Trouble with the bogs

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The Potwell Inn has moved briefly to a new location in Cornwall which is very beautiful but could be described as KB/sec land. More pictures tomorrow but the connection speed is agonisingly slow and whether this will ever appear I don’t yet know! I’m aware some readers would rather I confined myself to the sort of sourdough/allotment/wildlife topics that often feature in the blog.  I love writing them too, but there are some issues that haunt me and what follows is one of them.

On Monday we had the first of the Bath Natural History Society indoor meetings and heard Prof David Goode talk on “the ecology and conservation of bogs”. If you ever thought of a specialist talking about bogs might be a bit dry (couldn’t resist that one) then think again. In fact don’t just think again, grab a magnifer, take a trip to a bog somewhere near you and take a really close-up look at some mosses – they’re really beautiful, colourful, and it seems extremely important, especially at this moment of ecological crisis.

Mosses aren’t just a bunch of plants, they create their own ecosystems by acidifying and adding phenolic compounds to the water they’re growing in and so create exactly the kind of anaerobic conditions which prevent rotting, thereby preserving Tollund Man and millions of tons of carbon in perpetual storage without the intervention of a single yet-to-be-made invention. Even better they have a bunch of structural but dead cells called hyaline cells which resemble tiny bladders that can store up to 26 times their dry weight in water. All of which means that blanket bog is better at storing carbon than the Amazon rain forests, good news because the UK has 13% of the world’s blanket bogs.

At this point, and in fairness to Prof David Goode, I should say that the message I took away from his excellent talk and the way in which I’m going to develop it, is entirely my responsibility.

While we are pleased to sign petitions aimed at foreign dictators and multinational companies who are enabling the destruction of the Amazon rainforests are we guarding our own precious home-grown carbon stores – the blanket  bogs of the UK?

Well sadly we’re not.

When you drain a bog – possibly by abstracting water to drain it for farming, or in order to create a better environment for commercial grouse shooting, it begins to die.  It dies even quicker when the blanket bog is deliberately drained and burned so a very few extremely wealthy people can get to shoot wild birds. We less privileged mortals are only just beginning to turn away from using peat in our gardens, so you can’t reduce this problem entirely to wealth and privilege.

On grouse moors the bogs themselves are degraded and depleted whilst any creature remotely threatening the grouse is trapped, poisoned or shot. The upshot only adds to the catastrophic loss of wildlife on these habitats, while the depletion of the massive water storage capacity of the bogs results in more run-off into rivers and dangerous flooding downstream.  In addition, as the bog conditions disappear all that stored carbon as well as methane is released back into the atmosphere to wind up the ratchet of the same global heating that is already helping to dry out bogland across the world. Peat extraction has the same effect, and I was astonished to learn that in the past it has been burnt as a fuel in power stations.

So here is a terrifying figure.  The earth’s remaining area of near natural peatland stores more than 550 gigatonnes of carbon, representing 42% of all soil carbon.  The hotter the earth gets the more of this carbon is going to be released into the atmosphere, along with millions of tonnes of methane from the melting permafrost.

Some people are advocating planting trees to stabilize the climate but this is something of a scientific mirage because a tree only stores carbon during the period it’s growing. Let’s imagine for the sake of argument we planted 100 million trees tomorrow.  For the next 25 or perhaps 50 years they would take carbon out of the atmosphere but once they die, or are felled, we would have to use the timber as a building material to preserve its carbon storing integrity, or bury it deep in the earth under controlled conditions.  I suppose eventually (over geological time, that is), it would turn into coal which would at least be stable as long as we left it there in the ground. But any talk of bio-fuels or renewable energy based on burning wood or plant material is a chimera because without yet-to-be-invented methods of carbon capture, these supposed renewable fuels are as dangerous as any other hydrocarbon fuel.

Let’s get real about this. There is no way that we can avert the related disasters of global heating and species extinction and keep living the way we do. I’m fascinated at the psychological mechanisms we unwittingly deploy to ignore the warnings.  I wrote recently about the psychology of grieving which, I think, plays a part. There’s also the fact that we don’t experience directly or immediately the effects of our behaviour. It took decades for cigarette smoking to reduce because hardly anyone died immediately of lung cancer.  The same goes for drinking too much; it’s most insidious property is its plausible deniability.  People rarely die of asthma attacks right alongside the queuing traffic jams  on London Road (Bath) and its all too easy to think something like “my little car won’t make much difference”.

