A change of gear and mood on the allotment

This is the time of year when there’s a definite change of pace on the allotment. There’s a change of crops too as we harvest the last of the summer vegetables like courgettes and (still) a few tomatoes and French beans, and start clearing those which have ‘done their bit’. We had a rogue volunteer squash that grew from last year’s compost and after we’d cleared and sheeted the potato patch we allowed it to range freely over about 20 square metres.  But as the temperature dropped over the past couple of nights we could see the plant wilting and so today it went into the compost, along with the asparagus. The trug we brought home was more typical of autumn with its muted colours, and the parsnips are doing well in their no-dig bed –  the latest sowing of spinach is growing nicely under its cloche, and we staked the purple sprouting broccoli ready for the expected winds.  There’s stil basil to pick and tonight that’s going into what’s bound to be one of the last panzanellas of the year.  We need to pick the borlotti beans in the next couple of days, but gradually, one at a time, the beds are moving into their winter modes.  The decision to convert both allotments into beds was quite costly, but it’s paid off handsomely because we can work them all in any state of the ground. Without digging the whole task of preparation is much quicker and there’s no evidence that crops have been affected adversely at all. We’re hoping for a spell of dryer weather to sow the overwintering broad beans and peas, but we’re not bothering to overwinter any of the alliums because the results have been very patchy.

Without doubt one of the less welcome aspects of the autumn has always been, for me, a debilitating spell of low mood, but although it’s been lurking there like the black dog for a couple of weeks, I’ve found the allotment an enormous help. It’s impossible not to be uplifted outside in the fresh air, and a couple of hours quiet weeding is a cure for any sort of melancholy. Obviously once the remains of the dying season have been composted, pickled, cooked or – in extremis – burned, the new season always feels that much closer.  Our soil in in great form – three full seasons of TLC and tons of compost have turned it from a sticky clay-loam, full of couch grass and bindweed, into a rich soil that runs through the fingers and makes weeding so much easier.  Even an attempted invasion of creeping buttercup into the asparagus bed was easy to deal with.  The individual plantlets could be gently lifted and the soil shaken of, leaving no bits of root to sprout next spring.

A little extra time away from gardening has allowed us to do a few more experiments in vegetarian cooking in the Potwell Inn kitchen. There’s no doubt it’s a challenge, but we’re enjoying the new styles, and vegetables that have gone straight from the soil into the pan, taste so much better – plus the fact that we’ve laboured over them makes wasting them unthinkable. As I was writing this, Madame called me into the kitchen to taste a new recipe for braised red cabbage and it was fabulous, much more restrained than our go-to recipe has always been. It’s like being let loose in a sweet shop, so many new flavours and textures to play with. Prepping the panzanella this afternoon, I was using our own tomatoes, chillies and garlic and my own sourdough bread – it transforms the way you regard the raw materials when they haven’t come double wrapped in plastic, doused in chemicals and a fortnight old already.

The compost bin is almost full to the brim for the third time since I built it in the spring.  It’s been inclined to run a bit wet and cold because of the rain we’ve had so I’m going to put a roof over the whole group of four bays so I can control the moisture and gather rain from another nearly 50 square feet of roof, it seems all wrong to water with tap water when there’s the possibility of harvesting several thousand litres a year on site.

Below, the compost bins when they were first built with our cold frames – now stolen – in front, and beyond them, the hot-bed experiment which was so successful we’re going to build two more where the coldframes used to be.

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Please God – no more tomatoes!

Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney.  I cannot look another tomato in the eye.

Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear.  There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato.  It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.

My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe.  The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes.  As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson.  I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….

So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean?  Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.

IMG_6186All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces.  It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods.  The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.

I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs.  Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?

So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all.  But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?IMG_6019

 

Sweating it out over the preserves

There ought to be an easier way but there isn’t.  I can’t quote the absolute figure but I think it’s said that nationally we waste about 1/3 of our food. Given the vast amount of effort (plus chemicals and fertilizers and diesel transport) that goes into producing it, one fairly obvious way of cutting our carbon footprint would be to stop wasting it.

