Seek no further, pig’s snout but sadly no goose arse

We haven’t had such a rewarding hour of apple scrumping in years – I mean, catalogues are one thing but an actual orchard full of native Welsh apple varieties, ripe on their trees – well, what would any apple lover do? After photographing and sampling as many as we dared we wandered off – all innocence – with our pockets bulging and our minds singing with the intense flavours. At one point I found Madame sitting on a bench crunching on a variety with no label and joyfully transported to the times she used to work in a research station orchard.

If you’ve grown tired of supermarket apples; bland and oversweet for the most part, these native Welsh apples might be worth considering – but you’d have to grow them yourself or perhaps better still start a community orchard where you could grow loads of apples; eaters, cookers, dual purpose and cider apples with delightful and eccentric names. The thing about apples is that they’re promiscuous inter breeders and only very rarely come true from seed because pollinating insects travel from tree to tree carrying pollen from many different varieties. The downside is that they’re quite likely to produce inferior stock, but when a really lovely variety comes along they develop a strong local reputation and they’re very easy to grow by grafting a cutting on to a rootstock, and then every grafted tree is a clone of the mother stock. So if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, there are specialist nurseries that will do the work for you. I just Googled “Welsh apple variety breeders uk” and loads came up. The next task is to choose a suitable rootstock which will determine the final size of the tree, and this is where you’d need to take some professional advice. For allotmenteers like us, cordons on dwarfing rootstock allow us to grow 10 varieties on our 200 square metre plot. All the rootstocks come with the letter M followed by a number. The M stands for East Malling – the research station in Kent that developed them and the number refers to the final size and habit.

The thing about apples is that they are often at their very best eaten straight from the tree, and there are so many seasonal varieties you could eat them in prime condition through early summer until autumn. Some will keep if stored carefully, and supermarkets have them stored in controlled atmospheric conditions – they’re the ones you buy in February, March and April – but they’re a shadow of the real thing.

The only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be seduced by the romantic names and the rare designation. Most of these local varieties are habituated to extremely local conditions and what may grow well on Bardsey Island may not enjoy the milder conditions in Kent. The best thing to do would be to investigate the local varieties where you live. Our friends Kate and Nick whose smallholding is fairly high in the Brecon Beacons are growing a selection of Welsh apples at what must be near their altitude limit. The Potwell Inn in North Somerset can boast the “Beauty of Bath” and a little further north in Gloucestershire there are many local varieties straddling orchards along the River Severn. Here are a few more we sampled today:

But why are these varieties becoming so rare? Sadly many of them would be regarded as misshapen in this age of uniformity. They don’t give themselves to having all the flavour bred out of them in favour of the high yield and bombproof portability that commercial growers and supermarkets demand. Some of them are effectively biennials, and all of them can lose an entire crop if frost strikes the blossom. But when they come right they’re truly, memorably delicious and if you can only have them for a couple of weeks – does that stop you growing asparagus?

There’s something about industrial agriculture and horticulture that’s profoundly unnatural. Tell me something I don’t know – you might be thinking. Our unreconstructed 21st century view instinctively leads us to think that all our efforts in scientific breeding and selection move us in the direction of the perfect – whatever; apple, cabbage, pig even. But in a nature’s way – which is a profoundly counterintuitive way – the response to the multitude of soils and climates we have is to breed for diversity. Diversity is nature’s way of overcoming difficulties and exploiting new opportunities.

That’s precisely why we should keep a wary eye on the monopolistic instincts of the big seed companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta who are buying up huge numbers of seed varieties and taking them off the market to conduct moneymaking breeding experiments on their resistance to chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers. The next stage will be to hold us to ransom and force us to buy their patented seeds. Following up, my query about Amish farming methods yesterday I did a bit more research and quickly discovered that the publisher of the paper that claimed that Amish farmers were enthusiastic users of chemicals was a pseudo research front organisation funded at the time of publication by Monsanto. I went a bit further and discovered that the agrochemical industries spend millions of pounds supporting compromised research, dodgy publications and lobbyists. Here’s a link with further information.

The terrible truth is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe, farmers, growers and gardeners will need to be drawing on the wisdom of the earth in providing us with so many adapted local varieties. Winds, cold and drought and changing seasons will demand new adapted varieties, many of which are being covertly put beyond our reach. I was astounded that big business employs 30,000 yes – thirty thousand – lobbyists in Brussels alone; using their money and power to influence parliaments. If you read the evidence you’ll be more than angry. Saving locally adapted seeds may be one step in the direction of saving the planet.

