The pond completed

Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.

I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.

Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!

The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.

Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.

My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.

Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.

Nothing stays the same

I’ve shown this photo before – it was taken in the garden of the farm cottage we rented when we were at art school in Wiltshire almost 50 years ago. Just a few weeks later someone left the gate unlatched and it was completely trashed by pigs. We never really managed to get it up and running again – the disappointment was too much. Gardening can be like that; you have to ride out the failures and accept that you have to combine stoicism and gratitude in almost equal measure. Now we only have the internet to tell us how the farm has fared over the years, but a small mixed dairy farm will have been sailing against a headwind and it may have gone the way of so many others. All we know for sure is that the farmhouse is used as an upmarket B & B.

But we did soon get other gardens going, several in tiny backyards, two of them in allotments and the last in a much more challenging garden of around 1/3 acre; all the while learning more – so the allotment represents the latest expression of what we’ve discovered and, now we’re retired and can give all our time to it, is probably the best we’ve ever managed.

Right now, in the teeth of the Covid 19 pandemic, the internet is alive with allotmenteering and I couldn’t be more pleased, so long as the long delays with seed merchants and the difficulty of getting garden sundries don’t put newcomers off before they’ve started.  My inbox has seen a lot of seed offers from companies I’ve never heard of, and there are going to be sharks out there who’ve bought up stocks of seed that may be near the end of their storage life, or not good quality. My advice is to stay with the reputable merchants even if it means waiting a bit longer. There’s nothing more frustrating than trying to coax life out of dud plants.

That said, you only have to take a walk up to our allotment site to see a huge influx of newcomers wielding spades – possibly for the first time. The thirty-somethings are getting it and I hope that local councils are including new allotment sites in their local plans to meet the demand. It would be sensible on every level to make many more plots available; well managed allotments are incredibly productive environmentally helpful and healthy. Now’s the time for a big push, and that should include strategies for teaching basic skills.  There are some things that are best taught one-to-one or in a small group – common weed recognition is one of them. I’m always banging on about mentoring because this generation often can’t fall back on childhood experience with parents and grandparents.  There are great teachers out there in books and on websites, but growing is a very local activity and slavishly following dates suggested by someone who lives 200 miles north or south of you, or even in a different country, can be tricky.

However – what I want to think about this morning is not the techniques, not bigger or better or any of those things, but the bigger picture – the gestalt of growing, because growing, cooking, eating, to take the three most obvious topics, don’t exist in a vacuum but they belong with one another.  Separating them out into distinct disciplines misses the point and diminishes everything. Even global terms like self sufficiency reduce our activities to the selfish pursuit of stuff. If, for example, you read Patience Gray’s wonderful book “Honey from a Weed” you can begin to understand how growing, cooking, eating and sharing are deeply embedded in a whole culture. Buying a ready made tomato pasta sauce from the supermarket doesn’t make you an Italian, however hard the advertisers try to kid you it will. I remember reading Bernard Leach’s “A Potters Book” leaning against a library stack one summer afternoon that changed the direction of my life.  It wasn’t the recipes for glazes that attracted me, it was the integration of so many things I was interested in within a lived life.

Some cookery writers – like Elizabeth David, Anna del Conte, Jane Grigson and Dorothy Hartley and Marcella Hazan situate their recipes within their whole complex cultures – the gestalt – to go back to that useful word. Somewhere along the line we missed the connection between cultures, lived experiences that include growing and distributing food, as well as cooking and eating it.  To reduce the experience of food to a brief set of neurological responses in the palate is just bizarre. Restaurant and supermarket food are the souvenir shops of any sort of real food culture which, to make any sense at all, has – like any great adventure – to begin where you are.

But at this moment I’m wondering whether to describe a food moment  – like the one at the Potwell Inn last night – isn’t just another piece of internet grandstanding – “look at me, so handsome, young, and clever (????) doing what only I can do and boasting about it.”  Yesterday we spent the day on the allotment and, because of the lockdown and the bleak food outlook this year, I cleared and dug the last available patch of land on the plot. It was always a difficult and weed infested patch, right on top of what we think is an underground stream, and so it’s been covered with a pile of palettes on which we grew potatoes in bags and pots of mint. But it’s very sheltered and sunny – and we need somewhere to grow peppers, hardier chillies, aubergines and bush tomatoes this year. It took most of the day but it’s finished and ready to use – dug, composted, fed and broken into a fine tilth.  Two years under weed control mat had done most of the work for me.

