The allotment, a recipe, some history, a bit about medicinal herbs and even a bit about bread! No botany.

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Enough botany for now, then – it’s back to ‘real’ life, sweating it out at 30C on the allotment and then bizarrely cooking supper in the oven, raising the temperature in the kitchen to about 40C, ‘nothing’ for my two chef sons, I can hear them saying, but plenty hot enough for me.  We went up at 8.30am in the hope that we could get things done in the cool part of the day, but 2 hours later we were still at it when Madame got the vapours and went on strike under the umbrella. It’s great having the umbrella on the allotment but despite its size it seems only to provide shade for one. I think I’m going to invent a pivotable sail to attach to the shed so we can move it around with the sun.

This year we’ve followed the advice of James Wong in his book about growing for flavour.  He says that chillies get hotter if they’re subjected to stress, and so it seems mollycoddling them with with auto watering last year may have prevented them from reaching their full potential. This year they’ve been watered only when almost dried out and they’ve loved it.  Last year’s F1 Apache chillies were so mild I could pick them off the plant and eat them.  I did the same thing today and they almost blew my head off – I was left scampering around the allotment looking for something cold to drink. So I’ve managed to grow successfully all five varieties including the Scotch Bonnet type which around the top of the Scoville scale, but I shan’t be randomly picking them!

Last Friday’s rain was a decent soaking and when I dug the shallots today the earth was quite moist.  A couple of haulm’s worth of Arran Pilot potatoes were looking good and plump.

Back home with a trug full of fresh veg I cooked an old favourite dish – Carbonnade Nîmoise a very simple French dish which would have been cooked in a cooling bread oven back in the day, and makes a very small amount of lamb go a long way.  Garlic, carrots potatoes and fresh herbs all dug and picked this morning and baked in the oven with some olive oil, a couple of slices of bacon, a glass of wine and a dollop of reduced stock from the fridge. It’s impossible to overcook it, sealed in an extra foil cover under the lid. The star of the show is usually the potatoes which seem to soak up all the flavours, and if it’s cooked right it’s so tender you could eat it with a spoon.

More good new too on the allotment.  I was starting to clear the 50 square metres of loaned land, on which we grew potatoes this year,  and our neighbour said he was happy to continue the loan for another season, so we decided on the spot that we would overwinter our broad beans there this autumn.  To be honest we grew far too many spuds this year but we pay our neighbour in kind for the loan and he takes a share of the produce from his piece of land – it works very well.

And although the field botany phase has ended, there’s still all the typing up to do.  I usually make a sortable list in Word so I can eliminate any duplicates and do a final check on any doubtfuls. Luckily I have a contact in the Bath Nats who is willing to cast an eye over any dubious identifications and we’ll be seeing him on Thursday anyway because he’s running a workshop on identifying Rumex spp – yes I’m a complete propeller head!

On another tack, if you’ve been following for a while, you’ll know that I’ve been sharpening my skills in identifying plants with medicinal uses. That’s raised some very interesting ethical issues, for instance I found dozens of Betony plants on the clifftop at St Davids, but nothing would induce me to pick them because there just aren’t enough, and there are many medicinal plants that are in danger of being foraged into extinction, sometimes for money. I mentioned in a previous posting how I watched in horror when, on a fungus foray, I saw a young woman (known to me) pick every single Ragged Parasol fungus in a stand of a couple of dozen – far more than any family could reasonably eat. In fact foraging is becoming something of a menace in places.  I know there are many medicinal herbs we can grow on the allotment and some – couch root, dandelions and nettles, for instance, are so prolific that it’s perfectly OK to take a regular cut.  I’m trying to make a list of sustainably available plants in our immediate area and, trust me, I shan’t be publishing their whereabouts. However the vast quantities of these plants that are being processed and added to everything from cough mixture to cosmetics makes you wonder how sustainable or ethical the supply line is.  There’s no real compulsion to monitor it – for instance I was greatly shocked to read on the Plantlife website that even the supply of licorice is under threat.  We know it can be (or was) at least grown in Pontefract and presumably could be grown again – a nice little niche income for a farm with the right soil conditions.

This has been a bit of a mixed bag of a posting but, in my defence, I haven’t mentioned sourdough, mainly because we bake less in the summer.  While we were away Madame was reading about farm life on Ramsey Island and in those days (the 1940’s) ‘mother’ would bake 30 loaves a week in a paraffin fuelled oven. The same book had many photos of the family, and it was clear that the grandson of the family is still farming in the area – in fact he was the one with the brilliant sheepdogs – and the image of his grandfather. A photo of the flock of sheep is at the top of the post.

