Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

Bath is full of ghost signs. One of my favourites is the faded trace of Hands Dairy sign, still visible on the wall above a shop adjacent to the Abbey courtyard. In the early 70’s we were students at Bath Academy of Art which, at the time had its home in Corsham, a few miles east along the A4. However we came into Bath, to Sydney Place, for some design lectures and it was only a short walk to Hands – which by that time was a café, a bit of a greasy spoon place but it did a wonderful steak and kidney pie and chips. The cafe has long since disappeared but the ghost sign for the dairy is still there today. In fact there are several ghost signs for dairies dotted around Bath, and Jane Austin mentions walking along Cow Lane on her way to Weston. The lane is still there but the cows are long gone.

The point of this excursus is that the signs seem to do more than simply announce the name of a defunct business. To me they always trigger thoughts of the whole history and culture of the era they came from. I could never think of Hands Dairy without hearing the sound of the steel tyres of the milk cart on the cobbles, and the steady clip clop of the horse in front. Ghost signs are faded portals into another age. But you often need a particular angle of the light to spot them. Otherwise they lie there obscured until the season or the angle of the setting sun reveals them.

So it’s been with my sudden interest in pagan seasons. I loathe the word pagan because it’s so piously dismissive of a vast accumulation of human insight and practice – but I find myself using it because its intended target is so diffuse it hardly ever lands a blow. I wrote two days ago about finding Eliot Coleman’s comments about the way in which the familiar Christian seasons seem to be an echo of something more ancient. Anyone who’s ever studied the Old Testament properly (ie with an open mind) will have noticed that there are some epic borrowings from ancient literature. If God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament verbatim to Moses it merely demonstrates that God was a great reader and not afraid to throw in a few unattributed quotations. Eliot Coleman doesn’t really extend the discussion about the overlap of the seasons but I was sufficiently interested to put aside the allotment plan for a few hours, get up unspeakably early and draw up a circular plan – a great wheel – if you like for our particular spot in the northern hemisphere.

The intention was twofold. Firstly I wanted to avoid the flat earth scenario in which each allotment year is a linear sequence of events that ends by falling off a metaphorical cliff. The linear model gifts every January to us like an absolution from the errors of the past; a clean slate complete with seed catalogues ready for the New Year. Of course it’s not like that. By Christmas the buds are on the trees already and the purple sprouting broccoli and all the other biennials stubbornly refuse to vacate their places in the garden. The only way to represent it adequately is to join the ends in a circle so that December and January can speak to one another, and the equinoxes can embrace one another as kindred moments. The second, more prosaic reason was that I wanted a chart that plotted the days with less than ten hours daylight because those are the times, (the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman says), during which plant growth slows to a standstill. Developing a workable plan for sowing and harvesting throughout the year involves a good deal of counting the days forwards and backwards to arrive at the optimum time for sowing.

Actually constructing the chart turned out to be quite challenging because the ‘pagan’ and the Christian cycle of festivals are a bit out of synch; so the chart demanded some interesting calculations of chord lengths because inaccuracies with a childrens protractor get seriously magnified when the circle is 30 cms across, and I found myself blowing sixty years of dust off my trigonometric memory. A day is one three hundred and sixty fifth of three hundred and sixty degrees, and months come in several lengths including thirty, thirty one, twenty eight and twenty nine days. The solstices and equinoxes with their cross quarter days are easier to plot because they’re regular. So after drawing the solar calendar with its traditional names and the slightly displaced conventional calendar on the same circle in months, I then plotted the major Christian festivals around the same circle. Three ways of counting time around the same still point. It was about then that I realized that this was no mere diagram, it is much closer to a mandala; and when I filled in the sub ten hour days with some blue watercolour paint I was overwhelmed by the way in which the systems corresponded like ghost signs from the past. My joy was complete when December dutifully shuffled in and shook hands with January. I was so excited I momentarily considered plotting the lunar months as well but then my brain exploded at the thought of all those thirteenths galumphing around the chart and that I would need a transparent sheet and a drawing pin to construct a sort of tatty flat astrolabe. So I made some coffee and delivered it somewhat Tiggerishly to Madame, who was reading in bed.

The great circle seems to me to be offering something much greater and more powerful than a simple planning tool. It really is a mandala, a means of contemplation and meditation that calls upon us to align ourselves with the way things truly are. Our modern materialistic culture leads us into the dangerous trap of thinking that if something in nature doesn’t please us we can change it with technology. Day length? – get some LED’s; soil temperature? – burn some oil: insects? – blast ’em with chemicals!

An additional gift of the great wheel is that it marks the turn of the seasons with celebration, thanksgivings, mourning and hope. I suppose this all relates to my questioning of exactly why our immersion in the natural world seems to be good for us in a quite such a transcendent way; lifting us out of ourselves into something infinitely bigger. You just need to blow the old orthodoxies and shibboleths away and regard the pattern. It achieves the small miracle of re-enchanting the earth.

Anyway, I think I’ll work on a fair copy of the chart and maybe illustrate it but meanwhile – in case you’re wondering if I’ve become a bit of a Druid – I noticed these walls while we were out walking down by the river yesterday. I think they’re both fun, and rather beautiful.