So back home, too tired to be bothered to cook much and mindful of eking out the food supply for as long as possible we turned to the store cupboard in which there are about six litres of bottled sauce labeled “Hazan number one”. The recipe comes from Marcella Hazan’s “The essentials of Italian Cooking” and its one of seven recipes for tomato sauce. There were two half used packs of linguini in the cupboard – pasta has become impossible to find, but mercifully I discovered a 1 kg bag of pasta flour in the cupboard yesterday, and there were four pots of basil growing in the kitchen window. There was parmesan in the fridge, so we were away.  The tomatoes were our own from last year, and we have bottles of sauces and passata stored, so it was very much a meal made out of what was there – “clanger pudding” in Potwell Inn speak.

And it was so good we wanted to sing. It wasn’t the recipe, or the ingredients or any one marketable thing that made it beautiful – it was everything. The allotment, the earth, the sunshine and the neighbours, the kitchen and its equipment collected over the decades, the scent of basil growing, the plates chosen by us and even the table we ate at.  It was each other and our shared history and our adventures in Europe that we can’t afford any more – it was the gestalt.  Did it matter that Italians would have eaten it with different pasta? was it a bad case of cultural misappropriation? – oh do get a life! It was what humans do best when we get it right – being human. 

First day of term


I think the allotments department must have had a bit of a binge last week because suddenly the site was crowded with newcomers, many of them thirty-somethings with children in tow, and some with parents and in-laws to advise as well. The sun was obviously a big factor, although there was a bitter east wind blowing across the higher parts of the site; down at the bottom we were more sheltered and soon started peeling off the precautionary sweaters and jackets. Clearly – and this is marvellous – the allotment has escaped its traditional culture and become something of a trend. Whether it’s to do with likely food shortages, the increasing interest in vegan and vegetarianism,or a turn against intensive horticulture isn’t clear, it’s probably a bit of all three.

The biggest worry is that although allotmenteering is marvellously therapeutic and healthy when everything goes according to plan, it can bring immense disappointments too; for instance the mice have just eaten the whole of our second sowing of peas.  They had the first sowing too and so we’re starting the third batch under glass in root trainers while I purge the offenders.  I think the whole therapeutic gardening meme deserves unpacking a bit.  It shouldn’t promise instant happiness and freedom from stress because what it does far more selectively is accustom us to dealing positively with disappointment; to treat success and failure equally as imposters, as Mr Kipling said before he started the cake business. My guess is that some at least of these newcomers have very little experience of gardening.  One of our new neighbours today was hacking at his very weed infested and tussocky plot in a way that’s guaranteed to bring disappointment later in the year when the newly invigorated bindweed kicks off. It’s hard to intervene when people aren’t actually asking you for advice. We should probably set up a mentoring scheme, but the men in particular as as likely to ask for help as they would ask for directions from a passer by. Why wielding a spade should engender such powerful elk-dragging feelings in young men is a mystery and so the apprenticeship often takes far longer than it need.

I think the ghastly phrase ‘self sufficiency’ has a lot to answer for. Short of inheriting 10 acres of prime mixed farmland and a private income, complete self sufficiency is a fantasy. The rest of us just have to grow what we can and buy the rest as thoughtfully as possible. Better still, accepting that we’re dependent on others as they depend on us is the foundation of human community – you know, that thing that’s not functioning very well at the moment, especially in supermarkets. Panic buying is the dysfunctional 21st century form of self-sufficiency.

Paradoxically the one thing I’d want as the first taught skill on my imaginary mentoring scheme would be digging, especially for prospective no-diggers. I watched my mother and father and my grandparents dig, long before  I bought my first RHS book with those wonderful pictures of men in trilbys leaning on their spades in front of an immaculately trenched row. There’s really no easy way to get the ground ready for no-dig systems – I know because I’ve tried them all over the last 50 years – flame guns, strimming and even (wash my mouth out with salt water) – glyphosate! True, they all produce immediate results, but none of them produce more than cosmetic improvements. Get rid of the weeds by proper digging first and while you do that you’ll learn all about the depth of your soil, you can improve it by composting and break up any soil pan to improve drainage. Then – and it might take three years – you can put the spade in a car boot sale, although it’s pretty useful for lots of other jobs. You can grow things from day one as you clear the ground, but a thorough digging over as crops are harvested will help to discourage even the evil weeds like bindweed. Slow and steady is the way to go and year on year, results will improve.

My second tip would be to choose one guide rather than read a dozen books, all with different views. As time goes on you’ll find out for yourself what works. And my third tip is to invest in the best tools, seeds and plants that you can afford. Using poor tools makes hard work of any job. That’s it really.

