Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

The sheer glamour of the allotment

Runner beans in flower – If the video doesn’t work very well I’d appreciate it if you commented and let me know. This is new technology for me.

I’ve written before about the default, but quite inaccurate view of allotmenteering that gets propagated by the seed catalogues and coffee table books. Grow all your food in 20 minutes a month! whispers the siren voice, accompanied by shots of glamorous looking models in distressed straw hats strolling through the sunlit beds of their immaculate patches; pausing to pluck a rose or taking note of an enormous cabbage – presumably – var Findhorn – which they will turn into a handmade oak barrel of sauerkraut.

Meanwhile back in the real world the grey skies are rent with cries of uuuuuuuuugh OMG as ghostly slugs slide silently through the lettuces and rats slink out of the compost heap. I’m not doubting the occasional blissful day – they come along like buses, unpredictably – but the danger is that when disappointments come along, as they inevitably will, we get crushed and give up.

Blight, for instance, has arrived on the site as it inevitably does when we get this kind of wet weather for days on end. I well remember the first time we had our potatoes and tomatoes destroyed by blight – seemingly overnight – and it felt dreadful. In fact it was pretty much the end of it for that particular garden. Our neighbours on the site are in their first year and they lost all theirs last week – we wondered why we hadn’t seen them – and they told us how devastated they were. The takeaway point is that you can’t regard blight as an occasional unwelcome visitor, it comes nearly every year. The good news is that there are some really good blight resistant potatoes and tomatoes, not GM or anything like that but just bred selectively in the old fashioned way and easily as good to eat as many of the heritage varieties. UK allotmenteers can look for RHS “Award of Garden Merit” varieties that have been independently tested in field trials mirroring the different kind of soils and climate that we have to work with.

I totally agree that it would be a crime to let the heritage varieties disappear and we always grow a few old-timers among the crops. Often they grow beautifully and taste sublime but they may well be more susceptible to disease – so the answer is (as always) to grow a disease resistant variety as an insurance crop and a row of Grandad’s Teeth beans as a gamble – and don’t be fooled by the catalogues; the best tactic is to ask around on the site and see what the best allotmenteers are growing. That was how we came across Sarpo Mira potatoes and Crimson Crush tomatoes. There are others to try but those are bankers for us. Every year we see glossy pictures of the ultimate this and that but the seed merchants are often beta testing their new varieties on us, and they disappear from the catalogues within a year. Almost anything you grow yourself is going to taste a whole lot better than something grown to survive a 1000 mile journey in a lorry and with a warehouse life of months (it’s true! how do you think they sell ‘fresh’ apples out of season?) .

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Folk proverb

The other thing to say is that the more time you spend on your patch, the better you’ll understand it; and an evening stroll around on a wet night can be the most effective way of controlling slugs without using chemicals. If you’re squeamish you can chuck them in a bucket and sprinkle salt on them but whatever way you do it they’re not going to become extinct. We get asparagus beetle every year but knowing that it’s coming means we can control it by squeezing the caterpillars and spraying with a soap and oil mixture. Nearly all infestations and mildews start slowly and if you can nip them in the bud you won’t need to use anything except low cunning and soap. Plants can look absolutely terrible too. By winter time, the biennial brassicas have all got dead leaves because leaves, surprisingly, have a limited life. If they fall on the ground they look dreadful and attract pests like slugs. So we give them a trim and remove all the dead and dying leaves to the compost heap and they look like RHS show plants all over again. Many perennials die back and, again, it’s safe to remove the dead leaves.

And finally daunting jobs, like weeding, are easy if you do a bit as often as you can; and if you’re short of time – like most people – then ground cover crops can help to do the job for you. In April people look at the Potwell Inn plot and think it looks amazing. They don’t say it in August because the nasturtiums and marigolds have ramped everywhere, and the courgettes, cucumbers and squashes are spreading all over the place. But when you clear the plots at the end of the season you find bare earth under the close cover of leaves and then you have the choice of covering with sheeting until Spring, or sowing a green manure crop. We often put a thick layer of leaves over the earth and then sheet it, and within a couple of months the worms have taken most of them down into the soil and improved it greatly in the process.

It sounds cockeyed, but honestly failures are your best teachers. The worst mistake you can make is to try to control nature. Gardening, to steal a phrase from Tai Chi is an internal art – it doesn’t rely on power but on flexibility, intuition and the ability to relinquish control, and when the onions have given you a whipping for the third year in succession and thrown you contemptuously across the plot, treat them with respect. Bow and reflect, and next year remember to put the insect mesh on, before allium leaf miner arrives.

