Ten top tips for bloggers

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.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

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.

Ghostly presences

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.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Rage against the dying of the light.

Some days go well and some go really badly and some can make you wonder what on earth is the point of it all. I’m writing this as a fully paid up member of melancholics anonymous, and I must stress right now there’s an important distinction between melancholy and depression – it’s not just a posh middle class word for being a bit down. I’ve had my fair share of the black dog too and it’s utterly different from other moods. Melancholy is a mode of being in which thinking – often deep and creative thinking – is still possible. Depression is paralysing, grey and empty and awful.

So the only property this melancholy shares with the black dog of depression is that it’s more likely to come on in the spring. Goodness knows why sunshine and the beginnings of new growth should provoke introspection but it does – it’s a statistical fact.

Yesterday we were on our way to see if the campervan would start after 5 months of complete lockdown and we had a conversation about the consequences of this pandemic. We know we’re paying a price for this lockdown but it’s incredibly hard to nail it down. It’s more than thinking to yourself that you’ll scream and smash your head on the wall if you have to pack the dishwasher in exactly the same careful and efficient way, even once more. Social division is certainly one of the costs. We’ve become suspicious of other people. Jean Paul Sartre once said that “Hell is other people” and until now I’ve never quite agreed with him. Now I understand a little more as we look out on the green and see huge groups of young people having fun while we feel isolated and left out. It’s not easy to accept the burdensome designation of “old people”. A couple of days ago we passed a stranger on the stairs and – because the security gates are broken and we’ve had all sorts of people digging through the rubbish and even smoking crack down there , Madame said -“Hi have you just moved in?”. Later he told his girlfriend (who we know quite well), that he’d been “challenged on the stairs by an old couple”.

Another cost of the pandemic is the lingering fear of illness and even death – it’s nebulous and fugitive but it’s there alright. We say to one another “I don’t think I’d manage very well without you” and the thought is so terrifying we change the subject immediately. But we’ve had to accept that so far as vaccination is concerned we’re in one of the highest risk groups. It’s changed the way people look at us in the streets – it seems that old age could – in and of itself – be contagious. I want to get a T shirt printed with “don’t worry my dear – old age isn’t catching”. I already own one with “I’m not old, I’m just very experienced!”

“Why me?” I think to myself – “I haven’t nearly finished yet” – but society seems to want to put me in my place; to stick me in a rocking chair on the verandah where I’m supposed to suck my teeth and tell the same story over and over. I’m supposed to hold all manner of retrogressive beliefs which, in truth, I’ve never had; and some younger people feel quite at liberty to believe that they invented childbirth, sex and environmental concern.

So this was a low point to begin a day working on the campervan which, for us, has been a source of liberation and freedom. We don’t so much go on holiday as go on field trips; carrying (but never burdened) with field guides, maps, cameras, camera trap and laptops. Its mere existence has kept us going through some dark times because it stands for something unequivocally good. It’s one of the few transitional objects (to nick a psychoanalytic concept) that we share between us. The best thing about a campervan is that you’re on holiday from the moment you settle into the driver’s seat. However, yesterday the van had other ideas and we couldn’t get it going. The battery was flat beyond the capability even of a 1000 amp emergency starter battery. So we connected the flattie to the generator 12V output and got it breathing again while I pumped up the tyres with the racing bicycle pump I’ve always used. Van tyres need 65 psi and so it’s great exercise normally, but my breathless failure to notice the sharp corner of an open window above my head cost me a black eye and a lot of blood. “I’m getting too old for this” slipped from my mouth; a greased weasel word if ever there was one, and dark thoughts of selling the van were shared as Madame mopped up the effusion of black bile.

So by the time we got home I was comatose with sadness about getting old; in fact we hardly exchanged a word in twenty miles. Losing the van on top of everything else would be like having our escape tunnel collapse. Visions of ‘old person’ conversations with well meaning social workers about whether “she” could rise unaided from a chair, finance officers who would means test you for the cost of a sandwich, occupational therapists and their confidence sapping paraphernalia of commodes and bath handrails, and deliveries of frozen ready meals – all stalked my imagination. “Do not go gentle into that good night” echoed around the my mind as I failed miserably to get to sleep.

