I’m not quiet I’m thinking!

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Actually that’s not totally true because like many grandparents find, school holidays offer lots more opportunities to be with grandchildren and this last couple of weeks we’ve also got together with all our grown up children. However that’s not where most of my energy has been going, because I’m in the process of changing my mind. This isn’t a small matter of believing X rather than Y, but a fundamental problem with the way X and Y have been understood. LIke the vast majority of people who are interested in natural history I’ve gone along with the prevailing view that the preservation of threatened species of all kinds hinges on re-creating the precise ecological communities – if necessary behind high fences –  that once allowed them to flourish. The vocabulary of conservation is spattered with words like ‘virgin’ and ‘pristine’ that imply that nature was OK until we messed it up and so we need to rewind the programme to the point where it went wrong and then press the freeze button for the rest of time. It implies that there is some kind of evolutionary plan that resulted in everything being the way it used to be before we spoiled it, and, even worse, that these ecological relationships were somehow ‘right’ and any deviation from them – for instance when so-called ‘alien’ species (the very word gives the game away), move in, they need to be removed, or perhaps ‘cleansed’ in order to return to the pre-lapsarian state of grace. Forgive the religious language but it’s actually a religious thought wearing a white lab coat, but it’s all wrong, and that’s where I’ve been stranded, reading furiously (in every sense of the word) and trying to catch up with a field I know very little about.

At the very moment I was finally getting settled into my botanical studies, I started to get interested in weeds because there are a lot more of them nearby to study; one thing led to another and now I’m in limbo trying to figure out what it’s all for.  What’s the direction we need to travel in in order to repair the ecological damage we’ve done, without  reducing the natural world to a desert with a few gated reserves dotted around to remind us what we’ve lost? What does a healthy and productive earth look like? – feel like? How can we live our lives fruitfully without making things worse? How did we get to the point where we defined the best interests of a tiny part of the human race with the interests of the whole earth? … and I don’t have any answers at all yet. Doubtless they’ll come along eventually but in the meanwhile I’m prowling around the Potwell Inn in a mist of self doubt needing to examine a large part of my experience and memory, paying special attention to the presuppositions that have been pit props and retaining walls to my inner world for decades.

Of course there’s a wider context for all this.  The political chaos that hangs over us like a black cloud is an inescapable source of anxiety, but personally too, things have happened that threw me off kilter.  A farmer I’d known well in one of my parishes fell down the stairs at the weekend, broke his neck and died the next day. It’s a heartbreaking event for his own family, but it leaves us all feeling that life is fragile, fugitive. What with the morons in charge and accidents and illness threatening, what’s the context in which we can  understand the earth, its tides and weather in the broadest sense.

It feels like grief.  Cooking and gardening feel like going through the motions, displacement activities. Yesterday I went to the local stationers and to my great surprise I was able to buy a card index – the beginnings of the Flora of Muckyannydinny Lane.  It’s a card index because you can’t design a database until you are able to define it detailed purposes and I’ve no idea yet what that purpose might be so it’s back to the technology of the quill pen.

But now I’m off to try to mend the fridge on the campervan before we take a break driving as far North and West as we can in England. Yet again we were drawn to the West, and we’re going further North too – right to the Scottish borders, completing the last link from Cornwall in the South and catching up with friends on the way.  There’s nothing systematic in this, just happenstance and curiosity and a big pile of books of which the latest is Fred Pearce’s “The New Wild”. Read it – it’ll explode your mind!

 

Antics in the long grass

The City Council have gone green – well that’s one explanation, and another might well be that they’ve seen a way of saving money that they can dress up as a green policy. Either way round it’s still a good idea except  we’ll have to see what kind of reception it gets from the local residents in the longer term.

