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 bĂȘte 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.

Beware false dawns

If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.

Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!

Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.

However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.

The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.

Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.

Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.

It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman

Here it is – just waiting for the skin!

Continuous rain and east wind brings cold feet!

Last week – or was it just a dream? – there was the first intimation of spring, somewhere in the daylight. It doesn’t require any special powers or supernatural skill, just the memories of February days stored in that part of the brain that can recall and discriminate precise sensory details like the smell of newly turned earth or fresh rain. As it happens, someone’s measured and named the first smell of the earth geosmin and the second, rain smell – petrichor – which might earn you some funny looks if you try to slip it into a conversation. Which reminds me that while I was teaching ceramics in a prison one of my class told me that he and a number of others who had been involved in a long trial would randomly choose words from a dictionary and then try to insert them in to their evidence in order to win a mars bar, which was almost a currency in those days. “There I was M’lud, tending my cannabis plants and enjoying the petrichor ….”

Anyway, then there was a break in the universally depressing weather – wettest January since the days of Noah etc – and we dared to hope that we might make a start on erecting the polytunnel; the first step being the installation of foundation tubes and securing them to buried steel plates to stop it blowing away, or being nicked. The manufacturers are so proud of the wind fastness of their design that they’ve got a video online of one of their tunnels in a storm on Shetland. The east wind was not strong enough to rock a tunnel but it was cold enough to strip the flesh off our fingers; and that was before it started to rain. So all we managed to achieve on the first day was to peg out the positions of the anchor points, and even that was fiendishly tricky because the tunnel is a tight fit – in the same way that my waist band used to be: – overlapping in several places. I have not previously seen Madame wear three hats at once, and a photograph would have been too provoking to be worth the risk; but we came home with the quiet satisfaction that comes from discovering that the job is going to be an absolute pig from start to finish. For instance, the point at which we needed to secure the U bolts to the ground tubes looked likely to be underwater if it went on raining like it was. There’s a point in every allotment project when you reflect on what you’ve just dug out and what’s likely to replace it and wonder why you ever started. The garden of Eden looking photo on the left reflects what the empty space on the right looked like on the 15th July last year the other one is our blank canvas.

Several days later …

Did I mention the job being an absolute pig? True to form the rain never really let up and so the installation of the foundation plates took place largely underwater; thick muddy and very cold water that was so impenetrable the securing nuts at the bottoms of the holes would disappear as the water level rose inexorably beyond my baling capacity. What should have been a morning’s work took several days during which it rained on and off the whole time. Twice we came home soaked through and so caked in mud we had to wash almost everything. Naturally it would have been simpler to wait for a week, but we had spotted a window of opportunity for getting the frame up and by yesterday morning with the help of a larger baling mug the last two foundation posts were in and we turned to the pile of tubing, nuts and bolts that needed assembling. Luckily I’d rehearsed the operation in my head so often (we watched the video five times) that we’d gathered together and bought the last few tools we would need; among them a professional range electric drill promising twice the torque of my smaller one which often fainted at the sight of a wall. True to the blurb it almost broke my wrist when I forgot to adjust the torque setting. I think I’m just not professional enough to use proper tools!

So in two long sessions which were 20% bolting and 80% sorting through the pile and inspecting the instructions; and with an even fiercer east wind biting our cheeks we’ve all but finished the framework and cultivated the soil we’d trampled in spite of the planks. All credit is due to the company that supplied it – no ads here – we just need to bolt in the tensioning rails and make the doors up and then wait for a sunny day with no wind to fit the polythene cover.

Our 15′ x 10′ polytunnel – oriented north/south after a great deal of conflicting advice; and it’s big enough to stand up in.

Not only are we absurdly proud of ourselves for putting it up without any shouting – just a bit of muttering – but more pleasingly still we provoked a storm of structure envy among the neighbours. From what they were saying the whole site is going to look like tent city by the end of the summer. Everyone’s seen what’s happening at the border and investing in ratatouille growing capacity.

