The window boxes looked so pretty today we decided to plonk them down beside the pond which, besides having a couple of aquatic plants literally chucked in has had nothing done to it since I dug it. We’ve spent so much time at the allotment that we get more pleasure from the early flowers where they are, than we would in the windows back at the Potwell Inn where they’re supposed to be.
The promised warm spell arrived yesterday, and so I checked the various soil temperatures. The open ground is at 10C – just below ambient, but gradually warming as the weather improves. The hotbed was miraculously running at 17C which, considering there’s no horse manure at all in it, shows what can be done with hay, woodchip and urine. Even the soil in the polytunnel has crept up to 12C after a couple of days with the cover on. The air temperatures were respectively outside 10C, greenhouse 14C until the sun got up; but the tunnel raced up to 25C while I was putting compost on the beds. I think we’re on a steep learning curve as we try to understand how the tunnel behaves, and this is the most dangerous time of the season because things go from boom to bust so quickly.
All day there were a dozen or more allotmenteers busy on the site. It’s more like a small village than anything else I can think of. We have gossip and sharing and all manner of dynamics going on – even while socially distanced – and for many of us this has been our sole human contact over the past year. Through the winter it’s been really quiet but today, lured by the sunshine, many more people showed up and started preparing for spring which, in meteorological terms is only a few days away on March 1st. Being a traditionalist I prefer the equinox because it’s that bit closer to the reliably warm spring weather. Tonight, for instance, with clear skies the temperature is likely to go down to freezing.
But the warm sunshine is more than welcome. The purple sprouting broccoli which looked all but dead last week has come roaring back to life and given us our first feed. For me that first taste is as good as the first cut of the asparagus; sweet and tender in a way that should make supermarket broccoli bow its head in shame.
When we got home we had a chat and we’ve decided to plant out the forty broad bean plants in the tunnel in case the overwintered ones aren’t much good. I have to say, though, they’re all tillering away like mad. I think they mostly make good roots during the winter months, ready to grow rapidly in spring. Having gone to all the trouble of building the tunnel we want to make maximum use of it before the tender plants go out in mid May.
So we’re as happy as could be. Tomorrow we’ll also be preparing the potato bags and they’ll begin life undercover to get the earliest possible crop.
At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.
The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.
Lost in translation
As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.
I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bête noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.
But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.
Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.
So these two photos are taken in different years and from opposite ends of the allotment; the first photo shows what the plot looked like at the weekend – it’s the same photo I used yesterday – and the other was taken on the day (in April 2016) when we took on the first half plot, just shy of five years ago. Having endured for 25 years a 1/3 acre garden that we never had time to garden properly because we were both in more than full time work, I always used to say that I’d like to retire to a flat in a tower block with no more than a single window box to maintain. Madame on the other hand was the real gardener – RHS trained and all that. My only horticultural training was as a groundsman (I checked just now and it seems that non discriminatory job titles like ‘groundskeeper’ or ‘groundsperson’ have not penetrated the arcane world of killing everything except proper grass – i.e. the kind you can play manly games on!).
We had always gardened over the years, with a big garden while we were at art school; a couple of allotments and various backyards and plots that occasionally rewarded and always absorbed us, but Madame would not be diverted from her ambition to create a proper allotment after we retired. We joined the waiting list the moment we knew where we were going to live, and I remember standing in a Bristol bookshop with two books on allotmenteering which were my way of backing down without actually saying so.
As always she was right and I have never been so wrong in my life. My dispiriting experience of not having time to garden very well was overwhelmed the first time we stood there in the corner of the plot with our newly signed agreement, and I realized that for the very first time we had genuine agency over a piece of land, and crucially, abundant time to tend it properly. No-one could lean over the garden wall and make snarky remarks like “another day off vicar?” The right hand photo at the top is taken from the spot where I first stuck a spade into the ground and fell in love all over again with the smell of the earth, and just above, here, is the very first thing we grew – a radish.
