I said to Madame – “you’re quiet”

IMG_4964And she replied – “Well if you’d stop cursing for a minute maybe I could speak to you”. Honestly it really showed that she had never attempted to build a two tier greenhouse staging from a set of photocopied instructions (poorly) translated from the Martian. Thirty six bolts – painstakingly inserted and tightened  – had to be removed because I had got part number 1463 upside down, twice. In my defense I would say that I was taught to do these sorts of jobs by my beloved grandfather who would curse large and beautiful buildings into existence on the basis of 70 years of experience and so – much as it pains me – I thought a bit of cursing might help. My knees were hurting and my back ached and I just wanted to share the suffering a bit because I’m generous.

It had not been a great day anyway. First thing we drove over to B&Q to buy the 8′ X 6′ polycarbonate sheeting to cover the hotbed. I had not properly thought through the logistics of getting it into the back of our very small car and so we had to drive home crouched in the brace position and relying on the wing mirors because there was no rear view mirror on account of the large sheet of plastic resting on it. It was a tricky drive but we got home perfectly safely, or at least perfectly undamaged.

So after the staging was successfully erected (whatever was all the fuss about?) we cut the sheet roughly, very roughly to size with a razor knife and then I attemped to breathe some energy into the hotbed which was stuck moodily at 20C. I made about 10 dibber holes down to the serious muck and then administered a gallon of human activator thereby evicting a beautiful iridescent beetle  and a number of brandling worms who didn’t much care for being pee’d on. This is the bit they never tell you about in the allotmenteering coffee table books. There, it’s all gingham dresses and roses, except in real life it’s not – we could feel the coming season growling at us and we were barely ahead.

Yesterday was spent wheelbarrowing woodchip down to fill the paths.  It only arrives intermittently and although in public we all pretend we’re utterly committed communards, we would happily commit murder if anyone else got there first. And so we left today – contented at winning several small skirmishes – and ready for some serious sowing tomorrow.

On the menu – squid poached in a red wine and tomato sauce with mushrooms, flavoured with garlic (loads), cardamon, mace, coriander seed and basil with a dash of lemon juice and some creme fraiche at the end. Yesterday two old friends I haven’t seen in years made contact via this blog. I was deeply touched.

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“No dig” experiment- first results

Yes I know you should try to reduce the number of variables in an experiment to draw any safe conclusions from the data but …. This experiment started in early autumn  when we sowed the carrots in the packet above in two adjoining cold frames and in two different sowing mediums. There were three questions I wanted to investigate:

  1. Would the carrots germinate and grow from an autumn start?
  2. Did one growing medium work better than the other?
  3. Would the tap roots penetrate the soil pan which had been deliberately left undug.

Question one is easily aswered – we had a good germination, and the plants continued to develop until the present moment. Question two is a bit more complicated because the composted horse manure got the seeds off quicker and the plants put on much more growth than the ones sown in SylvaGrow, the greener but more expensive option. However when we pulled some thinnings today it was clear that although the SylvaGrow plants had not put on so much top growth, the roots had easily penetrated into the soil pan and, given a couple more months, looked set to give us a useful and very early crop of properly shaped Early Nantes style carrots. On the composted manure side we had better top growth and fatter carrots but they were shaped more like Chantenay carrots and seemed to be sitting on top of the soil pan growing outwards rather than downwards as they should. Obviously I can’t rule out the possibility that one frame was bedded on tougher soil, but they were both on a piece of ground that had never been dug but had spent one season mulched with wood-chip to kill the weeds.  So I think the takeaway point is that these seeds seem to meet their claim and the experiment also supports Charles Dowding’s no-dig approach, but the question of growing medium needs more experimenting.  We’ve had a fabulus crop (still harvesting) of Early Nantes and Chantenay in an open bed of improved soil, so perhaps the answer is to forget about expensive growing medium and improve the soil. The other plants in the photo were some winter lettuce sown in modules which have all been eaten, and very good they were.

Elsewhere on the allotment things are going pretty well.  With a week at least of mild weather predicted, we took the fleece cloches off the broad beans today to let them enjoy the warmth and sun.  There were one or two frost casualties but on the whole the plants are looking good. One of the advantages of autumn sowing is that the plants tend to tiller into a number of stalks, giving a higher potential crop, and it’s interesting that this seems to be what’s happening to the plants that were damaged by the cold weather in spite of the protection. I’ve been reading James Wong’s book “Grow for Flavour” and one of the points he makes is that a bit of stress is often good for plants.  In fact I’m wondering if the lack of heat in last season’s chillies might have been due to the way I mollycoddled them. This season I’ll change the watering regime and see if that drives them on – mind you that might well give me some desperately hot chillies that I won’t be able to eat. Garlic, shallots and onion sets are all doing well and so things look pretty optimistic.

