Measuring the marigolds

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Meanwhile back at the Potwell Inn

We had a wonderful maths teacher at secondary school called Bill Williams who, after a particularly arduous bit of new calculus would occasionally perch on the corner of his desk a while before the class was due to end and tell us stories about the war. Then as the bell went he would be off down the corridor, cigarette at the ready and into the staff room from which an eye-watering cloud of smoke would emerge. He had a sixth sense about when he was losing us and his brilliant strategy was either to go about explaining the teaching point in a different way – you didn’t get that one, I can see – or resort to the stories. In spite of ourselves we always came out having learned something.

So I’m really sorry if the last couple of posts were a bit intense – Madame certainly thought so – and I decided I’d steal Bill Williams’ trick and show some pictures from today on the allotment. I’ve already written about the intensity of the season and today was the second long session of sowing and transplanting on the kitchen table accompanied by some head scratching and a quick session on the microscope to determine the nature of the hordes of tiny mosquito like insects that have been emerging from the compost in the propagators. They are sciarid flies, AKA fungus flies or mushroom flies and we’re pretty sure that the grubs were responsible for an awful germination rate on one of the batches of tomatoes. So some serious cleaning was engaged in, we changed the watering regime, lowered the humidity by removing all the covers and ordered up a nematode treatment. The yellow sticky strips that had provided the evidence were covered in the little so and so’s – a pretty useful telltale if you ever notice these pests wandering around on the table.

You will also see that – joy of joys – the purple sprouting broccoli is ready for regular harvesting, the successional sowings of peas are thriving in root trainers in the polytunnel and the tomatoes are continuing their slow journey out of the flat. Other pleasures today was the first taste of French sorrel – sooo sharp and lovely, and a fresh wholemeal sourdough loaf that took over 24 hours to get to the oven because we were so busy I moved the dough into the coldest place outside the flat (on the boot rack) to hold it back.

On Tuesday Madame transplanted some ridiculously tiny coriander seedlings into modules and we took them up to the tunnel to take their chances. I swear they waved at me when I next looked 12 hours later. My improvised bird feeding station has been attracting visitors against all expectations. We also paid a visit to a local farm shop where to our great delight we found an itinerant fishmonger and bought loads of treats. This evening we started on scallops with farm cured smoked bacon and then spaghetti with a home made roasted tomato sauce. I quietly scoffed the cockles and a rollmop herring while I was cooking. Tomorrow there will be proper kippers! Oh Glory the good times are almost here! Sadly a peep under the tunnel cloche failed to show anything happening on the asparagus bed, but it’ll come in its own time.

As so often happens we’d been deliberating on whether to give up on the heritage pea varieties – Show Perfection and Alderman because being so tall they shade a large area of ground. They’re the young plants in the photo. Then as we walked around the allotment today we realized that there’s a perfect spot right on the western edge alongside a row of cordon apples. So that’s where they’re going and we’ll grow a catch crop of sugar snap in the polytunnel and sow Douce Provence (a small variety) in a bed somewhere else.

Something to celebrate

Lesser Celandines on the river bank yesterday

At the risk of losing your attention altogether I want to add one further comment to the last two posts: Religiously planting potatoes and Ghost signs in which I’ve strayed off the subject of the allotment plan to explore the seasonal rhythms and implicit spiritualities of the allotment year.

You can check back on the previous posts to see how I managed to get from figuring out when to plant overwintering crops in the polytunnel to arrive at the significant overlap between the solar (everyday) calendar and the so-called pagan, let’s say pre-Christian and Christian calendars. I gave up on trying to incorporate the lunar calendar because – although I’ve no particularly strong opinions about it – the crucial difference between the lunar year of 354 days and the solar calendar of 365 days means that they only reconcile every thirty years . While I’m perfectly prepared to believe that there’s something very significant about the lunar cycle, what small amount of science I’ve remembered suggests that for an experiment to yield any meaningful data you need to reduce the number of variables as much as possible. The simple act of sowing a seed on the Potwell Inn allotment at the optimum time involves day length – whether spring or autumn, soil temperature, weather forecast, whether under cover or outside and probably many more obscure factors. To add the phase of the moon, whether waxing or waning for instance let alone the zodiac sign at new moon, would add a level of complication that would render any possible results meaningless. This doesn’t however imply that the sight of an autumn moon or the splendour of Orion in winter isn’t both mysterious and utterly compelling. One of our deepest human compulsions is to turn such moments into stories. Myths, I often think, are the way we try to tell the truth about mysteries we can’t fathom.