We had learned the hard way that trying to manage too large a plot of land is a recipe for disappointment and failure. Pests and diseases would take hold before we had time to notice; and my timesaving wheeze of rotavating the plot to clear it quickly merely distributed the bindweed, couch grass and brambles across the whole plot. The greatest mistake of all was to import a tractor load of horse manure infested with creeping buttercup roots. Our best efforts thereafter were confined to fighting a guerilla war with the weeds. There were a few successes and we gained the resilience to survive the inevitable failures and disappointments but I could never shake off the thought of the tepid testimonial – “Could do better“. One year we even freakishly won six classes in the village flower and veg show and for the next twelve months we had a small gilded plastic cup on the dresser with the prize cards behind it – but I always felt that we’d be exposed as frauds. The village stalwarts at the show made their feelings clear by rewarding us with lukewarm applause.
Time, energy, experience and opportunity have made all the difference, especially during the three lockdowns – actually in our case it’s been one long one. I’ve often said that the argument that gardening is good for the soul and good for mental health has been a bit over-egged these past months. In fact I think that the one thing gardening is supremely good at is teaching us a form of radical patience and relieving us of any illusions that we can control nature. It’s that sense of being able to take a step back from endlessly patrolling the ramparts that nurtures us. Faith in nature is free but not cheap; a kind of non dogmatic Taoism that gives us courage to bend to the will of the earth. This morning we stood and watched as a female blackbird searched the margin between the gravel boards and the wood chip path, removing a feast (for her) of slugs and eggs – no chemicals, no traps. Gardening is less like being the conductor, and much more like sitting in the third strings of a symphony orchestra counting the beats and waiting for your turn to play just a couple of notes.
And so we’re hovering on the edge of the new season – all prepped and ready to go. The beds are clear and composted, the greenhouse cleaned and already housing the hardy early birds and the polytunnel is ready. Of course, we’re never truly prepared because only time will tell what the seasons and the climate will throw at us this coming year. It looks as if the hungry gap will at least be covered by plentiful brassicas in their second season and we are looking forward (no – I am looking forward) – to learning an entirely new gardening language because, with our rapidly changing unpredictable climate, the more strategies we have learned the more resilient we shall be. The aim – as ever – is to put something good on the Potwell Inn plates every day of the year. Our parents and grandparents were all gardeners like us and I often think of my grandfather who was drafted into the Air Force during the First World War because he was a carpenter whose skills were needed to build the wooden frames of aeroplanes! It was on his smallholding in the Chilterns that my sister and I first met Charlie the toad who lived in the greenhouse, and watched as hay was cut and stooked in the field. Something is nagging me at the back of my mind that suggests we might soon be having to re-learn some of the skills he celebrated through his hands; and if not his skills, then possibly the skills of countless other gardeners, farmers and smallholders in different ages and cultures who may have something important to teach us as the oil runs out.
Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.
……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence
I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….
Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.
Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.
Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.
John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.
We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.
As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.
If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.
Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!
Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.
However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.
The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.
Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.
Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.
It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman
I thought I’d kick off with this photo. Months ago I ordered online what I thought would be a pair of gardening gloves but which turned out to be ten throwaway pairs. They’re not the strongest and because we had so many, we lazily picked out a new pair whenever the ones we’d been wearing got too wet or muddy. However our frugal habits ensured that eventually we landed up with a box of very smelly/muddy gloves; so Madame hand washed them in the usual way, after she’d chucked out the ones with holes in, and we now have eight pairs of clean and dry gloves ready to face the spring rigours. Somehow it felt like a tiny victory.
And while we’re on the subject of downright meanness, she is also darning the Guernsey fisherman’s’ jumper that she bought for me second hand at least ten years ago and which, when it wore out, graduated to the allotment. The neck and cuffs have all but unravelled, leaving me trailing lengths of wool around and so Madame has knitted into them some surplus wool of a quite different colour which makes it look twice as cheerful. I told her I’d wear it with pride, and she said “It’ll make you look like a tramp”. I like things that are repurposed and recycled. Allotments sprout wooden pallets like a rash, and most of the time – after a short spell as a compost bin – they get passed on until they rot . The seat on the left is one of the more creative bits of repurposing I’ve seen on our site. I really like it.