At the allotment level it’s easier, I know.  We recycle all our green waste plus our own paper and cardboard.  We also recycle other peoples’ cardboard from the basement skip, leaves from the local council and anything else we can get our hands on.  The one thing it’s really dificult to do is to maintain control over the quantity and timing of crops.  Gluts and shortages are a fact of allotment life, and so storage and planning always need to be attended to.  It’s the weather that gets in the way more often than not.  In these uncertain days of global heating, the weather has become more extreme and that has an immediate impact on how our crops grow.

So today – because it was raining – was an ideal time to catch up on our surpluses.  I spent most of the day in the kitchen, bits of leftover bread were dried and turned into breadcrumbs, I made six pounds of green pepper, green tomato and chilli relish, another seven litres of passata and there’s a big second batch of spiced red cabbage about to go into the oven. Tomorrow I’ll harvest all the Habanero chillies and dry them and then on Sunday if the weather holds I’ll lift the last two rows of maincrop potatoes (a bit late I know).

It’s hard work, much harder than wandering around to the supermarket, but the rewards are tremendous.  We know exactly what we’re eating and the quality is as good as we can make it, plus our winter stores are looking very healthy.  I can only suppose that our carbon footprint is lower than it would be if we bought everything in and sent all our waste to landfill. It’s not going to save the world but it would make a huge contribution if more people took it up – and judging by today’s “State of Nature” report the sooner we get on with it the better.

I was shocked by some of the BBC’s reporting on the issue. The World at One covered it by opting for a cosy discussion about action to save water voles and contrived to give the impression that everything is under control. The impact of farming and climate change was not mentioned at all.  Shame on them – is it any surprise that the audience, especially among young people, is dwindling.

So preserving, pickling, drying, freezing, fermenting are at the top of the agenda at the moment.  In one working day, all of the ingredients in yesterday’s photograph have been preserved for the winter – it’s almost magical that we can do this and it brings a great deal of pleasure.  I’ve always thought that cooking is very close to alchemy in the way that it transforms pretty basic things into really good things.  When I think about nature I want to include food in that thought, because none of this is possible without harnessing the extraordinary power of nature. It’s a demonstrable fact that understanding microorganisms and knowing the good from the bad is as much a kitchen skill as whipping up a sauce.

Incidentally I should thank carolee for the idea of cooking the relish – I’ll report back when it’s matured for a couple of weeks, but off the spoon it tasted great.

But it has to be said that allotmenteering and preserving, baking, brewing and cooking can be very hard work. Sometimes – like when it gets to nine o’clock at night – all I want to do is crash into a chair and fall asleep. It’s all a matter of what I call texture. Yesterday we spent some time in Bristol at the Royal West of England Academy open exhibition. I can’t say I was particularly lit up by what we saw, but it was a lovely break with two of our oldest friends., and tomorrow the rain is set to stop!

Meanwhile back at the ranch

 

A rare day of sunshine on the allotment today and so we made the most of it because there’s the tail end of hurricane Lorenzo about to do one final lap of honor around the UK before finally (we hope) petering out. This is a challenging time of year for allotments because although there are a multitude of jobs to be getting on with, the weather often gets in the way.  We used to call these unsettled patterns “equinoctal storms” but the Met Office get a bit sniffy about the term, saying there’s absolutely no connection between the frequent storms and the day length. They just happen at the same time. Often!

But the last of the tender crops need to be gathered in and new ones sown almost immediately to allow germination before the cold weather really kicks in. That  means the ground needs to be weeded and prepared with compost even if you don’t dig.  Any ground that’s not going to be planted up immediately needs feeding and sheeting, or sowing with a green manure crop.  That’s not something we’ve ever done – I’m not sure what you do with the crop if you don’t dig it in – maybe if it’s tares you can cut it off leaving the roots with their nitrogen nodules intact in the ground, and compost all the green tops – it still gets fed back into the earth but a little later.

