Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.

An outbreak of marmalade advice

img_4884I’m amazed that two Potwell Inn regulars have suggested their favourite marmalade recipes already, although the difference is more in the preparation than the ingredients.  Mags emailed with her favourite approach and then today Rose suggested hers.  The common factor was that they both involved cooking the fruit whole and then removing the pips and pulp.  In Rose’s recipe – or rather Mrs Beeton’s – the pulp is returned to the pan without the chopped peel after cooking whole for 2 hours.  The two hour cooking period is common to almost all the recipes I’ve seen. In Mag’s it’s returned in a muslin bag which makes it easier to remove than the Beeton recipe which needs straining.  Again all recipes require the removal of the pips.

I’ve never cooked the fruit whole before but I have to say it simplified the whole job and made the peel much easier to slice finely.  Apart from that, today I used golden granuated cane sugar because Madame (and me too) like the colour which doesn’t seem to affect the flavour noticeably. So far as setting is concerned I’ve been setting by temperature for the last couple of years because it’s more reliable for me.  104.5C Seems to do the trick for pretty well any jam, but if you prefer the wrinkle test (or you can use it better than me), I’m sure it’s just as good.  Right at the end I chuck in a glass of whisky or brandy if there’s some in the cupboard. But I’m amazed that marmalade generates such recipe loyalty – I think we all know that almost whatever recipe you use it’s going to turn out better than the rather tasteless commercial product.

Beyond that we’re still recovering from the viruses but we whizzed across to the garden centre to get some seed sowing compost. While we were there I ‘accidentally’ bought some seeds for Bhut Jolokia chillies which can ripen to 1000,000+ Scoville units. It’s by far the hottest chilli we’ve ever tried to grow – Oh Joy! – and thanks for the emails.

In the bleak midwinter – good news for meditators!

It must have been three weeks ago when I first caught what I thought was “only a cold”; but after a week of sneezing and nose blowing it took up residence in my chest and provoked a bout of asthma that lasted for another week and then – just as I was feeling better another opportunistic virus sandpapered the back of my throat and left me sleepless and unable to swallow.  Meanwhile Madame caught the intial cold off me and consequently we’ve been doing a deathly gavotte keeping one another awake with our snoring and spluttering.  The solution has been to circulate individually between the living room, the bathroom and the bedroom alternately sleeping and reading, while the viruses occupy our vital organs and conduct the viral equivalent of a stag weekend in an Airbnb flat.  Our bodily furniture is trashed and the carpets will never be the same again, the curtains torn down and don’t even mention the sink. How on earth can such a tiny thing as a virus be so awesomely destructive?

Anyway, all is not bad news – apart from the enforced silence online that was so uncharacteristic of me I had an email to make sure I was alive! Am I that noisy usually?? – the upside was an unprecedented amount of reading time and I’ve been ploughing through Owen Flanagan’s book “The really hard problem” as well as Byron Rogers’ biography of RS Thomas, “The man who went into the West”. I’m not even going to try to summarize the Flanagan book except to say that if you’re interested in human flourishing and/or you’re a Buddhist or, like me, (and RS Thomas) still searching, then it’s worth the effort.  “Can you teach virtue?” – here’s a book that tries to answer.

The RS Thomas biography is brilliant but can’t really penetrate the enigma of the poet.  Of course, what the book does is excite a longing to get back to Lleyn that’s almost overwhelming. I did meet RS once at a reading at Atlantic College, and I thought he was delightful and very funny, but the more I read about him and especially about his first wife Elsi and their relationship the more bewildered I get. Was it a generational thing that so many incredibly talented women artists subjugated themselves, or were subjugated by their husbands?  Elsi Eldridge, Rose Hilton, Winifred Nicholson, all swept aside by their partners’ ego.

But apart from the ill-advised trip to the Littleton Wassail that just made things worse, I’ve been confined the the flat unable to think about cooking the Seville oranges and sighing helplessly at the prospect of sowing the chillies in the propagators – until today – when we ventured up to the allotment and found it frozen solid.  I picked a good week, it seems, to be hors de combat.  The Timperly early rhubarb and the broad beans in their fleece cloches are all growing merrily but everything else (apart from the  snowdrops in the windowboxes) is taking a break. The worms had chewed through another six inches of kitchen waste while we were away, undeterred by the low temperatures.  Perhaps they’ve got a warm nursery somewhere deep at the bottom.