Later I remembered the dramatic resolution to a long haunting by the black dog when I was in my twenties. This might be a bit counterintuitive but I was thrown into deep depression by the death of a friend – actually I hardly knew him but he was a close friend of Madame and he died of testicular cancer. The black dog sloped away one grey day when I realized that it was perfectly true that I was dying, but my inevitable death was not yet. There is a precious gap between the present moment and the inevitable end which is ours to fill in any way that we choose. Truth to tell, I don’t need to give a flying f*** (with a triple backflip) what anyone else chooses to think of me. I am not bound by the colossally limp expectations of others.

And so we rose early and drove back to the van with a rescue plan that worked first time and charged the battery so the van is ready for an adventure. We might even take the kayak. Then we drove home again and had a wonderful barbeque on the allotment with our youngest who refused to give us a hug until we’ve had our second jab – but said he wished he could! The sun shone in its least ironic manner, not to taunt us with our mortality but to warm our bones and it was good. In fact it was very good!

In Parenthesis

Today is the first anniversary of the first Covid 19 lockdown, although Madame and me anticipated it by several weeks because we could sense in our bones that something very bad was about to come upon us. And unsurprisingly, I suppose, every news programme today was full of remembrances and silences and pictures of victims and nurses. I’m too much of a curmudgeon to want to join in minutes of silence, mainly because grief is an intensely private business for me. Notwithstanding the years of conducting funerals I don’t believe my inmost and saddest thoughts can be organised by anyone and I especially resent being told how I should be feeling. In my bleakest moments I sense that even to attempt to construct a narrative around these terrible events is to diminish them. And so we fled the garden centre at eleven fifty with ten minutes to spare and came back to the Potwell Inn.

By strange (or synchronistic) coincidence, last night we watched a marvellous TV documentary about David Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis” – probably the finest World War One poem ever written. I grew up knowing him as an artist because the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a number of his drawings. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with his poetry, entirely lacking the life experience to understand what it might feel like to go through what he endured during the Battle of the Somme. The programme touched us both deeply. Many of the places he lived in were places we know well. After a year of isolation at home, the sight of the phone box in Capel y Ffin; the fact that he lived in the house that, at the time was the home of a small community of artists including Eric Gill, and which we pass directly on one of our favourite walks up to Hay Bluff reminded us of all that we’ve missed. Even his gravestone, carved by Jonah Jones, was a reminder of a marvellous exhibition we saw in Cardiff, and two others – one on Lleyn and another on Anglesey, In fact it’s been a week of Welsh Artists – some kind of season featuring many of the finests artists and poets of God’s Own Country.

The sense of the anniversary was hanging over us and early this morning I read through the two segments of the poems in my ancient edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse which had once baffled me. Sixty years on I could see more clearly. I could hear other voices speaking – especially Gerard Manley Hopkins – and some much more ancient; the voices of the mountains and hills, and I could understand why he didn’t write the poem until long after the war. Our attempts to memorialise events before the ink has dried seem trivial and futile. Covid will take many years and many sleepless nights away from us before we can see it straight, as Jones finally confronted his memories of a dreadful battle in a French wood.

So we did what we often do, we went to the allotment to tend the living things. The sun was shining and we found ourselves taking layers of sweaters off as we sowed seeds and prepared the plot for the coming season. I love the way that seedlings often emerge in a green loop like a dropped stitch and then, within an hour, unfurl their cotyledons like tiny flags – I’m here! look at me! Sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to seek out the tiny signs of life with its sheer dogged persistence. Our son gave us two logs at Christmas, inoculated with the mycelium of oyster mushrooms and shitake mushrooms. Today I constructed a cool and dark shelter for them behind the shed so they can brood there in the quiet.

Our brother in law was among the first victims of Covid. His wife of fifty plus years is living in a silence that seems unlikely to be lifted by displays of public piety. It’s spring by every measure and yet for many the first opportunity to articulate that familiar and terrible cry of loss is a long way off. Pestering the grief stricken with our concern isn’t helping. Job’s friends – in the Old Testament story – were brilliant until they opened their mouths and broke the silence by seeking someone to blame.

Meanwhile we garden in companionable silence, haunted by the fear that we might lose one another.

Meanwhile back at the Potwell Inn

We had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.

So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.

You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.

On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.

As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.

Searching the Potwell Inn is much easier now.

One of the miniature irises in flower on the allotment

Have a good look around.