But my main focus today was to start work on the new compost bins.  As ever planning is a dynamic exercise and when I saw the sheer size of the proposed 4′ X 4′ layout I revised downwards and decided to go for a 4’X3′ footprint which will give a row of four. The rationale is that you need to get bays filled fairly quickly in order to keep the turning frequent. So there we are, a great day’s work and I can’t wait to get going tomorrow. The hotbed continues to slowly heat up and we’re going to give it some extra “human activator” to drive the heating.  The bacterial action is strongly underway now with the temperature at 20C, but it should go to 50C fairly quickly.  I don’t want to sow there before the temperature peaks in case it damages the seedlings.

Oh and the birthday parties went well yesterday as well – great family day, but (this is an addendum if you like) all the while we were working on the allotment a couple of homeless women were setting up a tent on the site.  As we left I saw one of them injecting herself in the leg -no way of knowing what she was injecting, but what a sorry state to be in. Is this the dream? To have reduced the whole country to something like “The Wire”? Is there no shame?

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Raspberry vinegar


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There was a time, not so long ago, when raspberry vinegar was dismissed – along with Abegail’s Party and prawn cocktail – as a relic of the seventies, best forgotten as soon as possible – however it’s swung back into fashion in the last few years. Here at the Potwell Inn it’s never gone out of fashion for the obvious reason that its very good. It’s mostly suggested as a component of vinaigrette, adding both fruit and sweetness to the dressing, but we use it in other ways as well. It’s especially good, for instance, in preserving small beetroots – the later thinnings – when they’re still smaller than a table tennis ball. I wouldn’t recommend it for long storge because the acidity is a bit low to be completely safe, but for a couple of weeks in the fridge during the summer it’s absolutely fine and you can still pickle the old football sized beetroot, sliced in paint-stripper strength pickling vinegar in late autumn. You can use any vinegar you like to steep the raspberries – we like organic cider vinegar, but white wine vinegar works just as well. There are so many recipes out there you can just choose the one you like but they’re all much of a muchness  Yesterday we cleared out the last 2.5Kg of frozen raspberries from the freezer and started steeping them in just under 1.5 Litres of cider vinegar. We’ll give them a stir now and again and after 4 or 5 days we strain it through a jelly bag and measure the quantity.  Then we’ll add 450g sugar for each 600ml of strained vinegar, boil it for 10 minutes and bottle it in sterile bottles.  It regularly features in our Christmas presents for the family (along with sloe gin) and they all return the bottles quite soon afterwards in the hope of a top-up.

But why were there 2.5 kilos of raspberries in the freezer anyway? I’m bound to wonder. It’s all too easy to use the freezer as storage for surpluses from the allotment you’ve no idea what to do with, and a bit of discipline with planting along with extra generosity along the way can stop the freezer being stuffed with deteriorating food. If there’s a general rule about food preservation it’s the fact that it only improves (pickles and chutneys especially) up to a point after which it goes downhill. Late last year I had the chastening experience of throwing away pounds of ancient and flavourless jams and preserves that we’d not had the sense to give away when they were still good to eat.

Aside from that, the chillies, peppers and aubergines are all sown and sitting in their propagators, and as soon as the hotbed has properly heated up I think we’re going to sow early salad crops.  Storm Eric has gone its destructive way and after today we look forwards to a couple of weeks of more settled weather when we can complete all the winter work on the allotment.  But today is a celebration day with the family – two birthdays and a meal together.

Hot stuff in the study

IMG_4952Sorry about the utterly naff heading but I keep getting advice from Mr WordPress that suggests snappy headlines reap many benefits in the circulation department. Truth to tell, I think I almost prefer the Potwell Inn the way it is because it’s easier to get to know the locals. Anyway, as planned, the timber for the compost bins all arrived today amidst gale force winds and driving rain and for the third time in as many weeks I got soaked to the skin.  But the driver from the sawmill is so cheerful it’s almost a pleasure to talk about not very much with the rain running down your neck.  Sensibly he prefers to wear shorts because when you’re out delivering all weathers you don’t have to put up with wet trousers flapping around your legs.

