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!

Trad bean sticks

Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m.  The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.

Enough already –  get on with it! – I hear you cry  – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.

So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure.  Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.

So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting.  The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging?  I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness!  Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse.  I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit.  But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.

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Please can we have our weather back?

No – the pictures are from last year’s cold and wet spring but this year we’ve had the hottest Easter and the coldest May bank holiday since records began – or so we’re told, and it’s been so dry we’ve been wielding the watering cans. The allotment is desperate for some rain so it was good that at least some fell last night, although not in the predicted quantities, but the satellite picture shows that the main rain belt has passed us. It’s all very confusing. There’s no frost predicted until the forecast runs out on the 22nd May which means we’ve probably seen the last of it – but there’s always a chance of an unexpected freeze.

Plants respond to day length and temperature.  Day length can’t change but plants that are adapted to the ‘April showers’ scenario are finding it a bit confusing because this year June seems to have preceded April.  Apples and strawberries have flowered, grapes came into leaf and many other tender crops became extremely vulnerable. Luckily we fleeced all the potatoes last week, but our neighbours who didn’t, have had their spuds touched – probably not fatal but a setback nonetheless. Here at the Potwell Inn our indoor propagated tender plants, especially the runner beans, are now adolescent and growing fast enough to leave home but until things settle down a bit we daren’t put them out. One neighbour in the better favoured ground above the path has lost the lot. How we missed the April showers! Sunshine and showers in equal abundance are the better start to any season.

So we’re grateful for the rain, but now we can hear the slugs revving up like formula one racers. We’re sort of ready for them because we’ve had beer traps out for a fortnight without any takers.  Today we’ll re-bait them all and I don’t doubt there will be a good harvest. Happily metaldehyde slug pellets have now been banned, and I’m very uneasy about ferrous phosphate as a subsitute, in fact apart from the fact that they’re unnessary chemicals I’m not even convinced that they work. Hand to hand combat is a lot more fun.

Unbelievably I’ve had to water the ‘compost heap’ already, but the worms have a prodigious appetite for kitchen waste with cardboard for pudding. In the last few weeks they’ve consumed a kitchen table-sized box which I collapsed and put on top to conserve the heat, and which they moved into as soon as it got wet, and took it all down. That’s why “compost heap” has got inverted commas, by the way, – it’s more like a worm farm but it’s so efficient at reducing waste I’m loathe to steam it up with loads of hot material. Clearly we need to build a separate facility for the worms so we can revert the compost heaps to reducing piles of green waste.

Planting out, then, is going to have to wait for a couple of days – but the true spinach has begun so yield to nature and attempt to flower, and so we picked a couple of large carrier bags full yesterday and cooked them along with some beetroot thinnings which we’ll have for lunch. The spinach is already in the freezer, but I’m looking at the stores and thinking we need to get cracking and finish them up during the hungry gap to keep a sensible rotation going. It’s all too easy to use preserving jars and the freezer to avoid deciding what to do with our produce. I’ve only just begun to adjust to the absence of our children and reduce the amount I cook (after 20 years!) but the message doesn’t quite seem to have arrived at the preserving department.

Ah – the hungry gap. When you live in the centre of the city, surrounded by delectables from all around the world, you have to have an iron will to finish up the passata, the sauces and pickles, rather than wander round to the supermarket to choose something new and hideously expensive to appease your jaded palate. But we at the Potwell Inn have iron will in abundance and we toss our heads at ready meals. “Mmmmmm” lovely, we say, as the longing for the summer plenty secretly grips us.

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A bit of dagging – just the thing for a bank holiday Monday!

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Starting from the all-time best bits of our break in the Brecon Beacons, there was the blues night in Brecon, of course, but I’m bound to say that listening to a cuckoo for the first time in several years comes near to the top of my list.  Ordinary pleasures have become exceptions these days and so cuckoos are peak moments. So too was watching a bird feeder with great tits, blue tits, nuthatch and yellowhammers all feeding at the same time.  Meanwhile a mouse had created a great home for himself in a drystone wall under the feeder, only having to pop his head out through a crack in the wall to catch the falling seeds. He’s in danger of getting so fat he won’t be able to escape his five star accommodation. Half a dozen hens were browsing around the cottage all day and providing the best eggs we’ve tasted since we gave up keeping them ourselves.