Just look at the size of the foundation stones in this wall!

We are the undeserving guests at the feast

Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:

So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.

Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”

All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.

Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.

A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.

However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.

It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.

I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.

But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?

The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.

It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.

We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.

Sunset over Ramsey Island, Wales

Putting it together – in a reflective mood

Some of this year’s borlotti harvest

I don’t normally suffer from insomnia, but sometimes I’m reading a book that’s so mind changing I can’t wait to wake and start reading again. Charles Massy’s “Call of the reed warbler” is one such book that straddles half a dozen fields of interest that, until now, I’d pursued separately. I’ll write at much greater length later, but meanwhile here’s a quotation from the last chapter – Towards an emergent future – that, even before dawn at five o’clock this morning, filled me with excitement and hope for the future. This book is a wonder. At around 500 pages it’s not a breeze, but it will stand as a bulwark against the phoney greenwashing schemes of the (literally) unholy alliance of the politicians and the multinational companies who are reducing the earth to dust and our lives to exhaustion and sickness.

“Significantly, the new regenerative agriculture is not just being practiced on small backyard plots or half-acre (quarter-hectare) allotments (for these too are part of the solution, and some of the practices apply and are indeed being practised there). No, the approach is also being applied on tens of millions of acres, while elements of it have the potential to be applied equally broadly worldwide, as I have described in this book. These include holistic grazing management, grassland grains, pasture cropping and natural intelligence agriculture, a new agroforestry, farmer-managed natural regeneration, biological agriculture and many others.

Therefore, this revolution has the potential to make massive inroads into addressing the key Anthropocene challenges of climate change, biodiversity loss, distortions to the nitrogen, phosphorus and other biogeochemical cycles, land degradation, malfunctioning of the water cycle, and so on. In addition, regenerative agriculture has astounding potential to address human ill health; to therefore address the huge burden of modern health costs on society; to make farmers more profitable and free of the clutches of banks and large multinational chemical and energy suppliers; and to free farmers and urban cousins alike from capture by the merciless behemoths of agribusiness, commodity trading, financing, retailing, food processing and the like. Consequently, we need to be aware that a new regenerative agriculture is subversive: but in a truly constructive way. That is why I call it an ‘underground insurgency’, for it is a bottom-up revolution instigated by a new mind.”

Seals, field mice and borlotti beans

Ripe borlotti on the allotment

The Chinese five elements (wood, fire, earth, metal, water) have their equivalents in the seasons which are listed in the same sequence – spring, summer, long (otherwise known as late) summer, autumn and winter. We have the idea of an “Indian summer” which refers to exceptionally warm weather in late autumn, much later than this present month of September; but there is always, I think, a perceptible change around this time of the year between the harvesting of almost all the crops at the end of August, and the beginning of September, but before the onset of true autumn usually counted at the equinox. These are blessed and luminous days when the earth seems to be resting and soaking up the last of the sun’s warmth before the declining days with the onset of autumn and winter. These are the days when the blackberry and sloe and if we’re lucky – the field mushroom teach us that all food is a gift.

Today it’s been raining, but last week, away in the campervan in Pembrokeshire we were enjoying historically fine weather. Whether we call it long or late summer wthere is this turning point where we gather food; preserving and storing it to take us through the winter months. We harvest and process the last of the tomatoes, aubergines, peppers and melons and clear the polytunnel ready for the winter; and it takes on the mantle of a spiritual observance. 

The inflow and outflow of the earth’s energy that sustains us; the sun’s energy that – through the miracle of photosynthesis – we harvest as food; and the moon’s energy that drives the tides and the more subtle seasons. The Taoist concept of yin and yang; strength and weakness; forcefulness and yielding – is a far better way of understanding our place in nature. There’s a great deal to be learned about the spirituality of gardening as seen in this fundamental cycle of birth and death; growth, ripening and senescence. We’ve grown so addicted to our illusory power; our great polluting machines and our chemicals, that we almost believe that there is no problem that cannot be solved by technology. As Rachel Carson (Silent Spring) once wrote. “If we declare war on nature we declare war on ourselves.” Perhaps it’s expressed even more powerfully in Stephen Mitchell’s translation of the Tao te Ching:

When man interferes with the Tao

the sky becomes filthy,

the earth becomes depleted,

the equilibrium crumbles,

creatures become extinct.

