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.

What do we teach the children?


Sometimes reading a single book can make me sit up and think seriously about one of my own taken for granted understandings, but sometimes it takes a combination of two or three, read almost simultaneously. This past couple of weeks I’ve been reading three together:

Suzanne Simard – “Finding the Mother Tree”
Merlin Sheldrake – “Entangled Life”
Robin Wall Kimmerer – “Braiding Sweetgrass”

It’s fair to say that my grasp of what goes on under our feet on the allotment was – until recently – pretty scant. We had made up our minds to do our best to grow more pollinating insect attractors and dig the pond, but this is the first year we’ve set out to associate plants with their companions and the first time we’ve made an informed effort to try the three sisters method. I couldn’t say it’s made our life any easier as we’ve had to do a great deal of rearrangement and grow dozens of companion plants from seed. The no-dig philosophy was already baked in from the time we finally got the beds sufficiently weed free and rich in organic matter. The pond has been a triumph for the wildlife, with a crop of fat tadpoles already, and, at the weekend, three Large Red Damselflies – Pyrrhosoma nymphula two of them mating and laying eggs (Still joined together) on one of the pond plants.

Suzanne Simard and Robin Wall Kimmerer begin their stories – as it were – from opposite positions; Simard is representative of the settler traditions and Kimmerer of the First Nation/ Native American. Each writer seems to move through her life and scientific work, towards a more sympathetic understanding of the other. Merlin Sheldrake (and I’m simplifying horribly) struggles with the tension between anthropomorphism and detached observational science but concedes in the end that so long as we understand that we’re using metaphor to describe things for which we have no adequate words and that metaphors can’t be swapped for facts; then referring to the invisible networks and affinities that enable plants and trees to communicate in ways we don’t fully understand can fairly be described as like a brain. All three books are wonderful contributions to a changing mindset.

In my case I came away understanding much better not just the terrible and bitter effects that follow the destruction of a whole culture, but also the grievous loss of wisdom and experience embodied in it. To lose a language is to lose a way of thinking, and to learn one is to open the door to thoughts and understandings that can only be spoken in their native tongue. In the end, the culture, languages and philosophies of settlers and Native Americans alike were crushed and destroyed by extractive profit seeking and industrialized farming. In a much milder way we were schooled out of our local dialect and fed a completely bizarre diet of altered history to convince us that we were the most fortunate and blessed nation in the entire world. As a child, when there were no adults around we would speak in dialect using archaic terms like thee and thou and understanding perfectly without the aid of Eng Lit and William Shakespeare, that calling someone “you” was a distinctly cool form of address. The highest aim of our education was to make us middling; loyal and obedient to the status quo; so creativity and leaps of the imagination were ruthlessly stamped out. Here I am aged 74 and only now are the dreadful facts of slavery and colonialism being examined as part of our national story.

But we too have seen an ancient culture erased, enclosures and clearances driving people off their ancestral land and into cities. We’ve seen famine, poverty and disease accompanying the slums of growing cities populated by displaced people. My grandmother died of tuberculosis caused through poverty and overcrowding, and one of my great aunts died in the workhouse. You can’t say that we lacked knowledge of traditional medicines but they were useless against the diseases caused by overcrowding, poverty and poor sanitation. Thank goodness for modern medicines, but wouldn’t it be better if we could return to healthier ways of living? Slavery in the colonies was the bedrock, supplier of raw cotton, and paymaster to hundreds of thousands of jobs in the mills of Northern Britain – many of them involving children in arduous dangerous labour. Charles Dickens’ novel “Hard Times” paints a bleak picture of the consequences for the other end of the Atlantic slave trade.

We stretched the family reunion to five days with the bank holiday and it was joyful. Some of the grown-ups had breakfast together outside Widcombe Deli, on the pavement; we had a barbeque on the green; lots of walks outside and yesterday we got together with the grandchildren and their mum at Dyrham Park – our first visit there in 15 months. I could put up the family snaps, but they look just like everyone else’s family snaps. Viewed through loving eyes, of course, three children sitting on a tree branch is a Leonardo and, like Madame, they deserve their privacy so you’ll have to take my word for it – they are the cleverest, most beautiful and talented children ever to walk the earth!

So yesterday as I walked across the field at Dyrham Park with our grandchildren; the tongues and welts of my boots bright with yellow grass pollen I started showing the oldest how you could judge the fertility of the soil, and therefore the likelihood of finding some really good wildflowers, by looking at the vegetation. Too much nitrogen is the great enemy of plant diversity.

