You can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family – even carrots know that.

I intended to write a piece today about the pleasures of browsing the little treats on the allotment. Strawberries are the most obvious one; the moment they ripen we eat them straight off the plants so they never make it home. But there are others too. The picture on the left is of the impressively large seeds of Sweet Cicely which taste marvellous straight off the plant. It’s one of those plants that contain natural sweeteners, and we usually put some flowers, leaves or seeds into the rhubarb while it’s cooking. It adds a useful amount of sweetness and a delicious aniseed flavour. Foraging on the allotment is a great way of putting some of the plants we normally call weeds to good use. Nettles, dandelions, Good King Henry are all good to eat when young and the pot marigolds make good skin cream as well as the flowers being edible. Nasturtiums to can be pressed into service to brighten up a salad.

But that’s on the allotment where we’re sure what it is we’re eating. Beyond the safety of the allotment there are a multitude of temptations, some of which can even kill us if we’re not entirely sure of the species. I was reminded of this yesterday on our riverside walk when I spotted this beauty growing out of the steel piles that were driven into the river bed to contain the regular floods. It took a moment to realize that it was hemlock water dropwort, the seeds of which must have insinuated themselves into a crack in the wall during one of those floods. Normally it grows in swathes on the banks of streams and rivers – mainly in the West Country. I think it’s beautiful when in flower; like a starburst of white; but it’s a killer if you should eat any part of it.

Compared with the flowers of sweet Cicely on the right, they can look quite similar to a beginner.

The carrot family, as it’s now known, used to be called the umbellifers because of the distinctive flower heads, but the family name was changed because there are lots of unrelated species that also have umbels – think of elderflower which is almost ready to pick now for cordials. The carrot family has some of our most useful food plants as well as some very nasty country cousins and, as a family they need to be treated with respect by foragers. They’re not always easy to identify, but usually leaves, height, season, local plant lists which you can download for every area of the UK from the BSBI, and habitat give us a good start. Just as not all dandelions are really dandelions at all, so there are wild edible carrot family members like Alexanders or Herb Gerard (which I’ve still never eaten because I’m still wary). Like fungus hunting, learning from a skilled guide – i.e. not me – is a useful investment.

Meanwhile back on the allotment things are quite literally hotting up with the weather closer to June averages and the polytunnel full. We’ve seen the tomatoes starting to set fruit, and there are peppers and chillies all fattening up already. Today we treated most of the beds with slug killing nematodes and there’s barely a square foot of empty ground. We try to avoid the worst of the heat by skipping breakfast and watering as early as possible – good for the plants and the waistline too. Plants are afoot for another field trip to catch up with some old (plant) friends on the West Coast so it’s all hands to the pumps at the Potwell Inn.

Perennials – the gift that goes on giving

Sweet Cicely emerging

I know the history of this plant because I picked a pocket full of seeds one day on a long walk with friends near the top of Nidderdale, Yorkshire, somewhere close to Pateley Bridge. Sweet Cicely grows wild everywhere in Yorkshire but hardly at all down where we live in the South West. In fact it even appeared in a TV thriller the other night when a London based forensic botanist, no less, told detectives that they should look for an allotment to find the murder scene along with the sweet cicely that had found its way onto the shoes of the deceased.

Back home, I sowed the harvested seeds in the ground immediately and nothing happened. I tried sowing some more again in pots and still nothing. I even ordered a packet in the misguided hope that because I’d paid for them they’d be more likely to work. They didn’t either. Then I read something about the seeds needing to undergo a prolonged period of cold – known as vernalisation – so I picked the last few survivors out of my coat pocket with all the associated fluff and bunged them into the fridge inside a vitamin tablet bottle and then forgot about them for a couple of months. When I remembered them I sowed them in another pot and before long there were half a dozen seedlings which I duly planted in the perfect spot on the allotment. By the next morning slugs had eaten all but two – at which point I gave up with tears in my eyes until several weeks later a blob of furled green appeared from under a water butt and there it was – alive and surprisingly vigorous. Over the next two seasons it grew larger and larger and our neighbour said he’d grown it once and it had become a nuisance.

So why – apart from the delightful name – did I so want to grow it? Well, simply because it’s ready at the same time as early rhubarb and, added to the cooking liquid it adds sweetness and a faint aniseed flavour to my favourite pudding. Every year it thrives and then dies back completely, appearing again in early spring. The photo was taken today and I can’t tell you how pleased we were to see it.