By the end of last week I was feeling pretty down with all the news and I really don’t like writing about what’s going on because it doesn’t change anything. But a week on the allotment transformed our mood. We’ve worked through rain, frost, east winds and even wintry showers. I thought several times about one of our elderly parishioners who lived alone and who, every winter, would wrap an old raincoat around herself, tied up with a length of baler twine and dig her garden from end to end, regardless of the weather. She was one of the most cheerful people you’d ever meet; completely unburdened by the spirit of the age.

So perhaps when we enlarge on the therapeutic effects of a bit of nature we should be more honest about the way allotmenteering does it. My feeling is that the only way to discover your inner peasant is to crack open your comfort zone by exposing it to the weather. Some seeds are like that – garlic, angelica and sweet cicely don’t really thrive until they’ve had a hard winter. It’s called vernalisation. Muddy overalls, white fingers and blotchy skin are the price of emergent life in us humans too, perhaps?

Creeping agoraphobia

Madame’s drawings of some globe artichokes from the allotment

It’s rapidly approaching a year since we first ‘closed the doors’ of the Potwell Inn and went into withdrawal mode, and I’ve noticed a change in my mood, over the past few weeks. We’ve occupied ourselves with piles of reading and planning for next season. I’ve written most days and Madame has been drawing; but suddenly I feel like one of those cartoon characters whose flight from threat is expressed by comically rotating legs whilst not moving at all. Treading water is for too stately a description of this weird feeling. In the past few weeks we’ve only done half a dozen river walks because it can be quite busy with others doing the same thing. As for the parks, well forget it. What with cyclists in groups and runners passing close with no masks on, going outside feels a bit threatening. The other day we drove up to the allotment with several bags of potential compost and we had our licence plate recorded by a policeman standing at the side of the road. My fear is that if this crisis goes on much longer a whole generation of older and vulnerable people are going to have to add agoraphobia to their list of challenges.

Before anyone tells me off for making light of a serious problem, it’s actually something I know a bit about, because my father – who probably had undiagnosed PTSD as a result of his experiences during the war – suffered from agoraphobia for many years. But in this instance I’ve been thinking about the literal meaning of the term which, from the Greek agora, or market place. has a whole bunch of rich and enlightening implications. The agora was more than a bunch of market stalls, it was a communal meeting space and also a place where ideas were exchanged and where speeches were made. If there was any temptation to label the covid driven fear of the crowd, the supermarket and such like, as ubiquitous these days, there may be more – more significant and more damaging changes – going on. During the first (and much tougher) lockdown, the allotment community was an absolute lifesaver. We were mostly pretty good at hailing one another across the plots, and that sense of belonging drove out the isolation. It was good. There were a few exceptions. Allotments that had been unlet for years were taken up by a younger generation of furloughed allotmenteers, and among them were a few that seemed to regard old age as contagious in some strange way – as if talking to us might induce the onset of grey hair. One of our newcomers took to asking her neighbour if she could have a few sticks of rhubarb for instance, and would then strip the plant bare. She and her partner would have barbecues three or four times a week and invite friends around regardless of the rules. In fact it became clear that there was a real link between attitudes in the workplace; extractive, exploitative attitudes towards the client base and attitudes towards the allotments. You could see how it’s come to be that for many people our culture is dangerously detached from the natural world.

We hear a great deal about the healing powers of nature and I’ve wondered here before, if that doesn’t overegg the pudding. If you took an industrial farmer to the wilderness it would be more likely that they’d tell you it needed farming properly (ie intensively). A miner might pick up the odd stone and you’d be praying he didn’t find anything too valuable there. In Cornwall there’s a huge conflict brewing about mining for lithium for batteries to make sure the car industry can go on expending ancient reserves for short term gain. No – I don’t believe for a moment that the occasional immersion in nature as spectacle will change our culture.

