At last! the seed order

IMG_4796And there’s three pages of it, which sounds a bit excessive, but it’s a boiling down of all our previous seasons; garden visits (especially Heligan); conversations with other allotmenteers; oveheard radio and TV programmes and not least, many happy hours poring over the seed catalogues; googling; and the odd blind gamble. As the photo demonstrates, we’ve already got half packets of some of the varieties we intend to grow – even after this week’s purge of out-of-date ones, so a little of the expenditure is spread over from last year and not included.

What are the other costs of allotmenteering, then? Well, the rents come to £93.36 for our two half-plots. Last year’s other big expenditure was composted manure while we get our own operation up to speed and that cost about £200.  We’ll probably spend the same again this year as we build up the soil.  Add to that the cost of gravel boards, posts, pegs and the other materials required to make the beds and you can see that allotmenteering is by no means free. That’s the bit the coffee table books don’t tell you about when they sell the dream, but you have to see all this as a long-term investment. Nets, cloches and tools can last for years and so if we look after them we can write down much of this expenditure over the next decade.

This year we used five different seed suppliers.  It’s always worth checking what they’re charging and how many seeds there are in a packet.  Even the cost of postage can vary widely between companies so once you’ve decided what to grow, shop around for the best deal. Don’t leave ordering too late because some vegetables – especially the heritage varieties, but even those that just get a mention in an influential forum, will run out.

We’ve spent decades trying to garden on some pretty awful soil.  The last big garden was further up the Cotswolds on cornbrash which was quite productive but there was no real depth of soil and huge amounts of loose limestone rocks.  I remember chatting to the gravedigger one day (we lived next to the churchyard), and he said that if he had to dig in a spot where there was no access for machinery it could take an hour to dig an inch. It certainly felt that way when you pulled up the turf to break a new patch and took almost all the topsoil off with its roots. That was our first experience of raised beds and we got lucky.  The boards were free, courtesy of a builder who was renovating an old chapel and allowed us to take away all the floorboards. I knew a lorry driver who worked for a quarry company and I asked if he ever came across any topsoil.  I drove back to the house one day and found him with an enormous tipper lorry dropping off about 30 tons of lovely soil.  Then, in a similar vein, I asked a farm contractor if he could lay his hands on a bit of manure and a similar quantity was dumped outside our front door, (and very rich it was!).

Here on the allotments we’re much more fortunate with more than a foot of rich alluvial  clay/loam topsoil that’s capable of growing almost anything it seems, but is inclined to get waterlogged – hence all the organic material.

But is it worth it? We’re certainly out all weathers, and it can be hard physical work at times, so no gym subscription needed.  But the clincher is that we reckon the value of our produce exceeds the cost of producing it by at least 10:1 so long as you’re prepared to discount the value of your own labour and call it pleasure. If you think of the cost of organic vegetables and then add the bonus of having them so fresh they taste better than anything you can buy, and then the combination of tangible and intangible value makes allotmenteering a no-brainer.

I can see a clear blue sky through the window this morning and that means we can get out into the fresh air and maybe create two more beds for the overwintering broad beans we’ve started under glass. Last year we had very little sucess with freezing runner and French beans, but the broad beans froze well and taste miles better than the shop-bought ones. Is it worth it? See for yourself.

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“Industrial”? – a bit of planning that’s all.

 

 

One of our neighbours told us, back in the summer, that a friend of his had described our allotment as “a bit industrial” . I’m quite happy with that, although I would have preferred “purposeful”. I think some plots look like squatter camps but thank goodness the allotment is one of the few places left where we are free to express our individual preferences without too much interference. I recall Jim Callaghan’s brilliant put-down of Shirley Williams – “Just because she’s  scruffy she thinks she’s an intellectual”. Organic gardening is either purposefully planned or it’s a pile of old pallets and a carpet heavy with good intentions.  Once you’re serious about getting as close to self-sufficiency as you can with only 250 square metres to play with, you have to plan carefully and then hope that the weather plays along with you. We made the decision to go “no dig” last season, and we’re busy organising the whole plot into manageable beds according to the plan in the photo, so that we have access to beds 365 days of the year, never having to walk on them. However this has left us with the need to raise the level of the soil quite a bit to bring the plants above the waterlogged clay substratum that channels three or four streams down through the site – one of them almost certainly passing underground alongside the greenhouse. The design of the beds is to allow some of that water to drain towards the paths  and divert it away from us.

