Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

There follows a short unedited video …….

Bath – the World Heritage destination.

Despair at my incapacity to crop and join together three short video clips is eating away at me. You’d think that in a community of millions of potential users, someone would come up with a simple and useable app, but it seems that feature rich is the way to go. I can insert clouds of dancing cherubs around my tomato plants, I can turn beetroot to the colour of a cholera patient’s cheeks and I can have the alleluia chorus playing over/under/through my commentary which – if I’m feeling in the flow I can even have read for me in expressionless gibberish by a robot voice. It’s all too much – and the only thing I can think of is to record the whole thing on my phone in one faultless take without once screwing my face terrifyingly at the lens to see if it’s working. The chances of not losing my thread and not tripping over anything – oh and not experiencing a painful cramp in my phone hand are a zillion to one. The thing is I’m constitutionally clumsy and I find geeky computer language even more incomprehensible than the doctrine of double predestination. Unlike my oldest son who is always discovering new tricks in his laptop, I’m a writer; that’s the bit I enjoy. I don’t enjoy ferreting around in the fox’s entrails of my little Chromebook looking for a way of unzipping videos that I never thought I’d zipped in the first place. The bit I enjoy is turning thoughts into words – it’s like herding cats – or rather it’s like herding cats with an overexcited spaniel. Neither the words or the thoughts lend themselves to a linear approach and so writing 1000 words for a post is mostly hand to hand combat in the labyrinthine corridors of my mind.

I also love taking photographs because they can often communicate whole fields of meaning at once. Putting the two together is powerful enough, and I guess adding videos would be even better but I don’t need the doric columns and all the other blather. I’m definitely an A+B+C person in the video department. Any helpful suggestions other than telling me to go and boil my head would be gratefully received.

So at the end of this piece there will be exactly one third of a trip around the Potwell Inn allotment complete with camera shake and a contribution from the endless flow of cars, lorries and emergency vehicles. The piece will be a quick trip around the polytunnel where, at last, the aubergines have started to produce fruits, along with the exuberant tomatoes and Minnesota Midget melons. To be honest, the tomatoes this year have been very sweet and lacking the acidity that I think is really important – so we have a huge crop of beta plus fruits – probably due to the extreme weather conditions. They’ll make plenty of the passata and sauces that we need the year round, but fresh and on the table, they’re a bit of a disappointment. As the temperature has reached 30+C every day, we’ve had a lot of watering to do.

As I was mentioning the traffic noise in the last paragraph a little think bubble popped into my mind and reminded me of a remark made by someone (probably a producer) who said that that I could write a passage of real lyrical depth, but that I would often deliberately destroy the mood in the next paragraph. Now if I was doing that unconsciously that would be troubling but I’m afraid I’ve always had my balloon firmly tethered to the ground and so for me the lushness of the allotment and the sound of the ambulances racing past belong in the same frame. I’m not peddling a version of the way we do things round here (the best definition of culture I ever read). The awful truth is, the torrent of visitors who visit Bath’s wonderful architecture and historical depth also offer a considerable source of income to the beggars and blaggers. Behind many of the Georgian facades are tiny flats and bedsits and a great deal of social housing that supports some very vulnerable people who self medicate and occasionally overdose on cheap alcohol and street drugs.

Yes this is a blog about allotments, and cooking and being human; and like it or loathe it, being human means being human in a place and a culture that will, indeed must, include the transcendently beautiful as well as the ugly. “Bath’s best bits” won’t do at all. The Assembly Rooms and the (soon to be demolished) Avon Street car park are equal parts of the story. As George Steiner once wrote of the work of a critic – “What measure of [sic] man does this propose?” What did John Wood the Younger think was the measure of humanity? What too did the designer of Avon Street car park think of us? Did John Wood include within his view of humanity the millions of enslaved people who generated the wealth that paid for his buildings?

I often think of William Cobbett – truth to tell, an appallingly opinionated old Tory – but who recorded for us an angry portrait of greed and rural poverty in the rural economy of the 1820’s. He peeled back the facade of a corrupt culture and recorded the suffering that lay out of sight beneath it. Out of sight in the Vale of Pewsey – quite near here – and definitely a highly desirable place to live today.