However, just now we need hope, and this week the polytunnel kit arrived, delivered by a delightful lorry driver who was so moved at the sight of the allotments that he told us all about his childhood and how his father had paid him pocket money for picking caterpillars off the cabbages. Then yesterday our appointments for our first covid vaccinations came through, and a brief glimmer of light appeared. But I was more surprised to realise that the thing that gave me most pleasure was to send off an order for a packet of heritage runner bean seeds and a kilo of baler twine for supporting the tomatoes that will be growing in the polytunnel in a couple of months . The tools for putting up the tunnel have all been gathered together; lines, pegs, hammers, drills, spanner, power tools and spirit level and now we’ll wait patiently for this southwesterly weather to moderate a bit and give us some dry days.

I wish I had some pixie dust to sprinkle around the world. I wish there were words I could write that would reverse the violence of our (un)civilization and bring us to our collective senses. I wish there was a proper, functioning agora where we earth citizens could listen to one another and where we could be heard – but at the moment there is no such place and there are no such words I think. The only contribution we can make seems woefully inadequate and yet maybe actions really do speak louder than words and the earth can be saved – as the website of World Organic News says – “one cabbage at a time”.

I love Madame’s drawings of our artichokes. They’re so beautiful both on the page and in the flesh, but they’re fiercely thorny, and by the time you’ve trimmed them back to the choke there’s hardly anything left to eat. Then, all great art is wasteful if you try to reduce it to a spreadsheet. Our dream is to live simply within our means and hand our allotment on to a stranger in better condition than we found it. Is there a column for wonder in the neoliberal profit and loss account?

‘Bye Christoph

We were assailed by second thoughts yesterday – I’m blaming Madame because there’s nothing graceful about our allotment negotiations – even if she was irritatingly right as usual. So having braved the rain to peg out the site for the new polytunnel on Monday, we braved it again yesterday in the teeth of the storm, so we could have a site meeting to examine plan B with a tape measure. In the end it came down to orientation and Madame referred me to a suggestion by God, (that’s Charles Dowding as far as the Potwell Inn is concerned) that north/south is preferable. And so it came to be.

Plan B is (naturally) better in every way than plan A apart from having to remove six more posts whose underground parts sucked furiously in the waterlogged clay at the bottom of their holes. Storm Christoph had bequeathed huge amounts of water to the ground and now it’s flooded. Silly to work on it really, but the polytunnel could arrive any day now and we dare not leave the bits lying anywhere within reach of a thief with a transit van. So soaked was the ground that as we looked out across the river early this morning we could see it in spate again, this time deep brown with silt that must have washed off the fields upstream. That’s topsoil erosion yet again.

The changed position also needs means three beds needed removing and so there was nothing for it but to start digging out the wood chip paths so I could remove the boards. To our great surprise the wood chip had rotted down to friable compost below the top two inches so I decided to replace it in the trenches and cover it with new compost. But whilst lying in the mud removing all the 2″ screws and pegs Madame called me over to look at a stream of water emerging from the edge of the fruit cage beneath the cordon apples. Not good news, because the roots will hate sitting in water, and so I dug a deep trench alongside the bed to allow the water to drain away as quickly as possible.

The 12 foot boards from the first path came away more easily than I’d dared hope and they were immediately repurposed as retaining boards holding the bottom terrace back. Meanwhile Madame was moving the overwintered broad beans. They’re almost dormant so they might survive being dug up and replanted – worth a try – but just in case we sowed another batch in root trainers to replace them if they all die. More of the same tomorrow as we dig out the second path and restore the whole patch ready for the polytunnel. It was pretty grey and the clouds threatened but never produced any rain; but the plot reminded me of a dreary market garden I once helped out at. All that was missing was the smell of the pigs!

That’s allotmenteering, though. Hardly glamorous but always rewarding. As Mark Twain said about writing – it’s 99 percent perspiration and one percent inspiration but it’s the one percent that gets us up there every day. In our heads the polytunnel is full of tomatoes, aubergines, chillies, basil and all the rest. The fact that it’s not yet even a pile of nuts and bolts is not the point. Spring will come.

