My dog-eared I Ching brings some peace.

On the allotment there are signs that our attempt to draw in more wildlife is beginning to bear fruit. The pond is the most visible result of our decision and it’s already got tadpoles, snails and water boatmen and there are often hoverflies nearby – plus it’s being used by birds to take a drink. The bird feeders too have drawn in robins and blue tits, but the most remarkable visitors are jackdaws that can hover just long enough to peck a few seeds out. When we put fat balls out they disappeared overnight until we moved them into a double walled holder where the mesh is too small for them to get to the food. The bee in the photo is hard to identify but it’s probably one of the many species of miner bee – it was sunning itself on some fleece. The jackdaws, like the robins, are quite unafraid of us – rather like the female blackbird who scratches around on the edges of the wood chip paths extracting slugs and their eggs while keeping a comfortable couple of metres between us. There are also blue tits, jays, magpies, crows and pigeons which can be a thorough nuisance if you don’t protect your crops with nets.

St Francis in the corner is doing a good job with the local wildlife – except for the rats! Notice the robin on the trellis

A red letter day

Yesterday we took the plunge after checking out the weather forecasts which all said there would be no frosts for the next 14 days, which takes us beyond the latest ever frost date. So out went the potatoes in their containers, and several trays of young plants were moved to the next stage of their hardening off, this time outside, just under some insect netting and protected from the wind. Then we sorted the tomato plants into their various varieties and removed their protective hoops and fleece.

Over our heads the strawberries – Malling Centenary are showing the promise of a couple of delicious feeds at least this summer. We were supposed to be growing on a couple of dozen-year old plants but the nursery failed to deliver them and these were a consolation – on offer from another seed merchant. As soon as they’ve fruited we’ll be taking runners off them to increase numbers. The strawberry bed has already been repurposed, but they’re growing so well in the polytunnel we’ll probably just get some more hanging baskets which are very space efficient.

The big day will be next weekend when we plant up the tunnel with all its new seasonal occupants, some of which are hardening off at home under a window in the cool corridor outside. Meanwhile we conducted a bit of an experiment with large recycled milk containers to water the summer crops below the surface to minimise the risk of drying out. Small tunnels get very very hot- even with the doors open. Then we planted out a new variety of pot leek and covered all the seedling parsnips and leeks with fine insect mesh against carrot fly and allium leaf miner – we’re determined to overcome these formidable pests.

Sound advice from the first millennium BC

Overshadowing all this allotment activity was another round of disappointing election results. My usual defence is to turn off the radio and television and avoid reading any newspapers because frothing at the mouth and shouting is a waste of spiritual energy. Then for some reason I turned to my collection of books and translations of the i Ching, or Ji Ying if you prefer and in the introduction to the Ritsema and Sabbadini translation, which Jung had some connection with, on page two, I read this amazing quotation from the Shu Ying – the book of documents, written some time in the first millennium BC. I should add that the Chinese word yi refers to change, not so much as the evolutionary change we in the West are used to – moving gently towards some kind of final paradisiacal state (hmm; as if!) – but to unpredictable, disruptive change; the endless variety of unexpected change that both thwarts us and invites creativity.

When in years, months and days the season has no yi, the hundred cereals ripen, the administration is enlightened, talented men of the people are distinguished, the house is peaceful and at ease. When in days, months and years the season has yi, the hundred cereals do not ripen, the administration is dark and unenlightened, talented men of the people are in petty positions, the house is not at peace.

Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Documents, Stockholm 1950 p33.

For reasons I can’t explain this small quotation gave me a tremendous sense of peace. Perhaps it’s because almost three thousand years ago a Chinese thinker was experiencing the same kind of dismay that we feel today, but concluded that change is at the deepest heart of the natural order and that the seeds of a new beginning are sown even under the darkest and most unenlightened administrations. There is no occasion for despair.

Not entirely on the level!

These are the last two beds on the allotment to be prepped ready for planting up and I took the photo from this angle to show how – when people ask if we use raised beds – we have to say – “It depends which end you’re at”. The allotment is on a moderate slope and so over the years we’ve built up the soil at the southern end of each bed to terrace it. I’ve never done a calculation but at a guess we’ve used perhaps 10 cubic metres of cast off potting compost, home made compost and manure, mixed with bought-in topsoil. I hate to think how much it’s cost, but soil is precious and we never throw anything away.

The plan is to move the container potatoes on to the end plot, covered with a hoop cloche, and then tip them out to harvest them in a few weeks, leaving the soil behind and finally raising the soil level at the end. The weight of added earth had been distorting the retaining planks, and so we’ve also had to replace the short wooden pegs with sturdy posts to keep the earth in place. I was watering some new plants the other day and I was shocked to see how much topsoil was being washed away down a small gap in the planks. I think we’ll just about manage to move the potatoes in the green sacks, but although they’ve held up for five seasons, the stitching is getting rotten and so we’ve moved over to some chunky purpose built 35L buckets with handles. The limitations of space which I wrote about recently when I was thinking about rotations, means that one alternative is to grow potatoes, tomatoes etc; and carrots too in containers of fresh soil every year – keeping them under nets and therefore disease and pest free.

