It finally feels safe to welcome the apple blossom

For reasons that I doubt stand up to scientific scrutiny, May 12th is a red letter day in the Potwell Inn calendar, because it’s the day we feel safe to plant out runner beans. Should you be tempted to follow this piece of jumped up wisdom, I’d warn you that May 12th is no more significant than being two days after the latest date we’ve ever lost an entire crop to frost. Logically speaking, in this age of climatic catastrophe, it’s possible that we could see a severe frost a week later but we’ve got that covered because as usual we’ll sow a second lot a fortnight later. The allotment is a test bed for delusional theories about almost anything but we do need some kind of structured timetable, however unreliable – if we’re ever to grow anything. Folk wisdom takes us a little way; February fill dyke certainly lived up to its name; March came in like a lion but carried on prowling long after the lamb was meant to take over; and where are the April showers? – a bit of drizzle tomorrow and that could be that. The water butts are already nearly empty; and don’t even mention this relentless east wind!

However the two week weather forecast is showing a clear, frost free run through to May 10th which means (or perhaps may mean) that we can look at the apple blossom with fond hopes of a crop, rather than fearing that things can only get worse. Borrowing from the sinister language of covid, the allotment has been divided into areas. We have critical care for the tender plants outside that need constant covering and uncovering at night. Then there’s the polytunnel which speaks a high dependency language we’ve yet to master; and after that there are the overwintering brassicas; the cauliflower and purple sprouting, which seem to endure whatever nature throws at them.

After a very shaky spell in the greenhouse, the tomatoes are now inside the tunnel and underneath a large hoop cloche. Every morning we roll back the fleece to let the sun to them and they’re looking well. We’re greatly indebted to Eliot Coleman’s “Winter Harvest Handbook” for this idea. However, with the end of the frosts we’re having to contemplate digging out some of the other polytunnel crops to make space for the summer vegetables. It’s been the most exciting revelation to see just how well crops like strawberries, spinach, chard, radishes, lettuces and early potatoes thrive under plastic. The container potatoes can be moved outside of course, as can the container carrots but whether we’ll be able to harvest the young turnips in the next ten days is doubtful. At home we’ve got chillies, peppers, aubergines in 5″ pots and trays of basil ready to go into the tunnel alongside the tomatoes, and while they all harden off we’ve got runner beans, borlotti and french beans going into root trainers to germinate; and melon (Minnesota Midget), winter and summer squashes, courgettes and cucumbers sitting in the heated propagators with corn to follow.

But this isn’t by any means all that’s been happening on the allotment because we’ve been setting out the rest of our list of insect friendly plants – so aside from the herbs, we’ve introduced four lavenders (Hidcote Giant), Bee balm (Monarda), Lemon Balm, Winter Jasmine, pot marigolds, Erysimum, catmint,Salvia, Hyssop, Echinops (globe thistle) and borage. They’ll join the fruit trees, soft fruit bushes and globe artichokes. The pond is planted up with iris, horsetail, water mint and other bits and bobs we’ve been given by other allotmenteers.

Surprisingly, perhaps, it’s been the kitchen herbs that have almost given us most pleasure. For more serendipitous reasons than cold logic we’ve collected six different mints and we’re growing four types of basil this season. We’ve thyme, marjoram, oregano, winter and summer savory; French sorrel, lovage, two types of parsley, rosemary, sweet cicely, coriander, chervil, French tarragon, chives and sage. There are probably more that I’ve overlooked. Ironically one of the healthiest marjoram plants we’ve ever grown is a self-seeded plant clinging to the foot of the compost bin on the edge of a path. Like so much in nature, plants are often best left to find their own favoured spot. We’ve lost so many thymes over the years but we still carry on hoping that one day they’ll find their own sweet spot.

Finally, it’s good to write that the latest cordons, (Victoria plum, damson, bramley and Conference pear) have all taken root. They’ll take three or four years to produce any fruit at all but they make me feel optimistic. And the asparagus bed is just beginning to produce useful quantities. When it was planted out we used a bulk offer to put in crowns of three different varieties but to be honest only one of the varieties ever did well. This year the bed has started throwing spears across the whole area at once. Our neighbour has has exactly the same experience and we wonder if the dominant variety hasn’t spread into the space once planted with other types. I’m no expert, so we’ll wait and see.

As I look down this posting I’m a little amazed that we’ve managed to stuff so much into 200 square metres and I wish I could claim it was all down to our expertise; but our guiding principle has more likely been greed, optimism and naivety. It hardly seems five minutes since the day when I’d never seen a green pepper, never smelt garlic and didn’t know any herbs apart from thyme, parsley and sage. Our very first herb gardens were fuelled by the need to furnish our cooking when you simply couldn’t buy herbs. The upside of a childhood lived through food rationing was that every new flavour was a genuine discovery. How could you not be blown away by the discovery that tarragon tasted even better with chicken than it sounded in the books. Even this year I discovered how good sorrel tastes – because we’ve grown it and now it’s free!

