Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

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No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.

 

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