Work on the polytunnel has ground to a halt due to the sub zero temperatures. Today, factoring in the wind chill, it’s down to as low as -10C in some places ; more like -5C here. Yesterday we worked in a mizzle of frozen droplets for a couple of hours, making a start on the polytunnel doors, but by lunchtime we were ready to pack it in. The east winds blow unobstructed across the allotments, it’s by far the most destructive quarter on our site. We put up some precautionary fine mesh windbreaks last year, but reading Patrick Whitefield’s comprehensive “Earth Care Manual” a few weeks ago I noticed his diagrams of the impact of windbreaks and the way in which they need a degree of porosity to avoid swirling air currents. At the moment there are no vulnerable plants in the lee of the windbreaks, but it’s a cautionary tale and we may have to rethink the design when the weather improves. We also mixed up a barrow load of seed compost and brought a couple of bags home ready to start filling the propagators with germinating seedlings. Being completely new to polytunnel growing we’ll be feeling our way this first season as we try to take advantage of an earlier start for our tender plants, so we’re hoping to get a longer season for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines and even some earlier than ever early potatoes and broad beans.
Our tree plantings have been held back because what with covid and the terrible weather in the east of the country, the supplier has emailed to apologise for the delay but assures us that our trees will arrive in time. We certainly hope so. One cautionary tale regarding newly planted cordons – don’t do what we did and forget to loosen the ties. Several of our cordons have been damaged by soft ties that (we now know) have unforgiving wire centres. We’ve removed them all now and I’m pretty sure the bark will soon heal over but in future we’ll use kind and forgiving string which will rot and fall off most seasons. Every cloud – etc – and Madame discovered an overwintering apple tortrix moth chrysalis on one of them. Aren’t microscopes wonderful? and such a help in identifying assorted creepy crawlies. A little bit of research suggests that the best method of control for these kinds of pest is to encourage blue tits and other insectivores to nest nearby. We’ve already seen blackbirds feasting on the slugs that hole up on our wooden edged paths so it looks as if nest boxes and winter feeding could be an investment. We have decided not to make permanent raised beds in the polytunnel because they seem to provide a perfect lurking and breeding space for slugs and snails, so we’re going to build soft edged beds and give them a try. These would have the immediate advantage of allowing us time to watch the way we actually use the tunnel and change the path layout – if necessary – for one that serves us better. That’s the essence of permaculture in a way; spending a lot of time observing and learning what the ground is saying to us.
Back at the Potwell Inn we’ll be cleaning and sterilizing all our root trainers, pots and trays ready for the fray. There’s a real sense of excitement in the air here; all we need is some warmth and sunshine. These last weeks we’ve been reading everything on biointensive growing that we can get our hands on. There are some great books that explain how very small pieces of land can become highly productive. I mentioned Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer’s book “Miraculous Abundance” recently. Initially I wasn’t very enthralled by its rather breathless tone, but I stuck with it and it’s grown on me. For a start they’re ruthlessly honest about their failures as well as successes; but also they reference a number of writers we might never otherwise have known about. It’s not that we want to grow a vast surplus and become market gardeners – our aims are far more modest; simply to feed ourselves well and perhaps share the surplus for for free. We don’t expect to change the world or save the earth by what we achieve but on the other hand, if more and more people adopted a simpler, less impactful way of living and were able to provide at least some of their own food, there would be a great saving in food miles and better than that even, a change in culture. We’re not there yet, though. Yesterday evening we were talking about chickens and I suddenly remembered the taste – yes, in my mind I could actually taste the eggs we used to produce with our small flock of hens. Organic and free range with yolks that sat up golden from the grass and grubs they feasted on in our little orchard. I then spent several hours searching for a local supplier of eggs that might live up to the memory and I couldn’t find one. I could get them delivered from heaven know where but walking to a local shop and buying fine eggs from a local farm seemed vastly more difficult than I’d hoped. A bit more research revealed that the going rate is between £5 and £6 a dozen – at least twice the supermarket price.
