A dirty story with added compost

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.

Doing the right thing is so much fun


OK – so bare ground isn’t very photogenic, but this is a most enjoyable part of the allotment year because all the while we’re clearing last season’s crops, weeding and covering the ground with compost and a winter coat we’re chatting away about what went well, what went badly and what we’ll sow next season. The new seed catalogues are dropping into the postbox almost every day now and after three full seasons getting to grips with a new kind of soil we’ve got a much better idea what will work and what won’t. We’ve moved from a very difficult but typical Cotswold mixture of stone and clay, to a clay loam that – in its pristine state – balls up easily in a sticky mess.

In addition, we’ve watched the way our patch of land behaves over three full years.  We’ve dug drains to conduct the worst of the water away; we’ve raised beds to get them above the water table because we’ve got an underground stream passing right beneath the allotment – you can see the water flooding across the pavement below after heavy rain. I suppose it’s a good thing to have some extra soil moisture in the hottest weather, but most plants don’t enjoy having wet feet for weeks on end.  The strategies we’ve employed –  draining, raising soil levels, adding organic matter to hold the surplus and adding some grit to improve water flow have all had some beneficial effects.  By keeping careful notes of the way the sun tracks across the allotment over a year, we now understand that we get full sun (when there is any) for part of every day between the spring and autumn equinoxes.  We also know where the frost will settle and we’ve even devised a few strategies for holding the cold air back or diverting it around.  We know where the bad wind and the good rain come from and which direction is full of threat to our grapevines.

Today we decided to move some lavender bushes to a border which was previously full of camomile.  The camomile was greatly overshadowed by taller herbs which inhibited its flowering, so this afternoon I lifted as many plants as I could and then topped up the bed with a mixture of 50.50 topsoil and horticultural grit which will suit the lavender much better and attract many pollinators to the edge of the allotment where, hopefully, we’ll lure them in with other plants.

While I was prepping the borders and tending the incinerator, Madame was sowing broad beans and planting onions and shallots. Obviously most of the sowing goes on in the spring, but beans, peas, garlic onions and shallots all tolerate or even appreciate a bit of a cold spell, and with a bit of luck give us an early crop.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen we cooked another veggie meal from Jamie Oliver’s new book and I lashed up a roasted tomato, onion and garlic soup for tomorrow’s lunch. This was the second meal from the same book this week.  On Monday I cooked a white risotto with roasted tomatoes and today Madame made an aubergine curry. Both recipes were delicious – doing the right thing really is more fun. If I’m honest I started this year with an instinctive dislike of both aubergines and courgettes, but during our exploration of vegetarian food we’ve found ways of cooking them that I really like. There’s something about the range of colours, flavours and textures available from vegetables that makes my previous commitment to meat eating much easier to leave behind than I ever expected. I haven’t spent hours daydreaming about bacon sandwiches, and nothing would induce me to use meat substitutes which are, like it or not, industrial foodstuffs.  I did make a veggie burger once with rice and beetroot to make it look like real meat – it was the most tremendous faff and didn’t taste very nice anyway. But even that didn’t taste nearly as bad as the vegan cottage pie from a National Trust cookbook. I think if vegetarian cooking is ever going to be mainstream, it needs to put all thoughts of imitating meat dishes completely to one side.  My biggest reservation is the widespread lack of basic cooking skills. Not knowing what to do and having very little time and, in many small flats – almost no cooking facilities, is driving people  into the dubious hands of the industrial producers of ready meals.

We’re nowhere near fully vegetarian yet, but the prospect of moving in that direction is more attractive than it’s ever been, and growing our own vegetables has given us a huge push in that direction.  When we were both working full time we could never have given either the garden or the kitchen the attention we do now. Tomorrow there’s rain forecast so we’ll deliver the pumpkin to our grandchildren and collect a new battery for the campervan. Not much sitting around and reading is going on at the Potwell Inn!

Mind you, sometimes our unglamorous lives has its compensations.  Two friends have just returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Japan where they watched the first three World Cup matched played by Wales while all the time expecting the arrival of a typhoon.  Then they travelled on to Hong Kong where the riots inhibited their sightseeing.  We just watched the council mend a hole in the road outside – very cheap and nobody got hurt.

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