“Well I think the answer lies in the soil”

To quote the advice of Arthur Fallowfield – the wonderful invention of comedian Kenneth Williams, “The answer lies in the soil”. It always does, but he was spoofing the whole organic gardening movement in its tweedy 1930’s incarnation. I am aware, of course, that the gag will completely pass over the head of anyone under retirement age but I remember the tremulous plummy voice that seemed to spring straight from the pages of “Cold Comfort Farm” – dripping with the husky erotic overtones of flowering sukebind.

Last autumn, when I built the compost bins I was doubtful if we’d ever be able to fill them, even with the green kitchen waste included. Each bay is approaching two cubic metres in size, and there are four of them – and I was right to be dubious. One of the bins has been used ever since to store leaves, and should provide at least a cubic metre of leaf mould every year. One bin has been used for storage of bags of consumables like bought-in compost, topsoil and grit, and I’ve built removable shelves over both of those bays to make use of the upper area for growing in bags. But the other two bays have shown that they are well up to providing a constant supply of compost. They’ve only been up for less than a year and we’ve already taken off two cycles, maybe ten heaped barrow loads of really good compost.

Previously we’d always used California cylinders which are portable, cheap and easy to make but almost impossible to turn. The hope was that having permanent wooden bays would make turning easier -which has turned out to be true, and because it’s easier I turn the heap more often, which keeps it sweet and hot and remarkably efficient at reducing the most intractable waste into compost. Woody waste is chopped into small pieces and cabbage stumps get smashed with the back of an axe, but even soft fruit prunings disappear. The only things we don’t compost are noxious perennial weeds and annual weeds that have set seed. We’ve also learned that as well as regular turning, the heap responds well to a surprising quantity of cardboard (as long as it doesn’t have a plastic finish). The one thing you never find in a finished heap is cardboard – it seems to disappear really quickly and we often supplement our own household cardboard waste with shredded paper and large boxes from the recycling containers in the basement. The worms also love it although they don’t seem to eat it, they tend to congregate around it. Finally the heap gets a regular soaking of urine and the odd layer of comfrey if I can find any; or a handful of organic fertilizer or seaweed meal now and again. The one thing you can’t do is just leave it uncovered for months. It’s far better to keep it covered and water it when it looks dry, than it is to allow it to get cold and wet. Are you getting the picture? Composting is an intense and interventionist activity.

So today was heap turning day because we’ve cleared a couple of beds and the plan is always to clear them, compost them, and then sow or replant them as quickly as possible. Allotmenteering is pretty intensive all round, and digging out a full bay is hard work because in our case our optimistic use of “biodegradable plastics” – Jiffy 7 modules and degradable kitchen waste bags in particular has taught us that they are rarely broken down and can persist for years. So we’ve been removing them – hundreds of them – as the finished compost is dug and put through a wire riddle. It’s slow but very rewarding work as lumpy garden waste emerges from the process as sweet smelling friable and fine grained compost, inoculated with worm casts – in fact almost all of it seems to have passed through worms at some point making it vastly more valuable than bought in compost. There was enough today to cover two 12’x 5′ beds to a depth of 3″ and fill two large planters – and enough pieces of plastic to fill a large bag! After riddling and taking out the plastic, any hard residue, bits of twig etc. go back to the bottom of the new heap.

Rats

Turning the active heap which was full to the brim was a bit more of a performance, not least because I came across a very large rat and was forced to engage in hand to hand combat with it for fear of getting bitten. I once had a rat jump over my shoulder and I’m not sure which of us was more terrified! Rats are a tremendous nuisance but it’s hardly surprising that they congregate around compost bins which provide food, warmth and shelter. The problem is that they’re also carriers of leptospirosis which is transmitted through their urine, and so we really don’t want them leaving their traces on crops, particularly those like salad greens that are eaten raw. They also ruin sweetcorn crops because – like badgers and deer – they love the sweetness. We try as best we can to exclude them but they’re great climbers and even if the bins themselves are rat-proof, they can easily climb the sides and get in through the top and so they’re a regrettable pest and although I hate despatching them they come under the same banner as slugs. And so if we can, we kill them with powerful spring traps designed to keep out other less harmful species and occasionally I have to do the job myself because they soon learn to recognise the traps and even manage to eat all the peanut butter bait without springing them. We don’t use poisons of any kind because that just displaces the moral responsibility by making the consequences invisible.

