As easy as 1,2,3 – possibly

Reflecting on the season which is drawing to a close, there’s a lot to be thankful for – not least the new polytunnel which has done all we hoped for. It was a big investment for us and it was a nightmare getting it up in the freezing cold and wet of March; but without it I don’t think we’d be making tomato sauces for storage on anything like the scale we’ve been able to. Within two weeks we’ll be taking up the vines and any green tomatoes will be turned into chutney. We weren’t so lucky with the aubergines mainly due – I think – to the humid weather which apparently makes the pollen sticky. But after a week of hand pollinating with a watercolour brush, the mass of flowers look as if they are setting some fruits at last. All we need now is warmth and sunshine to finish them. The other great polytunnel successes have been the melons – which I’ve already written about.

However, it’s been a savage year for slugs and then recently blight which has destroyed most of our neighbours’ tomato plants. We took the decision some years ago to grow blight resistant varieties as far as possible. They’re more expensive because they’re F1 hybrids but we’ve harvested over 60 lbs so far with another 20 still to come. Most of our neighbours have lost the lot – which is terribly discouraging, especially for newcomers. Let’s be clear, these varieties aren’t GM or anything like that; they’re just the result of old fashioned field trials and – so far as we’re concerned – they’re worth every penny. We only grow early potatoes now so blight isn’t an issue; but we have grown blight resistant potatoes (Sarpo varieties) in the past and they’ve worked very well. There’s a dilemma here because it would be lovely to continue with heritage varieties but if they die before they provide any food you have to wonder whether it’s worth the heartache. The devil here, of course, is climate change which has utterly altered the weather that most heritage varieties were selected to grow in.

But that only addresses the problem of blights and fungal infections. Pests are another problem and once again there’s a dilemma because since we started filming our nocturnal visitors we’ve seen foxes, cats, badgers, squirrels and an assortment of greedy birds. The one animal we haven’t seen – and if the image of the allotment as a wildlife haven were true, we should have seen – is the hedgehog. In five years not a single one has been seen on the allotment, and the reason is patently obvious – it’s slug pellets. Most of us talk the talk when it comes to controlling slugs and snails harmlessly; but when slugs fell a whole row of spinach seedlings in a night, it takes a whole lot of forbearance not to reach for the pellets. Now that metaldehyde has been banned, the new iron phosphate replacement might fill the gap but hedgehogs, badgers, toads and birds would be far more effective. Surely giving up the pellets would be a sacrifice worth making if we could get the natural predators back on the job?

And that immediately raises another dilemma. How do you keep the ‘useful’ predators off the crops you want to eat? Badgers especially can destroy a whole year’s corn in one rampage. The photo says it all!

Badgers destroyed this crop on a neighbour’s plot 2 days ago.

There’s a cultural tic that afflicts a lot of allotmenteers that treats any expenditure at all as a bit – let’s be honest – middle class incomer, far too rich so and so’s. I’ve witnessed many a cutting remark about those of us who choose to invest our savings in physical crop protection – fences, insect mesh and butterfly nets; but to me it seems absurd to expect to grow a significant amount of food without spending any money in defending it. This year we invested heavily in micromesh to try to stop repeated attacks of allium leaf miner and carrot fly – and guess what? It has worked brilliantly, which is why organic market gardeners and farmers whose chequebooks are permanently welded shut to preserve the bottom line, willingly shell out on physical crop protection. Pests and diseases are indiscriminate and all we can do is keep them out of our food supply without declaring chemical war on them.

Cabbage butterflies, slugs, snails and aphids aren’t going extinct anytime soon, but the higher predators who rely on them for food, well might. We need to include positive effects on biodiversity, healthy exercise as well as fresh organic food in the profit and loss account for any allotment. I’ve come to believe that there’s even a place for the rat in the great scheme of things – so long as they’re not peeing on our lettuces!

The sheer glamour of the allotment

Runner beans in flower – If the video doesn’t work very well I’d appreciate it if you commented and let me know. This is new technology for me.

I’ve written before about the default, but quite inaccurate view of allotmenteering that gets propagated by the seed catalogues and coffee table books. Grow all your food in 20 minutes a month! whispers the siren voice, accompanied by shots of glamorous looking models in distressed straw hats strolling through the sunlit beds of their immaculate patches; pausing to pluck a rose or taking note of an enormous cabbage – presumably – var Findhorn – which they will turn into a handmade oak barrel of sauerkraut.

