Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.
I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.
Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!
The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.
Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.
My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.
Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.
We have a friend – Harry -who’s a retired orthopaedic surgeon; and an all round good guy. On his 90th birthday he gave a truly witty after dinner speech in which he tried to account for his long life and 60 years of happy marriage by listing the virtues that he thought might have contributed. The virtue I remember most clearly was thrift, which he illustrated by telling a story about apples. Harry has a large garden and orchard and he said that he had the utmost difficulty in leaving windfalls on the ground – it just seemed wrong to waste them, he said – and the consequence, he noted, was ” …. of course you never eat a decent apple!”
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that all these synonyms have a faintly negative air about them – but I know exactly what Harry meant. We’ve got a load of really nice, almost perfect, Lord Lambourne apples stored in the meter cupboard; but those aren’t the ones we’re eating because we like to finish up the windfalls and blemished ones first. And so every morning when I prepare our muesli I cut the bad bits out of yesterday’s windfalls and grate the rest – they still taste just as good and, pound for pound, they contain exactly as many nutrients as their smooth cheeked cousins in the cupboard. The point. though, is that we couldn’t even give them away. When we go (infrequently) to the fruit and veg stall in a supermarket, we see nothing but perfect examples of each variety, flying off the shelves complete with all the residue of the repeated sprays that have bestowed their cosmetic perfection on them. “Another slice of organophosphate and neonicotinoid pie?” is the one question we’re most unlikely to ask at the dinner table.
But simply by working the allotment our worldview has changed. Because we’ve planted and nurtured our own vegetables; tended and watered them through drought, storm and snowfall; pruned, fed and picked the fruits we’re a lot less inclined to discard them because they don’t look like the ones in the supermarket (or especially the seed catalogue). Yesterday I was writing about how pleased we were to have a small crop of Florence fennel and I forgot to take a picture to share – so here it is – and, as you can easily see, although I extolled the flavour and texture yesterday, it’s hardly a textbook example of the genre; on the very edge of bolting and not about to win any prizes at any flower and produce show I’ve ever been to. When you grow your own veg, you’ve got to learn to love them in rather the way you love your children – seeing nothing but sheer beauty and giftedness in them in spite of all the evidence to the contrary!
There’s an old saying that says “everyone should eat their peck of dirt”. and equally if you’ve never seen a slug or an earwig on your plate you’re probably part of the reason that our rivers are so heavily polluted by runoff from farms. It wasn’t for nothing that the Edwardian gardeners at the Lost Gardens of Heligan called their stirrup pump sprayer the widowmaker.
Isn’t it a supreme irony that we’re so scared of insects or a bit of dirt, or especially the idea of composting toilets and using urine as a fertilizer; while we are quite prepared to tolerate some of the most dangerous nerve-gas derived chemicals ever invented, all over our lettuce or fruit. How on earth did that happen? Well I guess it’s because we can’t see it, and a lot of money has been spent on persuading us it’s perfectly safe.
Allotmenteering teaches so much more than a few horticultural tricks. It teaches some of those virtues that Harry was praising on his 90th birthday. It teaches us to value diversity, stop dreaming about the perfect and above all to stop wasting the good things that the earth has given us. And, how could we leave this one out? – allotmenteering gives us a sense of awe and gratitude that’s so easily lost in this era of mendacity and stupidity. That’ll do for us.
The new pond – which Madame rather acidly refers to as ‘the lake’ is all but finished now. We’re just waiting for the membrane to arrive and it should be filling with rainwater within a week. I suggested that perhaps a wave machine might add something but she wasn’t biting on that one and merely asked when the fish were arriving.
Enough of the Potwell Inn domestics – we’re nowhere near as much fun as the landlord of one pub we used to go to. He would lurk in the lounge bar and his wife was in charge of the busier public bar; and they would hurl abuse at one another through the connecting passage: it was the best show in town. Every night at ten o’clock on the dot Mr Rossi would turn up in his chef’s apron smelling of heavenly Italian food and we would vie with one another to sit next to him because we could never afford to eat in his restaurant.
