It was a day for catching up with old friends and big hugs for the family, so we were up at the plot early to check that the greenhouse, the hot bed and the coldframes were ready for another unseasonably hot day. Our children may not appreciate the analogy but seeing the sun shining on the allotment, watching seedlings develop and feeling the wamth of the earth is not a million miles away from the sheer pleasure of being loved – for no discernable reason – by your children and grandchildren. Our youngest said to us once, after a day out with his first nephew, “It’s really strange the way they look at you, decide you’re OK and just love you”.
So that was today really. Lunch at Rosemarino’s our favourite Italian café/restaurant in Bristol where our youngest once worked as a chef and with old friends we’ve known for years and travelled together with. I had a lovely lamb ragu with pasta and we shared a bottle of cheap Italian white while we ate and talked. Later, after crossing the city, big hugs and cuddles with the grandchildren and their Aussie Mum who’s brought so much to our expanding family. Oh and the fact that everything just seems to be working. Pride, I know, comes before a fall – but stuff it – the Potwell Inn is the place to be – “point” as Whacker Allan my old French teacher used to say. He was a sadist but he’d lived in Paris which was pretty exciting. Tomorrow the weather turns and we shall be gloomy again but today we are filled with delight.
A word of reproach from carolee last night for re-using a photo from the beginning of February, and so – hot from the egg boxes – here are the potatoes we’re chitting (to the annoyance of the management company) under the window on the landing outside the flat. It’s just that the conditions are perfect for them there, cool and light, which means they don’t develop unmanageably long and straggly shoots as they search for the sun. Last year we stacked them in old mushroom boxes and although they all planted out successfully some of the shoots had got a bit out of control. Short, stubby and vigorous is the aim.
I know many people say it’s not worth growing potatoes because they’re so cheap in the shops, but the market – especially for new potatoes – is shrinking because so many people are cutting down on carbohydrates in the hope of living for ever, and that means they may not be so available in the future especially if imported varieties fall foul of import tarriffs.
But there’s much more to it than price. This year we’re growing some Arran Pilots for no better reason than they were what my parents and my Grandfather always grew. They’re by no means the best or the easiest variety to grow but I can’t get out of my memory of the exquisite flavour of the potatoes dug and taken straight to the kitchen where you could peel them with the flat of your thumb and eat them with butter. OK so that’s two major dietary transgressions on one plate, but hey, none of us is going to live forever really!
So this year we’re growing the Arran Pilots, Jazzy and Red Duke of York as first earlies, although the last of the three will develop into a brilliant large roasting potato if left in the ground. Then we’ve got Pink Fir Apple which make the best potato salad ever, no arguments and will also sit in the ground getting bigger. Finally there are Sarpo Mira maincrops which, being blight resistant, worked very well for us last season when we tried them for the first time. We grew them alongside Desiree and although the Desiree did better in the drought conditions, the flavour and texture of the Sarpos gave them the edge.
The potato bed will see the first major no-dig experiment because we’ve left it undug from last season – just cleared of weeds and mulched with a thick layer of compost topped with plastic sheeting. The plan is to plant them in holes and cover them with yet more compost and some heavy duty fleece to protect them from any late frosts. It’s a risk, but until we’ve tried it we won’t know whether the technique is worth pursuing. But suddenly the season seems to have turned and we’ve moved in a breath from preparation to the nurturing stage. Clearly there’s still loads of opportunity for the weather to bowl us some googlies, after all – until Friday it’s still late winter. But the smell of the earth is right, the birds are singing and the Potwell Inn is buzzing with energy!
One of my earliest memories is of potato planting on Easter weekend. Traditionally, in the UK potatoes would be planted on Good Friday and, as I remember it, the intoxicating smell of freshly dug earth would follow me all the way as I walked a couple of miles down to my mate Eddy’s house. Bear in mind, of course, that I’m thinking of a time 60 years ago when growing vegetables was an almost universal preoccupation among what Channel Four News likes to describe as “ordinary people” – I prefer a less patronising way of describing the vast majority of us. There are – or were- things that were done with no real idea why, apart from the fact that they needed to be done and they’d always been done. I think that’s a pretty good definition of culture – the way we do things round here – that’s to say right here in the West Country and not the way someone who lives in a flat in central London might see it. And so horiculture is a subset of culture as a whole and concerns the growing of things where we are.
