Shelling the borlotti

It was a bit of a culture shock coming home from Snowdonia for sure. As the fortnight drew to an end and the weather continued cold wet and windy, notwithstanding the forecast of unseasonably hot weather almost everywhere except where we were. But more than that, we were missing the allotment and worrying about our winter sowings in the polytunnel and all the usual autumn jobs still needing to be done. The plus side of a rainy holiday is the amount of rest and reading we were able to do without feeling that we should be somewhere else – like on the allotment!

The first frosts of autumn are almost impossible to predict and so we prepare for them around the second week of October just in case. Knowing that the basil wouldn’t survive we took most of the outside plants to the compost heap, knowing that we’d got a reliable supply of pesto in the freezer. The best of the tomatoes were processed before we left, but today we shelled and dried the borlotti and, because we were proposing to treat them for any lurking weevils by heating them to 60 C for two or three hours I grabbed a bowlful of wrinkled tomato runts and shoved them in the oven at the same time so they can be dried to a still moist consistency and packed into olive oil. It seems a crime to waste anything; but sometimes we get properly caught out. Last year, determined not to waste a single iota of vegetable waste , we chucked all the extracted seeds from the passata machine into the compost. A year on as we spread the compost on the tunnel beds we had a magnificent flush of tomato seedlings within days.

We’d never had an infestation of bean weevil before, but last year’s saved seed was somehow completely infested and had to be thrown away. This is a bit of a conundrum which I’m quite sure the commercial seed merchants solve by fumigating the seed – but we don’t have the means or the desire to do that so it would be good to know how to kill the weevil eggs organically. This year because of the odd weather we decided to dry the whole crop, but I might hold back a handful of seeds to see if they’ll still germinate after heat treatment. I’m not holding my breath.

Autumn has a whole set of compulsions of its own. Even as I’m writing this there’s a big pan of leek and potato soup on the stove, next to a sourdough loaf that was started yesterday, plus the aromatic perfume of the drying tomatoes. Yesterday I was desperate to make a pie, and we feasted on our own French beans, broccoli and carrots along with (vegetarians please look away now!) using my mother’s recipe for a shortcrust pie (25% butter and 25% lard and 50% plain flour), that uses no flavourings at all apart from stock, salt and pepper. It’s the very essence of my autumn memories. My sister still makes exactly the same pie to the same recipe.

Allotmenteering or any other kind of gardening never quite feels like the glossy magazines describe it. Casually describing it as therapeutic hardly covers the gamut of emotions that it induces – it’s hero to zero and back again every season, even every week in our case. Nobody who’s ever been in therapy, made a pot and fired it, painted a watercolour or written at length would ever call any of them therapeutic except for the way they teach you how to ride the punches, celebrate the fleeting triumphs and do the essential work whether or not you feel like it. As for me I’d never do anything except by the grace of deadlines; and so we’ll sow more rouge d’hiver lettuces this week because if we don’t there may be no lettuce, or spinach or whatever next year. No food for you Mr Smarty Pants! We’ll also sow some Christmas potatoes to grow on in the polytunnel.

Part of the autumn compulsion will be, I know, the urge to sow broad beans – aquadulce claudia overwinter very well – usually; and this year the young plants, instead of tillering obediently and bringing in an early harvest of delicious beans, suffered from a month of cold east winds and passed away before flowering. This year we’ll give the early sowing a miss and start again in March which will, of course, ensure a balmy spring with record crops of early broad beans.

What certainly will be going in is some garlic. A good deal of the holiday reading was taken up with getting my head around epigenetics. The basic DNA – the genetic material of a plant which determines its general form; doesn’t change aside from mutations. However, apparently different genes can be switched on and off by all sorts of environmental factors – and this is one possible reason for the fact that seed saving of successful crops can lead to better results (on your unique patch of earth) – than expensive commercial varieties because the starting variety gradually adapts from year to year. Anyway, the upshot of this is that this year we’ve selected the best of this year’s garlic crop which we’ll replant tomorrow. We had them netted all last season so there was no trace of fly damage but some of the plants suffered from basal plate rot where the selected seed cloves didn’t. We’ll label these athletes carefully and grow them alongside what we South Gloucestershire peasants like to call boughten seed. Six years of being told off at school for using that dialect term showed it was a surefire way of annoying teachers who thought educating us involved severing all our roots. We shall do a properly scientific comparison next year and onwards to see if any of these epigenetic changes occur: so long as the plants don’t get sicklier and sicklier.

