A curate’s egg of a day – good in parts.

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We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –

  • Jazzy (first early)
  • Arran Pilot (first early)
  • Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
  • Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
  • Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.

The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes.  But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week.  The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up.  We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.

As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant.  It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.

Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth.  So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.

However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop.  This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go.  These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.

By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden.  Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia.  Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.

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Why the delight? Part II

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So here’s the 2019 onion crop in a bag and waiting to go to the bin. Generally we recycle everything we grow on the allotment except where plants appear to be diseased – which the onions certainly did. In fact all the alliums this year, autumn and spring planted alike, semed to keel over to the same problem.  Possibly eelworm, white rot who knows.  My theory is that either the sets were the result of a very stressed growing season last summer, or that after planting they suffered more stress in the ground on the allotment.  Who can tell? But it’s infuriating that this so-called “easy crop” has failed twice in two years. Which leads me to the Part II title.

Yesterday I went big on the pleasures of gardening and its effect on our sense of wellbeing, but there’s another side to gardening that we simply can’t ignore. Crops fail, pests invade and consume them, and monster micro-organisms like blight can destroy a crop in days. Gardening/allotmentering isn’t a primrose path – even at the Potwell Inn.

So is this just the counterbalance to too much ‘delight’? Is every ointment obliged to have a fly in it? Can failure and disease ever make a contribution to our wellbeing?

The clue, I think, lies in the very last words from yesterday’s posting – the quote from Neitzsche – what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. Suffering can never be good for you, and aside from some fairly specialised preferences will hardly lead to delight – but – when things go wrong on the allotment they’re rarely if ever going to do you any huge damage.  It can make you sad, uncomfortable or even ashamed if, like us, you prune a grape vine too late and it starts to bleed sap, pints of the stuff!

But I’ll put my money on gardening increasing our resilience and therefore able to help us ride the more serious stuff that happens to us. On the allotment, often I think we’re practicing a set of emotional skills that we can apply elsewhere.  Add to that time to think, time to meditate if you like and the argument that gardening increases our wellbeing becomes overwhelming. Somewhere within it there’s a spirituality that I’m content to leave unnamed.

I’ve always tried to keep this blog real. I can’t stand the style maazines and seed catalogues that suggest it’s all a breeze use uses the word ‘fantastic’ in every sentence.  For me ‘fantastic’ is first cousin to ‘fantasy’, and what we create in a garden is real, not fantasy.

To finish, though, on a brighter note, when the vegetables start to ripen and we get to taste them the question inevitably comes up – do they taste better? By the time we got back from the allotment yesterday we were too tired to cook, but earlier – in the morning I’d made a big batch of pesto and so I cooked some linguini and that was supper. Whenever food scientists try to answer the flavour question I’m pretty sure they grab a bag of organic whatever, and a bag of its non-organic equivalent and test them against one another. Both will have travelled hundreds if not a thousand miles in a refrigerated lorry and sat around in a supermarket distribution warehouse and, surprise surprise, you can’t tell the difference.

They should do the comparison with today’s pesto, or fresh peas straight off the vine.  There’s the delight!

Why the delight?

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It’s good to be in contact with the natural world ….. isn’t it? Everywhere I look I’m being told it’s good, even I bang on endlessly about the pleasures of the allotment, and (they say) it’s not just good – it’s a miracle cure for just about any affliction you could name – and if you put that particular claim on a herbal remedy you’d be in real trouble with the law.

What’s interesting to me is not that it’s good to be outside, but to wonder why it’s so good. Why do people with mental health issues feel so much better when they walk or garden? Why so, people with life-changing illnessses or those who are going through bereavements?  I think we can discount any sort of natural ‘miasma’, some undiscovered radiation that affects our dopamine levels, but in my unscientific way I do believe that our moods are linked to quite tiny physical changes.  Without making it sound as if this is a pitch for PhD funding, the question is – what’s the link between experiencing the natural world, in gardening for instance, and mood – and the subtle changes in our brain chemistry. If I were an academic – I haven’t got the patience in real life – but if I were, I’d quickly move on after I’d listed fresh air, sunshine and excercise … because they’re all very good and we know it.

But while I’m building a raised bed, weeding, planting out and watering there’s always a dialogue going on in my head.   Talking to the plants doesn’t make me certifiably crazy, it makes me more human. Having a chat to the robin that sits waiting for titbits to emerge from the soil when I’m digging feels like the most normal thing in the world. Examining the rows and clumps and trying to figure out if all’s well or whether I should look for a troublesome pest – that’s about relationship.  And so the first area I’d look for the answer to my question “why?”  would be in the relational. Of course allotmeteers are (by and large) a friendly lot but actually quite a few of us find relationships with other humans far more tricky than relationships with robins and runner beans. There are people on our site that I’ve never spoken to because they clearly don’t want to complicate their day by talking to me – far too risky – and I don’t hold it against them, they’re completely free to be themselves.