Last night in one of my regular periods dream gardening I eschewed counting sheep in favour of working out the cubic meterage of compost we’d need to make if we were to cover the whole plot with 5cm each year. I reckon it’s coming out at around 10m³ and that’s ten of our current 1m³ cylinders – a deeply sobering thought. The alternative would be to spend about £350 on buying it in. So how on earth could we possibly make so much compost, given that there’s no way of affording a commercial product.  As I wrote last week, there’s something that feels ethically wrong with throwing money at a problem, but even more important, soil is a living entity with its own ecosystem.  It’s not a neutral medium for supporting plants and feeding chemicals.  And so our ambition to fill our raised beds with good soil has to be achieved the slow way.

Here’s what we’ve got going for us:

  • One small household’s worth of green waste
  • A plentiful supply of dead leaves and woodchip
  • A plentiful supply of cardboard
  • A park opposite the flat that’s mown every couple of weeks in the summer leaving the mowings on the ground and easily raked up
  • All the green waste, trimmings, clippings and weeds from the allotment.
  • Occasional sacks of seaweed stowed in the car when we go up to North Wales. It smells so bad it must be good!
  • A small army of brandling who just love the cylinder.

I’m not at all confident that we can fill ten cylinders and reduce them to compost  in a year without giving them lots of stimulus to increase the heat.  Regular turning would help a lot, but the cylinders make turning very difficult indeed, and so I think we’re going to have to build a row of 4 bins –  4′ square and 5’6 tall and turn the load to the right maybe four times a season, adding wood ash, seaweed and “human activator” and trying as best we can to get the balance of green and brown waste exactly right. It would take up one whole bed, but the impact on the rest of the plot could be enormous.

Lots of fairly heavy work in prospect, then, but we both love a project.  The beds are nearing completion but the weather has been coming from the south west for ages, and that’s a wet quarter for us. Never mind.  We plan to celebrate the solstice on Friday with a slap up meal of all our own veg.  The only other job is to complete the seed order before then so we can truly look forward to next season.

 

Let’s hear it for the borlotti bean!

_1080674Almost all my experience of eating haricot type beans has been from tins, and I’d grown into the lazy assumption that they were all much of a muchness – worthy, protein rich and both floury and tastless; the kind of food you eat to become a better person. When I’m in Potwell Inn mode it’s true that I sometimes dig into my deep wells of idleness and the lively sceptical mind silts up a bit.   It certainly silted up on the subject of growing pulses.  We tried Borlotti beans about 10 years ago and although they grew well, when we’d shelled them and put them in a Kilner jar looking awfully pretty, we had no real idea what to do with them, and so they languished in their role as kitchen eye-candy until one day I was blind baking some pastry and thought I’d do something useful with them as baking beans in a quiche tin. Later, in France, we spotted a pile of them in a market.  “At last,” I thought, “I’ll ask how you’re supposed to use them”.  The response was a Gallic shrug and “je ne sais pas” – end of culinary research.

Sooo ….:   all these years later (visualize little filmic cliché effect with spinning newspapers), we grew them this season.  I know why: it’s because over the past couple of decades our food culture has changed beyond measure. My memory of allotments – and now I’m thinking of Mr King, a retired miner, and  yes there was a huge coalfield in South Gloucestershire –  my memory comprises potatoes, cabbages, celery that smelt of coal soot and, of course, red flowered runner beans.  These days we love new ideas and new vegetable species and all our cookery books are filled with exotic ingredients that supermarkets are pleased to stock as long as we keep buying them. Borlotti beans are almost passé now and so (as in most things) we clung to the disappearing coat tails of fashion and grew some. Now, of course, there’s an abundance of contradictory advice everywhere you look, but we were able to establish that you can eat them fresh and green – in the manner of broad beans, or semi dry when they need about 40 minutes to cook, or fully dried where you have to soak and pre-cook them – all the faff that put me off them in the first place. We also discovered that you can freeze them successfully when they’re in stages 1 or 2. Actually distinguishing between stages 1 and 2 is a bit tricky because on a real plant (as opposed to Gardeners’ World on telly) beans ripen at different rates and in any case, who hasn’t delayed harvesting for just a couple of days to see if they’ll fatten up a bit more.  Think courgette to marrow.

