Shelling the borlotti

It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!

The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.

We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.

Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.

Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.

Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.

What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.

Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.

Roasted tomato passata

This is a recipe from Pam Corbin’s most useful River Cottage Handbook “Preserves”. Last year we made a trial batch with a couple of pounds of tomatoes and loved it; so with the new crop ripening fast on the vines we picked around 10 pounds this morning; roasted them for an hour at 180C with sweet onions, garlic, herbs and olive oil; then they went straight through the passata machine and into pots so they could be sterilized for 10 mins in the pressure cooker. Lacking acidity, we usually pick tomatoes before they get too ripe and then give them a while in the pressure cooker to avoid any problems during storage. In fact we’ve never had a jar blow; but we use good quality Italian jars and always fit new lids each time they’re used. We make this sauce which is very rich, and then scaling down the intensity we make a lot of Marcella Hazan’s no 2 tomato recipe and then loads of unflavoured passata as a sauce base to use through the year. It’s unbelievably useful to have a ready supply of sauce that we can stir into some pasta after a busy day on the allotment. The total yield from 10 lbs tomatoes was 5 lbs of finished sauce; but a tablespoon of this sauce goes a long way. Rather like good stock it can lift an otherwise bland dish into another league.

Since I was committed to the kitchen all afternoon I also made a quiche for supper while the oven was hot. I absolutely love making pastry because – like making sauces – there’s an element of alchemy in it. But most of all I love understanding how to work the pastry boldly. We’re harvesting new potatoes and runner (pole) beans now, so with some just picked raspberries and the remains of the cream, that’s supper settled.

On the allotment whatsApp group our video of visiting rats has provoked a debate about what to do about them. After 5 years of battling we’ve decided that there is no effective way of eliminating them. They shun traps and bait and if they’re poisoned their remains are likely to impact foxes or badgers who may eat them. I was reading today how the New York city authorities spent millions of dollars in a fruitless attempt to get rid of them. Sadly, I think they’ve become habituated to our environment and our best bet is to tolerate them – but on our terms. We know that visiting foxes and cats will kill rats; and possibly owls would take them as well. We often hear tawny owls calling at night here in the middle of the city. So perhaps we should see the rats as potential food for predators further up the chain. This isn’t Lundy Island and we don’t have nesting puffins or other vulnerable populations of ground nesting birds like Manx shearwaters, and I completely agree that rats need to be eliminated where they present a hazard. I believe that the danger to humans of leptospirosis is much greater where rats congregate on river and canal banks. It does make me wonder why, if junk food is so bad for us the rats seems to thrive on the abandoned leftovers.

One mammal we’d dearly love to see on the allotments is the hedgehog; but I imagine that the entire site has been dosed with metaldehyde slug baits for many years, and that must have impacted them. It’ll be interesting to see whether numbers recover now we’re using the supposedly less toxic ferrous phosphate; but the best way of all to catch slugs is to catch them by torchlight, at night. Hedgehogs would be an invaluable ally in the battle against slugs and snails which have done enormous damage to our plots this year in spite of drenching with nematodes.

a tiny wasp nest

One of the children on the site showed us this little wasp nest a couple of days ago. It’s difficult to know (I’m not an entomologist) what species actually created it ; but inside there was a small section of around a dozen hexagonal cells sitting loosely; and the building material looks very wasp-like paper pulp. We also spotted what I think was a ruddy darter dragonfly on the pond; and this evening we found a herald moth resting on the netting of the fruit cage. It’s all there but we so rarely actually notice just how many living beings we share the allotment with.

So yippee! the allotment is producing lots of food and we’re meeting the whole family this week for an outdoor birthday party, after everyone passed a lateral flow test today. We live in strange times.

Herald moth – terrible photo!

The closest we’ll get to Cornwall this year?

