Meet the neighbours

 

“These are not weeds, they’re habitat.” – Rose

That’s Rose my friend,  rather than Francis Rose whose book “The Wildflower Key” goes with me on all my expeditions. With surgical skill she reorganised my prejudices and enabled me to see that these ‘pernicious weeds’, growing less than ten feet from the Potwell Inn allotment are a haven to wildlife of all kinds. Let’s start with the Ragwort (“Stinking Willie”), which carries the additional burden of being listed as poisonous to livestock and a favourite hate plant for lazy gardening journalists.  So dangerous, in fact that Norman Tebbit in his days of pomp wanted to force unemployed youths to uproot it as a form of community service. A typical example of the politician rising above the facts, because it’s likely that uprooting the plants would be more likely to spread them further.  Even HRH Prince Charles had a poke at them and wanted something to be done about it, as did Adam Henson of Countryfile fame.  Mercifully, the lineup of the outraged is such an offense to common sense I’m only hardened in my determination to leave it alone. It was the host plant for the first caterpillar I learned to identify when I was a child, when we would collect jam jars with a few stalks of the plant with their caterpilars and hope to see them hatch later as Cinnabar Moths. They are fantastic attractors of nectar loving insects and they look beautiful.  Yes they are poisonous to cattle – like many other plants – but cattle won’t eat them green, which is why you often see them standing tall in fields that are otherwise grazed flat. They are poisonous in hay admittedly, but that’s not an excuse to exterminate the species by dousing every field with agent orange.

The Rosebay Willowherb, the Hedge Bindweed, the grasses including Cocksfoot and even Couch, the Stinging Nettles the list goes on and on – they are all important habitat for the very same insects, the Hoverflies, Lacewings, Ladybirds that predate on the pests we really do want to discourage, and the butterflies and moths  we’re fighting to save from extinction.

These photographs, taken feet away from the allotment could so easily be regarded as the ‘enemy at the gate’ – that favourite trope of the agrichemical industry whose devoted attention to productivity and profit over the last fifty years has brought us to the brink of disaster. But these so-called weeds are not the problem, they’re the solution.  Good allotmenteering depends (as does all great human endeavour) on minute attention to detail.  Industrial farming has no idea how to do this because it works from inside an airconditioned cab without the faintest idea of what’s being destroyed.  Getting to know the weeds gives us the ability to keep them out of the places where they’re a nuisance while giving them space to help us in the bigger picture. There’s a heartbreaking correlation here between our obession with “alien” plants and “alien” people. 90% of these nuisance weeds can be controlled by attention and a little hard work. The annual seedlings are easily hoed off as they germinate and if you learn to recognise the leaves they can be added to the compost since there are no seeds to cause trouble later on. Even Bindweed gets fed up in the end – it can’t survive without making chlorophyll and so we pick the leaves off as they appear. Looking across at the abandoned plot next door demands that we recognise that it’s a gift, an opportunity rather than a threat. Hello all you pollinators, welcome aboard.

Tomorrow is the last chance this year for a look around Whitefield meadow.  I’ve printed off the Vice-County list – these are an incredibly useful resource obtainable online from BSBI. I’ll take Rose – the other one – and a hand magnifier, but what I’m really after is a Bee Orchid. Oh and I’d love to see a Marbled White butterfly again, they’re so beautiful.

We’ve had family commitments for five days out of the last seven so we’ll be there as the park opens, with a picnic. Bliss on steroids.

 

 

Does an insect know what ‘wild’ means?

IMG_5326It was the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein who said in 1907 – “If a lion could speak, we would not understand him”.  Sounds complicated I know, but reverse it and it’s easier to understand.  We humans apply descriptions like ‘wild’, and ‘domesticated’ to wildlife all the time, but do the animals pay any attention?  Do they even understand what ‘wild means’?  And the only answer is – ‘of course – they don’t’. They neither know nor care that we humans have them organised into an exquisitely complicated set of relations that we expect them to adhere to.

Our weekend visit to the Brecon Beacons brought to a head something I’ve been pondering for a while. Being a bit of  purist; conservation – in my mind – often suggests the restoration of a pristine habitat so that the creature or plant in question can, as it were, return to its own ‘Garden of Eden’. During the last war when children were being evacuated away from large cities to be safe from bombing, a huge amount of work was done to discover whether they would be permanently damaged by their estrangement from their natural parents and family environment. The psychologist DW Winnicott came up with a wonderfully fertile idea.  Parenting, he said, whoever it was carried out by, only needed to be ‘good enough’ for children to thrive.

Only a scientist could say whether his idea can be transferred to any other category of life except humans but it remains a tantalising possibility that what most, if not all, life forms need is just a ‘good enough’ environment to survive or even thrive. Maybe – and this idea really excites me – the garden and the allotment, although not quite the traditional haunt of certain life forms, would be good enough to ensure their survival. If that were true, then the distinction between the allotment or garden and the nature reserve would disappear in a blink.  We know already that peregrines – to take one example – can thrive while nesting on tall city centre buildings because there is a plentiful supply of food. Seagulls, including some declining species, can live well in cities – I know they can – because in the summer they wake us up every morning. Likewise, some lowland species like yellowhammer can get by 250 metres higher up if there’s a sufficient food supply.

This year we’ve made a big effort to grow more insect friendly plants throughout the allotment. In particular we’ve planted a lot of Apiaceae – carrot family – because we know they’re great attractors of insects, and today I took a look at some of the angelica plants which have come into flower. The hypothesis is quite easy to prove. Today there were a multitude of insects around the flowers including the bee at the head of the page, and also a cluster of blackfly which – oh joy – were being farmed by ants. I’d read about this unexpected relationship, apparently the ants will even move the blackfly to a more suitable location so they can better feed on the honeydew, but I never saw it before today.  Not in a nature reserve or on the television but on the Potwell Inn allotment.