And that leads to the second promising avenue for research. We’ve looked at relational factors but what about the sense of agency that comes with allotmenteering? Being ill, being sad, being under-appreciated or jobless can send you into a vortex where you feel absolutely helpless.  Tending the allotment, or even a walk through the woods, can give you back a sense of purpose. There’s a link between what you you do and what you get back and so you begin to regain the sense of agency that’s so important to our wellbeing.

Yesterday we took some beetroots from the hotbed and while Madame planted out leeks for the winter, I finished planting the outdoor tomatoes and I put a screen around them to protect them from the expected winds on Saturday.  One of the problems with propagating plants indoors is that they can be quite leggy and soft and so they can be easily damaged by wind or rough handling or even sudden changes in temperature. That’s why we harden things off, gradually introducing them to ‘real’ life on the allotment. Of the sixteen plants, fifteen survived their first night in the rough and tumble and they’ll quickly develop more strength as the roots go down and the stems toughen up.

It’s the sheer generosity of the earth that heads my list of the healing properties of gardening. There is no explanation for the variety, the vitality, the colourfulness, the exquisite shapes and patterns, the medicinal uses, the food they provide.  Time without number I come away from the allotment with a trug full of food and a sense of thanksgiving. Even on the winter days when the bird nets are collapsing under the weight of snow and I drag myself up there to clear them, I get back exhilerated by the cold and the sense of adventure but perhaps more than anything esle by the sense that I matter, that my existence makes a difference, if only to a patch of purple sprouting broccoli!

That’s why the delight.

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The noble globe artichoke

IMG_5489Is it really worth the bother?

Was it really two years ago I bought those tiny globe artichoke plants? We’ve nurtured them and moved them to a better spot and watch them grow into a spectacular border.  But today Madame fancied eating one and I/we dutifully braved the fearful thistle spines and brought them to the kitchen.

As the landlord of the entirely fictional Potwell Inn, I’d have to say that artichokes would never appear in a real pub menu because the prep time and the wastage is enormous.  This is serious luxury food for people who have a big compost heap,  There are two ways to eat the beast. The French way is to peel off the tough outer leaves and cut the spines off; poach it, bring it to the table with some hollandaise sauce, pull off the succulent leaves one at a time dip them in the sauce and suck the fleshy bit out.  That’s a bit too much like tantric sex for me.  The other way is to remove all the leaves, cut the top off and the bottom off and then spoon the bit that would become the seeds out, all the time protecting it with dribbles of lemon juice lest it should go brown.  Then, finally you have a fleshy white disc which you poach in acidulated water for ten minutes or so, until it’s tender.  Then you can eat it with butter or hollandaise, although you’d want at least four to make a decent starter – which means a surprise treat for your beloved is going to cost you a large and rather beautiful border. You may, therefore, be expecting me to give the magisterial thumbs down to the globe artichoke on the grounds of prodgality  and excessive faff, but here’s the thing…

…. There’s no way we could afford to eat fresh globe artichokes in a restaurant, even if we could find a place that would serve them,  but cut on the allotment and served twenty minutes later they are completely, absolutely and mind blowingly delicious – even eaten quite plain. They taste marginally better than home grown asparagus.  So long live the globe artichoke, they take up a lot of space and they make a lot of compost but they look beautiful, they’re good to draw and they’re delicious to eat – what could possibly be wrong with that.

Back on earth, however, we supplemented the end of the hungry gap with our first digging of spuds, the first (douce Provence) peas and more broad beans after a day planting out tomatoes and leeks.  We grow an f1 hybrid called Crimson Crush outside because it’s large, vigorous and almost completely blight resistant. We’ve also put some red peppers and aubergines in a sunny spot outside.  Last year they did quite well so, although we certainly don’t wish for another drought, we hope they’ll enjoy the global heating that’s driving our weather crazy.

This is what a cold front looks like

IMG_5484Just when we thought the rain had passed us by altogether and we’d gone up to the allotment to fix the straining wires for the cordon tomatoes, the sky turned threateningly black and we had to scarper for shelter in the shed.  The signs were all there as the cold front bore down on us. The temperature dropped by 10C since yesterday and the southerly winds moved south west bringing moisture laden clouds into cold air.  There was only one way to go, and it poured down.  We took our jackets and tops off – it’s easier to dry a T shirt – and we quickly finished and packed up.

