Four days late but snow finally arrives

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And at the risk of destroying any residual reputation I might have for competence, it really did arrive in style. When we went to bed last night it was snowing gently and the forecast was for nothing too much.  However when we woke up, the view from the flat told a different story and it was clear that around three or four inches had fallen overnight, with more falling out of the sky as we watched. With the number of nets we’ve got up this was always going to present a problem and so I went up to the allotment before breakfast to see what the damage was. When you think about it it’s obvious that the larger the horizonal area of a net, the quicker it will collapse under the weight of the snow. img_4926The fruit net was the worst casualty with a couple of feet of snow inside which had torn the net wherever it was supported.  My brilliant idea of a tall pole with a football on top was a complete failure  – it just ripped a football sized hole through the net. So that’s one that needs a redesign and some new netting.  The other two 10′ square nets were buckling under the weight, but I got there just in time to shovel most of the snow out before too much damage was done. The stars of the show were the home-made nets made from water pipe bent into the shape of a Roman arch – there’s one in the top photo. They at least were able to move in the wind and their more flexible structure had enabled them shed the snow as it built up.  All they needed was a vigorous shake to clear them completely. There was one hoop net that fared less well because of its flatter shape.  So heres a good rule for snowproofing nets – forged through exprience.

Semi-circular nets on hoops seem to do better than anything else in the snow.

I didn’t touch the cloches because they were obviously capable of carrying the snow without deforming because they were so much smaller in surface area. The last unknown is the area covered with fleece.  Whatever was growing underneath has been pressed into the ground, but hopefully the plants will recover as soon as the snow melts.

The weather stats for this week have been pretty severe.  We’ve had the coldest night in years and today the highest snowfall as well.  It was 1C out there when I was shovelling snow, but with the windchill it was more like -6C.  I belatedly discovered that my raincoat was leaking somewhere and as soon as I came indoors and thawed out I realized my clothes were wet through to the skin. Snow has the most amazing ability to penetrate your clothes.  If there’s the smallest crack the snow will find a way in.

As I left I met two other allotmenteers at the gate and both were suffering from the same problem – overloaded nets.  But there’s a large resident pigeon population on the site and if they spot any brassica leaves in weather like this they’ll strip them to the ribs. So there’s no alternative to nets if you’re cropping all year round. I could see, though, that we were all secretly enjoying the challenge.  That’s the spirit, there’s no such thing as a cockup, just a learning opportunity.  In my heart I knew yesterday that the fruit cage was vulnerable, but it would have been hard work to take the net off on my own and so I didn’t.  My fault entirely.

How much beauty is required to launch one ship?

The answer, of course is one millihelen, that’s to say one thousand times less beautiful than Helen of Troy. If we’re going to consider a scale, the ugliest child I ever saw was in Kingswood, on the eastern edge of Bristol. I was in a thoughtful mood that day because someone had made me his executor and next of kin without asking me (or telling me) and I was walking up Two Mile Hill to see a dodgy solicitor. My dark mood was deepened by spotting this child bearing down on me in his pushchair, being pushed by his obviously doting mother.  He was squat and almost bald with a thick neck and such a malevolent expression he could have curdled milk at 200 yards.  I often think of him now, aged maybe sixteen, and I wonder if his doting parents still show photos of him to all their friends.

You see, I write this blog and I post all these photos of the alllotment as it develops but frankly, other peoples’ children, holiday snaps and graduation photos rarely convey the emotional freight that the owners project on to them. Even more so, I imagine, with photos of other peoples’ allotments. If I switch off my pride for a moment, most of them – especially the ones taken in the winter – are a bit of a specialist interest.   Those recyled boards on the new hotbed spent last year on the edge of the strawberry bed – oh for goodness sake! is this supposed to be interesting? Well it is to me, but I’m an allotmenteer.  The plot is seen with the eyes of love, endlessly productive and immaculate.