As we emerge from the lockdown more or less intact, my phone keeps reminding me of the things we were doing three four five and more years ago. Today this picture of Bardsey Island popped up and my heart sang with joy at the thought that this year – perhaps in September – we’ll be able to go back. Below Bardsey I’ve put in some other pictures taken yesterday on the allotment. Don’t ask whether the loss of the one is compensated by the gain of the other. Life doesn’t work like that.

2017. Bardsey Island from the mainland on Lleyn. It always reminds be of a leech!

Guerilla gardening

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Yesterday I got excited about a patch of winter heliotrope on the canal side, but I didn’t mention the little guerilla garden that popped up just below Cleveland House a couple of seasons ago. I’m no expert when it comes to guerilla gardening, but I know of three sites in Bath that have been planted up and (more or less) maintained for a few years now. If you walked past looking at your mobile or with your head full of music, or ran past checking your heart rate and distance, or shouting at your children to mind the water -you’d never notice it – there’s only half a dozen square metres of it after all. But it just happens that it’s next door to a favourite patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) which was not showing much more than leaves yesterday and it contained some winter savory in flower.

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From Clive Stace – “New Flora of the British Isles” 3rd edition

So how do we feel about these introduced and occasionally naturalized interlopers popping up here and there with a bit of human help. My “Atlas Flora of Somerset” has the plant established for a very long time on the walls of the manor at Mells. Stace has it naturalised in North Somerset – which may well refer to the same plants, so it seems to me to be completely pointless trying to establish its status as if it were applying for a visa. The brute facts are that this plant was almost certainly put there by the guerilla gardener(s)  who thought the patch was looking very neglected and needed cheering up. Maybe in a hundred years it will have naturalised and maybe it will just give up the ghost because it’s not in the right place – who knows? But yesterday it was in flower and looking very pretty in the shy sort of way that plants do when they’re surrounded by the usual badly behaved groundlings in disturbed soil.

It’s possible to get disquietingly touchy on the subject of alien plants, as if only ram-stamped British – no, English – subjects should be allowed. Is there a whiff of nativism in it? Neither plants, birds or insects respect our artificial borders – we’ve got a lovelorn parakeet hanging around on the allotment at the moment; should we shoot it in the pursuit of ecological purity or smile at its preposterous brightness against the winter trees?

There are a couple of serious points that should be made about planting up apparently neglected patches of ground. The first is that wildflowers often only show themselves for a brief period and then disappear again until next season. Most of us don’t notice that wildflowers adapt to their surroundings by timing their flowering period to coincide with any number of factors – space, daylight, pollinators – and probably many more.  The wonder of the weedy verge is succession and so although the patch of apparently boring ground may not be looking at its most showy today, in a month it might be a riot or a contemplative joy. As I discovered very early on in my botanical apprenticeship, not all dandelions are really dandelions, and not all of those green plants on verges are cow parsley. Wild plants have their own times and seasons and it’s not their job to provide us with year-round entertainment. I’ve come to see the random distribution of “wildflower seed mix” as just another form of vandalism alongside strimmers.

Another parallel point comes in a particularly poignant way here in Bath. The local council, bless them, always mindful of the strillions of visitors, like to make sure that the the grass and borders are a constant visual feast.  But to be honest, 50,000 tulips is a bit of an insult to any idea of biodiversity. God has an answer to bare earth, and it’s called weeds.  Weeds are beautiful, healing, occasionally poisonous, and home to billions of insects that feed birds and other insects. My mother, born in 1916, knew her wildflowers inside out; could predict the weather for the next few hours by looking at “Granny Perrin’s nest”  which, to my infant eyes, looked like a tall tree, and didn’t think of herbal remedies as the least bit ‘alternative’. She didn’t – to my knowledge – ever fly on a broomstick.

Teaching children to understand and recognise even a few local wildflowers and their properties (perhaps ‘gifts’ would be a better word), would do more to advance the battle against the coming ecological disaster than any number of wildlife documentaries. At Christmas our oldest grandson (7) showed me his new bird record book. Three pages of neatly ruled entries detailed all his sightings, and every one of them was a blackbird. I asked him if he’d seen anything else and he replied that he was only recording black ones at the moment.  It’s a start, that’s the thing. If we’re going to survive on this planet, the earth needs to be the object of our love and not just our understanding. So I hear what you’re saying, guerilla gardeners, but don’t be too quick to condemn the weedy patch or you might fall into the sin of municipal consciousness.