If you ask me ‘why bother?’

IMG_5264Sometimes, when it’s snowing and you have to go up to the allotment to clear the nets, or when it’s pouring with rain, or so hot that even walking up there makes you sweat, it’s easy to ask that question and the answer is in the photo. If you’ve ever seen better true spinach, fat, fresh and bursting with life – in a supermarket – I’ll eat my new and beloved hat. This is the season for true spinach in the UK at least, and it’s also the season when the garden centres are rammed with people wanting to grow something, anything to make contact with that strange and powerful urge that must be encoded into our DNA. We went today to buy more seed trays and compost and I was happy to queue up ten deep at the checkout because every single customer was on to the same thing as me.  As I often used to say at live music events, if the authorities knew how much fun this was they’d tax it or close it down. If I have one criticism of garden centres it’s their eagerness to get tender plants out sooner than they really should, which must lead to many disappointments and losses for inexperienced gardeners.

Back at the Potwell Inn, the hotbed has excelled itself in spite of my own lack of experience and we’ve been eating lettuce and lovely radishes.  Elsewhere on the allotment the container potatoes seem to need earthing up every other day, and the others, planted into the soil, are beginning to pop up enough to start modestly ridging them.  Our decision to eschew any more asparagus pickings until next year has provoked a tremendous response from the plants.  The apple trees are in full blossom although the grapes caught the frost just as they did last year.  Back then, we were devastated twice – firstly because we foolishly heeded the advice of a famous TV gardener that it was OK to prune in the early spring.  It wasn’t, and the plants bled their sap copiously to the point where we feared for their survival. Trust me, autumn pruning is safer. Then the frost all but destroyed the swelling buds. Amazingly the vine threw another bunch of buds and we had a tremendous crop. So rule two for allotmenteers is – ‘never despair, plants are tougher than you’d ever imagine.” I can’t remember rule one by the way but it’s almost certainly about not giving up.

Peas, broad beans and carrots are up and the herb plots are full of energy.  We decided while we were down at Heligan that we would expand the number of mints that we grow and so we came back with four more varieties that we’ll plant apart to avoid the possibility that they’ll all do the hokey cokey and taste the same.

IMG_5265In the flat the chillies are actually in flower and need repotting into their final sized pots. This is always the conundrum.  If you sow too early you land up with a lot of tender plants that need to be indoors for a couple of weeks at least before you dare move them into the unheated greenhouse. So just as the M5 was utterly congested yesterday as we drove back from Heligan, so too is our plant supply. Every spare  surface within a yard of a window is pressed into service. We were so busy today I didn’t have time to ID the flowering wild plants I photographed, so that list – plus the list of potato varieties they’re growing at Heligan will have to wait.

But this photo, taken down near the charcoal burner at Heligan did amuse me!

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Trying to create chilli heaven!

IMG_5005If there’s a downside to allotmenteering (or gardening for that matter) it’s how to get a break during the growing season. I suppose our allotment has the additional problem that all the water is turned off between late October and mid-March, and so we early starters need to make our own provision. Back at the Potwell Inn, we have just under fifty tender capsicum seedlings in the two propagators.  Normally I water them once a day with a fine spray of very dilute seaweed growth stimulator, but I thought I’d do an experiment to see if I could use capillary matting attached to a large water source.  In its first iteration I passed a wide strip of matting from a small bucket, through the ventilator of the propagator and under the matting inside. A rapid flood occurred because evidently too much water was flowing from the source.  So I wondered if the flow rate correlated with the width of the connecting strip, and I halved the width, but that also wicked too much water into the propagator.  Quick rumble of the little grey cells and so next I wondered if the amount of wicking that was submerged in the source bucket was the problem. The solution was to shorten the wick and attach it to a wine bottle cork with two drawing pins – as per photo – a very cheap cistern arrangement. That’s been running all day and it’s certainly slowed down the transfer of water to the propagator.  If that still proves too much I’ll halve the wick width once again and carry on with the cork cistern – total cost about a pound.  The next stage is to work out how large the cistern needs to be for us to have a week away. I should say that the lights are timer controlled to give 12 hours of fairly intense daylight at 24C.

