The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Up with the lark

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness didn’t quite cover it today. I always associate the Keats poem with Herefordshire – don’t ask me why -but when I woke to the first day of British Standard Time (otherwise known as the dark nights), the weather obviously hadn’t read the forecast and the day was bright and clear; altogether too good to miss, and so I left Madame reading the new Rose Tremain novel and got to the allotment just after eight.

I needn’t bore you with the details, I turned the two compost heaps as planned and augmented the newest one with a mixture of grass mowings and dead leaves that the Parks Department had left – perfect mixture of carbon and nitrogen. The older heap was still running at 30C but I turned it anyway.

The light in autumn always feels that much brighter, and being lower in the sky it brings out the texture of plants like chard in a way that high summer sunshine never does. All the while as I was working I was listening to the sound of a couple of crows kicking off at something. I stopped and walked towards them as they bobbed in a thoroughly agitated way, and chattered warning calls loud enough to mask the sound of traffic. As I got closer I saw a familiar grey cat hunting in the long grass at the edge of the site. He looks for all the world like a pet, but he spends his life prowling around the allotments. Occasionally we find a pathetic bundle of feathers and we’ve often attributed them to one of the foxes who live in the northeast corner of the site; but I wondered today if it wasn’t more likely to be the cat – all innocence in his long grey coat but fiercely predatory by nature.

So after a couple of hours with the stable fork I went back for a late breakfast and then we both went back up so I could empty the leaf mould bin ready for the new season’s arrivals. I spread the leaf mould around the plot while Madame sowed seed and so we harvested the last of the chillies from the greenhouse and gathered up the borlotti crop, now crisp and dry, so we could shell them and put them into store for the winter; making space for the seed trays and root trainers. The greenhouse is now in overwintering mode and the broad beans have sprouted, ready to be planted out next month. Strangely, that sense of ennui that always comes with September for me, has altogether gone and has been displaced by the buzz of optimism for the new season.

Later, as we were thinking about packing up, Madame went for a wander around the site looking for plants that might go well in the tall herb border and came back with a sprig of vervain. It’s a plant that’s probably hardly used these days, but gets mentioned in all my herbals. We both agreed it would look very well and so we’ll try and grow some.

Talking to our neighbour, Pete – (retired professor of French history, we’re a very select bunch) – it looks as if we’ll have to wait until spring before we can plant up the new pond. He built his last autumn, but found that the garden centres were more interested in selling smelly candles and Christmas trinkets than actual plants.

The seed order will have to wait until tomorrow. I think a family decision has been made not to risk celebrating Christmas together for the first time in over forty years. I’m not sure how I feel about that – I know it’s the right thing to do but I feel pretty angry that the pandemic has been allowed to get beyond control by our incompetent government.

End of summertime – Storm Barbara obligingly removes leaves.

I should have made a video really, but today the weir steps had all but disappeared under the flow of the river. You might have thought that this would deter the crowds, but a quick look across the water towards Southgate suggested that our rapidly increasing Covid infection numbers was not enough to deter Christmas and half-term shoppers. Cognitive dissonance is alive and shopping in Bath! As ever we skulked along the far side and out through Henrietta Park and Sidney Gardens to the canal which, unsurprisingly I suppose, had its own traffic jams.

Yesterday’s allotmenteering focused on getting the strawberry bed finished. This was really part two of the pond building because the surplus soil was transferred from the hole to the raised bed; but with the storm glowering in the skies I had to work like stink to get it finished – cue rather stiff back! I don’t think we will be seeing the plants until early spring, but they may come with the tree order which I made yesterday before we set out to work.

The idea was that the predicted heavy rain would keep us at home all day today but what we saw was a fairly continuous drizzle and some very strong gusts of wind. According to my phone we’re still owed about 15mm rain today, but Bath sits in a bowl, surrounded by hills and so we tend to get the rain courtesy of the river. The wind, however stripped the leaves off many of the trees and next week I’ll be hoarding them as the Council sweeps them up and dumps them at the allotment site. This is an incredibly useful (and much sought after) resource, and stacked under weights in one of our line of compost bins, we can make finished leaf mould in a year – a brilliant soil conditioner, especially for the raspberries which enjoy a low pH mulch. So that means come rain or shine I need to be up at the plot, emptying last year’s supply ready for the new.

