After two years of periodic lockdowns I suppose we should have become used to staying indoors, but this second heatwave in a few weeks felt more than usually punishing. We could only control the temperature inside by following the Met Office advice to close all the windows and shutters, making the dimmed interior of the flat feel like a funeral parlour. By dint of this sacrifice of light and fresh air we were able to keep the indoor temperature to 27C – seven degrees cooler than the outside, but leaving us almost breathless in the thick air. Today, though, normal service resumed so we were able to escape the flat and walk up the canal and when it finally rained a few heavy drops and began to wet my T shirt I felt almost exultant. We’ve grown tired of perpetual early morning watering on the allotment and tired of watching the dust clouds trailing after visiting cars as if they were the Deadwood Stage (if you’re not really old – like 105 years old – think 1953 film about Calamity Jane who, played by Doris Day, had a thing with a stagecoach).
The fitful shower dripped on for an hour – just enough to raise the relative humidity to the point where the sweat was displacing the raindrops but we carried on anyway enjoying the cloudy skies. We thought we’d drop in at the Holburn Gallery to see the David Hockney exhibition but when we saw how much it would cost – £25 – we walked home through town. Has no-one told them there’s a cost of living crisis going on?
So then we wandered over to the allotment and after discovering two very ripe melons hiding in the polytunnel, we picked some plums and apples and had a fruit lunch. Very delicious. This afternoon as I was writing this the police came hammering down the road towards the towpath, blue lights flashing. There’s never a dull moment in genteel Bath! Tomorrow promises decent rain and even thunderstorms which would be such a relief.
Oh and I ordered a new book on the history of Welsh Food. It doesn’t take much to overflow my cup.
Madame has sorted through her vast collection of family photos and found a picture we both remembered. Somewhere – in our memory at least – there was a picture of her mother in full Land Army gear, holding a bull (she would undoubtedly have cracked a joke or two about his considerable gifts). And here she is, and judging by her polished shoes it’s a special occasion; perhaps a show.
What brought this to mind – as always – was the merging of several tributaries of thought during the day. It’s hardly surprising that one of them was the publication of the latest IPCC report on climate change which, judging by the summaries, is every bit as scary as we anticipated. A second thread related to fashion which, if our daughter in law is anything to go by, is going full retro in headscarf and dungarees. The final tributary was steamy windows, and I’ll get to that in a bit.
Here in the UK it’s National Allotments Week – we almost made it on to the telly but our chance of fame was scuppered when the producer found an allotmenteer closer to the studios. But the demand for allotments is huge, and many of the new allotmenteers are young; relatively inexperienced and full of ideas. It’s brilliant and I couldn’t be more pleased. The biggest problem is that twenty years ago it looked as if the movement was on its last legs. Local authorities – always strapped for cash – started to sell them off. At the time it looked like a good idea – we always need new houses. But now we not only need them all back – not a chance! – we need many more. The IPCC report really sharpens the need to move rapidly towards local and sustainable food chains and allotments could form a part of this while offering cheaper, healthier and vastly more vitamin rich food plus building closer relationships with the natural world. I’ve written before that this seems like an ideal time for local authorities to explore the possibility of leasing land from local farmers and landowners so that we can move towards the food system that sustained major cities in the past. Just to read about the productivity of 19th century Parisian market gardens makes your eyes water. It was all based on the ready availability of horse manure at the time; but now in the 21st century we have a chance to explore some of the new (mostly rediscovered) techniques like mob grazing to drive up productivity on allotments and smallholdings without resorting to chemicals.
The huge interest in allotments and the straws in the wind hinted at by changing fashions suggests that this is a cultural change that’s already under way. Well run allotments are six to eight times more productive than farms – that’s a fact; and the savings in food miles plus the gains in engagement with nature and healthy (hard) exercise make this a no brainer.
The Land Army connection came through thinking how the “Dig for Victory” wartime campaign captured the hearts of millions of new gardeners and helped us to survive the depredations of wartime rationing. If you asked my Mother in Law whether she enjoyed herself in the Land Army she would have answered with an unequivocal yes and then told a few risque stories about the goings on when work was finished.
