Digging the dirt – could do better

No doubt this derelict shack will be appearing on AirBnb sometime soon but all that glitters is not gold.

There’s a huge difference between running cattle and sheep on 5000 hectares (12,300 acres) and growing vegetables on an allotment; but the starting point is exactly the same – earth.

Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.

Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:

  • Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
  • Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
  • Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
  • Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas

Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.

The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.

If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.

So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.

So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?

Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.

But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.

Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.

* “But a voice sounds in my ear. Why so fast, mortal?”

The moon rising over the apple trees behind our borrowed cottage in Lleyn

Full marks if you already know the title and author of the quotation at the top of this post. RS Thomas of course; poet and once parish priest of Aberdaron, just down the road from here. Sometimes when I feel completely dry and empty from too much reading and too many hopes squandered by politicians, RS is the one I turn to because he was one of the few poets who dared to stay in that mindspace and wrestle a blessing from it.

Coming back yesterday from our apple scrumping expedition we drank cider and sat peacefully in the sunshine, looking westwards towards Ireland. I’d struggled through the first 100 pages of Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society” and I was finding it difficult to see a way forward beyond his gloomy picture of a technological future that seemed to grow like a tumour; vascularizing and metastasizing until the life systems of the earth collapse. Are all the greener, more regenerative alternatives I’ve been happy to read about really just distractions from the only show in town?

We may quote here Jacques Soustelle’s well-known remark of May, 1960, in reference to the atomic bomb. It expresses the deep feeling of us all: “Since it was possible, it was necessary.” Really a master phrase for all technical evolution

Quoted in “The Technological Society”

So that Syngenta factory in Huddersfield that we drove past three years ago, and which produces Paraquat to sell in only in the developing world because it’s banned here – is it there by virtue of some iron law of technological development? How do I know what they make there? Because of a case in the High court in which they were fined £200,000 for a leak amounting to three and a half tons of the deadly stuff. How do I know what it does? Because a friend from art school committed suicide with it, and also I was once called to the bedside of a woman in hospital who was lucid and just about conscious and waiting for her organs to fatally break down. She was sedated but the nurses were in pieces.

Ellul seemed to think it was a logical error to suppose that any individual could alter the course of technological development but history has challenged his pessimistic view. In fact paraquat was responsible for so many deaths, both deliberate and accidental that it was banned across the developed world. That it’s still being made in Huddersfield is due to the continued sale of the weed killer in the developing world where, lacking regulation and safety precautions, the company wilfully allows the sale of a mortally dangerous compound. That’s no kind of iron law of technological development but a sign of corporate greed and moral failure at the same level as arms manufacturers who absolve themself from any responsibility for the use of their products to kill and maim. Printing a warning not to ingest a product on the side of a large container that will almost certainly be broken down into unmarked bottles is of no help to a semi-literate subsistence farmer.

Sixty years on from the publication of Ellul’s book we’ve experienced decades of economic growth, and nuclear weapons are way down the list of most peoples’ preoccupations. What bothers us since the Berlin wall came down is that the iron laws of history turned out to be no such thing, and the iron laws of economics have left most of us wondering what all that economic growth has actually brought us in terms of human happiness; and why is there always an enemy worth fighting a war against. And of course, now the earth’s vital systems are closing down; fatally poisoned. But only technology remains untouchable; the shape-shifting beast of the apocalypse like the one with the body of a lion and the head of a man that *Yeats saw in his vision and *RS Thomas mentions: ” …. [whose] hour come round at last,  slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?”

Well, not so fast! RS says to himself, and weighs the power of the religious past against the power of the “spiritus mundi” – the consciousness, the culture, the spirit of the age. Are we that much in the thrall and power of a technology that watches our every move, predicts and shapes the choices we make to steer us away from dangerously insurrectionary thoughts. Do we really love that technology which impoverishes our lives and takes away jobs without the least scruple and sends the victims to the food banks. Do we really love the technology that feeds us with industrialised food that makes us sick and obese and then blames us. Do we really love the technology that disseminates lies at the speed of light and corrupts democracy. And when we talk about freedom isn’t it usually the trivial kind of freedom to choose between a dozen identical small objects of desire in a supermarket? If it looks like a turd and smells like a turd it probably is a turd and sprinkling a few sparkles on it won’t change its nature.

