The stars dispose but do not compel

It was Beth Chatto, whose motto – “right plant, right place” – came to mind as we walked past the Bath Quays development yesterday. Some years ago the river bank was reshaped into terraces in advance of new building on the north side of the river, The terraces were rather expensively covered with wildflower matting – coir impregnated with seeds, I imagine to honour the fashionable spirit of the wild. The earth; much disturbed and turned over by archaeologists and heavy machinery and then covered with topsoil yielded a single fine crop of wildflowers last seen growing together on a film set before the thugs moved back and put the newcomers in their place. True, a few have survived but the dreams of the planners would surely have taken a dive if they ever came back to look at their creation. There used to be a building company in Swindon, from memory, ironically named “Bodgit and Scram” – you get the picture. Creative landscape designers are rarely confronted with the difference between glossy brochures and living earth.

Some of the plants, however, didn’t disappear; they just took a walk down the road and found somewhere more suited to their natural habitat. The Vipers Bugloss in the picture is one of the more attractive ones which, while not normally seen in this part of the world outside gardens, has set up a squatters’ camp alongside the road amongst the rubble and clutter of an earlier utopian dream.

If you want to make a nature reserve you can either buy some expensive land and spend shed loads of money on it or – as this little paradise suggests – put up a temporary fence around a bit of unloved and rubble filled earth awaiting “development” and go away for a couple of years. In this case the inevitable Buddleias came along, with bindweed and all the other early risers; and with them came butterflies – who’d have thought it? – and then some of the other escapees from the designed wild like yarrow and campions; some nice vetches, oxeye daisies, poppies and so forth.

It should (but probably won’t) remind us that just as you can’t create a community by building a community centre, so you can’t rewild the city centre with a coir mat and seeds from somewhere in Europe. Beth Chatto’s “right plant right place” applies as much to rewilding as it does to gardens and allotments. The Potwell Inn allotment has had many areas enriched by mountains of leaf mould, manure and compost. But the places where we’ve planted the lavenders and mediterranean herbs had to have their rich clay/loam topsoil removed and replaced with something more akin to stone soup to borrow a metaphor from the kitchen. And, of course the harsher environment suits them very well.

The “weeds” that were expensively doused in weedkiller back along the river walk are now recovering slowly, and happily the patch of greater celandine seems to have been missed altogether. Within a few weeks, I hope, the ragwort, herb Robert, nipplewort and dandelions will shake themselves and get back into the business of being wild in the city. Rewilding doesn’t so much require committees and designers as it needs nurturing what’s already found its place on the pavement. The real challenge is to teach more people to love weeds and nurture their vital role in the great scheme of things.

If I throw a stick will you go away?

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  • Atiyah,
  • Brendan,
  • Ciara,
  • Dennis
  • Ellen, 

Hold on a minute – where’s Ellen gone? demands the Great British Public and, as ever, the Daily Express has the answer – those dastardly Spaniards have got in first,. However, we shall fight them on the beaches etc etc and we assured by the Met Office that the next one will be called Ellen; it will be an exclusively British storm even if it is out of sequence with the others.  That’ll show ’em who’s boss then!

But seriously, this relentless stream of storms is a complete pain in the azores and I wonder whether the problem could be solved by giving up naming them. After all you shouldn’t ever give names to the animals you’re planning to eat because it makes the whole business of despatching them that much harder and so they hang around like Marley’s ghost, well past their best-by date .  I’m sure the storms are queueing up for no better reason than rather enjoying being dignified by names and so the government should stop naming them forthwith, thereby making the weather better and ending the climate crisis at a stroke.

For many people it’s not been much more than a news story, but if you’re a farmer or a gardener or allotmenteer, or especially if you live near the many affected rivers this February, the wettest since records began, and the second record breaker in ten years (remember all that stuff about one in a hundred years events?), it has been a heartbreaker as well.  On the allotment site, the plots are telling their own story. The unused grass covered plots are looking alright, the established ones are just about holding the water at bay; but the first timers who’ve stripped off the grass and weed cover but not had time to dig and improve the soil – it’s an easily poached clay loam, pH around 7, so neutral but quite shallow in places with an impervious clay substrate – these plots are waterlogged, sometimes with standing surface water.   The fields alongside the river, even those several feet above the water level, are like lakes. Farmers are desperate to get on to the land but heavy machinery would just make things worse.

