Freed from watering the outside allotment by some decent rain last night we lingered in bed reading, watered the greenhouse and polytunnel, shot down to the supermarket to get canned food for the campervan stores and then off to Dyrham Park in search of orchids. It’s been a difficult drought season, demanding all our effort to keep the young plants alive. Apparently the tomatoes don’t set fruit when the temperature rises above 27C, although we’ve not found a big difference so far. It’s a mad year when we have almost ready aubergines and courgettes in the tunnel but the outdoor broad beans have been decimated by blackfly due to the unaccountable absence of their usual predators – almost certainly down to heavy mortality among them in the cold wet early spring. In particular, ladybirds have been noticeably absent. We’ve been spraying with a neem oil and soap mix with limited success on the broad beans, but with a slightly better result on the asparagus which is being attacked by asparagus beetles. Neem oil is certified for organic use but it really stinks and is unpleasant to spray. It also tends to clog the sprayer so it’s far from ideal. Our conclusion is to revert to sowing Aquadulce Claudia beans in October, plant them out in early November and then protect them from strong winds and prolonged frosts. They usually look a mess in early spring but they tiller freely and give a good early crop when there’s almost nothing else to eat.
So once we arrived in the park we very slowly searched all the familiar places for orchids. We didn’t have to look far for Pyramidal orchids – Anacamptis pyramidalis – there were hundreds of them, smaller but substantial numbers of Common Spotted – Dactylorhiza fuchsii , some of them very pale, and just a single Bee orchid – Ophryis apifera – far fewer than last year.
Orchids are lovely of course but with a dozen or so Marbled White butterflies moving about the meadow with several other species it was a close thing which was more exciting.
But I’m not afraid to say that I was enchanted by finding some Cock’s-foot grass in full flower and looking like a beauty at the prom, decked in white. On this poor limestone rich meadow, this bully of a grass had been reduced to playing second fiddle to the wildflowers. The whole meadow was alive with Oxeye Daisies, which looked tremendous; but the absolute star of the show was the seed head of Tragopogon pratensis – Goats Beard – whose mind blowing architecture made me shout out for joy.
Last summer’s drought wrought havoc in most gardens and allotments and the Potwell Inn was no exception. In the previous season we’d decided to grow early strawberries in the polytunnel with a bunch of Malling Century slips that came as a free gift with the seed order. They did reasonably well in hanging baskets but the hot weather and some gaps in watering meant that they never really flourished, so we took them outside when they finished and grew on as many runners as we could, transferring them, once they were established, to a raised bed. Last year, in their second season they did much better and this year they’ve really come into their own in their fourth home in three years. They weren’t even our first choice for plants because we were after Cambridge Favourite but the Malling were free and so – as always at the Potwell Inn – thrift triumphed over research and we haven’t regretted it because they’re absolutely delicious.
This is the time of year when the battle with weeds is replaced by the one against pests and predators. We’ve never used any form of pesticide apart from pyrethrum or indeed any chemicals at all beyond what’s allowed for organic gardening. We gave up on pyrethrum because it was so expensive and it was difficult to avoid harming friendly predators and pollinators like ladybirds, bees, parasitic wasps and hoverflies – and so hand picking and low cunning are our preferred tactics. There is, (vegans look away!), grim satisfaction to be had from pinching asparagus beetles between the fingers, and washing blackfly with soft soap but it’s slow work and demands constant attention and getting the time of day right.
There are, however, bigger menaces to allotmenteers like squirrels, pigeons, rats and the biggest one of all – badgers. A couple of years ago we found neat piles of podded broad bean shells to one side of the bed. That turned out to be squirrels which are easy enough to keep out with nets, as are the pigeons. So far as the cabbage butterflies are concerned any number of new allotmenteers are caught out by the fact that butterflies can lay their eggs through netting if it’s touching the leaves of your brassicas – so lift it up on hoops, away from the plants.
Badgers, on the other hand, are formidable once they find out where your sweetcorn is. We have a trail cam on the plot and it seems that the badgers make regular patrols around the site and the moment the cobs are ripe – they have tremendous sense of smell – they almost throw themselves against the plants and break them off so they can munch your lunch. Most years we lose 50% of our crops. If you find your sweetcorn stalks intact but the cobs chewed open, suspect rats or squirrels both of which are good climbers.