Of course technology’s principal beneficiaries would like us to believe that there is no alternative, but we’ve seen organic farming and gardening grow and grow. We’ve seen rewilding schemes demonstrating that life without chemicals is possible. We’ve seen regenerative farming gain serious support at government level. We’ve seen the power of vegetarians and vegans to force change in the offer of the food industry. We’ve seen the extraordinary growth of awareness of the coming linked crises of economic collapse, global climatic disaster and the mass extinction of pollinating insects. More particularly we’ve seen how nervous the industrial food complex and the agrochemical industry have become; spending millions on disputing with and then and trashing scientists who challenge their autonomy; funding fake experiments with fake results and spending more millions on lobbyists to bypass the science altogether and knobble the politicians directly.

Why shouldn’t it be true that the writing is on the wall and they know it. All epochal changes or paradigm shifts are like one economist described going bankrupt – it’s very very slow and then it’s very fast.

So now’s the time to hold fast.

And if you’ve stayed with me all these thousand or so words here’s a picture taken today at Porth Neigwl in the teeth of a south westerly gale and sheeting rain at times. Known in English as Hell’s Mouth the wide bay is the scene of innumerable shipwrecks; and reading the information board today I discovered an ironic reference to the fact that a small schooner named The Twelve Apostles was beached and completely wrecked by a fierce storm. Luckily the crew all survived. The problem is that there’s no escape from a southwesterly gale and so the ships – and there were many of them – were inexorably blown in to their doom. Can’t think of a better image of a paradigm shift!

* The WB Yeats poem that I refer to is “The Second Coming”; and RS Thomas wrote the equally marvellous poem “The Moon in Lleyn”.

Seek no further, pig’s snout but sadly no goose arse

We haven’t had such a rewarding hour of apple scrumping in years – I mean, catalogues are one thing but an actual orchard full of native Welsh apple varieties, ripe on their trees – well, what would any apple lover do? After photographing and sampling as many as we dared we wandered off – all innocence – with our pockets bulging and our minds singing with the intense flavours. At one point I found Madame sitting on a bench crunching on a variety with no label and joyfully transported to the times she used to work in a research station orchard.

If you’ve grown tired of supermarket apples; bland and oversweet for the most part, these native Welsh apples might be worth considering – but you’d have to grow them yourself or perhaps better still start a community orchard where you could grow loads of apples; eaters, cookers, dual purpose and cider apples with delightful and eccentric names. The thing about apples is that they’re promiscuous inter breeders and only very rarely come true from seed because pollinating insects travel from tree to tree carrying pollen from many different varieties. The downside is that they’re quite likely to produce inferior stock, but when a really lovely variety comes along they develop a strong local reputation and they’re very easy to grow by grafting a cutting on to a rootstock, and then every grafted tree is a clone of the mother stock. So if you’re not confident enough to do it yourself, there are specialist nurseries that will do the work for you. I just Googled “Welsh apple variety breeders uk” and loads came up. The next task is to choose a suitable rootstock which will determine the final size of the tree, and this is where you’d need to take some professional advice. For allotmenteers like us, cordons on dwarfing rootstock allow us to grow 10 varieties on our 200 square metre plot. All the rootstocks come with the letter M followed by a number. The M stands for East Malling – the research station in Kent that developed them and the number refers to the final size and habit.

The thing about apples is that they are often at their very best eaten straight from the tree, and there are so many seasonal varieties you could eat them in prime condition through early summer until autumn. Some will keep if stored carefully, and supermarkets have them stored in controlled atmospheric conditions – they’re the ones you buy in February, March and April – but they’re a shadow of the real thing.

