Seasonal earthly delights

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It’s funny how other people see allotmenteering as a kind of gentle therapy in which you potter about the garden very ……. very ……..  slowly ……. and mindfully …… taking in the sights and scents and sounds whilst healing your mind with thoughts about the beauty of nature. In my experience you can only do that in other peoples’ gardens, and then only if they’re very good gardeners. It’s amazing how catching your silk meditation robes on a rusty nail can disrupt the pattern of good thoughts!

This is one of those times in the gardening year when meditation has to give way to the huge list of jobs to be done.  Plants can be very restful but at times they spend their time shouting at you – have you seen my leaves wilting? Will you please re-pot me immediately or I’ll expire and then you’ll be sorry ……!” And it’s hard to keep your zen composure when you’re pouring five litres of your own carefully saved urine on to the compost heap. Slugs can destroy a row of seedlings in a single night and so you have to deal with murderous thoughts of revenge.  One vegan allotmenteer on our site told us she was gathering slugs on her allotment and then roasting and grinding them up to make a deterrent powder.  Even I’d never thought of that one! The weather can turn on you like a banshee and confound the forecasters by shriveling the leaves on your beans  – oh my – it’s nature red in tooth and claw out there, and so I’m inclined to growl at people who insist that it must be therapeutic.  Really it’s up there with playing a musical instrument, writing a blog or painting landscapes – very hard work that occasionally offers intense rewards. 

So the delights of gardening could be over-egged if you focus entirely on the hard work aspect, but the real pleasure comes with harvesting. I never quite know whether to describe purple sprouting broccoli – which is effectively a biennial – as the final delight of last year or the first in the current year. It’s been there on the plot taking up space since it was sown in March or April of the previous year, and it really does take up space. Half a dozen plants is far more than we really need, but when it comes to planting out we usually put in a couple of spares – just in case – and that’s about thirty square feet taken up for a little over 12 months.  Every year around October we mutter about not growing it any more and then by the following March we’re urging it on, desperate to taste the first sweet florets. Then – and this is one of the great ironies of allotmenteering – after let’s say three weeks or a month of cropping, the pleasure begins to pale a little and we’re eyeing up the space. Seasonal foods are like holiday romances – intensity followed by – let’s be honest – boredom.  Who hasn’t looked at the 500th courgette and wondered what to do with it?

So this week the purple sprouting plants (trees) came out and the plot was immediately re-sown.  Once the flowers start to open it becomes a losing battle and so off they went to the compost heap complete with their intractable woody stems, smashed into fibres and pulp with the back of a small axe. Now the asparagus is gathering momentum and we have far more lettuces than we could possibly eat, will we ever get bored with them? The answer of course is yes, because seasonal food is – well – seasonal! Our tiny savoy cabbage seedlings wouldn’t cut the mustard in midsummer, but come the autumn they’ll be objects of desire. Time like an ever rolling stream bears all its fruits away – but they come back next years as fresh and beautiful as ever. Seasonal food, if I dare be serious for a moment – teaches us something about love and loss.  If there’s a therapeutic lesson in gardening it’s probably something to do with carpe diem – seizing the moment. Supermarket food is stale and dull; costly to the earth, fatal to the digestion and it’s unreliable as we now understand only too well as we (well, not me) stand in endless queues separated by an ocean of anxiety.

IMG_20200507_074922Last night, after a hard day gardening, I was baking and decided to try to imitate the old split tin loaves I went up the road to buy, as a child. It’s curious but just as everyone else seems to have turned to making sourdough, I’ve spent more time baking with yeast and trying to recapture the loaves of my childhood. I was particularly pleased with the results of the deep slash. To get that effect you need to prove the loaf under a tea towel rather than in a sealed and moist atmosphere so that the rapidly expanding loaf, when it goes into the hot oven, finds it easier to expand through the slash than by lifting the slightly toughened top. This was largely white flour with a handful of wholemeal spelt to liven up the flavour and texture. I’ve yet to produce one of those exuberant cottage loaves that resist rational slicing so have to be torn apart so everyone can get a piece of crust.

IMG_20200507_154625The closure of the garden centres has left us to improvise our own potting composts from whatever ingredients we can find. Today I wanted to fill some large planters to put on the patio area, and so I emptied all the spring window boxes on to a polythene sheet mainly to get access to the grit and sand in them and then mixed in new soil and compost with a few handfuls of chicken manure pellets, and filled lots of big pots.  It was great fun and represented another step towards the allotment as it was first imagined.

This is the time of year when inattention can cost us dearly. We scan the weather forecast morning and night to see what might catch us out. This weekend, for instance, we’re expecting high winds and a ten degree drop in temperature – enough to unsettle  and set back some of the plants we’ve already got in the ground. As I type this I’m looking across my study to a propagator full of replacement borlotti and runner bean seedlings – just in case. Earlier in the week I set up some improvised wind screens with some jute sacks and insect netting to protect the strawberries from the anticipated east wind. Later in the year I think we’ll invest in some hazel wattle fence panels because although our prevailing winds are south westerly; east and north easterlies are almost always bad news. Earlier I finally got the water storage organised but there’s no sign of rain for the next two weeks so as the temperature hits 23C we have to hand water.  Every morning  we unpack the greenhouse to give the plants some sunshine therapy and then we put them back at night.

There are brief seasons where an allotment can run away with you, and this is one of them. Bindweed, which is never truly vanquished, can grow two inches a day; and annual seedlings blown from neglected patches can germinate in green drifts overnight. I can almost hear our plot thinking – thank goodness for the lockdown, there’s no prospect of them going off in the campervan for a fortnight! I’m not entirely sure I agree.

