Today Greg made a few essential alterations to his shed!

sunbathingI remonstrated with him of course, and told him it only needed a lick of paint but he wouldn’t listen. Meanwhile, having left it pretty late to go up to the allotment because we hoped it would keep the overall numbers down, we harvested a few more radishes and a bowl of purple sprouting for tonight’s meal and then did a bit of watering and weeding.  Strangely, after such a wet winter, the ground surface is drying quickly.  This is no problem to the veterans from last year who’ve got their roots down, but the little ones who’ve only been planted out during the last few days need nurturing carefully for the first week.  Not drowning, mind you – but just a touch of water when (or preferably just before) they get dry.  Later on when they’ve settled down it’s better to leave them to send their roots down deep or you’re in danger of creating a major job for yourself and having to water every day.

The radishes and broccoli were lovely – we’re about to cut the first lettuce grown under an improvised frame because ours got nicked. Growing’s hard work enough without thieves undermining the effort but we press on in the hope that the misbehaviour of a few won’t lead to a ban on us even going to the allotment.  Someone opposite my study was certainly obeying the spirit and the letter of the law today , precariously sunbathing her legs through the window. A ban on allotmenteering would put paid to our whole season and cost the country a fortune in vegetables left to waste during a massive food shortage. If there was no alternative for the health of the country then we’d have to comply but if I thought we were to be locked in our flat because of the behaviour of people like the two young men who were sitting chatting on the grass outside smoking weed then I’d be really cross.

While we were up there one of the foxes that looked fine just a month or so ago, passed close by barely paying attention to us.  It had mange badly and looked as if it was half dead already, poor thing. Even foxes get sick sometimes.

Bread baking, of course, has stepped up a notch and I’ve gone back to making a few yeast loaves as well.  Sadly though I’ve only half a bag of flour left.  Apparently the problem lies with packing and not with a shortage.  Of over fifty flour mills, only five repack into 1.5Kg bags as sold by supermarkets – so it’s not a shortage of flour. However I can’t even buy a 25Kg bag because all the websites are closed except to commercial customers. Ah well ….

Two swallows don’t make a summer

– but they certainly show that summer’s on the way. Sorry, by the way, for the lamentable joke but I’m cheering myself up because I’ve just discovered that we’re about to be subjected to house arrest for no greater crime than being over 60.  Even worse, we’re being told that we’ll probably be ‘let go’ by the NHS in favour of the more economically active. They say it’s for our own good that we’re being sequestered, but I’m suspicious.  Being made to feel lonely, marginalized and unwanted isn’t that great, but I think I’ll be alright because I’m so angry I’ll survive anything just for the pleasure of being there when the day of reckoning comes for this government, and meanwhile I’ll spend the time studying plants in the concentrated sabbatical I’ve always longed for.

The biggest worry is that we’ll be unable to maintain the allotment unless someone among the brain dead realizes that growing our own food is like going on a very lengthy shopping trip. Otherwise I’ll buy some night-sight goggles, put on my darkest clothes and garden secretly, in the dark – there are only a handful of police left on duty now in the whole city (post austerity) so it’ll probably be alright and I’ll be able to defend the allotment against the people who see a bit of illegal grazing as perfectly reasonable under the circumstances. Our neighbour once had all his pumpkins stolen a few days before hallowe’en.

The good news is in the photo – the asparagus is coming up. Actually, there’s been something to eat every day – not enough to keep us alive, but enough to keep us cheerful. There are still broccoli, leeks and chard and the hotbed is charging along so we’ll soon have some salad veg. I don’t think I’ve seen mention of this, but the complex reaction that keeps a hotbed going does need keeping moist, and we find that occasional watering invariably sends the temperature up by a few degrees 24 hours later.

Having time to calibrate the greenhouse drippers will pay off I’m sure, and by the time the warm spring weather comes and the plants are moved out of the flat, the whole system should work without too much intervention from us.  We’ve got food deliveries booked three weeks ahead and our youngest lives near enough to pick up fresh food and keep an eye on things; our middle son is an allotmenteer (on another site), our neighbours are a great bunch and our oldest son has got the whole family connected for video calls, so we’re very fortunate.

