Might moon gardening have a point?

IMG_3484A couple of summers ago I was looking at an infestation of Corn Marigold in an arable crop in Pembrokeshire.  I foolishly (what’s new?) asked the farmer where the plant usually grew and he said “there’s a bit of a clue in the name – Corn Marigold” – drrrr….

And there’s a bit of a clue about my attitude towards magical thinking in the sub-header to the Potwell Inn title.  “A sceptic’s take on being human” . Whilst I will happily assist at the Wassail, say a prayer and bang a saucepan, I don’t go home afterwards puffed up with pride that, once again, I’ve driven off the evil spirits. If only it were that easy. In fact if I had a pixie dust tree on the allotment I’d be a wealthy man with a lot more followers than I’ve got just now. On the other hand, last year’s Snake Oil Extract is going well at £50 a shot when you buy it over the bar.

That just about sums up my attitude to whacky gardening theories and unsubstantiated golden rules. There’s usually a crypto religious hierarchy somewhere, selling off the secret knowledge and running seminars at eye-watering prices. IMG_4942

Scepticism isn’t the same thing as cynicism which presumes something’s bad before even examining it. True scepticism is always open to the possibility of an idea going either way – it just demands the opportunity to give it some thought, read it up perhaps and even try a couple of experiments.

So when I saw a mention of ‘moon gardening’ – in Mark Diacono’s “The New Kitchen Garden” (on page 247 if you happen to have a copy), in a section about the management of the garden at Tresillian House in Cornwall – I had to think a bit. First point, moon gardening is not quite the same as biodynamic gardening. They’re related but separate disciplines. Moon gardening seems to pay attention to phases of the moon for different operations in the garden.  A quick check online suggests that there’s a more complex formulation that includes the pasage of the moon through various constellations but that part has a high cringe-factor for me in much the same way as the full Steiner method does.  There’s a bit too much esoteric that in the end boils down to “because I say so!”

The point that I found most interesting was the notion that the passage and phases of the moon  not only affects the tides but also groundwater. Now that’s a big claim, but at least it’s potentially testable, bearing in mind the huge number of variables at play – surface evaporation, recent rainfall and so forth.  And there has even been some serious research into the behaviour of aquifers close to the sea, that shows a mild correlation. Living close to the sea, and especially if you’re close to the huge tidal range of the River Severn, for instance, it wouldn’t be inconceivable that the rate of run-off could be affected by the spring and neap tides. All you need to do is look at the rising and falling of the water level in the rhynes (drainage channels).  The question then is – how far away from the river/sea, and how high above sea level would the effect still be noticeable?

You’ll never put weight on eating your words!

So back to the allotment because theories don’t grow cabbages. Our allotment is maybe ten feet above river level when the flow is low. When it floods we’re a lot closer. According to my OS map we’re 25 metres above sea level, so if there’s any validity in the theory we’d possibly experience some benefit. If we conducted a trial, the one certainty is that it could do no harm, but I’m sure that trial results can be skewed by confirmation bias. The other source of error would be that anything that increases particular attention on the allotment is bound to bear fruit in some way – the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer.

Charles Dowding (the no-dig man) makes a positive case for the moon in his book “Organic Gardening the no-dig way” – Pages 67-69, and does it in an open and non-sectarian way.  The tricky part is demonstrated by the old tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday.  The date of Good Friday and Easter is the only major festival determined by the moon and consequently it can vary by some weeks – at a time when the last frost date is a crucial marker for planting times. So should you follow the moon or the frost dates? I know which I’d go for!

On the other hand Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” – Pages 100 – 103, not only rejects the idea he digs it up, flame guns it and gives it a good spray of Roundup to make sure, and with more than a touch of religious fervour. In fact he gets so cross about the “relative positions of objects hundreds of light years away” that he appears to forget that the moon is very large, very heavy and very close.  The fact that it’s burdened with a huge symbolic load is not a scientific argument.

So is it worth a try? I reckon it’s an extremely long shot but anything that increases our sense of embeddedness in the natural order is bound to be a good thing even if it doesn’t grow longer parsnips.