Religiously planting potatoes

The polytunnel is very slowly filling up with seedlings, strawberries and (our of frame) the first direct sowings.

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb

Traditional weather lore

And so it does here. Yet another Atlantic low has been raking across us for two days, returning us to winter, wreaking low level havoc and destruction across the allotments and driving all thoughts of potato planting out of our minds. On the allotment Facebook page, however, the annual question about when to plant potatoes has emerged like a sleepy bear waking from hibernation. It’s almost unanswerable without clairvoyant skills because the date of the last frost is like waiting for Godot. Maybe it’s already happened earlier than ever before; or alternatively, maybe there’s a Siberian frost lurking right now in the far north, waiting for the jetstream to drive it across Bath in early May. “Statistically” (you might say) it’s most likely to be around the end of April, but tender leaves have no regard for statistics.

The potato question was one among many I’ve been addressing; taking advantage of the awful weather to do some planning. I’ve also been reading (here we go again!) – Eliot Coleman’s “The Winter Harvest Handbook”, which is a book you need to read if you want to beat the hungry gap and grow fresh vegetables across all four seasons. Some books are go-to resources for detailed information like dates, times, varieties and tools. But because I’m British and not American, the act of reading becomes an act of translation and, (just to make it even more complicated), some of these biointensive techniques began life in the UK in the 17th century, moved to France in the 19th century long after they’d been forgotten here, and were then transplanted again – particularly into 20th century America where they were inflected by the New Age culture and cross pollinated by indigenous American horticulture. That immensely productive cultural hybrid introduced a whole new spiritual element in complete contrast to the aggressive materialism born of the blind ended agrochemical mistake. So for me, the principal take-home aspects of many of these books is the ethos, the culture.

I do much of our planning on the computer – why does that feel like a confession? – well it’s because the programme I use, although it’s not perfect, takes away the drudgery of inputting pages of basic data into a blank spreadsheet. The introduction of the polytunnel into the planning has driven us both back into the unknown. Neither of us has any experience of tunnels and so we’re both beginners once again and we need to make our learning as fast and profitable as we possibly can – which, sadly, can’t mean an apprenticeship (too old) or a course (too hard-up) – so it’s books rather than experience: which brings us to the question of sowing times.

However in the world of permaculture design, in which the tiny particulars of our plot of earth, situation, prevailing wind, water, warmth and sunlight are all added to the variables, textbooks can be a blessing and a curse. I regularly see magazines and blogs that declare unequivocally that “this is the week to plant/sow x or y”. The essential qualifier “on my plot” is more often than not left out – understandably because to fill out the details for every soil type, climate zone or frost pocket in the UK would make the article or post bizarrely complicated – not to mention deadly dull. Seed catalogues often escape the trap by using phrases like after all chance of frost is past, or sow in March or April.

So planning ahead can be dauntingly complex; but amidst the variables there are some reliable regularities that can really narrow down the options. I’m grateful to Eliot Coleman for drawing my attention to the cross quarter days and their significance for planning. In his fascinating discussion of day length in chapter five he mentions the marker days that we mostly all know and celebrate – the two equinoxes and the two solstices. But in his analysis of daylength, he points out firstly that day length varies considerably across the year according to the latitude. Here in Bath we’re at approximately 53 degrees north – rather further north than his market garden in Maine, US at 44 degrees north which means that we have more winter days with less than ten hours of daylight than him, and considerably more than a farm in California or Provence. As I said the other day, we’d d be up there with the polar bears if it weren’t for the gulf stream.

I did some back of the envelope calculations and I reckon that these growing days when the light lasts longer than ten hours in Bath, begin on 15th February and end by 26th October which means that any plants we want to overwinter need to be fully established before the end of October. That enters two fixed points into the planning calendar that will be there regardless of weather events. He goes a step further, though and associates these dates with the ancient agricultural festivals of Imbolc (2nd February) and Samhain (1st November). The other festivals fall with Beltane on May 1st and the unpronounceable Lughnasadh on August 1st. The sharp eyed among us might notice that these days that are in close alignment with what’s known as the cross quarter days in the Christian calendar.

The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that early Christianity wanted to establish its credentials as an historically based faith and was obliged by the Gospels to harness Easter Sunday to the moon’s phases – being the first Sunday after first full moon after – wait for it – the spring equinox which the church sets as March 21st regardless of the astronomical facts. So Easter wanders around after the equinox by about a month ( March 22nd – April 25th) – making it an unreliable universal guide to potato planting by suggesting it should happen on Good Friday. There is no other bank holiday that usefully coincides with potato planting because the early spring one is a bit too late for the earliest early potatoes. Good Friday is only useful for spuds in occasional years.

We know from letters written by St Augustine of Canterbury that when he was sent by the Pope to evangelize Britain he arrived to discover a thriving pagan religion with active buildings and a strongly embedded calendar of agricultural festivals which (purists take note) were almost certainly adopted from or inflected by several previous religious systems. Writing to his boss he asked what to do and the advice came back that he shouldn’t burn the buildings down but appropriate then and substitute Christian festivals for the pagan ones.