As for steamy windows, well today the forecast was for rain early, clearing mid morning. We waited until just before midday and went up to harvest tomatoes from the polytunnel and do some urgent weeding. Madame had the inside job and I was sorting the noxious weeds from the goodies; the weeds to go in the direction of wailing and gnashing of teeth (autumn bonfire) and the beneficent to the warmth and comfort of the compost bins as the virtuous end to a virtuous life.
It rained – as they say – biblically and I felt it penetrate the Barbour, the woollen shirt and finally the T shirt until I was wet to the skin. In fact the only part of me that was dry was my socks. My bib and brace overall was so wet, the legs reflected the iron grey skies above, and my oilskin hat dripped water down my face as I worked. Ironically it was rather lovely out there in the elements; refusing to be daunted by a bit of weather.
Several hours later we were home and surrounded by drying waterproofs and clothes – such that the windows steamed up in a way that was deeply reminiscent of my childhood. The floor and table were heaped with tomatoes and other vegetables awaiting the preserving pan. The flat was full of cooking smells; aubergine, tomato, onion and garlic and today there were middle eastern spices – cumin, cinnamon, nutmeg and pimenton. It was one of those afternoons when the past and the future seemed to fill the present with memories and plans. A flow moment gathered and I thought – “We can do it!” We can repay the generosity of the earth and begin to repair the damage without the sacrifice of any of the things that really matter.
The IPCC report is bound to make millions of us ask ourselves – “what can we do?” The powerful corporations and their politicians may well try to keep us fearful so they can steer us in the direction of more and more profitable technological fixes; but if this really is a paradigm shift, and I think it is, then however bumpy the ride gets the change will happen. I was reading a speech by Gary Snyder a couple of days ago and he was talking about the wisdom passed on by grandparents. But he extended the thought by saying that these days and for many young people, the libraries are our grandparents.
Did I mention the other day – that the ancient Greek view was that we can’t possibly see into the future – but we can walk confidently into it because we can see what worked in the past – before the damage began – with 20:20 vision. Researched and field tested across the whole earth and passed on by grandparents, and in libraries.
In the absence of either a market or a fat pig, back on the allotment we swapped the wild plants of West Wales for the domestic sort and took the first really decent harvest of the season. It’s not that we haven’t been harvesting for ages, we’ve had a steady supply of rhubarb and asparagus; radishes and lettuce and so on but today was the first time we harvested a complete five a day meal’s worth – new potatoes, broad (fava) beans, beetroots, garlic and carrots. The carrots were thinnings from a container experiment, and the potatoes too came out of one of the deep containers which have been a tremendous success because we’ve been able to move them around the plot wherever there’s a temporary patch of empty ground. Thanks to our allotment neighbours nothing was lost during the little heatwave while we were away and apart from a hard session of weeding, the plot was looking good.
In the beginning of the season we filled every spare inch with calendula and tagetes and today we had to carry out a radical thinning to give the others room to breathe. There were coriander, angelica, lavender, evening primrose and Nicotiana rapidly being outgrown and so we had to uproot dozens of the more vigorous calendulas to bring the rest on. There’s nothing more unnatural than a natural looking garden! The garlic was just a quick peep to see how they’re fattening up and the rest will be left for a few weeks yet; but the perfume of the single bulb filled the kitchen when we got home.
The few survivors of the overwintered broad beans haven’t done well, having been felled by a fierce and cold east wind – they dehydrated and weakened in spite of our improvised screens. The later sown replacements have grown quickly and well but being far more tender they were more vulnerable to blackfly and the ladybirds haven’t really got up to full speed yet. Perhaps they too were badly affected by the cold and wet conditions. Usually we have dozens overwintering in our window frames at home but this year there were none.
