The sheer glamour of the allotment

Runner beans in flower – If the video doesn’t work very well I’d appreciate it if you commented and let me know. This is new technology for me.

I’ve written before about the default, but quite inaccurate view of allotmenteering that gets propagated by the seed catalogues and coffee table books. Grow all your food in 20 minutes a month! whispers the siren voice, accompanied by shots of glamorous looking models in distressed straw hats strolling through the sunlit beds of their immaculate patches; pausing to pluck a rose or taking note of an enormous cabbage – presumably – var Findhorn – which they will turn into a handmade oak barrel of sauerkraut.

Meanwhile back in the real world the grey skies are rent with cries of uuuuuuuuugh OMG as ghostly slugs slide silently through the lettuces and rats slink out of the compost heap. I’m not doubting the occasional blissful day – they come along like buses, unpredictably – but the danger is that when disappointments come along, as they inevitably will, we get crushed and give up.

Blight, for instance, has arrived on the site as it inevitably does when we get this kind of wet weather for days on end. I well remember the first time we had our potatoes and tomatoes destroyed by blight – seemingly overnight – and it felt dreadful. In fact it was pretty much the end of it for that particular garden. Our neighbours on the site are in their first year and they lost all theirs last week – we wondered why we hadn’t seen them – and they told us how devastated they were. The takeaway point is that you can’t regard blight as an occasional unwelcome visitor, it comes nearly every year. The good news is that there are some really good blight resistant potatoes and tomatoes, not GM or anything like that but just bred selectively in the old fashioned way and easily as good to eat as many of the heritage varieties. UK allotmenteers can look for RHS “Award of Garden Merit” varieties that have been independently tested in field trials mirroring the different kind of soils and climate that we have to work with.

I totally agree that it would be a crime to let the heritage varieties disappear and we always grow a few old-timers among the crops. Often they grow beautifully and taste sublime but they may well be more susceptible to disease – so the answer is (as always) to grow a disease resistant variety as an insurance crop and a row of Grandad’s Teeth beans as a gamble – and don’t be fooled by the catalogues; the best tactic is to ask around on the site and see what the best allotmenteers are growing. That was how we came across Sarpo Mira potatoes and Crimson Crush tomatoes. There are others to try but those are bankers for us. Every year we see glossy pictures of the ultimate this and that but the seed merchants are often beta testing their new varieties on us, and they disappear from the catalogues within a year. Almost anything you grow yourself is going to taste a whole lot better than something grown to survive a 1000 mile journey in a lorry and with a warehouse life of months (it’s true! how do you think they sell ‘fresh’ apples out of season?) .

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Folk proverb

The other thing to say is that the more time you spend on your patch, the better you’ll understand it; and an evening stroll around on a wet night can be the most effective way of controlling slugs without using chemicals. If you’re squeamish you can chuck them in a bucket and sprinkle salt on them but whatever way you do it they’re not going to become extinct. We get asparagus beetle every year but knowing that it’s coming means we can control it by squeezing the caterpillars and spraying with a soap and oil mixture. Nearly all infestations and mildews start slowly and if you can nip them in the bud you won’t need to use anything except low cunning and soap. Plants can look absolutely terrible too. By winter time, the biennial brassicas have all got dead leaves because leaves, surprisingly, have a limited life. If they fall on the ground they look dreadful and attract pests like slugs. So we give them a trim and remove all the dead and dying leaves to the compost heap and they look like RHS show plants all over again. Many perennials die back and, again, it’s safe to remove the dead leaves.

And finally daunting jobs, like weeding, are easy if you do a bit as often as you can; and if you’re short of time – like most people – then ground cover crops can help to do the job for you. In April people look at the Potwell Inn plot and think it looks amazing. They don’t say it in August because the nasturtiums and marigolds have ramped everywhere, and the courgettes, cucumbers and squashes are spreading all over the place. But when you clear the plots at the end of the season you find bare earth under the close cover of leaves and then you have the choice of covering with sheeting until Spring, or sowing a green manure crop. We often put a thick layer of leaves over the earth and then sheet it, and within a couple of months the worms have taken most of them down into the soil and improved it greatly in the process.

