Ghostly presences

With the threat of (another) icy spell for the early part of this week we spent Easter day wrapping the apple trees, whose flowers are dangerously close to opening; and sorting all the young plants into degrees of tenderness so they could be appropriately covered. This left the allotment and the inside of the polytunnel looking like a hallowe’en display or a Christo sculpture but it’s worth the effort – plants cost time and money and having nurtured them this far it would be a tragedy to lose them. This morning we went up to see how the plants had fared and we’ve lost two half trays of tagetes (marigolds) which were at the end of a suspended shelf in the tunnel and from which the strong north-westerly winds had lifted their covering of fleece. For some reason this was more of a surprise than it ought to have been. Because we grow so many marigolds we tend to see them as indestructible workhorses but of course they’re tender little plants and did much worse than the lettuces and other salad crops – all fleeced too – and which were completely unscathed. The other casualties were the few autumn planted broad beans that survived an icy ten days early in the year, but were severely weakened in the process. Most of them have tillered so we haven’t lost them completely, but the few which staggered into spring more or less upright have now fallen. We’ll have to rethink our autumn sowings, perhaps keeping them under cover throughout the winter. It seems that it’s the dehydrating character of the arctic winds that almost does more damage than the temperature alone. Last week until Good Friday we were wearing T shirts and enjoying temperatures approaching 20C (70F). This afternoon as I write this, there is sleet and hail strafing the green in a fierce wind.

April being the cruellest month you can spend quite a bit of time rooting around in the stony rubbish to see what’s survived the winter. The nicest thing is finding that below ground, one of those congregations of dry and hollow remains is sprouting green shoots. Today it was the turn of the fennel. In the autumn during the great sort-out we moved angelica, fennel and lovage into a bed next to the new pond which eventually will be home to all our favourite tall herbs and insect attractors. The lovage is already a foot tall, the angelica seems not to have survived (but who knows?) and today we dug up the fennel only to discover it’s sprouting below the soil. Having read that herb fennel is a surly neighbour to most of the other plants we grow in that bed, we took the opportunity to relocate it in another perennial bed behind the shed. The pleasure that such little discoveries brings is beyond price; each opening bud and flower is a blow against the rule of winter. The little line of new bare root trees arrived rather small and in one instance frail; but I knew if I returned them the chance of replacement this season would be zero. Madame is marvellous at coaxing life out of no-hope bargains. I remember we once had a brief competition with another potential buyer of the most forlorn scrap of rhubarb in a pot I’ve ever seen a nursery attempt to sell. Madame won the contest (as she always does) and the plant has thrived so much we’ve had to split it twice – it cost £1.

I couldn’t countenance a year without angelica, it’s just so stately and beautiful, but it’s a biennial and so although the replacements we sowed in the greenhouse two months ago have germinated we won’t have a fresh supply until next year. For decades I’ve thought about candying some of the stems but I’ve never got around to it because cutting them off when they’re still tender seems sacrilegious. However, you can almost never find it in the shops (in the UK at least) and for me the sweet green and fragrant strips are an essential ingredient of the Christmas sherry trifle as taught to me by my old friend Gill Lough.

After my mention of Uncle Charles in the last posting, my sister reminded me that we had “learned” to milk a cow when staying there with the aid of the outside tap and a pair of rubber gloves. You may laugh, but that’s the exact method used by our teacher when Madame and me did a course on keeping goats. Charles – always known as Uncle Char also had a “garage” made from the empty packing case in which cars were once delivered. He could just squeeze his Austin A35 van into it, but it would collapse every time he reversed out, removing the only solid foundation for the trapezoid box to lean upon. My sister also reminded me that the door to the tiny dairy in which the cream was clotted was painted green. Our working lives may be logical and deductive but our most powerful memories are always sensual. These ghostly presences have a more powerful effect on us than we willingly acknowledge and I often wonder if the very specificity of our gardening tastes, down to the exact plants that we must have to constitute our ideal gardens, isn’t a forlorn attempt to recapture the moments when our memories were at their most plastic.