Essentially the policy is to stop mowing a strip of grass around the southern edge of the green and also under the trees outside our flat, . The idea was circulated and the response was very positive and so it’s being implemented. The text of the announcement uses the words “leave a strip uncut” but doesn’t specify how wide the strip should be, which has led to a variety of interpretations by the tractor drivers – some of whom have left a couple of metres and others who’ve mowed right back to the edge as usual. You can’t blame them, they’re grounds workers whose job has always been to keep things looking tidy and suddenly they’re being asked to go against all their instincts and leave a whacking great area of weeds.  It must feel completely wrong, and this has resulted in a piece of wide stubble instead of allowing any plants to grow up and set seed.

But there’s another problem looming. The responses made great play of the reappearance of ‘wildflowers’ on the green, and I fear that when residents don’t see the poppies and scabious they’re expecting but the thriving nettles deter them from retrieving lost footballs there may be a reaction. Butterflies, moths and pollinating insects – the kind we’re trying to preserve – feed on, and lay their eggs on all manner of wild plants including (but by no means exclusively) the pretty ones, and a proper mini-reserve wouldn’t necessarily look pretty at all, quite apart from removing some favourite shady areas.

Yesterday we were having a picnic with the grandchildren on the green, and my oldest grandson brought back a burdock leaf to ask me what it was. Later on I had a scout around the tree and found a whole collection of Lesser Burdocks of various ages, some obviously in their first year when they’re just a rosette on the ground.  There were also a couple of magnificent Welted Thistles, lots of Broad Leaved Plantain, some Chickweed, lots of Wall Barley and – mysteriously – a tomato in flower. The tomato must have come from a picnic like ours, but it begs the question (given our locality) how long it will be before we see the first seedlings of Cannabis. The area under the tree has long been a favourite place for a quiet smoke while waiting for the dealer to show up.  Now these are (nearly) all nice and useful plants, but apart from the tomato they can barely boast a ‘decent’ flower between them. I was most pleased about the Burdock because it’s a useful medicinal plant, but I’ll harvest the seeds rather than the plant because there are far too many dogs on the green to make consuming them a pleasant thought, and I can try growing some in drainpipes on the allotment. That’s OK they think we’re bonkers already.

If this kind of ‘wilding’ is going to work we’ll need to communicate much more effectively what the outcome will be. Most people can’t tell a wasp from a hoverfly and are afraid of almost every insect except ladybirds.  Some signage would help, as would an opportunity to meet a naturalist who could explain things and answer questions, otherwise thre’s a danger that local residents will react against the scheme and demand their tidy lawn back again. Primary schools are already doing great things with the under-elevens who are far more ecologicaly sophisticated than most parents.  Our oldest grandson is only six but he’s fierce about the natural world.

So it’s a great idea, but if the City Council see it as a money saver then it’s sunk before it starts.

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.

 

Busy bees

 

Up very early, woken by our neighbour who seems to be commuting to work from his campervan. But he wasn’t the only early riser because after owls during the night (who could resist listening?) a cockerel kicked off on the farm and I was wide awake and very much looking forward to finishing reading Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. I won’t try to sumarise the book but I would urge anyone to get hold of it and read it – it’s a brilliant introduction to some ideas that are going to dominate the next twenty years if we’re going to survive the anthropocine period. Campervans are like submarines, there’s not a lot of space, so I read sitting in bed, with the aid of a spotlight while Madame slept on.

Really good books change the way we think, and I’ve already mentioned some paradoxes that we allotmenteers need to address, such as being over-tidy, making space for insect favouring plants, making space for some species we’ve historically shunned, and worrying about the chemicals that might be hiding in the manure we apply to our plots. As I was reading all sorts of ideas were popping into my mind (which I’ll come back to later) but first I want to explain why when I took these photos of the bee wall at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, I knew – without knowing why – that this was what I was going to base my next post on.  Yesterday, technology got in the way and I was frustrated by my inability to get myself online at the campsite.  But now I’m glad because it’s taken more than 24 hours to figure it out.