Inside the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers are all setting fruits and once again the main work was removing side shoots. Even the melons have taken off and we’re waiting for the first three fruits to set before removing all the rest to give the smaller number a chance of filling out and ripening. The Douce Provence peas too were afflicted in the same way but again the spring sown replacements are much better. Of the three varieties we’re growing – Alderman, Douce Provence and Robinson’s Show Perfection; the last of the three is winning hands down although we have to fight the pigeons for them always so this year we’re growing them up the inside of the fruit cage which at least gives us the first five feet of vines. The greatest challenge, growing peas, is giving them time to fatten up, but getting them in before the pea moth strikes. Allotments become hotspots for all sorts of pests, and this year we’ve kept all of the garlic, onions, carrots and parsnips under the finest insect netting. It certainly spoils the appearance of the plot but we’re hoping to grow some leeks free of allium leaf miner this year. Once again we’re trying a variety of pot leek from Robinsons and it’s looking good so far. I guess if you’re going to grow organically the only option is to use insect barrier netting where the pests are tiny and bird netting for everything else. As for slugs and snails it’s clear that healthy plants don’t get attacked nearly so much but this year we’ve resorted to a nematode treatment because weather stressed plants are the go-to slug food. All I would say, though, is that you should ignore the photos on the seed packets. Typically, lettuces have a few yellow leaves on the outside, but you just peel them off – as you do with many other vegetables, put the peelings on the compost heap and suddenly they look just like the ones in the catalogue.
The rest of the day was spent building a sturdy frame with bean sticks to grow cucumbers and a winter squash up. The cucurbits can take up a huge amount of space in a small allotment and growing them vertically makes a lot of space.
And yes we had a wonderful time in St Davids, and did lots of reading, writing talking and walking. This lovely adder came to say hello on the path one day, and we watched a very large seal who looked up intently at us from the safety of the sea below us. The bird highlight was a ring ouzel – only the second I’ve ever seen. We also saw dozens of manx shearwaters skimming across the sea in the evenings as they went out in long skeins to feed. We’ve camped at the other end of the bay, and in a tent it’s easy to hear the haunting sounds they make as they fly back low over the fields to Skomer where they nest. It’s a kind of wheezy whistle that, the first time you hear it, makes your hair stand on end – like the cry of a fox or a vixen on heat – except that particular cry gets dubbed on to every night scene on every thriller shown on television!
There were times when we sat on the steps of the van watching the sun setting on the horizon of glittering sea, when I thought I could stay here all summer – but the allotment too has its moments of joy. If the last couple or three postings have felt a bit too philosophical, I’m sorry. Very selfishly I do my thinking at the laptop and I’m struggling to find a way of drawing all the threads together. Global extinctions, climate emergencies, pandemics and economic crises are, it seems to me, all closely related. Is it our culture that’s diseased and no longer fit for purpose? We’re all getting agitated, angry and paranoid about things and that’s not the mindset that our perilous situation deserves. Can we really save the earth one cabbage at a time? Well, we’ve tried everything else.
These are the last two beds on the allotment to be prepped ready for planting up and I took the photo from this angle to show how – when people ask if we use raised beds – we have to say – “It depends which end you’re at”. The allotment is on a moderate slope and so over the years we’ve built up the soil at the southern end of each bed to terrace it. I’ve never done a calculation but at a guess we’ve used perhaps 10 cubic metres of cast off potting compost, home made compost and manure, mixed with bought-in topsoil. I hate to think how much it’s cost, but soil is precious and we never throw anything away.
The plan is to move the container potatoes on to the end plot, covered with a hoop cloche, and then tip them out to harvest them in a few weeks, leaving the soil behind and finally raising the soil level at the end. The weight of added earth had been distorting the retaining planks, and so we’ve also had to replace the short wooden pegs with sturdy posts to keep the earth in place. I was watering some new plants the other day and I was shocked to see how much topsoil was being washed away down a small gap in the planks. I think we’ll just about manage to move the potatoes in the green sacks, but although they’ve held up for five seasons, the stitching is getting rotten and so we’ve moved over to some chunky purpose built 35L buckets with handles. The limitations of space which I wrote about recently when I was thinking about rotations, means that one alternative is to grow potatoes, tomatoes etc; and carrots too in containers of fresh soil every year – keeping them under nets and therefore disease and pest free.