But memories fade and cultures evolve away from the old preoccupations with putting food on the table and so we’re left with the urge to sow seed but not the accompanying local knowledge inherited from parents and grandparents. Which is a very wordy way of addressing the fact that crowds of allotmenteers on our site have been enjoying the unprecedented sunshine and warm weather this week. Last Easter the garden centres were facing bankruptcy and were only saved by the equally unprecedented hot summer. I wonder if we shouldn’t rather be worried than celebrating this latest evidence of climate change.
The earliest date for Easter – which is the only Christian festival tied to phases of the moon – is March 22nd, and the latest is April 25th. That’s almost 5 weeks, which is a very long time in the spring. Last season we had our last frost at the beginning of May and we would have lost all our tender runner bean plants if we hadn’t kept a large number in reserve. It was a gamble we lost decisively! So our response to the tradition of planting potatoes on Good Friday would need to be “it depends when Good Friday falls”, but the takeaway point is that in this part of the UK the answer has to be not yet! They’re safer being chitted.
It’s so distressing for new allotmenteers to experience the way that after all the winter digging and preparation the weeds appear to come back with renewed vigour, and it’s even worse to lose an entire crop to a late frost. Every year we see newly fledged allotmenteers losing heart and walking away from their plots. You can almost hear the bindweed laughing. I don’t want to make it sound more daunting than it is, but the best gardeners have patience and resilience built in to their DNA. Forget the ‘magical’ chemicals that do more harm than good. There are certain weeds that are desperately hard to eliminate, but resilience, patience and low cunning will see the back of all of them. Find out what they like most and deprive them of it – that’s the way. Often a winter under plastic sheeting or weed control mat will weaken them, but then if we pile on the pressure by hoeing and hand weeding and especially mulching, we can tip the balance in our favour. Better wait a year than waste a crop, and no-one will criticise you for it, in fact your neighbours will probably share their surplus with you in grateful thanks that your plot is no longer exporting noxious weeds on to theirs.
So for all those who are starting out on the adventure – good luck, and if enough of us share our accumulated knowledge, who knows? Maybe our children and grandchildren will know when to plant potatoes.
Something tells me that the reason so much produce gets wasted on allotments is to do with the fear of dirt and bugs. The idea of the perfectly presented vegetable is so engraved in our minds that we forget that such paragons of beauty don’t exist at all in the real world. The other day I was up at the top talking to Terry. He’d just dug up a couple of leeks, Musselburghs, as it happens and they looked pretty much like leeks always do in late February – tatty, dirty and unappetising. Then he whipped out a large knife and in three strokes he cut off the roots and then the top in a deft delta shape. Off came the outer yellow leaves and in ten seconds the ugly duckling became a showbench swan. I silently resolved to get a knife like that, purely for the theatrical effect.
The brassica bed on our plot is looking similarly tatty. Leaves don’t last for ever and often the reason some other people’s brassicas look healthier is that they sensibly remove the outer dying leaves before they fall off and attract slugs. Everyone should try it, especially if there’s a plot inspection due. We’ve borrowed about 50 square metres off our neighbour who’s temporarily indisposed, and yesterday I cut him a savoy cabbage by way of a thank-you. He’d come up for some of his purple sprouting broccoli but the pigeons had got there first. Again on the face of it our small gift wasn’t a great specimen, but a bit of a trim with my penknife made it look as good as anything in the supermarket. It was then I resolved to use up some of the surplus by making a batch of sauerkraut.
And so this morning, as planned, we went up to check things out. Nothing stirring in the hot bed yet, but then we weren’t expecting too much for a few days. However the compost heap had leapt into action after being turned and the worms have all retreated (hopefully) to a place of safety after the temperature had increased to 35C. It’s absolutely true what they say: turning is what keeps the composting process going.
After that discovery while Madame looked after the greenhouse, I cut savoys and an odd red cabbage for the sauerkraut.
Back in the kitchen it didn’t take long to clean and shred the cabbage, salt it and get it into the fermentation jar. By then, of course, I was in full-on cooking mode so off I went on pommes dauphinoise and roasted pork belly on cider using up another pile of our own veg that were unlikely to be used in anything except stock.
