Getting control

It’s a concept I’ve always been a bit suspicious of – controlling can be a dangerous addiction for anxious people and yet these last few months of lockdown have revealed a more kindly, almost therapeutic aspect to taking control. This devastatingly unoriginal thought came to me this morning in the kitchen when I was working my way through half a dozen routine jobs and suddenly experienced a ‘flow’ moment while I was straining the kefir.

I guess during the lockdown and the general strangeness that surrounded us, especially at the beginning when we were unable to rely even on essential supplies, routine became comforting. Getting bread on the table, getting our hands on 16 Kg of bread flour, replenishing almost any supplies can go from being full of stress to offering strong reassurance that in spite of everything we’ll get through. In our case a stone heavier because we’ve been eating all that therapeutic bread, and don’t even ask about biscuits. But getting by, being even a little bit in control, is a a small blow against the chaos – a finger in the air against the malign gods of incompetence. All the queuing and bulk buying of toilet rolls and flour turned out to be a proxy battle against something else, even if we never worked out quite what it was.

The picture at the top is of some Lords and Ladies – Arum maculatum, the roots of which were occasionally eaten during famine times when it was known as Portland sago. It’s fairly dodgy stuff that needs careful preparation – roasting and grinding to destroy the irritant sharp needles that, if eaten carelessly could make you very ill. However for me today it was a reminder that we’re in high summer now and there are hints of autumn everywhere.

There is a real sense of sadness that the seasons have passed us by this year, although I’ll be forever grateful that being grounded for several months has forced us to explore locally; and there’s been so much to discover. The allotment has been our saviour of course and we were glad to be working flat out during the spring and early summer. Now, in high summer there’s a bit of a lull and that’s given us the time to resume some longer walks and explore some local delights.

Today, once I’d finished a pile of prepping in the kitchen – bread, kefir, stock – and brining some onion rings for tonight’s panzanella – we went up to Bannerdown in search of butterflies and for me to do some more grasses. Slowly slowly I’m becoming more familiar and realising that giving consideration to the habitat, for instance woodland, unimproved grassland or marshy ground, simplifies things enormously.

I was also using the Panasonic Lumix camera with a 45mm Leica macro lens. Phone cameras are so so good these days that most of the time they’re perfect, but some days, like today, I really want to play with aperture and speed to get effects like bokeh (which is a pretentious way of saying blurred backgrounds). Learning to control exposures and apertures takes a while but it’s always worth the effort. When we were at art school, technique was rather frowned upon – which was why so much poor work was produced. For me the beauty has always been in the detail, and although I do photograph whole landscapes from time to time, they’re usually taken as a scene setter for the detailed view. There are some of today’s pictures below, but there’s one I couldn’t take because even with pretty good kit it’s just too small.

I grew up with false oat grass – it was the one from which you could strip the seeds between your thumb and finger as you walked past – like popping bubble wrap but back in the olden days before it was invented. However, being familiar with something and walking past it every day is not the same as knowing it, and because it ages, ripens and deteriorates during the season it’s sometimes difficult to decide whether the mangled bit of dry straw is false oat or something else. I was examining an aged plant today and I took a very close (x20) look at the awn, it’s the bristle on the outside husk, if you like, of the tiny seed casings and it’s tiny, but so beautiful. It’s a world of arabesques and curlicues from the bend of the hook to the spiral markings at the base it could have been fashioned in gold by a fairy blacksmith. If I can’t get a photo I’ll have to make a drawing from the microscope and put it up. That’s what gets me about nature – it’s so unnecessarily and extravagantly lovely however you look, from telescope to microscope.

The other thing that blew me away today was how loud the insects are when they are working in such a rich environment. On a scale between exhausted industrial grass and irreplaceable pristine meadow, Bannerdown inclines towards the neglected grassland tag. But that’s still rich. I imagine they must cut it regularly or it would become scrub, but the flowers today were wonderful and the bees, flies and other insects were having a wonderful time. Their hum was continuous and generated by thousands of pairs of wings – like a symphony orchestra holding a long ppp note, full of harmonics; lush, fruitful and happy.

There were no wonders among the butterflies but the B Team were all playing. There were common blues, a couple of brimstone, speckled wood, meadow brown and innumerable little brown mothy jobs in the grass. As we left another butterfly spotter was just getting into his car. “Did you see any chalk-hill blues?” – he asked. “No we haven’t – are they around?” “Well I heard a report about one the other day but I haven’t seen any here for years”. Perhaps they should amend the notice board and put a “not available” sign beside it.

Back on the allotment we decided to give up on a group of bush tomatoes that have contracted brown stem rot, so we picked all the remaining green tomatoes – probably five or six pounds of them – and I’ll make chutney with them. The rot is caused by heat and water stress, and made worse by watering on the leaves. We’ve had temperatures going up and down like a fiddler’s elbow; we’ve had hot humid weather, days of intense sunshine and days of heavy rain. It’s enough to cause any plant troubles. With the green tomato crop secure now, we can let the rest of the Crimson Crush ripen on the vines. They’re our mainstay for the winter, and we make many litres of sauce and passata with them. With a bit of pasta and some parmesan, you can make a cracking meal in ten minutes. But tonight it’s going to be panzanella – my favourite tomato salad ever!

