Worm Moon

IMG_3480Aparently tonight’s full moon is called – who knows where?- a worm moon.  It’s also a super moon, which is to say it’s very close to the earth and so appears very large.  Possibly it’s a worm moon because this is the time of year when the worms come up from their hidey holes deep in the earth and make their presence felt on the surface. But today there wasn’t much time for gardening or anything else because both Madame and me were at the local hospital – Madame overnight and me for some tests – neither of us needing overmuch concern.

So things to be grateful for today:

  • It’s the spring equinox.
  • We love the NHS and feel very cared for.
  • We love our bus passes  and the wonderful bus service here.
  • People are so much bigger, better, kinder than we’re led to imagine by the media.
  • The trees are in bud.
  • As I walked home tonight from the bus stop the moon was peeping through the clouds and it was very beautiful.
  • The word ‘orthodox’ is rooted in the idea of ‘right glory’ and not ‘right belief’.
  • Tomorrow the Potwell Inn will be functioning on a full staff – even if we’re a bit creaky.

And then there was sauerkraut

IMG_5008Something tells me that the reason so much produce gets wasted on allotments is to do with the fear of dirt and bugs.  The idea of the perfectly presented vegetable is so engraved in our minds that we forget that such paragons of beauty don’t exist at all in the real world. The other day I was up at the top talking to Terry.  He’d just dug up a couple of leeks, Musselburghs, as it happens and they looked pretty much like leeks always do in late February – tatty, dirty and unappetising.  Then he whipped out a large knife and in three strokes he cut off the roots and then the top in a deft delta shape.  Off came the outer yellow leaves and in ten seconds the ugly duckling became a showbench swan. I silently resolved to get a knife like that, purely for the theatrical effect.

The brassica bed on our plot is looking similarly tatty. Leaves don’t last for ever and often the reason some other people’s brassicas look  healthier is that they sensibly remove the outer dying leaves before they fall off and attract slugs.  Everyone should try it, especially if there’s a plot inspection due. We’ve borrowed about 50 square metres off our neighbour who’s temporarily indisposed, and yesterday I cut him a savoy cabbage by way of a thank-you. He’d come up for some of his purple sprouting broccoli but the pigeons had got there first. Again on the face of it our small gift wasn’t a great specimen, but a bit of a trim with my penknife made it look as good as anything in the supermarket. It was then I resolved to use up some of the surplus by making a batch of sauerkraut.

And so this morning, as planned, we went up to check things out.  Nothing stirring in the hot bed yet, but then we weren’t expecting too much for a few days.  However the compost heap had leapt into action after being turned and the worms have all retreated (hopefully) to a place of safety after the temperature had increased to 35C.  It’s absolutely true what they say: turning is what keeps the composting process going.

After that discovery while Madame looked after the greenhouse, I cut savoys and an odd red cabbage for the sauerkraut.

Back in the kitchen it didn’t take long to clean and shred the cabbage, salt it and get it into the fermentation jar. By then, of course, I was in full-on cooking mode so off I went on pommes dauphinoise and roasted pork belly on cider using up another pile of our own veg that were unlikely to be used in anything except stock.

IMG_5012Then, back up to the allotment where I was able to dig the very last patch of unused ground.  I’m fully committed to no-dig gardening and although it might sound contradictory, I needed to dig this patch to remove the last of the rampant couch and bindweed.  However I’m bound to say I love digging and I’ll miss it immensely. When we’d finished we wandered down through the organic allotments towards the pub and we were taken for a rather inspiring guided tour around the community garden. What a lovely day – our pints never tasted better!

1st anniversary of the Beast from the East

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One of the Habanero chillies for which we had 100% successful germination this year

It’s exactly a year since Anticyclone Hartmut scythed across the UK and earned itself the dodgy title ‘The Beast from the East’, a name I always loathed as it just fed into the usual nonsense about everything bad being the fault of the foreigners. It’s weather, get over it!

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If there is a lesson to be learned from last year’s weather it’s that climate change is accelerating and unless the governments of the world get serious about it we’re all going to be in terrible trouble. What with climate change, ecological destruction, pollution and extractive farming, there’s enough trouble to tax the abilities of the most gifted politicians; but the problem here in the UK is that our politicians are not remotely gifted, our universities are deeply in hock to the principal environmental offenders and half the population still think that Dunkirk was an historic victory.  I loved this quote from the Irish President in today’s paper –

If we were coal miners we’d be up to our waists in dead canaries

Unfortunately our own government seems to be entirely preoccupied with searching for unicorns and so almost no thought is being applied to what, in the long run, are the really important problems.  Last night on the TV news we heard from people who are already stockpiling food in case we crash out of Europe. I felt a bit bewildered by their choices of food to stockpile – mainly processed food like baked beans and so on. Then it occurred to me that we at the Potwell Inn are doing exactly the same but from a different angle.  If there’s been any urgency about getting the allotment in perfect condition for the coming season it’s got a large element of the same instinct to make provision for the future. My best friend’s mum always stockpiled flour and potatoes in the winter because she was a Scotswoman who knew from a lifetime’s experience that she could feed her family of five with those stores, plus the produce from the garden.  My mother, when her Altzheimers got bad, stockpiled spaghetti hoops – largely because of her memories of wartime shortages. And we fret about the allotment which, if things go badly wrong – will at least give us a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. So day after day we work just a bit too hard and we’re so nearly there. The hotbed is planted up and the greenhouse and coldframes are full. The civil engineering phase is nearly over and tonight we went to the pub for a couple of celebratory pints.

