Something about simmering!

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I realise that pig’s cheeks may not be everyone’s favorite during this time of stress, but I recall exactly why I bought them about two years ago, and as always it was down to the memory of a grocery and delicatessen in Clifton, where we used to live, and which occasionally sold Bath Chaps – which is a local name for pigs’ cheeks, cured like bacon and then coated in breadcrumbs and presumably deep fried  – exactly the sort of dish an ambitious gastronaut ought to be having a go at. The shop window could have come straight out of Mrs Beeton. Needless to say I never actually bought any, and I’ve never eaten one either, but they always looked so good in the window – I’m a sucker for anything coated in breadcrumbs. It was a lovely shop; they cooked their own hams and did all the things that deli’s stopped doing years ago, and the clientele (apart from me) included many of the great and good like the Lord Mayor who used to send his butler round for a swift gammon.  He (the butler) was an immensely large Cornishman, well over six feet tall, who  always wore a morning suit that looked a bit grubby and stained and who spoke with a rich Cornish accent.

So when I encountered these pigs cheeks my gastronomical imagination was aroused and I bought six of them for next to nothing.  The rest of their time at the Potwell Inn was spent in the freezer awaiting the moment which never seemed to come and so they went into yesterday’s stock and after a long braise they came out again and I tasted one rather gingerly because they were in the part of the stock that I normally throw away. It tasted pretty good too but Madame refused to even look at them and so I guess they’re a secret snack for me.

At least, being of no interest to Madame, I’ll be safe to snaffle them. Treats, under lockdown conditions, can be a source of tension – in fact almost anything can be a source of tension when you’re banged up in a first floor flat and your partner the only person in the world allowed closer than two metres. I have filed away her incendiary behaviour over my shortbreads, and even forgiven her through gritted teeth for taking the last cold sausage from the fridge but it takes a saint! Last night we were sitting amicably watching the television when a strangely sulphurous smell crept into the room.  Suspicious glances were made and denials of responsibility were issued but it wasn’t until I came to clean down in the kitchen that I discovered a clove of garlic had stuck to the underside of the stock pot and was caramelising away gently, emitting a horrible burnt garlic smell.

So yesterday’s fruits included a loaf of everyday bread – subtly different in flavour and texture because I’ve run out of rye flour, but still very good.  There’s the stock reduced and stored, and fifteen pounds of new allotment jam in the cupboard as well as space in the freezer available for speculative and impulsive purchases (not including pigs’ cheeks) if the shops ever open again. I was pretty tired by the time we finished, and slept badly so woke up this morning feeling – well – jaded, I’d have said hung over if I’d had a drink but we foreswore alcohol last June and haven’t lapsed. Notice I didn’t say ‘yet’!

This morning I decided a mid-morning nap was allowable but it didn’t work out.  Living in a flat, especially a concrete walled flat, inevitably means a degree of sharing.  This morning I shared my peace with two or perhaps even three radios tuned to different stations and a builder two floors up who was using a hammer drill non-stop for two hours. The sofa is about a foot shorter than I needed for snoozing so I got cramps. Living banged-up can have its irritations.  I remember once reading about a murder (true story this) committed on a sewage farm.  It was a remote site with a house occupied by two men  who didn’t get on to the extent that one killed the other in a fit of rage and chucked his body in the tank. The subsequent trial revealed that the festering tensions between them had all boiled over and the rest was history – at least it was for one of them. I’d have thought there was no better place for festering tensions than a sewage farm.

I hope that the Potwell Inn emerges from this crisis with all its staff intact, but as time goes on the outside world becomes that tiny bit more threatening.  I wonder whether there will be thousands of new cases of agoraphobia after months of this.  We’re lucky to have the allotment to go to  and this afternoon it came as close to being a carnival as conditions allowed.  Everyone seemed to be there and we all hailed each other across the empty space as if we hadn’t seen each other for months.  The council have turned on the water supply at last and so we all observed a thoughtful queue at the required distance as we watered our seedlings.  We’ve been fortunate that our stored rainwater has just about lasted us until now, and during the summer I can install the last two storage butts so we can be even more self-sufficient.

In spite of the record rain during the winter, the recent dry spell and its winds have dried the upper surface of the ground and so seedlings need a lot of attention and watering, but it was the kind of attention we were relieved to be able to give – you could almost feel the young plants saying thank-you. The new season has begun and even in the midst of this pandemic there’s something good emerging. Our GP neighbour said today that the new personal protection gowns they were issued with look as if they’ve been made from bin liners – as always, life is like the proverbial curate’s egg – good in parts!

