Busy bees

 

Up very early, woken by our neighbour who seems to be commuting to work from his campervan. But he wasn’t the only early riser because after owls during the night (who could resist listening?) a cockerel kicked off on the farm and I was wide awake and very much looking forward to finishing reading Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. I won’t try to sumarise the book but I would urge anyone to get hold of it and read it – it’s a brilliant introduction to some ideas that are going to dominate the next twenty years if we’re going to survive the anthropocine period. Campervans are like submarines, there’s not a lot of space, so I read sitting in bed, with the aid of a spotlight while Madame slept on.

Really good books change the way we think, and I’ve already mentioned some paradoxes that we allotmenteers need to address, such as being over-tidy, making space for insect favouring plants, making space for some species we’ve historically shunned, and worrying about the chemicals that might be hiding in the manure we apply to our plots. As I was reading all sorts of ideas were popping into my mind (which I’ll come back to later) but first I want to explain why when I took these photos of the bee wall at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I knew – without knowing why – that this was what I was going to base my next post on.  Yesterday, technology got in the way and I was frustrated by my inability to get myself online at the campsite.  But now I’m glad because it’s taken more than 24 hours to figure it out.

The official line – the one being suggested by our excellent guide – was that the straw skeps were no longer being used to keep bees because an over-curious visitor had gone behind the barrier and shoved their finger into the skep.  Cue very cross bees! But I’m perfectly sure that the real reason is more complicated, because for all their visual appeal, skeps and their use in beekeeping are the sign of an attitude towards wild creatures that we’re still battling with in the 21st century.  In fact the photos at the top of the page could easily stand as a visual representation of the content of Isabella Tree’s book. Harvesting honey from skeps has a history that probably stretches back many centuries if not millennia. But there’s a problem with it because the honey could only be harvested by killing all the bees first.  In the days of Heligan’s bee wall they would probably have been killed by burning sulphur. To deliberately kill a colony of bees today is unthinkable to most of us, but until the early 19th century it was the only show in town.  But that didn’t matter because honeybees were so plentiful that every year a new queen and colony would set up home or perhaps a swarm would be given a home by an astute beekeeper.  The history of the removable frame hive, where the honey could be removed without killing the bees could go back to the 17th century, but things started to move in 1814 the when a Ukranian beekeper called Petro Prokopovych took the first steps. In 1848, Jan Dzierzon cut slots in the sides of his hives to take removable frames, and in America in 1851 Langstroth invented the first modern hive after calculating what’s known as the ‘bee space’ the smallest gap between the frames that the bees won’t bridge.

But what really matters here is the underlying psychology of the beekeepers of the past who saw no reason why a natural resource like honey should not be treated as essentially free, to be harvested without responsibility.

In 2019 the idea of harvesting without regard to the cost and the impact on the natural world suddenly seems utterly wrong.

img_5227And that, I’m sure, is why honey is now gathered from conventional hives at Heligan while the skeps are treated as an historical record for the benefit of the tourists. Our visit to Heligan has provoked a lot of thought. It’s a brave idea to recreate a garden that last existed in its full glory over a century ago, and we love being there.  But there’s no way that modern gardeners could justify using the old chemical treatments in the name of authenticity. On the other hand, some of the potato varieties being grown are so vulnerable to extinction that they simply have to be protected by modern chemical sprays for fear of them being lost forever. There are no easy ways of doing real gardening and sticking to the high moral ground all the time.

IMG_4281Anyway, on the Potwell Inn allotment some new ideas are unfolding.  At the border of the allotment site we have a long row of Leylandii – ugly sun-stealing brutes they are, and apart from providing a perch for wood pigeons they’re hardly a wildlife hotspot.  It would mean moving a bureaucratic mountain, but why not cut them down and replant with mixed smaller trees like birch, field maple and hazel interspersed with a thick undergrowth to create a boundary hedge attractive to wildlife? Why couldn’t we link up with a goatkeeper and provide them with moveable fencing to graze off abandoned and out-of control allotments.  We used to keep a goat and believe me she would eat anything.  There used to be a wildlife corridor on the southern side of the river which took in a long derelict site before the Local Council awarded a contract to Crest Nicholson to build ludicrously expensive flats that effectively concreted over the whole area.  By way of honouring their agreement they planted some sick looking sallows and laid a park with some kind of turf with a dozen species trees. It’s exactly the same mindset as the old skeppers had. “Nature is infinitely abundant and all those bats and birds and insects will soon find somewhere else to go”.  And under the skep goes the sulphur – except this time the skep is the same size as the earth and there’s nowhere else for the wildlife to go, and now we’re the wildlife being choked to death by the sulphur.

