On the allotment today

To dig or not to dig?

Madame and I are definitely no-diggers, but not in a religious sense and so there are some occasions when we resort to the fork because we share a thirty yard border with several untended plots which constantly test our defences with daring raids. Sometimes they’re aerial – dandelions and sow-thistles are regulars, but also underground – particularly bindweed (hiss) and couch grass. Both of them, especially bindweed, spread underground rapidly; I think I read somewhere that they can grow a metre a week. Anyway, every two or three years we have to dig it out and dispose of it. There’s no point in composting it and we’re all much more circumspect about garden bonfires now we know how dangerous the smoke is. In the intervening years when it’s not a problem, it’s usually enough to run a three tined cultivator hoe, or a sharp draw hoe across the beds and slice them off at ground level. What’s particularly irritating is that our then neighbour allowed us to grow potatoes on a part of one of the plots. We could still keep the ground clear and even improve it but the Council wouldn’t hear of it. However often the plots are offered, there are no takers, it seems, and meanwhile we listen to the bindweed growling at the gate!

It’s been a difficult year for growing so far. We were late getting on to the ground with spells of very wet and very cold weather so we decided to go with the flow, sowing and planting whenever we could. Many of our veg will be later than usual, but fellow allotmenteers who stuck to the textbook timetable have been caught out. We lost some old friends during the winter; the Achillea, the Calendula and Salvias all gave up and a quick trip to a garden centre showed a huge increase in prices so we’ll have to do without for the time being. However the always reliable angelica and some second year parsnips are flying the flag for the insects. We also lost two rosemary bushes down at the cold end of the allotment, so we’ll have to replace them with cuttings somewhere out of the frosts.

The polytunnel has given us great fun and tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and a long row of basil are all thriving. This year – purely as an experiment – we’re growing a patch of sweet corn in the tunnel, hopefully out of reach of the badgers. So notwithstanding a fortnight’s camping in Cornwall; between the kindness of neighbours and the lateness of the season the plot came through for us.

A bit of a post-covid tree planting binge has shown its first fruits in the shape of ten victoria plums while the others all flowered for the first time. We bought them just after the lockdown eased and they were pretty poor, but loads of TLC has helped them along. A Tayberry has grown tremendously fast and looks like it will be providing a good crop later on. All in all, our resolution to cut back last autumn has been comprehensively trashed, so maybe next year. We both ache in every muscle after having to water the vulnerable plants so much in this mini-summer. On the other hand, seven years of regular composting and leaf-mould spreading have left the soil in good condition with decent amounts of moisture at about four inches down.

The asparagus bed is under a final warning because it’s not really producing nearly as well as we’d hoped. Our immediate neighbour grows Connover’s Colossal and he gets great crops, so maybe it’s another example of the old saying – “Right plant, right place”. After a rather lonely winter, the site is finally buzzing again. A few of the newcomers who started during Covid have discovered that Liz Leendertz’s book about a “one hour allotment” doesn’t stand up well to the reality of jobs, children and all the other distractions. Hopefully they’ll return to gardening later in life.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

Big day in the polytunnel

We’re flat out on the allotment at the moment and this is just a brief post to celebrate getting the tomatoes into the polytunnel. The Potwell Inn kitchen is very slowly being cleared of young plants as we keep an eye on the possibility of frost. After prepping the beds I emptied a whole 250 litre water butt over the dry beds, but I could probably have applied twice as much. It’s been another record breaking dry spring and so we were very glad to have 1700+ litres of stored water at our disposal.

Madame, working outside, spotted this spider – we think it was a Wolf spider – carrying her young around in a sac. These spiders are hunters rather than trappers, so they don’t weave webs.

