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.

Hoop house, polytunnel …. it depends where you live.

Well, we finished building the polytunnel yesterday with a pretty exhausting six hour session fitting the cover. There’s still the door to be made and hung, and the polythene flaps to be buried and – truth to tell – we both felt it lacked finesse in some places, but it fits where it touches and we’ll tighten down some more when we get a nice hot day. As it was, the temperature had risen almost overnight from below freezing (abnormally cold) to 13C which is abnormally warm; but at least it meant we could discard at least three layers of precautionary clothing as we worked. However we were so tired by the time we finished in the twilight, that we had no heart for another session, and so most of today was spent in the kitchen cooking; making stock and reading.

……. Which is where the title of this post comes in. On Saturday I mentioned the challenge of reading and properly understanding North American gardening books, and it’s by no means just about pronouncing tom-ay- toes or tom-ah-toes. What about pole beans? or eggplants? But then I go back to the Charles Olson book I’ve mentioned before and which opens with the sentence

I take space to be the central fact to man born in America ….

Charles Olson – opening sentence from “Call me Ishmael”.

Reading these past couple of weeks I’ve been very struck by the size of American gardens, farms and allotments. Here in the UK the traditional standard size of an allotment was ten poles – an archaic measure that’s approximately equivalent to 250 square metres or 2690 square feet …. see I’m translating my own words now! …… which was supposed to be enough to keep a family of four in vegetables all year round. On an every little helps basis, this amount of land multiplied by a much larger number of allotments in use, made a substantial and crucial difference to food supplies during the war. Since then the size has been whittled down and many sites have been sold off by cash strapped local authorities and so we have two slightly less than half sized plots which make up 200 square metres or just over 2000 square feet. Even the great John Jeavons would be hard pressed to feed a family of four off such a small plot, and we certainly couldn’t. But America is a big country – almost 40 times greater in land area than the UK and which consequently enjoys a much more relaxed attitude towards space – because there’s lots of it. I wish it were true that this generous availability of land had made the US a supremely well fed country, but sadly it seems not. France is just under two and a half times larger than we are; and so it goes on.

Reading Carol Deppe’s books (which I think are excellent by the way) it seems that in the US she has found it relatively straightforward to rent or lease a small area of prime farmland. Here in the UK land value is so distorted by subsidies that it’s beyond the reach of all but the wealthiest. In fact I imagine that even making such a proposal to a farmer is tantamount to illegal trespass. Food cultures always relate to the wider cultural environment and I suspect that it’s precisely because western culture has spread its deadly mycelium into the farthest corners of the earth – gardeners who were once rooted within our individual small places have recently found common cause with thousands of others across the world. We’re uncovering farming and gardening cultures that have been passed by in the greedy years of industrialisation. We’re all translating now because we’re in a time of change and we’re discovering some priceless tools in the agricultural lumber room.

John Jeavons, Eliot Coleman, Joe Salatin and Jean-Martin Fortier make substantial reference to the Parisian market gardeners who really did manage to conjure quite spectacular amounts of food from small plots; but that was in the days of horse transport, when manure in huge quantities was freely available in the city. Our problem, it seems, is that whether land is freely available or severely rationed; small growers have to struggle against the status quo controlled by industrial agriculture, agrochemicals and commodified junk food. Enlightened farmers need enlightened customers and they all need enlightened local markets. I could go on, but I’ll confine myself to making a plea for the allotment, the small farms and market gardens who never seem to be factored into government thinking until food supplies are disrupted.

We need to be working together to develop all the skills and networks we’ll be needing in the future. Growing and producing great sustainable food needs a localised market; it needs a new food culture with cooking skills resuming their place in everyday life. For me the discovery that food cultures can be translated and adopted in new ways to meet our society’s needs has been inspirational. Our first ever packet of Painted Mountain corn arrived by post this morning and learning to grow it and cook it is going to be quite an adventure. Thanks to Carol Deppe we’ll have a go at drying some squashes this season to add to our winter food stores.