Not all our stories are equally benign, though, and during phases of fundamental change in a culture, stories can become weaponized and profoundly dangerous. At this moment we’re facing three of the most destructive stories the human race has ever concocted; the story that says for every problem there’s a technological fix; the story that evolution is a secular and linear progression towards the perfect society and another one that claims all our troubles are the fault of strangers. I don’t for a moment believe that our present crisis can be resolved by withdrawing and growing carrots because I’m neither a prepper (but) nor am I prepared to abandon hope in favour of realpolitik. The key thing is to remember that paradigm changes come slowly and are very patchy to begin with, and the attention span of politicians and journalists is easily exceeded by the goldfish. We are poorly adapted to perceiving extremely slow changes.

So I’ll leave that sort of pondering for the long winter nights because right now we’re frantically busy on the allotment and back at the flat shuffling plants in and out of the propagators on to window sills; pricking out seedlings, re-potting them as roots appear to have filled their latest accommodation and (most time consuming of all) looking for permanent markers that actually work! As we approach the vernal equinox on Saturday we find ourselves taken by surprise once again at the workload. If my wonderful new mandala could speak it would say – ‘well I did warn you!’

So the final life lesson from drawing the growing year as a wheel, comes from wondering at the way in which these seasons and their festivals have survived for so many thousands of years with different names but in so many different cultures. Isn’t it most likely that they meet some kind of deep human need that won’t be extinguished by the growth and decline of whole civilisations and their ideologies. We now understand, after a year of lockdowns, that isolation is a kind of hell – and that we are, at our very deepest levels, social beings. As I listen to the news it’s heartbreaking to listen to the way in which we’ve become divided from one another by anger and suspicion. The thing about nature is that it it’s one of the few aspects of our lives whose stock has risen during the pandemic. Without any kind of theology or explanatory apparatus we overwhelmingly agree that the natural world commands both respect and love. This at least is something we can gather together and celebrate, and we even have a servicable ancient timetable.

The simple act of sowing a seed is the beginning of understanding the generosity of the earth. It’s risky, it means learning to bend to, and accept the forces of nature – many of which we can’t begin to fathom. There is loss but often there is gain in the form of a harvest that I never quite feel I deserve and most particularly I want to say thank-you for without any ready made template to turn to. The cycle of festivals is our most powerful means of channeling these instinctive responses. Over the years I’ve led many harvest festivals, wassails, plough services, Christmas carols and rogation services where we once had a go at beating the parish bounds. It was a long walk! All of these festivals pre-date their appropriation by the Christian church which, ironically – you might think – kept them going for a couple of millennia because they couldn’t be suppressed.

If I’d quizzed the participants at those events why they were there I don’t suppose one in twenty would have come up with a theological reply. Why did we, year after year, walk a forty something mile pilgrimage across the fields between Malmesbury and Littleton on Severn to celebrate what was probably a mythical story about a murdered monk? Anyone who knows me will have heard me describe these endlessly re-enacted ancient festivals as left luggage offices where you don’t even need to know exactly what it is that you’ve mislaid somewhere in a long life, because surprisingly often it will just turn up.

There are very good reasons for being respectful of nature as we are now discovering with the threefold catastrophe of global heating, species extinction and economic chaos. For centuries – millennia even – humans put our trust in negotiations with the supernatural because there was nothing else. Then science and technology swaggered on to the street and for a while it looked as if they’d cracked it. We came to believe that, given time, there was no problem or threat that couldn’t be solved by science. Time was given – lots of time – and we discovered that science and technology were as much part of the problem as they were part of the solution.

We’ve been cynically divided and set apart by the spirit of an age which has run its course and whose beneficiaries are frantically trying to secure their wealth and power by dividing us into ever smaller and less powerful monads. But it’s so lonely being in a community of one where no-one understands or cares.

