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,

Monika’s dacha

I’m constantly amazed at the way in which our neighbours personalize their plots on the allotments . This one’s really beautiful because it combines really well maintained growing spaces with the most inviting shed on the entire site. The cast iron stove outside used to be on the inside but I think it was somewhat hazardous and so it’s been moved – although come winter it might find its way back. Monika started off with very little experience of gardening but she’s learning fast. The shed, and the greenhouse at the other end are both made from recycled materials. The greenhouse seems to be constructed entirely from discarded shower doors; fruits of a friendship with a Polish builder on furlough.

Quiet space, private space – call it what you will – are one of the most significant benefits of allotment life, and we see it expressed in dozens of different ways across the site. On one plot a sawn down tree stump serves to secure one end of a hammock which is shared by the couple whose allotment it is. One digs and the the other snoozes, and then they swap over. Another couple have a barn door on their shed and a lean-to greenhouse up against it. Our three buildings (shed, greenhouse and polytunnel) are so full of plants and their associated clutter, that we put up our folding chairs between two buildings and if it rains we retreat to the tunnel which is also full so we stand and look at one another and listen to the rain drumming on the polythene.

Yesterday a long delayed consignment of rhubarb (Fulton’s strawberry surprise); a tayberry and a blackberry all arrived and while Madame watered inside the tunnel I planted the fruit. Something of a change of mood has come this year because at last the final position of the beds is fixed and all the major structures are in place. There’s more civil engineering to do, like putting a roof on the compost bins and building a shelter for us; but they’ll have to wait until the autumn because we’re fully occupied in sowing, propagating, pricking out, repotting and all the day-to-day things that make springtime gardening feel like a full time job. We’ve organised a bigger than ever group of perennial herbs, bushes and small trees so we know exactly how much space there is for the rotating crops.

Which brings us to pottering – or is it puttering? For me, puttering is always the sound of a small boat with an inboard diesel engine so when we garden it’s pottering: one of the most pleasant meditative exercises ever. Instead of being grimly focused on raising the ziggurat of Ur or putting up the trellis for the hanging gardens of Babylon, we alight on the multitude of small tasks like browsing bees; removing a weed here and there; replacing a tree tie; doing a minute examination of a plant for signs of insects; talking to the worms in the compost heap and sniffing emergent leaves to try to guess which plant they belong to. Or it might be dozing in the sun, listening to the birds above the constant noise of the traffic. Even a small plot like ours generates a huge number of little tasks that individually don’t amount to much but collectively make the difference between a well run allotment and a thuggish wilderness. You may have heard the story of Brother Lawrence who, as a young monk, chafed at the mundane tasks he was given and longed for something with a bit more status. He eventually discovered the great satisfaction to be got from throwing himself into the everyday as if it were the most important job in the world. [This story was naturally appropriated by the church hierarchy whenever it felt threatened by anyone with a new idea and wanted to put them in their place – but it still stands]. There is no greater reward in gardening than the emergent qualities of a plot that seem vastly to outstrip the insignificance of the means of tending it – or to put it another way; hedge laying is cold, windy, wet and repetitive but just about the best job in town on a winter morning.

Away from the mundane, I had a fun five minutes after the memory of a chart in Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” wandered into my mind uninvited in the middle of the night. Bernard Leach was one of the key figures in 20th century studio pottery and one of the areas he was interested in was the use of wood ash in glazes. So …… stay with me here …. we use wood ash on our compost heap because it contains useful elements like potash and phosphorous and on page 162 of my almost worn out 1940 first edition there’s a table of chemical analyses of various ashes. I bet you didn’t know that unwashed apple pulp ash has the highest phosphorous content of any of the ones he tried. There’s a bit of a clue there for composters I think. What comes from this middle of the war book though is a charming lists of the available substances for burning that can be harnessed as fluxes in ceramic glazes, and it’s not science as much as anthropology. Who’d have thought that among the freely available substances were Japanese rice straw (he lived in Japan when he was young), thatching reed, autumn weeds,apple pulp, lawn mowings,bracken ash, box (Buxus) ash and apple wood. I can’t make up my mind if the poetry of the list doesn’t outweigh its usefulness to potters and gardeners.

A rather fun (and very personal) garden in Mousehole where we stayed a couple of years ago.

If looks could kill …

A thousand words on poo!

