“This is my favourite season” – I say, almost every month.

Although I’m bound to say that we’ll be pleased when this endless, wet renegade October spring finishes – hopefully some time mid week. A couple of weeks ago one of our sons was remarking how short the cow parsley was – half its usual height at this time of year, but now it’s properly caught up and looking lovely. This old horse chestnut tree has an unusually large foot, I think, because it’s perched on the raised bank of the towpath next to the river on one side and the Green on the other. We don’t have that many hedges in the centre of Bath, but what we do have is an abundance of paths and their verges alongside the river, and they never look better than they do right now.

But there’s a conundrum here. Hedgerows have their own built-in supporters clubs but verges? Ironically, the local council have designated the edge of the Green as part of a wildlife corridor, so on the other side of the tree in the photo is (at last) a wide unmown verge. It’s taken several years to convince the tractor drivers that these weeds are allowed to stand, especially when the same department sends out the spray gang every spring to ensure that their less fortunate kin are given a good dose of glyphosate. The pavement outside our block was just beginning to fill with plants when they were felled by the sprayer. We’d actually thought of taking up the challenge of naming them all with chalk, on the pavement after very successful trials of the idea in Oxford and London; but the neighbours would probably get up a petition to get us banged up for criminal damage.

The contrast between the wild areas and the ones the council maintains is painful to behold. One of our very favourite walks takes us along the river between the bus station, the railway station and the entrance to the Kennet and Avon canal. It’s not the most salubrious path in the city. The railings under the railway bridge are encrusted with a thick layer of pigeon guano and there’s a good deal of broken glass, abandoned bottles and cans. Alongside are some of the shabbiest boats in the fleet; the leaking superstructures covered with improvised tarpaulins. On the far side of the river are the backs – the bits of the city that we don’t advertise; the bus station doesn’t have the same glass panelled appeal at the back – (there’s not that much at the front either!). Brunel’s architectural ambition didn’t stretch to the back entrance to Bath Spa station either, and the sounds and smells that drift across from the far side are inclined towards diesel and burgers, accompanied by extractor fans that never seem to go quiet . It’s a path used more by commuting cyclists and locals. Further along the river approaching Pulteney bridge it gets better once you’ve got past the Royal Mail sorting office.

For me the great redeeming feature of that section of the path is the weeds. Many of the photos I’ve posted on this website were taken there. It was there I learned to sort out the ragworts; there I fell upon a group of greater celandines with real pleasure; there the usual suspects like willowherb which is a more diverse family than I ever knew. There’s nothing of any interest to a box ticking collector; but at this time of the year the gloomy path is normally illuminated by splashes of bright colour and a seminar’s worth of leaf shapes if you’re into the naming of plants. However, by the curious logic of the council, these plants are weeds, and have therefore been sprayed. For goodness’ sake, they’re mostly perennials and early seeders so they’ll be back up again next year probably inducing another spasm of indignation and chemical abuse; some of which treatment will drain immediately into the river – or water supply as it’s known in other places!

I’m interested in this human capacity to reduce so much of the natural world to the status of pest and weed, while simultaneously revering nature, except manifestations where it interferes with our pleasures, appetites or profits. If you’re a cinnabar moth you don’t spend all day flitting from ghost orchid to ghost orchid – what gets you going is ragwort. Moths like weeds and bats eat moths, so killing weeds disrupts a whole food chain. Red admiral, small tortoiseshell, painted lady and comma butterflies all prefer to feed on nettles rather than red list rarities. In fact many of our most threatened species of butterfly and moth like feeding on what we choose to call weeds, growing in environments that we like to think are ideal sites for building people-warehouses – and irony of all ironies, this patch of neglected and chemically blasted tarmac could be a tributary of a much advertised “wildlife corridor” running from East to West through the city. There are otters swimming less than half a mile downstream and herons are two a penny. Why has nature got to be tidy? The worst these weeds could do is brush against your legs and for large parts of the year they virtually disappear. Are we going to erect a large illuminated sign advertising that wildlife should cross the river at the sorting office and fly across the shopping centre in the direction of Royal Crescent and Victoria Park in order to rejoin the corridor just after the Territorial Army centre?

