This may sound a little eccentric but ….

Just now the border surrounding the asparagus bed is looking as if it might take over – it certainly needs a dramatic thinning, but there is some method in the madness because we need to harvest a lot of calendula flowers to make cream, and calendula is also reputed to deter asparagus beetle. Allotments are peculiar places inasmuch as they can be plagued by pests that spread through the site from one plot to another. If every plot holder controlled their pests, preferably organically, they’d be less invasive. On our plot we’ve been overwhelmed this year with blackfly, which got going several weeks before the ladybirds(ladybugs) bred fast enough to limit their numbers. So we picked out the broad bean growing tips and harvested ladybirds wherever we found them so we could relocate them on an instant banquet. I’ve no idea whether it worked but eventually the blackfly were diminished and we’ve just finished harvesting a reasonable crop. What with the awful spring weather it felt like we were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but a few of the neighbours simply uprooted their beans and composted them. We’ve had allium leaf miner destroy our leeks for three consecutive years – it’s rife across the site – and so this year we’ve grown all the alliums – garlic, onions and leeks – under fine insect mesh in an attempt to keep the bugs out. We’ve also netted the carrot family in the same way; it doesn’t look so nice but if it protects the crops without any chemicals then it’s a good idea.

Asparagus beetle is another one. For three years – as soon as we allowed the fern to grow at the end of the season – the beetles moved in. Dozens of voracious little grubs would chomp their way through the fern, weakening some of the plants enough to kill them. It became a daily task to sort slowly through the bed, squashing every grub we could find between thumb and finger. We found it was the most effective deterrent, but each day there would be a new hatch and so it was hard work. We sprayed once or twice with organic pyrethrum, but it can only be done under perfect conditions early in the morning because it’s a broad spectrum insecticide and could kill friends as easily as foes. It’s also very expensive and so we kept on with the daily slaughter by hand.

This year we thought we’d try growing a border of calendula around the bed to repel beetles and it seems to be working. Madame has only picked off half a dozen grubs this week, and the fronds are looking sound – capable of feeding the roots for next year. However the vigorous marigolds are shading the asparagus plants nearer the edges so we need to take the flowers for drying and then thin the border dramatically. So far it’s one up for the companion planting.

I wanted also to mention a new (another one!) book which would be of more interest to UK and Northern European gardeners because it’s about garden wildlife. Titled “Guide to Garden Wildlife” it’s illustrated beautifully by Richard Lewington with the birds illustrated by his brother Ian. This season’s foray into deliberate wildlife gardening has forced us to pay a lot more attention to what’s flying around, wandering and crawling around, swimming around and tunnelling underneath the allotment. A single, portable, illustrated field guide ticks an awful lot of boxes since we are now so often confronted with an insect whose name we don’t know. Wildlife gardening removes the convenient (and deadly) division of living things into crops and enemies. The netting and companion planting that we’re experimenting with all flow from the desire to combine the protection of our crops with increasing the diversity and health of the birds and insects on the plot.

Here’s a typical decision we’ve had to make. Until we put in a pond I’d never heard of iris sawfly, but they’ve moved in with a vengeance – fat and juicy little grubs chewing off the leaves. For us they’re a nuisance – more of a cosmetic nuisance it has to be said; but for a hungry bird, or for one of the many other insect predators it’s a meal. So we put up with the knackered leaves and hope that the dragonflies, water boatmen and many other creatures enjoy a meal at the expense of a little patience on our part. Once we’ve accepted that we’re just another predator in the great wheel of nature, then the way we garden becomes a profoundly moral issue. We take what we need, discourage dangerous pests as far as we can and let the rest thrive.

The book has enthused me enough to try to identify more of the species of bee and fly that look rather like one another. Hoverflies, for instance, are a big group with very different lifestyles and we want to move beyond bumble bees and butterflies. Even moths, I wonder recklessly, could be worth a go. It would be pure pleasure of course but more than that I’d urge you to get hold of a copy and read Ken Thompson’s marvellous introduction. His take on wildlife gardening is pretty radical because he refuses to get drawn into a sterile argument about what’s wild and what’s not. Words like wild and natural muddy the waters to no useful end. The sad fact is that gardens are a tremendous, and sometimes the only species rich environments left in a highly populated country, practising industrial farming and building more and more concrete infrastructure. If any moronic cash strapped local council wants to turn an allotment into a car park or (another) profitable housing development for the elderly wealthy, and believe me they often do, then it will be essential to have to hand detailed records of the allotment’s natural history and biodiversity.

