But that was last year!

Now we’re three weeks behind

With the prospect of a loosening of the lockdown tomorrow – which, to be honest, is a lousy idea – it would be lovely to pretend that we could get back to normal on the allotment. However, these photos taken in May last year prove beyond all reasonable doubt that this year we’re at least three weeks behind. Looking out across the green just now there’s not a sign of our elderflowers blossoming although the purple variety shown, from which we made the bottles also featured above, is at least in full leaf. The window boxes are waiting for the petunias to go in so they can be moved down to the flat, but even in the hotbed and the polytunnel the beetroots are nowhere near as well developed. Today we found the first tiny broad (fava) bean pods and we’re still at the carrot thinning stage. The asparagus bed is just grumbling into life like a teenager on a school morning, and we’ve had a couple of tasters but hardly a feed.

In other respects we’ve done well inside the tunnel, with salad greens, radishes, turnips, container potatoes looking well in their new position outside, and the ever patient tomatoes hardening off in pots; taller and healthier than they were last May. The slugs have been busy during this week of rain, and managed to fell all our dill seedlings and half of our sunflowers. What’s particularly infuriating is the way they climb up the plants and saw off the growing tip. The runner beans, planted out two days ago, were spared by leaving a sacrificial tray of failures to attract them away but we’ve been fighting a losing battle and today I ordered some nematode treatment which is expensive but marginally less so than losing crops. Even the aubergines, chillies and peppers have been locked down with us, clogging up the propagators and windows. Our first ever attempt at melons suffered a mere 25% germination rate and of the survivors there’s only one healthy looking plant but that could just as easily be lack of experience on our part.

A couple of weeks ago we were given an old freezer which has relieved our storage problems enormously, and so for the first time aside from eating inordinate amounts of freshly cooked rhubarb, we’ve been able to freeze enough to make jam later on when things calm down. There’s enough rhubarb on the whole allotment site to start a jam factory – it’s one of the few plants that it’s almost impossible to kill – along with horseradish of course! But some of the less experienced allotmenteers don’t seem to know that they should cut off the flowering spikes as soon as they appear, and keep pulling sticks regularly to preserve a supply of fresh and tender stalks. The old ones – the thickness of your arm are tough and full of oxalic acid.

The bird feeders have been a tremendous success, attracting great tits, blue tits and today a couple of coal tits that were quite unafraid of me standing quietly no more than three feet away. We’ve also had robins and magpies with blackbirds helping out on the path edges digging out slugs and snails. It’s difficult not to associate their arrival with the pond as well and our tadpoles are growing slowly although they must be being predated by something because the numbers have dropped significantly. So it’s not all bad news, and scanning the blogs today Madame said that everyone seems to be suffering from the cold and wet weather so the problem isn’t local.

To go to a theme I return to often, it’s not the bird rarities or the heaviest, tallest or fattest vegetables in the world, but the ordinary that animates us. Of course I wouldn’t shoo a willow tit or a goldcrest away, but I’m not the least bit disappointed if our allotment highlights are no better or worse than thousands of other equally ordinary people have, and a dandelion is a cheerful flower to have around when nothing much else is happening. In fact weeds are what most urban botanical apprentices like me cut our teeth on and the closer you look the more wonderful they seem to be. Dandelion seeds – when looked at through a low magnification microscope – are an absolute wonder!

Going back to the picture on the top left of the group; that’s the green I write about. It’s an incredibly popular spot for trysts, catch ups, picnics, getting drunk, kicking a ball around, dealing drugs, exercising dogs, once (memorably) dogging, (and behind every curtain in the square was a shameless pair of eyes!) tai chi, gymnastics and all the rich tapestry of city life. Recently we discovered that after installing the bases for a couple of seats on the green, the council were dissuaded from installing them after receiving a petition – signed (it is claimed) by 70 local residents. In a long life of community based work I’ve grown suspicious of being told the everyone is against an idea. Usually it amounts to a small but articulate and organised subset of the community. The alleged grounds for the objection were that seats might encourage antisocial behaviour – really? How on earth have we managed until now?