The only thing I would add is that you shouldn’t be seduced by the romantic names and the rare designation. Most of these local varieties are habituated to extremely local conditions and what may grow well on Bardsey Island may not enjoy the milder conditions in Kent. The best thing to do would be to investigate the local varieties where you live. Our friends Kate and Nick whose smallholding is fairly high in the Brecon Beacons are growing a selection of Welsh apples at what must be near their altitude limit. The Potwell Inn in North Somerset can boast the “Beauty of Bath” and a little further north in Gloucestershire there are many local varieties straddling orchards along the River Severn. Here are a few more we sampled today:

But why are these varieties becoming so rare? Sadly many of them would be regarded as misshapen in this age of uniformity. They don’t give themselves to having all the flavour bred out of them in favour of the high yield and bombproof portability that commercial growers and supermarkets demand. Some of them are effectively biennials, and all of them can lose an entire crop if frost strikes the blossom. But when they come right they’re truly, memorably delicious and if you can only have them for a couple of weeks – does that stop you growing asparagus?

There’s something about industrial agriculture and horticulture that’s profoundly unnatural. Tell me something I don’t know – you might be thinking. Our unreconstructed 21st century view instinctively leads us to think that all our efforts in scientific breeding and selection move us in the direction of the perfect – whatever; apple, cabbage, pig even. But in a nature’s way – which is a profoundly counterintuitive way – the response to the multitude of soils and climates we have is to breed for diversity. Diversity is nature’s way of overcoming difficulties and exploiting new opportunities.

That’s precisely why we should keep a wary eye on the monopolistic instincts of the big seed companies like Monsanto, Bayer and Syngenta who are buying up huge numbers of seed varieties and taking them off the market to conduct moneymaking breeding experiments on their resistance to chemical sprays and artificial fertilisers. The next stage will be to hold us to ransom and force us to buy their patented seeds. Following up, my query about Amish farming methods yesterday I did a bit more research and quickly discovered that the publisher of the paper that claimed that Amish farmers were enthusiastic users of chemicals was a pseudo research front organisation funded at the time of publication by Monsanto. I went a bit further and discovered that the agrochemical industries spend millions of pounds supporting compromised research, dodgy publications and lobbyists. Here’s a link with further information.

The terrible truth is, in the face of the coming climate catastrophe, farmers, growers and gardeners will need to be drawing on the wisdom of the earth in providing us with so many adapted local varieties. Winds, cold and drought and changing seasons will demand new adapted varieties, many of which are being covertly put beyond our reach. I was astounded that big business employs 30,000 yes – thirty thousand – lobbyists in Brussels alone; using their money and power to influence parliaments. If you read the evidence you’ll be more than angry. Saving locally adapted seeds may be one step in the direction of saving the planet.

Just look at the size of the foundation stones in this wall!

Blackberry tourists II

The Irish sea from Tudweiliog

It’s two years since I last used the phrase blackberry tourists in a post and I won’t repeating the content in that one so, I suggest you might like to take a look at it. The search facility is so much improved on the blog these days you can type almost anything into the enquiry line and get a whole host of posts that contain the term.

The tag came from a TV film about the Lleyn Peninsula which is all it took to persuade us to come here and take a look for ourselves and – like so many others – we’ve been coming back ever since. RS Thomas the poet and parish priest back in the day would have hated us. He had a reputation for driving his Morris 1000 around the roads here at 15mph, exulting in the delays he was causing to the tourists.

Anyway we’re back again after the usual convoluted journey that takes six hours because it’s more fun to drive through the Brecon Beacons, the Cambrian Mountains and past the Berwyns in order to get to Snowdonia. We’ve driven across the mountains in snow, rain and fog and on one occasion we got thoroughly lost after a detour to look at the Arenigs so we could see the landscape that inspired John Dickson Innes to paint some of the finest post impressionist landscapes by any artist anywhere. He could beat his painting companion, the much better known Augustus John, into his own (JDI’s that is) felt hat. I’ve spent hours on the internet looking for a hat just like it, but such glorious rain shedders and shade providers are no longer needed for a largely indoor world. Yesterday we stopped at Llyn Clywedog as we usually do, for a cup of the usual flask flavoured tea and it was immediately obvious that the water level must be at least 15′ lower than we’ve ever seen it before. The changes in the weather continue to amaze us and after the warmest and driest start to September in many years we were fortunate to have unloaded the car when the first real weather front in weeks shipped up across the Irish Sea from the Atlantic. And it rained and blew all night long as the temperature dropped by approaching 10C and we woke to proper autumn; fresh, gusty and clear, with the last of the cold front moving eastwards towards Monday morning commuters searching desperately for some fuel to get them to work; and leaving small cumulus clouds scudding across towards the mountains where they will join forces once again and help to fill Llyn Clywedog.

