Good days and bad ones

But first, an extraordinarily heartwarming conversation with my eight year old grandson. We were in Dyrham Park, walking along the edge of Whitefield – a stunning wildflower meadow which we haven’t managed to see for two years because of Covid. The grandchildren had all been dosed with antihistamine because their mum knew they’d be rolling around in the grass at some point during the day. It happens that their sister is given the drug as a liquid, orally and to save time the other two also got it from a small syringe this time. So oldest grandson and me were chatting about all this and we wandered into the topic of words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Orally and aurally came up of course – and then he said to me quite unexpectedly – “they’re called homophones”. I could have cried with joy at him even knowing the word, and -in the way that children are – he was a bit surprised (but rather pleased) at how thrilled I was. High fives all round. I love going for walks with him because he’s so eager to learn. Each time we go out I teach him the names of different flowers, plants and trees, and tell him their stories. It lights up the day for both of us.

But at the very top of this page – the one that comes up every time – there’s a photo of the same grandson walking down an avenue of limes, holding hands with his uncle Jonah’s hand. Sadly the avenue of trees no longer looks the same – and it’s for the oddest reason.

The aspect of the landscape in that particular shot caught my eye, not so much for its natural beauty, but because in reality it is so artificial. The lower leaves in the regular avenue of limes is – or rather was – clipped to such an even height above the ground it reminded me of the famous Marienbad film setting. But this wasn’t achieved by platoons of gardeners but by a wild herd of roe deer which has lived there for a couple of hundred years. Sadly the herd was all slaughtered during the Covid outbreak because of a persistent outbreak of bovine TB. It was all very hush hush in the way it happened; probably in anticipation of a fiercely negative response from the thousands of visitors who’ve grown to love them. If you live in the UK you’ll already know about the furore that’s arisen over the slaughter of a single llama for the same reason. However it’s done now and we’re promised the deer herd will be replaced as soon as possible. I simply don’t know whether the vaccines that exist for farm cattle would work for deer, but if they do I’d be saddened by the fact they weren’t used. There may be other reasons, though. Some visitors had no idea how to treat the deer as wild animals, and one ranger told me they’d had to intervene when a large group of visitors tried to corral a section of the flock in order to take photos! Deer, like all wild animals, respond badly to stress and I’ve long wondered whether TB isn’t a symptomatic disease of stressed animals.

The upshot of all this is that the grassland character is rapidly altering, with rank grasses taking over; and the lime avenue is looking distinctly ragged now. It’s amazing how quickly this has happened. The countryside as expressed in the great English parks is about as artificial as it gets; and it’s easy to see, particularly at the higher level of the park – the scrub will very soon take over when it’s no longer grazed by the deer. Eco purists and some rewilders might think this is a good idea; but I’m not so sure. All landscapes are artificial in one way or another, depending on the management strategies in place. Wildflower meadows are no more “natural” than municipal parks if by natural you mean left completely to their own devices. Each type of landscape – even (or especially) abandoned industrial sites – develops its own unique ecology. Maintaining peat bogs requires minute attention to water levels, for instance. So diversity is best maintained by deliberate management. I just don’t see how Dyrham Park can be maintained as it was – without its deer herd.

But finally, the bad news is that the badgers on the allotment eventually found a way past our barriers and finished off the sweetcorn. The video at the top was probably the marauder himself leaving the scene of the crime. And so, the fencing will be strengthened even more next year. Luckily we had a least a few feeds, and although we could wish they hadn’t broken in; we wouldn’t want to see them disappear altogether. Once again, maintaining ecological balance has its pluses and minuses. A couple of days ago I lamented the fact that there are no hedgehogs on the site, but of course badgers are one of the main predators of hedgehogs. Whenever we intervene in nature, however worthy our intentions, the results are often full of unintended consequences.

Farming, gardening, house building and transport infrastructure – to name just four of many possibilities – are all loaded with ecological consequences and ethical choices. Even a visit to a National Trust attraction involves ethical choices. The earth is a place for moral grown-ups; or at least it is if we want to save our place in it. Occasionally, on my bleaker days, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave it to the plants and animals who got here first; but usually I just think – better get on with it then.

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!