There’s loads I want to write about but I can see that our first big-family get together in 15 months is going to eat up any thinking time I might usually take. Not that I’m complaining – we’ve been waiting for this for so long! The weather looks fine and warm but if you look at the left hand photo you’ll see the mares’ tails clouds in the sky, possibly indicating a weather front trying to edge its way in.
The common factor in the two photos is the lamp post. We were delighted when the LED lights were installed a couple of months ago, and last week, during a rainy night we looked out and saw that an opportunist spider had built a web beneath the light and caught dozens of insects; a feast indeed! Even better, as we watched we saw a couple of unidentifiable bats speeding through the cloud of moths and flies. More proof – if any were needed – that urban wildlife can thrive with a bit of help. Bats apparently don’t resent LED lighting as much as they do the orange sodium lights. I’m in complete agreement on that one; sodium lights are miserable. We’ve now got the lights – which make it possible to stargaze on a clear night, and also some wide bands of ‘neglected’ weeds alongside the river; a great improvement. More tomorrow.
Writing yesterday about turnips I recalled in the middle of the night that North Americans might know them as rutabaga and there’s also an ongoing argument between England and Scotland between swedes and turnips – so in an attempt to disambiguate this tricky topic I’ll say that as far as I’m concerned the turnips that we grow are either Milan Purple Tops (which have purple tops) or Tokyo Cross F1, which was the one I was writing about yesterday. As Winston Churchill once said, we’re distinct nations divided by a shared language. As for swedes they’re fabulous in Cornish pasties but pretty grim unless they’re mashed with carrots and more butter and pepper than is good for you. Please don’t ask about mangel wurzels.
Anyway, it was supposed to rain all day today so I’d pretty much settled on doing some batch cooking to restore our depleted stores. It’s the closest I get to restaurant cooking in sheer quantity and over the course of the day I cooked around two and a half kilos of ragu, a couple of litres of concentrated chicken stock that came as a sideline to a very large chicken that I poached and which will provide soup, stock and meat for five or six meals – oh and a quiche Lorraine to which I added a pound of spinach because we picked the last leaves off the plants in the polytunnel which are beginning to bolt. What with last night’s rhubarb, lettuce, chervil, rocket, asparagus, radishes and turnips we’ve vanquished the hungry gap, and my mind has turned again to cooking.
Growing, cooking, and eating belong together; there’s no doubt. If I speak about these three in rather sacramental – even religious – terms it’s because together they act as a profound matrix, glue if you prefer, for all that we do. I can’t wait until we’re allowed to invite friends to eat with us again when this pandemic has abated.
When Madame and me were first married we used to drink at a pub called the Greyhound which was notable for the fact that the couple who were the tenants, hated one another with a venomous passion and would exchange insults between the lounge bar and the public bar which were their respective redoubts. It was worth going just to make notes on the endlessly inventive wind-ups that they concocted for one another. The other thing it was worth going for (the beer was rubbish but the pub was close and the only one that hadn’t been taken over by the Hooray Henrys) – was the arrival at precisely nine thirty each evening of Signor Rossi. The moment service finished at his restaurant he would cross the road in his apron and drink a couple of pints. The thing is, we could never have afforded to eat in his place but if you could manage to sit next to him and bathe in the perfume of his apron it was almost as good, A packet of crisps and a pickled egg could taste as good as a three course Italian some nights when he anointed them with the smell of his kitchen. I dare to claim that when I finally finished cooking today, my apron smelt like Signor Rossi’s.
As an entirely self-taught cook, I had very little to go on except the lists of ingredients and the smell of Signor Rossi. I had to figure out the bit in between for myself. It’s been a joy! – and nowadays my two chef sons teach me the tricks I wish I’d known fifty years ago. Tonight we’ve got 27 meals worth of food about to go in the freezer to cover us for a couple of field trips in the campervan, but mostly so we can work long days on the allotment getting everything into the ground, and have something nice to eat when we get back.
But I haven’t stopped reading – as if! I’ve just started “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard. It’s fascinating to read them in parallel because it brings out the poignancy of the conflict between Native Americans and the settlers who displaced them. They each tell their story from a different perspective although they are both scientists separated by generations from the original offence. The third book isn’t much more than a pamphlet entitled “Start to Identify Composite Flowers” by Faith Anstey, but she’s obviously a gifted teacher and I learned things I hadn’t previously known from the top of page one, so it makes up for its brevity by being extremely useful and a good deal lighter to carry around than the Book of Stace which weighs in at two and a half pounds and twelve hundred and fifty pages – even printed on bible thickness paper, which befits its status in the botanical heavens.
Or in this case the writing is on the trunk of a tree. Madame spotted it first as we were walking down Eastwater Drove (we’re back on Mendip) – and at first thought someone had fixed some waymarkers on the trunk. As soon as I saw it I knew that I knew what it was but couldn’t put a name to it without photographing it and doing a search in Google Lens. It’s a free app on my Pixel 3 camera phone and the more it’s used the better it seems to get. Even if it’s only in the right area it gives you a start on where to open the book. At first sight it looks like it’s an illustration in a Tolkien story; a runic sign saying this way to the cavern. Anyway, although the van is loaded with plant books – bird books and butterfly books the lichens were left back at the Potwell Inn. I have to say there’s a good side to getting into Lichens and Bryophytes which is that they’re always there, and there’s always something to look at, even in the bleakest of midwinters. Here around Priddy, many of the walls are so covered in mosses that the stone structures underneath are all but invisible.
