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.

 

 

 

 

Season of mists and mellow wastefulness

 

EFFECTSDon’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste.  There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife.  Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky.  Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).

In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would  clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted.  On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his.  It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.

The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself.  I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers!  However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.

But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning.  Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council.  Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing.  Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile.  All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.

While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow.  We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.

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Then there were more

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Madame was off life drawing at the university today so I thought I’d better put my money where my mouth is and make a start on painting that leaf. There’s an algorithm, a way of getting on with a painting that side-steps all those anxious moments when you doubt whether you’re up to it. I say this because from time to time I get very blocked with negative thoughts and this is the way that I deal with it. I break the task down into easy steps and in the process I render the subject ‘strange’ – I transform it into something I’m not in love with or in awe of in order to get on. So I start with lots of photos, because these ephemeral subjects can change very quickly – they curl up and dry out and they change colour dramatically. You can already see that happening above, in just a couple of days the leaf has got substantially more brown. The good news is that I’ve already got the colour set that attracted me to it in the first place.

So photos – lots of them to refer back to, and then I make a tracing of just the outline and the main features on to tracing paper, strengthen the image with indian ink, grid it up for later in case I change the size, and then reverse the tracing paper so I can transfer the image to a sheet of watercolour paper. The next stage is to carefully draw in any areas like holes, that need to remain completely white, with drawing gum – that includes the entire outline. At this stage I’m working on an increasingly remote stage of the original image, turning the page around to work – which all helps with the distancing process, because the painting that will be is not a leaf but a painting with its own set of rules, rituals and standards. I can move things around slightly, emphasise some parts and move some back in the interests of clarity.  I can even alter colours just a bit on aesthetic grounds.

When all that’s done I can start painting, in this case mostly wet-in-wet which demands good quality paper. The first few trys might well be practice runs, clarifying any methods I’m not sure of and practicing the colour mixes.  When I first started a couple of years ago, Julia Trickey – our marvellous tutor – had us do a colour exercise using only three primary colours – printer’s primaries – cyan, magenta and yellow which can all be bought in warm and cool hues according to your taste. I’ve stuck with the same three colours ever since, because it saves lugging around a massive collection of dried up tubes. As ever the better the quality the easier it goes. Oh and a tube of lamp black is sometimes useful right at the end.

Why am I writing all this here – well it’s certainly not because I’m an expert because I’m not one of those by a country mile, but I enjoy it and I notice things – structures, textures, colours and minute details that really help me to get a better purchase on field botany – and I’m not an expert in that either.

I don’t hold much with notions like exceptional talent in painting and music, writing, or green fingers in allotmenteering. It’s not about luck it’s about practice and I think it’s one of the great crimes of our education system that so many young people leave full-time education having been talked out of their creative potential. So I’d say to anyone have a go! – no-one dies if your early attempts aren’t very good and you’ll get better as long as you don’t talk yourself out of even trying, it’s much better to be an amateur painter than a professional charlatan. Just think – if the thought of watching politicians lie in their teeth, unchallenged by spineless journalists gives you the creeps, redeem the shining hour by doing a painting or writing a letter, anything. Pay no attention to them, they’re not worth it, but vote well; vote carefully because global heating and species destruction are symptoms of a corrupt ideology.

And speaking of trying, the Christmas puds survived their spell in the pressure cooker and they’re all packed away in the cupboard. The allotment is looking very stripped back now but there are a lot of seeds germinating and quite a few winter vegetables just about to come into their own. I took the temperature of the compost heap just to see if it was feeling well, and it’s running at 25C – so there’s obviously some microbial action going on, but not so hot as to drive the worms down. I even put a temporary hard roof over the first bay to keep the rain off.

Oh but I do hate these dark nights!

 

 

Borlotti beanfeast

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Not a huge crop, admittedly, but satisfying all the same and if you taste the beans in this semi-dry state you’ll soon know why it’s worth growing them yourself.  Last year we froze some so they could be dropped into soup without pre-soaking, but this year they’ll need soaking first simply because we waited for them to reach maximum size before picking them.

