It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.

 

 

 

Making hay – in a manner of speaking

We know that cooler weather is on the way, but meanwhile we’re -metaphorically speaking – making hay. The three photos are, left to right, the allium bed which was planted up in the autumn and is now thriving with three varieties of garlic and some shallots.  In the centre the kitchen window is filled with chilli plants which are loving the heat and light, and finally the fruits of the carrot experiment which had to come to an end today because we need the space in the cold frame.  The carrots were sown in the autumn in pure composted horse manure and on top of a very hard soil pan, and so germination was fine but the roots really failed to make much progress. I think that successful no-dig gardening must depend on adequate initial preparation of the soil, a lot of organic material, the removal of pernicious perennial weeds  and an open texture. The key thing is that this can’t be achieved in one season and to make a go of it you need to go through the whole process patiently, particularly for deep rooting crops like carrots and parsnips.  We’re happy to do that because we can see that it’s a method worth waiting for, but I think sheeting a weed infested patch of ground for a few months and then trying to use the no-dig system is likely to lead to disappointment.

Elsewhere on the allotment the apple trees are coming into flower, so the blossom needs protecting from sharp frosts. Madame used to work at an apple research station where they had the most amazing frost protection system that involved spraying a fine water mist on the trees during frosts.  The effect was so beautiful that it regularly attracted visitors and film cameras.  We can’t afford anything so exotic for our few cordons, so it has to be a cover of fleece.

Most of the day was spent weeding, transplanting Swiss chard plants into their growing positions, feeding the old-stagers and perennials, and sowing seeds.  We’ve become great fans of liquid seaweed foliar feed, and everything gets a spray several times during the season. The container potatoes have already poked their shoots through the soil and so needed topping up with peat-free compost.  Some of the seedlings which we recently transplanted needed a touch of water and I wandered around the allotment with the watering can, my heart filled with the sense of promise.  In many ways this is the best season of the year because come July the occasional skirmish with weeds escalates into grim hand-to-hand combat if you haven’t already fatally weakened them. So at this stage of the year it’s wise never to pass a weed, however small, without uprooting it. Once they’ve set seed you’ve created years of misery for yourself. Later we cooked the first batch of spinach and added it to a fish pie.  I love real spinach.  I love chard and perpetual spinach too, but there’s not doubt that true spinach has a unique flavour.  It’s just a shame that it only really thrives in spring and autumn/winter.  In hot dry weather it bolts at the drop of a hat, and then we eat the spinach beets.

Someone pinned this touching tribute to Terry, one of our longest serving allotmenteers, on the entrance gate to the site.  His funeral takes place on Monday and we already miss him greatly.

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Taking a longer view

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

Here are some photos of the allotment as it is today.  It hasn’t aways been like this This blog began as a private journal that I kept for three years after I retired. Sadly – or gladly – the software I was using (Day One) and which I loved, upgraded automatically one night and suddenly the various bits of my computer setup would no longer talk to one another and, after fruitlessly complaining, and receiving a rather lofty and patronising response – “you should buy a better computer” – I dipped out and moved to WordPress. Good move!

Anyway, what that means is that I can refer back to the previous three years of the allotment and today I made what may be an interesting discovery.  It started after a conversation with Madame about whether our broad beans really are early this year.  I won’t go into a blow by blow commentary except to say that in spite of some very different weather over the past three seasons it seems that the earliest date of cropping hasn’t changed all that much.  I wonder if the real impact of the weather has been to affect the quality and quantity of the crop.  In the second year of the allotment – with more ‘normal’ weather we had a great crop. Last year the first pickings of the overwintered Aquadulce Claudia broad beans came at roughly the same time but were very poor. This year we’ve had an easier time but I’m sure we won’t beat our previous date of first picking and we’ll have a much better crop.

We allotmenteers tend to use earliness as a measure of success, but I reckon we’d do better to measure the crop.  One of the big concerns about climate change is that the varieties we grow will not cope with changed climatic conditions, and maybe the symptoms won’t be failure to grow at all, but greatly reduced crops.

IMG_5151So we’ve had a lovely week, the water troughs have been turned on, and everything seems to be growing merrily but one experiment seems to have reached a conclusion.  The carrot on the left was part of an experiment to test two types of compost, a new carrot variety, and to see if the carrot roots would penetrate a soil pan. Just to take the last test first, it’s clear that this carrot at least has fattened up in the layer of compost but hasn’t penetrated the soil pan at all.  I guess the root just wasn’t strong enough – so point taken (unintentional pun) – and this isn’t a refutation of the no-dig method at all, but it doesn’t work miracles. The soil structure will still need easing and improving before ‘no-dig’ will work properly, and yes I’m well aware of the dangers of confirmation bias! IMG_5153

But there was a piece of extra good news and that was that we cut the first four spears of asparagus today.  It’s a bed that’s only had one season but the first spears have been emerging for a couple of weeks.  We’ve been agonising about whether to cut any spears this year, but today I thought “it’s right at the beginning of the season, why not take a few spears?” So I did, I cut just four and presented them to Madame at supper time. So – honest truth –  the very first spear to emerge wasn’t terribly good, but ranked by age they got better and better. Oh my goodness that was a great moment.  The chillies and peppers have all been moved from the propagators to the south facing windows in the kitchen.. Tomorrow we’ll sow the tomatoes and cucumbers.