Out on the green, the buds on the trees are beginning to open – no surprise there I suppose, they’re doing what trees always do in the spring. But they’re not opening for us. Their annual cycle seems one step removed from us, however beautiful it may be because, with exception of the elders whose flowers and fruits we’re grateful to harvest, we lead slightly parallel lives.

Two weeks ago during the last big storm, a whole branch split off from one of the largest trees on the green. The brash and cordwood was rapidly sawn up and taken away by a homeless man who lives in a bender on the river – so I guess it was a gift for him. But suddenly the remaining trunk became our trunk. It was almost continually occupied by resting people for the first week and then it was dragged across the green to a new position where it’s been in use as a seat and exercise bench ever since. The Council had started to put benches out on the green but a coalition of nimbies started a petition alleging that seats would encourage antisocial behaviour and the plan was dropped. Curiously, until now, we’ve had parties – at least three of them organised by the petitioners – machete attacks, domestic violence, drug dealing and dogging without the aid of any seats at all. Free street theatre – what’s not to like? I hope the tree trunk isn’t dragged off by the police as a threat to public safety!

Back on the allotment the reappearance of the perennials is always a cause for celebration and gratitude. This period of early spring can be hard work, but the perennials come back for us year after year without our doing anything very much at all. We cut them back in the winter, put a marker cane in and for a while the allotment looks very bare – and then we start look forward to seeing them in March. Today the first two shoots of asparagus finally appeared. I wandered around the plot photographing all our old friends as they break through the warming soil or burst into bud. Our unstoppable collection of mints is coming through; the strawberries are looking hearty in the tunnel; the fruit bushes are all in leaf now and looking perky after their winter under mulch and a spring feed of organic fertilizer; our apple trees are all breaking buds; autumn raspberries are pushing through their covering of leaves like the resurrected villagers in Stanley Spencer’s painting of Cookham churchyard. The hollyhocks are racing away – often in places we didn’t put them; French sorrel, rhubarb, rosemary, fennel, chives and marjoram are all up again; the overwintering parsley is starting to bulk up, lovage too is pushing out of the ground with its pink stalks. We scan the ground looking for any self-seeded angelica but we’ve got a tray of seedlings just in case. Summer wouldn’t be the same without their giant presence in the borders – I could go on but you get the point. These perennials are the backbone, the continuity members of the community of allotment plants. The best planned allotment in the world would be a poor thing if it had to start from scratch every year.

Our perennials are the old friends we haven’t seen since before the lockdown and my goodness it’s good to greet them, to pick a leaf and remember their taste and fragrance. Last year’s apple harvest was a bit of a disappointment with only the ribstone pippin producing prolific quantities of slightly scabby fruit which we ate anyway. A year on and the row of five apples in our ultra mini-orchard look all the better for their winter rest and we think a hard pruning has done them the world of good. As ever we’re interplanting nasturtiums among the fruit trees, and we hope the grease bands will discourage at least some of the moths.

That’s my 1000 words, then. It’s stopped raining and as soon as Madame finishes her drawing we’ll be out again. I’ve waxed my walking boots for the umpteenth time in hope and anticipation of being freed on Monday to finish walking the West Mendip Way. It’s always better to live hopefully than to get old and sour. (That was a note to self btw!)

Sweet Cicely again.

Here at the Potwell Inn we’re beginning the sixth week of our lockdown because we started a little earlier than the Government. There have been many moments of doubt, but on the whole it’s been a positive experience because it’s affirmed the choices we’ve already  made over the years about the way we live. So baking, for instance hasn’t come as a new skill, nor has gardening or cooking. We hardly ever ate out; we gave up going abroad when we retired because we couldn’t really afford it any more. The biggest changes due to the lockdown have been the clean plates. We’ve eaten well but carefully and because we’re cooking smaller portions we finish it all. That’s it really.  The cleaner air, the absence of traffic and noise have been an absolute bonus. The biggest loss has been the fact that we can’t use the campervan and so a whole missing season of walking, botanising, mountains and seaside  therapy  has left a huge gap in our lives and we’ll never stop yearning for France. So far as I’m concerned that really doesn’t add up to saintly renunciation.

