Ten top tips for bloggers

You know how it always takes a while to figure out what’s going on, but surely (at least in the UK) we can agree that it’s a cold spring – and I don’t mean that we’ve had some cold weather because that goes without saying, but after being lulled into a sense that winter is over by a couple of balmy days, we’ve gone backwards by what feels like six weeks; chilled by a seemingly immovable wind from the northeast which only occasionally swings around to the west to gather some more sleet. Over in France and Spain too they’ve experienced some very extensive damage to crops, including grape vines. It’s difficult to make a direct link to the climate emergency but these extreme events have every appearance of being the smoking gun. Something’s wrong when the average temperature is way below normal and yet we’re having to water because the earth is so dry. “That’s gardening” we say to ourselves hopefully – “… you win some and you lose some”; but are we just kidding ourselves? In Bath we’ve had to cope with illegal levels of atmospheric pollution for years because local politics has been torn between reducing traffic and increasing income from students, businesses and tourism. Now, to add to the evil mix, the SUV has become the vehicle of choice for city centre aspirationals. It seems we all agree that something must be done, but the proposals for reducing traffic have been so watered down by the tourism and transport lobbies that the politicians are running scared. Councillors elected on a green manifesto to reduce traffic have crumpled under the pressure and there are rumours of palace revolutions while local bloggers have poured out their bile on those of us who challenge their so-called ancient freedoms – like driving a three litre Range Rover 1/4 mile to collect Tarquin and Cressida from school.

Anyway, all this cold weather presents us with a storage problem at the Potwell Inn, because a traffic jam of tender plants has built up and is now occupying every conceivable space in the flat, leaving nowhere to germinate the next wave of cucurbits; the cucumbers, squashes and melons – not to mention the sweetcorn and the runner (pole) beans. We’ve hatched a plan to construct a third unheated propagator under our original daylight fluorescent lamps because they give out far more heat than the newer LED’s. Desperation inspires ingenuity and we can probably get by.

Not all ingenuity seems to work, though, and I have to report that my genius attempt to lure the rats into the traps with exceptionally smelly camembert cheese fell upon deaf nostrils, as it were, and the hoped for carnage did not come about. It was at least reassuring that the trailcam worked perfectly. Alas we’ve yet to find a reliable way of controlling their numbers.

If you look very closely you’ll see the rat emerging fit and healthy from the trap before exiting down the path.

Much of the week has been taken up by getting the campervan ready for a single night on the Mendips to make sure all the systems are working properly. Our last trip – over a year ago – saw the electrics collapse in domino fashion and we spent the week reading by torchlight and huddled in the sleeping bags to keep warm. When the electrics go in a campervan nothing works – water pump, stove ignition, lighting and heating all go into a sulk. All this was replaced and patched up a year ago but during lockdown we’ve never had a chance to test it out under normal conditions. I’m almost anxious about taking the van back on to the road but, on the other hand, it’s spring and I’ve got a year’s botanising to catch up with. I think I’ll get back to grasses and try to identify the early risers. Goodness why I find it so exciting to know the latin name of a clump of anonymous green stuff with almost invisible flowers – but I do, and yes, Madame finds it inexplicable as well. Glory be! a new book on UK grasses is on its way to me and I’ve already polished the hand lens (this is not a euphemism). It’s called “Grasses A Guide to Identification Using Vegetative Characters” published by the Field Studies Council – end of plug, except to mention that you can get it from the NHBS bookshop which carries an amazing collection of titles on every aspect of natural history, and not so much as a third cousin seven times removed has links to them.

Finally, I’m publicly registering my ferocious dislike for any newspaper or magazine article headed “Ten top ****” I remember one of the chief reporters on a local paper telling me once that most journalists are irredeemably lazy and the best way of getting your copy into print is to do the job for them. A whole industry has grown up around this character defect; it’s called lobbying – and/or – dare I say – influencing in which winsome young people earn money by making videos of themselves promoting various kinds of snake oil. These videos readily supply ten best anything stories about anything from parma ham to windscreen wipers. In this way I was provoked by a “ten best” on the subject of growing veg.