Worms

But aside from the pests, what about the friendly inhabitants of the compost heap? I’m constantly amazed at where the brandling worms come from. We’ve never gone to any trouble, they just emerge from somewhere and in a lively heap they multiply exponentially. There’s a paradox here because there’s more than one process going on in a heap. The bacterial process is stage one, and it’s the foundation for the worms’ work. All the feeding with water, urine (human not rats!) comfrey and carbon in the form of cardboard facilitates the initial stages where the heap warms up. Many enthusiastic bloggers will make great play of the maximum temperatures in their heaps and some will claim that they reach quite extraordinary heights. We much prefer to leave the heap to heat up to – say – 30C in the initial stages. Bacteria, insects and worms all have their comfortable temperature ranges, and it doesn’t make much sense to me to drive all the invertebrates out by having the heap too hot.

In practice, the brandling move around – to the cooler edges when the heap is heating and then back to the centre when it cools and they can begin their vital work of digesting the partially rotted waste and turning it into worm casts which are absolutely crammed with soil improving bacteria. Well made garden compost and cheap garden centre compost are worlds apart. When the worms have done their work the population declines and they move elsewhere – which means it’s time to dig the compost out and spread it thickly on the plot.

Yesterday as I was digging out the finished compost, it was clear that there were far less brandling than in the ‘live’ bin, but as I dug deeper I was finding more of the deeper soil dwelling earthworms. It’s wonderful to watch how the process constantly balances itself. And worms aren’t the only inhabitants – it’s teeming with invertebrate life all chewing their way through our waste and turning it into gold, and I don’t doubt that the inhabitants get smaller and smaller in a massive interconnected ecosystem – it takes your breath away.

The result of building up the soil with organic matter is increased fertility, increased yields, greater biodiversity and healthier plants. It’s a no-brainer. Of course you can increase yields by pouring on artificial fertilizer year after year, but as the biodiversity drops the intractable pests increase and you find yourself trapped in an expensive and depressing spiral of feeding and spraying. But here are some photos of the allotment taken yesterday, and hopefully they speak for themselves.

The hungry gap is officially over.

Today we picked the very first of our new potatoes and harvested broad beans for freezing as well as spinach. We found the first flowers on the outdoor tomatoes and the runner beans are merrily climbing up their supports. It’s hard to describe how much pleasure that gave us.

The rats have been busy

But our pleasure was tempered by the fact that first the broad beans and then the potatoes had been found by rodents – almost certainly rats – before we could harvest them. The same creature – judging by the tooth marks – had found some potatoes as well; something for which I’m grateful because it encouraged me to dig a haulm and take a look and there they were, just big enough for an early treat.

Pests have an uncanny knack of arriving at your crops one nanosecond before you do. Badgers seem to roam the allotments at night waiting until the cobs on each plot reach perfection and then take them. You can even tell what predator has done the deed. Badgers crash around and drag them down – along with any protective wire and sticks, making a terrible mess but eating all of the cobs. Deer use their height to reach over the wires and take them daintily, but rats climb the plants, damaging them as they go and swing on them (I imagine) until they rip off. Messy eaters – rats! Pigeons, squirrels and passers by all like to have a go and the prospect of harvesting 100% of the crop is vanishingly small. It’s said that badgers don’t like loose nets because they get their claws caught up in them, but the best method we’ve found it to keep the whole sweetcorn patch inside a fruit net and nail it down with as many long pegs as we can lay your hands on.

But I always think of the first potatoes as a sign of the plenty to come; the true end of the hungry gap. We’ve been harvesting individual vegetables for weeks but when there are potatoes it seems that we’ve got all we need for a good meal. Much as I love purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus I wouldn’t want to live on either of them. Variety and texture are as important in the kitchen as they are in any other creative discipline from architecture to painting.

Pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age.

