You have to look, but spring is there!

Here’s our Christmas tree – and ‘though you wouldn’t know it, even the shape has huge resonance for me because although it’s just a pruning from the fig tree it’s also the shape of the trees on the crest of Freezing Hill which was the distant horizon of my childhood. There was a line of trees there taking the full blast of the prevailing southwesterlies and therefore bent over with trunks facing the weather. So the shape is one thing and another is the fact that, being a fig, the fruits are already there. It’s an image that manages to embrace both summer and winter at the same time; an earnest – if you like – a promise of good things to come. The lights speak for themselves except for the fact that in much the same way that we especially love the black and the red wine gums in the packet, I love the lights when they’re all red – which only happens at the moment you turn them on and so, utterly childishly – I lie on the floor so I can reach the switch while watching the lights and for a moment there’s a sense of of bliss. I probably need professional help for that one.

Of course I’ve made no secret of the fact that this is the time of the year when the black dog visits and Madame, after decades of practice, finds the exact sweet spot between nagging and encouragement. Heaven knows why I find it so difficult to visit the allotment but I really do; and yet when I finally capitulate and get a project in my sights, the black dog seems to slink away defeated for another year.

So while Madame got on with clearing out the fruit cage and doing some winter pruning, earlier in the week, I wheelbarrowed the last five loads of leaves down to their bin to make leaf mould and then turned my attention to repairing the wood chip paths and mulching the apple trees and fruit bushes. You’d think that leaves are much of a muchness when it comes to composting, but in fact a bit of a browse around the storage bay, repays the time and effort because when it comes to leaf mould not all leaves are equal. For instance I find that large sycamore leaves tend to accumulate in dense mats which seem to resist rotting very well; whereas smaller leaves especially when they’re broken down by mowers. Sycamore, then, make the better mulch. As for the chemistry I know from my pottery days that wood ashes from different trees have radically different chemical profiles which can be exploited in the making of glazes. I have no idea whether the same applies to composted leaves, but in nature, variety is (so far as I understand it) a good thing; and so I try to get as many trees as possible represented in the leaf mould. Of course reductionist thinking tends to skate over the differences as if nature could be made to adhere to some kind of simplified formula – like NPK fertilizers for instance – and we know where that kind of thinking takes us!

This is most certainly not a self-help posting, but I would say that hard exercise in the cold weather is a great way of cheering yourself up. After art school I spent three years working as a groundsman at a large public school (I know my place), and the Christmas holidays were always a favourite time. With no rugby or football pitches to maintain and no mowing of the outfields, this was the time we maintained all the tractors and equipment and also did the fun jobs like laying hedges around the field edges. I absolutely loved it, and the frostier the better as far as I was concerned.

So notwithstanding the unseasonably mild weather this past week it was still good to be out there. I write about this time of the year as if it were all about preparation; but (the farmer’s boot being the best fertiliser), you can’t help noticing the subtle changes on the allotment even before astrological winter has begun. As the solstice approaches something stirs in the depths of the soil. The borage plants which died so spectacularly in the autumn that I thought we’d lost them, have put in an appearance already. In fact we planted loads of perennials last season and so angelica and lovage are in the beginnings of leaf and we’re expecting loads of self-seeders to pop up in the next two months. It comforts me to know that the ever reliable sweet cicely can only be just below the surface and, cheating slightly, we have an abundance of parsley and coriander in the polytunnel.

Suddenly, as Christmas comes closer and the solstice is only three days away, everything seems brighter. We know that some perennials are listed as “short lived” and maybe we should see ourselves in the same way; living – as the old saying goes – as if we might die tomorrow, and farming as if we will live forever – and that’s two farming proverbs in one post! Each plant that reappears we’ll greet as an old friend in a world of fugitive pleasures – marvellous!

As we left the allotment today it looked, well, cheerful. There was a wisp of smoke curling up from the incinerator as the last season’s bindweed met its maker. The residual ashes all go on to the compost heap to add a touch of I’ve no idea what, but it seems to work – to the process.