It was a hard day’s work, removing all the purple sprouting broccoli and reducing the stalks to shreds with a hand axe. The resulting foot of composting material we mixed with some straw and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer and gave it a good wet. Relying on the rain to keep the heap at the right level of moisture is hopeless, so we keep it covered and water it when necessary.
All this work is about getting ready to move the tender veg into the plots after the last frost, to make room for planting the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, a melon and some and basil inside the polytunnel. The tunnel has been a blast, and we’ve feasted on early salad crops but sadly some will have to be removed before they’re quite ready. Next year we’ll have a lot more experience and we’ll get things in at more appropriate times.
In the back of our minds today was a palace coup by a divided local Lib Dem council who were elected on a radical plan to cut traffic and emissions but who have just been forced to withdraw planning permission for some ‘executive’ houses on a nature reserve in a unique habitat, and who have voted the leader out because they feared her radical commitment to the manifesto might endanger their chances of re-election. She made a brilliant speech yesterday when this all came out but for many of us this reverse has compromised their chances of keeping power altogether. The thought of having to ask the voters to leave their Range Rovers in the garage was too much for them to contemplate – not least because they seem to be planning to allow 48 tonne lorries through the centre of Bath in order to get government funds to mend the Cleveland Bridge. Our political system is completely broken, and once radical parties are squabbling over some mythical ‘centre ground’ in the forlorn hope that something will turn up to save us from ourselves. That’s called magical thinking. The Darwinian solution to this challenge is for the human race to drown in our own effluent and let the earth and its surviving life forms start all over again. The other solutions all involve doing without some stuff we don’t really need. I could go on but I won’t. Two things not on the level at once is enough!
It’s difficult to overstate how beautiful this cauliflower is. I wondered for a moment whether I should add “beautiful to me” to that statement, but I think not. The beauty of grown things is not a whimsical fancy but one of the facets of nature that presents itself to us as a fait accompli. This exquisite formation of leaves and curds doesn’t demand my admiration – in fact, being a vegetable, it has no view on me or my opinions but comes as a gift.
I took the photograph yesterday when Madame unfurled the leaves which had mantled the head because she wanted to see whether this longstanding occupant of the allotment had finally come through. A full year after being sown, this cauliflower – one of four – was showing signs of its age; chewed by slugs with the outer leaves pecked by pigeons until we netted it, and the stalk turned to wood. These long standing biennials occupy a lot of ground for a very long time but, like the purple sprouting broccoli, they ripen at times of peak need – the hungry gap. The old growing year produces its Rembrandts just as the bright young things are putting on their first shows.
Most amazing of all is the fact that the food we grow and eat is made by turning sunshine, water and earth into vegetables. It’s a difficult balance because just a little too much or too little of any of the three can lead to disaster. For instance we’ve just emerged from one of the wettest winters since records began, followed by the driest spring and the coldest sequence of frosty April nights for sixty years. The plants are all at sixes and sevens and we allotmenteers are juggling seedlings, watering cans, propagators, south facing (UK) windows and fleece whilst obsessively consulting the weather apps on our phones. Sunshine, water and earth – the elemental gifts of nature – are outwith our area of dominion.
The watering can, the heated propagator, the polytunnel, fleece and greenhouse are our puny attempts to skew the odds in our favour. However, skewing the odds presupposes we’ve cracked the secret and what’s actually happened is that growers and farmers believed the bookies and started shovelling cash into the agrochemical fruit machine in the misplaced certainty that they were bound to win the jackpot eventually.