It’s this time of the year when we get a sudden mass of green material for composting. We’ve already dealt with the bean vines, but today it was the turn of the peppers, aubergines and those of the tomatoes not affected by blight – oh and the giant sunflowers which need sawing into pieces which are then either bashed with the back of an axe or split down the middle to expose the soft core to the composting bacteria. I often chop the vines a bit with a sharp spade – but you need some air circulation, so turning it all into a soggy mess will lead to slimy anaerobic conditions. The trouble with having a mass of fresh green material at this time of year is that at lower temperatures it can sit there sulking rather than composting. This is a great time to use some human urine to get things going.  We dilute it 10:1 for growing crops, but I’ve put it on the compost heap neat with no obvious ill effects. It’s rich with bio-available nitrogen and it really doesn’t smell.  We tell everyone we’re doing it to discourage the fastidious from browsing our crops! And keep the heap covered with old compost bags because it won’t thrive if it’s inundated with cold rain.

One of our success stories this year has been the outdoor chillies, peppers, tomatoes and aubergines.  The peppers were intended to be grown in the greenhouse but as ever we’d sown far too many,  so early in the season we planted some very poor and bedraggled specimens in a patch of sheltered open ground that happened to be empty. They absolutely loved it, and we’ve had our best ever crops from the open ground, leaving the pampered indoor plants standing still.  The only exception were the hot chillies, but they made the most of the greenhouse and they’ve been fantastic.  It’s touch and go whether the Habenero’s ripen fully, but I ate a tiny slice of an underripe one today and it was fierecly hot already. The mildest chillies – the Hungarian Hot Wax are still flowering and fruiting outside even now.

But all good things come to an end and so we came home with a big basket of green peppers, red cabbage and broccoli which is still cropping well plus a large quantity of green tomatoes. I’m looking for a recipe for a green pepper relish now. We ripened a few peppers on the windowsill earlier and roasted them to use as an ingredient in cooking.

The Sweet Cicily I sowed has resulted in a couple of very vigorous bushes so one of them is going to have to live in a container.  The other is on a patch of unuseable land near the greehouse and it’s very pretty and very useful – sweet and fragrant – so it can stay where it is for the time being. One major winter job is to reorganise the fruit cage and move the strawberries to a new spot.  It’s far too crowded, and a faff to get in and out of which has led to it becoming a bit neglected. Access is so important when planning beds and plots.

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Home then, thoroughly knackered with a day of gallery visits tomorrow for a change. It’s amazing, though how after a cup of tea and something to eat we felt energized again, which was just as well because the harvested  vegetables needed preparation and washing before they could be stored. It’s amazing how many slugs can live in a red cabbage, for instance.  But a soak in salted water and a couple of rinses soon gets rid of them and it’ll keep in the fridge until tomorrow evening when I’m baking anyway so I’ll make some spiced red cabbage at the same time.  Anyone for green tomato chutney?

Barn raising in Brislington

So today, as planned, the Potwell Inn crew turned out to build the recycled greenhouse on our second son’s allotment in Bristol.  I had thought we’d only get as far as levelling the foundation, but the threatened rain didn’t come, and we managed to assemble the whole frame before we left. Madame and our daughter in law brought the grandchildren down with hot pasties at lunchtime, and the day was a delight from start to finish.

Second hand greenhouses can be a bit of a liability; the glass is very fragile and doesn’t travel at all well, the process of assembly can be a nightmare if you don’t know how the bits go together. The assembly instructions – which can often be downloaded if you know the make and model of the greenhouse – are sometimes a bit impenetrable.  In this case we had dismantled the greenhouse ourselves a couple of months ago, and I’d already built a similar but smaller model on our own plot, so I had a pretty good idea how it all went.  My best advice if you’re taking on an old greenhouse is to try and dismantle it yourself as we did – so you know all the bits are there.  I don’t know of any way to buy individual missing parts.  My other recommendation is to buy all new nuts and bolts, spring clips and rubber strip and get a special greenhouse spanner -they’re worth their weight in gold.

But the greatest pleasure was simply being together and working together without any tensions. Everyone talks about the challenges of parenting babies and teenagers, but our experience has been that the transition from being parents of children to parents of adults has been the trickiest of all. We had to take a step back and let the boys lead and there were many moments when we felt a bit marginal to their lives. But a decade on, we’ve weathered a few storms and come out closer than we’ve ever been. I used the jokey heading about barn raising because when we work together as a family on a shared project it becomes (without getting religious about it) sacramental.  Outwardly hammering pegs, fixing boards and raising beams while inwardly celebrating each other’s gifts.