A quick look at the dates of the ancient principal festivals, then – the equinoxes and solstices; and then the cross quarter days – Michaelmas, Mayday, Lammas and Candlemas – suggests that Augustine didn’t waste time inventing new festival dates he just renamed the existing ones, leaving the pagan faithful to worship whatever they pleased as long as they kept it to themselves; which incidentally is how the Church has carried on pretty well ever since. So underlying the most recent Christian layer, it’s fairly obvious that the ancient agricultural calendar never disappeared but just went underground. Discovering it afresh is like uncovering a buried mural. Christmas was tacked on to the winter solstice celebrations and Easter/ Whitsun, following the moon, very roughly coincided with the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Mayday was too entrenched to be tamed or renamed, and Samhain, on 1st November was simply renamed All Saints Day.

So that allows the agricultural year to be divided into four seasons and four cross quarter days -eight festivals in all and closely aligned with the farming year because they are closely aligned with the defining tasks of each season – sowing, planting out, harvesting and so-forth. They embody all the dates you need to know including when to plant your potatoes and the latest date for sowing and planting your overwintering vegetables ready for the hungry gap.

You might dismiss this as a load of all romantic tosh except that in my previous existence, the biggest church attendances were not the pious events of Easter, but Christmas, Remembrance Sunday, (loosely aligned with All Saints/All Souls/ Hallowe’en), and harvest festival. The old festivals were still exerting their powerful pull almost until the end of the 20th century. Some years ago Bristol Cathedral had a very successful “bread nouveau” service to celebrate the wheat harvest in Lammastide. My friend Dick England who was a miller, grumbled about the fact that you can’t make decent bread without allowing the harvested grain to mature for a month.

But enough of this. The point is that not very far under the surface of our materialistic culture is a stratum of agricultural wisdom accumulated over millennia, and associated with a unique expression of spirituality. I’d almost go further and say green spirituality.

On my computer is the garden planning software that I’m trying to adapt for use on the Potwell Inn allotment, and I intend to abandon the division of the year into twelve months and see if it’s more practical to divide it into the eight ancient seasons. I probably won’t reunite them with their pagan names – I’ve grown used to Lammas and Candlemas which are so obscure they don’t even pretend to be Christian festivals any more. More practically still, I’ll associate each season with its tasks so that our unique calendar combines all the variables I wrote about at the head of this piece, with the passage of the sun that provides every living thing with energy. The biggest problem is that computers and spreadsheets are linear by their very nature and can convey the entirely false impression that the past has nothing to say to us. In the end, I fear, the only way of preparing my new calendar will be to draw the great circle on a piece of paper and divide it into the seasons and their festivals so that gratitude, hope, generosity and thanksgiving are as much a part of it as the best date for planting potatoes on our allotment (which is after the vernal equinox and before Mayday: but keep the fleece handy until the middle of May). Lands End, John O’Groats and Anchorage Alaska will need to calculate their own dates!

“The root, also, of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery,” – William Cobbett

Well that’s us put in our place then. I was reminded of William Cobbett’s 1821 book “Cottage Economy” this week while I was reading an equally interesting book by Carol Deppe – “The Resilient Gardener” published in 2010, almost two centuries later

William Cobbett is rather like one of those entertaining characters you bump into at a party or in the pub and hit it off with straight away. The conversation, like a fencing match, carries on with each tall story matched and bettered until suddenly and without warning the ‘entertaining character’ comes out with a deeply upsetting or unacceptable statement that leaves you breathlessly trying to escape their clutches in case anyone overhears. I used to love reading Cobbett because there was something irresistibly funny about his gammon faced attacks on governments, bureaucracy, Methodist ministers and – potatoes. Nowadays, “Cottage Economy” just reads like an overlong speech by an extreme brexiter. The potato turns out to be a handy surrogate for racist attacks on the Irish in general, and much as I agree with his strictures on absentee landlords and rural poverty; his cure – once again – is all a bit homebrew and roast beef; a pastiche of an invented rural idyll.

Lesser Celandines on the canal today

So back to Carol Deppe who – aside from her completely pardonable eccentricities (like not liking Swiss Chard) – matches Cobbett only in her passionate devotion to the spud. I remember a newcomer to allotments saying to me once that he had been completely amazed at the ferocity of the religious fervour of allotmenteers’ attachments to their least substantiated beliefs. Putting orange peel or rhubarb leaves into the compost heap is equivalent to a mortal sin, for instance. Diet too comes in for a bashing – and pride of place in the parade of shame belongs to the potato which is obviously (i.e. in the absence of evidence) the single most potent cause of obesity, diabetes and uncouth behaviour in the universe; and William Cobbett was a temporising secret remoaner.

So who’s responsible for this reputation. Carol Deppe lists the qualities of the tremendous tuber which include a wide range of micronutrients; a whole bunch of calories that we really do need to survive, and a surprisingly high level of protein – potentially 10%. The first early potato is both annual landmark – like the celandine on the canal today – and completely delicious. Just to add to the joy; eating it with butter actually lowers the glycaemic index. What’s not to like? I wrote the other day about the scapegoating of corn because of its abuse by industrial food producers, and the same thing applies to the potato. No-one wants to live on nothing but potatoes, but it’s pre-cooked oven chips, pre-baked baked potatoes (???) and chips fried in cholesterol boosting fats that we should be going after.

