Rewilding the pavement

North Somerset is a very wildlife rich county. We can easily walk to half a dozen outstandingly diverse habitats which – because we have both a river and a canal – reach like green fingers to the centre of the city. Otters are often seen within a quarter of a mile of our flat, and in summer we can lean over the riverside and see Dace swimming in the shallows. It’s a joy. The tourist guide writers love to swoon over the honey coloured stone at sunset and we not only have parks but also a botanical garden, riverside walks and a cycle path linking us with Bristol and into the National Network that could take you to London on a bike or in a kayak. I don’t want to oversell the beauties because we’re already stuffed with tourists but living in a beautiful city with a local authority which has declared the environmental emergency feels like a step in the right direction.

This year – finally – the City Council took the brave decision to stop spraying our streets and pavements with Glyphosate. The policy seems to have met with less resistance than the clean air zone – or CAZ -which has provoked venomous opposition from those who think parking their SUV’s outside on the pavement next to their favourite shop is some kind of human right. The pollution here has not only been persistent, it’s been illegal and the Council have struggled to impose a policy that would actually work. Exempting all private cars including the Range Rovers and Discoveries was a sop to the most vocal opponents but the policy is working – although much more slowly than it might have done. The providential closure of a major HGV route through the centre of Bath during bridge repairs may have had a lot to do with the results so far.

The routine spraying of pavements was a different issue. Through traffic has been a problem for more than fifty years, but the removal of any plants from the pavements seems to be a hangover from another age; an age in which weeds were treated as an enemy that needed to be vanquished every year – as if the pavements were a war zone. The consequences of weeds were never clearly specified but unknown horrors such as pensioners tripping over were gravely hinted at. In truth, generations of municipal grounds people (I was one of them) were raised within the ancient hostilities and killing weeds gave a kind of atavistic pleasure.

So this is the first year of the new policy and we’re just beginning to see the results. Truth to tell, Glyphosate is a rubbish weedkiller in any case because more and more so-called weeds are developing resistance to it. The plants just died back and played possum for a month or two and then sprang into new life as if nothing had happened. The consequences for the rest of us were less benign, and rivers and their associated water tables have been saturated with poison which has been finding its way into our water supplies and into us. Bayer/Monsanto will claim it’s all a myth but then – they would, wouldn’t they?

The photos at the top could not have been taken on the same day and month in any year within the last decades because by now they would have gone. So it’s a complete joy to report all of these modest beauties growing within fifteen paces of our front door. There are many more, but the street is lined with Mexican Fleabane – that’s the pretty daisy looking plant. Then there’s Canadian Fleabane growing rapidly, Ivy Leaved Toadflax, Broad Leaved Plantain, Cat’s Ear, Smooth Sows’ Ear, Prickly Sows’ Ear, Dandelion, Wall Lettuce, Nipplewort, and Pineapple Weed. There’s Annual Meadow Grass and Wall Barley. At the back there’s Herb Robert, Great Lettuce and many other species. I suppose it was a matter of mindset rather than moral deficiency that kept us killing them off every year – culture eats strategy for breakfast after all and in time, I hope, more and more people will come to appreciate these miniature nature reserves on our doorsteps – after all it’s faintly miraculous that anything can survive in this hot, dry, waterless and polluted hostile environment. It’s a tribute to the persistence and adaptability of nature that these ancient residents and relative newcomers can emerge, seemingly from nowhere, miles from their natural habitats in fields and hedgerows.

The Birds and the Bees – messy gardening.

The Potwell Pond

We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.

Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.

Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.

The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.

…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.

Heaven forfend! is that Bindweed there?

There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.

“If we lived here we’d be home now”

The headline, by the way, isn’t mine. I once heard an American writer describing her childhood during which her father – who was a travelling salesman – would take her on interminable road trips which always ended in a more or less seedy motel.

Far be it from me to describe our campervan, which we call Polly – the hero of the Potwell Inn – as seedy. We’d prefer to call Polly “lived in” . Who cares about the odd battle scar or missing wheel trim? It is completely true that when we roll onto a campsite loaded with field guides, binoculars, drawing equipment and wine, we are at home already, surrounded by our familiar objects. After a flurry of hammering to put up the windbreak and then experimenting with the aerial to see if we can get a comms signal, we’re done. The new Netgear router and Ponting omnidirectional aerial have managed to turn a weak or invisible phone signal into a very tolerable 4g+ signal between 10 and 50 Mb/sec.