And speaking of Italian food; his year- at last- we’ve had success with the Florence fennel. We’ve tried often before but it tends to bolt very easily and so, when we read somewhere that it’s best to delay sowing until after the equinox – as the day length declines – we decided to give it a go and it’s paid off handsomely. Tonight we feasted on onion soup, followed by a pear and fennel salad and I have to say in all modesty (ho ho) that it was the best and most tender fennel we’ve ever eaten. It’ easy enough to buy it in the supermarkets, I know, but we often find it rather tough and sometimes quite stringy, as if it’s spent a long time on a lorry – which of course it usually has. Our own fennel, not as big as the supermarket ones but with a properly formed bulb, had a sweetness behind the aniseed flavour and best of all, sliced very thinly, it was as tender as a cos lettuce . We ate in respectful silence enjoying every mouthful. I guess it’s one of the strengths of seasonal food that when it appears it’s always at its prime; and when there’s none left there’s usually something different but just as good coming along.
The related job on the allotment is to use the soil from the pond to build up a new strawberry bed. There’s been a good deal of to and fro with the wheelbarrow, but it’s all coming together and we’re now ready to order some new strawberry plants. The fruit cage is almost clear and at last the apple cordons have been given more space to breathe by relocating some redcurrants and gooseberries.
It’s been hard work, and there’s a lot more construction still to go. It would be easy to think of an allotment as a rather static entity; but as we learn more about the soil and the microclimate on the plot we move things around and add new features. This winter we’re planning for pollinators, insects, reptiles and small mammals – that’s for the earth, and for us a sheltered level area to sit and enjoy the wildlife.
I’ve never quite understood how fine words could fail to butter at least a couple of parsnips – as long, that is, as someone is paying you to write them. Sadly, though in my case nobody pays me to write anything and so the Potwell Inn parsnips are only ever buttered thanks to our extremely modest pensions. Still; what’s the price of a pat of butter against the pleasure of eating our own organic parsnips straight off the allotment.
Yes it’s parsnip time again; having seen off the last of the summer vegetables. Parsnips and all the other roots shuffle modestly to the front of the queue and surprise us as they do every year. I imagine you could (just about) eat them boiled with a knob of butter; or mashed with the aforementioned and a bit of pepper but for me the glory of the parsnips is roasted until they’re golden – in olive oil rather than butter which burns too easily. For even greater transports of delight (so long as you’re not a vegetarian) I’d roast them with carrots, squash, and possibly beetroot in the meat juices left in the pan while the joint is resting, but that, for us these days, is a very occasional extravagance (and all the more enjoyable for it). But really any which way is good, and with care and attention you can even achieve the chef’s holy grail and possibly mythical quality – balance. Balance, I think, is how you describe a perfect culinary chord in which (to carry on the musical analogy) neither the first violins or the horns are getting all their own way.
Parsnip soup is one of those dishes beloved of pub chefs with a limited budget, who want to honour local sourcing without lashing out on salt marsh lamb. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be improved by a bit of TLC. I’ve tasted some truly grim versions. Don’t rush it; get the best fresh ingredients and give it time. Parsnips, especially shop bought ones, can be a bit woody towards the end of the season; so preparation should include cutting out the woody cores, because however long you blitz the resulting soup for, it will still taste as if you dropped a corner of the kitchen table into the pan. Your guests will not be impressed as they pick the splinters from their teeth if you extol the rustic virtues of their lunch. And finally, don’t over season it – let it speak for itself – and give it a swirl of sage oil and a dollop of crème fraiche. There isn’t a better way of marking an otherwise dull day.
It’s mid October and the daylight hours are shortening dramatically. When the sun shines, the autumn colours of the leaves are wonderful; but on a day like today when it’s drizzling; the allotment stares back at us like an estranged teenager and the earth is cold. It’s hard to see beyond the moment if the rain’s running down your neck and even the grass has taken on the blue green hue that’s an autumn speciality. Any pause in the traffic and you can almost hear the slugs munching. So we drifted off to a garden centre to get supplies of potting compost, sand and fine grit for a new garlic bed which needs to be well drained. We could make our own potting compost, but if the lockdown goes on we’ll have run out by the busiest time in March.
