Something unfolding?

IMG_5177I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease.  I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark ….  Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started.  It didn’t!

You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether.  Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.

So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever

Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.

I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat.  Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing.  Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty.  Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth.  After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.

I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity.  I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.

I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus.  In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there.  It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.

But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.

What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary.  Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley.  They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm.  They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.

IMG_5178Being old often means being invisible.  You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas.  The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.

  • and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.

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Lunch at the Potwell Inn

IMG_5176And very nice it was too.  Madame and me had gone for one of those most dangerous of things – a wander around town, passing by the lovely veg stall outside M & S where prices all seem to be negotiable. “Come on” shouts the barker with a voice so loud you can hear it across town.  “Weeee-ve got rainy day reductions on fruit”……. “Weeee’ve got purple sprouting – which is what we call broccoli when it’s purple!” – You get the picture, he’s a comic with a dry sense of humour but for £10 you can fill two carrier bags with fresh veg. Six people working flat out on the stall. Our perambulation took us through several favourite shops and we arrived back at the Potwell Inn HQ with a bag of mussels, a bottle of Pecorino and a loaf of sourdough bread because I was feeling too lazy to start a loaf yesterday and anyway the oven door is falling off and creaks dreadfully when you open and close it. More expensive repairs I fear.

As for mussels, as always keep it simple.  Today I fried some finely chopped bacon before adding chopped shallots but often I leave the bacon out.  When everything is softened I chuck in a glass or perhaps two of white wine and a handful of chopped parsley with the mussels, slam the lid on and cook it hard for a couple of minutes until the mussels are all open. Voila – job done. Eat the mussels with your fingers then drink the rich stock with a slice of decent bread and finish the bottle of wine while you set the world to rights.

Today we were talking about how to join up the local with the global. It’s a constant challenge to many of us to see how our tiny efforts at the local level will ever make the kind of difference we need to head off the twin disasters of ecological degradation and climate change. Does our tiny effort at composting our kitchen waste ever amount to anything more than virtue signalling?  Does our individual refusal to use chemicals on the allotment ever make more than a nanopercentage of the thousands of tons being poured on the earth by agribusiness? And at a time when the government has its eyes firmly fixed on retaining the patronage of the few, who’ll look after the rest of us? Or – to put it another way – have all these years of campaigning and lobbying for ‘green issues’ been wasted?

Oddly enough, I think, this time of political turmoil has had some unintended consequences which could lead to real change. It’s rapidly dawning on a generation of the kind of people who might never previously have counted themselves as ‘politically active’ that they’ve been cheated, and they’re getting cross about it – I suppose I’m one of them. Let me give an example. This year you’ll know, if you’re been on board for a while,  I built a manure-fired hot bed.  It works, it’s been an education. Then the other day I discovered that some manure is contaminated with an insecticide .  Environmentalists have once again been thwarted by the use of exemptions following lobbying by the powerful agrochemical industry. The chemical is called Dimilin and it’s used to control insect infestation in intensive rearing units – themselves a morally dubious operation. And here’s the bit that got me spitting fire – it’s been listed as a food additive, even though it’s clearly a systemic insecticide. So conceivably, the manure that we allotmenteers have been applying to our precious soil, has been contaminated with a systemic insecticide which is persistent enough to pollute soil and run-off water and, worse still, my be contributing to the disastrous decline in insects. Whose brilliant idea was that? We thought that neonicotinoids had been totally banned, but it turned out that they’re  still in use for some crops. It’s also emerged that many thousands of protected wild birds have been slaughtered through the liberal use of exemptions provided by Natural England to landowners, and these weren’t all pigeons and seagulls – the linked article quotes “at least 40 species, including the skylark, blackbird, great tit, bullfinch, robin, wren, red kite, moorhen, mute swan, kestrel, peregrine falcon and golden plover.”

My question is – how many other pieces of hard fought-for environmental legislation are being quietly undermined and made mockery of by powerful interests who know how to use their financial muscle and connections?