Hallucinogenic fly repellant moves in with the cabbages.

Last week I noted here that some stray aubergines had moved into one of the allotment beds and wondered where they could have come from. Seeds, possibly, surviving the composting? But yesterday when the plants came into flower it became obvious that they weren’t aubergines at all but they were, nonetheless, members of the Solanaceae; the potatoes, tomatoes and – well- deadly nightshade, thorn apple and henbane all to be found in any self respecting dark pharmacy. What’s going on? what with killer courgettes stalking the home counties you might wonder whether it’s safe to go out at night, and I’ve still no idea how they got there.

However these rather attractive plants, which turned out to be alternately known as “shoo fly” or “Peruvian apples” – botanically Nicandra physalodes – have left us in a dilemma. The shoo fly name comes from its ability to keep flies and other enemies at bay by emitting a repellant chemical from glands on the leaves. But the leaves and stems and particularly (by report) the seeds, when rubbed into the skin or ingested, are apparently hallucinogenic. That’s the upside, you might say. The downside is that they seed freely and before you know where you are you might land up with an infestation. We could dry them (they dry well, so the flower arrangers claim – any excuse will do) and hang them up in the kitchen to keep flies out. I’m not sure how growing fly repellant plants fits in with the wildlife corridor ethos, but they could possibly be useful in the carrot bed – who knows? I’m intrigued enough to save some seed and grow them in pots that could be moved around the plot. I’ve discovered that the seeds are on sale an a number of reputable places so I guess a “proper” flower gardener would have recognised them immediately and we’re unlikely to get a visit from the drug squad – maybe from a luminescent operatic unicorn, though? Oh do send an alto – I’d love an alto unicorn. Better get some gloves! More seriously I should say that they belong in a seriously poisonous group of plants and could be very dangerous to curious children because they look a bit like Chinese gooseberries.

But yesterday we took a break from exploring the local nature reserves – that’s what we call a holiday in newspeak – and settled down to some routine weeding on the allotment. It’s one of the slacker times of the year; routine maintenance, watering and picking just about cover it. If you don’t pick the courgette today it’ll be a marrow tomorrow, and most veg will give up if you don’t keep picking.

So just to prove that we haven’t gone AWOL altogether here are some photos of the allotment:

Gert lush

I’m not sure if the phrase gert lush ever properly existed as Bristol slang. Lush certainly did, and meant really good; and gert did too, meaning big. But the combination seems to have come into existence as a bit of a joke when non Bristolians tried to speak like us. However the Bristol accent is not to be trifled with and the dialects tied you down to a single parish sixty years ago; so adding an ‘ul’ to China and saying Chinul or Africul wouldn’t get you very far into my affections. I say I’m a Bristolian because it’s an easy way of describing a complicated situation. If I was being pedantic I’d say that I come from Gloucestershire, but that opens a whole can of worms because the boundaries have changed so frequently over the years that for my first twenty years I lived in three counties without moving an inch. I now live in a fourth newly minted county but I could walk in a few hours to the place I was born. Where I was brought up we still used thee and thou when we thought no-one was listening; and when strangers or teachers were around we could lapse into impenetrability very easily. I love my accent even though once, in a restaurant in Birmingham, the waiter leaned across confidentially as we were leaving and asked “are you a farmer?” I thought it was very funny, but I’m not sure she saw the joke. Nonetheless I have needed to remind one or two people that having a local accent – even a very mild one like mine – doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Anyway, after that long excursus, we were on the allotment last evening and a hot air balloon took off from Victoria Park a couple of hundred yards away. It’s always a lovely sight, and I once had a balloon ride from the exact same spot on a similar summer’s evening some years ago. The launch site is surrounded by tall trees and buildings and so it’s necessary to gain height very quickly; therefore the technique seems to be to fill the balloon with hot air to the point it’s straining at the leash, and then release it like a cork from a bottle. A pretty thrilling experience. In my case we flew south and east, following the course of the river Avon until we swung north and landed somewhere around Marshfield. When the burner was silent we glided noiselessly above the fields and at one point followed a fox which was apparently unaware of our presence above him. All this was thirty years before we moved here and tracking the flight from memory on a map today, I can see that we would have passed exactly over Bannerdown where we spent the day yesterday.

It was – to use the phrase I started with – lush – and I’ve only just remembered that the owners of the balloon were our new next-door neighbours when we first moved here. Lush, then and a bit weirdly prophetic too. The pilot on my flight was a police inspector and I probably found a way of thanking him without using the dialect word to avoid evidencing any potential criminality on my part.

“Lush” – such a rich word; made for a couplet like “lush grass” … Lush, flush, blush; all wonderfully suggestive of fullness, of flow, of generosity or suddenness.