It was a hard day’s work, removing all the purple sprouting broccoli and reducing the stalks to shreds with a hand axe. The resulting foot of composting material we mixed with some straw and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer and gave it a good wet. Relying on the rain to keep the heap at the right level of moisture is hopeless, so we keep it covered and water it when necessary.

All this work is about getting ready to move the tender veg into the plots after the last frost, to make room for planting the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, a melon and some and basil inside the polytunnel. The tunnel has been a blast, and we’ve feasted on early salad crops but sadly some will have to be removed before they’re quite ready. Next year we’ll have a lot more experience and we’ll get things in at more appropriate times.

In the back of our minds today was a palace coup by a divided local Lib Dem council who were elected on a radical plan to cut traffic and emissions but who have just been forced to withdraw planning permission for some ‘executive’ houses on a nature reserve in a unique habitat, and who have voted the leader out because they feared her radical commitment to the manifesto might endanger their chances of re-election. She made a brilliant speech yesterday when this all came out but for many of us this reverse has compromised their chances of keeping power altogether. The thought of having to ask the voters to leave their Range Rovers in the garage was too much for them to contemplate – not least because they seem to be planning to allow 48 tonne lorries through the centre of Bath in order to get government funds to mend the Cleveland Bridge. Our political system is completely broken, and once radical parties are squabbling over some mythical ‘centre ground’ in the forlorn hope that something will turn up to save us from ourselves. That’s called magical thinking. The Darwinian solution to this challenge is for the human race to drown in our own effluent and let the earth and its surviving life forms start all over again. The other solutions all involve doing without some stuff we don’t really need. I could go on but I won’t. Two things not on the level at once is enough!

Shibui

The seven elements of shibusa are simplicity, implicity, modesty, naturalness, everydayness, imperfection, and silence. They are adapted from the concepts authored by Dr. Soetsu Yanagi (1898–1961), aesthetician and museum curator, published in the Japanese magazine Kogei between 1930–1940.

Wikipedia

Madame’s orchids have all come into flower within a week of one another. We thought we’d lost them at one point, after she repotted them and they went into a two year sulk; but we don’t give up that easily and today they looked as lovely as ever. They’re not the least bit rare or (normally) difficult, in fact they were all bought from the supermarket years ago, and I guess some people would have thrown them away as soon as the flowers finished.

Coincidentally, after an evening of synthetic violence on the telly we went to bed and I picked up my ancient copy of Bernard Leach’s “A Potter’s Book”, published in 1940, for a sane read before sleep. I found this book when I was barely twenty years old on the shelves at Filton College one summer afternoon in a serendipitous moment, and I read half of it standing, leaning on the stack. I was totally grabbed by it in spite of not understanding any of the technical stuff – initially, I think, because having just escaped from a couple of years of mind sapping factory work, Leach’s account of the quiet routines of an artist’s workshop and, perhaps in a more subtle way, the pervasive sense of an undisclosed spirituality spoke to a deep need in me. Many years later I wrote a piece for the BBC World Service (known to insomniacs everywhere) attempting to explain how the book had inspired me. A week or so later I had a letter from a woman who asked me if I knew that Bernard Leach was a Baha’i and even led a gathering in St Ives. We met up couple of weeks later and she explained that she was a Baha’i too and she was surprised that I hadn’t known about Leach.

I was greatly surprised – not about the spirituality but more because if I’d thought about it properly (or at all!), I would have assumed he was some form of Buddhist or Taoist. In any case, my ideas about Buddhism, Taoism and Baha’i at the time were as uninformed as they were about pottery.

So the first time I ever saw the word shibui was a quotation from Soetsu Yanagi in the introductory chapter of A Potter’s Book – ‘Towards a standard‘. The orchids today seemed to embody all seven aspects of shibui as described by Dr Yanagi. There’s another Buddhist term that carries some of the same load – it’s tathata, usually translated as ‘thusness’ or ‘suchness’. I like the idea of ‘thusness’ because it’s a quality that I’ve found in plants, in ceramics and occasionally even in human beings who we describe as being at home in their skin.

Around the time as a teenager when I walked away from my last factory job and decided to get a proper education, Madame (aged about seventeen) decided to challenge my forthrightly reactionary view of art and with a good deal of prodding from her, I had a revelatory moment in Bristol Museum and Art Gallery while looking at a painting whose subject – the backs of old and run down Georgian houses – was uncannily like the view from the window I’m now sitting in front of. People often assume that we’re lucky to live overlooking the Green, but the room I write in looks out on a reminder of the first painting I ever properly beheld that possessed the ‘thusness’ of the thing in itself; the paint, the canvas, the brush stokes; whilst referencing but not slavishly imitating something else – the rooftops and backs of houses.