At the end of the new row of trees (it’s really tiny!) there’s a space for one last newcomer. I’ll probably dig deeper and get a container grown tree for this last one which absolutely must – without any doubt – be a greengage. Even if it never bears a single edible plum I want – no I need – it to be there for us to look at every day, next to the Victoria and the Shropshire damson and know that I have honoured this part, at least, of my grandfather’s gift. The greengage is a small miracle of perfume and sweetness and he grew them at The Crest, his smallholding in the Chilterns.

Life can be driven by all sorts of irrelevancies like expediency and ambition or plain self-interest. For me (for us) the allotment allows us to live life, in short moments at least, as an enacted poem because nothing that’s remembered can ever finally die.

The millpond of our lives is disturbed by ten burly policemen.

I had intended to write a post about the – shortly to be ended – peace and quiet of the city while the tourists have gone. I hardly need add to the thousands of words that have been written about nature and its beneficial effects and it’s mostly true, save for the reservations I mentioned a few days ago. We’ve had wonderfully quiet walks along the river and up the canal – undisturbed by hen parties on narrow boats or young men dressed as pirates.

There was a tremendously amusing moment a couple of days ago as we were sitting on the canalside enjoying the sunshine when we heard a very loud voice performing one half of a conversation, the other being in her earpiece. Why people find it necessary to hold the phone three feet from their face and shout at it is a bit of a mystery. Perhaps it’s so they can watch the other participant on the video screen- who knows? But anyway this young woman, dressed entirely in black slowed down when she saw us and taking a wide path around us hissed into the phone “I’m just passing two elderly people!”

The canal, and the river too, was like a millpond

  • and the inverted reflection of the trees, houses and the sky blessed the whole view with perfect symmetry. You felt you were looking beyond the surface of the water into an infinite depth. Cleveland House never looked more Georgian or more stately as it straddled the canal above a tunnel which was dug purely to protect the wealthy patrons of Sydney Gardens from having to see the bargees. It was built as a toll house above the canal and the tolls were collected by means of a basket lowered through the floor of the house.

Pellitory of the wall - Parietaria judaica
Pellitory of the wall

Alongside Cleveland House I spotted a patch of pellitory of the wall – Parietaria judaica growing as you might expect, on a wall. It’s not the kind of plant that you’d likely notice, with its inconspicuous flowers but it once had some fame as a useful medicinal herb for urinary problems. Culpeper really rated it and I dried a bunch last year but haven’t had occasion to try it out!

Crossing the canal by way of an iron bridge, we found a group of love token padlocks each one, no doubt, carrying a story that only the lovers will know. Sydney Gardens was full of sunbathers – it was lovely.

Bath felt really strange when the lockdown began but we’ve so enjoyed being able to cross the centre of town with all the shops closed and streets virtually empty. Sixty years ago, in Bristol, the shops in Whiteladies Road and the rest of Clifton all closed on Saturday afternoons and that was when Clifton village (where the Brunel suspension bridge is), was at its Georgian best. That’s what it was like here for a few weeks, but if the non-stop carnival on the green outside is anything to go by, most of our neighbours think it’s all over. I think to myself, it’s not over until people stop dying, but the shopkeepers and hoteliers are getting quite wet-lipped at the prospect of “putting it behind us”.

But back in the Potwell Inn, the work on the allotment has been relentless. This weather – very hot and dry for a couple of weeks now – means watering every day. The tender plants are fairly rattling out of the greenhouse, and the first wave of broad beans has almost all been harvested. The overwintering Aquadulce Claudia have given us about 30 lbs of beans in their pods, which translates into around five pounds of shelled beans.,and they freeze really well. Elsewhere the frost damaged runner beans and borlotti beans have all been replaced (we always grow spares) and are beginning to climb their poles at about six inches a day. The earliest asparagus is now being allowed to develop its leaves and we’re harvesting the middle and late varieties. Once again, the 12′ by 4′ bed provides all that we need. The first flowers are setting on the outdoor tomatoes and we’ve abundant pollinators arriving constantly on the allotment, attracted by all the nectar rich flowers we’ve scattered everywhere.