George Peterken’s nook “Meadows” is a delight as well. I have to read it with the laptop, a couple of floras and a notebook to hand because it’s that rich, but every chapter feels like a long rewarding walk and brings back happy memories of botanical expeditions we’ve enjoyed and intend to enjoy again when we get parole.

I had a colleague who was once involved in a deadful car crash.  He was driving on a dual carriageway when he suddenly saw a BMW upside down and in the air, flying towards him. He said it was so completely unexpected he simply couldn’t process the information and try to take evasive action. That’s what this coronavirus outbreak is beginning to feel like here in the UK.  The absence of any compassion, intellectual heft or even basic organisation by the government is terrifying.

New wheelbarrow makes heavy work!

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The old wheelbarrow was all of ten years old and the wheel had been replaced three times. Last week I finally accepted that the persistent flat tyre was trying to tell me that it was time to retire rather than retyre it – not least because I’d also put a spade through the base whilst mixing potting compost. And so it’s gone and I replaced it early this morning with an all singing, all dancing model with a super non-puncture solid tyre. I should have guessed after I’d struggled to get it into the car that it was a bit bigger than the old one but it was on sale at 20% off and I couldn’t resist.

Back at the allotment as I loaded it up with wood chip I realised that as well as being 20% cheaper it was also 30% bigger. My usual 30 spadefuls of wood chip increased to 40 – increasing the weight in the process.  Nonetheless it needed proportionately less journeys up and down from the plot and so, dazzled by the mathematics I finished the job quickly with my lovely new green non-squeaky and non leaky wheelbarrow. Over the years I’ve learned that getting the right tools for a job makes it sooooo much easier, but having the right tools has also increased the weight of my toolbox to the point where it needs its own transport.

IMG_20200311_153034With paths all completed for another season, Madame planted out potatoes (risky but worth the gamble when it pays off), planted seeds and harvested veg for supper while I installed the cleaned-up drippers for the greenhouse and connected them to the new water storage. Last year was a bit hit and miss, with the water running dry because the barrels were set too low.  This year they’re on a 3′ frame and should be able to deliver 250 litres of rainwater without interruption. This year we’re going to water from the bottom of the pots by using capillary mat, so effectively we’re watering the mats rather than the pots.  In the propagators this certainly encourages the roots to go downwards in search of water and strengthens the root balls ready for growing on and planting out. To make it easier I’ve made a support for the individual drippers to stop them from falling over – just holes in a batten really, nothing complicated, but it looks a lot tidier (obsessive behaviour again!). The yellow strip is a non poisonous glue trap to try to reduce the whitefly which are already rife this year. Over the next week I’ll be calibrating the drippers so that the mats don’t get flooded and then, as the threat of a longer cold spell recedes, we can start to move the frost tender plants into the greenhouse on their way to the ground outside. 

All this while the sun shone  – it was heaven! This week the river has been running high, and it’s kept the issue of climate change at the top of our attention. We used to live 15 miles further downstream, at the point where the tidal river enters the Bristol Docks, and I described some time ago how we once came very close to being flooded ourselves. Then, it was a combination of snow melt, a high spring tide and a westerly wind lumping up the tide as it ran beneath the suspension bridge and up the gorge.  This year it’s much the same combination and a friend posted this photo of what would have been the view from our window.  It’s a scary thought that these ‘once in a lifetime’ events are becoming more and more regular. I recommended Adam Nicholson’s marvellous book “The Seabird’s Cry” a couple of weeks ago.  When I finally put it down it was me that felt like crying at the damage that we’ve inflicted by fuelling climate change. Why should we get so upset at the fate of seabirds which have no real economic bearing on our lives? The answer, of course, is in the word ‘economic’. Like the caged canary in a mine, the fate of the seabirds is a telltale, a warning that something is terribly wrong. Banning canaries wouldn’t have saved any miners’ lives and ignoring the disappearance of many treasured species won’t save us from the consequences of our inaction. The great ocean going birds bring spiritual and aesthetic gifts beyond any bean counting exercise, and all the while we grow more and more impoverished; diminished from within and without.

My thanks to Sarah and Ben for the photo

Addendum

I just noticed that Sarah posted this because Bristol City Council have proposed building 2000 houses in this immediate area. Darwin Award for them!