As the photos show, the Potwell Inn allotment is looking rather sparse at the moment but the garlic has recovered and is looking really good. The broad (fava) beans are raising their heads once more and even the purple sprouting broccoli which were so hard hit by the east winds have perked up. There are enough plants there to feed us for another month. Today we dug the last of the parsnips which have been a solid and reliable crop for us, and the Swiss chard is sprouting merrily again – it’s such a trojan for us. And so we garden on, rooted in our 200 square metres but citizens of the whole world. It’s very exciting.

Many hands make light work

Throwaway builders gloves wash up pretty well

I thought I’d kick off with this photo. Months ago I ordered online what I thought would be a pair of gardening gloves but which turned out to be ten throwaway pairs. They’re not the strongest and because we had so many, we lazily picked out a new pair whenever the ones we’d been wearing got too wet or muddy. However our frugal habits ensured that eventually we landed up with a box of very smelly/muddy gloves; so Madame hand washed them in the usual way, after she’d chucked out the ones with holes in, and we now have eight pairs of clean and dry gloves ready to face the spring rigours. Somehow it felt like a tiny victory.

And while we’re on the subject of downright meanness, she is also darning the Guernsey fisherman’s’ jumper that she bought for me second hand at least ten years ago and which, when it wore out, graduated to the allotment. The neck and cuffs have all but unravelled, leaving me trailing lengths of wool around and so Madame has knitted into them some surplus wool of a quite different colour which makes it look twice as cheerful. I told her I’d wear it with pride, and she said “It’ll make you look like a tramp”. I like things that are repurposed and recycled. Allotments sprout wooden pallets like a rash, and most of the time – after a short spell as a compost bin – they get passed on until they rot . The seat on the left is one of the more creative bits of repurposing I’ve seen on our site. I really like it.

Work on the polytunnel has ground to a halt due to the sub zero temperatures. Today, factoring in the wind chill, it’s down to as low as -10C in some places ; more like -5C here. Yesterday we worked in a mizzle of frozen droplets for a couple of hours, making a start on the polytunnel doors, but by lunchtime we were ready to pack it in. The east winds blow unobstructed across the allotments, it’s by far the most destructive quarter on our site. We put up some precautionary fine mesh windbreaks last year, but reading Patrick Whitefield’s comprehensive “Earth Care Manual” a few weeks ago I noticed his diagrams of the impact of windbreaks and the way in which they need a degree of porosity to avoid swirling air currents. At the moment there are no vulnerable plants in the lee of the windbreaks, but it’s a cautionary tale and we may have to rethink the design when the weather improves. We also mixed up a barrow load of seed compost and brought a couple of bags home ready to start filling the propagators with germinating seedlings. Being completely new to polytunnel growing we’ll be feeling our way this first season as we try to take advantage of an earlier start for our tender plants, so we’re hoping to get a longer season for tomatoes, peppers and aubergines and even some earlier than ever early potatoes and broad beans.

Our tree plantings have been held back because what with covid and the terrible weather in the east of the country, the supplier has emailed to apologise for the delay but assures us that our trees will arrive in time. We certainly hope so. One cautionary tale regarding newly planted cordons – don’t do what we did and forget to loosen the ties. Several of our cordons have been damaged by soft ties that (we now know) have unforgiving wire centres. We’ve removed them all now and I’m pretty sure the bark will soon heal over but in future we’ll use kind and forgiving string which will rot and fall off most seasons. Every cloud – etc – and Madame discovered an overwintering apple tortrix moth chrysalis on one of them. Aren’t microscopes wonderful? and such a help in identifying assorted creepy crawlies. A little bit of research suggests that the best method of control for these kinds of pest is to encourage blue tits and other insectivores to nest nearby. We’ve already seen blackbirds feasting on the slugs that hole up on our wooden edged paths so it looks as if nest boxes and winter feeding could be an investment. We have decided not to make permanent raised beds in the polytunnel because they seem to provide a perfect lurking and breeding space for slugs and snails, so we’re going to build soft edged beds and give them a try. These would have the immediate advantage of allowing us time to watch the way we actually use the tunnel and change the path layout – if necessary – for one that serves us better. That’s the essence of permaculture in a way; spending a lot of time observing and learning what the ground is saying to us.