However, nature spared us a battle when a large tree was blown down during one of the many storms in early spring. Within a couple of weeks the brash was all sawn off and taken away as firewood by a rough sleeper who’s been living on the river bank for over a year. People soon congregated around the dead tree and used it as a seat but it was really in the wrong place. So one day someone dragged the trunk laboriously across the green to a new spot under the canopy of our largest tree. He spent two evenings attempting to use it as a springboard to climb the big tree and eventually succeeded in getting way up into the canopy, whereupon he lost interest and went away – probably to write a book about climbing trees. Now the fallen tree was in shadow under the big one so another group hauled it out into the sunshine where it’s been ever since. Children painted it with bright and cheerful graffiti and played on it and it’s hardly ever empty. This morning a couple of young women sat on it in the rain on a plastic bag and with an umbrella while they drank their coffee. Frank Lake – now hardly remembered but a pioneer of what he called “clinical theology” used a memorable phrase that perfectly describes the bureaucratic mind . He said “you can die from hardening of the oughteries!” My philosophy and ethics lecturer put it another way in his first lecture: “you can’t make an ought into an is”. Indeed you can’t but it doesn’t stop people in power from trying.

That tree ought to be a message of hope and a warning to anyone who thinks they have the right to dictate how communities use their spaces. The empty plinths are now used to protect the grass from barbeques and it’s a constant pleasure to see, and hear people playing games, getting together and enjoying life – even if it’s a little anarchic and occasionally gets out of hand.

– in the end what’s more antisocial?

Street life and street theatre is free; doesn’t need a policy statement or any funding; committee meetings and minutes, or risk assessments – and in the end what’s more antisocial? Is it a bit of noise and fun on the green? or is it warehousing all your fragile and vulnerable people in one place? (on the edge of the green), driving up rents and house prices through speculation? polluting the air we breathe with privately owned 3 litre diesel engined vanity vehicles? and putting a route for 45 tonne lorries through the middle of a densely populated but unfashionable part of town? oh and building nothing but old peoples’ homes and student flats because that’s where the money is? Answers on a postage stamp please!

“Sumer is icumin in”

Even while we’re still battling with low temperatures and arctic winds, the earth’s changing track around the sun brings longer days and more sunshine. Now it’s not a question of ‘if?’ but ‘when?’. In the photo, the last days of the purple sprouting broccoli are almost here, while the beansticks are ready for summer. Setting up the bean sticks seems to be a form of benign displacement activity – it’ll be weeks until they’re needed but yesterday as I set them in, it felt like I was planting a flag in the diminishing skirmishes with winter. Yesterday too I set up a wigwam for the Alderman peas to climb and transplanted the autumn brassicas while Madame sowed seeds. We’re clearly in phase three of the sowing season. The first courgette shoot peeped out of its pot in the propagator, which is actually in use throughout the year. First to go in were the chillies and peppers in January, with successional waves until now when (aside from successional direct sowings) everything is sown except the autumn bulb fennel which goes in after the longest day. Then, during the rest of the year we grow basil for the kitchen.

The tomatoes are pretty much hardened off in their pots in the polytunnel now and we’re wondering when we should plant them into the soil. That will mean moving the container potatoes out into the wind and weather, so it’s a bit of a juggling act, but the forecast shows three more cold nights and then gradually rising night time temperatures. That’s a relief because the temperature in the polytunnel can go lower than the general air temperature – quite why I don’t know. Last night, for instance, the air temperature on the window ledge didn’t go below +6C but the polytunnel went down to +1C. The effect of moving the tomato plants from the flat to the tunnel has been to stop them growing altogether as they acclimatise to the bigger temperature range. For now they’re double wrapped in a fleece cloche inside the tunnel. The other most noticeable casualty of the cold nights has been the asparagus which is later this year by at least three weeks. It is producing, just about, but really it’s just ticking over even under a fleece cloche.

Needless to say, we sit light to the plans we drew up during the winter. Small plots are something of a nightmare when it it comes to rotations because some crops – potatoes especially take up a lot of space and some occupy their space for over a year. We just do the best we can, especially with the potato/tomatoes group but because the solanaceae comprise our largest rotation group we just improvise; sometimes rotating from one part of a bed to the opposite end; but even with all our best efforts the actual decision as to where each group goes is a last minute choice according to the space available. Yesterday we were lucky to have an empty bed about the right size, which had never seen any brassicas. The price was a second season of legumes on another bed further along which is the lesser evil (we hope!).

