Slow down!

Sometimes it’s good to take a step back from the allotment and all its day to day detail and think about the bigger picture. I came across a Chinese proverb the other day that said “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s shadow” – the identical twin to its English equivalent “The best fertilizer is the farmer’s boot.” Boot or shadow, the takeaway point is that the farmer/gardener/allotmenteer’s physical presence and close attention to what’s going on is more effective as a stimulant to healthy and productive plants than many buckets (or tractor loads) of chemicals. Knowing your patch of earth; where the sunny spots are; where the frost gathers in winter; where the soil becomes waterlogged, and where dry; where the easterlies wreak most damage and where the south westerly storms will beat young plants flat.

On our allotment there’s a line where we can plot the point at which the sun rises above the trees for the first time at the spring equinox. We know the bed where beans flourish and the bed where they struggle. All of these important fragments of understanding fall under the seventh principle of permaculture – ‘design from patterns to details‘; and flow from the first – ‘observe and interact‘. All the best gardeners I’ve known have spent huge amounts of time leaning on a gate or a spade and watching; celebrating gardening as a form of meditation.

So are the twelve principles really about gardening at all? Well no, my belief is that they are a rule of life – similar to the rules that novices in religious orders embrace; like the words you sometimes find written above the entrance to the chapel in a Benedictine monastery – “To pray is to work“; and above the exit from the same chapel it will say “To work is to pray” – ‘labore est orare’. We are expected to pay the same devout attention to our everyday work as we would to a more rarified spiritual exercise.

There are other principles bound up in the twelve – such as earthcare, peoplecare and fair share. There is a whole political and economic vision expressed through simple principles in the sense that they could guide a community project or a whole planning department; but there’s no weird dressing up or hierarchy, no private languages and no insiders and outsiders; no saints and devils.

So here they are in all their non sectarian simplicity and I think they’re elegant and rather beautiful; an easily adaptable rule of life rather than a party manifesto but yet could be a way forward for farmers and fishing folk; scientists, economists and even, (oh please) the agrochemical industry and its shareholders.

The 12 Permaculture Principles

  1. Observe and interact
  2. Capture and store energy
  3. Obtain a yield
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services
  6. Produce no waste
  7. Design from patterns to details
  8. Integrate rather than segregate
  9. Use small and slow solutions
  10. Use and value diversity
  11. Use edges and value the marginal
  12. Creatively use and respond to change

Windfasting

We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.

So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.

The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.

The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.

All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.

But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂

Permaculture

Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.

But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.

I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.

I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!

The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.

All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.

So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.

Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

Figs

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If ever you needed a demonstration of the extravagant dynamism of nature this is it. This cluster of figs didn’t exist a fortnight ago but yesterday we noticed them in all their come and get me  beauty; pristine, glossy and crowned by leaves so new that if they were lambs they’d be jumping for joy. I quickly run out of superlatives for these young fruits, not least because if they make it to full ripeness they’ll be the stars of any table.  I didn’t really like figs until we went to Corsica where they grow wild and ripen properly in the fierce summer sun, and there I discovered how good they can be. I brought the taste for them back with me and, although I wouldn’t go quite so far with a metaphor as D H Lawrence, there’s enough about a well ripened home grown fig  to make them a fleeting treat in the autumn – so long as you can pick the precise moment to pick them, which is about thirty minutes before the flies get there.

But there’s another reason for stopping to look, because these figs are squatters; vagrants escaped from the mother tree about twenty yards away and completely self-sufficient. Where we have to grow most of our crops, these we can forage because they’ve set up home in the demilitarized zone between our allotment and our neighbour’s so they don’t really belong to either of us. Neither, incidentally, are they fed, mulched or primped in any way. The only principle adopted for pruning them is to keep the path between us clear; so there is no counting of buds or consideration of shape.  We just hack them back to the point where a wheelbarrow can pass. As they approach ripeness we feign even-handedness about picking them, but we still mutter darkly when more distant neighbours are spotted giving them a squeeze as they pass. I once spotted the most brazen grazer of all slipping away with two carrier bags full of ripe figs from the mother tree – an act of larceny he excused because the tree was planted thirty years ago by a long deceased friend. There’s a PhD to be written on the ethics of the allotment site.  Occam could sharpen his razor on the distinction between a single bay leaf, picked for some stock or the complete removal of all the fixtures and fittings on an abandoned plot. We’d all agree that there is a distinction to be made but we’d probably place it just a little way beyond our own secret removals.

But how can we be so pleased with our little horticultural triumphs which involve hours of work and no little expense, when this fig demonstrates its independence so beautifully. I’m not a permaculturalist, mainly because the cost of making it universal would be depopulation on a huge, even monstrous scale; but that doesn’t mean that I’m not deeply interested in those resources that the earth provides and which we neglect as we stuff ourselves with rich processed food to the detriment of our health and the entire ecosystem. I read last night that the leaves of red valerian – Centranthus ruber – are delicious in salads.  Aside from the fact that one of our sons is horribly allergic to it, I’d never thought of eating it because however botanically sophisticated I may have become as I grow older, I still instinctively divide plants into ‘food’ and ‘weeds’ and I suspect my mother placed border guards in my head to warn me off inviting strangers into the kitchen. Recently I laughed heartily at a seed catalogue offering couch grass for money, in spite of the fat that I readily rub an ointment containing its roots into my skin when I get small patches of eczema. That said, maybe I should start a rumour that the figs are escaped from a deadly plant breeding experiment aimed at quietly exterminating Italian waiters.

Today it’s been raining again so I redeemed the shining hour by making bread and baking another Dundee cake. Life at the Potwell Inn is ever challenging and so today we turned the mattress on the bed and put some clean sheets on; such is the nature of the ordinary – you have to wrestle a blessing out of it