If looks could kill …

A thousand words on poo!

As we turned into the allotment yesterday a light tipper lorry pulled away at great speed and off down the hill. “He was in a hurry” I said to Madame as we pulled over next to a newly dumped pile of manure whose new owner stood regarding it whilst trying to keep her two children out of it. Obviously I couldn’t just ignore the chance to see whether it was as good as, or better than, our usual supplier. It certainly looked alright, but when I took a handful and smelt it, there was a powerful whiff of ammonia. Without getting too nerdy about it, ammonia (NH3) is one of the principal greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. It’s generated when ammonium – which is a normal component of fresh manure – breaks down in a double chemical whammy that deprives the resulting manure of nitrogen, reducing its fertilizer value; and at the same time releasing ammonia into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Farmers know about this (I hope) and manage their manure carefully to minimise losses.

We allotmenteers are mostly neither chemists nor farmers but our belief in manure is almost parallel to membership of the local church – we think it’s a terrific thing but we’d rather not get too involved in the theology. On the other hand, cattle produce mountains of the stuff and it can be quite a disposal problem and so combining the excess of poo on the farm with the excess of zeal among the faithful means that there’s a considerable temptation for entrepreneurial tipper lorry owners to solve the farmer’s problem and make a considerable amount of money in the process.

“How old is this?” I asked the allotmenteer who was still getting over the shock of my sticking my bare hands and nose into the pile. “He said it had been stacked for two years”. “Hm” I thought. “How much did he charge you?” “£100 – cash”, she said. There was not much over a cubic yard, around half a ton, which meant it cost roughly the same as my present source which was looking better by the minute.

Years ago I was given the honour of digging out about a four foot layer of horse dung from a stable. I imagine it must have been necessary to sell the thoroughbreds and buy some Shetland ponies, the filthy floor was so close to the rafters. If you want to know what a four foot layer of anaerobic, methane emitting manure smells like please put down your knife and fork now. This is not for the faint hearted; but straw being expensive and occasionally in short supply, there’s a temptation to put as little as possible down and my goodness it shows, or rather smells – acridly, stomach churningly, eye wateringly vile .

On the other hand a friend who runs a stable and lets me have a load of fresh horse manure for the hotbed every year (although not this one because of travel restrictions), is generous to a fault with her straw, and it shows in the horses gleaming state of health as well as in the healthy “countryside” aroma of their poo. In a nutshell, not all manure is equal and it pays to choose your source personally rather than rely on the A4 advert flapping on the entrance gate of the allotments. Try before you buy if it’s all possible and remember that among species there’s a hierarchy of value. My grandfather valued sheeps truckles above all else, but they’re better left on the land. I can’t imagine that he would feel the same about sheep muck from intensive farms where the sheep are fed on concentrates and never see a field.

Next comes the horse, but even then as I’ve already described, there’s a vast gulf between good and bad. If you’ve got loads of space it might be best to get it fresh, keep it covered and turn it yourself until it’s ready. Oh and check that they’re not worming the horses with some persistent vermifuge that will kill all your hard won worms. Cow’s manure comes last in the list and don’t ever use pig’s manure which is full of pathogens, and – if I haven’t already put you off – remember that e coli often comes as a freebie with manure, especially the fresh stuff, so keep it well away from salad crops and wash your hand carefully, perhaps with gel – like I did.

Good manure needs to be turned frequently to complete its decomposition and this obviously involves the farmer or stable in a lot of work which will be reflected in the price. Cheap is not always a bargain. So this pile of rather young manure which smelt strongly of ammonia was not all it was cracked up to be. But on the other hand we’ve had a tremendously wet winter and heaven knows how much nitrogen has been leached out of our soil during the past few months – so we’ll all be looking at organic ways of feeding it back.

What to do …?