There was nothing much there except for rank grasses, ryegrass, cocksfoot and buttercups. Then I spotted a patch of darker green and I sent him over to take a look. Sure enough he shouted that he’d found a fungus and we went to take a closer look. It was a St George’s mushroom; named on account of normally fruiting around St George’s day – 23rd April; which goes to show how late the season is this year. So I cut it in half and showed him the white gills; gave it to him to smell – it’s an unmistakable smell often described as mealy which is pretty useless since you’d need to be over 100 years old, probably, to know what a sack of meal smells like. Then later I spotted another dark patch of grass and sent him off again to find some more. Finally we fetched up on a large ring that I know will produce parasol mushrooms in the autumn. As we left he brought me a leaf from one of the avenue of limes dotted with Eriophyes tillaes – gall mites. I was so delighted he’d got his eye in I said to his mum “I’m going to make an ecologist of him” (he’s only eight) and she said “good” – so I guess that’s permission to continue.

Later I was talking to our allotment neighbour – always known as Flash – about our day at Dyrham Park. His mum was born in Jamaica and he was born here in Bath and we discovered that we had both, as young teenagers, regularly climbed the walls of the park and trespassed on the estate. I wondered what we would have thought of one another if we had ever met sixty years ago, as trespassers in the shadow of the great house, built on the proceeds of slavery. Racism would always have been, and still is the elephant in the room. That today we can gossip as equals about growing beans and killing slugs is a kind of grace.

Tree talk – joining the dots.

Lovely mature beech – photographed in the grounds of Muncaster Castle, Cumbria in 2017

I’ve just finished reading Suzanne Simard’s newly published book “Finding the Mother Tree” and I’m a bit – well, breathless! – and I’m also slightly ashamed of myself for never having heard about her work before; except that by her own account she’s been regarded with some suspicion by both the forestry industry and the academics too, because her painstaking scientific work was overturning their received wisdom – oh and, of course she’s a woman in an overwhelmingly masculine world. You can get an 18 minute summary of her work on YouTube in her Ted Talk but the book is far fuller and more detailed.

OK so I found parts of it troublingly anthropomorphic – but that turned out to be my problem because in the light of her researches over thirty plus years she has discovered not only that trees communicate with one another (you can read that one once a month in a glossy magazine somewhere), but much more thrillingly that they cooperate; that over time they build huge supportive networks through symbiotic relationships with mycorrhiza which transport so much more than carbon; that the old forests function almost like a biological internet, and that the oldest – mother trees – recognise and nurture their own offspring selectively and strike up mutually beneficial relationships with other species of tree. The forest – she argues – is a perfectly functioning cooperative where mutuality rather than competition rules. Describing all this complexity in human metaphorical terms is entirely justified so long as we understand that it just helps us to embrace the central point she’s making: that just as we have mutually supportive and complex relationships, so too do forests and so to think of them as commodities is to become part of the problem.

Turning a reified version of Nature into a secular object of worship has its millions of followers, but the point here is that our methods of harvesting forests for profit is misguided on many more than aesthetic grounds, or for their capacity to cheer us up in stressful times. The practice of clear cutting forests at once destroys invisible and underground mycorrhizal networks which also embody untold amounts of carbon that is then released into the atmosphere. Clear cutting frequently uses vast amounts of herbicide to kill the weeds and finish off any remaining fungal networks, with the result that newly planted seedlings die because their support network has been destroyed. That’s not to mention the hydrological damage and the incredible damage to wildlife. Depriving humans of a walk in nature comes way down the list of harms.

OK so review (lecture) over I’d urge you to read the book because you really won’t ever feel the same again when you walk through an ancient woodland and feel the decaying sticks crackling underfoot or stoop to pick a fungus: – and when you read that the government wants to drive a railway line through ancient woodland you might see it as a crime against humanity rather than swallow the old economic necessity lie.

As I put the book down, a picture of my grandfather’s smallholding in the Chilterns came to mind. Beyond the house he built for himself, the land shaded into beech woodland and there was a favourite place that my mother would take my sister and me to, beneath a mature beech straddling a mossy bank, exactly like the one I photographed in Cumbria a couple of years ago where I was forced into silence by its beauty and my memories. The beech was nothing in comparison with the enormous mother trees of British Colombia; and nothing at all now, because when my sister and me thought we would scatter our mother’s ashes in the woods there, I discovered that the entire area has become an industrial estate. I also have a memory that our father had carved his and my mother’s initials in the tree. They became engaged during the war without ever having met, after a courtship by letter, and although nothing was ever said, my father’s black depressions and unpredictable moods affected all our lives.

