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.

Home again, home again, Jiggety Jig.

The herb at the top is French tarragon – a revelatory herb, like chervil.

In the absence of either a market or a fat pig, back on the allotment we swapped the wild plants of West Wales for the domestic sort and took the first really decent harvest of the season. It’s not that we haven’t been harvesting for ages, we’ve had a steady supply of rhubarb and asparagus; radishes and lettuce and so on but today was the first time we harvested a complete five a day meal’s worth – new potatoes, broad (fava) beans, beetroots, garlic and carrots. The carrots were thinnings from a container experiment, and the potatoes too came out of one of the deep containers which have been a tremendous success because we’ve been able to move them around the plot wherever there’s a temporary patch of empty ground. Thanks to our allotment neighbours nothing was lost during the little heatwave while we were away and apart from a hard session of weeding, the plot was looking good.

In the beginning of the season we filled every spare inch with calendula and tagetes and today we had to carry out a radical thinning to give the others room to breathe. There were coriander, angelica, lavender, evening primrose and Nicotiana rapidly being outgrown and so we had to uproot dozens of the more vigorous calendulas to bring the rest on. There’s nothing more unnatural than a natural looking garden! The garlic was just a quick peep to see how they’re fattening up and the rest will be left for a few weeks yet; but the perfume of the single bulb filled the kitchen when we got home.

The few survivors of the overwintered broad beans haven’t done well, having been felled by a fierce and cold east wind – they dehydrated and weakened in spite of our improvised screens. The later sown replacements have grown quickly and well but being far more tender they were more vulnerable to blackfly and the ladybirds haven’t really got up to full speed yet. Perhaps they too were badly affected by the cold and wet conditions. Usually we have dozens overwintering in our window frames at home but this year there were none.

Inside the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers are all setting fruits and once again the main work was removing side shoots. Even the melons have taken off and we’re waiting for the first three fruits to set before removing all the rest to give the smaller number a chance of filling out and ripening. The Douce Provence peas too were afflicted in the same way but again the spring sown replacements are much better. Of the three varieties we’re growing – Alderman, Douce Provence and Robinson’s Show Perfection; the last of the three is winning hands down although we have to fight the pigeons for them always so this year we’re growing them up the inside of the fruit cage which at least gives us the first five feet of vines. The greatest challenge, growing peas, is giving them time to fatten up, but getting them in before the pea moth strikes. Allotments become hotspots for all sorts of pests, and this year we’ve kept all of the garlic, onions, carrots and parsnips under the finest insect netting. It certainly spoils the appearance of the plot but we’re hoping to grow some leeks free of allium leaf miner this year. Once again we’re trying a variety of pot leek from Robinsons and it’s looking good so far. I guess if you’re going to grow organically the only option is to use insect barrier netting where the pests are tiny and bird netting for everything else. As for slugs and snails it’s clear that healthy plants don’t get attacked nearly so much but this year we’ve resorted to a nematode treatment because weather stressed plants are the go-to slug food. All I would say, though, is that you should ignore the photos on the seed packets. Typically, lettuces have a few yellow leaves on the outside, but you just peel them off – as you do with many other vegetables, put the peelings on the compost heap and suddenly they look just like the ones in the catalogue.

The rest of the day was spent building a sturdy frame with bean sticks to grow cucumbers and a winter squash up. The cucurbits can take up a huge amount of space in a small allotment and growing them vertically makes a lot of space.

And yes we had a wonderful time in St Davids, and did lots of reading, writing talking and walking. This lovely adder came to say hello on the path one day, and we watched a very large seal who looked up intently at us from the safety of the sea below us. The bird highlight was a ring ouzel – only the second I’ve ever seen. We also saw dozens of manx shearwaters skimming across the sea in the evenings as they went out in long skeins to feed. We’ve camped at the other end of the bay, and in a tent it’s easy to hear the haunting sounds they make as they fly back low over the fields to Skomer where they nest. It’s a kind of wheezy whistle that, the first time you hear it, makes your hair stand on end – like the cry of a fox or a vixen on heat – except that particular cry gets dubbed on to every night scene on every thriller shown on television!

There were times when we sat on the steps of the van watching the sun setting on the horizon of glittering sea, when I thought I could stay here all summer – but the allotment too has its moments of joy. If the last couple or three postings have felt a bit too philosophical, I’m sorry. Very selfishly I do my thinking at the laptop and I’m struggling to find a way of drawing all the threads together. Global extinctions, climate emergencies, pandemics and economic crises are, it seems to me, all closely related. Is it our culture that’s diseased and no longer fit for purpose? We’re all getting agitated, angry and paranoid about things and that’s not the mindset that our perilous situation deserves. Can we really save the earth one cabbage at a time? Well, we’ve tried everything else.

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.