 

 

Equinox

I love these colours, they’re the colours of autumn for me. Every year the window boxes outside the flat seem to anticipate the change in the season by subtly changing colours. One by one the different species grow paler and drop out, leaving the geraniums as the last intense colour. The effect of this is to make it look as if we’ve done something incredibly clever, by designing the displays to anticipate the onset of autumn.  Nothing could be less true because it just seems to happen. When the last flowers drop off the geraniums the window boxes come down and are replaced with the spring bulbs which soon fill the windows with the sense of anticipation. We’ve always wanted to rotate three displays but planting out and maintaining six window boxes is more than we can afford so we make do with bare windows in the dead of winter. One day, perhaps, we’ll find six recyclable window boxes and achieve our year long plan.

Seasons are important and we’re so lucky to have them because they structure the year but more importantly they structure the imagination.  Sure, by the end of each season we’re liable to be thinking “I’ve had enough of this”  but we know that each period brings its own grace.  For me the long dark nights soon become a chore, but in just three months the days begin to lengthen again.  Round and round goes the clock and we are renewed.

Today we grabbed the forecast dry start to go up to the allotment and weed. It may be perverse but weeding is one of my very favourite jobs and since we broke all the ground up into beds it’s an absolute doddle because we can work from a dry woodchip path even in the rain. I remember a woman called Eileen who lived in one of my parishes.  She really needed a carer herself, but with a little support she was looking after her elderly mother and kept a beautiful garden which she would dig from end to end every year.  I’d often walk past and she would be out, even in the rain, with an old waterproof macintosh tied around her waist with baler twine, digging away until the job was done. I also took the funeral for a 104 year old who had moved in with his son at the age of 90 and dug the son’s garden saying it was a mess.  I should write more about these characters because they represented a hardy generation who never thought of themselves as exceptional, never used a latin name for a plant and could grow paving slab cuttings if you asked them.

The rain came soon enough but not before we’d harvested more vegetables for ourselves and released a pigeon that was captive in a neighbour’s net – it probably went straight back to eating everyone else’s cabbages. Pigeons seem especially to like Cavalo Nero which they can convert into an inverted umbrella frame in minutes.

It’s good to be back in the flat after our long travels around the country.  I’ve got a pile of reading to catch up with, most of it concerned with global heating and the ecological crisis, but the reading is going to be illuminated by what we discovered on the ground, talking to people – especially farmers – and observing fields, plants and insects in their different habitats. One thing is abundantly clear already,

 – we simply can’t go on as we have been.

It’s been another year on the allotment during which we finished nearly all the infrastructure, and which leaves us with huge gratitude for the productivity of the earth.  I’ve seen it suggested that allotments, (presumable well-run ones), can be ten times as productive as farmland. I’m always a bit suspicious of these attention grabbing figures, but it’s pretty obvious that when two of us focus our whole attention on to 250 square metres of land, the response is positive, and it’s worth reminding ourselves before we get too smug, that the depopulation of the countryside has been one driver of the growth in intensive farming, and another driver has been our insatiable desire for cheap food without regard to standards.

Perhaps we’re a bit quick to point the finger at all farmers when there are many who are concerned about the environment, and who do practice organic farming and are up to speed with no-till systems, sustainable mixed farming on a rotational basis and higher than basic welfare standards. Climbing on to the moral bandwagon and advocating universal vegetarianism or veganism could lead to more industrial food processing rather than less, and the destruction of more forest in order to grow more soya and grain. Allowing cattle to graze freely – especially in wooded pastures – puts the muck where it’s needed, and where it can be broken down quickly before it produces ammonia pollutants. If you’ve never tried raw milk straight from the cow, you’ve missed one of the great food treats.  I believe it is possible to run mixed dairy farms sustainably and without cruelty.  Whether or not to eat meat is an important moral decision and we must respect those who make a different choice from ourselves.

We don’t use any chemicals, but we use our own human urine all the time on the allotment – it’s perfectly safe diluted ten to one with water, it’s packed with bio-available nitrogen and it has no smell at all.  It’s storing it in huge silos and spraying the resultant slurry on the fields that creates much of the problem. So as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned  …..

  • Are we prepared to radically reduce our consumption of meat?- YES
  • Are we prepared to put up with a smaller range of fresher locally grown vegetables? – YES
  • Would we be prepared to pay more for better outcomes in farming? – YES

The answer will likely need some complex unravelling of an entrenched farming culture, and some hand-to-hand combat with powerful vested interests who will use their considerable political and media power to convince us that it’s all hopeless idealism and only new and more powerful ‘green’ technology and targeted chemicals will bring the promised land closer. The most powerful tool at our disposal would be the subsidy system which needs to be re-focused towards payment solely for ‘public goods’.  Subsidising farmers to cover good pasture land with crop trees isn’t the way forward, but creating wooded pasture or planting the right kind of trees on marginal land that can only produce a crop with heavy inputs of chemicals might well be. We’re bound to see alarmist headlines claiming that we’re all going to starve, but local authorities could be empowered or even instructed to provide much more land for allotments rather than allowing developers to build a few unaffordable homes while they bank good greenbelt land in order to keep houseprices prices up.  I’m not going to get into some of my wilder ideas – I write this merely to show that there may be better ways of achieving what we universally claim we want – healthy food, a healthy environment and an end to pollution and extinctions.

Autumn is the time for new beginnings and new plans – I love it, let’s do it!