Which brings me to my final point in this post. I was reading a review of the Hervé-Gruyer’s book written by Chris Smaje, author of “A small farm future” – it’s well worth reading his book. He raised a very serious point of criticism of the tendency of some writers on biointensive farming to exaggerate their productivity by failing to mention the “ghost acres” of land providing some of their inputs from off the farm; things like manure and bought-in compost for instance. I don’t think you could fairly make this criticism of the Hervé-Gruyers. But he also went on to ponder whether all this emphasis on local organic food production on small farms wouldn’t provide ideological cover for the well-to-do middle classes while doing nothing to raise food standards and reduce the effects of agribusiness in the ‘real world’. Well yes, I agree that the vast majority of people lack the money and/or the land and skills to move towards the vision as it’s often described. An truly ethical life comes with a high cost overhead and so obviously it’s easier to be comfortable and virtuous than to try it out on benefits. But that doesn’t mean that we should all stop what we’re trying to achieve because it’s not fair. That’s allowing the perfect to drive out the good. Every home grown cabbage makes a tiny dent in a supermarket’s profits; but the production of it engages the grower with the earth, with the prospect of disappointment, and with all the multitude of temptations and decisions that grown up farmers have to deal with every day. Sustainable and healthful food production depends on a market and that market cannot function outside of its ethical framework. Every tiny blow against the more is better philosophy is important; and that applies to consumers as much as it does to producers. We’ll never avert an ecological catastrophe by driving to the farmers market in our SUVs to buy organic asparagus, flown in from Peru.
So if anyone knows a source of great eggs near Bath I’d love to have the address. Meanwhile we’ll be preparing for our best ever season – probably.
Because I need cheering up at the moment and any mention of borlotti seems to excite a highly specialised but motivated group of readers; driving the numbers up in a very cheering way . Things have not gone to plan in the Potwell Inn kitchen. I must be one of very few people who have melted half a chopping board into a rather expensive pan; (you see the extent of the damage by examining the perfectly circular curve of the melt line – it’s the price of attention to detail – I could (unconvincingly) say. Anyone who’s ever been foolish enough to order scrambled eggs in a hotel will know that the chances of it being any good are less than poor. In fact almost any dish cooked with eggs: – I could mention mayonnaise, hollandaise, omelette, poached egg, fried egg – combines complete simplicity with fiendish elephant traps where expensive ingredients go straight from the pan into the bin.
Scrambled eggs ought to be simple enough – I always add a dash of milk to make them especially creamy – but they can go from bloom to blown in a second. For me they are only truly scrambled during that micro-moment when they are soft, glossy and light and before they turn dull and separate into bits of congealed protein in sauce grise. This calls for minute preparation – warm plate in the oven, smoked salmon ready (it’s Sunday breakfast!) and table laid. The downside is that I regularly forget to turn off the stove and replace the empty pan on to the hot surface in my eagerness to eat. Usually this is not a problem but today I also left the cutting board on top of the pan and it was only when I strolled back into the kitchen contentedly full, that I noticed the unmistakable (and familiar) smell of burning eggs but then noticed that the part of the cutting board that was above the pan had melted and filled the bottom of the pan with molten plastic. By the grace of God it was a non stick pan.
This one mishap wouldn’t normally throw me off course, but yesterday I produced the mother of all dog’s dinners by not checking the use-by date on a packet of borlotti beans. Sadly we used our entire supply of home grown beans up already – they’re just too good; soft, creamy and delicately flavoured. I knew we were about to run out so I’d reluctantly ordered a packet which I was sure I’d put into the kitchen cupboard. Sure, when I came to soak the beans overnight, they were there. But they didn’t look quite right. They were like Tollund Man compared with our home grown. Ours are plump, pink and purple these were very small, leathery looking and brown but ……. in they went to soak because I assumed that they would come right on the night. In the morning the soaking water had turned brown so I rinsed them and put them on to simmer. Normally this would take maybe 45 minutes but not so this batch. I suppose however long you boiled Tollund Man you wouldn’t get a fresh faced young model from a Newlyn School painting. After an hour and a half I could just about crush them, and foolishly I convinced myself that a couple or three hours in a cassoulet would beat them into submission.
Madame, generous as always, soldiered her way through a small plateful of crunchy nut cassoulet but did not ask for seconds. I thought that was brave of her. And this morning she surreptitiously went into the kitchen and checked the use-by date on the beans. They were five years out of date – well into their don’t even think about it stage. The in-date ones were there in the store cupboard unopened.
Nothing will dampen our enthusiasm for the borlotti and we’ll make sure we grow rather more this year so we don’t have to resort to eating the cremated remains of what is a truly lovely, protein rich and flavoursome bean.