But let no-one say we, at the Potwell Inn, shirk the less arcadian bits of life – there’s always time to learn a new skill, and sheep dagging just happened to come up yesterday. I was at the clean end of the crush, while Nick and Kate were the – let’s say – “coal face” with the hand clippers, so all I could do was help wrestle the sheep in and operate the bit of the crush that dealt with the front end.IMG_5323Sorry about all the technical farming language. Actually that’s not all I was doing, because I was also eyeing up the rich daggings as they fell to the floor, thinking how well they’d look on our compost heap. This indignity – for the sheep – was to help clean them up ready for lambing and make it easier to see whether they were ‘uddered up’ without a wrestling match. Sheep, I discovered are both heavy and likely to kick you in the face if you’re not very careful. As it was, it was the brim of my hat that caught at least one haymaker of a blow.  Daggings – the mucky bits of wool around the rear end – also make fantastically good mulch because they aren’t strong enough to burn the roots of young plants. Having never seen any kind of shearing close up before, it obviously needs real skill not to nick the sheep. The wool is thick with lanolin and cutting through the clumps of wool looked like hard work.

IMG_5317Madame took a look at a pond that Nick had dug out years ago, and it was full of newts.  Newts were once so common you could go to pretty well any pond and catch a jam jar full, but nowadays it becomes a notable treat to see them. Isn’t there a picture beginning to form here? This constellation of wildlife that we were finding is no accident. It’s a great sadness that we no longer think it’s weird to have to go to a nature reserve in order to see creatures that were once everywhere, but here on this 24 acres of unprofitable mixed hill farm is a sign of what we’ve lost.  So many species clinging to life in ‘improved’ farmland are thriving here without even knowing how rare they’ve become.

IMG_5319.jpgYou see the term “hobby farming” used disparagingly by those who ought to know better, but here in these pockets of unimproved land are populations of wildlife that would rapidly spread back into the surrounding land if their environment was restored. These so-called hobby farmers are acting as unpaid guardians of many thousands of acres of unofficial and unmarked “biodiversity banks” without, in many cases, claiming a penny of government subsidy, while the money goes to destructive intensive farming.

There is, perhaps, one thing you might notice on the farm, and that would be things like this Victorian potato plough which Nick still uses. Is it efficient? Well no, but that really isn’t the point.  The fact is that for all our obsession with progress, there are still many things that work perfectly well – if a lot more slowly. A bit like the landlord of the Potwell Inn and his wife!

NB Rose – Some good food plants around too!

 

To Cardiff and David Nash

IMG_5314When you cross over the Brecon Beacons via the Beaufort road you suddenly cross a line between the open moorland and the post-industrial landscape, marked by a line of electricity pylons. I’m not sure which side of the line I prefer. Surprisingly, perhaps, I admire and even like the post industrial landscape inhabited by the ghosts of miners, steelworkers and the lost fortunes of entrepreneurs and the dreamers who made porcelain in works like Nantgarw where beauty and purity emerged from the smoke and filth of the potbanks. I like it and yet I loathe what’s become of it in the industrial estates and business parks that replaced it.

Today we drove to Cardiff to see the David Nash exhibition in the National Gallery of Wales. While we were there I tried to search out the old Welsh Academy building in Bute Street where I did a bit of work in the 1970’s, and the terrifying Dowlais Arms pub where we would take our lives in our hands to book a taxi by CB radio to take us back to the Railway station for the last train back to Bristol on a Friday night. But it’s all been demolished and redeveloped.  The only bit I recognised was the long stone wall where I swear I remember the words “Tubal Cain” painted in huge letters – presumably long since painted out by someone who failed to understand the Old Testament history of the name.  The fading neo classical building in which the Academy was once housed seems to have been demolished along with everything else. If I can be a bit contrarian for a moment we found very little to commend what’s replaced the derelict docklands. There were endless coffee bars and restaurants of exactly the same provenance you would find in the centre of almost any large city.  We could have been in Birmingham or Bristol or the London docklands – it really didn’t seem to matter.  Any sense of place, of history had been erased by the uniformity of 21st century life. Everywhere and nowhere in the span of a short walk, history is contained and defeated by streetside captions, theme pubs and signposts. In fact the very word ‘heritage’ has become yet another resource to be strip-mined and sold off by the new ‘creative’ entrepreneurs and their theme parks –  just at the time we most need to reflect on the industrial revolution, what it gave and what it took away from us, and where the degradation first gripped us, as it will grip the nations where it is beginning today. This aetiolated version of the past is fed to us like pre-digested pap and serves an ideological purpose. There’s something very perverse about the fact that the Assembly building is so hemmed in by building developments and chain restaurants.  Instead of leaving the building in isolation within the context of the ruined industrial landscape that might suggest “this is what we’re here to redress”, the new buildings press against the assembly building like silent lobbyists saying – “remember who you’re here to serve”.  The steel magnates and mine owners have gone, to be replaced by an equally rapacious economics that, having taken the coal, has returned to frack the last drops of value out of the nation.

