Gotcha!

Some of this season’s garlic harvest hanging inside the shed to dry

At last we’ve captured a video of the badger on our plot. It’s a very poor but unmistakable image, just from the shuffling gait alone, but it was almost touching the camera so it was rather out of focus – I’ve put it at the end of this post. The existence of the badgers is well known because there’s a sett at the top of the site. They have a reputation for sniffing out the ripe sweetcorn on the very day we plan to cut it and so over the years we’ve had to devise ways of keeping them out.

I once used to watch badgers at night when I was working as a groundsman and they were plaguing the boss’s kitchen garden. One day we put a strong chicken wire fence around the plot and to our amazement the same evening a big boar badger threw himself at it until it collapsed and then sauntered into his domain. There’s no doubt that badgers love sweetcorn, and the constant growing of fodder maize on dairy farms has led to an increase in the badger population just at the time the farmers are trying to blame them for the rise in bovine TB. It’s not that I doubt TB is a constant problem for dairy farmers; but I’d love to see some research done on whether there’s a connection between the occurrence of the disease and the intensity of the farming method being used. I’d be interested in discovering if low intensity grass fed herds are less susceptible to the disease. In human populations TB is associated with poverty and stress and although it may seem strange we’re becoming more and more familiar with the idea that among humans, poverty and stress diseases are greatly increased by cramped and substandard living conditions coupled with a calorie rich junk food diet. Intensive farming is based on the premise that we know better than the cattle what’s good for them.

Anyway, we also know that badgers love our sweetcorn and we were amused that the one we filmed last night is out researching the local corn already. Ours is in full flower and just touching the flowers releases clouds of pollen. There are three principal poachers – not counting the two legged ones – it’s not just the badgers. Rats are great climbers – and so are the squirrels – and they generally attack the cobs by gnawing through the sheaths without breaking the main stalks. Badgers blunder over the whole plant and smash it down to eat the cobs and all we can do to stop them is to protect the beds. It’s said that they don’t like soft netting because they get their claws caught in it and generally we use both hard and soft barriers to deter them. There is another ghostly thief but I’m not sure whether the rumour is true. Apparently deer have occasionally been spotted on the site and maybe one day they’ll show up on the trail cam. We also know that rats and squirrels also love the broad (fava) beans but again it’s fairly easy to sort out the offenders. Rats seem to gnaw at the lower, easy to reach pods; eating a small part of both the seed and the pod; but squirrels really go for them and we have often found little piles of empty pods next to the beds, left very tidy and bereft of their beans which may well have gone off for storage. We’ve got video of both a rat and a squirrel jumping up on to a bed of broad beans that had been cleared the previous day – they must have been disappointed.

So that’s foxes, badgers, domestic cats, squirrels, field mice and rats we’ve now videoed with deer as kind of ghostly reserves. Sadly there are no hedgehogs but that may be down to the badgers which are their big-time predators. The closer we look, the more we see the sheer complexity of the natural history of our urban allotment. At best we’re just (hopefully) considerate participants in the great cycle.

We’re not allowed to connect hoses to the mains supply on our allotments, but today we rigged up our 240V generator with an electric pump and gave the whole plot a good soaking from our own stored water – we’ve got 1500 litres, around 300 gallons of water stored around the place and with a promise of heavy storms on Sunday we thought we’d give the plants a good soak in anticipation of refilling the butts over the weekend. It’s still oppressively hot here but the plots are bursting with life.

The polytunnel tomatoes are ripening thick and fast now so today I’m making the first panzanella of the summer. I got the recipe from Anna Del Conte’s wonderful “Gastronomy of Italy” and it was love at first taste. She writes that recipes for panzanella are as numerous as the people the Nonnas – who pass them on down through the family – I guess that’s exactly what a food culture is all about. Patience Gray’s “Honey from a Weed”; Marcella Hazan’s “The Essentials of Classical Italian Cooking” and Anna Del Conte’s “Gastronomy of Italy” are some of my favourite and most indispensable cookery books because they turn the cooking and eating of vegetables into an adventure. In high summer we luxuriate in the sheer variety of food on the allotment. The best of Italian cooking completely sidesteps the endless debates between carnivores, vegetarians and vegans because absolutely everybody deserves the best of vegetables, cooked or prepared in such lovely ways that meat becomes a minor side issue in the midst of a feast. Sustainable living is so much easier to promote when it’s couched in terms of taking up rather than giving up. Our cultural obsession with rarity and expense has blinded us to the beauty of simple and slow; and if you want to know when to eat your sweetcorn at its absolute peak of perfection, just follow a badger – he’ll know!

Whadda you mean – what am I doing!