This is one of the terrible effects of a culture that separates us entirely from anything except the human – and precious few of them too! Growing our own food, or even a small part of it, teaches us very quickly that we’re a part of nature. Recent discoveries have deepened our understanding of how intensely related we are to the natural world, and how, by failing to acknowledge our dependence on nature as part of us – and ourselves as a part of nature; we are rapidly destroying trillions of tiny threads that – like invisible circuitry – keep the show on the road.

The language of science and the culture of materialism have enabled us to do with the earth pretty much anything we please. Except that by thinking that knowledge always trumps wisdom, we’ve spent a couple of centuries behaving like a teenager given a powerful motorcycle. It won’t end well. Our imaginary teenager will protest that they’ve never yet had an accident; that they’re having the best fun ever and motorcycling is a human right. But the metaphor breaks down at the funeral because there may not be any mourners left to say what a great person they were and how they lit up the room with their personality.

Here are some bits of the Bath earth that were neglected this spring. Thank goodness – left to right the towpath, the Potwell Inn kitchen and the allotment.

Yes we can!

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I know many people find the fact that their Google searches are converted into saleable data is both sinister and oppressive. However it’s not that clever, and occasionally I’m alerted to scientific papers and farming news that’s ten times as incriminating of the sources as it might be of interest to the the readers. Here’s me – a declared opponent of intensive agribusiness – suddenly shown a paper by Bayer, presumably on the strength of my previous searches, that expresses far better than I ever could the perilous course that the industry has set itself upon.  What follows is a direct quotation; the entire article is available on this link

“As a cover crop, the phacelia is doing its job – preventing leaching of nitrogen and soil erosion, but allowing the black-grass to flush through,” says farms manager Andy Blant.

“As a way of attracting wildlife, particularly bees, the phacelia is exceeding all our expectations,” says Mr Blant. “Planted at the end of April, by July it was in full flower.”

Phacelia requires little management. “We don’t let it flower for too long as it self-seeds,” explains Mr Blant. “We apply glyphosate whilst it is flowering so as not to kill the beneficial insects and bees then mow it down once it has senesced ready for early ploughing for the autumn. It can also be used as a green mulch throughout autumn, before ploughing in winter in preparation for early spring drilling.”

(My emphasis) The problem, Mr Blant, is that it’s becoming clear that while glyphosate doesn’t actually kill bees on contact, its much publicised harmlessness to animals rests on the fact that it kills plants by disrupting an enzyme that is crucial to the development of essential proteins, and which isn’t found in anything other than plants…… they say. But recent (2018) research cited in this Guardian article claims that the enzyme is destructive of bacteria found in bee gut biome and that although glyphosate doesn’t kill the bees directly they die as a result of infections caused by the gut disruption.

So this panglossian puff piece for Bayer actually says that they are deliberately growing a crop known to be attractive to bees  – not for the bees of course because they don’t actually want their phacelia plants to set seed – but as a green manure and cover crop – and then spraying it with a substance now known to be toxic to bees while promoting their product which is already under scrutiny for its persistence in the soil and its carcinogenic properties. If this isn’t an example of greenwashing I’d like to know what is!

I could go on in this vein with a dozen articles, but really I don’t need to. I think we’re increasingly ‘getting it’ when it comes to the global crises of runaway climate change and species extinction – or perhaps I should call it global species senescence to make it sound nicer. The opposing sides battle it out in a heavyweight punch up, freely making up statistics without providing any corroborating sources. Farmers v vegans makes fun copy.  I remember James Belsey, a great Bristol journalist who made ‘local’ a real and honourable territory, saying to me once – “you’ve got to remember that most journalists are bone idle.  If you want to get your project into the paper you need to write the copy yourself and hand it to them – they’ll print it!”  I was involved in setting up a charity at the time and so I did – and they did.

And now we’ve reached a genuine crisis on a number of fronts; obviously climate and ecology but also population, migration, famine and economics too. On television a few nights ago I saw a hydroponics project in Singapore – fabulous and much needed in a country that imports the vast majority of its food.  The person running this operation said – probably correctly – that the output was 15 times greater than the same area given over to conventional cultivation. That’s terrific but, me being a promiscuous reader,  I recalled some figures quoted by Ken Thompson in “The Sceptical Gardener” which were almost exactly the same for the humble allotment. What this means of course is that there’s always more than one way to skin a cat – or  peel a carrot if you prefer.

