The pond completed

Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.

I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.

Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!

The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.

Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.

My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.

Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.

Third birthday on the allotment

The second half-plot on the day we took it on

Three years ago to the day we took on our second half plot and, as you can see, it needed a little TLC.

Just the first layer of weed control mat – there was another layer of carper a few inches below it.

We cleared it by a repeated combination of strimming and flame gunning – it took several weeks to do, and although it wasn’t the greenest way of clearing it it was much more effective than weedkiller, and left no residue apart from the potash and phosphate from the ash.

Now, as it gets close to its finished form, we’ve spent most of the week getting ready for next season and digging out the new pond.

Right now it’s all pretty heavy work but all the major civil engineering jobs are linked and so it needs a bit of project management. By my rough calculation I’ve bagged about a ton of topsoil ready to complete the strawberry bed, and while I was digging Madame was pruning the cordon apples and clearing the fruit cage which is looking pretty end of season. All the while, in the background our incinerators were barely steaming but once you’ve got them going they’ll eat up barrow loads of the most noxious weeds like bindweed.

But is there a better feeling than nursing aching muscles and knowing that we’ve done a good job. Rather than write a long piece I thought I’d post a few photos of the road we’ve travelled – hopefully encouraging enough to get you past the despair of an apparently untameable new plot.

Doubt sets in after excavations commence.

A grace day today because we were expecting rain all day and instead, the sun shone.

I would quite like to be the kind of gardener/allotmenteer who is so on top of things that they’re never surprised at the way a project turns out, but on the other hand a bit of serendipity adds a certain excitement to life. Last season when I built the compost bins I thought they were miles too big; but in the light of experience they’re just about right. In fact they’re pretty much perfect for the amount of green waste we can compost each year. The water storage supports looked miles over spec until the water butts filled up and the whole lot collapsed; so I’ve had to completely rebuild them and add extra strengthening; and then when I first thought of building a new raised strawberry bed I didn’t really think through what an enormous amount of soil I’d need to fill it.

The same sense of surprise will probably go for the pond as well. I had thought that I could find much of the soil I needed for the strawberries when I dug the hole for the pond, but, having started to remove the topsoil, I realized that the pond would need to be about 6′ deep to get enough subsoil to raise the level of the strawberry bed. The net result of all my (mis)calculations is that the whole plot is beginning to take on the general appearance of a building site: not – I should say – at all unusual for our plots in October, because this is the time where we figure out where everything needs to go, and we’re doing some fairly wholesale hard plantings of trees, involving a rebuild of one side of the fruit cage.

But I love it; the sense of possibilities that comes at this time each autumn. We think back how the various varieties we’ve grown have done, and base the seed order on our experience. The strawberries, for instance, have never really lived up to their catalogue descriptions so today Madame ripped the lot up and added them to the compost. You have to be ruthless with allotments sometimes. Better to lose a year and replant than stick with the old ones and lose five. When the new bed is finished, we’ll replant with some (hopefully better) choices. By Christmas we’ll have four or five new cordon fruit trees, three replacement soft fruit bushes and we’ll have created new boundaries with some hard woven hazel fencing, and some vigorous blackberries and maybe tayberries trained on wires, with a rambling dog rose trailing over the shed.

All of the tall biennial and perennial herbs will have been divided and moved to an entirely new bed, and replaced with a row of lavender bushes and finally (so far) I’ll have built an open extension connecting the shed and the greenhouse with a rather complicated roof to give us somewhere dry to sit. I’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of inside the shed! Next season we’ll also be growing a bed of cut flowers for the first time. We’ve been able to release some of the vegetable space because our son now has his own allotment; and so next year we’ll be sharing our plot with the birds, the insects and pollinators and still grow enough to keep ourselves fed. All this, I should add, on under 250 square metres of land. Allotments can be very intensive even if they are organic!

But as I dug out the topsoil for the pond, I was delighted that in less than three years it’s gone from being waterlogged clay, largely subsoil – because the previous tenant had left two layers of carpet on it – to deep and rich loam. Mind you, we’ve cosseted that patch with grit, leaf mould and goodness knows how much compost. It’s good to see how quickly you can turn around a plot that we were told ‘wouldn’t grow anything’. The pond will complete the greening works this year, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for some new amphibian residents. We already know we’ve got at least one toad living in the specially created void under the water storage.