The long term answer is to surround these vulnerable plants with an inner layer of chicken wire – buried into the soil – and an outer layer of soft net, which badgers seem not to like getting their claws into. We’ve even thought about a Fort Knox bed of weldmesh! The trouble with all of these arrangements is that they also deter the allotmenteer from day to day cultivation – and so we compromise and expect to lose some corn every year.
We did have one not-so-brilliant cunning plan this year which was to grow the sweetcorn inside the polytunnel. As you’ll see from the photograph we even carried it through until we realized that the badgers would still smell the corn and would cheerfully rip through the polytunnel cover to get at them. A new cover would cost about £250 so we contemplated digging up and composting the growing plants until Madame had the unlikely idea of transplanting them even though they were more than two feet tall by now.
So we took a trial batch of six plants, removed them with as large a soil ball as we could, and set them down in a new bed – all this on one of the hottest days of the year! We fed, watered and nurtured them as if they were in intensive care, and blow me they all survived with barely any setback. Nature is so much more resilient than we give her credit for. So now we’ll move the rest of them and think about buying a roll of chicken wire and some strong posts. We don’t actually need all that many cobs so sharing may turn out to be a serious plan because we love having the badgers on the allotment.
As for the asparagus – after threatening to dig it up – this year – we have intensified our efforts to save the bed and tomorrow we’ll apply some diatomaceous earth around the bed and give them a spray of neem oil -they’re not in flower and we couldn’t find any ladybird larvae so it looks like the safest option. We’ve also got nematodes in the fridge but we can’t spray that until a new hatch of larvae coincides with a dull day. The only pest that hasn’t caused as many problems as usual are the slugs. We’ve learned that spot watering the plants and leaving the dry earth everywhere else, deters them from their night rambles.
Oh and joy unconfined! The Saturday market has returned to Green Park Station after a serious fire put it out of action, and we were able to resume our favourite Saturday breakfast of strong coffee and pain au raisins after finishing early morning watering. Madame is scanning the sky for thunderclouds and rain – lots of rain. Pleeeeeease.
It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.
Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.
As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.
But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.
We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.
Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?
Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!
Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.
So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.
Some days start badly. Mine did yesterday, being woken by dystopian dreams in which I was exploring the branch of an old canal surrounded by decaying industrial buildings. The basin was full of huge shiny boats of the kind beloved by billionaires and they were cleaning themselves without human intervention. Detergent was pouring down their gleaming sides from hidden valves and into the polluted and dead water. “I wonder where it’s all going?” I said to a man nearby and he replied “To Westminster I hope”. I explored the buildings surrounding the basin and stumbled on what seemed like a therapeutic group whose members looked at me with kind of hostility reserved for interlopers and strangers. Elsewhere a couple of men were wheelbarrowing rubbish and dumping it inside another building. There was a full-on evangelical church in session, with a lot of shouting and witnessing that didn’t seem to relate to what was going on outside. As Thomas Berry wrote:
So concerned are we with redemptive healing that once healed, we only look to be more healed. We seldom get to our functional role within the creative intentions of the universe.
Thomas Berry in chapter 4 of ” The dream of the Earth”
All of which dreaming, along with my familiar autumn gloom, set me up for a disconsolate and unrewarding equinox. Madame, who sometimes suffers as much from me as I do from my temporary afflictions – took herself off to the allotment while I fiddled about with some new technology that was refusing to speak to any of my ancient (more than five years old) peripherals. In the end and in the face of a blank mind and blank screen I thought – “I’ll go up and take her some fruit gums, then I’ll measure temperature of the compost heap and I’ll look at the pond” – and yes, even I can see the hilarious vacuity of the plan, but hey! – any plan is better than existential self-pity.
Someone had left a large quantity of shredded cardboard in the recycling room several days ago – which is like finding a five pound note to a composter. So I was able to finish filling another of the compost bays mixing the cardboard with all the autumnal clearings from the plot. Yesterday’s temperature inside the heap had reached 35C from 20C in not much more than 24 hours, so that was a cheering result. Then I leaned on the fence that separates our small pond from the path and gave some time to simply looking. Aside from digging and lining the hole last winter, we can claim no credit whatever for what’s followed. There are tadpoles still – most of the froglets have gone – and there are always a few hoverflies, bees and other insects hanging around. Yesterday a southern hawker dragonfly was hovering, but we see any number of damselflies mating and egg laying in the pond as well. There were the usual pond skaters skating about and as I was wondering what they were feeding on I spotted an odd red blob, less than half an inch across and which was moving oddly in the water, as if propelled by something invisible.
