Moon vindicated (possibly)

IMG_4246So there’s idiocy and confirmation bias. Idiocy is thinking that I possess some sort of magical power to make things grow, and confirmation bias is when I do an experiment and skew the interpretation of the result towards my preferred, or expected conclusion. For instance, many years ago when I was a curate one of my jobs was to take emergency calls from the local hospital on Saturday nights so I could say a prayer for people as they were they dying – (only if they’d asked, I hasten to add). Three times I was called out to someone who, when I went back on Sunday morning to take communion to the wards, I found sitting up cheerfully in bed. I began to suspect (hope) that my prayers were being more effective than I had previously believed.  When I mentioned it to the doctor he patted me on the arm and said he thought it was more likely to be the blood transfusions. So to backtrack a bit, idiocy would be to believe that I possessed supernatural powers, and confirmation bias would happen if I used my very limited data to prove the claim.

And so to the Habanero chillies:

 … this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season.

Habaneros (Scotch Bonnet) and the other members of the Capsicum chinense varieties have something of a reputation for being slow and tricky to germinate. This could be a rumour spread by specialist growers to inflate their sales of plants, but in my experience they can be – well – difficult.  So exactly a week ago I sowed all my chilli varieties in the propagator in my office/study/junk room. In the light of last year’s experience I changed several of the variables, making the drawing of conclusions almost impossible.  I changed the seed-sowing compost and  I increased the propagator temperature significantly to 25C and I used a different model of lamp which seems both whiter and more intense, and after I’d done all that and watered them with a very dilute seaweed growth stimulant I remarked in this blog that coincidentally the moon was waxing in its first quarter.

Even the seed packet notes that the ‘chinense’ varieties can take up to a month to germinate.  This morning – Oh Joy – they were germinating, not quite like mustard and cress on blotting paper, but lustily, vigorously, beautifully. Sensibly the little voice in my head says – don’t count your chickens – but I’ve not only counted them, I’ve mentally written to Tesco to offer a contract.  They’re going to be very short of chillies if we leave Europe. So – seven days and three of five varieties are poking their tiny heads up into my artificial chilli paradise, and the question is – is it the moon? to which the answer can only be where’s the evidence?  I’m such a hardboiled sceptic but between idiocy and confirmation bias there’s a rolling expanse of comfort blankets, lucky charms and pixie dust and I’ll buy into anything that keeps them going and avoids them all damping off, because I’m human and when I woke up today and looked at them I was so on fire with joy I made a gallon of stock, strained the raspberry vinegar and cooked meatballs in tomato sauce – our own of course – and all before Madame stirred – so the Potwell Inn will be living high on the hog for a while.

I forgot to mention yesterday that when we took the fleece off the asparagus bed, the deep layer of very smelly seaweed we mulched it with in the autumn has almost completely disappeared into the soil.  This is exactly what the gardener at Heligan said would happen – in fact she said there would be just a few bits of crispy seaweed lying on the surface. Her prediction was completely correct, so many thanks for the idea.

I said to Madame – “you’re quiet”

IMG_4964And she replied – “Well if you’d stop cursing for a minute maybe I could speak to you”. Honestly it really showed that she had never attempted to build a two tier greenhouse staging from a set of photocopied instructions (poorly) translated from the Martian. Thirty six bolts – painstakingly inserted and tightened  – had to be removed because I had got part number 1463 upside down, twice. In my defense I would say that I was taught to do these sorts of jobs by my beloved grandfather who would curse large and beautiful buildings into existence on the basis of 70 years of experience and so – much as it pains me – I thought a bit of cursing might help. My knees were hurting and my back ached and I just wanted to share the suffering a bit because I’m generous.

It had not been a great day anyway. First thing we drove over to B&Q to buy the 8′ X 6′ polycarbonate sheeting to cover the hotbed. I had not properly thought through the logistics of getting it into the back of our very small car and so we had to drive home crouched in the brace position and relying on the wing mirors because there was no rear view mirror on account of the large sheet of plastic resting on it. It was a tricky drive but we got home perfectly safely, or at least perfectly undamaged.