New allotmenteers come on to the site, many of them having determined on the no-dig system, without realizing that it takes several years of digging, draining and intensive weeding and manuring or composting before the spade can be retired. Sadly for them they quickly become disillusioned and give up.  Allotmenteering has many disappointments but after a couple of years you get to know the ground and its foibles and the rewards soon outweigh the cost in backaches and setbacks. We’ve got a bookcase full of gardening advice that we’ve collected over the years (decades!) but the best teacher is often the person on the next plot – because they’ve faced the same problems that you’re facing  – and of course personal experience is the best teacher of all. I’ve lost count of the times I’ve been ticked off for doing something the ‘wrong way’ – and yet most of the time things work out.  It’s like parenting – no one starts off with any skills, we all make awful mistakes and yet, somehow, most children emerge in something approaching maturity in spite of us. So do allotments.

Today, here in Bath intervals of blue sky alternated with horizontal snow flurries, driving sleet and rain and freezing winds.  We went and checked out the plot and the hotbed is doing well, running at a constant 20C, the unheated greenhouse was steady at 10C and the soil temperature was around 5C – so apart from the wet, a pretty normal day in early spring.

I spent a sleepless night endlessly rehearsing how I am going to join all the bits of the water storage system together – you wouldn’t believe how many permutations you can discover in a single hour, wide awake in the dark. I’ve had a lifelong tendency to overcomplicate solutions; trying to cover every possible eventuality as if I were playing chess and so I gave myself a day off today and did some therapeutic cooking, and if there’s a decent programme on the television that doesn’t involve any psychopathic murderers I’ll watch the idiot’s lantern.  Otherwise it’ll be back to the books.

Doing the right thing is so much fun

 

OK – so bare ground isn’t very photogenic, but this is a most enjoyable part of the allotment year because all the while we’re clearing last season’s crops, weeding and covering the ground with compost and a winter coat we’re chatting away about what went well, what went badly and what we’ll sow next season. The new seed catalogues are dropping into the postbox almost every day now and after three full seasons getting to grips with a new kind of soil we’ve got a much better idea what will work and what won’t. We’ve moved from a very difficult but typical Cotswold mixture of stone and clay, to a clay loam that – in its pristine state – balls up easily in a sticky mess.

In addition, we’ve watched the way our patch of land behaves over three full years.  We’ve dug drains to conduct the worst of the water away; we’ve raised beds to get them above the water table because we’ve got an underground stream passing right beneath the allotment – you can see the water flooding across the pavement below after heavy rain. I suppose it’s a good thing to have some extra soil moisture in the hottest weather, but most plants don’t enjoy having wet feet for weeks on end.  The strategies we’ve employed –  draining, raising soil levels, adding organic matter to hold the surplus and adding some grit to improve water flow have all had some beneficial effects.  By keeping careful notes of the way the sun tracks across the allotment over a year, we now understand that we get full sun (when there is any) for part of every day between the spring and autumn equinoxes.  We also know where the frost will settle and we’ve even devised a few strategies for holding the cold air back or diverting it around.  We know where the bad wind and the good rain come from and which direction is full of threat to our grapevines.

Today we decided to move some lavender bushes to a border which was previously full of camomile.  The camomile was greatly overshadowed by taller herbs which inhibited its flowering, so this afternoon I lifted as many plants as I could and then topped up the bed with a mixture of 50.50 topsoil and horticultural grit which will suit the lavender much better and attract many pollinators to the edge of the allotment where, hopefully, we’ll lure them in with other plants.

While I was prepping the borders and tending the incinerator, Madame was sowing broad beans and planting onions and shallots. Obviously most of the sowing goes on in the spring, but beans, peas, garlic onions and shallots all tolerate or even appreciate a bit of a cold spell, and with a bit of luck give us an early crop.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen we cooked another veggie meal from Jamie Oliver’s new book and I lashed up a roasted tomato, onion and garlic soup for tomorrow’s lunch. This was the second meal from the same book this week.  On Monday I cooked a white risotto with roasted tomatoes and today Madame made an aubergine curry. Both recipes were delicious – doing the right thing really is more fun. If I’m honest I started this year with an instinctive dislike of both aubergines and courgettes, but during our exploration of vegetarian food we’ve found ways of cooking them that I really like. There’s something about the range of colours, flavours and textures available from vegetables that makes my previous commitment to meat eating much easier to leave behind than I ever expected. I haven’t spent hours daydreaming about bacon sandwiches, and nothing would induce me to use meat substitutes which are, like it or not, industrial foodstuffs.  I did make a veggie burger once with rice and beetroot to make it look like real meat – it was the most tremendous faff and didn’t taste very nice anyway. But even that didn’t taste nearly as bad as the vegan cottage pie from a National Trust cookbook. I think if vegetarian cooking is ever going to be mainstream, it needs to put all thoughts of imitating meat dishes completely to one side.  My biggest reservation is the widespread lack of basic cooking skills. Not knowing what to do and having very little time and, in many small flats – almost no cooking facilities, is driving people  into the dubious hands of the industrial producers of ready meals.

