Home again, home again, Jiggety Jig.

The herb at the top is French tarragon – a revelatory herb, like chervil.

In the absence of either a market or a fat pig, back on the allotment we swapped the wild plants of West Wales for the domestic sort and took the first really decent harvest of the season. It’s not that we haven’t been harvesting for ages, we’ve had a steady supply of rhubarb and asparagus; radishes and lettuce and so on but today was the first time we harvested a complete five a day meal’s worth – new potatoes, broad (fava) beans, beetroots, garlic and carrots. The carrots were thinnings from a container experiment, and the potatoes too came out of one of the deep containers which have been a tremendous success because we’ve been able to move them around the plot wherever there’s a temporary patch of empty ground. Thanks to our allotment neighbours nothing was lost during the little heatwave while we were away and apart from a hard session of weeding, the plot was looking good.

In the beginning of the season we filled every spare inch with calendula and tagetes and today we had to carry out a radical thinning to give the others room to breathe. There were coriander, angelica, lavender, evening primrose and Nicotiana rapidly being outgrown and so we had to uproot dozens of the more vigorous calendulas to bring the rest on. There’s nothing more unnatural than a natural looking garden! The garlic was just a quick peep to see how they’re fattening up and the rest will be left for a few weeks yet; but the perfume of the single bulb filled the kitchen when we got home.

The few survivors of the overwintered broad beans haven’t done well, having been felled by a fierce and cold east wind – they dehydrated and weakened in spite of our improvised screens. The later sown replacements have grown quickly and well but being far more tender they were more vulnerable to blackfly and the ladybirds haven’t really got up to full speed yet. Perhaps they too were badly affected by the cold and wet conditions. Usually we have dozens overwintering in our window frames at home but this year there were none.

Inside the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers are all setting fruits and once again the main work was removing side shoots. Even the melons have taken off and we’re waiting for the first three fruits to set before removing all the rest to give the smaller number a chance of filling out and ripening. The Douce Provence peas too were afflicted in the same way but again the spring sown replacements are much better. Of the three varieties we’re growing – Alderman, Douce Provence and Robinson’s Show Perfection; the last of the three is winning hands down although we have to fight the pigeons for them always so this year we’re growing them up the inside of the fruit cage which at least gives us the first five feet of vines. The greatest challenge, growing peas, is giving them time to fatten up, but getting them in before the pea moth strikes. Allotments become hotspots for all sorts of pests, and this year we’ve kept all of the garlic, onions, carrots and parsnips under the finest insect netting. It certainly spoils the appearance of the plot but we’re hoping to grow some leeks free of allium leaf miner this year. Once again we’re trying a variety of pot leek from Robinsons and it’s looking good so far. I guess if you’re going to grow organically the only option is to use insect barrier netting where the pests are tiny and bird netting for everything else. As for slugs and snails it’s clear that healthy plants don’t get attacked nearly so much but this year we’ve resorted to a nematode treatment because weather stressed plants are the go-to slug food. All I would say, though, is that you should ignore the photos on the seed packets. Typically, lettuces have a few yellow leaves on the outside, but you just peel them off – as you do with many other vegetables, put the peelings on the compost heap and suddenly they look just like the ones in the catalogue.

The rest of the day was spent building a sturdy frame with bean sticks to grow cucumbers and a winter squash up. The cucurbits can take up a huge amount of space in a small allotment and growing them vertically makes a lot of space.

And yes we had a wonderful time in St Davids, and did lots of reading, writing talking and walking. This lovely adder came to say hello on the path one day, and we watched a very large seal who looked up intently at us from the safety of the sea below us. The bird highlight was a ring ouzel – only the second I’ve ever seen. We also saw dozens of manx shearwaters skimming across the sea in the evenings as they went out in long skeins to feed. We’ve camped at the other end of the bay, and in a tent it’s easy to hear the haunting sounds they make as they fly back low over the fields to Skomer where they nest. It’s a kind of wheezy whistle that, the first time you hear it, makes your hair stand on end – like the cry of a fox or a vixen on heat – except that particular cry gets dubbed on to every night scene on every thriller shown on television!