So after the staging was successfully erected (whatever was all the fuss about?) we cut the sheet roughly, very roughly to size with a razor knife and then I attemped to breathe some energy into the hotbed which was stuck moodily at 20C. I made about 10 dibber holes down to the serious muck and then administered a gallon of human activator thereby evicting a beautiful iridescent beetle  and a number of brandling worms who didn’t much care for being pee’d on. This is the bit they never tell you about in the allotmenteering coffee table books. There, it’s all gingham dresses and roses, except in real life it’s not – we could feel the coming season growling at us and we were barely ahead.

Yesterday was spent wheelbarrowing woodchip down to fill the paths.  It only arrives intermittently and although in public we all pretend we’re utterly committed communards, we would happily commit murder if anyone else got there first. And so we left today – contented at winning several small skirmishes – and ready for some serious sowing tomorrow.

On the menu – squid poached in a red wine and tomato sauce with mushrooms, flavoured with garlic (loads), cardamon, mace, coriander seed and basil with a dash of lemon juice and some creme fraiche at the end. Yesterday two old friends I haven’t seen in years made contact via this blog. I was deeply touched.

IMG_4965

Raspberry vinegar


IMG_4953

There was a time, not so long ago, when raspberry vinegar was dismissed – along with Abegail’s Party and prawn cocktail – as a relic of the seventies, best forgotten as soon as possible – however it’s swung back into fashion in the last few years. Here at the Potwell Inn it’s never gone out of fashion for the obvious reason that its very good. It’s mostly suggested as a component of vinaigrette, adding both fruit and sweetness to the dressing, but we use it in other ways as well. It’s especially good, for instance, in preserving small beetroots – the later thinnings – when they’re still smaller than a table tennis ball. I wouldn’t recommend it for long storge because the acidity is a bit low to be completely safe, but for a couple of weeks in the fridge during the summer it’s absolutely fine and you can still pickle the old football sized beetroot, sliced in paint-stripper strength pickling vinegar in late autumn. You can use any vinegar you like to steep the raspberries – we like organic cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar works just as well. There are so many recipes out there you can just choose the one you like but they’re all much of a muchness  Yesterday we cleared out the last 2.5Kg of frozen raspberries from the freezer and started steeping them in just under 1.5 Litres of cider vinegar. We’ll give them a stir now and again and after 4 or 5 days we strain it through a jelly bag and measure the quantity.  Then we’ll add 450g sugar for each 600ml of strained vinegar, boil it for 10 minutes and bottle it in sterile bottles.  It regularly features in our Christmas presents for the family (along with sloe gin) and they all return the bottles quite soon afterwards in the hope of a top-up.

But why were there 2.5 kilos of raspberries in the freezer anyway? I’m bound to wonder. It’s all too easy to use the freezer as storage for surpluses from the allotment you’ve no idea what to do with, and a bit of discipline with planting along with extra generosity along the way can stop the freezer being stuffed with deteriorating food. If there’s a general rule about food preservation it’s the fact that it only improves (pickles and chutneys especially) up to a point after which it goes downhill. Late last year I had the chastening experience of throwing away pounds of ancient and flavourless jams and preserves that we’d not had the sense to give away when they were still good to eat.

Aside from that, the chillies, peppers and aubergines are all sown and sitting in their propagators, and as soon as the hotbed has properly heated up I think we’re going to sow early salad crops.  Storm Eric has gone its destructive way and after today we look forwards to a couple of weeks of more settled weather when we can complete all the winter work on the allotment.  But today is a celebration day with the family – two birthdays and a meal together.

That’s it – we’re on the treadmill now

IMG_4949

I promise there’s no theorizing in this post!

