“God for Harry, England and …” oh do shut up!


First thing this morning, as soon as I turned my phone on, came the proclamation of St George’s Day tomorrow. I like St George’s Day because it’s a fixed point in the year unlike Easter that wanders all over the place.  I also like it because it’s peak dandelion time in the UK and I like it because it’s the closest memorable festival to the date of the last frost here. What amuses me greatly is the fact that the flag of St George has been adopted so enthusiastically by the extreme right who appear blissfully unaware that he was almost certainly a dark skinned Maltese. Shakespeare, sadly, introduced a lot of beautiful but daft clutter into our national consciousness.

Aside from the stereotype that the British are obsessed with the weather – (in my book it can’t be a stereotype because it’s true) – for an allotmenteer or a gardener weather matters big-time. Weeks of preparation and nurturing of young tender plants can be ruined in a night, but the difference between gardening and allotments is that gardens are adjacent to the house and so a last ditch trip outside in the dark can save the day.  On an allotment there’s a risk that you’ll wake up half a mile from the ruins.  Madame used to work at an apple research station where in one experiment , during blossom time, they would spray a fine water mist over the trees because paradoxically it didn’t damage but protected the crop even when, at dawn, the orchards were a fairyland of icicles – much loved by local TV crews when it was a slow news day.   The ice would melt, the trees would shrug and life went on. Historically, less high-tech solutions would be strategically placed bonfires, and on our allotments we’ve fixed fabric barriers to slow the frost that rolls down the hill and parks itself over us. It’s easier when the trees at the top of the site come into leaf; but in gardening the best you can ever do is slow things down to avoid the worst of the risk. Nets, cloches and fleece are all lifesavers – but only if you remember to put them out.

On the internet – which, like Shakespeare, has a lot to answer for, you can gather an array of last frost dates and this morning when I looked I saw that one gardening site has moved our last date back by a week to the ‘end of April’. Good news if it’s true but I’ve got May 6th in my diary for the last time our runner beans got slaughtered and so that’s the date we’ll go with here at the Potwell Inn, thank you very much. The thing about frost is that it can be ridiculously local – down to the corner of a field. Here as in so many things, local knowledge beats Google hands down.

All the gardening books talk about ‘hardening off’, but I think I prefer the term ‘tempering’. Plants are funny creatures and a large part of so-called ‘green fingers’ is being able to read their moods.  At this time of the year we’ve raised almost all of our tender plants in the propagators and then they go through a slow progression through the warmth and sunshine of the tables against south facing windows and into the hallway which has a softer light and is probably seven or eight degrees cooler, and thence to the unheated greenhouse followed by days outside and nights inside. It can take several weeks to go through this tempering process and all the while we’re watching the weather. Last week we moved some chillies into the hall and, after a couple of days, we could see that in some indefinable way they weren’t happy.  Moved back inside they said ‘thank you very much’ and got on with their lives. ‘Hardening off’ suggests a rather harsh, one-off life lesson centred solely on temperature,  ‘Tempering’, on the other hand feels more like education; a preparation for life outside in the beds.

Inevitably there’s a brief pause between the sowing of seeds indoors and the planting out, perhaps a month later. Meanwhile there are always last minute preparations to the beds, harvesting the early risers and feeding the fruit trees. For the third year running we’re enjoying a sunny few weeks in April, although this year it’s been a bit compromised by cool easterly and north-easterly winds. But you can’t have it all – the south-westerlies are the best bearers of rain and so we also spend quite a lot of time watering the recently planted out hardy seedlings. Even in the harshest of times – and these are harsh indeed, the modalities of sun, rain and earth remind us that there’s a bigger story that won’t go away. Every day, as gardeners, we learn that we must relinquish any dreams of control over these great forces and do as the Taoists do – learn to trust and move with them.

You’re not having our apple harvest – Jack Frost!

Madame was always better at interpreting weather charts than me.  I think she learned to do it at the research station, and she would bandy around phrases like “cold front” when reading the papers, which I always took as being fearfully clever, and I would have loved to discover that she was making it all up, except she wasn’t.  So now she is the official meteorologist at the Potwell Inn which means that she gets first dibs at the weather app on my phone. Anyway the salient point is that we were occupied from early in the morning with a hospital appointment which left me sedated and unable to think straight until the evening.  My insides have now been investigated from top to bottom and nothing very threatening has been found – which is an enormous relief after several months of worry.  It’s not all silver spoons and turtle soup at the Potwell Inn.

So, to return to the weather, it wasn’t until about 7.00 pm that it dawned on my last two functioning brain cells, that a severe frost was mentioned by the ghostly voice of the Potwell Inn weather forecaster in the early morning. Jumping to attention like a teenager on holiday, I said I thought we ought to go and fleece the apple trees.  And so we walked up to the allotments – I wasn’t allowed to drive for 24 hours – and wrapped every vulnerable plant and tree we could find with heavy duty fleece.  The plot looked rather like a Christo scupture, but we’ve invested so much money, not to mention time and energy, that the thought of losing the blossom to a frost was intolerable. When the consultant had said – “I’ll just pop this in and let you float off into the clouds”, he hadn’t mentioned anything about landing, and so the process of wrapping all those plants warped into a kind of slow motion movie in which I could see myself at a distance but not – in a sense – actually join in. At Madame’s request I took some rather underexposed photos that needed editing today, but that was because they were taken well after sunset. What a joy! – seriously – to be able to work in the evening at last.