If you’re interested in following up on the sustainability of medicinal plants I found this paper – but be warned, it’s mind bogglingly thorough!

http://ec.europa.eu/environment/nature/conservation/species/redlist/downloads/European_med_plants.pdf

 

The carnival art of the window box

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Yesterday, when I took this photo from the kitchen, looking out over the park, I fully intended to write something about the indelicate art of window boxes. Ours are so grossly over the top they’re positively pink wigs and leopard skin tights but that’s the point.  Window boxes work from a distance and aren’t intended to impress with their subtlety.  They’re also very useful from the inside of the flat because they create an intermediate space between inside and outside.  All very comforting and – even better – they act as a bottom-up blind giving us some privacy from the road.  If you add in the number of visiting pollinators and insects they’re worth every penny (or pound) we spend on them.

So that was it really.  I probably would have waffled on a bit more but it was a busy day with an early visit to our grandchilds nursery for a grandparent’s day – brilliant, we both wanted to go to that school! Then straight up to the allotment and then on to a meeting in the evening.

The allotment has reached one of those states of stasis that happen from time to time.  It never lasts very long, but you just get a breather and time to step back for  moment and see what’s what. What was what in the greenhouse yesterday was the growing feeling that the violent temperature changes that happen in small greenhouses, (ours is 6X4) and can go from 15C to 40C in a couple of hours, is not a good environment even for heat loving chllies. If the greenhouse is in your garden – ie twenty steps away – its possible to control things a bit, but an allotment is necessarily a bit more remote and you can’t spend all day and every day fussing over it. The wet spring and low temperatures kept the automatic vents closed, much to the delight of the whitefly who just loved it.  So the plants were set back and looked a bit sorry for themselves.  But over the last couple of weeks I’ve been moving tender subjects into the open plots and they’ve loved it. Peppers, chillies, aubergines and tomatoes have all done much better outside.  A bit of space and unrestricted root growth has given them a new lease of life. This enabled more space in the greenhouse and even these plants began to look a bit happier.  So over the last two days, and by way of another of my beloved experiments I’ve re-potted some of them and moved some into open ground and some into the cold frames, leaving a small number in the greenhouse but in much larger pots.

IMG_5710Only one variety of chilli has done well in the greenhouse and the label claimed it was an Apachi F1, but we had real trouble with labels this year.  We moved over to wooden labels and within weeks they were illegible.  I think it was almost certainly a Romital.  Anyway I took a ripe one off the plant today and tasted it and it was just lovely – full of flavour, pretty hot and perfect – I’d say – for a curry. Luckily there’s a good crop on the way.  The Hungarian Hot Wax have had a splendid season so far.  They’re mild and warm and again, full of flavour. The Apaches – the real ones – have done well, and the worst looking of the lot are the Habaneros which look terrible.  I hope their new environment suits them better.

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We’ve been living on fresh peas and broad beans, and yesterday we harvested some Pink Fir Apple potatoes which are brilliant for potato salads.  Last year we evolved a recipe that included fresh basil and pink peppercorns – “baises roses” – pink kisses in French. I could eat it three times a day!

So home and then straight out to a meeting  – details below:

Ted Howard, Co-Founder and President of the Democracy Collaborative in the USA and described as ‘one of 25 visionaries changing your world’ has agreed to talk at a Bath Co-operative Alliance public meeting on Community Wealth Building .This is a powerful tool for more inclusive and democratic local economies which is being implemented in places as diverse as the US city of Cleveland, Barcelona, Bologna and Preston (named as the UKs most rapidly improving urban area in 2018).

Introduction by Jules Peck who has a thirty year career working on sustainable development.

It was packed – half a dozen local councillors and some famous faces – Ken Loach, for instance, was one of the sponsors. It was extremely stimulating stuff and and gave us enough to go on talking about it for most of today.  I do hope something will come of it – the Preston (UK) project sounded repeatable.

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Spectacular skies as we walked home after the meeting and so late to bed for the third night on the run, and then up with the seagulls. Today was more of the same.  Produce is coming off the allotment so fast we were forced to examine the stored, dried and pickled food from last year. The pickled cucumbers had not survived.  It wasn’t so much the taste as the slimy texture, and so they went into the bin along with the salted beans which I only did out of curiosity because I read about them in Patience Gray’s biography.  I think the fairest thing you can say about them is that if there was nothing else green on the plate you might eat them.  We really don’t need to! Last year’s raspberry vinegar has been pressed into service to pickle this year’s glut of beetroot.

Today we bumped into the owner of the plot with the collapsing shed.  I took what might well be the last photo before it goes on to a bonfire. Farewell old friend!