Odd then, to think that what encourages the immensely rich flora of meadows and limestone grassland is a kind of poverty. We’re planning to make a pond on the allotment this autumn, and we’re also going to create a small area for grasses and wildflowers, and that’s led us to an interesting conundrum. We’ve spent four years increasing the fertility of our ground and now, the bed we intend to convert is far too rich to support much more than the rankest of rank grasses and weeds. So the rather complicated plan is to remove most of the topsoil on the proposed “meadow” bed and move it to some new raised beds where it will be just what we need and better than any soil we could buy in. Next we’re going to do the same with the topsoil where the pond is going, and then while digging out the pond, move the less fertile soil and subsoil to the meadow bed to bring it back to level. The exact composition of the surface layer will need to be worked out, but to reduce fertility any other way would mean cutting and disposing of plant matter for years and growing something like yellow rattle to discourage the rank grasses. It’s my favourite occupation – making experiments. For wildflowers and their associated invertebrates, less is most certainly more. We couldn’t resist another trip to Bannerdown yesterday and I went armed with a notebook and a couple of plant cribs. So while Madame hunted butterflies I did a quick survey and in a couple of hours I’d listed fifty species and increased the grass total to fifteen and all of this on very thin limestone soil with rocks poking through in places.

And what struck us most was the heavenly smell of wildflowers. Madame said it was like being a child again. If there was a downside – and it wasn’t a big one – we were accompanied by a land rover towing a seed collecting box behind it. This was part of a project (with input from the Cotswolds Conservation Board), to create a wildflower corridor through Bath and yesterday’s seeds were on their way to Swainswick to re-seed a piece of land there. As we were leaving we passed the fruits of the day’s collection on a large tarpaulin on the ground, and we talked to the recipients and owners of the about to be reseeded field, who were tremendously excited about the project. We can only presume that our little allotment patch of a few square feet will form a tiny part of the whole in years to come.

It sounds counterintuitive to think that to regain lost species we need to make the ground less fertile, less lush; but one of the principal causes of our ecological crisis is the current agricultural policy of driving the land harder and harder using chemicals and artificial fertilizers, and if you’d been able to stand with us yesterday and enjoy the ridiculous numbers of wildflowers and grasses, you’d see why it’s so important to change our whole attitude to farming. But of course the takeaway point is that we can’t avert the coming destruction by writing new rules just for farmers, although that needs to happen. None of us will escape the coming moment of truth unless we all of us change our ways.

I’ve been reading Ann Pettifor’s book “The Case for the Green New Deal” and I think it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen yet on what needs to be done. Better than that, it seems really do-able if we can just knock the idea of continual growth off its perch and stop worshipping the economy as if it were some kind of abstract God, demanding constant obedience to the “Market” – a set of concepts I find almost as difficult as systematic theology. Today, as I write this we’re sheltering in the flat with the temperature approaching 30C. At what point do we start noticing that the king has no clothes?

What was the date of the last time you heard a cuckoo?

Arrhenatherum elatius ssp bulbosum otherwise known as a bit of dead grass

To be able to answer that question you’d need to have heard the cuckoo, recognised it and made a note of where it was that you’d heard it. I know where I heard the last one – it was with friends whose smallholding is near Crickhowell in Wales and I could find the date by looking for the photos I took on that day. That was getting on for two years ago and sadly I haven’t heard one since which gives me a little pang of sadness. What if that was it? – no more cuckoo ever …..

So maybe there is a point in being a bit of a list nerd, even if becoming one means you have to irritate the hell out of all your nearest and dearest while you read (buy) incomprehensible and expensive books, spend hours with pencil and notebook writing in secret code and develop a pronounced bend in the spine as you spend days on end looking at the ground, and enthuse about tiny bits of plants that no-one in their right mind cares a hoot about …. except – I should stop there! But if you’ve done all those things and write the event up and even send an account of it to someone who also records these things but on a grand scientific scale; then it’s just possible that something could be done in time to stop the cuckoo becoming a footnote in an annotated student’s Shakespeare crib.

On Tuesday I gathered 10 samples of grass from Bannerdown and as I mentioned earlier, I was up early yesterday morning and after some pretty intense work I managed to identify nine species; and I even managed to match them with all the other plants we saw yesterday and come up with my first ever NVC (National Vegetation Classification) code. More than a year after my resolution to “do the grasses” I’ve finally reached the point where I’m pretty confident with identifying them, and half a dozen I can recognise from twenty paces. A red letter day for me and possibly of no interest to anyone else, unless like me you’ve embarked on a stupidly difficult quest without much by the way of experience.