Black Gold

Well, after a two long sessions at the compost bin we finally achieved somewhere around 350 litres (ten largish tree containers) full of pure, screened compost and, with the bay empty, I could then turn the newest heap into the vacant space and start a fresh batch. Composting can be pretty slow – especially in the winter months – but (like narrow boats) as long as you can keep the loads moving through the system, they can emerge ready for use in surprisingly large quantities. If there’s a trick to it it’s no more complicated than watching the mixture of green and brown elements, turning regularly, keeping an eye on the temperature and paying attention to the moisture levels. Dry heaps stand still; wet heaps stink and the best compost just smells earthy – as if you’d scooped up a handful of woodland soil.

Of course it’s not necessarily a good idea to use the best compost neat. At the end of the row of four bins is one that’s just filled with leaves each autumn (fall). During the following summer we cap the leaves with a bit of fertile soil and grow cucumbers and squashes on the top of the leaves, and they do very well indeed. When the plants come out in September we have a bin full of leaf mould that can be partnered with the compost – plus some sand, grit and/or vermiculite to make a perfect seed compost (hardly any compost) potting on medium (a bit more fertility from the black gold) or use the home grown compost as a top dressing for the beds – possibly mixed with some leaf mould which, even on its own, is a marvellous soil treatment.

What we’ve discovered (everyone gets there in the end!) is that too much nitrogen can make the plants somewhat sappy, leafy and vulnerable to aphids. A little bit of hardship does most plants no harm and, according to James Wong is positively good for chillies.

The addition of the polytunnel this year has meant that we are doing work now that we would normally do in September and October. The tomatoes, for instance, are loving the warm environment and are several weeks ahead. We need to get all the plants in the tunnel harvested in the next few weeks to re-sow and plant up for the protected winter crops. That’s why the compost is being stored inside the tunnel where a good deal of it will be used to top dress the beds.

Turning compost is hard work, but today’s work revealed at least half a bin – possibly another ten containers of compost that will be ready to screen in a few weeks time. Good news all round, then.

Today we ate the first of the sweetcorn – rescued from the resident badgers with a double fence of netting. One of our neighbours is protecting her cobs with sleeves cut from bottled water bottles – but since we don’t buy bottled water (I think I read that it’s about 1300(!) times more polluting than tap water) – the double fence will have to do. Anyway the corn was absolutely delicious – far better than anything you could ever buy in a store. I’m tired of hearing myself say that it’s been a strange season but the proof of the pudding is in the eating and planning for next year feels more like a lottery than ever before. Madame provided us with a meal largely comprising our own home grown food tonight and it was lovely. But tonight we’re going to sit down and veg out – pun intentional! A bunch of books just arrived with translations of Basho’s haiku. The plum chutney can wait. The beetroot relish is bottled up, along with the piccalilli all of them placed under wraps until Christmas. It’s nice to have stores of preserves but January can’t come quick enough in the marmalade department as we’re down to our last half a dozen jars. Life is good – but then even in a cold and wet August we’d expect nothing less.

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.

Not entirely on the level!

These are the last two beds on the allotment to be prepped ready for planting up and I took the photo from this angle to show how – when people ask if we use raised beds – we have to say – “It depends which end you’re at”. The allotment is on a moderate slope and so over the years we’ve built up the soil at the southern end of each bed to terrace it. I’ve never done a calculation but at a guess we’ve used perhaps 10 cubic metres of cast off potting compost, home made compost and manure, mixed with bought-in topsoil. I hate to think how much it’s cost, but soil is precious and we never throw anything away.

The plan is to move the container potatoes on to the end plot, covered with a hoop cloche, and then tip them out to harvest them in a few weeks, leaving the soil behind and finally raising the soil level at the end. The weight of added earth had been distorting the retaining planks, and so we’ve also had to replace the short wooden pegs with sturdy posts to keep the earth in place. I was watering some new plants the other day and I was shocked to see how much topsoil was being washed away down a small gap in the planks. I think we’ll just about manage to move the potatoes in the green sacks, but although they’ve held up for five seasons, the stitching is getting rotten and so we’ve moved over to some chunky purpose built 35L buckets with handles. The limitations of space which I wrote about recently when I was thinking about rotations, means that one alternative is to grow potatoes, tomatoes etc; and carrots too in containers of fresh soil every year – keeping them under nets and therefore disease and pest free.