The potato is amazingly easy to grow – especially if you grow earlies when there’s no chance of losing them to late blight (Phytophthora infestans). The range of flavours and textures is huge and, if you’ve got space in your garden, there are blight resistant maincrop potatoes that will keep you in calories all winter. In gardening, in diets, and life in general, the aim is balance.

If there’s a guilty party in the exile of the potato from nice peoples’ diets, it’s the scientific high priesthood who decided decades ago that obesity was solely caused by excess consumption of carbohydrates. Then they changed their minds and said that the culprit was fat – which was a wonderful gift to the food industry who discovered that they could hide a pile of sugar in a low fat yoghurt. The constant to and fro of diet orthodoxies left the great general public anxious and perplexed about food altogether, and supported the exponential growth of the diet food industry.

All the while the most sensible food advice of the last fifty years was gifted to us by Michael Pollan with his “eat food, not too much, mostly veg.” – to which I’d add ” – your own home grown, organic and locally sourced veg”. Ultimately, we all need calories and we could, if we wished, get most of our daily allowance from drinking a bottle of wine or two, living exclusively on potatoes or eating a couple of burgers and chips. But turning to an exclusive diet of lettuce would soon make you ill however virtuous it also made you feel.

Sadly we’ve reached a point in human evolution where – because of decades of misbehaviour – we have to be mindful of food once again; seriously mindful. But abandoning the potato because it has a bad reputation will no more save the world than avoiding the cracks in the pavement. When it comes to choosing between rain forest destroying soya flour, corn fed industrial meat and locally produced potatoes for some of your daily protein, there’s a difficult and grown up decision to be made; and this isn’t a simple choice between vegan or vegetarian. The decision needs to embrace economics, politics, international justice as well as personal health – which makes it tricky, but not nearly as tricky as choosing between half a dozen identical industrially produced foods with different labels.

Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth.

Potwell Inn

At the end of the day, and with a little gardening skill, we can grow potatoes easily on the allotment. In our case just a few first earlies as a seasonal treat, because they’re so lovely to eat. We also bake all our own bread, but there’s no way we could grow enough grain to be self-sufficient in flour. What we can do is eat a selection of carb rich roots alongside a huge variety of equally healthy greens, salads, tomatoes and herbs. We’ll never be self-sufficient but why would we need to be? There are many small producers close by who can enrich our diet and whom we can support or barter with. Our lunch today included three types of cheese made on an organic farm within walking distance and tasting as good as any imported types.

When it comes to health hazards, the potato is way down the list behind poverty, unemployment, poor housing, stress and overwork. Maybe thirty years ago we could have tackled these problems sequentially but we’ve left it too late. Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth. The trouble is, this isn’t a fairy tale.

Early blight?

Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.

By way of absolute contrast see this –

This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.

the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

They were playing;

  1. Playing tag
  2. Making patterns with stones
  3. investigating ponds
  4. looking for frogspawn
  5. Making mud pies
  6. building dens
  7. building swings in a tree
  8. meeting school friends
  9. helping parents on allotments
  10. wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
  11. watching the grownups gardening
  12. learning how to thrive as humans
  13. even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch

Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.

The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.

During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.

When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.

The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.

We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.

Our improvised second stage seedling care – central heating and south facing window supplemented by a studio lamp with a daylight LED bulb.

Moving on rapidly

So these two photos are taken in different years and from opposite ends of the allotment; the first photo shows what the plot looked like at the weekend – it’s the same photo I used yesterday – and the other was taken on the day (in April 2016) when we took on the first half plot, just shy of five years ago. Having endured for 25 years a 1/3 acre garden that we never had time to garden properly because we were both in more than full time work, I always used to say that I’d like to retire to a flat in a tower block with no more than a single window box to maintain. Madame on the other hand was the real gardener – RHS trained and all that. My only horticultural training was as a groundsman (I checked just now and it seems that non discriminatory job titles like ‘groundskeeper’ or ‘groundsperson’ have not penetrated the arcane world of killing everything except proper grass – i.e. the kind you can play manly games on!).

We had always gardened over the years, with a big garden while we were at art school; a couple of allotments and various backyards and plots that occasionally rewarded and always absorbed us, but Madame would not be diverted from her ambition to create a proper allotment after we retired. We joined the waiting list the moment we knew where we were going to live, and I remember standing in a Bristol bookshop with two books on allotmenteering which were my way of backing down without actually saying so.

First fruits!

As always she was right and I have never been so wrong in my life. My dispiriting experience of not having time to garden very well was overwhelmed the first time we stood there in the corner of the plot with our newly signed agreement, and I realized that for the very first time we had genuine agency over a piece of land, and crucially, abundant time to tend it properly. No-one could lean over the garden wall and make snarky remarks like “another day off vicar?” The right hand photo at the top is taken from the spot where I first stuck a spade into the ground and fell in love all over again with the smell of the earth, and just above, here, is the very first thing we grew – a radish.

