In this new unpredictable climate it’s a dubious pleasure to write that this was a typical November day. Not just weatherwise – it was grey, cold and energy sapping – but it was one of those days when you drift listlessly around the allotment sensing a vague smell of decay everywhere and not getting on with anything. There are jobs that really do need doing, the fruit cage is a mess and the blackcurrents and gooseberries need moving to give them more space but …..
It’s my own fault. I couldn’t have picked a worse moment to go off on a Gillyflower adventure. There’s another five weeks of declining day length before we can start to look forward to spring, and so I’ve had my head in the books and fought my way through a vast thicket of botanical misunderstandings (mostly mine) until finally I had a workable understanding of the elusive Gillyflower and the fact that it has more real cousins than is strictly proper, and a few cousins that are not related at all except they smell nice. Then there were three cousins that I thought were different but turned out to be almost brothers and sisters.
When I used to take funerals, I would always try to find out (in as subtle a way as possible) where the landmines were buried. This lot would give a saint a headache and as far as putting your foot in it goes, they are enough to get you hauled up before the bishop for getting the deceased person’s name wrong. So here goes;
any of a number of fragrant flowers, such as the wallflower or white stock
ARCHAIC a clove scented pink or carnation.
noun: clove gillyflower …..
According to Culpeper there are three sorts – the clove gilliflower (notice his different spelling), the stock gilliflower and the winter gilliflower or wallflower – but the single reference to ‘stock gilliflowers’ seems to suggest he was just using the name as an adjective for scented.
Gerard cites ‘clove gillyflowers’, ‘pinks or wilde gillyflowers’, and ‘sweet williams’ but rates them all as scented herbs without medicinal virues.
But what we are really talking about here are two different families of plants united by their usefulness as perfumes.
Some of them are pinks, sweet williams and carnations which are Dianthus and the others are wallflowers and stocks which are Brassicas.
As far as Shakespeare was concerned the gillyflower was a carnation. None of them appear to have any proven medicinal qualities except cheering you up from the safe distance of a vase, so chasing around the countryside with your copy of Culpeper in hand looking for a cure for your bewildered mind is likely to leave you as confused as you were when you started. The answer is to take an aspirin or, if you prefer, a nice glass of wine, pull the curtains and order seeds for some scented flowers for cutting next year and – if you can’t remember what they’re all called you can wave a languid arm in their general direction and call them gillyflowers. Your friends will admire your scholarship.
Don’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste. There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife. Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky. Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).
In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted. On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his. It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.
The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself. I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers! However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.
But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning. Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council. Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing. Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile. All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.
While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow. We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.
I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.
We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think. On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots. Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings. I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago. I suppose we could spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going. I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies. I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.
A bit of botanical history
In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier. There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.
Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine
And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines. Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am. I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on. So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan. But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.
” The liberty of our Common Wealth …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.
Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.
Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside. I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:
237 million medication errors each year
An estimated 712 deaths
Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy
I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!
Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant. I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.
No doubt about it, Bath is beautiful place to live in. The sun shone this morning and we decided to go for a favourite walk along the Kennet and Avon canal which enters the River Avon just upstream of where we live. The cuttings and the tunnels at the end of the canal were all designed to keep the smelly working classes out of sight of Sidney Gardens and its wealthy patrons and it’s an ironic reversal of fortune that the gardens are presently awaiting a major restoration project whilst the canal is, and has been fantastically well looked after since it was ‘rediscovered’. Incidentally that’s a cracking instance of the way a culture can change its mind about the value of a resource that’s fallen into disuse, and a good reason why we shouldn’t destroy these places, plants, environments, resources or even buildings – just because we don’t like them at the moment.
The canal bank is a marvellous and very specific habitat for the kind of plants that don’t mind having wet feet and being overshadowed – here’s a Lungwort that’s probably a garden escape and found a perfect spot to thrive in. It was mostly found as a cottage garden plant, and used to be used a great deal as a medicinal herb, and it’s not that common around here. I refuse to sneer at it because it’s a garden escape, because it carries its own history of usefulness and it always cheers me up in early spring. In fact, if you look closely, there are all sorts of spring flowers beginning to push up leaves; they can be tricky to identify without their flowers, but that makes a case for choosing a particular plot, walk or stretch of land and revisiting it over the four seasons. Field naturalists call it a ‘transect’ when they walk week by week along a set route and identify everything they see there. It’s a foundational technique for describing the ecology of a particular place, and much of the work is done by amateurs.