One further thought.  Is the light in the spring and autumn actually brighter than the light in high summer? The sun is moving away from its closest proximity, but it has a very special quality at this time of the year.  For me the effect is almost emotional, I can smell and taste the change of season and it’s lovely.

 

Who’ll march for these?

If you’ve been following every posting for months you’ll know that on 21st December 2018 I told a story I’m about to revisit because it bears on another news story today.  To be honest my original piece had very few readers.  I generally try not to get preachy  but today it was reported that in the UK pollinating insects had diminished by 25%  

There’s clearly something wrong and if you thought that the main suspects – neonicotinoids – had been completely banned in the UK you’d be mistaken. Here’s the DEFRA information from just over a year ago:

Further restrictions on neonicotinoid pesticides have been approved following a vote by EU member states today.

The UK voted in favour of the proposals that will see a ban on outdoor use of three neonicotinoids – Clothianidin, Imidacloprid and Thiamethoxam.

Currently, their use is banned for oilseed rape, spring cereals and sprays for winter cereals, but they can be used to treat sugar beet, various horticultural crops and as seed treatments for winter cereals.

What the press release also goes on is to say that there are exceptional variations available …. etc etc.  So it’s good news that the use of these pesticides has been reduced but it’s simply not true that they’re completely banned. Of course the reason for the decline of wildlife in general is complex, but agricultural practices have to be a part of the problem. I spend much of my time defending farmers, and the way they’ve been squeezed between a rock and a hard place is nothing short of shameful, but there’s no prospect that the sowing of wildflower meadow mix in suburban gardens and allotments is going to reverse this decline. DEFRA admits that the value of insects as pollinators exceeds half  billion pounds a year. If the UK leaves the European Community and abolishes even these limited restrictions, many of these precious pollinators may well disappear altogether. I’ve seen maize seed treated with neonictinoids it’s bright blue and it’s so toxic you have to protect your skin from contact.

Biodiversity isn’t just an economic issue, it’s a spiritual issue, an aesthetic issue and a moral issue as well. Last night we watched the news on television with increasing dismay and we talked about The Potwell Inn and our little allotment which sometimes feel like they hold the key to the future. Should we engage or withdraw? All I know is that I can remember the exact moment I photographed each one of the beasties at the top of the page and my life would have been all the poorer without them.

So maybe we should adopt a Benedictine saying. As you enter the chapel in the monastery you read the words “To pray is to work” and when you leave the chapel to carry out your daily work – possibly in the garden –  you read  “To work is to pray”. Can’t argue with that, even if I never quite know if anyone’s listening.

These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday

 

However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.

IMG_5117Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts.  We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it.  Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.

Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.

IMG_5120But there was no basil yet.  We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies.  Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots.  It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator.  So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.

Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress.  The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia  (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!

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In an ideal world I’d grow more flowers

IMG_5112But we don’t live in an ideal world – even at the Potwell Inn, and so even photos like this are compromised by the fact that the last touch of sun from a beautiful day was just disappearing behnd the trees. On the other hand, when we went up in the morning to plant the last few potatoes, the sun was reaching the whole of the plot after its winter sleep. Roughly speaking it reaches all parts directly between the two equinoxes, which means that for the whole of the growing season we’re no worse off for sun than our neighbours at the top of the slope and much better protected from the wind all year round. Prospective allotmenteers often reject the plots at the bottom of the site, especially if they come in mid winter with the ground frozen hard, and it’s worth remembering that it can take several seasons to get the measure of any piece of ground.  I’m quite sure that real allotments – as opposed to the imaginary variety – all have their different challenges, and waiting for the perfect plot to come along is a recipe for never doing any gardening. Half the fun is knowing your patch of earth and working with it to produce some food.  There’s an issue of mindset here – piece of ground isn’t a blank canvas, it’s a complex ecosystem that you can only join on its own terms. The saddest thing is when new allotmeteers take on a plot, blitz in in spring and sow or plant anything and everything only to see the weeds reassert themselves and the crops fail in the sumer.

But to return to the starting point, I love flowers and I’d dearly love to grow more of them but with limited space it’s a matter of priority to grow food and so our compromise is to grow as many beautiful insect and bee attractors as we can.

These are lifted from Ken Thompson’s excellent book “The Sceptical Gardener” –

  • Of the lavenders Hidcote Giant is shown as better than Hidcote
  • Marjoram
  • Cardoon
  • Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
  • Echinops – Globe Thistles
  • Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
  • Borage
  • Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
  • Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
  • Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage, Whorled Clarey

The photo at the top of the posting is of our globe artichokes which, with a bit of luck will flower this year.  Yesterday we were casting around for somewhere to plant three angelicas we’d raised from seed and they can grow to very tall plants so they needed to be somewhere they wouldn’t stifle the neighbours.  It’s a gamble but I though the two old toughies could fight it out between them. We grew angelica in a previous garden and it self-seeded freely for several years and then disappeared, but it’s a lovely flowerhead that attracts insects (like all its cousins in the Apiaceae) and better still, the stalks are edible.  I’m desperate to make a bit of crystallised angelica for the Christmas sherry trifle!