“Think global and act local” is a good slogan, but I’m much preoccupied with the interaction between the two. Yesterday this chain of thought was provoked by a new green initiative  called Natural Climate Solutions and fronted up by George Monbiot among others. Most of the initiatives proposed there are on a large scale, not the kind of thing you can do in a single garden or allotment.  So there’s the conundrum in a nutshell – think globally because some solutions to the unfolding crisis can only be addressed at the larger political level.  But acting locally needs to be linked to it in a way that we know will make more difference than helping us to feel we’ve just done something. If we think of what kind of campaign we need to conduct, as a kind of lever that can magnify the effects of the local in order to lift a heavy load in the larger sphere, what will the fulcrum be? What could be the single cause around which sufficient people at the long end of a lever, could coalesce around an idea, a dream that would move the mountain of vested interest?

You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!

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It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.

 

 

 

Who’ll march for these?

If you’ve been following every posting for months you’ll know that on 21st December 2018 I told a story I’m about to revisit because it bears on another news story today.  To be honest my original piece had very few readers.  I generally try not to get preachy  but today it was reported that in the UK pollinating insects had diminished by 25%  

There’s clearly something wrong and if you thought that the main suspects – neonicotinoids – had been completely banned in the UK you’d be mistaken. Here’s the DEFRA information from just over a year ago:

Further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides have been approved following a vote by EU member states today.

The UK voted in favour of the proposals that will see a ban on outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

What the press release also goes on is to say that there are exceptional variations available …. etc etc.  So it’s good news that the use of these pesticides has been reduced but it’s simply not true that they’re completely banned. Of course the reason for the decline of wildlife in general is complex, but agricultural practices have to be a part of the problem. I spend much of my time defending farmers, and the way they’ve been squeezed between a rock and a hard place is nothing short of shameful, but there’s no prospect that the sowing of wildflower meadow mix in suburban gardens and allotments is going to reverse this decline. DEFRA admits that the value of insects as pollinators exceeds half  billion pounds a year. If the UK leaves the European Community and abolishes even these limited restrictions, many of these precious pollinators may well disappear altogether. I’ve seen maize seed treated with neonictinoids it’s bright blue and it’s so toxic you have to protect your skin from contact.

Biodiversity isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue, an aesthetic issue and a moral issue as well. Last night we watched the news on television with increasing dismay and we talked about The Potwell Inn and our little allotment which sometimes feel like they hold the key to the future. Should we engage or withdraw? All I know is that I can remember the exact moment I photographed each one of the beasties at the top of the page and my life would have been all the poorer without them.

So maybe we should adopt a Benedictine saying. As you enter the chapel in the monastery you read the words “To pray is to work” and when you leave the chapel to carry out your daily work – possibly in the garden –  you read  “To work is to pray”. Can’t argue with that, even if I never quite know if anyone’s listening.

In an ideal world I’d grow more flowers

IMG_5112But we don’t live in an ideal world – even at the Potwell Inn, and so even photos like this are compromised by the fact that the last touch of sun from a beautiful day was just disappearing behnd the trees. On the other hand, when we went up in the morning to plant the last few potatoes, the sun was reaching the whole of the plot after its winter sleep. Roughly speaking it reaches all parts directly between the two equinoxes, which means that for the whole of the growing season we’re no worse off for sun than our neighbours at the top of the slope and much better protected from the wind all year round. Prospective allotmenteers often reject the plots at the bottom of the site, especially if they come in mid winter with the ground frozen hard, and it’s worth remembering that it can take several seasons to get the measure of any piece of ground.  I’m quite sure that real allotments – as opposed to the imaginary variety – all have their different challenges, and waiting for the perfect plot to come along is a recipe for never doing any gardening. Half the fun is knowing your patch of earth and working with it to produce some food.  There’s an issue of mindset here – piece of ground isn’t a blank canvas, it’s a complex ecosystem that you can only join on its own terms. The saddest thing is when new allotmeteers take on a plot, blitz in in spring and sow or plant anything and everything only to see the weeds reassert themselves and the crops fail in the sumer.

But to return to the starting point, I love flowers and I’d dearly love to grow more of them but with limited space it’s a matter of priority to grow food and so our compromise is to grow as many beautiful insect and bee attractors as we can.

