Madame and I are definitely no-diggers, but not in a religious sense and so there are some occasions when we resort to the fork because we share a thirty yard border with several untended plots which constantly test our defences with daring raids. Sometimes they’re aerial – dandelions and sow-thistles are regulars, but also underground – particularly bindweed (hiss) and couch grass. Both of them, especially bindweed, spread underground rapidly; I think I read somewhere that they can grow a metre a week. Anyway, every two or three years we have to dig it out and dispose of it. There’s no point in composting it and we’re all much more circumspect about garden bonfires now we know how dangerous the smoke is. In the intervening years when it’s not a problem, it’s usually enough to run a three tined cultivator hoe, or a sharp draw hoe across the beds and slice them off at ground level. What’s particularly irritating is that our then neighbour allowed us to grow potatoes on a part of one of the plots. We could still keep the ground clear and even improve it but the Council wouldn’t hear of it. However often the plots are offered, there are no takers, it seems, and meanwhile we listen to the bindweed growling at the gate!
It’s been a difficult year for growing so far. We were late getting on to the ground with spells of very wet and very cold weather so we decided to go with the flow, sowing and planting whenever we could. Many of our veg will be later than usual, but fellow allotmenteers who stuck to the textbook timetable have been caught out. We lost some old friends during the winter; the Achillea, the Calendula and Salvias all gave up and a quick trip to a garden centre showed a huge increase in prices so we’ll have to do without for the time being. However the always reliable angelica and some second year parsnips are flying the flag for the insects. We also lost two rosemary bushes down at the cold end of the allotment, so we’ll have to replace them with cuttings somewhere out of the frosts.
The polytunnel has given us great fun and tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a long row of basil are all thriving. This year – purely as an experiment – we’re growing a patch of sweet corn in the tunnel, hopefully out of reach of the badgers. So notwithstanding a fortnight’s camping in Cornwall; between the kindness of neighbours and the lateness of the season the plot came through for us.
A bit of a post-covid tree planting binge has shown its first fruits in the shape of ten victoria plums while the others all flowered for the first time. We bought them just after the lockdown eased and they were pretty poor, but loads of TLC has helped them along. A Tayberry has grown tremendously fast and looks like it will be providing a good crop later on. All in all, our resolution to cut back last autumn has been comprehensively trashed, so maybe next year. We both ache in every muscle after having to water the vulnerable plants so much in this mini-summer. On the other hand, seven years of regular composting and leaf-mould spreading have left the soil in good condition with decent amounts of moisture at about four inches down.
The asparagus bed is under a final warning because it’s not really producing nearly as well as we’d hoped. Our immediate neighbour grows Connover’s Colossal and he gets great crops, so maybe it’s another example of the old saying – “Right plant, right place”. After a rather lonely winter, the site is finally buzzing again. A few of the newcomers who started during Covid have discovered that Liz Leendertz’s book about a “one hour allotment” doesn’t stand up well to the reality of jobs, children and all the other distractions. Hopefully they’ll return to gardening later in life.
We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.
Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.
Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.
The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.
…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.
What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.
There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.
This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.
The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.
Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!
I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.
Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.
So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.
So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.
Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.
I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.
Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.
Here’s our Christmas tree – and ‘though you wouldn’t know it, even the shape has huge resonance for me because although it’s just a pruning from the fig tree it’s also the shape of the trees on the crest of Freezing Hill which was the distant horizon of my childhood. There was a line of trees there taking the full blast of the prevailing southwesterlies and therefore bent over with trunks facing the weather. So the shape is one thing and another is the fact that, being a fig, the fruits are already there. It’s an image that manages to embrace both summer and winter at the same time; an earnest – if you like – a promise of good things to come. The lights speak for themselves except for the fact that in much the same way that we especially love the black and the red wine gums in the packet, I love the lights when they’re all red – which only happens at the moment you turn them on and so, utterly childishly – I lie on the floor so I can reach the switch while watching the lights and for a moment there’s a sense of of bliss. I probably need professional help for that one.