This time we’re in the Cambrian Mountains in mid Wales – not very far into them because the roads are at best tiny and more likely nonexistent. However we’re parked up next to the River Towy which surrounds us with a comfortable babbling sound overlaid by sheep on the hills- could anything be more restful? It’s one of the least visited wild places in Wales which means it’s really quiet. Typically, as we drove in, I remembered that we’re in yet another quarry/mine. The last campsite which was only ten miles away by road had seen 500,000 tons of shale rock extracted to get at the “dirty” quartz” which, when each 10 tons was pounded, milled and treated with mercury (which necessitated it being taken to Germany for processing), yielded 1g of gold. The mines were first opened in Roman times but then became disused pretty much until a succession of Victorian and early 20th century entrepreneurs lost their shirts on them. The problem seems to be that they needed to pay their miners whereas the Romans used slaves. As you see – nothing much changes. A perfectly viable industry closed down by militants who expected to be paid for risking their lives!

Anyway the trip round the mine was fascinating, especially as we had a professional geologist as a guide. What was equally interesting for us was that we emerged into a path that took us through a lovely wildflower meadow where we clocked several plants I’d never seen before including one relative rarity which necessitated a very friendly exchange of emails with the County Recorder who corrected one and verified another, (whorled Caraway). Yesterday we went back again for a closer look and confirmed that the whole field was full of marsh plants – a highly distinctive habitat known in Wales as Rhos and in Devon as Culm. Who’d have thought of marsh plants on a boiling hot day 600 feet up a hill. Happy days! So, with a couple or three records accepted we wandered back down and found Valerian, Bilberries and these stunning Fox and Cubs – at least three times as tall as I’ve ever seen them before. An ideal photo to accompany a piece about gold mines I think.

Fox and Cubs – Pilosella aurantiaca

The mine workings have mostly been removed, but some authentic pithead gear was brought from another gold mine in North Wales and there were enough industrial artifacts around to give a real sense of what went on there.

So today we drove around to Rhandirmwyn where we found many interesting fungi three autumns ago. The immediate quarry (deliberate pun I’m afraid) is to find Spring Sandwort which I’ve probably missed on Velvet Bottom but may well still be in flower here – if it even grows here. On the map there’s one record somewhere near here but nothing else for many miles. That’s one I’d love to get a record for! – it’s one of those lead loving plants that thrives on polluted slag and there’s an enormous abandoned lead mine within easy walking distance – as long as Madame doesn’t put her foot down; or rather refuses to put it down in search of yet another little white job!

What about the allotment? you may well ask – in the tone of a concerned social worker. Well, allotments are communities and we look out for one another so our neighbours are watering the polytunnel and the rest can look after itself. Meanwhile we’re having a ball in spite of the fact that rain is forecast for the whole of our stay here.

Oh no! not another post industrial site?

Afon (river) Cothi

We were looking for a couple of not too far apart campsites in mid-Wales and decided to combine a third trip to Rhandirmwyn with a few days on the National Trust site in Dolaucothi, where there’s a chance to visit a gold mine that was first opened by the Romans. What we didn’t realise until we read the information boards at the campsite was that the site itself is built on a disused opencast mine. Having said that, there’s not the remotest sign of its previous history – excepting the horrendous difficulty of getting a peg into the ground. I guess potential visitors are put off by the lack of facilities – no showers or loos – and possibly by the apparent absence of even a pub in the village. We did take a look for it but notwithstanding the sign offering a warm welcome for visitors it looked as if it had died in its sleep during the lockdown. We only have three neighbours on the site and they’re all the frantically energetic types, burning off the miles on their bikes in the intense heat.