We’ve had a trail cam for ages, but we’ve never dared deploy it on the allotment for fear of it being stolen or vandalised – sadly it’s a problem for almost all allotmenteers. But now we’ve got a purpose built padlocked steel box which should stop almost anything except a pre-prepared theft using tools. We’ve known about the wildlife that we share the plot with through seeing what they do. Badgers, for instance, have an amazing capacity for judging the sweetness of sweetcorn and unless you protect it, it will be stolen the day before you were going to pick it. There are rumours of small deer and of course we see the rats and the flying nuisances, mostly pigeons. Mostly though, we see the tracks and the sign but not the animals themselves. But now we’ve captured some lovely video of a fox sitting and cleaning itself right in front of the camera; a curious magpie almost tapping the box (it must have glistened) and a great sequence of a fat rat, nose twitching searching for our broad beans. Rats love the beans and occasionally we find a whole pile of empty pods. This one, however, was out of luck and it jumped over the boards into a cleared bed.

However, watching 30 seconds of video for a short glimpse of a fox is pretty boring and so I’m trying to teach myself video editing so that I can publish the best bits here. I may be some time!

The glory (as well as the devil) – is in the detail

Sorry to use the same photo twice, but as I was making our second batch of elderflower cordial last night I was having a think about the way our prior understanding frames our perception of nature. The tree from which we harvested all our elderflowers this week, is an ornamental cultivar – that’s to say it’s got an extra name; not just Sambucus nigra but Sambucus Nigra “Guincho Purple”; which makes it – let’s be frank – not wild. Strangely in some circles the appellation “wild” confers an extra patina of grace. The tree is extraordinarily beautiful; so much so that one day when I was up at the allotment working I came across a fashion photographer plus assistants surrounding a model clad in the most expensive clothes including a purple leather coat that exactly reflected the colour of the flowers. As I passed the team of a dozen or so people, they parted to let me through and someone asked me in a faintly imperious (lord of the manor to peasant) tone, whether there were any lavatories on the allotments. “No” – I said – but offered the loan of a bucket if the need should be urgent. My offer was not taken up.

So – wild being necessarily good; does the fact that we picked our elderflowers from this effete suburban tree make the resulting cordial taste less authentic? Don’t be silly – it tastes every bit as good and looks superb in sparkling water and I’m planning to make an exotic dessert using the cordial, some prosecco and a couple of leaves of gelatine.

“Wild” and “cultivated” have become a bit of a battleground recently. Wild salmon, for instance, might well be wild in one sense, but if they’re unsustainably fished by industrial trawlers they might not be such a good thing. Almost every vegetable we grow is a cultivar of some sort; carefully cross bred to achieve a particular style of plant. Brussels sprouts for instance have had much of their traditional bitterness bred out of them. But there is one sense in which the closer a vegetable is to its origin, the more robust it’s likely to be. Robust, but not necessarily high yielding. The devil is always in the detail.

I once worked in a satellite radio station back in the wild west days, and over the mixing desk was a large notice saying – “In the event of equipment failure please RTFM”. I asked one of the technical people what it meant and he responded (I’ll paraphrase) -“Read the manual”. I guess it’s our ultimate responsibility to pay attention to the details and make a decision based on the fullest possible information. My much missed friend Don Streatfield always refused to label his honey as “organic” on the grounds that bees foraged wide and far and there was no way you could guarantee that they hadn’t been feeding on chemically treated flowers. The price premium – for him – didn’t justify a barefaced lie.

If I were to describe our elderflower cordial as ‘natural’ I’d be wondering if beet sugar – which I used because I couldn’t find any cane sugar – is as ‘natural as any other. Beet sugar is, after all, produced here but cane sugar has to be shipped around the world. It’s no wonder we throw up our hands and take the easiest course of action.

The glorious aspect of detail comes from a different perspective. Sitting on my desk is a small microscope and pretty well wherever I go I take a hand lens. Passing a very ordinary looking weed and stopping to look more closely often reveals a wonderland of unseen insects and inner structures of breathtaking complexity and beauty. Close attention to details – and especially in reading, close attention to the text – is a marvellous way of getting to know things we don’t understand. Who’d have thought, for instance, that growing wildflowers and digging a pond on the allotment would introduce a whole range of pests I’ve never seen before. In the photograph is the grub of an iris sawfly. We never had any such thing until we dug the pond and planted irises around the edge and now we do. We left them there, of course, because hopefully they’ll provide a meal for a hungry predator.

