Just me and the robin

This is the same patch of land separated by two and a half years, and the part that comes in between is best represented by this next photograph:

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There’s a conundrum in the middle of all this work that came to a bit of a head yesterday when I was preparing the third of the raised beds in that part of the plot which is shown in the first two photographs. I was up at the allotment early, grabbing as much as possible of this warm and dry weather before the weekend when it’s likely to get  very cold once again.The earth is in good heart and easy to dig at the moment.  It’s curious to think that the beginning of the “no dig” beds is some pretty profound moving around of the earth, but the plot was infested with couch and bindweed and the only way to get on top of them is to dig in search of the roots and remove as many as is humanly possible. It’s hand-to-hand combat that’s lasted for three years now, but yesterday showed that the battle is all-but won with barely half a trug of roots. The most pernicious weeds have slunk back to the edges where they can be controlled by regular mowing.

So it was me and the robin. He was only too pleased to help me by darting in at my feet to pluck a grub from the ground and every very now and then he would perch on one of the grapevine posts and sing his little song to encourage me. I was profoundly glad of his company and kept up a very one sided conversation with him as I dug. I’ve explored the reasons for creating the beds before, but in summary, drainage is an issue and the slope of the ground invites some gentle terracing which is best accomplished by the beds.  The deep woodchip paths function as drains, and the soil which is displaced – many cubic feet of it – is used to level the beds.

So between the natural but limited abundance of the groundcovering weeds, and the productivity of the allotment when it’s in full swing, there’s also a responsibility to to the earth and to its biodiverse inhabitants from nematodes to buzzards.  yesterday, when I’d finished the third bed, it all looked very empty and anything but biodiverse. The next step is to add a great deal of compost and some seaweed meal before covering it until spring. Let’s not kid ourselves that there’s no pleasure to be had from digging.  Healthy outdoors work with immediately visible rewards is not to be sneezed at, and most of us allotmenteers derive a good deal of pride from getting our plots cleared during the winter. But with our soil in particular, apart from clearing the deep rooted weeds, digging does more harm than good. In winter the soil which is a highly productive clay/loam balls up on the wellingtons and easily gets poached.  You wouldn’t want to let livestock anywhere near it. img_4869So beds it is, and no-dig beds it’s going to be.  As I was clearing the last of the parsnips from one bed it was very pleasing to see how straight and unforked they are, and I wish we could claim some responsibility for the success of the crop but they were thrown in much too late as an experiment. Next season we’ll do it properly.

Then when I got home (aching a bit) I found an article in the Guardian reporting some new research on the best habitats for wildlife. Now I know that our allotments can take delight in (wary about) the foxes and badgers which are a delight to watch but a blessed nuisance in the summer.  Badgers have a sixth sense about when you’re going to harvest the sweetcorn and always get there 24 hours earlier! We have a wide variety of birds – again a mixed blessing – and butterflies (ditto) and so it goes on.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, found allotments and gardens often had 10 times more bees than parks, cemeteries and urban nature reserves. Baldock said nature reserves were important for other wildlife but were often less suitable for pollinators, being dominated by trees rather than meadows.

I wrote about this on  8th January this year to almost no response, so I changed the title which helped just a bit – It’s there under the title “Dig for Victory”. I’m not being a snowflake about this, I just think it’s really important and we need to get the message out there.  Ground clearing and war on weeds can only be an environmental step forwards if it supports biodiversity.  I don’t think bindweed and couch are in any danger of becoming extinct – not least (If you read Richard Mabey’s excellent book on weeds) – because bindweed has the most devious and cunning ways of reproducting itself. cropped-img_4357But the collapse in pollinating insects is the really big worry  – not just for gardeners and allotmenteers but for the multitude of small mammals and birds who rely on them for food.  So the next stage on our allotment, after ground clearing is the establishment of food plants not just for the Potwell Inn but for all the insects and small mammals we need to support.  The earth isn’t just there for our convenience. So this year we’re having a big push on foodplants, nectar flowers and companion plants. We only ever share our land, and we’ve got nets and fleece and (for sweetcorn) hard barriers to preserve the bits we really need, but that brings the responsibility to look out for the needs of the other inhabitants of the land. An allotment is a pretty intensively cultivated environment but that doesn’t mean we have to regard the rest of the natural world as a threat. The link to the article is below.

https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2019/jan/14/city-bees-allotments-gardens-help-arrest-decline-study

 

 

 

 

A pugnacious little visitor keeps me company.

img_4848OK it’s a terrible photo, but it was barely above freezing and although the robin isn’t shy, it’s not feeding from my hand yet. This is one of those drrrr photos – if only because there can’t be a gardener anywhere in the UK whose heart hasn’t been warmed by this little bird.  I say ‘in the UK’ carefully because we once had a hilarious conversation with a man in Central Park New York, when we asked him what was the name of the thrush- sized bird with a red breast which was there in large numbers.  When he said that it was a robin we got into one of those moments of mutual incomprehension that often spring up when two distant cultures share a language. So, for any North American readers out there, I’m talking about the British Robin which is about 1/3 the size of its Central Park namesake.

Our robin shows up almost every day and is very bold, darting in to search for food wherever there is uncovered or disturbed earth. It occupies a special place in the order of things because it’s as wild as any bird and yet its boldness encourages us to think of it as being tame – or at least tameable – and living in a fragile relationship with us gardeners. In fact it’s a bold little opportunist, a chancer who will sit three feet away and sing a song that always seems tinged with sadness.  If there’s a minor key for birdsong then the Robin has mastered it, each phrase of the song ending with a question mark, like a young person’s ‘upspeak’. There are three birds that the Potwell Inn must have.  The Blackbird must sing on summer evenings and at dawn.  The House Sparrow will chirp away tunelessly around the yard at the back, and the Robin will sing its song, like ice in a glass, out there where the allotment joins the orchard. The very thought puts me in a good mood.

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So yesterday I set out with far too many layers of midwinter clothing to finish the last (bar two) of the paths on our original plot. We’ve had nights of frost, and being at the bottom of the sloping site our ground gets frozen very easily. Allotments are rarely in a perfect place, and half of our two plots accumulate cold air beyond the reach of the winter sun which, for several months never rises above the dense row of Leylandii at the bottom. So the frost is the bad news, but on the plus side we’re completly sheltered from the South Westerlies, our predominant winds which bring gales every year and regularly rake the sunnier plots at the top of the slope, even overturning sheds and sending cloches tumbling across the site. Better still, being at the bottom of the hill gives us a degree of protection from the North and East.

Our biggest logistical challenge, building the new beds, is working around the standing crops, in this instance of leeks and  Swiss chard in order to get the boards in place. Some of them will have to be sacrificed, but they were planted last year with the new paths in mind and I don’t think we’ll be wasting too many.

And so the sun shone and despite the hard ground I made two long slits in the ground to take the boards and screwed them into place.  After a couple of hours of digging and measuring interspersed with periods of watching the Robin I came back to the flat and felt I’d made a stand against the winter.