Still waiting for the police to drop by!

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Well, we’re not exactly expecting anyone to break down the doors but every time we walk back to the flat we look up and see the daylight lamps blazing away over the propagators we think it should at least raise a tiny bit of interest. In any case I’m longing to invite a suspicious officer into the flat to check us out, with –   “Sorry mate – Madame’s maxed out on the basil today and she can’t really speak at the moment, but do come in for a cup of green tea and a flapjack“. 

We love our propagators.  They take a bit of getting used to but once you’ve got the hang of it even so-called difficult subjects become a lot easier.  The first year I sowed chillies I faffed about so much with the temperatures that the only seeds that germinated at all were the Hungarian Hot Wax. The second year went much better, but we discovered that far from being terribly delicate, the old monsters – well at least the Hot Wax and Jalapeno actually preferred it in a sheltered spot outside on the allotment. Only the hottest ones needed protection.  They also resented overcrowding – so if you’re struggling with hot chillies try giving them more space. We also went from ordinary seed compost to composted coir, but we’ve decided that for all its green credentials it’s better to make a home made mix of compost, soil and vermiculite rather than pure coir. One more thing worth trying is to get them germinated and then turn the heat down a bit.  Ours germinate well at 25C but once they’re looking healthy we’ll turn the heat down but still give them lots of light – about 12 hours.  I’m sure there are dozens of experts out there who know better but this year we’ve had 100% germination of the chillies.  ‘Don’t worry’ seems to be the order of the day.

But we’ve also had two dry days and so at last I made a start with moving the water butts to a new and much higher position alongside the shed. There’s room for three 250 litre butts, but when they’re full they’ll weigh 750 Kg  and so the stand needs to be really – no really strong.  The maths is easy –  one litre weighs a kilogramme. I like that kind of unit.  But I don’t like the proliferation of standards that makes joining the water butts together into a nightmare. When Britain ruled the world we just made up a standard, announced it to the world and expected everyone else to comply – and if they didn’t we sent a gunboat up the high street.  So in what ought to be the simple issue of things like nuts, bolts and pipe fittings there are always two standards – one for the heritage lovers, let’s say British Standard Pipe fittings – doesn’t that sound grand – and another for the rest of the slightly more intelligent world. But marooned on this delusional island as we are, it becomes necessary to learn three standards for almost every fitting except those you can hit, and there is a flourishing but incomprehensible market in adaptors which sit like translating apps between a threaded hole and a pipe.

Why bother? you might wonder.  Well it’s because standard water butt taps turn a big – 25mm outlet into a very small one – about 1/3 the diameter which, when you’re filling a watering can or trying to feed a soaker hose turns a generous flow into something with prostate problems.  So my idea is to replace the cheap plastic taps with much more expensive 25mm all-the-way-to-the-pipe taps, and join all the butts together with fancy blue pipe so I can fill a watering can before it gets dark.

The carpentry bit went smoothly and I was able to build the platform without any outlay, just using timber left over from other projects on the allotment. I baled out the first butt and moved it on to the stand but my first attempt to fit a new bung failed miserably.  Like all good gardeners I carry a vernier in my toolbox – no really – and the replacement seems to be just under 1mm bigger in diameter than the original, although they’re both supposed to be 3/4 BSP. Is this, I wonder, because these mains pressure components are meant to be what we experts call “a bash fit”?  Who knows? But as a precautionary measure I’ve ordered a different manufacturer’s so-called ‘compatible’ component which I’ll try tomorrow.  The take-home lesson for today is the one that all plumbers understand and cost into their quotations, namely nothing ever fits first time and endless waiting at the stores counter is just part of life’s rich tapestry.

The fates never smile across the whole of the Potwell Inn at once, and I’ll settle for 100% germination even if the payback is a lot of fiddling around with pipes – at least the sun shone and the birds sang and Madame sowed the first parsnips – which will probably take until midsummer to germinate. In a tiny vignette from our charmed existence at the Inn, we were sitting companionably on the sofa watching something tedious on the idiots’ lantern and I turned to Madame and said – “you smell nice”.  “Oh” she said – “you smell sweaty”. Hm.

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Storm Dennis forces indoor gardening

Just when we thought it couldn’t get any worse, it got worse. When we first heard the wind soughing through any gaps in the windows it sounded suitably mournful, almost lovely. It felt good to pull up the bedcovers and entertain ourselves with thoughts of the driving rain and crashing waves outside the door. But that’s just an indulgence.

Actually being flooded is quite a different experience as we discovered one evening alongside the tidal Avon almost underneath the Clifton Suspension Bridge.  We’d been living there for some years and we were used to the occasional inundation of the Portway, but this particular night a west wind was heaping up a spring tide and driving it upstream at the same time as a snow melt was travelling in the opposite direction. What was most unnerving about it was just how quiet it was.  The water just kept on rising, over the dockside, across the low wall and then began to move across the road towards our house. We stood there in disbelief for an age, before Madame called a taxi to take the children to a safer place as I wondered how to stop the water flooding the basement. Mercifully the tide turned and the water retreated, but I’d never experienced water as malignant before.  Dark, relentless and malignant.  I think of the hundreds of people in the North for whom the water hasn’t stopped.

