Well let’s be clear, I’m not an expert – not in any of the subjects that I write about in these posts. All 624,378 words – if strung together – would probably not represent enough expertise to grow a hyacinth in one of those glass thingamajigs. In fact the whole idea of being regarded as some kind of guru fills me with horror. This blog isn’t about sharing expertise, it’s about the endlessly puzzling business of being conscious and trying to make some kind of sense of it. My best hope is that I can share some of the little epiphanies that unexpectedly arrive in the course of gardening, cooking, baking, pickling and fermenting , walking and botanising; oh – and loving of course.
The photo is of the asparagus bed – covered for the winter; the garlic which I finished planting out from November pots yesterday and the new strawberry bed (the longer of the two) which I dug out entirely and added four barrow loads of wood chip; then replaced the soil and a layer of compost. Wood chip makes a good substrate when there’s not enough soil to raise a bed; but it rots down quite fast so needs replacing every year or so. I know that the experts say wood chip can acidify the soil but we use it for paths, mulch and raising beds with no discernable ill effects. The strawberries – which are all offsets from the original six special offer plants, have overwintered in the polytunnel.
The smaller of the wooden raised bed is the old hotbed which we’re not heating this year because of fears of persistent vermicides in the stable manure we used to use. So it’s got four foot of first class topsoil in which we have grown lovely carrots but to rotate this season it’ll be cucumbers or squashes. I’ve now got a tremendous backache!
Bright sunshine, frogspawn, daisies and a small tortoiseshell butterfly bathing in the sun. We’re out on the allotment every day and the flat is full of seedlings as the propagators encourage them into dangerously precocious growth under artificial lights. That’s the easy bit. Keeping them all alive and thriving for the next few weeks is a harder job altogether.
Every year we suffer from traffic jams for the simple reason that plants get bigger and we’re left trying to find space near a warm window to compensate for the move out of the ITU. The slow procession from the propagators to the ground on the allotment is one of the absorbing challenges of gardening. We’re always trying to steal a march on nature by persuading our late January chilli seeds that it’s really May in the tropics – i.e. warm, humid and with a constant 12 hours of sun – which, being a first floor flat in Bath requires a degree of cunning coupled with a few bits of kit. But once the plantlets move from their snug beginnings into our living room. the only thing they’ve got going for them is the fact that we have three large south facing windows; the spring equinox is only three weeks away and as long as we keep the room temperature at around 21C they seem to do well. We, on the other hand. soon reach the point where for two months we can’t close the shutters because they’re behind a wall of green.
However, with the polytunnel up and running (I put up a large suspended shelf yesterday), the progression will be propagator – living room – unheated hallway – greenhouse – polytunnel – and then wherever they’re intended to grow. It’s hardening off at a glacial timescale but happily it works for us.
I was pondering all this in the week when we happened to watch a TV programme on Cornish fishermen and I realized that, just like them, 90% of our skill (if we have any) is in obsessively reading weather forecasts, looking at the sky, feeling the temperature of the earth, flaring our nostrils in the late winter air and being willing to venture it all on a kind of informed hunch that this is the moment. We like to pretend that we’re flowing with the Tao, but our unspoken purpose is to beat the Tao at its own game. One year in four we win some; but then a late frost or an unexpected snowstorm gives us a massive reproachful slap and our humility knows no bounds. Winter and spring are locked in a battle over custody of the weather and they can both be spiteful. The balmy protective warmth of the greenhouse can become both freezer or furnace in the few hours snatched to go for a walk without opening/closing the doors. The tunnel is an unknown quantity in terms of its response to the weather, but we already know that the protection offered by warmer nights as the soil radiates back its stored heat can be followed by a temperature rise to 25 C in the morning sun – even with a cool wind blowing.
We’re so busy at the moment that it’s hard to find an hour to write, and I’m writing this with one ear on the sounds from the kitchen where Madame is potting out tomato seedlings. Later I’ll be turning the compost bins again, ready for a new start in a couple of months. We’re not yet self-sufficient in compost and neither do we have the amount of land we’d need to grow crops just for composting. I think John Jeavons, living in a country where space is plentiful, underestimates the challenge. So we buy in composted horse manure and also hot fresh manure in normal times – so not this year. But with anything bought-in there’s a risk of chemical residues than can harm tender plants or soil life like worms – and so we’re careful but we have to accept that we don’t garden in a perfect world.
With the big civil engineering projects on the allotment all finished – pond, irrigation and water storage and the tunnel are complete – we’re back to delightful pottering. More later – as my old friend Joan Williams would have said – God willing and a fair wind!
The window boxes looked so pretty today we decided to plonk them down beside the pond which, besides having a couple of aquatic plants literally chucked in has had nothing done to it since I dug it. We’ve spent so much time at the allotment that we get more pleasure from the early flowers where they are, than we would in the windows back at the Potwell Inn where they’re supposed to be.
The promised warm spell arrived yesterday, and so I checked the various soil temperatures. The open ground is at 10C – just below ambient, but gradually warming as the weather improves. The hotbed was miraculously running at 17C which, considering there’s no horse manure at all in it, shows what can be done with hay, woodchip and urine. Even the soil in the polytunnel has crept up to 12C after a couple of days with the cover on. The air temperatures were respectively outside 10C, greenhouse 14C until the sun got up; but the tunnel raced up to 25C while I was putting compost on the beds. I think we’re on a steep learning curve as we try to understand how the tunnel behaves, and this is the most dangerous time of the season because things go from boom to bust so quickly.
All day there were a dozen or more allotmenteers busy on the site. It’s more like a small village than anything else I can think of. We have gossip and sharing and all manner of dynamics going on – even while socially distanced – and for many of us this has been our sole human contact over the past year. Through the winter it’s been really quiet but today, lured by the sunshine, many more people showed up and started preparing for spring which, in meteorological terms is only a few days away on March 1st. Being a traditionalist I prefer the equinox because it’s that bit closer to the reliably warm spring weather. Tonight, for instance, with clear skies the temperature is likely to go down to freezing.
But the warm sunshine is more than welcome. The purple sprouting broccoli which looked all but dead last week has come roaring back to life and given us our first feed. For me that first taste is as good as the first cut of the asparagus; sweet and tender in a way that should make supermarket broccoli bow its head in shame.
When we got home we had a chat and we’ve decided to plant out the forty broad bean plants in the tunnel in case the overwintered ones aren’t much good. I have to say, though, they’re all tillering away like mad. I think they mostly make good roots during the winter months, ready to grow rapidly in spring. Having gone to all the trouble of building the tunnel we want to make maximum use of it before the tender plants go out in mid May.
So we’re as happy as could be. Tomorrow we’ll also be preparing the potato bags and they’ll begin life undercover to get the earliest possible crop.