But there’s another way of looking at our behaviour, and that’s our attitude to moral wrongs. Let’s suppose there’s a crowd of people in a room with a table in the centre on which stands a bowl of sweets with a notice that reads “please don’t take the sweets”. In a crowd, where wrongdong is hard to get away with without invoking peer disapproval, we’re more inclined to do the right thing.  But imagine that same crowd of people passing through the room one at a time with no-one observing them. I’d wager that more than a few sweets would disappear. Social disapproval is a powerful force for behavioural change, and so if we really want to stop people buying those enormous 3 litre gas guzzlers  we need to express our disapproval. Nobody wears a real mink coat these days expecting a round of applause. That’s not to argue that a voluntary code will be sufficient. In the end, our strategies for dealing with this crisis will have to be enshrined in law, because the current beneficiaries of ‘the way we do things round here’ are not going to give up their privileges without a fight. By adopting the principle of making the polluter pay and only subsidising activities that bring definable public goods, our present unsustainable and dangerous lifestyle would have to change.

The impact of neo-liberalism isn’t confined to financial markets, it’s insinuated itself into our cultural bloodstream to the point where we can’t think straight about the environment. Somehow, flying across the Atlantic in an aeroplane or feeding fillet steak to your dog is regarded as a ‘freedom’ whereas breathing fresh air, drinking unpolluted water, listening to a turtle dove, having a roof over your head and a rewarding job with a modest but sufficient income is a burden on society.

So – just now, bogland has absolutely no rights, but if it disappears we disappear too. So I’m not trying to enter the hideously technical argument as to whether any non-sentient being can have rights.  My argument is simpler and suggests that my rights, our rights as flourishing human beings are contingent upon the flourishing of the biosphere. That’s not a lump of sphagnum moss at the top of this post, it’s a life support system!

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Storm passing over Mount’s Bay. St Michaels Mount is just visible in the centre

 

 

 

Please God – no more tomatoes!

Just two trays of green tomatoes left to ripen, thank goodness and the cupboard is absolutely jammed with sauces, relishes, passata and now chutney.  I cannot look another tomato in the eye.

Blogging can get awfully repetitive, I fear.  There must be a limit to the patience of longsuffering followers when I enlarge yet again on the tomato.  It’s been a long season and I’ve entirely run out of things to say, but just imagine how much worse it would be if I was a dairy farmer – day after day when nothing much happens except milking the cows. “Daisy looked a bit off colour today” is even less interesting when Daisy is reduced to a number. The whole enterprise of blogging is an encouragement to big-up the achievements at the expense of the truth. “Finished seventh novel today, quick photo shoot with Vogue to model my latest line in dungarees and wellingtons”.

My days really can be a bit boring, apart from the fact that I’m rarely bored by the same thing more than a couple of times a month. I’ve often enough written about the rather sacramental quality to cooking and gardening, but the impact of that internality is the need to explain what’s going on inside my head while I cut up onions or dig potatoes. Revelations, unique insights and life enhancing lessons only crop up rarely and there’s essentially nothing external to look at, or describe.  The photo at the top of the page next to the unmentionable bottles of GTC is of Madame’s Grandmother’s collection of recipes.  As it happens it’s a recipe for tomato sauce which, being a wartime recipe, has the tomatoes bulked out by a whisked egg and some breadcrumbs to make it go further. Its only connection with today’s activities is the slender thread that connects our lives to hers – and it’s a good feeling to honour the past even by completely ignoring this particular lesson.  I’ve never been tempted to make parsnip cordial either. Much ordinary life is just same-old same-old, – except it’s not, because it’s the lived experience of being human and that’s a wonderful thing even when it looks a bit boring….