But I need to round this off by saying that for me the takeaway points from the book weren’t just about being abstractly angry at environmental destruction. There are lessons that affect our understanding and management of the allotment that need to be embraced. Something that became clear as the book progressed through her research was that many of the pieces of this vast jigsaw existed previously in their separate compartments and she was able to draw together lab and field research from which she could formulate her own enquiries. For allotmenteers, it’s all too easy to compartmentalize the things we know into the well worn categories – no dig, organic, composting, companion plants and so-on. But as I put the book down I think I understood better than ever before the relatedness of all these ideas. The soil isn’t separate from the crop, the plant nutrition, the pests, the harvesting and eating – they’re one single complex system with us as participants. I began to think my understanding of the three sisters combination; growing beans, squashes and corn together, was hopelessly narrow. The corn isn’t just there to provide a physical support for the beans and neither is the sole function of the squash the suppression of weeds. Many generations of First Nation experience suggest that there is something far more significant going on.

The ancestral understanding was of a symbiotic relationship between the sisters. We ‘know’ (in separated mental compartments) that legumes have nitrogen fixing nodules. Is there – in their patch of earth, teeming with microorganisms, worms and insects, yeasts, and fungi – a similar collaborative and mutually beneficial relationship going on? Are almost invisible mycelia, dependent upon the organic health of the soil, transporting carbon in the form of sugars from species to species? Are they messaging one another, assisting in the repulsion of insect and fungal pests, firing up defence mechanisms? Our whole atomised and compartmentalising scientific logic encourages us to step back dispassionately and regard each phenomenon in its own right. But what if they’re communicating with one another and it’s us who are the dummies, unable to comprehend their language. Companion planting must have a biological mechanism that we could investigate; and suddenly talking to trees makes more sense.

Tunnel Vision – and then a corny story!

At last the polytunnel is complete, and I have to say it was quite an adventure. I’ve already bored you with the weather we had to put up with in the early stages, so everything from rain constantly flooding the foundations meaning I had to bolt them together underwater – to fierce east winds at minus 6C including wind chill. We had to wait for better weather to put the skin on, and finally got it covered on Monday only for unusual southerly gales to spark up, felling trees, sheds and greenhouses on the site. This morning with the beds dug, the central path constructed and the sliding door hung, I drove in the last screw and we arrived home confident that it would withstand the worst that British weather can offer – at least in the mild and wet south west.

The biggest problem was trying to fit the tunnel on a piece of ground that was almost exactly the same size – the promotional videos showed two skilled workers erecting their demo on a site scraped square, level and true with loads of space all around. But – like the old joke about the viola player who complained that he knew his instrument was out of tune but he just didn’t know which string it was – we knew the plot was out of square but we had no way of knowing which side we could make the reference point. In the end the tunnel could only be built by overlapping the original space by about an inch in a couple of places, but with a bit of calculation over the central path we were able to create almost exactly the same amount of growing space as we had with the previous arrangement of three beds – so we were well pleased with our efforts. The only casualties were the overwintering crop of broad beans that had to be moved and then suffered the severe cold weather. They’re all alive but we shall see the impact of the double setback later on, but meanwhile we’ve got plenty of reserves germinated. The good news is that we can look forward to a whole season of growing in the tunnel.

Lost in translation

As I’ve mentioned I’ve been reading Carol Deppe’s excellent book “The resilient Gardener”; the underlying rationale for which is the need to maximise food production in small gardens in times of scarcity – whether that might be of water; seeds; or just time. Her other books deal with a broader range of crops but this one looks at high calorie crops like potatoes, corn, beans, squash and eggs. I’ve struggled a bit with translating US plant variety names and one or two insect and pest names have had me foxed for a while but it’s absolutely worth the effort because the book is as much about the gardening mindset as it is about the cultivation of these specific crops.

