We are not alone …

These are just a few fairly random photos I’ve taken on the allotment this season – some of them I’ve posted previously, including the emperor dragonfly, the ladybird larva and the comma butterfly on the bottom row. The two at the top were taken yesterday – a violet ground beetle – Carabus violaceus, and a hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus, apparently sometimes known as ‘the footballer’, although that sounds rather strained to me. They should remind us that there’s a good deal more important work going on behind the scenes on an allotment than we (who like to take all the credit) can claim to be responsible for.

We know, of course, that the allotment is a bit of a war zone, with pigeons stripping our brassicas to the ribs if the caterpillars haven’t got there first. Phytophthora infestans – or potato blight -is a tiny micro-organism but it can reduce a healthy crop of potatoes or tomatoes to a slimy mess almost overnight; and our local badgers wait patiently until the sweetcorn reaches perfection and then take it the night before we were due to harvest it. Squirrels, rats, mice, slugs and snails all disrupt our best laid plans and occasionally scythe our seedlings down before they’ve got their roots down.

In our compartmentalised way we tend to divide the rest of the natural world into friends and enemies and, even more dangerously we can begin to divide it up on aesthetic or emotional criterias – what looks nice or frightening, or what makes me feel good and what repulses me, for instance bunnies and slugs. Worse still you might divide the natural world by applying economic criteria – what’s a valuable resource and whats’s economic deadweight? – profit and loss.

But if you believe – as increasing numbers of us do – that the health of the whole earth depends on an intricate network of relationships, then the only criterion that makes any sense is the long term welfare of the earth upon which we’re utterly dependent, because contrary to polarised thinking, most curses bring their blessings and vice versa. It’s hard to think of a good side to potato blight, but the pathogen that causes it is a part of a whole bunch of microorganisms, many of which are indispensable to us. Squirrels distribute the seeds of the trees they raid, rats dispose of the hazardous food waste that we leave lying around; flies, or rather maggots dispose of the millions of dead little furry things, worms, slugs and earwigs chew up squillions of dead leaves for us and turn them into in-situ compost and all of them together tend to do the sorting out of the weakest individuals ensuring that Mr Darwin’s theories have never been effectively challenged. In the natural world of the allotment, for instance, predation is almost always fairly inefficient.

The hoverfly in my photo isn’t a bee it’s a fly, but it’s a marvellous pollinator. Just under half of the other hoverflies are also blackfly predators in their larval stage – like ladybirds. But because their adaptive defence is to look like bees or wasps we often regard them as enemies. In fact far more crops are pollinated by flies than are pollinated by honeybees. The violet ground beetle, believe it or not, is an effective predator of small slugs and other beasties. The fact is, we have to be content to share nature with a host of life-forms that we may not care for very much but which may be keystone species in the self regulating natural world.

Ponds really help

But there’s something else about the two species I noticed yesterday and that’s the fact that they both associate with water. We’ve got a river and a couple of large ponds near us on the allotments but in the way that things go in and out of fashion, there’s also been an explosion in the number of small, even tiny ponds on people’s plots. All sorts of vessels up to bath tubs have been pressed into service and you might wonder whether they’ll ever make a contribution to the local ecology. This year has shown that without doubt they do. There are three very small ponds on plots adjoining ours and we’ve seen the emperor dragonfly, several sorts of darters and chasers, not to mention the hoverflies who need water – preferably very stinky water – to lay eggs and pass through their larval stage as rat tailed maggots. All these in turn attract larger predators, and the knock on effect is noticeable. Little things really do make a difference.

I read in a magazine somewhere recently that scientists are developing robots to pollinate crops. Are they completely mad??? Many of the most intractable illnesses in hospital are known as ‘iatrogenic’ diseases, that’s to say they are a side-effect of the indiscriminate use of treatments for other things altogether. The same case exactly can be made against industrial agriculture. The pointless and inappropriate use of chemicals and heavy machinery has created a whole series of new problems that could be solved much more quickly by stopping doing the things that cause the problem rather than wasting millions of pounds developing robots to pollinate crops when you’ve killed all the natural and free pollinators.

Our response need not be to allow pests to run riot over or destroy our crops as the industry often claims, but to become inefficient predators ourselves. Thumb and finger predators, in fact. Just wash your hands afterwards.

Q – is there a great way to decrease meat consumption?

A: – eat less meat

OK so most of us would agree that living on pasta, marmalade and Cornish pasties would be a tiny bit unbalanced, but the pasties – which Madame made for supper this evening – have additional benefits.  They only have 1.5oz of meat in each one – the rest is pastry, potato and swede.  You don’t have to be working class or wear trainer bottoms to eat one, just the ability to get over yourself – PLUS – they are better at cheering you up than any prescription drug after a rainy day. Obviously the pesto is lovely as well, and the two photos are only there to show how to make a sausage which you put into the freezer for 2 hours before removing it and cutting it up into servings.  Last night we had it with tagliatelle, crushed potatoes and steamed broccoli – positively life affirming! and finally the marmalade which is enough to get us through until next January – that’s 365 breakfasts and 365 slices of our own everyday sourdough toast – possibly 400 if you include the greed.