So when this is all over; those of us who love the earth and can glimpse a way of living less destructively should turn off the mobiles and bring on the festivals and feasts; bring on the gatherings for mourning and marking the great life changes, bring on the bonfires and lanterns and especially the songs and dances and community plays, bring on the strangers and the dressing up, bring on the cider (although we won’t all be drinking it) and the ash wands and the well dressing. Bring on the singers and the musicians, the sun, the moon and the stars and let the astronomers talk to the astrologers and discover that they both like daffodils; let the hydrologists talk to the dowsers and see what they can learn and the herbalists talk to the medics and see if they can swap useful ideas. Let granny talk to the historians so she can put them right on all their most egregious mistakes and finally let the politicians and journalists come on strict condition that they don’t speak but just listen – carefully for once. Tear down the shutters, pull back the curtains and open the windows wide. Let’s have the greatest ever festival to bring to reflect on all the things we don’t understand and to re-enchant and celebrate the sacred earth for taking care of us in spite of us behaving like ungrateful hooligans.

Next time – back to the allotment, I promise.

Ghost signs

The first rough draft of the chart with calculations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Religiously planting potatoes

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

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

Traditional weather lore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How sweet!

Apropos of nothing in particular, a true story – told to me by my son – came to mind today while I was connecting the two water butts that will be the irrigation supply for the polytunnel. It’s been a bit of a saga, which I’ll come back to in a moment; but I wanted to fill out some of the science behind my piece yesterday on manure and greenhouse gases and, in particular, the relative virtues of so-called hot and cool composting. I’ve already written about being careful to locate manure from a trustworthy source. We once bought a couple of tons of so-called horse manure from a local farmer with an awful reputation for his management of the land. One year, for instance, he ploughed one of his fields straight down a steep slope towards a brook at the bottom. Needless to say, the next severe rainstorm took most of his topsoil away. He eked out a living by renting his fields for horses – far too many of them – and we discovered later that their principal diet must have been creeping buttercups which pass undaunted through their digestive system and infest any land they’re spread on.

Enthusiastic hot composters will tell you that you can put weeds of any type into their heaps and they will be killed by the heat. They will also tell you that you can compost trees, stones, and a whole bicycle in a fortnight. While it may be true that hot composting is a fast and efficient of turning green waste into something, it’s not altogether clear what that something is; and how much of something else – like methane, sulphur dioxide or ammonia is dispersed into the atmosphere at the same time. Here’s the science if you’re interested. The other thing worth mentioning is that worms and other insects and microorganisms can’t survive the high temperatures generated in hot composting and so the eventual product may not be as biologically rich as cool composted waste which seems to comprise a great proportion of worm casts. It may well be that the slow road is better for the allotment and garden and better for the atmosphere as well.

However, hot composting has its passionate followers and I’ve enjoyed watching some hilarious willy waving moments as its acolytes compare temperatures; competing for the killer degree centigrade that puts them at the top of the hot composting hall of fame. It’s no surprise that the same gardeners also compete to breed the hottest chillies – I think it’s a man thing.

Sadly, greenhouse gas generation increases with the temperature of the heap or windrow which suggests that although hot composting is probably a lot better than sending waste to landfill – because that’s where the waste is composted anaerobically, generating huge amounts of methane – it’s better to be patient and accept that you have to exclude your noxious weeds from the compost heap and watch it heat up quickly to 30C or 40C as you turn it in the early stages and then cool down to let’s say 20C when the worms, insects, bacteria and moulds will love you for providing perfect conditions for them to feast on your garden waste and turn it into compost in a month or so rather than a week or so. This, unfortunately, will exclude you from the A team – which brings me back to the story my son told me.

He was at a party in Birmingham when he chanced to hear a conversation between a young man and a rather attractive woman who was quizzing him on his occupation. “I’m a physicist”, he said; “I work on the hadron collider in Cern. “On the large one – she asked him with gathering interest. “No” – he said “- the smaller one”. “Oh” she replied, losing interest and turning away. “How sweet!” I was mulling over the pulling power of a hot heap, thrumming away at the Potwell Inn allotment, surrounded by muscular men drinking Jack Daniels neat and exchanging stories of vegetable derring do, when the thought of her magnificent put-down turned my thoughts back towards our quieter regime and I whispered a quiet “thank -you” to our heaps as I inspected the new tanks for leaks.