The fallen leaves are also useful as a source of ‘brown’ material in the other compost heaps, so if there’s any opportunity I’ll turn the two heaps and add layers of leaves to step up the carbon content. The plan is to turn the heaps regularly and get them heating up – one of them recently reached 60C – so that’s another backbreaker.

It was a tremendous pleasure to get the first two bits of civil engineering done, but there are still several more to complete including installing new terracing boards at the bottom of the plot along with posts and wires to support the Tayberry and blackberries that are also on order. Then there’s a pergola and sheltered area for us between the greenhouse and the shed and finally I’m going to build removable cold frame lights to sit on top of the compost bins. I want to see whether I can create a warm bed by capturing waste heat from the compost. Last season we grew cucumbers and squashes very successfully on top of the leaf mould – they just thrived there.

But in case you thought the Potwell Inn allotment never ever experienced the shadow of pests and diseases, I’m sad to say that we forgot to put the fine insect mesh over the leeks at the end of September and they’ve been badly infested with allium leaf miner (again). It’s a pain – particularly because it was down to my own carelessness; but every problem is a lesson and it’s obvious that the smaller and weaker the plant the more it was damaged. This is the third season we’ve been attacked and so I think we’re going to have to find a way of growing them that avoids the worst of this relatively new pest, but sturdy plants in healthy soil seems to be one part of the answer.

The rest of the day was spent pondering over the seed order. I’ve downloaded the latest RHS list of what are known as ‘Award of Garden Merit’ (AGM) fruit and veg. If you’re wondering which variety to choose from a catalogue with fifty options it’s a good resource to refer to. When in doubt we grow the AGM variety because it’s been independently tested for everyday, ordinary gardens and allotments. We don’t always agree because every plot is pretty much unique and we’ve discovered a few varieties that for whatever reason, really thrive on our plot – but I still check against the list. It’s all too easy to turn to the old favourites and ignore the fruits of more recent breeding trials. I wouldn’t dream of ignoring the blight resistant tomatoes and potatoes that have come on to the market in recent years. No-one who’s lost an entire crop overnight would want to have the experience again. This year we’re going to try fly resistant carrot varieties.

So hopefully we’ll have the seed order off tomorrow and then we can relax. Last year we had to subsist on old and saved seed because the garden centres and seed merchants we so disrupted. Meanwhile a few more photos from today’s walk.

A dirty story with added compost

It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!

And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.

We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.

Back on the allotment

On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.

Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.

The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?

I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.

We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.

Compost

But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.

Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.

The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.

Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.

Its feels as if summer is over

Here’s a photo I took during our Sunday morning walk across the canal and up over Bathwick Fields and then down into Smallcombe Valley, up the other side and down again to Widcombe. I’m only mentioning these places because their names are so delightful. The walk in itself is a long haul with over 150 metres of climbing and scrambling down. The footpath down to Smallcombe was particularly slippery after the recent spells of rain. We’re exploring the hinterland of Bath in a series of 5 mile loops and Madame is immersing herself in the history of our adopted city.

Everywhere, the hedgerows are filling the air with the heady, almost alcoholic scents of autumn. The bees are still busy pollinating the late flowers, but fruit is ripening on the trees. Apples, plums and damsons; sloes and lesser known delights like medlar. The allotment took a bashing as weeds relished hot weather followed by torrential rain and so today we spent the afternoon doing some urgent hand weeding. The compost bin that was far too large when I built it has now been full twice this season; but by tomorrow it will have heated again and sunk by six inches. The leaf mould in a neighbouring bin has shrunk by over a half now, and so has the hot bed – the capacity of our wonderful worms and micro organisms to reduce waste to compost exceeds our capacity to create it, it almost growls out loud when I walk down with a bucket of waste; and it also has a huge appetite for cardboard which simply disappears within a month or two.