If you think that my occasional forays into philosophy or poetry, environmental politics, or spirituality are unexpected or random, I’d have to push back a bit and say that being human – I mean really human – can’t be boiled down to cooking and eating parsnips (thank goodness) or, for that matter, growing them. The allotment and the kitchen are two of the most important spaces in the (imaginary) Potwell Inn; but only two of them. Neither the natural history of Bath nor the contents of the bookshelves or the paintings on the walls, finish crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s. I couldn’t even begin to make a list of my favourite marks of humanness and neither would I dare to suggest that my list enjoyed any kind of privilege in the great order of things. But the unique and glorious bird’s nest of borrowings and learnings that furnish my/your/anyone’s inner life is a symphony, a work of art.
And on the wet days and the ones where nothing seems to go right, it helps to have that precious bird’s nest. Goodness knows I was fed up today – so fed up I started reading Rilke! What I wanted to say is that full humanity needs its stories and poems and pictures and perhaps above all, its spiritualities, songs and music. It’s only through these shared arts that good and bad can be held together in hope. So although fine words may butter no economic parsnips, they can raise two fingers to the gods of chaos, war and destruction. And without those internal resources, there’s no symphony, no texture; just a solitary busker with a hat full of rain.
I had a bit of a comments discussion with one of the Potwell Inn regulars yesterday, concerning what she called ‘covid fatigue’, and then someone else joined in – in the way that these spontaneous conversations pop up – you know, cold wet day outside (at least for us, ‘though not in her part of the US) and we chewed over the awfulness of it all for a bit and agreed that constant bad news and bad politics is sapping our energy. We were, all three, leaning in a virtually socially distanced way, on the imaginary bar, lamenting jobs not done and feeling a bit lethargic.
And later as I wandered around the flat, picking things up and putting them down again and sharing the umpteenth cup of green tea with Madame, I noticed – or rather paid proper attention to the fact that we’ve got one heated and one unheated propagator going, with basil, coriander, winter hardy lettuce and parsley all germinated, and the overwintering broad bean seed (Aquadulce Claudia) had just arrived in the post and we’d managed to clear most of the allotment for the winter crops. As often happens, it seems, our lethargy had been rather upstaged by our seasonal autopilot. I wrote a couple of days ago about linear versus cyclical time, and there’s no doubt that for farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners it’s a no-contest. The rhythms of the annual cycle of sowing, tending, harvesting and clearing get embedded in our minds and sink, like chi energy into our fingers.
So it was off to the computer for me, and I spent most of the daylight hours watching the rain running down the windows, and renewing the growing plan for the coming season. By the magic of the software, a single click can transfer last year’s plan to 2021 and (provided you’ve put the dates in properly) clear the beds in another click and declare that the game is on once again. Of course virtual allotmenteering is a good deal less physical than the real thing, but at least you get a big red warning when your rotations go awry – which warnings you’re free to ignore because allotments on 250 square metres are not so easy to rotate as a 400 acre farm.
The next challenge was to match our physical seed store with the virtual one, and that’s always a bit of an eye opener. If I could make a helpful suggestion to new allotmenteers it would be to steer clear of garden centre seed displays. This is advice we never take ourselves, of course, so the result of this disobedience is the annual search for out of date seeds. Yes, the second most important bit of information on the seed packet is the bit we most frequently cut off and discard – the ‘sow by’ date. Seeds, like gardeners, only stay viable for a time. If you only wanted to grow poppies you could probably bulk buy as a teenager and carry on sowing them until they cart you off; but there are other more sensitive seeds that are only viable for a year, some that need a rest in the fridge before they’ll germinate and some that won’t germinate unless they’re resting in daylight.
I used to work on a radio station in which, posted in huge letters over the desk, was the legend “In the event of equipment failure RTFM”. I asked someone what it meant and he answered(testily) ‘read the manual!’. Seed packets seduce with their photos but disappoint if you don’t read the small print. Every single word.
All of which failure to take our own advice leads every autumn to the clear out of un-viable seed, and we’re ruthless because you can lose a whole crop if you miss the optimum sowing time. So any packet with a missing date goes out regardless of whether it’s got seeds in it. There’s a picture (top right) of yesterday’s haul above, and if you were to examine the contents you’d discover that 80% of them were garden centre impulse buys.
Next comes the seed order; so last year’s order is reprinted as a starter, and then we go through it to remove some things we didn’t like and add some that might do better. Then we check the box(es) of seeds against what we want to grow and eventually – after a lot of argy bargy and a sheaf of notes – I get to type out the definitive seed order for – in this case – 2021, along with suppliers etc. We shall, as ever, almost certainly ignore the list as soon as we leave the virtual world and set foot on the dirt!