Then, back up to the allotment where I was able to dig the very last patch of unused ground. I’m fully committed to no-dig gardening and although it might sound contradictory, I needed to dig this patch to remove the last of the rampant couch and bindweed. However I’m bound to say I love digging and I’ll miss it immensely. When we’d finished we wandered down through the organic allotments towards the pub and we were taken for a rather inspiring guided tour around the community garden. What a lovely day – our pints never tasted better!
After a lifetime of being up at 5.30am we’re now a lot gentler on ourselves, and I generally get up at 7.00. When we were both working full-time, Madame would leave the house at 7.00am and then I would have a couple of hours to think, read and write before the random demands of the day commanded my attention. But now those precious couple of hours have settled into a new routine where I get up and make tea for us both, and then I head for the kitchen or my ‘study’. As long as I supply occasional coffee and stick my head around the door now and again Madame is happy to read while I get on with my thing which is noodling around.
It’s surprising how much time it takes to feed the sourdough starter, check all the seedlings and make sure they’re happy, strain and feed the kefir and, on bread days, knead dough. Then there’s reading and planning and working out what’s needed on the allotment and what we need to eat most urgently.
Allotmenteers live by a rather different set of food rules because – if we’re not going to waste the things we’ve grown – we need to even out supply and demand either by eating more of the vegetable in surplus, or by preserving it in some way against the day when there’s none of it to be had. In late summer we look at the enormous purple sprouting broccoli plants that have occupied their inordinately large patch of ground for an eternity, and wonder why we bother. We’re inundated with all the good things the autumn can give us and we find it hard to fast forward to a day like today when we’re longing to have the first taste.
Although we’ve still got kale, savoy cabbages and red cabbage in the ground they represent last season and the broccoli is a foretaste of new, tender growth. But that leaves the problem of what to do with the laggards of the last season. The answer today is to cut one of the larger savoy cabbages and make sauerkraut. Yes, as Madame pointed out, you normally make it with gigantic summer cabbages that weigh 25lbs and need a whole barrel to themselves; but I don’t see why you shouldn’t make a couple of pounds with a Savoy and see what happens. After all, theoretically, you can ferment anything with enough carbohydrate in it to get the process going. So I’m off to the allotment this morning to check whether the drip watering system in the greenhouse worked earlier on, to take the temperature of the hot bed (they’re like children, you know), and to cut the cabbage and bring it back to the kitchen.
My wonderful cistern watering device needed a tweak first thing because I’d attached the supply strip to the wrong side of the cork and there was too much of it submerged. This hi-tech gadgetry is very demanding! The weather here at the Potwell Inn in beautiful, but difficult for us gardeners because it combines growth inducing warm days with frost at night – a potentially dangerous combination, but yesterday we had our first picnic of the year on the plot. Being at the bottom of the slope we get less direct sun than our neighbours at the top but on the other hand we’re protected from high winds by the same trees that take our sun. The worst problem is that we’re in a frost pocket which demands attention to our earliest crops – we use a lot of fleece. As we left we noticed that the site was busy with allotmenteers but there wasn’t a lot of work going on. It was catchup time – another of the hidden benefits of growing things.
If there’s a downside to allotmenteering (or gardening for that matter) it’s how to get a break during the growing season. I suppose our allotment has the additional problem that all the water is turned off between late October and mid-March, and so we early starters need to make our own provision. Back at the Potwell Inn, we have just under fifty tender capsicum seedlings in the two propagators. Normally I water them once a day with a fine spray of very dilute seaweed growth stimulator, but I thought I’d do an experiment to see if I could use capillary matting attached to a large water source. In its first iteration I passed a wide strip of matting from a small bucket, through the ventilator of the propagator and under the matting inside. A rapid flood occurred because evidently too much water was flowing from the source. So I wondered if the flow rate correlated with the width of the connecting strip, and I halved the width, but that also wicked too much water into the propagator. Quick rumble of the little grey cells and so next I wondered if the amount of wicking that was submerged in the source bucket was the problem. The solution was to shorten the wick and attach it to a wine bottle cork with two drawing pins – as per photo – a very cheap cistern arrangement. That’s been running all day and it’s certainly slowed down the transfer of water to the propagator. If that still proves too much I’ll halve the wick width once again and carry on with the cork cistern – total cost about a pound. The next stage is to work out how large the cistern needs to be for us to have a week away. I should say that the lights are timer controlled to give 12 hours of fairly intense daylight at 24C.