 

Hot beds

I wouldn’t dare say that this is the way to make a hot bed because, like the vast majority of people, I’ve never made one before, and the only one I’ve ever actually seen was at the Lost Gardens of Heligan where they import many tons of horse manure from Newmarket for their lovely pineapple house. As I said yesterday it’s pretty hard to lay your hands on the good stuff and I know, from talking to one of the Heligan gardeners last year, that they had a similar problem with sourcing the right kind of manure to get the heat they needed. You wouldn’t go all the way to Newmarket from Cornwall if you didn’t have to. On the other hand we’re not trying to grow pineapples and I don’t have any friends in Newmarket, so hopefully Annie’s stuff (she’s no slouch as a rider) will do. I can only promise to report honestly on how this experiment turns out for good or ill.

I have to give credit to Jack First’s book –“Hot Beds: How to grow early crops using an age-old technique” 2nd Edition. I bought it last year and it’s a mine of information.  There’s plenty of other information out there on the internet and after a lot of research I came to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a perfect design but there are some good pointers. For a small bed like ours the most useful advice came on the Garden Organic website which suggested a proportion of 3:1 for manure over topping.  

Just as an aside here, I’ve got a bit of a thing about perfectionism and following exact instructions.  Nature doesn’t function that way at all, and so the last thing in the worldI would want to claim is any universal validity for my methods.  This is just what I did – nothing more.  My advice is be brave, use what you’ve got and forget experts.

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Anyway – the procedure goes something like this.  Build a box – mine was solid but I may yet have to drill holes in it to let air in.  On the internet I’ve seen apparently successful systems with slattted bars or made from pallets. Fill it up to two thirds with fresh manure – should I have had more straw in mine?  honestly I don’t know yet.  Then I topped up the manure with 1/3 by approximate weight of a 50/50 mixture of topsoil and good compost with some horticultural sand added. As you see I mixed it in the wheelbarrow, raked it level and covered it with a layer of polythene held in place with a pallet.

Will it work? Well, I checked the temperature of the manure against the ambient temperature in the nearby soil.  The soil temperature was at 5C and the manure (after less than 24 hours in the box), was 12.5C. You can see a soil thermometer stuck into the soil layer so I can monitor how things are going.  If it fails the whole lot will be composted, and if it really flies I’ll put a couple of deckchairs on top for Madame and me to warm our bottoms.

What it offers is the potential of increasing our heated propagator space by a factor of three and increase the length of the productive season by maybe six weeks.  Apart from being hard work, what is there to lose?

Fermenting in all its glorious anarchy

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As I was writing yesterday I promised to have a go at listing some of the books I’ve been most helped and influenced by in developing the Potwell Inn. It’s not in any sense exhaustive and I’m perfectly sure there will be many excellent books left out because I didn’t bump into them, but they’ve all been helpful and inspiring and that’s the measure I apply to all things.  Does an art exhibition make me want to draw or paint? If it does, I’d say it was a good one.

So I’m starting with the picture of a (well past its prime) sprouting broccoli leaf that I plucked from the compost heap in desperation, one Saturday morning, because I had to take something to paint to a botanical painting short-course. It took me a couple of weeks to finish the painting during which time I absolutely fell in love with it. I’m only using it here because it illustrates perfectly the theme of all the books I’m talking about – rotting.  Given a quick swill and shoved into a pot with salt this leaf could have been, would have been sauerkraut. There’s no secret ingredient or technique that could have added anything to the fact that this leaf is being totally leafish in spontaneously returning itself to its component parts in the great botanical breakers yard we call compost.  Fermenting merely inserts ourselves into that process and adds an extra stage, that’s to say, eating it.

So to begin at the beginning, Michael Pollan is one of my favourite food writers and his book “Cooked” has a wonderful section on fermenting in all its bacterial glory. The whole book is an inspiration but today I’m talking about fermentation and this book is a must-read as far as I’m concerned2017-09-23 17.31.00

Pollan pays tribute to Sandor Katz who’s written a number of books, but the one I’ve got here in the Potwell Inn Library is entitled “The Art of Fermentation” and it’s good.  What more do I need to say? I’ve tried several of the recipes and what I discovered is what he would have told me to my face if I’d been to one of his workshops – please yourself – make what you enjoy eating.  This book covers every possible kind of fermentation including pickles, kefir, sourdough and alcohol as well as kimchi and several ferments whose products smell like a dead sheep in a ditch but taste better with the windows open.