Back at the Potwell Inn we’ll be cleaning and sterilizing all our root trainers, pots and trays ready for the fray. There’s a real sense of excitement in the air here; all we need is some warmth and sunshine. These last weeks we’ve been reading everything on biointensive growing that we can get our hands on. There are some great books that explain how very small pieces of land can become highly productive. I mentioned Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer’s book “Miraculous Abundance” recently. Initially I wasn’t very enthralled by its rather breathless tone, but I stuck with it and it’s grown on me. For a start they’re ruthlessly honest about their failures as well as successes; but also they reference a number of writers we might never otherwise have known about. It’s not that we want to grow a vast surplus and become market gardeners – our aims are far more modest; simply to feed ourselves well and perhaps share the surplus for for free. We don’t expect to change the world or save the earth by what we achieve but on the other hand, if more and more people adopted a simpler, less impactful way of living and were able to provide at least some of their own food, there would be a great saving in food miles and better than that even, a change in culture. We’re not there yet, though. Yesterday evening we were talking about chickens and I suddenly remembered the taste – yes, in my mind I could actually taste the eggs we used to produce with our small flock of hens. Organic and free range with yolks that sat up golden from the grass and grubs they feasted on in our little orchard. I then spent several hours searching for a local supplier of eggs that might live up to the memory and I couldn’t find one. I could get them delivered from heaven know where but walking to a local shop and buying fine eggs from a local farm seemed vastly more difficult than I’d hoped. A bit more research revealed that the going rate is between £5 and £6 a dozen – at least twice the supermarket price.

Which brings me to my final point in this post. I was reading a review of the Hervé-Gruyer’s book written by Chris Smaje, author of “A small farm future” – it’s well worth reading his book. He raised a very serious point of criticism of the tendency of some writers on biointensive farming to exaggerate their productivity by failing to mention the “ghost acres” of land providing some of their inputs from off the farm; things like manure and bought-in compost for instance. I don’t think you could fairly make this criticism of the Hervé-Gruyers. But he also went on to ponder whether all this emphasis on local organic food production on small farms wouldn’t provide ideological cover for the well-to-do middle classes while doing nothing to raise food standards and reduce the effects of agribusiness in the ‘real world’. Well yes, I agree that the vast majority of people lack the money and/or the land and skills to move towards the vision as it’s often described. An truly ethical life comes with a high cost overhead and so obviously it’s easier to be comfortable and virtuous than to try it out on benefits. But that doesn’t mean that we should all stop what we’re trying to achieve because it’s not fair. That’s allowing the perfect to drive out the good. Every home grown cabbage makes a tiny dent in a supermarket’s profits; but the production of it engages the grower with the earth, with the prospect of disappointment, and with all the multitude of temptations and decisions that grown up farmers have to deal with every day. Sustainable and healthful food production depends on a market and that market cannot function outside of its ethical framework. Every tiny blow against the more is better philosophy is important; and that applies to consumers as much as it does to producers. We’ll never avert an ecological catastrophe by driving to the farmers market in our SUVs to buy organic asparagus, flown in from Peru.

So if anyone knows a source of great eggs near Bath I’d love to have the address. Meanwhile we’ll be preparing for our best ever season – probably.

-4C then almost springlike sunshine

Henrietta Park this morning with patches of yesterday’s unmelted snow and young daffodils bursting through the ground. We’ve got a radio thermometer installed outside at the back of the flat and early this morning it was showing -4C some twenty feet above ground level. The sun shone brightly all day but even so it didn’t get much above 4C. I’ve said this before, but every season seems to bear signs of the next, and the daffodils – even just in leaf – were a cheering sight in the depth of winter. Given the temperature and the very light traffic outside, we decided to try our morning 9k walk along the river and canal and although there were one or two more crowded spots, by and large we walked alone. Tomorrow and for the next couple of weeks it looks like we’ll be back to south westerlies and showers – which isn’t going to be particularly good for erecting a polytunnel.