We had learned the hard way that trying to manage too large a plot of land is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Pests and diseases would take hold before we had time to notice; and my timesaving wheeze of rotavating the plot to clear it quickly merely distributed the bindweed, couch grass and brambles across the whole plot. The greatest mistake of all was to import a tractor load of horse manure infested with creeping buttercup roots. Our best efforts thereafter were confined to fighting a guerilla war with the weeds. There were a few successes and we gained the resilience to survive the inevitable failures and disappointments but I could never shake off the thought of the tepid testimonial – “Could do better“. One year we even freakishly won six classes in the village flower and veg show and for the next twelve months we had a small gilded plastic cup on the dresser with the prize cards behind it – but I always felt that we’d be exposed as frauds. The village stalwarts at the show made their feelings clear by rewarding us with lukewarm applause.

Faith in nature is free but not cheap

Time, energy, experience and opportunity have made all the difference, especially during the three lockdowns – actually in our case it’s been one long one. I’ve often said that the argument that gardening is good for the soul and good for mental health has been a bit over-egged these past months. In fact I think that the one thing gardening is supremely good at is teaching us a form of radical patience and relieving us of any illusions that we can control nature. It’s that sense of being able to take a step back from endlessly patrolling the ramparts that nurtures us. Faith in nature is free but not cheap; a kind of non dogmatic Taoism that gives us courage to bend to the will of the earth. This morning we stood and watched as a female blackbird searched the margin between the gravel boards and the wood chip path, removing a feast (for her) of slugs and eggs – no chemicals, no traps. Gardening is less like being the conductor, and much more like sitting in the third strings of a symphony orchestra counting the beats and waiting for your turn to play just a couple of notes.

And so we’re hovering on the edge of the new season – all prepped and ready to go. The beds are clear and composted, the greenhouse cleaned and already housing the hardy early birds and the polytunnel is ready. Of course, we’re never truly prepared because only time will tell what the seasons and the climate will throw at us this coming year. It looks as if the hungry gap will at least be covered by plentiful brassicas in their second season and we are looking forward (no – I am looking forward) – to learning an entirely new gardening language because, with our rapidly changing unpredictable climate, the more strategies we have learned the more resilient we shall be. The aim – as ever – is to put something good on the Potwell Inn plates every day of the year. Our parents and grandparents were all gardeners like us and I often think of my grandfather who was drafted into the Air Force during the First World War because he was a carpenter whose skills were needed to build the wooden frames of aeroplanes! It was on his smallholding in the Chilterns that my sister and I first met Charlie the toad who lived in the greenhouse, and watched as hay was cut and stooked in the field. Something is nagging me at the back of my mind that suggests we might soon be having to re-learn some of the skills he celebrated through his hands; and if not his skills, then possibly the skills of countless other gardeners, farmers and smallholders in different ages and cultures who may have something important to teach us as the oil runs out.

Hoop house, polytunnel …. it depends where you live.

Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.

……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence

I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….

Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.

Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.

Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.

John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.

We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.

As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.

Many hands make light work

Throwaway builders gloves wash up pretty well

I thought I’d kick off with this photo. Months ago I ordered online what I thought would be a pair of gardening gloves but which turned out to be ten throwaway pairs. They’re not the strongest and because we had so many, we lazily picked out a new pair whenever the ones we’d been wearing got too wet or muddy. However our frugal habits ensured that eventually we landed up with a box of very smelly/muddy gloves; so Madame hand washed them in the usual way, after she’d chucked out the ones with holes in, and we now have eight pairs of clean and dry gloves ready to face the spring rigours. Somehow it felt like a tiny victory.

And while we’re on the subject of downright meanness, she is also darning the Guernsey fisherman’s’ jumper that she bought for me second hand at least ten years ago and which, when it wore out, graduated to the allotment. The neck and cuffs have all but unravelled, leaving me trailing lengths of wool around and so Madame has knitted into them some surplus wool of a quite different colour which makes it look twice as cheerful. I told her I’d wear it with pride, and she said “It’ll make you look like a tramp”. I like things that are repurposed and recycled. Allotments sprout wooden pallets like a rash, and most of the time – after a short spell as a compost bin – they get passed on until they rot . The seat on the left is one of the more creative bits of repurposing I’ve seen on our site. I really like it.

Work on the polytunnel has ground to a halt due to the sub zero temperatures. Today, factoring in the wind chill, it’s down to as low as -10C in some places ; more like -5C here. Yesterday we worked in a mizzle of frozen droplets for a couple of hours, making a start on the polytunnel doors, but by lunchtime we were ready to pack it in. The east winds blow unobstructed across the allotments, it’s by far the most destructive quarter on our site. We put up some precautionary fine mesh windbreaks last year, but reading Patrick Whitefield’s comprehensive “Earth Care Manual” a few weeks ago I noticed his diagrams of the impact of windbreaks and the way in which they need a degree of porosity to avoid swirling air currents. At the moment there are no vulnerable plants in the lee of the windbreaks, but it’s a cautionary tale and we may have to rethink the design when the weather improves. We also mixed up a barrow load of seed compost and brought a couple of bags home ready to start filling the propagators with germinating seedlings. Being completely new to polytunnel growing we’ll be feeling our way this first season as we try to take advantage of an earlier start for our tender plants, so we’re hoping to get a longer season for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines and even some earlier than ever early potatoes and broad beans.