It’s just a matter of experience with compost. We’ve read all the books and in the end, it seems everybody is right. There are very few systems that can’t create good compost, but I emphasis the word system because a neglected heap of weeds with an old bicycle on top at the end of the plot is not a system, it’s a dump. With compost at over £5 a bag in most garden centres, making your own is a massive money saver. The secret is regular and vigorous turning and keeping an eye on it – wet through is bad and so is dried out, as ever the middle way works best – moist; that’s the word! and now and again a bag of horse manure, or some fish blood and bone scattered in or – if you don’t care for animal byproducts, some comfrey leaves or liquid work as well as anything else.

With the air so full of the smells of ripening and over-ripening fruit it’s amusing to remember that John Masefield, the poet, liked to have a box of rotting apples under his desk for inspiration! The painter Stanley Spencer had much a weirder taste in under easel smells – but we won’t go there, except to say it wasn’t a madeleine. However, moving rapidly on, the Potwell Inn kitchen does smell pretty wonderful at the moment. Food is coming off the allotment at such a rate we’ve been delivering veg parcels to anyone that will take them. It’s a strange time to be dieting, I know, but with so many good things to choose, keeping to 800 KCal a day is a breeze. No vegetable is safe at the moment, and while we lose weight we’re laying up sauces and preserves for the winter. The tomatoes are producing trays of fruit which we’re converting to passata, sauce base, and today oven dried cherry tomatoes in oil which are like sweets. A couple thrown on a salad are wonderful little flavour bombs. Yesterday we baked figs with orange zest and juice and fennel seeds – delicious! I also whipped up a coulis with wild blackberries and James Grieve apples. I had to put it through a sieve to get the pips out – there’s no added sugar so it’s sharp, but it goes really well with plain full fat yoghurt or kefir.

Anyway, enough kitchen talk- we’re sad the summer has passed us by as far as trips in the camper van are concerned, but we’re hopeful of getting some winter camping in when the crowds have gone home – Madame said today “I don’t care if it’s raining, I just want to sit in the van and look at Ramsey Island.” The autumn is my time for a bit of civil engineering on the allotment – quite a lot of it in fact because we’re building a pond, creating a small open meadow space and a shelter for ourselves, as well as planting more fruit trees and bushes. It’s amazing what can be packed into 250 square metres.

Meanwhile I’m wondering why I let myself in for making a short video on urban botany. The biggest problem with being completely self taught is the ever present danger of mispronouncing a name or mistaking an i/d. But I don’t want to be an expert; I just love getting into the natural world and sharing my disconnected bits of knowledge with anyone who might be tempted to have a go themselves. So I’ve got to get the selfie stick out and ramble on for a couple of minutes without freezing, swearing or tripping over ….. what could possibly go wrong?

“Well I think the answer lies in the soil”

To quote the advice of Arthur Fallowfield – the wonderful invention of comedian Kenneth Williams, “The answer lies in the soil”. It always does, but he was spoofing the whole organic gardening movement in its tweedy 1930’s incarnation. I am aware, of course, that the gag will completely pass over the head of anyone under retirement age but I remember the tremulous plummy voice that seemed to spring straight from the pages of “Cold Comfort Farm” – dripping with the husky erotic overtones of flowering sukebind.

Last autumn, when I built the compost bins I was doubtful if we’d ever be able to fill them, even with the green kitchen waste included. Each bay is approaching two cubic metres in size, and there are four of them – and I was right to be dubious. One of the bins has been used ever since to store leaves, and should provide at least a cubic metre of leaf mould every year. One bin has been used for storage of bags of consumables like bought-in compost, topsoil and grit, and I’ve built removable shelves over both of those bays to make use of the upper area for growing in bags. But the other two bays have shown that they are well up to providing a constant supply of compost. They’ve only been up for less than a year and we’ve already taken off two cycles, maybe ten heaped barrow loads of really good compost.