Taking stock & making stock

When we took on the first half-allotment four years ago almost exactly, I don’t think we’d considered at all what a big part it was going to play in our lives. We’d always grown things in a series of different houses and allotments –  you’d probably have described us as ‘greens’ for many decades, but over the years the sense of urgency has increased and where once we were content to have a few home-grown treats off our various gardens, by the time we moved here it seemed apparent that growing some of our own food was about to become a necessity. We had much less money once we retired, and there had been straws in the wind when relatively minor events like a bit of snow, or a petrol strike had brought the country to its knees and seen the shops emptied, and especially after the 2008 financial crash we felt that the system could no longer be trusted. Insecurity was becoming embedded in our lives and there was a growing sense of cognitive dissonance between the world as we and our children were experiencing it, and the world as it was being sold to us by politicians and their friends in the media.

So when we signed the first and then the second agreements on our two small plots, we felt that with the aggregate of 250 square metres – a British standard allotment plot – we’d be a good deal safer if the economy tanked. At that stage it was a conceptual move rather than one driven by an immediate threat.  The brexit vote and then the election of the new government did nothing to allay our fears that the future was darkening by the day, and yet never once did it occur to us that the occasion of the collapse would be an escaped virus leading to a pandemic. That was truly left-field.

Until very recently, growing your own has been a kind of lifestyle choice – in fact many allotment and cooking blogs are categorised as lifestyle blogs. Home grown vegetables,  and kitchen gardens tended to feature alongside gingham tablecloths and wicker shopping baskets at the homes and gardens end of the coffee table trade. Bread baking – especially the sourdough loaf – lined up with all manner of artisanal products as forms of conspicuous consumption among the hipster classes. It was all very ‘let’s pretend’ as head scarves worn 1940’s style with dungarees became fashion items allowed us (yes I mean us) to toy with the idea of wartime austerity conditions without actually having to put up with them. For a while offal became the latest trend in high end restaurants and you could show off to your friends by demonstrating mastery over removing 200 tiny bones from a breast of lamb before stuffing it with truffles and gold leaf.

And now it’s happened and everything has changed. Over the past 50 years 65% of the land given over to allotments has been sold off by local authorities for housing development or to be turned into parks – both extremely important social needs, but suddenly allotments are back in vogue because the cracks have opened up and the shelves are empty. The pandemic has demonstrated that our way of life has become so hollowed out that it no longer functions under stress. Four years ago when we signed our first lease you could barely give allotments away and now you’ll probably have to wait for years to get one as they work through the recently extended lists, and those who have taken them on for the first time have to cope with the closure of garden centres and shops and the seizing up of the seed supply chain.

Waking up this morning into a different world was a bit of a strange experience. There was sourdough batter proving in its warm spot on the stove exactly as it has done for years, but I was painfully aware that we’ve only got 1 Kilo of flour left and no idea how to get any more – we may, we may not, but whether this is the last loaf for a while lies outside my control. The freezer was stuffed to capacity but probably 50% of what was in it was only put there because we couldn’t think what to do with it back in the day.

And so I did what I often do when I’m troubled about something, I decided to spend a day on the stove. First up – and wheeze of the month – I decided to take all of the soft fruit out of the freezer, mix it all together and make a batch of jam under the label “allotment jam”. It contains redcurrants, whitecurrants, blackcurrants, raspberries and gooseberries, all picked last year, and it smells lovely. We (I) tend to make far more jams, preserves and pickles than we could possibly eat, but the boys like them very much. However even this simple idea led to a mini crisis, because I’d run out of honey jar lids.  Four years ago I bought a big batch from a wholesaler and proudly boasted that I’d never need to buy another lid – until today, that is. A quick scout around the internet revealed that the mighty Amazon have them at 10 (yes ten) times the price I could get from an old contact in the bee supplies business – so guess who I placed the order with!