A leading light in the Bath Natural History Society has a rather wonderful pair of binoculars that are specifically designed for scanning short distances – mosses, lichens and fungi are his bread and butter and he can identify tiny subjects without lying down in the mud. On the other hand, I’m rather short sighted and intriguing subjects such as self propelling red discs in the pond are a bit abstract. When you look at the photo I took at great personal risk of toppling into the pond, you may think that my phone merely made it look bigger but no less abstract.
However – what the photo revealed to my curious mind was that even though I couldn’t actually put names to organisms, something very complicated was going on. A sort of four dimensional rubik’s cube of predation and recycling. I have no idea what the red blob is – in fact the whole photo has a rather Japanese flower arrangement look about it. But something – maybe a hawthorn berry, I thought, has fallen into the water and is gradually being reduced to its components on its way to becoming rich sediment. Around this nodal point, pond skaters seemed to be feeding on the remains of whitefly, but the occasional movements of the anonymous red blob remained inexplicable.
It was only when I got home and took a closer look at the photo that I noticed what seem to be eggs attached to the floating twig; eggs with what could be tiny air bubbles attached to them. In fact, the closer I looked the more I could see of the teeming life in our pond which has yet to celebrate its first birthday. The eggs may well be damselfly eggs, but with so many predators around the mortality rate must be prodigious. With a bit of luck there will be rat tailed maggots down there next year and, what with dragonfly larvae the pond will resemble a Roman Arena; a gladiatorial combat between the hungry and the tasty.
I suppose the sensible and more scientific response would be to buy a fine mesh net and some water sample bottles, and get to work with the microscope so I could start (yet) another list. And I certainly don’t want to knock that approach. The very simplest enquiry revealed that not all pond skaters are water boatmen; in fact none of them are. So my somewhat generic knowledge of pond insects has been enhanced and refined and added to because there are things called backswimmers too – and I really want to find some of those right now.
But that everyday experience of having my interest piqued by species that look similar but are in fact different, took me back to the very beginnings of my own botanical adventures when I realized that not all dandelions really are dandelions. Discrimination gets a bad rap when it comes to the human species; but the power to discriminate between genuinely different species – (all humans are human however different we may look) – is crucially important; especially at this moment of environmental crisis. Let’s say our little pond is polluted by chemical runoff from a neighbour’s allotment. I know it’s highly unlikely, but bear with me for the purposes of illustration. So if, one morning, I look at the pond and there’s nothing alive in it, how many species have been poisoned? how many have I lost? Is it just those little floaty things, or is it one, or three, or thirty species of pond dweller?
The rich density of the pond life is matched with the truly teeming density of the inhabitants of the compost heap. In an average year the two of us grow maybe thirty edible species for the kitchen; but those thirty edible species stand at the top of an almost miraculously complex association of insects, bacteria and fungi. Which of us can claim the sole credit for the basil, the raspberries and the lettuce we brought home today. The generosity of the earth is so inexplicable we are, or should be, brought to our knees with gratitude for the first potato of the year.
It seems to me that any way back from the brink of the abyss will – if it’s to succeed – need us to rediscover those human traits we’ve almost lost touch with in the past two hundred and fifty years. Of course we shall need the very best efforts of science and technology to guide the way, but that will entail a fundamental change of focus from an exploitative and extractive economic structure towards a system based in our deepest human needs.
We cannot save the earth without a recovered sense of wonder and glory; without gratitude, without human community and a return to genuine seasonal celebration rather than explosions of consumption; without a spirituality that expresses the mutuality and interdependence of everything on earth. We need to find an understanding that regardless of theological orthodoxies we can all accept that the earth, or in Chinese terms the ten thousand things are – in a manner we can never fully understand – spoken into existence. The pond skater, the frog spawn, the rotifers, the rats, hedgehogs, cats and badgers the multitude of flowering plants, the trees, the fish, the vegetables and even human beings emerge as if by the speaking of a primal energy of infinite creativity. Wilfully to destroy even one species is a grave insult to the processes of the earth.