Our allotmenteer has several choices to make. She could stack it and turn it regularly until it’s properly finished – which is extremely hard work. Leaving it as an uncovered pile will just mean more ammonia (nitrogen) escaping into the atmosphere as the weather warms up, while more will be washed away by the rain and could land up polluting the river. She can’t spread it among salad crops, tender plants or dig it into beds where she intends to grow root veg because they’re all adversely affected by fresh manure.

The one place I can think of where it would probably be OK is a good deep bean trench covered with soil. Another possible use is to use it in layers as a compost activator. She could mix it in layers with the free wood chip we have on the site which would reduce to compost reasonably quickly – the same would happen with dead autumn leaves because what this concentrated source of nitrogen needs is lots of carbon – even cardboard – to assist its decomposition and breakdown into “black gold“; odourless friable compost. Ideally she’d nurse it and turn it regularly and then spread it in the autumn and let the worms take it down.

There isn’t a 100% ram stamped ecologically pure way of composting – whether it’s manure or garden waste. The challenge isn’t to reduce wastage and greenhouse gases to zero – which I don’t believe is achievable – but to minimise it as far as possible. As Wendell Berry memorably said of intensive farming where manure is kept as slurry and cattle are kept in squalour, – they’ve taken a solution and turned it into two problems. Remember that in a small mixed farm where livestock are kept on grass, there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – any manure for sale at all because it’s just too valuable. Home compost made from vegetable material and activated with comfrey is as good as any animal manure you could get, unless it’s from your own livestock. The problem for small allotment holders is that we just don’t have space to grow comfrey and we don’t generate enough vegetable waste to compost our couple of hundred square yards sufficiently to compensate for what we take out. We too are intensive farmers! So beware of manure if it looks and smells like waste, because it probably is; and find a good source of safe horse manure and be prepared to put the work in. .

“The root, also, of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery,” – William Cobbett

Well that’s us put in our place then. I was reminded of William Cobbett’s 1821 book “Cottage Economy” this week while I was reading an equally interesting book by Carol Deppe – “The Resilient Gardener” published in 2010, almost two centuries later

William Cobbett is rather like one of those entertaining characters you bump into at a party or in the pub and hit it off with straight away. The conversation, like a fencing match, carries on with each tall story matched and bettered until suddenly and without warning the ‘entertaining character’ comes out with a deeply upsetting or unacceptable statement that leaves you breathlessly trying to escape their clutches in case anyone overhears. I used to love reading Cobbett because there was something irresistibly funny about his gammon faced attacks on governments, bureaucracy, Methodist ministers and – potatoes. Nowadays, “Cottage Economy” just reads like an overlong speech by an extreme brexiter. The potato turns out to be a handy surrogate for racist attacks on the Irish in general, and much as I agree with his strictures on absentee landlords and rural poverty; his cure – once again – is all a bit homebrew and roast beef; a pastiche of an invented rural idyll.

Lesser Celandines on the canal today

So back to Carol Deppe who – aside from her completely pardonable eccentricities (like not liking Swiss Chard) – matches Cobbett only in her passionate devotion to the spud. I remember a newcomer to allotments saying to me once that he had been completely amazed at the ferocity of the religious fervour of allotmenteers’ attachments to their least substantiated beliefs. Putting orange peel or rhubarb leaves into the compost heap is equivalent to a mortal sin, for instance. Diet too comes in for a bashing – and pride of place in the parade of shame belongs to the potato which is obviously (i.e. in the absence of evidence) the single most potent cause of obesity, diabetes and uncouth behaviour in the universe; and William Cobbett was a temporising secret remoaner.

So who’s responsible for this reputation. Carol Deppe lists the qualities of the tremendous tuber which include a wide range of micronutrients; a whole bunch of calories that we really do need to survive, and a surprisingly high level of protein – potentially 10%. The first early potato is both annual landmark – like the celandine on the canal today – and completely delicious. Just to add to the joy; eating it with butter actually lowers the glycaemic index. What’s not to like? I wrote the other day about the scapegoating of corn because of its abuse by industrial food producers, and the same thing applies to the potato. No-one wants to live on nothing but potatoes, but it’s pre-cooked oven chips, pre-baked baked potatoes (???) and chips fried in cholesterol boosting fats that we should be going after.