In actual fact I could have celebrated the moment months ago when the overwintering broad beans, the peas, garlic, shallots and onions all went in, but that felt different. There was winter to contend with and, to be fair, spring is still a long way away  But today when Madame set out the seed potatoes for chitting it felt more like the first stirrings of the new season – as if the starting gun had been fired – and it’s true, once you’ve started the spuds (and the chillies tomorrow) you’re locked in.  Have we got enough I wondered when we surveyed the egg boxes. There are another couple of kilos on the way but will there be enough maincrops to take us through? If we get another summer like the last one, probably not, but if there’s more rain around we’ll manage. Last season we hardly watered the potatoes, there just wasn’t time since there are no hoses on our plot, and any watering has to be targeted. The biggest fear is that they’ll turn off the water supply to the troughs which would leave us rationing the 1000 litres we’ve got stored.  I’ve half a mind to add a fifth water butt for luck.

Perhaps underwatering has an upside though, because where they used to grow thousands of tons of early potatoes in Pembrokeshire we always noticed that when they were heavily watered the flavour was greatly diminished. These days in Pembrokeshire many of the farmers have given up on potatoes altogether and those that are left will be vulnerable when the pickers stop coming from Eastern Europe. Last season on the allotment however, although the crop was small, the flavour and texture were amazing.

So there was definitely a sense of excitement around in spite of very strong winds and downpours of wintry rain. We had to go up and check the fleeces and cloches which had suffered a bit overnight and to my delight the hotbed has already climbed to 15C since it was completed on Tuesday.  I drilled a hole in the side of the bed so I can push a thermometer into the centre without removing the cover.  Tomorrow all the timber for the compost bins is arriving and just as a special extra treat a fresh load of woodchip has been dumped at the site.  I feel like we won the lottery! The forecast is terrible and working in waterproofs is very sweaty, but somehow it seems as if we’ve got the wind in our sails.

On resilience

IMG_4931No prizes for guessing that this was our local Sainsbury’s the day after the snow fell. To be fair it was a combination of equipment failure and panic buying but the same thing happens every time we get a period of severe weather.  The system collapses, people get angry and we realize that there is no slack, no resilience in it at all. I had a quick look on Google and I could see that there were people complaining everywhere – broken by the fact that they’d been forced to buy brown bread instead of white! This kind of event is almost designed into the system. Some time in the 20th century the notion of public good was set aside by the food industry in favour of profit. One kilo of asparagus is flown from Peru at the cost of 8 kilos of carbon released into the atmosphere Our passion for fresh, out of season vegetables and fruits may not (like meat production) be releasing methane into the atmosphere but it’s making up for that with all the other greenhouse gases  involved in transporting it a thousand miles overland, and even if you buy local produce, when the infrastructure collapses because it’s not properly maintained, the milk, the fresh seasonal veg and everything else that needs to be brought to market stays put and sometimes even rots in the ground.

I had a hilarious conversation with someone at the Lost Gardens of Heligan harvest meal last autumn.  He was a Cornishman, and he said he’d asked at the local Tesco if they were selling locally caught fish.  “Oh yes” he was told, “It all comes from Newlyn [about five miles away] but it has to go to the distribution depot first”. This isn’t the fault of the producers, it’s the result of a ‘designed for profit’ but completely sclerotic distribution system, designed in such a way that it has no resilience at all.  There’s nothing in storage,  and we’re only saved from serious disorder by the fact that the events that cause breakdown don’t usually last very long. Yet.

The alarming fact is that we’re not facing a number of separate  problems – climate change, ecological destruction, food security, poverty, migration, social breakdown, artificial intelligence and war.  They’re one big one!

You’d  have to be pretty old to remember this, but some of us may recall the cover of the Whole Earth Catalogue back along, as we say in the West Country.  The cover was one of the first pictures taken of  Earth from space, with the slogan “We can’t put it together, it is together” .

Here we are, all looking for ways to save the earth by eating a tub of Ben and Jerry’s vegan ice cream once a week, when what we really need to be doing is thinking in a different way altogether. When the big man in the shiny suit comes around offering to take the load off us we need to consider his (or her) offer carefully. It comes with strings attached – read the small print!

