hoeing.

One of our big discoveries this year has been the variety of basil varieties available  as seed.  So far we’ve tried two, and now we’ve ordered two more and maybe we’ll try another later in the season.  Allotmenteering isn’t free or even cheap and I couldn’t put my hand on my heart and say that we save money against supermarket prices. I was in Lidl today buying the cheapest possible beer for our slug traps, and I was amazed at how cheap their vegetables were. They were certainly flying off the shelves but I wondered what the human and environmental cost of production would be. On the allotment we may spend more on our veg, but we know exactly what’s gone into their production, they taste better than anything you could buy, they’re fresher than anything you could buy and we get to choose exactly the varieties we prefer. We’ll  have five mints – all quite different, and now four basils, three thymes and so it goes on. We can grow for flavour and the final bonus is the exercise and sheer joyfulness of growing things.

Tonight we ate what will probably be the last picking of our purple sprouting broccoli, but we’re still picking chard and true spinach.  This is the real beginning of the hungry gap for us, but the allotment is full of growing crops and the hotbed is giving us an abundance of salad leaves, spring onions and radishes. It won’t be very long before our container potatoes give us a small crop and the broad beans are at the point of setting pods.  We shan’t actually go hungry of course, and we’ve got loads of preserved and frozen tomato sauces so pasta dishes will probably be featuring largely, along with the frozen borlotti beans.

The Potwell Inn oven door broke a few weeks ago and we steeled ourselves for a big bill, but a local tradesman who glued our broken dishwasher back together – saving us a replacement – also mended the oven yesterday and so I can bake again.  Tonight I’ll mix the first batch of sourdough sponge. Outside the world is going to hell in a handcart.  At the weekend I watched in horror as a couple of players from the local rugby club beat a homeless man unconscious, accusing him of stealing a wallet. I called the police but the police bike was in use in Midsomer Norton so nobody was able to attend. I’m five foot seven and seventy two years old and the two players were around six foot four and in their twenties, so I thought twice about heroism. The man recovered and wandered off and they walked home without a care in the world. Another neighbour turned up and the victim  tried to blag his bus fare off her, so he probably survived.  But if I were the Bath Rugby Club manager I’d probably advise them not to wear their club training tops in future – it doesn’t quite tell the story the corporate sponsors want to convey!

We all need to choose!

Two pictures that seem, to me, to express a parting of the ways that’s so important the future of the earth depends on us taking the right direction. The first was taken in Portscathoe, Cornwall in October 2014.  A green lane and bridleway that we often used, and which had ancient hedges on either side was flailed, presumably to make space for farm equipment to travel up and down. The second was our organic hotbed, taken this afternoon.  Notwithstanding the difference in the seasons, the lane will never properly recover, and the displaced small mammals, insects and birds may never return. The hotbed, in its various iterations will go on providing good food and spent manure to the soil for as long as we are able to tend it.

Last time we went to Heligan I took with me Wendell Berry’s collection of essays “The world ending fire” and it lit me up.  So too this last visit when I read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” and followed that with my latest read – “Green and Prosperous Land” by the economist Dieter Helm. It’s so easy to get despairing and cynical about the state of the earth and it’s vital the we don’t get sucked into a mindset that plays into the hands of the agrichemical industry and the climate change deniers. I spend a lot of time trying to make connections between what’s possible for an individual or a couple like us and the sort of global change that’s needed. It’s no accident that the isolated individualism of our culture plays into the sense of helplessness.

Yesterday I was talking to a leading light in our neighbouring community garden -with which we share an ugly boundary of Cupressus.  When I explained a plan to replace it with a more natural hedgerow he agreed completely and then spent the next five minutes explaining why it would be difficult, the Parks Department would never agree and they’d make us pay for it all anyway.  He was probably correct in every sense and yet …… ?

I know I quoted the old management saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” only last week, and it’s still true – but that’s not a reason for giving up. It just means that we need to go about it in a different way, by changing hearts and minds.