So today we dug the last potatoes, hopefully enough to keep us going for a few months. We scrumped an apple off a tree on an abandoned allotment (photo), and I cooked venison meatballs in T sauce (sorry). One of our neighbours beamed at us in the street, and we saw a man from the Christadelphians carrying a crate of cups and saucers out of their meeting room. I saw a gluten free pizza being cooked – it looked truly horrible – and we feasted on a few chocolate marshmallows – see what I mean?  Step away from the blog please, there’s nothing going on here.

IMG_6186All this, of course is displacement activity because what I ought to be doing is reminding you how important the latest “State of Nature” report is and explaining why it might be that these peaches were rotten before they were ripe, but that would involve an elaborate reconstruction of their immersion in gases, their interminable journey at low temperatures in large ship-borne containers or giant lorries. The fact is, they’re on the compost heap right now along with a big pile of cardboard that took ages to tear up into small pieces.  It’s essential to add plenty of carbon to a compost heap and that’s a bit of luck because one of our neighbouring flats has been refurbished and we’ve been able to recycle heaps of cardboard from the newly delivered white goods.  The downside is that the old and probably functional items were simply stacked in the basement and when we kicked up a fuss with the management company, the guilty party just dumped the rest in the road outside.

I may be a bit more grumpy than usual because living, as we do, in a block of flats with a high turnover of tenants means we get the odd nuisance upstairs.  Yesterday we spent all day listening to them having a noisy time until about midnight when all went quiet – only (it turned out) because they went out clubbing and came back at about 4.00am and started all over again. Childishly we retaliated this morning by turning two radios up to full volume in the hope of spoiling their lie-in. Did I ever claim to be a saint?

So that’s it – another ordinary day at the Potwell Inn – but we got some stuff done, we’re prepared a little better for the winter and for the clusterf**ck that is about to be visited upon us and I cling to the tiny hope that this is all a bad dream and that we won’t need those wartime recipes after all.  But then, did the Romans who built this bath house in Ravenglass ever imagine that within a couple of decades they’d be on the boat home. Wherever that is?IMG_6019

 

“Not now George?”

With thanks to Joyce Grenfell.

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I’ve a lot of time for George Monbiot and I often find myself agreeing with almost every word he’s just written while contrarily wishing that he’d found a different way of writing it. It concerns me that I feel this way, because it forces me to examine that part of my history that makes me averse to harsh words.  My friends will breathe a sigh of relief that there is at least someone in the brake-van, and the people I’ve sparred with over the years will continue to think what they do.  There is a place for indignation and anger about our present conjoined crises of mass extinction and global heating and to hold back on that anger might feel like tacit support for the guilty.  Do we really have time for the niceties of civilised debate and a coming together of minds towards agreed collective action. Well we’ve had over fifty years of debating time since Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” was published, and my entire adult life has been punctuated by warnings about our abuse of the environment. From the terrible post-war smogs in London and other industrial cities during my childhood onwards, the power of legislation and enforcement has been thwarted and emasculated by powerful vested interests. Surely they’ve had their chance.

And I think that sense of urgency is a powerful defence of the language that’s sometimes used in the debate. George Monbiot is just one among the many powerful voices who’ve spoken out and challenged the culture, and if by shouting loudly about the dangers they’ve brought it to the top of the political agenda then we’ve a lot to thank them for.  If our political system (and this is – ultimately – a political and economic issue) is so tin-eared, or wilfully deaf to the mounting scientific evidence, then our leaders can hardly complain when the debate is taken into the streets, because it us who have to breathe the polluted air and our children whose lungs are invaded by diesel particulates and will never hear a nightingale or a curlew.

The problem is that if it comes to a slanging match, the powerful vested interests have by far the loudest voice, and they have not been above using dirty tricks and deliberate lies to prolongue their hegemony. Stupidly, though, they don’t seem to be able to understand that we all breathe this air, we all drink the water (when there is any) we all eat the chemically compromised food. The rise in sea-level will drive millions of people away from their vulnerable homes, including those who can afford to own tropical islands. The problem is that there isn’t a column for the environment on a profit and loss statement, and so the polluters don’t pay. They’d soon stop if it hit their profits.