Later, over a glass of wine, I thanked Madame for her vigilant and healing nudges I think our children probably regard us as a couple of curmudgeonly old farts, but having seen seventy five seasons through; sixty of them as gardeners, we have come to understand that the greater pleasures come very slowly, and I say to them – you only find that out if you’re lucky enough to live a long time.

A dirty story with added compost

It’s almost a week since I last posted, but it’s been very far from lazy – in fact we arranged to take the campervan down to Cornwall and then, 24 hours later and in view of the worsening Covid situation, we cancelled. Whatever respite the relaxation of the restrictions brought, it’s been blotted out by the imminent arrival here of 22,000 students from all over the world – that’s 25% of the population of the city and enough of a threat to make us want to pull up the drawbridge once again. I certainly don’t think it’s fair to blame students for the flare-ups across the country; everyone with more than two grey cells knew that trying to persuade thousands of young people to live like saints was never going to happen, and the punishment of having them locked in their halls with the threat of not being allowed to return home for Christmas is cruel. Goodness knows what they’ve been through these past months with the A level fiasco, and this added burden must surely lead to mental health problems for some. In my view they should never have been encouraged to return to university only to be penned up like sheep. There’s an irony in the fact that our youngest son’s halls were designed by the same architects who designed Swedish prisons!

And of course the great joy of living in an HMO (house of multiple occupation) – as we do, is that we have a continuous stream of students moving in and out, hardly any of whom we ever get to know -so our minds, once again, are focused on staying safe and working on the allotment to secure next year’s food, bearing in mind that next season we’ll have brexit affecting food supplies too.

We’re nowhere near self-sufficient, but our whole lifestyle has had to change. No more popping out to Sainsbury’s – we plan ahead and get one food delivery a week, which has meant that our food expenditure has dropped – no more impulse buys. So when we weren’t at the allotment, much of our time this week has been spent preserving and storing food for the winter. Our relationship with the food we eat is so much closer; we don’t throw leftovers away and we’re more and more vegetable based.

Back on the allotment

On Thursday the big delivery of timber arrived from the sawmill and all of it needed taking down from the path at the top where the driver and me unloaded them. Trust me a wet plank nearly 5 metres long is a tricky carry. As ever I’d accidentally ordered the larger diameter wooden stakes – that’s about the third time I’ve done it now; so the long awaited storage racks look rather over-spec now I’ve finally built them. I’ve also rebuilt the collapsed water butt stands- adding new supports and tomorrow with a bit of luck, I’ll build the new deep beds for the strawberries. If there’s one lesson we’ve learned it’s not to grow crops that need a lot of attention like watering and regular picking anywhere the least bit inaccessible. The easier it is to get to them the better they’ll grow and this is the fourth move in four years for the strawberries.

Then the musical chairs begin in earnest. First we need to empty the compost that’s ready, and the leaf mould that’s also ready and get them on to the empty beds to make room to turn the first bin which is now full, and start a new empty one for the masses of autumn green waste. Then we need to dig out the topsoil from the new strawberry beds and store it so that the subsoil from digging the new pond can be used as a bottom layer. The hotbed also needs emptying – spent hotbeds are full of wonderful soil conditioners and compost. The plan is to give the whole plot a couple or three inches of mulch. Trust me it’s easier to write than to do; turning a couple of cubic metres of compost is backbreaking work, and all the other civil engineering jobs are based on sheer manual labour.

The really big project is to build a sheltered area and pergola into the gap between the greenhouse and the shed. I’ve been designing it in my head for weeks now, and it’s a tricky one because the roofs of the shed and greenhouse are aligned in different directions so I’ve been experimenting with folded card to see how to join the two together. The answer came in a flash of inspiration while I was playing with some cardboard and all I need to do is fold the roof at the correct compound angle. The next job will be to calculate the angles and lengths exactly and work out what the best joints will be – I’ve no intention of resorting to joist hangers. The object is to create a sitting area for Madame and me because at the moment we’ve only got room for a chair and a stool. Guess who usually gets the reclining chair ….. bitter …. me?

