Well, one unexpected outcome of the two recent heatwaves was that the Borlotti – obviously thinking the game was up – set their pods, fattened up their beans and expired. The leaves went from healthy green to pallid yellow in a couple of days, and that was that; an early harvest was forced upon us. The pods look a little shorter than usual, but all things considered it seems to be a decent crop. In fact one of this year’s features will probably be an early clearance of many of the beds. There’s a subtle difference between picking and harvesting and given that we intend to dry and store the whole crop we would definitely describe it as harvesting over and against picking the runner beans. Naturally we pick a few of the Borlotti as soon as they begin to fatten up and eat them raw off the vines; rich and earthy. We move the harvested beans, pods and all, into the greenhouse in mushroom trays, where they can dry out of the way of any rain; and then we’ll shell them, dry them a little more in the oven on a very low temperature, and then pack them into kilner jars away from the attention of any moths. A couple of seasons ago we stored them carelessly and lost about half a kilo of beans to small grubs. Of course we could buy them in packets from the supermarket but once you’ve grown your own, soaked and cooked them you’ll never accept anything less – they’re just so delicious and creamy.
The other plants that have come in early are the tomatoes in the polytunnel. We picked another 20Kg this morning and spent the rest of the day in the kitchen prepping them for oven roasted passata. The aubergines have suddenly started fruiting as well and so we’re in the happy position of enjoying the summer glut a couple of weeks earlier than usual. In fact nearly all the crops are doing pretty well considering the continuing drought. There are some pictures at the bottom of this post.
Is all this fecundity in the midst of a drought down to no-dig, plentiful compost and keeping all the beds covered with growing plants? It’s difficult to say for sure but our allotment neighbours who prefer a more regimented, clean soil policy, seem to have suffered more. Messy allotments keep their soil moist much longer.
The trail cam has captured a couple of badgers mooching about looking for sweetcorn recently, and we’ve seen a fox, numerous mice climbing the Calendulas to eat the seeds and a domestic cat. Overwhelmingly, though, the camera has filmed the intense activity on a clump of Nepeta – Catmint – with all manner of insects visiting during the day, and a variety of moths at night. The concerted effort to attract more wildlife and pollinators has been a great success and this last week a young half-fledged robin has taken to coming into the polytunnel with us, sitting quite confidently on a tub and darting down to catch insects and worms.
The annual battle to save the sweetcorn from badgers is in full swing now, and we’ve surrounded our small patch with sheep wire and soft mesh in the hope of keeping them out.
One further point that may be worth noting is that after growing numerous varieties of garlic over the years we’ve come to the conclusion that Carcassonne Wight enjoys our ground better than any of the others – and so I think we’ll concentrate on growing that variety in future. There’s much more to write about, including a trip to Birmingham to celebrate Madame’s birthday and a visit to Carter’s Steam Fair which bookended a day entirely lost to sedation after a routine trip to the hospital for an endoscope which apparently revealed nothing much too wrong – but all of that can wait for now because we’re both exhausted and completely tomatoed out !!
They say that fine words butter no parsnips so I thought that – amidst the philosophising -it would be good to show that even while we’re away the allotment goes on producing. If ever there was a defense of no-dig gardening it would look something like this. With a bit of frost on it from last week, this parsnip will be sweet and delicious – as will the leeks and the other winter veg which just get on with it. In the polytunnel we’re cutting radishes and fresh lettuce; parsley and coriander too. Winter veg are so much less fussy than summer ones. This week will see the propagators in action again as we prepare for the spring. The just in time principle which emerged along with lean thinking in Japanese car plants of all places, is especially suited to allotment planning because we need the plants at (as nearly) the right moment as we can manage; climate change permitting. So we haven’t overwintered broad beans this year because for the last two years severe east winds in March have decimated them. What we don’t want is a load of stressed out plants being kept in pots long after they were ready for transplant. So the annual gamble begins tomorrow, having received all the seed orders and planned (almost) where everything is going to go.
But allotments and more in-depth study are only a part of this year’s plan because I’m determined also to get out and do some serious botanising after a two year enforced layoff. I also want to do some serious work on the insects that visit us around the house and on the plot and so I’ve just shelled out on a macro lens adaptor for my Pixel 5 camera. Although I’ve got a very fine Leica macro lens it takes an eternity to set up shots and you almost always need a tripod and flash units. This 25g treasure arrived yesterday and I had a brief chance to play around with it. Some initial photos of random things on my desk are below. I also took a photo early yesterday of one of our orchids in flower. It’s entirely by natural light – there’s an abundance that floods in through the south facing windows in the flat, and as I walked into the room the sheer beauty of it grabbed me and so I just took the picture. It’s not edited or altered in any way.
And here are a few of the test shots with the macro lens. I can’t wait to get out there!
Having allowed my imagination to run free in the last couple of posts, it’s time to get back down to some allotment basics – after all, one of my principal aims for this holiday was to get stuck into some serious reading about regenerative farming. I certainly got stuck at first but switched course and now I’m beginning to think that I ought to make a proper list of the books I’ve been reading so readers can join me in the journey. I’ve now just about finished reading Gabe Brown’s “Dirt into soil” and although it’s hardly aimed at our 200 square metres of allotment and is really slanted towards mixed farming with grazing animals, it cleared up a few mysteries for me and turned my thoughts about soil improvement completely upside down. It’s also given me a much clearer perspective on what is, and what isn’t regenerative farming and since our UK government is talking the talk about changing agricultural practices it’s up to us to make sure they’re also walking the walk. After all for a government that announces it’s going to move towards carbon zero and then announces it’s considering opening a new coal mine – followed by the assertion that we’ll need more nuclear power stations – this isn’t an encouraging start.