Next, from out of the freezer,  came a load of old chicken bones and a bag of unidentified material I think may be pigs cheeks, bought because they were there on display at a time when I had no time.  The freezer can be a bit of a dustbin if you’re not careful. We had all the veg I needed to make stock apart from fresh herbs and leeks and so we went to the allotment and gathered some of each.  Once again, the takeaway point is that the leeks I collected were so small you wouldn’t be able to give them away at the supermarket.  As I’ve mentioned before, they didn’t do well last year, but dug, washed and trimmed they smelt better than anything you could hope to buy and they, and all the other ingredients are simmering away slowly on the stove, along with some more rhubarb. Bread, soup, stock and pudding all in hand.

This whole change of context has changed the way everything feels. In times of shortage, anything we can muster and make something from becomes that bit more precious. Intellectually I’ve known for years that our western way of life is unsustainable, but this painful lesson has taken us back from our focus on the detail to show the bigger picture.  Climate change, global extinctions, dirty air, poisoned land, polluted water, poverty, sickness and obesity are not discrete challenges that we can tackle one at a time when we get around to it – they’re one unified and terrifying challenge.

Yesterday we found the remains of a chicken on the allotment, almost certainly killed by a fox. I could see at a glance that it was (had been) a domestic bird because the remains of its crop were stuffed with maize. The condemned prisoner had enjoyed a hearty meal! Today when we went back every trace of the maize had gone; almost certainly eaten by a fortunate mouse.  The last of the feathers went on to the compost heap. That’s how nature works; endlessly recycling herself with no creature taking more than it needs or can find nearby, until – that is – we came along and tried to take it all.

More reasons for being cheerful

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I’m never quite sure what constitutes the first fruits of the new season because some of our favourite things like leeks and purple sprouting broccoli have been in the ground for a season already. So if you exclude all of last year’s starters, then the first crop has to be one that was sown this year and once again (it never changes) the radish comes in first because it just loves the hotbed and always obliges us in record time.  These were the very first thinnings, but we were so pleased we just blew the loose dirt off, wiped off the rest on my overalls and ate them.  They were delicious and remember, everyone needs to eat their peck of dirt!  The asparagus is putting in a magnificent effort and will certainly come second, but it just needs a few warmer nights. Very soon we’ll be eating the first thinnings of lettuces and then – true joy – the first broad beans. The hungry gap is always much later than most people imagine – it doesn’t come in the dead of winter when there are always roots and a few hardy brassicas to be had – it’s now when you can feel the first heat of the sun on your back and the birds are singing.

Paradoxically, the social isolation policy coupled with millions of people being laid off or working from home, has allowed many people to get on with their allotments and every day sees more work being done.  But there are other fascinating consequences. This morning when our grocery delivery arrived, instead of coming in a big diesel van it arrived on an electric bike – I couldn’t quite believe it – but the boss of a local bike delivery company had lost almost all his work due to shop closures so he offered to help the supermarket out.

Our own plot is a constant source of pleasure. Today we went up early, thinking there wouldn’t be much to do because yesterday we decided to do a bit of weeding and we struggled to finds any weeds! Two people working seven days a week on 250 square metres of ground can defeat even bindweed after 4 years.  Actually I’m a little ashamed that it looks so clinically clean at this time of the year, but give it six weeks and it will look a lot more random. We’ve scattered no end of  “good” weeds around the beds but they’re slow to germinate.

The biggest job today was to plant out the garlic that we’d started off in pots last year.  We experimented by splitting the bulbs into two batches – half were planted straight into the ground and the other half into big pots filled with home made free draining compost. All winter the pots were winning – the ones in the ground were sitting in very wet soil and we were quite concerned for them.  But as soon as the rain stopped the situation reversed completely and the ones in the ground started to pull ahead so convincingly that today we put the rest into the ground.  The original idea was to use the potted ones to move around the plot and sit them on paths to deter pests.  Pots can be a bit tricky though, and even after the wet winter we’ve just had, the pots were drying out even after a week of good weather.  Garlic likes moist soil but hates the wet and hates drying out just as much. The watering regime for garlic is one of the keys to success and we’re still learning how to manage it.  Pots need a lot of attention  – that seems to be the learning point.

As ever we’ve put things into the wrong place and they soon tell you.  I’ve already moved some lavenders into a home made bed that would kill many plants, but we saw a bunch of lavenders planted in what looked like an impossibly dry and sunny spot on the side of the canal last year, and I remember shaking my head sagely at the time – assuming that they’d be dead by the end of the season – but they just loved it there. Now we’ve got to find a new home for another sun lover  – a Clematis armandii that’s on the wrong side of a hazel hurdle. The best laid plans etc ….. Last year I spent many hours planning on the computer, but we altered so many things on the ground that we’ve become a bit less picky.  Rotations are important, but making a fetish of them drives you mad, I promise!

