No I can’t inflict another list – but carrying on from yesterday I found 18 more plants in flower, bringing the total up to 55. I’m completely aware that my sense of pride and joy makes me a total propellor head, but today we took an appropriately slow and stately walk around the coast path so I could find a few more flowers and it made me very happy. Why on earth photographing and identifying plants should bring such intense pleasure, I don’t know except that knowing the names of things really does. I suppose you could liken it to moving to another town, like we did when we retired. After living in a village for 25 years we knew pretty much everyone, but when we moved to Bath we had to start all over again, learning names, figuring out relationships and understanding where every one lived. Three and a half years on we’re slowly getting there.
So imagine going for a walk in a beautiful place like St Davids and not knowing the names of any of the flowers. You could certainly get around the coast path quicker than we do, but we have the pleasure of greeting old friends. Doing just a bit of botany enables us to recognise families and relationships, to enjoy the successions of the flowers through the seasons and to see how well, or badly, the landscape is doing. So one reason for knowing the names is that you’re always surrounded by friends.
But another, equally good reason is that if you don’t know the names, you’ll never know when they start disappearing. Caring for the environment is just about the most important thing we can do at the moment because it’s ailing. At home we care for it in the way we grown things and the things we eat. Here we care for the things that – because they’re simply beautiful in their own right – make us richer. Knowing the name of a plant means we’re in some kind of relationship which brings responsibilities.
Learning to identify plants involves a level of attention that makes the world infinitely richer. The differences between members of the same family sometimes demands profound attention to tiny details – the shape of a leaf, the disposition of the flowers or a row of hairs on the stem that can only be seen with a hand lens.
Finally, although there are many more reasons for doing a bit of botanising, there’s the aesthetic dimension. Flowers and plants are simply beautiful. They can be enjoyed with most of the senses – by sight obviously, but by smell and taste and even sound. It makes me want to paint them in order to understand them better.
I learned to love the names of common wildflowers from my mother who never used anything else. I totally understand why having three plants with the same name and one plant with ten names drives proper field botanists mad, but there’s so much pleasure to be got from the English names which frequently point to a medicinal use like, for instance, fleabane, or refer to an immediately recognisable characteristic. They can even be downright funny. Check out Arum maculatum for raunchy English names like ‘lords and ladies’ ‘cuckoo pint’ where the second word is, or should be pronounced to rhyme with mint and refers to a pintle which is the shaft on which the rudder of a boat is fitted. Cuckoo, as in ‘cuckoo in the nest’ needs no further explanation I hope. A supremely naughty plant whose latin name merely tells us what it is.
Anyway, as predicted we went for a stroll around the clifftop below St Davids and in order to facilitate actually going anywhere instead of grovelling around on my hands and knees, I just took my iPhone, a notebook and pen. These coast paths are the most joyful places in spring, with enough wildflowers to keep anyone happy. You’ll see from the list that we began our walk by crossing through a marshy area before we got to the coastpath. So here they are in no particular order because I started the list halfway round and had to remember quite a few.
Southern Marsh orchid
Common Mouse ear
Cuckoo flower AKA Lady’s smock
Stichwort – forgot to check which one
Bucks horn plantain
Ribwort plantain – three plantains in a short walk is good going, I think
Upright hedge parsley
Cut leaved cranesbill
Isn’t that lovely? – 37 wildflowers – in flower – in a walk that can’t have been more than a couple of miles, and I’m sure that could have been fifty if I’d taken a day over it and carried my mighty copy of Stace and a magnifier. Oh and if I’d not chickened out of the grasses, although I could confidently add cocks foot to the list.
The day started badly, though, with a knackered water pump on the van. We’ve been nursing it along for a year with a leaking gasket, but today one of the spade connectors finally gave up the ghost, having corroded away in the leak. Two faults in two days, but the flat battery may have been connected to the wet contacts. At least it’s a repair I can carry out myself, and a replacement pump costs about £50 so not the end of the world.
