The thrills and spills of seasonal work on the allotment

Our neighbouring allotmenteers went on a gardening course with Sarah Raven last week and among the multitude of new ideas they were buzzing about afterwards, one in particular stuck in my mind. The soil is all important – the beginning and the end of any attempt to grow things. Of course that’s right, but it was only as I was turning the compost heaps again today that I remembered how much I enjoyed this time of year when I was working as a groundsman, and we began all the routine maintenance jobs; repairing the wickets, hedging and draining and looking after the machinery. Of course we had to maintain the football and rugby pitches and mark out the white lines every week., but it was the time when all the foundations for the next season were laid.

And on our plot today we were already setting things out for next season. Peas and broad beans are all ready, in fact the first batch of broad beans is already growing in the ground. The fruit trees are ready for their winter pruning and we’ve prepped ready for five new trees. The tall perennial herbs have been divided and moved to their new spot near the pond; the asparagus bed has been cleared, weeded, given a supplement of calcined seaweed , then composted and sheeted. All the beds have been manured or mulched with leaf mould and sheeted even though some of them will be planted up before Christmas. We’ve had rain and then a few days of early morning frost which will help the garlic; the new batch of leaves is stored for next year – there should be about two cubic metres of finished leaf mould.

Then the paths have all been topped up with new wood chips which rot down surprisingly quickly so they swallow up to thirty wheelbarrow loads every autumn to bring them level with the path edging. That’s a lot of trudging up and down the steep site, but when it’s done the plot looks somehow more purposeful if that makes any sense.

Sadly, today I dug out all of the leeks for burning, because they were attacked again by allium leaf miner and were beginning to rot where they stood. That’s the third year we’ve lost them all and so I think we’ll give them a miss now for a few years. although I’m sure the plant breeders will be looking for more resistant varieties. We don’t put the affected leeks into the compost because especially at this time of year we’re unlikely to reach high enough temperatures to kill the pupae, and today I found a cluster of eggs laid near the base of one plant. These obviously need to be destroyed or we’ll just perpetuate the infestations, but the insect now seems to be everywhere in the UK. Our best hope of control is the same as it is for any other pest – physical barriers, good soil, strong plants and masses of predators at the right time. That’s why we overwinter the broad beans – it toughens them up enough to resist the aphid attacks until the ladybirds arrive.

There really is a correlation between abundant insect attractors and improved predation on garden pests, and one of the principal deficiencies of spraying with chemicals is that it often kills the predators as well as the target pest; thus making yet more applications of spray necessary. Modern apple production requires quite staggering numbers of spray applications; every one of which can make the situation worse.

The compost heap still heats up obediently every time it’s turned, and the more often it’s turned the quicker it does its job. One indicator of how well it’s doing is what’s happening to the bean vines which are often quite slow to rot. This year the vines were taken down in mid September and a couple of months later they’ve all but disappeared in the the heap. the worms don’t like it too hot and so they move up and down in the bin until they find a congenial spot – many thousands of them can congregate of a single bin. You just need to keep the heap at the right level of moisture – not too wet and not too dry but just right.

The same goes for plants which prefer their moisture in modest amounts; so this time of year too, when we get heavy rain, we can see which parts of the plot need additional grit to help with drainage. With the exception of bog plants I can’t think of any normal garden vegetables that don’t absolutely hate standing in waterlogged ground. Plants can die from lack of oxyen – they can easily ‘drown’ if they’re left too long.

It would be quite wrong to think that allotments can be ‘put to bed’ in late September and not tended again until spring. These quieter growing months are a marvellous opportunity for planning, remedial work transplanting and new planting of trees, and the odd bit of civil engineering. I wish I could add digging to the list because I absolutely loved doing it and miss it terribly now we’ve given it up; but I honestly can’t think that, aside from keeping me warm and fit, it does anything for the soil at all – and if you miss the exercise, get a bigger wheelbarrow and fill it up – or, if you must, drag a tractor tyre up a hill with chains.

And there we are – a whole posting without a single apocalyptic rant about the environment, but I think our chat with the young smallholder yesterday reminded me that while, as the astrologers might say, our economic and political systems might dispose us towards destructive practices, they really can’t compel us. We can resist and go our own way, knowing that although we may not be saving the planet on our own, we’re at least not making it any worse.