Joining two or three water butts together has taken me right out of my comfort zone. What I know about plumbing could be written on a postage stamp, but all I wanted to do was to join the tanks so I could pump water from the whole array rather than moving the pump from tank to tank. This involves joining them at the bottom rather than conventionally at the top – which means that there is a good deal of pressure on the connections when the tanks are full. The bits of push fitted plastic pipe that allow tanks to overflow into one another, just leak when they’re subjected to pressure. This simple objective has led me into a world of different dimensions, materials and fittings and four visits at least to purchase the wrong spares and return them for the right ones. I feel privileged to have acquired a dim understanding of the relationship between 3/4 BSP fittings and 22mm MDPE pipe – enough to hold my head up high in Screwfix anyway. Today I finally plugged them all together and pumped water in to test them. There was a moment of doubt when a couple of beads of water gathered on the joint and dripped down, and then – nothing. Job done. A wholly disproportionate flow moment followed – the psychological sort, not the watery one! Now all I have to do is build the sloping roof on the compost bins and install the guttering.

While all this was going on a female blackbird that seems almost hand tame was digging around the edges between the paths and the beds. She seems to have decided that we’re not a threat and feasts on the slugs, insects and eggs that she finds there. The polytunnel is warming the soil beautifully and so while the outside soil temperature is still 8C, the polytunnel soil is near 15C and the woodchip hotbed is 20C, as is the newest compost heap which is just waiting until I put the oldest heap through a riddle so it can go on to the beds and then I’ll turn the newer heap into the old space for a period of rest. The whole site was alive with activity in the sunshine today. It’s looking more loved and cared for than we’ve ever known – marvellous stuff.

If looks could kill …

A thousand words on poo!

As we turned into the allotment yesterday a light tipper lorry pulled away at great speed and off down the hill. “He was in a hurry” I said to Madame as we pulled over next to a newly dumped pile of manure whose new owner stood regarding it whilst trying to keep her two children out of it. Obviously I couldn’t just ignore the chance to see whether it was as good as, or better than, our usual supplier. It certainly looked alright, but when I took a handful and smelt it, there was a powerful whiff of ammonia. Without getting too nerdy about it, ammonia (NH3) is one of the principal greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. It’s generated when ammonium – which is a normal component of fresh manure – breaks down in a double chemical whammy that deprives the resulting manure of nitrogen, reducing its fertilizer value; and at the same time releasing ammonia into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Farmers know about this (I hope) and manage their manure carefully to minimise losses.

We allotmenteers are mostly neither chemists nor farmers but our belief in manure is almost parallel to membership of the local church – we think it’s a terrific thing but we’d rather not get too involved in the theology. On the other hand, cattle produce mountains of the stuff and it can be quite a disposal problem and so combining the excess of poo on the farm with the excess of zeal among the faithful means that there’s a considerable temptation for entrepreneurial tipper lorry owners to solve the farmer’s problem and make a considerable amount of money in the process.

“How old is this?” I asked the allotmenteer who was still getting over the shock of my sticking my bare hands and nose into the pile. “He said it had been stacked for two years”. “Hm” I thought. “How much did he charge you?” “£100 – cash”, she said. There was not much over a cubic yard, around half a ton, which meant it cost roughly the same as my present source which was looking better by the minute.

Years ago I was given the honour of digging out about a four foot layer of horse dung from a stable. I imagine it must have been necessary to sell the thoroughbreds and buy some Shetland ponies, the filthy floor was so close to the rafters. If you want to know what a four foot layer of anaerobic, methane emitting manure smells like please put down your knife and fork now. This is not for the faint hearted; but straw being expensive and occasionally in short supply, there’s a temptation to put as little as possible down and my goodness it shows, or rather smells – acridly, stomach churningly, eye wateringly vile .