There were times when we sat on the steps of the van watching the sun setting on the horizon of glittering sea, when I thought I could stay here all summer – but the allotment too has its moments of joy. If the last couple or three postings have felt a bit too philosophical, I’m sorry. Very selfishly I do my thinking at the laptop and I’m struggling to find a way of drawing all the threads together. Global extinctions, climate emergencies, pandemics and economic crises are, it seems to me, all closely related. Is it our culture that’s diseased and no longer fit for purpose? We’re all getting agitated, angry and paranoid about things and that’s not the mindset that our perilous situation deserves. Can we really save the earth one cabbage at a time? Well, we’ve tried everything else.

A fishy story – thinking about the commons

People often look at the allotment and say – “surely you must be self-sufficient, now?” Well no we’re not, and I’m not a bit sure I even agree with the concept which always strikes me as being isolating and rather egocentric. We learn to become more human by living in interdependent communities. Although the allotment site often feels like and even functions as a sort of village, aside from our 200 square meter plot there’s nowhere we can graze an animal or run a few chickens; nowhere close we can easily forage for the things we can’t grow, and nowhere to gather most of the medicinal herbs that take up more space than we can afford. Of course there are plenty of opportunities to forage far and wide for them – way beyond where we live but the whole point of the Commons is to bring to hand all of the above, plus firewood to a small community. Without commons the community has less reason to live, work, celebrate and lament together; as many people who move into the countryside discover when they soon start to feel lonely. The 21st century default position is to live like strangers, and whilst we worship the wild, we have very little idea of how to learn from it and celebrate with it.

Back in 2020 I was searching the local bookshops to find a copy of Gary Snyder’s “The Practice of the Wild”. I’ll say a little more about the book later, but I’ll begin with one of the most depressing conversations I’ve had in years.  So I walked into Waterstones and searched the most likely places for anything written by him. Poetry? zilch! ….  ecology? zilch! ….. spirituality? ditto!  Eventually I resorted to the cash desk and asked a bright young bookseller – “have you got anything by Gary Snyder?” ….. “Who’s Gary Snyder?” he replied.

That I was quite so shocked caused me to wonder not so much about the illiteracy of the bookseller, suckled on the mayfly life expectancy of our current literary scene; but about the diminishing of that whole culture which existed for perhaps five millennia in which the urgent existential questions we face today were first identified and often answered. For me, Gary Snyder is one of those thinkers who raised the waters from that well and brought them into the 20th century for us. He is – at 91 years old – so much more than a short-lived Beat Poet. Our culture is locked into a groundhog day in which the hard gained wisdom of the past is clearcut and replanted with fashions that rarely survive twenty years. In the absence of a literary canon, we fret our lives away, endlessly seeking solutions to long solved problems. We live in windowless bunkers of our own making. 

So one of the chief sadnesses of growing old in our Western modern and postmodern  wordview; is that the canon – musical, literary, poetic, spiritual and liturgical which has been both lighthouse and lifeboat to us, is breaking up and sinking, and these sharp and careless reminders leave me feeling adrift. “Never mind” I say to myself “where you are is the only place to begin”  – or put it in (I think) RS Thomas’s words, echoing Odysseus in the dim past before the troubles began; ‘home is the harbour you set out from’. And I’m immediately unsure of the quotation because we’re camped on a clifftop field in Pembrokeshire overlooking Ramsey Island and away from any confirmation by books, internet and even my mobile which drifts in and out of consciousness like a dying man. Ithaca feels a long way away. 

Sadly the book was easily available on Amazon and arrived from an American publisher a few days later, priced in dollars; but at least I tried; but I flunked the opportunity of sharing its significance with the young bookseller who might – had I convinced him to read it – have sold it to many other seekers.  Gary Snyder has a lot to say about commons.