So yes there’s a bit of me that would like to make them suffer for the damage they’ve done, but if they were all locked up for eternity it wouldn’t make a jot of difference to the crisis. George’s article above particularly takes aim at farmers and the big environmental NGO’s, and reserves special hatred for grouse moors – there’s a picture of one the I took a few weeks ago at the top of this post.

IMG_5321We know the whole environmental culture has to change, and so let’s take the example of tree planting. Should we plant a million trees, say? Well yes, but where should we plant them? – and what trees should we plant? whose land shall we plant them on? who will pay for them, maintain them and keep them healthy? Can we tackle the climate crisis and the extinction crisis at the same time with the same plan – or will the two sides of the larger crisis require a plan modulated to meet both? This is where I part company with some of Monbiot’s comments because one obvious solution is to use the presently indefensible agricultural subsidy system to change the farming culture. To say to farmers “you can do what you like (within the law) with your own land, but we won’t pay you to do it if it doesn’t bring about any public good.”  I’m pretty sure that most farmers would be only too pleased to stop damaging their land so long as it didn’t bankrupt them in the process. Most hill-farms get 80% of their income from subsidies. Monbiot is quite right to say that the hill-country landscape has been turned into a wildlife desert by overgrazing sheep, but whose fault is that when, until recent years, farmers were paid according to the size of their flocks so, of course, they overstocked the sheep. Millions, if not hundreds of millions of trees could be planted on some of that unproductive land but the best possible workforce and custodians of the new forests would be the farmers who presently farm sheep. They’re in place already and they know their land as only farmers do. Calling for an end to sheep farming only makes a dangerous situation worse.  Do we even know what numbers of sheep might constitute a sustainable national flock? Aren’t there economic and ecological benefits to maintainin a much smaller national flock thereby retaining the best of the hill farming culture and reducing overproduction to the point where the market for sheep and wool improves. Would a revival in woollen cloth be a sustainable alternative to more plastics?   I don’t see the point in alienating and threatening farmers with the expropriation of their livelihoods when we know we’re going to need them onside. The grouse moors are much harder to defend, especially when the cost of shooting is so great that only the wealthy can participate, and amid the costs to wildlife by heather burning are the sinister statistics around the shooting and poisoning of birds of prey by gamekeepers who know when to keep their mouths shut.

But this too is where we’ve seen that not all big landowners are capitalizing on their land by running shoots. Neither do they all allow hunting and stalking.   Inevitably some will argue that any change will amount to an attack on their whole “way of life”. Well yes, so was the abolition of slavery and the end of public executions – we can’t go on excusing the destruction of our ecosystem because someone might get upset about not being able to wear their plus fours. I think the majority of landowners, if they are faced with the prospect of losing millions of pounds of revenue unless they change their ways, will grumble a lot and comply, because deep down they do understand. The biggest obstacle to change will be those industries that can’t adapt. The ones that will really go bust if farmers stop using chemicals! The manufacturers of the behemoths that straddle the fields and crush the life out of the soil will find ways of serving a less extractive agriculture, and no-one’s attacking the principle of using farmland productively and efficiently. It might be that instead of half-million pound machines, human beings could do more.  Some of my happiest winter mornings were spent laying hedges on a playing field that didn’t possess or want to flail the hell out of them.

I’m arguing two things simultaneously – firstly that the crisis is so severe that we must take immediate action and secondly that the best strategy for achieving that end is to use both carrot and stick to change farming culture. Aggression, rudeness and threats of expropriation will just make it harder.  I spent 25 years working in farming parishes and I always felt able to question why things were done in the way they were. Apart from one instance where I was shouted at by a (non farming) local councillor who’d got completely the wrong end of the stick, I found the farmers overwhelmingly open to new ideas. They loved their land and they neither wanted to poison it or lose it altogether by going out of business.

George Monbiot’s next targets in the article are the large NGO’s like the National Trust, the RSPB and the other powerful charities.  Again, it’s always better to change what you’ve got than abolish it all and start again. With the National Trust, Monbiot’s main target is the policy of allowing even drag hunting on its land. If this crisis is ever going to be resolved, then dog whistle tactics will have to be set aside.  The very word hunting carries a whole complex of polarizing imagery that makes resolution almost impossible, and lines the opposing views up with an angry chasm between them.  Better let the whole practice die of disgust, like bear baiting and cockfighting did in their day. Where the National Trust can help is in the management of its huge land holdings, and there it’s not heped by it’s foundational ethos of preservation and conservation. It’s not good enough to use huge sums of public subscription to preserve some notional bucolic landscape for sightseers.