There’s really no room for doubt that we’re experiencing increasingly severe weather variations; certainly more storms are bringing ever larger falls of rain and we seem to have had a succession of wet winters followed by hot spells in the wrong (that’s to say early) part of summer with consequent effects on ripening crops. August was always a wetter month, but severe downpours and storms are a menace. The winter period since the new year began has seen a reversion to more typical cold weather but even so it’s felt odd – interspersed with storms that turn the river brown with topsoil. Of course we know, or at least we have every reason to know, that the cause of all this is global climate change; but there are very few signs that politicians are taking the threat seriously. My heart sinks when I read the latest and daftest ever techno-wheeze for sequestering carbon, and this week’s crop of suggestions should be nominated for the Darwin Award, not least because they promise that we’ll all be able to drive our 5 litre SUV’s around without feeling guilty.

I’ve been reading Vandana Shiva’s “Soil not Oil” and it breaks my heart to contemplate the missed targets since 2008. It’s like watching your mother drink herself to death; and the question that’s shouting at me is why? – why are we so powerless to effect political change the face of this addiction to endless growth and its consequent degradation of the environment and our quality of life? Why do politicians reward agro industrialists with the opportunity to write government policy through political gifts and lobbying, whilst describing peaceful environmental protesters as terrorists?

The tragedy is that we know what the danger is, and we also know what general shape the remedy will have to take, and we know that if no progress is made, very soon we will be facing an environmental catastrophe – no ifs, no buts and no more delays while they wait for a scaleable, saleable and monopolistic solution to turn up. What else is there to say?

Mr Brueghel arrives with the snow

There’s something almost medieval about this shot of families out bright and early, building snowmen with their children. Some of the games we play can hardly have changed for centuries. Dogs must have run in crazy excited circles in the snow for ever, and I daresay parents have always taken the opportunity to play at being children again. Some things do change. This afternoon we saw a couple out sweeping the green with a metal detector in search of a lost object; and then we saw a group of six socially distanced young people sharing a joint – you do have to wonder if they’ve quite grasped what’s going on here with the covid pandemic.

Knowing that we were due a big fall of snow kept me awake worrying about the nets on the allotment; but pacing at the bedroom window during the dog watch was a bit pointless because it didn’t start snowing until 6.15am; fell intensely for less than an hour and then promptly stopped again. During the “Beast from the East” we were too late to save the biggest net which had gathered a huge weight of snow. Today we were luckier and as soon as we could, we walked up and shook the snow off with no more harm than a bit of cold powder down our sleeves.

Yesterday as I was balanced on a very precarious step ladder, ramming in the last of six fence posts I was pondering the spiritual benefits of our engagement with nature. I know it’s supposed to confer a kind of super-chilled saintliness on us and I see rather a lot of breathless writing on the subject; mostly written by ex merchant bankers who’ve saved up their bonuses in the City and bought themselves a chunk of land from a bankrupt farmer. Almost without exception after a couple of years they no longer actually farm or market garden full-time for a living, but earn most of their income writing books and running courses. One old friend and mentor of mine, with a long lifetime’s experience of beekeeping was mightily hacked off when someone who had only done a six week novice beekeeping class set herself up as a trainer just down the road from him. He had taught hundreds of novice beekeepers, me included, without charging anyone a single penny. I had to give it up when I developed a scary intolerance for stings. Nature’s got teeth too!

I’ve been struggling to read one such book – “Miraculous Abundance” by Perrine and Charles Hervé-Gruyer; but its self-satisfied tone is so immodest I can only read a couple of paragraphs at a time. I’m sure there’s some good stuff in there, but all I can see is the shining face of the self-appointed guru. I would love to say to them that permaculture isn’t a religion and it certainly doesn’t need any bishops. Even the BBC’s Winterwatch programmes seem to be going after the Templeton prize for folk religion with its very own mindfulness spot accompanied by winsome pictures of breaking waves and robins.

I think I’ve been perfectly explicit here at the Potwell Inn that there does seem to be a spiritual dimension wrapped up in our relationship with the natural world. The question is whether watching an osprey catching (always the same) salmon on telly amounts to a relationship or an entirely passive experience. Does watching a stream of massively talented natural history programming amount to a pilgrimage of some sort or is it more like eating magic mushrooms? – all over in a few hours and then back to normal.