I’m never happier than when I’ve got a bit of a project going, and what this prolonged period of lockdown has taught us is that we need to focus on more than just growing food – or at least we need to broaden the project to feed our souls as well as our bellies – hence the wildflowers and the pond and, just maybe, a little fire pit for the cold days in winter.

I mentioned a few weeks ago that we enjoy an apple I/D competition and I bought the RHS apple book for Madame earlier in the year. So finally we think we’ve identified our inherited apple tree as a Ribston Pippin. It’s not easy to sort it out from Lord Lambourne, which we have always thought it was, but the tiniest details of shape, ripening time and (would you believe?) stalk diameter and length seems to have clinched it. The tree was very neglected when we inherited it, but some pruning to restore something resembling its original espalier shape and a lot of TLC have seen it giving us some big yields. This year many of the fruits have been affected by bitter pit but to be honest the skin is a bit tough anyway and the blemishes disappear with the peel. You’d never be able to sell it in a supermarket but the flavour is marvellous.

We’ve also begun ordering next year’s seed – 3 garlic varieties and overwintering broad beans are on their way, and when it rains on Wednesday next we’ll spend the day making lists. That’s the thing about allotments, there’s never a truly slack time. These past few sunny days have been a blessing and the clearing, mulching and temporary sheeting are all going well. We did think about green manuring, but it doesn’t fit well with no-dig, and so we compost all our green waste and let the worms do the digging.

Compost

But the big story today turned out to be compost. As I mentioned above, turning a 3 cubic metre pile is hard going, but first I had to empty the next adjoining bin to make space. Home made compost doesn’t look like the commercial stuff until you’ve run it through a coarse sieve but it’s ten times better than anything you could buy. Today’s take home point is that if you’re trying to produce compost in a short time – say a under a year- then don’t add any woody waste unless you’ve got a shredder, it won’t rot in the time. The second point is that as we’ve gone on experimenting I can say that so-called compostable caddy bags will eventually break down but I’m not convinced that they’re reducing to anything innocuous. We leave them in but I’d like to know whether we’re just adding microscopic particles of plastic to the allotment. What definitely don’t break down are ordinary tea bags and Jiffy Seven modules so they’re off our list. The only tea bags that definitely disappear seem to be the Tea Pig range – after about a couple of months they begin to degrade into something that looks like translucent seaweed and then you can’t find them any more.

Today the heap was at 40 C and turning will only make it hotter – I was astonished that a single rat beat a hasty retreat as I was working – talk about a cushy life. But organic life is the heart and soul of the allotment and as I worked there were countless brandling and, towards the cooler area at the bottom, larger earthworms, not to mention all the centipedes, millipedes, earwigs and their companions in the drier parts. Good heaps don’t smell bad at all. If they stink they’ve gone anaerobic and need turning immediately and probably lots of shredded cardboard added too.

The sieved compost looked great. I wheelbarrowed four or five loads out to the beds and spread it around two inches thick – the plants just thrive on it. The photo at the top isn’t very good I know, but it illustrates one of the most important qualities of compost. You’ll see that it’s clumped into larger particles and this isn’t clay, but the action of colloids, and they’re part of the story of how compost improves water retention. I suspect that all of the compost in the photo had passed through the guts of our worm population which makes it worth its weight in gold. The other major soil additive is leaf mould, and that’s awaiting my attention later this week. It’s stored for a year under the weight of some bags of compost which helps it to compact and rot (aided by ten or fifteen litres of urine in three applications) – and this year we grew a magnificent crop of cucumbers in the grow bags – because they were able to source water but probably not much nutrient in the leaf mould. However it does wonders for soil structure and so we produce a couple of cubic metres a year from the leaves that the council dump on the site. Leaf mould is a largely fungal process and therefore slower, but compost relies on bacteria and millions of tiny invertebrates. I wouldn’t want to be without either.

Exciting times, then. The propagator is on in my study with the first crop of winter basil and it seems the new season is well and truly underway.

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