However, plenty brings a whole new bunch of challenges and we’ve already started phase two of the kitchen year by making 12 months worth of elderflower cordial. All the books say it only keeps for a couple of months and it’s true the powerful fragrance is a fugitive pleasure, but it does keep. The very last bottle of last year’s bottling now tastes almost like honey syrup and so we’ve been using it to sweeten rhubarb. It seems a crime to pour it down the drain. Two deliveries of glass bottles and preserving jars are sitting in the corner here in my room, waiting for the first bunch of berries from the fruit cage to be turned into jams and preserves, and with the first cabbages big enough to harvest I’m going to have another go at sauerkraut after last year’s failures. Even the fermented gherkins survived the winter and as long as you’re not squeamish and don’t mind sorting through the dross to find the survivors, they still taste pretty good. Of course, pickles and chutneys seem to go on and on and even improve with age. The smoked aubergine chutney I made last summer tasted pretty raw for months, but nine months later it’s heavenly.

Broad beans

So we spent the whole afternoon scalding, chopping and freezing and it felt good. But what to do about the rats? I wonder. They’re ubiquitous and although I have no scruples about trapping them if they become too much of a nuisance – they do after all carry some pretty unpleasant diseases – I’m not going to get too fussed, after all they never eat more than a very small proportion of our produce.

I mentioned in a previous post the idea of putting a false roof on top of the two compost bins currently finishing loads of compost and leaf mould. They won’t be opened until autumn and so I thought we might get a crop off the space. So here’s a photo of the new arrangement. Hopefully the squashes will trail over the sides and down. They often get a bit out of control and spread all over the place, but we seem to manage stepping over them and finding ways around them and so we tolerate them because they taste good. They’re a bit like teenage boys (we had three of them so I know what I’m talking about) – they occupy vastly more space than you’d ever think, but when they’re gone you miss them.

Split level gardening

Rats vanquished, Seville oranges in!

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After a somewhat gloomy posting yesterday I think it’s time to put the more positive side of life forward. For instance – today we spent a few hours at the allotment, weeding and gathering dead leaves (they attract slugs).  The sun was shining and as I turned the compost heap I could see that it’s thriving and aerobic in spite of the wet weather and the preponderance of green kitchen waste which makes it rather dense. But the worms don’t seem to mind and they were there in their tens of thousands.  We did nothing at all to introduce worms to the heap, they just moved in and they’re doing a brilliant job of reducing everything down. We’ve put substantial amounts of cardboard in with the waste – in fact all of the cardboard packaging that comes into the flat except the stuff that looks too shiny to be true because we suspect it’s probably got a plastic coating. Biodegradable tea bags go in and quickly reduce to something that looks like slime mould. The so-called green caddy bags are very persistent and so we now take them out.  I think some manufacturers think that breaking big bits of plastic into tiny bits is biodegrading – it isn’t. The other big addition is the large corrugated cardboard boxes that come with furniture and especially bicycles.  We saw the larger sheets up roughly and within a week or two they completely disappear.

The only disappointment was the fact that our persistent thief has stolen one of the rat traps.  We’ve lost so much stuff over the past three years we’ve racked our brains to think who it might be, and we think it’s probably the tenant who was evicted from half of our allotment because he neglected it completely. He seemed to be bearing some kind of grudge against us – I see him often in the street and he gurns at me in a knowing way as if he knows something I don’t. What is it about thieves that makes them want to make their criminality known to the victims? In a thoroughly uncharitable manner I take delight that he’s expending so much spiritual energy trying to get at us and I smile back wondering if it ever penetrates his dull brain that we know and we don’t care. We just bolt things down more carefully.

Anyway the sun was shining and that was enough to redeem the shining hour; so it was a bonus when we found a box of Seville oranges to make this year’s marmalade – that’s a job for tomorrow, I think.  I’ve also got to do some baking because our grandson is putting on a cake stall at his primary school, to raise funds for the victims of the Australian bush fires – his mum’s Australian. He’s only seven years old and we’re all immensely proud of him.

The street weeds are growing about an inch a day and I’m slowly checking and double checking what’s there. With no flowers you’ve only got growth habit, leaf shape and stalk colour and shape to go on which demands a bit more detective work sometimes but saying hello to them by name makes the walk to the shops more fun. Tonight, because the sky was clear, we had an extra half hour of daylight, a lovely feeling.

The other bit of positive news is that we went through the seeds today and we’ve got enough of nearly all the chillies to get them in very soon. Seed doesn’t last forever but four varieties of chilli cost quite a bit if you’re buying them fresh, so there’s just one more to buy.  Last season’s habaneros are so hot that I think we’ve got enough dried to last for years.