The view of the green from our front window.

These warm nights have made sure I was awake with the lark, and first thing in the morning the green is usually quiet aside from our regular martial arts couple, training and perhaps a dog walker or two. For the rest of the day it’s becoming busier. It’s used a lot for drug dealing because there are so many escape routes inaccessible to cars and some properly dodgy looking characters pass through every day. We also have (hardly a coincidence) a very large number of homeless people with multiple mental health and addiction issues who sit in noisy groups on the green. Many people find them intimidating, but moving them on isn’t helping to solve their problems and they leave us alone.

Yesterday we noticed two police cars parked up on the main road and right opposite where we live we saw a young woman hiding behind a tree clearly watching for someone. She didn’t look at all like the usual drug customer but we thought no more of it until this morning when all hell was let loose and ten police, three police cars and two ambulances converged on the green, pursued a young man into the woods, and brought him back out again protesting loudly. I’ve no idea what they were detaining him for, but they should, perhaps, have thought about bringing along a sniffer dog because this afternoon the same young man walked boldly into the woods at exactly the point he’d gone in earlier – presumably to retrieve his stash and jump over the fence, never to be seen until next time. I tell you there’s never a dull moment at the Potwell Inn – very edgy, you might say.

The hungry gap is officially over.

Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.

The rats have been busy

But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.

Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.

But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.

Pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age.

However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.

Broad beans

So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.

Split level gardening

Orion’s dog nights

I can’t say that these days between the solstice and twelfth night are dog days because that description is reserved to the early weeks of August when everything is hot, sweaty and lethargic.  But the dog’s in there up to his shining teeth, on clear nights when you can see Orion’s belt and track to the left and there’s Sirius in all his shining brightness.

Orion was the first constellation I learned to identify for the entirely unworthy reason that my birthday being in December, my younger self took that as an invitation to party until term restarted in January – which meant that I spent a lot of excited and drunken nights wondering at the stars and what they might mean. Sirius was Orion’s hunting dog and so I feel bold to claim that these dog nights in December and January are the counterparts of their warm equivalents in summer; a time when not much work but a lot of wondering gets done.

However, work we must, whenever the weather clears for a few hours because when spring arrives in maybe three months, there will be no time for pondering and bed building. Neither will there be time to wonder what we should be growing and where the new compost bins need to go: we need to be ready.  We’ve more plants overwintering than ever this year, and today Madame planted out the last of the early broad beans while I got on with building another path and the base for the compost bins.  The first batch we planted last week have almost doubled in size already.  They’re Aquadulce Claudia so they’re perfectly capable of surviving the winter, and when we took them out of the greenhouse the roots were searching beyond the ends of the long Root-Trainers so they were more than ready to go. The peas too (Douce Provence) are doing well under their protective fleece, and the garlic, shallots and onions are well away, although it’s winter now. The allotment feels positive – as if it’s having a good time too.

I’m loathe to use any growing space for what might be thought of as a utility area, but I’ve become more conviced than ever that we need to up our game and we finally decided on three 4’X4′ bays in the middle of the plot and with a wide path beside it. We’ll treat compost just like any other crop and give it the best conditions and constituents we can so that our production will increase to meet our demand – less buying in and expense all round.

We also moved a rhubarb plant and two fennels that suddenly seemed as if they were in the wrong place.  This is a great time of the year for moving the furniture around – a couple of weeks ago we moved another rhubarb (Timperly early) and it’s already rewarded us with some new buds.

But these short days still feel like a holiday.  The seeds have all arrived, the heated propagators are cleaned and ready to go with the earliest sowings of chillies and with working time so limited we also need to take stock, take a big breath and prepare for next season. There’s much to celebrate and we’ve learned so much this season.  Every garden or allotment we’ve ever grown has had its own personality.  There are things it does easily and others it needs help with. Soil is as various as the people that till it, and our relationship with it grows and deepens like our relationship with each other.  On days like today the Potwell Inn merges imperceptibly with our real everyday lives and it feels good. The earth is very forgiving.