As a potter, way back, I was often penalized for my passionate interest in technique. Somehow a whole generation of art schools managed to make a distinction between “technique” – which you had technicians for; and “talent”. The outcome of this lamentable attitude was that many students completed their degree courses without the least idea of how the elements of their pieces were conceived of and built, and how they all fitted together to make a finished piece. I remember visiting a degree show where I spotted a glaze that I’d designed as a favour to the technician in that department. The student, not knowing me from Adam, was astounded when I gave her the outline of the recipe. The very best students had a firm grasp of technique as well as the creative competence to carry out their ideas.

This need for technique applies just as much to gardening or cooking as it does to ceramics, and one thing I’ve learned over the years by watching really inspirational potters, gardeners and chefs is that there are always more and different ways of achieving what they’re doing. Being trapped by any sort of ten best ideology is like handing over your brains to a stranger. I’m miles too old and ugly to be a persuader but I’ve been tempted. However I’m constrained by the terrifying thought that someone might have been so impressed by my fluent and articulate promotion of camembert cheese as a rat bait that they actually bought shares in in a cheese company and created an online rat bait outlet with its own logo.

I remind myself of Ernest Hemingway’s comment to his daughter that the purpose of education is to teach us to recognise bullshit. I would hate to think that my epitaph might read “Dave Pole – he couldn’t tell shit from pudding!” – so please pay no attention at all to anything I write. My life is a work in progress – until it’s not.

Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

Telling it like it is

This week I was reading a newspaper feature on the natural history writer Richard Mabey that revealed a certain tetchiness about the representation of nature as an entirely positive – not to say cosy -icon.

 “Bacteria and viruses and man-eating tigers and predatory Asian hornets are also all part of nature. At times we need to defend ourselves from ‘nature’ but also row back from the value judgments we make about certain parts of the natural world, because we need the whole thing kicking together if the biosphere, including us, is to survive.”

Richard Mabey in a Guardian interview with Patrick Barkham

Someone once said to me “you know your trouble is that you constantly set up a lovely scene in your writing and then you go and spoil it!” At the time I was a bit rattled by the remark but increasingly I think it was bang on the mark: – that’s exactly what I do; but not because I enjoy raging around my most elegiac visions but because that’s the way the world is. As I’ve said many times before, (sometimes even at a funeral service), love is impossible to imagine without loss – or at least the threat of loss. The greatest joys are too fugitive to hang a lifeline on and so you just have to throw yourself headlong into the torrent and hope for the best. The best writers can inscribe a single moment of the ebb and flow of life without for a moment implying that this is somehow the nature of it.

By way of an example I offer the blackthorn which, today, was in glorious flower outside our son’s allotment. You could never say the flowers were strongly perfumed but they were there in such profusion that the nearby air was infused with the richness of their nectar. Their fruit will appear in autumn, hard and bitter as aloes, and which are utterly unapproachable until they have seen a frost or two and are infused in gin and sugar. The picking of them is a genuinely Good Friday experience because their dreadful thorns will fight you for every berry and leave a septic puncture wound for which you will not forgive them until two years hence in November when you break open the mature bottle of sloe gin. Blessings come with their troubles – they’re contrary sides of the same currency.

So if I write about rats on the allotment I’m not breaking the code of omerta on the darker side of growing things; it’s a touch of duende, of the whole as against the partial. I’d love to be able to show a photo of me in a 1920’s wraparound apron and headscarf; all vermilion lipsticked and gathering sheaves of golden corn but I’d look silly in Madame’s clothes.

The control of rats on any allotment is a necessity mainly because any system of composting except doing it in a hermetically sealed retort, puts two features of rat heaven together – namely food and shelter. Consequently we often meet one another in the way that erstwhile enemies pass in the street; with grudging respect. Not using poisons for obvious reasons, means that the choice lies between chasing them with a garden fork which is likely to result in serious injury, though rarely to the rat; or trapping them as quickly and lethally as possible. Of course turning the heap regularly stops them from building nests and having babies, but they’ll always be there – close by. Today I woke with a possible solution to the challenge, because the problem with trapping is that rats are not stupid and once they’ve seen uncle Pentstemon meet his maker with peanut butter on his whiskers, they’ll avoid peanut butter as if it were made by Rentokil. But we have another problem apart from rodents – which is my fondness for Camembert cheese.

Camembert is surprisingly difficult to buy in prime condition. Supermarkets usually sell it refrigerated so hard it is beyond maturing and completely tasteless. However the local Co-op must be managed by a Frenchman because their Camembert is alway perfect straight out of the chiller. But after a couple of days the smell begins to leach out of our fridge and fills the kitchen. It smells as if there may be a dead sheep behind the washing machine and Madame has a hatred for dead sheep. Normally I would put up with the glorious ammoniac stink of a good one but it has all come to a head. Double wrapping will not do at all and I have been given an ultimatum. Either the cheese goes or she does. It’s an intolerable choice.

