Perennials – the gift that goes on giving

Sweet Cicely emerging

I know the history of this plant because I picked a pocket full of seeds one day on a long walk with friends near the top of Nidderdale, Yorkshire, somewhere close to Pateley Bridge. Sweet Cicely grows wild everywhere in Yorkshire but hardly at all down where we live in the South West. In fact it even appeared in a TV thriller the other night when a London based forensic botanist, no less, told detectives that they should look for an allotment to find the murder scene along with the sweet cicely that had found its way onto the shoes of the deceased.

Back home, I sowed the harvested seeds in the ground immediately and nothing happened. I tried sowing some more again in pots and still nothing. I even ordered a packet in the misguided hope that because I’d paid for them they’d be more likely to work. They didn’t either. Then I read something about the seeds needing to undergo a prolonged period of cold – known as vernalisation – so I picked the last few survivors out of my coat pocket with all the associated fluff and bunged them into the fridge inside a vitamin tablet bottle and then forgot about them for a couple of months. When I remembered them I sowed them in another pot and before long there were half a dozen seedlings which I duly planted in the perfect spot on the allotment. By the next morning slugs had eaten all but two – at which point I gave up with tears in my eyes until several weeks later a blob of furled green appeared from under a water butt and there it was – alive and surprisingly vigorous. Over the next two seasons it grew larger and larger and our neighbour said he’d grown it once and it had become a nuisance.

So why – apart from the delightful name – did I so want to grow it? Well, simply because it’s ready at the same time as early rhubarb and, added to the cooking liquid it adds sweetness and a faint aniseed flavour to my favourite pudding. Every year it thrives and then dies back completely, appearing again in early spring. The photo was taken today and I can’t tell you how pleased we were to see it.

Out on the green, the buds on the trees are beginning to open – no surprise there I suppose, they’re doing what trees always do in the spring. But they’re not opening for us. Their annual cycle seems one step removed from us, however beautiful it may be because, with exception of the elders whose flowers and fruits we’re grateful to harvest, we lead slightly parallel lives.

Two weeks ago during the last big storm, a whole branch split off from one of the largest trees on the green. The brash and cordwood was rapidly sawn up and taken away by a homeless man who lives in a bender on the river – so I guess it was a gift for him. But suddenly the remaining trunk became our trunk. It was almost continually occupied by resting people for the first week and then it was dragged across the green to a new position where it’s been in use as a seat and exercise bench ever since. The Council had started to put benches out on the green but a coalition of nimbies started a petition alleging that seats would encourage antisocial behaviour and the plan was dropped. Curiously, until now, we’ve had parties – at least three of them organised by the petitioners – machete attacks, domestic violence, drug dealing and dogging without the aid of any seats at all. Free street theatre – what’s not to like? I hope the tree trunk isn’t dragged off by the police as a threat to public safety!

Back on the allotment the reappearance of the perennials is always a cause for celebration and gratitude. This period of early spring can be hard work, but the perennials come back for us year after year without our doing anything very much at all. We cut them back in the winter, put a marker cane in and for a while the allotment looks very bare – and then we start look forward to seeing them in March. Today the first two shoots of asparagus finally appeared. I wandered around the plot photographing all our old friends as they break through the warming soil or burst into bud. Our unstoppable collection of mints is coming through; the strawberries are looking hearty in the tunnel; the fruit bushes are all in leaf now and looking perky after their winter under mulch and a spring feed of organic fertilizer; our apple trees are all breaking buds; autumn raspberries are pushing through their covering of leaves like the resurrected villagers in Stanley Spencer’s painting of Cookham churchyard. The hollyhocks are racing away – often in places we didn’t put them; French sorrel, rhubarb, rosemary, fennel, chives and marjoram are all up again; the overwintering parsley is starting to bulk up, lovage too is pushing out of the ground with its pink stalks. We scan the ground looking for any self-seeded angelica but we’ve got a tray of seedlings just in case. Summer wouldn’t be the same without their giant presence in the borders – I could go on but you get the point. These perennials are the backbone, the continuity members of the community of allotment plants. The best planned allotment in the world would be a poor thing if it had to start from scratch every year.