And the good news for meditators?  Well it seems that some research has suggested that when vaccinated with the flu vaccine, skilled meditators produced significantly more antibodies than those who didn’t meditate.  It’s all the rushing around that’s making me ill – I’m not kidding either!

 

Sulking sourdough and marmalade

IMG_3535It’s inevitable when you make bread regularly that just now and again you’ll get a batch that refuses to play. This isn’t just a problem with home baking – I can remember many occasions when we lived in a large village that still had its own bakery, and occasionally there would be a queue outside the door because Brian (the baker) was having problems with an overnight batch. You could hardly blame lack of experience in his case because he’d been baking in the family business since the days when he delivered the bread to the outlying hamlets in a horse and cart. A dud batch can affect anyone.

In my instance yesterday it was entirely my own fault because I didn’t feed the starter as I usually do, 24 hours before mixing the sponge. Cue for a sluggish fermentation that really never caught up and a dense loaf that just felt wrong at every stage from kneading onwards. It still tasted alright but fell short in every other respect.

In the past I’ve lost a batch through using out-of-date yeast and even well out of date flour. Sometimes being thrifty just lands up wasting time and money. The weather and the temperature can have a huge impact and the smaller the batch the bigger and more rapid the effect can be.  A large batch can withstand sitting in a cold draught for ten minutes where a small, one loaf batch will plummet in temperature.  Too much salt will slow a fermentation right down and spoil the flavour anyway and then, keeping a benevolent but not fussy eye on the way things are going can prevent a loaf from blowing.  Sourdough, being a slower method, won’t be hurried whereas adding extra yeast to a yeast bread can speed things up at the expense of keeping quality. The same goes for sugar which is quite unnecessary in sourdough anyway. I’m sure any of these variables could be eliminated with a pile of measuring instruments but I’d never bother. Mistakes are a great teacher.

IMG_4830The season for cod roe seems to have come and gone without me spotting any at all  but as for marmalade I had an email from Potwell Inn friend Mags who had read my piece a couple of weeks ago.  She tells me she boils the fruit whole for 2 hours before removing the pulp into a muslin bag and slicing the peel.  She says it’s less time consuming and in any case makes better flavoured marmalade with less sugar – so tomorrow I’ll give it a go and report back on the results. The new batch demands another dozen new jars – I really thought we’d never have to buy another jar or lid but somehow all this preserving and pickling has used them all.

An outbreak of benign paganism cheers me up.

 

Last night I was over at the Littleton Cider Club Wassail, blessing the orchard for another year. It’s aways a friendly match between me and the Green Man as to whose minstrations are most effective in promoting a good apple harvest, although neither of us was competing for last year’s garland since the crop was only 40% of the normal and the Club had to gather apples (with permission) from a disused cider orchard in Berkeley where the last 60% were gathered.  That meant that the Club were able to brew their usual duty free 1000 Litres.  Actually you’re allowed to brew up to 7000 litres before HMRC take an interest, as long as it’s less than 8.5% alcohol after which it becomes wine. 1000 Litres is a lot of cider all the same.

I think the poor crop was universal last year, with the combination of late frosts and the dryest summer on record.  I know the allotment apples were down, and most of them were affected by codling moth so we’ve paid more attention to greasebanding this year. The five newly planted cordons all got through the drought but the Lord Lambourne on the new plot had been allowed to break out from its espalier habit and is slowly being brought back to a proper shape with some pretty severe pruning.

There were all the usual fun and games at Littleton with more shotguns than ever.  They only fire blanks but use black powder which gives a very loud noise and a satisfying burst of smoke and flame- unlike normal cartridges with the shot removed which only make feeble puffing noises. But the cartridges – which are marked ‘for salutes’, I believe, cost three times as much as the ordinary ones.  I don’t know whether any scientific research has been done on the most effective way to drive out evil spirits but we certainly gave it our best efforts last night even though numbers were reduced by the awful weather. So the singers and the mummers all got on with their respective jobs and hopefully everyone arrived home safely, especially those travelling northwards into Gloucestershire who were reporting some flurries of snow.

It’s always harder to go back to Littleton because everyone is so pleased to see me and I get thoroughly unsettled and almost always spend a restless night exploring the parish in my dreams and standing – in my imagination – in the churchyard watching the River Severn from its vantage point.