The potato is amazingly easy to grow – especially if you grow earlies when there’s no chance of losing them to late blight (Phytophthora infestans). The range of flavours and textures is huge and, if you’ve got space in your garden, there are blight resistant maincrop potatoes that will keep you in calories all winter. In gardening, in diets, and life in general, the aim is balance.

If there’s a guilty party in the exile of the potato from nice peoples’ diets, it’s the scientific high priesthood who decided decades ago that obesity was solely caused by excess consumption of carbohydrates. Then they changed their minds and said that the culprit was fat – which was a wonderful gift to the food industry who discovered that they could hide a pile of sugar in a low fat yoghurt. The constant to and fro of diet orthodoxies left the great general public anxious and perplexed about food altogether, and supported the exponential growth of the diet food industry.

All the while the most sensible food advice of the last fifty years was gifted to us by Michael Pollan with his “eat food, not too much, mostly veg.” – to which I’d add ” – your own home grown, organic and locally sourced veg”. Ultimately, we all need calories and we could, if we wished, get most of our daily allowance from drinking a bottle of wine or two, living exclusively on potatoes or eating a couple of burgers and chips. But turning to an exclusive diet of lettuce would soon make you ill however virtuous it also made you feel.

Sadly we’ve reached a point in human evolution where – because of decades of misbehaviour – we have to be mindful of food once again; seriously mindful. But abandoning the potato because it has a bad reputation will no more save the world than avoiding the cracks in the pavement. When it comes to choosing between rain forest destroying soya flour, corn fed industrial meat and locally produced potatoes for some of your daily protein, there’s a difficult and grown up decision to be made; and this isn’t a simple choice between vegan or vegetarian. The decision needs to embrace economics, politics, international justice as well as personal health – which makes it tricky, but not nearly as tricky as choosing between half a dozen identical industrially produced foods with different labels.

Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth.

Potwell Inn

At the end of the day, and with a little gardening skill, we can grow potatoes easily on the allotment. In our case just a few first earlies as a seasonal treat, because they’re so lovely to eat. We also bake all our own bread, but there’s no way we could grow enough grain to be self-sufficient in flour. What we can do is eat a selection of carb rich roots alongside a huge variety of equally healthy greens, salads, tomatoes and herbs. We’ll never be self-sufficient but why would we need to be? There are many small producers close by who can enrich our diet and whom we can support or barter with. Our lunch today included three types of cheese made on an organic farm within walking distance and tasting as good as any imported types.

When it comes to health hazards, the potato is way down the list behind poverty, unemployment, poor housing, stress and overwork. Maybe thirty years ago we could have tackled these problems sequentially but we’ve left it too late. Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth. The trouble is, this isn’t a fairy tale.

Past reason hunted ….

My mobile frequently sets up reminders of photos taken last year or further back. So after enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather of the past few days this picture from March 2nd 2018 is a stern reminder that despite all signs to the contrary, spring – real spring – pays no attention to meteorologists and their neat labelling.

I get the same feeling listening to the news. The broadcast media seem to have decided, contrary to all common sense, that Covid Winter is now over and we can all sing the national anthem and get back to the good old days. Neither proposition is true., but we’re suckers for good news and we buy it in much the same way that we buy lottery tickets. “Hush”, we say to our cautious inner voices and hand over our fivers; so summoning my best schadenfreude, I will comfort the allotmenteers who lose their tender plants to a late frost because we’ve all done it. Shakespeare is such a good judge of character and I remind myself that falling for my own delusions is – ‘th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’; or, as a kindly funeral director said to a friend who almost slipped into an open grave and had to be grabbed by the arm while he was saying the commendation – “wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!” Both spring and normal life will come in their own time, and meanwhile we are best advised to take reasonable precautions in both. For us today that meant feeling deeply uncomfortable in a long queue at the garden centre and then putting protective screens and fleece over all those plants that need shelter from the next three days of cold East winds.