The official line – the one being suggested by our excellent guide – was that the straw skeps were no longer being used to keep bees because an over-curious visitor had gone behind the barrier and shoved their finger into the skep.  Cue very cross bees! But I’m perfectly sure that the real reason is more complicated, because for all their visual appeal, skeps and their use in beekeeping are the sign of an attitude towards wild creatures that we’re still battling with in the 21st century.  In fact the photos at the top of the page could easily stand as a visual representation of the content of Isabella Tree’s book. Harvesting honey from skeps has a history that probably stretches back many centuries if not millennia. But there’s a problem with it because the honey could only be harvested by killing all the bees first.  In the days of Heligan’s bee wall they would probably have been killed by burning sulphur. To deliberately kill a colony of bees today is unthinkable to most of us, but until the early 19th century it was the only show in town.  But that didn’t matter because honeybees were so plentiful that every year a new queen and colony would set up home or perhaps a swarm would be given a home by an astute beekeeper.  The history of the removable frame hive, where the honey could be removed without killing the bees could go back to the 17th century, but things started to move in 1814 the when a Ukranian beekeper called Petro Prokopovych took the first steps. In 1848, Jan Dzierzon cut slots in the sides of his hives to take removable frames, and in America in 1851 Langstroth invented the first modern hive after calculating what’s known as the ‘bee space’ the smallest gap between the frames that the bees won’t bridge.

But what really matters here is the underlying psychology of the beekeepers of the past who saw no reason why a natural resource like honey should not be treated as essentially free, to be harvested without responsibility.

In 2019 the idea of harvesting without regard to the cost and the impact on the natural world suddenly seems utterly wrong.

img_5227And that, I’m sure, is why honey is now gathered from conventional hives at Heligan while the skeps are treated as an historical record for the benefit of the tourists. Our visit to Heligan has provoked a lot of thought. It’s a brave idea to recreate a garden that last existed in its full glory over a century ago, and we love being there.  But there’s no way that modern gardeners could justify using the old chemical treatments in the name of authenticity. On the other hand, some of the potato varieties being grown are so vulnerable to extinction that they simply have to be protected by modern chemical sprays for fear of them being lost forever. There are no easy ways of doing real gardening and sticking to the high moral ground all the time.

IMG_4281Anyway, on the Potwell Inn allotment some new ideas are unfolding.  At the border of the allotment site we have a long row of Leylandii – ugly sun-stealing brutes they are, and apart from providing a perch for wood pigeons they’re hardly a wildlife hotspot.  It would mean moving a bureaucratic mountain, but why not cut them down and replant with mixed smaller trees like birch, field maple and hazel interspersed with a thick undergrowth to create a boundary hedge attractive to wildlife? Why couldn’t we link up with a goatkeeper and provide them with moveable fencing to graze off abandoned and out-of control allotments.  We used to keep a goat and believe me she would eat anything.  There used to be a wildlife corridor on the southern side of the river which took in a long derelict site before the Local Council awarded a contract to Crest Nicholson to build ludicrously expensive flats that effectively concreted over the whole area.  By way of honouring their agreement they planted some sick looking sallows and laid a park with some kind of turf with a dozen species trees. It’s exactly the same mindset as the old skeppers had. “Nature is infinitely abundant and all those bats and birds and insects will soon find somewhere else to go”.  And under the skep goes the sulphur – except this time the skep is the same size as the earth and there’s nowhere else for the wildlife to go, and now we’re the wildlife being choked to death by the sulphur.

Do I sound a bit cross? Well I am cross. But as sure as eggs is eggs, retreating to an idealized past is not an option.  Which bit of the past should we aim for? The nineteenth century? the eighteenth? the sixteenth or the tenth? The question is – “how much change in my life am I prepared to embrace in order to create a future for my grandchildren and their heirs?’ And the answer is – a great deal!

