Dust and ashes

Today was one of those days when everything that could go wrong did so. Hence the photo from March 18th 2018 when the Beast from the East visited and collapsed the net covering the fruit cage. We just weren’t expecting it to be so severe.  Neither were we expecting the frost that greeted us this morning and which fortunately did no harm but it was a portent of some sort. The sun was shining, and so after an early breakfast we drove over to garden centre number one in the certainty that they would have an abundance of the dripper hose spares we needed.  They didn’t and so we crossed Bath to the only other stockist and managed to buy the very last of the bits, only to discover that the Erysimums we bought in the first centre were available at half the price in the second.

And so we arrived rather late at the allotment and found that that the wheelbarrow had a flat tyre – entirely my own fault because I’d noticed it needed blowing up days ago, days during which the fugitive valve had managed to hide itself deep within the tyre, necessitating the removal and reassembly of wheel, tyre and inner tube.  While Madame busied herself as far as possible away from me, clearing out the shed, I turned to the job I really wanted to do – fitting the new water supply to the drippers in the greenhouse. Unfortunately in my haste to get on I forgot to measure the replacement pipe whilst I had prematurely (it turned out) pulled the other one through its carefully crafted underground passage blissfully unaware that the replacement was 2mm bigger than the original which was built in when the greenhouse was assembled. A search was mounted and an alternative length of hose was found – not in the best condition but it fitted through the hole. At the water tank end, it rapidly became clear that the smaller pipe wasn’t going to fit the tap properly.  When I fitted the click lock coupler it leaked like a sieve, which is not helpful when the whole point of my labours was to leave it turned on to automatic while we are away. And so I resorted to that favorite technique – the bash fit. This involves heating the pipe with a gas lighter to the point where it is flexible but not on fire. After a great deal of hand to hand combat the pipe was fitted at both ends and the electronic unit appeared to work.

“Good”, I thought, “I’ll install the gravel boards now”.  But where was the marking line? Luckily we had a new one in the shed and so I peeled off the plastic wrapper, pulled gingerly on the end and it instantly turned into the biggest bird’s nest you’ve ever seen.  It took 40 minutes to untangle  – no kidding – and I had to fight every minute to retain my buddhist like composure. Eventually I wound it on to an empty spool and – to be fair – apart from having to kneel in the mud for most of the time, and apart from spiking myself on a bamboo on our neighbour’s side of the path, it went pretty well – although I did mismeasure the board lengths and had to hammer in extra pegs. We finished after five hours of work that should have taken about two and drove back wondering which of us was going to cook. Clanger pudding again, then.  This time it was me, and so we had pasta with our own pesto and the remains of a small chicken which has now provided meat for nine meals and some stock as well. We grow two types of basil – the neapolitan and the classic.  I much prefer the first and as soon as I tasted it I realized that the pesto was from a batch of neapolitan.  That’s the first thing that had gone right all day!

However my back aches and any sense of reward I ought to be getting from finishing two listed jobs in a day, is  entirely missing. There’s the unglamorous side of allotmenteering for you! Photos tomorrow if it’s not raining again. We’ve both got pieces in the annual BRLSI exhibition and we went to the private view last night.  Pride, I suppose, came before a fall.

“Pile em high, sell em cheap?”


Not in the case of most plants as can be easily seen from the photo. These are two pots of the basil (var.’Classico’) we’re growing in a propagator in the kitchen – and you’ll also see that the right hand pot was accdentally sown far too densely, and what’s happened is that the plants are failing to thrive as they should because they’re all competing for light and food.  So Madame intervened by thinning the right hand pot when the plants were only just beyond the cotyledon stage, and took a chance on transplanting them. The results were almost instantaneous as you can see – the transplanted ones have rocketed away, the thinned area of the pot they came from is responding too but the front part is stuck in a herby timewarp.

It’s always tempting to sow or plant just a bit more densely than the books suggest, but nine times out of ten you don’t get any more of a crop and sometimes you get less.  Light, circulating air and food are all really important for plant health and although the oversowing was an accident and not an experiment, the message is obvious – firstly, that amount of seed would have filled at least four or even five pots with healthy plants, and secondly it’s always worth having a go at transplanting – all it costs is a pot of compost and a chopstick to make the holes – but don’t try it with tap  rooting plants lke carrots because they hate it.

But yesterday, as I wrote, I was clearing a bed of chamomile because (same thing, I suppose) it was hating its rather greedy, light stealing neighbours like fennel, globe artichoke and angelica. What we had was straggling plants trying to haul themselves into a bit of sunshine, with hardly any flowers that we could harvest for chamomile tea. You can tell how fed up they were by the fact they thought they might stand a better chance in the asparagus bed! And the striking thing about the chamomile was their tangled and dense root systems – obviously that’s part of the reason they do well as low-traffic lawns.  The other part of the reason is they don’t mind being cut, so long as it’s not test wicket short.

This year we did some experiments with interplanting which showed mixed results. Nasturtiums did well under the apples and did no harm even if they did no good, although they do have a gift for wandering off.  The squashes under the brassicas were a bit of a disaster as they ramped away under cover of the butterfly proof nets which are such a chore to lift up. Summer savory and basil were pretty happy wherever we put them. Chamomile ticks all the boxes with its properties and we were chatting about where to relocate our bedtime-tea flowerbed.  Ideally it would be a bed of perennials so that  they could all get along famously together and get their roots down. Has anyone got any bright ideas?

A surprise flavour with pesto

IMG_5120This photo is pretty out of date because, in the intervening period since it was taken, the chillies have been removed from the heated propagator and the basil put back in for a bit of a holiday in the sun which resulted in them growing rapidly. There are a number of different varieties of basil and this is the first year we’ve grown anything except the normal “Classico” type we’re used to buying in the shops. Franci seeds have a pretty wide selection for the UK market but I’m sure there are many other suppliers, and this year we added their ‘Basil bolloso napoletano’ to our list. It’s impossible to compare the performance of the two types because we treated them rather differently.  The fact is, any basil seems to love heat and light.

So – confession time! we have experimented with sowing basil in pure composted manure, in peat free Sylva Grow and in a proprietary John Innes. This weekend we’ll be trying a 50/50 mix of composted manure and vermiculite. So far at least, the best performer for seed sowing has been theJohnInnes.  We spray it weekly with fairly dilute seaweed fertilizer, and it’s obvious that the most vigorous growth comes in the heated propagator set at 20C with 12 hours of overhead artificial daylight. Now I’d add that I’m no expert in this and I’d hate to lead anyone down the wrong road but it seems to work for us.

Anyway, yesterday we took our first big harvest of basil and in order to get the required weight for a batch of pesto we mixed the two types together.  It was quite the nicest pesto we’d ever tasted.  The Neopolitan variety added a subtle fennel flavour and it was so nice I’d never want to go back to the pure Classico. In fact we resolved on the spot to sow some more varieties to see what other delights could be there.  I’ll never tire of the simplest of pasta sauces, and pesto is so adaptable.

And today we drove down to Cornwall to one of our favourite places – the Lost Gardens of Heligan.  More photos tomorrow.