It was a hard day’s work, removing all the purple sprouting broccoli and reducing the stalks to shreds with a hand axe. The resulting foot of composting material we mixed with some straw and a couple of handfuls of fish, blood and bone fertilizer and gave it a good wet. Relying on the rain to keep the heap at the right level of moisture is hopeless, so we keep it covered and water it when necessary.

All this work is about getting ready to move the tender veg into the plots after the last frost, to make room for planting the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, chillies, a melon and some and basil inside the polytunnel. The tunnel has been a blast, and we’ve feasted on early salad crops but sadly some will have to be removed before they’re quite ready. Next year we’ll have a lot more experience and we’ll get things in at more appropriate times.

In the back of our minds today was a palace coup by a divided local Lib Dem council who were elected on a radical plan to cut traffic and emissions but who have just been forced to withdraw planning permission for some ‘executive’ houses on a nature reserve in a unique habitat, and who have voted the leader out because they feared her radical commitment to the manifesto might endanger their chances of re-election. She made a brilliant speech yesterday when this all came out but for many of us this reverse has compromised their chances of keeping power altogether. The thought of having to ask the voters to leave their Range Rovers in the garage was too much for them to contemplate – not least because they seem to be planning to allow 48 tonne lorries through the centre of Bath in order to get government funds to mend the Cleveland Bridge. Our political system is completely broken, and once radical parties are squabbling over some mythical ‘centre ground’ in the forlorn hope that something will turn up to save us from ourselves. That’s called magical thinking. The Darwinian solution to this challenge is for the human race to drown in our own effluent and let the earth and its surviving life forms start all over again. The other solutions all involve doing without some stuff we don’t really need. I could go on but I won’t. Two things not on the level at once is enough!

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!

You can keep your Chanel, wallflowers do it for me!

For reasons I’ve no intention of writing about, the perfume of wallflowers has the most powerful erotic overtones. This is probably the least written about aspect of gardening but it deserves at least a mention, not least since today one of our neighbours caught me on my hands and knees on her allotment, inhaling great draughts of the memory laden perfume. Madame knows all about this odd affliction so I’m not letting out any damaging secrets here, but if there are any enterprising perfumiers out there, you’ve definitely got one customer. However a lifetime of hearing confidences (and occasionally confessions), has taught me that erotic stimuli are as various as there are people. The oddest I ever heard was a female friend who fantasised about a mechanic with oily hands emerging from under a car and ravishing her. OK?

Anyway, to return to what passes for reality on the allotment, it won’t surprise you to know that the wallflowers (or Erysimum as they’re known by the RHS) are in flower. There’s a survey of the best bee attractors in Ken Thompson’s book “The Sceptical Gardener” which is an excellent read , and the plant Erysimum Bowles Mauve came at the top of the list. We always keep a few on the allotment and their reputation is absolutely deserved. The lavender variety Hidcote Giant also scores highest among the lavenders. Here’s the list in full.

Marjoram
Cardoon
Erisymum linifolium ’Bowles Mauve’ (Wallflower) – best for butterflies
Echinops – Globe Thistles
Catmint – ‘Six Hills Giant’
Borage
Agastache foeniculum – Giant Hyssop
Echium vulgare – Vipers Bugloss
Salvia verticillata – Lilac Sage,
Whorled Clarey

Ken Thompson “The Sceptical Gardener”

We have been gradually introducing all of these – and lots more – into the allotment. Today I planted out the lavenders and split the catmint into two while Madame interplanted herbs among the broad beans. Mainly, however, we were watering because it’s so very dry. Yesterday we moved the tomato plants into the greenhouse but a very cold morning knocked them about a bit so they’ve been moved into the polytunnel under a second set of hoops and fleece to recuperate.

