We all need to choose!

Two pictures that seem, to me, to express a parting of the ways that’s so important the future of the earth depends on us taking the right direction. The first was taken in Portscathoe, Cornwall in October 2014.  A green lane and bridleway that we often used, and which had ancient hedges on either side was flailed, presumably to make space for farm equipment to travel up and down. The second was our organic hotbed, taken this afternoon.  Notwithstanding the difference in the seasons, the lane will never properly recover, and the displaced small mammals, insects and birds may never return. The hotbed, in its various iterations will go on providing good food and spent manure to the soil for as long as we are able to tend it.

Last time we went to Heligan I took with me Wendell Berry’s collection of essays “The world ending fire” and it lit me up.  So too this last visit when I read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” and followed that with my latest read – “Green and Prosperous Land” by the economist Dieter Helm. It’s so easy to get despairing and cynical about the state of the earth and it’s vital the we don’t get sucked into a mindset that plays into the hands of the agrichemical industry and the climate change deniers. I spend a lot of time trying to make connections between what’s possible for an individual or a couple like us and the sort of global change that’s needed. It’s no accident that the isolated individualism of our culture plays into the sense of helplessness.

Yesterday I was talking to a leading light in our neighbouring community garden -with which we share an ugly boundary of Cupressus.  When I explained a plan to replace it with a more natural hedgerow he agreed completely and then spent the next five minutes explaining why it would be difficult, the Parks Department would never agree and they’d make us pay for it all anyway.  He was probably correct in every sense and yet …… ?

I know I quoted the old management saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” only last week, and it’s still true – but that’s not a reason for giving up. It just means that we need to go about it in a different way, by changing hearts and minds.

There was a warm southeasterly wind today. It was so strong it pulled out all the pegs on one side of a net guarding our chard from the pigeons, and left it flapping helplessly. We fixed it and moved on to other jobs.  We don’t talk much on the allotment, we both know what needs doing and we seem to divide the work without much discussion, each according to our preferences and abilities. It is a place of sanity and re-enchantment, and  a place where our 250 square metres can represent the whole earth in our experiment in low impact living. It is, in truth, a culture of its own and the truly radical thing about new cultures is that they’re caught and not taught, and they don’t care a fig about power, wealth, gender or age. Individually the choices we make don’t change the world much. But collectively? that’s a different matter altogther. Collectively we can change things if we can only believe that it’s possible.

Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.

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.