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!

How sweet!

Apropos of nothing in particular, a true story – told to me by my son – came to mind today while I was connecting the two water butts that will be the irrigation supply for the polytunnel. It’s been a bit of a saga, which I’ll come back to in a moment; but I wanted to fill out some of the science behind my piece yesterday on manure and greenhouse gases and, in particular, the relative virtues of so-called hot and cool composting. I’ve already written about being careful to locate manure from a trustworthy source. We once bought a couple of tons of so-called horse manure from a local farmer with an awful reputation for his management of the land. One year, for instance, he ploughed one of his fields straight down a steep slope towards a brook at the bottom. Needless to say, the next severe rainstorm took most of his topsoil away. He eked out a living by renting his fields for horses – far too many of them – and we discovered later that their principal diet must have been creeping buttercups which pass undaunted through their digestive system and infest any land they’re spread on.

Enthusiastic hot composters will tell you that you can put weeds of any type into their heaps and they will be killed by the heat. They will also tell you that you can compost trees, stones, and a whole bicycle in a fortnight. While it may be true that hot composting is a fast and efficient of turning green waste into something, it’s not altogether clear what that something is; and how much of something else – like methane, sulphur dioxide or ammonia is dispersed into the atmosphere at the same time. Here’s the science if you’re interested. The other thing worth mentioning is that worms and other insects and microorganisms can’t survive the high temperatures generated in hot composting and so the eventual product may not be as biologically rich as cool composted waste which seems to comprise a great proportion of worm casts. It may well be that the slow road is better for the allotment and garden and better for the atmosphere as well.

However, hot composting has its passionate followers and I’ve enjoyed watching some hilarious willy waving moments as its acolytes compare temperatures; competing for the killer degree centigrade that puts them at the top of the hot composting hall of fame. It’s no surprise that the same gardeners also compete to breed the hottest chillies – I think it’s a man thing.

Sadly, greenhouse gas generation increases with the temperature of the heap or windrow which suggests that although hot composting is probably a lot better than sending waste to landfill – because that’s where the waste is composted anaerobically, generating huge amounts of methane – it’s better to be patient and accept that you have to exclude your noxious weeds from the compost heap and watch it heat up quickly to 30C or 40C as you turn it in the early stages and then cool down to let’s say 20C when the worms, insects, bacteria and moulds will love you for providing perfect conditions for them to feast on your garden waste and turn it into compost in a month or so rather than a week or so. This, unfortunately, will exclude you from the A team – which brings me back to the story my son told me.

He was at a party in Birmingham when he chanced to hear a conversation between a young man and a rather attractive woman who was quizzing him on his occupation. “I’m a physicist”, he said; “I work on the hadron collider in Cern. “On the large one – she asked him with gathering interest. “No” – he said “- the smaller one”. “Oh” she replied, losing interest and turning away. “How sweet!” I was mulling over the pulling power of a hot heap, thrumming away at the Potwell Inn allotment, surrounded by muscular men drinking Jack Daniels neat and exchanging stories of vegetable derring do, when the thought of her magnificent put-down turned my thoughts back towards our quieter regime and I whispered a quiet “thank -you” to our heaps as I inspected the new tanks for leaks.

Joining two or three water butts together has taken me right out of my comfort zone. What I know about plumbing could be written on a postage stamp, but all I wanted to do was to join the tanks so I could pump water from the whole array rather than moving the pump from tank to tank. This involves joining them at the bottom rather than conventionally at the top – which means that there is a good deal of pressure on the connections when the tanks are full. The bits of push fitted plastic pipe that allow tanks to overflow into one another, just leak when they’re subjected to pressure. This simple objective has led me into a world of different dimensions, materials and fittings and four visits at least to purchase the wrong spares and return them for the right ones. I feel privileged to have acquired a dim understanding of the relationship between 3/4 BSP fittings and 22mm MDPE pipe – enough to hold my head up high in Screwfix anyway. Today I finally plugged them all together and pumped water in to test them. There was a moment of doubt when a couple of beads of water gathered on the joint and dripped down, and then – nothing. Job done. A wholly disproportionate flow moment followed – the psychological sort, not the watery one! Now all I have to do is build the sloping roof on the compost bins and install the guttering.