So not much time for reading today but suddenly, as I was reading Thomas Berry the thought popped into my mind that although human slavery was (theoretically) abolished many years ago, precisely the same set of attitudes lies behind intensive farming.  The victim this time is the whole earth and so by extension all of us.  The absolute power that science and technology have gifted us over the processes of nature is not accompanied by any sense of responsibility, or by any spiritual awareness of a debt to the earth which sustains us, out of which we have emerged over unimaginable periods of time, made from the very elements and energies of the moment of origin.

Those grubby hands in the photo are holding a miracle that – rightly considered – should bring us to our knees in gratitude.

Staying positive

I promised I’d say something about Thomas Berry’s book “The dream of the earth” which I’ve been reading for a couple of days. It’s a bit dense but the idea that runs through it is very simple. We like to think of ourselves as rational and scientific creatures who have collectively transcended millennia of superstition and religion and emerged at last confident in our capacity to organise the earth far better than nature ever managed on her own. Industry and science have delivered (we believe) all the things that previous belief systems had bundled up into a kind of visionary future that will deliver peace, prosperity, food for all and universal happiness because we can all access the very things our unfortunate ancestors could only think of in religious terms.  The sick will be healed, the dead raised (cryogenics) and we shall all share in a great banquet of goods and services exactly tailored to our innermost and secret desires. It’s hard to fault it, and as Gandhi was reputed to have replied when asked about European civilisation – “it would be a good idea”.

But the thing about religious ideologies  – and Berry is suggesting that’s what we have got here – is that you can’t question them. The evidence that our present way of life is destructive and dangerous is everywhere to be seen and yet remains invisible to millions of people. Who knows why? All we do know is that presenting the evidence doesn’t seem to shake belief in the status quo at all. What we seem to need is not better evidence or better presentation of the old evidence but something which more closely resembles a religious conversion. The continuation of life on earth, he argues, depends on a universal and thoroughgoing change of perspective. We need to rediscover the sacred earth.  We need to embrace our creatureliness in order to rediscover our true creativity.

I hope you’ll read the book, but meanwhile here’s some scary background reading on the origins of the coronavirus pandemic, written by Brendan Montague who is editor of the Ecologist magazine. And here’s a very good example of the aquarian fallacy that believes there is always an industrial solution to every problem. Here a commercial forestry expert advises the planting of more conifers to save the world because they grow more quickly.  Sadly he doesn’t seem to notice that even if they capture carbon for 25 years as they grow, immediately they’re felled they begin to release that stored carbon back into the atmosphere. There’s only one way, and that’s to end the way we consume the earth. That consumption is enabled and fuelled by the false ideology of never ending progress, the fantasy that there is no limit to growth

Which links nicely to today on the allotment because the absence of cars on the streets has made our plot more beautiful than ever – less polluted by the busy road, less noisy and quiet enough to hear a blackbird sing across the road. Call me an old romantic but I really like it.

After a few hours out in the sunshine while we sowed, planted and prepared the bed for the runner beans that will climb up their supports when they’re planted out in mid May, we took some photos and wandered home again. On a day like today this doesn’t feel too much like hardship. The hazel bean poles came from friends in Wales (thanks Nick and Kate) and always bring back memories of old gardens and older mentors from the past. We were able to talk to friends on the telephone and all our children keep in daily touch.  The food we eat has simplified because there’s no opportunity for impulse buys which has a knock-on effect on our waste.  Inside the flat the window tables are full and growing steadily.  We’ve tried to work to the point where – if the lockdown intensifies – the allotment can look after itself for a week or two.

Anger is a corrosive emotion, and I’ve lapsed into real anger more then once over the past few weeks, but today was too good to waste on recriminations. The time of reckoning will come soon enough, but meanwhile our biggest hope is that our economics and politics could escape from the hubristic prison of its false claims, the false choices that are presented as the only possible ways forward; the wolf of extractive capitalism disguised as a disturbingly green lamb, the kind that glows in the dark.  Several times today I’ve thought about the lines from Asinaria, written in 195 BC, by Titus Maccius Plautus –

One man to another is a wolf, not a man,

It’s not the full quotation which is rarely used, but the reason it’s almost always cropped is because it does seem to express something of a universal truth about our capacity for mutual harm.