I once (supervising on a school trip) said to a retired mine engineer at Big Pit in Blaenavon –  “You must miss the camaraderie of the job.  He replied “No I hated every bloody minute of it!”. The camaraderie, the courage and resilience of the communities are not things to be celebrated as much as admired. Yes we can appreciate the resilience of the communities but this was essentially a survival mechanism against the terrible behaviour of a class of human beings who belived that it was perfectly alright to sweat a natural resource like coal or steel through the exploitation of less powerful human beings.

There was a small craft market going on and Nick went to buy some Welsh cakes. He asked the woman in charge (he’s a fine chef) “do you make these with all butter or a mixture of butter and lard (the traditional way)? ” “Stork (margarine)” she replied. We tried them but they stuck to the roof our mouths like stale puff pastry.

IMG_5312The David Nash exhibition was something else. It was everything that the city has turned its back on. Here is an artist who has made it his business to look at the natural world not as a resource to be extracted and sold off, but as the object of a prolongued meditation.  They’re almost religious in their intensity.  It’s an exhibition of fifty years of work since he bought an old chapel in Blaenau Festiniog for £200 in which to work and presumably do a lot of thinking. What did I admire most?  – well he can draw, I mean he can really draw. There’s a playful element (in the very best sense of the word), that reminds me of the intensity of children’s play.  There’s a sense of the re-enchantment of the world through a profound attentiveness. It smells good when you walk into the gallery – is this a normal term of art criticism?  It was just so good! We’d seen another film about the large lump of carved tree trunk that was cast into a stream and followed in its passage to the sea at Barmouth some years later, but watching a slightly fuller version on a large screen encouraged us to sit down and watch it right through. It sounds a little like conceptual art but it was much fuller, richer, and much more meditative than most work in that mode. There’s a lot of work in the exhibition and I came away thinking that there’s a very close kinship between the kind of attentiveness that artists like David Nash exhibit, and the attentiveness of the scientist. All that nonsense put about by CP Snow about two quite different forms of consciousness has entered into the bloodstream and it was wrong. My old music teacher, AF Woodman, used to shout at us  – “I know you can hear it but have you been listening?”  Call it close attention, call it meditation or mindfulness – it really doesn’t matter much, but we’ve spent so much time quantifying, describing and judging the output of artists so we can make lists in order of importance, that we’ve missed the really important bit. Once again I’ll apply my entirely subjective way of judging an exhibition – does it make me want to work? – yes.  Does it change the way I look at things? – yes.

Finally, and on an entirely different subject, how do you make a perfect poached egg? Here’s the answer – no stirring, no vinegar, no little plastic doofers. Crack some eggs – they need to be so newly laid they’re almost warm – and put them carefully into a bowl.  Bring the poaching water to the boil and then slide the eggs in. Ta da! perfect poached eggs.IMG_5313

 

Prettiest wash boiler in wales

IMG_5308The water flowing into this old wash boiler comes straight out of the hill and serves as the water supply for the house.  It’s clear, pure and tastes a lot better than the stuff that comes out of most taps. It also happens that the spring makes the most wonderfully relaxing sound; I could sit and listen to it all day. I’ve strip washed in it in the past, when the possibility of being surprised by a passer by was almost infinitesimally small.  As a precaution, 30 odd years ago, we used to boil the water before drinking it. Over the years it’s proved completely safe and so nowadays no-one bothers. IMG_4159We were first brought to this place all those years ago, when it was a holiday cottage and painting studio  – it’s pretty inaccessible, although the faciliies are much improved from the days when the stream, when it was in spate, would flow into the cottage under the living room wall and out again under the door. Now it’s in full occupation as a smallholding. Hill farming doesn’t pay any more and so its full-time flock of sheep and hens, and a part time herd of fattening pigs are subsidised by two incomes from work outside the holding – this is not a place for the faint-hearted. More than 250 metres higher than our allotment, the spring sowings need to be best part of a month later, and the winters are much fiercer.