While all this was going on a female blackbird that seems almost hand tame was digging around the edges between the paths and the beds. She seems to have decided that we’re not a threat and feasts on the slugs, insects and eggs that she finds there. The polytunnel is warming the soil beautifully and so while the outside soil temperature is still 8C, the polytunnel soil is near 15C and the woodchip hotbed is 20C, as is the newest compost heap which is just waiting until I put the oldest heap through a riddle so it can go on to the beds and then I’ll turn the newer heap into the old space for a period of rest. The whole site was alive with activity in the sunshine today. It’s looking more loved and cared for than we’ve ever known – marvellous stuff.

Past reason hunted ….

My mobile frequently sets up reminders of photos taken last year or further back. So after enjoying the unseasonably warm and sunny weather of the past few days this picture from March 2nd 2018 is a stern reminder that despite all signs to the contrary, spring – real spring – pays no attention to meteorologists and their neat labelling.

I get the same feeling listening to the news. The broadcast media seem to have decided, contrary to all common sense, that Covid Winter is now over and we can all sing the national anthem and get back to the good old days. Neither proposition is true., but we’re suckers for good news and we buy it in much the same way that we buy lottery tickets. “Hush”, we say to our cautious inner voices and hand over our fivers; so summoning my best schadenfreude, I will comfort the allotmenteers who lose their tender plants to a late frost because we’ve all done it. Shakespeare is such a good judge of character and I remind myself that falling for my own delusions is – ‘th’expense of spirit in a waste of shame’; or, as a kindly funeral director said to a friend who almost slipped into an open grave and had to be grabbed by the arm while he was saying the commendation – “wait your turn, Sir – wait your turn!” Both spring and normal life will come in their own time, and meanwhile we are best advised to take reasonable precautions in both. For us today that meant feeling deeply uncomfortable in a long queue at the garden centre and then putting protective screens and fleece over all those plants that need shelter from the next three days of cold East winds.

Windscreens can be a bit complicated. We’re lucky on our plot that we’re protected from the prevailing wind by a line of tall leylandii trees. For east and northeast winds there’s no protection at all and so we’ve got a collection of nets, screens and meshes that can be pressed into service. Counterintuitively, solid screens can be less helpful than those that just slow the wind down. In extreme gusts, solid screens can crash down and crush the plants they’re supposed to be protecting. They can also create damaging eddies – think of a wave curling over a breakwater and crashing downwards on the sand, so mesh is often more effective. Screens offer protection to about four times their height, and in some situations where prevailing winds frequently cause damage, it might be better to think about a hedge. We’ll see whether today’s efforts help us. Last year’s late frost decimated potato haulms all over the allotments but we covered ours with fleece cloches and although some leaves touching the fleece were damaged, the crop was saved. At this time of the year the weather forecasts are the most important part of our daily plans.

The good news was that I managed to get two more 250 litre (50 gallon) water butts to bring our total storage up to 1750 litres. People may think we’re mad, but the time to prepare for a drought is when it’s raining. We’ll harvest water from the row of compost bins and possibly from the polytunnel roof as well. I have a cunning plan to use a bilge pump to fill our watering cans from the stored water. The barrels are going to be half buried in the ground to line up with the gutters. The only certainty during this oncoming and accelerating climate crisis is that weather is going to become more extreme and so we need to equip ourselves for extreme cold, long periods of drought, and ever more damaging storms.

Of course, if we do nothing to end our abuse of the earth, then there will be no effective precautions against collapse, so we don’t just need to store water and build fences, we need to minimise the lifestyles and excessive consumption that are causing it.

I do know – before anyone (Rose) points it out – that Shakespeare’s sonnet, (129) which I’m abusing just a bit is not about gardening, but lust. However at my age, gardening does very nicely most of the time, thank you.

It’s not all turtle soup and silver spoons!

With thanks to Charles Dickens and Thomas Gradgrind for the reference – and we’ve no plans ever to serve or eat turtle soup at the Potwell Inn, with or without the silver spoons.