And finally yesterday’s 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf. I’ve eaten my words and unreservedly recant all my previous statements on the impossibility of making a decent 100% loaf. Thinking back, during the first lockdown I changed a large part of the time and temperature settings during baking, none of which changes I’d ever applied to a wholemeal loaf. So the combination of leaving out the second rise – cutting the overall proving time down to 18 hours instead of 26; and shortening the bake by 30%, the first ‘new method’ loaf emerged pretty triumphantly with a soft crumb, open texture and a good crust, not an impenetrable barnacle hard carapace. The flavour was intense – as you’d expect – but with none of the bitterness you sometimes get with a fast, yeast driven wholemeal loaf. And best of all, it tasted of wheat: really wheaty with a rich taste of the granary floor (if that makes any sense). As children my sister and I used to love feeding the chickens at my grandparents’ smallholding in the Chilterns. The grain was kept in a shed, and we would go and fetch an old pot, fill it with grain and go out to feed the hens. The loaf reminded me of, and tasted as good as that experience.

Ponds, urban ecology and a few doubts

In my last post I wrote about the undoubted benefits of even small ponds in gardens and on allotments. We’re lucky here because our allotments are no more than 50 yards away from the river Avon and we have a number of large ponds almost as close; but that doesn’t in the least seem to lessen the impact of the tiny ponds that I photographed yesterday, and all within yards of our allotment.

As you can easily see, these aren’t all the tidy and expensive preformed fibreglass ponds bought from garden centres and neither are any of them apparently lined with expensive thick butyl. For the most part they’re a hole in the ground lined with builders polythene all apart from the one that’s not a pond at all but a horse trough. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all full of water, most of them have a few plants around them and they’re all teeming with life.

Starting with the horse trough that’s the source for much of our our watering, there’s never an occasion, it seems, when you can’t find at the least, a few water boatmen. The others vary in maturity but even the one that was built this spring by a couple of children raised a crop of tadpoles which they generously shared around all the other ponds. The murkier ones have larvae in them, and all are visited by a variety of dragonflies and damselflies which, when they’re not eating smaller insects are becoming snacks for birds. What the ponds are doing of course is drawing these interesting and beautiful invertebrates into places we can see and enjoy them, and as their natural habitat is eroded, ponds become a matter of survival for some species.

As you will know if you’ve been following the Potwell Inn blog recently, I’ve been reading David Goode’s contribution the the New Naturalist library – “Nature in towns and cities”. A brilliant collection of books for anyone interested in natural history in any case, and this one’s particularly caught my attention because it’s on a subject close to my heart.

When we moved to Bath almost five years ago I wasn’t prepared for the richness of the wildlife to be found here. Having lived and worked in what most people would think of as the countryside, I was prepared to be underwhelmed by the natural history of our adopted home. But far from being less diverse, our immediate neighbourhood slowly yielded its secrets. Not just badgers and foxes but otters! Not just buzzards but a peregrine’s nest; and enough unfamiliar plants to keep me perpetually bewildered. On the very first night here we heard a tawny owl; it was strange to say the least. Now we’re almost blasé about bats and we can name the species of gull on the green outside.

And so I’ve been writing enthusiastically about all this wildlife and, if you live near here you really should join the Bath Natural History Society (Bath Nats) because they’re the quickest and easiest way to learn what’s here. If you live anywhere else and don’t fancy moving to Bath, I urge you to investigate and join your local natural history group – it’ll be full of fabulous, knowledgeable and enthusiastic people who just love sharing their interests.

Yesterday after a hot couple of hours on the allotment we wandered along the river to see the peregrines and we got especially lucky because the recently fledged young did a quick flight while we were there. I’ve been to Symonds Yat and not seen a peregrine and yet our son saw one eat its kill on his back doorstep in the middle of Birmingham, and I saw my first less than half a mile from home.