As we turned into the allotment yesterday a light tipper lorry pulled away at great speed and off down the hill. “He was in a hurry” I said to Madame as we pulled over next to a newly dumped pile of manure whose new owner stood regarding it whilst trying to keep her two children out of it. Obviously I couldn’t just ignore the chance to see whether it was as good as, or better than, our usual supplier. It certainly looked alright, but when I took a handful and smelt it, there was a powerful whiff of ammonia. Without getting too nerdy about it, ammonia (NH3) is one of the principal greenhouse gas emissions from cattle farming. It’s generated when ammonium – which is a normal component of fresh manure – breaks down in a double chemical whammy that deprives the resulting manure of nitrogen, reducing its fertilizer value; and at the same time releasing ammonia into the atmosphere as a greenhouse gas. Farmers know about this (I hope) and manage their manure carefully to minimise losses.

We allotmenteers are mostly neither chemists nor farmers but our belief in manure is almost parallel to membership of the local church – we think it’s a terrific thing but we’d rather not get too involved in the theology. On the other hand, cattle produce mountains of the stuff and it can be quite a disposal problem and so combining the excess of poo on the farm with the excess of zeal among the faithful means that there’s a considerable temptation for entrepreneurial tipper lorry owners to solve the farmer’s problem and make a considerable amount of money in the process.

“How old is this?” I asked the allotmenteer who was still getting over the shock of my sticking my bare hands and nose into the pile. “He said it had been stacked for two years”. “Hm” I thought. “How much did he charge you?” “£100 – cash”, she said. There was not much over a cubic yard, around half a ton, which meant it cost roughly the same as my present source which was looking better by the minute.

Years ago I was given the honour of digging out about a four foot layer of horse dung from a stable. I imagine it must have been necessary to sell the thoroughbreds and buy some Shetland ponies, the filthy floor was so close to the rafters. If you want to know what a four foot layer of anaerobic, methane emitting manure smells like please put down your knife and fork now. This is not for the faint hearted; but straw being expensive and occasionally in short supply, there’s a temptation to put as little as possible down and my goodness it shows, or rather smells – acridly, stomach churningly, eye wateringly vile .

On the other hand a friend who runs a stable and lets me have a load of fresh horse manure for the hotbed every year (although not this one because of travel restrictions), is generous to a fault with her straw, and it shows in the horses gleaming state of health as well as in the healthy “countryside” aroma of their poo. In a nutshell, not all manure is equal and it pays to choose your source personally rather than rely on the A4 advert flapping on the entrance gate of the allotments. Try before you buy if it’s all possible and remember that among species there’s a hierarchy of value. My grandfather valued sheeps truckles above all else, but they’re better left on the land. I can’t imagine that he would feel the same about sheep muck from intensive farms where the sheep are fed on concentrates and never see a field.

Next comes the horse, but even then as I’ve already described, there’s a vast gulf between good and bad. If you’ve got loads of space it might be best to get it fresh, keep it covered and turn it yourself until it’s ready. Oh and check that they’re not worming the horses with some persistent vermifuge that will kill all your hard won worms. Cow’s manure comes last in the list and don’t ever use pig’s manure which is full of pathogens, and – if I haven’t already put you off – remember that e coli often comes as a freebie with manure, especially the fresh stuff, so keep it well away from salad crops and wash your hand carefully, perhaps with gel – like I did.

Good manure needs to be turned frequently to complete its decomposition and this obviously involves the farmer or stable in a lot of work which will be reflected in the price. Cheap is not always a bargain. So this pile of rather young manure which smelt strongly of ammonia was not all it was cracked up to be. But on the other hand we’ve had a tremendously wet winter and heaven knows how much nitrogen has been leached out of our soil during the past few months – so we’ll all be looking at organic ways of feeding it back.

What to do …?

Our allotmenteer has several choices to make. She could stack it and turn it regularly until it’s properly finished – which is extremely hard work. Leaving it as an uncovered pile will just mean more ammonia (nitrogen) escaping into the atmosphere as the weather warms up, while more will be washed away by the rain and could land up polluting the river. She can’t spread it among salad crops, tender plants or dig it into beds where she intends to grow root veg because they’re all adversely affected by fresh manure.

The one place I can think of where it would probably be OK is a good deep bean trench covered with soil. Another possible use is to use it in layers as a compost activator. She could mix it in layers with the free wood chip we have on the site which would reduce to compost reasonably quickly – the same would happen with dead autumn leaves because what this concentrated source of nitrogen needs is lots of carbon – even cardboard – to assist its decomposition and breakdown into “black gold“; odourless friable compost. Ideally she’d nurse it and turn it regularly and then spread it in the autumn and let the worms take it down.