And so – this morning I thought suddenly that Camembert might make the most seductive ever bait for the rat traps! Imagine the potential slaughter of six traps baited with lumps of Camembert – I mean – at least twice in each one; twelve fat rats vanquished from the face of the allotments and universal praise from our neighbours who are far too polite to contemplate such a bold plan. I’ll feed the rats to the foxes and film them with the trailcam – which will look great on the allotment WhatsApp page. I shan’t charge a penny for the service – unlike the Pied Piper of Hamelin – because 1000 guilders seems a bit steep – and I’ll be allotment Rep by the end of the year as long as the vegans don’t gang up on me.

My uncle Charles was a rat catcher – seriously – and he would always leave the antidote to his cyanide at home so he’d know where to find it. He was a bit eccentric and would occasionally resort to the shotgun and cheerfully loose off half a dozen cartridges after a rat. He was also a terrible shot, so his chicken houses were always infested with them. My Aunty Dingles, his serially adulterous but glamorous wife, (don’t ask!) also made the best clotted cream in Berkshire which is a county not known for clotted cream so maybe it wasn’t that good.

And that – considered as a whole – is probably why I prefer to tell it as it is. It’s kind of comforting not to have to live up to impossible role models and I was at least spared that fate.

What’s your game sunshine?!!

Johnny Appleseed’s true identity revealed

According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.

Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.

Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.

The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.

Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.

It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.

If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!

Monika’s dacha

I’m constantly amazed at the way in which our neighbours personalize their plots on the allotments . This one’s really beautiful because it combines really well maintained growing spaces with the most inviting shed on the entire site. The cast iron stove outside used to be on the inside but I think it was somewhat hazardous and so it’s been moved – although come winter it might find its way back. Monika started off with very little experience of gardening but she’s learning fast. The shed, and the greenhouse at the other end are both made from recycled materials. The greenhouse seems to be constructed entirely from discarded shower doors; fruits of a friendship with a Polish builder on furlough.

Quiet space, private space – call it what you will – are one of the most significant benefits of allotment life, and we see it expressed in dozens of different ways across the site. On one plot a sawn down tree stump serves to secure one end of a hammock which is shared by the couple whose allotment it is. One digs and the the other snoozes, and then they swap over. Another couple have a barn door on their shed and a lean-to greenhouse up against it. Our three buildings (shed, greenhouse and polytunnel) are so full of plants and their associated clutter, that we put up our folding chairs between two buildings and if it rains we retreat to the tunnel which is also full so we stand and look at one another and listen to the rain drumming on the polythene.

Yesterday a long delayed consignment of rhubarb (Fulton’s strawberry surprise); a tayberry and a blackberry all arrived and while Madame watered inside the tunnel I planted the fruit. Something of a change of mood has come this year because at last the final position of the beds is fixed and all the major structures are in place. There’s more civil engineering to do, like putting a roof on the compost bins and building a shelter for us; but they’ll have to wait until the autumn because we’re fully occupied in sowing, propagating, pricking out, repotting and all the day-to-day things that make springtime gardening feel like a full time job. We’ve organised a bigger than ever group of perennial herbs, bushes and small trees so we know exactly how much space there is for the rotating crops.

Which brings us to pottering – or is it puttering? For me, puttering is always the sound of a small boat with an inboard diesel engine so when we garden it’s pottering: one of the most pleasant meditative exercises ever. Instead of being grimly focused on raising the ziggurat of Ur or putting up the trellis for the hanging gardens of Babylon, we alight on the multitude of small tasks like browsing bees; removing a weed here and there; replacing a tree tie; doing a minute examination of a plant for signs of insects; talking to the worms in the compost heap and sniffing emergent leaves to try to guess which plant they belong to. Or it might be dozing in the sun, listening to the birds above the constant noise of the traffic. Even a small plot like ours generates a huge number of little tasks that individually don’t amount to much but collectively make the difference between a well run allotment and a thuggish wilderness. You may have heard the story of Brother Lawrence who, as a young monk, chafed at the mundane tasks he was given and longed for something with a bit more status. He eventually discovered the great satisfaction to be got from throwing himself into the everyday as if it were the most important job in the world. [This story was naturally appropriated by the church hierarchy whenever it felt threatened by anyone with a new idea and wanted to put them in their place – but it still stands]. There is no greater reward in gardening than the emergent qualities of a plot that seem vastly to outstrip the insignificance of the means of tending it – or to put it another way; hedge laying is cold, windy, wet and repetitive but just about the best job in town on a winter morning.