Meanwhile back in the real world the grey skies are rent with cries of uuuuuuuuugh OMG as ghostly slugs slide silently through the lettuces and rats slink out of the compost heap. I’m not doubting the occasional blissful day – they come along like buses, unpredictably – but the danger is that when disappointments come along, as they inevitably will, we get crushed and give up.

Blight, for instance, has arrived on the site as it inevitably does when we get this kind of wet weather for days on end. I well remember the first time we had our potatoes and tomatoes destroyed by blight – seemingly overnight – and it felt dreadful. In fact it was pretty much the end of it for that particular garden. Our neighbours on the site are in their first year and they lost all theirs last week – we wondered why we hadn’t seen them – and they told us how devastated they were. The takeaway point is that you can’t regard blight as an occasional unwelcome visitor, it comes nearly every year. The good news is that there are some really good blight resistant potatoes and tomatoes, not GM or anything like that but just bred selectively in the old fashioned way and easily as good to eat as many of the heritage varieties. UK allotmenteers can look for RHS “Award of Garden Merit” varieties that have been independently tested in field trials mirroring the different kind of soils and climate that we have to work with.

I totally agree that it would be a crime to let the heritage varieties disappear and we always grow a few old-timers among the crops. Often they grow beautifully and taste sublime but they may well be more susceptible to disease – so the answer is (as always) to grow a disease resistant variety as an insurance crop and a row of Grandad’s Teeth beans as a gamble – and don’t be fooled by the catalogues; the best tactic is to ask around on the site and see what the best allotmenteers are growing. That was how we came across Sarpo Mira potatoes and Crimson Crush tomatoes. There are others to try but those are bankers for us. Every year we see glossy pictures of the ultimate this and that but the seed merchants are often beta testing their new varieties on us, and they disappear from the catalogues within a year. Almost anything you grow yourself is going to taste a whole lot better than something grown to survive a 1000 mile journey in a lorry and with a warehouse life of months (it’s true! how do you think they sell ‘fresh’ apples out of season?) .

The farmer’s boot is the best fertilizer

Folk proverb

The other thing to say is that the more time you spend on your patch, the better you’ll understand it; and an evening stroll around on a wet night can be the most effective way of controlling slugs without using chemicals. If you’re squeamish you can chuck them in a bucket and sprinkle salt on them but whatever way you do it they’re not going to become extinct. We get asparagus beetle every year but knowing that it’s coming means we can control it by squeezing the caterpillars and spraying with a soap and oil mixture. Nearly all infestations and mildews start slowly and if you can nip them in the bud you won’t need to use anything except low cunning and soap. Plants can look absolutely terrible too. By winter time, the biennial brassicas have all got dead leaves because leaves, surprisingly, have a limited life. If they fall on the ground they look dreadful and attract pests like slugs. So we give them a trim and remove all the dead and dying leaves to the compost heap and they look like RHS show plants all over again. Many perennials die back and, again, it’s safe to remove the dead leaves.

And finally daunting jobs, like weeding, are easy if you do a bit as often as you can; and if you’re short of time – like most people – then ground cover crops can help to do the job for you. In April people look at the Potwell Inn plot and think it looks amazing. They don’t say it in August because the nasturtiums and marigolds have ramped everywhere, and the courgettes, cucumbers and squashes are spreading all over the place. But when you clear the plots at the end of the season you find bare earth under the close cover of leaves and then you have the choice of covering with sheeting until Spring, or sowing a green manure crop. We often put a thick layer of leaves over the earth and then sheet it, and within a couple of months the worms have taken most of them down into the soil and improved it greatly in the process.

It sounds cockeyed, but honestly failures are your best teachers. The worst mistake you can make is to try to control nature. Gardening, to steal a phrase from Tai Chi is an internal art – it doesn’t rely on power but on flexibility, intuition and the ability to relinquish control, and when the onions have given you a whipping for the third year in succession and thrown you contemptuously across the plot, treat them with respect. Bow and reflect, and next year remember to put the insect mesh on, before allium leaf miner arrives.