Until now I’ve always thought of soil improvement as largely a matter of adding lots and lots of compost. We started off committed to organic gardening and then, a couple of years ago we went no-dig as well. This last season we grew a variety of insect pollinators and companion plants alongside the vegetables in all our beds, and it’s gone well – and with the pond we’ve had vastly more visiting insects. Of course we’ve changed so many variables and the weather has been so random, we’ve only got anecdotal evidence that our changes have worked but we’re pretty sure that the following strategies worked:
Netting all the alliums from sowing to harvest with fine insect net
Using nasturtium to draw blackfly away from food crops
Sowing Calendula and Tagetes on most beds
Butterfly and bird netting all the brassicas
Sadly the expensive treatment with nematodes had little impact on the slugs, and the beer traps sheltered more slugs underneath than drowned in the beer.
The asparagus was spared the heavy beetle attacks that we’ve had in the past, and given that our near neighbour had his plants devastated it looks as if the border of calendula and the increased parasitic insect population may have helped. I’ve written a lot about our liability to waterlog in the winter – partly due to underground streams. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort digging woodchip filled paths between the beds to drain the water away and the two worst affected beds came through the winter very well. We’ve also added grit and sand in the worst places along with masses of compost and leaf mould. The upshot has been that our need to water in dry spells has greatly decreased. We escaped the blight with resistant varieties and early cropping of the container potatoes so, looking back it’s been a pretty successful season most of which was spent battling against a headwind of adverse weather.
If you’re still with me, you’ll have noticed that every single effort to improve our earth has been via applications to the top surface. What the Gabe Brown book – and all the others I’ve been reading – brought to the top of my thoughts was to see what’s going on under the surface, and the usefulness of ground cover crops during the winter, so that the plants go on feeding the soil through their roots all year round. And there’s the revolution, because most of us instinctively think of plants as a kind of one way street for water and nutrients when in fact they’re completely biologically interlocked with billions of soil organisms which, in return for carbon in the form of photosynthesised sugars, provide the plants with many of the micronutrients they need to grow and thrive. All this mutual aid is conducted through the truly huge mycorrhizal networks that wrap the roots and occasionally even grow inside them. Plants send signals seeking specific nutrients and the fungal networks ship them in. The astonishing discoveries of science now tell us that the creation of soil can be much faster than we originally thought and that in contrast to the received wisdom that everything goes on from above, soil creation is as much concerned with the recovery of nutrients from the subsoil. Soil can actually grow from below. This is a vast simplification but it has big implications for the way we grow plants, because these networks – having evolved over millions of years – mean that we can no longer think of what goes on underground as separate from the plant we harvest. Soil microbes have the astonishing ability to break down subsoil and rock and dissolve the essential nutrients in a way that’s barely understood. We need to start seeing our crops as giant solar energy farms, converting carbon dioxide into food through the process of photosynthesis.
So when we add artificial fertilisers to a crop the plants just grab up the 25% of the fertiliser they can use and the rest goes into the soil and gets washed into our polluted rivers. Worse still, the plants get lazy and just go for the industrialised fast food and the sugar/carbon trading mechanisms get broken. When we drench the soil with insecticides and herbicides exactly the same thing happens. Industrial farmers and gardeners then start to try to make up the deficiencies with more additives and chemicals. The other way we break those mycorrhizal connections is by digging and turning the soil, and these relationships are precisely the mechanism by which carbon gets stored in the earth.
So farmers, gardeners and allotmenteers, not to mention every other human being on earth have a common cause in not ploughing, tilling and digging; not using artificial fertilisers and not using chemicals. What ought to be the good news for farmers in particular is that chemicals and diesel oil are increasingly expensive and eat into profit margins – plus, the premium value of the produce from regenerative farms means better profits. What’s not to like?
Here’s the downside. It looks as if the agrochemical business and their captive bureaucrats in the Ministry of Agriculture are greenwashing as usual in pushing no-till, direct drilling supplemented by – you’ve guessed it – herbicides to kill weeds, plus the usual pesticides and fungicides which will do nothing to solve our problems. There is another way, for instance, to suppress weeds and reduce rainwater runoff, and that’s carefully calibrated cover crops.
But it’s not all good news for vegetarians and especially vegans because the very best and most efficient way of improving the soil is by doing (or not doing) all of the above plus carefully controlled grazing – sometimes known as mob grazing. This kind of approach can capture carbon in the soil far more efficiently and more quickly than by planting trees alone. Further – and I know what question will be next – controlled grazing on healthy soil means that dung, a potent source of methane when stored in lagoons and sprayed on the soil later – is quickly broken down by prodigious numbers of insects and soil organisms and feeding the soil. Not only that, by feeding cattle on their evolved diet of grass and forbs rather than industrial grain, their digestive systems function far better and the need for constant worming and antibiotics almost disappears. Meat will, of course, become much more expensive, (perhaps more realistically priced) which should please everyone with a concern for animal welfare.
Of course this won’t make catastrophic climate change go away – we’ll still have to break our addiction to oil in every other department of life – but farmers, allotmenteers and gardeners can at least do something to help, and everyone can help by supporting change, buying better rather than blaming farmers and growers and calling out politicians when they try to pull the wool over our eyes.