One of the abiding challenges of writing a blog about being human is the temptation to create a sunny and carefree parallel world in which my ever competent and cheerful alter ego glides effortlessly through life untouched by troubles of any kind. Of course it’s not like that at all and things go wrong all the time – like yesterday when the pride of my civil engineering efforts on the allotment collapsed under the weight of water we’d gathered from some intense rain. I’ve written so often about the water storage project that I should have known it would all come back and bite me and now it has. I could see something was amiss when we came down the path and I saw that the three 250 litre water barrels, instead of standing in a perfect and level line, were leaning over drunkenly against the shed which, having distorted significantly, resisted any attempt to open it. One of the supports had collapsed under the strain of 750Kg of water and the horrible result was all too clear.

It was the crowning glory, or perhaps more honestly the last straw, because the black dog had already been following me around all day. I don’t know why -perhaps it was something to do with revisiting my past; but the mud and silt at the bottom of my inner pond had been stirred up by going to Rodway Common, and I couldn’t quite find the way out of my thoughts. The sight of the water butts moved me into a silence.

Melancholy isn’t just a middle class word for depression, tarted up to make it sound a bit poetic. Melancholy is a mind frame through which all the impermanence and fragility of the world is magnified, and these last months have carried the risk of loss so gravely that there can’t be many of us who haven’t been touched by it. Some will have fallen into depression, which is far, far worse. For the Potwell Inn, of course, the prospect of the landlord sunk in a grey mist did not inspire the landlady, and the lounge bar was as quiet as a funeral director’s waiting room. The television, leaking its poison into the room, drove me to my desk where I got stuck in the mud, wheels spinning and going nowhere. Then, after a disturbed night in which dreamed of being able to fly, I woke up feeling better and in possession of my lyrical mind once more, and also an easy way of rebuilding the water butt structure.

The last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way

What is it about the television at the moment? Endless costume dramas reinvent the past; we’ve got Jane Austin and Downton Abbey (was there ever a more unctuously dishonest series?) – coming out of our ears; and last night Countryfile – welly telly at its middle England finest – tried to present the argument that the gene editing of food crops was not the same as genetic modification. I screamed at the screen fruitlessly – “ask the question you moron!” – knowing that no serious question would be asked. The NFU will get its five minutes as the trades union of intensive farming, and there will be no mention of the adaptability of so-called pests. As Darwin said, when the merde hits the fan, it’s the most adaptable that survive (I paraphrase slightly) and that suggests that the odds are stacked against the farmers who will still be waiting for the Seventh Cavalry to come and rescue them when the better adapted blackfly have eaten their wellingtons. Just to put it simply, gene editing is the same game as genetic modification and carries many of the same dangers; and the thought of negotiating around a supermarket between rows of genetically edited carrots and chlorinated chicken does not fill me with joy.

On the allotment we concentrate on building up the soil and we know that stronger plants resist pests and diseases better than intensively farmed weak ones. Yes we get pea moth still, but we get around that by cropping them earlier. Blackfly and ladybirds sometimes take a week or two to move into synchronisation but they always do in the end, and there are a multitude of healthy ways of controlling pests -companion planting, for instance – that can work at scale as well. We often used to joke that the last six words of any dying organisation are – “we always do it this way“. If there’s a lesson to be learned from this Covid 19 pandemic, it’s that always doing it this way is the problem, and doing more of it can never provide a solution.

In my darkest moments I wonder whether the human race even deserves to survive, but we have children and grandchildren and there are millions of poor people around the world who will suffer even more than they do already, if we cling to the old ways which – in truth – are barely a couple of hundred years old in any case.

So there we are- no longer Mr Sad but definitely Mr Grumpy – and when it stops raining and I fix the water storage it will be Mr Sunny all over again; and the regulars will ask “what’s he on?” as I pull pints and sing “round and round the mulberry bush” .

Back on the allotment

Meanwhile, and notwithstanding the darker tone of the recent posts; things are going well on the allotment, although this year it’s become ever more evident than ever that the stately procession of the seasons has been one of the early casualties of global heating. We’ve moved into an era of ‘all or nothing’ weather which means that unseasonably hot and dry weather is punctuated by fierce storms that need a rather different sort of rain harvesting.