Do I sound a bit cross? Well I am cross. But as sure as eggs is eggs, retreating to an idealized past is not an option.  Which bit of the past should we aim for? The nineteenth century? the eighteenth? the sixteenth or the tenth? The question is – “how much change in my life am I prepared to embrace in order to create a future for my grandchildren and their heirs?’ And the answer is – a great deal!

Sadly, you may think, there’s yet another list of wildflowers brewing at the back of my mind. If we don’t know what we’ve got we’ll never notice that we’ve lost it.

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No more lists, I swear – well just one then.

 

I was determined not to compromise what’s supposed to be a relaxing break, so I left binoculars, cameras and books back at the Potwell Inn and came down to Heligan with nothing more than a mobile, a notebook and a pen. When we set out on a walk in the sunshine this morniing I lasted about six paces at proper ‘going for a walk’ speed before I noticed the abundance of rather early wildflowers and that was that. At best I’m an indifferent botanist, and so identifying the most ordinary things takes an age but, on the other hand, I like the ordinary. So there were mouse ear, bluebell, red campion, herb Robert, violet, celandine and wood anemone, all growing within a small area and there were many more, including primroses, marsh marigolds and little spurges. I had to stop. Heligan has a series of different habitats and attractions and today we spent most of our time in the woodlands.

IMG_5212Yesterday I forgot to take the camera and so I couldn’t photograph the navelwort – or pennywort as it’s also known; its Latin name is Umbilicus rupestris, and there were several noteworthy facts we found out.  Firstly I’ve always seen it on walls and never looked for it anywhere else, but here it’s quite common at the bottom of tree trunks.  Secondly its succulent leaves are apparently good to eat and thirdly if you scrape the back of the leaf off it exudes a sap that has healing, coagulant properties and will – if you care to try –  adhere to your skin like a natural elastoplast. Isn’t that fascinating?

IMG_5218Back at the veg garden we made a list of the 23 varieties of potato they’re growing this year.  Yesterday’s tour leader talked a little about these heritage potatoes and said that although they all tasted good, they were tricky to cook correctly and if overcooked they would become waterlogged and collapse. Many of these varieties, regardless of their quality, are not on the EU permitted list and so cannot be sold. We’re growing three of their varieties this year on the allotment, along with two more modern cultivars.  But we really envied the space they have here to experiment. After we’d finished the list we sat enviously in front of their rhubarb patch.  Again, so much space – and yesterday we tasted rhubarb in a way I’ve never even thought of – in a salad. I suspect it was very lightly ‘fridge pickled’ and we both thought it was delicious – time for an experiment in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I think the starting point for us will be a poaching liquid with raspberry vinegar, water and a little salt, brought to the boil and simply poured over the sliced rhubarb. I’ll report back later.

IMG_5222Then we moved on to the apples where we had a good look at the pruning method they’re using here. It looked very like the Modified Lorette ststem that we last saw in the National Trust gardens at Dyrham Park.  It involves cutting back very hard in the winter and then again in the summer.  It’s not a system either of us knows but it looks very productive.  The gardener at Dyrham Park said it was very slow to establish but, on the other hand it seems capable of sustaining excellent crops. So much to learn! So many lists!

 

 

Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.

Something unfolding?

IMG_5177I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease.  I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark ….  Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started.  It didn’t!

You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether.  Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.

So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever

Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.

I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat.  Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing.  Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty.  Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth.  After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.

I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity.  I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.

I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus.  In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there.  It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.

But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.

What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary.  Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley.  They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm.  They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.

IMG_5178Being old often means being invisible.  You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas.  The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.

  • and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.

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You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!

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What Katy did!

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Another seasonal milestone passed today, because what Katy (the cordon apple tree) did, was come into flower this week.  It’s an early eating apple, not really suitable for storage but ready to pick in September.  We have a row of five cordon apples and they were chosen to spread over the longest possible season. This is really the first year we can expect a small crop, but it will be a few years yet before they settle down. We’re due a few days of cold weather so it’s out with the fleece.

Today’s main objective was to get into the fruit cage and weed all round, and then to repair the supports for the autumn raspberries and feed all the soft fruit.  Strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries, red and white currants are all in leaf and the blackcurrants are about to flower.  We also made use of the last day we’re officially allowed to use the incinerator, and got rid of a pile of couch and bindweed roots. We’re not keen on burning but sometimes it’s the best way to destroy pernicious weeds and you also get the ashes back to scatter on the ground.

While I was engaged with the fruit, Madame was transplanting spinach seedlings.  These wil be the last batch before the autumn. First day of British Summer Time – yippee!

It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.