So why bother then? Why not leave it to the professionals? Well the answer is that there aren’t nearly enough professionals to do what’s needed. There are now hardly any opportunities to study botany at degree level in this country. We’re in the midst of an environmental catastrophe that will lead to the disappearance or even extinction of a huge number of species from environments that no one has ever recorded – and I don’t just mean Amazonian jungle and Arctic tundra, I mean the derelict site next door, the unappetising urban stream with the supermarket trolleys in it, and the allotment sites that hard up local authorities would love to sell off. The article from today’s Guardian newspaper that I cited above is concerned with UK mammals, and just like the mountain gorillas and snow leopards, our wild mammals live on wild plants, insects and other wild mammals and they are disappearing because their environmental niches are disappearing. As meadows, hedgerows and streams disappear along with all their specialised plants, their larger and more glamorous inhabitants disappear too; so saving the hedgehog means saving the hedgehog’s environment and the multitude of invertebrates that it lives on – which means saving the plants on which those invertebrates feed in turn. The earth is a joined-up ecosystem – with the emphasis on system and it can’t work even if small parts fail. Just as when the hinge on my laptop breaks it becomes a pile of junk. During my grass binge I have spent a lot of time on the internet looking for answers and I promise you I found a website (run by a agrochemical business) headed “How to identify grasses and eradicate them. “Attaboy – lets civilise the lawns and fields of this great country!”. Letting the nettles and the couch grass flower around the edges of your allotment shows you’re a part of the resistance movement.

Natural history has always had its share of amateurs. There are few other disciplines where we can make such a significant contribution. It’s true we don’t have the knowledge or the equipment to study plant DNA at home, but increasingly we’re becoming the infantry in the battle to save nature, (with saving ourselves as a side-order). There’s a place for everyone at every level and the amateur recorders are the intelligence corps, helping to collate the evidence. I first got involved in this kind of thing when I was a schoolboy and sent postcards (remember them?) back to a science project investigating thunderstorms. I remember I had to record the number of seconds that elapsed between seeing the lightning and hearing the thunder, and add a few details about the storm. I think I had to buy my own postage stamps.

However, the reasons for getting stuck in aren’t just about saving our skin. To lift a phrase from a well known naturalist:

“The philosophers have only interpreted the world, in various ways. The point, however, is to change it.

Karl Marx – “Eleven theses on Feuerbach” – (and inscribed on his grave)

So let’s hear it for the sheer beauty of nature, for the way it frames us and sets us within our proper place, for the way it inspires the sense of the numinous, the “mysterium tremendum et fascinans“, the terrible and compelling face of nature that draws worshippers and list makers alike to record what might be the last great moments of a collapsing civilisation. “Glory be to God for dappled things” said Gerard Manley Hopkins in his poem “Pied beauty” and although these days I find the whole idea of God – especially the great gammon in the sky version promoted by most churches – impossible to understand, I know well enough what glory feels like!

Another day, another heap of species

If you choose to see it that way, you might say that one of the upsides of the Covid 19 pandemic has been that it’s obliged us to cancel our usual travels and find places much nearer home. With all our favourite walking spots effectively out of bounds, we’ve responded by scouring the area around Bath for wildlife hotspots, the SSSI’s, reserves, and commons – often not much bigger than a few acres but which (we’ve discovered) are incredibly rich and full of things we’ve never seen before. All the while I’ve been lamenting the fact we can’t get into Wales or Cornwall to go plant hunting we’ve been neglecting the local riches. Today was no exception, and we found a few acres of calciferous grassland that hasn’t seen any fertilizer or chemical for best part of 300 years.

But first we had to go to the surgery for our annual MOT’s in which Madame fared better than me because for some reason I had an AF attack as I walked through the door and so – after three goes on one blood pressure monitor and a trip next door to see if a different type of machine would tell a better story, we agreed that the numbers on the dial didn’t look at all right and we would ignore them. That’s the first time I’ve ever suffered from white coat syndrome in my life, and within an hour my pulse and blood pressure were back to normal. I always suspected doctors made you ill and now I’m sure. The poor nurse got quite flustered and this meant her every attempt to calm me down made things much worse. I don’t know which of us felt most exhausted when I walked (carefully) out of the door. Anyway, enough of my cheating heart. Old age doesn’t come alone as my granny used to say, and she was right – there are thousands of us.

So after tea and Dundee cake, which is a sovereign cure for all ills, we drove about 4 miles to Bannerdown Common ostensibly for me to grab a few grass samples to sharpen up my I/D skills, and for Madame to seek out butterflies. Tonight I had to choose between writing and identifying my bag of grasses and I went for writing tonight and identifying tomorrow morning very early before Madame wakes up. There’s something so special about unimproved meadows that once I’d collected a dozen grass species we moved on to wildflowers, butterflies and just revelling in the beauty of it all. Madame came face to face with a roe deer stag and after exchanging surprised looks he darted back into the woodland – it was that kind of place, full of surprises.

I’m sure that there are ecologists who go about their work in methodical silence, but I’m a bit of a noisy so and so, and I’m inclined to do a little excited dance when I spot something interesting. Madame finds this dismaying as a cloud of departing butterflies sometimes accompanies my joyful exclamations. Botany is exciting – no argument! I’m ashamed to admit that I could have learned more plants three times as quickly if we’d taken our bicycles out instead of driving hundreds of miles in the campervan. On the other hand, although I’d kill for an hour at the seaside, I’m certainly not prepared to die for it so we’ll postpone murders and premature deaths until September at the earliest and stay local.