It sounds cockeyed, but honestly failures are your best teachers. The worst mistake you can make is to try to control nature. Gardening, to steal a phrase from Tai Chi is an internal art – it doesn’t rely on power but on flexibility, intuition and the ability to relinquish control, and when the onions have given you a whipping for the third year in succession and thrown you contemptuously across the plot, treat them with respect. Bow and reflect, and next year remember to put the insect mesh on, before allium leaf miner arrives.

“Well I think the answer lies in the soil”

To quote the advice of Arthur Fallowfield – the wonderful invention of comedian Kenneth Williams, “The answer lies in the soil”. It always does, but he was spoofing the whole organic gardening movement in its tweedy 1930’s incarnation. I am aware, of course, that the gag will completely pass over the head of anyone under retirement age but I remember the tremulous plummy voice that seemed to spring straight from the pages of “Cold Comfort Farm” – dripping with the husky erotic overtones of flowering sukebind.

Last autumn, when I built the compost bins I was doubtful if we’d ever be able to fill them, even with the green kitchen waste included. Each bay is approaching two cubic metres in size, and there are four of them – and I was right to be dubious. One of the bins has been used ever since to store leaves, and should provide at least a cubic metre of leaf mould every year. One bin has been used for storage of bags of consumables like bought-in compost, topsoil and grit, and I’ve built removable shelves over both of those bays to make use of the upper area for growing in bags. But the other two bays have shown that they are well up to providing a constant supply of compost. They’ve only been up for less than a year and we’ve already taken off two cycles, maybe ten heaped barrow loads of really good compost.

Previously we’d always used California cylinders which are portable, cheap and easy to make but almost impossible to turn. The hope was that having permanent wooden bays would make turning easier -which has turned out to be true, and because it’s easier I turn the heap more often, which keeps it sweet and hot and remarkably efficient at reducing the most intractable waste into compost. Woody waste is chopped into small pieces and cabbage stumps get smashed with the back of an axe, but even soft fruit prunings disappear. The only things we don’t compost are noxious perennial weeds and annual weeds that have set seed. We’ve also learned that as well as regular turning, the heap responds well to a surprising quantity of cardboard (as long as it doesn’t have a plastic finish). The one thing you never find in a finished heap is cardboard – it seems to disappear really quickly and we often supplement our own household cardboard waste with shredded paper and large boxes from the recycling containers in the basement. The worms also love it although they don’t seem to eat it, they tend to congregate around it. Finally the heap gets a regular soaking of urine and the odd layer of comfrey if I can find any; or a handful of organic fertilizer or seaweed meal now and again. The one thing you can’t do is just leave it uncovered for months. It’s far better to keep it covered and water it when it looks dry, than it is to allow it to get cold and wet. Are you getting the picture? Composting is an intense and interventionist activity.

So today was heap turning day because we’ve cleared a couple of beds and the plan is always to clear them, compost them, and then sow or replant them as quickly as possible. Allotmenteering is pretty intensive all round, and digging out a full bay is hard work because in our case our optimistic use of “biodegradable plastics” – Jiffy 7 modules and degradable kitchen waste bags in particular has taught us that they are rarely broken down and can persist for years. So we’ve been removing them – hundreds of them – as the finished compost is dug and put through a wire riddle. It’s slow but very rewarding work as lumpy garden waste emerges from the process as sweet smelling friable and fine grained compost, inoculated with worm casts – in fact almost all of it seems to have passed through worms at some point making it vastly more valuable than bought in compost. There was enough today to cover two 12’x 5′ beds to a depth of 3″ and fill two large planters – and enough pieces of plastic to fill a large bag! After riddling and taking out the plastic, any hard residue, bits of twig etc. go back to the bottom of the new heap.