Lao-Tzu, Tao te Ching – part of chapter 39, translated by Stephen Mitchell.

This is a season of ingathering and inbreathing and  it feels appropriate that the Chinese season of late summer is associated with the earth – one of the Chinese five elements. On the allotment trail cam we found a short video of a field mouse swaying precariously at the top of one of our Calendulas in the middle of the night, greedily eating the seeds. There was something beautiful about its enormous eyes and ears; its lightness, clinging to the stalks, its vigilance and vulnerability to predators. I wouldn’t begrudge it a single seed.

Ramsey Island at sunset

Back in Pembrokeshire last week, times we could hear the tide in Ramsey Sound almost roaring through The Bitches, but as it approached the null points of ebb or flow there was a late summer moment where it flowed neither here nor there but just rested, waiting until the balance changed and began the whole cycle again. The seal cows were gathering to birth their pups on their secluded hauls at the bottom of the cliffs – out of the reach of humans.

Some years ago we were camping near Skomer Island during the puffin season, when a huge cruise liner drew close to the island and discharged a dozen high speed ribs from the side, like invading marines.  The birdwatchers swept in towards the island laden with binoculars and cameras, and within an hour had gone again. What do you call that kind of ecotourism if not dangerous and exploitative? What sort of good could ever come from this phony immersion in nature?

On Tuesday, as we walked the coast path, we spotted a grey seal cow, heavily pregnant, lolling in the sea, eying us curiously from a hundred feet below . She looked old – something about her grizzled muzzle was weatherbeaten and aged. We were sufficiently close, with the help of my binoculars, for her face to fill the lenses. She had huge black eyes and nostrils and was so profoundly different a lifeform that, putting away any anthropomorphic nonsense, we had little else in common except for being alive and being there in the same place watching one another. There was no part of her being that I could appropriate to my own experience – we were both equally deserving of our part of the web of nature and yet her aloof thusness was complete. Around her were several other seal cows and their pups.

Sadly the seals have become a tourist attraction and from where we were camping on the clifftop we could see one powerful boat after another, all loaded with visitors, pause their engines momentarily at the regulated distance for photographs to be taken, and then accelerate away leaving a double wake that agitated the calm water of the sound for minutes, before the next boatload arrived. 

However, aside from all the philosophical maunderings it will please the borlotti worshippers to know that we are about to harvest this year’s crop, which has gone well. Not so well in the three sisters experiment where rust and moth didn’t bother us as much as thieves breaking in to steal. Between the rats and the badger the sisters were nibbled, sat upon and starved of light – which goes to show that some horticultural ideas are very regionally specific. Luckily we hedged our bets and the individual sisters have all yielded a crop for the winter.

The allotment is looking uncharacteristically weedy and tatty now, but we don’t take it personally – it’s always like this at this time. The good news is that during last week’s hot spell the aubergines finally started to yield a late second flush. The real challenge is to remove the old and replant the new so that not so much as a square inch is left exposed to the winter wind and rain.

Down on the farm again

I’ll write something more later about our trip to Pembrokeshire last week but on Friday we drove over to the Brecon Beacons to see friends we’ve been unable to visit for almost two years because of the covid pandemic. We stayed over for a couple of nights on their smallholding, which gave us all time to catch up, meet their new Welsh Terrier puppy, talk a lot about small farm economics and get stuck in on building a replacement stock fence. It may sound perverse but it’s both fun, and rewarding to get outside and do some hard manual work with an old friend. We had to drive in new fence posts in pretty unpromising ground; and the larger of the two crowbars we were using was over a foot taller than me, a couple of inches in diameter and took two of us to drive it in. I’m pleased to say it all went pretty seamlessly until we tried to tension the fence with the tractor and pulled out the rather ancient end post that looked as if it still had some life in it. It didn’t! But there we are. Everything on this smallholding gets recycled, repurposed and treasured until it actually falls apart.

Such are the excesses of rental costs for land and houses in the area that it’s impossible to make a living from farming or smallholding alone. Two and three jobs are commonplace; but we discovered as we drove around a long diversion through tiny lanes, that incomers, second homers and holiday rentals have displaced almost all the young people from even living in the area, let alone thinking of a career in agriculture. Where there were a dozen farms, now there are a couple of smallholdings and dozens of immaculately restored facades. It looks like the countryside but it’s rapidly becoming a vast suburbia with fields.