And finally, if you’re a regular reader, you’ll know I took a load of books to a local charity shop last year.  They emailed me today to say that they’d sold them and raised just under £500 for the charity. I think I’ll take another batch.

Wheat and tares at the Potwell Inn

Wheat and Tares or in plainer terms, the pests, diseases and downright nuisances are just a part of life at the Potwell Inn, and sometimes they can be sorted easily but, sadly sometimes a little harsh intervention is needed. One such fact of life on the allotment is rodents – rats and mice. Squirrels too can lend a destructive hand.  Last autumn we sowed a row of broad beans which failed to materialise. We found them yesterday hidden in a pile – presumably by a squirrel – under the leaves surrounding the rhubarb plants.

It seems paradoxical to say that because we are organic gardeners we don’t use chemicals unless they’re approved by the soil association, but perhaps once a year we might use a pyrethrum spray if the asparagus beetle runs out of control, we’re always very careful to do it when the friendly insects are less likely to be affected.

Garden centres will often try to point you in the direction of  pyrethroids when you enquire, but these are not approved for use on organic gardens.  There’s an exact parallel with herbal medicines here. Conventional medicine often works to isolate what’s believed to be the ‘active constituent’ of a plant and then produces immensely powerful and marketable products; but there’s no history of use in the pure form and so these chemicals can do immense damage before the downside becomes apparent. Pyrethrum has been around for a long time and it can kill pollinating insects if it’s used carelessly but in extremis it’s the lesser evil when faced with the extinction of a crop.  Last season we didn’t need to use it at all because the ladybirds roared into action at the best possible time and we were grateful to accept biological controls fee of charge.

Plant chemistry is immensely complex, and a single plant can contain dozens of active ingredients, all in symbiotic relationship with one another in the host plant.  Often the combination is more effective and less dangerous than the individual components. All of which is a long winded way of saying that artificially manufactured pyrethroids are far more persistent and dangerous than the plant extract that inspired them.  The downside is that pure pyrethrum is extremely expensive!

But of course the whole discussion of organic culture is fraught with the difficulty of distinguishing friend from foe. The old and humorous definition of a weed as a plant in the wrong place has it exactly right, and this year we’ll be growing a few well known weeds deliberately, not to spite our neighbours but in order to continue my experiments with herbal medicine. While it’s perfectly acceptable to be found harvesting leaves and flowers around and about on our walks, it’s actually illegal to dig the roots up without the owner’s permission. I suspect that wandering around the countryside armed with my beautiful pointed spade would be considered as going equipped  and so there are some plants it’s best to gather from your own patch.

The distinction between weeds and vegetables can be very flexible, as can the nuisances of insects and animals. In the autumn our neighbours are troubled by the alarming number of ivy bees which, as it happens are perfectly harmless and lack a sting.  I’ve laid on the ground nose to nose with a mating ball to get a photograph before now.  Every year too, our sweet corn is ravaged by badgers – who absolutely love it, but don’t like soft netting because it gets in their claws – and so there’s a more or less effective remedy. Rats, being brilliant climbers, also clamber up to take the corn and, on a really bad day, a couple of the local wild population of deer will take it as well. In the complicated way that we do our ethical sums, we accept the damage from some animals but not others. Most of us carry a mental hierarchy of potential pest mammals from hedgehogs, deer and badgers at the cuddly end  and at the bottom of everyone’s list comes the rat. Mice seem altogether more benign until you sow a row of peas or beans -which is a pity because there don’t seem to be any effective deterrents apart from trapping and killing them and yet they carry some awful diseases, so you really don’t want their urine anywhere near your organic veg.

Naturally the moral difficulty doesn’t end there because you can use poison – where you never have to see or touch the casualties but when they are eaten by scavengers, then foxes hedgehogs and crows may well become secondary victims. The only other alternatives are live trapping them and then releasing them on someone else’s patch – not nice – or despatching them yourself – which is too troubling to contemplate or, finally, using strong spring traps that kill the rat instantly. Which means that every day I have to check the traps and dispose of the victims – which I leave out to feed the foxes, badgers and all the rest. I know it’s daft to feed the very creatures that will be attacking our allotment in a few months but there it is.  I’d rather have to look one dead rat in the eye than lie awake at night worrying about the hedgehogs.

