Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!

Placating the gods of mortality?

 

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Not another dead leaf?” you may well ask, and I will admit to having a bit of  thing about them – because a leaf can be stunningly beautiful even if it did once belong to a red cabbage rather than a Japanese Acer in an arboretum. I get my pleasures where I can.  The fact that it looks a bit like the back of my hand on a bad day is neither here nor there because the gods of mortality are strictly neutral as to species.

This is one I just have to paint for its sheer delicacy, for the way it expresses the temporality and fragility of all living things and for its exquisite colours.

The world is a better place for this one dead cabbage leaf.

But isn’t it rather morbid to reflect on these things?  Christmas is coming and we’ll all have a jolly time and …..

One of my earliest memories is of making Christmas puddings with my mother – or at least my sister and me would watch while my mother, red faced, would mix the ingredients and give us our turn so we could make a Christmas wish, and then lower the pudding bowls  – covered in cotton torn from old sheets and tied around with string – and lowered into the wash boiler suspended from the copper stick. The copper stick outlasted the old boiler by several decades because it was still used to extract boiling washing from the super up-to-date twin tub washing machine. Everybody had a copper stick in those days, and I have a vague memory that our next door neighbour “Aunty Doreen” was fond of threatening us with hers.  Unlike most old boilers, though, ours never found its way into the garden and a new life containing a rampant mint plant. But my memory includes the reckless danger of lighting the gas ring under the boiler; of smelling the wet cotton and watching the steam condensing on the kitchen window for hours on end.

All of which may, or may not explain why making Christmas puddings is nine parts ritual to one part recipe; but I always feel that I’m channelling my mother when I do it. There’s an element of defiance in holding a feast when everything looks as if it’s finished, done for. The same goes for painting dead leaves, or for that matter writing a blog. It’s always an act of defiance, a two fingered salute to the gods of mortality and entropy.  We shall have our feast and celebrate all this unnecessary beauty for the sheer joy of it. No I don’t think we’re placating any gods, although it would please me enormously if we were annoying the gods of the economy, the gods of greed and selfishness, the gods of eternal growth and prosperity and especially the gods of industrial farming, along with all the other liars.

‘Seeing the world in a grain of sand’ is a bit of a stretch for me most of the time, but occasionally I catch a glimpse of it in a leaf, and it was leaves that occupied most of my morning.  As it got light I looked out of the window across the green and I could see leaves, scuttering along in the wind, piling up in drifts.  “Good” I thought – “There’ll be leaves up at the allotment” – and there were: several tons of them dropped off by the parks department. But don’t for a moment assume that allotmenteers are a peace loving equitable bunch of people who love nothing more than sharing.  The terrible truth is we only share our surpluses and not our shortages. The leaf season only lasts a few weeks and I just happened to be first on the scene this morning so I had to drop everything and haul leaves back because I knew that within hours our narrow eyed neighbours would be competing for every last leaf. Speed is essential and over the years I’ve evolved a rapid system using a 1.5 cubic metre woven sack.  It holds just the right number of leaves – probably four or possibly even five barrow loads – just a bit more than I can comfortably lift – but I’m prepared to be very uncomfortable when there’s free mulch about.  By the time our bin was full, pressed down and covered there were three more people working on the heap – like locusts we were – maintaining the pretence of neighbourliness all the while. More leaves will arrive, no doubt, and there are more than enough to go around but we’ve got this year’s supply secured – result!

Meanwhile, the slow process of cooking the puddings went on all day. We don’t have a pan nearly big enough to cook four puddings at once, and so I’ve been doing them one at a time in the pressure cooker. Each one takes two hours in total, so the whole operation still takes eight hours, but I can set the hob to turn itself off automatically so we can leave each one cooking without supervision. The flat is full of Christmas smells and there’s something quite nice about closing the shutters when it gets dark – earlier every day.

The wine we made last year went down the drain today. It was fun to make, but it tasted rubbish and it was taking up a lot of space.

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Worms worms worms!

 

Bit of a catch-up today – mainly down to a combination of babysitting our grandchildren and doing some serious damage to my knees on Sunday, wheelbarrowing loads of earth around the allotments and not knowing when to stop. How are you supposed to know when to stop if nothing hurts? – I pointed this out to Madame who was unsympathetic and thought I was just being my usual driven self.  Of course I was driven, I’d just built four aircraft hangars and I needed to reassure myself that they were nothing more terrifying than generously proportioned compost bins – which is what they turned out to be after a pretty wet morning wielding the manure fork.

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So we were up there at the crack of lunchtime, just as the sky turned a rather nasty blue-black as in fountain pen ink. The task, having cleared the decks on Sunday, was to divide the contents of the California cylinder into its three components.  The problem with the cylinder design has always been that it’s very difficult to turn without dismantling it entirely.  What we were hoping to find was an upper layer (the wormery) with all the recently added kitchen waste, with a middle layer of partially composted material and a lower layer of ready-to-use compost.

