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.

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?