So there’s the good news and here are the doubts. Although it’s a joy to have this diversity outside the door, isn’t it just a bit weird that so many species, being displaced from their normal habitats, are evolving to live here? Isn’t it sad that I’ve learned so much more about plant diversity since we moved to the city? I go on about the rogues and vagabonds but corncockle? vipers bugloss?

The greatest sadness is that when I look for them where the old floras said I’d find them; all too often the habitat is gone. Seabirds can’t find a living in fished out polluted seas and so the canny ones have moved inland to our rubbish tips. Those species that can’t adapt are diminishing rapidly. Invertebrates and plant species that once made the meadows beautiful at this time of the year have been poisoned out of existence. So the take-home point is that however thrilling it is to have the early adapters and early adopters here in the city; they’re in the minority. There’s still every point in cleaning up the rivers and creating inner city wildlife corridors and green spaces. There’s every point in asking gardeners to think about pollinators but it’s not enough.

Grateful for small mercies?

One thought provoking piece in yesterday’s papers made me sit up. There are so many organic and free-range chicken farms setting up on, or near the upper reaches of the river Wye that the accumulating load of excess nitrogen and phosphorous from their droppings is leading to eutrophication of the river – killing it slowly. So even eating organic chicken isn’t going to let us off the hook. It’s intensive farming that’s causing the problems – whatever label you put on it to make it sound like it’s saving the earth.

Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

Think about it for a moment. If even two percent of the vertebrates, invertebrates and plant species could be persuaded to live here in green spaces and derelict industrial sites it would only take one inappropriate development to wipe out a species altogether. Much as I treasure urban ecology, it’s never going to be more than a tiny part of the answer.

We need to change the way we live and the way we produce our food, the way we move about, the way we enjoy our leisure time and the way we shop. We cannot let the free market politicians urge us to live within our means when the real means of our lives are being destroyed for profit. They love to talk about the ‘tragedy of the commons’ by which they make the unsupported assertion that land cannot be managed equably without ownership. Even the air we breathe and the water we drink have been taken from us and given to the polluters to destroy for their own profit.

No amount of information boards, nature reserves and feeding stations will make up for the loss of the earth. This is an ethical problem, a religious problem, a problem of vision. The one thing it is not is an economic problem. The economists with their pseudoscientific theories have acted as the heavy artillery of the free market. We see the damage they have done every day and I, for one, am not grateful for very small mercies.

Let’s hear it for Brussels sprouts

 

Bath. now the Christmas market has packed up and gone, becomes beautiful once again.  I photographed the Abbey just before the market kicked off, but the other photo is of the veg stall on Kingsmead Square taken in the pouring rain today. In fact it doesn’t seem to have stopped raining for weeks, and because the purple sprouting hasn’t ripened yet on the allotment we’ve been buying some Brussels sprouts.  They’re best on the stalks which keep them fresh for days, and as I was cutting them off one by one tonight it occurred to me that we couldn’t grow anywhere near the quality and consistency on our allotment. I know I have the odd poke at farmers, and these sprouts weren’t organic – and so I can’t say what was or wasn’t sprayed on to them during their lives – but in conditions such as we’ve endured during this last couple of months, how on earth the farmers manage the crops is a mystery, especially when the selling price is kept so low. Most years we’ve grown three or four plants and frankly they’re usually embarrassing.  The sprouts are breaking open, they’re a wild mixture of large and small sprouts and the stems – after a prolonged growing season are as tough as old boots – so woody I have to break them up with the back of an axe before I put them in the compost.

I’m very proud of what we grow, and maybe the problem is to do with our soil, but hats off to the farmers who manage to get something on to the table for Christmas.  In fact it’s quite hard to find organic sprouts, and so maybe they’re just too difficult for allotmenteers.  Either way round, if we want to eat good organic sprouts I suspect we’re going to have to pay a lot more for them – or – get used to the kind of blemishes and variability that go with nearly all home grown crops. In the end, we’re the ones doing the choosing and so if we turn our noses up at anything below grade one quality, we’ve no-one to blame except ourselves if that’s what farmers produce.

I suppose many people would say “good thing too – we hate sprouts” but I love them and I’d just love to grow them looking less like green firework displays on a stick, but meanwhile we’ll have to choose between physical perfection or organic perfection.  The ball’s always in our court.