I’ve been feeling just a bit curmudgeonly this last few weeks – a combination of living in political chaos, fag end of winter blues, problems with the campervan, rising damp, reading too many books about climate change and wondering how on earth we’re going to sort this mess out.
I do have an antidote for it all – and it’s getting back to the stove – making stock, baking bread, baking cakes, that sort of thing. I also notice that when I’m feeling a bit glum I also eat really badly, and suddenly, cakes, biscuits, toast made from white bread, convenience food and general junk look endlessly fascinating, so getting back to the stove sorts that particular temptation out, well – all except for the cakes. The other antidote, the one Madame favours, is sowing seeds, and so once again I’m sharing the kitchen with a busy propagator.
The last remedy is going through my photos and looking at all the lovely things I spotted last year – and that’s what I was doing when I found this photo, taken by Madame, of me skulking the cliff path at St Davids and making a list. That’s my waterproof notebook in my hand, my stick and my new hat and my old space pen, Swiss army knife, X10 pocket magnifier in my pocket. In the bag too is a copy of Rose, “Wildflower Key” and a couple of fold out keys for grasses and lichens. If you want to know what paradise looks like this is it – although possibly a less knobbly pair of legs would improve it a bit. I couldn’t be more happy than I am when I’m out in the sunshine amongst the plants and insects and birds. Just a little way further down the path last autumn we picked enough wild mushrooms to make the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.
Oh and we’ve got miniature tulips flowering in the window boxes – along with the irises and daffodils – I think that’s quite mad but it’s true. The remnants of storm Ciara are still howling through, and looking out of the window just now, the sky had that yellowish hue that looks like sleet or snow on the way. Our son just rang from Birmingham to say that it’s snowing hard there. These certainly are confusing times, but I try not to let it get to me too much. This week we’ll go and collect a load of hot horse manure for the hotbed and in a couple of weeks we’ll be flat out again on the allotment.
Two pictures that seem, to me, to express a parting of the ways that’s so important the future of the earth depends on us taking the right direction. The first was taken in Portscathoe, Cornwall in October 2014. A green lane and bridleway that we often used, and which had ancient hedges on either side was flailed, presumably to make space for farm equipment to travel up and down. The second was our organic hotbed, taken this afternoon. Notwithstanding the difference in the seasons, the lane will never properly recover, and the displaced small mammals, insects and birds may never return. The hotbed, in its various iterations will go on providing good food and spent manure to the soil for as long as we are able to tend it.
Last time we went to Heligan I took with me Wendell Berry’s collection of essays “The world ending fire” and it lit me up. So too this last visit when I read Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding” and followed that with my latest read – “Green and Prosperous Land” by the economist Dieter Helm. It’s so easy to get despairing and cynical about the state of the earth and it’s vital the we don’t get sucked into a mindset that plays into the hands of the agrichemical industry and the climate change deniers. I spend a lot of time trying to make connections between what’s possible for an individual or a couple like us and the sort of global change that’s needed. It’s no accident that the isolated individualism of our culture plays into the sense of helplessness.
Yesterday I was talking to a leading light in our neighbouring community garden -with which we share an ugly boundary of Cupressus. When I explained a plan to replace it with a more natural hedgerow he agreed completely and then spent the next five minutes explaining why it would be difficult, the Parks Department would never agree and they’d make us pay for it all anyway. He was probably correct in every sense and yet …… ?
I know I quoted the old management saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” only last week, and it’s still true – but that’s not a reason for giving up. It just means that we need to go about it in a different way, by changing hearts and minds.
There was a warm southeasterly wind today. It was so strong it pulled out all the pegs on one side of a net guarding our chard from the pigeons, and left it flapping helplessly. We fixed it and moved on to other jobs. We don’t talk much on the allotment, we both know what needs doing and we seem to divide the work without much discussion, each according to our preferences and abilities. It is a place of sanity and re-enchantment, and a place where our 250 square metres can represent the whole earth in our experiment in low impact living. It is, in truth, a culture of its own and the truly radical thing about new cultures is that they’re caught and not taught, and they don’t care a fig about power, wealth, gender or age. Individually the choices we make don’t change the world much. But collectively? that’s a different matter altogther. Collectively we can change things if we can only believe that it’s possible.
I wouldn’t dare say that this is the way to make a hot bed because, like the vast majority of people, I’ve never made one before, and the only one I’ve ever actually seen was at the Lost Gardens of Heligan where they import many tons of horse manure from Newmarket for their lovely pineapple house. As I said yesterday it’s pretty hard to lay your hands on the good stuff and I know, from talking to one of the Heligan gardeners last year, that they had a similar problem with sourcing the right kind of manure to get the heat they needed. You wouldn’t go all the way to Newmarket from Cornwall if you didn’t have to. On the other hand we’re not trying to grow pineapples and I don’t have any friends in Newmarket, so hopefully Annie’s stuff (she’s no slouch as a rider) will do. I can only promise to report honestly on how this experiment turns out for good or ill.