On the other hand a friend who runs a stable and lets me have a load of fresh horse manure for the hotbed every year (although not this one because of travel restrictions), is generous to a fault with her straw, and it shows in the horses gleaming state of health as well as in the healthy “countryside” aroma of their poo. In a nutshell, not all manure is equal and it pays to choose your source personally rather than rely on the A4 advert flapping on the entrance gate of the allotments. Try before you buy if it’s all possible and remember that among species there’s a hierarchy of value. My grandfather valued sheeps truckles above all else, but they’re better left on the land. I can’t imagine that he would feel the same about sheep muck from intensive farms where the sheep are fed on concentrates and never see a field.

Next comes the horse, but even then as I’ve already described, there’s a vast gulf between good and bad. If you’ve got loads of space it might be best to get it fresh, keep it covered and turn it yourself until it’s ready. Oh and check that they’re not worming the horses with some persistent vermifuge that will kill all your hard won worms. Cow’s manure comes last in the list and don’t ever use pig’s manure which is full of pathogens, and – if I haven’t already put you off – remember that e coli often comes as a freebie with manure, especially the fresh stuff, so keep it well away from salad crops and wash your hand carefully, perhaps with gel – like I did.

Good manure needs to be turned frequently to complete its decomposition and this obviously involves the farmer or stable in a lot of work which will be reflected in the price. Cheap is not always a bargain. So this pile of rather young manure which smelt strongly of ammonia was not all it was cracked up to be. But on the other hand we’ve had a tremendously wet winter and heaven knows how much nitrogen has been leached out of our soil during the past few months – so we’ll all be looking at organic ways of feeding it back.

What to do …?

Our allotmenteer has several choices to make. She could stack it and turn it regularly until it’s properly finished – which is extremely hard work. Leaving it as an uncovered pile will just mean more ammonia (nitrogen) escaping into the atmosphere as the weather warms up, while more will be washed away by the rain and could land up polluting the river. She can’t spread it among salad crops, tender plants or dig it into beds where she intends to grow root veg because they’re all adversely affected by fresh manure.

The one place I can think of where it would probably be OK is a good deep bean trench covered with soil. Another possible use is to use it in layers as a compost activator. She could mix it in layers with the free wood chip we have on the site which would reduce to compost reasonably quickly – the same would happen with dead autumn leaves because what this concentrated source of nitrogen needs is lots of carbon – even cardboard – to assist its decomposition and breakdown into “black gold“; odourless friable compost. Ideally she’d nurse it and turn it regularly and then spread it in the autumn and let the worms take it down.

There isn’t a 100% ram stamped ecologically pure way of composting – whether it’s manure or garden waste. The challenge isn’t to reduce wastage and greenhouse gases to zero – which I don’t believe is achievable – but to minimise it as far as possible. As Wendell Berry memorably said of intensive farming where manure is kept as slurry and cattle are kept in squalour, – they’ve taken a solution and turned it into two problems. Remember that in a small mixed farm where livestock are kept on grass, there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – any manure for sale at all because it’s just too valuable. Home compost made from vegetable material and activated with comfrey is as good as any animal manure you could get, unless it’s from your own livestock. The problem for small allotment holders is that we just don’t have space to grow comfrey and we don’t generate enough vegetable waste to compost our couple of hundred square yards sufficiently to compensate for what we take out. We too are intensive farmers! So beware of manure if it looks and smells like waste, because it probably is; and find a good source of safe horse manure and be prepared to put the work in. .

“The root, also, of slovenliness, filth, misery, and slavery,” – William Cobbett

Well that’s us put in our place then. I was reminded of William Cobbett’s 1821 book “Cottage Economy” this week while I was reading an equally interesting book by Carol Deppe – “The Resilient Gardener” published in 2010, almost two centuries later

William Cobbett is rather like one of those entertaining characters you bump into at a party or in the pub and hit it off with straight away. The conversation, like a fencing match, carries on with each tall story matched and bettered until suddenly and without warning the ‘entertaining character’ comes out with a deeply upsetting or unacceptable statement that leaves you breathlessly trying to escape their clutches in case anyone overhears. I used to love reading Cobbett because there was something irresistibly funny about his gammon faced attacks on governments, bureaucracy, Methodist ministers and – potatoes. Nowadays, “Cottage Economy” just reads like an overlong speech by an extreme brexiter. The potato turns out to be a handy surrogate for racist attacks on the Irish in general, and much as I agree with his strictures on absentee landlords and rural poverty; his cure – once again – is all a bit homebrew and roast beef; a pastiche of an invented rural idyll.