Back home, though, we’re slowly plodding through the process of making raised beds whenever the weather permits and we’ve now got just two more to create, bringing us to a total of 25 if you include the borrowed patch. Some are already permanently planted with soft fruit and apples, and we’ve created three beds for perennial herbs.  Because we’re working on ground we’ve been using for three seasons on the old plot, such digging as we need to do is pretty superficial, only to remove the last stragglers of couch and bindweed.  Then, as each plot is finished, it’s given a sprinkling of seaweed meal and a thick mulch of composted manure before it’s covered with black polythene to protect it and warm the soil for an early start.  Luckily I bumped into an old friend at Littleton and I was able to arrange to collect a load of fresh horse manure from a local stable – so it looks like the hotbed project might be on again.

The Growveg website – which is well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it, sends out regular newsletters and the latest one came today with an article by Benedict Vanheems delving into the health and happiness benefits of gardening.  Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

Serotonin is one of two chemicals that keeps us happy. The other is dopamine, which affects our emotions. The act of picking our own fruits and vegetables is shown to release dopamine in the brain, triggering feelings of mild euphoria and bliss. This is the natural reward pathway that kept our hunter-gatherer forebears on their toes but that today is blamed for modern addictions such as compulsive shopping or our obsessions with social media. Gardening on the other hand is a far healthier ‘addiction’, one that builds on rather than detracting from mental and physical health.

 

When did we get so scared of food?

2018-02-06 14.20.29I can answer that question for us at the Potwell Inn because one of our children suffered from his earliest months from what was thought to be lactose intolerance. It turned out to be something else and he’s now approaching forty and in good health, but that’s not the point.  For us that possibility – in the era before smartphones – meant that shopping became a nightmare in which small print was obsessively pored over and during which we carried a long printed list of safe foods which had to be updated every few weeks because manufacturers would change recipes and what was ‘safe’ one week would contain lactose a month later. Lactose was a cheap and easy recipe component that found its way into the most unexpected places. What that experience did – and this is the takeaway point – was to pathologise food for us. We were in an unusual and rare position and eventually, after several years of  hospital admissions, it became clear that lactose wasn’t the underlying problem and things kind of settled down again.

But once pathologised, food never really recovers and for many of us the relationship with it has become damaged.  ‘Lucky you’ you could justifiably say if you’re a subsistence farmer or relying on food banks to get through the week. What shameless narcissistic self-indulgence to be prattling on about the dangers of food when you’re so rich you can afford to throw it away.  ‘Just give us a share in that dangerous stuff you’re so scared of eating!’  This isn’t just an abstract ethical issue. Last night we were late getting home and I resorted to buying a ready meal (yes really) at the local supermarket just before it closed –  you should try it some time, it’s an eye opener.  There was a significant proportion of obviously poor people snapping up the reduced price food before it went to the bins. I even spotted one man who I know to be a street beggar with a basket of food. It was a big jolt, we mostly prefer poverty to be on the other side of a high cultural wall – who needs concrete and steel?  Wouldn’t we rather they waited an hour and stole it from the waste bins at the back or is it just their pride that stops them?

But for the lucky ones, aided by countless newspaper and television programmes, the message has become imprinted in our minds that food is potentially dangerous and by micromanaging our food intake we can live longer lives.  It’s a no-brainer as we all know, and so whilst we are fortunate enough (most of us) to live in the Promised Land flowing with milk and honey [Oh my God, milk? factory farmed and lethal: and honey? – unless it’s manuka honey at £15 a gram – pure lethal carbohydrate]; many who can afford it live on an aetiolated diet that keeps them perpetually anxious and those who can’t, eat manufactured junk that gives you diabetes and makes you fat, and disabled by shame and guilt.  Of course we all smile bravely and tell ourselves we’re really happy but:

We’re secretly as miserable as it’s possible to be!