Back at the Potwell Inn with the wind moaning through the windows it seemed like a perfect day for a bit of armchair gardening and so I spent a happy hour browsing the fruit tree catalogue and making a list for another line of cordon fruit trees. I think we’ll get a damson, a Victoria type plum, an old style greengage, a pear of some sort and then maybe three more if we extend the bed to the bottom of the plot. But that sent me straight back to the computer because it would mean relocating some of our planned crops and then I wondered if we could plant a stepover espalier along the bottom and catch twenty two played out in its usual way –

However much land you’ve got you always need just a bit more

But really, I was just like a child delaying opening the last present because today was ordained for the sowing of chillies. There’s something profound about putting the first seeds into the dirt, and this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season. So the propagator was warmed and set up in my study, the new lights installed and the compost warmed and watered with a very dilute seaweed solution. And there it is behind me as I type, glowing daylight in the depths of winter and daring the local police to pay us a visit!  I love it.  I love looking after them, reading them a story at night and turning the light off at a sensible time (I made some of that up). When I finished with the chillies I had one half-tray left and so I sowed a few Corno Rosso red peppers – a bit early and possibly a bit hot for them, but nature is a constant surprise and with an early start they may well fruit just a bit earlier too. Anyone who’s ever grown an allotment will know that the real skill (which I don’t possess) is to space things out a bit. It’s great having a cornucopia in late july, but it’s better to have a constant supply of goodies through the seasons.

Looking at the enormous pile of wood waiting to be built into a three bay compost bin, it’s not hard to feel slightly uneasy at the expense.  I’ve no idea why allotmenteers seem to regard it as a point of honour to furnish the entire plot with old pallets and carpets and refuse to buy a tomato seed if they can scrape one out of the morning’s bacon and eggs. I’ve never met a birdwatcher who boasted that they’d built their binoculars out of a couple of tin cans and the bottom of a wine bottle; or a runner who would run a triathlon in two left shoes they’d just salvaged from the tip. We recycle a lot – today we liberated a large polystyrene fish box that will protect our tender plants from late frosts. The compost bins, the hotbed and the cold frames are the beating heart of the whole setup because they provide the food and the nurture for what feeds us.

It takes me twenty minutes to sow and label fifty seeds which, in my imagination I can already see ripening.  Apart from the usual TLC which really isn’t that onerous, the whole miracle is accomplished within nature and handed back to us as a gift.  Surely a few pounds to pay our respect to the soil isn’t an extravagance? When we moved on to the first plot we found an old bicycle in the compost heap. I’ve no idea how long it takes to compost a bike, or a piece of carpet underlay but I’ll guarantee it would still have been there long after I re-enter the carbon cycle!

So no I don’t feel bad about spending out on making the plot work as well and as easily as possible. As one of my mentors once said to me after I commiserated with him about having to do an awful visit, he replied “it was my duty”. That’s not a word we hear too often round here.

And finally – I just closed the shutters and noticed that we have a first quarter waxing moon. Since my seeds are in darkness under artificial light they won’t be affected by any light but ……. who knows?

 

That’s it – we’re on the treadmill now

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I promise there’s no theorizing in this post!

In actual fact I could have celebrated the moment months ago when the overwintering broad beans, the peas, garlic, shallots and onions all went in, but that felt different. There was winter to contend with and, to be fair, spring is still a long way away  But today when Madame set out the seed potatoes for chitting it felt more like the first stirrings of the new season – as if the starting gun had been fired – and it’s true, once you’ve started the spuds (and the chillies tomorrow) you’re locked in.  Have we got enough I wondered when we surveyed the egg boxes. There are another couple of kilos on the way but will there be enough maincrops to take us through? If we get another summer like the last one, probably not, but if there’s more rain around we’ll manage. Last season we hardly watered the potatoes, there just wasn’t time since there are no hoses on our plot, and any watering has to be targeted. The biggest fear is that they’ll turn off the water supply to the troughs which would leave us rationing the 1000 litres we’ve got stored.  I’ve half a mind to add a fifth water butt for luck.

Perhaps underwatering has an upside though, because where they used to grow thousands of tons of early potatoes in Pembrokeshire we always noticed that when they were heavily watered the flavour was greatly diminished. These days in Pembrokeshire many of the farmers have given up on potatoes altogether and those that are left will be vulnerable when the pickers stop coming from Eastern Europe. Last season on the allotment however, although the crop was small, the flavour and texture were amazing.