All three of our children are good cooks, good gardeners and thoroughly committed religious sceptics – the last part comes from years of seeing the church from the inside! Allotmenteering seems to be on the increase again, possibly the prospect of unaffordable organic food post brexit, and the likelihood of global climate breakdown has focused our minds on providing for ourselves. But a day on someone else’s allotment is as rewarding as a day on our own  – maybe we should offer training opportunities so new allotmenteers could increase their skills.  Gardening is better as a community activity.

Wet Sunday – much satisfaction.

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The title came to me as an imaginary reading from the i ching.  The photo is of a pretty ordinary patch of common weeds on the towpath.

It’s eight o’clock on Sunday evening.  I spent most of the  evening making bread and pastry while Madame prepped the filling for some Cornish pasties for tomorrow’s lunch with the boys (all in their thirties and forties now!) .  We’re working together on our middle son’s allotment tomorrow to start building the greenhouse we dismantled a few weeks ago in Bath.  It was going free and it was in pretty good condition and so he took it on.  Apart from that we went up to the allotment early to beat the rain – that didn’t work – and so we plodded on through increasingly sharp showers to clear more beds, cover them with compost and sheet them up for the winter.  By the time we got home we were very damp and very tired. I’d turned the three active compost bins, a very gratifying job because the resulting compost was some of the best we’ve ever made.  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of soil fertility on allotments – it’s not just bigger crops, it’s healthier and more resilient soil which makes for healthier and more resilient plants.  Our clay/loam soil which is prone to poaching and waterlogging is capable of withstanding flood and drought after three years of very heavy applications of organic material.  “What’s the secret?” people ask, and the answer is “there’s no secret – just compost”.  We stopped digging this year and the beds are firm enough to stand on now even when they’re wet. Goodness knows where it all goes, the asparagus bed swallowed up six inches of seaweed last winter and where we spread leaves as a mulch last autumn, there’s no trace of them now.  What we do have is worms – everywhere.  Did you know there are a number of British worm species? –  and they all live at different levels, so the fact that we don’t see some on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I didn’t feel much like writing today, we were both so tired after the session on the allotment we fell asleep in the armchairs. But there’s something rather special about working in the rain.  My broadbrimmed hat keeps the rain from running down my neck, and at this time of the year the rain and wind aren’t that cold.

I’m aware that writing about the allotment, the whole Potwell Inn way of life, travelling around in the campervan all adds up to a faintly mythologised life.  But it’s not mythic at all, it’s all  utterly ordinary.  Things go well, things go extraordinarily badly; I read books all the time, some inspire me and some fill me with fear for the future. I know a few wildflowers so I’m never alone, there’s always something or someone to talk to.  We work, cook, eat, garden – often in companionable silence. For every idea that bears fruit there are a dozen that don’t. The motivation for sharing by writing about it is that if we could teach more people to live within the ordinary – or perhaps I should capitalize it and call it the Ordinary, there would be a lot less sadness in the world.  In a day or a week when not much happens except for leaning on a fence and watching the plants grow, I never feel the need for anything more exciting. IMG_6167A slice of bread from a well made sourdough loaf spread with home made marmalade in the morning is a celebration of some terribly underrated domestic skills. Good stock in the fridge and tonight the smell of pasties cooking in the oven, fresh veg from the allotment – what more could anyone want?  – there is real authority in the Ordinary, the kind that makes many politicians look like two year old children in a tantrum.

The Potwell Inn isn’t some kind of metaphysical philosopy, in fact it’s the least metaphysical idea you could entertain. Stuff, dirt, earth, nature. Marvellous!

 

Happiness is garden shaped

 

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Jonah Jones again. Beautiful!

People often say things like – ‘you’re so lucky to be able to paint/draw, it must be very therapeutic’  – and I smile and think to myself lucky me? it sometimes drives me completely round the bend!  The same idea of therapeutic activity is now being attributed to gardening and it surely can’t be long before the RHS is offering modules, if not courses, in garden therapy. Last night we watched a BBC programme called Gardeners’ World that was entirely devoted to the therapeutic benefits of gardening and of being in amongst nature.