When we arrived here we found the campsite engulfed in a thick sea-mist that looks set to stay for a couple of days, so the presence of the sea and Ramsey island are extremely notional at the moment. However I struck up a conversation with a neighbouring campervanner and in the course of one of those long meandering chats, full of oxbows, he told me a story. He used to be, he told me, a professional lobster fisherman but he lost his best friend and deckhand to a rival fisherman after jointly surviving being swamped by a massive wave with the help of  a powerful engine and a lot of luck. Most people have a story to tell, but his wife – having heard it many times in the past – left us and wandered off to a more congenial conversation nearby that involved a comparison of the number of medications the participants were taking.  Non fatal illness is such fun – it seems. Anyway the coda to the fisherman’s yarn was by far the most interesting bit and here’s where Gary Snyder’s discussion of the so-called tragedy of the commons comes in:

“So what about the so-called tragedy of the commons? This theory, as now popularly understood, seems to state that when there are open access rights to a resource, say pasturage, everyone will seek to maximise his take and overgrazing will inevitably ensue. [ …….. ]  When [Hardin et al]  try to apply their model to the historic commons it doesn’t work, because they fail to note that the commons was a social institution which, historically, was never without rules and did not allow unlimited access.”

Source – Cox, Susan and Jane Buck – “No tragedy in the commons” – Environmental Ethics, Spring 1985.

Rough justice

I asked the retired fisherman – now a builder – why did his deckhand and friend leave the boat? Was it the day they were nearly engulfed by a wave?  “No”, he said, “he moved to a better paid deckhand’s job on another boat”; and went on to explain that the other boat was owned by a man who had previously fished in Cornwall, and had developed a reputation for stealing other fishermen’s gear.  In the end, tempers boiled over and he was confronted and told that unless he took his boat out of the county  it would be taken and sunk.  “Fishermen can be very rough” he explained, as if I didn’t know. 

So the ‘marked’ fisherman moved up to Pembrokeshire and was barely surviving, scratching a living from those bits of the shoreline not already fished by the locals.  Then one day someone suggested he ran out a line of pots along “the 27” (no idea what this means – possibly a latitude line on the charts).  So he took himself off into these waters which were left alone by the local fishermen because they were known to be dangerous. He immediately struck gold, making – it was said – £10,000 a week. The deckhand left his sustainably fishing friend and went for the money. 

So there you have it – the tragedy of the commons and its historical solution encapsulated in a chance conversation in the mist.  And which of the characters in the story best represents the future? Sadly, I know for sure that thievery and overfishing have played a large part in the present state of our fisheries and that the smaller fishermen have taken the hit. But whatever happens, unless the commons – in this case our inshore waters – evolve some kind of agreed local governance with achievable sanctions apart from sinking offending boats, it will be too late. The story demonstrates that the draconian local sanctions applied worked very well at first, but when the man moved to another community where he was not known and into a winner takes all culture there were no inhibitory moves that could be made, so in his new home the so-called tragedy of the commons became a reality because it wasn’t a social institution any more, it didn’t have any rules and it couldn’t limit access. This sad tale isn’t a critique of the commons but a critique of our extractive economy.

Several years ago we were with the Bath Nats on a fungus identification field trip, when one of the participants hung back and cut every single ragged parasol mushroom in a clump that I mentioned a few days ago. She rejoined us later with her cute handmade basket groaning with spoils – more than she could ever possibly eat. We stood back astonished, but said nothing. That’s the true tragedy of the commons; that we’ve become so isolated and detached from one another that we no longer even have the means to challenge the abusers of the vestigial remains.

You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – even carrots know that.

I intended to write a piece today about the pleasures of browsing the little treats on the allotment. Strawberries are the most obvious one; the moment they ripen we eat them straight off the plants so they never make it home. But there are others too. The picture on the left is of the impressively large seeds of Sweet Cicely which taste marvellous straight off the plant. It’s one of those plants that contain natural sweeteners, and we usually put some flowers, leaves or seeds into the rhubarb while it’s cooking. It adds a useful amount of sweetness and a delicious aniseed flavour. Foraging on the allotment is a great way of putting some of the plants we normally call weeds to good use. Nettles, dandelions, Good King Henry are all good to eat when young and the pot marigolds make good skin cream as well as the flowers being edible. Nasturtiums to can be pressed into service to brighten up a salad.