From there it wasn’t long before I found a second painting – this time completely abstract – by Paul Feiler, that evoked the colours of rusting ships in the docks. I was hooked instantly by the restrained, almost austere range of the earth colours – and here are two more significant references to ‘shibui’ – restrained and austere. So the progression to stoneware, not least Chinese and Korean stoneware came for me in the confluence of colour with process, because the austerity of the ceramics that most move me is not something that technique can put there. In a parallel with gardening, all I can do is create the conditions for the miracle to take place – accepting that failure is a big part of the act – and accept the success as a gift from the sun, rain and earth on the allotment.

In the studio, a far more intense parallel process takes place between the earth (clay) the sun (the fuel used to fire the clay all, ultimately derives from the sun), and the water which both creates the clay over geological time and provides the lubricant between the particles which makes handling and shaping possible. Both gardening and ceramics are best seen as an intervention in the natural order and – surprise surprise – in all the greatest gardeners, potters, artists writers, singers and scientists, the accumulated wisdom and experience are occluded by the thusness of the result. It happens too in watercolours in which any attempt at labouring the paint leads to failure. There is a boldness that only comes with years of practice and the practise of loss can’t be avoided.

I remember once buying some strings in Bristol and an utterly decrepit man shuffled in and took a guitar down from the display. I was waiting for someone to come over and throw him out but I went from scorn to rapt attention in two bars as he began to play. Who was the fool then? I’m probably labouring this point too much, but shibui, or  tathata, are the gift of simplicity; not showing off, scoring debating points or grandstanding technique. So I’ll finish with a quotation from a novel that manages to nail something of what it means to be an artist. Gully Jimson would laugh heartily at me but somehow in the confluence of technique, experience, (almost always) implicit spirituality and sheer grind is the secret we search for but can never find util we stop looking.

That’s it,’ I said. ‘It’s the jaws of death. Look at me. One of the cleverest painters who ever lived. Nobody ever had anything like my dexterity, except Rubens on a good day. I could show you an eye—a woman’s eye, from my brush, that beats anything I’ve ever seen by Rubens. A little miracle of brushwork. And if I hadn’t been lucky I might have spent the rest of my life doing conjuring tricks to please the millionaires, and the professors. But I escaped. God knows how. I fell off the tram. I lost my ticket and my virtue. Why, your ladyship, a lot of my recent stuff is not much better, technically, than any young lady can do after six lessons at a good school. Heavy-handed, stupid looking daubery. Only difference is that it’s about something—it’s an experience, and all this amateur stuff is like farting Annie Laurie through a keyhole. It may be clever but is it worth the trouble? What I say is, why not do some real work, your ladyship? Use your loaf, I mean your brain. Do some thinking. Sit down and ask yourself what’s it all about.’

Joyce Cary “The Horse’s Mouth”

“Sumer is icumin in”

Even while we’re still battling with low temperatures and arctic winds, the earth’s changing track around the sun brings longer days and more sunshine. Now it’s not a question of ‘if?’ but ‘when?’. In the photo, the last days of the purple sprouting broccoli are almost here, while the beansticks are ready for summer. Setting up the bean sticks seems to be a form of benign displacement activity – it’ll be weeks until they’re needed but yesterday as I set them in, it felt like I was planting a flag in the diminishing skirmishes with winter. Yesterday too I set up a wigwam for the Alderman peas to climb and transplanted the autumn brassicas while Madame sowed seeds. We’re clearly in phase three of the sowing season. The first courgette shoot peeped out of its pot in the propagator, which is actually in use throughout the year. First to go in were the chillies and peppers in January, with successional waves until now when (aside from successional direct sowings) everything is sown except the autumn bulb fennel which goes in after the longest day. Then, during the rest of the year we grow basil for the kitchen.

The tomatoes are pretty much hardened off in their pots in the polytunnel now and we’re wondering when we should plant them into the soil. That will mean moving the container potatoes out into the wind and weather, so it’s a bit of a juggling act, but the forecast shows three more cold nights and then gradually rising night time temperatures. That’s a relief because the temperature in the polytunnel can go lower than the general air temperature – quite why I don’t know. Last night, for instance, the air temperature on the window ledge didn’t go below +6C but the polytunnel went down to +1C. The effect of moving the tomato plants from the flat to the tunnel has been to stop them growing altogether as they acclimatise to the bigger temperature range. For now they’re double wrapped in a fleece cloche inside the tunnel. The other most noticeable casualty of the cold nights has been the asparagus which is later this year by at least three weeks. It is producing, just about, but really it’s just ticking over even under a fleece cloche.

Needless to say, we sit light to the plans we drew up during the winter. Small plots are something of a nightmare when it it comes to rotations because some crops – potatoes especially take up a lot of space and some occupy their space for over a year. We just do the best we can, especially with the potato/tomatoes group but because the solanaceae comprise our largest rotation group we just improvise; sometimes rotating from one part of a bed to the opposite end; but even with all our best efforts the actual decision as to where each group goes is a last minute choice according to the space available. Yesterday we were lucky to have an empty bed about the right size, which had never seen any brassicas. The price was a second season of legumes on another bed further along which is the lesser evil (we hope!).