All too often the media portray the crisis we’re facing as a choice between two alternatives – universal veganism versus  universal factory farming; technological carbon capture or the end of private cars and general misery. Intensive agriculture or starvation. But the crisis can’t be reduced to a binary either-or choice. Any informed debate about our future path as a viable species needs good data, honesty about outcomes and a forensic approach to any ideas being promoted – not least by huge vested interests.

If it’s even possible that a part of the answer to the challenge of food production could be to provide many more allotmenteering opportunities around our towns and cities, the payback could well be far wider than just organic lettuces. Exercise and improved mental health are all a part of the overall allotment picture, not to mention less car-borne shopping trips and a vastly improved national diet. So yes to (not too many) industrial hydroponic farms, vertical farms with all their efficiencies locally situated to cut down on the carbon.  Yes even to processed industrial gloop – although I probably won’t be an early adopter.  We need to become ideological tarts – it’s a crisis – and there’s no time for anyone to pursue their narrow dream of purity. I’ve been reading Simon Fairlie’s brilliant book “Meat – a benign extravagance” and if you’ve got some time and a tenner you couldn’t do better than to read it as well.  It’s densely argued, full of statistics and examines a large number of alternative strategies for feeding ourselves without dogmatic attachment to any of them. The other book I’d recommend, not least because many of its ideas seem to be finding their way into post brexit subsidy legislation is Dieter Helm’s “Green and prosperous land”.

The root of the word ‘crisis’ comes from the Greek – to choose.  A crisis can be a healthy moment if it forces us to make fundamental choices about the way forward. But the way forward needs to include everyone. Solutions that throw small scale mixed farms under the technological train can only make things worse. In a crisis, no idea is unworthy of consideration – as I used to preach everyone gets their say but not everyone gets their way. In a crisis the unthinkable needs to be thought, but the destination can’t ever be simple – more profit, more growth or more technology, although some better technology would be a help. A government that can’t feed its people is unworthy to be called a government. Food banks and homelessness are two sorts of famine and both are cause not by the lack of food or the lack of housing but by deliberately allowing them to become unaffordable to poor people. We need clear data and open handed discussion about the alternatives and involving us – the real stakeholders – in the future not just the powerful vested interests.

Blow me – I feel quite excited about it!

 

A to B – missing out the glyphosate

Yesterday I posted a picture of the allotment looking eastwards across some vacant plots. If you take a look at that picture you’ll see that the weeds are now waist height, the bindweed is about to come into flower, along with willow herb, and the grasses are ripening their seed. Couch, bindweed and all the other suspects thrive here because the soil is good and bindweed in particular has more than one way of preserving itself, not least by roots growing over a metre down into the soil. Seeds can bide their time for years until favourable conditions come along.

But the next door allotment was in use until two seasons ago, when it was doused with glyphosate and lay there looking sick and yellow for the rest of the season. You can’t blame anyone taking on a new and overgrown plot for seeking out the easiest way of eradicating the weeds so they can start growing food. Those with plenty of patience might cover the ground with black plastic held down by stones or pallets and wait for a season for the weeds to die. The trouble is that this method is good for killing annual weeds, but the real baddies seem to laugh at it. The rotavator is a terrible idea because it just chops the couch and bindweed into little pieces, and every one becomes a new plant.

At this point, just as the desperate realization that this is going to be hard sinks in, along comes the bottle of glyphosate promising to do the job with not much more effort than pumping up the spray and taking a stroll through the weeds.  Spray it on, they say,  the weeds will die and the weedkiller will be inactive within a day of touching the soil. The trouble is, everything about that statement is wrong. Without venturing into the scientific evidence that long exposure can give you cancer, the watercourses and rivers are becoming polluted and it lasts for years not days –

Glyphosate doesn’t work very well

Trust me I’ve used it in the past, and although it kills annual weeds it doesn’t render their seeds infertile, and it doesn’t kill couch and bindweed either.  Of course it looks as if it’s worked as the leaves dessicate and turn yellow, but deep down where the rhizomes and roots live, they’re just taking a break until next season. It’s a con trick because you can’t use it once and enter for the best kept allotment award the next year, since next year the weeds will be back but they’ll be growing through your courgettes and lettuces which you won’t want to sacrifice by spraying again.

