This may sound a little eccentric but ….

Just now the border surrounding the asparagus bed is looking as if it might take over – it certainly needs a dramatic thinning, but there is some method in the madness because we need to harvest a lot of calendula flowers to make cream, and calendula is also reputed to deter asparagus beetle. Allotments are peculiar places inasmuch as they can be plagued by pests that spread through the site from one plot to another. If every plot holder controlled their pests, preferably organically, they’d be less invasive. On our plot we’ve been overwhelmed this year with blackfly, which got going several weeks before the ladybirds(ladybugs) bred fast enough to limit their numbers. So we picked out the broad bean growing tips and harvested ladybirds wherever we found them so we could relocate them on an instant banquet. I’ve no idea whether it worked but eventually the blackfly were diminished and we’ve just finished harvesting a reasonable crop. What with the awful spring weather it felt like we were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but a few of the neighbours simply uprooted their beans and composted them. We’ve had allium leaf miner destroy our leeks for three consecutive years – it’s rife across the site – and so this year we’ve grown all the alliums – garlic, onions and leeks – under fine insect mesh in an attempt to keep the bugs out. We’ve also netted the carrot family in the same way; it doesn’t look so nice but if it protects the crops without any chemicals then it’s a good idea.

Asparagus beetle is another one. For three years – as soon as we allowed the fern to grow at the end of the season – the beetles moved in. Dozens of voracious little grubs would chomp their way through the fern, weakening some of the plants enough to kill them. It became a daily task to sort slowly through the bed, squashing every grub we could find between thumb and finger. We found it was the most effective deterrent, but each day there would be a new hatch and so it was hard work. We sprayed once or twice with organic pyrethrum, but it can only be done under perfect conditions early in the morning because it’s a broad spectrum insecticide and could kill friends as easily as foes. It’s also very expensive and so we kept on with the daily slaughter by hand.

This year we thought we’d try growing a border of calendula around the bed to repel beetles and it seems to be working. Madame has only picked off half a dozen grubs this week, and the fronds are looking sound – capable of feeding the roots for next year. However the vigorous marigolds are shading the asparagus plants nearer the edges so we need to take the flowers for drying and then thin the border dramatically. So far it’s one up for the companion planting.

I wanted also to mention a new (another one!) book which would be of more interest to UK and Northern European gardeners because it’s about garden wildlife. Titled “Guide to Garden Wildlife” it’s illustrated beautifully by Richard Lewington with the birds illustrated by his brother Ian. This season’s foray into deliberate wildlife gardening has forced us to pay a lot more attention to what’s flying around, wandering and crawling around, swimming around and tunnelling underneath the allotment. A single, portable, illustrated field guide ticks an awful lot of boxes since we are now so often confronted with an insect whose name we don’t know. Wildlife gardening removes the convenient (and deadly) division of living things into crops and enemies. The netting and companion planting that we’re experimenting with all flow from the desire to combine the protection of our crops with increasing the diversity and health of the birds and insects on the plot.

Here’s a typical decision we’ve had to make. Until we put in a pond I’d never heard of iris sawfly, but they’ve moved in with a vengeance – fat and juicy little grubs chewing off the leaves. For us they’re a nuisance – more of a cosmetic nuisance it has to be said; but for a hungry bird, or for one of the many other insect predators it’s a meal. So we put up with the knackered leaves and hope that the dragonflies, water boatmen and many other creatures enjoy a meal at the expense of a little patience on our part. Once we’ve accepted that we’re just another predator in the great wheel of nature, then the way we garden becomes a profoundly moral issue. We take what we need, discourage dangerous pests as far as we can and let the rest thrive.

The book has enthused me enough to try to identify more of the species of bee and fly that look rather like one another. Hoverflies, for instance, are a big group with very different lifestyles and we want to move beyond bumble bees and butterflies. Even moths, I wonder recklessly, could be worth a go. It would be pure pleasure of course but more than that I’d urge you to get hold of a copy and read Ken Thompson’s marvellous introduction. His take on wildlife gardening is pretty radical because he refuses to get drawn into a sterile argument about what’s wild and what’s not. Words like wild and natural muddy the waters to no useful end. The sad fact is that gardens are a tremendous, and sometimes the only species rich environments left in a highly populated country, practising industrial farming and building more and more concrete infrastructure. If any moronic cash strapped local council wants to turn an allotment into a car park or (another) profitable housing development for the elderly wealthy, and believe me they often do, then it will be essential to have to hand detailed records of the allotment’s natural history and biodiversity.

We’ve had a trail cam for ages, but we’ve never dared deploy it on the allotment for fear of it being stolen or vandalised – sadly it’s a problem for almost all allotmenteers. But now we’ve got a purpose built padlocked steel box which should stop almost anything except a pre-prepared theft using tools. We’ve known about the wildlife that we share the plot with through seeing what they do. Badgers, for instance, have an amazing capacity for judging the sweetness of sweetcorn and unless you protect it, it will be stolen the day before you were going to pick it. There are rumours of small deer and of course we see the rats and the flying nuisances, mostly pigeons. Mostly though, we see the tracks and the sign but not the animals themselves. But now we’ve captured some lovely video of a fox sitting and cleaning itself right in front of the camera; a curious magpie almost tapping the box (it must have glistened) and a great sequence of a fat rat, nose twitching searching for our broad beans. Rats love the beans and occasionally we find a whole pile of empty pods. This one, however, was out of luck and it jumped over the boards into a cleared bed.