IMG_3868Up at the allotment I spent a couple of hours yesterday reinstating the timed dripper system to water the seedlings in the greenhouse. It took some time last year, researching the available gadgets,  to make sure the one we bought would function at the very low pressure provided by the water butts. This battery operated model has been reliable for a whole season, and works on a reasonably small head of water.  Given that there’s no clean water available on the site for some weeks yet, I was so pleased when I rigged up a temporary tap from the water butts to find fresh clean rainwater – 1000 litres of it – flowing reliably through the system. Madame had taken a look at the rainwater in the trough but someone appeared to have washed a paintrush in it so it had a nasty blueish hue and was almost certainly contaminated with anti-fungal chemicals.

IMG_3876The other independent watering system we’ve used is soaker hose which we installed under the tomatoes last season and which worked very effectively over the first 2/3 of its length. That’s a point worth noticing, the hose we used was years old and had become kinked.  It would probably have worked under mains pressure, but trickle fed from a water butt wasn’t working at all.

I haven’t photographed the watering can but that became the mainstay of the watering regime during the hot weather last season.

None of the hoses – large or small – last forever, and under intense heat and sunlight most of the plastic hoses in the dripper and soaker hose systems had degraded and become stiff and liable to disconnect themselves.  I’d recommend changing them annually if you want complete reliability. Allotmenteering is incredibly rewarding but even the most dedicated of us need to factor in a degree of resilience against holidays or unanticipated absences, and that can’t safely be done at the last minute. With climate change well and truly in charge we really have no idea what climatic conditions we’re facing season by season.  Half of my time this winter has been spent mitigating potental excess rainfall and now I’m fully absorbed in planning for drought and heat. Ah well, life’s rich tapestry in the 21st century but you’d think there might be a bit more action at the top.  We’re not going to save the world with 1000 litres of water and a bit of clapped out soaker hose!

Moon vindicated (possibly)

IMG_4246So there’s idiocy and confirmation bias. Idiocy is thinking that I possess some sort of magical power to make things grow, and confirmation bias is when I do an experiment and skew the interpretation of the result towards my preferred, or expected conclusion. For instance, many years ago when I was a curate one of my jobs was to take emergency calls from the local hospital on Saturday nights so I could say a prayer for people as they were they dying – (only if they’d asked, I hasten to add). Three times I was called out to someone who, when I went back on Sunday morning to take communion to the wards, I found sitting up cheerfully in bed. I began to suspect (hope) that my prayers were being more effective than I had previously believed.  When I mentioned it to the doctor he patted me on the arm and said he thought it was more likely to be the blood transfusions. So to backtrack a bit, idiocy would be to believe that I possessed supernatural powers, and confirmation bias would happen if I used my very limited data to prove the claim.

And so to the Habanero chillies:

 … this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season.

Habaneros (Scotch Bonnet) and the other members of the Capsicum chinense varieties have something of a reputation for being slow and tricky to germinate. This could be a rumour spread by specialist growers to inflate their sales of plants, but in my experience they can be – well – difficult.  So exactly a week ago I sowed all my chilli varieties in the propagator in my office/study/junk room. In the light of last year’s experience I changed several of the variables, making the drawing of conclusions almost impossible.  I changed the seed-sowing compost and  I increased the propagator temperature significantly to 25C and I used a different model of lamp which seems both whiter and more intense, and after I’d done all that and watered them with a very dilute seaweed growth stimulant I remarked in this blog that coincidentally the moon was waxing in its first quarter.

Even the seed packet notes that the ‘chinense’ varieties can take up to a month to germinate.  This morning – Oh Joy – they were germinating, not quite like mustard and cress on blotting paper, but lustily, vigorously, beautifully. Sensibly the little voice in my head says – don’t count your chickens – but I’ve not only counted them, I’ve mentally written to Tesco to offer a contract.  They’re going to be very short of chillies if we leave Europe. So – seven days and three of five varieties are poking their tiny heads up into my artificial chilli paradise, and the question is – is it the moon? to which the answer can only be where’s the evidence?  I’m such a hardboiled sceptic but between idiocy and confirmation bias there’s a rolling expanse of comfort blankets, lucky charms and pixie dust and I’ll buy into anything that keeps them going and avoids them all damping off, because I’m human and when I woke up today and looked at them I was so on fire with joy I made a gallon of stock, strained the raspberry vinegar and cooked meatballs in tomato sauce – our own of course – and all before Madame stirred – so the Potwell Inn will be living high on the hog for a while.