And so we’re here armed with cameras, laptops and drawing pads – oh and a fiendishly heavy bag of books I that I intend to read. I won’t bore you (or attempt to impress you) with the complete list because I’m bound to mention them later, as I read them, but for starters I’m into Jacques Ellul’s “The Technological Society”. Sadly the £10 edition I got hold of was the cheapest and nastiest bit of badly printed kitchen paper I’ve ever seen and so if it weren’t so challengingly good I’d have thrown it on the fire. But sadly the hardback costs £109, the paperback £79 and unbelievably the Kindle edition £75. It’s a scandal that academic publishers are able to get away with it – relying on students with library access and academics who can lay off the cost against their departmental budgets. I suppose they think there aren’t enough of us poor autodidact oiks around to make them a profit. So just for the record, unless you’re desperate, avoid the cleverly named “mass market edition” which looks as if it’s been poorly scanned and had all the line spaces made smaller as if they were budget airline seats.

The object of reading the book is to try to get behind what Charles Massy calls “the mechanical mind”. I’ve written recently about the danger of a fetching turn of phrase that only seems to mean anything as long as you don’t think about it too much, and so I’ve turned to a ram-stamped and implacably logical French radical sociologist (once a member of the French Resistance – so a firm relationship between his money and his mouth) -to help guide me through a tangle of worthy verbiage and wishful thinking until I can grab the beast by the throat and cut its intellectual hamstrings. If we’re serious about saving the earth we’d better know the enemy better than they know themselves!

I’m not opposed to technology – without it I would be writing this and you wouldn’t be reading it – but it’s a useful tool and a terrible dictator if we allow ourselves to be seduced by it. So here’s a fun bit of gossip I picked up recently – names left out to protect the source (and me from being sued). A certain company that makes or designs GPS equipment increasingly used in intensive farm machinery discovered a software glitch that caused zillion pound robotic machines to run into trees. I’ll always treasure that image! The software company that was employed to sort it out suggested the cheapest remedy was a device to switch the engine off when the behemoth failed to notice the tree. But no that’s not right – and it’s the trouble with the technological mindset – all solutions must necessarily include more technology. How about getting a driver on board? …. or, dare I say, solving a hundred problems at once by not building and using these giant earth turners and chemical dumpers at all. There we are – problem solved! My invoice will be in the post.

Good days and bad ones

But first, an extraordinarily heartwarming conversation with my eight year old grandson. We were in Dyrham Park, walking along the edge of Whitefield – a stunning wildflower meadow which we haven’t managed to see for two years because of Covid. The grandchildren had all been dosed with antihistamine because their mum knew they’d be rolling around in the grass at some point during the day. It happens that their sister is given the drug as a liquid, orally and to save time the other two also got it from a small syringe this time. So oldest grandson and me were chatting about all this and we wandered into the topic of words that sound the same but are spelt differently and have different meanings. Orally and aurally came up of course – and then he said to me quite unexpectedly – “they’re called homophones”. I could have cried with joy at him even knowing the word, and -in the way that children are – he was a bit surprised (but rather pleased) at how thrilled I was. High fives all round. I love going for walks with him because he’s so eager to learn. Each time we go out I teach him the names of different flowers, plants and trees, and tell him their stories. It lights up the day for both of us.