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Or, if you prefer, all this stuff takes a lot of effort to get from the top to the bottom of the site. We’re incredibly lucky to get almost unlimited free supplies of wood-chip and leaves from the Parks Department, and so a problem for them turns into an opportunity for us – one which is happily taken up by the allotmenteers who get quite competitive about the leaves in particular. We’ve got hold of a couple of 1000Kg builders bags, which are perfect for storing leaves, and as they compact and begin to rot we just top them up as long as there are leaves to be had. Almost all the books tell you that it takes a couple of years to reduce them to compost, but they’ll be pretty good mulch by next summer and we’re planning to accelerate the decomposition by adding what some modest folks call ‘human activator’ or diluted (10:1) urine which works incredibly well for the compost as well.

The wood-chip is equally useful (as I posted a couple of days ago) and so it is was gratifying to see both piles getting bigger and bigger up at the top. Meanwhile the timber arrived today for the next batch of bed building.  I’m full of admiration for Chris the delivery driver who was carrying three 16′ boards at a time down the slope to our plot. I could just manage one at a time, but he’s made of steel!

But the point about the farmer’s boot is that all that fetching and carrying also allows a lot of time for thinking, and time without number the solution to a problem has presented itself unbidden while I’ve been shovelling and carrying back and forth. Today it was the turn of the the new compost bins. I confess to begrudging any growing space to the utilities, but our present composting method using cylinders made from sheep fencing presents real problems when it comes to turning the heap. So today I decided to use one of the 12′ X 4′ beds and use it for three square compost bins side-by-side, so we can turn them easily and frequently.  Then I decided to build a ‘floating’ hot bed container that can be moved from bed to bed each year, working our way around all the beds one at a time.

Finally we’re going to refurbish the ramshackle supports for the grape vines that did us so well this year. I love a good project, and I can’t wait to get going – just give us some dry weather for a couple of weeks and we’ll be fine.  But one of the new beds needs to be built quickly because today I took a peep at the propagators in the greenhouse, and next spring’s broad beans have started to germinate.

I can sense the raised eybrows over the expense and it’s true, some people make lovely and productive allotments using nothing but recycled materials. As always I’d argue that you mustn’t let the perfect drive out the good. It works for us and we’re probably 80% self-sufficient for vegetables. One person’s summer holiday is another person’s allotment …. or perhaps three allotments! All I know is that our two plots give us more pleasure than any of the other things we could spend our money on.

When “just too much” is a moral problem

So today turned out to be something of a day of reckoning in the Potwell Inn pantry, largely on account of the large batch of ragu I cooked yesterday.  It had to be frozen in individual batches today, but our little freezer was stuffed to capacity – not least with 12lbs blackcurrants that went in there when we were too busy to do anything with them. Fridges and freezers can very easily become the slow -food equivalent of the dustbin if you’re not ruthless, and I’m not nearly ruthless enough.

But that brought around another challenge; what should we do with the defrosting blackberries?  Easy-peasy we thought, we’ll make some cordial and some jam.  The elderflower cordial we made in the summer is beginning to run low and in any case the flavour diminishes the longer it’s in a bottle. Already it’s a shadow of the glorious scent of early summer that it possessed when we made it. So what better than blackcurrant cordial for the winter, all that vitamin C to fight off colds.  But then that left six pounds to make jam with, and when I counted our empty jam jars there were just six and I needed at least twice that. The easy thing to do would be to go and buy some more, but I knew there were quite a number of full jars of jams and chutneys being stored in the garage, some of them quite old. Cue head torch and a stumble around in the chaos of a garage repurposed as a dump for yet more things we don’t quite know what to do with since we moved here 3 years ago.  I found 20 jars of various substances some without labels, some with the contents shrunk by 25% and some whose once pristine lids were spotted with rust. Initially, when I got them up 3 flights of stairs to the flat I opened each one and tasted it.  Some were flat-out gone, in some the sugar had granulated out leaving crunchy bits and all of them were, like the elderflower cordial, diminished in flavour. In the end I spooned all the contents into the bin and shoved them into the dishwasher to be cleaned and sterilized. Sadly one of the more recent casualties was some 2016 marmalade which we’ve run out of altogether so we can’t make any more until the Seville oranges come in January.  The most venerable was a jar of 2009 jam that was still edible but devoid of any identifying taste. It was supposed to be gooseberry.

This is a constant problem for most of us in this situation.We wouldn’t be gardeners at all if we didn’t want to eat the things we grow, but the fruit grows generously every year and it’s all too easy to try to use every bit of it up. Freezers and jam making cost money and in truth it would be much better to give the surplus away to someone who can use it. The same kind of argument goes for many of the other things we grow, it all comes in at once and we go into surplus in a matter of a few days.  This is all the more reason for researching the heritage varieties in favour of the F1 hybrids.  What’s the point of having a huge crop all at once when what you need is to have it spread out so you can eat fresh every day for a few weeks.  Today our thriftiness began to feel more like selfishness; twenty pots of jam and chutney that could have fed someone else if we hadn’t instinctively hoarded them again a rainy day that never came. Who’d have thought that making a batch of ragu could expose a moral dilemma?

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