But that’s on the allotment where we’re sure what it is we’re eating. Beyond the safety of the allotment there are a multitude of temptations, some of which can even kill us if we’re not entirely sure of the species. I was reminded of this yesterday on our riverside walk when I spotted this beauty growing out of the steel piles that were driven into the river bed to contain the regular floods. It took a moment to realize that it was hemlock water dropwort, the seeds of which must have insinuated themselves into a crack in the wall during one of those floods. Normally it grows in swathes on the banks of streams and rivers – mainly in the West Country. I think it’s beautiful when in flower; like a starburst of white; but it’s a killer if you should eat any part of it.

Compared with the flowers of sweet Cicely on the right, they can look quite similar to a beginner.

The carrot family, as it’s now known, used to be called the umbellifers because of the distinctive flower heads, but the family name was changed because there are lots of unrelated species that also have umbels – think of elderflower which is almost ready to pick now for cordials. The carrot family has some of our most useful food plants as well as some very nasty country cousins and, as a family they need to be treated with respect by foragers. They’re not always easy to identify, but usually leaves, height, season, local plant lists which you can download for every area of the UK from the BSBI, and habitat give us a good start. Just as not all dandelions are really dandelions at all, so there are wild edible carrot family members like Alexanders or Herb Gerard (which I’ve still never eaten because I’m still wary). Like fungus hunting, learning from a skilled guide – i.e. not me – is a useful investment.

Meanwhile back on the allotment things are quite literally hotting up with the weather closer to June averages and the polytunnel full. We’ve seen the tomatoes starting to set fruit, and there are peppers and chillies all fattening up already. Today we treated most of the beds with slug killing nematodes and there’s barely a square foot of empty ground. We try to avoid the worst of the heat by skipping breakfast and watering as early as possible – good for the plants and the waistline too. Plants are afoot for another field trip to catch up with some old (plant) friends on the West Coast so it’s all hands to the pumps at the Potwell Inn.

There be Dragons

From the top, clockwise.

  • Emperor – Anax imperator
  • Large Red Damselfly – Pyrrhosoma nymphula
  • Broad Bodied Chaser – Libellula depressa
  • Golden Ringed Dragonfly – Cordulegaster boltonii (n.b. damage to left hindwing)

I wish I could claim that our most recent visitor – the Emperor dragonfly at the top – was encouraged to visit the allotment by the presence of the pond but it wasn’t; because we’ve been visited by these magnificent creatures every year since we took over the plots. What we can certainly take credit for is the threesome of Large Red damselflies, presumably two males and a female, who sorted their dispute out, allowing the female to mate with one of the males and lay her eggs in the pond while they were still joined. This morning there was another one resting on a conveniently placed cane over the water. As I’ve mentioned before, we now have dozens of ponds from baby baths to a proper 25 footer next door, not to mention the river barely 100 yards away, and several ponds around the Botanical Gardens which are fed by the same streams that dip underground and flow across the allotments – one of them under our plot. It must be dragonfly heaven. How could you not love these fabulous beasties? They’re voracious predators of smaller insects and probably constitute a decent meal for a hungry bird.

Ladybird eggs on the broad beans

On the Potwell Inn allotment, the broad beans have finally leapt into bloom and, being spring replants after most of the overwintering plants were killed off by the dreadful weather in March, they’re nice and soft and an easy target for blackfly. Mercifully the blackfly and the ladybirds have arrived at the same time and whilst pinching out the tops, Madame found a bunch of ladybird eggs – good news because the larvae are by far the more greedy predators. The white butterflies lay similar looking eggs, but they’re much larger and more elongated from memory.

