I should open my Severnsider mailbox more often, I know, but mostly it’s full of technical stuff that I don’t understand – which is why I only found a polite note concerning the proper Welsh spelling of an author I’d written about – it ran – “Not a massive typo – you have Carwyn down as ‘Carwen’ on this post which is the female rendition of the name.” The post, from many months ago was titled “This is beginning to look like my mother’s siege larder” – and I’ve just amended the spelling by placing Carwyn in the correct gender.
Blog posts are ephemeral of course, but books last forever so I thought I’d give Carwyn Graves another plug for his two books; the first was (I think) published in both Welsh and English and it was called “The Apples of Wales”. If you’re at all interested in the innumerable local varieties of apple which result from its promiscuous cross pollinations, then this is a really interesting book offering marvellous insights into the local histories of some of these varieties. And if you’re really interested there’s a whole orchard of Welsh apple varieties behind Plan yn Rhiw on the Lleyn peninsula, and we were also able to visit an orchard at Cwmdu in the Brecon Beacons which was planted by the Marcher Apple Network – a society for reviving old varieties of apples and pears. We’ve planted a number of traditional varieties on the allotment, and our friends in the Beacons have planted many more.
Carwyn Graves’ excellent new book “Welsh Food Stories” is equally engaging and informative, so much so that I was tempted into following up on some of the books he mentions and I’ve managed to buy two or three of them secondhand. So I hope this mention makes up for my inadequate knowledge of the Welsh language; long may it prosper!
Anyway, while I’m in the mood I’ll also mention a piece I stumbled on yesterday called “Failing nature on Dartmoor – why its protected areas are in such poor condition and what needs to be done” by Tony Whitehead, analysing the heated debate on successes and failures in preserving Sites of Special Scientific Interest on farmed land on Dartmoor. It’s a subject that I’ve written about before and it’s been much clouded by misreporting and exaggerated accusations. I won’t attempt to paraphrase it but if you’re interested in getting a better grasp of what’s at stake it’s a really useful summary.
Back on the allotment an instinctive starting pistol was fired over the Easter holiday and the site was swarming with allotmenteers. For once it seemed sensible to be planting the potatoes on Good Friday, and the intoxicating smell of the wet but warming earth – known as petrichor – carried the subliminal message of the season. Is there some kind of spirituality here? – something to do with being held by an embracing framework? Nonetheless, not everyone is as engaged with nature as we are. We were expecting a delivery of plants which eventually turned up yesterday, three parts dead, after sitting in a courier’s warehouse for six days. The boxes were festooned with notices that warned they contained live material.
Now we’re sitting indoors waiting for Storm Noa to pass over while Madame sorts the wheat from the chaff in the seed box. This is such typical spring weather. Southwesterlies laden with moist air bring pulse after pulse of rain and sunshine to us in the west country, gifted by the Atlantic. The warmer the sea gets the more extreme the weather gets.
I suppose it was inevitable that I’d come away from our weekend in the Brecon Beacons with the thought of cooperatives on my mind – after all we came across three such ventures in a village with less than 100 inhabitants. There was a community woodland, a community allotment, a community council – oh and the orchards preserving and promoting local apple varieties.
Yes, of course, they’re sometimes a complete pain in the backside to participate in. It’s almost impossible to recruit active members, there are always members who think that cooperatives exist to implement their particular vision without regard to anyone else’s wishes, there are those who memorise the articles of association down to the last comma and then use them to prevent any decisions ever being made. You have to cope with both perfectionists and, at the other end of the scale, members who never actually complete a task. But you’d have to deal with these minor irritations in any workplace and none of them are a valid argument against cooperatives per se. We’ve helped set up three over the years, and lived in a couple of communes. My mum was a dedicated Coop member, so I think I’m pretty well qualified to write about them.
Think of it this way. Imagine three or four farmers, each isolated on their own farms but personally dedicated to reintroducing once ubiquitous local grains that have been rendered virtually extinct by agribusiness and chemical dependent hybrids. If they never meet or talk to one another there’s a danger that vital work is triplicated and vital insights are never passed on. But if they cooperate, the work takes off much faster, and if they incorporate as a legal entity they can raise money, enlist supporters and invite other farmers to join them in their quest to revive these vital “Landrace” varieties – that’s to say varieties uniquely suited to the specifics of climate and soil that characterise one localized environment; and voila meet Welsh Black Oats!
The same goes for the apple varieties we saw at the weekend. The apple is a promiscuous hybridiser and probably 99% of hybrids are pretty rubbish, but the 1% may well make it possible to grow apples at 900 feet – I’ve seen them – or in salt laden air, and I’ve seen them too. Many cider apple varieties – aside from having marvellous names like “slack ma girdle” and “Chesil Jersey” each add irreplaceable flavour notes like leather (marvellous) , creosote (don’t ask) or petrol (ditto). Of course you can grow Golden Delicious – apples for people that don’t like apples – or Cox’s Orange Pippin which are so disease prone they need spraying twenty something times to keep them looking good for the supermarket. This cornucopia of varieties and flavours as well as uses would have remained a secret known only to a few farmers and died out altogether as the orchards were grubbed out under EC regulations decades ago, but they began to cooperate and share their centuries of expertise and bring (for instance) craft cider back from the grave.