Echium pininiana

If ever there was a plant that reminded me of a place it’s this one and the oddest thing about it is that it doesn’t really belong there. The Echium pininiana really belongs somewhere around the Canaries but it’s found a wonderful niche in Cornwall where, because it seeds freely, it’s almost naturalised. This one came from our old friends because they love them too (he’s almost a Cornishman although he comes from over the border in Devon). Aside from being very architectural during the winter, it grows a huge flowering spike in its second year – the one in Tony and Glen’s garden is over fifteen feet tall. The other thing you need to know about it is that it’s related to the Viper’s Bugloss which, if you know it, is deeply attractive to bees and the like. So this fifteen foot giant is just covered in borage blue flowers all the way up the spike and can have dozens if not hundreds of bees and other insects nectaring on it. Better still, the day we saw it in their garden there was a virtual army of ants ascending and descending. It grows everywhere on the Lizard peninsula but it’s a bit fussy about soil so we’re going to plant this one on the allotment in the best place for its temperamental ways. If it succeeds, every time we look at it we’ll be reminded of one of our favourite places.

Elsewhere today we took up an invitation from some more friends to pick damsons, and so we arrived home with 20lbs of damsons and a big bag of bramley apples; then later we dropped in at the allotment and harvested some carrots which are looking fine. So more time in the kitchen for me; but just to show that even close to home there’s bags of natural history to enjoy we were taking a look at their new pear trees and noticed a grey dagger moth caterpillar having a chew at the leaves which were also carrying some pear rust. In close-up the rust is rather fine looking and it has a complicated lifestyle, relying on pear and juniper exclusively to complete its life cycle.

Often the wildlife just comes to us

After a pretty intense posting yesterday I thought I’d kick off with these two visitors who just turned up. On the left a hoverfly – Hyathropa florea sunning itself on the allotment. It’s a stocky creature that’s probably one of the fruits of the rush to build ponds on the site. It emerges from a rat tailed maggot – not a pretty sight! – which lives in the dank and smelly shallows of untended ponds and wet places. The other slightly more glamorous visitor is a Jersey Tiger moth that settled on our window this morning. One of its favourite food plants is hemp agrimony which we have large drifts of, growing on the river bank.

I wish those two observations made me as clever as I possibly sounded. In truth the combination of the Pixel 3 phone and a wifi connection for the Google Lens app does a lot of the heavy lifting for me. It’s by no means infallible, so I need to check nearly everything against the print guides but it often leads me to the correct page, and the more it’s used the more accurate it becomes. The database must now be absolutely gigantic, and that should make plant id’s available and less daunting – which can only be a good thing for citizen science. Let’s not be sniffy about it people!

Yesterday, at last, we made our way up to Alexandra Park, a tremendous viewpoint overlooking Bath

We’d been woken early in the morning by a tremendous thumping bass note that sounded as if it was emerging from a car parked outside. Sadly the truth is that an illegal rave had put 3000 people on to a very quiet and very species rich disused airfield to the north and east, just about four miles on from the top right hand of the photo. The police were unable safely to intervene until mid-day yesterday. Quite aside from the damage to the site, these huge gatherings can become centres of infection – superspreaders, and I’m sure that many young people think they’re immune. They’re not of course.

But from the top of Alexandra Park, we also has a lovely view looking down on to Bathampton Fields – the grassy triangle at the centre. We are so lucky to live in the midst of this environment. It’s easy to slp into the lazy assumption that all the good things are somewhere else – usually somewhere exotic – and yet the little patch of land in the photo has everything to offer and it’s barely fifteen minutes walk from home. There are more natural riches within walking distance than you could shake a stick at, and certainly enough to discover and learn an impressive number of plants, invertebrates and birds.

And finally, to cap a lovely day, my borrowed microscope arrived, along with an invitation to try my hand at making a video about botany on the wrong side of the tracks – a sort of ‘really rough guide to the botanical thugs, chancers and parasites that share our habitat here’. (How’s that for a working title J – ?) The microscope came from the same person that asked me to make the video – oh my goodness now I’m indebted over my head! I can’t begin to express how much difference a stereo microscope makes to plant identification. I have a strange relationship with new technology and often I have to leave it on the desk untouched for a week or so until I’ve rubbed some of my scent on to it and it doesn’t feel strange any more. Not so this time . It’s a thing of beauty and it works. The sense of three dimensionality, the ability to look around the subject is really wonderful, I’m quite besotted; and – I’ve been thinking about adding some videos to the blog for ages so this has given me just the shove I needed.