Within minutes of arriving we were watching nuthatches, yellowhammers and dunnocks along with the better known lowland birds all competing with a tiny field mouse on the bird tables.  There are cuckoos here, and green woodpeckers too – more often heard than seen, but which always lift the spirits. Our friends, Kate and Nick would be the first to acknowledge that they’re hardly self-sufficient, but this morning, mid-morning after a late night at a blues concert in Brecon, we feasted on eggs, bacon and sausages all produced on their land. There’s excellent cider here, and there’s a whole shed full of stored and preserved food of every kind.  It’s a ‘good to be alive’ place.  Outside our small bedroom in what, not so long ago, was the toolshed, the bees were working the cotoneaster from early in the morning. The air is rich with the sounds of insects but apart from the odd plane overhead there is no traffic noise at all. The nearest road is a small ribbon of grey through the landscape at the bottom of the valley.  Bryn, the dog, is so accustomed to wandering the landscape chasing foxes that he will travel 15 kilometres a night – we only know that because he’s fitted with a tracking transmitter so he can be found again.  He’s rather deaf, blind in one eye and fourteen years old.

There are two gardens here – the garden which is nearest the cottage is like any cottage garden, except for the views.  Further up the bridle path there’s a proper allotment where potatoes are planted with a small tractor and plough, the tractor designed to be safe to use on the steeply sloping fields.  There are peas and runner beans and root crops on a rather grander scale than we could ever contemplate at the Potwell Inn. Taller crops like runner beans have to be grown on almost industrial grade frameworks to resist the fierce winds. Most of the carpentry is done on site – it’s a very self-contained sort of place sustained by an informal local network of friends and neighbours, always up for a bit of bartering.

But let’s not get too carried away by the rural idyll. Hard choices have to be made, and sometimes they have to cull animals like grey squirrels to protect their young saplings Things go wrong sometimes, animals – especially hens – can die for no discernable reason. Thistles and bracken are a constant battle at this height and war is still waged using some chemicals.  “Never let the perfect drive out the best” is a good motto for this sort of extreme marginal farming, but looked at as a whole, this inefficient profit-free enterprise has created a haven for wildlife however the industrial agricultural industrialists might shake their heads in disbelief. Hundreds of native trees have been planted over the past decades, and this has had a real impact on the wildlife. If you think of the economics of farming in a different way and start to count natural capital as a public good rather than as a resource to be plundered, packed and resold for a profit, then the profitability of this tiny farm with its inbuilt capacity for carbon capture and  recycling of waste – the unsaleable wool is recycled into compost and as mulch, grazing animals return their waste into the improving soil – all this adds up to profit of a different kind – a profit that might be counted in birdsong, biodiversity and beneficial impact on the earth.

Every Wednesday, Kate sets up her moth trap to check out the local population of theseIMG_4149 bafflingly confusing and often invisible creatures and sends reports in to the County Recorder because knowing what you’ve got is the essential first step in knowing whether you’re in the process of losing it. These photos, taken last year show Madame and Kate unpacking the trap and sorting the moths into jars so they could be identified and released again. We were  absolutely amazed at the diversity and sheer beauty of some creatures we’d never seen before.  Where there are only relatively few (between 50 and 70 including migrant) butterfly species, the moths make up for it with over 2500 species including a whole set of micromoths which are tiny and brown and need expertise way beyond my paygrade. As always, the world gets more complicated the closer and more carefully you look.

So that’s why this is one of my favourite places to be.  It’s easy to read, to write and to doze in the garden or to plan the next move for the Potwell Inn garden. We’ve gathered firewood, planted carrots and shared all sorts of expertise, over the years, and I’ve gathered enough stories to write a book if I ever wanted to.  If I have a wish, it’s that we will soon come to the understanding that if we treasure the environment an it inhabitants, including ourselves, we have to stop worshipping the gods of profit and growth, and start to recognise the true value of the marginal mixed farms that create the landscape we crave and that’s so good for our souls.

 

Moving day for chillies

It’s been an extraordinary Easter weekend and weather records are being broken all over the UK.  Given that the Easter is a moveable feast, it’s hardly surprising that it’s warmer when it’s three weeks later than last year, but even so it’s been exceptionally hot, feeling more like June than April.