IMG_6250But it was Madame who picked these, because I was over in Bristol with two of the boys putting the glass into A’s recycled and free greenhouse. The careful preparation as we dismantled it from its original site in Bath really paid off. Every nut, bolt and clip was stored separately in boxes and we wrapped the panes of glass in fours in 50 metres of bubblewrap (which will be re-used as insulation).  The three of us made an amiable crew,  light work of the job and managed to complete the greenhouse with only one cracked pane – easily replacable.   It ought to  go without saying that there is real family life beyond the wild storms and mutual incomprehension of adolescence but I don’t see it much mentioned these days since we were instructed by our jailers to regard generation X as a bunch of snowflakes while they were told that we had stolen their inheritance. Well the truth is in our family at least we still love and respect one another, and the inheritance (such as it ever was) is in some offshore bank account, stolen in yet another distraction robbery by those who presume to lecture us on our morals. End of harrumph.

So as A contemplated the first sowings on his family’s new allotment, the Potwell Inn crew went up to ours and while Madame planted out spinach and weeded, I sorted out the compost heap.  One of the advantages of living in a block of flats is that the communal waste area provides an endless supply of cardboard, not to mention occasional window boxes and plant pots. The bonanza days are when a flat is re-let and then we get big corrugated carboard boxes – the worms’ favourite honeymoon hotel. All compost heaps need carbon and carboard is a great source. We’ve put hundreds of egg boxes in ours over the years, and I’ve never seen a single one in the resulting compost, they simply disappear.  So yesterday I took up a couple of huge thick boxes and sawed them up (much quicker and safer than a knife or by tearing them). At present the fragments are lying in an insulating heap on the top, to encourage the heap to heat up a bit, and then next time the heap is turned in a week or so, they’ll be a bit softer and easier to incorporatate into the green material.

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Meanwhile, back at the Potwell Inn, the winter supply of basil is coming along nicely in the propagator.  It’s right next to a window, casting a daylight glow into the street for twelve hours, and I’ve been expecting a visit from the community police  – but I guess they see the window boxes and conclude that we’re more lkely to be septuagenarian garden freaks than threats to the Queen’s peace – whatever that might be!

 

 

Wet Sunday – much satisfaction.

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The title came to me as an imaginary reading from the i ching.  The photo is of a pretty ordinary patch of common weeds on the towpath.

It’s eight o’clock on Sunday evening.  I spent most of the  evening making bread and pastry while Madame prepped the filling for some Cornish pasties for tomorrow’s lunch with the boys (all in their thirties and forties now!) .  We’re working together on our middle son’s allotment tomorrow to start building the greenhouse we dismantled a few weeks ago in Bath.  It was going free and it was in pretty good condition and so he took it on.  Apart from that we went up to the allotment early to beat the rain – that didn’t work – and so we plodded on through increasingly sharp showers to clear more beds, cover them with compost and sheet them up for the winter.  By the time we got home we were very damp and very tired. I’d turned the three active compost bins, a very gratifying job because the resulting compost was some of the best we’ve ever made.  It’s hard to overestimate the impact of soil fertility on allotments – it’s not just bigger crops, it’s healthier and more resilient soil which makes for healthier and more resilient plants.  Our clay/loam soil which is prone to poaching and waterlogging is capable of withstanding flood and drought after three years of very heavy applications of organic material.  “What’s the secret?” people ask, and the answer is “there’s no secret – just compost”.  We stopped digging this year and the beds are firm enough to stand on now even when they’re wet. Goodness knows where it all goes, the asparagus bed swallowed up six inches of seaweed last winter and where we spread leaves as a mulch last autumn, there’s no trace of them now.  What we do have is worms – everywhere.  Did you know there are a number of British worm species? –  and they all live at different levels, so the fact that we don’t see some on the surface doesn’t mean they’re not there.

I didn’t feel much like writing today, we were both so tired after the session on the allotment we fell asleep in the armchairs. But there’s something rather special about working in the rain.  My broadbrimmed hat keeps the rain from running down my neck, and at this time of the year the rain and wind aren’t that cold.