Rediscovering the sacred earth isn’t about wandering through the bosky woods with your mind full of fluffy feelings. Creatureliness is vulnerable, fragile, ephemeral, capable of great love and great cruelty. Being a part of nature completely resets our relationship with the earth and with one another.  No spirituality that follows, (and any change of perspective as profound as this will involve a spiritual dimension), can be co opted and repackaged as just another product of Western materialism.

Our allotment isn’t a panacea, a free pass to a world suddenly put right again; it’s a shoulder to the wheel, that’s all. An invitation both to celebrate and to fear the seasons, but at least to be a part of the great cycle. A way of understanding our creatureliness through growing, tending, sharing and eating; through poetry, music and song, even building, and above all a way of understanding our dependence on the earth and on nature as the foundation of real wisdom.

Keeping going

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As promised, a few ideas on staying sane later; but first – and this isn’t a showoff, when I make a discovery, usually not remotely original or clever but just something I never figured out before, I like to share it in case someone else can use it. And so a sourdough tip. I’ve sort of known this for ages but this loaf so perfectly demonstrates the point that I’ll share it now.

Everybody loves a crusty loaf I’m sure, and most of us slash the top of our risen dough before baking. This little trick just helps you to choose what you want the crust to look like. I don’t like the kind of crust that looks a bit like a breaking wave on top of the loaf; it looks great but it’s often very sharp and can be positively dangerous to eat when it’s baked hard. In old money this is often described as a crusty or when it’s rectangular, a split loaf. I prefer the crust in the photo, it looks just as impressive in my view, but it’s less lethal to the mouth and it’s the kind of crust you get on what’s known here as a coburg. The choice between breaking wave and a smoother crust is controlled by the angle of the slash.  If you want a loaf like the one in the photo – and this is a bit counterintuitive – you need to slash the dough vertically, straight into the top, as much as an inch deep. To get the wave look with the raised slash, you cut the dough diagonally at, say, forty five degrees or even less. Try it and see for yourself.

Which takes me neatly to survival mechanisms while we’re all doing our best to avoid social contact because it can be really boring stuck indoors. Why not spend some time learning to bake? If you’ve always wanted to make sourdough the best suggestion I can make is to ignore all the witchcraft and ley-line stuff about making a starter. It couldn’t be simpler, you just mix a couple of tablespoons of rye flour light or dark, doesn’t matter – with enough water, (tap water will do), to make it the consistency of double cream.  Leave it uncovered for a few days in a warm place and it will start to bubble a bit. You don’t need to buy fancy starter kits because – trust me – the very air we breathe really wants you to make sourdough. And then once it’s working well – frothing up – you can throw half of the starter away or give it to a friend, top it up with a couple of tablespoons more rye flour and more water. When it comes to making the bread, Hugh Fearnley Whittingstall’s River Cottage recipe is as good as any but expect to add or subtract a little flour depending on the brand you bought. And don’t worry it’ll taste fine – don’t overbake it.  I bake it in my steam oven for 10 minutes at 220C and twenty at 180C – that’s half an hour altogether, but it will differ according to your oven – that’s it. If you really want a blow by blow recipe and method, email me on the link on this page and I’ll send it.

And that was a very long winded way of saying use this unexpected gift of time to do something rewarding, because achieving a lifelong ambition really makes your day. We have a lovely breakfast each day using our own bread and preserves.  We read a lot more and we tend hundreds of young plants or go to the allotment where everyone understands the 2 metres of separation rule. I can’t begin to express how a few hours of gardening can compensate for our restricted lives.  The sun shone today and I was able to fill the water butts from the storage barrels.  Madame sowed seeds and I planted cabbages and rhubarb chard – almost everything is under fleece because of the cold nights. We swerve between feeling optimistic and then moments of real panic at the thought of what may happen.  It’s a bereavement for sure, to lose all our freedom, but the sight of so many (mostly young) people crowding the parks, markets, mountains and beaches in defiance of all the advice was a chilling sight.

My final time enriching wheeze is to play back all my botanical photos in a slideshow and try to name them all as soon as they come on-screen. I know I’m a complete propellerhead but there we are.

Be safe.