These are lifted from Ken Thompson’s excellent book “The Sceptical Gardener” –

  • Of the lavenders Hidcote Giant is shown as better than Hidcote
  • Marjoram
  • Cardoon
  • Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
  • Echinops – Globe Thistles
  • Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
  • Borage
  • Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
  • Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
  • Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage, Whorled Clarey

The photo at the top of the posting is of our globe artichokes which, with a bit of luck will flower this year.  Yesterday we were casting around for somewhere to plant three angelicas we’d raised from seed and they can grow to very tall plants so they needed to be somewhere they wouldn’t stifle the neighbours.  It’s a gamble but I though the two old toughies could fight it out between them. We grew angelica in a previous garden and it self-seeded freely for several years and then disappeared, but it’s a lovely flowerhead that attracts insects (like all its cousins in the Apiaceae) and better still, the stalks are edible.  I’m desperate to make a bit of crystallised angelica for the Christmas sherry trifle!

So flowers that attract pollinators and that you can eat are a double whammy.  We scour the books looking for likely companion plants, and grow herbs wherever we can.  We’ve got two specific herb beds one for tall ones and the other for short ones – drrr – not exactly Gertrude Jekyll but it works for us, and that’s all that matters. Last week we spent a happy hour just chewing herb leaves – how sad is that? There’s an empty patch in the herb bed where we’re hoping last year’s begamot will eventually wake up and show its head but who knows?

The chillies, aubergines and peppers are all roaring along in the propagators and will have to be displaced this week by the tomatoes.  Hello summer, goodbye floorspace! And we ‘solved’ the oversupply of seed potatoes by planting all the Red Duke of York in big bags and pinching half a bed for the Sarpo Mira. We even found time to have an afternoon snooze in the sunshine – the very essence of allotmenteering.

Potwell Inn? – not here mate!

P1080742The owners of this car are on holiday.  We know that because after the signs went up and the heavy machinery rumbled on to the street, and after a large number of men in high viz coats, traffic wardens and council officials had conferred and made telephone calls it became clear that the car would not be moving because its owners were having the time of their lives (we hope) getting away from it all. Reality, however, cannot be got away from so easily, and so when these lucky people return from whatever beautiful and unspoiled part of the world they’ve been rendering slightly less beautiful and unspoiled, they will find their car sitting in a four inch deep patch of the way things used to be round here. Not exactly Roman Bath, but decade of austerity Bath.  There’s an election, possibly two elections coming up and so let’s say the incumbent party (no politics round here please), have promised a new police station, the police have been patrolling very visibly for weeks now, the drug dealers and their customers have been moved on somewhere else and the streets in this electorally volatile part of the city have been paved with gold – or at least tarmac. All this joy and benificence will have passed our happy holidaymakers by as they contemplate how to jack their car out of its heritage hole, being close-parked at both front and rear.

The tarmac gang were almost balletic in their team work. Big- really big – lorries were reversed down the road to discharge tons of hot tarmac into the waiting arms of the laying machine which opened its wings like a butterfly to receive the load.  All this carried out at speed and centimetre accuracy.  Road rollers, white line markers, excavators and road sweepers seemed to work like some great computerised automaton and all this choreographed heavy industry was going on in the streaming rain and wind.

Meanwhile in another corner of un-ignorable reality I took a trip to hospital to have my biennial endoscope – a procedure which I hate having and most of the nurses dislike having to do.  But plentiful sedatives, more great team work and a cup of tea later I emerged into the newly minted sunlight clutching my discharge papers with some grisly looking photos of my oesophagus but otherwise good news. They’ve given me a three year MOT.

I know, I should be describing the idyllic world of the Potwell Inn not writing about tarmac and pre-cancerous conditions but there is a point, and it’s this. Most good things are forged amidst the realities of life.  Of course I could create ……

The Potwell Inn Perfect World Experience

– but it would be a fraudulent unreal place, a place to hide in (like our holidaymakers) and pretend things had never been better. Real life with all its tenderness and, if we’re lucky, love, has to be lived in the real world with all its coughs and sneezes, brutality and greed.  I woke up absurdly early this morning, freed from anxiety about the endo and my head filled with thoughts of the allotment and a new season.

Carpe diem. We melancholics need to be a bit more like Jacob and wrestle a blessing out of the fear without a face.

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