I forgot to mention yesterday that when we took the fleece off the asparagus bed, the deep layer of very smelly seaweed we mulched it with in the autumn has almost completely disappeared into the soil.  This is exactly what the gardener at Heligan said would happen – in fact she said there would be just a few bits of crispy seaweed lying on the surface. Her prediction was completely correct, so many thanks for the idea.

In the moment, in the past

I think it starts here, in the photo on the left. If you walked to the narrow road and turned right, there’s a corner to the left and a drop down a small hill. The road was surfaced with small flint pebbles set in tar.  Just at the bottom was a gate from which a track led past a field that, in summer, was decorated with stooks of hay – I remember that as children we were allowed to draw the cut hay into piles with big wooden rakes before it was stacked in a hayrick.  On the left was a prefabricated building where a small engineering business went on. At the end of the track was The Crest, my grandparents’ house. My Grandfather was a carpenter from a line of carpenters that I’ve traced back to the eighteenth century and who lived in the same place for so long, a row of cottages is named after them. Only just over five feet tall with a roll-up dangling (usually unlit) from his mouth all day, he was a  carpenter in the family business and a smallholder of just a few acres. He uttered curses like the resurgence at Vaucluse, mostly against God who, being a militant atheist, he didn’t believe in.  The curses were broadcast in order to annoy passing sunday school teachers. He was entirely self-taught; a lifelong Marxist and member of the Labour Party, and he was the best read person I ever met as a child and, even better, he would lend me his books to read.  He taught me to use a slide rule and logarithms, and in his desk (utterly forbidden territory) he had a rotary slide rule. He could make rainbows with a stirrup pump and had a greenhouse with a toad in it called Charlie, and a collection of pianolas in his shed that we were allowed to play with.  He kept pigs and cows and hens and grew vegetables and he was unquestionably the most influential person in my life – half of which I’ve spent trying not to be like him and the other half doing the opposite.

So today I prepared the propagator and pots ready for the chillies I wrote about yesterday, to be sown, and you now know that the first two paragraphs of this posting are connected in a very deep way. When I get my thumbs into the dirt I almost always think of him and today I would have loved to have shown him what I was up to. He was always experimenting with growing new things.  He grew and dried his own tobacco, I can remember it hung to dry under the eaves of his shed, and it smelt so filthy he was banned from smoking it in the pub. But he would have understood why all this trouble to grow chillies is worthwhile, just as an experiment, just because you might discover something interesting.

And so the new season is poised to begin, a couple of weeks ahead of the game, and I’m already thinking that when all these tender plants germinate there will rapidly come a time when they need repotting and then what?  However, all gardeners will also recognise that there are times when you need to rise above the facts, and this is one of them. We’ve thrown a line aboard the season and now we’re (almost) tied to it wherever it takes us, rain, shine, frost, wind snow and drought.  Words will be spoken as the tide of pots spreads across the flat in front of every South facing window and the thought of a polytunnel will fill my lustful thoughts – ‘when did that happen?’, I wonder, ‘when did polytunnels replace the desires of (what Dylan Thomas called)  ‘my green age’.

“24 degrees centigrade”, I command the thermostat – “Aye aye, skipper” comes the reply -and the great game is on.  We’ll win some, lose some and learn some too.

 

The Potwell Inn 2019 chilli quest

IMG_4375So here are this season’s hopefuls in order of their capacity to create fear, or (looking on the bright side) to cure minor infestations of intestinal worms. As I mentioned the other day, we’ve dropped Pearls and Jalapenos off the list because even in last year’s sunshine they didn’t get all that hot.

  • Hungarian Hot Wax – 1,500 – 15,000 SHU
  • F1 Apache – 70,000 – 80,000 SHU
  • F1 Romital – 100,000 – 150,000 SHU
  • Habanero – 100,000 – 350,000 SHU
  • Bhut Jolokia – 1,000,000+ SHU

This, naturally, is a high risk strategy because knowing as little as I do about growing chillies the deficiency in heat could be down to a corresponding deficiency in the allotmenteer and next season could lead to heat and generosity on an epic scale as I’ll need to give them all away.  All I know is that I was quite comfortable eating the F1 Apaches straight off the plants.  But chillies seem to have become a bit of a man thing with its own secret lore and language, a bit like carp fishing I suppose. I don’t doubt that there are secret chilli clubs where seed is exchanged under vows of secrecy and feed is prepared on the night of the full moon using bats’ blood and Cornish seaweed – only Cornish will do it, they say.

