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 uncovered and removed – 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.