The same problem on a larger scale happens within the National Park authorities who can be a positive nuisance when it comes to changing farming practices. Many of these charities and NGO’s encourage a narrow (especially in terms of diversity) view of passive participation in the scenery. Charities supporting single issues like birds, butterflies or  whatever else are not known for their collaboration, and can be positively hostile when other groups with different interests impinge on their “territory”.

So my plea to George Monbiot is to deal with his understanable anger and pursue the goal we all share by reaching out rather than acting out. It really does work better. To use a useful cliché once again, ‘culture eats strategy for breakfast’  but it’s not invincible. We can’t save the earth by making vote-winning policy announcements, but it can be saved by implacable determination, never losing sight of the goal and never accepting second best delaying tactics from vested interests. The farmers aren’t the enemy, it’s us with our insatiable appetites.

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Equinox

I love these colours, they’re the colours of autumn for me. Every year the window boxes outside the flat seem to anticipate the change in the season by subtly changing colours. One by one the different species grow paler and drop out, leaving the geraniums as the last intense colour. The effect of this is to make it look as if we’ve done something incredibly clever, by designing the displays to anticipate the onset of autumn.  Nothing could be less true because it just seems to happen. When the last flowers drop off the geraniums the window boxes come down and are replaced with the spring bulbs which soon fill the windows with the sense of anticipation. We’ve always wanted to rotate three displays but planting out and maintaining six window boxes is more than we can afford so we make do with bare windows in the dead of winter. One day, perhaps, we’ll find six recyclable window boxes and achieve our year long plan.

Seasons are important and we’re so lucky to have them because they structure the year but more importantly they structure the imagination.  Sure, by the end of each season we’re liable to be thinking “I’ve had enough of this”  but we know that each period brings its own grace.  For me the long dark nights soon become a chore, but in just three months the days begin to lengthen again.  Round and round goes the clock and we are renewed.

Today we grabbed the forecast dry start to go up to the allotment and weed. It may be perverse but weeding is one of my very favourite jobs and since we broke all the ground up into beds it’s an absolute doddle because we can work from a dry woodchip path even in the rain. I remember a woman called Eileen who lived in one of my parishes.  She really needed a carer herself, but with a little support she was looking after her elderly mother and kept a beautiful garden which she would dig from end to end every year.  I’d often walk past and she would be out, even in the rain, with an old waterproof macintosh tied around her waist with baler twine, digging away until the job was done. I also took the funeral for a 104 year old who had moved in with his son at the age of 90 and dug the son’s garden saying it was a mess.  I should write more about these characters because they represented a hardy generation who never thought of themselves as exceptional, never used a latin name for a plant and could grow paving slab cuttings if you asked them.

The rain came soon enough but not before we’d harvested more vegetables for ourselves and released a pigeon that was captive in a neighbour’s net – it probably went straight back to eating everyone else’s cabbages. Pigeons seem especially to like Cavalo Nero which they can convert into an inverted umbrella frame in minutes.

It’s good to be back in the flat after our long travels around the country.  I’ve got a pile of reading to catch up with, most of it concerned with global heating and the ecological crisis, but the reading is going to be illuminated by what we discovered on the ground, talking to people – especially farmers – and observing fields, plants and insects in their different habitats. One thing is abundantly clear already,

 – we simply can’t go on as we have been.

It’s been another year on the allotment during which we finished nearly all the infrastructure, and which leaves us with huge gratitude for the productivity of the earth.  I’ve seen it suggested that allotments, (presumable well-run ones), can be ten times as productive as farmland. I’m always a bit suspicious of these attention grabbing figures, but it’s pretty obvious that when two of us focus our whole attention on to 250 square metres of land, the response is positive, and it’s worth reminding ourselves before we get too smug, that the depopulation of the countryside has been one driver of the growth in intensive farming, and another driver has been our insatiable desire for cheap food without regard to standards.