Lets take a look at the Potwell Inn store cupboard:

Last night was one of the coldest I can remember. Our first floor window ledge went down to -3C. That poses a problem for us because we live in a 1970’s concrete building that grows black mould on the interior walls as soon as it gets cold. Yesterday we tried to go out but the pavements were covered with sheet ice and lethal and in any case the shelves in the shops would probably be stripped bare.  But here in the Potwell Inn – this is what resilience looks like. We have food – not exotic by any means, but plenty.  We have oats and bread flour and I suppose we could even broach the barrel of wine we made in the autum.  We could walk a quarter of a mile to the allotment and pick fresh vegetables, even winter lettuce. We’re not self-sufficient, in fact I think that whole idea is a dangerous myth.  If there’s a way forward out of this mess then it’s not going to happen if we separate from our neighbours, it’s ‘dog eat dog’ economics that has brought us to this place. The way forward will involve more trust, more dependency on neighbours and a lot more generosity of spirit. As the American cartoonist Walt Kelly said in his second Earth Day poster back in 1971 – “We have met the enemy and he is us.”

Thinking globally and acting locally is the only way we can make this work. There’s nothing we can ‘pass a law’ about that will work faster or more powerfully than our local choices.

  • Would it be hard work? – yes
  • Would we have to do without some stuff we enjoy? – yes
  • Would it change the way we need to live? – yes
  • Would it be difficult to understand?  See Michael Pollan’s rule – “eat food, not too much, mostly veg”
  • Wouldn’t it be going backwards? – no –  going forwards into a sustainable future rather than one blighted by hardship and starvation.

Is this a nag? Well let’s say this kind of stuff keeps me awake at night. But I’m an optimist and there’s a crocus in flower right next to where I’m writing and I’m driven by the thought that we don’t own the earth, we just borrow it from our children and grandchildren.

The gulf between the reality and the plan

Here’s the reality

img_4903

– and here’s the plan …

 Click here to see the plan on growveg.com

There’s nothing quite like the slimy, viscous quality of re-purposed boards when they’re coated in mud and frozen. You need a tracksuit under your overalls, thick gloves and knee pads when it’s this cold.  The promised snow never arrived, possibly because Bath is in a kind of bowl, surrounded by hills and only divided by the valley of the River Avon.  So being at river level we get a degree of protection – that’s the upside.  The downside is that a mass of polluted air often hangs over us and that’s bad news for asthmatics like me. The City Council have been refusing to deal with the problem ever since the Buchanan Report 50 years ago. We breathe fumes and they see tourist revenue.  Every couple of years the set up another committee and kick the whole thing into the long grass.

However, the sun was shining and I really wanted to get on with building the hotbed today so that we can drop the hot horse manure straight into it on Friday.  It couldn’t be a simpler concept. I’ve built a rectangular 4’X3′ frame that can drop into any of the raised beds we’ve built. It will hold about 10 bags of manure capped with good quality compost. The picture shows it upside down because it’s not quite finished. In February of each year the frame is filled with the good stuff and then by the end of the season it’s all become well rotted and very rich compost.  So we’ll lift the frame off and spread the contents over the bed and move the frame to another place. It occupies just under half a bed and so in 50 years time, when I’m 132 we’ll be back at the beginning. Maybe we need more frames! but you get the general idea.  We allotmenteers are among the world’s greatest optimists.  We can see into the future, or at least to the end of the next season and we know that with a degree of good fortune and skill most of it will come to pass. What shall we grow in it?  We’re discussing that right now but some very early potatoes would be nice.  We grew ‘Jazzy’ in bags last season and they were pretty good but too close together.

My robin – well, the robin – is becoming ever more courageous and is beginning to dart very close whenever I’m breaking the soil. The ground is frozen solid down to a couple of inches, so it was easier to walk on it, but I made an interesting discovery when I moved some beetroot plants that were in the way.  Underneath the plants the earth was still soft. You can see just how well the earth is protected by growing plants.

We’ve had to remove quite a few crops as the beds were being built so Madame has been making soup almost every day. Today it was parsnip soup – fabulous!

But the plan and the reality are always worlds apart. There’s no sun, no rain and no snow on the plan and yet without them nothing would grow – and that’s why allotmenteering is so much fun. All day the weather forecasters were warning us ancients to stay indoors or face the terrible consequences .  Stuff them, I had a great time and I was as warm as toast. With my flask of tea and a stool to perch on – life doesn’t get much better.

Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!