First day of term

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I think the allotments department must have had a bit of a binge last week because suddenly the site was crowded with newcomers, many of them thirty-somethings with children in tow, and some with parents and in-laws to advise as well. The sun was obviously a big factor, although there was a bitter east wind blowing across the higher parts of the site; down at the bottom we were more sheltered and soon started peeling off the precautionary sweaters and jackets. Clearly – and this is marvellous – the allotment has escaped its traditional culture and become something of a trend. Whether it’s to do with likely food shortages, the increasing interest in vegan and vegetarianism,or a turn against intensive horticulture isn’t clear, it’s probably a bit of all three.

The biggest worry is that although allotmenteering is marvellously therapeutic and healthy when everything goes according to plan, it can bring immense disappointments too; for instance the mice have just eaten the whole of our second sowing of peas.  They had the first sowing too and so we’re starting the third batch under glass in root trainers while I purge the offenders.  I think the whole therapeutic gardening meme deserves unpacking a bit.  It shouldn’t promise instant happiness and freedom from stress because what it does far more selectively is accustom us to dealing positively with disappointment; to treat success and failure equally as imposters, as Mr Kipling said before he started the cake business. My guess is that some at least of these newcomers have very little experience of gardening.  One of our new neighbours today was hacking at his very weed infested and tussocky plot in a way that’s guaranteed to bring disappointment later in the year when the newly invigorated bindweed kicks off. It’s hard to intervene when people aren’t actually asking you for advice. We should probably set up a mentoring scheme, but the men in particular as as likely to ask for help as they would ask for directions from a passer by. Why wielding a spade should engender such powerful elk-dragging feelings in young men is a mystery and so the apprenticeship often takes far longer than it need.

I think the ghastly phrase ‘self sufficiency’ has a lot to answer for. Short of inheriting 10 acres of prime mixed farmland and a private income, complete self sufficiency is a fantasy. The rest of us just have to grow what we can and buy the rest as thoughtfully as possible. Better still, accepting that we’re dependent on others as they depend on us is the foundation of human community – you know, that thing that’s not functioning very well at the moment, especially in supermarkets. Panic buying is the dysfunctional 21st century form of self-sufficiency.

Paradoxically the one thing I’d want as the first taught skill on my imaginary mentoring scheme would be digging, especially for prospective no-diggers. I watched my mother and father and my grandparents dig, long before  I bought my first RHS book with those wonderful pictures of men in trilbys leaning on their spades in front of an immaculately trenched row. There’s really no easy way to get the ground ready for no-dig systems – I know because I’ve tried them all over the last 50 years – flame guns, strimming and even (wash my mouth out with salt water) – glyphosate! True, they all produce immediate results, but none of them produce more than cosmetic improvements. Get rid of the weeds by proper digging first and while you do that you’ll learn all about the depth of your soil, you can improve it by composting and break up any soil pan to improve drainage. Then – and it might take three years – you can put the spade in a car boot sale, although it’s pretty useful for lots of other jobs. You can grow things from day one as you clear the ground, but a thorough digging over as crops are harvested will help to discourage even the evil weeds like bindweed. Slow and steady is the way to go and year on year, results will improve.

My second tip would be to choose one guide rather than read a dozen books, all with different views. As time goes on you’ll find out for yourself what works. And my third tip is to invest in the best tools, seeds and plants that you can afford. Using poor tools makes hard work of any job. That’s it really.

I should say that most of us old-stagers have decided to interpret the social distancing rules as  permission to do even more allotmenteering.  My prediction is that this year could be a great year for allotments so long as we move the imaginary fences out a couple of metres and don’t insist on having face to face conversations.  In fact I’d go further and say that local authorities ought to buying suitable land with a view to doubling or tripling the number of allotments as a contribution to the greening of the environment. Well tended allotments are highly productive and could make an important contribution to food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and – notwithstanding my earlier comments – general wellbeing.

When we first moved on to our plot the first thing I did was to repurpose some old planks we found and make a double bench. Before we turned a single spadeful we had somewhere to sit down, drink a cup of tea from the flask and plan. Sometimes our plans coincided and sometimes they didn’t but eventually we always came to a common mind. Gardening is at least 50% daydreaming, and rushing into the first plan is sure to give you backache. Just as it is with fitness training, the most important part is what’s happening when you’re not training.