Last evening we sat entranced by the sounds of Ravens in the midst of a fierce dispute. A Song Thrush dazzled us with his repertoire of short phrases and squeaks from an oak tree just above our heads – I particularly liked the cover version of the Red Kite call worked into the more fruity flutey bits – I bet that’s a great pulling phrase for the females. A buzzard that looked more like an eagle ranged over us in his imperious way and then dived like a stooping peregrine at some unfortunate animal beyond the trees. A robin perched, waiting for careless crumbs; a tree creeper crept up a nearby tree and a Green Woodpecker took off behind the campervan. It’s a post-industrial arcadia. Today we took the official walk alongside the river Cothi and Madame spotted a Pied Wagtail in the stream. Ten minutes later she spotted what she was sure was a red squirrel. This was an unconfirmable sighting because it was so brief and against the light, but the Dolaucothi Estate is a part of the project to protect and restore the Red Squirrel population hereabouts and we’re barely half a mile beyond the boundary. The last time we saw Red Squirrels was on a campsite down in Les Dombes in France.

The trip to the gold mine happens tomorrow and interestingly the acting warden of the campsite also doubles up as a guide there. We chatted for a while and he said they do Victorian tours as well as Roman tours and so it sounded to me as if the mines were re-worked by the Victorians who were often careless about the polluting effects of mine waste. So – there being no cloud without a silver lining – I’ll be looking out for any specialist plants growing amongst the slag. I did a quick check on the species list for this immediate area and it’s surprisingly small when compared with the whole county list.

These sites are marvellous evidence of the capacity of the natural world to heal itself after the grave damage caused by industrialisation. However this has taken a century or more to accomplish and with a looming climate catastrophe we just don’t have that much time.

I had a revelatory moment during the Song Thrush performance when I turned off my new hearing aids (God bless the NHS) and I realized that I couldn’t hear the song at all. At the last test the technician told me I am now moderately to severely hearing impaired. I know that when she fitted the new ones I boasted that I’d just keep them in all the time like I did last time. She gave me one of those undefinable looks and said she thought I’d take quite a while to get used to them. As I left the hospital I was almost overwhelmed by the noise and for a couple of weeks I was absurdly emotional when I heard quite ordinary sounds that I’d not heard for years. Even the sound of a kettle boiling in the kitchen would be unendurable. Now, taking them out at night is a nasty shock.

The photo on the right is of a Lady Fern; markedly softer than the Male Fern or Bracken. I hardly know a thing about the Pteridophytes mainly I suppose because they all look the same until you look at them properly. On the left are three photos of Wood Avens – Geum urbanum, also known as Herb Bennet. Now Bennet is often spelt Benet and is a contraction of Benedict – the founder of the Benedictine order of monks. This made me sit up because next week we’re going on a field trip to woodland on the site of an ancient friary, with the intention of searching out medicinal plants that may have survived the centuries since the dissolution of the monasteries.

The drug companies and the medical profession are outwardly dismissive of herbal medicine, but that doesn’t stop them from trialling the plants used by traditional herbalists in search of useful chemical compounds because, as we all know, plants are little organic chemistry laboratories and many of the most powerful drugs are derived from plants, or synthesised to imitate the work of nature. It’s baking hot here and Madame is snoozing outside under the awning. Later this week we’re moving across to Rhandirmwyn where there’s a tasty abandoned lead mine. It’s also going to rain. I love these post industrial places – they’re so beautiful – honestly. My cup overfloweth!

Where’s Wally?

No – this is a wildflower meadow! (with apologies to Crocodile Dundee)

Below this, at the bottom there are three photos of orchids we found today at Whitefield and one of them is in the wider view above. As I mentioned a couple of days ago, as we approach the summer solstice we’re often awake really early, and so we do as much as we can on the allotment before breakfast and the we have the rest of the day to walk and look for wildflowers. We had spotted the Pyramidal Orchids and another one that I misidentified as Early Purple – they were Common Spotted – for which correction I’m indebted to an impulse buy on Monday when I saw the Wild Guide to orchids and decided I couldn’t live without it. It’s a brilliant guide and it’s already slapped me on the wrist a couple of times. So with those two species under our belts we went back today to see if we could find a third Orchid that we knew was there but which we’d never found. Thanks to the book I now know that they don’t flower every year which may help to explain why we haven’t found it until today. So as Madame scanned the field with binoculars and I looked at the path edges she gave a whoop and pointed to a group of Bee Orchids. Three Orchid species in a field within 100 metres of one another makes for a good morning’s plant hunting; and that’s apart from the multitude of other goodies. So without further ado .. from left to right the Pyramidal Orchid, the Bee Orchid, and the common Spotted Orchid. But which one is it in the picture at the top? Go find!