There are a long list of nature reserves within easy distance and with all our field trips cancelled at least until the autumn we’ll do it alone. Meanwhile the allotment has reached overproduction levels and we’ve realized that the intuition in April that three rows of runner beans was too many – was right, and we’re feeding anyone that can light a stove. I’ve made a shopping list of timber to repair and strengthen the water butt stands, and the temperatures look set to reach 30C later this week which will mean we’ll soon be processing tomatoes. Unfortunately a labelling mix-up has put several varieties into a glorious muddle, and today I noticed some wild aubergines growing amongst the cavolo nero. That’s what I love about allotments; for all the planning in the winter, by the time it gets to July the plot has its own momentum and we become followers, curious to know what will show up next.

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

Going green – ish

Back on the Potwell Inn allotment, we’ve reached peak runner bean and courgette mountain time; not that I particularly mind because there’s no finer meal than a bowl of runner beans with a bit of grated cheese on top – Gruyere turns it into a gourmet meal but Cheddar works perfectly well. The courgette mountain can be very challenging because they have the gift of hiding under the foliage until they’re a foot long and almost unusable. We have several of them and I’m trying to figure out a suitable stuffing – vegetarian for preference because I’ve never seen what the point of putting sausage meat into a marrow might be. A strongly flavoured herby rice would work I think. But it’s miles better to harvest them young and full of flavour, before the seeds develop. I love them sautéd with a splash of lemon juice instead of salt. I’ve never liked the sprinkle of chopped parsley on top, it’s a herb and its place is in a side salad. Neither do I bother with all that salting and washing lark. Clearly there was a time (in the olden days?) when courgettes and aubergines were inclined to be bitter but not now, they’re much too well bred. If you want to stop them from turning into a mush, sauté them fast in blazingly hot oil and you get the brown edges as well as the full flavour and texture plus the excitement of setting off the smoke alarms – it’s a win-win.

So we are slowly turning green in several senses of the word. This is the time to become a vegetarian because you can eat a huge range of fresh, locally sourced and organically grown fruit and veg, and a lot less industrially produced meat. Good for us and good for the environment too. We’re not doctrinaire vegetarians here at all, but we eat less and less meat, and I can see a day coming soon when the minuses add up to a tipping point, but going a step further into veganism would be a much greater challenge, and intensive vegetable farming has its own ethical and ecological difficulties of a different kind and so we’re plodding down a middle path and hoping that sustainable, organic, high welfare mixed farming can provide milk, eggs and cheese alongside arable crops. But if the environmental crisis continues unabated then we may not have the luxury of that option any more and then my biggest fear is that the industrial food processing industry will seize the opportunity to flood the market with more expensive junk food.

Also on the allotment we’ve had loads of invertebrate visitors, two of them were butterflies, a gatekeeper and a speckled wood, that flew by yesterday and posed for me along with the whites, the red admirals and a tiny little shy one that flew away every time I got close – which didn’t. Previously I’d written about the suspected Jersey tiger (moth) that took a break on the kitchen window. I posted it on the Bath Natural History Society Facebook (Nature Watch) site and attracted a cluster of comments about whether I’d got the i/d right. It’s a bit rare in this part of the world, but it seems that as global heating increases it’s moving northwards.

However I’d underestimated the competitive instincts of (some) lepidopterists and was quite surprised at how hard I had to fight for my record. In the end, after a couple of heavyweights took my part it was allowed – or at least I’ll feel brave enough to send it to the County Recorder for verification and a puff of smoke up the gabled chimney. There’s no moral virtue in accidentally bumping into a rarity but somehow I felt as if I didn’t deserve to spot it! In the end, though, it was a very beautiful moth and after our discussion of minute details I reckon if it ever comes across my path again I’ll be able to identify it at twenty paces, and since I thoroughly enjoyed the scrap too, a good time was had by all.

Today we added another part of the Skyline walk, which involved yet another stiff climb up the hill to the south of us. As ever the access to the route allowed us to shortcut along the canal, avoiding the city centre which is more crowded than it has been for months. We spotted the resident heron perched opposite – too far away for a decent picture but I took one anyway. Later we dropped in at Sham Castle, with fabulous views over the City and then looped around the top of the hill, through the University and down Widcombe hill – about seven and a half miles in all; a decent walk.

“Well I think the answer lies in the soil”

To quote the advice of Arthur Fallowfield – the wonderful invention of comedian Kenneth Williams, “The answer lies in the soil”. It always does, but he was spoofing the whole organic gardening movement in its tweedy 1930’s incarnation. I am aware, of course, that the gag will completely pass over the head of anyone under retirement age but I remember the tremulous plummy voice that seemed to spring straight from the pages of “Cold Comfort Farm” – dripping with the husky erotic overtones of flowering sukebind.