Windscreens can be a bit complicated. We’re lucky on our plot that we’re protected from the prevailing wind by a line of tall leylandii trees. For east and northeast winds there’s no protection at all and so we’ve got a collection of nets, screens and meshes that can be pressed into service. Counterintuitively, solid screens can be less helpful than those that just slow the wind down. In extreme gusts, solid screens can crash down and crush the plants they’re supposed to be protecting. They can also create damaging eddies – think of a wave curling over a breakwater and crashing downwards on the sand, so mesh is often more effective. Screens offer protection to about four times their height, and in some situations where prevailing winds frequently cause damage, it might be better to think about a hedge. We’ll see whether today’s efforts help us. Last year’s late frost decimated potato haulms all over the allotments but we covered ours with fleece cloches and although some leaves touching the fleece were damaged, the crop was saved. At this time of the year the weather forecasts are the most important part of our daily plans.

The good news was that I managed to get two more 250 litre (50 gallon) water butts to bring our total storage up to 1750 litres. People may think we’re mad, but the time to prepare for a drought is when it’s raining. We’ll harvest water from the row of compost bins and possibly from the polytunnel roof as well. I have a cunning plan to use a bilge pump to fill our watering cans from the stored water. The barrels are going to be half buried in the ground to line up with the gutters. The only certainty during this oncoming and accelerating climate crisis is that weather is going to become more extreme and so we need to equip ourselves for extreme cold, long periods of drought, and ever more damaging storms.

Of course, if we do nothing to end our abuse of the earth, then there will be no effective precautions against collapse, so we don’t just need to store water and build fences, we need to minimise the lifestyles and excessive consumption that are causing it.

I do know – before anyone (Rose) points it out – that Shakespeare’s sonnet, (129) which I’m abusing just a bit is not about gardening, but lust. However at my age, gardening does very nicely most of the time, thank you.

Early blight?

Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.

By way of absolute contrast see this –

This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.

the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

They were playing;

  1. Playing tag
  2. Making patterns with stones
  3. investigating ponds
  4. looking for frogspawn
  5. Making mud pies
  6. building dens
  7. building swings in a tree
  8. meeting school friends
  9. helping parents on allotments
  10. wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
  11. watching the grownups gardening
  12. learning how to thrive as humans
  13. even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch

Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.

The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.

During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.

When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.

The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.

We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.

Our improvised second stage seedling care – central heating and south facing window supplemented by a studio lamp with a daylight LED bulb.

Tomorrow is spring – except it’s not.

Bright sunshine, frogspawn, daisies and a small tortoiseshell butterfly bathing in the sun. We’re out on the allotment every day and the flat is full of seedlings as the propagators encourage them into dangerously precocious growth under artificial lights. That’s the easy bit. Keeping them all alive and thriving for the next few weeks is a harder job altogether.

Every year we suffer from traffic jams for the simple reason that plants get bigger and we’re left trying to find space near a warm window to compensate for the move out of the ITU. The slow procession from the propagators to the ground on the allotment is one of the absorbing challenges of gardening. We’re always trying to steal a march on nature by persuading our late January chilli seeds that it’s really May in the tropics – i.e. warm, humid and with a constant 12 hours of sun – which, being a first floor flat in Bath requires a degree of cunning coupled with a few bits of kit. But once the plantlets move from their snug beginnings into our living room. the only thing they’ve got going for them is the fact that we have three large south facing windows; the spring equinox is only three weeks away and as long as we keep the room temperature at around 21C they seem to do well. We, on the other hand. soon reach the point where for two months we can’t close the shutters because they’re behind a wall of green.