I’ve written often about the need to break up the agribusiness conglomerates along with intensive chemical farming; restoring local small farms with direct links to their local communities – but without action to restrain land speculation, this just can’t happen. Schools are closed, social care is handed over to a diminishing band of elderly volunteers, hospitals and health centres are concentrated in inaccessible places when there’s virtually no public transport. Local shops close down against the competition of supermarkets in the larger towns, and don’t even ask about banks, libraries, post offices and pubs; all of them part of the social and cultural capital of any thriving local community. And for what gain?

Aside from banging in posts and talking about farm economics, we ate together. This is where you can really taste the possibilities of local and sustainable farming. If you’re a city dweller you’ll probably never have heard of a hogget. It’s a sheep that’s too old to be a lamb and too young to be classed as mutton – between one and two seasons old. We ate roast hogget, raised on the smallholding on its abundant hillside grassland. The flavour (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) is so much better than supermarket lamb. We had home cured bacon – equally delicious – and as many vegetables as we could eat, straight out of the garden. A near neighbour runs a microbrewery for pleasure – and for barter. I was able to drink two old Bristol Beers that disappeared half a century ago and recreated in a Welsh valley. Simmonds and Georges were the big brewers when I was a child and I can still remember the smell of malt and hops that filled the area around Old Market and Temple Way on brewing days. The beers – if you needed telling – were indescribably better than the mass produced keg beers that displaced them. Who says that market efficiency improves standards? it just increases profits at the expense of everything else. Saturday breakfast comprised poached eggs that sat up in a way that you only witness when you keep your own hens. Ask yourself why eggs are so hard to poach, and the answer is because they’re bound to be stale by the time you get them from a supermarket.

While we were there I helped smoke some cheese in a cold smoker assembled from an old wood stove, some bits of plywood and a chimney made from a repurposed toilet downpipe – as I said, nothing ever gets thrown away. The sawdust for the smoker came from the giant combination planer, router and circular saw that’s used to cut and prepare planks – often oak – that are used across the house for furniture and a dozen other projects. On one of the oak trees growing alongside the barn there was the beautiful beefsteak fungus I photographed above.

Is life idyllic three miles from the nearest main road and on the side of a mountain? No it’s relentlessly demanding. The farm is subsidised by outside work and the animals and vegetables are all cared for in what – for most of us – is spare time. And yet it’s also a place of great beauty – a sometimes higgledy piggledy patchwork of unfinished projects and objects that have yet to find a new purpose. You can see the stars – it’s in a dark skies area – and you can listen to tawny owls at night and during the day a congregation of carrion crows or ravens might gather over a dead sheep on the hill. Life on a farm is full of beginnings and endings; of darkness and light – and it demands a lot in return for a gift beyond any price tag.

I sometimes worry that it’s all too easy to romanticise, to glamourise the small farm – but compared with an intensive dairy farm, poultry or pig unit it’s a paradise. Comparatively speaking, intensive farming is a death cult when compared with a well run organic farm or smallholding. Of course there are deep ethical and moral issues about taking any life, and the small farmers I’ve met take that very seriously. It’s a decision for each one of us. The killing of an animal for food is a big deal and we can’t escape responsibility by handing the act over to a supermarket that hides it under plastic packaging. When we kept chickens I killed a few every year for the pot. I arranged for a lesson from the local butcher before I began and he taught me the most humane way of doing it. I never enjoyed it but I thought it was my moral duty to do it myself. We only culled surplus cockerels and I would take them first thing in the morning as they waited at the bottom of the ramp ready to oblige the first unwary hen that popped her head out. I like to think that their last thoughts were happy and expectant ones! and once you’ve watched them hatch, raised them and seen them living free in an orchard with abundant grass, windfalls and delicious bugs, slugs and worms – I promise you’d never take the meat for granted or throw away and waste a single bit.

Farming isn’t for the faint hearted – but then, neither is living. So to finish, here are some moths from their garden, and a novel use for unsaleable sheep wool as a slug barrier.

Maybe get the right tools first??

If you’ve ever spent agonising hours trying to push tomato pulp through a chinois or sieve, then you’ll know it’s very slow and very very inefficient. There’s a strong correlation between percentage extraction and the number of times you’ve seen the sun set through the kitchen window. So I’m mentioning this gadget because it will save you a load of time; not because I’m trying to be an influencer – whatever that may be – anyway I’m too old and ugly for that malarkey.