But slowly we’ve come to realize that rain, sunshine and earth are not strangers but the deeply related holy trinity of all growing things – ourselves included. Seawater and sun make clouds and clouds make rain. But when the clouds obscure the sun then the sun and the earth are estranged. When the earth is eroded no amount of sun can restore it. When it heats up, the weather becomes confused and extreme. The dark side of forcing the last drop of profit from the earth is drought, storm, flood, pestilence and famine – and if that sounds a bit Old Testament it’s maybe because this temptation to game the system isn’t something that got invented in the modern world.
But to get back to my cauliflower; when I look at it – rather perhaps when I behold it, I understand that all the while I thought I was the agent through whose efforts it could grow – I was, in fact its servant. Fussing over the seedlings, pricking them out and then in time planting them in a bed we’d already prepared; netting them last summer to keep the cabbage white butterflies out; hand picking slugs and snails out of the crown; spraying the white fly with soap and water and wrapping them against pigeons. We were in it together the whole while; with me in the expectation of the food it would provide and the cauliflower presumably committed to continuing its genetic inheritance to a future generation – all of which makes seed saving a kind of moral imperative!
We haven’t done a great deal of seed saving on the allotment except for the Calendulas and sunflowers (harvested one drunken night in Provence, with a full moon and fireflies!) – which seem to grow better from saved seed. This year we’re leaving a single parsnip in the ground to flower and we’ll save seed from that too; but the main motivation was to take advantage of its power as an attractor for insects. Is this some kind of religious attitude creeping in? It would hardly be surprising if there weren’t some traces of harvest festival, rogation days, Plough Monday and Wassailing at the White Hart jiggling around with the Old Testament stories in the back of the old lorry that constitutes my memory. But it’s not organised religion in any sense – not the kind that gives licence to so much mayhem and destruction.
What I love about allotmenteering is the chance to engage with nature much more practically. Going on a walk through the woods is like sitting there alone on the edge at the school prom. It’s much more engaging to grow a wallflower than to be one. When I approach a plant I often ask it (silently) what would be the right thing to do for you right now? Sometimes plants say ‘give me some space‘, or ‘give me some water‘. Sometimes they say – “I don’t like it here – can you put me over there in a bit more shade or sunshine?” The end result of the dialogue is a better plant. My cauliflower is the product of a long conversation between the seed, the earth, the sun and the rain and me. That’s the point of it. When we finally pick and harvest our produce we often say thank you out loud as we shall when I cut the first cauliflower at the weekend.
Of course there’s all the stuff about road miles, industrial food production and intensive farming with all its chemicals and heavy machinery; but ultimately we grow food at the Potwell Inn, because the only way to become fully human is to join the dance; to embrace feast and failure as a joyful participant rather than a passive consumer fuming at the absence of your favourite brand of tomato in the supermarket.
There is something splendid about a vegetable – even a cauliflower -wrought in this elemental process of earth, water and sun. The fact that generations of seed savers and plant breeders have selected for what we like to describe as desirable qualities might equally be seen as the resilient plant’s embrace of mutuality as the best way of getting along well. As Michael Pollan points out, corn and potatoes have done pretty well out of the deal.
So let’s not get too despondent about the way things are. Environmental degradation really is reversible. My phone – an ever reliable cause of pondering – came up with this photo of the Potwell Inn allotment exactly five years ago to the day. I rest my case.
If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.
Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!
Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.
However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.
The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.
Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.
Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.
It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman
According to the meteorologists winter started almost three weeks ago but here at the Potwell Inn we pay no attention to these unnatural dates. It’s always been the solstice for us because instead of simply looking backwards at the autumn and summer – always a bit depressing, especially this year, the solstice marks the shortest day. In fact it celebrates a particular moment because at 10.00am tomorrow the North Pole is tilted as far away from the sun as it will be this year. Mid morning tomorrow the earth slowly begins tilting the other way until mid march when (and I know earth coordinates are a bit meaningless in space terms) it’s ‘upright’ – and we celebrate the vernal equinox and, as the tilt continues, exposing more of the northern hemisphere to the direct rays of the sun we hit midsummer in mid June. And then the earth starts to tilt back again and the cycle begins anew. So the good news is that tomorrow marks both a beginning and an end.
