Small world

Having pretty much run out of plants to look at, and after my brief encounter with the wall lettuce, I found myself noticing one or two plants I’d never looked at properly before. There’s a posh word for an environment created by a large block of concrete flats with an adjacent car park that used to be a builders’ yard. It’s more often applied to old gasworks and factory sites and presumably was also used to describe bombsites after the war. It’s ruderal – which derives from the Latin for rubble and describes land disturbed by human activity, exactly like building a block of flats. I prefer to think of it as meaning rather rude – which is what you tend to become after three months locked up in a concrete block with the only view from your desk being a car park on an old builders yard. I think there’s an elegant circularity to that paragraph but you may disagree.

Anyway, style apart, I was wandering through the car park and I noticed a thin, straight line of tiny plants; eking out a living on the tarmac below the vertical line of windows at the back. Occasionally I get interested in these tiny wonders – like the slime mould that took all winter to descend the fire escape steps, or the rue leaved saxifrage on the same steps that gets away with its precarious situation by setting seed before the summer does for it.

But these little plants were tiny – really tiny – and clinging low to the ground, constantly being trodden on and driven over and baked in the heat of the sun in recent weeks. It seemed to me that this was all slightly miraculous and deserved a bit more of my attention. The three plants, I pretty sure, were

  • Procumbent pearlwort – Sagina procumbens
  • Biting Stonecrop – Sedum acre
  • Shepherd’s purse – Capsella bursa-pastoris

So the next thing to do was to take some samples and bring them up to the study for a closer look. The first obvious thing was that they had been much affected by their impoverished environment they were like miniature versions of their more prosperous cousins. But under a 15X lens I could see that the pearlwort had a number of even tinier, almost transparent beetles living on it. The plant itself was living on a substrate of some kind of moss, but I don’t have a microscope and so I couldn’t take the ID any further. And neither could I tell you what was the name of the beetle. If my knowledge of plants is a bit wonky, my knowledge of insects is non existent.

The next step was to set up a real camera with a macro lens and take a close-up photo. The photo at the top of the page is about 7X magnification of the pearlwort and if you look carefully at the top right quadrant you might spot one of the beetles. You can see that the presence of the water absorbing moss is probably part of the pearlwort’s survival strategy. Wonderful stuff. I was so pleased I started another list of plants I could see through the window which I may share if I ever complete it. Anyway I hope I’ve convinced you that there’s a whole small plant world that we tread on every day without thinking.

Back in the Potwell Inn I started a new sourdough loaf using a new organically grown and stone ground flour that we bought at the mill yesterday. It was nice to get out for a bit but the mill is extremely inaccessible and on both occasions I’ve been there I’ve taken a wrong turning and landed up driving down a narrow track with potholes big enough to lose a tractor in, and ending in an impassible ford. Madame adopted the brace position throughout and comments about my driving were exchanged and so we retraced our steps and took the proper track – which was almost as bad. Nonetheless the contactless handover (see yesterday’s post) was seamless and we drove home feeling that somehow we were dragging an elk back to the cave. At any rate the flour will see us in bread for another three months.

The rain has at last arrived, and this morning I checked the water butts to see if my elaborate water harvesting had worked, and yes – there was a satisfying increase in the stores – sufficient to check that the descending cascade linking the five 250 litre stores was working and it was. As each barrel fills, the water flows to the next in sequence.

Our life here is not exactly Selborne, but in many ways it’s just as rewarding to be able to make friends with these overlooked weeds. Tomorrow the sun will shine again and we may even take a turn around the farmers market – our first trip there for three months. Masks will be worn, of course. We almost went last week but we chickened out at the last minute. We’ll probably chicken out again tomorrow – we have no idea how to stay safe any more!

At last, the right kind of rain.

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After weeks of near misses, with the rain slipping past us up the Bristol Channel and into South Wales, today the rain gods smiled on us.  Only 8.9 mm – less than half the forecast amount but nonetheless the best we’ve had for ages and when it dried up after lunch, we could almost hear the allotment gratefully guzzling it down.

However much you water by hand, it’s never as good as a natural soaking. I don’t know whether plants are affected by chlorinated water – it used to be the case that if you stood the water in a trough or even in a watering can overnight, the chlorine would evaporate leaving pretty much pure water (apart from the innumerable chemicals that couldn’t be filtered out). However I read recently that there are new ways of treating water with chlorine that persists for a longer period. I suspect that chlorine in any form has a deleterious effect on soil micro-organisms – the ones it’s used to kill in the pipes drrrr..

So rainwater is good and thunderstorm rainwater is even better as long as it’s not heavy enough to beat the plants flat. In fact, gardeners could probably furnish a whole vocabulary of rain types based on their usefulness. This occurred to me this morning as I looked out of the window at the Green and was faintly disappointed with the rain at first, until it increased a little and suddenly I could hear it falling on the leaves.

We instinctively judge rain and its qualities by sound and smell as much as by any other more scientific quality. Compare, for example the first few drops of rain falling in a summer storm – big fat, heavy drops, with – let’s say – the sound of misty rain drifting down on to a window, or driven rain coming in almost horizontally in a winter storm.  Any gardener would opt for a prolongued spell of the gentle but continuous rain that falls on a windless day, followd by warm sunshine – perfect growing weather.

And it was while I was imagining those big fat drops I remembered a pub we used to drink at, on a busy crossroads opposite a stand of very tall elms – before Dutch elm disease took its toll. There was a big rookery up in the trees, and if you were lucky enough to be sitting on the bench outside the pub on a hot summer day when the raindrops started to fall, whack, whack, whack on the leaves and then gathered in intensity as the sky turned to Paynes Grey straight from the tube, and the agitated birds called and chattered, and that unique smell of rain on hot tarmac and parched grass rose into the air, then you might have been transported to the Potwell Inn for a moment, until the rain drove you inside. The very thought of it left me pining for a lost age, and given half a chance I’d have got ino the car with (protesting) Madame and driven straight there.  But the pub has shut down, the elms have all gone and a housing estate covers the fields almost to the edge of the road. Nostalgia eh? rubbish emotion!

And so the allotments have been properly watered at last with the right kind of rain. The rain you don’t want is the stuff they get in North Wales where it rains sideways and each drop is encrusted with industrial diamonds that saw you in half; or in Cornwall where it rains every day, but only just enough to be annoying, or up the M5 along the ridge north from Bristol where it often doesn’t rain at all but just sits there in a cloud sulking in a fog. You don’t want the rain that comes with gusting winds, or anything that comes with hailstones, and especially not snow that breaks your nets and snaps off branches.

Moderation in all things is the name of the game, and the only way to do that is to protect the crops as best you can with nets and windbreaks and if you’re luckier than us, polytunnels, and save every drop of rainwater you can.  Oh and concentrate on drought resistant varieties species and varieties. There’s always a way: except there isn’t when things get past the tipping point, and then it all gets ugly. But unlike buses, you can save rain until you neeed it.