The earthy spirituality of the allotment

So yesterday I completed the new raised strawberry bed in a bit of a rush because the weather forecast was predicting a week of rain. It was in the same place as the two glass cold frames that were stolen last year, so I just used the same board foundations. However, the business end – ie. the new planting surface – is about two feet higher than the old frames, and the idea of simply burying all that topsoil was too much to bear (about £150 to replace) so I dug it out, down to the subsoil, and moved the good stuff on to two nearby beds. I’ve got a bit of a ‘thing’ about never wasting soil. When we moved on it was very poor after years of neglect, and covered with not one but two layers of buried carpet. The official description of the soil is ‘clay loam’ but that hardly described the waterlogged and claggy mess that we inherited. The previous owner had assured us that the ground was hopeless and nothing would grow on it – but he’d failed to investigate beyond the top three or so inches, so he never figured out why it was so bad. We’ve also got two underground streams running through the middle and along one edge of the plot, so you can see that soil management became the number one priority.

When building an allotment on quite a steep slope as ours is, terracing is the obvious answer. Initially we dug deep trenches to form the wood chip paths which function (quite successfully) as drains, and threw the topsoil up on to the beds, so it’s hardly rocket science to point out that left us with rather sunken ‘raised beds’. Over the last four years we’ve added tons of compost, brought in topsoil, leafmould and, in the wettest places, agricultural sand and gravel to increase the depth and improve drainage; and the upshot is that every ounce of topsoil has become precious, with nothing ever going off site. Now, after four years, the beds are level and uniformly deep (a full spit and more of rich dark earth) and we’ve managed to steer a middle path between too much and too little drainage. The driest areas are at the bottom of the plot where the retaining boards are 18″ deep and the drainage must be quite fierce.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating, and without any intention of conducting an experiment, Madame recently shoved a few desperately weedy looking Swiss chard plants into one of the plots because there was a space, and they just roared away. Now they look like veg catalogue supermodels. The empty strawberry bed is waiting for me to dig out the new pond, and all the subsoil from the big hole will go into the base of the raised bed where we’ll cover it with a layer of woodchip, followed by a mixture of compost, topsoil and sand. I’ve heard experts say that woodchip increases acidity and locks up nitrogen, disrupting fertility for ages. They also say that leaf mould does much the same thing and I can only respond by saying – not in my experience. Wood chip rots down pretty quickly on the paths, and whenever I dig into it I always find an abundance of earth worms in the degraded layer. As for leaf mould, the soil is hungry and will consume all the leaf mould we can produce. Indeed when we moved on we covered several of the beds with six inches of leaves straight off the trees and covered them with sheeting. By the spring they’d all disappeared, taken down by the worms, and the soil texture was greatly improved. If I put on my potter’s hat for a moment, leaves and wood from different species all have different chemical characteristics and Chinese potters exploited this to control their glazes – some leaves rot fast and others don’t. It’s life’s rich tapestry and the lignin in the leaves is the resistant residue that does wonders for soil structure. In our experience both wood chip and leaf mould make excellent mulches; they don’t however, add much by way of fertility so plants still need compost and any other food you care to use. The exception might be raw seaweed, straight off the beach and, stinky though it may be, rots down quickly and adds some very valuable minerals to the soil. In the photograph top left, beyond the stolen cold frames is the asparagus bed. It produced so freely in the summer that we (almost) got fed up with eating it. But that too needs lots of compost and a good mulch. Two years ago we brought an enormous sack of seaweed back and mulched the bed and the asparagus and the soil both loved it. The bed was so smelly when we spread the seaweed that our neighbour packed up and went home.

There’s no magic ingredient or secret recipe, heritage variety or anything else you can market that makes good produce. It’s about soil.

Press here for the politics!

The soil is the beginning and the end of it all. When I look at some of the impoverished stony waste that much industrially farmed land has become and watch farmers struggling to force one more harvest out of it with ever more powerful chemicals, I’m sad rather than angry. Having worked in rural parishes for 25 years I grew to admire and respect the farmers I knew, even though I profoundly disagreed with the path they’d taken. It was the British government that started the madness during and after the war by driving productivity at the expense of everything else. Industrial chemical manufacturers were left with nothing to sell after the use nerve gases was banned and so they repurposed their factories and their research departments to make insecticides and herbicides. Then the supermarkets bludgeoned the farmers into a downward spiral of land abuse and falling prices aided by industry lobbyists acting as advisers. Finally the CAP made everything even worse by subsidising quite the wrong things. How did this all happen without a fuss? Well maybe the way in which government ministers are offered ludicrous amounts of money to work a few hours as corporate ‘advisors’ in these industries when they leave government has something to do with it. It’s not corrupt in the most direct sense. Nobody is suggesting that the big companies actually bribe government ministers, but surely the prospect of huge corporate earnings after a career in parliament, acts as an incentive not to annoy the future paymasters? In the case of the defense industry it’s even easier – you just let them drive a tank and they’re yours forever!

In the end, as the Ash Wednesday ceremonies have it – we are dust and to dust we’ll return -glorious, holy, space dust (you don’t have to be religious to see this) living in all our infinite diversity on the thinnest of layers on the surface of the earth. Every atom in our bodies has been circulating since the big bang in a myriad of forms, both animate and inanimate because the earth wastes nothing – nothing that is until the human race came along and imagined in our hubristic way, that it was all put there by some beneficent God (insert variety here) who put it all there for our exclusive use and pleasure.

And that thin layer, the ecosphere on which all our futures and possibilities are rested, is dying. Everything we know or have ever known or loved and treasured has come out of that vulnerable crust of soil.

And that’s why the allotment is – in the broadest and least sectarian manner – holy. Allan Ginsberg (and Patti Smith) were right. This is urgent!

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.