And then, this week there’s the other kind of high-tec mishap that can cost a great deal of money to remedy.  The heating controller on our campervan has been slowly dying for the last five years, and yesterday it finally gave a last pathetic glow and faded into darkness. I knew it would be expensive to replace so I disconnected it and brought it back to the Potwell Inn, and set-to with my tiniest screwdriver. As the cover came off I found a printed circuit board that could have come out of a laptop. Worse still there were two more layers and a screen – all equally complex. The controller turned out to be a small computer that monitors and controls every aspect of the heating and hot water in the van. In fact it was £350 worth of pure German engineering in a box not much more than 3″ by 2″. There was only one thing to do because the van is the crucial component in all our natural history expeditions. “Rats!” I said, neatly compartmentalizing it as I pressed the send button on the order.  Now I can’t wait for the new one to arrive so we can heat the van and the water without an hour-long cat and mouse (sorry, couldn’t resist it!) game with the display.

Tomorrow there’s the Bath Nats AGM and a talk on wildlife photography, and then – on Sunday – the first field trip of 2020. Life is good – as long as you’re not a rat!

Meanwhile, back on earth

I find these last few days before the solstice almost unbearable, especially when the weather is as gloomy as it’s been here.  As the earth drops down and tilts away from the sun, the darkness dominates and it doesn’t take a (so called) primitive consciousness to feel it. Of course we know – or rather scientists have calculated – that the slow tilting descent will pause at 4.19am on Sunday 22nd December, just four days from now and the northern hemisphere will begin to tilt back again, gathering more sunlight each day until mid-June. But on the allotment it’s as if some of the plants at least have anticipated the changing season. Garlic, broad beans, shallots and winter lettuce are all stretching their wings, and when, as we did on Monday, we get clear skies and sunshine you can almost taste the spring, it’s a real joy.

We agonise about our compost bins because this is the time of year when the rats tend to turn to an easy source of food, and almost every time I open the bay that takes most of our green kitchen waste, I’m greeted by a sleek and well fed rat, an agile jumper who always manages to miss me as it runs off. The answer of course is not to put kitchen waste into the heap – but in the winter, apart from a few dead cabbage leaves,  there’s not enough to keep the heap going.  The number of worms living in there is quite staggering and I suppose one way to solve the problem would be to start an enclosed  wormery, but then I’m sure the rats would soon get wind of it and move their attention to chewing through it. I’ve read that you can bury the waste direct into the ground in a bean trench but a little bit of research shows that rats are able burrowers. I suspect that people don’t see the rats because they’re more active at night, and so they assume they haven’t got them. It only affects me because I keep turning their cosy home upside down. Even the most canny rat is going to bale out at the sight and sound of a dirty great yard fork slicing into its nest.

There’s bokashi, but that’s an expensive method which only pickles the waste, and still needs to be rotted down afterwards.  Its proponents claim that rats don’t like the smell, but the evidence is more anecdotal than scientific. My only experience of deliberate anaerobic rotting was a barrel full of comfrey. It smelt dreadful and perhaps more importantly, anaerobic rotting releases methane and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.

Some people claim the rats don’t like the smell of humans, and especially human urine – but they thrive in sewers which must mean something! We activate the heap in summer with urine, and so I gave it 5 litres of human activator yesterday, but I’m not hopeful. If we let the heap get waterlogged the rats will leave it but so will the worms, and then it’s liable to go anaerobic. That leaves only one alternative – trapping. I don’t like killing anything unless it’s absolutely necessary, but we’ve already seen rat poo on the garlic, and the thought of getting Weils disease from our summer lettuces is a bit of a turn off. We don’t use poison because of the impact on our foxes (also a nuisance), hedgehogs owls and anything else that might fancy poisoned rat for supper. So it’s traps – big, powerful (ie ‘humane’), and encased in a box so that cats, foxes, hedgehogs,  and other larger beasts can’t get into them. One of our neighbours keeps parakeets on his allotment and says that he’s been battling the rats for twenty years – they’re brilliant climbers and can scale a shed wall or a nearby tree quite easily.