Our tree plantings have been held back because what with covid and the terrible weather in the east of the country, the supplier has emailed to apologise for the delay but assures us that our trees will arrive in time. We certainly hope so. One cautionary tale regarding newly planted cordons – don’t do what we did and forget to loosen the ties. Several of our cordons have been damaged by soft ties that (we now know) have unforgiving wire centres. We’ve removed them all now and I’m pretty sure the bark will soon heal over but in future we’ll use kind and forgiving string which will rot and fall off most seasons. Every cloud – etc – and Madame discovered an overwintering apple tortrix moth chrysalis on one of them. Aren’t microscopes wonderful? and such a help in identifying assorted creepy crawlies. A little bit of research suggests that the best method of control for these kinds of pest is to encourage blue tits and other insectivores to nest nearby. We’ve already seen blackbirds feasting on the slugs that hole up on our wooden edged paths so it looks as if nest boxes and winter feeding could be an investment. We have decided not to make permanent raised beds in the polytunnel because they seem to provide a perfect lurking and breeding space for slugs and snails, so we’re going to build soft edged beds and give them a try. These would have the immediate advantage of allowing us time to watch the way we actually use the tunnel and change the path layout – if necessary – for one that serves us better. That’s the essence of permaculture in a way; spending a lot of time observing and learning what the ground is saying to us.

Back at the Potwell Inn we’ll be cleaning and sterilizing all our root trainers, pots and trays ready for the fray. There’s a real sense of excitement in the air here; all we need is some warmth and sunshine. These last weeks we’ve been reading everything on biointensive growing that we can get our hands on. There are some great books that explain how very small pieces of land can become highly productive. I mentioned Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer’s book “Miraculous Abundance” recently. Initially I wasn’t very enthralled by its rather breathless tone, but I stuck with it and it’s grown on me. For a start they’re ruthlessly honest about their failures as well as successes; but also they reference a number of writers we might never otherwise have known about. It’s not that we want to grow a vast surplus and become market gardeners – our aims are far more modest; simply to feed ourselves well and perhaps share the surplus for for free. We don’t expect to change the world or save the earth by what we achieve but on the other hand, if more and more people adopted a simpler, less impactful way of living and were able to provide at least some of their own food, there would be a great saving in food miles and better than that even, a change in culture. We’re not there yet, though. Yesterday evening we were talking about chickens and I suddenly remembered the taste – yes, in my mind I could actually taste the eggs we used to produce with our small flock of hens. Organic and free range with yolks that sat up golden from the grass and grubs they feasted on in our little orchard. I then spent several hours searching for a local supplier of eggs that might live up to the memory and I couldn’t find one. I could get them delivered from heaven know where but walking to a local shop and buying fine eggs from a local farm seemed vastly more difficult than I’d hoped. A bit more research revealed that the going rate is between £5 and £6 a dozen – at least twice the supermarket price.

Which brings me to my final point in this post. I was reading a review of the Hervé-Gruyer’s book written by Chris Smaje, author of “A small farm future” – it’s well worth reading his book. He raised a very serious point of criticism of the tendency of some writers on biointensive farming to exaggerate their productivity by failing to mention the “ghost acres” of land providing some of their inputs from off the farm; things like manure and bought-in compost for instance. I don’t think you could fairly make this criticism of the Hervé-Gruyers. But he also went on to ponder whether all this emphasis on local organic food production on small farms wouldn’t provide ideological cover for the well-to-do middle classes while doing nothing to raise food standards and reduce the effects of agribusiness in the ‘real world’. Well yes, I agree that the vast majority of people lack the money and/or the land and skills to move towards the vision as it’s often described. An truly ethical life comes with a high cost overhead and so obviously it’s easier to be comfortable and virtuous than to try it out on benefits. But that doesn’t mean that we should all stop what we’re trying to achieve because it’s not fair. That’s allowing the perfect to drive out the good. Every home grown cabbage makes a tiny dent in a supermarket’s profits; but the production of it engages the grower with the earth, with the prospect of disappointment, and with all the multitude of temptations and decisions that grown up farmers have to deal with every day. Sustainable and healthful food production depends on a market and that market cannot function outside of its ethical framework. Every tiny blow against the more is better philosophy is important; and that applies to consumers as much as it does to producers. We’ll never avert an ecological catastrophe by driving to the farmers market in our SUVs to buy organic asparagus, flown in from Peru.

So if anyone knows a source of great eggs near Bath I’d love to have the address. Meanwhile we’ll be preparing for our best ever season – probably.

Continuous rain and east wind brings cold feet!

Last week – or was it just a dream? – there was the first intimation of spring, somewhere in the daylight. It doesn’t require any special powers or supernatural skill, just the memories of February days stored in that part of the brain that can recall and discriminate precise sensory details like the smell of newly turned earth or fresh rain. As it happens, someone’s measured and named the first smell of the earth geosmin and the second, rain smell – petrichor – which might earn you some funny looks if you try to slip it into a conversation. Which reminds me that while I was teaching ceramics in a prison one of my class told me that he and a number of others who had been involved in a long trial would randomly choose words from a dictionary and then try to insert them in to their evidence in order to win a mars bar, which was almost a currency in those days. “There I was M’lud, tending my cannabis plants and enjoying the petrichor ….”