Back home we were left counting sheep

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I don’t think we’ve ever had a nicer drive back from Lleyn than yesterday.  The full sun gave the mountains an extra degree of grandeur, and some we’d only guessed the names of previously made themselves known at last by their crystal clear outlines. A couple of days ago I wrote about the way local people sometimes refer to the land beyond Porthmadog as ‘the mainland’ and yesterday it was easy to see why.  The whole horizon to the east, the north and the south was taken up by mountains, and the only way into mid Wales was either over them or around the coastal edges, and that made it clear why there are so many tiny abandoned coves and ports around the coast – the sea was the only viable way of moving goods in and out of the area. Out went the spoils of quarrying and mining and in came anything that coudn’t be grown or produced locally.

I also had am interesting conversation with the man who delivered bottled gas to the cottage as we left. I had totally forgotten that like most people on Lleyn his first language was Welsh, and so as we were chatting I asked him how the farmers were doing and what the crops had been like this year.  I could sense a pause in the conversation and I assumed it must have been because he didn’t have an ear for my speech, but fully a minute later he answered my question completely – it had been a good year all round for grain, straw and hay.  The awkwardness had come as we talked about nothing in particular while he translated my English question into Welsh and his answer back into English. Later in the day I read in the newspaper that Welsh speaking patients in hospitals are greatly inconvenienced and even endangered when the doctors only communicate in English.

I also noticed the Welsh slogan Cofiwch Dryweryn (remember Tryweryn – a village flooded to build a dam) painted on walls in a couple of places  – one at the end of the lane leading down to the cottage. RS Thomas would have approved, but I was surprised to see the old slogan being wheeled out again in support of the justifiable feeling of being left behind. The language is making slow progress, but the whole culture is under economic attack as never before.

Back home in six hours including a couple of breaks (it’s 240 miles across three mountain ranges)  we unpacked, filled the washing machine and went straight up to the allotment where we discovered that our two toughened glass cloches had been dismantled and stolen while we were away. No-one seemed to know anything, but whoever stole them must have been there for at least 3 or 4 hours because it took me twice that time to assemble them.  They cost us £250 and they were an integral part of our plant raising in the spring, but we can’t afford to replace them. Needless to say we were upset at this invasion of our quiet lives and neither of us slept well, but entertaining thoughts of bloody revenge is a great waste of energy and desperately bad for the soul. I can’t think of a single religious philosophy that doesn’t see thieving as as destructive of the thief as it is distressing for the victim. We’ve had stuff stolen before  – it’s a fact of life on allotments – and it would be nice to think that fellow allotmenteers would refuse to buy our cloches as a knockdown price unless their provenance could be proved, but it always takes two to tango and without honest upstanding customers prepared to look the other way, thieves would be out of business in a week.

At the end of a sleepless night, by which time it was almost dawn, we decided that the empty foundations could be extended upwards to make a new and much larger hotbed – another job for the early winter. It’s a fabulous source of re-energised soil for the rest of the plot, and it grows crops even earlier than coldframes with the bonus that stealing two tons of hot horse crap is much harder than unscrewing aluminium bolts.

We have two other categories of allotment nuisance in addition to outright thieves. There are the browsers who wander around indiscriminately plucking a strawberry here or an apple there.  Then there are the grazers who will take a vine load of grapes, or a tree load of figs – we know who you are Mr Jaguar driver! One of our jobs this winter is to remove the vulnerable vine which is massively productive of inferior grapes, and replace it with something else a bit more useful to us.

But notwithstanding the upset, we carried home another twenty pounds of ripened tomatoes for preserving, with at least as many again left.  The wisdom of growing the more expensive but blight resistant F1 hybrids has been demonstrated for a third successive season.

Dealing constructively with loss is a fact of life for gardeners and allotmenteers, but I first learned the lesson when I was making pots.  If I say I like watercolour painting, rapid drawing, and making raku and saltglaze, you’ll see that I’m completely energised by the risk and uncertainty of these media.  There’s no second chance and no going back. The first time I realized I was going to have to learn a new life-skill was one day at art school when I opened a saltglaze kiln containing two months work which I had overfired so much that the entire contents were fused together and had to be removed with a sledgehammer. It took a couple of days to get my head around it but I got there. It’s a skill I’ve had to use a lot.