Another surprise came yesterday as we walked along the river. I was looking at a patch of brambles and wondering if it was going to be a good year for blackberries, when I spotted a leaf that looked completely wrong. Following the peculiar leaf back to the stem I discovered the most blackberry looking prickles you could hope for. So a quick search told me that this was a close relative of the blackberry – not a native so probably a garden escape – known in the US as a dewberry. A new plant I/D for no better reason than paying close attention to a weedy wall in an industrial area of Bath.

Hen party season is back with a vengeance here. Walking down the river a noisy boatload of bride plus friends were enjoying a male striptease dancer, cavorting in a thong on the deck. Two boat dwellers in a total drunken pickle were attempting to swim in the river so the police and an ambulance had been called out. Back home we settled for a sandwich because we were too tired to eat, and looking out we saw four addicts scoring and then injecting themselves – just across from the Potwell Inn. Then one of them lifted up his shirt and another knelt in front of him and tenderly injected whatever it was straight into his belly. Life’s rich tapestry you might say. These young men weren’t disturbing anyone while they destroyed their own lives; but they aren’t getting the help and support they need either.

People ask where we live sometimes and we say “Bath”. “Oh – Baath!” they say, imputing a social class far above where we live. They don’t know the half of it. After a noisy and vitriolic battle to reduce traffic in the city because of our illegal pollution levels, a much weakened Clean Air Zone was introduced a few months ago, pretty well confining its ambitions to pedestrianising the most popular tourist areas. The car lobby had worked day and night to win exemptions for all and sundry and so when the first set of traffic data was released last week we discovered that our traffic had decreased by just about 1%. The devil was in the detail as always, and I guess the majority of readers barely pushed past the triumphalist headline. One of the leading lights of the campaign to cut pollution has been sidelined by her party and has now resigned and joined the Greens. The last thing I want to do is alarm anybody, but is there a hole in the hull of this magnificent ship of state?

Let’s start a slow walking movement!

Bladder Campion – for obvious reasons

Walking down to the sea today with the sun on our necks I experienced what John Betjeman once said of walking the River Kennet – “the glory was in me”. I find that phrase greatly moving in the way it situates the glory within rather than outside and apart from us like something that might be measured and described but never gulped down in great draughts. We come here, (I come here at least), for the plants. In the spring and early summer these western coastal fringes are a feast of botanical delights. In past walks I’ve listed well over 70 plants in flower, barely leaving the ten miles of local coastal path. When we arrived, until Saturday evening, we were enveloped in mist and cloud with the temperature sulking at around 13C. Then the sky finally cleared and the sun came out and the restrained hedgerows burst into flame.

Let’s be clear, I’m still – relatively speaking – a botanical novice on a mission to name the plants and animals I encounter. I hesitate to resort to biblical stories for fear of turning people off, and I’m not very religious myself, but I always loved the one of the two alternative creation stories in the Old Testament in which Adam is given the task of naming the creatures. Homo Sapiens – the thinking animal is only a (relatively unimportant) part of the story. Being human is, or should be, as much about naming and befriending the manifestations of creation as it is about categorising, weighing and measuring them. There’s something fundamental in the business of knowing names because it reaches out and creates a bond, a state of interdependence between the participants. We are mutually beholden – because we have put the work in, or in that unlovely management phrase – we’ve got skin in the game. Once we were strangers, but now after a time of intense regard and thoughtfulness we are on first name terms because we are all scions of the same root (and I’ll come back to that point in a moment).

Of course, that degree of plant scrutiny while you’re walking to the Co-op to buy a pint of milk would be inappropriate, which means that when – at last – we’re allowed out to do some serious plant hunting, a change of gear is called for. We’re a bit rusty, and walking with attention needs practice – that’s all getting your eye in means. Five years ago, when I made the utterly hubristic resolution not to walk past anything I couldn’t name, I quickly realized that in spite of a lifelong interest in wildlife, I hardly knew a thing – I was still really at the buttercups and daisies stage.

I suppose it will seem a bit strange to a thoroughgoing materialist but the plants have always been as much a spiritual quest as they are about ticking of boxes, and so, to pick up that earlier thread, I want to throw a brick into the water. “In the beginning” says St John, “was the Word” – the Logos.