Previously we’d always used California cylinders which are portable, cheap and easy to make but almost impossible to turn. The hope was that having permanent wooden bays would make turning easier -which has turned out to be true, and because it’s easier I turn the heap more often, which keeps it sweet and hot and remarkably efficient at reducing the most intractable waste into compost. Woody waste is chopped into small pieces and cabbage stumps get smashed with the back of an axe, but even soft fruit prunings disappear. The only things we don’t compost are noxious perennial weeds and annual weeds that have set seed. We’ve also learned that as well as regular turning, the heap responds well to a surprising quantity of cardboard (as long as it doesn’t have a plastic finish). The one thing you never find in a finished heap is cardboard – it seems to disappear really quickly and we often supplement our own household cardboard waste with shredded paper and large boxes from the recycling containers in the basement. The worms also love it although they don’t seem to eat it, they tend to congregate around it. Finally the heap gets a regular soaking of urine and the odd layer of comfrey if I can find any; or a handful of organic fertilizer or seaweed meal now and again. The one thing you can’t do is just leave it uncovered for months. It’s far better to keep it covered and water it when it looks dry, than it is to allow it to get cold and wet. Are you getting the picture? Composting is an intense and interventionist activity.

So today was heap turning day because we’ve cleared a couple of beds and the plan is always to clear them, compost them, and then sow or replant them as quickly as possible. Allotmenteering is pretty intensive all round, and digging out a full bay is hard work because in our case our optimistic use of “biodegradable plastics” – Jiffy 7 modules and degradable kitchen waste bags in particular has taught us that they are rarely broken down and can persist for years. So we’ve been removing them – hundreds of them – as the finished compost is dug and put through a wire riddle. It’s slow but very rewarding work as lumpy garden waste emerges from the process as sweet smelling friable and fine grained compost, inoculated with worm casts – in fact almost all of it seems to have passed through worms at some point making it vastly more valuable than bought in compost. There was enough today to cover two 12’x 5′ beds to a depth of 3″ and fill two large planters – and enough pieces of plastic to fill a large bag! After riddling and taking out the plastic, any hard residue, bits of twig etc. go back to the bottom of the new heap.

Rats

Turning the active heap which was full to the brim was a bit more of a performance, not least because I came across a very large rat and was forced to engage in hand to hand combat with it for fear of getting bitten. I once had a rat jump over my shoulder and I’m not sure which of us was more terrified! Rats are a tremendous nuisance but it’s hardly surprising that they congregate around compost bins which provide food, warmth and shelter. The problem is that they’re also carriers of leptospirosis which is transmitted through their urine, and so we really don’t want them leaving their traces on crops, particularly those like salad greens that are eaten raw. They also ruin sweetcorn crops because – like badgers and deer – they love the sweetness. We try as best we can to exclude them but they’re great climbers and even if the bins themselves are rat-proof, they can easily climb the sides and get in through the top and so they’re a regrettable pest and although I hate despatching them they come under the same banner as slugs. And so if we can, we kill them with powerful spring traps designed to keep out other less harmful species and occasionally I have to do the job myself because they soon learn to recognise the traps and even manage to eat all the peanut butter bait without springing them. We don’t use poisons of any kind because that just displaces the moral responsibility by making the consequences invisible.

Worms

But aside from the pests, what about the friendly inhabitants of the compost heap? I’m constantly amazed at where the brandling worms come from. We’ve never gone to any trouble, they just emerge from somewhere and in a lively heap they multiply exponentially. There’s a paradox here because there’s more than one process going on in a heap. The bacterial process is stage one, and it’s the foundation for the worms’ work. All the feeding with water, urine (human not rats!) comfrey and carbon in the form of cardboard facilitates the initial stages where the heap warms up. Many enthusiastic bloggers will make great play of the maximum temperatures in their heaps and some will claim that they reach quite extraordinary heights. We much prefer to leave the heap to heat up to – say – 30C in the initial stages. Bacteria, insects and worms all have their comfortable temperature ranges, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to drive all the invertebrates out by having the heap too hot.

In practice, the brandling move around – to the cooler edges when the heap is heating and then back to the centre when it cools and they can begin their vital work of digesting the partially rotted waste and turning it into worm casts which are absolutely crammed with soil improving bacteria. Well made garden compost and cheap garden centre compost are worlds apart. When the worms have done their work the population declines and they move elsewhere – which means it’s time to dig the compost out and spread it thickly on the plot.

Yesterday as I was digging out the finished compost, it was clear that there were far less brandling than in the ‘live’ bin, but as I dug deeper I was finding more of the deeper soil dwelling earthworms. It’s wonderful to watch how the process constantly balances itself. And worms aren’t the only inhabitants – it’s teeming with invertebrate life all chewing their way through our waste and turning it into gold, and I don’t doubt that the inhabitants get smaller and smaller in a massive interconnected ecosystem – it takes your breath away.