My biggest concern – it’s becoming an obsession – is that the covid 19 pandemic has displaced almost every other issue in public life.  I feel like the cartoon character with a billboard that proclaims the end is nigh! – people laugh, dismiss my concerns and take a wide berth; but the smallest glimpse at history teaches that civilisations and cultures really do come to an end when they are overwhelmed by their contradictions and overreach themselves. When Thomas Cromwell appropriated the wealth of the monasteries they were already well on their way to collapsing. The supply of peasant labour that kept the farms going was beginning to dry up and many of the monks were far from home, collecting rents.  The fabulous wealth of the church was ripe for the picking, it had become spiritually bankrupt and far too interested in projecting political power. It was Cromwell who had the cunning plan.

But when the prevailing ideology of a civilisation or culture is exposed as bankrupt, unworkable, fraudulent or downright dangerous it’s only a matter of time before it collapses.  That’s a fact of history, not a prediction for the future. This isn’t a long holiday paid for by the state, but it may be a moment in an historical earthquake. Climate change, economic collapse and species extinctions are not going to take a furlough while the politicians get the old, damaged economy back on its feet. The only question is – do we want to do survival the hard way or the catastrophic way? 

All of which gloomy thoughts have provoked me to write about Sweet Cicely because whatever the future, these precious weeds will have a part in it. Welcome to the Potwell Inn windowsill which is pressed into service as a greenhouse, a source of free light and heat and an entertainment centre through which we can watch the world even though we’re confined – aside from daily trips to the allotment. I’d long wanted to grow it because it’s an early riser like rhubarb and its natural sweetness and faintly aniseed flavour make the perfect companion to it. The best culinary herbs are often not the ones that shout at you like a trumpet in a Sicilian marching band. They’re more subtle – so much so that you only notice their absence and not their presence. So yesterday we gathered both and cooked them, and the addition of a few Sweet Cicely leaves makes an indefinable but profound difference, adding depth. Home grown rhubarb straight out of the ground is marvellous anyway, but this way it’s even better.

I spoke of it, just then, as a weed – and, in Yorkshire for instance, that’s what it is – as common as Cow Parsley is down here in the South West. Our plants had a difficult beginning. I actually bought some seeds three years ago, shoved them into some seed compost and waited – nothing happened. Did I ever write about the RTFM notice? Years ago I worked in a satellite radio station where there was a large notice written over the desk.  “In the event of equipment failure RTFM” I asked an engineer one day what it meant. “Read the manual” he replied tartly.

So after the Sweet Cicely had sulked for a very long time I read the manual and it appeared that they were tricky little devils to germinate because they needed a period of cold (vernalization).  So into the fridge they went, pots and all, in a plastic bag where I forgot all about them. Later we went to see friends in Yorkshire and there were plants growing absolutely everywhere – like weeds – in Nidderdale, where we were. So I grabbed a handful of the interestingly large seeds, shoved them in my pocket until we got home and then I put them into pots and left them outside without much hope. Up they sprang and I planted them into a corner where I thought they couldn’t do too much harm and that was that. Eventually I remembered the ones in the fridge and sunk the little pots into a bigger one and left them outside on the allotment where they too germinated. I can definitely confirm that once they’ve got their roots down they are completely worthy of their weedy reputation just as they are worthy of a place on any allotment – just for the rhubarb, although the green seeds are also delicious and have a lot of potential for cooking.

The other two plants on the windowsill were Dill and Lovage – also early risers on the allotment. Dill is just wonderful (in small amounts) added to parsley in a fish pie; and Lovage is a marvellous addition to any vegetable stock (oh and in Pimms too). In the trug yesterday was another cutting of Purple Sprouting Broccoli which is at its peak at the moment. The important point about it is that although it’s in the ground for almost two years, the sprouts themselves grow and ripen in days and so they are immensely tender – stalk and all. I suspect that’s the reason why commercial growers have adopted the term “tenderstem” – because non gardeners might cut the stalks off (oh horror!).  They’re as good as asparagus and a lot more prolific. At the moment our 12′ X 5′ asparagus bed is yielding a small feed every two days.  The Purple Sprouting (5 plants) would yield a trug full in the same time.

The other seasonal blessing is Spinach – it doesn’t care for midsummer and wants to bolt, so now is the time to harvest, and you can sow more in late summer for the winter months.  Meanwhile  the chards will take over.