Marvellous I always thought, until John spoiled everything by attempting to restart the whole creation from metaphysical ground zero. Gary Snyder, in the final essay in “The Practice of the Wild” – “Survival and Sacrament”, refers to the Easter Liturgy – the great sequence of songs and readings rehearsing the history of humanity. For me it was always the greatest of all the liturgies; to sing in plainsong a melody and words that were always almost unbearably powerful – so powerful I had to rehearse for an hour on my own to get beyond the tears.

But there was one flaw, and that was the attempt to restart the story at the beginning of the Christian era and erase the millennia, even geological ages that went before. Whether it should be the first verses of Genesis or the first verses of John’s Gospel that comes before all the other readings and psalms I’ll leave to the theologians. I am sure, however, that they both belong at the beginning of the liturgy. I have preached a thousand times that when God speaks, things happen. From the Big Bang to the construction of the large Hadron Collider and from the first slime mould to the emergence of distinctively human life we are all spoken. The horror of the separation – the true original sin, if you like, came on the day we decided that the story was all about us and that the rest of creation was there to service our greed.

So to get back to the plants, it seems to me that the whole of nature amounts to the speech of God, of the Dao or the Great Spirit – it doesn’t matter about the name; maybe Judaism is right, it can and never should be uttered. But the earth and all living things and all inanimate things like water and mountains are spoken out of that primordial moment, and because all of the ten thousand things are ‘spoken’ it makes perfect sense to me that the plants, being some form of ineffable language; speak – as do the mountains and the seas and all the living creatures of which we are just one. The mountains speak ‘mountainish’ and the seas speak ‘sea-ish’ and the plants, obviously, speak plantish, and I’m just struggling to learn plantish – it’s very beautiful.

And so the walking becomes a meditation punctuated by greetings – “Hi sheepsbit!” I say in my head, or perhaps in my heart, and the sheepsbit somehow acknowledges me. “Hello bladder campion” “Hello silverweed” and, on a good day – “hello dodder – haven’t seen you in a while”. The English stonecrop positively glows at me in pale pink and, just as I’m pausing to speak, a ring ouzel slips away flying low. I’ve only seen them twice and first time I was so surprised I emailed the County Recorder to ask if I was seeing things. Today I was completely confident.

Often I make lists but when I do I write the english names in first, because the names in themselves make a kind of poem or song about the past – ploughmans’ spikenard, dyers’ greenweed, woundwort, restharrow. To lose any one of these common and relatively insignificant friends would be a tragedy. What if, one day we came here and walked as we always do down towards the bus stop and the marshy ground at Pwll Trefeiddan and there were no southern marsh orchids, no ragged robin, no flag irises and none of the broad bodied chasers and damselflies who live there, glinting azure blues and reds. That’s the thing about naming and befriending; about beholding even the most common and inconspicuous fellow beings. They matter, not just as ticks on a list but as memories, precious moments, explosive little revelations.

And it goes further than names because so many of the plants have been useful to humans in some way. We eat them, grow them and forage for them. Historically they’ve been the cure for many of the simple disorders and afflictions we suffer from – yesterday, for instance, growing in the wall of St Non’s Well was a clump of pellitory of the wall – traditionally used to treat urinary complaints. Knowing the properties of plants adds a whole new depth of meaning and relationship, and it’s the erosion of our relationship with plants. with the whole natural world that has allowed us to become careless of the environment. I don’t in my heart believe that anger and demonstrations will achieve what can only be done by reconnection. The earth will be safe only when enough of us get our eye in.

Strictly between ourselves

I was slightly relieved when by brief few days of incomprehensible popularity ended. I like to think of the Potwell Inn as a fairly intimate sort of place, and when literally hundreds of readers suddenly flooded in I felt paralysed – having no idea why they were there and what they were expecting of me. This situation has happened a couple of times now, when (I imagine) someone with a big following likes a piece I’ve written and then links it to their blog. It’s all well and good, but I’ve no idea who these new readers are and – (whether or not it’s down to my history) – I feel a kind of pastoral responsibility to my regular readers that I can’t press into service when the bar is packed with people I’ve never met. I don’t know much about most of you but over a long period I know from your likes, for instance, which pieces are likely to be enjoyed by certain readers, even if I only know your website names. I know who prefers the gentle and lyrical pieces to the scabrous political ones; and who likes a bit of philosophy along with the cooking. I know I can always write about the allotment without causing offence, but not about killing rats. I still write about the darker issues because the Potwell Inn is about being human not being perfect. The environmental crisis is safer territory than the economic one. In fact as I write this I’m amazed at what a strong picture I have of my readers. It reminds me very much of choosing music back in the day when I was a parish priest. “Here’s one for Barri” – I’d think as I put something on the Sunday list.