And so we wandered home feeling quite sure that the plants could survive the frost, and I slept the Sleep of the Just (note capitals) dreaming about the summer and making plans.  When we woke, the park outside was white with frost and I was almost pleased to see it.  Madame is infallible. And today I bought a new satnav because the maps in our present one are so out of date we spend most of our time apparently driving across fields, then we booked some time back at the Lost Gardens of Heligan and bought a ready meal because we could.

Later we tested a batch of frozen pesto.  It was another of our experiments to spread the summer glut across the hungry gap.  It was delicous, and we’d just finished our 50 Gram pot when our youngest dropped in.  We asked him if he’d ever frozen pesto and he said -“Of course, but we make it 5 kilos at a time”. Humph!


These were the flowering broad beans – yesterday


However there was a mild overnight frost and we shall have to hope that they survived. They’re pretty well protected from any cold wind but not fleeced. Yesterday was such a beautiful day that you could forget that this is still early spring and quite likely to throw a nasty surprise. As ever we scan the weather forecast and try to second guess what will happen on our patch but forecasts deal in the generalities of towns and cities not sites and plots. I noticed on a friend’s facebook page that someone had commented that there was no point in wasting time teaching children to grow things because they could learn gardening in half a day. I couldn’t possibly comment.

IMG_5117Our allotment site is served by cattle troughs which are turned off in October and on again in April. That, of course, means that there’s a period – especially in early spring – where everyone is sowing and nurturing young plants, but there’s no water supply unless you’ve got some storage. For several days we’ve seen allotmenteers wandering around the site, watering cans in hand, looking for an inch of water at the bottom of a trough. I’ve never been so glad that we installed some storage last winter, and so at the beginning of spring we had 1000 litres of rainwater in the butts.  We’ve moved into a period of high atmospheric pressure without any rain just at the time when the growing plants need it most. You wouldn’t believe the pleasure that turning a tap and filling a can can bring. This wasn’t so much for watering, the earth is hardly parched at this time of year and it’s only the plants under cover that need it.  Yesterday I wanted to spray the growing plants with dilute seaweed foliar feed. Applying it to the leaves does seem to work but it involves getting out the big sprayer which, being bright yellow, is liable to send out misleading signals to other organic gardeners. On the other hand, allowing people to imagine you’re using all manner of toxic chemicals might discourage them from grazing.

Back at the Potwell Inn Madame and me had one of our Big Talks which always involves a bit too much wine and no time or energy for cooking. I love our Big Talks – very therapeutic. So supper was one of those storecupboard pot luck meals, rendered even more interesting by the fact that I retrieved an unlabelled box from the freezer and had to defrost it to see what was inside. It was the simplest of tomato sauces made during the glut last summer and it was absolutely lovely. Linguini + tomato sauce + a bit of Parmesan and, for me a few anchovies scraped from the bottom of a jar in the fridge. It was an unbelievably good way to anticipate this coming season.

IMG_5120But there was no basil yet.  We’ve got a succession growing well in pots, and just as an experiment I took one of the two varieties and stuck a pot in the propagator with the young chillies.  Here’s a side-by-side of the difference between the two pots.  It can’t be temperature making all the difference because the kitchen stays at a steady 20C, and that’s the setting in the propagator.  So it must be mainly down to the overhead UV light.

Finally, a photo of the chillies which are almost ready for their big pots so we can get the tomatoes going. The stowaway basil plant is on the left at the back. These get a foliar seaweed spray once a week and I’m very happy with their progress.  The biggest disappointment was that not a single Bhut Jalokia  (the 1000000 Scoville unit chilli) germinated. Next season then!



The fox puts in an appearance


But more of the fox later, the number one priority on the allotment today was to clear away all the crops that had been damaged by the weekend frost. Incidentally it was strangely comforting to receive news that American allotmenteers were experiencing their first frost too – I like a bit of solidarity!

IMG_4666As we all know, the merest sniff of a frost is enough to make a cucumber sick, but our late and speculative crops of runner beans and French beans were also hit, along with the last few green tomatoes.  It a shame, not least because this last few days has seen the coldest October weather since 1997 – this time the gamble didn’t pay off quite as well.  But think; we’re still eating the last of the fresh tomatoes and we’ve rescued enough of the frost intolerant things to make a big batch of piccallili and even some green tomato chutney.  So today we cleared the remains away ready to hoe the weeds off and apply a thick layer of winter mulch to the ground that we’re not replanting immediately. The asparagus is slow to turn yellow so we’re leaving it a day or two more before we cut the fronds back, weed the whole area and apply the seaweed  straight from the big sack we brought back from North Wales. It was a struggle getting it into the car because it weighed about 100lbs, but we tied the sack tight to prevent any maggots(!) escaping, and there was no smell to speak of notwithstanding the gloomy predictions of our friends.  All the while the sun shone, but as it dropped towards the horizon a real chill set in. There were a surprising number of allotmenteers about this afternoon and so some lively sharing went on as we compared surpluses.  That’s one of the best thing about the allotments – the community – it has its ups and downs but basically it’s rooted in sharing not in grabbing what you can.

Then, just as we were packing up, the fox appeared.  We’ve seen him often before but never quite so close. Even he was joining in the last minute hunt for food.  We’ll all soon be looking for something to eat during the winter months and I don’t begrudge him a share of the surplus at all. It was a young dog fox in fine fettle with no sign of mange and of a good weight I’d think. We looked at each other for a while and he allowed me to get out my phone and take a couple of pictures while he regarded me warily. It was a very joyful moment.

Later we brought the produce back to the flat and cooked some of it.  We’re thrilled with our carrots, parsnips and turnips, the first we’ve grown successfully in some years. The only downside of coming back to the city is the noise of the traffic.  It’s incessant, noisy and pollutes the atmosphere so that, for asthmatics like me, November can be a tricky month.



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