But today we are dust and ashes after another disturbed night. The automatic gate on the car park has broken and so it’s permanently open and an invitation to all and sundry to have a poke around. At around 23.00 all hell broke out on the in-house WhatsApp group when one of our neighbours posted that they’d found a couple down there; he was searching the recycling bins for wine bottles while she was having a good old toke on a crack pipe. We often have overnighters down there because there’s a huge homelessness problem in Bath and it’s relatively safe and sheltered. So we all calmed down and went to bed and then, at four, the fox came by, howling, and once again I was away with the wild things.
On the plus side we’ve had our first vaccinations. Part of the reason for the disturbed night was that I was on high alert looking for untoward symptoms of any kind of reaction. What’s the difference between feeling a bit warm and having the beginnings of a fatal fever – imagination, that’s what! When we arrived at the centre – what was probably a rather swish dance hall about seventy years ago – we were welcomed by a multitude of lovely and courageous volunteers who ushered us past the questionnaires and thermometers. The first of them threw me when she said “I know you, I’m sure I know you.” – Middle aged, blue eyes, blond hair and a face mask weren’t helping my creaking memory at all. Then, even more disconcertingly she said “you won’t remember me but you buried both my parents – you were very kind to me.” Double funerals are vanishingly rare in my experience so at least that narrowed it down to two – both unforgettable; and in one of them the bereaved daughter had been part of the Greenwich Village/Andy Warhol scene, but she was tall and dark, and so that left only one candidate and I was sure it wasn’t her.
Of course by this time we’d been ushered down the production line and were being interrogated for the second time and injected with something that looked like strawberry smoothie. I was expecting some revelatory feeling of liberation to immerse me but nothing came, and so we walked back around to the front of the building so I could find my mystery woman. It emerged, when we spoke again, that I hadn’t buried her parents simultaneously but one at a time; several years apart, and I remembered her well; a free spirit who during her teenage years had regularly scandalised the village by being human.
This morning we went for a walk early, before the runners and cyclists and nordik walkers got there in their breathless crocodiles. The river was running frighteningly high. When it runs in its canalized walls it’s silent, but wherever it’s divided by bridge piers it forms into muscular waves; anatomical diagrams of deltoids and biceps and pectorals feeling at the walls and banks for any weakness like an absurdly powerful masseur. The three steps of Pulteney Weir have disappeared once again under the torrent. This winter it’s been every couple of weeks that we’ve seen the scary sight of floodwater. For goodness’ sake is anybody listening?
I suppose we could count this as the aftermath (to use a grazing term) of the first harvest of the 2021 season. All through the winter months we keep one of the propagators going and fill it with basil plants. As long as it’s grown in a good mixture of soil, compost and vermiculite and fed well – we use liquid seaweed extract – plus being kept at around 23C with at least 12 hours of artificial daylight it thrives and keeps us with a constant supply of fresh basil throughout the winter. Most of the time we just harvest a few leaves, but yesterday we took a lot – around 150 grammes to make a big batch of pesto. Very soon we’ll need the propagators for first sowings of chillies and tomatoes and so we’re in the transition time before we can move it to the greenhouse and then the polytunnel for fresh pickings through the summer and autumn.
Pesto freezes really well. We make a big batch and roll it in silicone paper to make a sausage. Then it goes into the freezer for a couple of hours to firm up so it can be sliced into individually wrapped helpings and returned to the freezer where it seems to last for ages without losing flavour.
Here at the Potwell Inn we always have some kind of stock in the fridge, with pesto and tomato sauce in the freezer. We also bottle and preserve tomatoes in the autumn so there is always passata and tomato sauce in the store cupboard. Any one of them can be used on its own (if we can’t be bothered to prepare anything complicated), or as an ingredient in a bit of a performance number.
Pesto couldn’t be easier to make in bulk – Jamie Oliver does a good recipe – and although the ingredients look a bit expensive a very small amount goes a long way. Last night we just cooked some wholemeal spaghetti and stirred in some pesto. It just isn’t possible to buy supermarket sauces half as good as the ones you can make, and aside from using it straight, pesto makes an amazing addition dropped into a pan of soup, or just stirred into the bowl .
A very straightforward tomato sauce is equally good with a bowl of pasta and a grating of parmesan. It was Auguste Escoffier who said “faites simple” – keep it simple, although you wouldn’t think so to see some of his recipes. Nonetheless the simplest food often feels like an event. Yesterday the pesto with pasta was just lovely, and the fact that we’d grown and harvested the basil ourselves earlier in the day added an additional sense of value to it. Yesterday it was a mixture of two varieties – classico and neapolitan but there are many more to try.