Lesser Celandines on the canal today

So back to Carol Deppe who – aside from her completely pardonable eccentricities (like not liking Swiss Chard) – matches Cobbett only in her passionate devotion to the spud. I remember a newcomer to allotments saying to me once that he had been completely amazed at the ferocity of the religious fervour of allotmenteers’ attachments to their least substantiated beliefs. Putting orange peel or rhubarb leaves into the compost heap is equivalent to a mortal sin, for instance. Diet too comes in for a bashing – and pride of place in the parade of shame belongs to the potato which is obviously (i.e. in the absence of evidence) the single most potent cause of obesity, diabetes and uncouth behaviour in the universe; and William Cobbett was a temporising secret remoaner.

So who’s responsible for this reputation. Carol Deppe lists the qualities of the tremendous tuber which include a wide range of micronutrients; a whole bunch of calories that we really do need to survive, and a surprisingly high level of protein – potentially 10%. The first early potato is both annual landmark – like the celandine on the canal today – and completely delicious. Just to add to the joy; eating it with butter actually lowers the glycaemic index. What’s not to like? I wrote the other day about the scapegoating of corn because of its abuse by industrial food producers, and the same thing applies to the potato. No-one wants to live on nothing but potatoes, but it’s pre-cooked oven chips, pre-baked baked potatoes (???) and chips fried in cholesterol boosting fats that we should be going after.

The potato is amazingly easy to grow – especially if you grow earlies when there’s no chance of losing them to late blight (Phytophthora infestans). The range of flavours and textures is huge and, if you’ve got space in your garden, there are blight resistant maincrop potatoes that will keep you in calories all winter. In gardening, in diets, and life in general, the aim is balance.

If there’s a guilty party in the exile of the potato from nice peoples’ diets, it’s the scientific high priesthood who decided decades ago that obesity was solely caused by excess consumption of carbohydrates. Then they changed their minds and said that the culprit was fat – which was a wonderful gift to the food industry who discovered that they could hide a pile of sugar in a low fat yoghurt. The constant to and fro of diet orthodoxies left the great general public anxious and perplexed about food altogether, and supported the exponential growth of the diet food industry.

All the while the most sensible food advice of the last fifty years was gifted to us by Michael Pollan with his “eat food, not too much, mostly veg.” – to which I’d add ” – your own home grown, organic and locally sourced veg”. Ultimately, we all need calories and we could, if we wished, get most of our daily allowance from drinking a bottle of wine or two, living exclusively on potatoes or eating a couple of burgers and chips. But turning to an exclusive diet of lettuce would soon make you ill however virtuous it also made you feel.

Sadly we’ve reached a point in human evolution where – because of decades of misbehaviour – we have to be mindful of food once again; seriously mindful. But abandoning the potato because it has a bad reputation will no more save the world than avoiding the cracks in the pavement. When it comes to choosing between rain forest destroying soya flour, corn fed industrial meat and locally produced potatoes for some of your daily protein, there’s a difficult and grown up decision to be made; and this isn’t a simple choice between vegan or vegetarian. The decision needs to embrace economics, politics, international justice as well as personal health – which makes it tricky, but not nearly as tricky as choosing between half a dozen identical industrially produced foods with different labels.

Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth.

Potwell Inn

At the end of the day, and with a little gardening skill, we can grow potatoes easily on the allotment. In our case just a few first earlies as a seasonal treat, because they’re so lovely to eat. We also bake all our own bread, but there’s no way we could grow enough grain to be self-sufficient in flour. What we can do is eat a selection of carb rich roots alongside a huge variety of equally healthy greens, salads, tomatoes and herbs. We’ll never be self-sufficient but why would we need to be? There are many small producers close by who can enrich our diet and whom we can support or barter with. Our lunch today included three types of cheese made on an organic farm within walking distance and tasting as good as any imported types.