Rats

Turning the active heap which was full to the brim was a bit more of a performance, not least because I came across a very large rat and was forced to engage in hand to hand combat with it for fear of getting bitten. I once had a rat jump over my shoulder and I’m not sure which of us was more terrified! Rats are a tremendous nuisance but it’s hardly surprising that they congregate around compost bins which provide food, warmth and shelter. The problem is that they’re also carriers of leptospirosis which is transmitted through their urine, and so we really don’t want them leaving their traces on crops, particularly those like salad greens that are eaten raw. They also ruin sweetcorn crops because – like badgers and deer – they love the sweetness. We try as best we can to exclude them but they’re great climbers and even if the bins themselves are rat-proof, they can easily climb the sides and get in through the top and so they’re a regrettable pest and although I hate despatching them they come under the same banner as slugs. And so if we can, we kill them with powerful spring traps designed to keep out other less harmful species and occasionally I have to do the job myself because they soon learn to recognise the traps and even manage to eat all the peanut butter bait without springing them. We don’t use poisons of any kind because that just displaces the moral responsibility by making the consequences invisible.

Worms

But aside from the pests, what about the friendly inhabitants of the compost heap? I’m constantly amazed at where the brandling worms come from. We’ve never gone to any trouble, they just emerge from somewhere and in a lively heap they multiply exponentially. There’s a paradox here because there’s more than one process going on in a heap. The bacterial process is stage one, and it’s the foundation for the worms’ work. All the feeding with water, urine (human not rats!) comfrey and carbon in the form of cardboard facilitates the initial stages where the heap warms up. Many enthusiastic bloggers will make great play of the maximum temperatures in their heaps and some will claim that they reach quite extraordinary heights. We much prefer to leave the heap to heat up to – say – 30C in the initial stages. Bacteria, insects and worms all have their comfortable temperature ranges, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to drive all the invertebrates out by having the heap too hot.

In practice, the brandling move around – to the cooler edges when the heap is heating and then back to the centre when it cools and they can begin their vital work of digesting the partially rotted waste and turning it into worm casts which are absolutely crammed with soil improving bacteria. Well made garden compost and cheap garden centre compost are worlds apart. When the worms have done their work the population declines and they move elsewhere – which means it’s time to dig the compost out and spread it thickly on the plot.

Yesterday as I was digging out the finished compost, it was clear that there were far less brandling than in the ‘live’ bin, but as I dug deeper I was finding more of the deeper soil dwelling earthworms. It’s wonderful to watch how the process constantly balances itself. And worms aren’t the only inhabitants – it’s teeming with invertebrate life all chewing their way through our waste and turning it into gold, and I don’t doubt that the inhabitants get smaller and smaller in a massive interconnected ecosystem – it takes your breath away.

The result of building up the soil with organic matter is increased fertility, increased yields, greater biodiversity and healthier plants. It’s a no-brainer. Of course you can increase yields by pouring on artificial fertilizer year after year, but as the biodiversity drops the intractable pests increase and you find yourself trapped in an expensive and depressing spiral of feeding and spraying. But here are some photos of the allotment taken yesterday, and hopefully they speak for themselves.

First proper frost of the season

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I love to wake up like we did today and see white frost on the green outside, but this morning it was especially good to see the excited loop drawn on the grass by a dog released from its lead. Who says a line can’t express joy! It’s no less pleasurable to be prepared for frost, and I say so having not been up to the allotment to look for myself. “Possibly” says my inner pessimist – ” all your seedlings are dead”. “Oh do go away”, I think, “and bother someone else”.

We’ve fleeced and cloched all the vulnerable plants, and garlic especially is supposed to positively relish a few days of hard frost – so bring it on, I think.  On the other hand it’s worth wondering what the balance of good practice might be in relation to sheeting, IMG_20191109_151823fleecing and mulching. Creating a warm dry environment under black plastic sheets is a great help to slugs as well as more friendly pests – (just peel the sheet back and look for yourself), so maybe we should be encouraging foxes (on our plot they don’t need much encouragement), badgers who love a fat slug, and hedgehogs as well as toads who equally don’t mind if they do. Oh and don’t forget the birds. I know that those who sell garden supplies would have us think that only an architect designed and artisan produced bee hotel will be suitable, but insects prefer to choose their own overwintering spots.  Every year at this time we have an invasion of ladybirds who creep into the flat and take up their winter quarters in the corners of our ceilings.  I took this photograph in the hall, ten minutes ago.  I suppose we could  spray them with insecticide, but in the spring we’ll be hoping for them to arrive as the aphids get going.  I prefer to see our guests as free biological control breeding colonies.  I’m not so keen on the frass, but that comes off with a wipe anyway.