This year we’ve covered all the carrots and alliums (leeks, onions and garlic) with fine insect netting from the off, and grown them all in new soil and raised beds in the hope we’ll shake off the curse of allium leaf miner. This is nothing more brilliant than a bet. Anyone who imagines that we’re experts is mistaken. Mercifully, writers and bloggers don’t have to account for ourselves to our readers. My son was telling me today that a friend of his has written five quite successful books on a mind-bogglingly wide range of subjects from sourdough to gardening. All I can say is that if I ever need brain surgery I hope he doesn’t show up and supervise. It reminds me that when I was training to conduct interviews for the radio we were told that asking an actual expert a question on their chosen subject was always likely to result in a long and opaque dissertation accompanied by a power surge as people resorted to boiling the kettle. What you need is an amiable sounding bluffer …… hmmm – like me?

Chatting to our allotment neighbour today, he was lamenting that he’d followed exactly the instructions for growing shallots given by a massively famous TV expert – only to watch them sit in the ground sulking. That’ll teach him! Gardening is full of mysteries and turning a lucky coincidence into a canonical truth and then blogging about it doesn’t help anyone to be a better gardener. That’s why The Potwell Inn blog confines itself to the tricky business of being human, using examples that might include gardening and cooking but mostly avoids cruelty to animals! However today I was lugging a bag of compost across a narrow border and Madame upbraided me for snapping off one of the two Monarda plants we’d only set out two days ago. I bowed to the frosty storm but a few moments later I had a closer look and discovered that the slug which had sawn it off was still hiding under a leaf. Revenge was swift and terrible, but the Monarda is still dead.

It seems slightly odd that today I finished planting out the purple sprouting broccoli that we’ll be eating this time next year. I always find having to juggle the many sowing dates and times to maturity quite challenging. A quick taste of the polytunnel spinach was a revelation. Far from bitter even the largest outside leaves and stalks were good enough to eat raw in a salad. I do think the quality of our bewilderment is improving with time. Earlier our son and his partner came to visit us in the flat for the first time in over a year. Life creaks slowly back into the familiar patterns but going into a shop still feels odd – like a dangerous celebration. We bought some aubergines, peppers and courgettes from the veg stall in Kingsmead square and Madame is cooking ratatouille in the kitchen as I’m writing this . The smell is wonderful and – like putting up beansticks – it feels like a promissory note from the summer.

These are a bit close, I know, but we’re only growing for two so we don’t need huge vegetables – and it’s much nicer to eat them garden fresh.

Soil, sunshine, rain.

It’s difficult to overstate how beautiful this cauliflower is. I wondered for a moment whether I should add “beautiful to me” to that statement, but I think not. The beauty of grown things is not a whimsical fancy but one of the facets of nature that presents itself to us as a fait accompli. This exquisite formation of leaves and curds doesn’t demand my admiration – in fact, being a vegetable, it has no view on me or my opinions but comes as a gift.

I took the photograph yesterday when Madame unfurled the leaves which had mantled the head because she wanted to see whether this longstanding occupant of the allotment had finally come through. A full year after being sown, this cauliflower – one of four – was showing signs of its age; chewed by slugs with the outer leaves pecked by pigeons until we netted it, and the stalk turned to wood. These long standing biennials occupy a lot of ground for a very long time but, like the purple sprouting broccoli, they ripen at times of peak need – the hungry gap. The old growing year produces its Rembrandts just as the bright young things are putting on their first shows.

Most amazing of all is the fact that the food we grow and eat is made by turning sunshine, water and earth into vegetables. It’s a difficult balance because just a little too much or too little of any of the three can lead to disaster. For instance we’ve just emerged from one of the wettest winters since records began, followed by the driest spring and the coldest sequence of frosty April nights for sixty years. The plants are all at sixes and sevens and we allotmenteers are juggling seedlings, watering cans, propagators, south facing (UK) windows and fleece whilst obsessively consulting the weather apps on our phones. Sunshine, water and earth – the elemental gifts of nature – are outwith our area of dominion.

The watering can, the heated propagator, the polytunnel, fleece and greenhouse are our puny attempts to skew the odds in our favour. However, skewing the odds presupposes we’ve cracked the secret and what’s actually happened is that growers and farmers believed the bookies and started shovelling cash into the agrochemical fruit machine in the misplaced certainty that they were bound to win the jackpot eventually.

But slowly we’ve come to realize that rain, sunshine and earth are not strangers but the deeply related holy trinity of all growing things – ourselves included. Seawater and sun make clouds and clouds make rain. But when the clouds obscure the sun then the sun and the earth are estranged. When the earth is eroded no amount of sun can restore it. When it heats up, the weather becomes confused and extreme. The dark side of forcing the last drop of profit from the earth is drought, storm, flood, pestilence and famine – and if that sounds a bit Old Testament it’s maybe because this temptation to game the system isn’t something that got invented in the modern world.