Up at the allotment I spent a couple of hours yesterday reinstating the timed dripper system to water the seedlings in the greenhouse. It took some time last year, researching the available gadgets, to make sure the one we bought would function at the very low pressure provided by the water butts. This battery operated model has been reliable for a whole season, and works on a reasonably small head of water. Given that there’s no clean water available on the site for some weeks yet, I was so pleased when I rigged up a temporary tap from the water butts to find fresh clean rainwater – 1000 litres of it – flowing reliably through the system. Madame had taken a look at the rainwater in the trough but someone appeared to have washed a paintrush in it so it had a nasty blueish hue and was almost certainly contaminated with anti-fungal chemicals.
The other independent watering system we’ve used is soaker hose which we installed under the tomatoes last season and which worked very effectively over the first 2/3 of its length. That’s a point worth noticing, the hose we used was years old and had become kinked. It would probably have worked under mains pressure, but trickle fed from a water butt wasn’t working at all.
I haven’t photographed the watering can but that became the mainstay of the watering regime during the hot weather last season.
None of the hoses – large or small – last forever, and under intense heat and sunlight most of the plastic hoses in the dripper and soaker hose systems had degraded and become stiff and liable to disconnect themselves. I’d recommend changing them annually if you want complete reliability. Allotmenteering is incredibly rewarding but even the most dedicated of us need to factor in a degree of resilience against holidays or unanticipated absences, and that can’t safely be done at the last minute. With climate change well and truly in charge we really have no idea what climatic conditions we’re facing season by season. Half of my time this winter has been spent mitigating potental excess rainfall and now I’m fully absorbed in planning for drought and heat. Ah well, life’s rich tapestry in the 21st century but you’d think there might be a bit more action at the top. We’re not going to save the world with 1000 litres of water and a bit of clapped out soaker hose!
It’s exactly a year since Anticyclone Hartmut scythed across the UK and earned itself the dodgy title ‘The Beast from the East’, a name I always loathed as it just fed into the usual nonsense about everything bad being the fault of the foreigners. It’s weather, get over it!
If there is a lesson to be learned from last year’s weather it’s that climate change is accelerating and unless the governments of the world get serious about it we’re all going to be in terrible trouble. What with climate change, ecological destruction, pollution and extractive farming, there’s enough trouble to tax the abilities of the most gifted politicians; but the problem here in the UK is that our politicians are not remotely gifted, our universities are deeply in hock to the principal environmental offenders and half the population still think that Dunkirk was an historic victory. I loved this quote from the Irish President in today’s paper –
If we were coal miners we’d be up to our waists in dead canaries
Unfortunately our own government seems to be entirely preoccupied with searching for unicorns and so almost no thought is being applied to what, in the long run, are the really important problems. Last night on the TV news we heard from people who are already stockpiling food in case we crash out of Europe. I felt a bit bewildered by their choices of food to stockpile – mainly processed food like baked beans and so on. Then it occurred to me that we at the Potwell Inn are doing exactly the same but from a different angle. If there’s been any urgency about getting the allotment in perfect condition for the coming season it’s got a large element of the same instinct to make provision for the future. My best friend’s mum always stockpiled flour and potatoes in the winter because she was a Scotswoman who knew from a lifetime’s experience that she could feed her family of five with those stores, plus the produce from the garden. My mother, when her Altzheimers got bad, stockpiled spaghetti hoops – largely because of her memories of wartime shortages. And we fret about the allotment which, if things go badly wrong – will at least give us a supply of fresh fruit and vegetables. So day after day we work just a bit too hard and we’re so nearly there. The hotbed is planted up and the greenhouse and coldframes are full. The civil engineering phase is nearly over and tonight we went to the pub for a couple of celebratory pints.
I know where the Potwell Inn can be found, because it’s somewhere around me. It’s what you might call a ‘container’, a fictional construct whose elements are all real. This is all a bit philosophical I know, and as soon as I can I’ll post again and push this one down the queue – BUT – last week I was on the allotment alone, working away at filling several of the new paths with woodchip, a bit of an urgent job because supplies of woodchip are spasmodic and can disappear within a few hours, carted away by any one of about 100 eager allotmenters.