Away from the mundane, I had a fun five minutes after the memory of a chart in Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” wandered into my mind uninvited in the middle of the night. Bernard Leach was one of the key figures in 20th century studio pottery and one of the areas he was interested in was the use of wood ash in glazes. So …… stay with me here …. we use wood ash on our compost heap because it contains useful elements like potash and phosphorous and on page 162 of my almost worn out 1940 first edition there’s a table of chemical analyses of various ashes. I bet you didn’t know that unwashed apple pulp ash has the highest phosphorous content of any of the ones he tried. There’s a bit of a clue there for composters I think. What comes from this middle of the war book though is a charming lists of the available substances for burning that can be harnessed as fluxes in ceramic glazes, and it’s not science as much as anthropology. Who’d have thought that among the freely available substances were Japanese rice straw (he lived in Japan when he was young), thatching reed, autumn weeds,apple pulp, lawn mowings,bracken ash, box (Buxus) ash and apple wood. I can’t make up my mind if the poetry of the list doesn’t outweigh its usefulness to potters and gardeners.

A rather fun (and very personal) garden in Mousehole where we stayed a couple of years ago.

In Parenthesis

Today is the first anniversary of the first Covid 19 lockdown, although Madame and me anticipated it by several weeks because we could sense in our bones that something very bad was about to come upon us. And unsurprisingly, I suppose, every news programme today was full of remembrances and silences and pictures of victims and nurses. I’m too much of a curmudgeon to want to join in minutes of silence, mainly because grief is an intensely private business for me. Notwithstanding the years of conducting funerals I don’t believe my inmost and saddest thoughts can be organised by anyone and I especially resent being told how I should be feeling. In my bleakest moments I sense that even to attempt to construct a narrative around these terrible events is to diminish them. And so we fled the garden centre at eleven fifty with ten minutes to spare and came back to the Potwell Inn.

By strange (or synchronistic) coincidence, last night we watched a marvellous TV documentary about David Jones’ poem “In Parenthesis” – probably the finest World War One poem ever written. I grew up knowing him as an artist because the Bristol Museum and Art Gallery has a number of his drawings. In my teens and early twenties I struggled with his poetry, entirely lacking the life experience to understand what it might feel like to go through what he endured during the Battle of the Somme. The programme touched us both deeply. Many of the places he lived in were places we know well. After a year of isolation at home, the sight of the phone box in Capel y Ffin; the fact that he lived in the house that, at the time was the home of a small community of artists including Eric Gill, and which we pass directly on one of our favourite walks up to Hay Bluff reminded us of all that we’ve missed. Even his gravestone, carved by Jonah Jones, was a reminder of a marvellous exhibition we saw in Cardiff, and two others – one on Lleyn and another on Anglesey, In fact it’s been a week of Welsh Artists – some kind of season featuring many of the finests artists and poets of God’s Own Country.

The sense of the anniversary was hanging over us and early this morning I read through the two segments of the poems in my ancient edition of the Faber Book of Modern Verse which had once baffled me. Sixty years on I could see more clearly. I could hear other voices speaking – especially Gerard Manley Hopkins – and some much more ancient; the voices of the mountains and hills, and I could understand why he didn’t write the poem until long after the war. Our attempts to memorialise events before the ink has dried seem trivial and futile. Covid will take many years and many sleepless nights away from us before we can see it straight, as Jones finally confronted his memories of a dreadful battle in a French wood.

So we did what we often do, we went to the allotment to tend the living things. The sun was shining and we found ourselves taking layers of sweaters off as we sowed seeds and prepared the plot for the coming season. I love the way that seedlings often emerge in a green loop like a dropped stitch and then, within an hour, unfurl their cotyledons like tiny flags – I’m here! look at me! Sometimes the best way to cope with grief is to seek out the tiny signs of life with its sheer dogged persistence. Our son gave us two logs at Christmas, inoculated with the mycelium of oyster mushrooms and shitake mushrooms. Today I constructed a cool and dark shelter for them behind the shed so they can brood there in the quiet.

