More reasons for being cheerful

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I’m never quite sure what constitutes the first fruits of the new season because some of our favourite things like leeks and purple sprouting broccoli have been in the ground for a season already. So if you exclude all of last year’s starters, then the first crop has to be one that was sown this year and once again (it never changes) the radish comes in first because it just loves the hotbed and always obliges us in record time.  These were the very first thinnings, but we were so pleased we just blew the loose dirt off, wiped off the rest on my overalls and ate them.  They were delicious and remember, everyone needs to eat their peck of dirt!  The asparagus is putting in a magnificent effort and will certainly come second, but it just needs a few warmer nights. Very soon we’ll be eating the first thinnings of lettuces and then – true joy – the first broad beans. The hungry gap is always much later than most people imagine – it doesn’t come in the dead of winter when there are always roots and a few hardy brassicas to be had – it’s now when you can feel the first heat of the sun on your back and the birds are singing.

Paradoxically, the social isolation policy coupled with millions of people being laid off or working from home, has allowed many people to get on with their allotments and every day sees more work being done.  But there are other fascinating consequences. This morning when our grocery delivery arrived, instead of coming in a big diesel van it arrived on an electric bike – I couldn’t quite believe it – but the boss of a local bike delivery company had lost almost all his work due to shop closures so he offered to help the supermarket out.

Our own plot is a constant source of pleasure. Today we went up early, thinking there wouldn’t be much to do because yesterday we decided to do a bit of weeding and we struggled to finds any weeds! Two people working seven days a week on 250 square metres of ground can defeat even bindweed after 4 years.  Actually I’m a little ashamed that it looks so clinically clean at this time of the year, but give it six weeks and it will look a lot more random. We’ve scattered no end of  “good” weeds around the beds but they’re slow to germinate.

The biggest job today was to plant out the garlic that we’d started off in pots last year.  We experimented by splitting the bulbs into two batches – half were planted straight into the ground and the other half into big pots filled with home made free draining compost. All winter the pots were winning – the ones in the ground were sitting in very wet soil and we were quite concerned for them.  But as soon as the rain stopped the situation reversed completely and the ones in the ground started to pull ahead so convincingly that today we put the rest into the ground.  The original idea was to use the potted ones to move around the plot and sit them on paths to deter pests.  Pots can be a bit tricky though, and even after the wet winter we’ve just had, the pots were drying out even after a week of good weather.  Garlic likes moist soil but hates the wet and hates drying out just as much. The watering regime for garlic is one of the keys to success and we’re still learning how to manage it.  Pots need a lot of attention  – that seems to be the learning point.

As ever we’ve put things into the wrong place and they soon tell you.  I’ve already moved some lavenders into a home made bed that would kill many plants, but we saw a bunch of lavenders planted in what looked like an impossibly dry and sunny spot on the side of the canal last year, and I remember shaking my head sagely at the time – assuming that they’d be dead by the end of the season – but they just loved it there. Now we’ve got to find a new home for another sun lover  – a Clematis armandii that’s on the wrong side of a hazel hurdle. The best laid plans etc ….. Last year I spent many hours planning on the computer, but we altered so many things on the ground that we’ve become a bit less picky.  Rotations are important, but making a fetish of them drives you mad, I promise!

So not much time for reading today but suddenly, as I was reading Thomas Berry the thought popped into my mind that although human slavery was (theoretically) abolished many years ago, precisely the same set of attitudes lies behind intensive farming.  The victim this time is the whole earth and so by extension all of us.  The absolute power that science and technology have gifted us over the processes of nature is not accompanied by any sense of responsibility, or by any spiritual awareness of a debt to the earth which sustains us, out of which we have emerged over unimaginable periods of time, made from the very elements and energies of the moment of origin.

Those grubby hands in the photo are holding a miracle that – rightly considered – should bring us to our knees in gratitude.

More garlic

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Carcassone Wight hardneck garlic. Next year’s crop

Well I did say that garlic growing had reached a whole new level of personal interest after the Allotment Association talk last Monday, and I wasn’t wrong.  The book I ordered – all 450 pages of it – was definitely a good buy, and coupled with some information from the talk I’ve been doing a bit of online research to see what the state of play is for organic gardeners..

The first thing to say is that the Isle of Wight Garlic Farm is not an organic operation and makes no claim to being one. I certainly don’t want to mount any high horse about that; it sounds like a commercial decision based on the challenges of achieving a consistent crop, and we’re free to buy or not to buy their products. Two things that were said induced me to get online.  In the QA session after the talk it was said that the farm uses Dithane to control fungal diseases like white rot.  They also operate a seven year field rotation, so they’re obviously taking no chances.  When he was asked what to do if you get white rot, the speaker said “buy another farm!” – I’ve got more on that later.