This year we’ve covered all the carrots and alliums (leeks, onions and garlic) with fine insect netting from the off, and grown them all in new soil and raised beds in the hope we’ll shake off the curse of allium leaf miner. This is nothing more brilliant than a bet. Anyone who imagines that we’re experts is mistaken. Mercifully, writers and bloggers don’t have to account for ourselves to our readers. My son was telling me today that a friend of his has written five quite successful books on a mind-bogglingly wide range of subjects from sourdough to gardening. All I can say is that if I ever need brain surgery I hope he doesn’t show up and supervise. It reminds me that when I was training to conduct interviews for the radio we were told that asking an actual expert a question on their chosen subject was always likely to result in a long and opaque dissertation accompanied by a power surge as people resorted to boiling the kettle. What you need is an amiable sounding bluffer …… hmmm – like me?

Chatting to our allotment neighbour today, he was lamenting that he’d followed exactly the instructions for growing shallots given by a massively famous TV expert – only to watch them sit in the ground sulking. That’ll teach him! Gardening is full of mysteries and turning a lucky coincidence into a canonical truth and then blogging about it doesn’t help anyone to be a better gardener. That’s why The Potwell Inn blog confines itself to the tricky business of being human, using examples that might include gardening and cooking but mostly avoids cruelty to animals! However today I was lugging a bag of compost across a narrow border and Madame upbraided me for snapping off one of the two Monarda plants we’d only set out two days ago. I bowed to the frosty storm but a few moments later I had a closer look and discovered that the slug which had sawn it off was still hiding under a leaf. Revenge was swift and terrible, but the Monarda is still dead.

It seems slightly odd that today I finished planting out the purple sprouting broccoli that we’ll be eating this time next year. I always find having to juggle the many sowing dates and times to maturity quite challenging. A quick taste of the polytunnel spinach was a revelation. Far from bitter even the largest outside leaves and stalks were good enough to eat raw in a salad. I do think the quality of our bewilderment is improving with time. Earlier our son and his partner came to visit us in the flat for the first time in over a year. Life creaks slowly back into the familiar patterns but going into a shop still feels odd – like a dangerous celebration. We bought some aubergines, peppers and courgettes from the veg stall in Kingsmead square and Madame is cooking ratatouille in the kitchen as I’m writing this . The smell is wonderful and – like putting up beansticks – it feels like a promissory note from the summer.

These are a bit close, I know, but we’re only growing for two so we don’t need huge vegetables – and it’s much nicer to eat them garden fresh.

Did you ever hear a slug pellet sing?

Allotmenteers and gardeners can be a disputatious and even dogmatic lot, and like many religions and political parties the smaller the points of difference the more formidable the firepower directed on dissenters. Dig/no dig; raised beds or footpaths, Glyphosate or hitting your own fingers with a lump hammer (I made that one up); and the matter of timber borders around beds is another such choice that has passionate advocates and detractors.

We use gravel boards as bed dividers for several reasons, but in particular because our plots are inclined to waterlogging, being at the bottom of a valley through which the river Avon passes and occasionally floods to within ten vertical feet of the plots, raising the water table with it. So some of our paths are dug almost two feet deep and filled with wood chip to help drain away the water. It’s not as effective as proper field drains or gravel, but it’s free because our wood chip is delivered to the site by the council.

A second reason for timber frameworks is that on a slope, all our beds are effectively terraced and the soil needs to be contained to prevent it being washed off. The third and least convincing reason is that I’ve got a tidy mind, but I’m working on that one. The naysayers will shake their heads and tell me that wooden boards harbour slugs and that’s certainly true. Occasionally the slugs will lay waste to row of seedlings – except knowing that means we can take precautions. Unlike our rat traps which the rats have learned to spring without harm to themselves, slugs fare less well with the beer traps and we protect our vulnerable seedlings with them. Sadly the slugs are much more partial to rich malty and expensive brews than they are to Aldi’s cheapest. Yes wooden boards provide an ideal overwintering spot for slugs – you almost always find their pearly globular eggs somewhere there if you have a poke about.

But we don’t have a massive problem at all and the reason is almost certainly because slugs have their predators apart from humans. We’ve been puzzled in recent weeks by the fact that something has been systematically working its way along the borders, digging down into the wood chip alongside the gravel boards so neatly that it looks like they’d been hand weeded with a penknife. Each bed is 12′ x 4’6″ – so that’s 33 ‘ of board per bed and we have about twenty of them across the two half-plots. We had no idea what was doing it – rats and mice were among the suspects, until Madame spotted the culprit – a very tame first year (male) blackbird scratching down into the path and greedily eating slugs and their eggs. It’s just another bit of evidence that encouraging wildlife into the garden works wonders – toads, hedgehogs, birds, even foxes and (less helpfully) badgers, will all eat pests like slugs and snails – so slug pellets really aren’t as effective as the wildlife who come to the plot and work tirelessly and for free to clear our pests for us. Hoverflies, ladybirds and all the other invited guests pollinate our crops and decimate the opposition and, in the case of the blackbird, sit high in the trees and sing songs so beautiful it makes you want to weep. It’s just a matter of accepting that nature is a shared space and the less we muck about with it the happier we’ll all be. This will be the first year of the new pond which, without even touching it, is showing signs of coming to life with a bit of algae forming on the shallow surfaces. We’ve redesigned the beds and the planting plan to introduce many more tall, insect attracting perennials; and built a very safe hidden area under the water butts where a toad or a hedgehog might take up residence. There will be more flowers than ever, using vertical planting and interplanting to increase the diversity.