In the past the steady drip of rain running down the greenhouse panes into tiny gutters and thence through small pipes into the water butts, was rarely enough to overwhelm the system. This year we’ve had to modify the gutters and downpipes to cope with the short bursts of very heavy rain which, otherwise, would overtop them and overflow on to the ground beneath. Even then it takes a lot of rain to replenish 1250 litres (250 gallons) of rainwater. Luckily we have access to a couple of water troughs connected to the mains water supply. We also have several underground streams running through the site and flowing out across the pavement below us. In a perfect world we’d dig a massive tank at the bottom to capture the water and then pump it up the hill to another tank at the top, but in the present economic climate, anything beyond two days is long-term planning. That’s to say it goes on to a long list and stays there, even though the payback through saved water bills would be pretty quick.

So today’s job, yesterday’s job and likely tomorrow’s too is to water. In order to get the maximum benefit from the land area we made wood chip paths and beds, but at this time of the year the paths are populated with large pots and any other temporary containers we can press into service. These need watering every day when the temperature is in the 30’s, and the inside of the tiny greenhouse can be like a furnace – good news for the hot chillies as long as they don’t dry out completely. Anything else needs a lot of TLC.

And so just at the time the allotment is absorbing a great deal of energy, the produce is demanding more by way of cookery and preparation and with added ingenuity since ingredients rarely come off the allotment in recipe form. We have courgettes but no tomatoes or aubergines yet so ‘rat’ is off the menu. At the same time much of the soft fruit is ripening and so the question of what to do with it arises, as it does every year.

One useful discipline is to check the cupboard before we make any more of anything. We have a surplus of redcurrant jelly already so there doesn’t seem much point in making more. On the other hand we eat shed-loads of blackcurrant jam so that’s worth replenishing, but much of the other soft fruit is going to be processed into multi purpose fruit compote for summer puddings and ice cream. This year we made a generic “allotment jam” which was very good, but freezer space is limited so the gooseberries are going to be bottled. The biggest overproduction offenders are chutneys and pickles which need to be made circumspectly if you’re not to land up with a garage full of chutney because you didn’t know what else to do with an impulse buy of plums at the roadside. We find that jams last longer than a year, and chutneys can easily last three if they’re properly stored – but eventually they deteriorate and although they probably won’t kill you they won’t enhance your table either.

So we’re very busy but not too busy to keep an eye open for new plants. Today I spotted a common blue sowthistle on the site. It wasn’t too hard to identify but it uncovered the subtle distinction that most floras make between natives and incomers. Plants and flowers escape from gardens and railway lines, even on the wheels of cars and quarry lorries, and if they find a suitable spot they can settle down and grow. This one is a 19th century escapee that’s doing well but – because it’s not a genuine native – isn’t featured in most of my wildflower floras. Even the Book of Stace refuses to acknowledge it, although he will often give a line or two to my seventh cousin from Devon .

Identifying wildflowers can become a bit of an obsession, but it’s harmless and gets me out. I’ve been pacing the allotment and the canal recently trying to sort out the ragworts and, trust me, it can be a challenge. But!- there is a book and a method that’s immensely useful and it’s just been published in a revised second edition. It’s called “The vegetative key to the British flora” by John Poland and Eric Clement and it does exactly what it says on the tin – it helps you to identify plants that aren’t in flower – and even better, different plants whose flowers all look the same but which can be sorted out by closely examining the shape, disposition and minute details of the lower parts, the leaves and stems.

A massively useful tool, you might say, unless I’m trying to identify an escapee like a blue sow thistle, when the Google app on my android phone at least gets me most of the way home. I suppose if it (the sow thistle, that is), continues to do well – and it probably will – a massively suntanned botanist with a gigantic souwester for storms will give it a grudging mention in the 2050 appendix to a slim volume of all the plants that are left. Anyway, thanks to a good magnifier, a copy of Poland and Clement, and a tolerant partner I now know what a hydathode is, and consequently what is definitely an Oxford Ragwort; but the common ragwort which I have known all my botanical life as Senecio jacobaea has changed its name in the hope of escaping detection and is now known as Jacobaea vulgaris. Taxonomists can be very snotty.