When it comes to health hazards, the potato is way down the list behind poverty, unemployment, poor housing, stress and overwork. Maybe thirty years ago we could have tackled these problems sequentially but we’ve left it too late. Food, the economy and politics are the ugly sisters and Cinderella is the earth. The trouble is, this isn’t a fairy tale.

Past reason hunted ….

My mobile frequently sets up reminders of photos taken last year or further back. So after enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather of the past few days this picture from March 2nd 2018 is a stern reminder that despite all signs to the contrary, spring – real spring – pays no attention to meteorologists and their neat labelling.

I get the same feeling listening to the news. The broadcast media seem to have decided, contrary to all common sense, that Covid Winter is now over and we can all sing the national anthem and get back to the good old days. Neither proposition is true., but we’re suckers for good news and we buy it in much the same way that we buy lottery tickets. “Hush”, we say to our cautious inner voices and hand over our fivers; so summoning my best schadenfreude, I will comfort the allotmenteers who lose their tender plants to a late frost because we’ve all done it. Shakespeare is such a good judge of character and I remind myself that falling for my own delusions is – ‘th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’; or, as a kindly funeral director said to a friend who almost slipped into an open grave and had to be grabbed by the arm while he was saying the commendation – “wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!” Both spring and normal life will come in their own time, and meanwhile we are best advised to take reasonable precautions in both. For us today that meant feeling deeply uncomfortable in a long queue at the garden centre and then putting protective screens and fleece over all those plants that need shelter from the next three days of cold East winds.

Windscreens can be a bit complicated. We’re lucky on our plot that we’re protected from the prevailing wind by a line of tall leylandii trees. For east and northeast winds there’s no protection at all and so we’ve got a collection of nets, screens and meshes that can be pressed into service. Counterintuitively, solid screens can be less helpful than those that just slow the wind down. In extreme gusts, solid screens can crash down and crush the plants they’re supposed to be protecting. They can also create damaging eddies – think of a wave curling over a breakwater and crashing downwards on the sand, so mesh is often more effective. Screens offer protection to about four times their height, and in some situations where prevailing winds frequently cause damage, it might be better to think about a hedge. We’ll see whether today’s efforts help us. Last year’s late frost decimated potato haulms all over the allotments but we covered ours with fleece cloches and although some leaves touching the fleece were damaged, the crop was saved. At this time of the year the weather forecasts are the most important part of our daily plans.

The good news was that I managed to get two more 250 litre (50 gallon) water butts to bring our total storage up to 1750 litres. People may think we’re mad, but the time to prepare for a drought is when it’s raining. We’ll harvest water from the row of compost bins and possibly from the polytunnel roof as well. I have a cunning plan to use a bilge pump to fill our watering cans from the stored water. The barrels are going to be half buried in the ground to line up with the gutters. The only certainty during this oncoming and accelerating climate crisis is that weather is going to become more extreme and so we need to equip ourselves for extreme cold, long periods of drought, and ever more damaging storms.

Of course, if we do nothing to end our abuse of the earth, then there will be no effective precautions against collapse, so we don’t just need to store water and build fences, we need to minimise the lifestyles and excessive consumption that are causing it.

I do know – before anyone (Rose) points it out – that Shakespeare’s sonnet, (129) which I’m abusing just a bit is not about gardening, but lust. However at my age, gardening does very nicely most of the time, thank you.

Early blight?

Yesterday we were woken at 6.30am by the kind of groaning and grinding noises that you just know are not being generated by migrating birds or horny foxes. We’re slowly but relentlessly being gentrified here. In the past five years there has barely been a day that wasn’t accompanied by pile drivers, heavy equipment, jackhammers, scaffolders and speculators, who aren’t noisy but then, neither are covid viruses. We welcome our new neighbours, mostly wealthy absentee buy to let landlords who have slowly but surely blotted out every glimpse of the surrounding hills with their babel towers. The arrival of the cranes is the first clue we get as to the eventual height of their monstrous invasion. We protest to the planners, but these companies have big budgets and the legal artillery to beat down any local authority that dares to reject their advances. We are bombarded with emailed sweeteners that promise much but never deliver because they can wriggle out of their commitment to community infrastructure by paying a pitifully small sum into the cash strapped council’s account – on the grounds that they can’t make a big enough profit if they actually build all those promised schools, surgeries and community centres.