So if I sometimes mention the sight of a wretched shadow of a human being smoking crack on the green; or if I mention a stripper surrounded by screaming and drunken party goers in the same paragraph as I might record a musk mallow or an unexpected orchid, it’s because that’s what being human is. We’re all a bit morally dog eared and if we manage to snatch a few glimpses of the divine in the midst of all the untruths of our culture, then we’ve done well.

We sat and watched the last four episodes of the first series of “Baptiste” last night in the suffocating heat. Three throats cut, one decapitation with a chainsaw and innumerable smaller acts of cruelty were the lowlights of a script so threadbare and full of improbabilities that it was almost funny. But the eponymous hero Baptiste had at least one sensible line at the very end. Speaking about one of the victims who had been a collector of seashells, he said that perhaps one motivation of such obsessive collectors was to try to make sense of an otherwise chaotic world. Perhaps we urban allotmenteers and street botanists too, try to make sense of the chaos by growing plants and naming them.

If I have one wish in writing this, aside from offering the odd bit of dodgy advice, it would be to make an honest record of what it feels like to be human in this particular place and at at this moment of crisis – perhaps for my grandchildren to read – who knows?

Inside the polytunnel yesterday

Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

Just the ticket – sweating it out in the kitchen!

It couldn’t be helped! With temperatures in the shade going above 30C again, the prospect of working on the allotment in full sun paled a little bit. So after watering early – it’s not easy to get up at 6.00 when you’ve hardly slept because of the heat – we retreated to the relative cool of the Potwell Inn and I settled down to a day at the stove.

It’s so important to do justice to the vegetables we spend so much effort on growing. Occasionally we wonder whether some of our fellow allotmenteers actually enjoy eating their produce when we see plants going to seed, but I guess their pleasure is in the growing. However we’re far too greedy to let anything slip through our fingers; in fact I’m not entirely sure whether cooking and eating actually preceded our love of growing things. It probably did. We both escaped from the monotony of five meals in rotation and post war rationing, and read cookery books as if they were soft porn – our fantasy lives inflamed with tales of roast garlic and tarragon. So from such weird beginnings the conjunction of growing, cooking, eating was the inevitable outcome.

Luckily we share the oddness with friends and allotment neighbours and yesterday our neighbour Monika gave us a handful of gherkins and promised to send her family recipes for sauerkraut and dill pickles. My previous experiments with cucumber have been mixed – in the sense that the British government has has mixed success. I remember helping to strain a five gallon barrel of cider vinegar with a friend and having the mother slide through my fingers like five pounds of finest ectoplasm. I’m sure it’s terribly good for the gut biome but it wasn’t a happy feeling and when all my fermented cucumbers went the same way last year I gave up.

However, another day another cucumber, and so we kicked off this pickling season with a non-fermented quick Scandinavian pickle with some fresh horseradish gathered from a neighbour who welcomes thieves because he can’t think how else to get rid of it. It won’t last long but wine vinegar shortcuts the lactic acid produced in fermentation.

Then it was an old stager from the Walnut Tree in Abergavenny. Foods go in and out of fashion but we pay no attention to fads and if something tastes marvelous we keep on cooking it. So this one comprises halved red peppers, tomatoes, garlic, basil, capers, anchovies and good oil – roasted for about 40 minutes. And then this afternoon I made Tabbouleh using some of the tomatoes we’ve just started harvesting in the polytunnel. The difference in flavour between the home made – using freshly harvested tomatoes, mint and parsley with decent olive oil – and the shop bought version, is astonishing.

It’s midsummer and we’re living like kings. The autumn broccoli – confused by the weather – has started flowering already, but we’ve also got French beans and runner beans just beginning. The three sisters experiment is looking good. with the painted mountain corn plants in flower.