Last night there was a massive party on the green. The police have been out in force on Royal Crescent, and so those in the know have come down to the Green which, being in a much less salubrious area, is less likely to generate complaints from important people. Aside from feeling a bit left-out because we’re still self isolating and ignoring the government, whom we wouldn’t believe if they told us the date; it was lovely to hear the young people having so much fun and this morning – contrary to stereotypes – there wasn’t as much as a sweet paper left on the grass because they tidied up so well. I do so hope their optimism won’t be crushed by a second wave of the Covid 19 virus.

Not grapes!

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We were just packing up on the allotment yesterday when  noticed this addition to the shed door. They may look very like grapes at this magnification but in fact they’re tiny (less than 1mm) eggs – I’ve no idea what sort of insect they belong to but they’re strikingly pretty and we’ll leave then there to see what emerges. A quick internet search suggests they could be lacewing or shield bug eggs, but most insects lay their eggs on their food source and so far as I’m aware the shed door is not the habitat of choice for any insect I can think of. If they are, in fact, grapes I shall put an ad in the Daily Mail and sell them on as the new wonder-food that everyone’s investing in. Pretty scruffy painting on the door too – I have to admit – let’s call it vernacular painting and pass rapidly on.

I have seen books and websites that suggest you can run an allotment in an hour a week.  I’m sure you can, just as you can water an allotment in ten seconds with the aid of a second hand fire engine and a full lake of water, but that’s not really the point. There’s an old saying that the best fertiliser is the farmer’s boot. Such archaic folklore is obviously out of date in the age of farm machinery with GPS and onboard computers but that’s part of the problem. Swinging by your allotment for an hour a week or ploughing a hundred acre field without stepping outside the air conditioned cab misses out one vital part of managing your patch of dirt – pondering time.

Pondering is one of the most fruitful exercises in gardening. Standing stock still in the middle of the plot and looking at the lie of the land, the direction that the wind and the rain come from, the condition and even the smell of the soil, the particular weeds that like to grow there, the birds, the pests, the time the sun spends on the plot and the time it’s hidden behind the trees, the places where frost gathers, the habitual path that the badgers take (just try blocking it and you’ll see what I mean), the recollection of the seasons as they affect that particular spot and the way things are at this precise moment; what flourishes and what’s in trouble?  Pondering is the equivalent of a platoon of Royal Engineers building a bridge between the present moment and the future.

So yesterday Madame had a flash of insight that managed to unite three key aims on the allotment. From the first moment I started to build the compost bins I was aware that we were taking out a very large bed of ‘full sunshine’ ground. Space is the most precious commodity we have when there are only 250 square metres to work with, and sometimes you have to make compromises.  Maintaining an organic plot requires big inputs of compost and becoming as self-sufficient as possible in compost is a big money-saver. We also take in garden waste from our neighbours who would otherwise have to drive it to the municipal tip.

We also want to store as much water as possible because with climate extremes becoming almost commonplace we need a buffer against watering bans. Rainwater is, in any case, less damaging because it contains less chemicals like chlorine.

But the loss of twenty square metres of growing space is a big price to pay, which is why Madame’s idea is so brilliant. Yesterday we were pondering where we might put four ridge cucumber plants.  They’re a bit space consuming because, like courgettes and squashes they like to wander. There are four compost bins in a row.  One is used to store leaf mould – so we fill it heaped high with leaves in the autumn, and then we don’t touch it for a year while it gradually reduces to half the original volume. Next to that we store the compost, grit and sundries that we still have to buy. The third bin is for the final stage of our home composting and the last is the ‘live’ bin that’s regularly topped up, turned and mollycoddled.

Madame’s big idea was to plant out the cucumbers in bags of compost on top of the leaf mould. But two heads work better than one and in a flash we could see that by securing a removable floor above each of the bins, and then building a polycarbonate sloping roof over each of the bins and harvesting the rainwater falling on them, we could combine all three objectives :

  • Making compost
  • Harvesting water
  • Increasing cold frame space

It’s three crop vertical gardening in a confined space.

 

 

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.