We’re gardeners too and it’s impossible to disagree.  There’s nothing quite like a morning or a whole day on the allotment, out in the fresh air with some hard work and, with a bit of luck, some good company. Today we decided to defy the rain and we spent a couple of hours with Madame weeding and clearing beds and me moving  about 3/4 ton of leaf mould and compost next to the beds they’ll be feeding this coming week. I hasten to say that much of the compost was bought in advance of our getting our own heaps flowing. I now have a backache but we came away feeling – as ever –  that the allotment has been instrumental in our thriving over the last four years of adjustment. Of course we feel sad when we lose plants, and cross when our stuff gets stolen but I suspect that a significant part of the therapeutic effect of gardening is learning to cope with loss. Gardening is a perspective changing activity and it rewards our commitment in a manner quite out of proportion to our input. Putting food on the table has the power to transform a meal into a feast – every day. Anything that makes you thankful every day has just got to be good for you. It’s risky of course because an allotment can never be a fortress and you have to accept that all sorts of strangers have access to it for good or ill.  But if one person sees an opportunity to enrich themself at our expense, I’ll guarantee that there are a hundred who look across from the footpath and think it’s beautiful, and a handful might even decide to try an allotment for themselves.

So today was a good day.  My experiment to try reducing the cooking time of the sourdough bread by 15 minutes worked out really well, and the crust was crisp but not too thick. The oven is one of our extravagances, and it’s so highly efficient that we’ve had to recalibrate almost all our cooking times.

I woke early and for no particular reason felt completely energised. Although, as I wrote yesterday, I try to avoid writing too much about politics here, I do think that what I write is highly political.  I’m an inveterate fact checker, I listen and read and then I check. Today I was searching around the issue of carbon costs and I found that much of the received wisdom around which politicians and some journalists set out their green credentials are open to serious challenge. We’re so used (well, some of us are -) to challenging racism and sexism when we encounter it but we get very shy about challenging the way that data is used. What does nuclear energy really cost? What’s the most efficient form of renewable energy? Is bio-fuel a good or a bad idea, is it true that generating electricity from biomass is better than generating it from coal?  The truth is that many of the assumptions from which we work are the fruits of lobbyists with a vested interest in their particular industry.  At the very least we could demand to know ‘who said this’ , who paid for the research? and what does the independent research say?.

As it happens I think I know the answers to most of the questions I posed but I’m not stating them because it’s much more important that we each find out for ourselves. It’s a very radicalizing moment to discover that you been completely hoodwinked.  Just as it was very radicalizing to discover huge beds of samphire when we were on the seashore next to the western fells, but not dare to forage any of it because it was just a few miles downstream of the Windscale nuclear reprocessing plant which has a history of unacknowledged disharges. We test everything on the allotment.  So called biodegradable bin bags seem to be far more resistant to composting than the label suggests; ultra green coir modules  appear to be wrapped in plastic mesh. We have to cut the mesh off before composting the spent coir. Do we even know whether the big seed companies treat their seeds with insecticides?

I think the answer to negotiating our way around the challenges of the 21st century has got to be to take a much greater interest in the data that’s used to persuade us and to become proper nuisances when it comes to asking questions.  Let’s be confident about handling the data and get the environmental costs on to the bottom line of every big company. They’ll soon change when it hits them in the pocket.

Much study wearies the flesh

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I think I’ve been reading too much – and it’s all the fault of the southwesterly winds. We did at least manage 3 hours on the allotment yesterday, but today, after setting out on a fruitless (yes) mission to pick damsons, it hammered down so much we turned around and came home again whereupon I spent the rest of the day watching 2 films about Arne Naess and reading his book “Ecology of Wisdom”.  I had to check him out because his name, and the concept of ‘deep ecology’ have come up quite a lot in my reading recently and I always find it better to go back to the source and make my own mind up..