However, with the polytunnel up and running (I put up a large suspended shelf yesterday), the progression will be propagator – living room – unheated hallway – greenhouse – polytunnel – and then wherever they’re intended to grow. It’s hardening off at a glacial timescale but happily it works for us.

I was pondering all this in the week when we happened to watch a TV programme on Cornish fishermen and I realized that, just like them, 90% of our skill (if we have any) is in obsessively reading weather forecasts, looking at the sky, feeling the temperature of the earth, flaring our nostrils in the late winter air and being willing to venture it all on a kind of informed hunch that this is the moment. We like to pretend that we’re flowing with the Tao, but our unspoken purpose is to beat the Tao at its own game. One year in four we win some; but then a late frost or an unexpected snowstorm gives us a massive reproachful slap and our humility knows no bounds. Winter and spring are locked in a battle over custody of the weather and they can both be spiteful. The balmy protective warmth of the greenhouse can become both freezer or furnace in the few hours snatched to go for a walk without opening/closing the doors. The tunnel is an unknown quantity in terms of its response to the weather, but we already know that the protection offered by warmer nights as the soil radiates back its stored heat can be followed by a temperature rise to 25 C in the morning sun – even with a cool wind blowing.

We’re so busy at the moment that it’s hard to find an hour to write, and I’m writing this with one ear on the sounds from the kitchen where Madame is potting out tomato seedlings. Later I’ll be turning the compost bins again, ready for a new start in a couple of months. We’re not yet self-sufficient in compost and neither do we have the amount of land we’d need to grow crops just for composting. I think John Jeavons, living in a country where space is plentiful, underestimates the challenge. So we buy in composted horse manure and also hot fresh manure in normal times – so not this year. But with anything bought-in there’s a risk of chemical residues than can harm tender plants or soil life like worms – and so we’re careful but we have to accept that we don’t garden in a perfect world.

With the big civil engineering projects on the allotment all finished – pond, irrigation and water storage and the tunnel are complete – we’re back to delightful pottering. More later – as my old friend Joan Williams would have said – God willing and a fair wind!

Sunshine and then frost ..

The window boxes looked so pretty today we decided to plonk them down beside the pond which, besides having a couple of aquatic plants literally chucked in has had nothing done to it since I dug it. We’ve spent so much time at the allotment that we get more pleasure from the early flowers where they are, than we would in the windows back at the Potwell Inn where they’re supposed to be.

The promised warm spell arrived yesterday, and so I checked the various soil temperatures. The open ground is at 10C – just below ambient, but gradually warming as the weather improves. The hotbed was miraculously running at 17C which, considering there’s no horse manure at all in it, shows what can be done with hay, woodchip and urine. Even the soil in the polytunnel has crept up to 12C after a couple of days with the cover on. The air temperatures were respectively outside 10C, greenhouse 14C until the sun got up; but the tunnel raced up to 25C while I was putting compost on the beds. I think we’re on a steep learning curve as we try to understand how the tunnel behaves, and this is the most dangerous time of the season because things go from boom to bust so quickly.

All day there were a dozen or more allotmenteers busy on the site. It’s more like a small village than anything else I can think of. We have gossip and sharing and all manner of dynamics going on – even while socially distanced – and for many of us this has been our sole human contact over the past year. Through the winter it’s been really quiet but today, lured by the sunshine, many more people showed up and started preparing for spring which, in meteorological terms is only a few days away on March 1st. Being a traditionalist I prefer the equinox because it’s that bit closer to the reliably warm spring weather. Tonight, for instance, with clear skies the temperature is likely to go down to freezing.

But the warm sunshine is more than welcome. The purple sprouting broccoli which looked all but dead last week has come roaring back to life and given us our first feed. For me that first taste is as good as the first cut of the asparagus; sweet and tender in a way that should make supermarket broccoli bow its head in shame.

When we got home we had a chat and we’ve decided to plant out the forty broad bean plants in the tunnel in case the overwintered ones aren’t much good. I have to say, though, they’re all tillering away like mad. I think they mostly make good roots during the winter months, ready to grow rapidly in spring. Having gone to all the trouble of building the tunnel we want to make maximum use of it before the tender plants go out in mid May.