Tough though it may seem, the only way to deal with these weeds is to clear the site and then dig it, dig it again and again and then give it the treatment under the plastic and finally cover it with compost, cardboard, mulch or whatever.  Even no-diggers need to get the ground as clear as possible before they put the spades on ebay. It’s hard work but by the end of it you’ll know more about your soil than you ever thought possible, you’ll know how it’s affected by rain and drought, the names of the annual weeds and when the sun rises and sets on your patch from season to season. The worms will multiply and improve the soil, consuming organic material and turning it back into plant food. You’ll be able to grow things right from the outset as long as you remove every speck of root you find and dispose of it – not in the compost heap because it seems to survive there as well. Remember the old saying –

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

  • and as Nietzsche said, whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger!

Where’s it gone? – Oh there

 

So yesterday at last the sun shone and the snow had melted and so we drove over to Annie’s stables to collect the manure for the hotbed.  It’s surprisingly difficult to source manure ‘fresh’ – as it were. Just as every item on a restaurant menu comes with a small pack of needless adjectives like delicious attached, the word manure is rarely seen without its attached qualifier well rotted.  We’ve asked high and low and our search for the freshest, smelliest and hottest manure has met with head shaking and occasionally patronising hints that we don’t know what we really want. So as always we fell back on a friend who lives in one of my old parishes who was pleased to help out, and even sent photos of the growing pile to keep us focused and cheerful. Yesterday we lined the back of our little car to stop any leaks from the bags from soaking into the seats and drove over.

My guess is that I shovelled about 300Kg of the stuff into bags (we always save the old ones they’re terribly useful) and lugged it into the back of the car which was pretty flat on the springs by the time I finished. Then we drove back to the allotment while Madame amused herself by swatting copious numbers of manure flies that had decided to come with us. Everything has to be wheelbarrowed about 100yards down narrow paths from the allotment site car park and so by the time I’d tipped all the bags into the hotbed frame I was aching just about everywhere. I was pretty glad that I didn’t build the frame any bigger because against all expectations the manure was simply swallowed up.  I really thought I’d have quite a bit left over, but that certainly didn’t happen.  Still, it’s all done now and today’s job is to cap the bed with a mixture of soil and proper compost and then cover it and wait for it to heat up.

Our site is divided into two halves which are nominally organic and non-organic.  As I was unloading the car I fell into a conversation with a man who had come across from the organic half and we had one of those blokey chats that men have, which are more concerned with rangefinding than sharing – each of us trying to find out enough about the other to orientate ourselves.  As we drifted from wheelbarrow punctures to carrot varieties we finally ventured into contentious ground.  I said ” really we’re all organic here except for one man, two plots across, who used Roundup to clear his plot.”  He put on a most virtuous face and said – “Roundup? I wouldn’t go near that stuff.” And so the conversation drifted on about permissable chemicals and the Soil Association rules and then, out of the blue he said – “I use that other stuff, glyphosate it’s called, but I don’t spray it I just paint it on the leaves.” I was speechless.

Who knew all that about worms?

2016-04-14 12.08.39Tuesday 18th September 2018 – Dr Frank AshwoodEarthworms

Earthworms are recognised ecosystem engineers, proving invaluable services to humanity and transforming and improving the soil habitat for other organisms. Most naturalists are aware of their fundamental ecological importance, but few have detailed knowledge of any of our 30 or so native British species. Frank’s PhD was entitled ‘Woodland Restoration on Landfill Sites: Earthworm Activity and Ecosystem Service Provision’. He is a soil ecologist working within Forest Research’s soil sustainability research group. Here Frank will describe earthworms’ behind-the-scenes work, which underlies the productivity and diversity of the natural systems we see every day.

Brilliant  talk last night at the first Bath Nats indoor meeting of the season. Who knew, for instance, how many different species there are, or how to tell the head from the tail and even how mature they might be? Continue reading “Who knew all that about worms?”

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