Walking with experts – pilgrimage

I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles.  We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us.  It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm).  I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish.  In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days.  They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.

So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda.  Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.

When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting.  We still got lost but in different places.

But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much.  On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops.  Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval.  Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer.  The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface.  What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off!  – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think.  No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.

On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman.  As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed.  He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount.  I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local  power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.

Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.

All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment.  I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours.  I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold.  The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again.  As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.

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Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!

In the moment, in the past

I think it starts here, in the photo on the left. If you walked to the narrow road and turned right, there’s a corner to the left and a drop down a small hill. The road was surfaced with small flint pebbles set in tar.  Just at the bottom was a gate from which a track led past a field that, in summer, was decorated with stooks of hay – I remember that as children we were allowed to draw the cut hay into piles with big wooden rakes before it was stacked in a hayrick.  On the left was a prefabricated building where a small engineering business went on. At the end of the track was The Crest, my grandparents’ house. My Grandfather was a carpenter from a line of carpenters that I’ve traced back to the eighteenth century and who lived in the same place for so long, a row of cottages is named after them. Only just over five feet tall with a roll-up dangling (usually unlit) from his mouth all day, he was a  carpenter in the family business and a smallholder of just a few acres. He uttered curses like the resurgence at Vaucluse, mostly against God who, being a militant atheist, he didn’t believe in.  The curses were broadcast in order to annoy passing sunday school teachers. He was entirely self-taught; a lifelong Marxist and member of the Labour Party, and he was the best read person I ever met as a child and, even better, he would lend me his books to read.  He taught me to use a slide rule and logarithms, and in his desk (utterly forbidden territory) he had a rotary slide rule. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump and had a greenhouse with a toad in it called Charlie, and a collection of pianolas in his shed that we were allowed to play with.  He kept pigs and cows and hens and grew vegetables and he was unquestionably the most influential person in my life – half of which I’ve spent trying not to be like him and the other half doing the opposite.

So today I prepared the propagator and pots ready for the chillies I wrote about yesterday, to be sown, and you now know that the first two paragraphs of this posting are connected in a very deep way. When I get my thumbs into the dirt I almost always think of him and today I would have loved to have shown him what I was up to. He was always experimenting with growing new things.  He grew and dried his own tobacco, I can remember it hung to dry under the eaves of his shed, and it smelt so filthy he was banned from smoking it in the pub. But he would have understood why all this trouble to grow chillies is worthwhile, just as an experiment, just because you might discover something interesting.

And so the new season is poised to begin, a couple of weeks ahead of the game, and I’m already thinking that when all these tender plants germinate there will rapidly come a time when they need repotting and then what?  However, all gardeners will also recognise that there are times when you need to rise above the facts, and this is one of them. We’ve thrown a line aboard the season and now we’re (almost) tied to it wherever it takes us, rain, shine, frost, wind snow and drought.  Words will be spoken as the tide of pots spreads across the flat in front of every South facing window and the thought of a polytunnel will fill my lustful thoughts – ‘when did that happen?’, I wonder, ‘when did polytunnels replace the desires of (what Dylan Thomas called)  ‘my green age’.

“24 degrees centigrade”, I command the thermostat – “Aye aye, skipper” comes the reply -and the great game is on.  We’ll win some, lose some and learn some too.

 

The Potwell Inn 2019 chilli quest

IMG_4375So here are this season’s hopefuls in order of their capacity to create fear, or (looking on the bright side) to cure minor infestations of intestinal worms. As I mentioned the other day, we’ve dropped Pearls and Jalapenos off the list because even in last year’s sunshine they didn’t get all that hot.

  • Hungarian Hot Wax – 1,500 – 15,000 SHU
  • F1 Apache – 70,000 – 80,000 SHU
  • F1 Romital – 100,000 – 150,000 SHU
  • Habanero – 100,000 – 350,000 SHU
  • Bhut Jolokia – 1,000,000+ SHU

This, naturally, is a high risk strategy because knowing as little as I do about growing chillies the deficiency in heat could be down to a corresponding deficiency in the allotmenteer and next season could lead to heat and generosity on an epic scale as I’ll need to give them all away.  All I know is that I was quite comfortable eating the F1 Apaches straight off the plants.  But chillies seem to have become a bit of a man thing with its own secret lore and language, a bit like carp fishing I suppose. I don’t doubt that there are secret chilli clubs where seed is exchanged under vows of secrecy and feed is prepared on the night of the full moon using bats’ blood and Cornish seaweed – only Cornish will do it, they say.