 

Please welcome the Mark IV water feeder

IMG_5022The Potwell Inn is proud to present the very latest and most sophisticated ever version of the semi-automatic propagator watering device (world patents pending). Having thought through the problems and making several minor adjustments to the width of the feeder strip a sudden bright idea came to me and I added a second cork to hold the ribbon of capillary mat above the surface. Then as a final whimsical thought I added a twig of bay as a kind of mast to which I could lash the ribbon with a piece of string. It now resembles a raft and is bobbing very satisfyingly at the top of the cistern. Whether it works better that the previous iterations is yet to be seen.  Meanwhile the hottest of the chillies are refusing every temptation to germinate while the Hungarian Hot Wax are thriving but I refuse to give up because it’s the first day of spring.

Back on the allotment the hot bed has worked pretty well and the seeds I sowed about a week ago are beginning to germinate, so lettuce, spring onion, radish and beetroot are on their way. In the kitchen, the sauerkraut is almost ready to go into the fridge. Busy times are ahead.

Hot stuff in the study

IMG_4952Sorry about the utterly naff heading but I keep getting advice from Mr WordPress that suggests snappy headlines reap many benefits in the circulation department. Truth to tell, I think I almost prefer the Potwell Inn the way it is because it’s easier to get to know the locals. Anyway, as planned, the timber for the compost bins all arrived today amidst gale force winds and driving rain and for the third time in as many weeks I got soaked to the skin.  But the driver from the sawmill is so cheerful it’s almost a pleasure to talk about not very much with the rain running down your neck.  Sensibly he prefers to wear shorts because when you’re out delivering all weathers you don’t have to put up with wet trousers flapping around your legs.

Back at the Potwell Inn with the wind moaning through the windows it seemed like a perfect day for a bit of armchair gardening and so I spent a happy hour browsing the fruit tree catalogue and making a list for another line of cordon fruit trees. I think we’ll get a damson, a Victoria type plum, an old style greengage, a pear of some sort and then maybe three more if we extend the bed to the bottom of the plot. But that sent me straight back to the computer because it would mean relocating some of our planned crops and then I wondered if we could plant a stepover espalier along the bottom and catch twenty two played out in its usual way –

However much land you’ve got you always need just a bit more

But really, I was just like a child delaying opening the last present because today was ordained for the sowing of chillies. There’s something profound about putting the first seeds into the dirt, and this year I’m determined to germinate at least one Habanero after not getting any at all last season. So the propagator was warmed and set up in my study, the new lights installed and the compost warmed and watered with a very dilute seaweed solution. And there it is behind me as I type, glowing daylight in the depths of winter and daring the local police to pay us a visit!  I love it.  I love looking after them, reading them a story at night and turning the light off at a sensible time (I made some of that up). When I finished with the chillies I had one half-tray left and so I sowed a few Corno Rosso red peppers – a bit early and possibly a bit hot for them, but nature is a constant surprise and with an early start they may well fruit just a bit earlier too. Anyone who’s ever grown an allotment will know that the real skill (which I don’t possess) is to space things out a bit. It’s great having a cornucopia in late july, but it’s better to have a constant supply of goodies through the seasons.

Looking at the enormous pile of wood waiting to be built into a three bay compost bin, it’s not hard to feel slightly uneasy at the expense.  I’ve no idea why allotmenteers seem to regard it as a point of honour to furnish the entire plot with old pallets and carpets and refuse to buy a tomato seed if they can scrape one out of the morning’s bacon and eggs. I’ve never met a birdwatcher who boasted that they’d built their binoculars out of a couple of tin cans and the bottom of a wine bottle; or a runner who would run a triathlon in two left shoes they’d just salvaged from the tip. We recycle a lot – today we liberated a large polystyrene fish box that will protect our tender plants from late frosts. The compost bins, the hotbed and the cold frames are the beating heart of the whole setup because they provide the food and the nurture for what feeds us.

It takes me twenty minutes to sow and label fifty seeds which, in my imagination I can already see ripening.  Apart from the usual TLC which really isn’t that onerous, the whole miracle is accomplished within nature and handed back to us as a gift.  Surely a few pounds to pay our respect to the soil isn’t an extravagance? When we moved on to the first plot we found an old bicycle in the compost heap. I’ve no idea how long it takes to compost a bike, or a piece of carpet underlay but I’ll guarantee it would still have been there long after I re-enter the carbon cycle!

So no I don’t feel bad about spending out on making the plot work as well and as easily as possible. As one of my mentors once said to me after I commiserated with him about having to do an awful visit, he replied “it was my duty”. That’s not a word we hear too often round here.

And finally – I just closed the shutters and noticed that we have a first quarter waxing moon. Since my seeds are in darkness under artificial light they won’t be affected by any light but ……. who knows?