Watering, weeding, watching and witnessing!

Up at Priddy last week we went for a long walk, introducing our youngest son to some of the sheep droves that make wonderful (and sometimes very lengthy) wildlife walks. We stopped off at the pub – naturally – and feasted on some delicious and very high carb old style pub cooking; but on our way towards it we noticed the field in the photo above that had a recently cut border of something that looked like a red-leaved grain. None of us had any idea what it might be, but there’s a notice up there with the farmer’s phone number on it so next time I’ll make a note of it and ask what it is: desperately hoping that it won’t be some sort of chemical spray.

The soil up there is thin and better suited to sheep farming, so any exposed soil on arable fields always looks impoverished and stony. Several times we’ve spotted small herds of wild deer browsing there. Crossing the fields back from Eastwater Drove to the village green, passing Swildon’s Hole on the way, we encountered a solitary caver walking back along the same path. Many of the fields, although they lack the sheer density of White Field at Dyrham Park, are very rich in wildflowers. What’s interesting is that different species seem to dominate each different environment. As we walked along the Green past the thatched piles of hurdles that are brought out for Priddy Fair every year, we spotted some eggs for sale and bought half a dozen mixed. The next morning I cracked a couple open for breakfast and they sat up beautifully – in perfect condition for poaching.

After this prolonged dry spell our rapidly growing plants need a lot of water, and today we were up at six before the heat got too much for us. This time of year it’s all weeding, watering and waiting on the allotment. We’ll have our first feed of new potatoes and broad beans tonight – that’s one wait I’m glad to end! Weeding is a constant job because we don’t want any of them to set seed or develop stolons or rhizomes. As I was watering I drenched the borders of the pond and a fully grown frog shuffled out of the way. I can’t begin to express how pleased we were to see it. This year none of us have had frog spawn and we were afraid that the disease that’s rampaging through a lot of amphibians had taken them all – but this one looked absolutely fine to me. Yesterday I spotted a hoverfly, one of the handful I can name; Helophilus trivittatus – it doesn’t have an English name. I remember it because its larvae are rat tailed maggots – weird looking creatures with long snorkels.

The best thing about early starts is that we can take longer walks during the day. Yesterday was a ten miler along the river and back down the canal. As we came back into Bath I noticed some Figwort growing at the edge of the path and so I took photos because I don’t recall seeing it there before, and did my best to ID it before emailing the photos to the Vice County Recorder with my suggestion of its identity. I was almost right, but I’d failed to notice two very small details that made it Water Figwort rather than the (less common here) Common Figwort. Anyway, I provided so much detail she was happy to make it a record and I get the credit for noticing it while she gets it for knowing exactly what it was.

Does it matter at all? Is all the voluntary effort to record what most people would regard as weeds actually worthwhile? That’s where the witnessing part of the title comes in. When you walk through a field of chemically supercharged and weed killed Ryegrass it still looks like a field – until you get down on your hands and knees and look more closely and discover there’s nothing there but grass. Yesterday we passed one of our local homeless people with an obvious addiction problem. He was emaciated – bent over and looked as if he might not last a fortnight. I think of these intensively farmed fields as an exact parallel. Whether you’re addicted to crack cocaine or chemical weed and bug killers, you get sicker and sicker and then you die. I try not to dwell on this because it makes me sad; but if we don’t record what’s left now after fifty and more years of intensive farming, then these wonders will slip away and the whole earth will suffer before we wake up one morning and wonder when the last cuckoo was heard, or when the pollinators all died. That’s the witnessing bit. I can’t say whether we’ll succeed but we won’t let up in our mission to record what may one day be lost.

If the Potwell Inn had a field it would look like this.

Sadly our backyard is shared with twenty cars. For many decades it was a builders yard and then when the block was built it was levelled and covered in tarmac but – never maintained – it now sustains a small community of absolute diehard plants who make a scant living on the thin accumulated dirt. They change from time to time, and even move around – one patch of slime mould has retreated down the concrete steps and taken up residence next to a clump of Herb Robert which can live on fresh air it seems. You might curl your lip at a blob of gelatinous olive green goo; but I’ve seen reports that it’s capable of being extremely purposeful and has some efficiency at negotiating mazes.