I have not yet told Madame about my plan and since she only reads this blog infrequently I’ll wait for the loud “WHAT???”  Meanwhile news from an old friend in Tasmania who says he’s pretty sure they’ve suffered the hottest weather since records began.  The photo he sent showed his house surrounded by smoke from bush fires and although he says they’re in no danger it must be a worry.  He asked if it was making news here in the UK? Well yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s being connected to climate change. This week we’ve heard about unprecedented ice melt in Greenland  – am I worried?  I most certainly am, almost as worried as I am about the world leaders who are doing nothing about it.  Do they imagine their wealth will go on protecting them when the crops fail and the mass migrations away from the flooded coasts take place?

 

Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.

In the bleak midwinter – good news for meditators!

It must have been three weeks ago when I first caught what I thought was “only a cold”; but after a week of sneezing and nose blowing it took up residence in my chest and provoked a bout of asthma that lasted for another week and then – just as I was feeling better another opportunistic virus sandpapered the back of my throat and left me sleepless and unable to swallow.  Meanwhile Madame caught the intial cold off me and consequently we’ve been doing a deathly gavotte keeping one another awake with our snoring and spluttering.  The solution has been to circulate individually between the living room, the bathroom and the bedroom alternately sleeping and reading, while the viruses occupy our vital organs and conduct the viral equivalent of a stag weekend in an Airbnb flat.  Our bodily furniture is trashed and the carpets will never be the same again, the curtains torn down and don’t even mention the sink. How on earth can such a tiny thing as a virus be so awesomely destructive?

Anyway, all is not bad news – apart from the enforced silence online that was so uncharacteristic of me I had an email to make sure I was alive! Am I that noisy usually?? – the upside was an unprecedented amount of reading time and I’ve been ploughing through Owen Flanagan’s book “The really hard problem” as well as Byron Rogers’ biography of RS Thomas, “The man who went into the West”. I’m not even going to try to summarize the Flanagan book except to say that if you’re interested in human flourishing and/or you’re a Buddhist or, like me, (and RS Thomas) still searching, then it’s worth the effort.  “Can you teach virtue?” – here’s a book that tries to answer.

The RS Thomas biography is brilliant but can’t really penetrate the enigma of the poet.  Of course, what the book does is excite a longing to get back to Lleyn that’s almost overwhelming. I did meet RS once at a reading at Atlantic College, and I thought he was delightful and very funny, but the more I read about him and especially about his first wife Elsi and their relationship the more bewildered I get. Was it a generational thing that so many incredibly talented women artists subjugated themselves, or were subjugated by their husbands?  Elsi Eldridge, Rose Hilton, Winifred Nicholson, all swept aside by their partners’ ego.

But apart from the ill-advised trip to the Littleton Wassail that just made things worse, I’ve been confined the the flat unable to think about cooking the Seville oranges and sighing helplessly at the prospect of sowing the chillies in the propagators – until today – when we ventured up to the allotment and found it frozen solid.  I picked a good week, it seems, to be hors de combat.  The Timperly early rhubarb and the broad beans in their fleece cloches are all growing merrily but everything else (apart from the  snowdrops in the windowboxes) is taking a break. The worms had chewed through another six inches of kitchen waste while we were away, undeterred by the low temperatures.  Perhaps they’ve got a warm nursery somewhere deep at the bottom.

And the good news for meditators?  Well it seems that some research has suggested that when vaccinated with the flu vaccine, skilled meditators produced significantly more antibodies than those who didn’t meditate.  It’s all the rushing around that’s making me ill – I’m not kidding either!

 

An outbreak of benign paganism cheers me up.

 

Last night I was over at the Littleton Cider Club Wassail, blessing the orchard for another year. It’s aways a friendly match between me and the Green Man as to whose minstrations are most effective in promoting a good apple harvest, although neither of us was competing for last year’s garland since the crop was only 40% of the normal and the Club had to gather apples (with permission) from a disused cider orchard in Berkeley where the last 60% were gathered.  That meant that the Club were able to brew their usual duty free 1000 Litres.  Actually you’re allowed to brew up to 7000 litres before HMRC take an interest, as long as it’s less than 8.5% alcohol after which it becomes wine. 1000 Litres is a lot of cider all the same.

I think the poor crop was universal last year, with the combination of late frosts and the dryest summer on record.  I know the allotment apples were down, and most of them were affected by codling moth so we’ve paid more attention to greasebanding this year. The five newly planted cordons all got through the drought but the Lord Lambourne on the new plot had been allowed to break out from its espalier habit and is slowly being brought back to a proper shape with some pretty severe pruning.

There were all the usual fun and games at Littleton with more shotguns than ever.  They only fire blanks but use black powder which gives a very loud noise and a satisfying burst of smoke and flame- unlike normal cartridges with the shot removed which only make feeble puffing noises. But the cartridges – which are marked ‘for salutes’, I believe, cost three times as much as the ordinary ones.  I don’t know whether any scientific research has been done on the most effective way to drive out evil spirits but we certainly gave it our best efforts last night even though numbers were reduced by the awful weather. So the singers and the mummers all got on with their respective jobs and hopefully everyone arrived home safely, especially those travelling northwards into Gloucestershire who were reporting some flurries of snow.