Back to the wildlife, and it’s been a sunny but cool day in a brisk northerly wind. Back on the headland we saw a brief skirmish between a common blue butterfly and a small copper. I would have loved to be able to say it was a small blue, because the foodplant for the small blue is the kidney vetch which was there in abundance. However the small blue prefers a more sheltered site and is not recorded here. The small copper has plenty of common sorrel and sheeps sorrel to lay its eggs on, and the common blue has a feast of birds foot trefoil at its disposal so enough said. I am condemned to wander the earth encountering and recording the ordinary and everyday, hoping desperately that these ordinary objects of joy are not about to vanish.
I’ve just finished reading Dieter Helm’s excellent book “Green and prosperous land”. It’s the first book I’ve seen that considers the economic case for what he describes as “natural capital” that’s to say, the natural assets of the world, wildlife, water, clean air which are being destroyed by our present way of life.
Some of the alexanders we saw here were very sick, with every appearance that spray drift from the adjacent field had killed them. It’s difficult to be sure, because it could as easily have been frost damage with such confusing spring weather. What is certainly true here is that intensively farmed land is butted up against these last strongholds of wildflowers. Surely we have to stop paying farmers simply for owning land, and start re- assessing our entire apporoach to subsidy.
Even managing to get this photo on to the laptop seems like a major triumph of hope over BT, who, for approaching 2 weeks, have not only failed to provide any broadband service but have convinced themselves that they’ve actually done something. They’ve already sent out three engineers on two separate occasions who have all eventually confessed to not being sufficently trained or equipped to do the job. They sent the first mini hub to the wrong address and the second never appeared at all and so I’ve been completely dependent on my phone connection and a big overspend on extra data. The sales people claimed that we had fibre to the building when it fact it’s finished at the green box up the road and is dependent on copper wire for the crucial final 250m. The company was split up into three to encourage competition, but although they work with identical customer bases the IT systems don’t talk to each other which leads to the sort of tooth gnashing conversations that make it clear that no-one has the faintest idea what’s going on.
Enough already – get on with it! – I hear you cry – so I shall. On Monday morning I am promised positively smoking digital speeds. We’ll see, I’m already eyeing up the contract to see if they’ve broken their part.
So yesterday we had to take some of our artworks by bus to an exhibition in Bristol, which is an infrequent pleasure. Later we went up to the allotment and I set up the wigwam supports for the runner beans. I hesitate to get all philosophical about it, but it does seem that the simplest gardening jobs can attract a good deal of unconscious baggage, and none much more powerfully than hazel bean sticks. We cut and gathered these at our friends’ smallholding in the Brecon Beacons last year which makes then both free of cost and simultaneously greater in value. Now that hazel is hardly ever coppiced, the sticks have become a bit of an expensive rarity, having been replaced by imported bamboo, or worse still plastic. But in a more environmentally conscious world they could provide a subsidiary source of income on a mixed farm with a bit of woodland. But honestly that’s not the thing that shouts at you, it’s the sense of tradition that comes with them.
So today has been a mixed bag with grandchildren visiting. The oldest picked wild garlic in the woods and we took it to Uncle Jo who runs a pizza hut, and he made a special pizza using the harvested ramsons – how’s that for a life lesson in foraging? I managed to get a couple of hours parole on the allotment and I finally got the strimmer out to cut all the paths. I once worked for several years as a school groundman, and I picked up some terrible habits like wanting to eliminate every weed in sight. With a powerful tool like a strimmer I have to order myself to leave clumps of weeds – especially nettles – around the plot for the butterflies. I also leave the long cut grass lying because it’s full of seed for the birds. Slowly I’m conquering the demon of excessive tidiness! Doesn’t the herb garden look splendid, with the asparagus behind? The big umbellifer is angelica which is stunningly sculptural, and contrasts with the darker greens of lovage and dill. I guess that among all the plant families the Apiaceae, the carrot family have most to offer a gardener and cook. Underneath you can see our 1000L of stored rainwater which I hope to at least double during the year. I can only see a future full of water shortages if we don’t do something to curb our excesses soon and so, although I’m no survivalist, a couple of tonnes of water in store is likely to be useful. To that end I’m going to put a roof over the compost heaps to capture water from 60 extra square feet, and I’ve half a mind to build a solar heater from an old radiator to provide underground heat for the coldframes or even the greenhouse. I saw it demonstrated at the Alternative Technology Centre in Machynlleth, and it worked impressively well considering it was entirely constructed from waste materials. What I don’t know is whether the winter sun would be hot enough to provide any heat benefit. But even a marginal gain might protect from a cold snap, and maybe it could be constructed around some thermal ballast for storage, after all the cold frame alone offers some protection from all but prolongued cold spells.