The result of building up the soil with organic matter is increased fertility, increased yields, greater biodiversity and healthier plants. It’s a no-brainer. Of course you can increase yields by pouring on artificial fertilizer year after year, but as the biodiversity drops the intractable pests increase and you find yourself trapped in an expensive and depressing spiral of feeding and spraying. But here are some photos of the allotment taken yesterday, and hopefully they speak for themselves.

Aix en Somerset

Madame and me are like Jack Sprat and his wife – I love the sunshine and hot weather and Madame isn’t so keen. So these last few weeks of almost Provencal weather have been a combination of bliss and lethargy for us. It’s OK for the most part, we know perfectly well we need to be aware of each others’ preferences and not beat ourselves up too much because we want to do different things. Naturally it doesn’t always happen that way and a bit of subterranean growling goes on.

Of course the other elephant in the lounge bar is the lockdown. The flat is sufficiently small to be able to vacuum the whole place without moving the electric plug, and the allotment is just 250 square metres.We’re fortunate to have the most lovely surroundings and the view from the flat makes it feel bigger than it really is but ……. the fact is, the continuing pandemic almost forces us to live introspectively and that can make for heavy going. This summer is turning out to be less than hazy, lazy and crazy – or maybe it’s all of those things but in a bad way.

It’s a non stop job. Constant watering of the parched ground keeps the allotment green, and the plants seem to be thriving, but it does seem to be a bit daft watering with chlorinated and purified tap water when there’s a river just across the road. It’s clear that the allotment can consume an awful lot of water. We’ve got 1250 litres of storage capacity which we’ll increase to 1750 this year – that’s 175 watering cans full which, if we were parsimonious with it, might stretch to six or eight weeks of drought. Right now we’ve got around 350 litres left and there’s no prospect of substantial rain anywhere in sight and so we, like all the other allotmenteers, are competing for water from the cattle troughs. It’s all dealt with politely, but not far under the surface the resentment is bubbling away. On the hottest days, allotmenteers are trawling the length and breadth of the site looking for a trough with some water in it, and the refilling rate is grindingly slow.

So I mostly get by by channelling my inner peasant and it’s been lovely. Whether a sunburned but overweight allotmenteer is a better adornment to the site than winter pale one is none of my business, and in any case if fellow allotmenteers are inclined to take exception to my shorts they’re far enough away not to worry me.

One year’s weed is ten years seed

Watering and weeding have taken over now that the propagation and constant re-potting have slowed down. Where on earth the idea comes from that you can create a model allotment in an hour a week baffles me. The ‘babies’ are all born and the health visitor isn’t needed any more, but as all new gardeners discover, the daily grind of putting the plants out and back at night, anxiously watching the temperature and fussing about pests and diseases – takes its toll. I’ve always found hand weeding extremely therapeutic – kneeling down at plant level teaches you a lot about weeds and their leaves. We sort all the villains into compost or exile departments. I know all that stuff about a weed being a plant in the wrong place but bindweed and couch grass are in a class of their own.

Our site has its particular pests – one of which is ironically quite scarce in our area and illustrates the ‘plant in the wrong place’ conundrum perfectly. Ramping common fumitory self-seeds ferociously and yet it’s a rather pretty and uncommon plant. But experience shows that our constant weeding seems to have no effect on its numbers. The exiles go to a large unkempt heap during the summer and thence to the incinerator in the winter. Any annuals that have set seed go there too, and the rest of the weeds which hopefully are not much more than leaf, go into the compost heap. However it illustrates the necessity of constant weeding because as the old saying goes, ‘one year’s weed is ten years seed’

Outside, and beyond the boundaries of our self-isolation, there’s an air of rather desperate celebration as the lockdown is prematurely eased against all scientific advice. On the green there were half a dozen large parties going on last night and if, as the latest research suggests, half of covid infections are asymptomatic – especially in younger people – then there were perhaps ten infected people out there partying last night. For those of us who are most vulnerable to this infection, the world begins to feel faintly menacing. I’m sure this constant vigilance eats away at our self-confidence and the whole fabric of our communities. What with politicians, rank weeds and viruses all threatening the Queen’s Peace the world seems to be self-medicating with alcohol and heaven knows what other substances. I’m thinking Berlin in the 1930’s!