In a more nature orientated culture than ours we’d be eagerly awaiting this moment. Historically, farm work slowed down during the winter because the soil was too heavy and cold for seed sowing. The farm year kicked off with the Epiphany celebrations around 6th January and often included Plough Monday celebrations where a plough would be brought into churches along with seed corn (usually wheat, rye and barley in the UK and not maize in those days). By Plough Monday it’s usually possible to see the lengthening days and the winter pursuits like hedging and ditching gave way on the farm to sowing once more.
But grass seems to grow more or less throughout the year. In fact I remember giving our vicarage lawn a light mow one Christmas Eve, and I was reminded yesterday that grass is by no means as simple as you might at first think. I was re-reading Michael Pollan’s 2006 book “The Omnivore’s Dilemma”. It’s an excellent read and today I noticed a 2016 piece in the Washington Times by Pollan that celebrated the fact that the US has seen a significant growth in food awareness accompanied by increasing numbers of artisanal food producers, organic and post-organic farms and farmers markets. But it wasn’t all good news because the dominance of corn had increased in the national diet.
However it was grass that caught my eye last night, because when I first read the book I knew next to nothing about it in spite of living and working in the countryside for 25 years. Then, when we moved here and joined the Bath Natural History Society we were on a field trip one day when I told one of the leading lights that I found grass identification hard. “Oh she said” pointedly, “grasses are easy” – which challenge was more than I could resist and so I’ve spent three or four years improving my grass skills. Then, earlier this year a friend lent me a microscope and a whole new world opened up and began a new romance for me.
Why is this important? Well, in his book Michael Pollan draws attention to one central criticism of intensive farming in a way that I found irresistible. Grass, he says, harnesses and stores the power of the sun and because of its properties of self regeneration and the sheer density of its coverage and capacity to photosynthesise even during autumn and winter, it represents the nearest thing to a free lunch in the natural world. When we see a meadow, especially a traditional meadow with all its wildflowers – we’re looking at a far more efficient solar energy store than any field covered in solar panels.
Intensive farming, on the other hand, replaces all that sustainable solar energy with unsustainable oil – for driving farm machinery, transporting animals and crops over huge distances, and for manufacturing the fertilizers and chemicals which then go on to promote global heating and cause pollution environmental damage and health problems. The problem is that we humans lack a rumen, the part of a grazing animal’s stomach than can digest grass. So the only way we can access all that stored solar energy for food is by feeding the grass to a ruminant animal like a cow, and then eating it. If you add in the concept of buying locally, he food and the consumer are in the same place.
Grass fed cattle do well although they fatten slower than cattle stuffed with corn and antibiotics, The grass and its herbs provide a still unknown number of micronutrients and healing properties to the cattle’s diet and so they are better able to thrive without the panoply of wormers, drenches and other chemicals that are essential in the feedlots which, incidentally, are becoming more and more common in the UK – this isn’t an American problem. Grass fed beef is lower in health damaging cholesterol and it’s said that it tastes better too. It’s very expensive because it’s slower and less intensively farmed, and the food – that’s to say the grass -doesn’t attract the same level of subsidy. The inescapable logic is that traditional mixed farms are better than intensive farms for a host of environmental reasons but we will have to eat far less meat because the low price of meat in the supermarkets reflects an unsustainable and environmentally destructive food culture.
The question of methane is always the first thing to come up and it’s true that cows produce methane. But intensive farming produces far more methane because cowpats dropped on a low intensity pasture generate far less methane than the lakes of cattle slurry that accumulate on intensive farms and, all too frequently leak into the surrounding watercourses. A second benefit of grassland is that grass is a prodigious carbon store. No dig and low tillage systems don’t release carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere at anything like the same rate. So, as Wendell Berry memorably said, by abandoning mixed farming and grass pasturage, intensive farming has taken a solution (mixed farming) and turned it into two problems: soil erosion and nutrient depletion on the one hand and massive pollution on the other, The manure that cattle leave on the pasture and which improves both soil structure and fertility becomes a lethal poison when concentrated in slurry. The land taken from pasture to grow feed grain releases carbon back into the atmosphere and can only remain productive through the use of chemicals.