You know how it is when it seems something might be amiss with a crop but you hang on in the hope that it was just a silly mistake and it will all blow over as soon as the weather improves. Some hope! We try to celebrate life’s rich tapestry as best we can but when push comes to shove a bit of ruthlessness is called for. These onions, (Autumn Champion, grown from sets), looked fine until a few weeks ago and then, just when they should have taken off, they began to show signs that something was wrong. We had been careful because we previously lost a crop of leeks to allium leaf miner, and so they were covered with fine insect mesh from winter onwards. However, facts are facts and these onions looked sick. It’s sometimes difficult for a non expert to diagnose these pests and diseases, but the effect on the leaves was very like leaf miner. So that gave three possibilities – allium leaf miner, onion fly and eelworm. According to the books it’s a bit early for leaf miner, the mesh should have seen off the onion fly as well and so that left eelworm as the prime suspect. Whatever it was, the remedy was much the same – dig them up and burn them and then don’t grow alliums on the plot for three years. The RHS rather loftily suggest that the ground should be left fallow, but our allotment doesn’t stretch into the blue remembered hills, and we can’t afford to leave a whole bed empty so we’ll probably try to kill any remaining eggs, cysts or pupae with the flame gun and then observe the rotation carefully.
It’s always sad to lose a crop, but we have the spring planted onions which appear to be OK, and the leeks, garlic and shallots are all alright too, so in a break in the rain and for fear of going stir crazy we went up and did the deed. As we were pulling them out I examined them carefully to see if any further light could be shed on the problem, and most of the post mortems showed no signs of maggots or pupae, supporting the eelworm hypothesis. However I did find a couple of plants with 2mm brown pupae that looked very like allium leaf miner – so it was an open verdict. Much as I hate any green material going off the allotment, I’m afraid this lot went straight to the tip. Just for reference or any further ideas I’m including a photo of the pupa and another plant. Please don’t take this as a sign I know that much about plant pathology, I’m only one page ahead in the textbook!
It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”. Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand. We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention? Do they even understand what ‘wild means’? And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.
Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea. Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.
Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink. We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.
This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today. Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.
We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things. I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.
Starting from the all-time best bits of our break in the Brecon Beacons, there was the blues night in Brecon, of course, but I’m bound to say that listening to a cuckoo for the first time in several years comes near to the top of my list. Ordinary pleasures have become exceptions these days and so cuckoos are peak moments. So too was watching a bird feeder with great tits, blue tits, nuthatch and yellowhammers all feeding at the same time. Meanwhile a mouse had created a great home for himself in a drystone wall under the feeder, only having to pop his head out through a crack in the wall to catch the falling seeds. He’s in danger of getting so fat he won’t be able to escape his five star accommodation. Half a dozen hens were browsing around the cottage all day and providing the best eggs we’ve tasted since we gave up keeping them ourselves.
But let no-one say we, at the Potwell Inn, shirk the less arcadian bits of life – there’s always time to learn a new skill, and sheep dagging just happened to come up yesterday. I was at the clean end of the crush, while Nick and Kate were the – let’s say – “coal face” with the hand clippers, so all I could do was help wrestle the sheep in and operate the bit of the crush that dealt with the front end.Sorry about all the technical farming language. Actually that’s not all I was doing, because I was also eyeing up the rich daggings as they fell to the floor, thinking how well they’d look on our compost heap. This indignity – for the sheep – was to help clean them up ready for lambing and make it easier to see whether they were ‘uddered up’ without a wrestling match. Sheep, I discovered are both heavy and likely to kick you in the face if you’re not very careful. As it was, it was the brim of my hat that caught at least one haymaker of a blow. Daggings – the mucky bits of wool around the rear end – also make fantastically good mulch because they aren’t strong enough to burn the roots of young plants. Having never seen any kind of shearing close up before, it obviously needs real skill not to nick the sheep. The wool is thick with lanolin and cutting through the clumps of wool looked like hard work.