We’re nowhere near fully vegetarian yet, but the prospect of moving in that direction is more attractive than it’s ever been, and growing our own vegetables has given us a huge push in that direction.  When we were both working full time we could never have given either the garden or the kitchen the attention we do now. Tomorrow there’s rain forecast so we’ll deliver the pumpkin to our grandchildren and collect a new battery for the campervan. Not much sitting around and reading is going on at the Potwell Inn!

Mind you, sometimes our unglamorous lives has its compensations.  Two friends have just returned from the holiday of a lifetime in Japan where they watched the first three World Cup matched played by Wales while all the time expecting the arrival of a typhoon.  Then they travelled on to Hong Kong where the riots inhibited their sightseeing.  We just watched the council mend a hole in the road outside – very cheap and nobody got hurt.

At last! the seed order

IMG_4796And there’s three pages of it, which sounds a bit excessive, but it’s a boiling down of all our previous seasons; garden visits (especially Heligan); conversations with other allotmenteers; oveheard radio and TV programmes and not least, many happy hours poring over the seed catalogues; googling; and the odd blind gamble. As the photo demonstrates, we’ve already got half packets of some of the varieties we intend to grow – even after this week’s purge of out-of-date ones, so a little of the expenditure is spread over from last year and not included.

What are the other costs of allotmenteering, then? Well, the rents come to £93.36 for our two half-plots. Last year’s other big expenditure was composted manure while we get our own operation up to speed and that cost about £200.  We’ll probably spend the same again this year as we build up the soil.  Add to that the cost of gravel boards, posts, pegs and the other materials required to make the beds and you can see that allotmenteering is by no means free. That’s the bit the coffee table books don’t tell you about when they sell the dream, but you have to see all this as a long-term investment. Nets, cloches and tools can last for years and so if we look after them we can write down much of this expenditure over the next decade.

This year we used five different seed suppliers.  It’s always worth checking what they’re charging and how many seeds there are in a packet.  Even the cost of postage can vary widely between companies so once you’ve decided what to grow, shop around for the best deal. Don’t leave ordering too late because some vegetables – especially the heritage varieties, but even those that just get a mention in an influential forum, will run out.

We’ve spent decades trying to garden on some pretty awful soil.  The last big garden was further up the Cotswolds on cornbrash which was quite productive but there was no real depth of soil and huge amounts of loose limestone rocks.  I remember chatting to the gravedigger one day (we lived next to the churchyard), and he said that if he had to dig in a spot where there was no access for machinery it could take an hour to dig an inch. It certainly felt that way when you pulled up the turf to break a new patch and took almost all the topsoil off with its roots. That was our first experience of raised beds and we got lucky.  The boards were free, courtesy of a builder who was renovating an old chapel and allowed us to take away all the floorboards. I knew a lorry driver who worked for a quarry company and I asked if he ever came across any topsoil.  I drove back to the house one day and found him with an enormous tipper lorry dropping off about 30 tons of lovely soil.  Then, in a similar vein, I asked a farm contractor if he could lay his hands on a bit of manure and a similar quantity was dumped outside our front door, (and very rich it was!).

Here on the allotments we’re much more fortunate with more than a foot of rich alluvial  clay/loam topsoil that’s capable of growing almost anything it seems, but is inclined to get waterlogged – hence all the organic material.

But is it worth it? We’re certainly out all weathers, and it can be hard physical work at times, so no gym subscription needed.  But the clincher is that we reckon the value of our produce exceeds the cost of producing it by at least 10:1 so long as you’re prepared to discount the value of your own labour and call it pleasure. If you think of the cost of organic vegetables and then add the bonus of having them so fresh they taste better than anything you can buy, and then the combination of tangible and intangible value makes allotmenteering a no-brainer.

I can see a clear blue sky through the window this morning and that means we can get out into the fresh air and maybe create two more beds for the overwintering broad beans we’ve started under glass. Last year we had very little sucess with freezing runner and French beans, but the broad beans froze well and taste miles better than the shop-bought ones. Is it worth it? See for yourself.

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