Perhaps we’re a bit quick to point the finger at all farmers when there are many who are concerned about the environment, and who do practice organic farming and are up to speed with no-till systems, sustainable mixed farming on a rotational basis and higher than basic welfare standards. Climbing on to the moral bandwagon and advocating universal vegetarianism or veganism could lead to more industrial food processing rather than less, and the destruction of more forest in order to grow more soya and grain. Allowing cattle to graze freely – especially in wooded pastures – puts the muck where it’s needed, and where it can be broken down quickly before it produces ammonia pollutants. If you’ve never tried raw milk straight from the cow, you’ve missed one of the great food treats.  I believe it is possible to run mixed dairy farms sustainably and without cruelty.  Whether or not to eat meat is an important moral decision and we must respect those who make a different choice from ourselves.

We don’t use any chemicals, but we use our own human urine all the time on the allotment – it’s perfectly safe diluted ten to one with water, it’s packed with bio-available nitrogen and it has no smell at all.  It’s storing it in huge silos and spraying the resultant slurry on the fields that creates much of the problem. So as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned  …..

  • Are we prepared to radically reduce our consumption of meat?- YES
  • Are we prepared to put up with a smaller range of fresher locally grown vegetables? – YES
  • Would we be prepared to pay more for better outcomes in farming? – YES

The answer will likely need some complex unravelling of an entrenched farming culture, and some hand-to-hand combat with powerful vested interests who will use their considerable political and media power to convince us that it’s all hopeless idealism and only new and more powerful ‘green’ technology and targeted chemicals will bring the promised land closer. The most powerful tool at our disposal would be the subsidy system which needs to be re-focused towards payment solely for ‘public goods’.  Subsidising farmers to cover good pasture land with crop trees isn’t the way forward, but creating wooded pasture or planting the right kind of trees on marginal land that can only produce a crop with heavy inputs of chemicals might well be. We’re bound to see alarmist headlines claiming that we’re all going to starve, but local authorities could be empowered or even instructed to provide much more land for allotments rather than allowing developers to build a few unaffordable homes while they bank good greenbelt land in order to keep houseprices prices up.  I’m not going to get into some of my wilder ideas – I write this merely to show that there may be better ways of achieving what we universally claim we want – healthy food, a healthy environment and an end to pollution and extinctions.

Autumn is the time for new beginnings and new plans – I love it, let’s do it!

 

Records played, updated and broken.

It was always going to be the hottest day of the summer so far, and so we agreed to give the (shelterless) allotment a miss.  The thunderstorm on Monday night had given the ground a real soaking, in fact we went to bed and then got up again at around half past midnight as the first growls of thunder got underway. It was the oddest storm I’ve ever watched – there were no lightning bolts to be seen and yet the sky was as bright as day each time there was a flash.  When I was a child I took part in a survey where I had to count the time between the flash and the thunderclap and send off other bits of information on a postcard, but if I’d been doing the same survey on Monday night I’d have had nothing to write.  The thunder was – well – thundrous and almost continuous, and when the rain eventually got underway it was very very intense.  People were out on the Green whooping and running around and at the back we could hear cheers breaking out. The sheer oddity of the storm had turned it into a comunity event.

IMG_2163So no need for watering and far too hot to be doing any jobs on the allotment we elected to walk up the river and along the Kennet and Avon Canal to Bathampton. We’re very fortunate to be able to walk right across Bath without leaving the footpath (bar crossing a couple of main roads). We got to a point opposite the railway station where the heights of the many floods that have affected the river are engraved on the plinth of the footbridge.  Some of the floods were way above our heads, and if you’ve ever seen the Avon in flood you’ll know what a scary prospect that would be. The canalisation of the river has always been a main source of the floods and in the last couple of years an artificial flood plain has been built in the most affected area.  Sadly (as per normal) the native bankside flora was stripped out by the diggers and a pre-seeded carpet of so-called wildflowers was put there to replace them. Do architects and civil engineers ever actually look at wildflowers?  `The resulting mess that extends along the length of the ‘improvements’ comprises plants from every corner of Europe except this one and it looks either stupid or downright ugly – depending on your mood. A much loved and reliable crop of Burdock near the road bridge has been replaced by a chocolate box mix of intense reds and blues that don’t belong, and the saddest thing of all is that the majority of passers-by probably don’t even notice. Flooding, environmental destruction and heatwaves are all part of the same massive challenge and the mainstream political parties here just don’t get it. Enough!