Our brother in law was among the first victims of Covid. His wife of fifty plus years is living in a silence that seems unlikely to be lifted by displays of public piety. It’s spring by every measure and yet for many the first opportunity to articulate that familiar and terrible cry of loss is a long way off. Pestering the grief stricken with our concern isn’t helping. Job’s friends – in the Old Testament story – were brilliant until they opened their mouths and broke the silence by seeking someone to blame.

Meanwhile we garden in companionable silence, haunted by the fear that we might lose one another.

Measuring the marigolds

Miracle cures abound in the organic gardening world, and the marigold is a top tip for all sorts of duties. However, it’s a bit more complicated than the stories usually suggest and like most people we’ve bought a packet of marigolds at the garden centre and discovered too late that they weren’t the ones we should have bought. So here’s a very quick disambiguation of the minefield.

  • Two kinds of Marigold share a common English name, and even look similar but they belong to two separate ‘tribes’, so let’s look first at the Pot Marigold, Calendula officinalis* which has a country cousin called – unsurprisingly the Field Marigold – Calendula arvensis which is rather uncommon so we needn’t worry too much about it. The Pot Marigold is a lovely plant; easy to grow and it’s a good pollinator attractor. It self-seeds freely so it’s best to harvest the flower heads before they mature unless you want to save the seeds. It’s also the source of the flowers from which calendula cream is made – it’s got to be one of the safest and easiest home medicines to make and it really works. The picture at the top is a part of last year’s crop of flowers that we turned into a wonderfully fragrant ointment last autumn by steeping the flowers in sweet almond oil and then adding beeswax to form a firm cream. It’s great for skin problems – although the price of organic almond oil will make your eyes water – but even using the best ingredients it’s half the price of the commercial product.

The other ‘tribe’ of marigolds are the Tagetes; and these are the ones whose roots are said to exude a chemical that deters or even kills some of the nematodes that can cause problems in the garden. There are three members of the family you’re likely to meet in the UK (the US has at least one additional member that I know nothing at all about).

The first of the three is Tagetes erecta which is very confusingly known as the African Marigold in the UK in spite of originating (as they all do) in South America.

The second is Tagetes patula – the French Marigold – which is a smaller plant and is the one that’s most often interplanted for its suppose effects as a pest deterrent. We use these all the time because, being quite small they’re easy to run in between tomatoes and other crops. As to its effectiveness it’s hard to say, but they’re very pretty and if they deter pests then all the better.

The third is Tagetes minuta the Southern Marigold which – again confusingly – is actually taller than the other two. The minuta in the name refers to its very small flowers. This one hardly appears in the seed catalogues because it’s not much of a looker, but ironically it may be the most potent of the three, because aside from its capacity to see the nematodes off it’s also said to be capable of getting rid of some of the most pernicious weeds like couch grass and bindweed. Anything that can achieve such a miracle is worthy of a mention but apart from a paper published by the HDRA I haven’t found much evidence. It has certainly been widely used in South America as a herbal medicine. My only caveat would be that if it does possess the magical powers that are attributed to it, it might be a very poor companion plant if its secretions attack the very plants you’re trying to grow. However I’m sufficiently interested to try to grow a small patch so I can try out its insecticidal effects against the asparagus beetle that regularly attacks our asparagus bed. This time last year we were cutting our first spears, but after such a cold and wet winter and early spring there was no sign of any spears today when we peeped under the fleece.

So I hope that’s of some interest. This is a short piece because we’re so frantically busy on the allotment. The polytunnel is already showing us new possibilities. Some containers of very early potatoes have needed earthing up twice in the last week, and our seedlings just love the warmth and light- although we’re still covering them at night. Happy days!

  • * Having posted this piece yesterday I was reading John Jeavons’ marvellous book “How to grow more vegetables ..” which I’ve only just been able to get a hard (ie real) copy of, and he unequivocally lists the pot marigold Calendula officinalis as a companion plant to tomatoes.

Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

Bath is full of ghost signs. One of my favourites is the faded trace of Hands Dairy sign, still visible on the wall above a shop adjacent to the Abbey courtyard. In the early 70’s we were students at Bath Academy of Art which, at the time had its home in Corsham, a few miles east along the A4. However we came into Bath, to Sydney Place, for some design lectures and it was only a short walk to Hands – which by that time was a café, a bit of a greasy spoon place but it did a wonderful steak and kidney pie and chips. The cafe has long since disappeared but the ghost sign for the dairy is still there today. In fact there are several ghost signs for dairies dotted around Bath, and Jane Austin mentions walking along Cow Lane on her way to Weston. The lane is still there but the cows are long gone.