Of course I’ve made no secret of the fact that this is the time of the year when the black dog visits and Madame, after decades of practice, finds the exact sweet spot between nagging and encouragement. Heaven knows why I find it so difficult to visit the allotment but I really do; and yet when I finally capitulate and get a project in my sights, the black dog seems to slink away defeated for another year.
So while Madame got on with clearing out the fruit cage and doing some winter pruning, earlier in the week, I wheelbarrowed the last five loads of leaves down to their bin to make leaf mould and then turned my attention to repairing the wood chip paths and mulching the apple trees and fruit bushes. You’d think that leaves are much of a muchness when it comes to composting, but in fact a bit of a browse around the storage bay, repays the time and effort because when it comes to leaf mould not all leaves are equal. For instance I find that large sycamore leaves tend to accumulate in dense mats which seem to resist rotting very well; whereas smaller leaves especially when they’re broken down by mowers. Sycamore, then, make the better mulch. As for the chemistry I know from my pottery days that wood ashes from different trees have radically different chemical profiles which can be exploited in the making of glazes. I have no idea whether the same applies to composted leaves, but in nature, variety is (so far as I understand it) a good thing; and so I try to get as many trees as possible represented in the leaf mould. Of course reductionist thinking tends to skate over the differences as if nature could be made to adhere to some kind of simplified formula – like NPK fertilizers for instance – and we know where that kind of thinking takes us!
This is most certainly not a self-help posting, but I would say that hard exercise in the cold weather is a great way of cheering yourself up. After art school I spent three years working as a groundsman at a large public school (I know my place), and the Christmas holidays were always a favourite time. With no rugby or football pitches to maintain and no mowing of the outfields, this was the time we maintained all the tractors and equipment and also did the fun jobs like laying hedges around the field edges. I absolutely loved it, and the frostier the better as far as I was concerned.
So notwithstanding the unseasonably mild weather this past week it was still good to be out there. I write about this time of the year as if it were all about preparation; but (the farmer’s boot being the best fertiliser), you can’t help noticing the subtle changes on the allotment even before astrological winter has begun. As the solstice approaches something stirs in the depths of the soil. The borage plants which died so spectacularly in the autumn that I thought we’d lost them, have put in an appearance already. In fact we planted loads of perennials last season and so angelica and lovage are in the beginnings of leaf and we’re expecting loads of self-seeders to pop up in the next two months. It comforts me to know that the ever reliable sweet cicely can only be just below the surface and, cheating slightly, we have an abundance of parsley and coriander in the polytunnel.
Suddenly, as Christmas comes closer and the solstice is only three days away, everything seems brighter. We know that some perennials are listed as “short lived” and maybe we should see ourselves in the same way; living – as the old saying goes – as if we might die tomorrow, and farming as if we will live forever – and that’s two farming proverbs in one post! Each plant that reappears we’ll greet as an old friend in a world of fugitive pleasures – marvellous!
As we left the allotment today it looked, well, cheerful. There was a wisp of smoke curling up from the incinerator as the last season’s bindweed met its maker. The residual ashes all go on to the compost heap to add a touch of I’ve no idea what, but it seems to work – to the process.
Later, over a glass of wine, I thanked Madame for her vigilant and healing nudges I think our children probably regard us as a couple of curmudgeonly old farts, but having seen seventy five seasons through; sixty of them as gardeners, we have come to understand that the greater pleasures come very slowly, and I say to them – you only find that out if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.
So after the philosophical tone of the last couple of posts, I thought I’d share an anxiety free photo of a wheelbarrow. There’s not much going on at the allotments at the moment – mostly the site is like the Marie Celeste; full of signs of occupation but devoid – apart from the diehards – of human company; no gossip to be had.