I’m going to write a post about potatoes because they’ve become something of a an ideological and dietary battleground; but I’ll need to do some re-reading of William Cobbett to show how the debate about the potato has been going on since 1824 at the very least. But corn too has become a bit of a bĂȘte noir among organic gardeners; tainted by its association with agrobusiness, ethanol and corn syrup. There is so much I didn’t know about corn (maize – another translation issue!), not least that the way we grow it on the allotment (and very occasionally eat it if we can protect it from the badgers) – is to pick it green – underripe. Cornflour, popcorn, and all the other forms of maize come from quite different varieties as does the fodder maize fed to cattle. Flint, dent, flour, popcorn and several hybrid variations all have different genetics. Corn is a rather promiscuous interbreeder which is why if we grow more than one variety we need to keep them a long way from one another. The upside is that it’s possible to deliberately cross open pollinators to create a strain ideal for whatever your purpose, soil or climate is. Phew.

But here’s the point. Here in the UK the system of growing three crops of corn, squash and beans, known as the three sisters, together, has been getting a lot of publicity in the magazines but, interestingly, many allotmenteers report poor results. I’ve always been puzzled at how a five foot stalk of sweetcorn could support a vigorous runner bean while not choking out the squash underneath. It’s one of those things that sounds alright until you think about it. All of them – so long as you grow typically UK veg varieties – ripen at different times. After a good read of Carol Deppe’s book and a bit of online research it seems clear that the way native Americans used the system was by choosing compatible varieties. If you’re an American reader you’ll probably know this already but I’d venture that I’m not alone among British gardeners in my complete ignorance of the complexities of corn growing. For instance you need to be growing all three vegetables over a long season to be harvested at much the same time. Many flint and flour corn varieties are much taller, as much as ten feet; providing a highly efficient central structure. The beans aren’t immature runner beans but drying beans for winter storage, as is the winter squash; all of them growing together and ripening before the first frosts to provide winter stores; high sugar, high protein and high calories. So it seems, the three sisters method would stand a much better chance of success when we choose the three companions really carefully; sowing each at the right time and assembling them so they can grow in harmony to a successful harvest. Flour, beans and dried squash would make a marvellous addition to winter supplies. This is an experiment we shall try at the Potwell Inn in the coming season.

Home preserves

Finally, it’s the time of year when we start to seriously attack the preserves, and tonight we had a bottle of preserved figs from the allotment. Last season gave a marvellous crop of figs and we tried all sorts of ways of preserving them. Drying, it seems, would be more successful with a proper dehydrator because the oven is a bit too hot, and sun drying demands a sunnier, warmer and dryer atmosphere than we normally have. The preserves on the other hand are delicious. We flavoured the very light syrup with Earl Gray tea and fennel seeds and bottled them in the pressure cooker for safety. It was a lovely foretaste of summer.

Beware false dawns

If I had to nominate the most frustrating and dangerous time of year for the unwary gardener it would be right now. I’m too embarrassed to photograph the overwintering broad beans which, after a week of interminable sub zero temperatures and scything east winds look more dead than alive. When a freeze lasts so long, no amount of protection seems enough to prevent the slow destruction of cell walls. Even the garlic looks a bit sad. To think we were praying for a good cold spell to spur it into growth a few weeks ago! It would be all too easy to welcome this weather as a return to a traditional winter season – but it’s not. Everything about the weather has been excessive these past twelve months; wettest, dryest, hottest, coldest, stormiest. It rather reminds me of my community work days when we dreaded the autumn magic mushroom season because mixed with cheap cider the effect on our young people was to make them completely and sometimes violently unpredictable. Anyway, that’s enough about the government let’s get back to gardening.

Climate change is happening fast and so, exactly like covid, there’s no point in sitting around waiting for things to get back to normal because whatever normal might turn out to be it won’t be our normal. I suppose if you drive to work in an office or live in the centre of a city you might not notice these things unless you garden ; but we live bang in the centre of a city; a jewel of the West Country tourist trade that just happens to be at the same latitude as – let’s say Newfoundland, parts of Russia and Norway and Canada; thank you so much Gulfstream. However when the jetstream takes it upon itself to holiday 1000 miles south of where it normally does, the weather comes with it, and if the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre decided to follow suit we would all be in deep doodoos – probably penguin doodoos!