But to get back to my cauliflower; when I look at it – rather perhaps when I behold it, I understand that all the while I thought I was the agent through whose efforts it could grow – I was, in fact its servant. Fussing over the seedlings, pricking them out and then in time planting them in a bed we’d already prepared; netting them last summer to keep the cabbage white butterflies out; hand picking slugs and snails out of the crown; spraying the white fly with soap and water and wrapping them against pigeons. We were in it together the whole while; with me in the expectation of the food it would provide and the cauliflower presumably committed to continuing its genetic inheritance to a future generation – all of which makes seed saving a kind of moral imperative!

We haven’t done a great deal of seed saving on the allotment except for the Calendulas and sunflowers (harvested one drunken night in Provence, with a full moon and fireflies!) – which seem to grow better from saved seed. This year we’re leaving a single parsnip in the ground to flower and we’ll save seed from that too; but the main motivation was to take advantage of its power as an attractor for insects. Is this some kind of religious attitude creeping in? It would hardly be surprising if there weren’t some traces of harvest festival, rogation days, Plough Monday and Wassailing at the White Hart jiggling around with the Old Testament stories in the back of the old lorry that constitutes my memory. But it’s not organised religion in any sense – not the kind that gives licence to so much mayhem and destruction.

What I love about allotmenteering is the chance to engage with nature much more practically. Going on a walk through the woods is like sitting there alone on the edge at the school prom. It’s much more engaging to grow a wallflower than to be one. When I approach a plant I often ask it (silently) what would be the right thing to do for you right now? Sometimes plants say ‘give me some space‘, or ‘give me some water‘. Sometimes they say – “I don’t like it here – can you put me over there in a bit more shade or sunshine?” The end result of the dialogue is a better plant. My cauliflower is the product of a long conversation between the seed, the earth, the sun and the rain and me. That’s the point of it. When we finally pick and harvest our produce we often say thank you out loud as we shall when I cut the first cauliflower at the weekend.

Of course there’s all the stuff about road miles, industrial food production and intensive farming with all its chemicals and heavy machinery; but ultimately we grow food at the Potwell Inn, because the only way to become fully human is to join the dance; to embrace feast and failure as a joyful participant rather than a passive consumer fuming at the absence of your favourite brand of tomato in the supermarket.

There is something splendid about a vegetable – even a cauliflower -wrought in this elemental process of earth, water and sun. The fact that generations of seed savers and plant breeders have selected for what we like to describe as desirable qualities might equally be seen as the resilient plant’s embrace of mutuality as the best way of getting along well. As Michael Pollan points out, corn and potatoes have done pretty well out of the deal.

So let’s not get too despondent about the way things are. Environmental degradation really is reversible. My phone – an ever reliable cause of pondering – came up with this photo of the Potwell Inn allotment exactly five years ago to the day. I rest my case.

It finally feels safe to welcome the apple blossom

For reasons that I doubt stand up to scientific scrutiny, May 12th is a red letter day in the Potwell Inn calendar, because it’s the day we feel safe to plant out runner beans. Should you be tempted to follow this piece of jumped up wisdom, I’d warn you that May 12th is no more significant than being two days after the latest date we’ve ever lost an entire crop to frost. Logically speaking, in this age of climatic catastrophe, it’s possible that we could see a severe frost a week later but we’ve got that covered because as usual we’ll sow a second lot a fortnight later. The allotment is a test bed for delusional theories about almost anything but we do need some kind of structured timetable, however unreliable – if we’re ever to grow anything. Folk wisdom takes us a little way; February fill dyke certainly lived up to its name; March came in like a lion but carried on prowling long after the lamb was meant to take over; and where are the April showers? – a bit of drizzle tomorrow and that could be that. The water butts are already nearly empty; and don’t even mention this relentless east wind!

However the two week weather forecast is showing a clear, frost free run through to May 10th which means (or perhaps may mean) that we can look at the apple blossom with fond hopes of a crop, rather than fearing that things can only get worse. Borrowing from the sinister language of covid, the allotment has been divided into areas. We have critical care for the tender plants outside that need constant covering and uncovering at night. Then there’s the polytunnel which speaks a high dependency language we’ve yet to master; and after that there are the overwintering brassicas; the cauliflower and purple sprouting, which seem to endure whatever nature throws at them.

After a very shaky spell in the greenhouse, the tomatoes are now inside the tunnel and underneath a large hoop cloche. Every morning we roll back the fleece to let the sun to them and they’re looking well. We’re greatly indebted to Eliot Coleman’s “Winter Harvest Handbook” for this idea. However, with the end of the frosts we’re having to contemplate digging out some of the other polytunnel crops to make space for the summer vegetables. It’s been the most exciting revelation to see just how well crops like strawberries, spinach, chard, radishes, lettuces and early potatoes thrive under plastic. The container potatoes can be moved outside of course, as can the container carrots but whether we’ll be able to harvest the young turnips in the next ten days is doubtful. At home we’ve got chillies, peppers, aubergines in 5″ pots and trays of basil ready to go into the tunnel alongside the tomatoes, and while they all harden off we’ve got runner beans, borlotti and french beans going into root trainers to germinate; and melon (Minnesota Midget), winter and summer squashes, courgettes and cucumbers sitting in the heated propagators with corn to follow.