Prettiest wash boiler in wales

IMG_5308The water flowing into this old wash boiler comes straight out of the hill and serves as the water supply for the house.  It’s clear, pure and tastes a lot better than the stuff that comes out of most taps. It also happens that the spring makes the most wonderfully relaxing sound; I could sit and listen to it all day. I’ve strip washed in it in the past, when the possibility of being surprised by a passer by was almost infinitesimally small.  As a precaution, 30 odd years ago, we used to boil the water before drinking it. Over the years it’s proved completely safe and so nowadays no-one bothers. IMG_4159We were first brought to this place all those years ago, when it was a holiday cottage and painting studio  – it’s pretty inaccessible, although the faciliies are much improved from the days when the stream, when it was in spate, would flow into the cottage under the living room wall and out again under the door. Now it’s in full occupation as a smallholding. Hill farming doesn’t pay any more and so its full-time flock of sheep and hens, and a part time herd of fattening pigs are subsidised by two incomes from work outside the holding – this is not a place for the faint-hearted. More than 250 metres higher than our allotment, the spring sowings need to be best part of a month later, and the winters are much fiercer.

Within minutes of arriving we were watching nuthatches, yellowhammers and dunnocks along with the better known lowland birds all competing with a tiny field mouse on the bird tables.  There are cuckoos here, and green woodpeckers too – more often heard than seen, but which always lift the spirits. Our friends, Kate and Nick would be the first to acknowledge that they’re hardly self-sufficient, but this morning, mid-morning after a late night at a blues concert in Brecon, we feasted on eggs, bacon and sausages all produced on their land. There’s excellent cider here, and there’s a whole shed full of stored and preserved food of every kind.  It’s a ‘good to be alive’ place.  Outside our small bedroom in what, not so long ago, was the toolshed, the bees were working the cotoneaster from early in the morning. The air is rich with the sounds of insects but apart from the odd plane overhead there is no traffic noise at all. The nearest road is a small ribbon of grey through the landscape at the bottom of the valley.  Bryn, the dog, is so accustomed to wandering the landscape chasing foxes that he will travel 15 kilometres a night – we only know that because he’s fitted with a tracking transmitter so he can be found again.  He’s rather deaf, blind in one eye and fourteen years old.

There are two gardens here – the garden which is nearest the cottage is like any cottage garden, except for the views.  Further up the bridle path there’s a proper allotment where potatoes are planted with a small tractor and plough, the tractor designed to be safe to use on the steeply sloping fields.  There are peas and runner beans and root crops on a rather grander scale than we could ever contemplate at the Potwell Inn. Taller crops like runner beans have to be grown on almost industrial grade frameworks to resist the fierce winds. Most of the carpentry is done on site – it’s a very self-contained sort of place sustained by an informal local network of friends and neighbours, always up for a bit of bartering.

But let’s not get too carried away by the rural idyll. Hard choices have to be made, and sometimes they have to cull animals like grey squirrels to protect their young saplings Things go wrong sometimes, animals – especially hens – can die for no discernable reason. Thistles and bracken are a constant battle at this height and war is still waged using some chemicals.  “Never let the perfect drive out the best” is a good motto for this sort of extreme marginal farming, but looked at as a whole, this inefficient profit-free enterprise has created a haven for wildlife however the industrial agricultural industrialists might shake their heads in disbelief. Hundreds of native trees have been planted over the past decades, and this has had a real impact on the wildlife. If you think of the economics of farming in a different way and start to count natural capital as a public good rather than as a resource to be plundered, packed and resold for a profit, then the profitability of this tiny farm with its inbuilt capacity for carbon capture and  recycling of waste – the unsaleable wool is recycled into compost and as mulch, grazing animals return their waste into the improving soil – all this adds up to profit of a different kind – a profit that might be counted in birdsong, biodiversity and beneficial impact on the earth.