Ask yourself – who does it suit to kill off all these traditional varieties? You already know the answer. As ever it’s the agribusiness suits who want to sell their overpriced and chemically addicted saplings and seeds. Fighting for changes in the regulations is a losing battle. Allotmenteers will remember when some Ministry clown wanted to ban many traditional varieties of potato like the King Edward. The only way is to organise and cooperate and never accept the high price of collaboration with the giants who, even now, are buying up landrace seeds in the developing world in order to create hybrids that will force farmers into penurious contracts with the seed merchants, artificial fertiliser producers and chemical giants, who are often part of the same conglomerate, behaving like mafia thugs, exacting protection money from the poorest producers.
Think of cooperation as a kind of underground guerilla movement that’s almost impossible to silence or to shut down. Not only are they effective ways of keeping traditional varieties alive – and this will become a matter of life and death as the climate catastrophe stalks up on us – but they are also powerful ways of building up local communities and teaching the skills that will become ever more important as the money runs out. Even a few days in Mid Wales will teach you that what keeps these threatened farms alive on their marginal land, is a rich complex of history, experience and the obligations that flow from generations of mutual help and trust. And yes – before anyone reminds me – these are precisely the communities that are being crushed between government neglect and housing shortages caused by second homers. But even these challenges could be addressed by self-build housing cooperatives run by local people with the stamina to fight the nimbys, working hand in hand with local landowners and local councils, and – though it won’t be popular to say it – many of the most significant full-time incomers only predominate on community councils and cooperative projects because the locals can’t or won’t join in.
The biggest enemy of change is apathy and defeatism, especially when they’re combined with the six words that always foretell collapse – we always do it this way. Let’s do it different!
According to Michael Pollan in “The Botany of Desire” – a book I’m always quoting from and referring to (I’ve got it on Kindle and I liked it so much I bought the hard copy!) – planting an apple tree had more than the usual significance for some early settlers in the US, because, for instance in northern Ohio it was a requirement for a settler to establish fifty apple trees on their land in order to establish a claim. Apart from everything else, for most european settlers apples were a reminder of home and John Chapman – AKA Johnny Appleseed saw that need and seized the opportunity. Later, according to Pollan, the legend that developed around Johnny Appleseed was bowdlerized by the puritans and later by prohibitionists, because he refused to have anything to do with grafting which ensured that his apples were all grown from seed and, (given the apple’s extraordinary promiscuity), were more miss than hit in the taste department so they would mostly have been be turned into cider. I’ve been in evangelical households where Johnny Appleseed was sung reverentially as a form of grace; the true significance of his life’s work having been completely erased. Ironically, Vic (Doughnut) Jones who was a considerable cider maker I knew in his later years, always said that his father would add a few Cox’s to a pressing. He would have nothing to do with single variety ciders which he dismissed as a fad.
Anyway, to get back to the point; yesterday I planted another four fruit trees – one Bramley, a Victoria plum, a Shropshire damson and a Conference pear; and for me the event embraced a seriousness of purpose that doesn’t happen when I sow a line of lettuces. Adding four more permanent dwellers to the allotment is a sign of commitment because even with good health they’ll probably outlive me, and in view of the importance of the occasion labeled them all by hand and added their places to the plans. They arrived in the nick of time – bare root trees need to be in by the end of March, and the flower buds are already opening on the established trees.
Aside from the fact that it felt good, there are other reasons for planting fruit trees. They’re perennials, they’re excellent windbreaks – slowing the wind down – they attract pollinators early in the year before the annuals get going, and they provide a reliable source of food for surprisingly little work. Of course there are skills to be learned but Madame has got the RHS qualifications and is a whizz with the secateurs.
The other thing that fruit trees do is provide structure. Now the two half plots feel more united than they’ve ever done before. Five years of pondering and experimentation have given us the confidence and the experience to understand the underlying dynamics of the allotment: its microclimates – the warm spots, frost traps, the places where water drains quickly and where it lingers into spring. We have tadpoles in the pond I dug over the winter and everything seems more settled down. At last we can see the allotment as a living and breathing unity and instead of struggling to make it do what we want to do we can assist it to do what it wants to do. That’s permaculture design in a nutshell.
Yesterday the temperature reached 20C/70F but by Monday the night temperature will have dropped below zero once again. Today the benign wind from the south had swung round into the northeast, and we replaced all the fleece covers once more. As with any other skill it’s complete attention to details that makes the difference between success and failure and trust me we often get it wrong. Slugs have woken up and made an unwelcome appearance and so I set four beer traps on the asparagus bed in order – hopefully – to give them a happy but very short season. The potatoes in the polytunnel are just loving the warm conditions, and the new strawberry bed has been repurposed because the strawberries we’d ordered failed to arrive.
