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.