Well yes, Captain Kipper (OK actually Ludwig Wittgenstein) – but what if there’s something you’re trying to articulate that’s so liminal, so at the boundary of a concept, yet to be properly mastered, that words and their meanings need to be forged anew? Surely that’s the work of the poet? and can’t be shirked in favour of silence. Language is endlessly adaptive; always finding ways to speak the previously unsaid, and one of those ideas that’s slowly being forged into speech is the curious relationship we have with nature.
We arrived back from our family get-together in Cornwall and went straight to the allotment, as you might expect. Then we prowled around to see the state of things; set up the trail camera and made plans for today – and today it rained; so we put on our waterproofs and got on with picking out the courgettes that had swollen to blimp size during the week; harvesting tomatoes, aubergines, runner (pole) beans, potatoes, peppers, summer squashes and masses of herbs. As you will know there are only two of us so this season of plenty has to be matched with a positive frenzy of pickling, preserving, boiling, reducing, freezing and fermenting. It’s been a crazy weather year and right now with the jetstream moored south of the UK we’re stuck in a series of lows, bringing cold winds and rain in off the Atlantic – it feels like autumn already.
So today we got wet and yet we both felt completely content just to be there. After finishing harvesting, Madame got on with summer pruning the fruit trees while I wheelbarrowed down enough woodchip to level the path in the polytunnel. There’s a reason for this because our plan is to clear the tunnel completely by the end of August and then we’ll need easy access with a wheelbarrow to bring compost in to feed the beds ready for the winter crops. Later in the kitchen I made stock and prepped a dozen half litre jars ready for tomorrow’s new batch of roasted tomato passata while Madame prepared to cook a bulk batch of ratatouille which freezes very well. All the while I was making sourdough bread and attending to the starters after their week in the fridge.
Perhaps one reason for the rather philosophical opening paragraph was some marvellous video footage of our friend the badger failing to find the sweetcorn beyond two layers of soft net and a maginot line of tagetes and mint – which we make portable by growing it in pots. Badgers hunt by smell and we aim to confuse them as much as possible. The three sisters experiment is exceeding our expectations and we have corn ten feet tall with borlotti plants climbing to the very top, whilst below some fat winter squashes are developing nicely in the shade. It looks a mess but it also looks like a success. The only predator likely to get to them before us is the badger; but since we invested in the trail cam we’ve grown to love the nocturnal intruders. We want to deter them of course but we wish them – with the foxes, squirrels, magpies and even the rats – no harm and the reason for that is that we have begun to see them as having their own inalienable rights over the land. The thought that they’re out prowling during the night gives us as much pleasure as the sound of a tawny owl calling does. We share their taste for the vegetables we grow, but perhaps value them more in their appetite for the slugs, snails and rodents that trouble us. The old binary division between crop and pest is dissolving and it’s that disappearance which demands a new language. The actors haven’t changed at all – badgers love corn and that’s unavoidable. What’s changed is that we are beginning to accept that if we want to save the earth; all those binary distinctions will have to be overcome through an unprecedented change in the way we understand, and therefore speak of our place in nature .
Wheelbarrowing woodchip with the rain running down our necks; stacking the compost heap with a mixture of green waste and wood chip and feeling its rising heat the next day; summer pruning, rooting strawberry runners and sowing chard for the autumn is done not though the domination of nature with powerful tools and chemicals but by attempting to think like a fox or a badger or – more oddly still – to think like a compost heap, or like the earth in a raised bed. It demands that we learn to think like a tomato or a potato; to ask what ails you? as we did today when we were examining what might have been tomato blight but turned out to be (in all probability) didymella stem rot, caused by stress – in turn caused by a poor watering regime. Failure often brings knowledge. Yes we talk to our plants; but more mysteriously – and only when we listen with complete attention – they speak to us in a language we have barely begun to understand, and which stands on its head, centuries of binary thinking through which we believe ourselves to be independent, separate subjects moving through a sea of resource objects. In this new state of being we are (imperfectly) in what Gary Snyder described thirty years ago as a “trans species erotic relationship” with nature; which sounds clumsier today than it did when it was written – but the word erotic captures the sense that this relationship transcends the instrumentality of the old ways and enables powerful feelings for nature which offer a pathway out of imminent destruction. Talking to the trees – it turns out – is a two way conversation as long as we are willing to get over ourselves and listen.