Today is so-called freedom day but we’re not celebrating because it’s a shambolic mess that’s wholly down to our government’s incompetence (I always give credit where it’s due!). Our beloved leader seems to have banked the future of the country on a seven horse accumulator bet and the first three horses have lost – but – like all gamblers he keeps on betting in the hope his luck will change. We’ll carry on carrying on at the Potwell Inn and enjoy the sunshine while it’s here but we won’t be out clubbing any time soon – Madame says never!

News from La La land

To be honest, the last several days of silence on the blog are best accounted for by the feeling that I might be inhabiting a parallel dystopian universe where words have ceased to have any meaning at all – or at any rate they can mean anything you want them to mean. Even a simple blog like this one, about being human; growing things; cooking them; sharing them and struggling to find the Tao – has to use the selfsame words that make up the lies and distortions promoted by politicians and the dark money that keeps them in luxury. So in order to harness a simple idea like freedom, I need to pick the word up with a long stick and boil it in bleach for a couple of hours just to get the contamination off.

I don’t want to go on too much but when Bayer promote their new form of Roundup as being “glyphosate free” – they seem rather coy about admitting that the principal active ingredient is now vinegar, which you can buy at a fraction of the price at your local supermarket and, like its carcinogenic namesake, doesn’t kill pernicious perennial weeds either. Just for the record there is no evidence that the Potwell Inn tomatoes have any trace whatever of kryptonite and they are 100% natural. As it happens, most deadly nightshade berries are 100% natural and organic so that’s nice. “There is no evidence” is a favourite weapon of the lobbyists who spend billions making sure that the gathering of any evidence (especially the damaging kind) is discouraged.

This week the sun has, at last, started to shine again and through the wonders of AI my phone has started to taunt me with photographs of previous adventures in Europe (remember that?). So as we toted watering cans around the allotment my mind was driving down to southeast France where farmers seem to down tools in July and spend the next two months getting drunk and chasing bulls around the streets. I was so overwhelmed by memories of our visits to Uz├Ęs that I felt compelled to go out and buy a Panama hat, shake the moths out of my linen suit and drag Madame on a five mike walk around Bath pretending to be tourists. I’ve always resisted the Panama but as I approach 75 I think I’ve earned the right to be as silly as I like; and so I’ve shaved my designer stubble off and I’m growing my hair back until I can’t stand it any more. Sadly my attempt to provoke the neighbours on the allotment resulted in a single response – “you look very summery today”.

As we sweated it out with the watering yesterday morning, I realized that growing even a small proportion of our food demands a great deal of commitment. When we watch celebrity gardeners on TV, gliding effortlessly between rows of designer veg it doesn’t really convey the backache that hand weeding gives us (it works better than overpriced vinegar by the way), and it misses out the hours we spend constructing and dismantling windbreaks; clearing snow, digging emergency drains, turning compost and humping things like planks and paving stones around. The TV pundits never mention their failed crops and the incredible surpluses that courgette plants produce every year. Neither do they explain how they manage their impressive gardens without small armies of unpaid interns and helpers. I’ve tried telling the allotment that I’d like a couple of weeks off (I mean for a rest, not for making a new TV series) but it appears not to understand. Far from being a kind of restful interlude, it’s this time of year that harvesting and freezing soft fruit takes over, while the abundance of other crops means I’m constantly wondering what can be preserved and what needs to be cooked right now. The upside, of course, is that we can eat the freshest conceivable vegetables, bursting with flavour and goodness – no I mean really bursting – not the kind of PR bursting with flavour that refers to flaccid and exhausted, intensively grown lettuces driven a thousand miles from their impoverished lives under plastic.

As the photo shows we’ve also started harvesting the calendula flowers and drying them in the sun before extracting a golden essence from them in almond oil. Calendula cream really works and it’s so easy to make it’s plain daft to spend a fortune on tiny tubes of the stuff.