Rivers and canals are just such interesting places with their own set of plants, birds, invertebrates (I’m just saying that, I know next to nothing about them) and animals, and the fact that we live so close to all that wildlife is a proper bonus.
But today wasn’t just about going for a walk. With one of the wettest Octobers for years behind us, we were a bit concerned about the garlic and onion sets we’d planted in the ground. In particular we were concerned that they might have rotted. So this afternoon we made a hands and knees inspection of the beds on the allotment and everything seems to be in good shape. The photo of the sprouting garlic exaggerates its size – it was barely half an inch high – but the whole row is gradually coming to life. The peas and broad beans too have germinated in the greenhouse. I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the gigantic beetroot on our neighbour’s plot, easily the biggest I’ve ever seen!
But star of the show today was the Sweet Cicily I grew from seed I collected last year in Yorkshire. It’s a powerful and probably invasive weed, but it’s trapped between the shed, the greenhouse and a well-trodden path so its options for world domination are a bit limited. But today I noticed it’s in flower still and it lifted my heart to see it. Even as winter bears down on us there are signs of life everywhere.
So yesterday I started thinking about the colour set for the red cabbage leaf painting. If I were to use the closest colours I could get to the ones printers use in three colour printing, I could use them in two alternative combinations of warm and cool. But this morning as I was trying a few swatches, it occurred to me that I could get closer to the purple red I need by using alizarin crimson. Then a couple of experiments with the two blues moved me towards French ultramarine which gives a warmer touch. But there are also many browns and greens to be got and sticking with my three tube resolution I tested cadmium orange and Indian yellow. Why bother? Why not just open a different tube for every colour I can see? Well, because it’s far less interesting and it costs a fortune and I don’t need to work that way. I’m just an apprentice, and I just learn a lot more by using a restricted palette. Didn’t I learn all this at art school decades ago? No I didn’t because art schools went through a long phase of treating technique with great suspicion. Imagine a conservatoire that didn’t allow students to practice scales because it might disrupt their inner musicality? That was what art schools were like in the seventies – ideas were supposed to emerge untroubled by anything resembling skill. I’ve no idea whether things have changed, but if I were offered that kind of education on a huge loan I’d think twice.
Anyway, today was meant to be a drawing day because the forecast was for rain, but it didn’t rain and so we went up to the allotment and while Madame sowed peas – douce Provence do well over the winter – I dug up strawberry offsets and planted them out in their new bed. It’s a little late to be doing it but if they get their roots down and we have a decent autumn we’ll have new plants for free and we can give many of the fruit bushes more space when we move them.
It’s been a good year for Jays – we saw six together yesterday, but todays unusual sighting was a parakeet. We heard it first, and then caught sight of its brilliant green plumage. Sadly we also noticed that someone has nicked a bag of compost – there’s obviously a thief on the site, but very little we can do about it. I’m cooking pork shoulder in cider tonight, with pommes dauphinoise and chard off the allotment. If this is brief it’s because I’m knackered. The only thing we could do to prevent any more compost being stolen was to get it all on to the beds – which involved much heavy lifting. As I was prepping the new strawberry bed I noticed that the worm population has exploded since last year – good news and confirmation that all this emphasis on organic matter is paying off. Not so, sadly, with the leeks which have been struck down for the second year running by allium leaf miner. There are just a couple of plots that haven’t been affected but the variety doesn’t seem to matter. Next year we’ll have to think whether leeks are one crop we should give up for a year or two.
I’ve ordered second hand copies of Gerard’s and Culpeper’s herbals – Gerard was only 17p so well worth a try. Culpeper just arrived and that’s where I’m off next.
Let’s be honest, some of our produce isn’t going to win any prizes, but the fact that it tastes so good and we know it’s proper organic rather than ‘organish’ means we don’t want to waste a single leaf. Today we harvested celery, carrots, beetroot and a load of herbs. We even discovered a hyssop plant that we’d given up on, quietly thriving under the French tarragon. As the allotment matures, we get lots of those kinds of surprises – like the coriander and caraway that are growing away vigorously after self-seeding. Marigolds and nasturtiums are just as bad, but does it really matter? There’s space for everything and we can always dig up and move, or just cut down anything that’s in the wrong place, because we know we’ll be growing them every year in any case. The key is recognising the plants when they’re still in the seedling stage, an operation that’s greatly helped by the fact that most herb seedlings smell just like their parent plants from very early on – and of course when spring comes along they’ll be up and running without any intervention on our part.