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

The most recent post can be found below here

Moving on rapidly

So these two photos are taken in different years and from opposite ends of the allotment; the first photo shows what the plot looked like at the weekend – it’s the same photo I used yesterday – and the other was taken on the day (in April 2016) when we took on the first half plot, just shy of five years ago. Having endured for 25 years a 1/3 acre garden that we never had time to garden properly because we were both in more than full time work, I always used to say that I’d like to retire to a flat in a tower block with no more than a single window box to maintain. Madame on the other hand was the real gardener – RHS trained and all that. My only horticultural training was as a groundsman (I checked just now and it seems that non discriminatory job titles like ‘groundskeeper’ or ‘groundsperson’ have not penetrated the arcane world of killing everything except proper grass – i.e. the kind you can play manly games on!).

We had always gardened over the years, with a big garden while we were at art school; a couple of allotments and various backyards and plots that occasionally rewarded and always absorbed us, but Madame would not be diverted from her ambition to create a proper allotment after we retired. We joined the waiting list the moment we knew where we were going to live, and I remember standing in a Bristol bookshop with two books on allotmenteering which were my way of backing down without actually saying so.

First fruits!

As always she was right and I have never been so wrong in my life. My dispiriting experience of not having time to garden very well was overwhelmed the first time we stood there in the corner of the plot with our newly signed agreement, and I realized that for the very first time we had genuine agency over a piece of land, and crucially, abundant time to tend it properly. No-one could lean over the garden wall and make snarky remarks like “another day off vicar?” The right hand photo at the top is taken from the spot where I first stuck a spade into the ground and fell in love all over again with the smell of the earth, and just above, here, is the very first thing we grew – a radish.

We had learned the hard way that trying to manage too large a plot of land is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Pests and diseases would take hold before we had time to notice; and my timesaving wheeze of rotavating the plot to clear it quickly merely distributed the bindweed, couch grass and brambles across the whole plot. The greatest mistake of all was to import a tractor load of horse manure infested with creeping buttercup roots. Our best efforts thereafter were confined to fighting a guerilla war with the weeds. There were a few successes and we gained the resilience to survive the inevitable failures and disappointments but I could never shake off the thought of the tepid testimonial – “Could do better“. One year we even freakishly won six classes in the village flower and veg show and for the next twelve months we had a small gilded plastic cup on the dresser with the prize cards behind it – but I always felt that we’d be exposed as frauds. The village stalwarts at the show made their feelings clear by rewarding us with lukewarm applause.

Faith in nature is free but not cheap

Time, energy, experience and opportunity have made all the difference, especially during the three lockdowns – actually in our case it’s been one long one. I’ve often said that the argument that gardening is good for the soul and good for mental health has been a bit over-egged these past months. In fact I think that the one thing gardening is supremely good at is teaching us a form of radical patience and relieving us of any illusions that we can control nature. It’s that sense of being able to take a step back from endlessly patrolling the ramparts that nurtures us. Faith in nature is free but not cheap; a kind of non dogmatic Taoism that gives us courage to bend to the will of the earth. This morning we stood and watched as a female blackbird searched the margin between the gravel boards and the wood chip path, removing a feast (for her) of slugs and eggs – no chemicals, no traps. Gardening is less like being the conductor, and much more like sitting in the third strings of a symphony orchestra counting the beats and waiting for your turn to play just a couple of notes.

And so we’re hovering on the edge of the new season – all prepped and ready to go. The beds are clear and composted, the greenhouse cleaned and already housing the hardy early birds and the polytunnel is ready. Of course, we’re never truly prepared because only time will tell what the seasons and the climate will throw at us this coming year. It looks as if the hungry gap will at least be covered by plentiful brassicas in their second season and we are looking forward (no – I am looking forward) – to learning an entirely new gardening language because, with our rapidly changing unpredictable climate, the more strategies we have learned the more resilient we shall be. The aim – as ever – is to put something good on the Potwell Inn plates every day of the year. Our parents and grandparents were all gardeners like us and I often think of my grandfather who was drafted into the Air Force during the First World War because he was a carpenter whose skills were needed to build the wooden frames of aeroplanes! It was on his smallholding in the Chilterns that my sister and I first met Charlie the toad who lived in the greenhouse, and watched as hay was cut and stooked in the field. Something is nagging me at the back of my mind that suggests we might soon be having to re-learn some of the skills he celebrated through his hands; and if not his skills, then possibly the skills of countless other gardeners, farmers and smallholders in different ages and cultures who may have something important to teach us as the oil runs out.

Hoop house, polytunnel …. it depends where you live.

Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.

……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence

I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….

Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.

Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.

Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.

John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.

We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.

As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.

Beware false dawns

If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.

Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!

Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.

However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.

The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.

Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.

Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.

It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman

Here it is – just waiting for the skin!