The trail cam has been a blessing, and we’re getting a much better idea of our many visitors, including a couple of different foxes, rats, magpies and a ginger cat who turns out to be a lethal predator of birds. I’ll put some shots up as soon as I’ve found a video editing application that allows me to do simple things without being inundated with ads. One of the unexpected outcomes of our move towards wildlife friendly gardening has been a loss of control – which has turned out to be a blessing rather than a curse. The wild plants and animals can’t be divided any more into friends and foes. We’re trying to leave things alone when unexpected volunteers pop up; so the carefully planned crops sometimes have to share their space with an interesting looking “weed”.

Some of the night shots from the trail cam show the presence of hundreds of small moths which it would be fun to identify, except it would be difficult to install a light trap that didn’t draw attention to itself – making it vulnerable to theft. We solved the problem with the trail cam by mounting it inside a padlocked steel box, and although it’s set almost at ground level we can often identify the human visitors to the allotment from their shoes!

Anyways here’s a short video of one visitor you’ll certainly recognise!

This may sound a little eccentric but ….

Just now the border surrounding the asparagus bed is looking as if it might take over – it certainly needs a dramatic thinning, but there is some method in the madness because we need to harvest a lot of calendula flowers to make cream, and calendula is also reputed to deter asparagus beetle. Allotments are peculiar places inasmuch as they can be plagued by pests that spread through the site from one plot to another. If every plot holder controlled their pests, preferably organically, they’d be less invasive. On our plot we’ve been overwhelmed this year with blackfly, which got going several weeks before the ladybirds(ladybugs) bred fast enough to limit their numbers. So we picked out the broad bean growing tips and harvested ladybirds wherever we found them so we could relocate them on an instant banquet. I’ve no idea whether it worked but eventually the blackfly were diminished and we’ve just finished harvesting a reasonable crop. What with the awful spring weather it felt like we were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but a few of the neighbours simply uprooted their beans and composted them. We’ve had allium leaf miner destroy our leeks for three consecutive years – it’s rife across the site – and so this year we’ve grown all the alliums – garlic, onions and leeks – under fine insect mesh in an attempt to keep the bugs out. We’ve also netted the carrot family in the same way; it doesn’t look so nice but if it protects the crops without any chemicals then it’s a good idea.

Asparagus beetle is another one. For three years – as soon as we allowed the fern to grow at the end of the season – the beetles moved in. Dozens of voracious little grubs would chomp their way through the fern, weakening some of the plants enough to kill them. It became a daily task to sort slowly through the bed, squashing every grub we could find between thumb and finger. We found it was the most effective deterrent, but each day there would be a new hatch and so it was hard work. We sprayed once or twice with organic pyrethrum, but it can only be done under perfect conditions early in the morning because it’s a broad spectrum insecticide and could kill friends as easily as foes. It’s also very expensive and so we kept on with the daily slaughter by hand.

This year we thought we’d try growing a border of calendula around the bed to repel beetles and it seems to be working. Madame has only picked off half a dozen grubs this week, and the fronds are looking sound – capable of feeding the roots for next year. However the vigorous marigolds are shading the asparagus plants nearer the edges so we need to take the flowers for drying and then thin the border dramatically. So far it’s one up for the companion planting.

I wanted also to mention a new (another one!) book which would be of more interest to UK and Northern European gardeners because it’s about garden wildlife. Titled “Guide to Garden Wildlife” it’s illustrated beautifully by Richard Lewington with the birds illustrated by his brother Ian. This season’s foray into deliberate wildlife gardening has forced us to pay a lot more attention to what’s flying around, wandering and crawling around, swimming around and tunnelling underneath the allotment. A single, portable, illustrated field guide ticks an awful lot of boxes since we are now so often confronted with an insect whose name we don’t know. Wildlife gardening removes the convenient (and deadly) division of living things into crops and enemies. The netting and companion planting that we’re experimenting with all flow from the desire to combine the protection of our crops with increasing the diversity and health of the birds and insects on the plot.