Beyond the allotment, our walks have been curtailed again by the new lockdown and so Mendip is off limits once more; but locally we’ve spotted a flock of long tailed tits in the trees near Sainsbury’s car park. Who says there’s no wildlife in the city? In the last few days we seen the herons, three or four cormorants who are immediately recognisable as they swim, because most of them is kept underwater, with just their long black necks and heads visible. They like to sit on the chimney pots of a converted grain store on the river and air their wings. I like to think of them warming their armpits in the hot air from the chimneys. There are wagtails, robins, blue tits and great tits – all common as muck just like us. The mallard are beginning to pair up and the several pairs of swans along the river and the canal are still together. We’ve got three kinds of gull – black headed, herring and lesser black backed; and there are kingfishers and even a pair of peregrines. We met a fellow member of the Bath Nats last week who has been watching them and he caught them in the midst of a mating display, plunging towards the ground together and breaking out like a red arrows display. Lucky man! Then there are sparrows – much rarer than they used to be – and many more. You could spend a happy day birdwatching within sight of the Abbey.

Then there are the otters. We’re desperate to see them but we haven’t been lucky. That will be a very special day indeed.

On the allotment today I finished building the experimental vegetarian hotbed (no shit!) , capped it off with compost and shoved a thermometer into the middle to keep an eye on the temperature. The ambient temperature is around 3C max at the moment and when I pulled the thermometer out of the oldest compost bin I was surprised to see that it’s still 9C – six degrees above ambient – and it looks very good, with plenty of worms and a lovely sweet smell. The last of the seed orders are trickling in along with warnings that it has become illegal to ship to Northern Ireland and the rest of Europe. Apparently DEFRA have no idea whether the exports will be allowed to re-start any time soon, but the big worry is that imports will be affected and the seed trade sources many varieties from European countries. Yet another reason to think seriously about seed sharing of local and traditional vegetable varieties. We noticed today that John Harrison – big time allotment blogger – has published a book on heritage varieties based around the wartime “dig for victory” theme. The writing’s on the wall!

Getting ready for Halloween

It’s not all gloom and doom on the allotment, in fact I’m not a very gloom and doom person – I’m melancholic, which is altogether different and a lot more creative. But lifting these big pumpkins had me as happy as could be and groaning loud enough to attract a small group of spectators on the footpath, and some ooohs and aaas as I staggered over to the wheelbarrow. We don’t have any means of weighing the big one, but compared with a 25K bag of sand, I’d say it was more like 30Kg – around 66lbs – far from the record breakers that need a fork-lift to move them, but very gratifying for us. We could have let them go on growing, but we need to get the soil prepped ready for the autumn, and the outbreak of larceny on the site has made us cautious about leaving them in full view. Pumpkins are as cheap as chips in the supermarkets, but big ones like this seem to attract thieves.

So we were clearing the decks today and heaping the bean vines on to the compost heap which is now groaning under the weight. At the beginning of the year I calculated that we’d have to fill the first bin four times to generate enough compost to cover the whole plot.  We haven’t managed four, but it’s been full to the top three times, and I’ll turn it all into the second bay next week and start again. The end bin that had autumn leaves in it has now rotted down into a fine mulch of about 1/3 the volume, and that’s the problem with our compost – it rots down so much that it’s reduced by as much as 2/3 during the process.  However it’s so rich and full of nutrients that it doesn’t need to be piled on thickly.  Earlier in the season I turned over the first full bin and it’s now more than perfect – it’s positively beautiful. But however carefully we sort and compost our paper, cardboard and green kitchen waste with the prunings and tops from the allotment there’s always a residue that needs to be more thoroughly dealt with.