Last autumn, when I built the compost bins I was doubtful if we’d ever be able to fill them, even with the green kitchen waste included. Each bay is approaching two cubic metres in size, and there are four of them – and I was right to be dubious. One of the bins has been used ever since to store leaves, and should provide at least a cubic metre of leaf mould every year. One bin has been used for storage of bags of consumables like bought-in compost, topsoil and grit, and I’ve built removable shelves over both of those bays to make use of the upper area for growing in bags. But the other two bays have shown that they are well up to providing a constant supply of compost. They’ve only been up for less than a year and we’ve already taken off two cycles, maybe ten heaped barrow loads of really good compost.

Previously we’d always used California cylinders which are portable, cheap and easy to make but almost impossible to turn. The hope was that having permanent wooden bays would make turning easier -which has turned out to be true, and because it’s easier I turn the heap more often, which keeps it sweet and hot and remarkably efficient at reducing the most intractable waste into compost. Woody waste is chopped into small pieces and cabbage stumps get smashed with the back of an axe, but even soft fruit prunings disappear. The only things we don’t compost are noxious perennial weeds and annual weeds that have set seed. We’ve also learned that as well as regular turning, the heap responds well to a surprising quantity of cardboard (as long as it doesn’t have a plastic finish). The one thing you never find in a finished heap is cardboard – it seems to disappear really quickly and we often supplement our own household cardboard waste with shredded paper and large boxes from the recycling containers in the basement. The worms also love it although they don’t seem to eat it, they tend to congregate around it. Finally the heap gets a regular soaking of urine and the odd layer of comfrey if I can find any; or a handful of organic fertilizer or seaweed meal now and again. The one thing you can’t do is just leave it uncovered for months. It’s far better to keep it covered and water it when it looks dry, than it is to allow it to get cold and wet. Are you getting the picture? Composting is an intense and interventionist activity.

So today was heap turning day because we’ve cleared a couple of beds and the plan is always to clear them, compost them, and then sow or replant them as quickly as possible. Allotmenteering is pretty intensive all round, and digging out a full bay is hard work because in our case our optimistic use of “biodegradable plastics” – Jiffy 7 modules and degradable kitchen waste bags in particular has taught us that they are rarely broken down and can persist for years. So we’ve been removing them – hundreds of them – as the finished compost is dug and put through a wire riddle. It’s slow but very rewarding work as lumpy garden waste emerges from the process as sweet smelling friable and fine grained compost, inoculated with worm casts – in fact almost all of it seems to have passed through worms at some point making it vastly more valuable than bought in compost. There was enough today to cover two 12’x 5′ beds to a depth of 3″ and fill two large planters – and enough pieces of plastic to fill a large bag! After riddling and taking out the plastic, any hard residue, bits of twig etc. go back to the bottom of the new heap.

Rats

Turning the active heap which was full to the brim was a bit more of a performance, not least because I came across a very large rat and was forced to engage in hand to hand combat with it for fear of getting bitten. I once had a rat jump over my shoulder and I’m not sure which of us was more terrified! Rats are a tremendous nuisance but it’s hardly surprising that they congregate around compost bins which provide food, warmth and shelter. The problem is that they’re also carriers of leptospirosis which is transmitted through their urine, and so we really don’t want them leaving their traces on crops, particularly those like salad greens that are eaten raw. They also ruin sweetcorn crops because – like badgers and deer – they love the sweetness. We try as best we can to exclude them but they’re great climbers and even if the bins themselves are rat-proof, they can easily climb the sides and get in through the top and so they’re a regrettable pest and although I hate despatching them they come under the same banner as slugs. And so if we can, we kill them with powerful spring traps designed to keep out other less harmful species and occasionally I have to do the job myself because they soon learn to recognise the traps and even manage to eat all the peanut butter bait without springing them. We don’t use poisons of any kind because that just displaces the moral responsibility by making the consequences invisible.

Worms

But aside from the pests, what about the friendly inhabitants of the compost heap? I’m constantly amazed at where the brandling worms come from. We’ve never gone to any trouble, they just emerge from somewhere and in a lively heap they multiply exponentially. There’s a paradox here because there’s more than one process going on in a heap. The bacterial process is stage one, and it’s the foundation for the worms’ work. All the feeding with water, urine (human not rats!) comfrey and carbon in the form of cardboard facilitates the initial stages where the heap warms up. Many enthusiastic bloggers will make great play of the maximum temperatures in their heaps and some will claim that they reach quite extraordinary heights. We much prefer to leave the heap to heat up to – say – 30C in the initial stages. Bacteria, insects and worms all have their comfortable temperature ranges, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to drive all the invertebrates out by having the heap too hot.

In practice, the brandling move around – to the cooler edges when the heap is heating and then back to the centre when it cools and they can begin their vital work of digesting the partially rotted waste and turning it into worm casts which are absolutely crammed with soil improving bacteria. Well made garden compost and cheap garden centre compost are worlds apart. When the worms have done their work the population declines and they move elsewhere – which means it’s time to dig the compost out and spread it thickly on the plot.

Yesterday as I was digging out the finished compost, it was clear that there were far less brandling than in the ‘live’ bin, but as I dug deeper I was finding more of the deeper soil dwelling earthworms. It’s wonderful to watch how the process constantly balances itself. And worms aren’t the only inhabitants – it’s teeming with invertebrate life all chewing their way through our waste and turning it into gold, and I don’t doubt that the inhabitants get smaller and smaller in a massive interconnected ecosystem – it takes your breath away.