So in our freezer is a large bag of frozen borlotti beans which I reached into because I was cooking a sausage casserole, and I could make it into a cassoulet in a matter of seconds and get loads of brownie points from Madame.

New para! It really deserves a new paragraph because the beans are something different and entirely better than any canned or dried borlotti I’ve ever eaten. They have flavour, and that was something of a revelation to us both. In fact they transformed the dish from boring old sausage casserole to proper cassoulet. So this year we’ll grow a whole lot more for the winter because although we’ve still got lots coming on, the potatoes won’t last until the end of January and we need to factor in feeding ourselves well over the hungry gap.

 

Frugal? Thrifty? Tight …..

We have a bit of a surplus of carrots at the moment; largely our own fault for chucking seed at a bare patch of ground  in the summer “to see if they’d grow” – you know how it is, people are always saying things like “this allotment doesn’t do well with sprouts” and so, without any sort of planning we shoved in some Chantenay carrots and then when they germinated we sowed more Nantes. Of course plants are a good deal more resilient than we give them credit for and they’ve all thrived and kept us in roots for several months.  But now with the first frosts, the green tops have started to die back and so today we removed the tops, dug a few of the oversized ones for the kitchen and then covered the rest with fleece because we’ve nowhere to store them at the flat.  Ideally we’d have eaten them a month ago when they were at their sweetest and rather smaller, but we didn’t and so it’s stocks and soups for them. I’m not the greatest fan of carrot soup but Madame loves it and our children were fed gallons of the stuff when they were young and it never did them any harm;  in fact it was their favourite soup.

Eating things you’re not mad about hardly counts on the frugality scale, but I’ve noticed that generally speaking we’re more willing to give something new a chance if we’ve grown it ourselves. However I’m definitely not one to lecture the hard-up on making do with less.  I can’t think of anything more insulting or pointless than lecturing homeless people on the money that can be saved by making your own granola.

But sometimes the thrift goes bad on you and today we had a particularly fine example.  We were up at the allotment grabbing a few dry hours  with great joy and catching up with some outstanding jobs.  Top of the list was planting out as many of our infant broad beans as possible and then it was carrots, cleaning up around the brassicas to discourage pests (especially slugs) and giving the overwintering peas some breathing space. Weeks ago I sowed four rows of Douce Provence which will overwinter in the UK and give an early crop.  When we removed the fleece we found that three rows had germinated perfectly – pretty much 100% – but the fourth was quite empty. What could have been the cause? We postulated a mouse with OCD that only eats seeds in straight lines but that seemed a bit far-fetched even to a couple of old hippies.  We discarded every possibility until, at last, I recalled that I’d run out of seeds for the last row and found a few in  packet in the shed. It took two minutes to discover that the seeds in row 4 were one year out of date – just one.  I’d always assumed that the germination rate declined slowly in a nice gentle downward curve, but no – evidently these peas had all switched off simultaniously, like lemmings charging over a cliff.

So as soon as we got back home I checked our large and completely disorganised collection of old seed packets and discovered that over a half of them were out of date, so they were all ditched.  More surprising was the fact that we’d bought several packets of out of date seeds from a local garden centre this year. So we shall be carefully checking the use-by dates from henceforth.  I had no idea that parsnip seeds are only viable for one year, for instance.  Prior to that my worst experience with seed was trying to germinate Sweet Cicily  which seems to demand an absolute beating with severe weather before it will consent to poke out a single cotyledon.

But by the time the rain started again we’d got the broad beans in and ‘though I say it myself …. etc. I even managed to get one more board up and finish a wood chip path. Now we are both aching, but we’ve got a rough and ready cassoulet in the oven and everything in it apart from some sausages and the celery was grown by us.  In the spring, when the allotment is all expenditure and no returns, it’s easy to wonder whether it’s worth the expense. In December you know it really is worth it.

Later again I walked to the local supermarket to buy milk  – we don’t drive 25 miles to get organic milk from a friend’s vending machine because that would be silly!  Imagine my joy at seeing that the use-by date is 21st December, the solstice. So use-by dates bring sorrow and joy in the same day.  That could be the subject of an exceptionally boring sermon.