And so grass is perhaps as important as are trees when it comes to carbon sequestration – and that’s great because the one thing we can grow here in the southwest of the UK is grass. Anyway I woke up the morning with my botanical whiskers all of a quiver and as we did our customary walk along the river and the canal I did a very rough and ready count of the plants we could see in flower. It’s been an odd autumn and early winter and although we’ve had a couple of frosts they’ve not amounted to much. The rain has been a much bigger problem for us. I didn’t have a pen with me so I couldn’t write them all down but from memory there were Canadian and Mexican Fleabane, a single dead nettle, groundsel, yarrow,common ragwort, one dandelion, red valerian, nipplewort, perennial sowthistle, ivy and some ivy leaved toadflax, plus (and this is a long shot) on the flood prevention scheme on North Quays where there was a lot of inappropriate wildflower re-seeding and I’m pretty sure there was a single corn marigold flowering on the spot where a very out of place clump of them grew last summer. As ever, plants don’t read the textbooks and to reverse the ethical aphorism, in field botany you can’t make an is into an ought. There were also new shoots breaking through on an old man’s beard vine, and a clump of very lush green prickly lettuce leave emerging on the river bank. Fourteen plants in flower on December 20th isn’t bad, and you could smell the strange almond perfume of the winter heliotrope all up the canal. Spring is hiding behind the bushes!
Tomorrow we’ll celebrate the solstice with a roastie and I’m wondering whether I can risk embarrassing Madame with a little candle-lit ceremony at 10.00am and then we can enjoy a solitary Christmas with a mexican meal that the children would never have let us get away with: they’re far greater traditionalists than we are! Then we’ll go for a walk amidst the hordes of similarly stranded grandparents.
So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.
When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.
The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.
There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.
Press here for the politics!
The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!
In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.
And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.
And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!
Sorry, it’s not the best photo ever but today the blog is held together, if it holds at all, by the photos. We were out walking the clifftop today. The sky was a colour I’ve always thought of as ‘china blue’ and I’ve never known until very recently why that name fitted this particular sky so perfectly but it came to me – as these things do – that it’s very like the pale blue of some Chinese blue and white pottery. I have to say ‘some’ because although all ceramic blues come from cobalt, the colour was sourced from different minerals that contained other elements, for instance manganese, which subtly affects the colour. For most potters since the 19th century, blue meant – well, darkish cobalt blue; but for thousands of years the Chinese had valued this colour for its almost spiritual quality and equally valued the various hues to be got from minutely different sources. Manganese, for the sake of an illustration, when mixed with cobalt might well yield a colour not unlike the devils bit at the top of the page. Goodness what glorious ceramic piece it was that took up residence in my mind; and neither do I recall where I might have seen it but it lodged there as the colour of the autumn sky; faintly milky but infinitely deep, and which is a feature of the sea sky and big wide estuaries. China Blue it will always be, so I’ve capitalised it to nail the point.
Anyway, there it is – autumn, the Irish sea stirred up by a blustery South Easterly and more birds than you could shake a stick at – greater black backed gulls, herring gulls, black headed gulls, common tern (I’m pretty sure), shag, kestrel, swallows, turnstone, oystercatcher, meadow pipit, rock pipit. We sat and watched them, especially the tern which – now we’ve got them in our heads – are more and more interesting to watch; diving like gannets but delicately and acrobatically, aborting a dive at the last moment and turning in the air to resume their patrol.
But everywhere along this northern coast of the peninsula are signs of abandonment: collapsing corrugated iron sheds flapping noisily in the wind, rusting gear and capstans half buried in the sand at the head of abandoned slipways. All landscapes have this capacity to hold their histories written in heaps and mounds, or walls and chimneys. This particular landscape is rich in earthworks that could be ancient but more likely are the leavings of attempts to drain the marshy ground inland from the sea. An abandoned customs lookout reminds us that this area was once frequented by sail-coasters crossing from Ireland, which is so close here that our mobiles have, once or twice, tried to connect to Irish phone masts. Roaming here can be costly.