I have to give credit to Jack First’s book –“Hot Beds: How to grow early crops using an age-old technique”2nd Edition. I bought it last year and it’s a mine of information. There’s plenty of other information out there on the internet and after a lot of research I came to the conclusion that there’s no such thing as a perfect design but there are some good pointers. For a small bed like ours the most useful advice came on the Garden Organic website which suggested a proportion of 3:1 for manure over topping.
Just as an aside here, I’ve got a bit of a thing about perfectionism and following exact instructions. Nature doesn’t function that way at all, and so the last thing in the worldI would want to claim is any universal validity for my methods. This is just what I did – nothing more. My advice is be brave, use what you’ve got and forget experts.
Anyway – the procedure goes something like this. Build a box – mine was solid but I may yet have to drill holes in it to let air in. On the internet I’ve seen apparently successful systems with slattted bars or made from pallets. Fill it up to two thirds with fresh manure – should I have had more straw in mine? honestly I don’t know yet. Then I topped up the manure with 1/3 by approximate weight of a 50/50 mixture of topsoil and good compost with some horticultural sand added. As you see I mixed it in the wheelbarrow, raked it level and covered it with a layer of polythene held in place with a pallet.
Will it work? Well, I checked the temperature of the manure against the ambient temperature in the nearby soil. The soil temperature was at 5C and the manure (after less than 24 hours in the box), was 12.5C. You can see a soil thermometer stuck into the soil layer so I can monitor how things are going. If it fails the whole lot will be composted, and if it really flies I’ll put a couple of deckchairs on top for Madame and me to warm our bottoms.
What it offers is the potential of increasing our heated propagator space by a factor of three and increase the length of the productive season by maybe six weeks. Apart from being hard work, what is there to lose?
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.
The answer, of course is one millihelen, that’s to say one thousand times less beautiful than Helen of Troy. If we’re going to consider a scale, the ugliest child I ever saw was in Kingswood, on the eastern edge of Bristol. I was in a thoughtful mood that day because someone had made me his executor and next of kin without asking me (or telling me) and I was walking up Two Mile Hill to see a dodgy solicitor. My dark mood was deepened by spotting this child bearing down on me in his pushchair, being pushed by his obviously doting mother. He was squat and almost bald with a thick neck and such a malevolent expression he could have curdled milk at 200 yards. I often think of him now, aged maybe sixteen, and I wonder if his doting parents still show photos of him to all their friends.
You see, I write this blog and I post all these photos of the alllotment as it develops but frankly, other peoples’ children, holiday snaps and graduation photos rarely convey the emotional freight that the owners project on to them. Even more so, I imagine, with photos of other peoples’ allotments. If I switch off my pride for a moment, most of them – especially the ones taken in the winter – are a bit of a specialist interest. Those recyled boards on the new hotbed spent last year on the edge of the strawberry bed – oh for goodness sake! is this supposed to be interesting? Well it is to me, but I’m an allotmenteer. The plot is seen with the eyes of love, endlessly productive and immaculate.
Did you ever see W D Griffiths brilliant documentary film “Nanook”? There’s a scene where it becomes the childrens’ responsibility to warm father’s boots ready for him to venture out into the frozen wastes and catch fish. On a bad day they (the boots not the children) might be so frozen that they needed to be chewed – yes you read me right – they needed to be chewed in order to make them soft enough to get them on. My children are not interested particularly in gardening and Madame has better things to do and so there was no-one available on the allotment this morning to chew my gloves which had been put away wet and therefore were frozen solid this morning when I tried to put them on. Temperatures had dropped to -3C overnight. Worse still, I couldn’t make a flask of tea because the floor of the Potwell Inn kitchen had been mopped and I had been forbidden. This is the real allotment experience that you never read about in those hideously expensive coffee table books. But the hotbed is complete and ready to receive its load of precious manure tomorrow. I had to buy a big polythene sheet this morning to line the back of the car. It’s not the first exceptionally smelly load we’ve carried – I ‘ll never forget the rotting seaweed – and it certainly won’t be the last, but actually soaking the seats with poo will probably provoke Madame.
I was so pleased with finishing the hotbed that I carried on and finished the long-planned border to the east edge of the plot, so I can level the path and make it less lethally dangerous. But I always underestimate the muscle power required to use the post-rammer and always regret it a couple of hours later. No it’s not angina you idiot you just never know when to stop! Et Voilá , the right hand photo seen with the eyes of love I’ll give it at least 750 millihelens. But then I’m the proud father