And now we live much further upstream on the same river – we haven’t moved far – but the river hasn’t lost its capacity to threaten and bully its way through the city. We know when it’s high when we can see the surface gleaming through the trees across the green, and still it’s largely silent when it’s at its most dangerous. There’s no theatrical roar, no whitewater, it’s just dark; swirling silently and sliding past as fast as a cyclist could keep up on the towpath. Global climate change is one problem we’re not going to be able to export to a place we don’t have to look in the eye. Which is perhaps an overly melodramatic way of cueing the fact that we didn’t go out today.  We’d made safe the allotment as best we could, and we just waited for storm Dennis to blow it (him)self out over the weekend while we got on with sowing seeds for the propagators.

It seems a bit ironic to be sowing chillies and peppers this weather, but they need a long season and so we always seem to land up sowing them when the winter weather is demonstrating that there’s still time for frost and snow. Each year we juggle the dates to try to get them ready to go up to the allotment at the exact moment the weather changes for the better. It’s called gambling, and the odds are always in favour of Nature having the last laugh, which is why you need to develop plenty of resilience, and a sense of humility to be any good as a gardener. If I had one piece of advice – or rather two pieces – for a novice allotmenteer they would be

  1. Get your seeds in early
  2. Don’t get your seeds in too early

See what I mean? That’s why this blog is about being human, rather than being clever. My guess is that in about eight weeks we’ll be trying to keep a load of very leggy and tender capsicum plants alive in the flat until the snow melts at last. Anyway, this is the time of year when almost everything you’re planning to do on the allotment is virtual; aspirational.  A few cotyledons here and there; some unopened seed packets along with some empty beds in which – we hope – remarkable vegetables will grow.

Outside the flat, the window boxes are being thrashed by the wind and rain, and I’m not sure they’ll ever reach their full potential this year. All across the UK people are enduring this seemingly endless sequence of Atlantic storms, and I’d like to think that the light is gradually dawning in the collective mind.  But then I think back to how long it took for the science around the dangers of smoking to take us to the point of giving it up.  There were huge commercial pressures and vast fortunes were spent by the tobacco industry to prop their lethal product up, and successive governments delayed any genuine action – probably because of the huge tax revenues they were gaining. We must expect that common sense will only prevail after every other option has been investigated – the trouble is we don’t have fifty years.

If you read this blog regularly you’ll know that I’m very interested in finding out how farmers are responding to the climate challenge. I don’t think anyone – even farmers – believe that nothing needs to change, but I do think that some of their critics have been cherry picking the evidence against farming. So here’s another random article that landed in my inbox today.  This one is another defence of traditional mixed farming over and against feedlots and chemicals.  I found it very interesting although I can’t vouch for all the data it’s based on.  But whatever solution we reach for has simply got to gain the support of farmers and landowners if it’s going to work. I have no confidence in the capacity of the present government to challenge its own funding sources so it’s going to have to be a battle for public opinion.  The information, all of it, is out there and we need to collate and understand what it’s saying and not reach for scapegoats to carry the blame. The future of life on the earth depends upon us reaching the correct conclusion and then acting on it.

 

This is my happy place

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I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.

I do have an antidote for it all  – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread,  convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well –  all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.

The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss  army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket.  In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds.  Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way.  Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week  we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.

 

Hiding from Storm Brendan

Well, not quite hiding but certainly not going outside.  The weather has been filthy and looks determined to get filthier and so Madame made a large batch of pesto and then we worked together prepping what should be around 30lbs of Seville orange marmalade by the time it’s finished.

We’ve been intending to make a stock batch of pesto for ages – partly because we’ve almost run out, (it freezes very well), but also because we need the propagators empty in order to get chillies going fairly soon.  For the sake of convenience we combined the two types – ‘Bolloso Napolitano’  and ‘Classico’ – both from Franchi – because we had them ready to harvest, although I think I prefer the first more, it’s got a hint of aniseed somewhere.  These plants were grown in a home made compost mixture combining 40 topsoil, 40 composted manure, 10 vermiculite and 10 Perlite. The seeds were germinated and kept at around 20 C until the plants were ready to harvest and they were grown under 12 hours daily of overhead artificial daylight.  They were only watered from below and once they’d got their feet down we fed them regularly with dilute seaweed feed. We’ve previously tried growing them in compost only, but these have been the best plants we’ve ever produced and the pesto today was absolutely delicious. It’ll be rolled and part frozen, cut into individual portions and wrapped.  One important point is to sow thinly and then thin again to stop the plants competing and exhausting themselves.

The marmalade reminded me (again) that it’s always good to read even a familiar recipe twice, because we’d peeled, deseeded and knife cut six pounds of peel into fine shreds before I realised that we were going to have to add 12 pints of water for the initial cooking.  That brought it almost to the top of our biggest preserving pan with no room to add the sugar so we’re going to have to share the big batch between two pans.  I made the same mistake last year and there was a discernible difference between the two batches – both were very nice but just different in texture and set.  I also need to climb up to the top cupboard to make sure we’ve got enough jam jars. When we first moved here I bought what I thought would be a lifetime supply of screw top lids from a wholesaler, but I think we’ll have used them all up with this batch of marmalade.

Meanwhile storm Brendan has spared us the worst of the wind and rain because we’re sheltered here in the Avon valley, but we cancelled a proposed overnight stay in the Forest of Dean because the campervan can rock and roll a bit in high winds. Tomorrow I’ll be back in the kitchen baking for our grandson’s cake stall.  I’ve bought a muffin mould especially, but I’ve never made a muffin in my life so it could all go terribly wrong.

My friend Rose has texted to say that she’s modelled her whole life on Flora Poste (see previous posts) and Emma Woodhouse. It would be churlish to comment!

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