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!
Of course, however much we’d like to boast how skilled, clever or green fingered we are the truth is that it’s more likely that the allotment is growing us rather than the other way round. However well planned and executed the season is, our plans are at the mercy of the weather and a thousand other unpredictable variables any of which can trip us up. For instance when we arrived back from Wales we checked on the garlic and pulled a single bulb to see how things were going on. It looked fine – it just needed another couple of weeks to plump up. I think I mentioned this when I wrote on Friday or Saturday,
Anyway, yesterday I got down to some serious weeding in the garlic bed and discovered that one or two plants were soft where the stalk met the bulb. A quick survey of the whole bed revealed about half a dozen badly affected plants and so we decided to pull the lot in case there was an outbreak of something really nasty like white rot. There were two varieties in the bed – one was much more affected than the other, and after a long consultation of the text books it looks 90% sure that the plants had been infected by basal plate rot, a fusarium fungus. This is caused by a multitude of stresses; weather, water and over fertilization for instance and so regretfully we’re putting it down to yet another instance of the collateral damage caused by the exceptional weather this spring,which has broken records in alternating between continuous rain and drought, coolest and warmest consecutive months and persistent episodes of cold wind from the northeast and northwest. Plants don’t like stress and that’s when they get diseased or attacked by pests.
The upshot is that we have lost about half of the crop and we’re presently drying the (apparently) unaffected plants. At least fusarium can be controlled by rotation, whereas white rot persists for decades. I don’t think over fertilisation is the problem because we use no fertilisers, just compost. Ah well; life’s rich tapestry we say; but it’s another piece of evidence that maybe we have to change the way we grow things. It’s almost a given that it’s a good thing to sow some crops – like garlic, broad beans and even peas in November/December to get them off to a rapid start in the spring with the promise of an early crop. But for several years we’ve been wrongfooted by the weather and now we’re wondering whether to abandon the technique of overwintering our plants (except perhaps in the polytunnel) and getting everything in much later than we’ve been used to.
We talk a lot about the pleasures of gardening – and they are many – but we tend not to stress the disappointments, perhaps for fear of putting people off or of simply showing what terrible gardeners we really are. Organic gardening deliberately eschews all the chemical shortcuts and remedies so it’s more like hand-to-hand combat in amongst the rows. We embrace and encourage coalitions of friendly forces by inviting in the trillions of soil friends, insect predators, companion plants and physical barriers; leaning on nature rather than technology to even the scales in our favour.
The payback, of course, is on the plate. I love the surveys that purport to show that there’s no difference in flavour between organic and intensively grown vegetables. What they don’t mention is the fact that all supermarket veg, whether organic or not, are stale if not close to death before the tasting takes place. If you ran a bowl of our fresh allotment peas, straight off the vine, with even the best brands of frozen peas – you’d wonder of they were the same vegetable; and “fresh” peas from the supermarket are fit only for soup. Cooking times (usually steaming for us) are shorter the fresher the vegetable is and so their nutritional value is greater. Better flavour, shorter cooking times and higher nutritional values make cooking more rewarding than ever.
Today, apart from a greedy bucket of peas, we picked a large bag of elderflowers from which we’ll make cordial tonight. The only two food items we seem to be completely self-sufficient in are elderflower cordial and tomatoes as puree, passata, dried and as various sauces. The elderflowers are free, of course, and greatly undervalued as a flavouring. We often use the cordial to sweeten rhubarb; but at the moment it’s perfuming the whole block with its strange combination of nectar and cat’s pee. The neighbours must be wondering what on earth we’re cooking now. The variety we picked today is a decorative purple cultivar that makes the loveliest pink syrup.
I said at the beginning that the allotment is growing us as much as we grow it and by that I mean firstly that most of the traditional varieties we grow have been selected and preserved for many years – so in a sense we’re part of their reproductive process. But in another way, we grow because in spite of the occasional disappointments nature is generous beyond all our deserving. We learn fast that our hard work is as nothing in the great cycles of seasonal change. We try to dispose but we cannot compel and can never forget that even half a crop of garlic is at least ten times what we planted – and in the case of our foraged treats we did no work and invested nothing. Cordial is £3.50 a bottle and we make it for about 50p so our carrier bag full of flowers today was a free gift from Mother Earth. The insect life seems to be increasing every day as the season progresses and more and more allotmenteers are growing wildflowers and digging ponds. The site is close to becoming a 4 acre nature reserve. Learning to embrace the occasional failure is another kind of gift too. Sometimes we get despondent, but it’s not personal because there’s more strength in yielding than attacking with fire and chemicals. Today it’s one nil to the fusarium, but hey – it’s got to make a living too!