It has been raining all day again. Last night’s TV  documentary on the Church of England’s cover up of the predatory bishop Peter Ball – who I knew slightly when he came to theological college as an occasional lecturer – depressed me beyond measure, not least because it was so entirely predictable. A church hierarchy that protects its reputation before it protects vulnerable people is utterly unworthy.

Dave Goulson’s book “The Jungle Garden” which I’ve been reading made me gnash my teeth as well, but this time in a good way. You’ll never eat a shiny Cox apple or a Spanish non-organic grape again.

……. and thank you so much for reading this blog.  Yesterday I had my largest number of views ever – completely inexplicable!

Planting weeds ?

We’ve seen four days of wamth and bright sunshine which has brought our community of allotmenteers out in droves as the new season moves into full throttle. For us it’s meant that every trip up to the plot means taking a load of plants which have been propagated in the flat. Hardening everything off properly means a great deal of shuffling  plants between the greehhouse, the cold frames and the most sheltered spots on the allotment as they progress towards open ground. In our heads and on the laptop we carry a model plan of campaign between sowing and harvesting, but trying to second guess what the weather will be doing, six weeks down the road, is a bit of a nightmare and so – just like a motorway – we get traffic jams and empty stretches.

Key to the whole show is the date of the last frost and so early yesterday I had twenty minutes on the computer searching the meteorological entrails and at last I’m as sure as I can be that there will be no more frost.  The first wave of plants are on the allotment and ready to be planted out, and in a week’s time we’ll start moving the second wave of tender subjects out of the flat and into the hardening off phase.

That all sounds a bit cerebral, but of course gardening is never like that because planting out is back breaking work. The plot was designed to be as productive as possible and so the width of the paths was calculated on two measurements – the main paths on the width and turning space of a wheelbarrow, and the secondary paths on the length of my wellingtons – 13″ if you’re really desperate to know!  It was intended to make it possible to work all the beds without ever having to walk on them, but there are always unintended consequences and in this case it’s having to kneel to plant out with your knees aligned to the path and your upper body aligned at 90 degrees to the bed. It’s the only way not to cause carnage to the plants on the adjoining bed.

So by yesterday teatime we were completly crocked and the proposed dish of broad bean tops was abandoned in favour of fish and chips. Luckily we have a prizewinning chippie just up the road. On the plus side all the brassicas are now in, and in a new departure they’re interplanted with tagetes, calendula and nasturtiums. Everything in me is shouting NO to adding competing flowers to the vegetable beds but unless we try it we’ll never know whether companion plants are all they’re cracked up to be. This can be difficult because our basil supply last season was infested with whitefly – which it’s supposed to repel. Our weirdest flight of fancy was to plant petunias around the edge of the asparagus bed to repel asparagus beetle which were a problem last year. The problem with assessing any of these measures is the usual one that confronts any experimenter – too many variables – but on the other hand it will make the veg garden more beautiful and please the pollinators no end.  As I was watering the petunias in I remembered an old music hall song – “I’m a lonely little petunia in an onion bed”  and I wondered whether these pretty flowers might repel onion fly as well.

Companion planting seems to work in a number of ways, firstly by attracting pollinators and insects like hoverflies that reduce pest numbers or by distracting the pests away from your veg, and even by emitting chemicals through roots and flowers that repel the bugs and slugs. I’m happy to concede that music hall songs and folk magic is not the most scientific approach, but there may well be some hard facts within the practice and anything that reduces the reliance on deadly chemicals has got to be worth the effort. It makes me think of the exhausting effort to destroy ragwort because it’s ‘poisonous to livestock’. But cattle and, for all I know horses too, have learned to avoid the plant which only becomes dangerous when it’s incorporated into hay and silage where it can’t be differentiated. Wholesale spraying with chemicals kills the plants – but not very well – while denying the innocent and harmless cinnabar moth a habitat, and polluting the watercourses. We have to end the practice of regarding the soil as a neutral medium into which we can pour seeds, chemicals and fertilizer with ever diminishing returns. The idea that we can use smart science endlessly to increase yields is an earth threatening fantasy.

And so, as you see in the photos, we’re using both companion planting and physical barriers to control pests, and if – and only if – we experience a crop threatening attack, we may consider using pyrethrum which is hideously expensive but on the approved for organics list. This is a working allotment, not a shrine, and we have to defend the best against the perfect.