Here’s a typical decision we’ve had to make. Until we put in a pond I’d never heard of iris sawfly, but they’ve moved in with a vengeance – fat and juicy little grubs chewing off the leaves. For us they’re a nuisance – more of a cosmetic nuisance it has to be said; but for a hungry bird, or for one of the many other insect predators it’s a meal. So we put up with the knackered leaves and hope that the dragonflies, water boatmen and many other creatures enjoy a meal at the expense of a little patience on our part. Once we’ve accepted that we’re just another predator in the great wheel of nature, then the way we garden becomes a profoundly moral issue. We take what we need, discourage dangerous pests as far as we can and let the rest thrive.

The book has enthused me enough to try to identify more of the species of bee and fly that look rather like one another. Hoverflies, for instance, are a big group with very different lifestyles and we want to move beyond bumble bees and butterflies. Even moths, I wonder recklessly, could be worth a go. It would be pure pleasure of course but more than that I’d urge you to get hold of a copy and read Ken Thompson’s marvellous introduction. His take on wildlife gardening is pretty radical because he refuses to get drawn into a sterile argument about what’s wild and what’s not. Words like wild and natural muddy the waters to no useful end. The sad fact is that gardens are a tremendous, and sometimes the only species rich environments left in a highly populated country, practising industrial farming and building more and more concrete infrastructure. If any moronic cash strapped local council wants to turn an allotment into a car park or (another) profitable housing development for the elderly wealthy, and believe me they often do, then it will be essential to have to hand detailed records of the allotment’s natural history and biodiversity.

We’ve had a trail cam for ages, but we’ve never dared deploy it on the allotment for fear of it being stolen or vandalised – sadly it’s a problem for almost all allotmenteers. But now we’ve got a purpose built padlocked steel box which should stop almost anything except a pre-prepared theft using tools. We’ve known about the wildlife that we share the plot with through seeing what they do. Badgers, for instance, have an amazing capacity for judging the sweetness of sweetcorn and unless you protect it, it will be stolen the day before you were going to pick it. There are rumours of small deer and of course we see the rats and the flying nuisances, mostly pigeons. Mostly though, we see the tracks and the sign but not the animals themselves. But now we’ve captured some lovely video of a fox sitting and cleaning itself right in front of the camera; a curious magpie almost tapping the box (it must have glistened) and a great sequence of a fat rat, nose twitching searching for our broad beans. Rats love the beans and occasionally we find a whole pile of empty pods. This one, however, was out of luck and it jumped over the boards into a cleared bed.

However, watching 30 seconds of video for a short glimpse of a fox is pretty boring and so I’m trying to teach myself video editing so that I can publish the best bits here. I may be some time!

Three sisters, free strawberries and a bit about sourdough

Finally all the elements of the the experimental three sisters planting are in place. In the centre there’s a winter squash called Crown Prince which is a great keeper and big enough to feed the whole family. Around the squash are Painted Mountain corn, and growing up through the greenery are the borlotti beans. How it will grow is anyone’s guess. Breaking with tradition slightly, the elements were all sown and brought on separately and then planted up together as soon as they looked strong enough to cope with the competition. Being a bit belt and braces about it we’re using a patch of ground we’ve never grown anything in before and we’ve got more of each of the elements growing separately around the garden, so whatever happens we can rely on some sort of harvest. I really hope that the three sisters planting will work out well because it’s such an efficient use of space, but we’ll see and I promise I’ll report back as the season goes on.

The polytunnel strawberries are finished now and have started to throw runners, and so we’ll be pegging the runners into small pots tomorrow and increasing the stock for free. I’ve done it many times before and it’s an amazingly easy and profitable way to go for a bigger crop. The six plants of Malling Centenary were a very cheap, end of season offer and with the usual TLC we’ll have had a small crop this season and as many as a couple of dozen plants to share between the tunnel and an outdoor bed next year; and that makes competition for space greater than ever.

I had built a raised strawberry bed during the winter but the plants I ordered never materialised and the bed has been commandeered for a crop of leeks and onions because it’s so easy to cover with hoops and insect mesh. The allotment is a picture at the moment – our little outpost of paradise – and for the first time we’ve got a small supply of cut flowers to bring back to the flat. We’ve even got three varieties of lavender growing – I’m not sure how that happened – like most addicts we can’t pass a plant sale.

