Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!

Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Johnny Appleseed’s true identity revealed

According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.

Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.

Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.

The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.

Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.

It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.

If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!

Perennials – the gift that goes on giving

Sweet Cicely emerging

I know the history of this plant because I picked a pocket full of seeds one day on a long walk with friends near the top of Nidderdale, Yorkshire, somewhere close to Pateley Bridge. Sweet Cicely grows wild everywhere in Yorkshire but hardly at all down where we live in the South West. In fact it even appeared in a TV thriller the other night when a London based forensic botanist, no less, told detectives that they should look for an allotment to find the murder scene along with the sweet cicely that had found its way onto the shoes of the deceased.

Back home, I sowed the harvested seeds in the ground immediately and nothing happened. I tried sowing some more again in pots and still nothing. I even ordered a packet in the misguided hope that because I’d paid for them they’d be more likely to work. They didn’t either. Then I read something about the seeds needing to undergo a prolonged period of cold – known as vernalisation – so I picked the last few survivors out of my coat pocket with all the associated fluff and bunged them into the fridge inside a vitamin tablet bottle and then forgot about them for a couple of months. When I remembered them I sowed them in another pot and before long there were half a dozen seedlings which I duly planted in the perfect spot on the allotment. By the next morning slugs had eaten all but two – at which point I gave up with tears in my eyes until several weeks later a blob of furled green appeared from under a water butt and there it was – alive and surprisingly vigorous. Over the next two seasons it grew larger and larger and our neighbour said he’d grown it once and it had become a nuisance.

So why – apart from the delightful name – did I so want to grow it? Well, simply because it’s ready at the same time as early rhubarb and, added to the cooking liquid it adds sweetness and a faint aniseed flavour to my favourite pudding. Every year it thrives and then dies back completely, appearing again in early spring. The photo was taken today and I can’t tell you how pleased we were to see it.

Out on the green, the buds on the trees are beginning to open – no surprise there I suppose, they’re doing what trees always do in the spring. But they’re not opening for us. Their annual cycle seems one step removed from us, however beautiful it may be because, with exception of the elders whose flowers and fruits we’re grateful to harvest, we lead slightly parallel lives.

Two weeks ago during the last big storm, a whole branch split off from one of the largest trees on the green. The brash and cordwood was rapidly sawn up and taken away by a homeless man who lives in a bender on the river – so I guess it was a gift for him. But suddenly the remaining trunk became our trunk. It was almost continually occupied by resting people for the first week and then it was dragged across the green to a new position where it’s been in use as a seat and exercise bench ever since. The Council had started to put benches out on the green but a coalition of nimbies started a petition alleging that seats would encourage antisocial behaviour and the plan was dropped. Curiously, until now, we’ve had parties – at least three of them organised by the petitioners – machete attacks, domestic violence, drug dealing and dogging without the aid of any seats at all. Free street theatre – what’s not to like? I hope the tree trunk isn’t dragged off by the police as a threat to public safety!

Back on the allotment the reappearance of the perennials is always a cause for celebration and gratitude. This period of early spring can be hard work, but the perennials come back for us year after year without our doing anything very much at all. We cut them back in the winter, put a marker cane in and for a while the allotment looks very bare – and then we start look forward to seeing them in March. Today the first two shoots of asparagus finally appeared. I wandered around the plot photographing all our old friends as they break through the warming soil or burst into bud. Our unstoppable collection of mints is coming through; the strawberries are looking hearty in the tunnel; the fruit bushes are all in leaf now and looking perky after their winter under mulch and a spring feed of organic fertilizer; our apple trees are all breaking buds; autumn raspberries are pushing through their covering of leaves like the resurrected villagers in Stanley Spencer’s painting of Cookham churchyard. The hollyhocks are racing away – often in places we didn’t put them; French sorrel, rhubarb, rosemary, fennel, chives and marjoram are all up again; the overwintering parsley is starting to bulk up, lovage too is pushing out of the ground with its pink stalks. We scan the ground looking for any self-seeded angelica but we’ve got a tray of seedlings just in case. Summer wouldn’t be the same without their giant presence in the borders – I could go on but you get the point. These perennials are the backbone, the continuity members of the community of allotment plants. The best planned allotment in the world would be a poor thing if it had to start from scratch every year.