I know I like to bang on about growing, cooking and eating together in sacramental terms but that’s the way it feels. Reducing food to nothing more than fuel and calories is as mad as reducing everything we do to profit and loss. We’re waiting to walk into town to get our first covid vaccinations in the next hour. Somehow this seems almost portentous, although until we get our second doses and wait for a week or two we won’t be entirely safe. But it does feel like some sort of turning point. There’s a sourdough loaf in the oven at the moment, smelling glorious; we haven’t needed to buy bread since last March, and that in itself feels like an achievement. The pandemic hasn’t passed us by entirely because one of our extended family died in the early stages of the outbreak and the constant sense of threat has never really left us. I wonder what the long term effects of all this will be, but it’s only a matter of an hour before we can dare to think ‘where next?’ and I can only feel the most profound sense of gratitude to the greatly undervalued people who’ve transcended the stupidity and mismanagement of our government to bring us safely to this moment.
It’s rapidly approaching a year since we first ‘closed the doors’ of the Potwell Inn and went into withdrawal mode, and I’ve noticed a change in my mood, over the past few weeks. We’ve occupied ourselves with piles of reading and planning for next season. I’ve written most days and Madame has been drawing; but suddenly I feel like one of those cartoon characters whose flight from threat is expressed by comically rotating legs whilst not moving at all. Treading water is for too stately a description of this weird feeling. In the past few weeks we’ve only done half a dozen river walks because it can be quite busy with others doing the same thing. As for the parks, well forget it. What with cyclists in groups and runners passing close with no masks on, going outside feels a bit threatening. The other day we drove up to the allotment with several bags of potential compost and we had our licence plate recorded by a policeman standing at the side of the road. My fear is that if this crisis goes on much longer a whole generation of older and vulnerable people are going to have to add agoraphobia to their list of challenges.
Before anyone tells me off for making light of a serious problem, it’s actually something I know a bit about, because my father – who probably had undiagnosed PTSD as a result of his experiences during the war – suffered from agoraphobia for many years. But in this instance I’ve been thinking about the literal meaning of the term which, from the Greek agora, or market place. has a whole bunch of rich and enlightening implications. The agora was more than a bunch of market stalls, it was a communal meeting space and also a place where ideas were exchanged and where speeches were made. If there was any temptation to label the covid driven fear of the crowd, the supermarket and such like, as ubiquitous these days, there may be more – more significant and more damaging changes – going on. During the first (and much tougher) lockdown, the allotment community was an absolute lifesaver. We were mostly pretty good at hailing one another across the plots, and that sense of belonging drove out the isolation. It was good. There were a few exceptions. Allotments that had been unlet for years were taken up by a younger generation of furloughed allotmenteers, and among them were a few that seemed to regard old age as contagious in some strange way – as if talking to us might induce the onset of grey hair. One of our newcomers took to asking her neighbour if she could have a few sticks of rhubarb for instance, and would then strip the plant bare. She and her partner would have barbecues three or four times a week and invite friends around regardless of the rules. In fact it became clear that there was a real link between attitudes in the workplace; extractive, exploitative attitudes towards the client base and attitudes towards the allotments. You could see how it’s come to be that for many people our culture is dangerously detached from the natural world.
We hear a great deal about the healing powers of nature and I’ve wondered here before, if that doesn’t overegg the pudding. If you took an industrial farmer to the wilderness it would be more likely that they’d tell you it needed farming properly (ie intensively). A miner might pick up the odd stone and you’d be praying he didn’t find anything too valuable there. In Cornwall there’s a huge conflict brewing about mining for lithium for batteries to make sure the car industry can go on expending ancient reserves for short term gain. No – I don’t believe for a moment that the occasional immersion in nature as spectacle will change our culture.