I don’t doubt that all the challenges will be resolved by next spring and that next season will be the best ever (fingers crossed on that one). One small disappointment is that so many of the keen new allotmenteers who joined us during the lockdown and worked so hard on their plots, have melted away now that they’re back at work. In the unlikely event that any of them will read this, I’d beg them to hang on in there. Allotments can very quickly look terrible at this time of the year, but a bit of blood, sweat and tears and a great deal of guile can soon win them back. It was absolutely evident that the sudden influx of newcomers represented a genuine longing for a richer, more fulfilling life than endless meetings, deadlines and school runs. We run our allotment on the basis that we’re available pretty much every day to tend it, but it would be easy enough to design a minimum intervention plot – lots of soft fruit and cordon trees with perennial crops and herbs. Anything that contributes even something to the kitchen and gives you an outdoor space to enjoy has got to be good. If our plot demonstrates anything it’s that allotments begin to take on the personalities of their allotmenteers just as dogs look like their owners – they say; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Gert lush

I’m not sure if the phrase gert lush ever properly existed as Bristol slang. Lush certainly did, and meant really good; and gert did too, meaning big. But the combination seems to have come into existence as a bit of a joke when non Bristolians tried to speak like us. However the Bristol accent is not to be trifled with and the dialects tied you down to a single parish sixty years ago; so adding an ‘ul’ to China and saying Chinul or Africul wouldn’t get you very far into my affections. I say I’m a Bristolian because it’s an easy way of describing a complicated situation. If I was being pedantic I’d say that I come from Gloucestershire, but that opens a whole can of worms because the boundaries have changed so frequently over the years that for my first twenty years I lived in three counties without moving an inch. I now live in a fourth newly minted county but I could walk in a few hours to the place I was born. Where I was brought up we still used thee and thou when we thought no-one was listening; and when strangers or teachers were around we could lapse into impenetrability very easily. I love my accent even though once, in a restaurant in Birmingham, the waiter leaned across confidentially as we were leaving and asked “are you a farmer?” I thought it was very funny, but I’m not sure she saw the joke. Nonetheless I have needed to remind one or two people that having a local accent – even a very mild one like mine – doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Anyway, after that long excursus, we were on the allotment last evening and a hot air balloon took off from Victoria Park a couple of hundred yards away. It’s always a lovely sight, and I once had a balloon ride from the exact same spot on a similar summer’s evening some years ago. The launch site is surrounded by tall trees and buildings and so it’s necessary to gain height very quickly; therefore the technique seems to be to fill the balloon with hot air to the point it’s straining at the leash, and then release it like a cork from a bottle. A pretty thrilling experience. In my case we flew south and east, following the course of the river Avon until we swung north and landed somewhere around Marshfield. When the burner was silent we glided noiselessly above the fields and at one point followed a fox which was apparently unaware of our presence above him. All this was thirty years before we moved here and tracking the flight from memory on a map today, I can see that we would have passed exactly over Bannerdown where we spent the day yesterday.

It was – to use the phrase I started with – lush – and I’ve only just remembered that the owners of the balloon were our new next-door neighbours when we first moved here. Lush, then and a bit weirdly prophetic too. The pilot on my flight was a police inspector and I probably found a way of thanking him without using the dialect word to avoid evidencing any potential criminality on my part.

“Lush” – such a rich word; made for a couplet like “lush grass” … Lush, flush, blush; all wonderfully suggestive of fullness, of flow, of generosity or suddenness.

Odd then, to think that what encourages the immensely rich flora of meadows and limestone grassland is a kind of poverty. We’re planning to make a pond on the allotment this autumn, and we’re also going to create a small area for grasses and wildflowers, and that’s led us to an interesting conundrum. We’ve spent four years increasing the fertility of our ground and now, the bed we intend to convert is far too rich to support much more than the rankest of rank grasses and weeds. So the rather complicated plan is to remove most of the topsoil on the proposed “meadow” bed and move it to some new raised beds where it will be just what we need and better than any soil we could buy in. Next we’re going to do the same with the topsoil where the pond is going, and then while digging out the pond, move the less fertile soil and subsoil to the meadow bed to bring it back to level. The exact composition of the surface layer will need to be worked out, but to reduce fertility any other way would mean cutting and disposing of plant matter for years and growing something like yellow rattle to discourage the rank grasses. It’s my favourite occupation – making experiments. For wildflowers and their associated invertebrates, less is most certainly more. We couldn’t resist another trip to Bannerdown yesterday and I went armed with a notebook and a couple of plant cribs. So while Madame hunted butterflies I did a quick survey and in a couple of hours I’d listed fifty species and increased the grass total to fifteen and all of this on very thin limestone soil with rocks poking through in places.

And what struck us most was the heavenly smell of wildflowers. Madame said it was like being a child again. If there was a downside – and it wasn’t a big one – we were accompanied by a land rover towing a seed collecting box behind it. This was part of a project (with input from the Cotswolds Conservation Board), to create a wildflower corridor through Bath and yesterday’s seeds were on their way to Swainswick to re-seed a piece of land there. As we were leaving we passed the fruits of the day’s collection on a large tarpaulin on the ground, and we talked to the recipients and owners of the about to be reseeded field, who were tremendously excited about the project. We can only presume that our little allotment patch of a few square feet will form a tiny part of the whole in years to come.

It sounds counterintuitive to think that to regain lost species we need to make the ground less fertile, less lush; but one of the principal causes of our ecological crisis is the current agricultural policy of driving the land harder and harder using chemicals and artificial fertilizers, and if you’d been able to stand with us yesterday and enjoy the ridiculous numbers of wildflowers and grasses, you’d see why it’s so important to change our whole attitude to farming. But of course the takeaway point is that we can’t avert the coming destruction by writing new rules just for farmers, although that needs to happen. None of us will escape the coming moment of truth unless we all of us change our ways.