Did you ever see W D Griffiths brilliant documentary film “Nanook”? There’s a scene where it becomes the childrens’ responsibility to warm father’s boots ready for him to venture out into the frozen wastes and catch fish.  On a bad day they (the boots not the children) might be so frozen that they needed to be chewed – yes you read me right – they needed to be chewed in order to make them soft enough to get them on. My children are not interested particularly in gardening and Madame has better things to do and so there was no-one available on the allotment this morning to chew my gloves which had been put away wet and therefore were frozen solid this morning when I tried to put them on. Temperatures had dropped to -3C overnight.  Worse still, I couldn’t make a flask of tea because the floor of the Potwell Inn kitchen had been mopped and I had been forbidden.  This is the real allotment experience that you never read about in those hideously expensive coffee table books. But the hotbed is complete and ready to receive its load of precious manure tomorrow.  I had to buy a big polythene sheet this morning to line the back of the car.  It’s not the first exceptionally smelly load we’ve carried – I ‘ll never forget the rotting seaweed – and it certainly won’t be the last, but actually soaking the seats with poo will probably provoke Madame.

I was so pleased with finishing the hotbed that I carried on and finished the long-planned border to the east edge of the plot, so I can level the path and make it less lethally dangerous. But I always underestimate the muscle power required to use the post-rammer and always regret it a couple of hours later. No it’s not angina you idiot you just never know when to stop!  Et Voilá , the right hand photo seen with the eyes of love I’ll give it at least 750 millihelens. But then I’m the proud father

The gulf between the reality and the plan

Here’s the reality

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– and here’s the plan …

 Click here to see the plan on growveg.com

There’s nothing quite like the slimy, viscous quality of re-purposed boards when they’re coated in mud and frozen. You need a tracksuit under your overalls, thick gloves and knee pads when it’s this cold.  The promised snow never arrived, possibly because Bath is in a kind of bowl, surrounded by hills and only divided by the valley of the River Avon.  So being at river level we get a degree of protection – that’s the upside.  The downside is that a mass of polluted air often hangs over us and that’s bad news for asthmatics like me. The City Council have been refusing to deal with the problem ever since the Buchanan Report 50 years ago. We breathe fumes and they see tourist revenue.  Every couple of years the set up another committee and kick the whole thing into the long grass.

However, the sun was shining and I really wanted to get on with building the hotbed today so that we can drop the hot horse manure straight into it on Friday.  It couldn’t be a simpler concept. I’ve built a rectangular 4’X3′ frame that can drop into any of the raised beds we’ve built. It will hold about 10 bags of manure capped with good quality compost. The picture shows it upside down because it’s not quite finished. In February of each year the frame is filled with the good stuff and then by the end of the season it’s all become well rotted and very rich compost.  So we’ll lift the frame off and spread the contents over the bed and move the frame to another place. It occupies just under half a bed and so in 50 years time, when I’m 132 we’ll be back at the beginning. Maybe we need more frames! but you get the general idea.  We allotmenteers are among the world’s greatest optimists.  We can see into the future, or at least to the end of the next season and we know that with a degree of good fortune and skill most of it will come to pass. What shall we grow in it?  We’re discussing that right now but some very early potatoes would be nice.  We grew ‘Jazzy’ in bags last season and they were pretty good but too close together.

My robin – well, the robin – is becoming ever more courageous and is beginning to dart very close whenever I’m breaking the soil. The ground is frozen solid down to a couple of inches, so it was easier to walk on it, but I made an interesting discovery when I moved some beetroot plants that were in the way.  Underneath the plants the earth was still soft. You can see just how well the earth is protected by growing plants.

We’ve had to remove quite a few crops as the beds were being built so Madame has been making soup almost every day. Today it was parsnip soup – fabulous!

But the plan and the reality are always worlds apart. There’s no sun, no rain and no snow on the plan and yet without them nothing would grow – and that’s why allotmenteering is so much fun. All day the weather forecasters were warning us ancients to stay indoors or face the terrible consequences .  Stuff them, I had a great time and I was as warm as toast. With my flask of tea and a stool to perch on – life doesn’t get much better.