By way of absolute contrast see this –

This is our allotment site. To the left you can see the approaching armies of moloch. They would have us believe that their palaces of assisted community living for the wealthy are the way forward for a modern progressive city but I’m not even remotely convinced. These new buildings are bonded warehouses for etiolated souls.

the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

Yesterday also – but on the allotments – we experienced the glorious possibilities of The Commons. Anticipating the onset of spring by one day, and tempted by the glorious sunshine, the allotmenteers piled on to the site with spades and forks, picnics and children. Even the groaning of the cranes and the sirens of passing ambulances were unable to diminish the sounds of children doing something so vanishingly rare these days that I could see the moment being celebrated in a memoir many years down the line.

They were playing;

  1. Playing tag
  2. Making patterns with stones
  3. investigating ponds
  4. looking for frogspawn
  5. Making mud pies
  6. building dens
  7. building swings in a tree
  8. meeting school friends
  9. helping parents on allotments
  10. wheelbarrowing woodchip and leaves
  11. watching the grownups gardening
  12. learning how to thrive as humans
  13. even sowing a few seeds in their own garden patch

Many of the new allotmenteers live locally, often in gardenless flats, and know one another through their children at local primary schools – so they’re friends already and bring those friendships along to the site. Many of them are in front line occupations and their children are attending school in any case, but other parents have grabbed the opportunity offered by furlough to offer their children a much broader curriculum than barebones literacy and numeracy; introducing them to food production, natural history and getting to know a wider range of adults and our very different cultures than they would ever meet at school.

The allotmenteers represent the broadest spectrum of humans you could imagine. Just by walking down one footpath they might meet a lead trainer in gender diversity, a retired professor of French history, a retired vicar, several ex teachers, a professional musician, two nurses and a GP; male, female, straight gay and ‘haven’t a clue mate!” Not so long ago we had the retired director of the National Botanical Gardens of Wales. They might meet a Russian gardener, or someone from one of half a dozen Eastern European countries, several Afro Caribbeans who were born here or who’ve lived in Bath for longer than the vast majority of us; and an Indian national who’s travelled all over. Some of us are probably very well off and others not so, but we don’t worry to much about our differences and focus on what unites us, which is the love of gardening. It’s not perfect but it’s manageable.

During the afternoon, a fascinating pattern of distributed parenting developed where, without any obvious organisation (and certainly without a rota), responsibility for the children passed from adult to adult. The gates were locked by common consent and we all felt empowered to shoo them off if they were in danger of causing damage, without fear of reprisals from their mums and dads. When lockdown first started the whole site was tenanted very quickly and I think some of the younger ones worried that the old guard would not make them welcome. Eight months on and the integration of new members has been a blessing – they soon worked out that old age isn’t catching! The addition of children’s voices to the other wild sounds cheers everyone up.

When we – rather too easily – suggest that contact with nature is good for us, I’d suggest that the allotment offers a lot more to combat loneliness, isolation and poor mental health than any one off visit to a nature reserve. We are the new commons. The one place left that can give us access to a bit of shared land at an affordable rent; where a sense of community thrives organically rather than being organised by a committee of local councillors and property developers. For eighty quid a year we get not just our own fresh, organic produce; we get fresh air, exercise and access to a whole community of new friends. What you pay for is good, but what comes for free is priceless.

The penthouse flats in the riverside development cost over a million pounds. You can see the allotments from their balconies except it’s so windy up there you rarely see anyone using them. The roof garden is similarly empty for the same reason.

We don’t need any more unaffordable homes. We need allotments – lots of them – and soon; because they don’t just grow vegetables, they grow thriving human communities and happy human beings; and you can’t put a price on that – just a value.

Our improvised second stage seedling care – central heating and south facing window supplemented by a studio lamp with a daylight LED bulb.