I did once make a list of species and it was in the high twenties; but it seems to change every year. This year we’ve got a splendid collection of Great Lettuce along with its cousin Wall Lettuce. They won’t win any beauty prizes but they’re brilliant for practicing your botanical skills because getting a proper ID demands a good deal of close attention to detail.

The smaller cousin, Wall Lettuce, is doing exactly what it says on the tin and is growing in a narrow crack between the ground and the wall.

However, none of this is going to stimulate much more than a forensic interest in an urban specialist. The fact is – even to my friendly eye – they look a lot like weeds. The only wonder is in the fact that these ugly sisters are related to the lettuces we grow on the allotment. In fact the Latin name of the Great Lettuce –Lactuca Virosa – suggests some kind of toxic properties – maybe they’re soporific? who knows. That’s an experiment I’ll leave to someone else.

Anyway, the real excitement this week came from a visit to Dyrham Park’s White Field – in the photograph at the top. Untouched by modern agrichemicals or ploughing it’s the kind of wildflower meadow that once existed almost everywhere. It was our first visit for three years after Covid rampaged across the country. The field is cut for hay at the end of the month – I bet it smells heavenly – and if I use the word awesome I mean it precisely in a way that trespasses into the territory of the spiritual. Our main target was the Bee Orchid, but sadly we didn’t find any. However within fifty yards of walking into the field we found Early Purple and Pyramidal Orchids – they were everywhere. I’ll put some photos below this – I’ve been avoiding using Latin names because Madame reproached me for rehearsing them as we walked through the dense flowers. I love the English plant names for their poetry and history but I’m afraid Latin is the way to go if you’re trying to ID something. I’ve got a book on English plant names by Geoffrey Grigson and when you look at the number of plants that share the same English name you soon realize that wildflower lovers from two adjoining counties might use the same name for totally different plants.

So among the plants we soon noticed was one known in English as Jack go to bed at noon, or Goatbeard. Huge downy heads resembling Dandelions but filmier and even more lovely. Down in the hands and knees zone were Yellow Rattle and Common Broomrape; Purple and White Clovers, Birdsfoot and all the usual suspects. Towering above were drifts of Smooth Hawksbeard and Oxeye Daisies with the seedheads of Ribwort Plantain, Sheep’s Sorrel and Cocksfoot grass. It was a joy to see them bending in waves against the strong wind which was limiting the activities of butterflies. You can often find Marbled Whites there. It’s a shame that despite the nearby car park being almost full, we were completely alone except for a solitary dog walker. It seems that most nature lovers prefer their wildlife mindfulness moments on the telly. Anyway; the photographs convey – to me at least – far more than any words could do.

A Potwell Inn allotment photo tour.

Well it’s the tail end of spring now and after a frantic ten days of weeding, feeding and planting out after our break in Cornwall, the allotment is looking rather fine, we think. If you’re a regular you’ll know that over the past couple of years we’ve moved towards creating a more wildlife friendly allotment, hoping to attract many more pollinators and interesting insects. There are rules, however, because we’re not allowed to dedicate more than 25% of the plot to flowers, and we’re not allowed what are termed “non fruiting trees” Who’s definition of fruit?” – you might well ask; bearing in mind that a hungry bird in winter or a rare butterfly looking for its larval food plant might have different ideas of what constitutes a fruit or a weed.