So that’s rats.  I’ll bait but not set the traps for a week and leave them in or near the heap – crunchy peanut butter is recommended – and then arm them all until I’ve thinned them out, and then stop.  When spring comes they’ll move off to easier pickings when the green kitchen waste is diluted with much more garden waste. It would be lovely to live in a perfect world but allotmenteering is all about understanding your competitors and staying ahead.  In our previous garden we had our cats to do the business, but they were also very partial to the birds.

I’ve stayed away altogether from newspapers and broadcast news and I feel all the better for it.  No more shouting at the telly. I felt so utterly betrayed by the media during the election campaign that I’d started channelling the darkest parts of my mind. On the bookshelf in front of my desk is a copy of the 1965 Faber Book of Modern Verse. I suddenly remembered  a poem by Hugh MacDiarmid – called “Perfect” –

I found a pigeon’s skull on the machair,

All the bones white and dry, and chalky,

But perfect,

Without a crack or a flaw anywhere.

 

At the back, rising out of the beak,

Were domes like bubbles of thin bone,

Almost transparent, where the brain had been

That fixed the tilt of the wings.

I love the sense of fragility that the poem captures so well, and the killer line is the way that MacDiarmid uses the tiny skull to reference the brain that ‘fixed the tilt of the wings.’ Our minds and brains too will, one day, no longer be here to fix the tilt of our wing, and if our living minds are full of falsity, then we shall not be able to fix the tilt of our wings while we are still alive.

Plants at least don’t tell lies, and the White Dead Nettle at the top of the page reminded me that there was a time when every child would have recognised it and plucked the flowers to suck out the nectar.  It’s a lovely plant to find at this time of the year and I had to photograph it, in all it’s commonplace ubiquity. I just think it might help me to fly straight.

Fine words butter no parsnips

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These were grown on a piece of the allotment that the previous tenant said nothing could be grown on and demonstrates two points at once.  Firstly, there’s no saying what a piece of ground will grow once you’ve removed not just one, but two layers of carpet and weed control mat separated  by a four inch layer of soil and weed roots; and secondly that the old tale that parsnips fork when they’re grown in recently manured ground may be a bit more complicated than it seems.  There’s some evidence, apparently, that parsnips and other roots fork as a result of eelworm infestation, so it may be that the forking eelworms (dare I say?) like manure. Who can tell?  This ground was absolutely inundated with well-rotted horse manure  after we discovered what the problem was, and then uncovered and removed it- well, sort of rolled up!.

So that’s the parsnips almost dealt with except to say that roasted with carrots, one of our ukichi kuri squashes and some of our potatoes and rainbow chard made the most lovely treat. The difference in quality and flavour between shop bought veg and our own is beyond dispute.

So that leaves butter and fine words.  A couple of days ago I ran out of olive oil when I was baking, so I substituted the same weight of butter in my everyday sourdough and it worked perfectly well.  However there’s a difference in the texture that I can’t quite put my finger on, so I probably won’t do it again unless I run out of oil.

And finally, fine words. LIke all bloggers I pay attention to the stats, and like everyone else I love it when they go up and I wonder what I’ve done wrong when they go down. When a whole continent disappears for three days I do worry a bit – and if anyone says they don’t care about things like that, they’re telling fat porkies. The Potwell Inn would be simpler to describe in terms of what it isn’t than what it is. In particular it isn’t a feelgood site, a natural history site, a life coaching site, a spirituality site or a cookery site although, confusingly, I write about all these things. So I have to expect that sometimes when people follow the Potwell Inn because they have an allotment, they might be disappointed when – especially in the winter – there’s not much to write. “Went to allotment to take up the kitchen waste, very muddy” is not going to butter any parsnips or, indeed, crack any pots in Warrington.

In fact, yesterday we took the kitchen waste up to the allotment and dug a few parsnips. I uncovered the compost heap, which I’ve been turning frequently to bury the rat attracting food under the older stuff.  I don’t mean cooked food scraps – they go into general waste because the council won’t collect food waste from our block of flats; but rats also love to chew a lump of raw cauliflower trimming or a sprouted potato. As I turned the waste in, a sleek brown rat jumped out from somewhere near the bottom and scuttled around looking for a way of escaping.  I was holding a murderous looking four pronged stable fork but the sight of the rat’s rather lovely shiny fur softened my heart and I stood back while it went on its way.