Our perennials are the old friends we haven’t seen since before the lockdown and my goodness it’s good to greet them, to pick a leaf and remember their taste and fragrance. Last year’s apple harvest was a bit of a disappointment with only the ribstone pippin producing prolific quantities of slightly scabby fruit which we ate anyway. A year on and the row of five apples in our ultra mini-orchard look all the better for their winter rest and we think a hard pruning has done them the world of good. As ever we’re interplanting nasturtiums among the fruit trees, and we hope the grease bands will discourage at least some of the moths.

That’s my 1000 words, then. It’s stopped raining and as soon as Madame finishes her drawing we’ll be out again. I’ve waxed my walking boots for the umpteenth time in hope and anticipation of being freed on Monday to finish walking the West Mendip Way. It’s always better to live hopefully than to get old and sour. (That was a note to self btw!)

Monika’s dacha

I’m constantly amazed at the way in which our neighbours personalize their plots on the allotments . This one’s really beautiful because it combines really well maintained growing spaces with the most inviting shed on the entire site. The cast iron stove outside used to be on the inside but I think it was somewhat hazardous and so it’s been moved – although come winter it might find its way back. Monika started off with very little experience of gardening but she’s learning fast. The shed, and the greenhouse at the other end are both made from recycled materials. The greenhouse seems to be constructed entirely from discarded shower doors; fruits of a friendship with a Polish builder on furlough.

Quiet space, private space – call it what you will – are one of the most significant benefits of allotment life, and we see it expressed in dozens of different ways across the site. On one plot a sawn down tree stump serves to secure one end of a hammock which is shared by the couple whose allotment it is. One digs and the the other snoozes, and then they swap over. Another couple have a barn door on their shed and a lean-to greenhouse up against it. Our three buildings (shed, greenhouse and polytunnel) are so full of plants and their associated clutter, that we put up our folding chairs between two buildings and if it rains we retreat to the tunnel which is also full so we stand and look at one another and listen to the rain drumming on the polythene.

Yesterday a long delayed consignment of rhubarb (Fulton’s strawberry surprise); a tayberry and a blackberry all arrived and while Madame watered inside the tunnel I planted the fruit. Something of a change of mood has come this year because at last the final position of the beds is fixed and all the major structures are in place. There’s more civil engineering to do, like putting a roof on the compost bins and building a shelter for us; but they’ll have to wait until the autumn because we’re fully occupied in sowing, propagating, pricking out, repotting and all the day-to-day things that make springtime gardening feel like a full time job. We’ve organised a bigger than ever group of perennial herbs, bushes and small trees so we know exactly how much space there is for the rotating crops.

Which brings us to pottering – or is it puttering? For me, puttering is always the sound of a small boat with an inboard diesel engine so when we garden it’s pottering: one of the most pleasant meditative exercises ever. Instead of being grimly focused on raising the ziggurat of Ur or putting up the trellis for the hanging gardens of Babylon, we alight on the multitude of small tasks like browsing bees; removing a weed here and there; replacing a tree tie; doing a minute examination of a plant for signs of insects; talking to the worms in the compost heap and sniffing emergent leaves to try to guess which plant they belong to. Or it might be dozing in the sun, listening to the birds above the constant noise of the traffic. Even a small plot like ours generates a huge number of little tasks that individually don’t amount to much but collectively make the difference between a well run allotment and a thuggish wilderness. You may have heard the story of Brother Lawrence who, as a young monk, chafed at the mundane tasks he was given and longed for something with a bit more status. He eventually discovered the great satisfaction to be got from throwing himself into the everyday as if it were the most important job in the world. [This story was naturally appropriated by the church hierarchy whenever it felt threatened by anyone with a new idea and wanted to put them in their place – but it still stands]. There is no greater reward in gardening than the emergent qualities of a plot that seem vastly to outstrip the insignificance of the means of tending it – or to put it another way; hedge laying is cold, windy, wet and repetitive but just about the best job in town on a winter morning.

