Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn.

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Twenty years ago I’d have thought this was an unholy mess – purple sprouting broccoli, sweetcorn, courgette and nasturtium all growing through each other in a kind of uncontrolled wilderness.  Today? – well, today it seems the most natural thing in the world. Here are some more glimpses of the allotment, photographed today –

This year we made the policy decision to sow companion plants out of curiosity mainly – would they help?  Would they reduce pest attacks? blah blah blah …… what we realized in the end is that our plants are happier, much happier,  and the whole allotment looks more like a work of art and less like a military display. We’ve had blackfly but it was quickly wiped out by a large population of voracious ladybird larvae.  We’ve seen a few asparagus beetle larvae but, by and large, they haven’t damaged the plants. Cabbage White butterflies haven’t penetrated the brassica netting, flea beetle had a brief munch at the radishes but were not really a problem.  We can only compare our own allotment with the immediate neighbours, and it seems clear that stress – be it through weather or lack of nutrients – seems to weaken plants and so (surprise surprise) the strongest and least stressed plants don’t get attacked.  As for birds, we combined netting the most vulnerable plants like brassicas and the Apiaceae , with providing access to the ones that love to eat grubs slugs and snails and – later in the season – seeds. Because we’ve scattered so many pollinator attractors around the plot, the increase in yield makes up for the extra pests. Tagetes, Nasturtium  and Calendula function as repellants and diversions, beer traps get the slugs the birds and (hopefully hedgehogs) miss, and there are many other speculative flowers spread around the beds.

You can either treat growing food in an allotment as a battle or a party.  Our gamble seems to suggest that nature prefers a party.

As soon as we got back from Cornwall we unloaded the bags, had a cup of tea and went straight out to the allotment.  Our youngest son had watered while we were away and everything looked – cheerful! – we were particularly pleased to see that the tomatoes that had had a pretty bad start in life, were going tremendously well and had their first trusses in flower.  Madame had simply hacked off the straggly tops of a number of bush tomatoes and they too had thrown out side shoots and they too were going well. And so within twenty minutes we’d gathered potatoes, carrots and peas and set off back home.

The peas deserve a paragraph all to themselves. We’ve grown three varieties this year – we overwintered Douce Provence and then sowed Alderman and Kelveden Wonder in the spring.  The Douce Provence were early and perfectly good; the Kelvedon Wonder aren’t quite ready yet but last night we harvested some of the Alderman.  This is a heritage variety and really does better on beansticks as it will grow to over 5 feet. The favour of the Alderman was soooooo good – I don’t think I’ve ever tasted a better fresh pea.  If you’re used to the frozen ones then you would probably think this is a different vegetable in a blind tasting. The pods were long and full of larger peas that were so sweet and tender they only really needed steaming for about a minute. Bliss! – and there are still many more to eat. Our food culture insists that it’s best to have our favourites available the year round (at hideous cost to the environment), but the allotment suggests that the greatest pleasures are the seasonal ones, the asparagus, the new potatoes, the apple off the tree and, of course the peas and beans and all the rest. The fact that it’s a fugitive pleasure seems to make it all the more intense – every dish is a holiday romance on a plate!

Back home then to deal with the Mugwort and the Pellitory of the Wall I’d gathered as medicinal herbs in Cornwall. It seemed to me that the best way to deal with them, given that I know next-to-nothing about how to use them, is to dry them and store them until I am a lot better informed.  Even drying them turned ut to be something of a challenge, and much weariness of the eyes later I decided to dry them at 45C in the oven overnight.  I would be able to see from the results whether they had lost their colour  from overheating.  And so they spent the night in the oven and emerged more or less unscathed at lunchtime today.

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But during our morning session at the allotment today, Madame discovered a pretty well perfect specimen of Greater Plantain in the hotbed and that too will be added to the household pharmacopeia via the oven (and a great deal more study). Needless to say I shall be careful in my consumption of these remedies and not let the gathering of herbs exceed my botanical knowledge.