It’s always harder to go back to Littleton because everyone is so pleased to see me and I get thoroughly unsettled and almost always spend a restless night exploring the parish in my dreams and standing – in my imagination – in the churchyard watching the River Severn from its vantage point.

Back home, though, we’re slowly plodding through the process of making raised beds whenever the weather permits and we’ve now got just two more to create, bringing us to a total of 25 if you include the borrowed patch. Some are already permanently planted with soft fruit and apples, and we’ve created three beds for perennial herbs.  Because we’re working on ground we’ve been using for three seasons on the old plot, such digging as we need to do is pretty superficial, only to remove the last stragglers of couch and bindweed.  Then, as each plot is finished, it’s given a sprinkling of seaweed meal and a thick mulch of composted manure before it’s covered with black polythene to protect it and warm the soil for an early start.  Luckily I bumped into an old friend at Littleton and I was able to arrange to collect a load of fresh horse manure from a local stable – so it looks like the hotbed project might be on again.

The Growveg website – which is well worth a visit if you haven’t seen it, sends out regular newsletters and the latest one came today with an article by Benedict Vanheems delving into the health and happiness benefits of gardening.  Here’s a quote to whet your appetite:

Serotonin is one of two chemicals that keeps us happy. The other is dopamine, which affects our emotions. The act of picking our own fruits and vegetables is shown to release dopamine in the brain, triggering feelings of mild euphoria and bliss. This is the natural reward pathway that kept our hunter-gatherer forebears on their toes but that today is blamed for modern addictions such as compulsive shopping or our obsessions with social media. Gardening on the other hand is a far healthier ‘addiction’, one that builds on rather than detracting from mental and physical health.

 

Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

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There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

Taking stock?

img_4859I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action.  Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds?  There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.

Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying.  Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it.  I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. img_3327In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask.  Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site.  So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.

I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock.  It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none.  It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream.  Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.

A pugnacious little visitor keeps me company.

img_4848OK it’s a terrible photo, but it was barely above freezing and although the robin isn’t shy, it’s not feeding from my hand yet. This is one of those drrrr photos – if only because there can’t be a gardener anywhere in the UK whose heart hasn’t been warmed by this little bird.  I say ‘in the UK’ carefully because we once had a hilarious conversation with a man in Central Park New York, when we asked him what was the name of the thrush- sized bird with a red breast which was there in large numbers.  When he said that it was a robin we got into one of those moments of mutual incomprehension that often spring up when two distant cultures share a language. So, for any North American readers out there, I’m talking about the British Robin which is about 1/3 the size of its Central Park namesake.

Our robin shows up almost every day and is very bold, darting in to search for food wherever there is uncovered or disturbed earth. It occupies a special place in the order of things because it’s as wild as any bird and yet its boldness encourages us to think of it as being tame – or at least tameable – and living in a fragile relationship with us gardeners. In fact it’s a bold little opportunist, a chancer who will sit three feet away and sing a song that always seems tinged with sadness.  If there’s a minor key for birdsong then the Robin has mastered it, each phrase of the song ending with a question mark, like a young person’s ‘upspeak’. There are three birds that the Potwell Inn must have.  The Blackbird must sing on summer evenings and at dawn.  The House Sparrow will chirp away tunelessly around the yard at the back, and the Robin will sing its song, like ice in a glass, out there where the allotment joins the orchard. The very thought puts me in a good mood.

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So yesterday I set out with far too many layers of midwinter clothing to finish the last (bar two) of the paths on our original plot. We’ve had nights of frost, and being at the bottom of the sloping site our ground gets frozen very easily. Allotments are rarely in a perfect place, and half of our two plots accumulate cold air beyond the reach of the winter sun which, for several months never rises above the dense row of Leylandii at the bottom. So the frost is the bad news, but on the plus side we’re completly sheltered from the South Westerlies, our predominant winds which bring gales every year and regularly rake the sunnier plots at the top of the slope, even overturning sheds and sending cloches tumbling across the site. Better still, being at the bottom of the hill gives us a degree of protection from the North and East.

Our biggest logistical challenge, building the new beds, is working around the standing crops, in this instance of leeks and  Swiss chard in order to get the boards in place. Some of them will have to be sacrificed, but they were planted last year with the new paths in mind and I don’t think we’ll be wasting too many.

And so the sun shone and despite the hard ground I made two long slits in the ground to take the boards and screwed them into place.  After a couple of hours of digging and measuring interspersed with periods of watching the Robin I came back to the flat and felt I’d made a stand against the winter.