Shelling the borlotti

It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!

The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.

We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.

Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.

Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.

Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.

What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.

Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.

The new pond takes shape

The new pond – which Madame rather acidly refers to as ‘the lake’ is all but finished now. We’re just waiting for the membrane to arrive and it should be filling with rainwater within a week. I suggested that perhaps a wave machine might add something but she wasn’t biting on that one and merely asked when the fish were arriving.

Enough of the Potwell Inn domestics – we’re nowhere near as much fun as the landlord of one pub we used to go to. He would lurk in the lounge bar and his wife was in charge of the busier public bar; and they would hurl abuse at one another through the connecting passage: it was the best show in town. Every night at ten o’clock on the dot Mr Rossi would turn up in his chef’s apron smelling of heavenly Italian food and we would vie with one another to sit next to him because we could never afford to eat in his restaurant.

And speaking of Italian food; his year- at last- we’ve had success with the Florence fennel. We’ve tried often before but it tends to bolt very easily and so, when we read somewhere that it’s best to delay sowing until after the equinox – as the day length declines – we decided to give it a go and it’s paid off handsomely. Tonight we feasted on onion soup, followed by a pear and fennel salad and I have to say in all modesty (ho ho) that it was the best and most tender fennel we’ve ever eaten. It’ easy enough to buy it in the supermarkets, I know, but we often find it rather tough and sometimes quite stringy, as if it’s spent a long time on a lorry – which of course it usually has. Our own fennel, not as big as the supermarket ones but with a properly formed bulb, had a sweetness behind the aniseed flavour and best of all, sliced very thinly, it was as tender as a cos lettuce . We ate in respectful silence enjoying every mouthful. I guess it’s one of the strengths of seasonal food that when it appears it’s always at its prime; and when there’s none left there’s usually something different but just as good coming along.

The related job on the allotment is to use the soil from the pond to build up a new strawberry bed. There’s been a good deal of to and fro with the wheelbarrow, but it’s all coming together and we’re now ready to order some new strawberry plants. The fruit cage is almost clear and at last the apple cordons have been given more space to breathe by relocating some redcurrants and gooseberries.

It’s been hard work, and there’s a lot more construction still to go. It would be easy to think of an allotment as a rather static entity; but as we learn more about the soil and the microclimate on the plot we move things around and add new features. This winter we’re planning for pollinators, insects, reptiles and small mammals – that’s for the earth, and for us a sheltered level area to sit and enjoy the wildlife.

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.

Compost

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.

Equinox

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.