The photo shows how the bench has evolved on our plot over the last four years.  It’s a little piece of paradise, sheltered from the wind (and the neighbours) with a brolly and a grisly but free plastic table for picnics and potting. Everywhere was busy busy busy – it looked like a Pioneer Corps training camp today, and it filled us with pleasure.

Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more about our strategies for coping with self isolation. Meanwhile please respect the need for keeping a safe distance from older people and remember that many vulnerable people look pretty normal.  Asthma, heart disease and diabetes are invisible so it’s better for everyone if we take a step or two back.

 

Some silver linings

Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath.  We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion.  The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims.  You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.

So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right.  It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds.  In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.

What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course.  They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds!  How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?

More silver linings for the family.  The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.

But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them.  So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!

There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –

The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60.  Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious.  Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.

The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.

The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.

Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us.  We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.

George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.

I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash.  He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK.  The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.

Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.

New wheelbarrow makes heavy work!

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The old wheelbarrow was all of ten years old and the wheel had been replaced three times. Last week I finally accepted that the persistent flat tyre was trying to tell me that it was time to retire rather than retyre it – not least because I’d also put a spade through the base whilst mixing potting compost. And so it’s gone and I replaced it early this morning with an all singing, all dancing model with a super non-puncture solid tyre. I should have guessed after I’d struggled to get it into the car that it was a bit bigger than the old one but it was on sale at 20% off and I couldn’t resist.

Back at the allotment as I loaded it up with wood chip I realised that as well as being 20% cheaper it was also 30% bigger. My usual 30 spadefuls of wood chip increased to 40 – increasing the weight in the process.  Nonetheless it needed proportionately less journeys up and down from the plot and so, dazzled by the mathematics I finished the job quickly with my lovely new green non-squeaky and non leaky wheelbarrow. Over the years I’ve learned that getting the right tools for a job makes it sooooo much easier, but having the right tools has also increased the weight of my toolbox to the point where it needs its own transport.

IMG_20200311_153034With paths all completed for another season, Madame planted out potatoes (risky but worth the gamble when it pays off), planted seeds and harvested veg for supper while I installed the cleaned-up drippers for the greenhouse and connected them to the new water storage. Last year was a bit hit and miss, with the water running dry because the barrels were set too low.  This year they’re on a 3′ frame and should be able to deliver 250 litres of rainwater without interruption. This year we’re going to water from the bottom of the pots by using capillary mat, so effectively we’re watering the mats rather than the pots.  In the propagators this certainly encourages the roots to go downwards in search of water and strengthens the root balls ready for growing on and planting out. To make it easier I’ve made a support for the individual drippers to stop them from falling over – just holes in a batten really, nothing complicated, but it looks a lot tidier (obsessive behaviour again!). The yellow strip is a non poisonous glue trap to try to reduce the whitefly which are already rife this year. Over the next week I’ll be calibrating the drippers so that the mats don’t get flooded and then, as the threat of a longer cold spell recedes, we can start to move the frost tender plants into the greenhouse on their way to the ground outside. 

All this while the sun shone  – it was heaven! This week the river has been running high, and it’s kept the issue of climate change at the top of our attention. We used to live 15 miles further downstream, at the point where the tidal river enters the Bristol Docks, and I described some time ago how we once came very close to being flooded ourselves. Then, it was a combination of snow melt, a high spring tide and a westerly wind lumping up the tide as it ran beneath the suspension bridge and up the gorge.  This year it’s much the same combination and a friend posted this photo of what would have been the view from our window.  It’s a scary thought that these ‘once in a lifetime’ events are becoming more and more regular. I recommended Adam Nicholson’s marvellous book “The Seabird’s Cry” a couple of weeks ago.  When I finally put it down it was me that felt like crying at the damage that we’ve inflicted by fuelling climate change. Why should we get so upset at the fate of seabirds which have no real economic bearing on our lives? The answer, of course, is in the word ‘economic’. Like the caged canary in a mine, the fate of the seabirds is a telltale, a warning that something is terribly wrong. Banning canaries wouldn’t have saved any miners’ lives and ignoring the disappearance of many treasured species won’t save us from the consequences of our inaction. The great ocean going birds bring spiritual and aesthetic gifts beyond any bean counting exercise, and all the while we grow more and more impoverished; diminished from within and without.

My thanks to Sarah and Ben for the photo

Addendum

I just noticed that Sarah posted this because Bristol City Council have proposed building 2000 houses in this immediate area. Darwin Award for them!

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