Last night I was browsing in a catalogue of medicinal herbs and I was greatly amused by seeing “Dactylis glomerata” seeds on sale for £2.50. The English name is cock’s foot, and the thought of buying seeds for such a common weed never occurred to me. On the other hand I could probably put a few clumps up on ebay – I could even throw a bonus offer of “goutweed” in for the real enthusiasts – as long as they don’t plant it anywhere near our plot.
Today was one of those greasy days where it never quite rains and yet it never really stops either. Misty dampness clotted the sky with grey and we pretty much had the whole site to ourselves. So it was mostly pruning for me – cutting the autumn raspberries back hard and pruning the grape vine, while Madame sowed seeds and weeded. The greenhouse is almost full with autumn sown vegetables and outside the overwintering garlic and shallots are all now planted in their beds. There’s a risk of a particularly late spring leaving these premature sowings leggy and poor after too long under cover, but it’s always worth having a go. The compost heap has risen to 30C so there’s lots of action there and I’ll probably turn it as soon as the temperature starts to drop; and even the leaf bay feels warm to the hand – it’s amazing how much good gardening gets done without any work on our part.
At home the summer window boxes are all inside now and we’ll be taking cuttings for next year. Tomorrow looks set to be wet from the outset. Before we left this morning, I sorted out a corner of my room because we’ve decided to have a ‘drawing day’. I aim to spend an hour or so doing the colour swatches tonight so that I can begin the first draft paintings tomorrow. It’s fascinating to see how different “daylight” lamps can be from one manufacturer to another. I prefer to work with quite high light levels to bring out all the subtleties of colour, and for very fine work I use a big desk magnifier, so you can see three distinct ‘daylight colour’ sets on my desk, and I have to negotiate my way through the various options.
Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.
So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity. I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.
When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes. When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.
Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.
I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.
And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.
“Not another dead leaf?” you may well ask, and I will admit to having a bit of thing about them – because a leaf can be stunningly beautiful even if it did once belong to a red cabbage rather than a Japanese Acer in an arboretum. I get my pleasures where I can. The fact that it looks a bit like the back of my hand on a bad day is neither here nor there because the gods of mortality are strictly neutral as to species.
This is one I just have to paint for its sheer delicacy, for the way it expresses the temporality and fragility of all living things and for its exquisite colours.
The world is a better place for this one dead cabbage leaf.
But isn’t it rather morbid to reflect on these things? Christmas is coming and we’ll all have a jolly time and …..
One of my earliest memories is of making Christmas puddings with my mother – or at least my sister and me would watch while my mother, red faced, would mix the ingredients and give us our turn so we could make a Christmas wish, and then lower the pudding bowls – covered in cotton torn from old sheets and tied around with string – and lowered into the wash boiler suspended from the copper stick. The copper stick outlasted the old boiler by several decades because it was still used to extract boiling washing from the super up-to-date twin tub washing machine. Everybody had a copper stick in those days, and I have a vague memory that our next door neighbour “Aunty Doreen” was fond of threatening us with hers. Unlike most old boilers, though, ours never found its way into the garden and a new life containing a rampant mint plant. But my memory includes the reckless danger of lighting the gas ring under the boiler; of smelling the wet cotton and watching the steam condensing on the kitchen window for hours on end.
All of which may, or may not explain why making Christmas puddings is nine parts ritual to one part recipe; but I always feel that I’m channelling my mother when I do it. There’s an element of defiance in holding a feast when everything looks as if it’s finished, done for. The same goes for painting dead leaves, or for that matter writing a blog. It’s always an act of defiance, a two fingered salute to the gods of mortality and entropy. We shall have our feast and celebrate all this unnecessary beauty for the sheer joy of it. No I don’t think we’re placating any gods, although it would please me enormously if we were annoying the gods of the economy, the gods of greed and selfishness, the gods of eternal growth and prosperity and especially the gods of industrial farming, along with all the other liars.
