Just to explain the heading; I’ve always drilled this mantra into our three boys – “Don’t wake the bear”. It’s sufficiently vague to cover a multitude of the kind of scrapes teenage boys are likely to get themselves into – like mooning at the mayor of a German city during a school exchange visit or attempting to drive a borrowed JCB home from the pub one night. It’s not that they were that much of a crimewave, but clergy kids always have to go the extra mile to appear normal. Now they’re safely approaching middle age the bear can sleep on. As for me I was never much of an enthusiast for bear waking – except my friends might disagree and say that I just had a higher provocation threshold. Wherever the truth lies the fact is I’m wondering whether it might be time to poke the bear with a stick again.
Next season’s seed catalogues have yet to arrive, but even now as we start to clear the early crops away we’re thinking about the coming autumn sowings and beginning to worry about the adjustments we know we’re going to have to make. Heatwave and drought are the first cousins of fierce storms, gales and floods and so we don’t just need to be thinking about seed varieties, but also about infrastructure; water storage, windbreaks and drainage for instance. I can guarantee that two words that will feature in all the seed catalogues will be “drought resistance” . Seed merchants and growers are not quite as stupid as governments when it comes to forward planning and I’m fairly sure that there are trial grounds all over Europe (which is where we source most of our seeds) crossing varieties to see which paragons of drought worthiness can be sold at a premium to worried farmers and allotmenteers. I very much hope that they succeed, but we have to be realistic because 99% of the effort will be devoted to intensive market gardens and arable crops. So for the most part we allotmenteers are going to have to create the conditions that the traditional varieties can still thrive in – and that means paying attention to water storage, soil condition, wind and sun screening and mulching.
On the Potwell Inn allotment we can store up to 1750 litres of water at the moment and it’s hard to see where we could fit any more in without encroaching critically on our growing space. Let’s say that we’ve got around 100 square metres of crop growing space once you’ve taken out the pond, the compost bins and shed. Let’s also imagine that a period of drought might last a month, which would allow 1750 divided by 100 = 17.5, which is slightly less than two full watering cans per square meter for a whole month – which is barely enough for thirsty crops. Then you’d need some eye-watering storms to refill all the butts ready for the next dry spell – storms big enough to cause the underground stream beneath one corner of our plot to flood the roots of the apple trees. Last year I had to dig a drainage trench in order to let it escape. You can see from the numbers that even as abstemious as we are, we are still heavily dependent on the Council supplied water troughs. If those were disconnected during a prolonged drought then we, along with fellow allotmenteers, would lose most of our crops.
Tall crops are especially vulnerable to storms and so we need to construct windbreaks, and again typically a windbreak will protect the ground surface for up to about three times its height. Taller plants need taller windbreaks and so it goes on. Bed design needs to take all this into account. When, as we expect, winter weather becomes more unpredictable and extreme then we have to think about rapid response to snow, or frost or driving rain. Last season was especially mild at times which meant that our crop of purple sprouting came in several months earlier than expected, leaving a longer than usual hungry gap.
Our basic soil is a rich alluvial clay loam, prone to poaching in winter and drying out rock hard in drought summers and so soil modification also comes into the picture; compost, some silver sand and grit in the worst affected areas and deep drains within the paths between the beds all help to mitigate the problem. Sometimes it feels as if we’re battling against common sense by adding compost to aid water retention whilst adding grit to break up the clay. But we muddle through and although we grow vegetables there’s no doubt that we’re in for a rough ride as the climate catastrophe bites.
So is it time to wake the bear? As I look desperately for some sign that politicians are beginning to formulate a plan, my heart sinks when I discover over and over again that the plan always seems to seeking to take us back to the status quo ante – they way things were before the 2009 banking crisis; the way we used to live in complacent comfort while we destroyed the environment. It’s over fifty years since Rachel Carson wrote Silent Spring,
** for some reason the final paragraph of this post was lost in transmission and I’ll add it here as best as I can remember it because (I hope) it completes the thread.
….. and sixty since Vance Packard published “The Waste Makers” and “The hidden persuaders” – all of which three books, as we know to our cost, were a prescient look into the dystopian future we now inhabit. Today I was walking across Sainsbury’s car park in the blazing heat. There’s a 10 mph speed limit because pedestrians have no alternative but to cross the traffic lanes. As I made my way I was approached at speed by a large black Porsche SUV travelling at 20mph or more, an annoying breach of manners in my book, so I just carried on – forcing the driver to stop and wait for me. As I passed the front of the car I was hit by a blast of mercilessly hot air presumably emerging from the SUV air conditioning. I mention this because I’m wondering how many organic cabbages I need to grow in order to offset the amount of carbon and other pollutants being pumped into the atmosphere by one wealthy and selfish car owner. Or to put it another way, is it time now to wake the bear?