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?