So there we are, back to normal; slogging on through the mist and fog of Covid, weary of listening to politicians who don’t know the difference between an aspiration and a policy, and (in our case) steering well clear of the kind of TV that keeps us awake at night. We watch cookery programmes mostly, and once a week we watch “saving lives at sea”- (about the Royal National Lifeboat Institution if you’re not in the dis-UK) to remind us that the devil doesn’t always have the best tunes.

Anyway, I thought you might be interested in the continuing presence of brownish white foam in the River Avon. As I mentioned a few days ago it can only get there via the sewers and the perfume of detergent is so strong at Pulteney Bridge you might be forgiven for wondering if the water company was giving the river bed a bit of a clean up – you know it can get very grubby down there and so a couple of thousand gallons of Persil non bio might be a good thing. In a parallel dystopia. Personally I think we should put a notice on all our toilets, sinks and showers to remind us that when it leaves the house it doesn’t leave the earth!

The canal, on the other hand is both clean and quiet. The heron was back on his beat near Deep Lock today; keeping an eye on a couple of workmen who were removing bits of scrap iron (including a child’s bicycle) from the canal bed with a grappling hook and a big magnet. This heron has a number of alternative ways of feeding himself, including paddling the mud at the edge of the flow to stir up potential titbits and also browsing the brambles down there as well. There are just a few ripe fruits still on display, but amusingly the heron stalks the blackberries in exactly the same stealthy way he fishes – as if they might dart off the brambles and hide if they spotted him. The peregrines at St Johns were absent, possibly due to the fact that a bunch of scaffolders were working alongside the tower where they nest . Why are scaffolders so noisy always? I mean postmen don’t go around hollering all the time.

Due to a dozen mutually contradictory message streams in the media it’s either the end of phase 2 or the beginning of phase 3 – but whatever …… it all means it’s lethal to breathe but they hope we will all go and shop until our credit cards spontaneously combust and the economy is saved. We will celebrate the end of the crisis at Christmas by kissing lots of people and not having to make love while maintaining social distancing. Meanwhile the funeral directors are planning their summer holidays in the knowledge that they, at least, will have a good year. With luck the Airbnb hen party house opposite will re-open to young idealists to celebrate love and fidelity by getting drunk, going off with strangers and getting the male strippers back – Madame gets very concerned for them when they take a break on the patio outside with nothing on, apart from a velvet neckband and a large joint – not that, sort honestly! “They’ll catch their death” she says; to which I can only reply that she’ll catch her own if she falls off the dressing table.

So life’s rich tapestry continues here in Bath. Please don’t mention the smelly river or the hen parties to anyone in case it upsets the Tourist Board and definitely not the street beggars; back on the streets now that the milk of human kindness supply has dried up. All’s well that ends well – even if it hasn’t ended by a long mile. It’s a time of magical thinking when we can all have what we want just by wanting it (terms and conditions apply). Meanwhile here’s a photo of the canal today with a hard frost and misty air, and there are more links to older entries below. I was touched to see that yesterday someone read the very first entry I ever wrote. How lovely – as my old friend and mentor Don Streatfield might have said.

asparagus autumn chillies climate change climate emergency compost compost bins composting coronavirus covid 19 deep ecology earth environment environmental catastrophe environmental crisis Extinction rebellion field botany food security foraging global climate crisis global heating green spirituality growing chillies herbal medicine homelessness intensive farming locally sourcing lockdown meditation no-dig polytunnels potatoes preserving raised beds rats recycling rewilding Sourdough species extinctions sustainability technology urban wildlife water storage weeds wildflower meadows

Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

We’re a neighbourly lot

Having barely left the flat for weeks – except for going to the allotment – we went out for a walk yesterday evening, drinking in the unusual peace and quiet. The trees on the green are stunning at this time of the year, not least the horse chestnuts in full flower.  The initial object of our enquiries was the state of the elderflower blossom which looks as if it will be ready to pick on Friday.  Cue for a great manufacture of cordial to last the year. Our neighbours have excelled themselves this spring with front door displays. These houses may look like haunts of the wealthy but they’re not. Moving clockwise from the top left, the third photo was taken outside a house that’s been abandoned for years.  The lovely display of Mexican fleabane is entirely spontaneous. The other doorways are all maintained by individual flat dwellers and they really lift the feel of the street. The photo of the window boxes on the bottom right are our window boxes from June 2017 – so a bit IMG_20200503_110448of a cheat. This years are going to be less opulent because we haven’t been able to get the plants from the garden centres which are all closed, but we’ve been propagating geraniums and ivy and we managed to get a few petunias by mail order so we’ll catch up eventually. But the main doorway to our flats is a bit barren and decorated only by a bit of graffiti that appeared a couple of nights ago. I suppose it slightly advances our edgy credentials, but it’s a shame.