Maybe this is my rather austere theology shining through, but it does seem important to me that any adequate spirituality is formed in a practice of some kind. You couldn’t learn Tai Chi from a book and you couldn’t form a deep relationship with nature without getting your hands dirty and your feet wet. So here’s my (completely inadequate) guide to a possible green spirituality.

  • god doesn’t have to be supernatural.
  • If there is god at all, they/it won’t be at all religious.
  • If they/it speak(s) to you (which hardly ever happens) it won’t be in a silly stage voice full of thee’s and thou’s it will be quietly through your experience.
  • There isn’t a person alive who can’t teach you something you need to know.
  • They don’t have to look like a Danish surfer!
  • Real wisdom is not the sole property of the western educated classes.
  • Any god worth considering would be utterly beyond our comprehension.
  • Therefore it’s best to keep quiet about it, otherwise you’ll sound silly when you forget the punchline.
  • A bowl of vegetables with someone you love is better than steak with someone you hate. (Proverbs 15:17 -New Living Translation)

Sucking eggs with granny

Since the industrial revolution the processes of growth have been speeded up to produce the food and raw materials needed by the population and the factory. Nothing effective has been done to replace the loss of fertility involved in this vast increase in crop and animal production. The consequences have been disastrous. Agriculture has become unbalanced: the land is in revolt: diseases of all kinds are on the increase: in many parts of the world Nature is removing the worn out soil by means of erosion.

Sir Albert Howard: “An Agricultural Testament”.

Great stress has been laid on a hitherto undiscovered factor in nutrition – the mycorrhizal association – the living fungal bridge between humus in the soil and the sap of plants

Op cit: both passages from the preface.

To be frank, the publication of Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” in 1962 seems an age ago, but “An Agricultural Testament” was published in January 1940 – eighty (yes eighty!) years ago and in the intervening years very little seems to changed. It’s a useful, if chastening, exercise to read these books. We so easily slip into the lazy thought that the world began at the same time as we each first became aware of it; and worse still, we can lazily assume that any science of real significance has happened within our own lifetimes.

This thought bubbled up from the bottom of the pond today as I was reading and Madame read out a couple of passages from a newspaper article on communal living. It’s all the rage once again, apparently, but I’m not expecting anyone to write and ask how it was for us when we lived in a couple of communes in the early seventies. Living in a commune seems to be a bit like having your first baby; the last thing you want is to know how your ghastly and out of touch parents managed to bring you up. The newly born baby is your tabula rasa whose unfortunate joy will be to have every one of your random habits inscribed indelibly in their minds. The fact that your random habits were almost never acquired in the study of ancient religions or the poetry of Wordsworth but in the kitchen of 23 Railway Cuttings, East Cheam is the living proof that culture eats strategy for breakfast as the management consultants like to say. Living in communes, like bringing up children can be marvellous and it can also drain you of the will to live especially when you live in the midst of a clash of giant egos.

Anyway, that excursus off my chest, reading Sir Albert Howard today reminded me that the identification of the earth’s problems wasn’t something that happened recently, but back before I was born and it’s not just been ignored, it’s been made worse and worse as these eight decades have passed; or to put it more personally, my entire life has been spent fruitlessly protesting about it while nothing much changes.

Partly, I think, it came from a misplaced faith in the ability of science and technology to solve all our problems because, of course, the problem isn’t just scientific and technical, it’s a moral problem; our greed. But, as I hope my little vignette of family life shows, we rarely examine or question our basic attitudes – the ones we inherited when we were children. As a school governor for thirty years I saw many generations of children who were mildly radicalised by being taught about the environment. Yoghurt cartons were collected, tins saved and crushed for recycling and gardens grown and yet this early exposure to the problem of our environment rarely seemed to make it into action later on in life. Perhaps we needed to believe the story we were told that everything was for the best in the best of all possible worlds without realising that the phrase itself was a parody – but the system seemed to work and unless you looked under the bonnet (risking your faith), it was easier to believe that there was no alternative, and anyway – why would my one little plane journey actually damage the earth? And so, to use another well worn phrase, “we are where we are” and all those lovely holidays and fillet steaks were being paid for by quietly selling off the family silver; and now the final demands are beginning to land on the mat.