We had a binge on beetroots, sowing five small blocks of different varieties for a bit of a flavour experiment, and as I was sowing I noticed just how expensive the so-called ‘heritage’ seeds are. It manifests itself not in price, but in the feeble quantity of seed you get for your money. I’m rapidly converting to seed saving, I think.  We’ve grown quite a few things from saved seed this year, and it seems to me that once you’ve ensured proper name and date labelling and storing seed properly, there’s everything to gain and nothing to lose.  Obviously the big companies would just love you to spend pounds on new seed every year, and they love to hint at forbidding difficulties, but this year’s overwintering onion sets have been a sad waste of time and money and next season we’ll grow onions from seed – wider choice and a fraction of the price. Beside saving money, it seems that plants adapt to local conditions much quicker than we normally assume and so seed, soil and situation can converge to give excellent results. In our last parish there was a gardener called Tim Brommage – a retired firefighter – who had a variety of small tomatoes saved year by year since the 1940’s and quite delicious.  Sadly he died in his nineties and took the seeds and the knowledge with him.

No doubt F1 hybrids and commercial varieties have their uses if you want to grow vegetables exactly like the ones in the supermarket, but it’s likely to be disappointing if you don’t follow the same intensive regime – chemicals and all. Commercial varieties have to be as tough as old boots to survive long journeys in a lorry and high yields often leads to poor flavour. Time to welcome the quirky, the knobbly and downright weird open pollinated plants  – after all, allotmenters aren’t only interested in profitability, thank goodness!

Early on Sunday morning when I went up to the allotment early to water and open the greenhouse, the Abbey bells were ringing.  It was a hauntingly beautiful sound and somewhere at the back of my mind the last piece of a jigsaw dropped into place and I realized that the feeling of listlessness I’d been feeling since Thurday coincided exactly with the fourth anniversary of the last Easter I’d celebrated in my parishes. I really thought I was over it, and yet the sense of bereavement had insinuated itself into the depths of my mind, so I watered and sang easter hymns to myself and that was that.  The allotment is a great consolation and I’m glad not to be tearing around the countryside taking services on four hours sleep.  Madame too is pleased that I’m not collapsed in a chair exhausted after days running on empty.  But it’s over – sometimes I miss it so much, but there’s no looking back.

So the bank holiday Monday was supposed to be at least a bit of a break, but the Potwell Inn is so overrun with growing plants we simply had to get some of them out to make room for the newcomers. This year we bought a second set of propagator lights, and that’s been very useful but it’s given rise to several horticultural traffic jams. The chillies have done so well in the warm sunshine of our south facing windows that several of them have set their first fruits. With the second wave of plants close to being potted on, we had to move the first twelve large plants up to the greenhouse.  So they all went into the lift and down to the lobby, and thence to the allotment where I carried them down a tray at a time in the wheelbarrow.

But the greenhouse was running at a steady 35C despite our best effort to cool it down, and so one of the aubergines immediately fainted with heat stress.  A & E procedures were immediately adopted and the aubergine slowly recovered during the afternoon. Beyond that I spent a pleasant afternoon hoeing where it was safe, and hand weeding where it wasn’t. For the most part the couch grass is vanquished to the edges of the plot, but the bindweed never seems to give up, and it can grow a foot in an hour if it thinks I’m not watching. This is probably the busiest time of the gardening year, and it’s all too easy to let things slip.  The payoff comes later.

Welcome back, old friend

IMG_5274The oven, having been pretty much out of action for a month has been repaired and this was the first sourdough loaf I’ve been able to bake during that time. Judging by the amount of spring and the look of the crust, it hasn’t been heating properly for ages and consequently the steam function wasn’t working either. Terry, the repair man, hadn’t tackled one like this before but with a combination of laptop, owners manual and persistence he dismantled the door and replaced the broken part. And so the household routine and the proving/kneading regime harmonised once more so that with very little effort the loaf was started early yesterday morning and the loaf came out of the oven around mid-morning today in time for us to go up to the allotment until 5.00pm.

This is an absolute mongrel of a recipe involving rye flour, bread flour and soft cake flour along with a little sea salt, a tiny bit of olive oil and a starter that I made years ago and just keeps going. After experimenting for years this, finally, is a loaf that Madame really likes and so we don’t waste any and it’s never around long enough to go stale. Coincidentally it also makes the best panzanella ever during the summer when we have plenty of basil and tomatoes.