Water doesn’t flow uphill – does it?

It’s trickier than you’d think, collecting rainwater. In theory at least, all you need to do is shove one end of a pipe into the end of the guttering and the other into a water butt and it will fill up with pure sweet rainwater. In the imagination the rain flows in, filling the tank in no time at all.  But in practice much of our rain is of the 0.1mm per hour drizzly stuff, and so you have to be very patient and make sure that there are as few leaks as possible and finally you need to keep all the pipework as level as possible because water won’t flow uphill. As you see from the photo, my efforts to raise the water butts to the maximum possible height meant that the flexibility of the delivery pipe has introduced a bit of a dip that I’ve now levelled up with the help of a long cane and a cable tie. I won’t know how well it’s all working for a week or so, but a similarly inefficient system filled four barrels totalling 1000 litres so far this winter. But it’s worth the effort.  Water is one of the principal inputs for an allotment, along with recycled compost and manure and if it’s possible to be self-sufficient in any of them, it’s all the better for the environment.

But water butts are one of the most commonly neglected items you see on allotments. They languish in the shade of a collapsing shed; sometimes with surplus water trickling from the top or more likely a lidless dump from a discontinued comfrey water experiment; the best but least attractive thing about it being to provide a breeding space for rat tailed maggots which eventually become hoverflies.  Why is this? Why do we install them with our heads full of their promise and abandon them a season later? My feeling is that it’s due to the very slowness of filling and emptying them. Aside from a season like the one we’re enduring at the moment, when the water table seems to be at knee height, most seasons provide more intermittent showers than satisfying downpours and so we wait patiently until the water butt fills; unwilling actually to use it in case we need it later in the season. Then, as autumn approaches and we contemplate using the water we discover that the tiny outlet tap delivers water so slowly it takes an eternity to fill a can, and the pressure is too low to feed a soaker hose. The dilemmas accumulate.  You can always bale the water out with the watering can, but if you elevate the butt to get a stronger feed you need to be 7′ tall to reach. The trick is to have two watering cans, leaving the second to fill while you use the first.  Alternatively, dripper systems can function well on low pressure feeds – we use ours in the  greenhouse. In practice, though, sadly it seems quicker to walk to the council provided water trough and use expensive drinking water. Watering, it turns out, is a skill that has to be learned.

On our plot we’re planning to store water wherever we can harvest it, but – and here’s the challenge – we’re on a slope. The greenhouse and the shed are at the top of the slope, so that’s fine.  But there’s a big opportunity to harvest water if I build a roof to the compost bins – about fifteen square metres – but they’re at the bottom. So how do we move the water from the bottom to the top? At the moment we’ve got a petrol generator which weighs a ton and needs to be driven up from the flat; and along with a small submersible pump we can move water very efficiently if rather noisily.  But I’m intrigued by the thought of lifting the water with a home-made hydraulic ram pump to move it up to the new storage system. I first saw a hydram in use in Ffestiniog, and then a friend had one in the Brecon Beacons, they’re wonderful pieces of engineering but they cost an arm and a leg if you buy a ready made.  But the joy of internet searches is that there are YouTube videos galore that show how to make one with a bunch of old plumbing spares. I watched an inspiring video of an (I think) Indonesian man making a large pump and installing it in a stream with the help of friends to fill what looked like a 10,000 gallon tank – enough to supply a hamlet.  I’m wondering if I could build one that’s portable so it could be moved from tank to tank …. who knows? – but if I can make water flow uphill that will be wonderful.

 

Dealing with drought (?)

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I know, it makes me feel a bit premature too, since we’re probably about to break the record for the wettest February since records began – but if climate change means anything at all it’s the fact that our weather is becoming less and less predictable. The swings are wilder; feast and famine come together in the weather cycle and ironic though it might seem, we’re investing heavily in water storage at the moment at the Potwell Inn because it’s raining. Starting to wonder what to do after it’s been dry for six weeks and the government is planning a hosepipe ban will be too late. We’ve been storing 1000 litres for a year and I’ve been busy planning and building a new storage layout, connecting the butts and increasing our capacity to 1250 Litres immediately and later perhaps adding another 500 Litres to take the water running off the compost storage bins.  It seems all wrong to use pure drinking water for the allotment, but for the most part we’re all very inexperienced when it comes to efficient watering. I’m quite sure we water too much – in my case because I actually enjoy it on a summer evening – but much of it will be wasted. So one of our climate change lessons for the next few years is to learn how to water just enough and not too much.