Of course – (minus the blackfly) – the tops make a delicious meal long before the pods have filled. You can stir fry or steam them and they’re lovely. You could almost certainly eat them raw too, but we haven’t enjoyed them that way ourselves.

We’ve been full-on planting out, and we’re nearly at the end, but it’s been very warm and sunny so the transplants have needed mollycoddling to keep them going. One interesting discovery came with setting out the three sisters planting. We’re using the “Painted Mountain” variety for the sweetcorn, but we’re also growing an F1 hybrid for our ‘ordinary’ crop. We’ll take care to keep them as far apart as possible, but seed saving would never be a good idea on an allotment site because everyone is so close and growing every variety under the sun . What was very obvious that the trad. Painted Mountain are far more vigorous than the F1 hybrid – neatly denting one of their claims of superiority. Sadly the seeds cost about the same because here in the UK Painted Mountain is a bit harder to source. I’ve read one writer suggesting that she sows all three seeds (corn, squash and bean) at the same time but we haven’t tried that yet. We’ve started all three in root trainers; sowing the corn first to allow it to get away and avoid being choked out by the others. One day we’ll try simultaneous sowing but it’s a lot of ground to dedicate to an experiment.

Once everything is planted out we’ll be able to concentrate on weeding and watering (assuming this warm weather continues). The temperature variations in the polytunnel are enormous, but the plants seem to love it so long as they’ve got water. Finding time to combine writing, repairing the leaky skylight on the the campervan and gardening is quite challenging but the rewards are huge. It’s impossible to walk on to the allotment without wondering at the sheer energy of the earth and the plants in spring. Gardening can be a very time consuming activity and I feel sad that many of our first timers are getting overwhelmed by weeds. We always found it very difficult to manage a family and a large garden, when we were both working full time.

Is anyone listening?

In the 1940’s *Howard argued that the widespread application of chemicals and fertilizers would disrupt mycorrhizal associations, the means by which “the marriage of a fertile soil and the tree it nourishes …. is arranged’. The consequences of such a breakdown would be far reaching. [ …. ] Howard’s tone is dramatic, but eighty years on his questions cut deep. By some measures, modern industrial agriculture has been effective: crop production doubled over the second half of the twentieth century. But a single minded focus on yield has incurred steep costs. Agriculture causes widespread environmental destruction and is responsible for a quarter of global greenhouse gas emissions. Between twenty and forty percent of crops are lost each year to pests and diseases,despite colossal application of pesticide. Global agricultural yields have plateaued despite a 7oo-fold increase in fertilizer use over the second half of the twentieth century. Worldwide thirty football fields worth of topsoil are lost to erosion every minute. Yet a third of food is wasted , and demand for crops will double by 2050. It is difficult to overstate the urgency of this crisis.

Merlin Sheldrake “Entangled Life” – published 2021 by The Bodley Head

*Sir Albert Howard – organic farming pioneer and author of “An Agricultural Testament” published in 1940 and still in print.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen the numbers above so succinctly organised and for that reason alone I recommend the book; but it’s also full of research on fungi, bacteria and plants and their often poorly understood relationships. If you read it and go out into the garden; take a good handful of soil and consider that it contains more microorganisms than the total cumulative population of the earth across the whole of human history.

I had a comment from an old friend today after my mention (24 hours early it seems) of a supermoon. He’s spent a lifetime on space research and is a seriously experienced astronomer as well. He said I might get into astronomy if I went on in this way. Well Chris, I reckon my handful of earth is a worthy counterbalance to mind-bogglingly complex thoughts of space. Either subject invites awe!

At home with the fungi

Well, not really – but I found the tiny Coprinus (bottom right) growing down in the dark in the compost heap today. I don’t know why but it surprised me because the heap, being full of green waste, was rather hot and the reason I was scratching around in there was to add a barrow load of dead leaves to bump up the brown waste proportion. I’ve learned that if I can smell the heap it’s going (or gone) anaerobic and needs turning along with more brown waste. The effect of the two actions is often surprisingly quick as the heap heats up so quickly.

