Natural – Wild – Ordinary

I photographed these lovely spring wildflowers today, all within a few yards of one another in the bottom of a hedgerow. So clockwise from the top there are Red Campion, Alexanders, Daisies and a Dandelion, a Lesser Celandine most of whose leaves are obscured by young shoots of Cleavers and probably Hedge Parsley, and finally some flowering Gorse. It seems a bit daft to talk about plants being happy, but these are definitely very happy indeed. Through long naturalisation in a setting and climate that suits them perfectly, they thrive in a way that most of us gardeners can ony dream of for our own produce.  Further up the same lane and outside a house there were Daffodils that stood out- I should say shouted out  as unnatural additions to the landscape.

Of the plants I photographed, Red Campion doesn’t seem to be edible but was once used to cure snake bites, and the roots contain saponin which has soap like qualities. Alexanders really is edible, especially when young, but I’ve never eaten it so I couldn’t say whether it tastes good. Daisies – not really, Dandelions make good salad leaves and the flowers make really good wine but I’d beware of collecting any flowers at dog level for obvious reasons, and I should point out that the local name from my part of the world used to be “pissabeds” – you can draw your own conclusions.  Dandelion roots were dried and toasted and used as a coffee subsitute during times of hardship and they’re probably best when only used in desperation. Lesser Celandine is also known as Pilewort due to the acrid sap which was used to shrink hemorrhoids and although I did read somewhere that the leaves are edible I think they look prettier and safer in the ground. Gorse smells heavenly, especially when it’s got the sun on it and the flower buds are reputely good to eat. So I guess if I had been foraging today I could easily have picked a few leaves and flowers and enjoyed eating them, but I’m pretty sure I’d have still been hungry when I got home.  Nature is not our servant and does not exist completely to furnish our needs and so it has always been a basic aim of agriculture and horticulture to improve, encourage and refine those essentials offered to us by the truly wild.

It’s hardly a pearl of wisdom to say that the farming landscape is far from  natural. Here in the UK – excluding the National Parks and wilderness areas – there is hardly any natural landscape left.  The total overuse of the word in advertising gives a clue to its power through appealing to our emotions. My usual retort to those who abuse it is to say foxgloves and arsenic are natural, as is oil and coal, but that doesn’t give them a free pass into general use. The word “wild” isn’t used nearly as much in advertising because its connotations are not so good at shifting product, and shifting product is what our greedy culture is all about.  The only exception to that is when the word can inflate the value of the product beyond measure.  One of my sons – a chef – once had to deal with a whole box of Pignuts, probably dug up from a pristine site and sold at ludicrous prices. Wild sells truffles but probably not dogs or cats; salmon and Ramsons but not Blackberries (unless you’re a highly specialized plant hunter who can distinguish between over 250 hybrids.

In fact farming, horticulture, and even allotmenteering are all attempts to improve on the natural and, in the case of extractive farming, to bludgeon nature into conforming to our greedy desires. The Potwell Inn and the allotment have heated propagators under electric daylight lamps. We have a greenhouse, a hotbed, cloches and fleece – all of which we use to persuade tender plants that the weather is better and the days are longer than they really are – and so we are able to grow tropical and subtropical crops, the like of which you would never encounter in any wild setting in this country. Some we win and some we lose, but I don’t think anyone would argue that aubergines, chillies, peppers, even the humble potato and runner bean, belong in the Flora Britannica.

Organic gardening (and farming) are a wise and timely attempt to mitigate the worst effects of industral farming – and I’m bound to say, of industrial overeating as well.  Permaculture goes a step further and tries to rely more heavily on perennials and, in essence, returning to a foraging lifestyle. Vegetarianism and veganism focus on achieving something of the same ends by focusing on and changing what we consume. Even the most traditional farmers are beginning to see the benefits and opportunities of locally sourced and sustainably produced foods. It’s crazy for those of us who care about the natural world to pick fights with one another and – rather like Brexit – spend our lives in pointless posturing and squabbling about minor doctrinal differences while industrial farming, environmental degradation and climate change go unchallenged.

A friend of mine was in a hospital visiting her uncle when she heard a commotion on the opposite side of the ward. A fierce family row had broken out across the bed, and my friend noticed to her dismay that the occupant had actually died. It was she who called for a nurse to attend to the deceased person, not the squabbling family.

I don’t need to labour the point of telling that story here, the parallels are all too painfully clear. But to finish on a brighter note, I know that many natural historians love to go after the rare specimens, but I want to put in a word for the ordinary. The ordinary is the bit we don’t notice because it’s there all the time – at least it used to be there all the time but now it’s disappearing because of our abusive relationship with the environment. So I want to campaign for the ordinary because that way it can’t disappear without anyone noticing. Recognising, naming and treasuring our wildflowers and native fauna is the most powerful way of energising the fightback against extinctions. The ordinary is special.

 

Still not Easter!

A word of reproach from carolee last night for re-using a photo from the beginning of February, and so – hot from the egg boxes – here are the potatoes we’re chitting (to the annoyance of the management company) under the window on the landing outside the flat. It’s just that the conditions are perfect for them there, cool and light, which means they don’t develop unmanageably long and straggly shoots as they search for the sun. Last year we stacked them in old mushroom boxes  and although they all planted out successfully some of the shoots had got a bit out of control. Short, stubby and vigorous is the aim.