But it all filled a rainy day and we spent a few hours together around the table enjoying the prospect of the Promised Land in all its unrealised potential. The allotment will never look better than it does in October, inside our heads, and suddenly we realised as we sat down later that we’d crossed the Rubicon, notwithstanding covid fatigue and all the provocations. We’d strayed over the border into 20121 without intending to and it felt very good.
This morning the sun is shining as Storm Alex slowly passes, leaving floods and damage everywhere but our refurbished water stores brimming. Last season (dare I say that now?) was a huge challenge, undertaken in the most difficult circumstances. We couldn’t get new seed so we had to busk it. We couldn’t buy most of the sundries we rely on and at times we felt terribly isolated from our friends and family. Our government seemed incapable of seriously addressing the challenges and even today we have no idea how this will all turn out, but that’s all linear time. The fact is, in spite of everything we grew food, adapted, changed our whole diet to fit our circumstances and stayed better friends than ever! Nil carborundum we say, and carpe diem too, but we usually say it in some form of English as we exercise the inheritance of resilience and resourcefulness. that our parents and grandparents passed on, along with the time to plant potatoes. It’s OK to be human too.
A year ago last September I wrote a very short piece on harvesting borlotti beans . To be honest it wasn’t Proust, but I think a link must have been posted on someone else’s site because that single post has had more views than anything else I’ve ever written. Maybe it’s just one reader who’s developed a pathological interest in that posting, or perhaps it’s lots of people wondering to do with their beans, but whatever it is, the keyword ‘borlotti’ seems to have some magic effect on the stats.
And so just over a year later, and in the great cycle of allotment life, we’ve just picked the beans again. This year we were so overwhelmed with other good things to eat that we left the borlotti on the vines to ripen and dry, so we’ll have a supply during the winter. They’re relatively easy to grow in the UK, but like most legumes they’re big feeders and they need regular watering. Growing beans for storage always seems a bit of a risk because the difference between a basket of beans in their pods and the resulting pile of shelled beans can seem like a poor return on time and space. The good news is that when you soak them overnight they double in size; you never need that many in a single meal, and they’re such a wonderfully flavoured source of nutrients – especially their protein and fibre levels. A meal with beans needs little extra carb rich ‘padding’.
But the bean harvest always coincides with a kind of equinoctial shift of consciousness in the kitchen. As the salad crops diminish, the roots and winter veg step up to the table with their very different flavours and qualities. Even having eschewed potatoes in our diet (William Cobbett would have approved!) there’s not much that beats roasted roots, even if they need cautious portioning. The default winter diet is more suitable for a peasant working out in all weathers than someone who spends their time in front of a screen, and that’s fine by us because we’re allotment peasants in any case. The compost reached 60C this week; but only as a result of regular turning, and since a full bin weighs about a ton, I claim my Fitbit Peasant’s badge.
So here we are with the last of the abundant tomato harvest bottled in various forms; in passata, sauces, and oven dried in oil. It’s a full time job. There are jams and preserves – the bottled figs look irresistible – and yesterday I preserved the last of the aubergines in olive oil. There are chillies fermenting away in the larder but no pickles or chutneys this year because we haven’t finished the last lot. The good news is that they go on improving for several years before the decline sets in and you wonder what on earth they might have been. Does this sound like a man on a diet? My word, the temptation is killing me!
Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness – I’m eternally grateful to my grumpy teachers for punishing me by making me memorise Shakespeare and loads of poems. Any apparent literacy in my past life has flowed from my disruptive schooldays. So thanks Mr Keats, and you were right – the mellow fruitfulness extends to my mind too and this is the season when I love standing at the stove, dreaming up dishes I once read about and conjuring memories of great evenings.
The new harvest of borlotti necessitated eating up the last of the stored dried beans and my greedy mind turned to a cassoulet. There was no confit duck in the Potwell Inn larder, so I used fresh duck legs and added some of my favourite confit spices – some allspice, mace and juniper all add a bit of winter warmth. It’s there in the oven now, beans, pancetta, a bit of chorizo and half a bottle of opened passata from the fridge, and the usual onions, celery, carrots and lots of garlic – cooking for about eight hours at just over 100C – I can’t wait: it makes approaching winter seem almost tolerable.