We’ll also need to be looking at the plants we grow; the varieties that work and a whole range of new horticultural skills. There will be things that can’t survive the new weather regime and I’m sure the seed catalogues will be offering lots of expensive new varieties.  On the other hand, open pollinated varieties using the best seed gathered on our own allotment year on year might do even better.  I’ve read that it’s surprising how quickly adaptations happen. There’s a good case for looking again at some of the trad varieties that could bring useful genes into play. I once had a micro-variety of cherry tomato that had been treasured since the war by a retired firefighter.  It had no name – just ‘Tim’s tomatoes’ and the fruit was absolutely delicious.  Sadly they died with him but whatever they were, they loved life exactly the way Tim grew them.

There are so many things we can do as growers to mitigate climate change.  That’s not an excuse for not doing all the things we know about in our personal lives, the way we shop and travel and dress. But change, when it comes, will come slowly and we need to prepare for the extremes in the meantime. We’ve done some trials with windbreaks and frostbreaks (hardly needed this winter);  I’ve written often about drainage and improving soil condition – all these things can add resilience to an allotment. Our allotment is sheltered from the prevailing southwesterly winds by a line of tall trees, but the northwesterlies, northerlies and northeasterlies can be incredibly cold and destructive and so we’ve put all our structures – greenhouse, shed and compost bins on the North side, and we’ve built a strong windbreak to the east. We’re not allowed to have fences or hedges but there’s nothing in the rules about training vines and growing vigorous soft fruit along wires.

The hotbed, although it’s quite small has also given us flexibility during the early months of the year.  It’s surprising what you can grow on 12 square feet of fertile soil, kept at a steady 20C. Climate change is a real challenge, but it’s one we can rise to.  I’ve just spent the happiest couple of days sourcing exactly the right kinds of pipes and connectors and one additional water butt that fell into my hands when I walked into a local garden centre and saw the very thing I was looking for next to the till waiting to be returned to the wholesaler. I did a deal with the boss on the spot and got it at a reduced price. So that’s in the back of the car along with a pile of connectors and pipes that I can’t wait to assemble.  For the first time we’ll have a free (OK it cost a bit) but a sustainable source of rainwater that flows freely to a convenient tap at watering can height. It’s been a logistical challenge but by a bit of judicious juggling I’ll have preserved all bar a couple of gallons of the water that we’d already stored. I can’t tell you how much I’ve enjoyed it.  That’s one bit of infrastructure to cross off the list, and then I’ll turn to putting a roof over the compost bins and harvesting the rain off another 60 square feet. Further down the line I want to try out an idea for solar heating using an old radiator that I saw at the Centre for Alternative Technology at Machynlleth years ago and I might even have a go at an irrigation scheme run off a 12V battery and a solar panel on the shed, used to operate a solenoid valve and ……….

Madame gets exhausted by my enthusiasms so I’d better shut up. The flat is full of seedlings. Greta Thunberg came to Bristol today.  Bristol – for the benefit of the political commentariat who never leave London (the Great Wen as William Cobbett would have it) – Bristol is a large city near the confluence of the Wye, the Severn and the Bristol Avon where people speak with a funny accent and around which the electrification of the railway was diverted because too many people voted Labour. George Ferguson the previous Mayor was very involved in Green Politics and the present Labour Mayor has continued in the same vein. There were about 30,000 people there at the demonstration and the march passed off completely peacefully as everyone except the police and the media expected.  The local evening news reported that ‘thousands’ of demonstrators turned up and probably by 10.00 pm the BBC will be reporting that ‘quite a few’ people came and ruined the grass on College Green. It’s a good job, then, that these wicked demonstrators have already started raising money to repair the damage to the grass caused by 30,000 pairs of feet. Meanwhile the police were busy filming these nascent terrorists – some of them at primary school – are we living in la la land?