Three sisters, free strawberries and a bit about sourdough

Finally all the elements of the the experimental three sisters planting are in place. In the centre there’s a winter squash called Crown Prince which is a great keeper and big enough to feed the whole family. Around the squash are Painted Mountain corn, and growing up through the greenery are the borlotti beans. How it will grow is anyone’s guess. Breaking with tradition slightly, the elements were all sown and brought on separately and then planted up together as soon as they looked strong enough to cope with the competition. Being a bit belt and braces about it we’re using a patch of ground we’ve never grown anything in before and we’ve got more of each of the elements growing separately around the garden, so whatever happens we can rely on some sort of harvest. I really hope that the three sisters planting will work out well because it’s such an efficient use of space, but we’ll see and I promise I’ll report back as the season goes on.

The polytunnel strawberries are finished now and have started to throw runners, and so we’ll be pegging the runners into small pots tomorrow and increasing the stock for free. I’ve done it many times before and it’s an amazingly easy and profitable way to go for a bigger crop. The six plants of Malling Centenary were a very cheap, end of season offer and with the usual TLC we’ll have had a small crop this season and as many as a couple of dozen plants to share between the tunnel and an outdoor bed next year; and that makes competition for space greater than ever.

I had built a raised strawberry bed during the winter but the plants I ordered never materialised and the bed has been commandeered for a crop of leeks and onions because it’s so easy to cover with hoops and insect mesh. The allotment is a picture at the moment – our little outpost of paradise – and for the first time we’ve got a small supply of cut flowers to bring back to the flat. We’ve even got three varieties of lavender growing – I’m not sure how that happened – like most addicts we can’t pass a plant sale.

As for sourdough, I wanted to write a little bit about the relationship between the starter and the dough. When I first made a sourdough starter more than ten years ago I experimented with a number of different flours and followed a number of different routines. It quickly emerged that the leader in every respect was no more complicated than a batter of water and dark rye flour – no added apples or anything like that – left on the windowsill and neglected until it started to froth up. My only concession to faffery was to use bottled water rather than the heavily chlorinated tap water we had at the time, but since the first few months I’ve just used tap water which has made no difference at all.

So my starter was born and raised on dark rye flour and since then I’ve tried many different mixtures of wholemeal and white organic flour to make the loaves. My everyday bread recipe changes a little almost every time I bake it.

However, during the lockdown the rye flour was unobtainable because so many people started making their own bread. The millers simply couldn’t scale up their operation fast enough. So I used wholemeal wheat flour to feed the starter for some months until the dark rye became available again and it worked reasonably well – if rather slowly. When I finally started feeding with dark rye once again, the starter almost shouted “thanks mate” – bubbling away on a new lease of life. So I wondered what would happen to proving times if I added just about 100g of dark rye to the loaf recipe. What happened is that the proving time in the banneton is reduced by as four or five hours; the bread lasts longer and is altogether livelier with good structure. Unlike most bakers I don’t go for the open textured loaves full of holes because Madame doesn’t like the way the butter on her toast runs down her sleeve when the bread is properly French! The French texture is easy enough to achieve if you add a proportion of softer (lower protein) flour to the mix, but it doesn’t keep as well.

So that’s it for today

There be Dragons

From the top, clockwise.

  • Emperor – Anax imperator
  • Large Red Damselfly – Pyrrhosoma nymphula
  • Broad Bodied Chaser – Libellula depressa
  • Golden Ringed Dragonfly – Cordulegaster boltonii (n.b. damage to left hindwing)

I wish I could claim that our most recent visitor – the Emperor dragonfly at the top – was encouraged to visit the allotment by the presence of the pond but it wasn’t; because we’ve been visited by these magnificent creatures every year since we took over the plots. What we can certainly take credit for is the threesome of Large Red damselflies, presumably two males and a female, who sorted their dispute out, allowing the female to mate with one of the males and lay her eggs in the pond while they were still joined. This morning there was another one resting on a conveniently placed cane over the water. As I’ve mentioned before, we now have dozens of ponds from baby baths to a proper 25 footer next door, not to mention the river barely 100 yards away, and several ponds around the Botanical Gardens which are fed by the same streams that dip underground and flow across the allotments – one of them under our plot. It must be dragonfly heaven. How could you not love these fabulous beasties? They’re voracious predators of smaller insects and probably constitute a decent meal for a hungry bird.

Ladybird eggs on the broad beans

On the Potwell Inn allotment, the broad beans have finally leapt into bloom and, being spring replants after most of the overwintering plants were killed off by the dreadful weather in March, they’re nice and soft and an easy target for blackfly. Mercifully the blackfly and the ladybirds have arrived at the same time and whilst pinching out the tops, Madame found a bunch of ladybird eggs – good news because the larvae are by far the more greedy predators. The white butterflies lay similar looking eggs, but they’re much larger and more elongated from memory.

Of course – (minus the blackfly) – the tops make a delicious meal long before the pods have filled. You can stir fry or steam them and they’re lovely. You could almost certainly eat them raw too, but we haven’t enjoyed them that way ourselves.

