Less is more on the Potwell Inn allotment,

To be honest, after a two week break in Pembrokeshire I was dreading going back to the allotment. Two weeks is an awfully long time to leave any garden to nature and my particular worry was that our plot – in which we deliberately allow nature to have an almost free hand would have totally succumbed to the fatal embrace of the bindweed which has been an absolute pain this summer.

The reason, of course, is that bindweed roots travel deep and fast so it laughs at drought while many other shallow rooted plants keel over. Our strategy this season was to keep the ground covered at all costs, and so as a matter of principle when the drought began to grip we largely stopped weeding in order to keep the soil shaded and as cool as possible. I know people make the most tremendous fuss about weeds stealing sunshine, water and nutrients from the crop; but in our own wildly uncontrolled trial we found that our crop plants, so long as they had a bit of headroom, soldiered on through the heatwave, and whatever nutrients the weeds steal will be quickly returned to the soil via the compost heaps.

There were two other weed species that had a field day this year. One was the Sow Thistles, and the other was the clump of Fumitory which I was unwilling to weed out, because it is a notable rarity here in the centre of Bath. However two weeks of rain and sunshine tested the theory to the limit and it was that thought which was beginning to bother me as we recovered from a pretty exhausting harvest.

But what we didn’t expect was such a large late crop of vegetables, as we approached the Equinox on Friday. When we went to see the allotment yesterday we harvested two whole deep bags full of produce. Old potatoes were weighing in at a pound and a half each and of course it’s been so dry we didn’t have blight to contend with this year. That said we always grow blight resistant varieties of both potatoes and tomatoes. There were aubergines, peppers, runner beans, carrots, cucumbers, courgettes and apples and yet more tomatoes grown outside. The large crop of squashes have been hardening off in the sunshine ready for winter storage, so contrary to all expectations we’ve had the best overall harvest ever. We even managed to eat the whole crop of sweetcorn and didn’t concede a single cob to the marauding badgers.

The downside to all this was the excessive amount of watering we still needed to do. With just 1750 litres stored it’s clear that we would have lost crops if we hadn’t used the council provided cattle trough. Quite apart from the shame of using high quality drinking water on thirsty crops, there’s the physical wear and tear on us and our knees, carrying two cans at a time which weigh in at forty pounds and need to be carried down very rickety paths at the risk of damaging tendons and joints. I may just have muttered “I’m getting a bit old for this malarkey” once or twice! And so we need to think about drought resistant crop varieties and perhaps consider growing more perennials. The tap-rooted vegetables were left pretty much to their own devices and they’ve done amazingly well. The second issue will be weed seeds, but in early season it’s relatively easy to keep them down with a sharp hoe. The final part of the climate change conundrum is to keep the ultimate height of plants lower, which will make frost and wind protection much easier. That the climate is changing rapidly is beyond denial and hoping that next year will bring better weather is wilful magical thinking. The biggest sadness would be to lose the wonderfully flavoured -Robinson’s “Show Perfection” pea. Make no mistake, this is not a cardboard flavoured show variety, but it does grow easily to 6-8 feet.

We had also theorised that growing far more insect attractors and digging a pond would attract more predatory wasps and pollinating insects. For whatever reason the Ladybirds never really got going this year, but aphid numbers were well down so maybe the other predators took up the slack. It’s impossible to make any great claims, but our deliberately scruffy approach – although it looked terrible enough to earn reproachful looks from our tidy neighbours – kept producing abundant crops where the weed free and bare earth allotments failed on a grand scale.

I think obsessive tidiness is an entrenched value in British allotments. The catalogues are full of model specimens growing in straight rows on cleared ground, but our holiday in Wales, next door to a large organic farm, showed just how much of a role natural soil fertility and good, rich, moisture retaining soil, plays out in providing increasingly good yields over time. The grassland wasn’t overrun with any noxious weeds in spite of a no-till and no chemicals regime. What this means of course is that it’s almost certain that the kind of approach we’ve been trying to master on 100 square metres, could be upscaled to hectares. Sadly, though, the Council allotments Officer’s twice yearly assessments still seem to overvalue the straight row, weed free allotment over and against the holy disorder of our own attempts to garden thoughtfully.