A passata machine seems as if it might be one of those hopelessly pointless gadgets that you persuade yourself you need against all sensible odds: but it isn’t. You might only use it for a couple of weeks a year but you will thank the Gods of the kitchen that you lashed out the £40 for it every time you process a big batch of home grown tomatoes. Ours is made by an Italian company called Rigamonti and you can get it easily in the UK from Seeds of Italy– or at least you could before the idiocy that is brexit was brought to us by the knuckle draggers of Westminster. You can still find it on their website, I just checked.

Our little machine looks like a plastic imitation of the real thing but in fact it’s very strong and we can process 25lbs of tomatoes from trug to pan in about an hour; leaving little behind except dry skins and seeds – mind you I put the pulp through four times because I’m a skinflint. This will make 5 litres of straight passata or rather less when the tomatoes are roasted down first with onions and herbs; but the more it’s reduced the more intense the flavour. If you’re an allotmenteer or a gardener you’ll know that there’s no better standby in the cupboard than a variety of differently flavoured tomato sauces from straight passata as a base to roasted tomato purees of one sort or another for pasta or whatever else takes your fancy in the dead of winter. We process about 80 lbs of tomatoes back at the Potwell Inn ; enough to last the whole year. Plus we have the fresh tomatoes for a couple of months during the season. Anyway that’s a helpful suggestion rather than a shameless plug, I hope. Of course you could go for an all singing and dancing electric and stainless steel model but they’re in the hundreds of pounds and probably take an hour to clean, plus they don’t work at all when the electricity fails!

Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve always had a policy of buying the best equipment we can afford. Our large pudding bowl, for instance, is fifty five years old. It was a wedding present (cue gasps of amazement).

Handing out fiddles – especially to friends – while Rome burns

So while I’m on the job I’m recommending Dave Goulson’s new book “Silent Earth. I’ve read all his books and without exception they’re entertaining, informative and full of ideas. I won’t do a précis here but I will bullet point some of the striking findings about the effectiveness of allotments:

Six reasons for being pleased but not smug.

  • According to a Bristol University study, allotments have the highest insect diversity of any urban environment – gardens, parks, cemeteries etc.
  • According to a study of allotments near Brighton, Beth Nicholls found that most allotmenteers use few or no chemicals.
  • According to the same researcher many allotmenteers produce around 20 tons of food per hectare, against the 8 and 3.5 produced on farms growing wheat and oilseed rape respectively.
  • Allotmenteers are responsible for almost no food miles, zero packaging and almost no chemicals.
  • Research shows that allotment soils are healthier than farm soils, with more worms and higher organic carbon content, thereby combating climate change.
  • A study in the Netherlands found that allotmenteers tend to be healthier than neighbours without allotments, particularly in old age.

All the above data came from chapter 19 (the future of farming) in Dave Goulson’s new book.

I have to say, that if you want to brief yourself fully on the decline of insects, the causes of extinctions, the cost of chemical intensive agriculture and some ideas for the future this is a good place to start. What’s painfully clear is that apart from the Green Party, the main UK political parties have no sensible plans for saving the earth. Too in hock to powerful interests and too frightened to appear the least bit radical, their policy amounts to handing out fiddles (especially to friends) while Rome burns.

On the other hand when we went up to open the greenhouse and the polytunnel this morning I was thinking about the image of gardeners and allotmenteers as being elderly and inherently conservative muddlers. When I looked around at ours and our neighbours’ allotments today I could see that although we’re probably the oldest by far, we’ve grown old on environmental protests and self sufficient allotmenteering. It’s easy to judge books by their covers but in the case of the new wave of allotmenteers; governments and politicians would do well to remember that we are powerful, creative, skilled and extremely well informed on environmental issues. Some of us, being old, have campaigning time on our hands. Of course the government will be trying to drive a wedge between the young and the old by characterising us as greedy pensioners. Just for the record we live on our state pensions and I have a small church pension. Madame was not allowed to join a pension scheme because part timers (overwhelmingly women) were locked out – in her case for 25 years! We’re not rich – period!

So this morning, and with the book in my mind, I looked around the allotment, thinking what a challenge it presents to the intensive agrochemical model and filled with the knowledge that this 200 square yards is just one piece in an emerging campaign with justice at its core and with no less an aim than saving the earth from the economic strip miners. I’m a bit old to be an eco warrior, but I’ll sure as hell give it a go.