The introduction was a bit repetitive, whereas the initial chapter on place was really intriguing.  But I came away from the first three essays thinking that, after looking at his CV, I felt more disabled than enabled by his mountaintop vision. There was something a shade too muscular, too charismatic, for me. I’ll never build a primitive hut on the side of a mountain, or read Spinoza in Latin, or learn Ghandian boxing.  So does that mean that the Potwell Inn is forever condemned to the sidelines?  Does it mean that my proposed ecology of Muckyannydinny Lane, the rubbish filled alley connecting two estates, will never see the light of day because it’s too ordinary?

I liked the man and some at least of his writing, but it seems to me as if his disciples (where have I heard this story before?) have added whole chunks of metaphysics and rather extreme conclusions to his initial words.  Isn’t it always the same? The moment we canonize someone, the followers feel free to claim pretty much anything they like and then stamp it with the saint’s imprimatur to put it beyond debate.

So here I am with a seed catalogue in one hand and the disabling thought in my mind that I really don’t know what we should be doing for the best.  Is the bib and brace overall and the Tilly hat more of a deferential tug of the forelock to the past? (see postbox). Is there some complete system for the ethically perfect life that I haven’t stumbled across yet or am I condemned to stumble around in the dark?  I know there are people who’ve found the answer because you can sense by their absolute certainty and their gimlet eyes that they have the truth – I’m not being smart and ironical here, I’m both envious of and repelled by their purity.

Loving the earth and the natural world is easy, and counting ourselves among the creatures surely involves loving one another as well as the birds, bees and wolves, and yet the most forceful expositions of rewilding seem almost Malthusian – discarding human lives as if they (we) are a form of infection.  The most common exposition of the technological dream, of carbon capture and fusion power et al  seem to me to be putting your trust into the power of the unicorn, and somewhere in the middle you land up being despised by almost everyone.  All I can think of is to try to live ethically as best I can, reduce my impact on the earth and keep the Potwell Inn going so we, the bewildered, can spent our twilight years with shaking hands and rheumy eyes discussing the price of onions over a pint of Ushers cider.

Today I baked another sourdough and took 15 minutes off the baking time to try to create a less daunting crust.  Madame cooked ratatouille – possibly the last of the season from our own produce.

My son asked me at the weekend why I don’t blog about politics.  It’s for the same reason I don’t go around bludgeoning people who steal our coldframes, it’s all got a bit too poisonous and I think it’s bad for me.  One of my ex parishioners facebooked to say I was being very stoic.  OK Chris – you’ve  found me out!

Getting ready for Halloween

It’s not all gloom and doom on the allotment, in fact I’m not a very gloom and doom person – I’m melancholic, which is altogether different and a lot more creative. But lifting these big pumpkins had me as happy as could be and groaning loud enough to attract a small group of spectators on the footpath, and some ooohs and aaas as I staggered over to the wheelbarrow. We don’t have any means of weighing the big one, but compared with a 25K bag of sand, I’d say it was more like 30Kg – around 66lbs – far from the record breakers that need a fork-lift to move them, but very gratifying for us. We could have let them go on growing, but we need to get the soil prepped ready for the autumn, and the outbreak of larceny on the site has made us cautious about leaving them in full view. Pumpkins are as cheap as chips in the supermarkets, but big ones like this seem to attract thieves.

So we were clearing the decks today and heaping the bean vines on to the compost heap which is now groaning under the weight. At the beginning of the year I calculated that we’d have to fill the first bin four times to generate enough compost to cover the whole plot.  We haven’t managed four, but it’s been full to the top three times, and I’ll turn it all into the second bay next week and start again. The end bin that had autumn leaves in it has now rotted down into a fine mulch of about 1/3 the volume, and that’s the problem with our compost – it rots down so much that it’s reduced by as much as 2/3 during the process.  However it’s so rich and full of nutrients that it doesn’t need to be piled on thickly.  Earlier in the season I turned over the first full bin and it’s now more than perfect – it’s positively beautiful. But however carefully we sort and compost our paper, cardboard and green kitchen waste with the prunings and tops from the allotment there’s always a residue that needs to be more thoroughly dealt with.