During the winter I did a lot of thinking about the design of the plot – partly because we’d resolved to make insects and wildlife a priority, but also because parts of the design made it downright difficult to keep up with necessary work. There’s a whole permaculture philosophy centred on what are called “zones”. The general idea is that different parts of a permaculture setup are zoned according not just microclimates and suchlike, but also proximity. In a conventional house and garden, the house is zone 0 and the garden is zone 1. It would be easy to think that therefore permaculture principles don’t (or can’t) apply to allotments which are always some distance away. However, we noticed that our first row of cordon trees were always vaguely neglected because it was so difficult to get to them. They were inside and much too close to the edge of the fruit cage. So this winter we simply moved the side of the fruit cage inwards and left the cordons outside it. Six months on and they’ve never looked happier. They’re in full bud; properly pruned and mulched and generally better looked after because every time we walk past them we can take a close look and take any remedial action that’s necessary.

It’s worth bearing accessibility in mind when you’re designing a plot. We’ve moved the strawberries three times in five years for exactly the same reason. Now we’re growing them in the polytunnel in hanging baskets and they’re in flower and looking blissfully happy. Incidentally we were asked today by a visitor why we talked about our plants as if they were little people. Our answer was “because they are” – which she found almost as difficult to understand as she did when we talked about them being happy. All I can say is – just ask the Nepetas that I split and moved today, if they’re happier after six weeks in the sun, after a year on the north side of the shed.

One last point. It’s commonly thought that gardeners are all amiable, peace loving and non competitive beings. This is not true. We allotmenteers take a keen interest in everyone else’s allotment because we can’t bear to let them get one over on us. It’s a useful sort of competitiveness because it drives up standards across the whole site. A similar competitive spirit has fallen upon us since one of our neighbours started building a magnificent seat and shelter on a plot nearby. I had given up the idea of building a similar structure earlier in the year due to lack of time and funds, but now I’m dreaming of trellises, dog roses and festoons of clematis surrounding our own little shelter. Naturally we congratulated him on his magnificent work through gritted teeth, even while plotting pagoda revenge.

Every day closer to May 10th brings us nearer to removing the last of the fleece, planting the tomatoes into the ground and moving the container potatoes out into the allotment to embrace the sun and grow fat and slick and full of flavour. We’ve cut the first asparagus, but we always throw it on to the compost because it tends to be bitter – possibly through slow growth. By the end of next week it will be in full flush; and speaking of flushes, the two mushroom logs undercover behind the shed are at last showing signs of producing a crop of shitake and oyster mushrooms- if the little white excrescences on the logs are anything to go by.

Deja vu?

Looking down from the iron bridge above lock 3 of the Kennet and Avon canal

Walking down the canal a few days ago we reached exactly this point on the towpath when I found – in the sky, the clouds and the opening buds of the trees – a feeling; a sensation near to joy that was out of all proportion to its dimensions and properties as a view in the ordinary sense of the word.

Naturally it was a welcome change from lockdown ennui but it caused me to wonder how it can be that sense experiences (like Proust’s madeleine for instance), can carry such a huge metaphorical load. I could, if there was time, draw a mind-map with the scene at its centre, and which would embrace dozens if not hundreds of deeply personal associations, many of which could generate further mind-maps. Just to give this a bit of an anchor I could mention wild garlic which is just coming into its glory. My subsidiary mind-map would embrace childhood memories of walking by the river Frome and on from there.

I have no idea whether all this can be adequately explained by brain chemistry unless the scientists would concede that human memory simply stores and recovers these experiences through the workings of brain chemistry, like a biological hard drive – the means don’t matter to me very much but the experience lies at the root of all creative processes, including science. As an allotmenteer and as a rather incompetent amateur botanist I understand that the stimulus which drives us on; enables us to tolerate frost and wind and the loss of a whole crop or drives me to immerse myself in the minutest details of a plant’s structure for hours just so I can give it a name; that stimulus is wonder.

When we’re visiting new places – especially gardens – or walking in unfamiliar environments; meeting new people, the imagination is alive; fired up. Somewhere in the mind the sense impressions are finding places, associations, pre-existing memories, experiences and cultural thought-paths; and the inner workings of memory stores them – each in their right place like roosting hens finding their place on a perch at dusk; each discrete experience tagged and keyworded so that later, many years later perhaps, the precise configuration of a landscape, a flower, a gesture, a sound releases releases the whole stored, aggregated complex. If you were looking for a non-supernatural explanation of the déjà vu experience it’s right there.