I have not yet told Madame about my plan and since she only reads this blog infrequently I’ll wait for the loud “WHAT???”  Meanwhile news from an old friend in Tasmania who says he’s pretty sure they’ve suffered the hottest weather since records began.  The photo he sent showed his house surrounded by smoke from bush fires and although he says they’re in no danger it must be a worry.  He asked if it was making news here in the UK? Well yes it is, but I’m not sure it’s being connected to climate change. This week we’ve heard about unprecedented ice melt in Greenland  – am I worried?  I most certainly am, almost as worried as I am about the world leaders who are doing nothing about it.  Do they imagine their wealth will go on protecting them when the crops fail and the mass migrations away from the flooded coasts take place?

 

Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.

Thinking about chillies

Why think about chillies anyway? – after all it’s November.  But then we like to cheer ourselves up at the Potwell Inn by reading seed catalogues and planning next year, so chillies are among the earliest seeds to be sown, and it’s always best to order seeds early because the seed companies often run out of popular varieties quite quickly when the season gets going.  According to my notes we sowed our chilli seeds in the last week of January this year. We sowed a little round and mild chilli called ‘Pearls’, some Jalapenos, a mid-heat F1 Hybrid called Apache and finlly habaneros.  This is the first year we’ve ever tried to grow them, so I wasn’t expecting miracles, but we’ve now got a couple of heated propagators with LED lights, so it seemed the obvious time to give it a go. I think we underestimated the appetite of the young plants for heat and light, so initially we ran the propagator at about 22C which turned out to be at the very bottom end of the required temperature.  The milder chillies germinated anyway, but the habaneros didn’t show and by the time I realized my error and turned up the heat I think I’d lost them so we got 0% germination for those. Next year we’ll at least get the temperature right from the outset. The other mistake, I fancy, was using pure Sylva Grow instead of a soil based compost.  Like most allotmenteers these day we’re trying to avoid peat, but that leaves us in a bit of a quandary with finding the appropriate equivlent sowing compost – any ideas would be most gratefully accepted!  I think next season we’ll make up our own mixture of peat free compost and soil if no better advice comes along.

As ever we had masses more plants than we could use, so we gave loads away to family and fellow allotmenteers, and in the exceptionally hot weather they all grew very well. The Jalapenos did as well outside as they did in the greenhouse. The pearls had a wonderful flaIMG_4753vour but almost no heat at all, and the jalapenos too even milder than we expected.  The only one that gave us any heat was the Apache, but we missed the habaneros when it came to making chilli sauce this autumn. I was never that keen on chillies but as time’s gone on my taste for using them in the kitchen has increased, and we both seem to be adapting to the hotter flavours.

The sauce recipe was from James Wong’s “How to eat better” and it’s turned out beautifully fragrant as well as quite hot – we seem to be romping through it, and I’ve added it to all sorts of dishes to give a touch of background heat. Next season I think we’ll leave out the Pearls and possibly the Jalapenos as well, and go for the hotter ones again.  Our problem is that the greenhouse is terribly small at 6X4 and one of the standout successes this season were the greenhouse cherry tomatoes.  Apart from being delicious fresh, they’ve been brilliant dried and preserved in oil, and so we definitely need to make space for them. Then of course there were red peppers and aubergines as well.  Perhaps we need a bigger greenhouse …….

We certainly need more space.  We’ve been getting rude letters from the managing agents at the flat because we’ve occupied a little bit of the landing outside the flat for storing the odd barrel of wine and stored veg – life essentials as you might say. They claim it’s a fire hazard but really they’re just cross, because notwithstanding the fact that they make a good living from us tenants, they feel obliged to treat us as dangerous low lifes because we don’t own our own property. I’ve buried a few people in my time and I never saw anyone yet stuff a house into a coffin so they could take it with them.  “There are no pockets in a shroud” I say.  Anyway, below is a picture of our living room window in the spring.  We’ve got four south facing windows at he front of the flat and they all look pretty much like this by March.

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