I don’t usually show such unflattering pictures, but this one, looking east from the boundary of our allotments, shows the sky more clearly.  As you can see, our neighbouring allotments are unoccupied and a bit like weed factories. When the rosebay willow herb starts sharing its seeds I’ll go over it with a strimmer, but really we’re at the mercy of whatever comes our way.  And there’s the paradox and the dilemma of so-called “rewilding”. We can all see the point of it, but when push comes to shove we’d like all our weeds downwind of the prevailing SW wind; and continually weeding out rosebay and dandelion is a pain. On the other hand I was blessed with a beautiful sighting of a fox.  We looked at each other but so far as I could see there was no cuddly mutual recognition, our worlds were so utterly different, nd so we went our separate ways.

Ironically it felt as if the ‘hungry gap’ finished today with the rain.

We came home and I cooked spaghetti puttanesca using our own new season garlic, chillies and basil along with our own passata prepared in the autumn. We’ve been eating our own green salads for ages but somehow today, chopping a fat bulb of green garlic, it seemed different.  Praise be!

Rainy day job – minus rain

It’s like being stood-up.  The Potwell Inn allotment would be completely parched if it weren’t for the hand watering, and we’ve been quivering with excitment at the prospect of a week’s decent rain – supposedly beginning today. So we woke early, sniffed the air like badgers emerging from their holt, but there was none of what my promiscuous reading revealed last week as – “petrichor” – the smell of rain on hot earth. Plenty of other smells around though, not least from the kitchen which smelt almost Corsican first thing.  In fact the whole flat is infused with the scent of basil – which we grow a continuous supply of – tomato plants waiting for a break in the heat, and elderflowers. If you chucked in a couple of mouldy melons we’d be back on Cap Corse.

Three hours later at around noon, it started at last, thank goodness, but the weather chart shows the weather front moving northwards with us right on the edge. No downpours here, sadly.

So the principal work of the morning was turning the infusion of elderflower, oranges and lemons into elderflower cordial. I salute those who’ve absorbed the lore of collecting the flowers and managed to find a nanosecond when all the necessities line up like bullet points in a presentation. We just pick when we can.  The last batch was made from the ordinary common and/or garden version of elderflower, the weed. This time we spotted a heavily laden tree on the allotment and picked an organic cotton bag full.  Actually it was a plastic bag but the organic cottton sounds less likely to excite our friends, one of whom noisily unpacked my (first time in six months) plastic in a crowded supermarket while upbraiding me for destroying the earth.  A small crowd looked on while she left the unpacked bag on the side, presumably to be thrown into landfill anyway.  Two days later an organic cotton bag arrived in the post and my humiliation was complete.

Anyway this tree was the most delightful mixture of purple leaves and pink flowers.  Last year I stumbled on a fashion shoot in front of the very tree I’m writing about. The model, who was very pretty, was dressed in such similar colours – purple and pink – that she looked rather like the cheshire cat, appearing and disappearing in front of the blossoms.  She was surrounded by an impausibly large number of assistants, dressers, people holding large reflectors and photographers with their retinue.  One of the throng asked me where the toilets were and I was delighted to be able to offer her our bucket, which she refused.

The pink blossoms smelt quite as good as the mongrel white ones and so we picked and infused them for 24 hours.  The only difference in the way I produced the cordial was to bring the sugary mixture to 80C rather than boiling it which I think destroyed some of the flavour. The results (with a bottle of the first batch for comparison) looked lovely and tasted excellent.

As I write, the rain has stopped again but we’ll stick with plan A and go to get vine-eyes from the garden centre. More later.

June 1st and first picking of broad beans

Vegetables seem to be remarkably regular in their flowering and fruiting habits regardless of the weather.  I had thought that we’d be picking the first batch of broad beans at least a week early this year, but in spite of the vast difference in weather between this year and last, we’re picking just two days earlier. Potatoes and tomatoes are a little later but they have both been put out later for fear of a late frost.  The biggest diference this year is the strawberries. Although we’ve got a fabulous crop on the way, last year we were picking ripe strawberries in the first week of June.  This year we’ll be lucky to see them by the third week. The potatoes, I fear, have been afflicted by the incredibly dry weather and they’ll pick up if we get the promised rain this coming week. I’m loath to throw too much water in the direction of the potatoes because I think it diminishes the flavour.  I was grumbling to our neighbouring allotmenteer about the poor flavour of Jersey Royals over the past couple of years and he said he thought it was because the farmers have been prevented from using seaweed because it was thought to be adding too much salt to the soil. Our asparagus, on the other hand is thriving on its thick mulch of seaweed over the winter and is five feet tall now. I do hope there’s as much activity underground because we shall enjoy a good crop next spring.

