There’s nothing quite like the slimy, viscous quality of re-purposed boards when they’re coated in mud and frozen. You need a tracksuit under your overalls, thick gloves and knee pads when it’s this cold. The promised snow never arrived, possibly because Bath is in a kind of bowl, surrounded by hills and only divided by the valley of the River Avon. So being at river level we get a degree of protection – that’s the upside. The downside is that a mass of polluted air often hangs over us and that’s bad news for asthmatics like me. The City Council have been refusing to deal with the problem ever since the Buchanan Report 50 years ago. We breathe fumes and they see tourist revenue. Every couple of years the set up another committee and kick the whole thing into the long grass.
However, the sun was shining and I really wanted to get on with building the hotbed today so that we can drop the hot horse manure straight into it on Friday. It couldn’t be a simpler concept. I’ve built a rectangular 4’X3′ frame that can drop into any of the raised beds we’ve built. It will hold about 10 bags of manure capped with good quality compost. The picture shows it upside down because it’s not quite finished. In February of each year the frame is filled with the good stuff and then by the end of the season it’s all become well rotted and very rich compost. So we’ll lift the frame off and spread the contents over the bed and move the frame to another place. It occupies just under half a bed and so in 50 years time, when I’m 132 we’ll be back at the beginning. Maybe we need more frames! but you get the general idea. We allotmenteers are among the world’s greatest optimists. We can see into the future, or at least to the end of the next season and we know that with a degree of good fortune and skill most of it will come to pass. What shall we grow in it? We’re discussing that right now but some very early potatoes would be nice. We grew ‘Jazzy’ in bags last season and they were pretty good but too close together.
My robin – well, the robin – is becoming ever more courageous and is beginning to dart very close whenever I’m breaking the soil. The ground is frozen solid down to a couple of inches, so it was easier to walk on it, but I made an interesting discovery when I moved some beetroot plants that were in the way. Underneath the plants the earth was still soft. You can see just how well the earth is protected by growing plants.
We’ve had to remove quite a few crops as the beds were being built so Madame has been making soup almost every day. Today it was parsnip soup – fabulous!
But the plan and the reality are always worlds apart. There’s no sun, no rain and no snow on the plan and yet without them nothing would grow – and that’s why allotmenteering is so much fun. All day the weather forecasters were warning us ancients to stay indoors or face the terrible consequences . Stuff them, I had a great time and I was as warm as toast. With my flask of tea and a stool to perch on – life doesn’t get much better.
This is the season where the weather can be all over the place, and today as we walked down to the allotment we noticed the automatic greenhouse vents were open. It was no more than 5C with a cold north westerly wind blowing and the ground was still frosted, but the sun was intense and a very little 6’X4′ greenhouse can soon heat up even in the winter. If we were on a mission it was mainly to get the three recently finished beds under cover before the snow. They need to warm up ready for the early plantings, but in addition I wanted to clear the way to build the hotbed, the wormery and the last two raised beds, as well as get rid of a few of the really nasty weeds – like bindweed and couch.
If we do get a substantial fall I’ll need to go up and clear the nets of snow. In the past we’ve seen very strong steel frames bend under the weight. I received another photo this morning of the rapidly growing pile of very fresh and hopefully very hot horse manure that my friend Annie is saving for us and so I sorted out a dozen empty compost bags so we can transport the manure back in our little car. Really I’d love a pickup – we had one many years ago and I loved it – but Madame very properly reminds me that you can’t take grandchildren out for the day in the back of a pickup. Warm clothes? No probably not.
But it doesn’t take long on the allotment before an ethical dilemma creeps in, trolling me at the back of my mind. We’re aware of all the downsides of bonfires and we compost the overwhelming majority of our household and allotment waste but after 50 years of trying every which way of killing bindweed and couch without chemicals, a very slow bonfire is the only one that’s 100% efficient. Round here they’re called ‘burnabouts’ or sometimes ‘couch fires’ and the trick is to get a really hot fire burning in the incinerator before adding the matted wet roots. For the first couple of minutes it kicks off but very quickly it settles down to not much more than a whisp of smoke and steam. It’s rather like burning charcoal – after a hot start you restrict the access of oxygen and then, with a bit of judicious topping up and maybe some wood chips sprinkled in now and again, it will burn immensely slowly for a week and reduce the weeds to ash that then goes straight on to the compost heap. I know that some people swear by stacking it up and wrapping it in black plastic, or – even worse – just chucking it on the compost heap and rendering the whole heap a nursery bed for weeds. Sometimes you just have to do the least worst thing you can think of.