Away from the mundane, I had a fun five minutes after the memory of a chart in Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” wandered into my mind uninvited in the middle of the night. Bernard Leach was one of the key figures in 20th century studio pottery and one of the areas he was interested in was the use of wood ash in glazes. So …… stay with me here …. we use wood ash on our compost heap because it contains useful elements like potash and phosphorous and on page 162 of my almost worn out 1940 first edition there’s a table of chemical analyses of various ashes. I bet you didn’t know that unwashed apple pulp ash has the highest phosphorous content of any of the ones he tried. There’s a bit of a clue there for composters I think. What comes from this middle of the war book though is a charming lists of the available substances for burning that can be harnessed as fluxes in ceramic glazes, and it’s not science as much as anthropology. Who’d have thought that among the freely available substances were Japanese rice straw (he lived in Japan when he was young), thatching reed, autumn weeds,apple pulp, lawn mowings,bracken ash, box (Buxus) ash and apple wood. I can’t make up my mind if the poetry of the list doesn’t outweigh its usefulness to potters and gardeners.

A rather fun (and very personal) garden in Mousehole where we stayed a couple of years ago.

In Parenthesis

Today is the first anniversary of the first Covid 19 lockdown, although Madame and me anticipated it by several weeks because we could sense in our bones that something very bad was about to come upon us. And unsurprisingly, I suppose, every news programme today was full of remembrances and silences and pictures of victims and nurses. I’m too much of a curmudgeon to want to join in minutes of silence, mainly because grief is an intensely private business for me. Notwithstanding the years of conducting funerals I don’t believe my inmost and saddest thoughts can be organised by anyone and I especially resent being told how I should be feeling. In my bleakest moments I sense that even to attempt to construct a narrative around these terrible events is to diminish them. And so we fled the garden centre at eleven fifty with ten minutes to spare and came back to the Potwell Inn.

By strange (or synchronistic) coincidence, last night we watched a marvellous TV documentary about David Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis” – probably the finest World War One poem ever written. I grew up knowing him as an artist because the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a number of his drawings. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with his poetry, entirely lacking the life experience to understand what it might feel like to go through what he endured during the Battle of the Somme. The programme touched us both deeply. Many of the places he lived in were places we know well. After a year of isolation at home, the sight of the phone box in Capel y Ffin; the fact that he lived in the house that, at the time was the home of a small community of artists including Eric Gill, and which we pass directly on one of our favourite walks up to Hay Bluff reminded us of all that we’ve missed. Even his gravestone, carved by Jonah Jones, was a reminder of a marvellous exhibition we saw in Cardiff, and two others – one on Lleyn and another on Anglesey, In fact it’s been a week of Welsh Artists – some kind of season featuring many of the finests artists and poets of God’s Own Country.

The sense of the anniversary was hanging over us and early this morning I read through the two segments of the poems in my ancient edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse which had once baffled me. Sixty years on I could see more clearly. I could hear other voices speaking – especially Gerard Manley Hopkins – and some much more ancient; the voices of the mountains and hills, and I could understand why he didn’t write the poem until long after the war. Our attempts to memorialise events before the ink has dried seem trivial and futile. Covid will take many years and many sleepless nights away from us before we can see it straight, as Jones finally confronted his memories of a dreadful battle in a French wood.

So we did what we often do, we went to the allotment to tend the living things. The sun was shining and we found ourselves taking layers of sweaters off as we sowed seeds and prepared the plot for the coming season. I love the way that seedlings often emerge in a green loop like a dropped stitch and then, within an hour, unfurl their cotyledons like tiny flags – I’m here! look at me! Sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to seek out the tiny signs of life with its sheer dogged persistence. Our son gave us two logs at Christmas, inoculated with the mycelium of oyster mushrooms and shitake mushrooms. Today I constructed a cool and dark shelter for them behind the shed so they can brood there in the quiet.