Anyway, then there was a break in the universally depressing weather – wettest January since the days of Noah etc – and we dared to hope that we might make a start on erecting the polytunnel; the first step being the installation of foundation tubes and securing them to buried steel plates to stop it blowing away, or being nicked. The manufacturers are so proud of the wind fastness of their design that they’ve got a video online of one of their tunnels in a storm on Shetland. The east wind was not strong enough to rock a tunnel but it was cold enough to strip the flesh off our fingers; and that was before it started to rain. So all we managed to achieve on the first day was to peg out the positions of the anchor points, and even that was fiendishly tricky because the tunnel is a tight fit – in the same way that my waist band used to be: – overlapping in several places. I have not previously seen Madame wear three hats at once, and a photograph would have been too provoking to be worth the risk; but we came home with the quiet satisfaction that comes from discovering that the job is going to be an absolute pig from start to finish. For instance, the point at which we needed to secure the U bolts to the ground tubes looked likely to be underwater if it went on raining like it was. There’s a point in every allotment project when you reflect on what you’ve just dug out and what’s likely to replace it and wonder why you ever started. The garden of Eden looking photo on the left reflects what the empty space on the right looked like on the 15th July last year the other one is our blank canvas.

Several days later …

Did I mention the job being an absolute pig? True to form the rain never really let up and so the installation of the foundation plates took place largely underwater; thick muddy and very cold water that was so impenetrable the securing nuts at the bottoms of the holes would disappear as the water level rose inexorably beyond my baling capacity. What should have been a morning’s work took several days during which it rained on and off the whole time. Twice we came home soaked through and so caked in mud we had to wash almost everything. Naturally it would have been simpler to wait for a week, but we had spotted a window of opportunity for getting the frame up and by yesterday morning with the help of a larger baling mug the last two foundation posts were in and we turned to the pile of tubing, nuts and bolts that needed assembling. Luckily I’d rehearsed the operation in my head so often (we watched the video five times) that we’d gathered together and bought the last few tools we would need; among them a professional range electric drill promising twice the torque of my smaller one which often fainted at the sight of a wall. True to the blurb it almost broke my wrist when I forgot to adjust the torque setting. I think I’m just not professional enough to use proper tools!

So in two long sessions which were 20% bolting and 80% sorting through the pile and inspecting the instructions; and with an even fiercer east wind biting our cheeks we’ve all but finished the framework and cultivated the soil we’d trampled in spite of the planks. All credit is due to the company that supplied it – no ads here – we just need to bolt in the tensioning rails and make the doors up and then wait for a sunny day with no wind to fit the polythene cover.

Our 15′ x 10′ polytunnel – oriented north/south after a great deal of conflicting advice; and it’s big enough to stand up in.

Not only are we absurdly proud of ourselves for putting it up without any shouting – just a bit of muttering – but more pleasingly still we provoked a storm of structure envy among the neighbours. From what they were saying the whole site is going to look like tent city by the end of the summer. Everyone’s seen what’s happening at the border and investing in ratatouille growing capacity.

By the end of last week I was feeling pretty down with all the news and I really don’t like writing about what’s going on because it doesn’t change anything. But a week on the allotment transformed our mood. We’ve worked through rain, frost, east winds and even wintry showers. I thought several times about one of our elderly parishioners who lived alone and who, every winter, would wrap an old raincoat around herself, tied up with a length of baler twine and dig her garden from end to end, regardless of the weather. She was one of the most cheerful people you’d ever meet; completely unburdened by the spirit of the age.

So perhaps when we enlarge on the therapeutic effects of a bit of nature we should be more honest about the way allotmenteering does it. My feeling is that the only way to discover your inner peasant is to crack open your comfort zone by exposing it to the weather. Some seeds are like that – garlic, angelica and sweet cicely don’t really thrive until they’ve had a hard winter. It’s called vernalisation. Muddy overalls, white fingers and blotchy skin are the price of emergent life in us humans too, perhaps?

Hey Pesto!

I suppose we could count this as the aftermath (to use a grazing term) of the first harvest of the 2021 season. All through the winter months we keep one of the propagators going and fill it with basil plants. As long as it’s grown in a good mixture of soil, compost and vermiculite and fed well – we use liquid seaweed extract – plus being kept at around 23C with at least 12 hours of artificial daylight it thrives and keeps us with a constant supply of fresh basil throughout the winter. Most of the time we just harvest a few leaves, but yesterday we took a lot – around 150 grammes to make a big batch of pesto. Very soon we’ll need the propagators for first sowings of chillies and tomatoes and so we’re in the transition time before we can move it to the greenhouse and then the polytunnel for fresh pickings through the summer and autumn.

Pesto freezes really well. We make a big batch and roll it in silicone paper to make a sausage. Then it goes into the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up so it can be sliced into individually wrapped helpings and returned to the freezer where it seems to last for ages without losing flavour.

Here at the Potwell Inn we always have some kind of stock in the fridge, with pesto and tomato sauce in the freezer. We also bottle and preserve tomatoes in the autumn so there is always passata and tomato sauce in the store cupboard. Any one of them can be used on its own (if we can’t be bothered to prepare anything complicated), or as an ingredient in a bit of a performance number.

