Taking stock?

img_4859I think I might be a bit of a perfectionist. I had three hours on the allotment this morning while Madame cultured the cold I was good enough to share with her last week, and so I took this photo of the bed I dug today so I could show her when I got back to the flat. But what do I see when I put it on the screen? Any sensible person might have paid attention to the neat bed and its readiness for planting up in the spring. All I could see was the tiny bit of couch root at the bottom left hand corner that I’d managed to overlook. Pefectionism is a blight and it’s often accompanied by being unable to choose between several almost identical course of action.  Should I drive the pegs for the boards into the paths or the beds?  There’s much to be said for either course of action and I’ve wasted hours wondering about it.

Madame takes a more laid-back view of things and is quite happy to snooze on the little patio I made, while I pace up and down worrying.  Today I made up my mind I was going to do something about it.  I’d rather be like Terry up at the top, who spends as much time sitting in his shed drinking coffee as he does actually doing things. img_3327In fact our shed has turned out to be a bit of a disappointment. Since it got so full of – things – it’s impossible even to step into it, but I made a flask of tea and resolved that I would take a break now and again just to contemplate the fruits of our labours and dream of next season. Three hours later Madame rang me on the mobile and asked if I’d enjoyed the flask.  Well actually I’d completely forgotten about it and then I felt embarassed at being so lame about taking a break so I put the tools away, since I’d finished all I wanted to do, and perched on a kneeler drinking the tea in a penetrating wind and feeling that I ought to be experiencing a lot more pleasure than I was actually having. I seem to lack the zen like gift of contemplation that seizes nearly everyone else on the site.  So then I picked leeks, parsley and Brussels sprouts for supper tonight and came back to the flat.

I mentioned a few days ago how sometimes trying to be as self-sufficient as possible can become a burden, but to be honest the real burden is beating yourself up over things that don’t matter all that much. Often, when I’m in that frame of mind I make stock.  It may sound weird but there’s something very comforting in making the ultimate comfort food. The fridge feels empty if I haven’t got a couple of pints of home made chicken stock ready to add its pixie dust to the everyday. Chicken soup is – like the joke – an antibiotic for all faiths and none.  It’s hard to imagine not feeling better after a bowl of it. Today I was using up the remains of the last stock chicken to make a chicken and leek pie sauced in a velouté enriched by stock and cream.  Yes they ought to make it illegal but they haven’t yet so tonight Madame will be raised from her lethargy and will feel immediately better.

Kefir – the easiest expensive food to make

This won’t take a moment. Here at the Potwell Inn we make kefir most days and using locally produced organic cows milk it costs about £1.30 a litre and takes 24 hours, although you can leave it longer it gets a bit sharper. We got the grains from our son who got them in turn from a dedicated fermenter friend. With a bit of effort almost anyone could find a source of grains – like the ones in the first photo – which are also called a SCOBY (symbiotic culture of bacteria and yeast). It’s not the same as yoghurt. In keeping with our commitment to no-faff cooking (and no-dig gardening) we never take its temperature, just shove it on the back of the stove when we top it up, so let’s say it stays at about 20C all day and then that night it goes into the fridge. During the day it may well separate and look like “gone off” milk and if that offends you give it a shake. When it goes into the fridge it thickens up overnight and at breakfast time we strain it in a chinoise – but any sieve will do – and then top the grains up with milk straight from the fridge. I quite like drinking it straight, I like the sharp slightly fizzy taste, but you can whzz it up as a smoothie with fruit or spinach or whatever. As the grains get more plentiful you can give the excess to a friend.  Good eating!

Midwinter – but spring peeps out.

We went for a walk today – along the river Avon which runs past the flat and then up the Kennet and Avon Canal as far as Sydney Gardens, The gardens are the only remaining eighteenth-century pleasure gardens in the country.  It was a grey day with the sun threatening but never actually coming out. The river was calm but flowing briskly enough to keep us away from the edge when we were passed by cyclists. As we were walking we were discussing the possibility of building a hotbed on the allotment to get an advantage in the spring when suddenly within a few yards we came upon hazel catkins  – Corylus avellana, and Butterbur – Petasites hybrida .  A humbling reminder that nature needs our reverence much more than she needs our assistance.