Every Wednesday, Kate sets up her moth trap to check out the local population of theseIMG_4149 bafflingly confusing and often invisible creatures and sends reports in to the County Recorder because knowing what you’ve got is the essential first step in knowing whether you’re in the process of losing it. These photos, taken last year show Madame and Kate unpacking the trap and sorting the moths into jars so they could be identified and released again. We were  absolutely amazed at the diversity and sheer beauty of some creatures we’d never seen before.  Where there are only relatively few (between 50 and 70 including migrant) butterfly species, the moths make up for it with over 2500 species including a whole set of micromoths which are tiny and brown and need expertise way beyond my paygrade. As always, the world gets more complicated the closer and more carefully you look.

So that’s why this is one of my favourite places to be.  It’s easy to read, to write and to doze in the garden or to plan the next move for the Potwell Inn garden. We’ve gathered firewood, planted carrots and shared all sorts of expertise, over the years, and I’ve gathered enough stories to write a book if I ever wanted to.  If I have a wish, it’s that we will soon come to the understanding that if we treasure the environment an it inhabitants, including ourselves, we have to stop worshipping the gods of profit and growth, and start to recognise the true value of the marginal mixed farms that create the landscape we crave and that’s so good for our souls.

 

A Rose by any other name!

And after much huffing and puffing I’m posting this via my phone and at the cost of heaven knows how much of my data allowance – but hey …..

The Potwell Inn does not have many overnight guests.  This may be due to the fact that our inflatable spare bed has the unfortunate habit of deflating very slowly during the night – which, combined with the lingering effects of a lock-in, sometimes leaves us sleep deprived and hungover at the same time. Our most recent guests escaped that fate by virtue of an improvised puncture patch and an early(ish) night which contributed to an early breakfast and a civilised conversation. Later, during a guided tour of the allotment, an intriguing insight into the parallel universes that we occupied.

Here’s an instance of something close. In the 1970’s I was very involved in pottery and during those years I acquired the habit, whenever I looked at a pot, of turning it over to look at the base.  It’s surprising what you can learn from the bottom of a pot – what it’s made from, who made it, whether it was hand made, machine made or cast, when it was made. I’ll even touch the base of a pot with my tongue to see how hard it was fired.

Yesterday I saw some similarly interesting behaviour in our friend who is a great enthusiast for butterflies and moths.  And so when we were taking a walk around the next-door community garden she almost ignored the impressive efforts of the volunteers but spent some time examining the leaves of an unruly patch of nettles. “Where you see a weed, I see a foodplant”, she said. I realised instantly that there are probably hordes of things that we know but don’t know and, of course, I knew that butterflies have their preferred food plants – but I hadn’t made the connection in the part of my brain where it really matters. The large and small white butterflies will lay their eggs on our cabbages, but they would also love to lay them on nasturtiums if they could be found. This is one of the foundational ideas of companion planting. Butterflies, and therefore their caterpillars, are fussy eaters.  Just like our children, they would eat their greens if you stood over them or bribed them, but they would always go for a burger if there was one available.  She also put me right on my ‘from-memory’ list of butterflies on the allotment so far this year and so I learned that my ‘small blue’ was almost certainly a holly blue. This was enough to send me back to my butterfly books where I was able to read much more. The Collins Wild Guide by Newland and Still, lists habitats and food plants separately in an index which makes it incredibly useful both for searching out species and growing the right food plants, and it’s small enough to carry in your pocket.

I’ve written before about plugging in my field botanist frame of mind (if there’s time) when we’re out for a walk, and there are plenty of other ways of framing the natural world.  You’d have to be a genius to be fluent in all of them, but simply being aware that you tend to see better if you’ve some idea of the time, the seasons, the environment, the habitat and all the other factors that determine presence or absence within the natural history of where you happen to be, can bring into focus things you’d never normally notice.  As the previous president of the Bath Natural History Society once said to me – “The idea is to walk in nature rather than just through it”.

My friend is presently hatching six elephant hawkmoth pupae which sounds greedy, but then she knows where to look. They’ll be released back into the wild as soon as they hatch. We’ve planted loads of nasturtiums a long way from our brassicas, to lure the butterflies away and make them happy at the same time. Does companion planting work, then?  Think of the plates of leftovers after a children’s party – I bet there are loads of carrot sticks left behind because most children will always eat favourites first. I don’t know of a way to educate butterflies to stop laying eggs on cabbages, but I can give them a snack they much prefer.