I’m aware that writing about the allotment, the whole Potwell Inn way of life, travelling around in the campervan all adds up to a faintly mythologised life.  But it’s not mythic at all, it’s all  utterly ordinary.  Things go well, things go extraordinarily badly; I read books all the time, some inspire me and some fill me with fear for the future. I know a few wildflowers so I’m never alone, there’s always something or someone to talk to.  We work, cook, eat, garden – often in companionable silence. For every idea that bears fruit there are a dozen that don’t. The motivation for sharing by writing about it is that if we could teach more people to live within the ordinary – or perhaps I should capitalize it and call it the Ordinary, there would be a lot less sadness in the world.  In a day or a week when not much happens except for leaning on a fence and watching the plants grow, I never feel the need for anything more exciting. IMG_6167A slice of bread from a well made sourdough loaf spread with home made marmalade in the morning is a celebration of some terribly underrated domestic skills. Good stock in the fridge and tonight the smell of pasties cooking in the oven, fresh veg from the allotment – what more could anyone want?  – there is real authority in the Ordinary, the kind that makes many politicians look like two year old children in a tantrum.

The Potwell Inn isn’t some kind of metaphysical philosopy, in fact it’s the least metaphysical idea you could entertain. Stuff, dirt, earth, nature. Marvellous!

 

Getting ready for Halloween

It’s not all gloom and doom on the allotment, in fact I’m not a very gloom and doom person – I’m melancholic, which is altogether different and a lot more creative. But lifting these big pumpkins had me as happy as could be and groaning loud enough to attract a small group of spectators on the footpath, and some ooohs and aaas as I staggered over to the wheelbarrow. We don’t have any means of weighing the big one, but compared with a 25K bag of sand, I’d say it was more like 30Kg – around 66lbs – far from the record breakers that need a fork-lift to move them, but very gratifying for us. We could have let them go on growing, but we need to get the soil prepped ready for the autumn, and the outbreak of larceny on the site has made us cautious about leaving them in full view. Pumpkins are as cheap as chips in the supermarkets, but big ones like this seem to attract thieves.

So we were clearing the decks today and heaping the bean vines on to the compost heap which is now groaning under the weight. At the beginning of the year I calculated that we’d have to fill the first bin four times to generate enough compost to cover the whole plot.  We haven’t managed four, but it’s been full to the top three times, and I’ll turn it all into the second bay next week and start again. The end bin that had autumn leaves in it has now rotted down into a fine mulch of about 1/3 the volume, and that’s the problem with our compost – it rots down so much that it’s reduced by as much as 2/3 during the process.  However it’s so rich and full of nutrients that it doesn’t need to be piled on thickly.  Earlier in the season I turned over the first full bin and it’s now more than perfect – it’s positively beautiful. But however carefully we sort and compost our paper, cardboard and green kitchen waste with the prunings and tops from the allotment there’s always a residue that needs to be more thoroughly dealt with.

We’ve thought long and hard about incineration and the numbers are quite complex. If we just put all the weeds and infected material on the compost heap it would not get hot enough to neutralize the pathogens or kill the seeds.  If the compost starts getting anaerobic it will produce methane, but even if it’s well managed and aerobic it will still produce CO2.  If it goes to a landfill site it will certainly be anaerobically rotted and so will produce methane and, in addition, the carbon cost of transporting it needs to be added in. So the carefully managed incinerator can’t be rejected out of hand, and the residual ash is a good source of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. The biggest problem with burning is the nuisance, inconvenience and smoke to nearby allotmenteers. If a well managed incinerator is allowed to get really hot to start the process, and then green material is added continuously to keep the process going, and then it should function for days with no more than a whisp of smoke and a little steam when wet material is added. In short there’s no completely green way of disposing of noxious and infected plants.  We’re not allowed to use the incinerator until 1st October in any case , but we’ve bagged up all the infected tomato vines and they’ll be disposed of on Tuesday.