But at the very top of this page – the one that comes up every time – there’s a photo of the same grandson walking down an avenue of limes, holding hands with his uncle Jonah’s hand. Sadly the avenue of trees no longer looks the same – and it’s for the oddest reason.

The aspect of the landscape in that particular shot caught my eye, not so much for its natural beauty, but because in reality it is so artificial. The lower leaves in the regular avenue of limes is – or rather was – clipped to such an even height above the ground it reminded me of the famous Marienbad film setting. But this wasn’t achieved by platoons of gardeners but by a wild herd of roe deer which has lived there for a couple of hundred years. Sadly the herd was all slaughtered during the Covid outbreak because of a persistent outbreak of bovine TB. It was all very hush hush in the way it happened; probably in anticipation of a fiercely negative response from the thousands of visitors who’ve grown to love them. If you live in the UK you’ll already know about the furore that’s arisen over the slaughter of a single llama for the same reason. However it’s done now and we’re promised the deer herd will be replaced as soon as possible. I simply don’t know whether the vaccines that exist for farm cattle would work for deer, but if they do I’d be saddened by the fact they weren’t used. There may be other reasons, though. Some visitors had no idea how to treat the deer as wild animals, and one ranger told me they’d had to intervene when a large group of visitors tried to corral a section of the flock in order to take photos! Deer, like all wild animals, respond badly to stress and I’ve long wondered whether TB isn’t a symptomatic disease of stressed animals.

The upshot of all this is that the grassland character is rapidly altering, with rank grasses taking over; and the lime avenue is looking distinctly ragged now. It’s amazing how quickly this has happened. The countryside as expressed in the great English parks is about as artificial as it gets; and it’s easy to see, particularly at the higher level of the park – the scrub will very soon take over when it’s no longer grazed by the deer. Eco purists and some rewilders might think this is a good idea; but I’m not so sure. All landscapes are artificial in one way or another, depending on the management strategies in place. Wildflower meadows are no more “natural” than municipal parks if by natural you mean left completely to their own devices. Each type of landscape – even (or especially) abandoned industrial sites – develops its own unique ecology. Maintaining peat bogs requires minute attention to water levels, for instance. So diversity is best maintained by deliberate management. I just don’t see how Dyrham Park can be maintained as it was – without its deer herd.

But finally, the bad news is that the badgers on the allotment eventually found a way past our barriers and finished off the sweetcorn. The video at the top was probably the marauder himself leaving the scene of the crime. And so, the fencing will be strengthened even more next year. Luckily we had a least a few feeds, and although we could wish they hadn’t broken in; we wouldn’t want to see them disappear altogether. Once again, maintaining ecological balance has its pluses and minuses. A couple of days ago I lamented the fact that there are no hedgehogs on the site, but of course badgers are one of the main predators of hedgehogs. Whenever we intervene in nature, however worthy our intentions, the results are often full of unintended consequences.

Farming, gardening, house building and transport infrastructure – to name just four of many possibilities – are all loaded with ecological consequences and ethical choices. Even a visit to a National Trust attraction involves ethical choices. The earth is a place for moral grown-ups; or at least it is if we want to save our place in it. Occasionally, on my bleaker days, I wonder if it wouldn’t be better to leave it to the plants and animals who got here first; but usually I just think – better get on with it then.

As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.

We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.

So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.

Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .

Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.

Hardening of the oughteries

Taken yesterday in Gorran Haven – who or what is “boy jowan” and is there a future for them?

The title of this post is a borrowing from Frank Lake, the inventor of Clinical Theology which has pretty much disappeared these days, but back in the day was a force for good in its attempt to make a marriage between theology and healing. Nowadays it looks like a forced marriage that was bound to fail; but this term – hardening of the oughteries – perfectly sums up for me, the danger of committing the ultimate ethical error of confusing ought with is.

On Thursday when I last posted, we were preparing for unseasonably strong winds down here in Cornwall in the far South West. An hour or so after I pressed the send button, an HM Coastguard vehicle turned up on the campsite , warning that the weather forecast had underestimated the strength of the storm that was about to make landfall, and the predicted 60 mph gusts were more likely to be up to 80 mph.