The largest farms are replete with the latest technology – one in particular with hostile warnings about entering what looked like a small industrial site. Others – the ones that haven’t converted all their outbuildings to holiday cottages – look careworn and shabby; needing a lot more than a lick of paint. This is traditional farming practised under the constant threat of the bailiffs – you can smell it in the air – fishing, shipbuilding, coastal trade and farming all slowly sinking. A late boom in tourists might not be enough to mitigate the effects of coronavirus and a hard brexit.
But to get back to the beginning, the devils bit has a good back story. Until the nineteenth century it had a big reputation for its healing qualities, and the tale goes that it was so good that the devil intervened and bit off part of its root to prevent the people being healed – you can see where this is going. So here’s another photograph – same walk, same sky and this time it’s a large roofless and abandoned enclosure.
Of course, with one door gone, you wouldn’t necessarily recognise it but there it is again; the same militant slogan and probably the same graffiti artist but this time half of the door has been battered off by the storms and now the gateway to nowhere is blocked by a huge pile of plastic jetsam awaiting collection. The fruits of another unfolding tragedy.
I wrote a couple of days ago that if I were a Welsh voter I’d be thinking hard about independence and after I’d pressed the ‘send’ button I wondered if I’d thought this through clearly. Trust me, readers punish me if I overstep the mark and for 24 hours I waited for some kind of reaction. With this blog it’s as clear as a bell; the numbers drop – I can almost hear the screens being slammed shut. But – on the other hand – we’ve got to think about these difficult issues, and this blog is about being human and not necessarily being perfect. If I thought there was a solution to our current multifaceted crisis – the collapse of species diversity, uncontrolled global heating, gross pollution, poverty and unemployment, homelessness, the disappearance of whole cultures (it’s not just the Amazon we need to worry about) and the relentless gathering of wealth into fewer and fewer hands – if I thought there was any way of addressing this without speaking out and making people feel uncomfortable – then I’d give up and do field botany.
Being fully human isn’t a part-time job and it involves some agonising dilemmas. Looking at the lonely nationalist slogan and the accompanying pile of rubbish today forced me to realise that the only way we’ll ever save the earth from our own behaviour is to draw together, not split apart. The present governance of the Western world is kept alive by division. Common goods are all too easily destroyed – like the roots of devils bit in the telling story. Where our few leftover treasures and cultural possessions, languages, memories and stories stand in the way of profit, they are excised, and the more we can be persuaded that the cause of all our problems is those Welsh, or those Scots or those English or those refugees or those Europeans or whatever other separated scapegoat for the disastrously wrong turn the human race took after the 1950’s; the easier it is for them to pick us off one group at a time. So to answer my own question in an epically convoluted way – no I wouldn’t be campaigning for devolution I’d be campaigning for change, for a functioning democracy that gives us all representation.
One flower I haven’t mentioned is yarrow – there’s lots of it in flower on the cliff tops here. Traditionally yarrow stalks were used in the casting of the I Ching. I’ve got a set at home, gathered for that purpose decades ago and as I passed a plant today with all this swirling around in my mind I remembered that the whole ethos of this ancient art – it’s called divination pejoratively as if it were like reading tea leaves- is to seek the path of balance. Good government doesn’t comprise conning everyone into thinking they can have what they want. When balance is achieved, when we work in harmony with the Tao that calls the ‘ten thousand things’ -including the ‘hawkish’ plant below, the hair grass bending to the wind, and the chamomile – into being, then we thrive.
I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK. The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming. My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.
This constellation of dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years. Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.
So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe. The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.
If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them. There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.
The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.
So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone. How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much. Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.
And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes! Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it. My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems. When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance. Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep. Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..
So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that. As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins. He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops. But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.
We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –