Something unfolding?

IMG_5177I don’t care for ‘Misery Lit’ or – (sorry) – blogs that describe ‘battles against’ this or that horrible disease.  I’m absolutely not prepared for going down that route anytime soon, and that’s that. However – and imagine me saying that ‘however’ slowly, stressing all three syllables and ending in an upspeak question mark ….  Having had a bit of hand-to-hand combat wth the idea of mortality these last couple of months, I thought that getting all positive test results would pick me up and set me down exactly where I started.  It didn’t!

You don’t, it seems, *wrestle with the anonymous angel during a sleepless night or twenty and get away with it altogether.  Jacob didn’t, and I’m no Jacob, so after a couple of days of sheer relief I got completely fired up at the thought of what kind of world we’re leaving our children and grandchildren – which was the prompting for yesterday’s rather anguished posting. The Potwell Inn, since it’s imaginary, has no cash-in value and we’re perpetually hard-up so there’s no stately home, not even the flat we live in, or anything much else to leave our descendants except an earth capable of sustaining them.

So we need to get on with it because we’re not going to last forever

Look at that angelica at the top of the page. Like all its cousins in the genus Apiaceae from alexanders to hogweed it is staggeringly beautiful in the early spring as it emerges from its winter sleep. Same too for the crozier like leaf forms of emerging bracken and ferns – they make you stop and fill you with wonder and they can, if you let them, suggest that the natural condition of the earth is beautiful. You might say that hemlock water dropwort isn’t beautiful because it’s deadly poisonous, and so is every part of the yew tree except the red fruit surrounding the seed, so too the foxglove. But of course none of them are in the least dangerous so long as you recognise them and treat them with respect. The problem is that the vast majority of us don’t recognise them and respect for the wild increases the more we understand about it; and that’s a shame because the very things we need most, may be quietly hiding there in the immensity of the natural world.

I write about the allotment because it brings me face to face with the food we eat.  Often on my knees, I weed quietly between the rows and I try to know the name of every wild plant I’m discarding in favour of our preferred crops. In fact I absolutely love spending a contemplative hour hand weeding, almost lying at ground level pinching them out between thumb and finger. Lovely, but also a great teacher of the basic ethic of proper gardening which is that we only possess the capacity to dispose, never to compel. But agribusiness has no time for disposing.  Money in a hurry needs results, predictability and certainty.  Humility in the face of nature is a sign of weakness and weeds are considered as ‘overheads’ – even people, the ones who work in the fields, are regarded as ‘overheads’ – no more than cells on a spreadsheet. We see the results in the earth.  After decades of intensive cultivation, the stones stick out through the earth like the bones of a starving human being. Hedges are torn up and so the birds no longer sing, and gigantic tractors stride across the fields microdosing chemical insecticides and fertilizers under the instruction of their satnavs.

I write about food because at the Potwell Inn we regard the growing, the preparation of food and eating it together around a table as a sacramental activity.  I write about art because – to pinch a line from Peter Shaffer’s play Equus – “without worship you shrink”.

I’m struggling to find words for this new mood. but there is a connection. Maybe an unwelcome reminder of my own mortality has brought the vulnerability of the earth into much sharper focus.  In the same way we take our own existence for granted until some accident or illness reminds us otherwise, so we comfortably assume that the earth on which – from which – we derive our existence, is always there.  It’s one of those givens like gravity and tides. But it’s not and if we really think about it we know that’s the case.

But how do we change anything? The starting point, I’m sure, is to ease back on the nagging and move forwards on wonder. Maybe what we need is not to spread the understanding of the present linked crises of climate change and environmental degradation but to re-enchant the natural world – because what we revere and love, we protect. Which brings me back to the allotment.

What’s the point of herbs? Look – mint, chives and rosemary.  Elsewhere on the allotment in various beds and corners there are angelica, lovage, dill and fennel; several thymes, sage, coriander, tarragon, other flavours of mint and parsley.  They’re amongst the most resilient plants in the garden, getting on without any great attention while we fuss over keeping the chillies and aubergines warm.  They enliven our food and provide inumerable oils and essences whose healing properties have been studied and used for millennia. Scientists come and go, along with their theories, but in the background and within the immense diversity of the plant world, trillions of rather beautiful and tiny leafy-laboratories have been syththesising substances beyond our dreams since the beginnings of life on earth. They have no marketing departments, no PR budgets, patents or guardians except us.