A pugnacious little visitor keeps me company.

img_4848OK it’s a terrible photo, but it was barely above freezing and although the robin isn’t shy, it’s not feeding from my hand yet. This is one of those drrrr photos – if only because there can’t be a gardener anywhere in the UK whose heart hasn’t been warmed by this little bird.  I say ‘in the UK’ carefully because we once had a hilarious conversation with a man in Central Park New York, when we asked him what was the name of the thrush- sized bird with a red breast which was there in large numbers.  When he said that it was a robin we got into one of those moments of mutual incomprehension that often spring up when two distant cultures share a language. So, for any North American readers out there, I’m talking about the British Robin which is about 1/3 the size of its Central Park namesake.

Our robin shows up almost every day and is very bold, darting in to search for food wherever there is uncovered or disturbed earth. It occupies a special place in the order of things because it’s as wild as any bird and yet its boldness encourages us to think of it as being tame – or at least tameable – and living in a fragile relationship with us gardeners. In fact it’s a bold little opportunist, a chancer who will sit three feet away and sing a song that always seems tinged with sadness.  If there’s a minor key for birdsong then the Robin has mastered it, each phrase of the song ending with a question mark, like a young person’s ‘upspeak’. There are three birds that the Potwell Inn must have.  The Blackbird must sing on summer evenings and at dawn.  The House Sparrow will chirp away tunelessly around the yard at the back, and the Robin will sing its song, like ice in a glass, out there where the allotment joins the orchard. The very thought puts me in a good mood.

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So yesterday I set out with far too many layers of midwinter clothing to finish the last (bar two) of the paths on our original plot. We’ve had nights of frost, and being at the bottom of the sloping site our ground gets frozen very easily. Allotments are rarely in a perfect place, and half of our two plots accumulate cold air beyond the reach of the winter sun which, for several months never rises above the dense row of Leylandii at the bottom. So the frost is the bad news, but on the plus side we’re completly sheltered from the South Westerlies, our predominant winds which bring gales every year and regularly rake the sunnier plots at the top of the slope, even overturning sheds and sending cloches tumbling across the site. Better still, being at the bottom of the hill gives us a degree of protection from the North and East.

Our biggest logistical challenge, building the new beds, is working around the standing crops, in this instance of leeks and  Swiss chard in order to get the boards in place. Some of them will have to be sacrificed, but they were planted last year with the new paths in mind and I don’t think we’ll be wasting too many.

And so the sun shone and despite the hard ground I made two long slits in the ground to take the boards and screwed them into place.  After a couple of hours of digging and measuring interspersed with periods of watching the Robin I came back to the flat and felt I’d made a stand against the winter.

Dig for Victory?

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I’m referring to the title of Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is a compilation of his articles for the Daily Telegraph – (well nobody’s perfect). He’s both a gardener and a plant ecologist, but above all he’s a proper scientist who applies his properly scientific scepticism to many of the assumptions that guide public policy towards land use. He’s on our side.  Here’s a quote from his book (Page 167):

During the Second World War ‘Dig for Victory’ campaign, allotments and gardens provided around 10 per cent of food consumed in the UK, despite covering less than 1 per cent of the area of arable cultivation. Recent research also shows that gardens and allotments produce yields of fruit and vegetables four to eleven times higher than conventional agricultural crops.

There’s much worthwhile reading in his books, but let’s focus on that figure for a moment. The article from which the quotation is taken is focusing on the quality of allotment soil, but the takeaway point for me is the potential contribution that small gardens and allotments can make to rescuing the environment from the destruction being wrought by industrialised extractive farming whilst simultaneously providing a secure food supply. If you’ve ever driven down through France you’ll have seen the endless convoys of heavy freight lorries bringing crops up from Spain, grown by virtual slave labour under a sea of plastic.

Two points arise from this that I think are worth some serious thought. Firstly, we allotmenteers would probably bridle at the thought that we are using land intensively, but the fact is we are doing just that, and the only difference between us and the arable strip-miners is the way we go about it. The increased yield we obtain is only possible so long as we replace what we have taken from the soil or, better still, add more until the soil positively sings with vitality.

The inevitable conflict of world views will always set the organic allotmenteers and gardeners against the non organic approaches. There’s abundant evidence that organic methods are a win-win for those of us who eat our own produce and for the environment too.  If you’ve ever tried to read the small print on a bottle of proprietry insecticide, you’ll know that you need a magnifying glass and a handbook to guide you through the process. What’s the difference between pyrethrum and pyrethroids and are they equally safe?  How, when you get to the allotment, are you going to measure the exact dilution of some chemical or other when all you’ve got is a watering can or a jug graduated in fluid ounces? and where exactly are you going to rinse the containers and discard the washings? Human nature being what it is, it’s overwhelmingly likely that many people are getting the dose rates wrong and ignoring the tiny print warnings on the packaging, and it’s unfair to blame the non organic gardeners who probably lament the loss of wildlife and the pollution of watercourses as much as we organic allotmenteers do.

When we were at art school in the seventies we lived in a rented eighteenth century farm cottage with a large garden front and rear.  We grew one of our best ever vegetable patches there, in deep soil that was black with generations of night soil and constant cultivation. When we took it on it was very neglected but all we needed to do was scrape the top off and compost it while we reaped the reward of the previous generations.  Just across the fields there was one of the most magnificent cottage gardens we’d ever seen. Mr Maggs, the gardener lived alone and the washing line was usually populated like a Himalayan prayer flag with all his snuff stained handkerchiefs. After spending months peering over the wall I asked him one day “How do you get these wonderful results?” His answer was instantaneous – “DDT” he said.

So that’s one issue we need to take seriously.  When you grow intensively, as we do, it brings responsibilities and temptations and sometimes we get it wrong.  But the second issue is one that’s looming just around the corner in the UK. We have a housing crisis and the Local Authorities have no money.  Where do we think they’re going to come looking for land when the crisis boils over?  Our allotments are easy pickings for cash strapped local authorities, and allotmenteers are about as easy to organise as cats.  We’re fiercely independent and resistant to groups and campaigns, and when they come looking for land they’ll be armed with arguments that make us look and feel bad.  Why should we indulge ourselves at the expense of the homeless.  Well the answer to that is “because you sold off all the decent land to property developers who built buy-to-lets and cleaned up, and now you’re expecting us to solve the problem.

We simply have to start building the case for allotments and gardens from a wider perspective than personal satsfaction.  Yes it keeps us fit and healthy into old age, yes it’s vital to biodiversity, especially in cities. Yes it make a contribution to food security and yes it’s a major vehicle for carbon capture. That’s just four reasons and there are many more. But if we don’t start to organise and make our case we’ll be a pushover and then everyone will suffer.

At last – the cunning plan

2019 allotment planOr at least as much of it as I could force on to a PDF and then convert to a JPEG. It’s harder and slower than you’d think. I suppose it would have made more sense to do the plan before the seed order but we had a clear idea of what we wanted to grow and – as always happens – it’s only when you start the detailed planning as to where exactly things are going to go, that you realize you just need a few more square metres. But we don’t have a few more square metres and so it’s going to be a very tight fit.  There’s another challenge, inasmuch as some crops come out in time to get a second crop in afterwards, but the very thought of trying to plan successions that way (although the software allows it) –  makes my head spin.

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All this planning is attributable to my being felled by a cold and kept indoors with only my protestant work ethic for company. Oh and miserable weather just about topped it. But after three or four days, the streaming eyes, the sneezing and the hacking cough have subsided a bit and we were able to go up to the allotment clutching the print-off in order to see just how difficult the plan is going to be.  It’s now true midwinter and growth has slowed almost to nothing among the plants.  It’s as if everything is taking a break and waiting for a sign to wake up again.

But one group of residents has not stopped for a moment this winter. The compost heap has become a wormery without any effort at all on our part. With plant growth at a standstill the only thing going on to the compost heap has been our household green waste – peelings, eggshells, cardboard, coffee grounds and leaf tea all go on every couple of days but the heap never grows.  Down at the bottom of the heap the magic has happened and when I separate the two layers I’m confident we’ll have excellent compost.  Lifting up the old carpet and the cardboard on top reveals an astonishing amount of worm activity. I’ll need to be careful when the heap is turned into its new home. The worms have found their own way into the heap and they are really thriving, so I’d quite like to start a proper wormery, but what would be the point when the system is working so well without any interference from me?

Now the new raised beds are almost finished there’s still a bit of old-fashioned digging to do in order to remove the last of the bindweed and couch before we forsake digging altogether and rely on our friends the worms to do the work for us as they take the mulch down into the ground. It’s a win-win situation, but I’m not sure the summer is going to be all about lounging around drinking Pimms.  It’s going to be just as hard work to source and produce the quantity (about 10 cubic metres) of compost we’ll need to run the no-dig system really well. And there in the middle of the plan are the three new compost bins that will be the engine of our productivity – when I finally get around to building them.

Today’s special

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There used to be  – may well still be – a building supply company down near the fruit and veg market in Bristol. The company was run by the friend of a friend, and they were very particular that they were “a specialist building supplier”  That’s to say although you could buy all manner of obscure and popular things on the builder’s mind, you could not buy sand and cement and other bulk supplies. This led to a good deal of good-humoured banter with customers who would deliberately request these unavailable items just for the fun of a firm but polite refusal – “I’m sorry sir, but we are a specialist building supplier”.

The reason I recall this is that this morning I’m pondering how best to avoid disappointing people who come to the Potwell Inn looking for something we don’t, (or can’t) supply. I suppose in the great Wild West of the blogosphere pretty well anything goes and, after all, a like is a like and a visitor is a visitor so why worry?  But I do worry.

At the top of the page is a carefully considered statement – it says: “A sceptic’s take on being human” . So it’s not a guide to being human in any sense not least because I’m a sceptic and I can’t buy into big systems and I’d be pretty crap at guiding anyone anywhere. But it also suggests that being human is a deeply puzzling business that isn’t just a given, like breathing. The Potwell Inn isn’t the destination but a place I can go to and feel a bit human.  It’s a left luggage office for memories, ideas, experiences and overheard conversations that people can come to to search for something they think they might have lost even though they can’t exactly name it.

And so in this restless business of being or becoming human there are some things I’ve discovered that seem to help. Firstly and above all there’s people, there’s eating and cooking, there’s growing things on the allotment and are books and poetry and the visual arts and there’s French Nouvelle Vague films and botany – and so the list goes on.  But this isn’t a blog about any of those things on the list although it includes them all. So I don’t do recipes or advocate any one particular way of running an allotment I don’t promote vegetarianism, veganism, paleo diets or anything lke that.  I just ramble on about stuff I’ve found that I like and stuff that makes me wonder why I don’t like.

I once worked for a tree man, a forester called Pat McGlyn. Knowing next to nothing about forestry I would help him out in all sorts of totally unskilled ways like directing traffic and dragging tree limbs around.  He was a pretty terrifying character -he had lost an eye blowing up tree roots, and in extremis when he was collecting a bad debt he would remove the glass one leaving a deep and horrifying hole there.  He usually got his money! We lost touch for  couple of decades and then one day he unexpectedly turned up at the door, obviously suffering from some sort of dementia. He said – “I know I know you but I can’t remember your name”. He’d parked his old Volvo outside and he was very proud of the fact that it was full from floor to ceiling with discarded artificial limbs which he was going to send to some war-torn corner of the Balkans where he thought they would be useful. We had several cups of coffee and talked about the various friendship groups he’d set up in troubled parts of the world. He drove away and I never saw him again. Being human comes in all sorts, shapes and sizes and Pat was uncompromisingly human.