I should say that most of us old-stagers have decided to interpret the social distancing rules as  permission to do even more allotmenteering.  My prediction is that this year could be a great year for allotments so long as we move the imaginary fences out a couple of metres and don’t insist on having face to face conversations.  In fact I’d go further and say that local authorities ought to buying suitable land with a view to doubling or tripling the number of allotments as a contribution to the greening of the environment. Well tended allotments are highly productive and could make an important contribution to food security, biodiversity, carbon capture and – notwithstanding my earlier comments – general wellbeing.

When we first moved on to our plot the first thing I did was to repurpose some old planks we found and make a double bench. Before we turned a single spadeful we had somewhere to sit down, drink a cup of tea from the flask and plan. Sometimes our plans coincided and sometimes they didn’t but eventually we always came to a common mind. Gardening is at least 50% daydreaming, and rushing into the first plan is sure to give you backache. Just as it is with fitness training, the most important part is what’s happening when you’re not training.

The photo shows how the bench has evolved on our plot over the last four years.  It’s a little piece of paradise, sheltered from the wind (and the neighbours) with a brolly and a grisly but free plastic table for picnics and potting. Everywhere was busy busy busy – it looked like a Pioneer Corps training camp today, and it filled us with pleasure.

Tomorrow I’ll write a bit more about our strategies for coping with self isolation. Meanwhile please respect the need for keeping a safe distance from older people and remember that many vulnerable people look pretty normal.  Asthma, heart disease and diabetes are invisible so it’s better for everyone if we take a step or two back.


Clanger Pudding again

IMG_6117This is a family story, passed down to me and I’ve no means of verifying it, but it came to me from my mother who had inherited my grandfather’s habit of inventing names for dishes.  As children, if we asked what was for pudding and she said it was ‘Asquith’ my sister and I would groan  – “not rice pudding again!”

My grandfather and his three sons (my uncles) were all carpenters and builders and spent a good deal of time working away from home.  They had apparently invented a dish called ‘clanger pudding’ which comprised anything – literally anything – that could be warmed up in a pan and dumped on a plate.

Any half experienced allotmenteer will know that clanger pudding feeling, because crops don’t ever ripen in recipe order.  Gluts and failures invariably stand in the way of the fantasy that you can wander down to the garden and come back with a trug full of the exact vegetables needed for the recipe you had in mind. Pickling, preserving, freezing and bottling can take up some of the slack but at the Potwell Inn we have very limited space and there are only two of us so we are regularly invaded by masses of courgettes and – this week – broccoli.

When we packed up and drove to Lleyn on Wednesday the back seat of the car resembled a greengrocer’s market stall. We had harvested anything that was ripe on the allotment and brought it up full of good intentions to explore new vegetarian dishes while we were here. The first darkening on the horizon came when we discovered that many of the runner beans were a bit past it – well a bit kevlar to be honest and on the edge of becoming basket weaving material. Then there was the courgette that had become a marrow, a squash big enough for six and pounds of summer broccoli some of it on the brink of flowering. Cucumbers, tomatoes, potatoes, beetroot, peppers, aubergine, chillies, herbs in abundance – did we think we were going to spend 24 hours a day cooking and eating?

And there’s the allotmenteer’s torment.  It’s hard work growing things and so we don’t like to waste them. Naturally the colour supplement gurus have this under control by planting single seeds at 4 day intervals thereby offering a perfect succession. In the real world we have better things to do than a one mile round trip to sow a seed, so as the week progresses we feel more and more guilty and the smell of the broccoli in the veg compartment begins to spread through the cottage every time we open the fridge. We’ve had one or two successes on the veggie front, but it requires a good deal of ingenuity and we’re noticing a certain sameness about many of the recipes.  The temptation to add intense umami flavours to everything can make the vegetables – which should be the stars of the show – into mere carriers of the flavours.

Today was a C+ effort using the tomatoes we’d brought to make panzanella.  I wrote the other day about the “sourdough” we’d bought and this being a pretty shop free area I was stuck with it for this evening. I added in a grilled pepper and our own basil to reduce the surplus a bit more but as soon as I added the dressing the bread quickly collapsed into pulp. Clanger pudding in fact. But it was good enough, as was the large quantity of broccoli and stilton soup I made yesterday.  Jacket potatoes were OK too and we’ve eaten plainly but well. But I think the takeaway point is that if we’re going to eat as much as possible from whatever we can grow, we shall have to be content perhaps with less variety.  The upside is that the treats when they come along – I’m thinking of our own asparagus and apples – are all the more exciting.

Our time here is half gone, but we’ve done some good walks  and in the evenings we’ve entertained ourselves by reading to one another from our books.  It’s very efficient because we each get to read one and hear the best bits from the other.  Madame is reading William Feaver’s new book about Lucian Freud and I’m reading Richard Mabey’s “The Cabaret of Plants” – both of them excellent (and I wish I could read that last sentence as my eighteen year old self!)