Trench warfare at the Potwell Inn allotment

The sticky end of the unwanted grape vine

Regular readers of this blog may remember our ongoing struggle with underground streams on the allotment. In many ways we’re very fortunate to have a stream percolating somewhere beneath our feet that is able to supply water to the roots of any our plants with the means to access it. But it cuts both ways when we get very wet weather and the water table rises to about a foot beneath the surface; the clay/loam soil is desperately liable to poach and so many plants hate having wet feet.

The grape vine was on the allotment when we arrived. In fact the whole site is populated by genetically identical black grapes, all of them planted in the heyday of the Italian restaurants when a team of waiters and chefs took over plots and grew food to remind them of home. The very last of them died just this year and well into old age he still browsed our allotments as if he and his friends were still running them. I once saw him take two carrier bags of ripe figs off an allotment that used to be theirs. They would also pick many buckets of grapes to make wine which is, or was, reputed to be pretty good. We’ve got a vine on each side of our plot and one of them looks after itself with a bit of pruning in the winter, and gives us a good crop of small, sweet black grapes rather spoiled by over large pips. The other vine has always functioned better as a windbreak and screen, producing copious growth of leaves and shoots but never setting a decent crop of grapes. We made 25 litres of wine from the other vine a couple of years ago, but there wasn’t enough sugar in the grapes so it was very ‘thin’, lacking in flavour, and in the end we poured it away. When we decided to stop drinking alcohol 18 months ago it removed one of the reasons for growing these small grapes. Ironically our present allotments are on a site thought to have been a vineyard in Roman times.

So when we rationalised the fruit cage this autumn we decided to dig up the less successful vine to make space for a redcurrant, and today I attempted to dig it out. After a nominal first foot it was clear that the reason for unsuccessful growth was that it’s had its feet in water every winter. In the end I had to give up because the hole was filling with water within minutes and the stump appeared to be sucking itself deeper and deeper into the soil as I squelched around it with a spade and crowbar. I was experiencing the legacy of the wettest October on record – which leaves a question mark over replanting a redcurrant bush there. At the very least the patch will need a lot of grit incorporating to improve drainage. I might be able to redeem it a bit by diverting rainwater from the adjacent row of compost bins into more water butts. The council turned off the water supply today so I’m glad we’ve got about 1000 litres stored already. Over recent years we’ve experienced problems early in the year before the site supply is restored, because we’ve been blessed with fine dry weather.

While I was getting hot and muddy, Madame planted another two rows of broad beans to stand over winter. She was planting them in a bed that we’d augmented with some bought-in topsoil that had an even larger clay component than our own ground and which I had to dig a whole bag of grit into today before she planted it up. In the fruit cage the winter pruning is almost done now, and on the veg plots the garlic is growing steadily as are the peas which are always a bit of a gamble. If they survive the weather and the mice we’ll have an early crop next year. The brassicas were mostly planted on a bed that was well fed with our own compost and now the early purple sprouting broccoli are almost as tall as me. Let’s hope they’re as productive of shoots as they are with leaves.

The rats have returned to the compost heap since I drove them out by turning it repeatedly; so today I had to set one of the powerful spring traps baited with crunchy peanut butter. Hopefully greed will overwhelm their caution and I can get rid of them before they breed. We do have a lovely but rather wild cat on the site but even he can’t eradicate them all on his own. I say a quiet prayer to bring on the hungry peregrines, buzzards and kestrels and multiply the stoats and the owls!

I was thinking during all these labours about the strange way we misrepresent the allotment as if it were a haven of peace, tranquility and rest. An organic allotment may not have anything like as high an energy footprint as a non organic one, but only if you discount the gigacalories of human toil that goes into replacing the chemicals, pesticides and nitrate fertilisers and the very considerable financial expenditure on bringing the soil back into condition. One survey I read claimed that an allotment can be ten times as productive as an equivalent sized plot of farmland – which can only be true of a very intensively managed allotment. Once a plot becomes a significant contributor to the household food supply, it becomes a place of work – good creative, skilled and satisfying work but work nonetheless. I’ve been reading Chris Smaje’s book “A small Farm Future”c Chelsea Green Publishing and I was interested to see (Page 106) a chart that placed gardening in the same category – high labour input + high productivity – as the conventional arable farm. The difference is that the energy input is mostly human toil rather than fuel, fertilizer and chemicals. It’s a great book, well worth reading and presenting a well argued case for small farms and locally sourced food chains. So while I’m in the mood, here are three books I’ve learned a great deal from:

  • Chris Smaje “A small Farm Future” – Chelsea Green Publishing
  • Dieter Helm ” Green and Prosperous Land” – Collins (an economist’s view)
  • Simon Fairlie “Meat – A Benign Extravagance” – Chelsea Green

I could add many more, but these three are extremely practical, albeit quite polemical contributions to the debate about the future of food production. One thing’s for sure; this is a debate we’re going to have to engage with whether we like it or not.

And finally we’re off to the flour mill tomorrow to get 25Kg of stoneground wholemeal flour. I was expecting to be turned away but lockdown part deux hasn’t had the same impact on flour supplies as the first round. It’s an excuse to drive 20 miles along the Cotswolds in the most beautiful scenery, so Alleluia – life feels good. This morning after our saintly breakfast of home made muesli, I had a slice of the first loaf of everyday bread and the first teaspoon of marmalade (also home made) in four months. Oh joy!

How long is a piece of string?

IMG_3866 – is the same sort of unanswerable question as “when is the date of the last frost?” And like all unanswerable questions, the only possible answer is – “it depends”. This picture shows what happened last season when we made the wrong guess. IMG_2261We were up in Snowdonia enjoying the view of the snow capped mountains and wearing every thread of warm clothing we possessed and it hardly entered our minds that the “Beast from the East” was – at that moment – doing for our runner beans. However we had anticipated that a late frost might happen and so we had a duplicate set in the greenhouse. Our neighbour, struggling not to let too much schadenfreude show, was slightly foxed by the fact that our beans seemed to regenerate within 24 hours. Yes it’s National Gardens Week and every other programme on the telly is advocating gardening as a panacaea for all the ills that beset us, but in the interests of factual accuracy I need to say that allotments can also be intensely competitive places. Generosity and animosity exist in exactly the same proportions on an allotment site as they do anywhere else within the human race. By and large, gardeners occupy a nicer than average place on the bell-curve of human wickedness but don’t count on it! Elections for site reps can involve chicanery on a parliamentary scale.

IMG_3736Anyway, that’s enough bubble popping for one day.  To continue on the date of the last frost, I should also say that the buds on the grape vine were also badly affected, but once again the vine regrouped and a new crop appeared within a couple of weeks.  There was no big effect on the harvest either, it seems. All these weather events took place between the last week in April and the first in May and so it was our intention this season to delay planting out the tender plants until around 5th May. All our sowing was based around that date and now the Potwell Inn is full of plants that desperately need to go out.  A couple of courgettes in the propagator seem to think they’re outside already and are traling all over the place.  Moving them without snapping them off is going to be quite a challenge.

Our morning ritual is to scan the weather charts to see what the night time temperatures will be, and we discovered this morning that we’re due a dip to as low as 2C early on Saturday morning. This is very concerning because the allotment is a bit of a frost trap and if anyone is going to catch it, it will be us. So – with all the difficulty of keeping overgrown and increasingly leggy plants indoors, we’re going to have to wait another week. All part of life’s rich tapestry then. We’ve been on the plots for coming up to three years, and we’re still trying to juggle between book knowledge and real, on the ground, experience – so we’re no closer to answering the question of the date of the last frost, just keen to avoid it by a safe margin.