So this week has been incredibly busy, with a good deal of grandparenting and a trip to replace the water pump on the campervan.  A friend was charged €230 in France 2 years ago for a replacement, but after a bit of research on the internet I sourced a brand new replacement for £50 and fitted it myself at the additional cost of a packet of electrical connectors. I felt absurdly proud of myself.

Apart from that it’s been absurdly busy on the allotment – so much so I’ve hardly had time to write at all. We’ve fitted a hazel wattle screen between the shed and the greenhouse to create a sheltered area where we can grow tomatoes and peppers.  It arrived with one of the end posts pulled out because presumably the delivery driver had dragged it across the floor of his van (after all it weighed 30Kg and he’s probably never seen one before).  Rather than send it back I decided to have a go at repairing it – it took 2 hours of  somewhat grumpy effort but I did finally manage to separate all the woven horizontal branches with the aid of some steel bars, and reinsert the post. It’s now in position and will be an effective screen against cold north winds.  Then, today the temperature soared to 25C so we went up early and  I hammered in the supporting posts ready for the tomatoes, nonethleless we both needed a shower when we got home.  The weather will break tonight, according to the forecast, and we’ll get some rain, so great relief all round.

Someone wrote to the paper the other day lamenting the fact that weather forecasters seem to regard sunshine as inherently superior to rain.  You can tell they’re not gardeners.  In fact there’s a proper drought building up. Our usually damp plot is bone dry down to a foot deep and so we’ve been forced to water as if it were July. Given that a full watering can weighs 22lbs and the round trip to the tank is 100 yards, you can see it’s a bit of a workout to water the whole 250 square metres.

Yesterday my friend Rob – the real botanist – came to check my ID of the Fumaria I’ve been going on about – and,  joy of joys, I was right and it’s Fumaria murialis. This probably means less than nothing to almost everyone else in the world, but it means a lot to me because it shows I’m very slowly getting my eye in.

Tomorrow or Monday the outdoor tomatoes will begin their outdoor life, taking their chances with whatever the weather throws at them.  Meanwhile we’re making the second batch of elderflower cordial.  The first batch is growing on us as we drink it – the problem is that home made is essentially unrepeatable.  This time we’ve gathered a bag of 50+ heads from a purple, ornamental elderflower tree.  So far the result is a lovely rose pink colour.  Sadly we had to buy another eight 500ml  swing top preserving bottles because the rest are all in use, and so our “food for free” cordial, or at least this batch, will cost about twice as much as the commercial stuff. However as the years mount up, home made gets increasingly competitive.  As ever, though, the flavour beats anything you could buy

 

Sumer is icumen in

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Sing loudly, cuckoo! – Well at least I heard one cuckoo on our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons a few weeks ago and I found it unbelievably moving, thinking that with the climate catastrophy upon us I might never hear it again.

But sumer most certainly is icumen in and so today we picked a load of elderflowers and started the first 3 litres of  cordial. We felt almost secretive about picking it, hoping our neighbours wouldn’t spot us and join in – picking is best done in the sun for maximum flavour and there’s plenty for everyone but I fear very few people would go to the trouble any more even though the difference between our own home made cordial and the commercial stuff is striking.

IMG_5466Summer is as much a smell as anything more meteorological. Yesterday evening we were sitting in the living room when Madame said, “I can smell chewing gum”. I wrinkled my nose up in mimed solidarity and it was true but it wasn’t chewing gum it was cats’ pee.   It was the smell of summer.  There were the elderflowers infusing on the stove, and several different kinds of basil gently sunning itself in the propagator, along with a sink full of fresh spinach and a salad spinner loaded with newly picked lettuce. Oh yes summer is good.

We spent the morning at two exhibitions in Bath.  The annual open exhibition of the Bath Society of Artists is always worth seeing several times. In some ways, although it’s a lot smaller, it’s better than the RWA open. Several friends and acquaintances had pictures in, and there’s less of the gulf between ‘high art’ and village show about it.  Many of the artists necessarily earn their living from other things, but their work is really good – the product of a lifetime’s labour without the deadly grip of the Arts Council. As we left we hubristically resolved to submit some of our own work next year

Then we dropped in at BRLSI (Bath Royal LIterary and Scientific Institution) where there was an exhibition of artifacts and books from the permanent collection.  The headline catcher was a small phial of liquid taken from the barrel in which the body of Lord Nelson was brought back from Trafalgar. Not terribly interesting really, the value was all in the caption. My own favourite things in the exhibition were the botanical books, pressed flowers and drawings which were all on the subject of medical herbs. But one exhibit was truly bizarre –

The other gadget, the tobacco smoke enema, has no modern parallel.  At first an ordinary clay pipe was used and someone administered the smoke enema by poking the stem through the anus and blowing on the bowl.  The risk of burns led to the invention of safer apparatus.