It was whilst looking for a photo of fully grown member of the species (Lawyers Wig in old money) I randomly typed “fungus” into the Google Photos search line and after a brief interval, hundreds – and I mean hundreds of my photos of fungi going back over a decade suddenly appeared. I’d heard that the search engine had been improved, but this was wonderful because I usually spend ages searching manually through the thumbnails to get the picture I need. It’s a blogger’s dream because I almost always use the photos I’ve just taken because the prospect of searching is so long winded.

Anyway, this is yet another serendipitous moment (synchronistic if you’re a Jungian) because I’m halfway through reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book “Entangled Life” and it falls neatly within a current line of science that’s rewriting our whole view of ecology. For me the most impressive learning point is how well it supports the view that all life is – at its most fruitful – collaborative and cooperative. If ever an idea needed to be born today it’s that one!

After a day working on the allotment in the rain we were glad to get back home. Complete with a meal of the first tiny potatoes and a bag of broad bean tops. There’s tomorrow’s food sorted,

Tree talk – joining the dots.

Lovely mature beech – photographed in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, Cumbria in 2017

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Simard’s newly published book “Finding the Mother Tree” and I’m a bit – well, breathless! – and I’m also slightly ashamed of myself for never having heard about her work before; except that by her own account she’s been regarded with some suspicion by both the forestry industry and the academics too, because her painstaking scientific work was overturning their received wisdom – oh and, of course she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine world. You can get an 18 minute summary of her work on YouTube in her Ted Talk but the book is far fuller and more detailed.

OK so I found parts of it troublingly anthropomorphic – but that turned out to be my problem because in the light of her researches over thirty plus years she has discovered not only that trees communicate with one another (you can read that one once a month in a glossy magazine somewhere), but much more thrillingly that they cooperate; that over time they build huge supportive networks through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza which transport so much more than carbon; that the old forests function almost like a biological internet, and that the oldest – mother trees – recognise and nurture their own offspring selectively and strike up mutually beneficial relationships with other species of tree. The forest – she argues – is a perfectly functioning cooperative where mutuality rather than competition rules. Describing all this complexity in human metaphorical terms is entirely justified so long as we understand that it just helps us to embrace the central point she’s making: that just as we have mutually supportive and complex relationships, so too do forests and so to think of them as commodities is to become part of the problem.

Turning a reified version of Nature into a secular object of worship has its millions of followers, but the point here is that our methods of harvesting forests for profit is misguided on many more than aesthetic grounds, or for their capacity to cheer us up in stressful times. The practice of clear cutting forests at once destroys invisible and underground mycorrhizal networks which also embody untold amounts of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere. Clear cutting frequently uses vast amounts of herbicide to kill the weeds and finish off any remaining fungal networks, with the result that newly planted seedlings die because their support network has been destroyed. That’s not to mention the hydrological damage and the incredible damage to wildlife. Depriving humans of a walk in nature comes way down the list of harms.

OK so review (lecture) over I’d urge you to read the book because you really won’t ever feel the same again when you walk through an ancient woodland and feel the decaying sticks crackling underfoot or stoop to pick a fungus: – and when you read that the government wants to drive a railway line through ancient woodland you might see it as a crime against humanity rather than swallow the old economic necessity lie.

As I put the book down, a picture of my grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns came to mind. Beyond the house he built for himself, the land shaded into beech woodland and there was a favourite place that my mother would take my sister and me to, beneath a mature beech straddling a mossy bank, exactly like the one I photographed in Cumbria a couple of years ago where I was forced into silence by its beauty and my memories. The beech was nothing in comparison with the enormous mother trees of British Colombia; and nothing at all now, because when my sister and me thought we would scatter our mother’s ashes in the woods there, I discovered that the entire area has become an industrial estate. I also have a memory that our father had carved his and my mother’s initials in the tree. They became engaged during the war without ever having met, after a courtship by letter, and although nothing was ever said, my father’s black depressions and unpredictable moods affected all our lives.

