You have to look, but spring is there!

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.

Three for one offer!

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.

Marmalade crisis strikes the Potwell Inn

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!

Old? Moi??

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.

We are the undeserving guests at the feast

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.

Sunset over Ramsey Island, Wales

Black Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

Riddling out the twenty first century dross

One leaf fluttering,

tells of autumn

0ver all the country.

From “A Zen Forest” Translated by Soiku Shigematsu – White Pine Press, Buffalo
Working at the riddle

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.

Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.

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

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

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

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

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

Composting – is it just a load of old rot?

Just to my left, as I’m writing this, is a bookshelf filled with books about composting. If you’ve followed this blog for any length of time you’ll know that we’ve tried almost every way there is of making good compost; and each of them has advantages and disadvantages. The one thing I can say with absolute certainty is that the heap in the picture above is a rubbish heap and not a compost heap. The computer software saying – “garbage in, garbage out” applies every bit was strongly to compost. I’ve even seen an abandoned bike rusting away on a compost heap.

The favourite starting point for most of us is the one you make from wooden pallets. The advantage is that it’s pretty much free to make and it will produce compost. The downside is that the open slats allow cold air and rats to get in, and if there’s any trace of food waste they’ll come hunting for it. Rats are an ever present nuisance and we just have to accept that. You can line them with chicken wire but rats often dig in by tunnelling underneath and you’ll soon discover when turning the heap that the tines of your fork will constantly hit the netting. Our neighbour bought himself a fabulously expensive hot-bin made from expanded polystyrene and the rats simply ate through it. As for the conical polythene ones that you buy at garden centres or from the council – I can’t say because we’ve never had one – but I hear the rats still get in from underneath.

On the far left above is my version of the California Cylinder which, – when there’s plenty of green waste around – will go like a train. It’s made by forming two concentric cylinders of sheep wire and then inserting thick cardboard into the gap between them. You can also build in a chimney to pull heat through. In one of our gardens, when we cleared it of weeds, we had four in a line steaming away merrily and turning out fabulous compost. The next year we had far less green waste and they were not so successful. The other disadvantage is that it’s all but impossible to turn the heap – it’s better to pull the wire and cardboard off, set it up again somewhere close and refill it with the turned compost.

The simplest composting method of all is the leaf mould heap, like the one in the right hand photo, which is a single cylinder of sheep wire filled with as many leaves as you can press down into it. It takes a year or two but it always works. We find that we can grow a great crop of cucumbers on the heap during the summer while it rots. Even open heaps will work eventually, but then you really have to turn them very frequently and they’ll grind to a halt as soon as the weather gets cold. In the end I built a large four bay composting arrangement with removable fronts which works well for us and makes turning easy -still hard work, though!

Composting is a seasonal cycle

The big challenge is that composting works best when you control the ingredients – mixing green and brown waste and turning regularly. So during the winter months there’s nothing much going in except for veg peelings and the like. Winter heaps don’t often heat up very much, and unless they’re well laced with torn up cardboard and paper, they tend to get anaerobic, wet and smelly. Even in a well managed winter heap, you’ll find that it’s worms doing most of the work. Worms are wonderful. They appear out of nowhere, chew up your waste and turn it into gold – very slowly. In the spring if the heap or the ambient temperature gets warmer they’ll move off somewhere more comfortable without any intervention on our part.

There are two peak green waste seasons – early summer when the remains of winter crops like broad beans go in; and autumn when bean vines and all the rest are cleared away. We move the winter heap with its worms to the next bin and then layer the abundant green waste with any sort of carbon we can get our hands on – cardboard so long as it’s not plastic coated, any sort of dried or dead grass, leaves and – interestingly – wood chip. Just this week our bin reached almost 60C with several 2″ layers of wood chip incorporated. We were confident in adding wood chip because we noticed that we get through around 25 barrow loads every year just topping up the paths. It rots down much quicker than you’d think. We’re lucky because the local council bring wood chip and leaves on to the site during the autumn.