There was a warm southeasterly wind today. It was so strong it pulled out all the pegs on one side of a net guarding our chard from the pigeons, and left it flapping helplessly. We fixed it and moved on to other jobs.  We don’t talk much on the allotment, we both know what needs doing and we seem to divide the work without much discussion, each according to our preferences and abilities. It is a place of sanity and re-enchantment, and  a place where our 250 square metres can represent the whole earth in our experiment in low impact living. It is, in truth, a culture of its own and the truly radical thing about new cultures is that they’re caught and not taught, and they don’t care a fig about power, wealth, gender or age. Individually the choices we make don’t change the world much. But collectively? that’s a different matter altogther. Collectively we can change things if we can only believe that it’s possible.

Hi Veronica – Hi Violet

So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop.

In a ideal world- that’s to say the one we don’t actually inhabit – I would organise my botanising a bit better – but what I mostly do is start out resolved not to spend the whole walk rooting around at ground level, and then reinforce my decision by leaving behind everything I will eventually need.  Field guides – out, pocket magnifier – out, camera with ridiculously expensive macro lens – out. Mostly, then, I take my mobile phone a weatherproof notebook and a space pen that writes in the wet.  Serious field botanists are the ones that walk around with a permanent crick in their necks carrying a clipboard with the vice-county list on it and they know the plants by heart. I’m so unconfident that I could easily persuade myself that a dandelion might not really be a dandelion at all, but any one of a dozen similar looking plants.

This is a serious challenge, although I joke about it. I was in my twenties before I realized that not all dandelions were dandelions but could be cats’ ears or hawkbits; and even dandelions live such promiscuous lives that their microspecies number in hundreds. There are people out there who can sort them out, but not me. So I muddle along like all self-taught amateurs, fearful that I’ll make a complete idiot of myself by mispronouncing a name or fail to get even close to identifying a plantain properly.

I know that the proper way to do it is to gather all the information I know I’ll need but in reality I never do.  My phone photos don’t have sufficient depth of field and so the very detail I need is just out of focus and useless.  I fail to observe the shape, pattern and placing of leaves, or whether the roots are creeping, and if the stalk is square or hairy, and don’t even ask about flowers! I found a despairing note today in my journal from three years ago where the identification of a very common plant hinged on my understanding what a ‘hemi zygomorph’ might be. Aaargh.

Some families are real killers – Apiaciae, umbellifers to most of us, are stinkers and I’ve spent hours getting them wrong.  The culprit at Heligan last week was Angelica sylvestris  – wild angelica – which I can’t say I’ve ever noticed before.  But our walks took us through a very wet and marshy habitat which has a flora all of its own. All of which grumbling is a long way of saying that my resolve to list all the flowering plants we found has been frustrated by my inability to nail the second plant from the left, top row because I only had a rubbish photo.  The closest I can get is one of the forget me nots, but which one I can’t say because I didn’t get enough information. Veronicas and Violets have the same capacity to drive me mad because even with 100% hindsight there’s no substitute for plodding through the keys with a hand lens and a partner with more patience than Madame posesses. Enough! There’s a daisy and a dandelion there that I am confident I recognise and can name, except the dandelion will have to be Taraxacum agg, which is scientific for WTF?

Why am I writing this? I love every moment of it, and every foray into the ordinary everyday plants that I vaguely recognise (like most people) makes the world feel richer, deeper, more complicated, more generous and simply more beautiful.

Potatoes, however, are easier to list – I just had to walk up the rows at Heligan and write them down.

  1. Pink fir apple
  2. Shetland black
  3. Lumpers
  4. Tyecroft purple
  5. Herd laddie
  6. Ninetyfold
  7. Vitelotte noir
  8. British queen
  9. Beauty of Bute
  10. Edgecote purple
  11. Early market
  12. Snowdrop
  13. International kidney
  14. Forest gold
  15. Myatts ashleaf
  16. Lord Rosebery
  17. Royal kidney
  18. May queen
  19. Early rose
  20. Sharpes express
  21. Red Duke of York
  22. Epicure
  23. Arran pilot

On the allotment ths year we’re growing pink fir apple, Arran pilot, jazzy, red Duke of York and sarpo mira. I love the fact that these old varieties are being kept alive because we may well need their genetics in the future, but I’m grateful for the efforts of plant breeders who can increase blight resistance in a potato like sarpo mira to the point where they’re safe to grow, even in our blight ridden weather.

Later today we’ll be up at the allotment.  The potatoes are very nearly ready to ridge up for the first time.  We’re expecting warmer weather for at least a week, and every day we creep closer to the time when our tender plants won’t be ravaged by a late frost. Happy days.