I was cataloguing some photos last night and I came across a couple that I took when we took on the second half plot just two and a half years ago, when it was a field. I remember so well the day the shed arrived by lorry, and it was lovely to compare the photo at the top of this post, with the ones below. The best we can claim for ourselves is that we’ve gathered some of the energy that flows from the earth like a spring, and organised it as best we could, into a source of food, solace and joy.

Not grapes!

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We were just packing up on the allotment yesterday when  noticed this addition to the shed door. They may look very like grapes at this magnification but in fact they’re tiny (less than 1mm) eggs – I’ve no idea what sort of insect they belong to but they’re strikingly pretty and we’ll leave then there to see what emerges. A quick internet search suggests they could be lacewing or shield bug eggs, but most insects lay their eggs on their food source and so far as I’m aware the shed door is not the habitat of choice for any insect I can think of. If they are, in fact, grapes I shall put an ad in the Daily Mail and sell them on as the new wonder-food that everyone’s investing in. Pretty scruffy painting on the door too – I have to admit – let’s call it vernacular painting and pass rapidly on.

I have seen books and websites that suggest you can run an allotment in an hour a week.  I’m sure you can, just as you can water an allotment in ten seconds with the aid of a second hand fire engine and a full lake of water, but that’s not really the point. There’s an old saying that the best fertiliser is the farmer’s boot. Such archaic folklore is obviously out of date in the age of farm machinery with GPS and onboard computers but that’s part of the problem. Swinging by your allotment for an hour a week or ploughing a hundred acre field without stepping outside the air conditioned cab misses out one vital part of managing your patch of dirt – pondering time.

Pondering is one of the most fruitful exercises in gardening. Standing stock still in the middle of the plot and looking at the lie of the land, the direction that the wind and the rain come from, the condition and even the smell of the soil, the particular weeds that like to grow there, the birds, the pests, the time the sun spends on the plot and the time it’s hidden behind the trees, the places where frost gathers, the habitual path that the badgers take (just try blocking it and you’ll see what I mean), the recollection of the seasons as they affect that particular spot and the way things are at this precise moment; what flourishes and what’s in trouble?  Pondering is the equivalent of a platoon of Royal Engineers building a bridge between the present moment and the future.

So yesterday Madame had a flash of insight that managed to unite three key aims on the allotment. From the first moment I started to build the compost bins I was aware that we were taking out a very large bed of ‘full sunshine’ ground. Space is the most precious commodity we have when there are only 250 square metres to work with, and sometimes you have to make compromises.  Maintaining an organic plot requires big inputs of compost and becoming as self-sufficient as possible in compost is a big money-saver. We also take in garden waste from our neighbours who would otherwise have to drive it to the municipal tip.

We also want to store as much water as possible because with climate extremes becoming almost commonplace we need a buffer against watering bans. Rainwater is, in any case, less damaging because it contains less chemicals like chlorine.

But the loss of twenty square metres of growing space is a big price to pay, which is why Madame’s idea is so brilliant. Yesterday we were pondering where we might put four ridge cucumber plants.  They’re a bit space consuming because, like courgettes and squashes they like to wander. There are four compost bins in a row.  One is used to store leaf mould – so we fill it heaped high with leaves in the autumn, and then we don’t touch it for a year while it gradually reduces to half the original volume. Next to that we store the compost, grit and sundries that we still have to buy. The third bin is for the final stage of our home composting and the last is the ‘live’ bin that’s regularly topped up, turned and mollycoddled.

Madame’s big idea was to plant out the cucumbers in bags of compost on top of the leaf mould. But two heads work better than one and in a flash we could see that by securing a removable floor above each of the bins, and then building a polycarbonate sloping roof over each of the bins and harvesting the rainwater falling on them, we could combine all three objectives :

  • Making compost
  • Harvesting water
  • Increasing cold frame space

It’s three crop vertical gardening in a confined space.