So there was definitely a sense of excitement around in spite of very strong winds and downpours of wintry rain. We had to go up and check the fleeces and cloches which had suffered a bit overnight and to my delight the hotbed has already climbed to 15C since it was completed on Tuesday.  I drilled a hole in the side of the bed so I can push a thermometer into the centre without removing the cover.  Tomorrow all the timber for the compost bins is arriving and just as a special extra treat a fresh load of woodchip has been dumped at the site.  I feel like we won the lottery! The forecast is terrible and working in waterproofs is very sweaty, but somehow it seems as if we’ve got the wind in our sails.

Might moon gardening have a point?

IMG_3484A couple of summers ago I was looking at an infestation of Corn Marigold in an arable crop in Pembrokeshire.  I foolishly (what’s new?) asked the farmer where the plant usually grew and he said “there’s a bit of a clue in the name – Corn Marigold” – drrrr….

And there’s a bit of a clue about my attitude towards magical thinking in the sub-header to the Potwell Inn title.  “A sceptic’s take on being human” . Whilst I will happily assist at the Wassail, say a prayer and bang a saucepan, I don’t go home afterwards puffed up with pride that, once again, I’ve driven off the evil spirits. If only it were that easy. In fact if I had a pixie dust tree on the allotment I’d be a wealthy man with a lot more followers than I’ve got just now. On the other hand, last year’s Snake Oil Extract is going well at £50 a shot when you buy it over the bar.

That just about sums up my attitude to whacky gardening theories and unsubstantiated golden rules. There’s usually a crypto religious hierarchy somewhere, selling off the secret knowledge and running seminars at eye-watering prices. IMG_4942

Scepticism isn’t the same thing as cynicism which presumes something’s bad before even examining it. True scepticism is always open to the possibility of an idea going either way – it just demands the opportunity to give it some thought, read it up perhaps and even try a couple of experiments.

So when I saw a mention of ‘moon gardening’ – in Mark Diacono’s “The New Kitchen Garden” (on page 247 if you happen to have a copy), in a section about the management of the garden at Tresillian House in Cornwall – I had to think a bit. First point, moon gardening is not quite the same as biodynamic gardening. They’re related but separate disciplines. Moon gardening seems to pay attention to phases of the moon for different operations in the garden.  A quick check online suggests that there’s a more complex formulation that includes the pasage of the moon through various constellations but that part has a high cringe-factor for me in much the same way as the full Steiner method does.  There’s a bit too much esoteric that in the end boils down to “because I say so!”

The point that I found most interesting was the notion that the passage and phases of the moon  not only affects the tides but also groundwater. Now that’s a big claim, but at least it’s potentially testable, bearing in mind the huge number of variables at play – surface evaporation, recent rainfall and so forth.  And there has even been some serious research into the behaviour of aquifers close to the sea, that shows a mild correlation. Living close to the sea, and especially if you’re close to the huge tidal range of the River Severn, for instance, it wouldn’t be inconceivable that the rate of run-off could be affected by the spring and neap tides. All you need to do is look at the rising and falling of the water level in the rhynes (drainage channels).  The question then is – how far away from the river/sea, and how high above sea level would the effect still be noticeable?

You’ll never put weight on eating your words!

So back to the allotment because theories don’t grow cabbages. Our allotment is maybe ten feet above river level when the flow is low. When it floods we’re a lot closer. According to my OS map we’re 25 metres above sea level, so if there’s any validity in the theory we’d possibly experience some benefit. If we conducted a trial, the one certainty is that it could do no harm, but I’m sure that trial results can be skewed by confirmation bias. The other source of error would be that anything that increases particular attention on the allotment is bound to bear fruit in some way – the farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer.

Charles Dowding (the no-dig man) makes a positive case for the moon in his book “Organic Gardening the no-dig way” – Pages 67-69, and does it in an open and non-sectarian way.  The tricky part is demonstrated by the old tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday.  The date of Good Friday and Easter is the only major festival determined by the moon and consequently it can vary by some weeks – at a time when the last frost date is a crucial marker for planting times. So should you follow the moon or the frost dates? I know which I’d go for!

On the other hand Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” – Pages 100 – 103, not only rejects the idea he digs it up, flame guns it and gives it a good spray of Roundup to make sure, and with more than a touch of religious fervour. In fact he gets so cross about the “relative positions of objects hundreds of light years away” that he appears to forget that the moon is very large, very heavy and very close.  The fact that it’s burdened with a huge symbolic load is not a scientific argument.