Having a bad relationship with food, and tap water, and the air we breath, and with any number of ordinary indispensible aspects of our lives is so widespread that we hardly notice it, and when we do notice there’s often an ‘expert’ on hand to help us through. But all too often the experts want to sell us their remedy rather than attack the basic problem.  So we buy processed ‘slimming meals’ – there’s an oxymoron for you.  We lug vast quantities of bottled water around and – if we can afford it – buy organic food not realizing that the major producers have negotiated exemptions on the use of many chemicals we assume we paid extra to be spared from. We buy food supplements and herbal snake-oil in case they can stave off old age. Our behaviour, and especially our children’s behaviour, has been pathologised as well and we medicate five year olds in order to make them more ‘normal’. Our relationships, our culture and family life and sadly our dependence on bacteria (think only of our terror of rotting, even controlled rotting) have all been pathologised too and we’re frightened of a caterpillar on our cabbage and a bit of dirt on a potato, so we’re reduced to buying happiness on interest free credit from some behemoth that knows that the effect wears off when you unwrap it and then you’ll buy some more. Surely this can’t be good?

The Potwell Inn doesn’t actually have a ‘mission statement’ because trying to express the idea of flourishing without getting into psychobollocks, merchandising and quackery is harder to do than you’d imagine. But ironically we all know what flourishing feels like even if we can’t put it into words.  Equally a discussion about ‘being fully human’ is fraught with difficulties in a society that runs away screaming if it senses that even a mention of humanness is attempting to chainsaw the legs off diversity.  When did we get so scared of food? When did we get so scared of getting old? When did we get so scared of germs, or other people, or commitment, or thinking about hard stuff?

The Potwell Inn stands for flourishing and not, most certainly not just happiness which is an ephemeral pleasure that’s always ready to be driven out by the next dark fear. It’s flourishing we’re committed to and in order to flourish we believe that we need to overthrow the tyranny of pleasure altogether. I’m talking about both ancient (how about Aristotle?) and modern – Positive Psychology [feel free to skip a sentence whenever your mind clouds over].  I’m no academic, but if I were, I’d be looking at the work the Jubilee Centre at the University of Birmingham (UK) is doing.

What I am completely committed to doing is discovering through experience – through growing and harvesting and cooking;  through making and thinking, and learning not to be scared of my neighbours, and – to steal a phrase from Ernest Hemmingway in a letter to his daughter, “to recognise bullshit when you see it”; I’m learning about flourishing. What I’m conducting is a very practical experiment with the hope I might be able to share the results with a few other people.  It’s called the Potwell Inn because it’s open to anyone (except if you’re barred by the landlord for being a pain) and it’s a place of joy.

 

 

 

Fermenting in all its glorious anarchy

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As I was writing yesterday I promised to have a go at listing some of the books I’ve been most helped and influenced by in developing the Potwell Inn. It’s not in any sense exhaustive and I’m perfectly sure there will be many excellent books left out because I didn’t bump into them, but they’ve all been helpful and inspiring and that’s the measure I apply to all things.  Does an art exhibition make me want to draw or paint? If it does, I’d say it was a good one.

So I’m starting with the picture of a (well past its prime) sprouting broccoli leaf that I plucked from the compost heap in desperation, one Saturday morning, because I had to take something to paint to a botanical painting short-course. It took me a couple of weeks to finish the painting during which time I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m only using it here because it illustrates perfectly the theme of all the books I’m talking about – rotting.  Given a quick swill and shoved into a pot with salt this leaf could have been, would have been sauerkraut. There’s no secret ingredient or technique that could have added anything to the fact that this leaf is being totally leafish in spontaneously returning itself to its component parts in the great botanical breakers yard we call compost.  Fermenting merely inserts ourselves into that process and adds an extra stage, that’s to say, eating it.

So to begin at the beginning, Michael Pollan is one of my favourite food writers and his book “Cooked” has a wonderful section on fermenting in all its bacterial glory. The whole book is an inspiration but today I’m talking about fermentation and this book is a must-read as far as I’m concerned2017-09-23 17.31.00

Pollan pays tribute to Sandor Katz who’s written a number of books, but the one I’ve got here in the Potwell Inn Library is entitled “The Art of Fermentation” and it’s good.  What more do I need to say? I’ve tried several of the recipes and what I discovered is what he would have told me to my face if I’d been to one of his workshops – please yourself – make what you enjoy eating.  This book covers every possible kind of fermentation including pickles, kefir, sourdough and alcohol as well as kimchi and several ferments whose products smell like a dead sheep in a ditch but taste better with the windows open.

