Beware false dawns

If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.

Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!

Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.

However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.

The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.

Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.

Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.

It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman

Here it is – just waiting for the skin!

A touch of frost, then …

IMG_20200512_180759

You win some and then you lose some, and last night the evil chill of an east wind brought some serious frost damage to the site. We’d taken what we thought were reasonable precautions, and so we weren’t as badly hit as some of our neighbours whose potatoes were scythed off, but nonetheless we lost a few plants; some runner beans whose protective fleece was blown off, some marigolds in the full force of the wind and the growing tips of the grape vine, which will soon regrow, judging by previous mishaps. Being veterans of allotment disappointments we have spares in the greenhouse and in the flat too so we’ll manage – but it’s hard not to reproach yourself for not doing more.

But we knew it was a bad one from the moment we looked out of the window on to the green, where the parked cars had a rime of frost on their roofs and so it wasn’t long before we were up at the allotment assessing the damage. I really hate losing plants – somehow it feels personal. The temperature inside the greenhouse dropped to 2C and by the look of things outside it must have fallen a degree or two below zero outside. My first thought was that I must get cracking on my elevated coldframes over the compost bins – certainly before next winter. The second thought was a bit of a ponder on storing some of the daytime heat we often get this time of the year and releasing it underneath the frames at night. I’ve seen it suggested in permaculture books that stones are goood heat ballast and many years ago I saw an experiment at the Centre for Alternative Technology in Machynlleth in which a recycled household radiator painted black and behind a bit of double glazed window glass was heating water to about 80C on a sunny day.

Charles Dowding blogged earlier today that these days are known in weather lore as the ‘ice nights’. I’ve never heard that expression but I’m certainly going to put them in the diary for next year. I’d say it’s been a funny old year except I think I’ve said that every year for decades!

Elderflower

I can’t say that making the first batch of elderflower cordial was one of those wonderful spontaneous moments – it wasn’t – it’s been planned really carefully because the best flowers need to be picked in the sunshine and just as they’re opening from the bud stage and so weather forecasts played a big part in the decision to pick the first lot yesterday. Here in lockdown there’s another factor because we’re surrounded by competitors with the same idea. Even then, there are other factors.  Elderflowers can be fragrantly (flagrantly?) evocative of lazy summer days or they can smell like tomcat marking which is an acquired taste. So out we whizzed on to the secret harvesting site in full view of several hundred flats, wielding a trug and two pairs of scissors.  It’s difficult to be furtive when you’re carrying a trug. By the time we got home the front of my hat was bright yellow with pollen and we had something over fifty flower heads.

IMG_20200510_213339After much zesting and squeezing of lemons and oranges the mixture was submerged in boiling water to rest for 24 hours while it absorbed all the flavour.  This morning the straining began and it’s been quite vexing because the flowers are so full of pollen they’re clogging the linen jelly bag.  I think we’ll have to accept that this first batch is going to contain a lot of pollen which – after all – tends to settle out when the bottles are left standing.

The next challenge is finding enough clean and empty clip top bottles.  Normally if we were short I’d pop along the road and buy some more; but this year we have to be self-sufficient.  Cleaning, scrubbing and sterilising takes a while, and finding useable rubber washers, hidden all over the kitchen takes ages too. So that’s a job for later this evening.

Once all the preparations were done we went for a walk along the canal and discovered that there are areas where the rewilding project is working beautifully. After an initial burst of (often inappropriate) wildflower meadow seed a couple of years ago, the local botanical bullies took over last year and I’d thought that it was all over for the rarer species; but the native wildflowers are nothing if not resilient and so this morning, parts of the riverside were groaning with interesting plants which have – at last – been left unmolested by the strimmers. I just love the feeling of greeting old friends like the greater celandine and the burdocks as well as a lovely stand of vipers bugloss which must have come from the re-seeding because I’ve never seen it there before, but which has obviously found a small site greatly to its liking. It was so lovely to walk alongside the river and then the canal with almost shoulder high plants – as if we were walking in a country lane.  Ragged robin, lady’s smock, green alkanet, wall valerian, cow parsley, winter hellebore pretending to be coltsfoot.  Don’t ever dismiss them as ‘weeds’! I don’t think the towpath was ever more beautiful – or quieter.

And so to the allotment where we needed to make preparation for a threatened frost, and once again – hopefully for the last time this season – the plot looks like a Christo sculpture. We should see the night time temperatures rise consistently above 10C in about a week’s time, and then we can really start to get the plants out into their final positions.