Sadly, you may think, there’s yet another list of wildflowers brewing at the back of my mind. If we don’t know what we’ve got we’ll never notice that we’ve lost it.

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Meet ‘the widowmaker’

IMG_5194If you detect a certain look of distaste on Madame’s face, it’s just what anyone might look like when they’ve just heard something that compels a rearrangement of the neural networks. How many of us go to the Lost Gardens of Heligan in search of Downton Abbey -you know, six residents lovely frocks and fifty servants –  or perhaps in search of a lost time of horticultural innocence. I’m so exercised thinking about the poisons that we’re pouring on to the earth in the 21st century, that it really never occurred to me to enquire too deeply into what they were putting on it in the early 1900’s. So – meet what our guide today claimed was known by the gardeners as “the widowmaker’. It’s an ordinary hand operated spray, through which the gardeners dispensed weedkiller and insecticide. Substances like sea salts, waste manufacturing products, and oils were used as weed killers. In the late 19th century, additional materials such as carbon disulfide, borax, pyridine and other coal-tar derivatives, mercury, strychnine and arsenic trioxide were used, not to mention nicotine of course. So let’s not get too breathlessly sentimental about late 19th and early 20th century horticulture it was as much a product of the industrial revolution as any other aspect of life.

IMG_5192However, a century later – now we can see what havoc industrialised agriculture can wreak on the countryside and its ecology – anything before 1945 is going to look better than what we’ve got now.  Time for a cheerful picture. Here we’re looking at about half of just one of several gardens dedicated to growing fruit and vegetables at Heligan and you can see some rather vast rows of shallots.  This is the bed we photographed in the autumn under four or five inches of seaweed straight off the beach.  We had a conversation with the head gardener and she was very reassuring,  so we mulched our asparagus bed with a car-load of seaweed from North Wales and, just as she said, the seaweed has almost disapeared and we have a very healthy growth of second year asparagus. We’ve taken and eaten just a few spears but the bed will be fed and left alone for the rest of the season, just keeping an eye out for asparagus beetle which decimated our neighbours’ crops last season. Allotmenteers face the same challenges as the old gardeners of Heligan in controlling pests and we’ve turned our backs on synthetic chemicals, but we did have to use natural pyrethrum twice last year, or face the destruction of our plants. It was applied early in the morning when the impact of any drift on passing insects would be minimised, and the asparagus itself was not in flower. We try not to let the perfect drive out the best. Short of a major infestation you can often pick enough beetles off plants to set them back.

It was here too, at Heligan last year, that we first saw a hotbed in action and again we were sufficiently inspired to build a small one ourselves and in spite of a few mistakes on my part (like getting too little straw in the manure) it’s providing us with salad onions, beetroot, radish and lettuce which appear to love their warm environment.

We’re staying on the campsite adjoining the gardens.  I’ve never mentioned the campervan before. We call it “Polly” which, confusingly refers to Alfred Polly the hero of the Potwell Inn. On the right our inflatable kayak that gets us to some epic birdwatching spots on local canals.

Apart from visiting the gardens, as always when we’re in the van I’ve been doing some serious reading. This time it’s been Isabella Tree’s book “Wilding”. It’s a brilliant book that raises all manner of questions and ideas for us. My head is spinning with challenges, not least because instinctively I’m a tidiness freak (only) when it comes to the allotment. I have to remind myself that my idea of rubbish could often be better described as habitat. Once again, I’m trying to bridge the gap between what can be done on many hundreds of acres and our 250 square metres, and I know there is a link, but we just haven’t worked it out yet.  I remember one of those annoying management catchphrases – “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and it’s true.  Reading Tree’s book, I understand perfectly what so many of the objectors were getting so exercised about.  One decription of culture that really impressed its usefulness on me was “the way we do things round here”. Changing the way we do things involves for most of us – especially for me – the sense of overriding long held prejudices and instincts. But ‘bring it on’ I say – for the first time in years I’m beginning to feel optimistic.