So we’re as happy as could be. Tomorrow we’ll also be preparing the potato bags and they’ll begin life undercover to get the earliest possible crop.

Tunnel Vision – and then a corny story!

At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.

The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.

Lost in translation

As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.

I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bête noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.

But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.

Home preserves

Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.

Even rainy days have their pleasures.

Not the best photo ever, but I spotted this little daffodil under the grape vine as we were leaving the allotment this afternoon. We mightn’t have gone up today because the weather was pretty wet and there was a strong but warm wind blowing in from the south under lowering grey skies – but a day indoors is never enough and when our son rang to say he could bring some old bricks over we jumped at the opportunity. We have a supply of heavy stones and slabs that we use to hold down sheets and fleece which have a way of working free from pegs, and so the offer of a few more was too good to miss – especially when he turned up with partner and grandchildren in tow and we were able to see them at last. No hugs and kisses, of course so our pleasure was tinged with an ache that any grandparent will understand, and when the middle child said “I miss you granny” we bit our lips and said we missed them all too. Of course we made plans to meet up properly for a big family picnic some time soon. At last there is the faintest light at the end of this awful year- which, ironically, makes it harder than ever.

But once you’re there you might as well work, and so I wheelbarrowed four loads of wood chip to restore the emergency drain that we’d dug when the apple trees were in danger of becoming waterlogged. The buds are all swelling now, which is good and bad news because we were pleased to see that the trees were still healthy in spite of the wettest winter ever, but on the other hand we’re still waiting for a delivery of five more bare root trees and we’re growing fearful that they’ll be out of dormancy before they can be despatched. I emailed the nursery last week and they rather fobbed me off with an anodyne “trust us” response.

After remedial work on the paths we trimmed back the frosted and dead leaves from the Swiss chard and a bed of brassicas. The purple sprouting broccoli have made an excellent recovery from their sorry state after being hammered by the prolonged east wind at -6C. Then we adjusted the fleece cover on the asparagus bed and hand weeded a couple of squatters. All the while a blackbird was singing up at the top of the site – a little bit rusty, so maybe it was a young male; but the sheer complexity of his song was breathtaking – with some unusual trills. Overhead a buzzard – quite a common visitor – was circling and ignoring the gulls that were halfheartedly mobbing it. There was no one else on the site. I’ve never minded working in the rain, not since I was a groundsman. In fact, laying hedges in filthy weather with a big bonfire was always one of my favourite jobs. With decent (breathable) waterproofs I’d rather be outside in the midst of it than watching the rain run down the windows – however warm it might be inside the flat.

We’re just waiting now for a sequence of dry days to finish tensioning the polytunnel and hang the door so we can mark out the beds inside and start composting them. We discovered that the uneven surface under the ground rails was preventing us from tensioning the polythene cover properly, so there are some adjustments still to be made before we can turn our attention to filling it.

At home the rapid germination of the tomatoes – 100% successful – took us rather by surprise and filled us with foreboding because we’d factored in a much longer wait for them. Only yesterday I went through the diary and marked the six countdown Saturdays before the predicted last frost – which means we’re going to have to protect them until after May 12th. The danger is that we land up with very leggy plants, not to mention having every window occupied by pots for weeks on end. Just in case, we bought more seed yesterday as an insurance against the young plants blowing our crop.

At this time of year the earth feels like a huge slumbering dynamo slowly waking up. We all sense it; the birds and the insects too. Everywhere you look there are old friends poking their leaves above the soil. The weeds need no gardeners to tell them when to grow. Maybe instead of diaries, journals, weather forecasts and spreadsheets, we should follow the plants in the hedgerows and ask them what to do next. We do make use of garden planning software to get some kind of a rough hold on the coming season, but I’ve had to invent imaginary beds alongside the main plan to house the last minute additions and impulse buys. Every day new seed catalogues come through the post, tempting us so it’s not easy.