But this isn’t by any means all that’s been happening on the allotment because we’ve been setting out the rest of our list of insect friendly plants – so aside from the herbs, we’ve introduced four lavenders (Hidcote Giant), Bee balm (Monarda), Lemon Balm, Winter Jasmine, pot marigolds, Erysimum, catmint,Salvia, Hyssop, Echinops (globe thistle) and borage. They’ll join the fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and globe artichokes. The pond is planted up with iris, horsetail, water mint and other bits and bobs we’ve been given by other allotmenteers.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s been the kitchen herbs that have almost given us most pleasure. For more serendipitous reasons than cold logic we’ve collected six different mints and we’re growing four types of basil this season. We’ve thyme, marjoram, oregano, winter and summer savory; French sorrel, lovage, two types of parsley, rosemary, sweet cicely, coriander, chervil, French tarragon, chives and sage. There are probably more that I’ve overlooked. Ironically one of the healthiest marjoram plants we’ve ever grown is a self-seeded plant clinging to the foot of the compost bin on the edge of a path. Like so much in nature, plants are often best left to find their own favoured spot. We’ve lost so many thymes over the years but we still carry on hoping that one day they’ll find their own sweet spot.

Finally, it’s good to write that the latest cordons, (Victoria plum, damson, bramley and Conference pear) have all taken root. They’ll take three or four years to produce any fruit at all but they make me feel optimistic. And the asparagus bed is just beginning to produce useful quantities. When it was planted out we used a bulk offer to put in crowns of three different varieties but to be honest only one of the varieties ever did well. This year the bed has started throwing spears across the whole area at once. Our neighbour has has exactly the same experience and we wonder if the dominant variety hasn’t spread into the space once planted with other types. I’m no expert, so we’ll wait and see.

As I look down this posting I’m a little amazed that we’ve managed to stuff so much into 200 square metres and I wish I could claim it was all down to our expertise; but our guiding principle has more likely been greed, optimism and naivety. It hardly seems five minutes since the day when I’d never seen a green pepper, never smelt garlic and didn’t know any herbs apart from thyme, parsley and sage. Our very first herb gardens were fuelled by the need to furnish our cooking when you simply couldn’t buy herbs. The upside of a childhood lived through food rationing was that every new flavour was a genuine discovery. How could you not be blown away by the discovery that tarragon tasted even better with chicken than it sounded in the books. Even this year I discovered how good sorrel tastes – because we’ve grown it and now it’s free!

As we emerge from the lockdown more or less intact, my phone keeps reminding me of the things we were doing three four five and more years ago. Today this picture of Bardsey Island popped up and my heart sang with joy at the thought that this year – perhaps in September – we’ll be able to go back. Below Bardsey I’ve put in some other pictures taken yesterday on the allotment. Don’t ask whether the loss of the one is compensated by the gain of the other. Life doesn’t work like that.

2017. Bardsey Island from the mainland on Lleyn. It always reminds be of a leech!

Digging down

Priddy Pool

As it happens this post isn’t, strictly speaking, about allotmenteering or gardening, but about interrogating a landscape – to borrow a phrase from Alan Rayner of the Bath Natural History Society – “It’s about walking in nature rather than through nature.”

Dunnock egg

Our favourite way of exploring is to get to know a new landscape by walking all its byways and footpaths really intensively. In this case it’s revisiting a landscape after a gap of many years which has added an extra dimension altogether. I don’t think there’s anything particularly deep or spiritual about this way of walking; it’s just about intense attention to detail. The dunnock egg, for instance, was in the wrong place; many yards from any possible nest. It’s impossible to know why it was there, but probably it had been stolen and then abandoned.

What triggered this line of thought was using the idea of silence in my last posting. Today we were walking a linked series of old droves and as we made our way towards the starting point I realised that I could hear the sound of a dried and dead leaf scuttering across the road in the brisk wind. That’s silence. I could describe it as the matrix that holds all the sounds of a particular place together; an ocean in which sounds are made and scattered. Its a great sadness that such moments are so rare these days.

But there’s more. Coming back to this high country after many years, farming seems to have changed. Walking through the village everything looks much the same – the local authority have done their job in preserving its appearance – but from the inner landscape – the droves and footpaths, another picture appears. Old buildings that were once useful are now abandoned. Behind the unchanged roadside buildings massive new barns have sprung up as farmers have been forced to intensify or go out of business. The rich diversity of wildlife has become increasingly confined to reserves and after three days of walking we’ve yet to see an unimproved meadow. This isn’t an attack on farmers at all. They’ve somewhat heroically tried to do everything they were asked to do – not least to increase production at the expense of the soil and the environment in general. Every cottage that hasn’t been sold to second homers has been pressed into service for holiday lets and – in a situation I know only too well, a local mixed farming culture that developed over centuries has been homogenised and all but destroyed. I was only bleakly amused to meet an electrician installing CCTV cameras on a remote house to deter off-roaders in four wheel drives who, totally illegally, noisily tear the ancient drove road to shreds in rain and snow. The balance of power between locals and incomers has been destroyed and the parish council has, by all accounts, endured hostility as the entrenched pro and anti offroaders battle it out. The local school survives but we looked in vain for a shop. It occurred to me that the silence I was enjoying would have been punctuated by the sounds of dozens, if not hundreds of farm labourers and horses. Some silences are more malign than you might think. An absence of life is not what I was looking for.