But I need to round this off by saying that for me the takeaway points from the book weren’t just about being abstractly angry at environmental destruction. There are lessons that affect our understanding and management of the allotment that need to be embraced. Something that became clear as the book progressed through her research was that many of the pieces of this vast jigsaw existed previously in their separate compartments and she was able to draw together lab and field research from which she could formulate her own enquiries. For allotmenteers, it’s all too easy to compartmentalize the things we know into the well worn categories – no dig, organic, composting, companion plants and so-on. But as I put the book down I think I understood better than ever before the relatedness of all these ideas. The soil isn’t separate from the crop, the plant nutrition, the pests, the harvesting and eating – they’re one single complex system with us as participants. I began to think my understanding of the three sisters combination; growing beans, squashes and corn together, was hopelessly narrow. The corn isn’t just there to provide a physical support for the beans and neither is the sole function of the squash the suppression of weeds. Many generations of First Nation experience suggest that there is something far more significant going on.

The ancestral understanding was of a symbiotic relationship between the sisters. We ‘know’ (in separated mental compartments) that legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules. Is there – in their patch of earth, teeming with microorganisms, worms and insects, yeasts, and fungi – a similar collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship going on? Are almost invisible mycelia, dependent upon the organic health of the soil, transporting carbon in the form of sugars from species to species? Are they messaging one another, assisting in the repulsion of insect and fungal pests, firing up defence mechanisms? Our whole atomised and compartmentalising scientific logic encourages us to step back dispassionately and regard each phenomenon in its own right. But what if they’re communicating with one another and it’s us who are the dummies, unable to comprehend their language. Companion planting must have a biological mechanism that we could investigate; and suddenly talking to trees makes more sense.

But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!

Ten hours on the stove

Writing yesterday about turnips I recalled in the middle of the night that North Americans might know them as rutabaga and there’s also an ongoing argument between England and Scotland between swedes and turnips – so in an attempt to disambiguate this tricky topic I’ll say that as far as I’m concerned the turnips that we grow are either Milan Purple Tops (which have purple tops) or Tokyo Cross F1, which was the one I was writing about yesterday. As Winston Churchill once said, we’re distinct nations divided by a shared language. As for swedes they’re fabulous in Cornish pasties but pretty grim unless they’re mashed with carrots and more butter and pepper than is good for you. Please don’t ask about mangel wurzels.

Anyway, it was supposed to rain all day today so I’d pretty much settled on doing some batch cooking to restore our depleted stores. It’s the closest I get to restaurant cooking in sheer quantity and over the course of the day I cooked around two and a half kilos of ragu, a couple of litres of concentrated chicken stock that came as a sideline to a very large chicken that I poached and which will provide soup, stock and meat for five or six meals – oh and a quiche Lorraine to which I added a pound of spinach because we picked the last leaves off the plants in the polytunnel which are beginning to bolt. What with last night’s rhubarb, lettuce, chervil, rocket, asparagus, radishes and turnips we’ve vanquished the hungry gap, and my mind has turned again to cooking.

Growing, cooking, and eating belong together; there’s no doubt. If I speak about these three in rather sacramental – even religious – terms it’s because together they act as a profound matrix, glue if you prefer, for all that we do. I can’t wait until we’re allowed to invite friends to eat with us again when this pandemic has abated.

When Madame and me were first married we used to drink at a pub called the Greyhound which was notable for the fact that the couple who were the tenants, hated one another with a venomous passion and would exchange insults between the lounge bar and the public bar which were their respective redoubts. It was worth going just to make notes on the endlessly inventive wind-ups that they concocted for one another. The other thing it was worth going for (the beer was rubbish but the pub was close and the only one that hadn’t been taken over by the Hooray Henrys) – was the arrival at precisely nine thirty each evening of Signor Rossi. The moment service finished at his restaurant he would cross the road in his apron and drink a couple of pints. The thing is, we could never have afforded to eat in his place but if you could manage to sit next to him and bathe in the perfume of his apron it was almost as good, A packet of crisps and a pickled egg could taste as good as a three course Italian some nights when he anointed them with the smell of his kitchen. I dare to claim that when I finally finished cooking today, my apron smelt like Signor Rossi’s.