Good days and bad ones

But first, an extraordinarily heartwarming conversation with my eight year old grandson. We were in Dyrham Park, walking along the edge of Whitefield – a stunning wildflower meadow which we haven’t managed to see for two years because of Covid. The grandchildren had all been dosed with antihistamine because their mum knew they’d be rolling around in the grass at some point during the day. It happens that their sister is given the drug as a liquid, orally and to save time the other two also got it from a small syringe this time. So oldest grandson and me were chatting about all this and we wandered into the topic of words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Orally and aurally came up of course – and then he said to me quite unexpectedly – “they’re called homophones”. I could have cried with joy at him even knowing the word, and -in the way that children are – he was a bit surprised (but rather pleased) at how thrilled I was. High fives all round. I love going for walks with him because he’s so eager to learn. Each time we go out I teach him the names of different flowers, plants and trees, and tell him their stories. It lights up the day for both of us.

But at the very top of this page – the one that comes up every time – there’s a photo of the same grandson walking down an avenue of limes, holding hands with his uncle Jonah’s hand. Sadly the avenue of trees no longer looks the same – and it’s for the oddest reason.

The aspect of the landscape in that particular shot caught my eye, not so much for its natural beauty, but because in reality it is so artificial. The lower leaves in the regular avenue of limes is – or rather was – clipped to such an even height above the ground it reminded me of the famous Marienbad film setting. But this wasn’t achieved by platoons of gardeners but by a wild herd of roe deer which has lived there for a couple of hundred years. Sadly the herd was all slaughtered during the Covid outbreak because of a persistent outbreak of bovine TB. It was all very hush hush in the way it happened; probably in anticipation of a fiercely negative response from the thousands of visitors who’ve grown to love them. If you live in the UK you’ll already know about the furore that’s arisen over the slaughter of a single llama for the same reason. However it’s done now and we’re promised the deer herd will be replaced as soon as possible. I simply don’t know whether the vaccines that exist for farm cattle would work for deer, but if they do I’d be saddened by the fact they weren’t used. There may be other reasons, though. Some visitors had no idea how to treat the deer as wild animals, and one ranger told me they’d had to intervene when a large group of visitors tried to corral a section of the flock in order to take photos! Deer, like all wild animals, respond badly to stress and I’ve long wondered whether TB isn’t a symptomatic disease of stressed animals.

The upshot of all this is that the grassland character is rapidly altering, with rank grasses taking over; and the lime avenue is looking distinctly ragged now. It’s amazing how quickly this has happened. The countryside as expressed in the great English parks is about as artificial as it gets; and it’s easy to see, particularly at the higher level of the park – the scrub will very soon take over when it’s no longer grazed by the deer. Eco purists and some rewilders might think this is a good idea; but I’m not so sure. All landscapes are artificial in one way or another, depending on the management strategies in place. Wildflower meadows are no more “natural” than municipal parks if by natural you mean left completely to their own devices. Each type of landscape – even (or especially) abandoned industrial sites – develops its own unique ecology. Maintaining peat bogs requires minute attention to water levels, for instance. So diversity is best maintained by deliberate management. I just don’t see how Dyrham Park can be maintained as it was – without its deer herd.

But finally, the bad news is that the badgers on the allotment eventually found a way past our barriers and finished off the sweetcorn. The video at the top was probably the marauder himself leaving the scene of the crime. And so, the fencing will be strengthened even more next year. Luckily we had a least a few feeds, and although we could wish they hadn’t broken in; we wouldn’t want to see them disappear altogether. Once again, maintaining ecological balance has its pluses and minuses. A couple of days ago I lamented the fact that there are no hedgehogs on the site, but of course badgers are one of the main predators of hedgehogs. Whenever we intervene in nature, however worthy our intentions, the results are often full of unintended consequences.

Farming, gardening, house building and transport infrastructure – to name just four of many possibilities – are all loaded with ecological consequences and ethical choices. Even a visit to a National Trust attraction involves ethical choices. The earth is a place for moral grown-ups; or at least it is if we want to save our place in it. Occasionally, on my bleaker days, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave it to the plants and animals who got here first; but usually I just think – better get on with it then.

As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
Working at the riddle

There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.

Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.

After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!

So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.

The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.

Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.

Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.

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