As for sourdough, I wanted to write a little bit about the relationship between the starter and the dough. When I first made a sourdough starter more than ten years ago I experimented with a number of different flours and followed a number of different routines. It quickly emerged that the leader in every respect was no more complicated than a batter of water and dark rye flour – no added apples or anything like that – left on the windowsill and neglected until it started to froth up. My only concession to faffery was to use bottled water rather than the heavily chlorinated tap water we had at the time, but since the first few months I’ve just used tap water which has made no difference at all.

So my starter was born and raised on dark rye flour and since then I’ve tried many different mixtures of wholemeal and white organic flour to make the loaves. My everyday bread recipe changes a little almost every time I bake it.

However, during the lockdown the rye flour was unobtainable because so many people started making their own bread. The millers simply couldn’t scale up their operation fast enough. So I used wholemeal wheat flour to feed the starter for some months until the dark rye became available again and it worked reasonably well – if rather slowly. When I finally started feeding with dark rye once again, the starter almost shouted “thanks mate” – bubbling away on a new lease of life. So I wondered what would happen to proving times if I added just about 100g of dark rye to the loaf recipe. What happened is that the proving time in the banneton is reduced by as four or five hours; the bread lasts longer and is altogether livelier with good structure. Unlike most bakers I don’t go for the open textured loaves full of holes because Madame doesn’t like the way the butter on her toast runs down her sleeve when the bread is properly French! The French texture is easy enough to achieve if you add a proportion of softer (lower protein) flour to the mix, but it doesn’t keep as well.

So that’s it for today

Composting – is it just a load of old rot?

Just to my left, as I’m writing this, is a bookshelf filled with books about composting. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you’ll know that we’ve tried almost every way there is of making good compost; and each of them has advantages and disadvantages. The one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that the heap in the picture above is a rubbish heap and not a compost heap. The computer software saying – “garbage in, garbage out” applies every bit was strongly to compost. I’ve even seen an abandoned bike rusting away on a compost heap.

The favourite starting point for most of us is the one you make from wooden pallets. The advantage is that it’s pretty much free to make and it will produce compost. The downside is that the open slats allow cold air and rats to get in, and if there’s any trace of food waste they’ll come hunting for it. Rats are an ever present nuisance and we just have to accept that. You can line them with chicken wire but rats often dig in by tunnelling underneath and you’ll soon discover when turning the heap that the tines of your fork will constantly hit the netting. Our neighbour bought himself a fabulously expensive hot-bin made from expanded polystyrene and the rats simply ate through it. As for the conical polythene ones that you buy at garden centres or from the council – I can’t say because we’ve never had one – but I hear the rats still get in from underneath.

On the far left above is my version of the California Cylinder which, – when there’s plenty of green waste around – will go like a train. It’s made by forming two concentric cylinders of sheep wire and then inserting thick cardboard into the gap between them. You can also build in a chimney to pull heat through. In one of our gardens, when we cleared it of weeds, we had four in a line steaming away merrily and turning out fabulous compost. The next year we had far less green waste and they were not so successful. The other disadvantage is that it’s all but impossible to turn the heap – it’s better to pull the wire and cardboard off, set it up again somewhere close and refill it with the turned compost.

The simplest composting method of all is the leaf mould heap, like the one in the right hand photo, which is a single cylinder of sheep wire filled with as many leaves as you can press down into it. It takes a year or two but it always works. We find that we can grow a great crop of cucumbers on the heap during the summer while it rots. Even open heaps will work eventually, but then you really have to turn them very frequently and they’ll grind to a halt as soon as the weather gets cold. In the end I built a large four bay composting arrangement with removable fronts which works well for us and makes turning easy -still hard work, though!

