Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Johnny Appleseed’s true identity revealed

According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.

Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.

Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.

The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.

Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.

It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.

If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!

Food and farming joined

At the beginning of the sequence of covid and then brexit we saw the fragility of our food chain demonstrated in the most telling way by empty shelves in the supermarkets and perfectly good food rotting in lorries. At the time we resolved that we would switch our shopping towards high standard and locally produced organic food as soon as we could. It’s been a year but after a lot of research we’ve found an organic farm shop that’s only ten minutes drive away and sells fresh meat and fish too on Wednesdays. These all come from the immediate locality. The veg are not so local because there are a lot more livestock and dairy farms locally than there are market gardens, but then they’re all labelled with their place of origin and we grow a great proportion of our own veg in any case. There are two organic veg outlets five minutes walk from the flat. The fish come either from West Country inshore fisheries or further afield for the offshore catches. Staples like grains and beans can easily be found in Bath which has a strong alternative food tradition. Is it all more expensive? – honestly yes – but that’s because the hidden cost of intensive food production and distribution are never counted in the ticket price, (although still we pay through the nose in terms of poor health, environmental damage and pollution), and of course we still buy a significant amount of food in a supermarket that’s worker owned and demands high welfare standards from its suppliers. You can’t let the perfect drive out the good, as the saying goes, and to an extent the higher price is mitigated by the fact that we never willingly waste any of it. Our tiny food waste recycling bin is only emptied a couple of times a week at the very most and one of these days when funds permit we’ll try out bokashi composting and/or build a worm farm up at the allotment. What’s for sure is that eating is – or at least should be – as much an ethical issue for omnivores as it is for the most committed vegan.

But there I go sounding a bit worthy. The best news about shopping locally is the fact that it creates a lot of local jobs and you can have a conversation with a person who really cares about what they’re selling. Today we joined the queue for the fish van and overheard a conversation he was having with a customer about the way the Brixham trawler skippers were re-jigging their markets after brexit. Then, when our turn came he was delighted to tell us that our smoked mackerel – the darkest I’ve ever seen – were smoked in Arbroath, and the smoked haddock (OK I love smoked fish) was processed in Peterhead where this particular supplier would only smoke the largest fish. In the butchery no-one even raised an eyebrow when I asked about mutton, and the butcher told me they only occasionally get hogget. You’ve really never tasted lamb until you’ve eaten hogget – lamb in its second year. We were given a leg by a smallholding friend and it was simply the best flavoured lamb I’ve ever tasted. We even found out that they make all their own faggots; no-waste butchery on the very farm the animals are raised on, and the great thing about a proper butcher is that you can often buy the cheapest cuts at incredibly good prices. In the food section there’s even a refrigerated Jersey milk dispenser, and unless this sounds like a bit of a promo, we tried the sausages last week and neither of us particularly liked them. However there’s another local butcher on our river walk and he makes the best we’ve ever tasted. Ask yourself when was the last time that food shopping was this much fun?

As we left the shop we found this family of pigs with a whole paddock to themselves. The piglets were a little shy and scooted off behind the ark when they saw me, but it seems to me that if you’re going to eat meat at all it should be produced on farms like this and lead a naturally fulfilled life in the open air before being humanely slaughtered. Traditional mixed farming is certainly one part of a sustainable farming future; producing excellent food while returning fertility to the ground. I go back often to Michael Pollan’s excellent advice – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg!”

Meanwhile back at the Potwell Inn

We had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.

So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.

You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.

On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.

As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.

Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.

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.