We’ve also started thinking already about next season’s sowings, and the catalogues have just started to appear in the post box. With such a strange season we’ve seen several unexpected results, not least the way that the Mediterranean vegetables – the courgettes, peppers, aubergines and chillies have all done much better outside than in the (recently stolen) coldframes and the greenhouse. This may well be to do with their ability to root deeply and find water, and also the positive impact of freely circulating air, but it’s hard not to hold climate change partially responsible as well.  So our choice of what to grow is going to be affected by three factors next season, firstly the possibility of food shortages if brexit goes ahead, secondly trying to second guess the weather and finally the contribution of our 250 square metres to alleviating climate heating and insect extinctions.

Finally I took this photograph of a clutch of slug eggs today. They’re a pest, there’s no doubt, and yet they also perform a useful function on the allotment by eating dead plant material so we try to control them with beer traps, bait plants like Tagetes and picking them off when we see them. Their only total success this year was a row of carrots that were scythed off before they even got going. But that’s gardening for you!  As you see the eggs are laid on compost whereas white butterflies lay their eggs on leaves – I think there’s a bit of a clue there as to the slug’s favourite food. So if we don’t leave dead and decaying vegetable matter lying around near vulnerable plants the slugs will be less likely to visit.

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Aren’t these so beautiful?

The hazards of babysitting allotments, and more thoughts on water.

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Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away.  But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago.  He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.”  Mission accomplished,  and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.

The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them.  We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions.  When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling.  Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled.  Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.

IMG_5731.jpgHappily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.

Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.

Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater.  When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres.  That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres.  That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater.  The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year.  That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers.  Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!

So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward.  What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off.  I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.

But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost.  Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus.  There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.

Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows.  Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of  the romcom – not much reality.

Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water.  While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally.  Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there.  For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.

 

First batch of garlic

IMG_5698Actually that’s not quite true because we’ve been eating new season garlic for quite a while as the main batch dried in the greenhouse.  The picture shows about half the crop, and the results show that the variety Early Purple Wight was the most successful of the three varieties we tried. We’d thought that most of the alliums were a bit of a disappointment this year, and we dug up the onions when they appeared to be suffering from some kind of (unidentifiable) affliction. However, less fearful (diligent?) allotmenteers left their affected plants in and many of them have recovered and now look well, so maybe we were overcautious, but the combination of twisted and wilting foliage with softness in the sets suggested some kind of rot. We found no evidence of fly infestation at all. so that’s another one to put down to experience.  There’s a lot of “no idea” in gardening if we’re honest, but plants are amazingly resilient and can come back from the brink.  It’s been so dry this season, and it’s been difficult to give the plants enough water.  When we planted the leeks out a couple of weeks ago they looked terribly sorry for themselves, but even the sickliest have pulled themselved into the ground and are looking more vigorous now. Our sage plants, particularly, respond to ruthless pruning with loads of new growth. Parsley seems to hate being watered from above with a rose, and most of our plants seem to prefer a good soaking straight from the can at ground level. There’s a mass of detailed experience that comes into play on the allotment, and so many things that can go wrong – but the rewards are immense, and we don’t beat ourselves up too much if we get it wrong.  Life’s too short to waste with gloomy reflections on the inevitable failures.

So it’s been water hauling, garlic peeling, thinning out and weeding in the warm sunshine.  I had to get the strimmer out yesterday to deal with a couple of out-of-control paths and a big patch of nettles on an adjoining plot. Actually I’m quite happy to have nettles around the place because, as my friend Rose says, they’re not weeds – they’re habitat.  However they’re also deep rooting mineral miners and great as accelerants in the compost heap and so I took half of them for the heap in the hope that they too will regenerate with fresh new growth.  But strimming in hot weather is a pain and it’s fearfully noisy and smelly with exhaust fumes. We’ve now got four abandoned allotments neighbouring ours and when I put up an insect barrier to protect the eastern edge of the plot from strong winds it was soon decorated with airborne seeds.  How much habitat is too much? We have much discussion about what it’s appropriate to put in the compost bins and my rule of thumb is to exclude bindweed and couch roots and any weeds that have actually set seeds, but bung the rest in, roots and all, mixed with all our kitchen peelings, tea leaves, eggshells, shredded paper and cardboard. Since I don’t encourage the heap to get too hot it probably doesn’t kill seeds, but since we don’t dig, thereby bringing new seeds to the surface, most of the seeds that germinate when we spread compost are easily hoed off.