Pesto couldn’t be easier to make in bulk – Jamie Oliver does a good recipe – and although the ingredients look a bit expensive a very small amount goes a long way. Last night we just cooked some wholemeal spaghetti and stirred in some pesto. It just isn’t possible to buy supermarket sauces half as good as the ones you can make, and aside from using it straight, pesto makes an amazing addition dropped into a pan of soup, or just stirred into the bowl .

A very straightforward tomato sauce is equally good with a bowl of pasta and a grating of parmesan. It was Auguste Escoffier who said “faites simple” – keep it simple, although you wouldn’t think so to see some of his recipes. Nonetheless the simplest food often feels like an event. Yesterday the pesto with pasta was just lovely, and the fact that we’d grown and harvested the basil ourselves earlier in the day added an additional sense of value to it. Yesterday it was a mixture of two varieties – classico and neapolitan but there are many more to try.

I know I like to bang on about growing, cooking and eating together in sacramental terms but that’s the way it feels. Reducing food to nothing more than fuel and calories is as mad as reducing everything we do to profit and loss. We’re waiting to walk into town to get our first covid vaccinations in the next hour. Somehow this seems almost portentous, although until we get our second doses and wait for a week or two we won’t be entirely safe. But it does feel like some sort of turning point. There’s a sourdough loaf in the oven at the moment, smelling glorious; we haven’t needed to buy bread since last March, and that in itself feels like an achievement. The pandemic hasn’t passed us by entirely because one of our extended family died in the early stages of the outbreak and the constant sense of threat has never really left us. I wonder what the long term effects of all this will be, but it’s only a matter of an hour before we can dare to think ‘where next?’ and I can only feel the most profound sense of gratitude to the greatly undervalued people who’ve transcended the stupidity and mismanagement of our government to bring us safely to this moment.

Mr Brueghel arrives with the snow

There’s something almost medieval about this shot of families out bright and early, building snowmen with their children. Some of the games we play can hardly have changed for centuries. Dogs must have run in crazy excited circles in the snow for ever, and I daresay parents have always taken the opportunity to play at being children again. Some things do change. This afternoon we saw a couple out sweeping the green with a metal detector in search of a lost object; and then we saw a group of six socially distanced young people sharing a joint – you do have to wonder if they’ve quite grasped what’s going on here with the covid pandemic.

Knowing that we were due a big fall of snow kept me awake worrying about the nets on the allotment; but pacing at the bedroom window during the dog watch was a bit pointless because it didn’t start snowing until 6.15am; fell intensely for less than an hour and then promptly stopped again. During the “Beast from the East” we were too late to save the biggest net which had gathered a huge weight of snow. Today we were luckier and as soon as we could, we walked up and shook the snow off with no more harm than a bit of cold powder down our sleeves.

Yesterday as I was balanced on a very precarious step ladder, ramming in the last of six fence posts I was pondering the spiritual benefits of our engagement with nature. I know it’s supposed to confer a kind of super-chilled saintliness on us and I see rather a lot of breathless writing on the subject; mostly written by ex merchant bankers who’ve saved up their bonuses in the City and bought themselves a chunk of land from a bankrupt farmer. Almost without exception after a couple of years they no longer actually farm or market garden full-time for a living, but earn most of their income writing books and running courses. One old friend and mentor of mine, with a long lifetime’s experience of beekeeping was mightily hacked off when someone who had only done a six week novice beekeeping class set herself up as a trainer just down the road from him. He had taught hundreds of novice beekeepers, me included, without charging anyone a single penny. I had to give it up when I developed a scary intolerance for stings. Nature’s got teeth too!

I’ve been struggling to read one such book – “Miraculous Abundance” by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer; but its self-satisfied tone is so immodest I can only read a couple of paragraphs at a time. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but all I can see is the shining face of the self-appointed guru. I would love to say to them that permaculture isn’t a religion and it certainly doesn’t need any bishops. Even the BBC’s Winterwatch programmes seem to be going after the Templeton prize for folk religion with its very own mindfulness spot accompanied by winsome pictures of breaking waves and robins.

I think I’ve been perfectly explicit here at the Potwell Inn that there does seem to be a spiritual dimension wrapped up in our relationship with the natural world. The question is whether watching an osprey catching (always the same) salmon on telly amounts to a relationship or an entirely passive experience. Does watching a stream of massively talented natural history programming amount to a pilgrimage of some sort or is it more like eating magic mushrooms? – all over in a few hours and then back to normal.

Maybe this is my rather austere theology shining through, but it does seem important to me that any adequate spirituality is formed in a practice of some kind. You couldn’t learn Tai Chi from a book and you couldn’t form a deep relationship with nature without getting your hands dirty and your feet wet. So here’s my (completely inadequate) guide to a possible green spirituality.

  • god doesn’t have to be supernatural.
  • If there is god at all, they/it won’t be at all religious.
  • If they/it speak(s) to you (which hardly ever happens) it won’t be in a silly stage voice full of thee’s and thou’s it will be quietly through your experience.
  • There isn’t a person alive who can’t teach you something you need to know.
  • They don’t have to look like a Danish surfer!
  • Real wisdom is not the sole property of the western educated classes.
  • Any god worth considering would be utterly beyond our comprehension.
  • Therefore it’s best to keep quiet about it, otherwise you’ll sound silly when you forget the punchline.
  • A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (Proverbs 15:17 -New Living Translation)