By the time we got to the station we realized that a walk up the canal was going to be far too uncomfortable and so we took the short cut through town, opened the windows and pulled the shutters across and while Madame dozed I wrote for a couple of hours.

In the evening a workshop on Polygonaceae (that’s Docks, Sorrels Knotweeds etc in plain English).  Sadly , and probably due to the 32C temperature, the attendance was a bit disappointing  – well there were two of us.  I was slightly outgunned by the workshop leader and the only other participant who was a County Recorder and who could easily speak a sentence where I could only understand the conjunctions. However I quite enjoyed it and while they argued about promiscuous hybridizing I got on with it and looked at the samples.  After a mind-numbing two hours I’d successfully identified three easy plants and learned two new terms, which I count as a great night out. I’ll never look at a Dockweed the same way again.

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Mercifully, this morning it’s cooler and we’re off to do a great deal of weeding.  We have a rule on the allotments that says we can’t have a “bonfire” between March and the end of September – which happens to be the time we most need to burn weeds like couch. We’ve argued the toss about whether a small incinerator – burning at low temperature and creating very little smoke except when first lit – is the same thing as a bonfire. But rules, apparently are rules and so we must bag up  our noxious weeds in plastic sacks (obviously we compost almost everything), and drive them to the tip, engine idling while we advance a metre at a time in the queue. There they will be bulldozed around the bays and loaded into huge lorries when they can be driven either to landfill somewhere miles away, or to Avonmouth where they can be – wait for it – burned in a brand new incinerator.  Ah yes – that’s going to save the world!

The hazards of babysitting allotments, and more thoughts on water.

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Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away.  But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago.  He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.”  Mission accomplished,  and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.

The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them.  We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions.  When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling.  Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled.  Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.

IMG_5731.jpgHappily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.

Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.

Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater.  When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres.  That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres.  That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater.  The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year.  That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers.  Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!

So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward.  What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off.  I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.

But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost.  Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus.  There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.

Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows.  Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of  the romcom – not much reality.

Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water.  While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally.  Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there.  For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.

 

Worrying about water

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Yesterday morning early I was trudging back and forth to the water trough, worrying about just how dry the soil has become over the past couple of weeks.  We had a decent spell of rain before that, but my impression is that we’re distinctly down over the average. Here in Bath the average annual rainfall figure is given as 761mm.  I did a bit of investigating and soon realized that I had no idea what that figure really meant, and so it came as a surprise to me that the figures given in mm aren’t ‘per square metre’ – in fact they’re not related to area at all. If you want to find out how many litres of water fall on your patch of ground in an average year, it seems that 10mm of rain is equivalent to 10 litres of rain per square metre – that’s to say, in average year our 250 square metres of allotment receives very roughly 20,000 litres of rainwater.

So far so boring, you may think, but many allotments are completely dependent on a water supply that can be turned off if there should be a drought.  Most of us are familiar with the need to have a waterbutt attached to the shed and/or the greenhouse but when you look at the data, a single waterbutt is hardly going to save the day – and that’s where I came in. Yesterday, let’s say I used 20 cans of water (it’s peak watering season), and so that’s 200 litres of water – or pretty much one whole water butt full – that’s to say if the Council or the water companies decided to pull the plug, on our allotment we’d have four good waterings left. So, at a pinch, we could probably survive for a month, but what about a three month drought? It’s a fairly simple calculation – we’d need 12 water butts – 3000 litres of stored water.  However, gathering that amount of water in order to store it would be a huge challenge – we have about 7 square metres of roof altogether, so we would need somewhere in the region of 500mm of rain allowing for some inefficiency.  Not only that, water butts take up a lot of space – we’d need to go for 1000L caged containers.  Any way you look at it, making provision for a drought is both complex and expensive.