On my last day working with him we stopped off for a pint on the way home somewhere near Castle Combe.  The pub was closing down for good that night, and he looked at the long mahogany bar and stroked it and pondered aloud about its beauty, the trees that had provided the timber for it and the history and all the conversations it had been a silent party to over the years. That old bar has become the bar at the Potwell Inn. We serve anybody here – fancy today’s special?  Game terrine, piccallili and sourdough bread and butter, every bit of it prepared in our kitchen and grown on the allotment.

The scent of Seville oranges fills the Potwell Inn kitchen.

A somewhat enforced day indoors due to the onset of a miserable cold this morning. Not man-flu, I hasten to say, but something much worse.  I’m waiting bravely for the black pustules and the final tremors.  Meanwhile, Madame had other ideas and went early to the shops to get some paracetamol for me and came back with 5Kg of Seville oranges.  By my estimate that’s enough to make nearly 40 jars, I protested, but I was not spared making the first ten pounds. The thought that I might be able to eat home made marmalade in the morning after several months of abstinence due to my not bothering to open a storage crate and read the labels, put steel in my backbone, and I soldiered on in my finest passive-aggressive manner, sneezing whenever she came near.

The oranges were packed in 1.5Kg nets which, needless to say, were made of plastic – as were all of the labels.  We haven’t done nearly enough to address the needless packaging in supermarkets. When we do have to buy veg we always buy them loose, and there’s no reason on earth why that shouldn’t apply to Seville oranges. For a start they’d be cheaper.

It’s only a minor faff, making marmalade.  Most of the work is in prepping the oranges which have a great number of pips that need to be separated out and cooked in a muslin bag because apparently they’ve got most of the pectin. Then there’s cutting up the peel. Madame and I are like Jack Sprat and his wife, in that I prefer my marmalade lumpy with thick chunks of peel whereas she prefers the peel cut very thin, and that demands a sharp knife, infinite patience and a lot of time, all of which I naturally possess in abundance.  Normally!

It’s surprising how cutting peel blunts a kitchen knife and I needed to stop and sharpen it several times. But chopping, slicing and dicing are one of those unsung kitchen pleasures that you never really understand until you’ve got the right tools.  I know I’m supposed to be lusting after some hand forged damascus steel  artisan produced (delete superlatives where necessary) knife; but having borrowed lots of these small objects of desire off my chef sons, I’ve settled on relatively inexpensive knives from Ikea at about a third the cost but which seem indistinguishable from their rich relatives.

Marmalade takes an age to make because the peel and pulp need cooking slowly to soften them before the sugar goes in, but in addition, there was the prospect of several days of harsh frost imminent, according to the weather forcast. We’ve got quite a lot growing on the allotment ready for an early start when spring gets here, and although most of them, the broad beans for instance, will withstand pretty cold weather they will be set back if they’re left exposed in a scything north-easterly for any length of time. We’ve also got onions, garlic, shallots and various beets above ground.  Covering them with fleece has its drawbacks too – although sunlight does get through, it’s much diminished and so we’re left with trying to second guess the least-worst outcome. Three nights at -3C in the offing persuaded us that fleecing as much as possible would help rather than hinder and so in a break from marmalade making we went up and got everything we could tucked in against the cold.

Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn there was a meal to be cooked (more Christmas week leftovers – will it ever end?) and bread to be baked, and so it was 11.00pm before the marmalade was safely sealed in its jars, the washing up was finished and the sourdough kneaded for its overnight rise.  When I woke this morning at six I could see the rime on the car windscreens outside the flat and I was glad we’d gone to all that trouble yesterday.

img_4840But a familiar feeling of being chained to the process came over me. Feeding ourselves as much as we can is a complete joy, but it comes with timetables and responsibilities that can’t be put off until a more convenient time. Bread making, potting, allotmentering and above all parenting all come with the capacity to demand time and energy you don’t feel you possess at that moment. Over thirty years ago, while I was training, we had a memorable session with a teacher called Father Edmund Wheat who was part of the Kelham College community.  He said to us that we probably thought we should be out there doing amazing things all the time and were just discovering that what we were actually doing was far more mundane.  He said to us – “Always remember that availability is an ascetic discipline.”