Walking with experts – pilgrimage

I ‘invented’ the Malmesbury Pilgrimage in 2009 and this is a photo of the very first one. It was a two day walk and the first time we did it we took some detours that made it about 45 miles.  We got a bit lost on several occasions and the during the last ten miles a thunderstorm raged around us.  It was all my idea ( not the thunderstorm).  I’d been turning it over in my mind for ages, ever since I learned that one of the little churches I served on the edge of the Severn had been looked after by monks from Malmesbury Abbey and – here’s the gory bit – one of them had been murdered as he made his way across the fields and, it was said, the water in a local stream ran red like blood, every year as a reminder. That triggered a memory because the same legend was attached to St Arilda’s well, just outside my parish.  In that case St Arilda, a hermit, was murdered by a Roman soldier because – as the legend said – she would not lie with him. Obviously my parishes were pretty dangerous places in those days.  They hadn’t changed much! The red staining, by the way, came from algae not blood but the murders – with or without the legends – are still remembered many centuries later.

So, I thought, I could re-create the walk that the monks might have taken (there’s no record) and at the same time take in two of the three sites in the country asociated with St Arilda.  Taking in the third would have meant a huge detour to Gloucester Cathedral and at least an extra day.

When I got the maps out I searched for every public footpath I could find that took us vaguely in the right direction in order to minimise walking on roads and then I talked some keen walking friends into joining me. We got thrown out of Malmesbury Abbey for talking during their (private) prayer service at which pilgrims were absolutely not welcome, there’s hospitality for you, but it all went pretty well apart from exposing my lamentable map reading skills. To be fair, many of the paths had lapsed into virtual invisibility and the next year I packed a pair of binoculars for long distance stile spotting.  We still got lost but in different places.

But the point of this is not my own heroic resourcefulness, but to say that when you walk for a couple of days with someone, you learn so much.  On one of the walks we were treated to a two day seminar on arable crops.  Sad to say over the whole forty plus miles, our informal tutor – who had spent many years buying and selling grain on farms – only saw two or three fields that met his approval.  Why’s that sad? Well I suspect that his career had taken him to the very heart of intensive agriculture and all its obsessive spraying of weedkillers and insecticides and feeding of artificial fertilizer.  The fields he liked were monocultural deserts, the soil was getting thinner and thinner and the cornbrash (stones) were increasingly visible on the surface.  What I learned as well was how to identify all the main cereal crops when they were only a couple of inches high by examining their leaf structure and the way the ligules wrapped around the stalk. Great stuff for showing off!  – but I learned so much just by listening and not judging, and if you wanted to know how we got into this environmental mess, it’s because thousands of decent and well meaning people didn’t stop and think.  No-one wanted to kill the insects but were all so blinded by the prospect of controlling nature and making farming ever more productive, that they just did it anyway. Now we need urgently to row back.

On another occasion I walked the last ten miles with a man who had spent his entire working life on local farms as a stockman.  As we approached our destination he knew every inch of every field; what grew there, what thrived there, and how well it was being farmed.  He would comment approvingly when he saw good practice and again I learned an enormous amount.  I could go on – I walked miles with a chief electrical engineer at a local  power station who knew the model number of every single pylon we passed. Hmm.

Perhaps more importantly relationships were cemented and confidence and trust was built between a group of people who, on the face of it, didn’t have that much in common. That’s the great thing about pilgrimage – sharing experiences, noticing things, being grateful for small mercies like easy walking on a very long hot day.

All this thinking and remembering came out of another morning alone on the allotment.  I was going stir-crazy during all this cold weather and when it failed to snow as forecast today I thought I’d put in a couple of hours.  I was so absorbed in building more beds and recycling some posts I needed to remove that I didn’t even notice it was raining until the water started to run down my neck. The temperatures haven’t got much above freezing for ages and yet when I’m out there, totally in the moment, I never feel cold.  The ground is very sticky at the moment so I tried as much as possible not to walk on it, and we’re very close to completion. My preferred site for the hotbed fell at the first hurdle when I measured the site properly, and so I had to think again.  As is often the case the new site is probably better anyway and on Friday it will be complete and filled with fresh manure. Home for a late lunch rather wet but as warm as toast.