The campsite owner toured the site warning us that force ten – storm force winds – were about to arrive and giving us the option to leave ASAP if we were worried. A small convoy left the site within a couple of hours and we battened down – veterans of fifty years of western coastal camping during which we’ve lost three tents. This time we were in a campervan, it’s true, but the rest of the family were all in tents. At the height of the storm people were clinging to their tents to try to save them. Around twenty five people slept in a community room on the site while their tents were smashed by ferocious gusts of wind. In the van – broadside on to the winds – we rocked on the suspension as brief periods of silence were followed by explosive gusts slamming us.By the morning, half of the campers who’d elected to sit it out had lost their tents. It was the biggest storm we’ve ever encountered; pretty scary to see what nature is capable of throwing at us as the climate emergency advances.

All of which brings me to the oughteries. For us, and for millions of others, the link between the climate emergency and our wasteful, greedy and polluting way of life is so obvious we can splutter with rage at those who don’tor won’t – get it; and playing at being the cock that crows on the dunghill is a curiously self-regarding way of trying to change things. Hardening of the oughteries is that state of mind that abuses a kind of of self regarding personal virtue in order to detach ourselves from responsibility. When we suffer the extremes of the climate emergency there’s no virtue in claiming that we weren’t responsible because we walk everywhere and recycle plastic. Waiting for the opportunity to say “I told you so” overlooks the critical point that the climate emergency overwhelmingly affects places and people we have never met; the poorest of people generally speaking; and the kind of people who have no alternative but to become migrants and refugees in order to escape famine and wars funded by the wealthiest parts of the world and often proxy wars over scarce natural resources.

As we drove down here we took a short cut off the A30 towards St Austell and to my great surprise we passed a lithium mine. The mad rush to promote electric cars to lessen atmospheric pollution seems to ignore the obvious capacity of lithium mines to create their own unique pollution hazards. In this county which has been so hard hit by de-industrialisation and the collapse of tin and copper mining; it will be hard to say that thousands of new jobs mining lithium should be turned away. The Cornish inshore fishermen are only now realising that their dreams for a Brexit powered goldrush were a cynical con trick. I don’t want to be saying “I told you so” to any of these people, and neither do I want any of them to have to sell their houses and move away as the only option for a better future, away from the insecurity and exploitative jobs on offer in hospitality and cleaning for out of county second homers.

The ostrich approach is to believe that we can carry on the way we have and hope that the technological seventh cavalry will come galloping over the hill to save us with giant machines capable of removing gigatonnes of carbon dioxide from our polluted air. Of course it’s blindingly obvious that there are no free lunches to be had in combating climate change and big machines demand big energy to run them; setting us on a mind numbing treadmill that demands more and more energy in order to extract the pollution caused by extracting and using more and more energy.

Hardening of the oughteries simply polarizes the debate and delays any prospect of change – always to the advantage of of the biggest winners; the international corporations who stand to lose most when we finally come to our senses. Less really is more; it’s hardly a new idea but so far as I can see it’s the only viable alternative to our present course. The visionaries need to do more than shout at the cynics and so-called realists. We need to model an alternative future with every means at our disposal. It’s nothing less than a paradigm shift that we’ll need, as we watch the dream of never ending growth and progress collapse; and nothing could be a greater dereliction of responsibility to turn away and shout “I told you so” at the victims.

Growing, cooking, eating

Of course, however much we’d like to boast how skilled, clever or green fingered we are the truth is that it’s more likely that the allotment is growing us rather than the other way round. However well planned and executed the season is, our plans are at the mercy of the weather and a thousand other unpredictable variables any of which can trip us up. For instance when we arrived back from Wales we checked on the garlic and pulled a single bulb to see how things were going on. It looked fine – it just needed another couple of weeks to plump up. I think I mentioned this when I wrote on Friday or Saturday,