There are two especially dangerous moments for new allotmenteers – six months apart but equally fatal to the morale. In July the early optimism of cleared ground and early sown crops gives way to an explosion of weeds – especially on newly won ground. In December, once the pruning is done and any bare earth covered or mulched, the cold and often grey, greasy weather is a powerful disincentive to gardening. These days, knowing what we do about air pollution, it’s even difficult to justify the bonfire – the old friend of bored allotmenteers on winter days.
But composting goes on whatever the month, and with time on our hands it’s the perfect opportunity for clearing up, leaving lots of habitat for overwintering insects; any bits of civil engineering that have been on the “to do” list for several seasons and, if you’re lucky like us, starting next season’s leaf mould. I remember many years ago buying one of Christopher Lloyd’s books – I think it was The Well Tempered Garden – and becoming increasingly dismayed that his idea of a small garden was about the size of three football fields, complete with mature trees and an abundance of compostable materials. For the vast majority of us, the materials available for composting are extremely limited.
However, our local authority, in a bid to save money, has now built a number of gigantic bunkers on various allotment sites around Bath in order to save the cost (I can hardly believe this!) of dumping leaves. Obviously we’re delighted but slightly overwhelmed with this generosity. Added to regular supplies of free wood chip they’re a blessing and in the past they disappeared almost as fast as they arrived. Possibly not so any more.
Leaves are a threefold blessing, as well as being – for different reasons and in different phases – biochemical miracles. As green leaves attached to their trees they convert sunlight and water into sugar and, with the aid of countless fungal networks and bacteria, swap sugar for micronutrients in ways we’re only just beginning to understand; storing carbon in the soil at the same time. As fallen leaves they make a perfect mulch for soft fruit bushes and empty plots. We once covered a patch of cleared ground with six inches of leaves and threw a cover over them. When winter was over we removed the cover to find that they’d all but disappeared due to the actions of worms..
But stacked in one of our compost bins – ours will accommodate ten bags similar to the one in the photo (just big enough to be able to lift and empty when full)- and through the action of moulds, fungi, bacteria and the whole gamut of leaf eating insects they slowly decompose. By March the heap will have shrunk by around a third and we’ll cap it with six inches of compost to grow a prolific crop of ridge cucumbers whose roots reach deep into the moisture holding leaf mould.
Then in a final act of beneficence the finished leaf mould will be mixed 50:50 with our own compost which will be spread on our plot in the autumn when the whole cycle starts again. I suppose in a perfect world the leaves would be left to rot where they fall, but we try to accomplish the same thing whilst growing food – which brings me to an excellent article in today’s Guardian which reports on a new piece of research that supports the idea that allotments can make a substantial contribution to food security and local (ie low carbon footprint) sustainable food networks. If only forward thinking local authorities would take up the challenge and secure leases on plots of suitable land surrounding villages, towns and cities, the waiting lists (thousands in some cases) could be reduced and a secure supply of wholesome, mainly organic food could be in place within a couple of seasons.
I suppose running out of marmalade would be fairly low on the agenda as COP26 falls through the wormhole that is Boris Johnson’s mind and into alt reality territory where anything can be true as long as you want it to be, and Bobby Ewing will still be pumping oil after all.
But here, in what we cling to as the real world where in January – as a result of the lockdown – we were unable to make marmalade because we couldn’t get any Seville oranges, and the cupboard is now bare, of marmalade at least. In my fragile frame of mind something as trivial as marmalade can loom large and grey. However this is also a season where some pretty hard work on the allotment takes place. For much of the year the management of the compost heaps means turning one of the bins at a time; but this week we needed to move the contents of all four bins – amalgamating the leaf mould with the finished compost, refilling the empty leaf bin with this year’s leaves and then turning the active heap into the adjoining bin. I reckon that involves forking, shovelling and wheelbarrowing approaching 1.5 tons of decaying plant material. The upside is having up to a couple of tons of black gold for free every year.