‘Seeing the world in a grain of sand’ is a bit of a stretch for me most of the time, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of it in a leaf, and it was leaves that occupied most of my morning. As it got light I looked out of the window across the green and I could see leaves, scuttering along in the wind, piling up in drifts. “Good” I thought – “There’ll be leaves up at the allotment” – and there were: several tons of them dropped off by the parks department. But don’t for a moment assume that allotmenteers are a peace loving equitable bunch of people who love nothing more than sharing. The terrible truth is we only share our surpluses and not our shortages. The leaf season only lasts a few weeks and I just happened to be first on the scene this morning so I had to drop everything and haul leaves back because I knew that within hours our narrow eyed neighbours would be competing for every last leaf. Speed is essential and over the years I’ve evolved a rapid system using a 1.5 cubic metre woven sack. It holds just the right number of leaves – probably four or possibly even five barrow loads – just a bit more than I can comfortably lift – but I’m prepared to be very uncomfortable when there’s free mulch about. By the time our bin was full, pressed down and covered there were three more people working on the heap – like locusts we were – maintaining the pretence of neighbourliness all the while. More leaves will arrive, no doubt, and there are more than enough to go around but we’ve got this year’s supply secured – result!
Meanwhile, the slow process of cooking the puddings went on all day. We don’t have a pan nearly big enough to cook four puddings at once, and so I’ve been doing them one at a time in the pressure cooker. Each one takes two hours in total, so the whole operation still takes eight hours, but I can set the hob to turn itself off automatically so we can leave each one cooking without supervision. The flat is full of Christmas smells and there’s something quite nice about closing the shutters when it gets dark – earlier every day.
The wine we made last year went down the drain today. It was fun to make, but it tasted rubbish and it was taking up a lot of space.
Or at least, bang on time as long as two consecutive years make a trend. Cropping French beans in the autumn is always going to be a bit speculative, and although we’ve had a few feeds off these and another batch, last night’s frost was enough to do for them. A year ago we’d had the coldest October for many years and this year it’s been the wettest, all of which is completely symptomatic of global heating. Twenty years ago we could entertain ourselves with thoughts of a Mediterranean climate but now we are begining to grasp that what we’ve inherited from our destructive behaviour is extreme and destructive weather. Last night the temperature on our north facing second floor window ledge went down to 4.5C, and when I looked out of the window as soon as the sun came up I could see frost on the green outside. When we got up to the allotment the beans had succumbed. However this year we were ahead of the game, and so any other tender plants have been moved under cover or harvested and stored. This has produced a great deal of material for composting and we’d been slightly concerned that the heap wasn’t heating very well, largely due to the ingress of rain. But adding a lot of cardboard, turning it roughly and chopping the waste by getting on top of the heap with a spade have all helped. Along with a few handfuls of fish blood and bone sprinkled with the wood ash from our incinerator, the heap was heating up fast today and we’ll resist resist adding any more material until we can turn it all into the next bay and start afresh.
The window boxes are due to be changed too, and so today we swapped the first couple with new ones planted up with spring bulbs. It doesn’t make much of a photograph, but gardeners have a lovely knack of seeing beyond the bare facts into the future. To me those neat boxes, covered with gravel to stop the mud splashing up aganst the windows, are a promissory note for the future, and it won’t be long before the green shoots appear. We’ll strip out any of the existing plants in the summer boxes that can be saved, divided or propagated and get them ready for next summer. Any spare or spent earth and growing medium goes straight on to the allotment.
The wisdom of converting to raised beds really came home today. After so much rain, in the past we’d have struggled to do any work at all on the wet ground – but now it’s easy, and the no dig regime means that we just loosen any weeds and pull them out carefully. The beds themselves are often firm enough to step on without fear of compressing the soil too much. Weeding, and the raking up of any green material that’s lying around isn’t just cosmetic. Slugs feed on decaying matter and the less food we leave lying around for them the better.
This morning the christmas cake emerged from its wallpaper hat and went into a cupboard wrapped in greaseproof paper and ready to be fed with a little brandy whenever I think about it. Maybe this year I’ll actually get to ice it, but it takes ages and costs a fortune for the marzipan, and I’ve noticed that the family often peel the icing off and leave it on the plate because it’s so sweet. Madame and me, however, love to share a flask of tea and a slice of Christmas cake up on the allotment on cold winter days. As soon as I’ve sent this post I’ll be back in the kitchen making Christmas puds – so then all the preparations are done and we can concentrate on everything else we want to do. There’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn.