Our perennials are the old friends we haven’t seen since before the lockdown and my goodness it’s good to greet them, to pick a leaf and remember their taste and fragrance. Last year’s apple harvest was a bit of a disappointment with only the ribstone pippin producing prolific quantities of slightly scabby fruit which we ate anyway. A year on and the row of five apples in our ultra mini-orchard look all the better for their winter rest and we think a hard pruning has done them the world of good. As ever we’re interplanting nasturtiums among the fruit trees, and we hope the grease bands will discourage at least some of the moths.

That’s my 1000 words, then. It’s stopped raining and as soon as Madame finishes her drawing we’ll be out again. I’ve waxed my walking boots for the umpteenth time in hope and anticipation of being freed on Monday to finish walking the West Mendip Way. It’s always better to live hopefully than to get old and sour. (That was a note to self btw!)

Breaking the bank

But don’t be alarmed, in this one instance the river Avon is doing exactly what it was intended to because this area is part of a flood relief area, designed to hold water back from racing down the river. It could safely rise another maybe four or five feet but I can hardly imagine the impact that would have further downstream. I took these pictures yesterday and further upriver at Pulteney Weir the water was moving so fast there was just a ferocious boil where the steps can usually be seen. Massive logs were powering downstream faster than a decent walker could keep up. The radial gate was open – the gate that the council are proposing to remove – but I wonder in the light of this winter’s continual storms if that’s such a good idea.

Back up the path towards Green Park there seemed to be a developing patch of occasional marshland. In fact the footpath has been closed off so much this year I wonder if it wouldn’t be a nice touch to close it permanently and allow the regular inundations to create a whole new habitat.

The only dark spot in a bright day were the thousands of shoppers piling in to the shopping centre with no regard at all for the spread of Covid. We could see them from the other side of the river milling around beyond the bus station and we spoke to one man who told us without a trace of awareness that he was breaking the law, that he’d driven up from Westbury. As battles break out everywhere about who should get the vaccine first we see the period of our confinement – 10 months already – extending into an unknown future. Mendip is once again closed to us and we seem to be among a tiny minority who try to respect the rules.

So today we finished off the seed order, along – it seemed – with every other gardener in the UK which brought the websites to a pitiful crawl; so slow in fact that I managed to buy four rhubarb plants after exiting two websites that I thought had died. But we have all the seeds and plants ordered now. The allotment itself is a sorry sight; cold and wet. The broad beans took a battering in the overnight storms, but experience suggests that they’ll recover as soon as the weather improves a bit. The good news is that the strengthened stands have coped well with the 1250 litres of water now overflowing the water butts – that’s a ton in old money, but in a bitterly cold northwesterly wind we didn’t hang around after we’d topped up the compost with kitchen waste and cut some chard and a savoy cabbage for tomorrow. There will be sunshine and warmth again, but at present the weather perfectly expresses the prevailing gloom about brexit and the pandemic.

The next big planting that could arrive any time will be the four new fruit trees which are novel in that they’re grown on dwarfing rootstock but rather than inclined like normal cordons, they grow vertically which means they’re extremely space efficient. Whether they’ll live up to the advertising material is a moot point, but in the coming years fruit is going to at a premium – and we love apples, pears, plums and damsons. If (and it’s a big if) – they all produce fruit we’ll be very fortunate. I also ordered tayberry and blackberry plants today. The garlics are all up too; the brussels sprouts are fattening up nicely and within a few weeks we’ll be eating purple sprouting which couldn’t be more welcome as spring approaches. It’s like early asparagus and tastes very nearly as good.

So all’s reasonably well in this strange time. I’ve embarked on reading yet another book on food production and I’m sure I’ll be writing about it very shortly. Whether or not our government will have the courage and the vision to address the coming environmental and economic troubles I would doubt, so all that’s left to us is to do as little harm as possible in our own lives and prepare for the day when our knowledge and expertise will finally be called upon.

The pond completed

Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.

I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.

Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!

The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.

Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.

My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.

Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.