A bit of botanical history

In a quick update on my Tutsan research, I checked back on the transcribed edition of Culpeper’s Herbal and found that in the 1649 edition the plant was indeed described as ‘Tustan’, but Culpeper wrote that it was no longer much used. It doesn’t seem to appear at all in Gerard a century earlier.  There’s a clue in the indispensible “Englishman’s Flora” when Grigson states that Tutsan had been mistaken in a medieval herbal for another herb altogether, mentioned by Pliny. He goes on to say that by Gerard’s time the misidentification had been corrected and this must have led to its decline, although Culpeper still lists a number of uses. But the 1649 edition is also full of typos – there are dozens if not hundreds listed at the end of the Project Gutenberg edition so perhaps it was a Friday afternoon in November when a short sighted printer with no botanical knowledge at all dropped two pieces of moveable type into the wrong place in a frame and no-one noticed. Why am I so interested in this? Well I spent half my life grappling with understanding and interpreting ancient texts, and old habits die hard.

Some tougher stuff on herbal medicine

And while I’m on the subject of honest errors, I notice in the newspapers another routine round of attacks by conventional medicine on the dangers of herbal medicines.  Let’s be clear, I’m not a gimlet eyed anti vaxxer and I have more reasons than most to be grateful for modern drugs – I take four different drugs every day and without them there’s a signficant chance I’d be in much poorer health than I am.  I have my annual flu jab and so it goes on.  So thank you to the NHS, I’m a fan.  But in his day, Culpeper battled with the Royal College of Surgeons – he wrote this in 1649 as he translated the (Latin) Pharmacoepia Londinensis into the English common tongue, facing the same challenged as did Myles Coverdale and many others in translating the Bible (in 1535) so that any ploughboy might read it.

” The liberty of our Common Wealth   …… is most infringed by three sorts of men, Priests, Physitians, Lawyers”.

Well he would say that wouldn’t he? – he fought with Cromwell in the English Civil War and was a thoroughgoing Puritan radical. He got a serious chest wound which may have been a subsidiary cause of his death from TB at the age of only 39. He could see that many poor people simply couldn’t afford to pay for credentialed physicians and so he gave them what they needed – reliable access to self care. He was always careful to note where a misidentification could be dangerous, and there’s no sense of anything but close observation and attention to detail in his book – but it was a book written in the 17th century translating another put together in the 16th from manuscripts that went back to the first century and using experience gathered from Egyptian, Roman and Greek sources. It can’t be understood without serious study: which is a long way of saying that attacks on herbal medicine that come from a simple 21st century superficial reading of ancient texts suffer from exactly the same flaws as do the attacks by anti-vaxxers on modern scientific medicine – they’re often fuelled and inflamed by a complete failure to understand what the other is really doing.

Undoubtedly herbal medicine can be dangerous and can cause unexpected interactions with conventional medicines. Undoubtedly we could do with better training and more regulation of expensive raw materials, bearing in mind that fake Viagra and illegal steroids are hardly ‘better’ than fake Ginseng or any other herb. Conventional medicine too has its downside.  I found some research by the Universities of Sheffield, York and Manchester published on 23rd February 2018 on the subject of prescription errors: it found that in the UK there were:

  • 237 million medication errors each year
  • An estimated 712 deaths
  • Were a contributory factor to between 17,000 and 22,000 deaths
  • Cost £98.5 million per year to remedy

I tried to find equivalent data for herbal and oriental medicines but it seems that there is very little detailed research and a lot of untested anecdotal evidence floating around. Could this be a clash of ideologies just like the battles of the 16th and 17th centuries? The only way to find out is to do the comparative research on a level playing field. How many times have I heard it said that “there’s no evidence” that a certain treatment works when the reason there is no evidence is because no-one had ever done any research to find any. That’s a politicians trick!

Meanwhile I’ll continue to pick my sceptical way between the opposing sides and use the best informed opinions when it comes to choosing the right therapy. A few weeks ago we had a meal with a GP and a cancer specialist consultant.  I asked in all innocence (ho ho) whether their patients ever asked them about complementary therapies. “All the time” was the response and the conversation was immediately doused with a bucketful of cold silence.