We at the Potwell Inn tolerate perfectionists – after all nobody’s perfect – but we resist being nagged into a state of paralysis, and when in doubt we turn to the evidence before we explore our feelings. So yesterday I was innocently browsing on a farming website to try to find an answer to my question ‘what would happen to British agriculture if we all went vegan?’ and to my immense surprise I discovered the comments section had been infested with trolls who were pouring the most vicious abuse on farmers in general as if they were ‘all the same’.
I’ll pass on any comment about the trolls – they have to live with themselves and that can’t be a lot of fun. But here’s an interesting fact, a real fact about which it’s completely imposible to get emotional because it is the case. I’ve seen it suggested that if all the farms turned their land over to growing pulses and vegetables we could save the planet from the coming environmental crisis, avoid the ecological crisis which is its twin sibling, and stop climate change in its tracks.
If you take a look at a map of the UK marked up according to the quality and function of its available land, you see immediately that virtually the whole south west, with its high rainfall and warm weather, is mainly suitable for mixed and dairy farming. You couldn’t convert it all to growing pulses even if you wanted to because the land just isn’t suitable. If then you look at all of the hilly land, so that’s most of Wales and Scotland, again however much we need soya and lentils we couldn’t grow it there. The only land which is perfectly suited to arable crops is (no surprise) the flat fertile land in the south east. So if mixed dairy, sheep and pig farming were to disappear overnight it would barely add more than a few thousand acres to the available arable land, cost tens of thousands of jobs and increase the 40% of our food that we already need to import just at the time when it seems likely that the cost of food will rocket.
I loathe industrialised farming and we try never to buy its products so in no sense do I want to ‘defend’ industrialized extraction of the soil’s fertility and the impoverishment of the environment.
The only way forward is to abandon perfectionism and move forward on whatever fronts we can. Yes we all need to eat less meat if we’re not already eating no meat at all. That’s a good outcome that can only happen if we refuse to demonize people with alternative views. The future needs to be ‘caught not taught’. So low intensity mixed organic farming – both rural and urban wherever feasible – with grass fed cattle is worth pursuing over and against intensive pig units and cattle ‘feedlots’. Some will argue that it would put the price of meat beyond the poorest and that’s true so long as we refuse to utterly transform our whole economic system. Market gardening around the big urban conurbations can save many food miles. Allotments are so productive they can be expanded wherever there’s a space, with all the health and welfare advantages they provide. Most people are not even cooks, let alone chefs, and so we’ll need to introduce a whole new generation to the skills we need to make palatable sustainable food unless we want the food manufacturing processors to gain ownership of veganism and vegetarianism and sell it back to us. We need to offer mentors and affordable courses for new allotmenteers. The battle’s hardly started and certainly not lost but there’s nothing to be gained from preaching from the high moral ground, and a world to be won by embracing farmers and small producers and above all buying their products thoughtfully. Some years ago I met John Alvis, a dairy farmer and cheesemaker from Lye Cross Farm near Cheddar, at a Young Farmers meeting. I was deeply impressed by his thoughtfulness, his commitment to educating children about farming and cheesemaking, and his whole approach to land stewardship. Why make an enemy when you can make a friend?
On the right, below, the site for the 6’X4′ hotbed in the space beween the espalier Lord Lambourne apple and the greenhouse. Hopefully the adjacence of a little heat to the apple tree may offer a bit of protection against late frosts. Theories, theories – we’ll see how it turns out. If Annie’s muck refuses to heat up, it can go into the compost with more seaweed and some of the straw I got hold of when I was going to try to make a hotbed with straw and urine. The very mention of using our urine on the allotment makes some people so queazy they stop nicking our stuff altogether. I think we might put some signs up – what about
all crops are regularly blessed with human urine – please help yourself!