Madame took a look at a pond that Nick had dug out years ago, and it was full of newts. Newts were once so common you could go to pretty well any pond and catch a jam jar full, but nowadays it becomes a notable treat to see them. Isn’t there a picture beginning to form here? This constellation of wildlife that we were finding is no accident. It’s a great sadness that we no longer think it’s weird to have to go to a nature reserve in order to see creatures that were once everywhere, but here on this 24 acres of unprofitable mixed hill farm is a sign of what we’ve lost. So many species clinging to life in ‘improved’ farmland are thriving here without even knowing how rare they’ve become.
You see the term “hobby farming” used disparagingly by those who ought to know better, but here in these pockets of unimproved land are populations of wildlife that would rapidly spread back into the surrounding land if their environment was restored. These so-called hobby farmers are acting as unpaid guardians of many thousands of acres of unofficial and unmarked “biodiversity banks” without, in many cases, claiming a penny of government subsidy, while the money goes to destructive intensive farming.
There is, perhaps, one thing you might notice on the farm, and that would be things like this Victorian potato plough which Nick still uses. Is it efficient? Well no, but that really isn’t the point. The fact is that for all our obsession with progress, there are still many things that work perfectly well – if a lot more slowly. A bit like the landlord of the Potwell Inn and his wife!
When you cross over the Brecon Beacons via the Beaufort road you suddenly cross a line between the open moorland and the post-industrial landscape, marked by a line of electricity pylons. I’m not sure which side of the line I prefer. Surprisingly, perhaps, I admire and even like the post industrial landscape inhabited by the ghosts of miners, steelworkers and the lost fortunes of entrepreneurs and the dreamers who made porcelain in works like Nantgarw where beauty and purity emerged from the smoke and filth of the potbanks. I like it and yet I loathe what’s become of it in the industrial estates and business parks that replaced it.
Today we drove to Cardiff to see the David Nash exhibition in the National Gallery of Wales. While we were there I tried to search out the old Welsh Academy building in Bute Street where I did a bit of work in the 1970’s, and the terrifying Dowlais Arms pub where we would take our lives in our hands to book a taxi by CB radio to take us back to the Railway station for the last train back to Bristol on a Friday night. But it’s all been demolished and redeveloped. The only bit I recognised was the long stone wall where I swear I remember the words “Tubal Cain” painted in huge letters – presumably long since painted out by someone who failed to understand the Old Testament history of the name. The fading neo classical building in which the Academy was once housed seems to have been demolished along with everything else. If I can be a bit contrarian for a moment we found very little to commend what’s replaced the derelict docklands. There were endless coffee bars and restaurants of exactly the same provenance you would find in the centre of almost any large city. We could have been in Birmingham or Bristol or the London docklands – it really didn’t seem to matter. Any sense of place, of history had been erased by the uniformity of 21st century life. Everywhere and nowhere in the span of a short walk, history is contained and defeated by streetside captions, theme pubs and signposts. In fact the very word ‘heritage’ has become yet another resource to be strip-mined and sold off by the new ‘creative’ entrepreneurs and their theme parks – just at the time we most need to reflect on the industrial revolution, what it gave and what it took away from us, and where the degradation first gripped us, as it will grip the nations where it is beginning today. This aetiolated version of the past is fed to us like pre-digested pap and serves an ideological purpose. There’s something very perverse about the fact that the Assembly building is so hemmed in by building developments and chain restaurants. Instead of leaving the building in isolation within the context of the ruined industrial landscape that might suggest “this is what we’re here to redress”, the new buildings press against the assembly building like silent lobbyists saying – “remember who you’re here to serve”. The steel magnates and mine owners have gone, to be replaced by an equally rapacious economics that, having taken the coal, has returned to frack the last drops of value out of the nation.
I once (supervising on a school trip) said to a retired mine engineer at Big Pit in Blaenavon – “You must miss the camaraderie of the job. He replied “No I hated every bloody minute of it!”. The camaraderie, the courage and resilience of the communities are not things to be celebrated as much as admired. Yes we can appreciate the resilience of the communities but this was essentially a survival mechanism against the terrible behaviour of a class of human beings who belived that it was perfectly alright to sweat a natural resource like coal or steel through the exploitation of less powerful human beings.