While we were in Cornwall rediscovering the meaning of chilling out we decided to limit time on the allotment to something more manageable. Naturally that resolution didn’t get much further than the allotment gate, and yesterday we were there for best part of six hours, but with fresh peas available I couldn’t resist making a risotto when we got back. I can’t pretend it was a vegetarian dish because there was home made chicken stock and a little pancetta along with the arborio rice, shallot and parmesan. I always use butter rather than oil in this recipe, and I always add a splash of white wine in the early stages. There’s something very comforting about pulling up a stool and a glass of wine to drink while I keep the risotto moving in the pan. But some, at least, of the ingredients had come straight from the allotment and we finished off with a pile of summer raspberries from a neighbour.  Beware of allotmenteers bearing gifts, they’re usually about to go on holiday! Our corner of the site is a small and unofficial cooperative where we take mutual obligations seriously, so no free lunches then, but you can get away for a break without worrying too much about the plot!

My newly revived interest in medicinal herbs has led to our son’s partner calling the flat “Hogworts”!

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A drop of the good stuff ?

 

Finally – today the very first load of compost came out of the new row of bins and was spread across the beds we’d just removed the broad beans from. I said a few days ago that, at the time I built them, I thought I’d made them much too big, but with the sudden acceleration during spring, and now we’re harvesting crops, the first bay was filled to the top and ready for its first turning – which meant I had to clear the second bay of compost that was moved from the previous setup.

I think we must have tried every conceivable method of making compost over the years, and for a long time we’d settled on double cylinders made from sheep wire and lined with thick cardboard. These were wonderful but had one major disadvantage – it was very difficult to turn compost from one cylinder into another without constantly catching the tines of the fork in the sheep net, and in practice we usually dismantled the nets altogether – which was time consuming and a bit messy.  So when the opportunity came along to build some more conventional bins in a row, we decided to make the switch. We knew we were making good compost the old way but we had to weigh up whether the benefit of having an efficient system would be more worthwhile than the loss of a twelve by four bed. The answer to that question has come in two ways.

Firstly the value of the compost has been more than demonstrated by our crop of potatoes.  They were grown on a borrowed patch of ground that had been a bit cold and neglected.  Our soil is clay loam, potentially very fertile but inclined to waterlogging and easily poached when walked on – another reason for moving to raised beds. It hadn’t seen much by way of organic material over the years and so it had a look and feel I can only describe as ‘starved’. Last autumn we gave it a thick layer of compost and covered it with builders black plastic until it was time to plant the potatoes. Even in that time much of the compost had disappeared and the worm count was very much higher.  Better still the ground was easier to work by far.  We planted four varieties in the ground and they’ve all thrived – we’ve almost finished eating the Jazzy and we’re into the Arran Pilot. Pink Fir apple and Sarpo Mira are both flowering and the earlies we’ve lifted have given pretty reasonable yields. What’s more, when the plants are lifted the soil is sweet and friable, quite different from its condition last autum.

So that’s the first reason and the second is the sheer ease of turning – so easy in fact that I’ve been regularly turning the ‘live’ heap in situ to add shredded paper and cardboard if it starts to get a bit anaerobic. Our son brings big bags of grass mowings every fortnight, and these can be a nightmare to compost without creating a stinking mess.  However we shred all our paper waste at home, and down in the basement there’s a large bin for cardboard waste and we regulary filch the good stuff because it’s so handy for weed control, or temporary covering and in this instance tearing up into small pieces and mixing it with the grass cuttings.  What’s particularly noticeable is how much the worms love it. If we chuck a big piece of corrugated carboard in, a week later it’s got its own population of brandling worms, often in the hundreds. So the heap consists of all our green kitchen waste, shredded paper, cardboard and egg boxes (which seem to disappear quicker than you could imagine, along with all the green waste from the allotments. I’ve said before, its difficult to know whether it’s a compost heap or a giant wormery and – to be honest – it really doesn’t matter because all that counts is the quality of the compost.