In fact they can’t use Dithane because it’s been banned in the EU, and they probably went over to Systhane until that was banned as well, and current regulations seem to say that there are no chemical fungicides available to gardeners for use on food plants. That’s not a worry for us because we wouldn’t have used them anyway, but we have to accept that our losses to disease will be much harder to reduce and will need a holistic approach to plant health coupled with some hard observation of soil, weather conditions and rotation.

The second thought provoking suggestion in the talk was to give the garlic a dose of sulphate of ammonia in February.  Sulphate of ammonia is a chemical fertilizer, produced by reacting ammonia with sulphuric acid. It adds, I discovered, both nitrate and sulphur to the ground but there are all the usual downsides of producing sappy, insect friendly growth and so-on. It also uses 1% of the world’s total energy production in its manufacture.  But alliums – onions, garlic etc – all need sulphur which is one of the molecular components of the garlic byproduct, allicin, which is so good for us. Normally there’s sufficient sulphur in the soil, but apparently – and here you must remember my knowledge of plant biology is limited – apparently waterlogging does severe damage to plant roots and restricts the uptake of essential minerals.  The take home point for us is that when we inherited our allotment the soil was continually waterlogged in the winter, and despite adding tons of compost; digging drains and raising beds, it’s still on the wet side.

The sequence of plant problems is that weakened plants get diseases more quickly and more severely than healthy ones. For the third consecutive year our leeks have been a miserable failure while others on higher allotments have not been affected. So putting aside sulphate of ammonia what else could be available to us as organic gardeners? One suggestion is to spray with a solution of Epsom salts – magnesium sulphate. It’s apparently allowable, but I’m assuming it’s a manufactured chemical and I know it hasn’t been made from natural Epsom spring water in living memory so it feels pretty non-organic to me. Then I came across some research on seaweed fertilizer which pretty much fits the bill.  We often use it as a foliar spray, but it wouldn’t have occurred to me to use it in February.  Research suggests that it’s a very effective source of minerals including sulphur. Anecdotally I can say that a car load of bagged and wet seaweed certainly smells as if it’s got some sulphur about it! – and it it makes a brilliant soil conditioner too. So in February we’ll spray the young alliums with liquid seaweed extract and I’ll report back. Other than that, I think we need to carry on raising the beds further above the water table and digging in organic material and horticultural grit.

Back to the book, and it’s been a revelation. I need to get a bit of organic chemistry into my head, but garlic’s claim to be a superfood seems to be well supported by independent research. The last 100 pages of the book are a summary of research into the use of garlic in folk and complementary medicine and  the use of alliums  and their derived substances as attractants, antibiotics, herbicides, pesticides and repellents in the environment. There’s all sorts of peer reviewed research in there including some work on companion planting which I’ve yet to read properly because I get excited and start skim-reading – a very bad habit and the reason why I’m not referencing any of the ideas.

But allotmenteering is all about taking the abstract and making it concrete, and so this all boils down to creating the best conditions for our own garlic by growing it in large pots filled with a home made mixture of soil, compost, horticultural sand, a sprinkle of fish blood and bone (not vegan then), and some vermiculite and perlite. This year we’re comparing 2 rows of Early Purple Wight softneck, grown direct in the allotment soil, and 25 plants of Carcassonne Wight hardneck in pots. They’ll all get the same seaweed treatment and hopefully we’ll be able to figure out how much the waterlogging is contributing to our difficulties. In practice this means carrying many kilos of ingredients down the steep paths and mixing them up in the wheelbarrow, which is extremely hard work but massively cheaper than buying bags of potting mix – which sometimes rely on peat in any case. This way we’ve only ourselves to blame if we get the mixture wrong.

So, after a hard day, we consoled ourselves with roasted root vegetables (mostly off the allotment) and couscous; another vegan tryout that was well worth the effort, but notwithstanding the affection of American readers for all things pumpkin – especially on Thanksgiving Weekend – even after being anointed with miso and all manner of herbs it didn’t really taste of very much.

The garlic book is –  “Garlic and other Alliums – the Lore and the Science” by Eric Block, Royal Society of Chemistry Press. 454 pages and I can’t put the price here because Madame occasionally reads this blog!

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Signs of life everywhere

 

No doubt about it, Bath is  beautiful place to live in.  The sun shone this morning and we decided to go for a favourite walk along the Kennet and Avon canal which enters the River Avon just upstream of where we live. The cuttings and the tunnels at the end of the canal were all designed to keep the smelly working classes out of sight of Sidney Gardens and its wealthy patrons and it’s an ironic reversal of fortune that the gardens are presently awaiting a major restoration project whilst the canal is, and has been fantastically well looked after since it was ‘rediscovered’. Incidentally that’s a cracking instance of the way a culture can change its mind about the value of a resource that’s fallen into disuse, and a good reason why we shouldn’t destroy these places, plants, environments, resources or even buildings – just because we don’t like them at the moment.