The result of building up the soil with organic matter is increased fertility, increased yields, greater biodiversity and healthier plants. It’s a no-brainer. Of course you can increase yields by pouring on artificial fertilizer year after year, but as the biodiversity drops the intractable pests increase and you find yourself trapped in an expensive and depressing spiral of feeding and spraying. But here are some photos of the allotment taken yesterday, and hopefully they speak for themselves.

The hidden killer lurking on the allotment ….. ?

If I dare make a prediction, I’d say that very shortly seed merchants will be inundated with anxious emails about courgettes. Now I know that some regular readers will think this post is going to be about one of my dreams, but this is a totally genuine, ram-stamped fact, up there with all the other googlefacts we love to share with our friends. This one arrived on our allotment facebook page having been copied there from another allotment group facebook page and possibly copied there from somewhere else. It’s a friend of a friend story if ever there was one, but it’s got all of the basic constituents of a viral folk panic. The facts are sparse, but someone, somewhere ate a meal containing allotment grown courgettes. It was, they said, desperately, unbelievably bitter and so they didn’t finish the meal but threw the remains into the bin. Later that night they felt dreadful, suffered from sickness and diarrhea and got on to the dreaded internet where they self diagnosed poisoning by courgette. Unsurprisingly the diagnosis did not impress any of the emergency doctors they consulted by phone, but the last advised them to go to A&E where the doctor also said he’d never heard of it but he’d go and look it up. Having done so he advised the patient to go home and rest.

Anyway, this story has now reached Bath and I was curious, because it’s the first I’ve ever heard about killer courgettes. A quick search revealed one (yes one) verified death in Heidelberg, Germany – five years ago, when a 79 year old man polished off a plate of courgettes that his wife wisely refused to eat. The toxin in question is called cucurbitacin and it’s a natural constituent of cucurbits (there’s a surprise) – plants like cucumbers, gourds and courgettes – and its there because its bitterness repels herbivores and insects. In fact nearly all the useful chemicals we derive from plants are there for much the same reason, and there’s plenty of evidence that these bitter components are good for us, but only in very small doses! In Mediterranean peasant communities, the gathering and eating of bitter herbs in spring is a deeply rooted ritual.

I also recall that in the past we were advised to fertilize cucurbits in the garden by transferring pollen from the male flowers to the female ones with a paint brush “to avoid bitterness”. This is an important clue, since cucurbitacin is insanely bitter, and plant breeders have gone to enormous trouble to breed the cucurbitacin out of their plants because the customers won’t buy them and certainly won’t eat them. The danger is that many of the decorative gourds have been selected for appearance alone, because they are not eaten. So – for instance – if you grow fancy gourds in the same bed as your courgettes you may well get a hybrid and very bitter courgette. If then you are a seed saver as well, then your saved seeds will be of the hybrid type and will therefor produce more bitter offspring. You could probably go for several lifetimes and not be unlucky enough to encounter an intensely bitter courgette, but the sensible advice would be

  • Never to eat anything you’ve grown if it tastes terrible.
  • Don’t mix ornamental cucurbits with ones you’re going to eat.
  • Be especially careful only to pollinate plants for saved seed under controlled conditions in a greenhouse ( or under insect netting perhaps) to avoid random pollinations from elsewhere on the site..
  • Don’t re-post alarmist rumours, you’re in more danger of being struck by lightning.

Does that sound a bit bossy? Well it’s true, I think that substituting fears and rumours for hard evidence is one of the less attractive features of the internet culture. I’m not against science; I’m against bad science. I’m not against seed merchants but I am certainly cautious about genetic modification. Neither am I against farmers – just for the record – but I am decidedly against intensive chemically driven agriculture because the scientific evidence shows us how dangerous it is.

Enough! The low pressure that has depressed us all is moving off eastwards and the sun even shone for a couple of fitful minutes today. But the temperature definitely went up and the humidity went down and that’s just what our plants need. The last thing we want is an outbreak of blight. Madame is cooking ratatouille in the kitchen – and here’s a confession – until last year I loathed the very sight of courgettes. They always seemed to turn to some kind of primal gloop, and as for aubergines and what I came to speak of as “rat”, I would rather have eaten a dish of pure cucurbitacin. So when I came to writing this piece I couldn’t find a single photo of a courgette anywhere in my bloated collection of 17,000 photos – and I had to go and take one on the allotment. But last year I suddenly discovered that it’s not the vegetable but the way you cook it. I think I had been traumatised by a ratatouille that was cooked on a campsite by a friend, and which was infusd by the rich aroma of methylated spirits and reduced to the kind of texture and consistency we see on the fire escape steps when the students are here.

Anyway, and moving on. Madame paid me a great compliment today when she compared my writing with one of our favourite writers. The compliment was diminished slightly when I realized that being compared with a totally forgotten 1930’s writer had something of an edge to it, but it cheered me up nonetheless.