I’ve discovered over the years that there’s nothing more likely to send the black dog away into the wilderness than having some sort of plan; the only obstacle is taking the first step. Going back into the gym was one part of the plan and doing the compost was another. If there’s a downside to turning compost it’s the lingering smell of an anaerobic heap which penetrates your clothes and takes up residence in your nostrils. Letting the air in to a heap is essential to prevent this from happening, but it’s not always possible to do it in time to head off the stench. The rule is – if you can smell the heap it needs turning and shaking up. Yesterday’s active bin was on the edge of becoming a nuisance and by the time I’d moved it all into the empty bay next door, the previously mentioned penetration had occurred. I didn’t notice it until I sat down in the armchair to rest my aching muscles, but such is the power of the stink, it seems a couple of molecules of whatever it is could clear a lift in ten seconds. So that meant my overalls and shirt had to go into the wash even though they looked perfectly clean. The hard manual work, though, had exactly the desired effect on the black dog which withdrew – at least for a few hours.
I know when I’m down because otherwise enjoyable jobs get neglected. The sourdough starters aren’t fed, the kefir sulks in the fridge and I can’t be bothered to do anything about it. So the good news was that after a discussion with Madame we decided to drop the experimental white sourdough project and go back to the old everyday sourdough bread recipe based on a dark rye starter; 250g of stoneground wholemeal wheat flour to make the batter and then after 12 hours adding 300g organic white strong flour, mixing it (it’s very sloppy at this stage) and adding enough dark rye flour to bring it to a kneadable consistency then 10 mins kneading a rather soft and sticky dough, and transferring it to a banneton seasoned with rice flour which has no gluten and releases the risen loaf easily. All this, then yesterday evening, and foolishly, I left the loaf to rise in the only room in the flat with heating turned on. I have to say that this is an extremely lively dough, and so – resisting the temptation to peep during the night, I woke at 6.30 and the exuberant dough had overflowed the sides of the banneton and was making its way onto the table. Luckily I was able to fold the billowing belly back into the banneton; slash the top and transfer the loaf into the oven (240C for 10 minutes then 180C for about 25 mins more). Sourdough evangelists will notice that I don’t give this loaf a knock back and second rise – mainly because if you leave it too long the acidity builds up rather more than we like. It’s dead easy and takes 24 hours from start to finish with no more than 20 minutes of actual work. I hardly dare say that there’s no ur loaf lurking out there virtually beyond Plato’s cave. Cooking is just the best way of making exactly what you like eating – end of!
Any way, this morning we were back at the gym and after a 20 month layoff I finally did a 10K row with no more serious repercussions than an aching bottom. All that’s left now is to work on reducing the time! The black dog has gone off with his tail between his legs. I hope he goes up to the allotment because as I was turning the live heap yesterday three very fat rats beat a hasty retreat; one of them provoking piercing screeches from Madame who was weeding nearby. We have a real problem with rats across the site at the moment but I won’t use poison and they quickly get wise to traps. Disturbance seems to be the best way of upsetting them.
Oh and I have a new project forming in my mind. Having sourced some farm fresh milk that’s only pasteurised at low temperatures and which, ironically, we buy from a slot machine in Green Park Market; I think we’re (I’m) in a position to have a go at making some some cheese. Madame will say it’s the thin end of the wedge, and I wish that could be true – but I’m thinking of the soft and smelly end of the spectrum. My cheese library is growing rapidly and it seems this rotting business filled the whole of the day yesterday. From compost heaps to bread and kefir and – hopefully – cheese; the beloved fungi, bacteria and yeasts of the earth, knowing nothing of black dogs or Boris Johnson, continue to transform our lives for the better.
Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:
So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.
Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”
All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.
Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.
A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.
However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.
It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.
I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.
But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?
The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.
It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.
We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.
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.