And – as is the way with allotments – the moment we’d uncovered everything (including ourselves) the first wave of three very sharp storms crossed over us forcing us to take refuge in the tiny greenhouse, standing room only! Eventually, after two further intermissions while rain stopped play, we managed to shift everything into its new home.  I have never in my life seen so many worms.  There were thousands of brandling in the upper layer, demonstrating the reason that the heap was consuming all our kitchen waste with such ease. Two bins away, the leaves from the autumn were getting used to their new surroundings having been moved from their temporary home in a builder’s 1 tonne bag.

The bottom layer was the best compost we’ve ever made and after a fat mouse had been evicted accidentally we simply spread it in a thick layer over the bed in which the potatoes will be planted next month. Everything was tidied away and that meant every single bed has been prepared for the spring onslaught.  We’ve never been in such a good position at this time of year before – it’s all down to two of us both being retired and able to give the allotmement the time it needs.

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Back at the flat, the daffodils were flowering in the window boxes and I can claim 100% germination for the Habanero chillies.  The others, with the exception of the Bhut Jolokia are germinating slowly.  Even better the orchids which Madame re-potted last year and which have been sulking ever since, have now – at last – started to flower again.

And finally our middle son announced over the weekend that he’s applied for an alloment as well. I can’t believe how happy that made us feel. IMG_4977

Does “Forest Path” describe them?

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Great excitement at the Potwell Inn last night as I got the plot drawings out and prepared an order for the next batch of edging boards.  The timber is quite expensive and so we can only buy it in batches as funds permit.  I can get ten 6′ boards into the car, but it can be extremely hazardous driving down the steep hill into Bath, with a hundredweight of timber seesawing next to my left ear. The sawmill sales staff occasionally cheer me up with tales of poked out windscreens and totally destroyed dashboards.

So then I was wide awake at 2.00am pondering whether I’d got the measurements right, and whether the plots should be orientated North/South or East/West.  I’m sure I went through this when I drew the plans but you know how it is in the middle of the night., insomnia gardening is the pits! Then I started worrying about the expense, do we really need all that new timber? Well there are two or three good reasons for moving to beds.

IMG_3747We have a real drainage problem on our plots, and last winter we couldn’t get on it for months for fear of compacting the soil and making it worse.  That was the major reason for dividing the wettest of the plots into beds as soon as possible in the spring. I hesitate to call them “raised” beds because as we were digging them we were also levelling the soil which slopes downhill, and we wanted to introduce a degree of terracing. So what with about a ton of topsoil bought in, and more bags of composted manure than I dare put a price to, we’ve landed up with level terraced beds bordered with 22mm X 200mm gravel boards secured with long wooden pegs.

 

In order to assist drainage, the paths were dug out to about 18″ deep and a layer of gravel was poured in and covered with wood-chip, barrow loads of it, which is free on our site. The soil from the paths was used to raise the beds. I don’t much like plastic sheets or weed control mat because in my experience weeds very quickly overcome them and I wanted the maximum possible speed of drainage from the beds, besides which they never decompose and present a problem for the future.  It’s worked very well so far, and apart from regularly hand weeding out the occasional Olympic athletes of the weed world like couch grass and bindweed, the paths have been maintenance free – except for the fact that bacteria, fungi and worms just love the material and it quickly decomposes into friable compost causing them to shrink.  I love the thought that even the paths are adding to the organic material on the plots.  That’s why I think they should be described as ‘forest paths’.

So to defend the expense – reason one is drainage.  Reason two is to move towards ‘no-dig’ gardening and let the worms do the work.  I’ve yet to be persuaded that it’s wormageddon if you lift spuds with a fork, but there’s a vast difference between gently lifting a potato haulm or a parsnip with a fork, and double digging the plot from end to end. Reason three is ease of maintenance of the beds.  With a 4′ bed you can do everything you need from the path and never compact the soil. Of course you can leave gaps between rows on bare soil, but come February and they’ll be poached and compacted.

IMG_4505Anyway, the order went in this morning and it will be delivered on Friday.  I love a bit of civil engineering, and if you look under the net to the right of the path in the photo above, you’ll see that next season’s garlic is already enjoying being tucked up in bed for the winter. My job today was to top up the paths and level them again. It’ll probably amount to fifty barrow loads before we’re completely finished, but the beds look lovely and they’re dead easy to manage.

The other job was to start filling our collection of builders’ delivery bags with leaves to make leaf mould.  It’s amazing how quickly it breaks down.  Last autumn we spread 4-6″ of leaves on to two beds and there was virtually nothing left by this spring – the worms had done all the work for us and we grew some lovely spuds on one of the beds.