MVIMG_20191107_120223The canal bank is a marvellous and very specific habitat for the kind of plants that don’t mind having wet feet and being overshadowed – here’s a Lungwort that’s probably a garden escape and found a perfect spot to thrive in. It was mostly found as a cottage garden plant, and used to be used a great deal as a medicinal herb, and it’s not that common around here. I refuse to sneer at it because it’s a garden escape, because it carries its own history of usefulness and it always cheers me up in early spring. In fact, if you look closely, there are all sorts of spring flowers beginning to push up leaves; they can be tricky to identify without their flowers, but that makes a case for choosing a particular plot, walk or stretch of land and revisiting it over the four seasons. Field naturalists call it a ‘transect’ when they walk week by week along a set route and identify everything they see there. It’s a foundational technique for describing the ecology of a particular place, and much of the work is done by amateurs.

Rivers and canals are just such interesting places with their own set of plants, birds, invertebrates (I’m just saying that, I know next to nothing about them) and animals, and the fact that we live so close to all that wildlife is a proper bonus.

But today wasn’t just about going for a walk.  With one of the wettest Octobers for years behind us, we were a bit concerned about the garlic and onion sets we’d planted in the ground.  In particular we were concerned that they might have rotted. So this afternoon we made a hands and knees inspection of the beds on the allotment and everything seems to be in good shape. The photo of the sprouting garlic exaggerates its size – it was barely half an inch high – but the whole row is gradually coming to life.  The peas and broad beans too have germinated in the greenhouse.  I couldn’t resist taking a photo of the gigantic beetroot on our neighbour’s plot, easily the biggest I’ve ever seen!

But star of the show today was the Sweet Cicily I grew from seed I collected last year in Yorkshire.  It’s a powerful and probably invasive weed, but it’s trapped between the shed, the greenhouse and a well-trodden path so its options for world domination are a bit limited. But today I  noticed it’s in flower still and it lifted my heart to see it.  Even as winter bears down on us there are signs of life everywhere.

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Making hay – in a manner of speaking

We know that cooler weather is on the way, but meanwhile we’re -metaphorically speaking – making hay. The three photos are, left to right, the allium bed which was planted up in the autumn and is now thriving with three varieties of garlic and some shallots.  In the centre the kitchen window is filled with chilli plants which are loving the heat and light, and finally the fruits of the carrot experiment which had to come to an end today because we need the space in the cold frame.  The carrots were sown in the autumn in pure composted horse manure and on top of a very hard soil pan, and so germination was fine but the roots really failed to make much progress. I think that successful no-dig gardening must depend on adequate initial preparation of the soil, a lot of organic material, the removal of pernicious perennial weeds  and an open texture. The key thing is that this can’t be achieved in one season and to make a go of it you need to go through the whole process patiently, particularly for deep rooting crops like carrots and parsnips.  We’re happy to do that because we can see that it’s a method worth waiting for, but I think sheeting a weed infested patch of ground for a few months and then trying to use the no-dig system is likely to lead to disappointment.

Elsewhere on the allotment the apple trees are coming into flower, so the blossom needs protecting from sharp frosts. Madame used to work at an apple research station where they had the most amazing frost protection system that involved spraying a fine water mist on the trees during frosts.  The effect was so beautiful that it regularly attracted visitors and film cameras.  We can’t afford anything so exotic for our few cordons, so it has to be a cover of fleece.

Most of the day was spent weeding, transplanting Swiss chard plants into their growing positions, feeding the old-stagers and perennials, and sowing seeds.  We’ve become great fans of liquid seaweed foliar feed, and everything gets a spray several times during the season. The container potatoes have already poked their shoots through the soil and so needed topping up with peat-free compost.  Some of the seedlings which we recently transplanted needed a touch of water and I wandered around the allotment with the watering can, my heart filled with the sense of promise.  In many ways this is the best season of the year because come July the occasional skirmish with weeds escalates into grim hand-to-hand combat if you haven’t already fatally weakened them. So at this stage of the year it’s wise never to pass a weed, however small, without uprooting it. Once they’ve set seed you’ve created years of misery for yourself. Later we cooked the first batch of spinach and added it to a fish pie.  I love real spinach.  I love chard and perpetual spinach too, but there’s not doubt that true spinach has a unique flavour.  It’s just a shame that it only really thrives in spring and autumn/winter.  In hot dry weather it bolts at the drop of a hat, and then we eat the spinach beets.

Someone pinned this touching tribute to Terry, one of our longest serving allotmenteers, on the entrance gate to the site.  His funeral takes place on Monday and we already miss him greatly.

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