What happens when all this knowledge and expertise is taken up by a chef whose restaurant is so beloved by wealthy foodies that you need a two year wait and an Oscar to get a booking? Well you get “The Noma Guide to Fermentation”, one of my Christmas presents so I haven’t yet had time to do much more than give it a quick read. It’s a beautifully printed book, but somehow it loses something of the frontier spirit in its obsessive control of the process. Vacuum pumps, Ph meters and temperature controlled cabinets aren’t my style, and in any case the Potwell Inn has only limited space and appetite to indulge an appetite for lacto plum-skin chips. Nonetheless no writer can expect to exercise the same control over their readers as they do over their recipes, and in that spirit I’ll plunder the book shamelessly for any ideas that take my fancy in the kitchen. I’d recommend it in any case for its enthusiasm and, if you like to cook to impress in a laboratory, it’s definitely for you.

More down to earth in every way is Diana Henry’s book “Salt Sugar Smoke” which deals with fermentation along with the other methods of preservation and does so on a smaller scale.  Of three ways of fermenting cucumbers we tried this year, hers was closest to what we were hoping for. Kylee Newton, in her book “The Modern Preserver” has a few fermenting ideas but if you’re only interested in fermenting you wouldn’t want to buy the whole book.

Finally I got hold of a rather quirky but pioneer oriented book called “Preserving Food without Freezing or Canning”.  It’s a compilation of recipes by a group that calls itself ‘the gardeners and farmers of Terre Vivante’. If I say that one of the recipes for sauerkraut demands 55lbs of cabbage you’ll see that this book is compiled by residents of “la France profonde” – or at least profonde enough to deter anyone from popping out to the shops without a tractor and a VHF radio. But I like it very much and, once again and in the spirit of glorious anarchy that we hope characterizes the Potwell Inn as it once inspired the Whole Earth Catalogue, it’s well worth buying for the ‘between the lines’ wisdom it contains.

I haven’t written much about sourdough because it’s such a densely populated field it probably needs a section to itself – although, if you’ve been paying attention to this blog, you’ll know I’m a bit sceptical about much of the advice on the topic that I’ve seen. So just to finish, some pictures – taken over the course of last season – of the kind of fermenting that was going on at the Potwell Inn.

 

Salted runner beans anyone?

img_4877I never for a single moment thought I would be writing this, but last summer, on the basis of no more than a mention in a biography, we salted some runner beans just to see what would happen. Here at the Potwell Inn we read a lot of books  – I mean a lot of them – and among them was the new biography of Patience Gray entitled Fasting and Feasting written by Adan Federman – and so when, in a passing remark, her son Philip said he actually preferred the taste of salted beans to their fresh counterparts, we were unable to resist.

On July 15th we were in the midst of a glut of beans, but all of our attempts to freeze them in the previous season had met with failure.  The result was always slimy and flavourless whether we blanched then first or just froze them in freezer bags or, indeed froze them in vacuum packs. Honestly, there was nothing to lose.

Patience Gray, if you haven’t read “Honey from a Weed” was one of the greatest and least remembered cookery writers of the 20th century, originally outselling even Elizabeth David. In mid-life she moved to Puglia in Southern Italy and lived, with her sculptor husband Norman Mommens and they lived as frugally as the local peasants lived, all the while collecting much more than recipes.  Her book is an exploration of a whole way of life and you really should read it.

So in July we salted a couple of pounds of beans and shoved them at the back of the larder. Until today.  I was cooking meat balls and feeling uninspired when suddenly the beans came to mind.  We’re a bit short of preserving jars and so I thought we’d try them and if they were no good we could throw them away and use the jar for something else.

So as per instructions in another book I rinsed them and soaked them in fresh water for a couple of hours and then cooked them (without salt) for ten minutes.  So what was the result?  Well they were not as good as fresh beans but – and this is important – if we were marooned, as they were, both in the UK during the War or in Puglia during the winter, then they would be more than acceptable.  I was amazed at the fact that they had kept their colour and texture and tasted, if not exactly as fresh beans would, they tasted good enough in a different way.

So there we are – a successful experiment at preserving without using the freezer.  From many points of view it makes sense and we shall certainly revisit the technique next season.  As for books, we’re both avid readers and collectors of books and I was wondering if there would be any mileage in adding a new category to the Potwell Inn site?  How about “The Potwell Inn Library”? – a chance to list and even review some of the books that have been most help to us on the allotment, in the kitchen or at just being human. Keep an eye open.