So having checked out the elderflower crop we wandered on into town via some of the tourist hotspots.  Royal Crescent was all but deserted and the streets around it were much the same.  The main visitor car park was completely empty – not a car in sight, and as we walked along the deserted road towards the Circus a full moon was showing beautifully above the trees. Everywhere we walked was deserted with businesses closed – some for good –  and notices for creditors on the windows.  The Loch Fyne restaurant was boarded up.  There were out of date posters advertising long cancelled events, and the only signs of movement were cyclists delivering takeaway food. Delightful to see Bath in this way, but quite spooky too – something terrible is happening and it feels as if a whole way of life with its infrastructure of cafes, restaurants, bookshops, pubs, clubs and theatres is under threat. What will emerge is a hugely important question, but we can sense the drive amongst some politicians to get back to normal as soon as possible oblivious to the fact that it was the old normal that got us into this disaster in the first place.

For us at the Potwell Inn, this crisis is causing a complete rethink of where and how we buy the things we can’t grow ourselves. The deficiencies and inequalities in our society have been forensically exposed by covid 19. We can do better than this.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

IMG_20200425_172820

No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.

 

More reasons for being cheerful

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I’m never quite sure what constitutes the first fruits of the new season because some of our favourite things like leeks and purple sprouting broccoli have been in the ground for a season already. So if you exclude all of last year’s starters, then the first crop has to be one that was sown this year and once again (it never changes) the radish comes in first because it just loves the hotbed and always obliges us in record time.  These were the very first thinnings, but we were so pleased we just blew the loose dirt off, wiped off the rest on my overalls and ate them.  They were delicious and remember, everyone needs to eat their peck of dirt!  The asparagus is putting in a magnificent effort and will certainly come second, but it just needs a few warmer nights. Very soon we’ll be eating the first thinnings of lettuces and then – true joy – the first broad beans. The hungry gap is always much later than most people imagine – it doesn’t come in the dead of winter when there are always roots and a few hardy brassicas to be had – it’s now when you can feel the first heat of the sun on your back and the birds are singing.

Paradoxically, the social isolation policy coupled with millions of people being laid off or working from home, has allowed many people to get on with their allotments and every day sees more work being done.  But there are other fascinating consequences. This morning when our grocery delivery arrived, instead of coming in a big diesel van it arrived on an electric bike – I couldn’t quite believe it – but the boss of a local bike delivery company had lost almost all his work due to shop closures so he offered to help the supermarket out.

Our own plot is a constant source of pleasure. Today we went up early, thinking there wouldn’t be much to do because yesterday we decided to do a bit of weeding and we struggled to finds any weeds! Two people working seven days a week on 250 square metres of ground can defeat even bindweed after 4 years.  Actually I’m a little ashamed that it looks so clinically clean at this time of the year, but give it six weeks and it will look a lot more random. We’ve scattered no end of  “good” weeds around the beds but they’re slow to germinate.

The biggest job today was to plant out the garlic that we’d started off in pots last year.  We experimented by splitting the bulbs into two batches – half were planted straight into the ground and the other half into big pots filled with home made free draining compost. All winter the pots were winning – the ones in the ground were sitting in very wet soil and we were quite concerned for them.  But as soon as the rain stopped the situation reversed completely and the ones in the ground started to pull ahead so convincingly that today we put the rest into the ground.  The original idea was to use the potted ones to move around the plot and sit them on paths to deter pests.  Pots can be a bit tricky though, and even after the wet winter we’ve just had, the pots were drying out even after a week of good weather.  Garlic likes moist soil but hates the wet and hates drying out just as much. The watering regime for garlic is one of the keys to success and we’re still learning how to manage it.  Pots need a lot of attention  – that seems to be the learning point.

As ever we’ve put things into the wrong place and they soon tell you.  I’ve already moved some lavenders into a home made bed that would kill many plants, but we saw a bunch of lavenders planted in what looked like an impossibly dry and sunny spot on the side of the canal last year, and I remember shaking my head sagely at the time – assuming that they’d be dead by the end of the season – but they just loved it there. Now we’ve got to find a new home for another sun lover  – a Clematis armandii that’s on the wrong side of a hazel hurdle. The best laid plans etc ….. Last year I spent many hours planning on the computer, but we altered so many things on the ground that we’ve become a bit less picky.  Rotations are important, but making a fetish of them drives you mad, I promise!