Composting is a seasonal cycle

The big challenge is that composting works best when you control the ingredients – mixing green and brown waste and turning regularly. So during the winter months there’s nothing much going in except for veg peelings and the like. Winter heaps don’t often heat up very much, and unless they’re well laced with torn up cardboard and paper, they tend to get anaerobic, wet and smelly. Even in a well managed winter heap, you’ll find that it’s worms doing most of the work. Worms are wonderful. They appear out of nowhere, chew up your waste and turn it into gold – very slowly. In the spring if the heap or the ambient temperature gets warmer they’ll move off somewhere more comfortable without any intervention on our part.

There are two peak green waste seasons – early summer when the remains of winter crops like broad beans go in; and autumn when bean vines and all the rest are cleared away. We move the winter heap with its worms to the next bin and then layer the abundant green waste with any sort of carbon we can get our hands on – cardboard so long as it’s not plastic coated, any sort of dried or dead grass, leaves and – interestingly – wood chip. Just this week our bin reached almost 60C with several 2″ layers of wood chip incorporated. We were confident in adding wood chip because we noticed that we get through around 25 barrow loads every year just topping up the paths. It rots down much quicker than you’d think. We’re lucky because the local council bring wood chip and leaves on to the site during the autumn.

But there are other additives that are invaluable in a compost heap. We use horse manure and even seaweed when we can get it. The last load of seaweed we brought down from the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales where we’d been on holiday. It stank to high heaven and was full of flies and sandhoppers so it was an uncomfortable 200 mile journey with the windows open; just as it always is with the still warm horse manure that we use in the hot bed. If there’s any spare we add that to the compost as well because it’s so rich in nitrogen and carbon – already mixed.

We also occasionally use chicken manure pellets to steam things up a bit, and drench the heap with liquid seaweed feed now and again if it feels too dry. Control of the moisture level is crucial to success and one of this year’s jobs on the to-do list is to roof over the whole line of bins so we can harvest the rain falling on them and control the temperature and moisture level more accurately.

Of course the finest additive of all is human urine which combines bioavailable nitrogen and moisture at the same time – but don’t overdo it and make sure you’ve agreed with your partner that it’s OK to clutter up the bathroom with a jug and a five litre ex vinegar container marked clearly “Bio-hazard” . We tell everyone we talk to that we’re doing it because it’s an amazingly effective preventative against crop larceny – because they never know which ones we’ve just anointed!

What not to add

Obviously any cooked food and or meat – although I’ve occasionally left a dead rat to compost down because it seemed only fair. Winter heaps should not contain noxious weeds like bindweed because they don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and roots . a very hot summer heap – if it reaches, say, 60C would kill pretty much anything – but you never know. We err on the side of caution always, having introduced creeping buttercup into one of our past gardens via horse manure.

More particularly after wasting many hours picking bits of so-called compostable material out of an old heap; we no longer add those green caddy liners nor any teabags. We open teabags to extract the tea leaves and the compostable bags which seem never to rot, go to landfill. Even worse are the big ticket tea temples that are part of the USP of Teapigs brand. Sorry guys – without a commercial (very hot) process they appear to be invincible; clogging up the beds and any rake you might use. I actually ran an experiment on the little coir disks wrapped in mesh which purport to be green – and they don’t rot either. When it comes to greening up horticulture it pays to be careful – not everything it says on the packet comes to pass! And don’t ever put in a thick layer of grass mowings unless you’ve allowed it to wilt first in the sun.

That’s it really – the sad sum of my composting experience in a thousand or so words out of the fruits of which we can make maybe three cubic metres of compost and one and a half of leaf mould every year. Marvellous stuff ‘though – and so much better than anything you could buy in a shop.

Hiding in plain sight

On Monday we watched this heron from the iron bridge over the Kennet and Avon Canal in Sidney Gardens. We’ve often watched herons across the river before and they tend to stand out against a leafy bankside, but looked at from above you can see how perfectly the heron blends into the surface of the water. I can’t believe herons have many overhead predators, but I can imagine a fox stalking one, when of course it would be watching its prey at water level, and the heron’s habit of standing stock still for minutes on end would make it all but invisible. I imagine its camouflage would be just as effective from below. This bird extended and shortened its neck so slowly it was wonderful to watch. It didn’t catch its supper while we were there but flew off down the canal towards the river.