So our holiday fears were not realised, and that was the most tremendous morale booster. But a second bonus followed quite naturally because all those fresh ingredients led straight back to the stove, just as the new seed catalogues were dropping into the post box. Today we ate the best mushroom soup ever, thickened with bread and made with one and a half pounds of field mushrooms brought back from the organic fields in St David’s. With the equinox two days away and the nights drawing in, there are a few joyful hours still to be had, planning for next year as we clear the beds and pile on compost and leaf mould ready for next season.

Runaway season brings early blackberries.

I was going to write about our polytunnel tomatoes which have done very well this year – just loving the hot weather. So a piece I was thinking about on the making of panzanella will have to step aside because we were totally gazumped by the blackberries yesterday.

Given the number of privateers who like to climb over the fence and nick our produce without the bother of paying for it or growing it; we’ve capitalized on two of the most useful properties of the blackberry, that’s to say its murderous thorns and its ability to put down roots whenever one of the shoots touches the ground. The third property never really entered our heads, that’s to say the marvellous eating qualities of some wild blackberries. That italicised “some” comes from the fact that the blackberry hybridizes like nothing else, and whilst they all look pretty much the same they vary in palatability from heavenly to a mouthful of sour grit. So what are the chances of choosing a random blackberry to make a fence impregnable and hitting on a bigger, sweeter and more fragrant variety than any of the professionally bred hybrids we’ve all been planting at no little expense.

The downside of this horticultural magic trick, is that word gets around and a polite but steely middle class battle to harvest the fruit is conducted. There are no rules, but the winner takes all. This year we won! And after a dawn raid we came home with a carrier bag and four pounds of sweet blackberries plus a few assorted spiders and grubs.

It was an early encounter with blackberries that introduced me to the spiritual conundrum – that the profound gratitude I was feeling had no home to go to. Who to thank for this outrageous generosity? It’s a question I’m still working on – so please, no easy answers! I’m ashamed to say that we repaid the generosity by making forty pounds of the most disgusting chutney ever, and giving it away to friends. That’s probably why we haven’t got many friends.

Good blackberry bushes, like good spots for harvesting field mushrooms and other fungi are family secrets and never divulged to strangers. Just as when asking farmers how they’re doing you expect nothing more than noncommittal shrug and a mournful shake of the head so too, the passing stranger – asking if the blackberries are any good – will likely be told that they’re very poor indeed, but the rabbit seems to like them; but in the secrecy of the kitchen where the ripe berries have a perfume as fugitive and erotic as truffles, we hug one another and celebrate our great good fortune. In the midst of bad news we’ve pulled a rabbit out of the miserly hat. My uncles were pretty good poachers apparently and doubtless shared the same feelings.

Of course, harvesting them is one thing and locking that exquisite floral perfume into food is another. Blackberry and apple pie never really floats my boat and blackberry jam shares the same pippy texture even when the perfume is there; and so my very favorite way is to make bramble jelly. It’s tricky to make because it needs a bit of pectin to set it and if you add apples you tend to lose the glossy burgundian transparency and so we use proprietary jam sugar which seems to give a better finish.

The other challenge is that the fragrance is really very fugitive and so gentle cooking followed by the shortest possible boil to setting point is the only way to lock in the perfume of the blackberries; but when you bring it off, it’s worth all the faff. Jelly making always seems a bit wasteful but I usually let the initial ingredients drip for at least 12 hours. Our blackberries yielded just under a litre of juice (another reason for finding the best bushes) and with under a couple of pounds of jam sugar it made four and a half small 14oz pots which will only be brought out for special occasions. I remember my grandmother dropping a spoonful of bramble jelly on a rice pudding as a special treat.

