Last summer’s drought wrought havoc in most gardens and allotments and the Potwell Inn was no exception. In the previous season we’d decided to grow early strawberries in the polytunnel with a bunch of Malling Century slips that came as a free gift with the seed order. They did reasonably well in hanging baskets but the hot weather and some gaps in watering meant that they never really flourished, so we took them outside when they finished and grew on as many runners as we could, transferring them, once they were established, to a raised bed. Last year, in their second season they did much better and this year they’ve really come into their own in their fourth home in three years. They weren’t even our first choice for plants because we were after Cambridge Favourite but the Malling were free and so – as always at the Potwell Inn – thrift triumphed over research and we haven’t regretted it because they’re absolutely delicious.
This is the time of year when the battle with weeds is replaced by the one against pests and predators. We’ve never used any form of pesticide apart from pyrethrum or indeed any chemicals at all beyond what’s allowed for organic gardening. We gave up on pyrethrum because it was so expensive and it was difficult to avoid harming friendly predators and pollinators like ladybirds, bees, parasitic wasps and hoverflies – and so hand picking and low cunning are our preferred tactics. There is, (vegans look away!), grim satisfaction to be had from pinching asparagus beetles between the fingers, and washing blackfly with soft soap but it’s slow work and demands constant attention and getting the time of day right.
There are, however, bigger menaces to allotmenteers like squirrels, pigeons, rats and the biggest one of all – badgers. A couple of years ago we found neat piles of podded broad bean shells to one side of the bed. That turned out to be squirrels which are easy enough to keep out with nets, as are the pigeons. So far as the cabbage butterflies are concerned any number of new allotmenteers are caught out by the fact that butterflies can lay their eggs through netting if it’s touching the leaves of your brassicas – so lift it up on hoops, away from the plants.
Badgers, on the other hand, are formidable once they find out where your sweetcorn is. We have a trail cam on the plot and it seems that the badgers make regular patrols around the site and the moment the cobs are ripe – they have tremendous sense of smell – they almost throw themselves against the plants and break them off so they can munch your lunch. Most years we lose 50% of our crops. If you find your sweetcorn stalks intact but the cobs chewed open, suspect rats or squirrels both of which are good climbers.
The long term answer is to surround these vulnerable plants with an inner layer of chicken wire – buried into the soil – and an outer layer of soft net, which badgers seem not to like getting their claws into. We’ve even thought about a Fort Knox bed of weldmesh! The trouble with all of these arrangements is that they also deter the allotmenteer from day to day cultivation – and so we compromise and expect to lose some corn every year.
We did have one not-so-brilliant cunning plan this year which was to grow the sweetcorn inside the polytunnel. As you’ll see from the photograph we even carried it through until we realized that the badgers would still smell the corn and would cheerfully rip through the polytunnel cover to get at them. A new cover would cost about £250 so we contemplated digging up and composting the growing plants until Madame had the unlikely idea of transplanting them even though they were more than two feet tall by now.
So we took a trial batch of six plants, removed them with as large a soil ball as we could, and set them down in a new bed – all this on one of the hottest days of the year! We fed, watered and nurtured them as if they were in intensive care, and blow me they all survived with barely any setback. Nature is so much more resilient than we give her credit for. So now we’ll move the rest of them and think about buying a roll of chicken wire and some strong posts. We don’t actually need all that many cobs so sharing may turn out to be a serious plan because we love having the badgers on the allotment.
As for the asparagus – after threatening to dig it up – this year – we have intensified our efforts to save the bed and tomorrow we’ll apply some diatomaceous earth around the bed and give them a spray of neem oil -they’re not in flower and we couldn’t find any ladybird larvae so it looks like the safest option. We’ve also got nematodes in the fridge but we can’t spray that until a new hatch of larvae coincides with a dull day. The only pest that hasn’t caused as many problems as usual are the slugs. We’ve learned that spot watering the plants and leaving the dry earth everywhere else, deters them from their night rambles.
Oh and joy unconfined! The Saturday market has returned to Green Park Station after a serious fire put it out of action, and we were able to resume our favourite Saturday breakfast of strong coffee and pain au raisins after finishing early morning watering. Madame is scanning the sky for thunderclouds and rain – lots of rain. Pleeeeeease.