There was a small craft market going on and Nick went to buy some Welsh cakes. He asked the woman in charge (he’s a fine chef) “do you make these with all butter or a mixture of butter and lard (the traditional way)? ” “Stork (margarine)” she replied. We tried them but they stuck to the roof our mouths like stale puff pastry.
The David Nash exhibition was something else. It was everything that the city has turned its back on. Here is an artist who has made it his business to look at the natural world not as a resource to be extracted and sold off, but as the object of a prolongued meditation. They’re almost religious in their intensity. It’s an exhibition of fifty years of work since he bought an old chapel in Blaenau Festiniog for £200 in which to work and presumably do a lot of thinking. What did I admire most? – well he can draw, I mean he can really draw. There’s a playful element (in the very best sense of the word), that reminds me of the intensity of children’s play. There’s a sense of the re-enchantment of the world through a profound attentiveness. It smells good when you walk into the gallery – is this a normal term of art criticism? It was just so good! We’d seen another film about the large lump of carved tree trunk that was cast into a stream and followed in its passage to the sea at Barmouth some years later, but watching a slightly fuller version on a large screen encouraged us to sit down and watch it right through. It sounds a little like conceptual art but it was much fuller, richer, and much more meditative than most work in that mode. There’s a lot of work in the exhibition and I came away thinking that there’s a very close kinship between the kind of attentiveness that artists like David Nash exhibit, and the attentiveness of the scientist. All that nonsense put about by CP Snow about two quite different forms of consciousness has entered into the bloodstream and it was wrong. My old music teacher, AF Woodman, used to shout at us – “I know you can hear it but have you been listening?” Call it close attention, call it meditation or mindfulness – it really doesn’t matter much, but we’ve spent so much time quantifying, describing and judging the output of artists so we can make lists in order of importance, that we’ve missed the really important bit. Once again I’ll apply my entirely subjective way of judging an exhibition – does it make me want to work? – yes. Does it change the way I look at things? – yes.
Finally, and on an entirely different subject, how do you make a perfect poached egg? Here’s the answer – no stirring, no vinegar, no little plastic doofers. Crack some eggs – they need to be so newly laid they’re almost warm – and put them carefully into a bowl. Bring the poaching water to the boil and then slide the eggs in. Ta da! perfect poached eggs.
The water flowing into this old wash boiler comes straight out of the hill and serves as the water supply for the house. It’s clear, pure and tastes a lot better than the stuff that comes out of most taps. It also happens that the spring makes the most wonderfully relaxing sound; I could sit and listen to it all day. I’ve strip washed in it in the past, when the possibility of being surprised by a passer by was almost infinitesimally small. As a precaution, 30 odd years ago, we used to boil the water before drinking it. Over the years it’s proved completely safe and so nowadays no-one bothers. We were first brought to this place all those years ago, when it was a holiday cottage and painting studio – it’s pretty inaccessible, although the faciliies are much improved from the days when the stream, when it was in spate, would flow into the cottage under the living room wall and out again under the door. Now it’s in full occupation as a smallholding. Hill farming doesn’t pay any more and so its full-time flock of sheep and hens, and a part time herd of fattening pigs are subsidised by two incomes from work outside the holding – this is not a place for the faint-hearted. More than 250 metres higher than our allotment, the spring sowings need to be best part of a month later, and the winters are much fiercer.
Within minutes of arriving we were watching nuthatches, yellowhammers and dunnocks along with the better known lowland birds all competing with a tiny field mouse on the bird tables. There are cuckoos here, and green woodpeckers too – more often heard than seen, but which always lift the spirits. Our friends, Kate and Nick would be the first to acknowledge that they’re hardly self-sufficient, but this morning, mid-morning after a late night at a blues concert in Brecon, we feasted on eggs, bacon and sausages all produced on their land. There’s excellent cider here, and there’s a whole shed full of stored and preserved food of every kind. It’s a ‘good to be alive’ place. Outside our small bedroom in what, not so long ago, was the toolshed, the bees were working the cotoneaster from early in the morning. The air is rich with the sounds of insects but apart from the odd plane overhead there is no traffic noise at all. The nearest road is a small ribbon of grey through the landscape at the bottom of the valley. Bryn, the dog, is so accustomed to wandering the landscape chasing foxes that he will travel 15 kilometres a night – we only know that because he’s fitted with a tracking transmitter so he can be found again. He’s rather deaf, blind in one eye and fourteen years old.