One supplier of gardening tools did come to my notice this week. I stumbled on Blackberry Lane after a bit of a Google search for a UK supplier of some of the hand tools that crop up regularly in the American books I’ve been reading. Biointensive gardening, permaculture, organic and no-dig gardening all use a specific set of implements that don’t seem to exist in any typical garden centre. Being a born-again tool geek I just love finding tools that I’ve never seen or used. Anything that makes our allotment lives easier is worth at least a look. So I logged on to their website and then followed up with an email to Dave Taylor who, with partner Val runs the business and received a most encouraging and helpful reply within hours. So if you’ve ever wondered what a broadfork is, or what’s so special about Eliot Coleman’s hoes, I thoroughly recommend a look at their website. It’ll probably tempt you to make a purchase or two – who could resist an oscillating hoe? – and I’m not on commission and neither is he my cousin!

And now the wet boots are out in the hall and the Barbour, board stiff, is drying in the hall. The flat is full of the aroma of a cassoulet warming in the oven. Life is good. Spring is coming!

Searching the Potwell Inn is much easier now.

One of the miniature irises in flower on the allotment

Have a good look around.

I’ve been aware for a while that with half a million words written in over 625 posts, finding pieces on specific topics was becoming increasingly slow and difficult for readers. When I started writing I assumed that because it was a form of journal people would read the entries in sequence, but it’s clear that I was quite wrong and every day I see that folks have been searching out old entries on specific topics (like borlotti beans for instance!) The site has become more of a library and less of a diary. I’m quite happy with that – it seems like an evolutionary development – and so I’ve tweaked it with an upgrade that makes searching for topics, keywords or even single words much simpler and vastly faster. Hopefully you’ll be able to find what you’re looking for much more easily by clicking on one of the categories or tags at the top or simply by typing a word in – so happy hunting!

The most recent post can be found below here

Here we go!

It’s always the same. The seed order goes in some time in December – that’s the sensible list. At that point we congratulate ourselves on being supremely organised whilst during the next weeks we order one or two extras. Then a sunny day in February offers a tantalizing glimpse of spring and we consult the diaries and decide that Valentine’s day is perfect for sowing the tomatoes and chillies; spark up the propagators, sow seeds and then comes a flurry of doubt in case we’ve missed something out – a chink opens in the flimsy armour and voila! we seem to have ordered some outrageous outliers. Melon? ….. why not? A few more lavender plants – not just ordinary ones, the scour the catalogue types, oh and bee plants – we can never have too many bee plants. In the mind’s eye the allotment must resemble Chatsworth by now because there’s not a chance of finding enough space to plant them all out.

It’s been a harsh winter for all sorts of non allotment reasons with record breaking rainfall as well, but suddenly we notice an extra hour of daylight – a precious gift. The first tomatoes have germinated, there are daffodils about to blossom on the allotment hedge and some lovely miniature irises in the spring window boxes. There’s a barely contained excitement in the air fuelled by the tiniest glimpse of the sun.

So when’s the last frost date? the little voice in my head asks. I whisper May 14th. What! May 14th …. Are you completely crazy? That’s two months away!

The mere thought of spring is intoxicating and we’re ready to drink a full crate of it. It’s a year today since we last spent a day on the Malverns with our son from Birmingham – the photos came up today and made me feel sad. We haven’t seen our grandchildren face to face since the summer and our other two boys have had to socially distance, so the closest we’ve been to them is in the car park. We’re not allowed to walk in the Mendips, go on field trips or take the campervan out, so the allotment is having to fill the empty emotional spaces in our lives.

And it does more or less do the job. We get up in the morning full of plans and with things to do, and we decorate the gaps with imaginary melons. In our heads the allotment will be the Garden of Eden come July – and although it won’t quite get there, it won’t be far off.