And the earth in some places looked exhausted.

The landscape, it seems – and sorry about the long word – to be a palimpsest. The newest message inscribed upon the poorly erased messages of the past. Walking through nature you might never notice the difference, but walking in it forces us to embrace its mystery. The story told by the plants that survive in the most surprising corners where they escaped the predation of plough, fertiliser and pesticide.

And yet our hearts are still lifted by discovering new plants. Tonight – so long as the sky stays clear we might get a glimpse of the lyrid meteor shower – first described over two millennia ago, which adds up to a lot of wonder. God forbid I become just another grumpy old man. When it comes to landscapes I’m more Edward Thomas than RS Thomas.

Priddy again.

But then, you probably didn’t need me to tell you that if you’re from this part of the UK. It’s a stack of hurdles, used for the annual Priddy Fair and with its own thatched roof. After last week’s overnight stay here, we decided to come back for some more healing magic on the Mendips. A neighbouring allotmenteer has offered to keep an eye on the plot for a couple of days so we hope all will be well when we get back. The reason for being here is that the Potwell Inn bathroom is being refurbished and, since the flat is – shall we say – compact, we thought it was best to leave the builder to it. We shall return (we hope) to a proper walk-in shower which will be easier on the knees than the present daunting arrangements which involve a grade three scramble over the edge of the bath. Not that our need is imminent; today we did a 10K round trip over the fields to Ebbor Gorge and back again via the Queen Victoria where I had a pint – the first after eighteen months of abstinence. It was the first time we’d been to that pub in over fifty years. The last time was a memorable lock-in when the landlord offered us a room if we we wanted to stay. We didn’t.

An air of celebration has followed me around all day because I’d been to hospital for another echocardiogram yesterday morning and the results were good. Any leaking in the heart valves was, in the nurse’s words, ‘trivial’ and no worse than last time. I thanked her warmly and said I’d never been so pleased in my life to be described as trivial. To my great surprise she said she’d never been to Mendip, but she loved Dartmoor. So do I, I said, but Mendip is closer and less crowded.

So what with hospital, going to the supermarket for the first time in over a year (to stock the van), and driving to Priddy, I was tired but exhilarated. Books, hand lenses, camera and all the usual botanical paraphernalia are here with us and I slept for an amazing ten and a half hours. I have no idea why I can sleep so well in the van when I have trouble in getting beyond seven hours at home, and Madame is equally perplexed. But there’s something in the air here – quite literally because we’re camping next to a stable; but I think it’s the quiet. It’s not completely quiet of course, but all the sounds are embedded in a matrix of rare silence: a rookery just down the road, the horses in the nextdoor field, robins, chaffinches and sparrows singing, the wind in the beech trees. Then there’s the dangerously non-pc perfume of wood fires in the early evening. Campsites have their odd moments. When we arrived I left the electric hookup lead unwound on the grass. During the night, a silent and invisibly tidy minded (did I say tidy?) – camper had coiled it neatly. I know who it must have been because opposite us is a caravanner who has a strategically placed bucket painted red and marked “FIRE” behind his van. If I were really cruel I’d pile on the pressure and uncoil it again – or perhaps leave an empty wine bottle on the grass – but I’m so full of happiness at being out amongst the wildflowers again I’ll say hello to him tomorrow and compliment him on the way his socks and sandals match so beautifully.

Up here on high Mendip is probably not the best place for arable farming because the soil is rather thin. It’s better for grazing, but almost all the fields we saw have been “improved” and grazed mostly by sheep – which has had a baleful effect on the wildflowers and grasses. One footpath was speckled with wasted nitrate fertiliser granules which had been sprayed over it by a careless farmer. The soil up here, between 600 and 900 feet above sea level, overlays carboniferous limestone which drains freely into the many cave complexes. We’ve had a couple of field trips up here in the past, and we’ve visited some of the nature reserves that have escaped improvement and the wildflowers in those small protected areas are both marvellous and often rare.

All our sightings today were as common as muck, but not the least unwelcome for it. I had a go at identifying the crop in an arable field from the tillering leaves. It was a trick taught to me by a retired grain salesman called Richard Hiscock and it’s dead simple when you know what you’re looking for. You need to find out what ligules, auricles, sheaths and blades are and then have a proper look at the plant in question. In this case the fact that there were no auricles and it had short ligules so it was a crop of oats – easy peasy!

