Doubt sets in after excavations commence.

A grace day today because we were expecting rain all day and instead, the sun shone.

I would quite like to be the kind of gardener/allotmenteer who is so on top of things that they’re never surprised at the way a project turns out, but on the other hand a bit of serendipity adds a certain excitement to life. Last season when I built the compost bins I thought they were miles too big; but in the light of experience they’re just about right. In fact they’re pretty much perfect for the amount of green waste we can compost each year. The water storage supports looked miles over spec until the water butts filled up and the whole lot collapsed; so I’ve had to completely rebuild them and add extra strengthening; and then when I first thought of building a new raised strawberry bed I didn’t really think through what an enormous amount of soil I’d need to fill it.

The same sense of surprise will probably go for the pond as well. I had thought that I could find much of the soil I needed for the strawberries when I dug the hole for the pond, but, having started to remove the topsoil, I realized that the pond would need to be about 6′ deep to get enough subsoil to raise the level of the strawberry bed. The net result of all my (mis)calculations is that the whole plot is beginning to take on the general appearance of a building site: not – I should say – at all unusual for our plots in October, because this is the time where we figure out where everything needs to go, and we’re doing some fairly wholesale hard plantings of trees, involving a rebuild of one side of the fruit cage.

But I love it; the sense of possibilities that comes at this time each autumn. We think back how the various varieties we’ve grown have done, and base the seed order on our experience. The strawberries, for instance, have never really lived up to their catalogue descriptions so today Madame ripped the lot up and added them to the compost. You have to be ruthless with allotments sometimes. Better to lose a year and replant than stick with the old ones and lose five. When the new bed is finished, we’ll replant with some (hopefully better) choices. By Christmas we’ll have four or five new cordon fruit trees, three replacement soft fruit bushes and we’ll have created new boundaries with some hard woven hazel fencing, and some vigorous blackberries and maybe tayberries trained on wires, with a rambling dog rose trailing over the shed.

All of the tall biennial and perennial herbs will have been divided and moved to an entirely new bed, and replaced with a row of lavender bushes and finally (so far) I’ll have built an open extension connecting the shed and the greenhouse with a rather complicated roof to give us somewhere dry to sit. I’m too embarrassed to show you a photo of inside the shed! Next season we’ll also be growing a bed of cut flowers for the first time. We’ve been able to release some of the vegetable space because our son now has his own allotment; and so next year we’ll be sharing our plot with the birds, the insects and pollinators and still grow enough to keep ourselves fed. All this, I should add, on under 250 square metres of land. Allotments can be very intensive even if they are organic!

But as I dug out the topsoil for the pond, I was delighted that in less than three years it’s gone from being waterlogged clay, largely subsoil – because the previous tenant had left two layers of carpet on it – to deep and rich loam. Mind you, we’ve cosseted that patch with grit, leaf mould and goodness knows how much compost. It’s good to see how quickly you can turn around a plot that we were told ‘wouldn’t grow anything’. The pond will complete the greening works this year, and we’ll be keeping a keen eye out for some new amphibian residents. We already know we’ve got at least one toad living in the specially created void under the water storage.

I don’t doubt that all the challenges will be resolved by next spring and that next season will be the best ever (fingers crossed on that one). One small disappointment is that so many of the keen new allotmenteers who joined us during the lockdown and worked so hard on their plots, have melted away now that they’re back at work. In the unlikely event that any of them will read this, I’d beg them to hang on in there. Allotments can very quickly look terrible at this time of the year, but a bit of blood, sweat and tears and a great deal of guile can soon win them back. It was absolutely evident that the sudden influx of newcomers represented a genuine longing for a richer, more fulfilling life than endless meetings, deadlines and school runs. We run our allotment on the basis that we’re available pretty much every day to tend it, but it would be easy enough to design a minimum intervention plot – lots of soft fruit and cordon trees with perennial crops and herbs. Anything that contributes even something to the kitchen and gives you an outdoor space to enjoy has got to be good. If our plot demonstrates anything it’s that allotments begin to take on the personalities of their allotmenteers just as dogs look like their owners – they say; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Seasonal stocktake

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At last, with a supply of spring vegetables coming in we can make a seasonable vegetable stock with produce straight from the ground.  Obviously the stalwarts are there the year round, but as our youngest chef/son pointed out yesterday, there’s a sweetness in the early veg that you can’t easily find in winter. This one, aside from onion, carrots and celery – all the usual suspects – had spring onions, the very last of the overwintered leeks, Swiss chard, the runts of last year’s garlic crop, fennel and fresh herbs wherein lay a lesson. We’ve never used lovage before in a stock but we did yesterday and we discovered that, like nutmeg and saffron it’s a flavouring that needs using with discretion, because if it’s not it can be a bit overwhelming.  Yesterday’s stock had a single leaf the size of a hand in it and I’d say that’s about the limit.