So flowers that attract pollinators and that you can eat are a double whammy.  We scour the books looking for likely companion plants, and grow herbs wherever we can.  We’ve got two specific herb beds one for tall ones and the other for short ones – drrr – not exactly Gertrude Jekyll but it works for us, and that’s all that matters. Last week we spent a happy hour just chewing herb leaves – how sad is that? There’s an empty patch in the herb bed where we’re hoping last year’s begamot will eventually wake up and show its head but who knows?

The chillies, aubergines and peppers are all roaring along in the propagators and will have to be displaced this week by the tomatoes.  Hello summer, goodbye floorspace! And we ‘solved’ the oversupply of seed potatoes by planting all the Red Duke of York in big bags and pinching half a bed for the Sarpo Mira. We even found time to have an afternoon snooze in the sunshine – the very essence of allotmenteering.

Potato planting day

IMG_5105This is one of those days that – for me at least – seem to carry a weight of memories which almost demand a moment or two of reflection. Traditionally potato planting took place on Good Friday, but there are a couple of flaws  in that association.  Firstly we now live in a determinedly post-Christian society when the majority of people have little idea of when Good Friday falls.  The second problem is that the reason most people don’t know exactly when it is, is because – being tied to the moon’s phases –  it wanders around all over the calendar. There are some early Easters when it would be inviting disaster to plant on Good Friday and others when you might miss a couple of weeks of delicious new potatoes. So the last week in March – in our part of the world – seems about right.  The young leaves won’t be appearing above ground until the last frost has passed – although for us last year there was a late frost on May 3rd, and we lost all the runner beans, but the spuds were fine. Runner beans, for US readers – are a bit of a British obsession.

So today’s the day. This year we’re growing them on a 20 square metre piece of our neighbour’s allotment.  He’s having a hard time at the moment and he’ll have the patch back when he’s up and running again. He’s an inveterate and very neat digger, and although he didn’t actually make a face when I described our plans not to dig it, I could sense he wasn’t keen and so, yesterday it was cleared, dug and fed.  It’s spent the winter under plastic sheeting, so there were no weeds to speak of. Because it’s down at the bottom, in the wettest part of the ground, I’ve given it most of last year’s compost supplemented with two or three bags bought in to open up the texture with organic material. The biggest harvest during digging was a crop of green ‘bio-degradable’ caddy liners.  It’s true, very slowly (I mean glacially slowly) they are breaking down but I can see it might take several years yet.  True to my experimental self I returned a number of them back to the new compost heap to see if a second season will finish them off.

But why is potato planting so significant? Back in the day, and still happening in one of my old farming parishes to this day, the first Monday after Epiphany (6th January) was recognised as “Plough Monday” and celebrated in Church by the local Young Farmers who carried a old Ransomes plough into the church to have it blessed. It was a single share mouldboard plough such as might have been pulled by one or two horses – not a team of oxen! They (the young farmers not the oxen) would file in with storm lanterns and hand tools and celebrate the new season with some acceptably jolly hymns and a sermon with more humour than hellfire followed by tea and sandwiches. How on earth do you persuade thirty or forty teenagers to turn up at church on a freezing January night? For me, as for them, it seemed like the right thing to do – to mark the turning of the seasons in formal terms. So long as they had a reason – however obscure – for turning up, we all thought it was worth doing.

IMG_5103So is potato planting the horticultural equivalent?  Does all the sowing that’s been going on in propagators and on windowsills for weeks, demand a formal marking of the new season?  and doesn’t potato planting – occasionally associated with a Christian festival but more likely with a long weekend bank holiday – doesn’t that make the planting of potatoes the ideal candidate? Compared with sowing a row of seeds, planting potatoes is a much bigger deal.  It takes longer, gives you backache and feels especially significant.  Needless to say I didn’t have enough space – entirely my own fault.  The 2 Kg of left over seed potatoes correlated exactly with the 2Kg of Arran Pilot seed potatos that I bought on impulse.  What’s the point of all that planing if even I don’t follow it? IMG_5107So tomorrow there will be a discussion about which bed to raid. But spring is here, the equinox is past and the days are longer and warmer. Our autumn sown onions, which had been looking a bit sorry for themselves, have suddenly perked up and thrust upwards. The garlic, similarly, is looking well and the elephant garlic in particular looks like a stand of leeks (to which they’re related).

At this time of the year, as a postwar child, when rationing was still happening, and everybody grew their own vegetables, I can vividly remember walkng down to my friend Eddie’s house, and being intoxicated by the smell of fresh warm earth being turned. Planting potatoes is powerful by association, and this past week as our fellow allotmenteers have been getting on with it, there’s an unspoken but shared feeling that -with or without any religious ritual – this is the beginning of the allotment year, regardless of all the plants we’ve already sown and overwintered.