The winter heap is very different from the summer heap.  Apart from the rats, the worms love a winter heap and multiply in their thousands if you keep it aerated and warm.  You can almost hear them chomping away at the kitchen waste, and as long as I keep the heap from going anaerobic and smelly it consumes kitchen waste, shredded paper and cardboard faster than we can put it in.

Winter compost and summer compost are very different. Winter words and summer words are very different too. Life at the Potwell Inn has its seasons, and as it moves on, my interests, experiences and outlook change as well.  At the moment there are over 250,000 words in this blog.  Sometimes – it’s lovely when it happens – someone will come on to the site and read fifteen or twenty pages at one sitting.  Many readers seem to dip in and out and as the blog has grown I’ve realized that people access it in different ways and for different reasons. I’m looking to change and re-index the categories and tags to make it easier for readers to access the bits they’re interested in. But the core purpose of the Potwell Inn blog is to reflect on the whole tricky business of being human and staying human in whatever ways catch my attention from day to day.

I’d like to reach more people.  The Potwell Inn is, hopefully, a sanctuary for the alternative, the bewildered, the joyful and the curious – against the onslaught of the free market vultures. If you’ve read H G Well’s novel you’ll know that the Potwell Inn has a river running through its grounds. There were once fish in it and a ferry to make the crossing. The brewers are desperate to close it down and sell it for redevelopment as a gated housing development. I’d love it if you passed the link to the site on to your friends – I’m confident that if you like the site I’d like your friends too, so do press the button. Small is beautiful but a bit bigger would carry more weight in the fight against all that diminishes our humanity.

 

 

 

 

Season of mists and mellow wastefulness

 

EFFECTSDon’t know who this tree belongs to – it’s on the allotment site and it looks as if they’re all going to waste.  There’s an unspoken rule that you don’t pick anything off anyone else’s allotment without their specific permission and so the fruit is gradually dropping off – much to the gratitude of the wildlife.  Meanwhile I thought it looked absolutely beautiful today, standing against the blue of the sky.  Nature produces such wonderful colours (and smells).

In our previous existence we had a small orchard and most autumns a passing flock of redwing would  clear up some of the windfalls, and one year we even got a group of six roe deer to join the party. Our hens absolutely loved them too, so not many were ever wasted.  On the allotments now we’ve got foxes and badgers. I haven’t seen a redwing in ages but the more unwelcome visitors are rats. A couple of times I’ve disturbed a rat in the compost heap – I don’t know which of us was most startled – but they are a nuisance because they carry a number of diseases. Our son found them on his allotment in Bristol and he’s trying out bokashi on his.  It’s a Japanese method for fermenting kitchen waste before it goes on to the compost heap and by all accounts the rats don’t like the smell and stay away.

The only problem is that it’s quite a large outlay for a couple of fermenting bins with taps and a starter supply of molasses soaked bran which is inoculated with several fermenting yeasts and fungi. On the other hand we do produce a great deal of kitchen waste when we prep our vegetables and so if it works it could be worth the investment in the long term. Today’s visitor had half eaten a lump of raw cauliflower and made a comfortable nest for itself.  I turned the heap immediately and brought some thoroughly rotted material (with hundreds of worms) to the top, to create a less attractive layer at the top of the heap. But it does raise the question of whether to cover heaps. I’m not sure there’s a correct answer – if you keep them covered they make more attractive nest sites for rats, but if you leave them open, every time it rains the heap cools down again – yet another dilemma for us allotmenteers!  However if the bokashi trick works we can cover the heap, water it if it gets too dry, and not worry about the rats.

But it was Christmas day on the allotment this morning.  Being Monday, the weekend allotmenteers had gone to work and when we arrived there was another big delivery of both leaves and wood-chip from the Council.  Even better, the leaves had obviously been stacked for some time and were already decomposing.  Three big loads saw the storage bin topped up and when that was done I turned to the wood chip pile.  All our paths are made with wood chip which breaks down surprisingly quickly, so it needs topping up every autumn. It’s important to maintain the paths, not just because they look nicer but also because they enable us to work the beds in any weather.

While I was doing that Madame was pricking out winter lettuces, planting wallflowers under the apple tree and digging up a very large parnip for tomorrow.  We were both delighted to see such a whopping vegetable – last year’s crop was pretty miserable – but we won’t know until tomorrow whether it’s so big it’s got a woody core. After yesterday’s introspective ruminations about slavery it was lovely to chill out with some hard physical work – it gives such a sense of achievement, and after 10 minutes we completely forgot the cold wind.