 

 

Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

Fine words butter no parsnips

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These were grown on a piece of the allotment that the previous tenant said nothing could be grown on and demonstrates two points at once.  Firstly, there’s no saying what a piece of ground will grow once you’ve removed not just one, but two layers of carpet and weed control mat separated  by a four inch layer of soil and weed roots; and secondly that the old tale that parsnips fork when they’re grown in recently manured ground may be a bit more complicated than it seems.  There’s some evidence, apparently, that parsnips and other roots fork as a result of eelworm infestation, so it may be that the forking eelworms (dare I say?) like manure. Who can tell?  This ground was absolutely inundated with well-rotted horse manure  after we discovered what the problem was, and then uncovered and removed it- well, sort of rolled up!.

So that’s the parsnips almost dealt with except to say that roasted with carrots, one of our ukichi kuri squashes and some of our potatoes and rainbow chard made the most lovely treat. The difference in quality and flavour between shop bought veg and our own is beyond dispute.

So that leaves butter and fine words.  A couple of days ago I ran out of olive oil when I was baking, so I substituted the same weight of butter in my everyday sourdough and it worked perfectly well.  However there’s a difference in the texture that I can’t quite put my finger on, so I probably won’t do it again unless I run out of oil.

And finally, fine words. LIke all bloggers I pay attention to the stats, and like everyone else I love it when they go up and I wonder what I’ve done wrong when they go down. When a whole continent disappears for three days I do worry a bit – and if anyone says they don’t care about things like that, they’re telling fat porkies. The Potwell Inn would be simpler to describe in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. In particular it isn’t a feelgood site, a natural history site, a life coaching site, a spirituality site or a cookery site although, confusingly, I write about all these things. So I have to expect that sometimes when people follow the Potwell Inn because they have an allotment, they might be disappointed when – especially in the winter – there’s not much to write. “Went to allotment to take up the kitchen waste, very muddy” is not going to butter any parsnips or, indeed, crack any pots in Warrington.

In fact, yesterday we took the kitchen waste up to the allotment and dug a few parsnips. I uncovered the compost heap, which I’ve been turning frequently to bury the rat attracting food under the older stuff.  I don’t mean cooked food scraps – they go into general waste because the council won’t collect food waste from our block of flats; but rats also love to chew a lump of raw cauliflower trimming or a sprouted potato. As I turned the waste in, a sleek brown rat jumped out from somewhere near the bottom and scuttled around looking for a way of escaping.  I was holding a murderous looking four pronged stable fork but the sight of the rat’s rather lovely shiny fur softened my heart and I stood back while it went on its way.

The winter heap is very different from the summer heap.  Apart from the rats, the worms love a winter heap and multiply in their thousands if you keep it aerated and warm.  You can almost hear them chomping away at the kitchen waste, and as long as I keep the heap from going anaerobic and smelly it consumes kitchen waste, shredded paper and cardboard faster than we can put it in.

Winter compost and summer compost are very different. Winter words and summer words are very different too. Life at the Potwell Inn has its seasons, and as it moves on, my interests, experiences and outlook change as well.  At the moment there are over 250,000 words in this blog.  Sometimes – it’s lovely when it happens – someone will come on to the site and read fifteen or twenty pages at one sitting.  Many readers seem to dip in and out and as the blog has grown I’ve realized that people access it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m looking to change and re-index the categories and tags to make it easier for readers to access the bits they’re interested in. But the core purpose of the Potwell Inn blog is to reflect on the whole tricky business of being human and staying human in whatever ways catch my attention from day to day.

I’d like to reach more people.  The Potwell Inn is, hopefully, a sanctuary for the alternative, the bewildered, the joyful and the curious – against the onslaught of the free market vultures. If you’ve read H G Well’s novel you’ll know that the Potwell Inn has a river running through its grounds. There were once fish in it and a ferry to make the crossing. The brewers are desperate to close it down and sell it for redevelopment as a gated housing development. I’d love it if you passed the link to the site on to your friends – I’m confident that if you like the site I’d like your friends too, so do press the button. Small is beautiful but a bit bigger would carry more weight in the fight against all that diminishes our humanity.