I know many people say it’s not worth growing potatoes because they’re so cheap in the shops, but the market – especially for new potatoes – is shrinking because so many people are cutting down on carbohydrates in the hope of living for ever, and that means they may not be so available in the future especially if imported varieties fall foul of import tarriffs.

But there’s much more to it than price. This year we’re growing some Arran Pilots for no better reason than they were what my parents and my Grandfather always grew.  They’re by no means the best or the easiest variety to grow but I can’t get out of my memory of the exquisite flavour of the potatoes dug and taken straight to the kitchen where you could peel them with the flat of your thumb and eat them with butter. OK so that’s two major dietary transgressions on one plate, but hey, none of us is going to live forever really!

So this year we’re growing the Arran Pilots, Jazzy and Red Duke of York as first earlies, although the last of the three will develop into a brilliant large roasting potato if left in the ground. Then we’ve got Pink Fir Apple which make the best potato salad ever, no arguments and will also sit in the ground getting bigger. Finally there are Sarpo Mira maincrops which, being blight resistant, worked very well for us last season when we tried them for the first time. We grew them alongside Desiree and although the Desiree did better in the drought conditions, the flavour and texture of the Sarpos gave them the edge.

The potato bed will see the first major no-dig experiment because we’ve left it undug from last season – just cleared of weeds and mulched with a thick layer of compost topped with plastic sheeting. The plan is to plant them in holes and cover them with yet more compost and some heavy duty fleece to protect them from any late frosts. It’s a risk, but until we’ve tried it we won’t know whether the technique is worth pursuing. But suddenly the season seems to have turned and we’ve moved in a breath from preparation to the nurturing stage. Clearly there’s still loads of opportunity for the weather to bowl us some googlies, after all – until Friday it’s still late winter. But the smell of the earth is right, the birds are singing and the Potwell Inn is buzzing with energy!

And finally –

 

 

14th April 2016
Some work to do then

So finally, two years and ten months after we signed the agreement on this first plot, we finished laying out the beds and paths on the two plots combined (one each). What with changes in design and the inevitable mission creep along with learning from unforeseen problems it’s been a long haul, but one we’ve enjoyed enormously.

The last two beds and the hotbed along with their associated paths took most of the day but it’s finally cleared and composted and, assuming the no-dig regime continues to deliver, that’s it for us with digging. Tomorrow is the big push on finishing the compost bins and, if possible, starting to move the compost and its huge population of worms into new luxury quarters.

But not everything goes to plan, and the hotbed has unnaccountably stalled. There could be a number of reasons for this – for instance a lack of oxygen, or too low a proportion of carbon in the mix. Just in case oxygen was the problem I drilled a series of air inlets around the bed, and rodded through the manure to try to get some air in, but if it doesn’t heat up I’m going to have to remove the soil layer and mix some more carbon rich material into the manure. Just for luck I watered it with a liquid seaweed mixture to add some micronutrients to the brew.

Madame, meanwhile, was building supports around the broad beans and sowing French marigolds and nasturtiums which we use in quantity along with calendula for companion planting. This afternoon in full sun it was easy to believe that spring has actually arrived, but bear in mind that the ‘beast from the east’ came much later last year and we lost most of our runner beans to frost at the beginning of May.  There’s a real balancing act between sowing early and having space and weather to get the young plants safely into the ground.  If you get it wrong you land up nursing loads of suffering plants while you wait for the weather to improve.

Anyway, this recycling collection appeared on the pavement outside our block today and I was greatly amused to speculate on which of the tenants in our house lives entirely on pizzas. I’ll be keeping a sharp eye out for someone obviously suffering from beri beri.

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Suddenly, spring sneaked in and we’re rushing.

ff170491-9847-4193-bede-c05cf564d32cSome people might find even a slightly out of focus photo of a pile of poo a bit – well, rich first thing in the morning, but we at the Potwell Inn are made of sterner stuff and find it extremely cheering.  Most people send pictures of their winsome children or latest culinary triumph. Not so for people like us. This little pile is the beginnings of the new hotbed, nestling in the corner of my good friend Annie’s barn.  She’s dotty about horses. I’m less dotty about the animals themselves – (I once had a bad experience with a nasty natured beast called “Copper” who thought it would be amusing to scrape me off his back by galloping at a low branch), – I am however very attached to their by-products which are going to be converted this year to a wheelbarrow full of early salads, followed by the best crop of squashes ever seen anywhere. Annie is/was one of my parishioners back in the day – I took her wedding service, and she was reminiscing yesterday about the rehearsal when a policeman burst into the church, which was very remote and pretty much in the middle of a field, because he had spotted the cars outside and suspected a burglary was taking place. Now, of course, we live 20 miles away but we still keep in occasional contact. Especially when there’s manure involved!  This little pile is just one day’s output from her extremely well cared for horses so I’m expecting great things. How exactly I’m going to get it to the allotment in our tiny car is another matter. Hot, wet and richly smelly, oh my word – it puts a spring in my step.