It’s been a real struggle to get trees this year. The nurseries nearly all sold out of bare root trees early in the season and the more expensive container trees have been going fast. Yesterday I had a chat to a tree surveyor who works for the local authority and he told me that they’ve planted 4000 trees this year and would have planted more if they could have got hold of them. With covid raging, many of the nurseries have had to furlough skilled staff, and the addition of a terribly wet autumn has left some of them struggling to meet their orders.
If allotments were like cars, I’d say we’ve moved into third gear now but the transition into flat out always takes us by surprise. Most often it’s a kind of regretful realization that we’ve forgotten to sow something. Every year we have a surplus of early sown plants because we know that a late frost will call for some gaps to be filled; but failing to sow melons or corn in time is less easy to remedy because they need a long season to ripen and it’s always hard to source the range of plants that you can easily buy as seeds. But never mind, we’ll enjoy them all the more the next year when we get it right!
It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!
And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.
We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.
Back on the allotment
On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.
Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.
The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?
I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.
I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.
We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.
But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.
Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.
The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.
Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.
I’m a bit wary about complete happiness – I probably read too many Iris Murdoch novels when I was young …….. but! last night something unmistakably like complete happiness stole over us as we worked together on the allotment in companionable silence, transitioning between last season and the one that’s coming – the one that’s always going to be the best, the most productive and the least troubled by weather and pests and random troubles. And if you are wondering what happened to Sunday’s more sombre mood I’d argue that it’s the nature of happiness to be ephemeral and we can only accept it on its own demanding terms. We have to accept it as an act of rebellion, of resistance.
So we’ve travelled from the spring to the autumn equinox during the strangest year. Everything was strange, the weather, the extremes of wind, drought, heat and rain and, of course the plague. I like the idea of calling Covid – ‘the plague’ because in many ways it fits the linguistic standard for plagues which manages to draw together all sorts of explanations and responsibilities that, boiled down, suggest we had it coming. Of course there’s the scientific and medical explanation for the plague, but there’s an ideological reason too, and an economic and political reason; an ethical reason and an environmental reason and all of them demand contrition – that’s the thing about plagues as opposed to simple old pandemics – they demand a response; vaccines are not enough.
But aside from that, a shot of happiness on a warm late summer evening was like a surprise visit from an old friend. The allotment’s like that. We have more cucumbers than we know what to do with but as we contemplate the fall, the bin full of leaf mould that they were growing in so successfully needs to be emptied and spread on to the beds. The courgettes and aubergines that have served us so well won’t thrive in the approaching colder weather and the winter crops need a feed and a clear out, followed by a deep mulch. We took down the early runner beans and put the poles into store again while we are still feasting on the Lady Di’s. Calendula flowers are being extracted in almond oil. Tomatoes, chillies, peppers, aubergines – how much ratatouille can a couple on a diet eat?
Then there are the apples. As we walked up the path Madame bit into the first of the Cox’s and groaned – honestly. We’ve got five varieties growing but we’re all in the same boat as our neighbours; in a good year we all produce more apples than we can eat. So we tolerate a good deal of what you might call permissive browsing. Everybody plants Cox’s, and when they’re good they’re unbeatable but they are sensitive to any number of beasties and bugs so they are less reliable than some of the varieties that have been bred at East Malling or Long Ashton in the olden days when Madame worked there. In the bowl there are four, and possibly five varieties – all different and with different qualities. Some store well, and some are only any good straight off the tree. One of the games we play at this time of year is to try to identify the variety from the fruit. Much consultation of the books goes on and every now and then we get it right. Real experts can identify a variety on sight – George Gilbert, one of Madame’s old bosses was a master. I suppose these days you send a piece off to the lab to do the DNA tests. Where’s the fun in that?
This autumn we’re going to plant more soft fruit and two or three more cordon fruit trees around the boundaries of the plot. The original fruit cage is far too crowded and we’re going to savage it to create a better, more open environment for the existing row of apples. That became a cue for a large order from the sawmill so I can reshape some of the beds, build a new strawberry bed and (da dah!) dig a pond.
I think we gardeners have a weird way of living in several dimensions at once. All that stuff about being in the moment is well and good, but any gardener will tell you that we also channel the spirits of our teachers, parents and grandparents from the past while we also have the gift of seeing beyond the present weedy mess into the future. Autumn yields glimpses into winter and spring and the leafless branches bear their buds as a kind of earnest for the future.
So who’s afraid of the equinox? Autumn is the mother of winter and winter is the mother of spring. The earth rests and a moment of happiness is a moment of grace in whatever shape it comes.
Pig’s Snout is a very oddly shaped apple, rather square shouldered and once seen .. etc. Sadly there was no example of the Goose Arse available for inspection at Plas yn Rhiw, but I imagine there must be some resemblance shared by the Medlar – also known as Dog’s Arse by vulgar people like me. Continue reading “Pig’s Snout, Goose Arse and St Cecilia.”