A cowslip in our friends’ meadow yesterday

Why the sudden outbreak of philosophy? – Well, this week we’ve been partially released from lockdown. We’ve spent proper time with our children and grandchildren after a year of hermetic isolation and we hugged and clung to each other like shipwrecked sailors. We went to the campervan full of trepidation and replaced the dead battery and took ourselves off for our first night away from home in many months. We camped up at Priddy which is a place soaked in teenage memories of caving expeditions; watched rooks squabbling over nests and ate up the silence. Notwithstanding a terrible night’s sleep, as we were kept awake by a series of power cuts that had the heating unit cycling noisily on and off ; we came back to Bath feeling that we’d begun to emerge from emotional winter again.

Which brings me to our walk when (at my suggestion) we found the entrance to Swildons Hole which I’d not seen in fifty or more years but which is still full of memories. I’d spent so much time down there cold, wet, tired, fearful and occasionally completely panicked but always blown away by the powerful sensation of being underground and by the occasional bursts of sheer beauty hidden from human eyes for millennia.

A few years ago I met an outdoor pursuits instructor at the climbing wall in St Werburghs who offered to take me down again, but somehow we never got around to doing it. One glimpse of the entrance was enough to convince me that it would be a miserable and possibly dangerous experience for a septuagenarian! But that in itself was enough to remind me that however powerful the memories, not all experiences are repeatable however appealing the thought might be. The sense of our own mortality sharpens and intensifies these remembered experiences which linger in the mind like ghosts.

On the other hand, if you look closely at the third photo from the left, you’ll see something of a line of trees above the pill box entrance. I had no recollection of them from the past. In fifty years or so they’ve grown into a magnificent beech hanger and the sound of the wind rustling through the branches was unmistakable and worthy of a ten minute stop for a free symphony. You can see the leaf buds about to break as they turn from chestnut brown to green. At last a recoverable and re-liveable memory from my childhood trips to Stoke Row in the Chilterns. No I hadn’t really been here before, because on my last visit the trees were so much smaller and yet my memory was able to recover more from my grandparents smallholding to furnish and make sense of this new and powerful experience.

So what about the allotment? Well, we’re in suspended animation as the pampered indoor plants grow like cuckoos while we wait for the present icy spell to end. The earth is a dry as dust and we’re having to continually water in the polytunnel because daytime temperatures soar in the spring sunshine. Slowly, slowly, enough tough old stagers are emerging to break the illusion of winter and the apple blossom sits, clenched in bud waiting for the spring as a child waits for Father Christmas. It will come soon, but evidently not yet and not soon enough for some of the wind tormented broad beans. Inside the tunnel with an additional layer of fleece we’re just coming to terms with its capacity to advance the season. Every time we look at the spinach and lettuces or the young cabbage plants we have to pinch ourselves. The container grown potatoes are growing so vigorously I seem to be constantly mixing soil and compost to earth them up, and I think we’ll have a crop by early May.

Between the flat, the greenhouse, the tunnel, the hotbed, various cloches and the open ground we find ourselves managing half a dozen quite different seasonal microclimates. One little moment of joy came when Madame opened the crown of one of the cauliflowers and found the white curds just beginning to form – and that’s the first time we’ve grown them successfully. The asparagus is beginning to accelerate into life and the newly planted trees and soft fruit all seem to have taken. There are tadpoles in the pond and the Hidcote Giant lavender plants have arrived ready to be planted out and ready to attract insects and bees.

So it’s all good. Confusing, frustrating and good – as life usually turns out to be. Any prolonged silences over the next few weeks will probably be down to sheer busyness!

Tunnel Vision – and then a corny story!

At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.

The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.

Lost in translation

As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.

I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bête noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.

But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.

Home preserves

Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.

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