So is it worth a try? I reckon it’s an extremely long shot but anything that increases our sense of embeddedness in the natural order is bound to be a good thing even if it doesn’t grow longer parsnips.

 

My life in a landscape

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This photograph embraces the landscape I’ve spent much of my life working in, walking in, cycling around and variously exploring. It looks looks across to the Forest of Dean and in the flesh, as it were,  you can just see the pillars of the old Severn bridge so all my old parishes are there. To the left is the place where I was born, and the whole of East Bristol towards Clifton where we also lived and all our children were born. The depression on the horizon contains the Avon Gorge through which the River Avon (which flows past our flat in Bath) enters the River Severn and the Bristol Channel. Our flat lies on the cycle path that traces the abandoned railway line between Bristol and Bath and if I follow it I can pass the house I was born in. I first went into Dyrham Park when I was about 11 years old and was allowed to go cycling on my own. I explored all of this landscape and often climbed over the wall of Dyrham Park and rested there.  In fact I still feel as if I’m trespassing although the house was virtually derelict at the time.

Whenever we go to Dyrham Park we ignore the bypass and the motorway, which I loathe for having gutted and broken up the landscape of my childhood. There is, or rather was a powerful sense of place that came from the style of buildings and the stone many of them were made from. There were old connecting routes like the dram road – even the name “dram” is, I think a soft mutation of “tram” which is very characteristic of the dialect of my childhood. The road which has almost disappeared now, was the tramway that brought coal from the South Gloucestershire Coalfield – Parkfield Colliery, Coalpit Heath and so on, to the river Avon for onward transportation. I think I’ve written about the sense of rootedness I had from just talking to an assistant at Bendrey’s Sawmill who spoke with exactly my own dialect and which placed us both within a few square miles. The dialect is gradually ebbing away and the explosion of housing estates and their infrastructure of roads and services has eroded what sense of belonging once existed except for a few eccentrics and die-hards who, like me, are apt to be taken for idiots because we refuse to jettison our accents. As I’ve often had to remind people ‘the fact that I speak with an accent doesn’t mean I’m stupid’, but such is the power of the stereotype. To get back to the point, though, we sometimes take the route I might well have cycled as a child; through Keynsham and then past Fry’s old factory now renamed “The Chocolate Quarter” and converted into attractive flats too expensive for the people who lost their jobs at Frys to buy. Progress my ass! North Common, Bridgeyate, Siston Common , Wick, and Dyrham were, I suppose, just about the catchment area for Rodway School. One of my first girl friends used to catch the train from Yate to Mangotsfield along with maybe twenty others. It was a human sized patch of territory within which many remained and I’ve returned from living only twenty miles but a whole civilisation away. I remember saying when I retired from parish ministry – I think it was my last service at Elberton – that I was afraid I had become hefted in Severnside. Well, if it was ever true, the territory of my childhood has proved the stronger force. Each place is embedded and enchanted by memories. The brickworks at Shortwood where Eddy and I would play in the old flues, crawling through the underground passages to gaze up at the sky through the chimneys. The capped mineshaft at Parkfield where you could still peer down the mineshaft and see the harts tongue fern marking the boundary between the known and the terrifying depth of the shaft.  All this in a landscape.

And so today we took a break from the allotment and went for a walk in Dyrham Park and by the strangest coincidence we met a couple of Rangers one of whom was the daughter of the Deputy Head of my primary school, so we’re talking sixty years ago. It’s always the voice, you see. Between us we remembered not only all the teachers, but their idiosyncracies and the colour of their hair. A whole cast of characters came back to life.IMG_4946Then as we zig-zagged down the Terrace to the formal gardens we were admiring this pruning on the espalier pears in front of the main house, when one of the gardeners came along and he then called over the full-timer who had actually pruned them so beautifully. As soon as he knew that Madame had once worked at Long Ashton Research Station they were away, talking about growing virus-free budwood and grafting and, of course, pruning. So then we had a marvellous impromptu seminar on the Modified Lorette pruning system, and he’d actually visited the gardens at Versailles to see the method being used.  Apparently they are quite happy to allow nine years for the lower branches to reach full length before they allowed any rising shoots to establish a second tier. So back home and a glass of perry from the orchard while we reflected on the day. As we were checking out at the shop I had a jokey exchange with the woman on the till.  I asked her if I’d live longer if I collected enough of their ‘bags for life’ she instantly swtitched into metaphysical mode and asked me intently “would you really like to live for ever?” No, absolutely not” I said – but I thought to myself “can I have a few more more days like this first?”