And so, without wanting to bang on about it too much, the natural world, upon which we rely absolutely, is abundant, glorious and healing.  Shame you couldn’t possibly say that about our politicians.  Were it not for the fact that I’m firmly attached to democracy I might go with the graffiti I saw years ago on a wall –

Don’t vote, it only encourages them!

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Planting weeds ?

We’ve seen four days of wamth and bright sunshine which has brought our community of allotmenteers out in droves as the new season moves into full throttle. For us it’s meant that every trip up to the plot means taking a load of plants which have been propagated in the flat. Hardening everything off properly means a great deal of shuffling  plants between the greehhouse, the cold frames and the most sheltered spots on the allotment as they progress towards open ground. In our heads and on the laptop we carry a model plan of campaign between sowing and harvesting, but trying to second guess what the weather will be doing, six weeks down the road, is a bit of a nightmare and so – just like a motorway – we get traffic jams and empty stretches.

Key to the whole show is the date of the last frost and so early yesterday I had twenty minutes on the computer searching the meteorological entrails and at last I’m as sure as I can be that there will be no more frost.  The first wave of plants are on the allotment and ready to be planted out, and in a week’s time we’ll start moving the second wave of tender subjects out of the flat and into the hardening off phase.

That all sounds a bit cerebral, but of course gardening is never like that because planting out is back breaking work. The plot was designed to be as productive as possible and so the width of the paths was calculated on two measurements – the main paths on the width and turning space of a wheelbarrow, and the secondary paths on the length of my wellingtons – 13″ if you’re really desperate to know!  It was intended to make it possible to work all the beds without ever having to walk on them, but there are always unintended consequences and in this case it’s having to kneel to plant out with your knees aligned to the path and your upper body aligned at 90 degrees to the bed. It’s the only way not to cause carnage to the plants on the adjoining bed.

So by yesterday teatime we were completly crocked and the proposed dish of broad bean tops was abandoned in favour of fish and chips. Luckily we have a prizewinning chippie just up the road. On the plus side all the brassicas are now in, and in a new departure they’re interplanted with tagetes, calendula and nasturtiums. Everything in me is shouting NO to adding competing flowers to the vegetable beds but unless we try it we’ll never know whether companion plants are all they’re cracked up to be. This can be difficult because our basil supply last season was infested with whitefly – which it’s supposed to repel. Our weirdest flight of fancy was to plant petunias around the edge of the asparagus bed to repel asparagus beetle which were a problem last year. The problem with assessing any of these measures is the usual one that confronts any experimenter – too many variables – but on the other hand it will make the veg garden more beautiful and please the pollinators no end.  As I was watering the petunias in I remembered an old music hall song – “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion bed”  and I wondered whether these pretty flowers might repel onion fly as well.

Companion planting seems to work in a number of ways, firstly by attracting pollinators and insects like hoverflies that reduce pest numbers or by distracting the pests away from your veg, and even by emitting chemicals through roots and flowers that repel the bugs and slugs. I’m happy to concede that music hall songs and folk magic is not the most scientific approach, but there may well be some hard facts within the practice and anything that reduces the reliance on deadly chemicals has got to be worth the effort. It makes me think of the exhausting effort to destroy ragwort because it’s ‘poisonous to livestock’. But cattle and, for all I know horses too, have learned to avoid the plant which only becomes dangerous when it’s incorporated into hay and silage where it can’t be differentiated. Wholesale spraying with chemicals kills the plants – but not very well – while denying the innocent and harmless cinnabar moth a habitat, and polluting the watercourses. We have to end the practice of regarding the soil as a neutral medium into which we can pour seeds, chemicals and fertilizer with ever diminishing returns. The idea that we can use smart science endlessly to increase yields is an earth threatening fantasy.

And so, as you see in the photos, we’re using both companion planting and physical barriers to control pests, and if – and only if – we experience a crop threatening attack, we may consider using pyrethrum which is hideously expensive but on the approved for organics list. This is a working allotment, not a shrine, and we have to defend the best against the perfect.