From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
There’s a certain mindlessness about riddling compost. I sit in front of the open bay with a large bin between my knees and the riddle resting on two short lengths of wood. When the riddle has passed all the friable compost I throw the dross into a bucket and reach again with a spade to take another spit and repeat the process – over and over. Whatever escapes the bucket gets into my boots and over the path. The bits that don’t pass both the sieve and my close inspection after each load give me pause for thought. You might think the dross comprises mainly sticks and stones too large to pass through the half inch mesh, but that’s not quite true. Most of the riddled out waste is bits of plastic from old pots, the remains of so-called biodegradable teabags, old compostable sacks and metal pegs. Of course there are intractable pieces of wood in there; smooth pebbles that come from who knows where? – maybe the beach on Lleyn where we harvested seaweed for the asparagus bed two years ago. Oh and the inevitable cabbage stumps which, however hard you smash them with the back of an axe seem to resist the great carbon cycle.
Next door to the bay I’m clearing is one that’s now full to the brim and badly needing a thorough turn. On the surface are the barely wilted remains of plants we’ve only just placed there; but as I turn the heap and dig down further, things get darker and less recognisable. There’s no great smell but an abundance of slugs and snails near the top, along with wood lice, and minor league chompers in their thousands. Then as we go further we find worms in glorious writhing abundance. Very occasionally a startled rat jumps over my shoulder and scuttles off, low to the ground. I used to try to kill them with the yard fork but the very act of angrily striking at their sleek bodies seemed sacrilegious.
After a couple of months undisturbed in the next bin – the one I was clearing yesterday – and minus the twenty first century rubbish there is something that looks and smells just like earth which, of course, it is. But not just ordinary earth because in its return journey from the harvest it’s gone through the insides of a dozen little animals; been processed by fungi and finally passed through a worm – maybe two worms – richer from its passage than anything you could buy from a garden centre. Not just compost, but our compost; primed with all the fungi, bacteria, colloids and nutrients that belong in this tiny patch of the earth’s surface. Our allotment and our compost. No wonder the plants love it!
So the act of riddling, because it’s so repetitive, has a meditative quality as I participate in the alchemical process that renders green plant material mixed with cardboard and wood chip into soil. I watch each large bucket filling – as much as I can comfortably carry into the polytunnel – pondering on the process that yields such a wonderful substance and rehearsing in my mind where it should go. When I built the four bay composting setup two years ago I had no idea whether we would ever be able to fill it. I just knew the quantity of compost we would need to spread a couple of inches over the whole plot and hoped for the best. Last autumn we were in a hurry and so we just spread our first batches unsieved and picked out the plastic as it rose to the surface. It was so rich in nitrogen we experienced an explosion of leaves, often at the expense of fruit. Better prepared this year, we’ll treat it like the expensive luxury it is and sieve it all properly. Riddling is hard on the back and you definitely value the things you’ve worked hardest on, and so we intend to mix it with topsoil and a little sand for drainage.
The little quotation from “A Zen Forest” reminded me of the way we read the seasonal signs on the allotment. I guess it’s easy to feel you’ve done something when you use a strimmer or a powerful machine to shorten the hours it takes, but the din of the machinery blots out every natural sound as well as filling your nose with petrol fumes. These simple, repetitive manual jobs can be done in thoughtful silence and while you reflect, the allotment gets the chance to speak as well. It’s even better when the silence is filled with gratitude. The zen sayings caution against trying to explain or describe what is essentially beyond words. One of the sharper ones reminds that words are the hitching posts that you tie doneys to! Nonetheless, even if words can only get you to the foothills of the mountain they have some worth so long as you know when to stop.
Mindless tasks aren’t remotely mindless it transpires. They can be mindful beyond the mind’s capacity to explain. As the seasons progress we move from winter through spring and summer and then approach autumn once more. Each season brings love and loss; generosity beyond our dreams and hardship as well. It seems corny and defeated to embrace them all equally as teachers; but the machine has yet to be invented that can control the way of things – for which we can thank whatever higher beings we might follow, and be thankful for those challenging riddles in every historical culture that force us to abandon the fierce consciousness of the machine.
Our twenty first century culture is destroying the earth – we’re quite sure of it now; and so each moment of contemplative silence feeds us as the compost will feed the ground. We shall grow together; minds and compost alike sifted by riddles.
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.