As an entirely self-taught cook, I had very little to go on except the lists of ingredients and the smell of Signor Rossi. I had to figure out the bit in between for myself. It’s been a joy! – and nowadays my two chef sons teach me the tricks I wish I’d known fifty years ago. Tonight we’ve got 27 meals worth of food about to go in the freezer to cover us for a couple of field trips in the campervan, but mostly so we can work long days on the allotment getting everything into the ground, and have something nice to eat when we get back.

But I haven’t stopped reading – as if! I’ve just started “Braiding Sweetgrass” by Robin Wall Kimmerer and “Finding the Mother Tree” by Suzanne Simard. It’s fascinating to read them in parallel because it brings out the poignancy of the conflict between Native Americans and the settlers who displaced them. They each tell their story from a different perspective although they are both scientists separated by generations from the original offence. The third book isn’t much more than a pamphlet entitled “Start to Identify Composite Flowers” by Faith Anstey, but she’s obviously a gifted teacher and I learned things I hadn’t previously known from the top of page one, so it makes up for its brevity by being extremely useful and a good deal lighter to carry around than the Book of Stace which weighs in at two and a half pounds and twelve hundred and fifty pages – even printed on bible thickness paper, which befits its status in the botanical heavens.

Turnips get lonely too – why not befriend one today?

Five perfect turnips!

It’s probably a lingering memory of the distant past – (Turnip Townsend etc) that too many of us associate turnips with cattle food, and – to be fair – your average supermarket turnip, weighing in at about 8 oz would probably be better inside a sheep than a human being, especially after being driven across the country for three days after it was dug. I’ve written about this before so I’ll try not to repeat myself, but today we pulled the first turnips from the polytunnel; a Japanese variety that we’ve never grown before. They must have heard me talking about pulling them out in favour of the tomatoes and while we were away for a couple of days they put in a supreme effort. Thanks guys – and now we’re going to eat you.

So here’s how to enjoy turnips at their best. Firstly don’t let them get bigger than a golf ball or they’ll get tough and smell like dogs’ breath. Secondly try them raw – they’re delicious at this size – and you can eat them whole like a radish which they remind me of except they’re meatier and sweeter. You can ferment them but I can’t say much about that because I’ve never tried but I can imagine the sweet/sour effect would be lovely even after a very quick fermentation. Thirdly you can steam them for two or three minutes. I steamed some today and the transformation in flavour was unbelievable – they tasted like a different vegetable and still not overwhelmingly stringy and cabbage like as their middle aged cousins do. You can roast them and /or glaze them as well – they’re a lovely catch crop that grows in no time and needs very little care, at least in the polytunnel. Outside they grow so fast they’d probably escape the caterpillars but you need to remember they’re brassicas and so if you’ve got club root in the ground you should grow them in fresh soil in a container. In fact containers are the ideal way of growing all of these fast growing crops. While I think if it, you could also eat the greens as salad greens or as cime di rapa (or turnip tops) with pasta and a bit of oil and parmesan. As we never said in Bristol – “gert lush!”

We had to curtail our trip to the Mendip Hills because the van roof sprang a leak and woke Madame at 3.00am with rain dripping on her nose. I think I know the cause and the solution, so we’ll resume the field trips as soon as we get some dry weather during which I can mend it. Meanwhile we’ve got to roll a stone up a mountain and get all the tender plants out of pots and root trainers and into the earth. Today we planted out the first batches of runner beans, french beans and ……. quick drum roll please …… borlotti beans. They looked a bit sad when we left them but we’re due (yet) more rain tomorrow and they’ll soon perk up.