If I throw a stick will you go away?

IMG_5783

  • Atiyah,
  • Brendan,
  • Ciara,
  • Dennis
  • Ellen, 

Hold on a minute – where’s Ellen gone? demands the Great British Public and, as ever, the Daily Express has the answer – those dastardly Spaniards have got in first,. However, we shall fight them on the beaches etc etc and we assured by the Met Office that the next one will be called Ellen; it will be an exclusively British storm even if it is out of sequence with the others.  That’ll show ’em who’s boss then!

But seriously, this relentless stream of storms is a complete pain in the azores and I wonder whether the problem could be solved by giving up naming them. After all you shouldn’t ever give names to the animals you’re planning to eat because it makes the whole business of despatching them that much harder and so they hang around like Marley’s ghost, well past their best-by date .  I’m sure the storms are queueing up for no better reason than rather enjoying being dignified by names and so the government should stop naming them forthwith, thereby making the weather better and ending the climate crisis at a stroke.

For many people it’s not been much more than a news story, but if you’re a farmer or a gardener or allotmenteer, or especially if you live near the many affected rivers this February, the wettest since records began, and the second record breaker in ten years (remember all that stuff about one in a hundred years events?), it has been a heartbreaker as well.  On the allotment site, the plots are telling their own story. The unused grass covered plots are looking alright, the established ones are just about holding the water at bay; but the first timers who’ve stripped off the grass and weed cover but not had time to dig and improve the soil – it’s an easily poached clay loam, pH around 7, so neutral but quite shallow in places with an impervious clay substrate – these plots are waterlogged, sometimes with standing surface water.   The fields alongside the river, even those several feet above the water level, are like lakes. Farmers are desperate to get on to the land but heavy machinery would just make things worse.

New allotmenteers come on to the site, many of them having determined on the no-dig system, without realizing that it takes several years of digging, draining and intensive weeding and manuring or composting before the spade can be retired. Sadly for them they quickly become disillusioned and give up.  Allotmenteering has many disappointments but after a couple of years you get to know the ground and its foibles and the rewards soon outweigh the cost in backaches and setbacks. We’ve got a bookcase full of gardening advice that we’ve collected over the years (decades!) but the best teacher is often the person on the next plot – because they’ve faced the same problems that you’re facing  – and of course personal experience is the best teacher of all. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been ticked off for doing something the ‘wrong way’ – and yet most of the time things work out.  It’s like parenting – no one starts off with any skills, we all make awful mistakes and yet, somehow, most children emerge in something approaching maturity in spite of us. So do allotments.

Today, here in Bath intervals of blue sky alternated with horizontal snow flurries, driving sleet and rain and freezing winds.  We went and checked out the plot and the hotbed is doing well, running at a constant 20C, the unheated greenhouse was steady at 10C and the soil temperature was around 5C – so apart from the wet, a pretty normal day in early spring.

I spent a sleepless night endlessly rehearsing how I am going to join all the bits of the water storage system together – you wouldn’t believe how many permutations you can discover in a single hour, wide awake in the dark. I’ve had a lifelong tendency to overcomplicate solutions; trying to cover every possible eventuality as if I were playing chess and so I gave myself a day off today and did some therapeutic cooking, and if there’s a decent programme on the television that doesn’t involve any psychopathic murderers I’ll watch the idiot’s lantern.  Otherwise it’ll be back to the books.

Rhubarb rhubarb ….

OK so blogging can be so much rhubarb if you’re not careful, but this is the real deal – a gift from our neighbour who, unlike us, didn’t move his huge plant last autumn. We’ll return the compliment next year because he was busy splitting his today as it’s got so big.  It’s had a good life, sitting next to a leaky water tank and has grown so much it could feed a small army.  I think it’s probably Timperly Early – such a rich colour. If you squint hard enough at the photo through our kitchen window you’ll see it’s raining, so no surprise there, but we managed to get a few dry hours in on the allotment – enough to check the grease-bands on the apples and sow the hotbed with carrots, lettuce, radish, beetroot, spring onions and spinach. We were also going to install some carefully prepared traps for the flea beetles that have been busy on the broad beans.  This was an idea off the internet – of putting tree grease on white backgrounds and pinning the little strips to the ground.  The designer was insistent that the sheets needed to be white to attract the beetles, but sadly the grease we had in the shed was black, which rather defeated the whole idea. The storm winds have played havoc with one of the patches of broad beans but – as always – they’ve just tillered anyway and so there are four stems where there was just one before.  Clever things happen in nature and it’s often worth waiting for a week or two before uprooting plants that seem to have gone wrong. The leeks that looked almost dead a month ago are now looking perfectly healthy again.  Luckily the almost continuous rain had prevented us from digging them up.

Back in my study all the chillies are busy germinating, and the kitchen propagator is on its second load.  All systems go then – we just need these endless Atlantic storms to ease off. I finished off the afternoon trucking six or seven loads of wood chip down to build up the paths while Madame cleared the last but one bed. The soil is wet but with all the organic matter we’ve added it’s perfectly manageable.  The paths which separate the beds are dug 18″ deep to act as drains to the beds, and they simply eat the woodchip. Goodness knows where it all goes, but I seem to be constantly topping them up. They’re exactly the width of my wellies, so if the level between the boards drops my feet get stuck in the ruts.  I suppose I could have made them wider but that would have cost us growing space.

IMG-20200222-WA0000On the reading front, I’ve been busy juggling a number of books, finishing off Adam Nicholson’s “The Seabird’s cry” – quite brilliant. I’ve also been dipping into Richard Mabey’s “A brush with nature” which is scarily prescient when it comes to the present crisis; re-reading Gary Sneider’s “The practice of the wild” and finally Simon Fairlie’s “Meat – a benign extravagance” recommended by George Monbiot when it was first published and which is a forensic takedown of some of the ‘written in stone’ arguments advanced both by the vegan and the food industry lobbies.  You couldn’t call it an easy read – it’s very densely argued, but it makes the case for greatly reducing our overall meat production while still farming in the traditional and small scale way.  If you’re opposed to any consumption of animals on ethical grounds you probably won’t change your mind after reading this book, but if you’re like me – struggling to make sense of the propaganda war of opposing numbers – then it’s well worth the effort.

On an entirely different chain of thought, our recent walk in the Malverns provoked me to read a number of reports on the management of the habitats there, and I was intrigued by repeated references to NVC (National Vegetation Classification) communities. This has become the standard way of describing botanical communities and I found it fascinating because – and this is just a thought – I could use the data to look for specific plants that I’m trying to find. If you know what you’re looking for and you’ve got a good idea what sort of habitat and area you’re most likely to find it in, the process of looking for especially interesting plants becomes much less of a lottery – more of a pilgrimage. This is one of the great perils of being self-taught in any field and especially with botany.  The pronunciation of plant names becomes a fear filled exercise of avoiding humiliation. Best to own up and ask I usually find.  But also knowledge comes to you serendipitously rather than in a structured way, and so I often say to myself – I wish I’d known that years ago. On the other hand I do think it’s a great privilege never to have lost my excitement at the commonest of things.  I remember once saying to someone on a field trip that I struggled with identifying grasses – “Oh” she said rather dismissively – “Grasses are easy!” – not for me they weren’t, but I was so incensed I spent the next months laboriously learning as many as I could. Suddenly, knowing my lemmas from my awns became an occasion for genuine joy.  Whoopie – I thought – more friends!

As you see from the inset, Greta Thunberg is coming to Bristol on Friday to support the school climate emergency strikes.  It’s actually half term week so no lives will be ruined by taking an hour off revision!