Even under the old dispensation February could throw up several gloriously balmy days followed by a freeze, and we’ve moved our last frost date into the second week of May after some bad experiences with the grapevines. “Cast not a clout ’till may be out” refers to the (Crataegus) blossom not the month; and for the ultra cautious gardener it’s still good advice. But – as it seems as if we’re going to have to get used to these extreme and unexpected outliers in the weather. Last year many of our neighbours lost their potatoes in a late frost on May 12th, when we also lost some borlotti and runner beans when their fleece blew off. We must think seriously about plant protection for extreme wind and cold; and increasing water storage for drought.

However that won’t be enough, and we’ll also need to expend some serious thought towards changing the plant varieties we grow and breeding some better ones if we can. Here at the Potwell Inn we’ve taken on all three challenges by building a polytunnel, which will be finished tomorrow if the forecast holds up. We’ll increase our water storage by building a sloping roof on the compost bins and harvesting rainwater from it ; but it turns out that one source of excellent advice on new varieties and techniques for a more extreme climate comes from across the Atlantic in the USA, because it’s a country with an enormous range of climates.

The US is some way ahead of us, not just in organic and permaculture techniques but also in publishing books about it – hats off to Chelsea Green – and I’ve been feasting on some really compelling ideas. Winston Churchill once described our relationship with the US as “two nations divided by a common language” – and it’s absolutely true to say that I’ve needed to be really careful about making assumptions while I’m reading. Cultural differences matter and today I realised that our only experience of corn is of growing sweetcorn. I don’t think I’ve ever given a moment’s thought to growing corn to store for the winter as a source of carbohydrate. This is the time of year, as winter comes to an end, when we realize how small our stored food supply has become. Lunch today was a fabulous bean soup which has become an indispensable staple; but our only home grown contribution was the herbs and some tomato passata. We have just 200 square metres of growing space – which is far too little to be self sufficient in vegetables. John Jeavons suggests it would take around 8000 square feet to feed two people and that’s eight standard British allotments worth. We’ve got just the one, so our ambitions need to match our land. That’s not to say we shouldn’t garden our space as efficiently as possible, but it would be silly to beat ourselves up because we still have to buy some veg. Our take on this is to grow the things we love that are most expensive to buy.

Suddenly food preservation and storage has come on to the agenda as we begin to realize the sheer fragility of the food supply. In the past, our experiences of food shortages have been very temporary, but in the UK some shortages have been ‘baked into’ our disrupted supply chains. This isn’t entirely down to trade deals, it’s also about industrial farming and food production. When it takes ten calories of fuel to produce one calorie of nutritional value, at a time when oil production is trapped between the twin pressures of ever higher extraction costs and anti pollution legislation; something is going to break and it will boil down to a choice between changing our ways or breaking something we really can’t repair. As civilizations and epochs go, the anthropocene is more like a dragonfly – a long time developing and then very quickly spent.

Anyway, to get back to practicalities we’ve washed and sterilised all our pots and modules and started the propagators. Early sowings – replacement broad beans for instance! – are underway, and with the polytunnel on the brink of being finished, we think we can gamble against even the most inclement weather and get the chillies, aubergines, peppers and tomatoes started. I also think now, in the light of my recent reading, that the three sisters planting needs to be understood and honoured within its cultural context and not treated as a horticultural novelty; and that will need to happen in the kitchen as well as on the allotment. I’ve always wondered what on earth ‘grits’ are and how you might eat them! We have no idea whether borlotti will grow up the corn stalks, and we’ve also tried to dry and prepare the seeds from our winter squashes, and it’s clear that we have a great deal to learn.

It’d been the most tremendous week. We defied the weather and worked on the polytunnel every day until our fingers froze. It was always going to be a challenge because it fitted the available space – let’s say – snugly; or more honestly, down to the millimeter. I’ve learned a whole lot of things about building these structures including the fact that angle grinders don’t like aluminium, and filling up your metal measuring tape with mud is a bad idea because all the markings fall off. But in the unlikely event that we ever build another one, we’ll do it in half the time! The next challenge is to recalculate all our sowing times to make the best ue of the new tunnel. I foresee several frank exchanges of views as my Tiggerish instincts collide with Madame’s Eeyore. In matters of germination temperature settings in the propagators, (in Flan O’Brien’s terms), I’m definitely a full throttle man. Madame thinks only of the fireman

Here it is – just waiting for the skin!

LED – kindly light!

