Stowaway found in the cupboard

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This wouldn’t happen in our son’s kitchen because he’s a a professional chef and I’m only a cook. He does cheffy stuff like fridge labelling whereas I usually apply the ‘hairy or smelly’ test to unexpected finds – it all comes from decades of being skint, and making do, and, maybe – subliminal memories of wartime rationing. I was born after the war but I can remember playing shops with my sister and using the redundant ration books as money.

This Christmas pud was not hairy and neither did it smell, but I know for a fact it must be at least five years old because I haven’t made Christmas puds since we came to Bath. The reason it’s survived at the back of the cupboard all this time is that it’s a two pounder and far too big even when the whole family is together. So this year I’m only making one pounders, and Madame and me will eat one whenever it takes our fancy, but probably not at Christmas when we’re all far too full. So out it went this morning and then we set off on a 40  mile round trip to put the new battery in the campervan.  It was all planned out like a military campaign and so the job was done in next to no time with no electrical  sparks and without losing the radio and security codes.  The biggest problem was getting some jump leads close enough to the van to maintain the power while I swapped the batteries.

What a deadly boring paragraph, I’m thinking, except the feeling of satisfaction when the old beast roared into life is beyond pleasure.  Now we can go away for a couple of nights and visit friends, paddle the kayak or just sit and read.

Back home later I weighed out flour, muscovado sugar, eggs and cake stuff; beat it senseless with my hand mixer which is miraculously good at not splitting the mixture when I put the eggs in, measured, folded and drew greaseproof and brown paper (well, wallpaper actually) and finished it all off by hand – which is all I can do now since the second hand Kenwood burst into flames last Christmas after 25 years of efficient cake making. Now it’s (the cake not the Kenwood) – in the oven and any minute the fragrance will fill the flat.  As soon as I’ve done the washing up I’ll weigh out the ingredients for the puddings and cook them tomorrow when they’ve stood all night soaking up the Guinness, rum and barley wine. This is all monstrously stupid behaviour given that I’ve only just managed to get my blood glucose readings back to normal by completely changing my diet and foregoing any alcohol at all, and so only I’ll be eating tiny portions.  But there’s a big plus side to all this, which is feeling fit enough to cope with Spaffer Johnson’s brexit nonsense without wanting to throw myself off a raised bed.

Earnest negotiations have begun concerning next year’s seed order.  Ask any allotmenteer if their allotment is big enough when the spring comes, and we’ll all say we need more space.  This is because we’d love to be able to grow the whole catalogue.  Reality, however, means that we can only grow a certain amount, and next year we’ll be obliged to grow less potatoes because we’ve lost the borrowed 50 square metres loaned by our neighbour.  That’s OK though, because we’ll never be able to eat all we’ve grown this year. The issue arose when we were talking about where to relocate the chamomile plants. We cracked it by deciding to treat them more as a crop, and give them the situation and sunshine they need to keep us in flowers all summer. The same goes for the calendula which we can use in a home made skin cream. In fact I’ve been checking out which medicinal herbs are growing wild around the site and it’s surprising how many there are.  Luckily many of the companion plants are ‘dual purpose’, having medicinal applications as well as insect attractant/repellant properties, not to mention tasting good too.

Tomorrow we begin moving fruit bushes, strawberries and shrubs into new locations.  We’ve already decided to grow many of the companion plants in moveable tubs so they can be deployed where they’re most needed.  All this, remember is happening on 250 square metres of allotment, not RHS Wisley, so it’s entirely do-able. When the children left home I found myself still cooking for five (plus unexpected friends) for months. We can grow a great deal of what we need at the Potwell Inn, but we’re still learning how to moderate our sowing – I’ve just finished drying enough chilllies to keep us going for years.

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Yesterday we tried our third Jamie Oliver veggie recipe in a week.  I loved it but Madame wasn’t so keen and thought the halloumi was tasteless. I slept well enough last night after manually adjusting the kitchen clock but bizarrely I kept waking up to check whether my phone had reset itself, and then I woke at my normal ‘body clock’ time and had to force myself to stay in bed another hour.

 

“Pile em high, sell em cheap?”

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Not in the case of most plants as can be easily seen from the photo. These are two pots of the basil (var.’Classico’) we’re growing in a propagator in the kitchen – and you’ll also see that the right hand pot was accdentally sown far too densely, and what’s happened is that the plants are failing to thrive as they should because they’re all competing for light and food.  So Madame intervened by thinning the right hand pot when the plants were only just beyond the cotyledon stage, and took a chance on transplanting them. The results were almost instantaneous as you can see – the transplanted ones have rocketed away, the thinned area of the pot they came from is responding too but the front part is stuck in a herby timewarp.

It’s always tempting to sow or plant just a bit more densely than the books suggest, but nine times out of ten you don’t get any more of a crop and sometimes you get less.  Light, circulating air and food are all really important for plant health and although the oversowing was an accident and not an experiment, the message is obvious – firstly, that amount of seed would have filled at least four or even five pots with healthy plants, and secondly it’s always worth having a go at transplanting – all it costs is a pot of compost and a chopstick to make the holes – but don’t try it with tap  rooting plants lke carrots because they hate it.

But yesterday, as I wrote, I was clearing a bed of chamomile because (same thing, I suppose) it was hating its rather greedy, light stealing neighbours like fennel, globe artichoke and angelica. What we had was straggling plants trying to haul themselves into a bit of sunshine, with hardly any flowers that we could harvest for chamomile tea. You can tell how fed up they were by the fact they thought they might stand a better chance in the asparagus bed! And the striking thing about the chamomile was their tangled and dense root systems – obviously that’s part of the reason they do well as low-traffic lawns.  The other part of the reason is they don’t mind being cut, so long as it’s not test wicket short.

This year we did some experiments with interplanting which showed mixed results. Nasturtiums did well under the apples and did no harm even if they did no good, although they do have a gift for wandering off.  The squashes under the brassicas were a bit of a disaster as they ramped away under cover of the butterfly proof nets which are such a chore to lift up. Summer savory and basil were pretty happy wherever we put them. Chamomile ticks all the boxes with its properties and we were chatting about where to relocate our bedtime-tea flowerbed.  Ideally it would be a bed of perennials so that  they could all get along famously together and get their roots down. Has anyone got any bright ideas?

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.