And so an intimation of the harvest came early in this season of drought and heat – but it sent us singing into the kitchen where Madame cooked while I assembled the first panzanella of summer. If the Government Scrooges knew how good it felt they’d make it illegal!

Three for one offer!

So after the philosophical tone of the last couple of posts, I thought I’d share an anxiety free photo of a wheelbarrow. There’s not much going on at the allotments at the moment – mostly the site is like the Marie Celeste; full of signs of occupation but devoid – apart from the diehards – of human company; no gossip to be had.

There are two especially dangerous moments for new allotmenteers – six months apart but equally fatal to the morale. In July the early optimism of cleared ground and early sown crops gives way to an explosion of weeds – especially on newly won ground. In December, once the pruning is done and any bare earth covered or mulched, the cold and often grey, greasy weather is a powerful disincentive to gardening. These days, knowing what we do about air pollution, it’s even difficult to justify the bonfire – the old friend of bored allotmenteers on winter days.

But composting goes on whatever the month, and with time on our hands it’s the perfect opportunity for clearing up, leaving lots of habitat for overwintering insects; any bits of civil engineering that have been on the “to do” list for several seasons and, if you’re lucky like us, starting next season’s leaf mould. I remember many years ago buying one of Christopher Lloyd’s books – I think it was The Well Tempered Garden – and becoming increasingly dismayed that his idea of a small garden was about the size of three football fields, complete with mature trees and an abundance of compostable materials. For the vast majority of us, the materials available for composting are extremely limited.

However, our local authority, in a bid to save money, has now built a number of gigantic bunkers on various allotment sites around Bath in order to save the cost (I can hardly believe this!) of dumping leaves. Obviously we’re delighted but slightly overwhelmed with this generosity. Added to regular supplies of free wood chip they’re a blessing and in the past they disappeared almost as fast as they arrived. Possibly not so any more.

Leaves are a threefold blessing, as well as being – for different reasons and in different phases – biochemical miracles. As green leaves attached to their trees they convert sunlight and water into sugar and, with the aid of countless fungal networks and bacteria, swap sugar for micronutrients in ways we’re only just beginning to understand; storing carbon in the soil at the same time. As fallen leaves they make a perfect mulch for soft fruit bushes and empty plots. We once covered a patch of cleared ground with six inches of leaves and threw a cover over them. When winter was over we removed the cover to find that they’d all but disappeared due to the actions of worms..

But stacked in one of our compost bins – ours will accommodate ten bags similar to the one in the photo (just big enough to be able to lift and empty when full)- and through the action of moulds, fungi, bacteria and the whole gamut of leaf eating insects they slowly decompose. By March the heap will have shrunk by around a third and we’ll cap it with six inches of compost to grow a prolific crop of ridge cucumbers whose roots reach deep into the moisture holding leaf mould.

Then in a final act of beneficence the finished leaf mould will be mixed 50:50 with our own compost which will be spread on our plot in the autumn when the whole cycle starts again. I suppose in a perfect world the leaves would be left to rot where they fall, but we try to accomplish the same thing whilst growing food – which brings me to an excellent article in today’s Guardian which reports on a new piece of research that supports the idea that allotments can make a substantial contribution to food security and local (ie low carbon footprint) sustainable food networks. If only forward thinking local authorities would take up the challenge and secure leases on plots of suitable land surrounding villages, towns and cities, the waiting lists (thousands in some cases) could be reduced and a secure supply of wholesome, mainly organic food could be in place within a couple of seasons.

The Allotment

IMG_3156We’re soon reaching the first birthday of the day we took on the other half of the allotment.    We’d been waiting for it for over a year during which it fell into ever greater disrepair, and broadcasting its weed seeds over the entire area. The previous tenant, although he’d completely lost control of it was strangely unwilling to let it go and so we had a number of ‘Uncle Jim’ moments with him including a couple of larcenous visits before he finally disappeared.   Continue reading “The Allotment”

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