What happens when all this knowledge and expertise is taken up by a chef whose restaurant is so beloved by wealthy foodies that you need a two year wait and an Oscar to get a booking? Well you get “The Noma Guide to Fermentation”, one of my Christmas presents so I haven’t yet had time to do much more than give it a quick read. It’s a beautifully printed book, but somehow it loses something of the frontier spirit in its obsessive control of the process. Vacuum pumps, Ph meters and temperature controlled cabinets aren’t my style, and in any case the Potwell Inn has only limited space and appetite to indulge an appetite for lacto plum-skin chips. Nonetheless no writer can expect to exercise the same control over their readers as they do over their recipes, and in that spirit I’ll plunder the book shamelessly for any ideas that take my fancy in the kitchen. I’d recommend it in any case for its enthusiasm and, if you like to cook to impress in a laboratory, it’s definitely for you.

More down to earth in every way is Diana Henry’s book “Salt Sugar Smoke” which deals with fermentation along with the other methods of preservation and does so on a smaller scale.  Of three ways of fermenting cucumbers we tried this year, hers was closest to what we were hoping for. Kylee Newton, in her book “The Modern Preserver” has a few fermenting ideas but if you’re only interested in fermenting you wouldn’t want to buy the whole book.

Finally I got hold of a rather quirky but pioneer oriented book called “Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning”.  It’s a compilation of recipes by a group that calls itself ‘the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante’. If I say that one of the recipes for sauerkraut demands 55lbs of cabbage you’ll see that this book is compiled by residents of “la France profonde” – or at least profonde enough to deter anyone from popping out to the shops without a tractor and a VHF radio. But I like it very much and, once again and in the spirit of glorious anarchy that we hope characterizes the Potwell Inn as it once inspired the Whole Earth Catalogue, it’s well worth buying for the ‘between the lines’ wisdom it contains.

I haven’t written much about sourdough because it’s such a densely populated field it probably needs a section to itself – although, if you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you’ll know I’m a bit sceptical about much of the advice on the topic that I’ve seen. So just to finish, some pictures – taken over the course of last season – of the kind of fermenting that was going on at the Potwell Inn.

 

Salted runner beans anyone?

img_4877I never for a single moment thought I would be writing this, but last summer, on the basis of no more than a mention in a biography, we salted some runner beans just to see what would happen. Here at the Potwell Inn we read a lot of books  – I mean a lot of them – and among them was the new biography of Patience Gray entitled Fasting and Feasting written by Adan Federman – and so when, in a passing remark, her son Philip said he actually preferred the taste of salted beans to their fresh counterparts, we were unable to resist.

On July 15th we were in the midst of a glut of beans, but all of our attempts to freeze them in the previous season had met with failure.  The result was always slimy and flavourless whether we blanched then first or just froze them in freezer bags or, indeed froze them in vacuum packs. Honestly, there was nothing to lose.

Patience Gray, if you haven’t read “Honey from a Weed” was one of the greatest and least remembered cookery writers of the 20th century, originally outselling even Elizabeth David. In mid-life she moved to Puglia in Southern Italy and lived, with her sculptor husband Norman Mommens and they lived as frugally as the local peasants lived, all the while collecting much more than recipes.  Her book is an exploration of a whole way of life and you really should read it.

So in July we salted a couple of pounds of beans and shoved them at the back of the larder. Until today.  I was cooking meat balls and feeling uninspired when suddenly the beans came to mind.  We’re a bit short of preserving jars and so I thought we’d try them and if they were no good we could throw them away and use the jar for something else.

So as per instructions in another book I rinsed them and soaked them in fresh water for a couple of hours and then cooked them (without salt) for ten minutes.  So what was the result?  Well they were not as good as fresh beans but – and this is important – if we were marooned, as they were, both in the UK during the War or in Puglia during the winter, then they would be more than acceptable.  I was amazed at the fact that they had kept their colour and texture and tasted, if not exactly as fresh beans would, they tasted good enough in a different way.

So there we are – a successful experiment at preserving without using the freezer.  From many points of view it makes sense and we shall certainly revisit the technique next season.  As for books, we’re both avid readers and collectors of books and I was wondering if there would be any mileage in adding a new category to the Potwell Inn site?  How about “The Potwell Inn Library”? – a chance to list and even review some of the books that have been most help to us on the allotment, in the kitchen or at just being human. Keep an eye open.

Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

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There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

Taking stock?

img_4859I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action.  Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds?  There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.

Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying.  Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it.  I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. img_3327In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask.  Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site.  So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.

I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock.  It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none.  It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream.  Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.