Well I couldn’t resist the hymn title in there it reminded me of my mother who would often press them into service – not that she’d get the pun because she never saw an LED during her lifetime. However, the council have finally fulfilled their commitment to remove our streetlights and replace them with LED’s. Ever since we moved here our first floor living room has been flooded with orange sodium light in the winter, which had the effect of obliterating the sky altogether. Last night we were able to watch the moon setting and – even more lovely – see Orion, the winter constellation for me – riding in the dark sky.

Overnight we had a hard frost, but we still needed to be up at the allotment early because there had been a small delivery of wood chip which is a much fought-over resource. Refurbishing and topping up the paths is a regular job and, as I was writing yesterday, having finished replacing the retaining boards on the bottom terracing I needed to re-make the path. We made light work of six or seven barrow loads although steering the wheelbarrows down the steep and muddy paths was a bit of a challenge.

Then whilst Madame carried on replanting the overwintered broad beans I dug out and removed a second path from the new site for the polytunnel; all of which heavy work made us oblivious to the cold. Yesterday’s transplanted beans looked surprisingly good considering they’d been dug up, replanted and then subjected to a severe frost. The 15 x 10 patch is now cleared and roughly levelled after great struggles with the long wooden pegs which were devils to extract from the ground due to the very high water table. The photos at the top of the post show the before and after scene.

Our underground stream has broken out into the open after the storm

The emergency trench we dug to divert the underground stream away from the apples was still flowing vigorously all day, with no signs of abating. In a perfect world we’d dig a deep cistern and line it for water storage but this is (we hope) a temporary problem caused by the very wet autumn and the past few exceptional storms. There are many other people in the UK in real trouble from flooding. We have friends in the Brecon Beacons who are often cut off when the River Usk floods their access to the nearest town.

Transplanted broad beans in their new position

By mid afternoon we ground to an aching halt and packed up. When we left home the forecast was for snow and rain tomorrow, but by teatime it was promising a sunny and dry day; an opportunity to move the fruit cage boundary to let more light and air into the row of apple cordons. Carol – a Potwell Inn regular – commented this morning that we’ve been making ourselves extremely busy in what’s usually a quiet month. I’m not sure we could put that down to any particular virtue on our part. I know we both love what we do, but most particularly this winter we’ve done a big re-design, what with making the pond and the new strawberry bed; renewing and moving beds and borders and of course making provision for the polytunnel. It was always in our minds to provide as much food for ourselves and our family as possible; especially since brexit which is bound to undermine food security in this country. But we’ve also embarked on a far more diverse planting scheme by including the small mammals, birds and insects in our notional family. I think we just see the allotment through our magic gardeners’ glasses where it’s always summer and the crops are always ripening.

Last year we made a fairly half-hearted “three sisters” bed which wasn’t a great success; so this year we’ll try growing borlotti beans up the sweetcorn and small winter squashes underneath. I think part of the challenge is that in traditional first nation plantings it was the seeds; the corn and the pumpkin seeds that were the quarry and so it didn’t matter that the cobs were drying off under the foliage of the climbing beans. It may be – like so many borrowings from traditional planting schemes – that we are doing something quite different here. But – we’ll give it another try because we rather like the dense, messy plantings. Because interplanting and companion planting are on the agenda, timing becomes critical because we need to have each sequence of plants ready at the correct time to alleviate crowding out. So yes we’re busy, but come – let’s say – mid February, around Valentine’s Day; the sowing and propagating start in earnest and if we don’t get the repairs, civil engineering and bed preparation done now we’ll miss the boat.

Why write?

Why am I writing all this stuff? I sometimes wonder. In fact the blog is the child of a personal journal that I’ve kept in various forms for many years and it still performs some of the functions of its parent. While I was at work it had to remain private because the things I knew about and the people who shared them with me had to be protected. You could call it the rule of the confessional but people didn’t often confess as much as share private and personal stories. Nowadays I’m not confined in the same way and I just write a kind of open diary about the day to day challenges, thrills and spills of being human. I think I’ve come to understand that the key to staying sane in a world that’s pretty weird at times is to have one area – in our case the allotment – where we have real agency. Where we can dream dreams and even practice a different way of living in and with the earth. When I write about the things we do at the Potwell Inn it’s not because we claim any special insight or expertise but because – I like to think – in some small way it might encourage other people to give it a go. So I share the things that light me up, the books that excite and challenge me and the ways in which I think we can make a stand against the most dangerous aspects of our materialistic culture. I’m not setting myself up as a leader or visionary but just a rather old human being with a very rich hinterland and a headful of dreams.

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