 

A weaponless archer on the green and frost imminent.

Of course there are compensations for living in a flat during the lockdown. Aside from the fact that we have the allotment, there are two quite different vistas from the windows on the north and south sides of the building. From my study window I look out on the backs of a row of Georgian buildings; they’re mostly flats but there are Airbnb lettings and a burger takeaway too. Down in the car park we can see who’s in and who’s out. On warm summer evenings there are often improvised shibeens among the students and hen parties; and standing down in the yard we can often pick up the aroma of Caribbean cooking from our neighbour’s house.  It’s a typical city kind of landscape; yesterday a pair of gulls were mating on the rooftop opposite – more noise to come no doubt. In more normal times a stream of cars and buses grind noisily down the road beyond.

IMG_20200413_141957We sleep at the back, and last night the shutters kept blowing open as the northeast wind  increased, moaning and snuffling at the gap in the window. The shutters have never done that before and the first time it happened was an eerie experience – they didn’t swing open with a crash, they creaked open – quite noisily – and light flooded into the bedroom. The security lights in the yard are so sensitive they’re triggered by the least mote of dust and so at night they’re on pretty much all the time. That doesn’t trouble me any more than the extractor fan on the burger bar that goes on until three – they’re the comforting sounds of being at home.  Very (very) occasionally a tawny owl joins in the fun, and gulls seem to do gullish murmerings at any hour of the night. But the unexpectedness of the shutters creaking open in the wind  did wake me up – it was all very ghost train.

Out at the front, on the green this morning it was quiet. Normally it would be populated by gossiping dog walkers, joggers and cyclists on their way to work but today it was quite empty apart from a lone young man in the centre doing what I initially thought was a variant of Tai Chi. I was fascinated by the way he seemed to take possession of the space – it’s a bit of an amphitheatre, which is why it’s so good for people-watching. The wind continued unabated and young leaves were straining at their attachments.  Even in the relatively short grass I could see ripples of energy travelling across in what seemed to be the opposite direction to the wind.

The young man’s practice was both gathered and fierce.   One lone dog walker appeared and seemed to be implicitly directed to take a distant loop around him, even the dog gave him a wide berth.  There were very slow movements as he seemed to rotate, taking in a 360 degree view of his position, and then there were positions that suggested drawing a bow, followed by a flicking of the wrists and fingers that projected a tangible energy outwards. Sometimes you get the feeling that there’s a degree of grandstanding going on with these outdoor exercisers, but not here.  I stood there watching him, pretty much transfixed, for half an hour before he walked slowly back to his building entrance leaving  me with a hundred unanswered questions. I must try to find out what he was up to.

Meanwhile the forecast is for frost over the next two nights and so we went up to the allotment to wrap in fleece anything that might be susceptible. Gardening is always something of a gamble and going for very early crops always runs the risk of a wipeout by a late frost – the rewards on the other hand are considerable and we usually take a risk but keep some reserves in the warm, just in case. The last recorded frost for our area is May 6th and on one occasion we were truly burned for a frivolous attempt to get the first runner beans on the site by a frost on that date. However, we were able to replace the brown and shrivelled ones with healthy replacements from the greenhouse (much to the amazement of our neighbours) and all was well in the end. I set the last two supports for the cordon tomatoes in place, but they won’t be needed for another month yet.  The allotment now looks like the setting for a zombie movie –

Back at the Potwell Inn I’ve been continuing with Patience Gray, and here’s a couple of quotations from the introduction to “Fasting and Feasting”  that may explain why I hold her writing in such high esteem.

Once we lose touch with the spendthrift aspect of nature’s provisions epitomized in the raising of a crop, we are in danger of losing touch with life itself.  When Providence supplies the means, the preparation and sharing of food takes on a sacred aspect.  The fact that every crop is of a short duration promotes a spirit of making the best of it while it lasts and conserving part of it for future use. It also leads to periods of fasting and periods of feasting, which represent the extremes of the artist’s situation as well as the Greek Orthodox approach to food and the Catholic insistence on fasting, now abandoned.

Patience Gray lived in Tuscany, Catalonia, Naxos and Puglia with the sculptor Norman Monnens who, rather like Madame, is never named in the book but referred to as “the sculptor.  She was herself an artist in jewellery as well as one of the finest food writers (and spiritual guides) of her generation.