But now the urgency of the new season is beginning to dawn on us.  There are still two raised beds to complete and I need to build the hotbed very soon indeed if I’m going to reap the benefits of all that bacterial heat. We’re almost into late winter. Early spring begins on March 1st – according to the Met Offce who have no truck with astrological signs and golden numbers. On top of that I need to build the official wormery and transfer all our lovely brandling into their new purpose built home.  Is it any surprise I don’t get enough time for reading and meditation?  Behind me, in my ‘office’ is the second propagator and later today I need to fill twenty or thirty modules with sowing mixture and set the thermostat to 25C so they can warm up and settle ready to be sown with this year’s chillies.  Last year was the first time we’ve ever tried to grow them and the habaneros failed completely so we’re still on a steep learning curve here. Early today I had an email to say that the spring planting onion sets have been despatched, and the seed potatoes won’t be many days later. If it weren’t for the cough I’d be doing pirouettes in the kitchen.

Allotmenteering can feel a bit relentless at times and it’s true, once you’ve tied yourself to a patch of land and even more a bunch of animals, you have to keep your head down. The seasons are very like the tides inasmuch as they flow unevenly.  There are slacks – we’re nearing the end of the midwinter slack now, and there will be another in high summer – but there are times when, like the Severn, the tide flows so fast you feel you’re in danger of being swept away. And yet you feel completely blessed at the same time. The Potwell Inn couldn’t exist without the huge network of friends, neighbours and well-wishers who have encouraged and supported us over the decades.  It may be a virtual pub but the regulars – that’s to say everyone I’ve ever met and worked with – are completely real, just anonymized a bit to protect their privacy.

This year’s awful spring – some stats.

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I compiled these statistics on 3rd April this year because my sceptical mind was making me curious as to whether the spring had been quite as wet as the newspapers were suggesting. Please look away now if you find this stuff boring, I wouldn’t blame you but for me it’s invaluable to look at the data before I start building the ark! There’s loads more on the site for non geeks!

These are the rain totals for Bath during Jan, Feb, March in mm

2007 4, 65, 97, 172.7

2008 183, 55, 119, 358.4

2009 No data

2010 62, 104 , 41, 208.3

2011 58, 58, 13, 129.6

2012 38, 30, 31, 100.4

2013 68, 17, 56, 142.6

2014 97, 77, 44, 219.2

2015 71, 41, 23, 136.6

2016 No data

2017 49, 42, 41, 133,

2018 91, 24, 101, 216.8,

So the median figure is 139.6mm and the average is 181.8.

Allowing for some missing data from 2009 and 2016 I think this shows that the year so far has been the third wettest since 2007; higher than average and much higher than the mean for the first three months. Which all goes to show that it’s wet, but not by any means biblically wet, just part of life’s rich tapestry! The figure for 2008 is interesting because that turned out to be a year of awful summer floods, and you can see that the ground was already saturated only to be drenched by heavy rain in August.

The Met Office data give the monthly averages as 82, 53 and 63mm giving a total of 199.4mm and that covers 1981 – 2010; so by that standard this spring is pretty average.

And so the traditional planting of potatoes on Good Friday begins to look a bit shaky because Easter Day can be any one of 35 possible days between March 22nd and April 25th and Good Friday could be any time from 19th March and 23rd April which covers a multitude of weather possibilities.

Wouldn’t it be sensible to plant potatoes some time around the second week of April which should see us free of frost before the shoots emerge?

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Well that bold statement in April didn’t anticipate the “Beast from the East” a month later, and which felled our first planting of runner beans on May 1st. However the spuds we sufficiently underground to survive the onslaught. Here’s my diary entry for 16th April:

“Finally, after lunch I set out the rows for the potatoes (“measure twice, cut once”) and set about planting. I got the Sarpo Mira, the Desiree and the Pink Fir Apple in but then I ran out of space. In the plan I’d allocated twice as much space, but the purple sprouting and the other brassicas are still occupying the adjoining patch so the Jazzy and the remains of the Red Duke of York are going to have to go in one of the new beds on 168B. Still, it was a brilliant day and we achieved a lot. Now I ache in every bone and sinew and tomorrow I have to start all over building a new bed and path, digging the whole piece and fertilising it and then planting the remaining potatoes. But at least they’ll all be in.

The water level in the the trial hole next to the Lord Lambourne apple has dropped by two inches and the bottom is almost dry, so that’s great news and takes some of the pressure off. [Madame} has also been busy weeding so the plots are looking very good.”

While I’m on the subject of spring, it’s worth talking also about springs.  The allotment stands at the bottom of the Avon Valley, overlooked by the southern end of the Cotswolds. So in wet weather there’s a great deal of water heading in the direction of the river.  The old timers on the site tell me that there are three underground streams crossing it and there’s certainly evidence of one of them which flows across the pavement and on to the main road.  I’m wondering whether our plots are near the course of one of them, which is good news and bad news depending on the season. As the photo of the trial hole shows, waterlogging is a real problem and so I hope all the remedial measures will help a bit otherwise we’ll be looking at more expensive options like land drains.