IMG_5682The only way to mitigate our water use is to increase the water capacity of the soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and making use of mulches to reduce surface evaporation. It’s clear from our experiments with mixed plantings, that covering the ground completely (courgettes, for instance under sweetcorn) lashings of leafmould and so-on really increase the moisture holding capacity.  The Potwell Inn allotment needs most watering on the areas where the soil is exposed – it’s obvious really. Another approach – one which I’m sure the seed merchants will soon be all over – is to develop drought resistant varieties, but we could also start to develop extremely locally adapted plants through seed saving.

The take home lesson from all this, so far as I can see, is that in the teeth of global heating, we allotmenteers are going to have to adapt very quickly. It’s easy to feel virtuous when we grow our own organic food, but we need to be modest about our potential.  Collective action across a whole allotment site could be worth investigating – we’ve got three underground streams running through the site – it would take a lot of work and investment but at the moment it’s just running into the river.

When I sat down to write this I felt a bit glum, but now I’ve done the maths and given it some thought, sustainability is a real possibility on the allotment. It seems almost a crime to be pouring purified drinking water on our plants when alternatives are possible. It’s easy to think that the only harvest that matters on an allotment is the stuff we can eat, but we need to harvest every scrap of green waste we can get our hands on, and every available fallen leaf so we can make quality moisture retaining composts and mulches; and then every possible harvestable drop of rain to reduce our tapwater consumption.

To repurpose an old saying – “We have seen the enemy – it is us!”

 

A curate’s egg of a day – good in parts.

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We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –

  • Jazzy (first early)
  • Arran Pilot (first early)
  • Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
  • Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
  • Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.

The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes.  But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week.  The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up.  We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.

As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant.  It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.

Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth.  So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.

However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop.  This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go.  These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.

By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden.  Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia.  Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.

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The noble globe artichoke

IMG_5489Is it really worth the bother?

Was it really two years ago I bought those tiny globe artichoke plants? We’ve nurtured them and moved them to a better spot and watch them grow into a spectacular border.  But today Madame fancied eating one and I/we dutifully braved the fearful thistle spines and brought them to the kitchen.

As the landlord of the entirely fictional Potwell Inn, I’d have to say that artichokes would never appear in a real pub menu because the prep time and the wastage is enormous.  This is serious luxury food for people who have a big compost heap,  There are two ways to eat the beast. The French way is to peel off the tough outer leaves and cut the spines off; poach it, bring it to the table with some hollandaise sauce, pull off the succulent leaves one at a time dip them in the sauce and suck the fleshy bit out.  That’s a bit too much like tantric sex for me.  The other way is to remove all the leaves, cut the top off and the bottom off and then spoon the bit that would become the seeds out, all the time protecting it with dribbles of lemon juice lest it should go brown.  Then, finally you have a fleshy white disc which you poach in acidulated water for ten minutes or so, until it’s tender.  Then you can eat it with butter or hollandaise, although you’d want at least four to make a decent starter – which means a surprise treat for your beloved is going to cost you a large and rather beautiful border. You may, therefore, be expecting me to give the magisterial thumbs down to the globe artichoke on the grounds of prodgality  and excessive faff, but here’s the thing…

…. There’s no way we could afford to eat fresh globe artichokes in a restaurant, even if we could find a place that would serve them,  but cut on the allotment and served twenty minutes later they are completely, absolutely and mind blowingly delicious – even eaten quite plain. They taste marginally better than home grown asparagus.  So long live the globe artichoke, they take up a lot of space and they make a lot of compost but they look beautiful, they’re good to draw and they’re delicious to eat – what could possibly be wrong with that.

Back on earth, however, we supplemented the end of the hungry gap with our first digging of spuds, the first (douce Provence) peas and more broad beans after a day planting out tomatoes and leeks.  We grow an f1 hybrid called Crimson Crush outside because it’s large, vigorous and almost completely blight resistant. We’ve also put some red peppers and aubergines in a sunny spot outside.  Last year they did quite well so, although we certainly don’t wish for another drought, we hope they’ll enjoy the global heating that’s driving our weather crazy.