But it’s also the time of year when I start lusting after bits of kitchen equipment – this year it’s a new sauté pan. Before we retired we invested in a set of heavyweight pans but they had a non stick finish which, by now, is showing signs of breaking down – even though we only use plastic and wood implements. But I have a big 3 ply stainless roasting tin and it’s both heavy and bombproof and, amazingly, so hard it’s possible to use metal tools (carefully). After five years the working surface is as good as new, and releases burnt on and caramelized gunk with just a stiff brush. Like Oscar Wilde, I can resist anything except temptation and I’ve googled ‘3 ply stainless sauté pan’ so often that now it’s almost the only annoying pop-up advertisement on my laptop. In the twisted logic of the panstruck cook, I tell myself that it’s inevitable I’ll get it in the end – so why not now, this very minute, you know it makes sense ……. and even more terrifying I heard a little voice in my head suggesting that it would see me out. Probably when Madame hits me over the head with it for being extravagant!
Meanwhile as the 10,000 calorie supper gathers strength in the oven, we’ve forsworn anything except half a kipper and green tea until supper time by which time we’ll be fainting. We know how to suffer for our art at the Potwell Inn.
No man is an Iland, intire of itselfe; every man
is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine;
if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe
is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as
well as if a Manor of thy friends or of thine
owne were; any mans death diminishes me,
because I am involved in Mankinde;
And therefore never send to know for whom
the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.
MEDITATION XVII Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
I want to start with a verse from John Donne’s 17th century poem in order to work together two threads of an argument towards a green spirituality; not a particularly ambitious attempt – which would require many more threads, but to try to lay down some markers for myself and for anyone who’s interested to read my post. Hopefully there are one or two out there in the darkness!
The significance of Donne’s meditation on our connectedness with all human life was never more significant than it is today, when it’s so under threat. The second thread, though, concerns time; our understanding of it and the way that understanding shapes our lives.
I watch the television (my grandfather always called it ‘the idiot’s lantern’ – although he was the first person in his Chiltern village to own one because he was also an inveterate early adopter. There are phrases and ideas that come up over and over again on TV – so often, in fact, that they take up residence in our minds as a dreadful kind of common sense. ‘Taking control’ is probably a good idea if you’re a passenger in a speeding car when the driver has just collapsed – but if it comes to be applied in every aspect of your life it’s a thoroughly bad one. My favourite example of this perfidious lunacy is the idea of taking control of the covid virus – after you Boris! If we really want to take control of something it makes sense to consider whether control is appropriate or even possible. King Canute demonstrated his limited powers by sitting in the path of the oncoming tide and ordering it to stop. Point taken, then. In nature, taking control can be delusional.
‘Because I’m worth it’ is another one. Why anyone except an idiot would consider that their personal appetites should override any other consideration demands an explanation. What both popular phrases demonstrate is what happens when we stray from John Donne’s insight that we stand or fall together. We are either a part of the human race in our whole lived experience, or we have become parasitic grazers of experiences that please us.
So let’s insert this dangerous selfish gene into the DNA of another idea, the idea of time. Boldly put, is the unfolding of time a kind of line that begins with the big bang and ends when the sun runs out of heat? In a sense that’s undeniable, but the timescale over which it happens is so vast as to be beyond our understanding. There are more pressing problems at hand than the cooling of the sun in millions of years time, because our concern has to be whether the earth becomes a barren wilderness within a few hundreds of years. The ultimate fate of the earth becomes an almost metaphysical argument when it’s compared with the extinctions that are pressing upon us.
The limited argument here is that ‘taking control’, ‘because I’m worth it‘, and similarly superficial slogans, have become a default defence for the destruction of the environment.
Never mind about these temporary worries, we’ll soon find a fix and we’ll all march together into Canaan where there will be food for everyone and we’ll all live forever in magic houses where robots do everything for us.
There should be a mea culpa at this point from Christian theologians for inadvertently providing the ideological weaponry for our troubles; and yes, I have read St Francis and Hildegard of Bingen, Meister Eckhardt and Matthew Fox and all the others, but sadly they were always outsiders. Mainstream theology focused on sin, redemption and getting into heaven – popularly known as ‘pie in the sky when you die’. The idea of challenging the status quo, right here and right now, so often landed up being trumped by the thought that it didn’t much matter in the end because this miserable life was a bit naff unless you were a bishop. To put it in more academic terms, the theory of evolution plus Christian eschatology (the doctrines of the ultimate ‘last things’) leads into a linear mindset that (when the religious impulse fails) supports an ideology of endless progress towards the perfect society. It’s an entirely instrumental view of life without a shred of validity or vitality and with more in common with Marx than it does with the future of the earth.
So let’s oppose this linear, instrumental view of life with something very different. It’s worth doing this, I think, because trying to oppose the extractive ideology of the present day by offering counter facts doesn’t seem to work. The government say fracking is a great idea because we (actually it should be they) get lots of free fuel. We put up all the scientific arguments against, but nobody is listening and no-one is changing their mind because they’ve got too much invested in the way we do things round here. The agents of destruction don’t believe what they do because they are in possession of a different set of facts which we can alter by offering some better ones. They are able to do these things because their entire worldview is contained within a powerful culture. ‘Because they’re worth it‘ means they have every right to ‘take control’ because that is the law that flows from their understanding of nature.
For all practical purposes the fullest human lives are lived in a more cyclical manner. What I’m getting at is that we’ll never change the world by only pursuing counterarguments. It’s important that we carry on arguing but it’s a hopeless task because we’re always fighting on their linear, instrumental turf. They offer facts, we offer counterfacts and they offer counter-counter facts and someone says ‘lets’ set up an enquiry’ and before it’s finished deliberating for a couple of decades the lights have gone out and it’s ‘goodnight Irene’.
Putting aside the inevitability that the earth will one day perish, (because it’s always better to deal with the proximate danger first); opens up the possibility of arguing that because the inglorious moment of the last instance is so inconceivably far away, that we can forget the idea that there will be a cunning plan someday soon and adopt a radically different notion of passing time.
So what if we were to engage people by living better? Instead of inhabiting this linear worldview where there’s always something better just down the road that never arrives; the ship that never ‘comes in’: we could choose to incorporate and live out the polarities, the cycles and rhythms that have sustained the earth and all her ecosystems over millennia and would continue to do so for millennia more if we only let them? Let’s not fight just with facts, let’s change perspectives because once we’ve changed someone’s perspectives their collection of facts will have to change too because they don’t work any more.
I think it’s fair to argue that when I look at the sun rising in the morning, I can be sure that if I were around in twenty million years time it would still look much the same. The cooling down of the sun is slow slow slow. But global extinction is fast. The earth is finite – just like us. The earth has her cycles and seasons; the moon has hers too drawing up and releasing the tides. The seasons were once beautifully represented in the Christian liturgical year – it’s all gone now, but Advent and Christmas, Lent and Easter, Pentecost, Harvest, Remembrance and – finest of all – Ordinary Time – all reflected the rhythms of the earth and our own lived experience of feast and famine, joy and sorrow; the sadness of loss and bereavement and the witnessing of new life in the fields and in our homes. We’ve lost the ability to dream our dreams and sing our songs. This is absolutely not an appeal to get back to the local tin tabernacle for a prayer and a bollocking but it is an appeal to consider our humanness as essentially sacramental rather than instrumental. The will to fight for the environment is, (to pinch a phrase from the evangelicals), better caught than taught, and there is an alternative that we can communicate in its lived form, rather than belittling people’s innocently acquired beliefs with angry counter-arguments.
We grow food because it is in our nature to grow things and it teaches us gratitude and humility. We love to eat together because we are essentially creatures of community. We care for one another; the old, the young and the sick because that’s where our humanity grows. We can build on core values like joyfulness, gratitude, openness and – dare I say – thriftiness; and the greatest benefit of living sacramentally is that it’s completely sustainable because that’s the nature of earth, and we can live in peace rather than in violence and greed because in the end, any other way of life is self-defeating.