Still waiting for the police to drop by!

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Well, we’re not exactly expecting anyone to break down the doors but every time we walk back to the flat we look up and see the daylight lamps blazing away over the propagators we think it should at least raise a tiny bit of interest. In any case I’m longing to invite a suspicious officer into the flat to check us out, with –   “Sorry mate – Madame’s maxed out on the basil today and she can’t really speak at the moment, but do come in for a cup of green tea and a flapjack“. 

We love our propagators.  They take a bit of getting used to but once you’ve got the hang of it even so-called difficult subjects become a lot easier.  The first year I sowed chillies I faffed about so much with the temperatures that the only seeds that germinated at all were the Hungarian Hot Wax. The second year went much better, but we discovered that far from being terribly delicate, the old monsters – well at least the Hot Wax and Jalapeno actually preferred it in a sheltered spot outside on the allotment. Only the hottest ones needed protection.  They also resented overcrowding – so if you’re struggling with hot chillies try giving them more space. We also went from ordinary seed compost to composted coir, but we’ve decided that for all its green credentials it’s better to make a home made mix of compost, soil and vermiculite rather than pure coir. One more thing worth trying is to get them germinated and then turn the heat down a bit.  Ours germinate well at 25C but once they’re looking healthy we’ll turn the heat down but still give them lots of light – about 12 hours.  I’m sure there are dozens of experts out there who know better but this year we’ve had 100% germination of the chillies.  ‘Don’t worry’ seems to be the order of the day.

But we’ve also had two dry days and so at last I made a start with moving the water butts to a new and much higher position alongside the shed. There’s room for three 250 litre butts, but when they’re full they’ll weigh 750 Kg  and so the stand needs to be really – no really strong.  The maths is easy –  one litre weighs a kilogramme. I like that kind of unit.  But I don’t like the proliferation of standards that makes joining the water butts together into a nightmare. When Britain ruled the world we just made up a standard, announced it to the world and expected everyone else to comply – and if they didn’t we sent a gunboat up the high street.  So in what ought to be the simple issue of things like nuts, bolts and pipe fittings there are always two standards – one for the heritage lovers, let’s say British Standard Pipe fittings – doesn’t that sound grand – and another for the rest of the slightly more intelligent world. But marooned on this delusional island as we are, it becomes necessary to learn three standards for almost every fitting except those you can hit, and there is a flourishing but incomprehensible market in adaptors which sit like translating apps between a threaded hole and a pipe.

Why bother? you might wonder.  Well it’s because standard water butt taps turn a big – 25mm outlet into a very small one – about 1/3 the diameter which, when you’re filling a watering can or trying to feed a soaker hose turns a generous flow into something with prostate problems.  So my idea is to replace the cheap plastic taps with much more expensive 25mm all-the-way-to-the-pipe taps, and join all the butts together with fancy blue pipe so I can fill a watering can before it gets dark.

The carpentry bit went smoothly and I was able to build the platform without any outlay, just using timber left over from other projects on the allotment. I baled out the first butt and moved it on to the stand but my first attempt to fit a new bung failed miserably.  Like all good gardeners I carry a vernier in my toolbox – no really – and the replacement seems to be just under 1mm bigger in diameter than the original, although they’re both supposed to be 3/4 BSP. Is this, I wonder, because these mains pressure components are meant to be what we experts call “a bash fit”?  Who knows? But as a precautionary measure I’ve ordered a different manufacturer’s so-called ‘compatible’ component which I’ll try tomorrow.  The take-home lesson for today is the one that all plumbers understand and cost into their quotations, namely nothing ever fits first time and endless waiting at the stores counter is just part of life’s rich tapestry.

The fates never smile across the whole of the Potwell Inn at once, and I’ll settle for 100% germination even if the payback is a lot of fiddling around with pipes – at least the sun shone and the birds sang and Madame sowed the first parsnips – which will probably take until midsummer to germinate. In a tiny vignette from our charmed existence at the Inn, we were sitting companionably on the sofa watching something tedious on the idiots’ lantern and I turned to Madame and said – “you smell nice”.  “Oh” she said – “you smell sweaty”. Hm.

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