We’ve thought long and hard about incineration and the numbers are quite complex. If we just put all the weeds and infected material on the compost heap it would not get hot enough to neutralize the pathogens or kill the seeds.  If the compost starts getting anaerobic it will produce methane, but even if it’s well managed and aerobic it will still produce CO2.  If it goes to a landfill site it will certainly be anaerobically rotted and so will produce methane and, in addition, the carbon cost of transporting it needs to be added in. So the carefully managed incinerator can’t be rejected out of hand, and the residual ash is a good source of potassium, nitrogen and phosphorous. The biggest problem with burning is the nuisance, inconvenience and smoke to nearby allotmenteers. If a well managed incinerator is allowed to get really hot to start the process, and then green material is added continuously to keep the process going, and then it should function for days with no more than a whisp of smoke and a little steam when wet material is added. In short there’s no completely green way of disposing of noxious and infected plants.  We’re not allowed to use the incinerator until 1st October in any case , but we’ve bagged up all the infected tomato vines and they’ll be disposed of on Tuesday.

We’ve also started thinking already about next season’s sowings, and the catalogues have just started to appear in the post box. With such a strange season we’ve seen several unexpected results, not least the way that the Mediterranean vegetables – the courgettes, peppers, aubergines and chillies have all done much better outside than in the (recently stolen) coldframes and the greenhouse. This may well be to do with their ability to root deeply and find water, and also the positive impact of freely circulating air, but it’s hard not to hold climate change partially responsible as well.  So our choice of what to grow is going to be affected by three factors next season, firstly the possibility of food shortages if brexit goes ahead, secondly trying to second guess the weather and finally the contribution of our 250 square metres to alleviating climate heating and insect extinctions.

Finally I took this photograph of a clutch of slug eggs today. They’re a pest, there’s no doubt, and yet they also perform a useful function on the allotment by eating dead plant material so we try to control them with beer traps, bait plants like Tagetes and picking them off when we see them. Their only total success this year was a row of carrots that were scythed off before they even got going. But that’s gardening for you!  As you see the eggs are laid on compost whereas white butterflies lay their eggs on leaves – I think there’s a bit of a clue there as to the slug’s favourite food. So if we don’t leave dead and decaying vegetable matter lying around near vulnerable plants the slugs will be less likely to visit.

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Aren’t these so beautiful?

How to discourage a hungry Gastropod

A lively exchange of emails after my last posting with my good friends and Potwell Inn regulars Kate and Nick who run a smallholding in the Brecon Beacons. Apart from establishing that they do have a Goose Arse apple tree on their patch, Kate was telling me about an experiment they are planning using birch tar to discourage the slugs and snails that are a constant problem on their allotment patch.

This year they were using sheeps’ wool which had some deterrent effect, Kate says.  They’ve got mountains of the stuff because the economics of sheep farming are frightening. Last year it cost £70 for shearing them and they made £3.81 for the wool. They’ve never made more than 50% of the shearing cost on the wool, and last year’s is stacked up in the barn with little hope of a return except by composting and digging it in to the bean trenches. The pictures show how Kate is experimenting with it as a means of slug control, but whichever way you look at it the hours and the expense of lambing, day to day feeding, abattoir fees, vet’s fees, and fencing can only represent a very poor return on investment. They do it because they love it but the hill farmers are almost all gone now because, in reality, you can’t do it without subsidising it yourself by working. I know buying woollen shirts won’t change the world, but it’s a great example of the way that our countryside is being deformed by our shopping habits.

Anyway, during the winter Nick will be attempting to make some birch tar from their plentiful supply of trees.  Over the years they’ve replanted hundreds of the native trees that would once have formed much of the landscape and they’re beginning to come to the point where some of the less long-lived can be harvested. Apparently the birch tar is waterproof, and when mixed with vaseline it can be smeared on fences (or perhaps raised bed boards) where it is effective for some weeks. This year we used nematodes on some of the beds, but it’s very expensive and in any case in such a dry season we didn’t have any real problems.  We also use ferrous phosphate when we’re forced to but none of us like – or can afford – any sort of chemicals, even when they’re approved for organic systems, but we have agreed to give the tar a try on our allotment. Kate wonders whether it would be better known if it really worked, but the licensing regulations are so stacked in favour of big pharma, smaller companies will never have the money or the facilities to test them to meet the regulations and so they’ll linger on as folk remedies. If it deterred foxes, badgers, rats, pigeons, cabbage white butterflies, carrot and onion flies and human browsers too it would definitely be a winner!