This wouldn’t happen in our son’s kitchen because he’s a a professional chef and I’m only a cook. He does cheffy stuff like fridge labelling whereas I usually apply the ‘hairy or smelly’ test to unexpected finds – it all comes from decades of being skint, and making do, and, maybe – subliminal memories of wartime rationing. I was born after the war but I can remember playing shops with my sister and using the redundant ration books as money.
This Christmas pud was not hairy and neither did it smell, but I know for a fact it must be at least five years old because I haven’t made Christmas puds since we came to Bath. The reason it’s survived at the back of the cupboard all this time is that it’s a two pounder and far too big even when the whole family is together. So this year I’m only making one pounders, and Madame and me will eat one whenever it takes our fancy, but probably not at Christmas when we’re all far too full. So out it went this morning and then we set off on a 40 mile round trip to put the new battery in the campervan. It was all planned out like a military campaign and so the job was done in next to no time with no electrical sparks and without losing the radio and security codes. The biggest problem was getting some jump leads close enough to the van to maintain the power while I swapped the batteries.
What a deadly boring paragraph, I’m thinking, except the feeling of satisfaction when the old beast roared into life is beyond pleasure. Now we can go away for a couple of nights and visit friends, paddle the kayak or just sit and read.
Back home later I weighed out flour, muscovado sugar, eggs and cake stuff; beat it senseless with my hand mixer which is miraculously good at not splitting the mixture when I put the eggs in, measured, folded and drew greaseproof and brown paper (well, wallpaper actually) and finished it all off by hand – which is all I can do now since the second hand Kenwood burst into flames last Christmas after 25 years of efficient cake making. Now it’s (the cake not the Kenwood) – in the oven and any minute the fragrance will fill the flat. As soon as I’ve done the washing up I’ll weigh out the ingredients for the puddings and cook them tomorrow when they’ve stood all night soaking up the Guinness, rum and barley wine. This is all monstrously stupid behaviour given that I’ve only just managed to get my blood glucose readings back to normal by completely changing my diet and foregoing any alcohol at all, and so only I’ll be eating tiny portions. But there’s a big plus side to all this, which is feeling fit enough to cope with Spaffer Johnson’s brexit nonsense without wanting to throw myself off a raised bed.
Earnest negotiations have begun concerning next year’s seed order. Ask any allotmenteer if their allotment is big enough when the spring comes, and we’ll all say we need more space. This is because we’d love to be able to grow the whole catalogue. Reality, however, means that we can only grow a certain amount, and next year we’ll be obliged to grow less potatoes because we’ve lost the borrowed 50 square metres loaned by our neighbour. That’s OK though, because we’ll never be able to eat all we’ve grown this year. The issue arose when we were talking about where to relocate the chamomile plants. We cracked it by deciding to treat them more as a crop, and give them the situation and sunshine they need to keep us in flowers all summer. The same goes for the calendula which we can use in a home made skin cream. In fact I’ve been checking out which medicinal herbs are growing wild around the site and it’s surprising how many there are. Luckily many of the companion plants are ‘dual purpose’, having medicinal applications as well as insect attractant/repellant properties, not to mention tasting good too.
Tomorrow we begin moving fruit bushes, strawberries and shrubs into new locations. We’ve already decided to grow many of the companion plants in moveable tubs so they can be deployed where they’re most needed. All this, remember is happening on 250 square metres of allotment, not RHS Wisley, so it’s entirely do-able. When the children left home I found myself still cooking for five (plus unexpected friends) for months. We can grow a great deal of what we need at the Potwell Inn, but we’re still learning how to moderate our sowing – I’ve just finished drying enough chilllies to keep us going for years.
Yesterday we tried our third Jamie Oliver veggie recipe in a week. I loved it but Madame wasn’t so keen and thought the halloumi was tasteless. I slept well enough last night after manually adjusting the kitchen clock but bizarrely I kept waking up to check whether my phone had reset itself, and then I woke at my normal ‘body clock’ time and had to force myself to stay in bed another hour.