I’ve been reading Ann Pettifor’s book “The Case for the Green New Deal” and I think it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen yet on what needs to be done. Better than that, it seems really do-able if we can just knock the idea of continual growth off its perch and stop worshipping the economy as if it were some kind of abstract God, demanding constant obedience to the “Market” – a set of concepts I find almost as difficult as systematic theology. Today, as I write this we’re sheltering in the flat with the temperature approaching 30C. At what point do we start noticing that the king has no clothes?

We are not alone …

These are just a few fairly random photos I’ve taken on the allotment this season – some of them I’ve posted previously, including the emperor dragonfly, the ladybird larva and the comma butterfly on the bottom row. The two at the top were taken yesterday – a violet ground beetle – Carabus violaceus, and a hoverfly – Helophilus pendulus, apparently sometimes known as ‘the footballer’, although that sounds rather strained to me. They should remind us that there’s a good deal more important work going on behind the scenes on an allotment than we (who like to take all the credit) can claim to be responsible for.

We know, of course, that the allotment is a bit of a war zone, with pigeons stripping our brassicas to the ribs if the caterpillars haven’t got there first. Phytophthora infestans – or potato blight -is a tiny micro-organism but it can reduce a healthy crop of potatoes or tomatoes to a slimy mess almost overnight; and our local badgers wait patiently until the sweetcorn reaches perfection and then take it the night before we were due to harvest it. Squirrels, rats, mice, slugs and snails all disrupt our best laid plans and occasionally scythe our seedlings down before they’ve got their roots down.

In our compartmentalised way we tend to divide the rest of the natural world into friends and enemies and, even more dangerously we can begin to divide it up on aesthetic or emotional criterias – what looks nice or frightening, or what makes me feel good and what repulses me, for instance bunnies and slugs. Worse still you might divide the natural world by applying economic criteria – what’s a valuable resource and whats’s economic deadweight? – profit and loss.

But if you believe – as increasing numbers of us do – that the health of the whole earth depends on an intricate network of relationships, then the only criterion that makes any sense is the long term welfare of the earth upon which we’re utterly dependent, because contrary to polarised thinking, most curses bring their blessings and vice versa. It’s hard to think of a good side to potato blight, but the pathogen that causes it is a part of a whole bunch of microorganisms, many of which are indispensable to us. Squirrels distribute the seeds of the trees they raid, rats dispose of the hazardous food waste that we leave lying around; flies, or rather maggots dispose of the millions of dead little furry things, worms, slugs and earwigs chew up squillions of dead leaves for us and turn them into in-situ compost and all of them together tend to do the sorting out of the weakest individuals ensuring that Mr Darwin’s theories have never been effectively challenged. In the natural world of the allotment, for instance, predation is almost always fairly inefficient.

The hoverfly in my photo isn’t a bee it’s a fly, but it’s a marvellous pollinator. Just under half of the other hoverflies are also blackfly predators in their larval stage – like ladybirds. But because their adaptive defence is to look like bees or wasps we often regard them as enemies. In fact far more crops are pollinated by flies than are pollinated by honeybees. The violet ground beetle, believe it or not, is an effective predator of small slugs and other beasties. The fact is, we have to be content to share nature with a host of life-forms that we may not care for very much but which may be keystone species in the self regulating natural world.

Ponds really help

But there’s something else about the two species I noticed yesterday and that’s the fact that they both associate with water. We’ve got a river and a couple of large ponds near us on the allotments but in the way that things go in and out of fashion, there’s also been an explosion in the number of small, even tiny ponds on people’s plots. All sorts of vessels up to bath tubs have been pressed into service and you might wonder whether they’ll ever make a contribution to the local ecology. This year has shown that without doubt they do. There are three very small ponds on plots adjoining ours and we’ve seen the emperor dragonfly, several sorts of darters and chasers, not to mention the hoverflies who need water – preferably very stinky water – to lay eggs and pass through their larval stage as rat tailed maggots. All these in turn attract larger predators, and the knock on effect is noticeable. Little things really do make a difference.

I read in a magazine somewhere recently that scientists are developing robots to pollinate crops. Are they completely mad??? Many of the most intractable illnesses in hospital are known as ‘iatrogenic’ diseases, that’s to say they are a side-effect of the indiscriminate use of treatments for other things altogether. The same case exactly can be made against industrial agriculture. The pointless and inappropriate use of chemicals and heavy machinery has created a whole series of new problems that could be solved much more quickly by stopping doing the things that cause the problem rather than wasting millions of pounds developing robots to pollinate crops when you’ve killed all the natural and free pollinators.

Our response need not be to allow pests to run riot over or destroy our crops as the industry often claims, but to become inefficient predators ourselves. Thumb and finger predators, in fact. Just wash your hands afterwards.