Some New Year’s resolutions

Madame will kill me for putting her photo on the blog but one or two unkind friends have suggested I make her sound like a brothel keeper or a dominatrix so I thought I’d put the record straight. She is, as should be immediately obvious, a stranger to the whip and handcuff.

Anyway, it was freezing cold today and yesterday we had to shorten our walk because there was so much ice around; breaking legs is most definitely not on our agenda for the New Year – so today we looked at the outside temperature, which was -1C and settled for a day indoors. As you may have noticed, I’m an almost promiscuous reader and it’s no particular hardship to spend a day with a book – today’s read was Tom Philpott’s “Perilous Bounty” which addresses the economics of intensive farming as well as the environmental problems it’s causing; the two are intimately linked, you won’t be surprised to learn. Anyway it’s a thoroughly well written and well researched book which I’d recommend (bearing in mind that by recommending a book a day I’m writing for an audience of one.

But Madame and I have been gardening for so long that we often converge in our thoughts and today as I was reading the book she was researching allotments around the world, investigating the styles and methods employed in many different countries. During the summer several of our allotment neighbours employed a Polish handyman to build them sheds, and this one looked remarkably akin to some of the buildings on Eastern European allotments. So our conversation drifted this way and that, and as we talked about some of the projects we’d like to tackle – we both experienced a rising sense of optimism looking forward to next season.

These dog days of December and January can sap your creative energy and diminish your enthusiasm for the unfinished jobs on the allotment, but today my head’s full of ideas; to finish building roofs over the line of compost bins, to drive new posts and boards along the bottom to shore up the terracing and to build the shelter between the shed and the greenhouse. The, in the last few bitterly cold days, I’ve been wondering about building a polytunnel. Obviously this would extend our growing season but there’s another reason too. Our site is plagued most years by tomato and potato blight. Potatoes aren’t so much of a problem because first earlies – the tastiest potatoes to grow – aren’t affected; they’re out of the ground before the humidity and temperature combine to create blight conditions. Tomatoes are another thing altogether because they’re always going to be vulnerable. For some years we’ve grown an F1 hybrid tomato with tremendous resistance and we’ve had marvellous crops. But this year one of our other resolutions is to start seed saving and that means eschewing the Fi hybrids and some of the commercial seeds because, whatever the name on the packet, it seems they pretty well all originate in the same old industry cartel. Tomatoes grown in a polytunnel would benefit from the extra protection from cold weather, winds and blight. The biggest challenge with a tunnel will be watering, but I’m hoping a combination of permaculture ideas and crafty storage and re-routing from the water butts will allow us a week away in the campervan now and again. At present our new resolution to walk the Mendip Way is on hold due to the new regulations.

We probably all grew up with the fixed idea that evolution is an immensely slow process and, in some cases it is. However with plants, because they produce seed every year, the annual selection of the best/strongest/best flavoured/most resistant plants can – it seems – result in useful new strains through cross pollination. The huge abundance of varieties of maize in South America is down to selective breeding for many different altitudes, soils and weather patterns; and some of these varieties – some grain varieties too – become what’s known as ‘landrace’ types. In Wales at the moment at least one food coop is trialling a traditional landrace form of wheat. So it’s all up in the air at the moment but we’ve been very successful with seed saving some of our herbs and prolific easy flowers like marigolds and nasturtium. In the summer we’ll try some saved peas and borlotti and see how we go. Of course it needs organisation and proper cataloguing, but having looked at our seed bills this year, a few brown envelopes and some time could be a great moneysaver. One of our neighbours in our previous house had grown a completely unique cherry tomato for years – nobody had the faintest idea what variety it was because he’d been saving seed all that time, but it was lovely.

Due to the lockdown we’re unable to fill the hotbed with horse manure this year, so we’re going to experiment with layered beds of woodchip, leaves, compost and top soil. They probably won’t heat up but we’ll give it a go with some additional human urine and see what happens. We’ve already prepped a new strawberry bed in the same way.

So it’s new Year’s Day. Our upstairs neighbours defied the rules and had a right old party last night and I can tell you that one young woman had no idea how to sing Auld Lang Syne – and no idea when to stop either. We wish them, you, and all our regulars at the Potwell Inn a better year than the one that’s gone. For us we can say without fear of contradiction that 2021 looks like the best year ever. So far!

Life’s rich tapestry – blight!

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They’ve gone down like ninepins on the site. After the recent wet weather it was pretty obvious we were in danger of  visit from Phytophthara infestans alias potato/tomato blight and yesterday we found the first signs on some of the outdoor tomatoes.  There’s no point in beating about the bush or hoping for the best, because with blight there is no best and the only remedy us to get the plants down (carefuly) pick up every scrap of debris and consign it all to the burning fiery furnace (local authority waste site).  My instincts would be to burn it all in the incinerator but rules is rules, and until October we are forbidden to burn anything on the site – and so, as I know I’ve mentioned, the waste begins its slow and expensive/high carbon footprint journey to the same fate at the council incinerator. With blight it’s not a sensible option to leave the diseased material lying around until later. So that’s the entire crop of small tomatoes gone, but fortunately the main crop are blight resistant “Crimson Crush” and they’re perfectly fine. Other allotmenteers on the site are trying different blight resistant varieties and we’ll see how they do this week.

However, the same blight affects potatoes and so today it was essential to dig all our potatoes except for the Sarpo Mira which have proved brilliantly blight resistant. This is, or rather will be, the second and third sacks full of potatoes this year, with at least two more sacks still awaiting harvest – far too many for us, and so they’re being shared around with our neighbours.  In the wheelbarrow are the last of the Arran Pilot and the Pink Fir Apple.  There are still some Red Duke of York to remove from their containers. Next year I’ll be a lot more careful about the potato order quantities, but I’ll probably grow the same varieties. I have to say, though, that we’ve yet to find the ultimate first earlies for this soil.  The Pilots are lovely, as were the Jazzy, but they didn’t quite recapture that waxy sweetness that you get with the best Jersey Royals.  That said though, even the Jersey Royals have dipped a lot in the last few years because the growers are not allowed (apparently) to fertilize the soil with seaweed any more for fear of salt build-up. That won’t stop us from bringing a load of seaweed back from North Wales next time we’re there!

Elsewhere on the allotment everything’s going well and we’ve just started eating our first apples from the cordons we planted two autumns ago. Of five cordons four have produced fruit with the James Grieve doing spectacular things.  The first off were Katy, which are very attractive but also very sweet and lacking the acidity that we both like in an apple – the grandchildren will love them! We also had the first sweetcorn yesterday.  It’s been netted and completely surrounded by courgettes so the badgers haven’t found them yet.  There’s a saying that you should put the water on to boil before you go out to cut the corn and it’s certainly true that you’ve never tasted sweetcorn until you’ve eaten it five minutes after it was cut.

We love many of the heritage vegetables and grow numbers of them wherever we can, but I’m so grateful for the work of the plant breeders for producing disease resistant varieties of potatoes and tomatoes. For organic allotmenteers like us, there’s no easy fix for diseases and the only way to outwit the pests is by building up the soil and using crafty inter and companion planting. But blight is on another scale, and breeding varietal resistance is by far the best plan. I’ve a lot more I want to write about some science I’ve just stumbled on, but I need to get this online first so I can go and bottle up the raspberry vinegar. Much more later!