Finally, here’s a photo of a stranger who dropped in for a rest and a warm up on one of our fence posts today. It’s a common plume moth that’s apparently mainly a night flyer. When I first saw it a thought it must be a lacewing but it wasn’t. One of its endearing habits is to roll its wings up like a brolly when it’s resting. But it’s most endearing habit of all is that it lays its eggs on the bindweed which its caterpillars like to eat. We have an abundance of the foodplant lurking on the edges of the allotment silently waiting for the moment to tunnel in under the fence. I had a word with the little moth and she promised to come back mob handed with her mates next week.

Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

Hotting up in the flat, sleet and rain on the allotment!

Outside on the green, the buds on the trees are swelling, lending a faint green haze to the view, although the hawthorn is well ahead of the pack. Not the least reason for celebrating the leaves is that they obscure the riverside housing developments which are not only thoroughly ugly but also poorly built – so much so that after only four years many of these ludicrously expensive buildings are having missing fire protection and non existent waterproof membrane installed at vast expense (I hope) to the developers and even vaster inconvenience to the residents. Of course many of the  Georgian buildings we so admire these days were thrown up in much the same kind of speculative fever, but at least they look good from the outside.

Enough of that, though, because as we approach the equinox, seeds sown during late winter and raised in the propagators are now demanding better lodgings, and like teenage children they have to be accommodated within our rather small flat. Each year at this time we get the camping tables out, one in front of each south facing window, and they rapidly fill with small plants.  Every few weeks they need potting on into even bigger pots, and long before mid-May when we can put plants like tomatoes, chillies, courgette and peppers straight into the ground, we’re struggling to find space for them all. When removal day finally arrives the flat seems uncannily empty, but at least then we can change the early window boxes for their summer equivalents.

The kitchen doubles up nicely as a potting shed but the competition for space is fierce and so this year I’m fixing up the greenhouse to house a dozen trays of the plants as they slip off the end of the production line. It probably doesn’t sound much, but the allotment rules only allow a six by four structure; a rule that’s generally honoured in the breach by our neighbours but it’s a more manageable size for two of us. Incredibly, few of the bigger greenhouses are ever used to their capacity and almost every autumn we see a few over ripe tomatoes clinging to tinder dry brown foliage, roasting in the sun. It’s amazing how the enthusiasm of Easter fades as the season progresses.

Some kind of pattern finally establishes itself for us. It takes a season or two to adjust to the land and to our own needs, for instance we know we need to grow fifteen outdoor (blight resistant) cordon tomatoes to keep us in sauces through the year. In addition we need a handful of salad tomatoes, and a surprisingly large number of roots – ready for winter. We’ve cut down on potatoes, and this year we’re focusing on our favourite earlies. A couple of courgettes are more than enough, and we need more borlotti beans.

Last year we discovered, much to our surprise, that the aubergines and peppers and the less fierce chillies actually preferred it outside. We made far too many pickles, more than even our hungry extended family could help us consume, and so a single gherkin plant would probably do. Which brings us to the big economic question – is it cheaper to buy plants or sow seeds? Well, packets of F1 hybrids often only contain 10 seeds, but if you only want a couple of plants, it might be cheaper to buy them at the garden centre because they don’t last forever and they may not be viable after five years.  The advantage of growing from seeds is access to a far wider range of varieties,  but plants are professionally reared and get you going quicker.  I don’t think there’s an answer  except to put in a word for open pollinated and saved seed.  With a little care, and once you’ve discovered what goes really well on your own patch, this is free source, and sometimes seed will even adapt to your precise environment and soil – just as potatoes and maize have done in South America.

Weatherwise, it’s been continuing in much the same pattern; a day of sunshine and a week of rain, even sleet today. The south west of the UK is fairly mild and they’ve had it much worse further north, but we’ve seen freak frosts and even flurries of snow as late as May.

I’ve been reading George Monbiot’s book “Feral”. I’ve had it on the shelf for ages and made a start several times but put it aside because I found it – dare I say – a bit intense. This time I soldiered through the first couple of chapters and I think, at last, I can see where he’s going with it and so I’ve sealed my intent to finish it with a bookmark. More to follow, then.

Lost Gardens of Heligan II

_1080673So what would the “take home” message from Heligan be. I’m not sure that I care for the impression the expression gives – as if all the love and care and experience we encountered in our five days there could be pre-digested and regurgitated into a sentence like philosophical bird vomit.  But we definitely found things we wanted to remember and try for ourselves when we got back to the allotments, and here are some of them: Continue reading “Lost Gardens of Heligan II”