The other early job, aside from cooking breakfast, was to put a slow braised piece of topside (a very occasional treat at the Potwell Inn)  in the oven for the whole day in a wine and stock sauce. It’ll do us for at least three meals but yesterday evening I cooked a proper ‘Sunday meal’ to replace the calories I’d burnt off earlier in the day. When Madame prepped the veg I protested that there were far too many for us to eat, but (I think to our joint amazement) we cleared the lot.

Earlier we went to the allotment to take a delivery of topsoil.  The bed system works very well most of the time, but when it comes to earthing up potatoes you need quite a lot of soil, and in any case we needed extra soil to top the beds up. I created a one metre cube store with pallets to keep it tidy but as it was brought down in barrow loads I had to extend the store twice and by the end I think I had around one and a half tons – which sounds a lot but doesn’t go that far in practice – enough to make a couple of deep beds, from scratch, that’s all.  I decided to spread the soil out before the rain arrives on Tuesday but it was a very hot day, and By the time I’d top dressed three beds I’d shifted the whole load and I ached.

This morning we went up to the allotment to clear up, feed and weed before the rain and also to test the new water butt pump to make sure it would be capable of raising stored water from the bottom to the top of the slope. Happily, apart from having to lug a heavy generator down to the plot, it worked seamlessly and with sufficient pressure to generate a decent spray after travelling about 60 feet along a pipe. Once I’ve finished the last bit of civil engineering there should be enough stored water to keep the plants alive for several months in an emergency. I keep asking myself if we’re being ridiculously pessimistic, but climate change brings flood and drought conditions – neither of which are conducive to good growth.

But all the while there’s a certain weariness with the lockdown. There’s the constant fear of being overwhelmed by a miasma which by now is as much psychological as it is physical, but none the less real for that. We seem to alternate days of vitality and optimism with days of gloom – living like lighthouse keepers with no relief crew in prospect.

Oh the grand old Duke of York

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No – nothing to do with the photo or the present royal family but more of a mea culpa because yesterday, having thought about it, we marched back down the hill and put the tomatoes back into the greenhouse where they should be safer. Tomatoes don’t really like going below 10C and night time temperatures at this time of the year are inclined to drop a little below that. On sunny days like today and under a cloche, the plants would almost certainly make do with the radiated warmth of the earth; but we’ve got a grey and cooler week coming and we can’t rely on good fortune getting the plants through.  All of which reversal of the previous strategy leads me to warn that I’m no gardening guru – just muddling through the perplexities of growing crops in strange times like everyone else!

The asparagus in the photo represents the amount we’re able to cut every other day on our small patch at the moment.  It’s the third season and so we’re allowing ourselves the luxury of cutting for a few, maybe three, weeks before we let the plants grow and feed their roots for one more year before we crop them properly. Over the last two weeks the production has grown steadily, but it’s clear that asparagus is more of a seasonal treat than a staple.  On the other hand, after the first few rather skinny fronds that can be a little bitter, the flavour is (to borrow a line from ee cummings) as big as a circus tent. There’s only one other luxury that comes close and that’s our artichokes, but they too take up a lot of space for which they repay us by being astoundingly beautiful. Allotments are as good at feeding the soul as they are at feeding the body.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, our indoor basil crop had matured and we were able to cut 200g of leaves, which is quite a big pile, and so Madame made a big pot of pesto that filled the flat with the fragrance of the mediterranean – and was very good later on a slice of toasted sourdough brushed with oil and grilled on a big ribbed cast iron pan, topped with salad greens and the asparagus – much of which was our own produce.

But now, apart from the propagators, the flat is free of young plants; the greenhouse is full once more and we were able to dismantle the array of improvised tables that filled every south facing window – so now we can close the shutters after dark. The allotment is looking fine, but our gentle terracing is expensive of topsoil, and having ridged up the potatoes twice, there was nothing left to cover them with so I’ve ordered a ton of topsoil which is arriving today and will need wheelbarrowing down the site. A whole ton sounds like a lot, but it’s surprising how quickly the allotment swallows it up. Someone suggested yesterday that we pinch the soil we need from the vacant plot below us.  I was stunned to hear it!  This was a perfectly law abiding and very pleasant person suggesting that we steal the fertility from another plot, depriving its future tenant of its goodness. No doubt the soil that’s delivered will have come from some poor paved-over garden, or maybe bulldozed off from a pristine woodland standing in the way of the HS2, but at least we’ll give it a new life, like a liberated battery hen. There’s a sermon to be preached there which I’ve no intention of burdening you with – but it’s a wonderful example of the way an ideology, in this case the way of thought that the earth is no more than an exploitable resource, can warp and corrupt our whole view of life. Breaking out of the cage is a struggle, but the change of perspective is exhilarating, like being reborn – if I dare say so.

We like to blame agribusiness, intensive farming or the chemical industry for the plight of the earth, but we all play our part in patrolling the ramparts of the ideological prison; buying the products, buying the big story and imagining that life inside the prison is the only show in town.

Enough! and praise be for the sunshine today. At last all the beds will be pretty much level with enough topsoil to grow championship parsnips – not that growing championship parsnips is a particular ambition.