But there are other additives that are invaluable in a compost heap. We use horse manure and even seaweed when we can get it. The last load of seaweed we brought down from the Lleyn Peninsula in North Wales where we’d been on holiday. It stank to high heaven and was full of flies and sandhoppers so it was an uncomfortable 200 mile journey with the windows open; just as it always is with the still warm horse manure that we use in the hot bed. If there’s any spare we add that to the compost as well because it’s so rich in nitrogen and carbon – already mixed.

We also occasionally use chicken manure pellets to steam things up a bit, and drench the heap with liquid seaweed feed now and again if it feels too dry. Control of the moisture level is crucial to success and one of this year’s jobs on the to-do list is to roof over the whole line of bins so we can harvest the rain falling on them and control the temperature and moisture level more accurately.

Of course the finest additive of all is human urine which combines bioavailable nitrogen and moisture at the same time – but don’t overdo it and make sure you’ve agreed with your partner that it’s OK to clutter up the bathroom with a jug and a five litre ex vinegar container marked clearly “Bio-hazard” . We tell everyone we talk to that we’re doing it because it’s an amazingly effective preventative against crop larceny – because they never know which ones we’ve just anointed!

What not to add

Obviously any cooked food and or meat – although I’ve occasionally left a dead rat to compost down because it seemed only fair. Winter heaps should not contain noxious weeds like bindweed because they don’t get hot enough to kill seeds and roots . a very hot summer heap – if it reaches, say, 60C would kill pretty much anything – but you never know. We err on the side of caution always, having introduced creeping buttercup into one of our past gardens via horse manure.

More particularly after wasting many hours picking bits of so-called compostable material out of an old heap; we no longer add those green caddy liners nor any teabags. We open teabags to extract the tea leaves and the compostable bags which seem never to rot, go to landfill. Even worse are the big ticket tea temples that are part of the USP of Teapigs brand. Sorry guys – without a commercial (very hot) process they appear to be invincible; clogging up the beds and any rake you might use. I actually ran an experiment on the little coir disks wrapped in mesh which purport to be green – and they don’t rot either. When it comes to greening up horticulture it pays to be careful – not everything it says on the packet comes to pass! And don’t ever put in a thick layer of grass mowings unless you’ve allowed it to wilt first in the sun.

That’s it really – the sad sum of my composting experience in a thousand or so words out of the fruits of which we can make maybe three cubic metres of compost and one and a half of leaf mould every year. Marvellous stuff ‘though – and so much better than anything you could buy in a shop.

Growing, cooking, eating

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At home with the fungi

Well, not really – but I found the tiny Coprinus (bottom right) growing down in the dark in the compost heap today. I don’t know why but it surprised me because the heap, being full of green waste, was rather hot and the reason I was scratching around in there was to add a barrow load of dead leaves to bump up the brown waste proportion. I’ve learned that if I can smell the heap it’s going (or gone) anaerobic and needs turning along with more brown waste. The effect of the two actions is often surprisingly quick as the heap heats up so quickly.

It was whilst looking for a photo of fully grown member of the species (Lawyers Wig in old money) I randomly typed “fungus” into the Google Photos search line and after a brief interval, hundreds – and I mean hundreds of my photos of fungi going back over a decade suddenly appeared. I’d heard that the search engine had been improved, but this was wonderful because I usually spend ages searching manually through the thumbnails to get the picture I need. It’s a blogger’s dream because I almost always use the photos I’ve just taken because the prospect of searching is so long winded.

Anyway, this is yet another serendipitous moment (synchronistic if you’re a Jungian) because I’m halfway through reading Merlin Sheldrake’s book “Entangled Life” and it falls neatly within a current line of science that’s rewriting our whole view of ecology. For me the most impressive learning point is how well it supports the view that all life is – at its most fruitful – collaborative and cooperative. If ever an idea needed to be born today it’s that one!

After a day working on the allotment in the rain we were glad to get back home. Complete with a meal of the first tiny potatoes and a bag of broad bean tops. There’s tomorrow’s food sorted,

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