On the allotment there are signs that our attempt to draw in more wildlife is beginning to bear fruit. The pond is the most visible result of our decision and it’s already got tadpoles, snails and water boatmen and there are often hoverflies nearby – plus it’s being used by birds to take a drink. The bird feeders too have drawn in robins and blue tits, but the most remarkable visitors are jackdaws that can hover just long enough to peck a few seeds out. When we put fat balls out they disappeared overnight until we moved them into a double walled holder where the mesh is too small for them to get to the food. The bee in the photo is hard to identify but it’s probably one of the many species of miner bee – it was sunning itself on some fleece. The jackdaws, like the robins, are quite unafraid of us – rather like the female blackbird who scratches around on the edges of the wood chip paths extracting slugs and their eggs while keeping a comfortable couple of metres between us. There are also blue tits, jays, magpies, crows and pigeons which can be a thorough nuisance if you don’t protect your crops with nets.
A red letter day
Yesterday we took the plunge after checking out the weather forecasts which all said there would be no frosts for the next 14 days, which takes us beyond the latest ever frost date. So out went the potatoes in their containers, and several trays of young plants were moved to the next stage of their hardening off, this time outside, just under some insect netting and protected from the wind. Then we sorted the tomato plants into their various varieties and removed their protective hoops and fleece.
Over our heads the strawberries – Malling Centenary are showing the promise of a couple of delicious feeds at least this summer. We were supposed to be growing on a couple of dozen-year old plants but the nursery failed to deliver them and these were a consolation – on offer from another seed merchant. As soon as they’ve fruited we’ll be taking runners off them to increase numbers. The strawberry bed has already been repurposed, but they’re growing so well in the polytunnel we’ll probably just get some more hanging baskets which are very space efficient.
The big day will be next weekend when we plant up the tunnel with all its new seasonal occupants, some of which are hardening off at home under a window in the cool corridor outside. Meanwhile we conducted a bit of an experiment with large recycled milk containers to water the summer crops below the surface to minimise the risk of drying out. Small tunnels get very very hot- even with the doors open. Then we planted out a new variety of pot leek and covered all the seedling parsnips and leeks with fine insect mesh against carrot fly and allium leaf miner – we’re determined to overcome these formidable pests.
Sound advice from the first millennium BC
Overshadowing all this allotment activity was another round of disappointing election results. My usual defence is to turn off the radio and television and avoid reading any newspapers because frothing at the mouth and shouting is a waste of spiritual energy. Then for some reason I turned to my collection of books and translations of the i Ching, or Ji Ying if you prefer and in the introduction to the Ritsema and Sabbadini translation, which Jung had some connection with, on page two, I read this amazing quotation from the Shu Ying – the book of documents, written some time in the first millennium BC. I should add that the Chinese word yi refers to change, not so much as the evolutionary change we in the West are used to – moving gently towards some kind of final paradisiacal state (hmm; as if!) – but to unpredictable, disruptive change; the endless variety of unexpected change that both thwarts us and invites creativity.
When in years, months and days the season has no yi, the hundred cereals ripen, the administration is enlightened, talented men of the people are distinguished, the house is peaceful and at ease. When in days, months and years the season has yi, the hundred cereals do not ripen, the administration is dark and unenlightened, talented men of the people are in petty positions, the house is not at peace.
Bernhard Karlgren, The Book of Documents, Stockholm 1950 p33.
For reasons I can’t explain this small quotation gave me a tremendous sense of peace. Perhaps it’s because almost three thousand years ago a Chinese thinker was experiencing the same kind of dismay that we feel today, but concluded that change is at the deepest heart of the natural order and that the seeds of a new beginning are sown even under the darkest and most unenlightened administrations. There is no occasion for despair.
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 uuuuuuuuughOMG 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
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.
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.
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.
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.