We’ve thought long and hard about incineration and the numbers are quite complex. If we just put all the weeds and infected material on the compost heap it would not get hot enough to neutralize the pathogens or kill the seeds.  If the compost starts getting anaerobic it will produce methane, but even if it’s well managed and aerobic it will still produce CO2.  If it goes to a landfill site it will certainly be anaerobically rotted and so will produce methane and, in addition, the carbon cost of transporting it needs to be added in. So the carefully managed incinerator can’t be rejected out of hand, and the residual ash is a good source of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. The biggest problem with burning is the nuisance, inconvenience and smoke to nearby allotmenteers. If a well managed incinerator is allowed to get really hot to start the process, and then green material is added continuously to keep the process going, and then it should function for days with no more than a whisp of smoke and a little steam when wet material is added. In short there’s no completely green way of disposing of noxious and infected plants.  We’re not allowed to use the incinerator until 1st October in any case , but we’ve bagged up all the infected tomato vines and they’ll be disposed of on Tuesday.

We’ve also started thinking already about next season’s sowings, and the catalogues have just started to appear in the post box. With such a strange season we’ve seen several unexpected results, not least the way that the Mediterranean vegetables – the courgettes, peppers, aubergines and chillies have all done much better outside than in the (recently stolen) coldframes and the greenhouse. This may well be to do with their ability to root deeply and find water, and also the positive impact of freely circulating air, but it’s hard not to hold climate change partially responsible as well.  So our choice of what to grow is going to be affected by three factors next season, firstly the possibility of food shortages if brexit goes ahead, secondly trying to second guess the weather and finally the contribution of our 250 square metres to alleviating climate heating and insect extinctions.

Finally I took this photograph of a clutch of slug eggs today. They’re a pest, there’s no doubt, and yet they also perform a useful function on the allotment by eating dead plant material so we try to control them with beer traps, bait plants like Tagetes and picking them off when we see them. Their only total success this year was a row of carrots that were scythed off before they even got going. But that’s gardening for you!  As you see the eggs are laid on compost whereas white butterflies lay their eggs on leaves – I think there’s a bit of a clue there as to the slug’s favourite food. So if we don’t leave dead and decaying vegetable matter lying around near vulnerable plants the slugs will be less likely to visit.

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Aren’t these so beautiful?

Aaaargh – more tomatoes!

IMG_6158We planted more tomatoes this season and we knew that judgement day would come sooner or later and they would need to be processed into winter stores.  Today was that day and I spent most of it on the stove when I wasn’t cranking our small but perfectly formed passata machine. The good news and the bad news this year was that the cherry tomato crop failed completely with the blight so I was excused the drying. It’s a shame really because dried tomatoes keep well (as long as they’re completely dried) and they’re a great thing to have in the store to give a touch of acidity and sweetness in other dishes. As for the rest, I processed another 25 lbs of ripe tomatoes today and turned it into 3 litres of passata and four and a half litres of pasta sauce. The passata is indispensible as a base for all sorts of other sauces. Back on the allotment there are at least as many still to go, plus a big batch for chutney as well. Much as we love tomatoes, they can be a struggle to keep up with at this time of year.

While I was cooking the tomatoes Madame was sowing our first batch of indoor basil – we’ve still got quite a bit growing on the allotment but the first sign of frost will see it  off. The other herbal revelation this year has been French tarragon which seems to thrive on our plot and is wonderful (the French always knew this) with chicken.

The rain hardly let up all day so we spent most of our time indoors but I’ve got a couple of new books to read and spent a lot of time pondering on Spinoza at the stove.  I was very touched by Greta Thunberg’s  speech at the UN, and we even sat down to listen to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the Labour Party conference during the afternoon.  I liked a lot of what we heard but I find the constant emphasis on new technology to solve the related problems of extinction and global heating far wide of the mark.  We’ve relied far too much on keeping on doing the wrong thing by hoping some new technology turns up to help clean up the mess. There was no mention of farm subsidies either. We need to stop making the mess now.

After a long break mostly away, we’ve got the Potwell Inn kefir and sourdough production line running sweetly and so here’s a photo of breakfast – the smoothies are a great way of using our frozen spinach cubes.

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