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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