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Just add flowers

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Even a concrete blockhouse constructed in brutalist neo-Georgian can benefit from a few window boxes and the Potwell Inn fits that description pretty well.  This line of thought was prompted when we dropped off at a country pub yesterday, after a bruising encounter with the till at a garden centre.  It happened that we’d just spent (as always) more than we intended on filling our window boxes for the summer.  They always look as lovely from the inside as they do from the road, and it’s our little gift to the neighbours, so window boxes join the other protected budgets like books, art materials and the campervan. Oh and wine too, I suppose.

However, the pub was clearly in trouble since their hanging baskets were pretty much dead and there was an advert on the door appealing for bar staff, a chef, in fact anyone prepared to throw themselves under the oncoming train of HMRC and all the other creditors.  Best bitter – flat; crisps – not available (“we had a busy weekend”). Negotiations with an agency chef were being conducted in the empty bar but we were far too polite actually to crane our necks in order to listen in.  Sad, isn’t it, to see a fellow licensee going under even when your own pub is virtual?  We could have planted up their window boxes in an hour and the place would have looked like a going concern.

IMG_5298Back at the Potwell Inn we too have deceased window boxes, hence the trip to the garden centre, and the generally decrepit look outside the Gulag. Dead daffodils don’t have the same attraction as their younger selves. Inside, on the other hand, is a different matter.  It looks like the morning after a student party but the mess comprises hundreds of plants in different stages of development, and unsteady piles of garden reference books – far too many of both.  The kitchen is all but unuseable except for picking the supply of basil and brewing tea. IMG_5299The simplest meal involves a tremendous amount of moving  – gravel trays, root trainers and any receptacle that can be pressed into service cover the table and much of the floor.  This period is always a great boon to the freezer which needs emptying in the next couple of months ready to store fresh produce. Truth to tell however, there’s only so much chard, broccoli and frozen borlotti beans a person can cheerfully consume – even in a good cause – and I found myself looking lustfully at a ready meal in the supermarket today.

Meanwhile back at the ranch

Yesterday while I was adding some kitchen waste – tea leaves, peelings and discarded leaves – nothing cooked – to the compost heap.  I pulled off the layer of cardboard on top, and there was a scurrying of little feet followed by a dirty great rat that leapt upwards and away in one athletic bound. I don’t know which of us was more scared. It’s almost impossible to eradicate them entirely but the danger of leptospirosis is very real and so strong measures have been taken to discourage them. Vegetarians please look away now, although I doub’t anyone would eat a rat except from dire necessity!

IMG_5303So today at the allotment I extracted the first victim from a trap with a tinge of sadness mitigated by the knowledge that this one at least wouldn’t be peeing on our lettuces. Elsewhere, with the help of a decent amount of rain, the potatoes have roared ahead. It is a true conundrum, the way that however hard we water, a couple of hours of rain brings on the allotment far better.  What is the magic ingredient in rainwater that trumps the expensively processed stuff that comes out of the tap? Or is it precisely the expensive chlorine enriched processing that holds tapwater back from giving our plants what they really need?  Yesterday I planted some companionable nasturiums amongst the apples. They’d been languishing in a half tray in the cold frame but had never thrived. I transplanted them with no great hope of success but the alternative was to throw them away.  This afternoon we took another look and an unbelievable transformation had taken place. In fact everything in the fruit cage looked as if it had been given a dose of steroids during the night.  The strawberries had drawn up to their full height and were seeming to invite me to ‘step outside’ if I even mentioned the possibility of straw to hold their fruit above the ground. The nasturtiums had picked up so much I wondered whether we’d be spending the rest of the summer getting them under control.  Plants have this way of talking to us – if only we’d listen. Perhaps that’s all that ‘green fingers’ amounts to, the capacity to listen to what they’re saying.

And so the summer window boxes are all planted up.  The logistical problems of taking the spent ones down two floors to the garage and carrying the new ones up the same way are a tiny bit intimidating when your knees are shot, but the rewards are immense. When those trailing plants get underway they can go right down the wall and past the lintels of our downstairs neighbour’s windows too. All good, then.