IMG_5178Being old often means being invisible.  You get used to being walked off the pavement by much younger people so absorbed in their mobile phones and their busy lives that you feel you’re an obstacle. And yet yesterday I went into a local bookshop and was struck forcibly by the fact that Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” was selling by the dozen to those selfsame people. ‘Wonderful’, I thought, ‘more allies’, and yet you couldn’t blame them for thinking that we baby boomers are at least a part of the problem, because it happened during our years of vitality. There was a vegan food fair at Green Park station yesterday and although I was a bit puzzled by ‘vegan fish and chips’ and vegan hot dogs’, I refuse to be scornful and dismissive because long after we’ve left the scene, these beautiful, idealistic young people will have their chance to roll back the damage of industrial food production. Meanwhile the best thing we can do is to supplement the TV natural history documentaries with real hands-on experience of the wild. Nature’s not a safari park, and we learn more about nature by squeezing a mint leaf from a plant we’ve grown on the windowsill than watching any number of films – and that mention of mint leads me to think about peas.  The douce Provence peas we sowed in the autumn are coming into flower even though they’re barely six inches tall.

  • and the story about Jacob wrestling with an angel at the edge of the river he’d just crossed, leaving behind everything he’d known and striking out into the future is one of my absolute favourite Old Testament stories. You don’t have to be remotely religious to be inspired by it.

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In an ideal world I’d grow more flowers

IMG_5112But we don’t live in an ideal world – even at the Potwell Inn, and so even photos like this are compromised by the fact that the last touch of sun from a beautiful day was just disappearing behnd the trees. On the other hand, when we went up in the morning to plant the last few potatoes, the sun was reaching the whole of the plot after its winter sleep. Roughly speaking it reaches all parts directly between the two equinoxes, which means that for the whole of the growing season we’re no worse off for sun than our neighbours at the top of the slope and much better protected from the wind all year round. Prospective allotmenteers often reject the plots at the bottom of the site, especially if they come in mid winter with the ground frozen hard, and it’s worth remembering that it can take several seasons to get the measure of any piece of ground.  I’m quite sure that real allotments – as opposed to the imaginary variety – all have their different challenges, and waiting for the perfect plot to come along is a recipe for never doing any gardening. Half the fun is knowing your patch of earth and working with it to produce some food.  There’s an issue of mindset here – piece of ground isn’t a blank canvas, it’s a complex ecosystem that you can only join on its own terms. The saddest thing is when new allotmeteers take on a plot, blitz in in spring and sow or plant anything and everything only to see the weeds reassert themselves and the crops fail in the sumer.

But to return to the starting point, I love flowers and I’d dearly love to grow more of them but with limited space it’s a matter of priority to grow food and so our compromise is to grow as many beautiful insect and bee attractors as we can.

These are lifted from Ken Thompson’s excellent book “The Sceptical Gardener” –

  • Of the lavenders Hidcote Giant is shown as better than Hidcote
  • Marjoram
  • Cardoon
  • Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
  • Echinops – Globe Thistles
  • Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
  • Borage
  • Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
  • Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
  • Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage, Whorled Clarey

The photo at the top of the posting is of our globe artichokes which, with a bit of luck will flower this year.  Yesterday we were casting around for somewhere to plant three angelicas we’d raised from seed and they can grow to very tall plants so they needed to be somewhere they wouldn’t stifle the neighbours.  It’s a gamble but I though the two old toughies could fight it out between them. We grew angelica in a previous garden and it self-seeded freely for several years and then disappeared, but it’s a lovely flowerhead that attracts insects (like all its cousins in the Apiaceae) and better still, the stalks are edible.  I’m desperate to make a bit of crystallised angelica for the Christmas sherry trifle!

So flowers that attract pollinators and that you can eat are a double whammy.  We scour the books looking for likely companion plants, and grow herbs wherever we can.  We’ve got two specific herb beds one for tall ones and the other for short ones – drrr – not exactly Gertrude Jekyll but it works for us, and that’s all that matters. Last week we spent a happy hour just chewing herb leaves – how sad is that? There’s an empty patch in the herb bed where we’re hoping last year’s begamot will eventually wake up and show its head but who knows?

The chillies, aubergines and peppers are all roaring along in the propagators and will have to be displaced this week by the tomatoes.  Hello summer, goodbye floorspace! And we ‘solved’ the oversupply of seed potatoes by planting all the Red Duke of York in big bags and pinching half a bed for the Sarpo Mira. We even found time to have an afternoon snooze in the sunshine – the very essence of allotmenteering.