Of course some will say this is idealistic nonsense, and the favoured trap, laid especially for us, is fear. “It’s all so complicated” we’re taught to think – “we don’t even know where to start; what happens if it goes wrong; better the devil you know etc etc …..”. But the choice isn’t between the groundhog day of eternally repetitive cycles – peasant life, in fact; and the pursuit of technological dreams that are destroying the earth. Sacramental life is endlessly creative; no two seasons are the same any more than any two people are identical. Nothing in nature’s cycles precludes innovation and change for the better. It’s a way of life forged in music, songs and stories, dancing, drama and pictures. The only limiting factor is that we must stop laying waste to the environment simply because we were taught to believe that we’re worth it. In fact we’re worth much more. We’ve seen the enemy – it’s us.
So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.
When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.
There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.
Press here for the politics!
The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!
In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.
And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.
And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!
It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!
And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.
We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.
Back on the allotment
On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.
Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.
The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?
I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.
We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.
But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.
Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.
The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.
Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.
I’m a bit wary about complete happiness – I probably read too many Iris Murdoch novels when I was young …….. but! last night something unmistakably like complete happiness stole over us as we worked together on the allotment in companionable silence, transitioning between last season and the one that’s coming – the one that’s always going to be the best, the most productive and the least troubled by weather and pests and random troubles. And if you are wondering what happened to Sunday’s more sombre mood I’d argue that it’s the nature of happiness to be ephemeral and we can only accept it on its own demanding terms. We have to accept it as an act of rebellion, of resistance.
So we’ve travelled from the spring to the autumn equinox during the strangest year. Everything was strange, the weather, the extremes of wind, drought, heat and rain and, of course the plague. I like the idea of calling Covid – ‘the plague’ because in many ways it fits the linguistic standard for plagues which manages to draw together all sorts of explanations and responsibilities that, boiled down, suggest we had it coming. Of course there’s the scientific and medical explanation for the plague, but there’s an ideological reason too, and an economic and political reason; an ethical reason and an environmental reason and all of them demand contrition – that’s the thing about plagues as opposed to simple old pandemics – they demand a response; vaccines are not enough.
But aside from that, a shot of happiness on a warm late summer evening was like a surprise visit from an old friend. The allotment’s like that. We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with but as we contemplate the fall, the bin full of leaf mould that they were growing in so successfully needs to be emptied and spread on to the beds. The courgettes and aubergines that have served us so well won’t thrive in the approaching colder weather and the winter crops need a feed and a clear out, followed by a deep mulch. We took down the early runner beans and put the poles into store again while we are still feasting on the Lady Di’s. Calendula flowers are being extracted in almond oil. Tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines – how much ratatouille can a couple on a diet eat?
Then there are the apples. As we walked up the path Madame bit into the first of the Cox’s and groaned – honestly. We’ve got five varieties growing but we’re all in the same boat as our neighbours; in a good year we all produce more apples than we can eat. So we tolerate a good deal of what you might call permissive browsing. Everybody plants Cox’s, and when they’re good they’re unbeatable but they are sensitive to any number of beasties and bugs so they are less reliable than some of the varieties that have been bred at East Malling or Long Ashton in the olden days when Madame worked there. In the bowl there are four, and possibly five varieties – all different and with different qualities. Some store well, and some are only any good straight off the tree. One of the games we play at this time of year is to try to identify the variety from the fruit. Much consultation of the books goes on and every now and then we get it right. Real experts can identify a variety on sight – George Gilbert, one of Madame’s old bosses was a master. I suppose these days you send a piece off to the lab to do the DNA tests. Where’s the fun in that?
This autumn we’re going to plant more soft fruit and two or three more cordon fruit trees around the boundaries of the plot. The original fruit cage is far too crowded and we’re going to savage it to create a better, more open environment for the existing row of apples. That became a cue for a large order from the sawmill so I can reshape some of the beds, build a new strawberry bed and (da dah!) dig a pond.
I think we gardeners have a weird way of living in several dimensions at once. All that stuff about being in the moment is well and good, but any gardener will tell you that we also channel the spirits of our teachers, parents and grandparents from the past while we also have the gift of seeing beyond the present weedy mess into the future. Autumn yields glimpses into winter and spring and the leafless branches bear their buds as a kind of earnest for the future.
So who’s afraid of the equinox? Autumn is the mother of winter and winter is the mother of spring. The earth rests and a moment of happiness is a moment of grace in whatever shape it comes.