We’ve been full-on planting out, and we’re nearly at the end, but it’s been very warm and sunny so the transplants have needed mollycoddling to keep them going. One interesting discovery came with setting out the three sisters planting. We’re using the “Painted Mountain” variety for the sweetcorn, but we’re also growing an F1 hybrid for our ‘ordinary’ crop. We’ll take care to keep them as far apart as possible, but seed saving would never be a good idea on an allotment site because everyone is so close and growing every variety under the sun . What was very obvious that the trad. Painted Mountain are far more vigorous than the F1 hybrid – neatly denting one of their claims of superiority. Sadly the seeds cost about the same because here in the UK Painted Mountain is a bit harder to source. I’ve read one writer suggesting that she sows all three seeds (corn, squash and bean) at the same time but we haven’t tried that yet. We’ve started all three in root trainers; sowing the corn first to allow it to get away and avoid being choked out by the others. One day we’ll try simultaneous sowing but it’s a lot of ground to dedicate to an experiment.

Once everything is planted out we’ll be able to concentrate on weeding and watering (assuming this warm weather continues). The temperature variations in the polytunnel are enormous, but the plants seem to love it so long as they’ve got water. Finding time to combine writing, repairing the leaky skylight on the the campervan and gardening is quite challenging but the rewards are huge. It’s impossible to walk on to the allotment without wondering at the sheer energy of the earth and the plants in spring. Gardening can be a very time consuming activity and I feel sad that many of our first timers are getting overwhelmed by weeds. We always found it very difficult to manage a family and a large garden, when we were both working full time.

Something hot?

Habanero – the hottest one we grow!

Well, in the midst of this strangest of seasons we have managed to grow enough chillies to keep us going through the winter, although taking the extraordinary weather into account it looks as if ripening the last few stragglers is going to be a problem. For the first year since we’ve been on the plot, we managed to eat all our sweetcorn before the badgers/rats/squirrels and possibly deer got to them. We only managed this by planting them in the most inaccessible place and surrounding them with sheep netting barriers – it was, however, worth the hassle because home grown corn (like most veg) is so much better than the shop version. You wonder if they’ve been 3D printing them from cardboard.

The chillies seem to be a bit of a blokey enthusiasm, with fierce competition to grow a chilli hot enough to heat a small town for a week – a sort of vegetable willie waving, if that’s not too lively a metaphor for a Tuesday morning. We don’t even eat anything much hotter than a Jalapeño, so my Apache chillies are dutifully frozen, and the Habaneros respectfully avoided. The pleasure it seems is in the achievement of getting them to bear fruit and ripen – which in a season that’s swerved between the biblical extremes of flood, fire and storm is a bit of a problem. *Even the frogs have done exceptionally well this year but the boils have mercifully stayed away.

However the cherry tomatoes have suffered terribly from brown rot, and that’s down to the erratic rain and sunshine and exacerbated by water splash on the leaves. But we’ve gathered enough from the rather sad looking bushes to make a couple of litres of oven dried tomatoes in oil. It’s a skill to balance dryness with sheer toughness because once they’ve gone to far, no amount of olive oil will bring them back to life. I like to give these tomatoes twenty minutes in their oil at around 110C in the oven after drying them overnight at 65C because low acidity bottled fruits can, in exceptional circumstances, develop botulinus contamination.

The same problem happens with figs if you dry them in their skins. To be fair, nearly everything is better eaten fresh, straight out of the ground or off the tree. I’d make some fig compôte except we’re cutting out sugar at the moment and all of my favourite preserves are close to pure carbohydrate. As Oscar Wilde said – “I can withstand anything except temptation”, and DH Lawrence got positively aroused by them, but I think they’d both be quite safe with this year’s efforts in the Potwell Inn kitchen.

So this year has been pretty good. I love the fact that the old, unglamorous plants like savoy cabbages, brussels sprouts, and especially leeks are all loving it. The autumn leeks are stout and sweet and the succession ones are coming along far better than they have for the past four years, which – I guess – is what allotmenteering is all about. You have to embrace and enjoy success when it comes, but never get blown off course by failure. Once you’ve renounced the chemicals and given up the extractive attitude then you’re in a one on one relationship with the earth which has its own ways and is a far better teacher than any book. In many ways, ‘though I can’t claim any deep knowledge of the subject, the earth teaches a form of Tai Chi, or Taoist spirituality. I don’t mean all that stuff about being ‘closer to God in a garden’ which completely misunderstands what happens when merely looking at something miraculously becomes beholding. Forgive me, I’m digging deep here but it’s a crucial distinction.

There really is a huge difference between hard gardening that wants to bully and harry the earth into submission, and contemplative gardening that opens intangible channels through which we can ‘hear’ and even ‘understand’ what response is asked of us.

Don’t cling! Don’t strive! Abandon yourself! Look beneath your feet!

Ryōkan

* Biblical joke, sorry. Old habits die hard.