 

I’m not as young as I was

Philosophically speaking that statement is always undeniably true, but these last two days have offered plenty of reminders – not least my 72nd birthday on Monday followed by our 51st wedding anniversary today. Who’d have believed you were that old? (I rather hope I) hear you say but after a day on the allotment building paths and beds I believe I am a little older than the 35 I usually admit to. Sunshine in December is never to be ignored and the broad bean plants have germinated and are heading towards unruly adolescence so the question of preparing the bed for them is not theoretical. But the recent rain has saturated the ground, and so the allotment is saturated at about 12″ below the surface making it imperative to get beds and paths workable as soon as we can or else we shall be driven off the land altogether for months.

So at last the east-west path is completed and filled with about 6″ of woodchip.  Our two plots are side by side so it’s a very long path and quite a feature.  I’ve been mulling over whether I should give it a name – 5th Avenue or Broadway, in honour of several lovely trips to New York.  But being just a bit rigid about these things I felt that those rather hyperbolic names should be reserved for the north south paths, so that leaves something like Columbus and West 103rd for the new path.  I rather like biblical names as well, and I’d almost decided to call the water butts Tigris and Euphrates however that leaves one butt without a name, but it does suggest the possibility of Straight Street for the new path. I realize that American readers are more likely to be biblically literate than our fellow UK allotmenteers, but the small problem of two nations divided by a single language becomes clear with “butt”.  So I’ll let the whole question of giving names to paths rest for the time being.

The practicality of pegging the boards is always made much harder when it’s wet. If the pegs are wet they split when you hammer them in, but even if you keep them dry you need to make quite a large hole with a crowbar to get them started, and the wet clay sucks the end of the bar to the extent that it requires heroic strength to pull it out again. Madame told me that my grunts and curses were providing great entertainment to passers by on the footpath.  Obviously she told me that after we got home! However I did finally get about 40′ of edging in, at which point I realized that we would need prodigious quantities of topsoil to raise the beds above the wet zone and level with the top of the boards. The earth is hungry and seems to absorb an awful lot of compost, seaweed, leaf mould and manure, but it is slowly improving. I did a quick calculation and I think each bed would need approximately 1.3 tonnes of topsoil to bring it level.  That’s about £75 per bed and we’ve got eight beds that need raising – that’s £600 and I dread to think how many wheelbarrow loads. Way beyond our budget and frankly I’m not a fan of throwing money at the problem in any case.  So that leaves all the free methods we’ve access to, and a big effort on the compost front.  Time and patience solves most problems, and gives the allotment a kind of ecological integrity.

Later, with our wedding anniversary fast approaching we sat side by side on the bed rubbing a shared tube of Voltarol into our sore knees in a companionable sort of way.  There are some scenes you can never imagine when you’re twenty one years old. It’s not the capacity to do the jobs that’s lacking, it just takes a lot longer to recover.  But I’m feeling immensely proud of what we’ve achieved and I’m so looking forward to next season.  Suddenly there’s a foretaste of spring in the air.  We woke today to the sound of  a blackbird singing.  It’s often like that hereabouts,  we get a taste of the season to come and then the door slams shut for a few months, but it will come with a new beginning and new challenges.

I’m sitting on the seed order, unwilling to commit to just one selection.  I feel like a child in a sweet shop.

Culture vultures escape Brexit dread.

 

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large, and without mercy.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael”

Perhaps our most serious cultural loss in recent centuries is that some things, though limited, can be inexhaustible.  For example, and ecosystem, even that of a working forest or farm, so long as it remains ecologically intact, is inexhaustible.  A small place, as I know from my own experience, can provide opportunities of work and learning, and a fund of beauty, solace, and pleasure – in addition to its difficulties – that cannot be exhausted in a lifetime or in generations.

Wendell Berry, “Faustian economics”

Yesterday the rain continued and looks set to keep us off the allotment for some time, so we were pleased to be off to Shaftesbury to spend the night with friends.  My phone tells me that I spend at least an hour a day gazing at it, and yesterday I probably spent more because we were away from the laptop where I can easily spend hours at a stretch.  Is that shocking? Well, the phone is my newspaper, my letter box and my principle research tool when I’m away from the books, and yesterday I took a series of peeps at the World Organic News website that collates all sorts of useful material from around the world.