I find the reading of books on the environment by previous generations of writers enlightening and challenging. For them the challenge to grow food rested in experience and human labour not giant machines and clever chemicals. Ninety percent and more of their wisdom and knowhow is still directly applicable even on our little plot which is, for us, a kind of laboratory for a sustainable future.

Today we worked for four or five hours clearing posts off the site of the polytunnel and preparing the new bed for five more trees. As I was digging out the posts I salvaged every useable piece of timber, every vine eye and tensioner and I even rolled the straining wires carefully because it’s really hard to get them at the moment. Just as my grandfather had done, I was storing and recycling anything at all, no matter how rusty or bent, because it might come in handy one day. The beds were weeded on hands and knees and we relocated dormant soft fruit bushes and perennial herbs. Back in the flat we’ve taken hardwood cuttings of favourite bushes. The main room is littered with piles of seed catalogues and gardening books. This isn’t hair shirt for the sake of it. The truth is that we live royally on the fruits of our labour; the things we can’t afford we do without and if we eat seasonally we can put something we grew ourselves on the table 52 weeks of the year. It’s not perfect but it’s completely absorbing as the shape and scope of the allotment evolves. At last the water storage is working properly and we can draw modest amounts of rainwater whenever we need it with enough pressure to run the auto watering drips in the greenhouse.

I’d love to be able to say that passive involvement in nature gives no benefits but the science proves otherwise. However, getting dirt under your fingernails in the fresh air; cooking and eating your own produce puts it up a couple of gears. A pound of borlotti beans in the shops is a commodity – they cost pennies. But baked beans made with your own beans and your own tomato sauce is a feast. I like to think that each time we harvest and cook we share the wisdom and experience of Sir Albert Howard, of Rachel Carson, Lawrence Hills and countless other pioneers who dared to challenge the hegemony of agribusiness. All we need now is for those thirty years plus of schoolchildren who saved yoghurt pots and crushed tins and fished for newts in the pond – most of them are now in positions of real weight and responsibility – we need them (you) to say enough of this exploitative and dangerous culture – we want to explore being really deeply human again!

A Dadaist loaf of bread?

Of which more later.

In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.

We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.

Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.

So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.

The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –

 “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil

Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia

When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.

Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.

Windfasting

We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.

So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.

The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.

The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.

All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.

But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂

Permaculture

Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.

But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.

I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.

I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!

The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.

All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.

So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.

Why is the earth moving so fast?

I couldn’t resist this photo opportunity on the canal this morning – these two cats, cute though they were, also looked rather anxious to me. There were quite a number of dogs being taken for walks on the towpath so as well as the puzzle about the earth moving, they had to cope with the constant anxiety of predators nearby.

I can completely empathise with their state of generalized anxiety. What with Covid 19 mach II rampaging around and a government that functions each day by believing six impossible things before breakfast, and then the gathering climate catastrophe I sometimes wonder if I’m one book away from a breakdown.

A novel, a book of literary criticism, a poem, an environmental warning and a lost and found manuscript.

I also wonder how it is that we, as a species, can live in so many ways against our best interests. I’ve been reading Tom Philpotts’s book “Perilous Bounty” about the crisis in both agriculture and horticulture in California and the Midwest. Is it just America? I’m not so sure that Americans have some especial mindset that leads their country into bad ways. Some of the best writing about nature has come out of America, and my bookshelves are probably full of books about the American crisis because so many writers, thinkers, and enough ordinary folk to buy their books, are way ahead of us here in the UK in recognising the danger. That’s one reason; and another reason for being very leery about blaming America for it all is that – whatever culture found its way across the Atlantic began life here in Europe, and unless we’ve embarked on a separate burst of cultural evolution then we are still walking in step with our cousins.