So there I was in a world of my own (The Potwell Inn) when suddenly, walking down the path, came an old friend from years past who had managed to track me down in a way that I dare not describe for fear of all the regulars turning up in a coach one day. How weird is that? Then in the evening a text message from another person I’d been out of touch with – for 30 years at least – appeared on my phone out of the blue. Extraordinarily joyful but it threw me into a tailspin.
I love the freedom of imagination. The Potwell Inn, the bar, the garden, the kitchen and even the distant landscape and weather were – I always thought – mine to play with: like an imaginary friend in whom I could invest my deepest feelings. I hadn’t factored in the obvious fact that sharing involves risk. The moment I press the ‘publish’ button my private world belongs not just to me but to the people who read it, who relate to it and are kind enough to want to share my space. All this is not simply some dry technical stuff about growing stuff and cooking it. It’s about what really matters to me and what I believe should matter to everyone else as well. Without our Potwell Inns we shrivel and dry up.
Here we are in the midst of the age of extinctions, of what’s come to be known as the ‘anthropocene’, where we can see what we’ve done to the earth through our compliance with greed, through our own greed too. And part of the purpose of the Potwell Inn is to explore the idea that – in the words of fellow blogger Jon Moore –
we can change the world, one cabbage at a time!
The most radical force in the world is not fear or anger or intellect, but delight. Delight stops us in our tracks, changes the way we see things, changes the way we live our lives. If you want to find the Potwell Inn you must follow the line of delight and there, at the end of the journey, you will find the building with the crooked chimney and the sound of jackdaws playing in the trees. But it’s never an easy journey because so many people find delight annoying, at best, and at worst threatening. How many times have you seen a beautiful fungus stamped into the earth, as if its very existence were a threat? Delight is the slow-cooking movement of the inner life. Walking anywhere takes a age because there’s so much delight to be found in the ordinary, and once experienced in that rather Blakean way –
“To see a World in a Grain of Sand.
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower.
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand.
And Eternity in an hour.”
then the ordinary becomes the Ordinary and the most everyday actions like cooking and eating together; growing and harvesting, singing and talking are infused with delight, and it’s precisely that that so pisses authority off because delight is its own authority and its own legislator and defers to no lawyer or religion, and that is why it’s perceived as being dangerous.
As for the Potwell Inn – it’s an insidious corruptor of commonsense and small mindedness.
I should have mentioned in the previous posting that the hotbed has now stabilised at just under 20C and so we’re going to start sowing direct into the upper layer of soil tomorrow. The plan is to sow early salad vegetables, so lettuce, radish, spring onions and beetroot should come in very early. Really exciting stuff!
Back at the Potwell Inn allotment to install some fronts on the new compost bins this afternoon. We were eager to see whether the worms had sorted themselves out after being moved into a new home and we were delighted to see that they had resumed their activities at the top of the heap. They’re not keen on daylight so you need to be pretty sharp to get a photo before they all disappear. One thing that interested us greatly was how they appear to enjoy the cardboard in the heap. Yesterday I threw all of the half -rotted carboard that we took off the California cylinder into the heap and today the worms seemed to be congregating especially densely around it. One of the challenges with any heap is keeping the moisture level right. I heard somewhere that it should be moist but not wet enough to squeeze water out. This lot looks pretty wet, but the presence of woodlice suggests it’s not too wet. Having mixed it all up whilst turning it yesterday there’s quite a mixture of fresh material and worm cast – that’s the dark looking stuff that contins all the goodess. It’s a miraculous thing to watch, plant material decomposing through the action of all manner of fungi and bacteria and then being passed through the worms and turned into highly valuable garden gold. I swear I can hear the heap shouting “feed me now” every time I walk down the path. So that’s bin number one and we’ll probably stop feeding it when there’s enough fresh material in the adjoining bin to attract the worms through the gaps in the structure. I’m assuming that once the fungi and bacteria have kicked the process off, the worms will move next door where they’ll find a greater abundance of food. That’s the theory – bearing in mind that we had no idea they would colonize the cylinder so abundantly. If they’re happy they just seem to keep multiplying, presumably until their appetite fails to be matched by the food supply. Our only task is to feed and to turn the heaps regularly.