When we took on the allotment we decided to create beds around 4’6″ wide, in blocks of two or four- fitted with corner posts so we could net them with 10’x10′ nets on frames with a 12″ path dividing them. This left a number of narrow borders at the edges which amount to much less than 25% of the total space and which we have used to grow herbs and wildflowers. Last year we added a pond with its own surrounding border. Wild (ish) borders feature tall herbs like lovage and Angelica interplanted with Foxglove and Sunflowers which we use to give a degree of wind protection from the East and South West. At their feet are self-seeded marjoram, plus Thyme, Tarragon, Dill and Fennel and five varieties of Mint all in pots to stop them spreading – although we move them around the plot for their capacity to distract Carrot Fly, Allium Leaf Miner and Asparagus Beetle. Two more of the borders have been planted up with fruit trees – cordon apples, plum and damson on dwarfing rootstock; and there’s a large fruit cage with red and blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries with commercial blackberry near the fence which is just gathering strength. Then there are Borage, Catnip, Margolds, Lemon Balm and Rosemary. I’m sure I’ve left some out. We welcome volunteers and there’s a Buddleia which moved in and which we’ll keep under control to evade the eagle eye of the Allotments Officer. We have our star guest – the Tall Ramping Fumitory which moved in four years ago and which is the only example in the entire Bath area – so we’ll be keeping an eye on it.

As to whether it’s working as a wildlife garden our only answer is that it’s costing a fortune in field guides. The Mint Moth, for example, encouraged us to buy a standard guide on moths which was lovely but we didn’t know that moths are split into macro and micro species. That necessitated another guide plus the one I bought three years ago. So you might argue that the principal beneficiaries of the wildlife garden are the publishers of field guides who are now £100 better off. On the other hand there are vastly more visitors – damselflies, dragonflies and hoverflies, frogs, snails, butterflies and moths – most of which we still can’t name. They add immeasurably to the pleasure of the allotment – although we haven’t – never will – reach the glory of the Leicestershire garden belonging to Jennifer Owen. I once tried to buy her book but it’s long out of print and costs a fortune. Her Wikipedia entry includes this –

In thirty years of study she recorded 2,204 insect species in her own garden while also finding 20 species new to Britain and six which were previously undescribed. She wrote a book on the study, Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study. As well as the insects she counted Owen grew over 400 different plant species to determine the best food for the insects being tracked.

Wikipedia entry.

I hope you like the photos – I’ll end with some taken of the plots when we first took them on in April 2016.

Mint Moth joins the list of allotment visitors

Mint Moth

Having posted about a proper regional rarity yesterday I should say the Potwell Inn is positively promiscuous in welcoming allcomers to feed on our allotment. Immediately next to this moth, the Iris Sawfly caterpillars were getting on with eating our pond iris leaves. I’m pretty sure there are predators that can grab a meal from them. Even slugs and snails are allowed on unless they make too much of a nuisance of themselves when Madame snips them in half with the gardening scissors – returning them to the pathways and beds for the birds. I’m wholly unqualified to identify all the many species that come to us but I can feel a list coming on with the help of the Bath Naturewatch group who usually get an insect ID back in minutes. It’s amazing what you can spot during a bit of close-up hand weeding. We’re not the Chelsea Flower Show here – it’s free admission to anyone apart from the two legged grazers who shamelessly nick our produce without noticing the trailcam. Our biggest visitors are the badgers and foxes and the smallest ….. well, we’ve never seen them.

The Blackbirds are almost on the permanent staff because they keep all the path edges clear of molluscs and their eggs, and who would begrudge the Robins a worm or three? Our philosophy is to discourage pests with nets of anything from 1mm mesh against carrot fly, up to larger netting to keep the pigeons and the white butterflies off the brassicas. It’s a live and let live philosophy that sees pests, diseases and weeds as an important part of the big picture because they often signal a problem that needs attending to.

Gardening this way is like a long seasonal conversation between equals. We greet one another, say thanks when thanks are required and please when we’re harvesting or we’re not sure we’re on the right track; and so the fruits of our labours aren’t just fruit and vegetables, but insights into the way the earth works – and if that sounds like hippy dippy nonsense – well don’t knock it if you haven’t tried it!

The colour comes from a dark form of Elder

This is the beginning of the season of plenty but it’s also very hard work. We overheard another allotmenteer a couple of days ago, lamenting the fact that her crops had all but disappeared under the weeds, and from predation. They’d obviously received a notice from the Council and she complained bitterly “It was fine when we left it” . That would be at the end of last year’s school holidays in September. But with fresh Basil on demand, strawberries and Asparagus almost over and potatoes just weeks away it feels good to be alive – even though our backs ache. A year’s supply of ruby coloured elderflower cordial is standing on the kitchen table, labeled and sealed.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

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