However this is also a dangerous time of year because at last the days are lengthening and we get so absorbed in what we’re up to that we forget that stopping when it gets dark is a recipe for longer and longer working days. I’d left a loaf of sourdough proving at home and when we finally arrived back it had risen to make contact with its inverted bowl. Very very gently I persuaded it to separate and then I rested it for a while before baking it. All was well in the end; but it was worth working until dusk, if only for the glorious sunset reflected in the sodden track – and then a massive supper of Madame’s beany stew. I had two bowls because we’d forgotten all about lunch, and I was ravenously hungry. Oh and the seed potatoes arrived – have the cuckoos started flying here yet?

“The map is not the territory”

I actually spotted that concept in a book on permaculture that I’ve been reading recently – but when I looked up the source of the quotation it turn out it was first used by the philosopher Alfred Korzybski in 1931 when warning his readers of the danger of confusing concepts with reality. I think it was used a bit around a once fashionable management/self improvement tool some years ago known as NLP (neuro linguistic programming). It was pretty much a load of old pseudoscientific snake oil but we had one bishop who went in for it as a way to sharpen his communication skills. The trouble was it usually clattered into every conversation with all the subtlety of a steam traction engine so it didn’t really work with us professional sceptics.

However, as a useful counter to trusting in maps too much it can’t be faulted. The two photos at the top were taken today on the allotment as I worked there in the pouring rain trying to figure out with the aid of a long tape, a calculator and a load of steel pegs trying to figure out why I couldn’t fit the prospective polytunnel on to the allotment plan.

Much cursing later I discovered that my schematic map had tidied up the rough edges on the allotment so much it had become a bit fictional in places; not least because there is not a straight line or a right angle or a parallel path anywhere on the entire plot. I had been seduced by the ‘draw rectangle’ tool and the embedded grid at the expense of accuracy. There aren’t many days when Pythagorus’ theorem is the most useful tool in my life but this afternoon I offered up a small prayer of thanksgiving to Bill Willams who taught generations of us to be better mathematicians than we deserved to be. Wiping the rain off the mobile I discovered that I could calculate the square root of the sum of the squares of the other two sides and then set my right angles square and accurate. I was so pleased I even fixed little flags on my four corner poles.

That done, I realized that it’s going to be a close thing to get the polytunnel legs into their respective holes but – as I explained to Madame later, it’ll be such a snug fit you might imagine that I did it deliberately. I do love a bit of civil engineering and we’re so looking forward to using the tunnel to extend our season at both ends.

The hotbed is now up to 20C and so as soon as this storm is over – it’s blowing a hooly outside – we’ll start sowing. In a couple of weeks we’ll be setting up the second propagator – the first one’s full of basil plants at the moment – and we’ll begin again. The next season is always the best and there’s always an excuse for the last one and so we soldier on. Winter can be fun too.

Woken by a fox

What is it about the call of a fox looking for a mate that’s so primitive and scary? Although I’ve heard it hundreds of times, the breathy scream of a vixen is enough to send a shiver through me. This morning at three o’clock though, it was a dog fox calling – you might say keening – as he trotted along the deserted road, yelping at the back of the flats. Logically I say to myself ‘it’s a fox; go back to sleep’ but I never can because that cry always invites me into the world of the fox; a world of homelessness and constant watchfulness – a world whose rules I don’t understand. The cry makes me fearful, knocks out the wall between us so that I can almost feel the wind and rain on my skin and reminds me of the incoherent longings that followed me through my teenage years. The call of the fox reminds me that there are other ways of being in the world and being human is only one of the many stories out there. Tingling with fear as I did when I first heard it as a child, that sense of intruding into a parallel universe never leaves me and I lay awake listening as the sound grew louder and then diminished into the distance.

Curiously I woke feeling energised. A quick check on the weather forecast suggested that we could get a few hours in on the allotment before the next Atlantic storm started brewing. Having ordered the polytunnel and discovered it might arrive as soon as Thursday, we’ve got a great deal of preparation to do. Today’s project was to clear the polytunnel site of its existing nets and posts and move them to another space. My obsessive planning in past years meant that the 10×10 net, supported by 6′ poles driven into the bed found a planned space that fitted exactly so the biggest problem was digging the posts out.