These last few days I’ve been thinking a great deal about the future, and especially how we can get to a sustainable and equitable future for the whole earth without the kind of violence and instability that often accompanies profound cultural change – without waking the bear as I often used to say to our teenage sons. “What’s gone wrong?” we ask, and more often than not we land up with the notion that changing our personal behaviour is a step in an iterative process that leads to our goal of a world in which we can all be fully human and live without fear; sustainably and equitably.
The gaping hole in that argument is the word ‘iterative’ – step by step. Even if step by step progress towards our goal could work eventually, our present situation is so perilous that collective action is the only possible way to head off the coming tragedy – economic turmoil, climate crisis, ecological disaster, famine, migration and pollution to name but a few. The real problem is that our solitary actions can give us the individual space to feel extremely virtuous while doing little or nothing to solve the problem.
Here at the Potwell Inn, and on our allotment we try to do the best we can; we grow our own food as best we can and when we can’t we buy organic. We recycle, walk whenever we can and cut down on meat eating and read all the books to stay in touch with the issues. We ought to feel insufferably virtuous and yet we don’t because when the elections come around we vote carefully and thoughtfully and …….. nothing happens.
I wrote a couple of days ago about the I Ching. It’s a book I’ve read a great deal but only used infrequently over the years – probably due to my somewhat austere Christian and Protestant background. I have almost instinctive reservations about divination – Old Moore’s Almanac, astrology and all that. But that’s not the whole story because behind my very 2oth Century scientific rationalist upbringing lies a real fascination with them, and against all cultural expectation I’ve studied most of them; so among the faiths I’ve studied, Taoism is the one I come back to most often – fascinated by its immersion in nature. You should realize that four of the five paragraphs I’ve just written would have been enough to get me into big trouble with the church authorities. Taoism, Tai Chi, the I Ching relate to one another, feed from one another, and always bring to my mind the possibility of peace; of equilibrium with nature and of justice. Unlike many of the world’s religions it seems to me that Taoism places less emphasis on individual salvation while stressing that we humans can only flourish when our lives are aligned with with the Tao. Just, peaceful and equitable lives are very much this worldly and experiential, rather than distant and abstract.
The incomprehensible ‘writing’ on that lichen brought to mind the I Ching whose history began by interpreting the cracks on animal bones created by burning. So yesterday, because we’re away from home and in a very peaceful place, I cast a hexagram with the question in mind that I’ve tried to explain in the opening section of this post and I was given gua 7 Shi. Having pondered it (there were some [jargon alert] moving lines) I’m simply not experienced enough to give a reading (and by withholding the moving lines I’m not inviting anyone else to do one) BUT – in a way that’s close to a this-worldly creative insight such as you might gain during psychoanalytic psychotherapy, the suggestion came to me that one deeper issue here concerns leadership. Of course our personal behaviour and the choices we make matter; but when they are drawn together in united action they have the capacity to achieve change. Our present crisis is as much about poor leadership as much as anything else. In a parliamentary democracy we’re encouraged to believe that leaders appointed by election are somehow anointed with the qualities needed to lead well. It’s called the “grace of orders” in some systems, and I think it’s a load of old hokum. When we elect fools and liars we get foolish and dishonest leadership that puts peace and tranquility beyond reach.
So as well as doing what we can personally, we also need to pay attention to recognising and nurturing the kind of leaders whose lives and behaviour are worthy exemplars – all of a piece with their professed beliefs, humble enough to hear the cry of the poor, wise enough to seek the Tao and lead in the right manner, and decisive enough to act when the moment is ripe. If we have a collective responsibility for the crisis it’s been in delegating power to the wrong people.
We know well enough that the writing is on the wall for the present system. The hexagram I was given speaks of ‘the multitude’ in the Alfred Huang translation where he refuses the usual name which refers to an army. The Ritsema/Sabbadini translation gives the title “Legions” which is at least ambiguous. The Huang translation speaks more loudly to me. A leaderless multitude can be dangerous (a mob) or ineffectual (a rabble) turned in on itself and riven by factional disputes.
You may hope that this post is just an aside and that I’ll soon get back to the real business of the Potwell Inn which must be (according to the stats) growing borlotti beans. But allotments are part of the real world, not an escape from it. Our lives are always far richer as we discover that we’re not the two up – two down kind of useful and compliant but rather dull people our culture is so good at creating.
I once spent an evening talking to an hotelier in St Ives (Cornwall). His mother used to deliver meals on wheels to people in the town, and one of the people they delivered to was Alfred Wallace- an artist who was discovered and nurtured by many of the great names of 20th century art who lived in the town at that time. Wallace was (rather dismissively) known as a naive or primitive painter and he would make paintings on any surface that came to hand, including dinner plates. The hotelier’s mother would take them back to base and wipe off the paintings which would now be worth tens of thousands of pounds. That’s what the system does to millions of human beings and we say it’s a crying shame but there’s nothing to do about it because we’re powerless. No we’re not – we’re disorganised and leaderless.
Here’s a photo I took of Alfred Wallace’s grave – tiled by Bernard Leach the famous potter.
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.
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.
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.
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.’
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.
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.
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.
You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.
Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.
Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.
Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.
Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.
As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.
This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.
I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.
With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.
April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.
I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.
After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.
At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.
Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.