The point of this excursus is that the signs seem to do more than simply announce the name of a defunct business. To me they always trigger thoughts of the whole history and culture of the era they came from. I could never think of Hands Dairy without hearing the sound of the steel tyres of the milk cart on the cobbles, and the steady clip clop of the horse in front. Ghost signs are faded portals into another age. But you often need a particular angle of the light to spot them. Otherwise they lie there obscured until the season or the angle of the setting sun reveals them.

So it’s been with my sudden interest in pagan seasons. I loathe the word pagan because it’s so piously dismissive of a vast accumulation of human insight and practice – but I find myself using it because its intended target is so diffuse it hardly ever lands a blow. I wrote two days ago about finding Eliot Coleman’s comments about the way in which the familiar Christian seasons seem to be an echo of something more ancient. Anyone who’s ever studied the Old Testament properly (ie with an open mind) will have noticed that there are some epic borrowings from ancient literature. If God dictated the first five books of the Old Testament verbatim to Moses it merely demonstrates that God was a great reader and not afraid to throw in a few unattributed quotations. Eliot Coleman doesn’t really extend the discussion about the overlap of the seasons but I was sufficiently interested to put aside the allotment plan for a few hours, get up unspeakably early and draw up a circular plan – a great wheel – if you like for our particular spot in the northern hemisphere.

The intention was twofold. Firstly I wanted to avoid the flat earth scenario in which each allotment year is a linear sequence of events that ends by falling off a metaphorical cliff. The linear model gifts every January to us like an absolution from the errors of the past; a clean slate complete with seed catalogues ready for the New Year. Of course it’s not like that. By Christmas the buds are on the trees already and the purple sprouting broccoli and all the other biennials stubbornly refuse to vacate their places in the garden. The only way to represent it adequately is to join the ends in a circle so that December and January can speak to one another, and the equinoxes can embrace one another as kindred moments. The second, more prosaic reason was that I wanted a chart that plotted the days with less than ten hours daylight because those are the times, (the Persephone months as Eliot Coleman says), during which plant growth slows to a standstill. Developing a workable plan for sowing and harvesting throughout the year involves a good deal of counting the days forwards and backwards to arrive at the optimum time for sowing.

Actually constructing the chart turned out to be quite challenging because the ‘pagan’ and the Christian cycle of festivals are a bit out of synch; so the chart demanded some interesting calculations of chord lengths because inaccuracies with a childrens protractor get seriously magnified when the circle is 30 cms across, and I found myself blowing sixty years of dust off my trigonometric memory. A day is one three hundred and sixty fifth of three hundred and sixty degrees, and months come in several lengths including thirty, thirty one, twenty eight and twenty nine days. The solstices and equinoxes with their cross quarter days are easier to plot because they’re regular. So after drawing the solar calendar with its traditional names and the slightly displaced conventional calendar on the same circle in months, I then plotted the major Christian festivals around the same circle. Three ways of counting time around the same still point. It was about then that I realized that this was no mere diagram, it is much closer to a mandala; and when I filled in the sub ten hour days with some blue watercolour paint I was overwhelmed by the way in which the systems corresponded like ghost signs from the past. My joy was complete when December dutifully shuffled in and shook hands with January. I was so excited I momentarily considered plotting the lunar months as well but then my brain exploded at the thought of all those thirteenths galumphing around the chart and that I would need a transparent sheet and a drawing pin to construct a sort of tatty flat astrolabe. So I made some coffee and delivered it somewhat Tiggerishly to Madame, who was reading in bed.

The great circle seems to me to be offering something much greater and more powerful than a simple planning tool. It really is a mandala, a means of contemplation and meditation that calls upon us to align ourselves with the way things truly are. Our modern materialistic culture leads us into the dangerous trap of thinking that if something in nature doesn’t please us we can change it with technology. Day length? – get some LED’s; soil temperature? – burn some oil: insects? – blast ’em with chemicals!