There isn’t a 100% ram stamped ecologically pure way of composting – whether it’s manure or garden waste. The challenge isn’t to reduce wastage and greenhouse gases to zero – which I don’t believe is achievable – but to minimise it as far as possible. As Wendell Berry memorably said of intensive farming where manure is kept as slurry and cattle are kept in squalour, – they’ve taken a solution and turned it into two problems. Remember that in a small mixed farm where livestock are kept on grass, there isn’t – or shouldn’t be – any manure for sale at all because it’s just too valuable. Home compost made from vegetable material and activated with comfrey is as good as any animal manure you could get, unless it’s from your own livestock. The problem for small allotment holders is that we just don’t have space to grow comfrey and we don’t generate enough vegetable waste to compost our couple of hundred square yards sufficiently to compensate for what we take out. We too are intensive farmers! So beware of manure if it looks and smells like waste, because it probably is; and find a good source of safe horse manure and be prepared to put the work in. .

Tomorrow is spring – except it’s not.

Bright sunshine, frogspawn, daisies and a small tortoiseshell butterfly bathing in the sun. We’re out on the allotment every day and the flat is full of seedlings as the propagators encourage them into dangerously precocious growth under artificial lights. That’s the easy bit. Keeping them all alive and thriving for the next few weeks is a harder job altogether.

Every year we suffer from traffic jams for the simple reason that plants get bigger and we’re left trying to find space near a warm window to compensate for the move out of the ITU. The slow procession from the propagators to the ground on the allotment is one of the absorbing challenges of gardening. We’re always trying to steal a march on nature by persuading our late January chilli seeds that it’s really May in the tropics – i.e. warm, humid and with a constant 12 hours of sun – which, being a first floor flat in Bath requires a degree of cunning coupled with a few bits of kit. But once the plantlets move from their snug beginnings into our living room. the only thing they’ve got going for them is the fact that we have three large south facing windows; the spring equinox is only three weeks away and as long as we keep the room temperature at around 21C they seem to do well. We, on the other hand. soon reach the point where for two months we can’t close the shutters because they’re behind a wall of green.

However, with the polytunnel up and running (I put up a large suspended shelf yesterday), the progression will be propagator – living room – unheated hallway – greenhouse – polytunnel – and then wherever they’re intended to grow. It’s hardening off at a glacial timescale but happily it works for us.

I was pondering all this in the week when we happened to watch a TV programme on Cornish fishermen and I realized that, just like them, 90% of our skill (if we have any) is in obsessively reading weather forecasts, looking at the sky, feeling the temperature of the earth, flaring our nostrils in the late winter air and being willing to venture it all on a kind of informed hunch that this is the moment. We like to pretend that we’re flowing with the Tao, but our unspoken purpose is to beat the Tao at its own game. One year in four we win some; but then a late frost or an unexpected snowstorm gives us a massive reproachful slap and our humility knows no bounds. Winter and spring are locked in a battle over custody of the weather and they can both be spiteful. The balmy protective warmth of the greenhouse can become both freezer or furnace in the few hours snatched to go for a walk without opening/closing the doors. The tunnel is an unknown quantity in terms of its response to the weather, but we already know that the protection offered by warmer nights as the soil radiates back its stored heat can be followed by a temperature rise to 25 C in the morning sun – even with a cool wind blowing.

We’re so busy at the moment that it’s hard to find an hour to write, and I’m writing this with one ear on the sounds from the kitchen where Madame is potting out tomato seedlings. Later I’ll be turning the compost bins again, ready for a new start in a couple of months. We’re not yet self-sufficient in compost and neither do we have the amount of land we’d need to grow crops just for composting. I think John Jeavons, living in a country where space is plentiful, underestimates the challenge. So we buy in composted horse manure and also hot fresh manure in normal times – so not this year. But with anything bought-in there’s a risk of chemical residues than can harm tender plants or soil life like worms – and so we’re careful but we have to accept that we don’t garden in a perfect world.

With the big civil engineering projects on the allotment all finished – pond, irrigation and water storage and the tunnel are complete – we’re back to delightful pottering. More later – as my old friend Joan Williams would have said – God willing and a fair wind!

The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Up with the lark

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

End of summertime – Storm Barbara obligingly removes leaves.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A dirty story with added compost

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

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

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

Back on the allotment

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compost

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

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

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

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