It’s been a strange couple of days at the Potwell Inn. It’s almost six years to the day since we both retired and moved to another city. I’m sure there are many careers from which you could cheerfully walk away without a backward glance but it’s been very different for me. For more than forty years my workplaces were deeply emotionally challenging. Mental hospitals, prisons, outer urban fringe estates – both wealthy and very deprived; in fact the well-to-do villages were way more challenging. It was a high commitment, high adrenaline and massively challenging environment with no script at all. My working days were mostly demand led – the telephone could convey news as daft as a cat stuck up a tree at three in the morning, or a call from a stricken partner to tell me that the love of their life had been killed in an accident. I had worked as an art therapist with women who had been incarcerated in a mental hospital (read asylum) as “moral degenerates” because they’d had babies. They were extremely elderly and completely institutionalised so there was no hope of redress for them. Every day was a cliffhanger and I loved it but the pace meant there was rarely any time out to recuperate before the next wave hit – and being a bloke I shoved it to the back of my mind. As a community worker I worked among guns and knives not to mention drugs, and before I was ordained I taught pottery in a prison and took convicted killers out on resettlement visits.

To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile;

After that the church should have been a doddle, but anyone who imagines that a parish church is a haven of hope and goodwill has never known one. People will be appallingly rude and aggressive (knowing that you can’t answer back) – without a thought of how damaging they can be. To be any good at all as a parish priest you have to be prepared to be fragile; not to know all the answers and to risk condemnation from some of your congregation for “mixing with the wrong sort” or from your ‘superiors’ for treading too close to the invisible and infinitely flexible line of orthodoxy. In every one of those situations I was supported, taught and and inspired by the people I worked with, but there were always a few who treated the status quo as an idol to be worshipped. We were destined to clash, and we did.

And so the years of stress piled up and took their inevitable physical and mental toll. I first found the Potwell Inn whilst reading “The History of Mr Polly” at school in an English class, and carried the idea of a place of beauty and safety – just like it – with me all those years. For the first three years of my retirement I kept a private journal as I struggled to discover what I was for if it wasn’t work. The allotment came along and it’s been such a place of dreaming and consolation that the title of the blog gave itself to me. The Potwell Inn was born three years ago, almost to the day. The photo was of our youngest son and our first grandson walking hand in hand down an avenue of limes in Dyrham Park.

When I read the little biography that I added to the site, I realize that it’s all true but it doesn’t convey the sense that the Potwell Inn is also a hostel for the broken. The tagline about being human didn’t come from any hoard of communicable knowledge on my part. I’d spent so much of my life patching up other people I wasn’t sure any more that I knew how to be human myself.

Perhaps the previous paragraphs make more sense of why I spent most of yesterday in A & E with a racing heart that just wouldn’t slow down and worrying that it might stop altogether! A little spate of coincidences (perhaps what Jung would have termed synchronicities) – several people I’d known and cared about had died; the funeral director called me to tell me about one of them and the moment heard his voice I went into auto pilot, fending off the fear of yet more grief. I started to dream vividly at night – sometimes nightmares about being locked out and rejected – standard stuff I suppose; bread and butter psychotherapeutic issues, but it was enough to kick off an AFib attack that just wouldn’t go away. The self protective shell that I’d built up around myself had become a prison – I used to (half) jokingly refer to my clerical collar as “my prison clothes”, and breaking up that carapace has turned out to be both liberating and incredibly challenging. All of which means there’s a lot more to the Potwell Inn than I’ve allowed out before. The allotment has been central to that process, but I’ve still got reservations about the concept of the “nature cure”. For me, today for instance, the mindless pleasure of weeding, watering and planting out helps me to stop the carousel of dark thoughts. The photos express moments of joyfulness and thoughtfulness that I find around and about. The heron – still and silent like a preacher; the teasel whose sepals remind me of a lyre; the melon swelling in the tunnel, crops gathered and eaten and the flower borders alive with insects. They’re all little shout-outs from creation that say – or sing – come and join the dance!