“Gunslinger”

These thoughts about America came this morning with a quotation from a book that popped into my mind. The book is Charles Olson’s “Call me Ishmael”, published in 1947 – the year after I was born. I have a long association with this book. I first read it in annotated photocopied typescript form in about 1971. It took a long route. Olson taught at Black Mountain College (with a galaxy of other writers, poets and painters who became household names. One of his fellow lecturers was Ed Dorn (Of “Gunslinger” fame – the poem not the film!) who subsequently moved to the UK to teach American Literature in Essex and brought with him a typescript copy of the book. His course was attended by a friend of ours who borrowed the manuscript and photocopied it himself, then lent it to me at Art School. The book is a short piece of the most marvellous literary criticism which shows Olson trying to get to grips with Herman Melville the writer, and “Moby Dick” his strange masterpiece. I never forgot the first few paragraphs, and after a long search I recently managed to buy a facsimile copy that looked as if it came from the same hand as the one I’d seen – very exciting.

The opening paragraphs, as they fell into my mind, seemed to say something terribly important about the culture that has penetrated western thought like an evil miasma. Here it is:

I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America, from Folsom cave to now. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy.

It is geography at bottom, a hell of a wide land from the beginning. That made the first American story, (Parkman’s) exploration.

Something else than a stretch of earth, – seas on both sides, no barriers to contain as restless a thing as Western man was becoming in Columbus’ day. That made Melville’s story (part of it).

PLUS a harshness we still perpetuate, a sun like a tomahawk, small earthquakes but big tornadoes and hurrikans [sic], a river north and south in the middle of the land running out the blood.

The fulcrum of America is the Plains, half sea half land, a high sun as metal and obdurate as the iron horizon, and a man’s job to square the circle.

Some men ride on such space, others have to fasten themselves like a tent stake to survive. I see Poe dug in and Melville mounted. They are the alternatives.

Americans still fancy themselves such democrats. But their triumphs are of the machine. It is the only master of space the average person ever knows, oxwheel to piston, muscle to jet. It gives trajectory.

To Melville it was not the will to be free but the will to overwhelm nature that lies at the bottom of us as individuals and as a people. Ahab is no democrat. Moby Dick, antagonist, is only king of natural force, resource.

Charles Olson “Call me Ishmael (1947) this edition by Forgotten Books Grove Press New York and Evergreen Books Ltd. London.

Moby Dick in Ahab’s mind is nothing more than resource – a truly terrifying thought. And the restlessness of post Columban humanity that wants to subdue all that obdurate wildness first, and then – when the journey west meets the Pacific Ocean, to subdue the sea and its inhabitants too. Not the curse of the American mind, then, but the curse of western culture – our father, our mother and our language. I think Olson expresses something that comes close to our contemporary original sin, the will to subdue nature and treat it as nothing more than resource. Find the book and read it.

But (I hear the exceptionalists argue) – that’s America, not here. As I was reading Tom Philpott’s book the same thought hovered around at the back of my mind too. What has the Central Valley in California to do with Britain? Water and its management is a part of the answer. Our farmers may not wear dungarees and baseball caps, and Barbours may be more representative wear here, but arable crops still demand water, lots of it and in the arable lands of south east Britain, nearly all of it (when it’s not actually raining) comes from underground aquifers. California may be a nose ahead of us, but we’re just as guilty of reaping where we have not sown when it comes to water. Here in the South West we have plenty of water most of the time, but the constant erosion cause by bare farmland over winter causes the same level of soil loss. The rivers of Devon run red as they pass through bare fodder maize fields. So here in the west our problem is rapid runoff and flooding in the winter and spring, and in the east it will be drought in the increasingly hot summers. The conflict between agriculture, industry and homes over water, and the rising problem of pollution from nitrate runoff as it percolates (it takes decades) through the rock along with pesticides will be a profit consuming test for the privatised water companies. The landscape may be different in the US and across Britain, but the extractive, mechanised and intensive rationale is exactly the same. There’s an excellent explainer on groundwater extraction here.

So in answer to my own question, no I don’t think America is in any sense an environmental outlier. We have seen the enemy – it is us!

Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!