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Snow tomorrow ?

img_4900This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open.  It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.

img_3596If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow.  In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car.  Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes?  No probably not.

But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind.  We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient.  Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. img_4896For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam.  It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap.  I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.

We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings.  So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.

I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun.  But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.

If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there.  The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.

I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.

The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views.  The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’.  So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system.  Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully.  Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting.  I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?

On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine.  The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether.  I think we might put some signs up – what about

all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!

And finally, what to do with the leftover Seville oranges ..

The marmalade making left a few stragglers – so what about preserved oranges? We’re familiar with preserved lemons, but when I saw this recipe today I thought I’d give it a go.  It’s virtually the same as the recipe for lemons.  It was suggested that it needed 700g of salt but I couldn’t see any way of getting it in so I cut that bit back.  We’ve had runner beans, which have almost no natural acid, salted far less fiercely.  I also added bay leaves to the mix becuase I like them.  We’ll see in a couple of months – but I’m already thinking about smoked duck breast with some kind of sauce or relish made with preserved Seville oranges.  I hate wasting things so it was quite a relief to find a way of using up the surplus.  In the past I’ve made so much marmalade it’s started to crystallize before we get around to eating it, so this year I’ve been careful only to make sufficient until supplies come in again next January.

In the moment, in the past

I think it starts here, in the photo on the left. If you walked to the narrow road and turned right, there’s a corner to the left and a drop down a small hill. The road was surfaced with small flint pebbles set in tar.  Just at the bottom was a gate from which a track led past a field that, in summer, was decorated with stooks of hay – I remember that as children we were allowed to draw the cut hay into piles with big wooden rakes before it was stacked in a hayrick.  On the left was a prefabricated building where a small engineering business went on. At the end of the track was The Crest, my grandparents’ house. My Grandfather was a carpenter from a line of carpenters that I’ve traced back to the eighteenth century and who lived in the same place for so long, a row of cottages is named after them. Only just over five feet tall with a roll-up dangling (usually unlit) from his mouth all day, he was a  carpenter in the family business and a smallholder of just a few acres. He uttered curses like the resurgence at Vaucluse, mostly against God who, being a militant atheist, he didn’t believe in.  The curses were broadcast in order to annoy passing sunday school teachers. He was entirely self-taught; a lifelong Marxist and member of the Labour Party, and he was the best read person I ever met as a child and, even better, he would lend me his books to read.  He taught me to use a slide rule and logarithms, and in his desk (utterly forbidden territory) he had a rotary slide rule. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump and had a greenhouse with a toad in it called Charlie, and a collection of pianolas in his shed that we were allowed to play with.  He kept pigs and cows and hens and grew vegetables and he was unquestionably the most influential person in my life – half of which I’ve spent trying not to be like him and the other half doing the opposite.

So today I prepared the propagator and pots ready for the chillies I wrote about yesterday, to be sown, and you now know that the first two paragraphs of this posting are connected in a very deep way. When I get my thumbs into the dirt I almost always think of him and today I would have loved to have shown him what I was up to. He was always experimenting with growing new things.  He grew and dried his own tobacco, I can remember it hung to dry under the eaves of his shed, and it smelt so filthy he was banned from smoking it in the pub. But he would have understood why all this trouble to grow chillies is worthwhile, just as an experiment, just because you might discover something interesting.

And so the new season is poised to begin, a couple of weeks ahead of the game, and I’m already thinking that when all these tender plants germinate there will rapidly come a time when they need repotting and then what?  However, all gardeners will also recognise that there are times when you need to rise above the facts, and this is one of them. We’ve thrown a line aboard the season and now we’re (almost) tied to it wherever it takes us, rain, shine, frost, wind snow and drought.  Words will be spoken as the tide of pots spreads across the flat in front of every South facing window and the thought of a polytunnel will fill my lustful thoughts – ‘when did that happen?’, I wonder, ‘when did polytunnels replace the desires of (what Dylan Thomas called)  ‘my green age’.

“24 degrees centigrade”, I command the thermostat – “Aye aye, skipper” comes the reply -and the great game is on.  We’ll win some, lose some and learn some too.