Do we add any activator to it? Well, there are no rules but if it’s gone cold and slow the best activator of all is a drenching with urine, or sometimes a sprinkling of pelleted poultry manure or fish blood and bone.  The urine has the added advantage that it discourages people from nicking our food if they know it may just have been watered with a ten to one mixture of what Lawrence Hills used to call “human activator”. It’s best to imagine the heap as a dynamic environment that thrives when interest is shown in it. Getting the carbon/nitrogen balance is critical, and so is controlling the moisture levels.

If it gets too wet, neither the worms or the bacteria are happy just as they’re unhappy if it gets too dry or too hot. Paying attention to the details means that we can make far more compost in a given time.  Of course a neglected pile at the end of the plot will eventually make something like compost but on our site it would always be full of bindweed roots as well.  Weeds are often lazy and thrive in a neglected heap. We never put any pernicious weeds or annual seeds in the compost because we deliberately keep the heat down for the benefit of the worms.  Consequently annual seeds, couch and bindweed are not killed in the process and the’re best disposed of elsewhere – a green waste collection or a well controlled incinerator or couch fire in the autumn. We try to keep bonfires down to the minimum although if the temperature is kept low by controlling the air intake they will last for days with barely a whisper of smoke or steam.

At the end of the day, good compost is probably one of the most important crops we grow and absolutely worth all the attention.  Having the bins in a line, with removable slats at the front, makes turning a pleasure.  It’s still hard work, but it takes a fraction of the time and buying compost – we’ve used tons of the stuff getting the plots into shape – is very expensive.

So the crops are flowing in faster than we can eat them which is good news for the family.  A couple of days of hot sunshine has given us chance to plant out everything that was left in the flat, the greenhouse and the cold frames – quite a moment to savour.  I love planting things out after they’ve been in a series of pots.  There seems to be a qualitative difference when they discover their roots are free to stretch themselves and I swear I can hear them singing in their own plant language.

The sunshine has also brought out the crowds on to the green outside the flat.  The university students are all pretty much finished now and we play musical neighbours with a stream of parents (for freshers) and vans (from the second year onwards) fighting a guerilla war with the traffic wardens. It’s lovely to see the barbeques and to hear the sound of the young people enjoying themselves.  I even find a bit of late night music and partying strangely comforting.  But it’s also brought out a huge number of rough sleepers,  we even get tents on the green until the police turn up and move them on. Last night I was watching the fun when I spotted a young man crouching between two cars smoking crack from a piece of foil. The dealers like this place because there’s no CCTV and an abundance of escape routes on both sides of the river.  The police have taken to riding bikes but it doesn’t seem to have made much difference. It’s heartbreaking to see so many young people in deep trouble with disordered lives, homelessness and mental illness. How much is a human life worth? Almost any time we walk into the centre we see someone toppled over, unconscious or comatose after using spice. Last week we heard a young woman hurling abuse at an invisible person, and then a little later a fire engine nosed down the road to put out a fire she’d started. Moving the problem out of sight isn’t working and by and large our neighbours are sympathetic to their plight. Last year neighbours were remonstrating with the police after a man and his partner who’d been camping peaceably on the green were heavy handedly moved on by the police. The council policy seems to be to keep the tourists happy at any cost – even human cost.

There are days when even the joy of growing our food is tainted by the thought that so many people will never be allowed to experience it!

How to compost a bicycle

IMG_1267.jpgIt’s not particularly difficult to compost a bicycle, but there are certain special compost heap designs that favour the process. Obviously this can be a very slow form of composting and so it’s important not to rush the process since partially composted bicycles can make the formation of a fine tilth for seed sowing very difficult. The easy ingress of air and rainwater is known to favour rusting, and of course the addition of iron to the soil is of some benefit to maintaining colour in hydrangeas.  The impact of aluminium and rubber is less well, known but leather saddles are favoured by some species of worm.

Fortunately most dedicated allotmeteers have innumerable old wooden pallets lying around awaiting a purpose and so I have photographed a number of suitable designs below. Please note in the above illustration that the bicycle tyres have been deflated for safety reasons.

Bicycles also make excellent supports for summer displays of bindweed.