There are two gardens here – the garden which is nearest the cottage is like any cottage garden, except for the views. Further up the bridle path there’s a proper allotment where potatoes are planted with a small tractor and plough, the tractor designed to be safe to use on the steeply sloping fields. There are peas and runner beans and root crops on a rather grander scale than we could ever contemplate at the Potwell Inn. Taller crops like runner beans have to be grown on almost industrial grade frameworks to resist the fierce winds. Most of the carpentry is done on site – it’s a very self-contained sort of place sustained by an informal local network of friends and neighbours, always up for a bit of bartering.
But let’s not get too carried away by the rural idyll. Hard choices have to be made, and sometimes they have to cull animals like grey squirrels to protect their young saplings Things go wrong sometimes, animals – especially hens – can die for no discernable reason. Thistles and bracken are a constant battle at this height and war is still waged using some chemicals. “Never let the perfect drive out the best” is a good motto for this sort of extreme marginal farming, but looked at as a whole, this inefficient profit-free enterprise has created a haven for wildlife however the industrial agricultural industrialists might shake their heads in disbelief. Hundreds of native trees have been planted over the past decades, and this has had a real impact on the wildlife. If you think of the economics of farming in a different way and start to count natural capital as a public good rather than as a resource to be plundered, packed and resold for a profit, then the profitability of this tiny farm with its inbuilt capacity for carbon capture and recycling of waste – the unsaleable wool is recycled into compost and as mulch, grazing animals return their waste into the improving soil – all this adds up to profit of a different kind – a profit that might be counted in birdsong, biodiversity and beneficial impact on the earth.
Every Wednesday, Kate sets up her moth trap to check out the local population of these bafflingly confusing and often invisible creatures and sends reports in to the County Recorder because knowing what you’ve got is the essential first step in knowing whether you’re in the process of losing it. These photos, taken last year show Madame and Kate unpacking the trap and sorting the moths into jars so they could be identified and released again. We were absolutely amazed at the diversity and sheer beauty of some creatures we’d never seen before. Where there are only relatively few (between 50 and 70 including migrant) butterfly species, the moths make up for it with over 2500 species including a whole set of micromoths which are tiny and brown and need expertise way beyond my paygrade. As always, the world gets more complicated the closer and more carefully you look.
So that’s why this is one of my favourite places to be. It’s easy to read, to write and to doze in the garden or to plan the next move for the Potwell Inn garden. We’ve gathered firewood, planted carrots and shared all sorts of expertise, over the years, and I’ve gathered enough stories to write a book if I ever wanted to. If I have a wish, it’s that we will soon come to the understanding that if we treasure the environment an it inhabitants, including ourselves, we have to stop worshipping the gods of profit and growth, and start to recognise the true value of the marginal mixed farms that create the landscape we crave and that’s so good for our souls.
And after much huffing and puffing I’m posting this via my phone and at the cost of heaven knows how much of my data allowance – but hey …..
The Potwell Inn does not have many overnight guests.This may be due to the fact that our inflatable spare bed has the unfortunate habit of deflating very slowly during the night – which, combined with the lingering effects of a lock-in, sometimes leaves us sleep deprived and hungover at the same time. Our most recent guests escaped that fate by virtue of an improvised puncture patch and an early(ish) night which contributed to an early breakfast and a civilised conversation. Later, during a guided tour of the allotment, an intriguing insight into the parallel universes that we occupied.
Here’s an instance of something close. In the 1970’s I was very involved in pottery and during those years I acquired the habit, whenever I looked at a pot, of turning it over to look at the base.It’s surprising what you can learn from the bottom of a pot – what it’s made from, who made it, whether it was hand made, machine made or cast, when it was made. I’ll even touch the base of a pot with my tongue to see how hard it was fired.