This principal, of growing and cooking things we really like seems to me to be one of the best justifications for the Potwell Inn kitchen. Bearing in mind that I was five when post-war rationing finally ended, I simply didn’t have any exposure to any imported vegetables and fruits.  I was 21 before I tasted garlic and so my life in food has been one revelation after another. Our children take food diversity for granted and their generation (two of them are chefs) has evolved ever more baroque affectations to tickle the palate.  But for me Escoffier was always right – “Faites Simple” should be a battle cry against ornamentation, and so I’ve always preferred the simplest ways of preparing the best quality ingredients, and if we can grow them ourselves that’s even better. Fortunately I’m a cook not a chef and so the Potwell Inn kitchen has an exclusive clientele of two most of the time and occasional guests now and then.  And if anyone turns up their nose because there isn’t a cold smoked quail’s egg balanced on top of three game chips and trio of sausages, they don’t get asked back!

So with bread under the belt, as it were, we were off to the allotment where the pea netting was put up, the potatoes were ridged up and a good deal of potting up and transplanting was done. It’s been an exceptionally dry year so far and although we’ve had a couple of soakings, I was surprised when I was planting out young lettuces at just how dry the soil is.  It’s lovely that we can enjoy the warm sunshine but it’s odd to be needing to water quite as much as we do.

Meanwhile the coldframes and greenhouse are full of young plants looking for a permanent space to grow in and the asparagus is throwing up more and more fronds. We shan’t take any more this year but feed it up and mollycoddle the bed in the hope of even greater rewards next season.

Cast not a clout ’till may be out.

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May, in this case, being not the month but the hawthorn flower – notwithstanding the pedants who claim it refers to the begining of June.  Of course it’s the flower, silly, hawthorn might well be flowering earlier and earlier due to climate change and it seems appropriate to pay attention to that inconvenient fact rather than go by the (disputed) Roman calendar. Whatever – today we took off the last of the winter clothes from the new beds and at last the allotment looks like a garden rather than a recycling centre. A early morning trip to the sawmill saw me drive back with a precarious load of stakes ready for the new peas.  This year we’ve decided to grow a heritage variety called Alderman which reaches five or six feet in height and therefore needs a different form of support.  We decided to go for biodegradable Jute netting which we could buy in 10 metre lengths at 2 metres high – just right for our beds.

While I was at the sawmill, Madame was repotting the chillies, peppers and aubergines in the kitchen.  They’re growing so quickly it’s a struggle to keep up, but it’s going to be at least a fortnight until we dare to take them up to the greenhouse.  So then, this afternoon, we got on with clearing beds of their winter wrapping, watering the many seedlings that need lots of TLC at this time of the year and planting out successional sowings in anticipation of a week of warm weather.

I was daft enough to take a book up, thinking I might grab some time in the sun but – at this time of the year particularly –  the jobs are queueing up to be done.  It was so good to wake up this mornng to the news that Mark Carney was warning businesses to take climate change seriously or face enormous losses. There’s definitely something in the air, and the present wave of demonstrations seem to be resonating with many people rather than just annoying them.

As the allotment matures, and (the first half) enters its third season it’s settling down and looking – dare I say – as if it’s been there forever, which goes to show just how unnatural nature generally is.  As Sam Goldwyn once said, it’s all about sincerity and once you’ve learned to fake that you’re made. But walking around amongst the plants they feel more and more like children  You can see when they’re pleased with themselves and you can see when they’re not doing so well and need a bit of help or encouragement. There’s an old saying that the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer and it’s absolutely bang on.  Plants don’t just die, although blight can make it feel that way, but generally they tell you when something’s wrong. The time spent looking at our plants is never wasted and may well be as important as hoeing on some days.

But our biggest problem – as always – is that we’ve propagated many more plants than we can concievably  find space for so a bit of bartering is inevitable.  As I write, my shoulders are burning from the first touch of sunburn of the year – I really shouldn’t, given my risky history, but the sun warms the soul as much as it threatens the skin, and I’ll promise to be more careful in the future. The conditions in the hotbed are provoking a surplus of growth – particularly among the beets and radishes, and luckily the leaves of both taste pretty good too.  Tomorrow we’ll plant out the heritage peas and maybe I’ll even sit down and read for half an hour! The first photo is of the remarkable sweet cicily plant which has survived infinite hardships and just come into flower.  The other flowers are wallflowers which were alive with bees all afternoon.