So here are a few of today’s everyday beauties. Nothing rare, in fact most of the flowers we saw today are ubiquitous, but after a year in lockdown it was like meeting long lost friends. The butterflies too were out and about- again nothing rare, but who could not like the sight of a Brimstone butterfly going about its busyness. At Ebbor Rocks we stood and watched a buzzard using the thermals above the escarpment over Wookey Hole to quarter the ground looking for prey. There were yellow archangel – Lamium galeobdolon; ground ivy – Glechoma hederacea; violet (don’t know which because I left the guide at home but probably sweet violet – Viola odorata; cuckoo flower or lady’s mantle – Cardamine pratensis; and finally the dandelion which – due to its propensity for interbreeding with its cousins, requires a PhD to identify fully and so it enjoys the latin name Taraxacum officinale agg. Dandelion peak season is around St Georges day – April 23rd and that being the case we’ll be keeping a close eye open for some St George’s mushrooms while we’re here. They used to grow in the (grievously unimproved) garden of our previous house.

You can keep your Chanel, wallflowers do it for me!

For reasons I’ve no intention of writing about, the perfume of wallflowers has the most powerful erotic overtones. This is probably the least written about aspect of gardening but it deserves at least a mention, not least since today one of our neighbours caught me on my hands and knees on her allotment, inhaling great draughts of the memory laden perfume. Madame knows all about this odd affliction so I’m not letting out any damaging secrets here, but if there are any enterprising perfumiers out there, you’ve definitely got one customer. However a lifetime of hearing confidences (and occasionally confessions), has taught me that erotic stimuli are as various as there are people. The oddest I ever heard was a female friend who fantasised about a mechanic with oily hands emerging from under a car and ravishing her. OK?

Anyway, to return to what passes for reality on the allotment, it won’t surprise you to know that the wallflowers (or Erysimum as they’re known by the RHS) are in flower. There’s a survey of the best bee attractors in Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is an excellent read , and the plant Erysimum Bowles Mauve came at the top of the list. We always keep a few on the allotment and their reputation is absolutely deserved. The lavender variety Hidcote Giant also scores highest among the lavenders. Here’s the list in full.

Marjoram
Cardoon
Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
Echinops – Globe Thistles
Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
Borage
Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage,
Whorled Clarey

Ken Thompson “The Sceptical Gardener”

We have been gradually introducing all of these – and lots more – into the allotment. Today I planted out the lavenders and split the catmint into two while Madame interplanted herbs among the broad beans. Mainly, however, we were watering because it’s so very dry. Yesterday we moved the tomato plants into the greenhouse but a very cold morning knocked them about a bit so they’ve been moved into the polytunnel under a second set of hoops and fleece to recuperate.

During the winter I did a lot of thinking about the design of the plot – partly because we’d resolved to make insects and wildlife a priority, but also because parts of the design made it downright difficult to keep up with necessary work. There’s a whole permaculture philosophy centred on what are called “zones”. The general idea is that different parts of a permaculture setup are zoned according not just microclimates and suchlike, but also proximity. In a conventional house and garden, the house is zone 0 and the garden is zone 1. It would be easy to think that therefore permaculture principles don’t (or can’t) apply to allotments which are always some distance away. However, we noticed that our first row of cordon trees were always vaguely neglected because it was so difficult to get to them. They were inside and much too close to the edge of the fruit cage. So this winter we simply moved the side of the fruit cage inwards and left the cordons outside it. Six months on and they’ve never looked happier. They’re in full bud; properly pruned and mulched and generally better looked after because every time we walk past them we can take a close look and take any remedial action that’s necessary.

It’s worth bearing accessibility in mind when you’re designing a plot. We’ve moved the strawberries three times in five years for exactly the same reason. Now we’re growing them in the polytunnel in hanging baskets and they’re in flower and looking blissfully happy. Incidentally we were asked today by a visitor why we talked about our plants as if they were little people. Our answer was “because they are” – which she found almost as difficult to understand as she did when we talked about them being happy. All I can say is – just ask the Nepetas that I split and moved today, if they’re happier after six weeks in the sun, after a year on the north side of the shed.

One last point. It’s commonly thought that gardeners are all amiable, peace loving and non competitive beings. This is not true. We allotmenteers take a keen interest in everyone else’s allotment because we can’t bear to let them get one over on us. It’s a useful sort of competitiveness because it drives up standards across the whole site. A similar competitive spirit has fallen upon us since one of our neighbours started building a magnificent seat and shelter on a plot nearby. I had given up the idea of building a similar structure earlier in the year due to lack of time and funds, but now I’m dreaming of trellises, dog roses and festoons of clematis surrounding our own little shelter. Naturally we congratulated him on his magnificent work through gritted teeth, even while plotting pagoda revenge.

Every day closer to May 10th brings us nearer to removing the last of the fleece, planting the tomatoes into the ground and moving the container potatoes out into the allotment to embrace the sun and grow fat and slick and full of flavour. We’ve cut the first asparagus, but we always throw it on to the compost because it tends to be bitter – possibly through slow growth. By the end of next week it will be in full flush; and speaking of flushes, the two mushroom logs undercover behind the shed are at last showing signs of producing a crop of shitake and oyster mushrooms- if the little white excrescences on the logs are anything to go by.

Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!