I feel better already!

Thank you so much!

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I was wandering around the Potwell Inn this morning, surveying the seasonal carnage, when I glimpsed into the front hall and saw a pile of letters there – thirty or forty of them.  The thing is, no-one opens the front door. It’s very gloomy, the doors are rotten and the hinges are rusted through and haven’t been used in years, –  so the front hall is a sort of improvised storage area full of junk and incomprehensible stuff with a letter box at the back marked “spam”.   Who on earth looks in letterboxes marked “spam”?  Anyway, my curiosity got the better of me this morning and I looked, and among some fairly random stuff about footballers I’ve never heard of I found a number of very supportive and enthusiastic comments on the Potwell Inn.  What a nice surprise! It seems that WordPress are so keen to preserve my sanity that they’ve been sweeping any general comments – ie not attached to a specific posting – into the spam filter.

So thanks to all those who’ve been so positive, I really appreciate it. There were also one or two questions about technical issues that I wouldn’t dare try to answer – when I get stuck I just go onlne, there’s mountains of help out there.  The visual format is one of the “off the shelf” ones that comes with the package and I took the photo of my son walking with my grandson 2 years ago – lucky shot.  Yes this is a WordPress hosted site – basic level but not free. I’m computer literate but the least glimpse of code sends me looking for the smelling salts!

As to “why Potwell Inn?” Please don’t run  away with the idea that there must have been anything so advanced as planning or focus groups (eeoogh).  I must be the only human being on earth to be inspired and radicalised at the age of 14 by an Edwardian (1910) comic novel,  so I’ve spent the rest of my life torn between looking for it and building it for myself. The reason for turning it into a blog was that the journalling software I’d been using daily for three years was upgraded without warning so that the various clapped out old machines here at the Inn wouldn’t talk to one another any more. When I looked around for an alternative I had a moment of inspiration and thought – “why not make it into a blog – there’s nothing in it I couldn’t share ? ” So the Potwell Inn became a virtual place that I already felt comfortable in.

The biggest challenge for writing a blog was the discipline to keep going – a habit which I’d already got, and more importantly, the capacity to treat setbacks, indifference and critical remarks as par for the course and I’ve had plenty of experience of that!  This is a tiny enterprise with a handful or so of regular supporters (I’m old so I don’t need to bull it up!) – so I’d be delighted if anyone wanted to share web the address with anyone they thought might enjoy it. At the moment I’m more likely to be hit by a lump of the Mars Lander than I am to get even 100 supporters.

But above all: Happy 2019 and, once again,  thank you so much.

First pickings of 2019!

Of course it’s cheating because these are the winter pickings of last season’s sowings, but it was nice to be able to take these off on the first day of the new year.  We took the last of the beetroot partly because I was reconfiguring the patch it was growing in as a raised bed this morning, but also because the weather forecast is predicting some severe weather with temperatures some way below freezing. There’s even some suggestion that this winter might exceed last winter in severity, so we dug these and they’re cooked already.

The other green vegetable aside from the savoys which are doing well this year is the cima di rapa – turnip tops with a college education. We read about them in the late summer and sowed a few just to see what they were like.  The leaves, eaten raw,  are quite mild with just a hint of horseradish like heat.  They’re most often used in a pasta dish and are apparently much liked in Italy but sadly Anna del Conte, one of my favourite writers says she doesn’t like them at all.  Still, we mustn’t be slaves to fashion. It’s rermarkable that they’ve grown steadily through the diminishing days and are just coming into flower. Once they’ve done that they don’t last long before breaking into flower.

The other main job of the day was covering any growing crops with fleece to stop them from checking when the temperature goes down to -3 or -4C.