So not much time for reading today but suddenly, as I was reading Thomas Berry the thought popped into my mind that although human slavery was (theoretically) abolished many years ago, precisely the same set of attitudes lies behind intensive farming.  The victim this time is the whole earth and so by extension all of us.  The absolute power that science and technology have gifted us over the processes of nature is not accompanied by any sense of responsibility, or by any spiritual awareness of a debt to the earth which sustains us, out of which we have emerged over unimaginable periods of time, made from the very elements and energies of the moment of origin.

Those grubby hands in the photo are holding a miracle that – rightly considered – should bring us to our knees in gratitude.

Dealing with drought (?)

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I know, it makes me feel a bit premature too, since we’re probably about to break the record for the wettest February since records began – but if climate change means anything at all it’s the fact that our weather is becoming less and less predictable. The swings are wilder; feast and famine come together in the weather cycle and ironic though it might seem, we’re investing heavily in water storage at the moment at the Potwell Inn because it’s raining. Starting to wonder what to do after it’s been dry for six weeks and the government is planning a hosepipe ban will be too late. We’ve been storing 1000 litres for a year and I’ve been busy planning and building a new storage layout, connecting the butts and increasing our capacity to 1250 Litres immediately and later perhaps adding another 500 Litres to take the water running off the compost storage bins.  It seems all wrong to use pure drinking water for the allotment, but for the most part we’re all very inexperienced when it comes to efficient watering. I’m quite sure we water too much – in my case because I actually enjoy it on a summer evening – but much of it will be wasted. So one of our climate change lessons for the next few years is to learn how to water just enough and not too much.

We’ll also need to be looking at the plants we grow; the varieties that work and a whole range of new horticultural skills. There will be things that can’t survive the new weather regime and I’m sure the seed catalogues will be offering lots of expensive new varieties.  On the other hand, open pollinated varieties using the best seed gathered on our own allotment year on year might do even better.  I’ve read that it’s surprising how quickly adaptations happen. There’s a good case for looking again at some of the trad varieties that could bring useful genes into play. I once had a micro-variety of cherry tomato that had been treasured since the war by a retired firefighter.  It had no name – just ‘Tim’s tomatoes’ and the fruit was absolutely delicious.  Sadly they died with him but whatever they were, they loved life exactly the way Tim grew them.

There are so many things we can do as growers to mitigate climate change.  That’s not an excuse for not doing all the things we know about in our personal lives, the way we shop and travel and dress. But change, when it comes, will come slowly and we need to prepare for the extremes in the meantime. We’ve done some trials with windbreaks and frostbreaks (hardly needed this winter);  I’ve written often about drainage and improving soil condition – all these things can add resilience to an allotment. Our allotment is sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds by a line of tall trees, but the northwesterlies, northerlies and northeasterlies can be incredibly cold and destructive and so we’ve put all our structures – greenhouse, shed and compost bins on the North side, and we’ve built a strong windbreak to the east. We’re not allowed to have fences or hedges but there’s nothing in the rules about training vines and growing vigorous soft fruit along wires.

The hotbed, although it’s quite small has also given us flexibility during the early months of the year.  It’s surprising what you can grow on 12 square feet of fertile soil, kept at a steady 20C. Climate change is a real challenge, but it’s one we can rise to.  I’ve just spent the happiest couple of days sourcing exactly the right kinds of pipes and connectors and one additional water butt that fell into my hands when I walked into a local garden centre and saw the very thing I was looking for next to the till waiting to be returned to the wholesaler. I did a deal with the boss on the spot and got it at a reduced price. So that’s in the back of the car along with a pile of connectors and pipes that I can’t wait to assemble.  For the first time we’ll have a free (OK it cost a bit) but a sustainable source of rainwater that flows freely to a convenient tap at watering can height. It’s been a logistical challenge but by a bit of judicious juggling I’ll have preserved all bar a couple of gallons of the water that we’d already stored. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.  That’s one bit of infrastructure to cross off the list, and then I’ll turn to putting a roof over the compost bins and harvesting the rain off another 60 square feet. Further down the line I want to try out an idea for solar heating using an old radiator that I saw at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth years ago and I might even have a go at an irrigation scheme run off a 12V battery and a solar panel on the shed, used to operate a solenoid valve and ……….