An additional gift of the great wheel is that it marks the turn of the seasons with celebration, thanksgivings, mourning and hope. I suppose this all relates to my questioning of exactly why our immersion in the natural world seems to be good for us in a quite such a transcendent way; lifting us out of ourselves into something infinitely bigger. You just need to blow the old orthodoxies and shibboleths away and regard the pattern. It achieves the small miracle of re-enchanting the earth.

Anyway, I think I’ll work on a fair copy of the chart and maybe illustrate it but meanwhile – in case you’re wondering if I’ve become a bit of a Druid – I noticed these walls while we were out walking down by the river yesterday. I think they’re both fun, and rather beautiful.

Religiously planting potatoes

The polytunnel is very slowly filling up with seedlings, strawberries and (our of frame) the first direct sowings.

March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb

Traditional weather lore

And so it does here. Yet another Atlantic low has been raking across us for two days, returning us to winter, wreaking low level havoc and destruction across the allotments and driving all thoughts of potato planting out of our minds. On the allotment Facebook page, however, the annual question about when to plant potatoes has emerged like a sleepy bear waking from hibernation. It’s almost unanswerable without clairvoyant skills because the date of the last frost is like waiting for Godot. Maybe it’s already happened earlier than ever before; or alternatively, maybe there’s a Siberian frost lurking right now in the far north, waiting for the jetstream to drive it across Bath in early May. “Statistically” (you might say) it’s most likely to be around the end of April, but tender leaves have no regard for statistics.

The potato question was one among many I’ve been addressing; taking advantage of the awful weather to do some planning. I’ve also been reading (here we go again!) – Eliot Coleman’s “The Winter Harvest Handbook”, which is a book you need to read if you want to beat the hungry gap and grow fresh vegetables across all four seasons. Some books are go-to resources for detailed information like dates, times, varieties and tools. But because I’m British and not American, the act of reading becomes an act of translation and, (just to make it even more complicated), some of these biointensive techniques began life in the UK in the 17th century, moved to France in the 19th century long after they’d been forgotten here, and were then transplanted again – particularly into 20th century America where they were inflected by the New Age culture and cross pollinated by indigenous American horticulture. That immensely productive cultural hybrid introduced a whole new spiritual element in complete contrast to the aggressive materialism born of the blind ended agrochemical mistake. So for me, the principal take-home aspects of many of these books is the ethos, the culture.

I do much of our planning on the computer – why does that feel like a confession? – well it’s because the programme I use, although it’s not perfect, takes away the drudgery of inputting pages of basic data into a blank spreadsheet. The introduction of the polytunnel into the planning has driven us both back into the unknown. Neither of us has any experience of tunnels and so we’re both beginners once again and we need to make our learning as fast and profitable as we possibly can – which, sadly, can’t mean an apprenticeship (too old) or a course (too hard-up) – so it’s books rather than experience: which brings us to the question of sowing times.

However in the world of permaculture design, in which the tiny particulars of our plot of earth, situation, prevailing wind, water, warmth and sunlight are all added to the variables, textbooks can be a blessing and a curse. I regularly see magazines and blogs that declare unequivocally that “this is the week to plant/sow x or y”. The essential qualifier “on my plot” is more often than not left out – understandably because to fill out the details for every soil type, climate zone or frost pocket in the UK would make the article or post bizarrely complicated – not to mention deadly dull. Seed catalogues often escape the trap by using phrases like after all chance of frost is past, or sow in March or April.

So planning ahead can be dauntingly complex; but amidst the variables there are some reliable regularities that can really narrow down the options. I’m grateful to Eliot Coleman for drawing my attention to the cross quarter days and their significance for planning. In his fascinating discussion of day length in chapter five he mentions the marker days that we mostly all know and celebrate – the two equinoxes and the two solstices. But in his analysis of daylength, he points out firstly that day length varies considerably across the year according to the latitude. Here in Bath we’re at approximately 53 degrees north – rather further north than his market garden in Maine, US at 44 degrees north which means that we have more winter days with less than ten hours of daylight than him, and considerably more than a farm in California or Provence. As I said the other day, we’d d be up there with the polar bears if it weren’t for the gulf stream.

I did some back of the envelope calculations and I reckon that these growing days when the light lasts longer than ten hours in Bath, begin on 15th February and end by 26th October which means that any plants we want to overwinter need to be fully established before the end of October. That enters two fixed points into the planning calendar that will be there regardless of weather events. He goes a step further, though and associates these dates with the ancient agricultural festivals of Imbolc (2nd February) and Samhain (1st November). The other festivals fall with Beltane on May 1st and the unpronounceable Lughnasadh on August 1st. The sharp eyed among us might notice that these days that are in close alignment with what’s known as the cross quarter days in the Christian calendar.

