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.
The 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.
I can’t say that these days between the solstice and twelfth night are dog days because that description is reserved to the early weeks of August when everything is hot, sweaty and lethargic. But the dog’s in there up to his shining teeth, on clear nights when you can see Orion’s belt and track to the left and there’s Sirius in all his shining brightness.
Orion was the first constellation I learned to identify for the entirely unworthy reason that my birthday being in December, my younger self took that as an invitation to party until term restarted in January – which meant that I spent a lot of excited and drunken nights wondering at the stars and what they might mean. Sirius was Orion’s hunting dog and so I feel bold to claim that these dog nights in December and January are the counterparts of their warm equivalents in summer; a time when not much work but a lot of wondering gets done.
However, work we must, whenever the weather clears for a few hours because when spring arrives in maybe three months, there will be no time for pondering and bed building. Neither will there be time to wonder what we should be growing and where the new compost bins need to go: we need to be ready. We’ve more plants overwintering than ever this year, and today Madame planted out the last of the early broad beans while I got on with building another path and the base for the compost bins. The first batch we planted last week have almost doubled in size already. They’re Aquadulce Claudia so they’re perfectly capable of surviving the winter, and when we took them out of the greenhouse the roots were searching beyond the ends of the long Root-Trainers so they were more than ready to go. The peas too (Douce Provence) are doing well under their protective fleece, and the garlic, shallots and onions are well away, although it’s winter now. The allotment feels positive – as if it’s having a good time too.
I’m loathe to use any growing space for what might be thought of as a utility area, but I’ve become more conviced than ever that we need to up our game and we finally decided on three 4’X4′ bays in the middle of the plot and with a wide path beside it. We’ll treat compost just like any other crop and give it the best conditions and constituents we can so that our production will increase to meet our demand – less buying in and expense all round.
We also moved a rhubarb plant and two fennels that suddenly seemed as if they were in the wrong place. This is a great time of the year for moving the furniture around – a couple of weeks ago we moved another rhubarb (Timperly early) and it’s already rewarded us with some new buds.
But these short days still feel like a holiday. The seeds have all arrived, the heated propagators are cleaned and ready to go with the earliest sowings of chillies and with working time so limited we also need to take stock, take a big breath and prepare for next season. There’s much to celebrate and we’ve learned so much this season. Every garden or allotment we’ve ever grown has had its own personality. There are things it does easily and others it needs help with. Soil is as various as the people that till it, and our relationship with it grows and deepens like our relationship with each other. On days like today the Potwell Inn merges imperceptibly with our real everyday lives and it feels good. The earth is very forgiving.