Yesterday I saw some similarly interesting behaviour in our friend who is a great enthusiast for butterflies and moths.And so when we were taking a walk around the next-door community garden she almost ignored the impressive efforts of the volunteers but spent some time examining the leaves of an unruly patch of nettles. “Where you see a weed, I see a foodplant”, she said. I realised instantly that there are probably hordes of things that we know but don’t know and, of course, I knew that butterflies have their preferred food plants – but I hadn’t made the connection in the part of my brain where it really matters. The large and small white butterflies will lay their eggs on our cabbages, but they would also love to lay them on nasturtiums if they could be found. This is one of the foundational ideas of companion planting. Butterflies, and therefore their caterpillars, are fussy eaters.Just like our children, they would eat their greens if you stood over them or bribed them, but they would always go for a burger if there was one available.She also put me right on my ‘from-memory’ list of butterflies on the allotment so far this year and so I learned that my ‘small blue’ was almost certainly a holly blue. This was enough to send me back to my butterfly books where I was able to read much more. The Collins Wild Guide by Newland and Still, lists habitats and food plants separately in an index which makes it incredibly useful both for searching out species and growing the right food plants, and it’s small enough to carry in your pocket.
I’ve written before about plugging in my field botanist frame of mind (if there’s time) when we’re out for a walk, and there are plenty of other ways of framing the natural world.You’d have to be a genius to be fluent in all of them, but simply being aware that you tend to see better if you’ve some idea of the time, the seasons, the environment, the habitat and all the other factors that determine presence or absence within the natural history of where you happen to be, can bring into focus things you’d never normally notice.As the previous president of the Bath Natural History Society once said to me – “The idea is to walk in nature rather than just through it”.
My friend is presently hatching six elephant hawkmoth pupae which sounds greedy, but then she knows where to look. They’ll be released back into the wild as soon as they hatch. We’ve planted loads of nasturtiums a long way from our brassicas, to lure the butterflies away and make them happy at the same time. Does companion planting work, then?Think of the plates of leftovers after a children’s party – I bet there are loads of carrot sticks left behind because most children will always eat favourites first. I don’t know of a way to educate butterflies to stop laying eggs on cabbages, but I can give them a snack they much prefer.
– is the same sort of unanswerable question as “when is the date of the last frost?” And like all unanswerable questions, the only possible answer is – “it depends”. This picture shows what happened last season when we made the wrong guess. We were up in Snowdonia enjoying the view of the snow capped mountains and wearing every thread of warm clothing we possessed and it hardly entered our minds that the “Beast from the East” was – at that moment – doing for our runner beans. However we had anticipated that a late frost might happen and so we had a duplicate set in the greenhouse. Our neighbour, struggling not to let too much schadenfreude show, was slightly foxed by the fact that our beans seemed to regenerate within 24 hours. Yes it’s National Gardens Week and every other programme on the telly is advocating gardening as a panacaea for all the ills that beset us, but in the interests of factual accuracy I need to say that allotments can also be intensely competitive places. Generosity and animosity exist in exactly the same proportions on an allotment site as they do anywhere else within the human race. By and large, gardeners occupy a nicer than average place on the bell-curve of human wickedness but don’t count on it! Elections for site reps can involve chicanery on a parliamentary scale.
Anyway, that’s enough bubble popping for one day. To continue on the date of the last frost, I should also say that the buds on the grape vine were also badly affected, but once again the vine regrouped and a new crop appeared within a couple of weeks. There was no big effect on the harvest either, it seems. All these weather events took place between the last week in April and the first in May and so it was our intention this season to delay planting out the tender plants until around 5th May. All our sowing was based around that date and now the Potwell Inn is full of plants that desperately need to go out. A couple of courgettes in the propagator seem to think they’re outside already and are traling all over the place. Moving them without snapping them off is going to be quite a challenge.
Our morning ritual is to scan the weather charts to see what the night time temperatures will be, and we discovered this morning that we’re due a dip to as low as 2C early on Saturday morning. This is very concerning because the allotment is a bit of a frost trap and if anyone is going to catch it, it will be us. So – with all the difficulty of keeping overgrown and increasingly leggy plants indoors, we’re going to have to wait another week. All part of life’s rich tapestry then. We’ve been on the plots for coming up to three years, and we’re still trying to juggle between book knowledge and real, on the ground, experience – so we’re no closer to answering the question of the date of the last frost, just keen to avoid it by a safe margin.