However, watching 30 seconds of video for a short glimpse of a fox is pretty boring and so I’m trying to teach myself video editing so that I can publish the best bits here. I may be some time!

Home again, home again, Jiggety Jig.

The herb at the top is French tarragon – a revelatory herb, like chervil.

In the absence of either a market or a fat pig, back on the allotment we swapped the wild plants of West Wales for the domestic sort and took the first really decent harvest of the season. It’s not that we haven’t been harvesting for ages, we’ve had a steady supply of rhubarb and asparagus; radishes and lettuce and so on but today was the first time we harvested a complete five a day meal’s worth – new potatoes, broad (fava) beans, beetroots, garlic and carrots. The carrots were thinnings from a container experiment, and the potatoes too came out of one of the deep containers which have been a tremendous success because we’ve been able to move them around the plot wherever there’s a temporary patch of empty ground. Thanks to our allotment neighbours nothing was lost during the little heatwave while we were away and apart from a hard session of weeding, the plot was looking good.

In the beginning of the season we filled every spare inch with calendula and tagetes and today we had to carry out a radical thinning to give the others room to breathe. There were coriander, angelica, lavender, evening primrose and Nicotiana rapidly being outgrown and so we had to uproot dozens of the more vigorous calendulas to bring the rest on. There’s nothing more unnatural than a natural looking garden! The garlic was just a quick peep to see how they’re fattening up and the rest will be left for a few weeks yet; but the perfume of the single bulb filled the kitchen when we got home.

The few survivors of the overwintered broad beans haven’t done well, having been felled by a fierce and cold east wind – they dehydrated and weakened in spite of our improvised screens. The later sown replacements have grown quickly and well but being far more tender they were more vulnerable to blackfly and the ladybirds haven’t really got up to full speed yet. Perhaps they too were badly affected by the cold and wet conditions. Usually we have dozens overwintering in our window frames at home but this year there were none.

Inside the polytunnel the tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and peppers are all setting fruits and once again the main work was removing side shoots. Even the melons have taken off and we’re waiting for the first three fruits to set before removing all the rest to give the smaller number a chance of filling out and ripening. The Douce Provence peas too were afflicted in the same way but again the spring sown replacements are much better. Of the three varieties we’re growing – Alderman, Douce Provence and Robinson’s Show Perfection; the last of the three is winning hands down although we have to fight the pigeons for them always so this year we’re growing them up the inside of the fruit cage which at least gives us the first five feet of vines. The greatest challenge, growing peas, is giving them time to fatten up, but getting them in before the pea moth strikes. Allotments become hotspots for all sorts of pests, and this year we’ve kept all of the garlic, onions, carrots and parsnips under the finest insect netting. It certainly spoils the appearance of the plot but we’re hoping to grow some leeks free of allium leaf miner this year. Once again we’re trying a variety of pot leek from Robinsons and it’s looking good so far. I guess if you’re going to grow organically the only option is to use insect barrier netting where the pests are tiny and bird netting for everything else. As for slugs and snails it’s clear that healthy plants don’t get attacked nearly so much but this year we’ve resorted to a nematode treatment because weather stressed plants are the go-to slug food. All I would say, though, is that you should ignore the photos on the seed packets. Typically, lettuces have a few yellow leaves on the outside, but you just peel them off – as you do with many other vegetables, put the peelings on the compost heap and suddenly they look just like the ones in the catalogue.

The rest of the day was spent building a sturdy frame with bean sticks to grow cucumbers and a winter squash up. The cucurbits can take up a huge amount of space in a small allotment and growing them vertically makes a lot of space.

And yes we had a wonderful time in St Davids, and did lots of reading, writing talking and walking. This lovely adder came to say hello on the path one day, and we watched a very large seal who looked up intently at us from the safety of the sea below us. The bird highlight was a ring ouzel – only the second I’ve ever seen. We also saw dozens of manx shearwaters skimming across the sea in the evenings as they went out in long skeins to feed. We’ve camped at the other end of the bay, and in a tent it’s easy to hear the haunting sounds they make as they fly back low over the fields to Skomer where they nest. It’s a kind of wheezy whistle that, the first time you hear it, makes your hair stand on end – like the cry of a fox or a vixen on heat – except that particular cry gets dubbed on to every night scene on every thriller shown on television!

There were times when we sat on the steps of the van watching the sun setting on the horizon of glittering sea, when I thought I could stay here all summer – but the allotment too has its moments of joy. If the last couple or three postings have felt a bit too philosophical, I’m sorry. Very selfishly I do my thinking at the laptop and I’m struggling to find a way of drawing all the threads together. Global extinctions, climate emergencies, pandemics and economic crises are, it seems to me, all closely related. Is it our culture that’s diseased and no longer fit for purpose? We’re all getting agitated, angry and paranoid about things and that’s not the mindset that our perilous situation deserves. Can we really save the earth one cabbage at a time? Well, we’ve tried everything else.

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.