And the enforced extra visit to the allotment to visit the courgettes was made golden by stumbling on the basal rosette of a guaranteed (Poland and Clement – “Vegetative key to the British Flora”) – common ragwort which perfectly demonstrates what a lyrate-pinnatifid leaf looks like. A picture is worth a thousand words, and I’ve decided to make it my weed of the day. Even more gloriously, the process of finding all that out introduced me to the entirely new world of the white tipped hydathode. I probably should get out more. Madame would agree!

There sleeps Titania sometime of the night,

I think I blame my mother for possessing so much plant wisdom, and Henry Williamson for fanning the flames. I only say this because today as I was quite literally rooting around in search of a rhizome in the car park today so I could nail down my unexpected finding of a Hoary ragwort – Jacobaea erucifolia next to the fire escape, I suddenly realized why I was there. “It’s the names, you fool” – I thought. “You’re in love with the names”. Since I was there in the rain, on my knees, digging gently with my penknife so as not to damage the plant, the neighbours may well have though me barking mad but in fact I was rolling the names around in my head – ragwort, ragweed, stinking willie, devildums, dog stalk, mares fart, muggert – among dozens listed by Geoffrey Grigson in”The Englishman’s Flora” – an excellent book which can be read by women too! It was also the plant used by fairies for getting about because broomsticks were much too big which, I suppose, would have been well known to William Shakespeare who knew his plants and their uses very well.

I know a bank whereon the wild thyme blows,

Where oxlips and the nodding violet grows,

Quite over-canopied with luscious woodbine,

With sweet musk-roses and with eglantine:

William Shakespeare, Midsummer Night’s Dream

But it was Williamson who got me going; so much so that after I’d read “Tarka” and all the others when I was still very young, I ordered up all 27 (I think) books of his “Chronicle of Ancient Sunlight” – which I read avidly until I realized that he held some political views that would have made him a Mosleyite fascist. It was the end of the affair for me, but half the time – I excuse myself here – it was his extraordinary knowledge of nature that captivated me. The only thing that held me back was that when I read the plant names I had never seen them and wouldn’t recognise them if I did. I had become enchanted by the names; seriously and fatally compromised by the words themselves.

Weed of the day: Field Bindweed – Convolvulus arvensis

Then there was Shakespeare with his woodbine, oxlips, eglantine and all the rest. I would gaze out of the window during English lessons, rehearsing the names in my head like a rosary, knowing that my destiny was supposed to be engineering and all I really wanted to do was understand those words. At the time I wouldn’t have known a botanist from a chimney sweep. My mother’s knowledge of plants was organic – it wasn’t a subject, it was a culture, a history, an upbringing in the Chilterns where, she once told me that the first time she saw a flush toilet she was afraid to use it because she’d only ever seen an earth closet before that.

I bought my first flora “Wildflowers of the Wayside and Woodland” published by Frederick Warne some time before I was 20 and I still have it. The story ought to proceed along the usual tramlines but it doesn’t. Wildflowers were pushed to the edges and we met occasionally during holidays; but slowly as I got older there was more time and I could afford better books – many better books, and it was always there lurking in the shadows. I’m in awe of the field botanists who’ve made a profession of it; in awe of their capacity to recognise plants and remember their latin names – but I think I’ve got the best deal in the end because I spent my career studying what it means to be human, and occasionally getting my waders full in the process. So the plants and small creatures have become redemptive in their way. Even when I work out something that’s absolutely blindingly obvious to the experts, to me it’s a moment of illumination and re-enchantment. A holiday romance revived and, more often than not, a literary experience as well. Of course the irony is that the more I find out the more complicated it all becomes. I’ve written about grass and today I did some more practice identifications but the highlight was discovering that the ragwort in the car park behind the flats was neither of the alternatives I was considering but a third type altogether. As Paul Valery once said – “A difficulty is a light. An insurmountable difficulty is a sun”.

Today the sky was iron grey and it was drizzling but we were both eager to be out so we went off in search of Browne’s Folly a(n) SSSI and nature reserve up a tiny lane that’s exceptionally tricky to find. And so, to get back to the beginning before the bell goes, there’s wild thyme growing there …. and Bath asparagus and loads of other things that most people probably wouldn’t get worked up about but how could you not be bowled over by the pale blue of a field scabious and there’s a patch of grassland there that just shouts orchid! Oh and an abandoned stone mine with bats. It was slippery with mud and Madame was less than thrilled with some exposed bits of path, but the view from the top was tremendous. The folly is a Bath stone tower built during a slack economic period as a highly visible advert for the quarry. I peeped inside and there was a stairway leading in a spiral to the top but no handrail so after a couple of flights my courage failed me and I climbed back down clinging to the wall.

Back home, we resolved to go back for a serious plant hunt, and then we went to the allotment; pruned the autumn raspberries back and tied them in before harvesting some food for the weekend. A lousy weather day completely redeemed by nature, mud and all. And tomorrow there are a couple more raised beds that require our attention.