Madame gets exhausted by my enthusiasms so I’d better shut up. The flat is full of seedlings. Greta Thunberg came to Bristol today.  Bristol – for the benefit of the political commentariat who never leave London (the Great Wen as William Cobbett would have it) – Bristol is a large city near the confluence of the Wye, the Severn and the Bristol Avon where people speak with a funny accent and around which the electrification of the railway was diverted because too many people voted Labour. George Ferguson the previous Mayor was very involved in Green Politics and the present Labour Mayor has continued in the same vein. There were about 30,000 people there at the demonstration and the march passed off completely peacefully as everyone except the police and the media expected.  The local evening news reported that ‘thousands’ of demonstrators turned up and probably by 10.00 pm the BBC will be reporting that ‘quite a few’ people came and ruined the grass on College Green. It’s a good job, then, that these wicked demonstrators have already started raising money to repair the damage to the grass caused by 30,000 pairs of feet. Meanwhile the police were busy filming these nascent terrorists – some of them at primary school – are we living in la la land?

This is why we do it!

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Naturally – and I mean that literally – naturally none of this is actually available on the allotment right now.  I could almost certainly walk across to Sainsbury’s and buy them all, relatively cheaply but today we don’t need them because today we picked the first of our purple sprouting broccoli.  That’s a red letter day in our calendar. We still have potatoes – although they’re starting to sprout now, and we have leeks plus all the stored tomato sauces and passata, a few herbs, rhubarb and loads of frozen pesto.  We shan’t starve, but the point is we spent the day on the allotment clearing the last of the beds.  I was building the frames for a new arrangement of water butts which should give us easier access to stored water at slightly higher pressure, with the aim of using it in soaker hoses.

Is it hard work – on the allotment?  Well yes, I suppose it is.  For sure, hammering large posts 2 feet into the ground is hard work, but they’re going to have to support 750Kg of water. In fact most of the infrastructure work is quite hard – building paths and beds; wiring supports and wheelbarrowing compost around; turning compost is really hard going and yet although I’m pretty ancient by most standards, however hard a day on the allotment turns out to be I invariably feel better at the end of it. I didn’t take a photo today because to be honest there wasn’t much to look at.  About 2/3 of the beds are empty – they’re prepped and ready for planting out – but not yet.

And that’s the point of the photo from early last season. Apart from the potatoes which were grown in sacks, everything came out of the hotbed and they’re all in there again doing what plants do; sending down roots, making friends with the soil and all its inhabitants , soaking up whatever sun is available and gathering strength every day. I suppose Madame and me were doing exactly the same thing today. pottering around and dreaming of the first taste of all the plants we’ve sown, soaking up the brief moments of sun, listening to the birds and enjoying that strange semi-meditative state that can make mundane jobs, like weeding, into a pleasure. Gardeners don’t see the earth in the same way – we see the potential for wonderful food where anyone else might see bare earth. There’s a marvellously companionable side to allotmenteering and gardening, because the plot quickly becomes a kind of friend; a friend with funny ways and particular preferences like a dog that loves being scratched behind one particular ear. The wheelbarrowing and weeding aren’t work as much as caring as you might care for a friend.  In return the earth gives us back our efforts with compound interest – food with peace of mind thrown in, plus bird watching, insect spotting, butterflies and moths, field mice, badgers, deer, hedgehogs, rats, wasps and bees, shared produce and neighbourly chats – all for £40 a year. The allotment teaches us patience, resilience when the inevitable failures come along, attention towards small things.  It sets the day and its troubles into a longer perspective, gives us time to think and often to be grateful and brings home the old Benedictine couplet – “to work is to pray, and to pray is to work.” – and I don’t mean all that religious stuff, I mean real prayer that takes you out of yourself (ec-stasis) – and gives you some sense of belonging to the earth rather than just standing on it.

It seems odd to me, writing in this way because all too often blogging becomes a list of things we’ve done rather than trying to explain what they mean to us. Growing food carries meaning far beyond the nutritional value of the product. What we do can’t really be measured in productive units, calories,  added value or any of the usual metrics so beloved of economists. Growing food is a way of life but not a lifestyle. It’s the hub of a wheel of interest and concern whose spokes extend to every part of our lived experience. We become naturalists, ecologists, economists, community activists and politicians because that’s where growing food leads us.

So, to say:-

Today I banged in a couple of posts

really doesn’t even begin to tell it as it is!