However, just now we need hope, and this week the polytunnel kit arrived, delivered by a delightful lorry driver who was so moved at the sight of the allotments that he told us all about his childhood and how his father had paid him pocket money for picking caterpillars off the cabbages. Then yesterday our appointments for our first covid vaccinations came through, and a brief glimmer of light appeared. But I was more surprised to realise that the thing that gave me most pleasure was to send off an order for a packet of heritage runner bean seeds and a kilo of baler twine for supporting the tomatoes that will be growing in the polytunnel in a couple of months . The tools for putting up the tunnel have all been gathered together; lines, pegs, hammers, drills, spanner, power tools and spirit level and now we’ll wait patiently for this southwesterly weather to moderate a bit and give us some dry days.
I wish I had some pixie dust to sprinkle around the world. I wish there were words I could write that would reverse the violence of our (un)civilization and bring us to our collective senses. I wish there was a proper, functioning agora where we earth citizens could listen to one another and where we could be heard – but at the moment there is no such place and there are no such words I think. The only contribution we can make seems woefully inadequate and yet maybe actions really do speak louder than words and the earth can be saved – as the website of World Organic News says – “one cabbage at a time”.
I love Madame’s drawings of our artichokes. They’re so beautiful both on the page and in the flesh, but they’re fiercely thorny, and by the time you’ve trimmed them back to the choke there’s hardly anything left to eat. Then, all great art is wasteful if you try to reduce it to a spreadsheet. Our dream is to live simply within our means and hand our allotment on to a stranger in better condition than we found it. Is there a column for wonder in the neoliberal profit and loss account?
We were assailed by second thoughts yesterday – I’m blaming Madame because there’s nothing graceful about our allotment negotiations – even if she was irritatingly right as usual. So having braved the rain to peg out the site for the new polytunnel on Monday, we braved it again yesterday in the teeth of the storm, so we could have a site meeting to examine plan B with a tape measure. In the end it came down to orientation and Madame referred me to a suggestion by God, (that’s Charles Dowding as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned) that north/south is preferable. And so it came to be.
Plan B is (naturally) better in every way than plan A apart from having to remove six more posts whose underground parts sucked furiously in the waterlogged clay at the bottom of their holes. Storm Christoph had bequeathed huge amounts of water to the ground and now it’s flooded. Silly to work on it really, but the polytunnel could arrive any day now and we dare not leave the bits lying anywhere within reach of a thief with a transit van. So soaked was the ground that as we looked out across the river early this morning we could see it in spate again, this time deep brown with silt that must have washed off the fields upstream. That’s topsoil erosion yet again.
The changed position also needs means three beds needed removing and so there was nothing for it but to start digging out the wood chip paths so I could remove the boards. To our great surprise the wood chip had rotted down to friable compost below the top two inches so I decided to replace it in the trenches and cover it with new compost. But whilst lying in the mud removing all the 2″ screws and pegs Madame called me over to look at a stream of water emerging from the edge of the fruit cage beneath the cordon apples. Not good news, because the roots will hate sitting in water, and so I dug a deep trench alongside the bed to allow the water to drain away as quickly as possible.
The 12 foot boards from the first path came away more easily than I’d dared hope and they were immediately repurposed as retaining boards holding the bottom terrace back. Meanwhile Madame was moving the overwintered broad beans. They’re almost dormant so they might survive being dug up and replanted – worth a try – but just in case we sowed another batch in root trainers to replace them if they all die. More of the same tomorrow as we dig out the second path and restore the whole patch ready for the polytunnel. It was pretty grey and the clouds threatened but never produced any rain; but the plot reminded me of a dreary market garden I once helped out at. All that was missing was the smell of the pigs!
That’s allotmenteering, though. Hardly glamorous but always rewarding. As Mark Twain said about writing – it’s 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration but it’s the one percent that gets us up there every day. In our heads the polytunnel is full of tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, basil and all the rest. The fact that it’s not yet even a pile of nuts and bolts is not the point. Spring will come.
However this is also a dangerous time of year because at last the days are lengthening and we get so absorbed in what we’re up to that we forget that stopping when it gets dark is a recipe for longer and longer working days. I’d left a loaf of sourdough proving at home and when we finally arrived back it had risen to make contact with its inverted bowl. Very very gently I persuaded it to separate and then I rested it for a while before baking it. All was well in the end; but it was worth working until dusk, if only for the glorious sunset reflected in the sodden track – and then a massive supper of Madame’s beany stew. I had two bowls because we’d forgotten all about lunch, and I was ravenously hungry. Oh and the seed potatoes arrived – have the cuckoos started flying here yet?