Our brother in law was among the first victims of Covid. His wife of fifty plus years is living in a silence that seems unlikely to be lifted by displays of public piety. It’s spring by every measure and yet for many the first opportunity to articulate that familiar and terrible cry of loss is a long way off. Pestering the grief stricken with our concern isn’t helping. Job’s friends – in the Old Testament story – were brilliant until they opened their mouths and broke the silence by seeking someone to blame.

Meanwhile we garden in companionable silence, haunted by the fear that we might lose one another.

Measuring the marigolds

Miracle cures abound in the organic gardening world, and the marigold is a top tip for all sorts of duties. However, it’s a bit more complicated than the stories usually suggest and like most people we’ve bought a packet of marigolds at the garden centre and discovered too late that they weren’t the ones we should have bought. So here’s a very quick disambiguation of the minefield.

  • Two kinds of Marigold share a common English name, and even look similar but they belong to two separate ‘tribes’, so let’s look first at the Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis* which has a country cousin called – unsurprisingly the Field Marigold – Calendula arvensis which is rather uncommon so we needn’t worry too much about it. The Pot Marigold is a lovely plant; easy to grow and it’s a good pollinator attractor. It self-seeds freely so it’s best to harvest the flower heads before they mature unless you want to save the seeds. It’s also the source of the flowers from which calendula cream is made – it’s got to be one of the safest and easiest home medicines to make and it really works. The picture at the top is a part of last year’s crop of flowers that we turned into a wonderfully fragrant ointment last autumn by steeping the flowers in sweet almond oil and then adding beeswax to form a firm cream. It’s great for skin problems – although the price of organic almond oil will make your eyes water – but even using the best ingredients it’s half the price of the commercial product.

The other ‘tribe’ of marigolds are the Tagetes; and these are the ones whose roots are said to exude a chemical that deters or even kills some of the nematodes that can cause problems in the garden. There are three members of the family you’re likely to meet in the UK (the US has at least one additional member that I know nothing at all about).

The first of the three is Tagetes erecta which is very confusingly known as the African Marigold in the UK in spite of originating (as they all do) in South America.

The second is Tagetes patula – the French Marigold – which is a smaller plant and is the one that’s most often interplanted for its suppose effects as a pest deterrent. We use these all the time because, being quite small they’re easy to run in between tomatoes and other crops. As to its effectiveness it’s hard to say, but they’re very pretty and if they deter pests then all the better.

The third is Tagetes minuta the Southern Marigold which – again confusingly – is actually taller than the other two. The minuta in the name refers to its very small flowers. This one hardly appears in the seed catalogues because it’s not much of a looker, but ironically it may be the most potent of the three, because aside from its capacity to see the nematodes off it’s also said to be capable of getting rid of some of the most pernicious weeds like couch grass and bindweed. Anything that can achieve such a miracle is worthy of a mention but apart from a paper published by the HDRA I haven’t found much evidence. It has certainly been widely used in South America as a herbal medicine. My only caveat would be that if it does possess the magical powers that are attributed to it, it might be a very poor companion plant if its secretions attack the very plants you’re trying to grow. However I’m sufficiently interested to try to grow a small patch so I can try out its insecticidal effects against the asparagus beetle that regularly attacks our asparagus bed. This time last year we were cutting our first spears, but after such a cold and wet winter and early spring there was no sign of any spears today when we peeped under the fleece.

So I hope that’s of some interest. This is a short piece because we’re so frantically busy on the allotment. The polytunnel is already showing us new possibilities. Some containers of very early potatoes have needed earthing up twice in the last week, and our seedlings just love the warmth and light- although we’re still covering them at night. Happy days!

  • * Having posted this piece yesterday I was reading John Jeavons’ marvellous book “How to grow more vegetables ..” which I’ve only just been able to get a hard (ie real) copy of, and he unequivocally lists the pot marigold Calendula officinalis as a companion plant to tomatoes.

Meanwhile back at the Potwell Inn

We had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.

So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.

You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.

On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.

As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.

Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.