Anyway, yesterday I got down to some serious weeding in the garlic bed and discovered that one or two plants were soft where the stalk met the bulb. A quick survey of the whole bed revealed about half a dozen badly affected plants and so we decided to pull the lot in case there was an outbreak of something really nasty like white rot. There were two varieties in the bed – one was much more affected than the other, and after a long consultation of the text books it looks 90% sure that the plants had been infected by basal plate rot, a fusarium fungus. This is caused by a multitude of stresses; weather, water and over fertilization for instance and so regretfully we’re putting it down to yet another instance of the collateral damage caused by the exceptional weather this spring,which has broken records in alternating between continuous rain and drought, coolest and warmest consecutive months and persistent episodes of cold wind from the northeast and northwest. Plants don’t like stress and that’s when they get diseased or attacked by pests.

The upshot is that we have lost about half of the crop and we’re presently drying the (apparently) unaffected plants. At least fusarium can be controlled by rotation, whereas white rot persists for decades. I don’t think over fertilisation is the problem because we use no fertilisers, just compost. Ah well; life’s rich tapestry we say; but it’s another piece of evidence that maybe we have to change the way we grow things. It’s almost a given that it’s a good thing to sow some crops – like garlic, broad beans and even peas in November/December to get them off to a rapid start in the spring with the promise of an early crop. But for several years we’ve been wrongfooted by the weather and now we’re wondering whether to abandon the technique of overwintering our plants (except perhaps in the polytunnel) and getting everything in much later than we’ve been used to.

We talk a lot about the pleasures of gardening – and they are many – but we tend not to stress the disappointments, perhaps for fear of putting people off or of simply showing what terrible gardeners we really are. Organic gardening deliberately eschews all the chemical shortcuts and remedies so it’s more like hand-to-hand combat in amongst the rows. We embrace and encourage coalitions of friendly forces by inviting in the trillions of soil friends, insect predators, companion plants and physical barriers; leaning on nature rather than technology to even the scales in our favour.

The payback, of course, is on the plate. I love the surveys that purport to show that there’s no difference in flavour between organic and intensively grown vegetables. What they don’t mention is the fact that all supermarket veg, whether organic or not, are stale if not close to death before the tasting takes place. If you ran a bowl of our fresh allotment peas, straight off the vine, with even the best brands of frozen peas – you’d wonder of they were the same vegetable; and “fresh” peas from the supermarket are fit only for soup. Cooking times (usually steaming for us) are shorter the fresher the vegetable is and so their nutritional value is greater. Better flavour, shorter cooking times and higher nutritional values make cooking more rewarding than ever.

Today, apart from a greedy bucket of peas, we picked a large bag of elderflowers from which we’ll make cordial tonight. The only two food items we seem to be completely self-sufficient in are elderflower cordial and tomatoes as puree, passata, dried and as various sauces. The elderflowers are free, of course, and greatly undervalued as a flavouring. We often use the cordial to sweeten rhubarb; but at the moment it’s perfuming the whole block with its strange combination of nectar and cat’s pee. The neighbours must be wondering what on earth we’re cooking now. The variety we picked today is a decorative purple cultivar that makes the loveliest pink syrup.

I said at the beginning that the allotment is growing us as much as we grow it and by that I mean firstly that most of the traditional varieties we grow have been selected and preserved for many years – so in a sense we’re part of their reproductive process. But in another way, we grow because in spite of the occasional disappointments nature is generous beyond all our deserving. We learn fast that our hard work is as nothing in the great cycles of seasonal change. We try to dispose but we cannot compel and can never forget that even half a crop of garlic is at least ten times what we planted – and in the case of our foraged treats we did no work and invested nothing. Cordial is £3.50 a bottle and we make it for about 50p so our carrier bag full of flowers today was a free gift from Mother Earth. The insect life seems to be increasing every day as the season progresses and more and more allotmenteers are growing wildflowers and digging ponds. The site is close to becoming a 4 acre nature reserve. Learning to embrace the occasional failure is another kind of gift too. Sometimes we get despondent, but it’s not personal because there’s more strength in yielding than attacking with fire and chemicals. Today it’s one nil to the fusarium, but hey – it’s got to make a living too!