We are, already, a tiny nature reserve although the better description might be that we have deliberately enhanced our 250 square metres to accommodate a wider range of living things.  I’m not saying we don’t need nature reserves, please don’t misunderstand what I’m saying, but what I am saying is that we need not see ourselves as junior partners, amateurs or anything but full and crucial participants in the fightback against environmental and climate degradation. I’m really very excited to feel that the two descriptions “naturalist” and “allotmenteer” are not alternatives, but inextricably tied together. There’s no need to choose where we put the effort because they both (all) lead to the same place, a better environment for everyone and every creature, wherever.

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Something unfolding?

IMG_5177I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease.  I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark ….  Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started.  It didn’t!

You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether.  Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.

So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever

Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.

I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat.  Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing.  Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty.  Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth.  After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.

I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity.  I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.

I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus.  In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there.  It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.

But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.

What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary.  Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley.  They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm.  They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.

IMG_5178Being old often means being invisible.  You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas.  The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.

  • and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.

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It’s more like music now

IMG_5138This is the time of year when there’s a sudden rush of new allotmenteers on to the site. Some are experienced gardeners and some absolute beginners.  With the newcomers it pays to be circumspect because we all come to the ground with a set of expectations, and it’s no use blundering around or bashing them on the head with your pet enthusiasms which – in my case at least – were first formed in a very different era. My gardening heros were neighbours like Mr King, Mr Monks; my grandfather and the Mr Digwell cartoons in the Daily Mirror. The first book on gardening we bought together was an RHS publication called “The Vegetable Garden Displayed” in which – apart from the gardeners who all appeared to be from BBC Central Casting – vegetables were grown in straight lines surrounded by acres of weed free space. In fact, space never seemed to be a problem and allotments in monochrome photos and of gardens too, stretched into the blue mists of aerial perspective.  A small garden was something less than an acre without a permanent staff.  I wish I was joking …

Nowadays, I think anyone beginning an allotment comes with an entirely different set of objectives than – say – someone in the 1930’s whose main aim would have been to put food on the table.  There’s always been a recognised recreational element in allotmenteering too but now we have a gathering ecological crisis, uncontrolled climate change and a widespread feeling that the industrialised food we’re eating is doing us harm. So allotmeneering (and gardening too), has become more radical in its outlook and we’ve taken a long inner journey towards the way we do things at the Potwell Inn.

I’ve still got those old gardening books and when I read them I shudder to think how those imaculate weed-free plots were preserved. In all innocence, gardeners and farmers too were pouring dangerous chemicals and concentrated fertilisers on to the land and the soil was degrading as fast as the natural world above it. Only yesterday we were planting out young lettuces when Madame suddenly wrinkled her nose as said – “Simazine, I can smell Simazine!” – and true enough we looked up and saw one of our neighbours merrily spraying his allotment from a bottle.  It wasn’t Simazine because that’s banned for domestic gardeners, but the chemical smell was utterly distinctive.

So that gives a whole new load of priorities for allotmenteers but there’s another too. More and more of us now live in tiny houses with no more than a gloomy patio, or in flats. We’re more disconnected from the natural world than ever before and it’s bad for our minds and souls just as industrial farming is bad for our bodies.  That’s a lot of new priorities to honour on half a plot, say 100 square metres of ground.

And it all plays out when we plan what to grow and how to grow it. We don’t just have to worry about getting food to the table, we need to think about a wider constituency of new neighbours. Humans, smaller mammals like foxes and badgers and even rats, amphibians and birds and especially insects.

My grandfather would have planned for crop rotations and that was it. His smallholding in the Chilterns was immersed in an unbelievably rich natural world. When our Mother died, my sister and I wondered if we might scatter her ashes in the beechwoods behind the cottage she was brought up in.  It was too late, though. The whole area had been built over and the land has become an industrial estate.

These days crop rotations aren’t enough because on a tiny plot there simply isn’t room to do it in the traditional way, and we need to fit in a whole world of new plants and flowers to care for the pollinators and other insects and I’m coming to think of crop planning in almost musical terms. A garden without any planning is a meaningless and incoherent jumble that will only deliver gluts, shortages and damaged crops. Let’s say the traditional garden is like a song in strict meter, with equal verses, often dull and always predicable. But the new approach is more like Baroque or Gospel music. There has to be a strong structure for it to work at all, but it’s full of decoration, little grace notes and filigrees – they’re the companion plants, the interplantings, the insect and pollinator plants. And so the Potwell Inn allotment is slowly evolving from that dream of order and control towards something more akin to a performace.  Yesterday I was planting out Nasturtiums and Calendula under the apples. The carrot family, the Apiaceae, are great for insects – when did you last see hedge parsley or cow parsley without a crowd of insects and hoverflies? So angelica, lovage, dill and fennel get squeezed in wherever we think they’ll thrive. Any rows of plants vulnerable to slugs and snails get their companions of French marigolds. There are wallflowers, and yesterday they were finding bees, and here and there in odd corners there are other unexpected plants – sweet cicily in a corner by the shed.

In a way, Madame and me are opposites, and the allotment is the expression of the way we resolve our different approaches – I do the structure and Madame delights in shoving things here there and everywhere and so the result is a performance full of the unexpected.  All our favourite gardens have moments that stop us our tracks and even make us laugh out loud, like when we found a parsnip growing from a dropped seed, in one of the woodchip paths. Realistically it’s not going to save the world, at least on its own, it can’t.  But allotmentering is a kind of hedge school for radical ideas that might, just might make a big difference.

 

 

 

Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.