But I found myself getting restless about the blogs where people have an abundance of land.  Just imagine the privilege (and responsibility) of working several acres organically and never having to make either/or choices about what can be grown. If the work of tilling that we do is significant for turning the world away from its wasteful and destuctive habits, does that mean that having more land is more powerful than having almost none? My head says “of course not” but the heart says “hell yes! – if I owned all the land in the country/world, I could turn things around in a decade”.

So I want to wave the flag for small plots. Our 250 square metres gives us a lot of healthy pleasure and good food. If we had some factor – say ten – times as much, it might be more fun for us and it would certainly give us a surplus to sell.  But what if we argued for, say a hundred times the acreage of allotment land to be made available but kept the standard size at the traditional 250 square metres – enough to feed, (it was said), a family of four. That could mean a hundred families (however you want to construe the word) engaged with the earth and benefiting from from the exercise and the food.

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As we drove back from Shaftesbury today we passed an organic farm – my guess is that it extended along about 2 miles of the road. Terrific stuff!  I was thinking, but then I saw two enormous tractors parked in one of the access roads, and I wondered what was happening to the fragile soil habitat in this beautiful Wiltshire downland. No doubt there are huge benefits to be gained from the efficient organic farming of large amounts of land but that’s only when you count financial benefits above societal and cultural benefits.

In this time of crisis (the word derives from the Greek crino – to choose), simple questions about “what factors should we add to the financial in order to come to a concept that genuinely constitutes “profit” need to be thought about and answered.

Anyway, apart from that we managed to fit in three galleries with one opening night and a convivial meal with friends. I love it when an exhibition forces me to think seriously, and the two artists exhibiting at Hauser and Wirth in Bruton have sent me home full of questions. If you look carefully enough you’ll see three musicians playing in the background of the Berlinde De Bruyckere works.  They were improvising using the works as inspiration. It was beatiful.  The other exhibition was by Takesada Matsutani and again forced me to think hard about the way we make aesthetic decisions. While we were there we spotted Charles Hazlewood, the conductor, it’s a good place for people spotting!

Then later we went to Messums Wiltshire where we were welcomed to have a look around even as they were setting up two new exhibitions – how unusual is that?  next we went to the opening night of a show at the Shaftesbury Arts Centre and met two of the founders of “Common Ground”, Sue Clifford and Angela King who set the charity up with the late Roger Deakin (read his books, they’re tremendous).  They were celebrating the decision of Shaftesbury Council to put in a bid to buy back the piece of land called “The Wilderness” in the town.

So by the time we’d done all that we didn’t eat until late but we ate too much and drank too much and went to bed exhausted and stirred up.  It’s the only way to be!

Meanwhile – back on the allotment

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Even with the eyes of a proud parent I’d never claim that our allotment in winter is ‘handsome’ – as the Cornish might say.  I think, perhaps, ‘showing potential’ is a better description. The months between November and April – and that’s half a year, can be a stark reminder that we have no control over the weather and our aspirations to clear ground and to build raised beds run into the hard reality of sodden soil and rain from the south west.

But yesterday the rain stopped and the clouds cleared for just long enough for us to go and do some work.  When we took on the first plot in May, three years ago, it was a weed infested field and our whole priority was focused on clearing, sowing  and planting to make the most of our late start. It was a good year for crops, the ground having laid fallow for as many as three years. But as we’ve come to understand the soil better, we’ve realized that ‘though it’s very fertile – it’s also very fragile. It’s an alluvial loam with a clay content high enough to ball-up when it’s wet. There’s about 12″-18″ of topsoil overlaying an impermeable clay layer which led to serious waterlogging last year. Our strategy has been to pile on as much organic material as we can in order to improve the soil structure.  The decision to move to raised beds was pretty much forced on us by the soil conditions and so, three years on, we’re revisiting the design of the first plot to incorporate the lessons we’ve learned and the plots have piles of boards and pegs stacked here and there, ready to sieze any opportunity to do some infrastructure work. The most urgent need is to get at least one 12’ X 4’2″ bed ready to plant out the overwintering broad beans which are doing well in the tiny unheated greenhouse.

The ground is already so wet that it would be foolish to walk on it, so we’ve concentrated on building a deep surround which will contain the mulch on the grape vine next to a path.  Since we have a free supply of leaves most of the allotmenteers on the site use leaves.

So a couple of hours of damp work saw the surround all but complete, but more than that, it was lovely to be out in the fresh air after an enforced week inside.