Luckily another bit of forward planning means that the tunnel will go across three beds whose crops are all about to finish, so there will be very little disruption to food supplies. However I’ve never been very happy with the wooden planks supporting the lower terrace and so the biggest job today was to drive in a new set of retaining posts, each being sunk to about two feet into the earth. Doing it this way will give us strong fence and an extra few precious inches to work with when we drive the footings into the ground. So no indoor exercises for me today because the crowbar weighs about 10 lbs, the lump hammer is about 5lbs and the post driver weighs around twenty pounds. That’s a lot of hole making, hammering, checking with a line and spirit level, and then thumping each post down. It’s easier with six foot poles. The eight foot ones mean I have to balance on a wheelbarrow and lift the driver over my head to get it over the post. Luckily I’ve only fallen off once when I avoided any injury but the spirit level was bent into an unuseable curve. It’s on days like this that you realize that if you’re not going to rely on expensive machinery to do the job you’re going to have to find the exact same amount of energy through your own bare hands.

Meanwhile Madame was tying up broad beans and tending the asparagus bed but whilst doing that she opened a bag of composted horse manure that had become waterlogged and gone anaerobic. My word what a stink! So we mixed the noxious sludge with some leaves and tipped it on to the compost heap where it will have a chance to do some good.

The hotbed – which is made just from leaves and wood chip fired up with several gallons of human activator – has heated up to a steady 18C so we’ll plant lettuces there as soon as storm Christoph has packed its bags. Is it my imagination or have we had a lot more named storms this last year? In the past three days the whole appearance of the allotment has changed as we move supports and cages around for the coming season.

Now my back and shoulders ache!

Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

The big but little day

Here’s our solstice breakfast – photographed as near to 10.00am as I could – I was starving hungry! The gloop in the bowls is a a kind of muesli – I prefer to think of it as a cold porridge made with rolled oats, oatmeal, nuts, seeds including milled flax seed and grated apple. We have it almost every day because it tastes lovely and will last us until supper if we’re busy. The loaf is a freshly baked 100% wholemeal sourdough loaf, our ‘everyday bread’. The solstice treat is home made marmalade and damson jam, and the liturgy was the lighting of the candle. Simple but lovely.

Later our son drove down from the Midlands to exchange Christmas presents which are now quarantined in the boot of our car – a strange meeting with face masks and social distancing plus a bit extra for luck. There were no hugs and absolutely no kisses and we conspired silently not to breach the line between what was being felt and what was being said, but it was a bit of a charade really and no-one was fooled, I think.

Madame has taken to watching the French news channel broadcasting in English. It’s so much better at telling it straight than the BBC. For months now the most reliable newspaper sources of English news have been the Scottish ones. The English press is so partisan it’s barely worth reading unless you want a laugh; and even the Guardian’s liberal pose is constantly undermined by its visceral fear and hatred of any kind of politics that might change things for the better.

We spent the afternoon preparing a celebration supper and watching a documentary about Polyface Farm which I’ve been reading and writing about over the past couple of days. But I’ve forsworn any campaigning today. Up at the allotment digging a parsnip (they’re big) – paralysed as we have been by the weather – I suddenly thought we might span three of the raised beds with a polytunnel to extend our growing season at both ends. In the spring our tiny greenhouse is always full of germinating seeds and because it’s so small it heats up to eye watering temperatures very quickly so we’ve found that tomatoes get very stressed in there. Only the hottest chillies seem to like it. I’ve always resisted the thought because of the increased demand for hand watering but now the thought has lodged in my mind I’m wondering if I could design a means of storing the water and redirecting it on to the beds with soaker hose. It’s tricky because a 17′ by 10′ tunnel would collect an awful lot of rain in a storm – but the hardest problems are always the most fun.

Outside it was dark by 4.00pm and there was continuous drizzle under a leaden sky almost all day. This is all very hard emotional work!