The fly in the ointment, as it were, is that early Christianity wanted to establish its credentials as an historically based faith and was obliged by the Gospels to harness Easter Sunday to the moon’s phases – being the first Sunday after first full moon after – wait for it – the spring equinox which the church sets as March 21st regardless of the astronomical facts. So Easter wanders around after the equinox by about a month ( March 22nd – April 25th) – making it an unreliable universal guide to potato planting by suggesting it should happen on Good Friday. There is no other bank holiday that usefully coincides with potato planting because the early spring one is a bit too late for the earliest early potatoes. Good Friday is only useful for spuds in occasional years.

We know from letters written by St Augustine of Canterbury that when he was sent by the Pope to evangelize Britain he arrived to discover a thriving pagan religion with active buildings and a strongly embedded calendar of agricultural festivals which (purists take note) were almost certainly adopted from or inflected by several previous religious systems. Writing to his boss he asked what to do and the advice came back that he shouldn’t burn the buildings down but appropriate then and substitute Christian festivals for the pagan ones.

A quick look at the dates of the ancient principal festivals, then – the equinoxes and solstices; and then the cross quarter days – Michaelmas, Mayday, Lammas and Candlemas – suggests that Augustine didn’t waste time inventing new festival dates he just renamed the existing ones, leaving the pagan faithful to worship whatever they pleased as long as they kept it to themselves; which incidentally is how the Church has carried on pretty well ever since. So underlying the most recent Christian layer, it’s fairly obvious that the ancient agricultural calendar never disappeared but just went underground. Discovering it afresh is like uncovering a buried mural. Christmas was tacked on to the winter solstice celebrations and Easter/ Whitsun, following the moon, very roughly coincided with the spring equinox and the summer solstice. Mayday was too entrenched to be tamed or renamed, and Samhain, on 1st November was simply renamed All Saints Day.

So that allows the agricultural year to be divided into four seasons and four cross quarter days -eight festivals in all and closely aligned with the farming year because they are closely aligned with the defining tasks of each season – sowing, planting out, harvesting and so-forth. They embody all the dates you need to know including when to plant your potatoes and the latest date for sowing and planting your overwintering vegetables ready for the hungry gap.

You might dismiss this as a load of all romantic tosh except that in my previous existence, the biggest church attendances were not the pious events of Easter, but Christmas, Remembrance Sunday, (loosely aligned with All Saints/All Souls/ Hallowe’en), and harvest festival. The old festivals were still exerting their powerful pull almost until the end of the 20th century. Some years ago Bristol Cathedral had a very successful “bread nouveau” service to celebrate the wheat harvest in Lammastide. My friend Dick England who was a miller, grumbled about the fact that you can’t make decent bread without allowing the harvested grain to mature for a month.

But enough of this. The point is that not very far under the surface of our materialistic culture is a stratum of agricultural wisdom accumulated over millennia, and associated with a unique expression of spirituality. I’d almost go further and say green spirituality.

On my computer is the garden planning software that I’m trying to adapt for use on the Potwell Inn allotment, and I intend to abandon the division of the year into twelve months and see if it’s more practical to divide it into the eight ancient seasons. I probably won’t reunite them with their pagan names – I’ve grown used to Lammas and Candlemas which are so obscure they don’t even pretend to be Christian festivals any more. More practically still, I’ll associate each season with its tasks so that our unique calendar combines all the variables I wrote about at the head of this piece, with the passage of the sun that provides every living thing with energy. The biggest problem is that computers and spreadsheets are linear by their very nature and can convey the entirely false impression that the past has nothing to say to us. In the end, I fear, the only way of preparing my new calendar will be to draw the great circle on a piece of paper and divide it into the seasons and their festivals so that gratitude, hope, generosity and thanksgiving are as much a part of it as the best date for planting potatoes on our allotment (which is after the vernal equinox and before Mayday: but keep the fleece handy until the middle of May). Lands End, John O’Groats and Anchorage Alaska will need to calculate their own dates!

Tunnel Vision – and then a corny story!

At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.

The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.

Lost in translation

As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.

I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bête noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.

But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.

Home preserves

Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.