Well thank goodness for that! The afternoon was spent at the allotment as the flat is gradually emptied of plants.  Much of my time was spent in energetic watering, but I did manage to find 20 minutes to sit with my back to a compost heap, measuring and inspecting our mystery fumitory with a copy of Rose at my side. Then in the evening we worked in tandem in the kitchen, prepping spinach, elderflowers and tomorrow’s family BBQ and cooking supper.  We had inspected the peas earlier, hopng for a first taste, but they’re not quite ready.  Next week maybe.

This last few days I’ve been tempted to say that I’ve been feeling the same kind of energy and excitement I had when we first went to art school, everything seems inflected with possibilities.  But I’m a melancholic and I’ve read Tolstoy and Iris Murdoch so I won’t tempt fate by saying I’m happy.  Maybe ‘pretty happy‘?

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Country cousins

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A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.

A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.

We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica,  fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours.  But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.

But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.

Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise.  Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.

The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come.  It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.

Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name.  When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.

But sometimes the information flows the other way.  With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated.  But we got there in the end.

I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants.  They’re all country cousins.

 

Parting shot

IMG_5366Often the best view of the allotment is at the end of a day’s work, when you can look back across from the vantage point of the high path alongside the shed and see the bigger picture. We enjoyed full sunshine all day and the temperature was in the high teens, so you could almost hear the plants growing. All the forecasts suggest that we’ve seen the back of the frost and so we’ve begun sowing and planting out the tender varieties.

The Plan – the great winter fantasy plan – is now at the stage where almost every day brings the need for some amendment or other. I was reading yesterday that every military battle plan ends with the first contact with the enemy. I’m sure that applies just as much to gardens and allotments – for instance on our plot we had a bed designated for onions and roots; but the overwintering onions were hit by eelworm and so we can’t use that bed for any of the alliums for three years – which means that we’ll have to plant brassicas there this year.  You can imagine it’s a bit of a house of cards and it can make you wonder whether it’s worth planning, but if you don’t plan at all you can forget something until it’s too late, so you lose the crop. So we stagger on and the master copy is gradually overwritten with what really happened. I guess the only truly static plan is the retrospective one.

We took the fleece off the potatoes during the day, and they are truly impressive plants.  However long experience tells us that impressive haulms don’t always signify big crops. This year’s potatoes are growing on a piece of borrowed land, and our neighbour is notably parsimonious with his compost, so we anointed it with a thick layer of the Potwell Inn finest triple A grade. Our fervent hope is that we haven’t produced a luxuriant crop of leaves at the expense of the potatoes. The broad beans have begun to set pods and so today the tops are coming off.  In Italy they’re a delicacy, but we’ve nver tried them, so broad bean tops are on the menu for tonight. We also took down the last of the overwintered brassicas and after I’d smashed the stumps with the back of an axe they all went into the compost with a handful of chicken manure and a good watering.

Elsewhere we’ve got an abundant supply of lettuce and salad leaves but as always with successional sowings you land up with some supply gaps and we’re waiting for some more radishes and beets to catch up. The tomatoes are getting their final repotting before planting out today and we’ve decided to expand our companion planting.  We’ve found a variety of basil (sold by Chiltern Seeds) that’s adapted to the UK climate so we’re going to interplant that with the tomatoes and throw in some nasturtiums and petunias as well. The asparagus bed is getting the same treatment to discourage the asparagus beetle.  Elsewhere we’ve got calendula dotted around and of course the big umbellifers are attracting lots of plant friendly parasitic wasps. You can only try these ideas.  I doubt that any of them are a complete cure, but all we need to do is tilt the balance in our own favour.

There are a handful of civil engineering jobs ourstanding as well.  Yesterday a woven hazel fence panel arrived at the flat but it weighed a ton and was far too big to get in our little car, so I’m going to call in the heavy mob, AKA our son, to help me carry it up. What we’re planning is to create a sun trap between the shed and the greenhouse and build a staging for big containers protected from any north winds. The last job will be to grow a windbreak on the eastern edge which is our least protected side.  We’re not allowed fences, but anything that produces food is alright!