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Worrying about water

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Yesterday morning early I was trudging back and forth to the water trough, worrying about just how dry the soil has become over the past couple of weeks.  We had a decent spell of rain before that, but my impression is that we’re distinctly down over the average. Here in Bath the average annual rainfall figure is given as 761mm.  I did a bit of investigating and soon realized that I had no idea what that figure really meant, and so it came as a surprise to me that the figures given in mm aren’t ‘per square metre’ – in fact they’re not related to area at all. If you want to find out how many litres of water fall on your patch of ground in an average year, it seems that 10mm of rain is equivalent to 10 litres of rain per square metre – that’s to say, in average year our 250 square metres of allotment receives very roughly 20,000 litres of rainwater.

So far so boring, you may think, but many allotments are completely dependent on a water supply that can be turned off if there should be a drought.  Most of us are familiar with the need to have a waterbutt attached to the shed and/or the greenhouse but when you look at the data, a single waterbutt is hardly going to save the day – and that’s where I came in. Yesterday, let’s say I used 20 cans of water (it’s peak watering season), and so that’s 200 litres of water – or pretty much one whole water butt full – that’s to say if the Council or the water companies decided to pull the plug, on our allotment we’d have four good waterings left. So, at a pinch, we could probably survive for a month, but what about a three month drought? It’s a fairly simple calculation – we’d need 12 water butts – 3000 litres of stored water.  However, gathering that amount of water in order to store it would be a huge challenge – we have about 7 square metres of roof altogether, so we would need somewhere in the region of 500mm of rain allowing for some inefficiency.  Not only that, water butts take up a lot of space – we’d need to go for 1000L caged containers.  Any way you look at it, making provision for a drought is both complex and expensive.

IMG_5682The only way to mitigate our water use is to increase the water capacity of the soil by increasing the amount of organic matter and making use of mulches to reduce surface evaporation. It’s clear from our experiments with mixed plantings, that covering the ground completely (courgettes, for instance under sweetcorn) lashings of leafmould and so-on really increase the moisture holding capacity.  The Potwell Inn allotment needs most watering on the areas where the soil is exposed – it’s obvious really. Another approach – one which I’m sure the seed merchants will soon be all over – is to develop drought resistant varieties, but we could also start to develop extremely locally adapted plants through seed saving.

The take home lesson from all this, so far as I can see, is that in the teeth of global heating, we allotmenteers are going to have to adapt very quickly. It’s easy to feel virtuous when we grow our own organic food, but we need to be modest about our potential.  Collective action across a whole allotment site could be worth investigating – we’ve got three underground streams running through the site – it would take a lot of work and investment but at the moment it’s just running into the river.

When I sat down to write this I felt a bit glum, but now I’ve done the maths and given it some thought, sustainability is a real possibility on the allotment. It seems almost a crime to be pouring purified drinking water on our plants when alternatives are possible. It’s easy to think that the only harvest that matters on an allotment is the stuff we can eat, but we need to harvest every scrap of green waste we can get our hands on, and every available fallen leaf so we can make quality moisture retaining composts and mulches; and then every possible harvestable drop of rain to reduce our tapwater consumption.

To repurpose an old saying – “We have seen the enemy – it is us!”

 

Please welcome the Mark IV water feeder

IMG_5022The Potwell Inn is proud to present the very latest and most sophisticated ever version of the semi-automatic propagator watering device (world patents pending). Having thought through the problems and making several minor adjustments to the width of the feeder strip a sudden bright idea came to me and I added a second cork to hold the ribbon of capillary mat above the surface. Then as a final whimsical thought I added a twig of bay as a kind of mast to which I could lash the ribbon with a piece of string. It now resembles a raft and is bobbing very satisfyingly at the top of the cistern. Whether it works better that the previous iterations is yet to be seen.  Meanwhile the hottest of the chillies are refusing every temptation to germinate while the Hungarian Hot Wax are thriving but I refuse to give up because it’s the first day of spring.

Back on the allotment the hot bed has worked pretty well and the seeds I sowed about a week ago are beginning to germinate, so lettuce, spring onion, radish and beetroot are on their way. In the kitchen, the sauerkraut is almost ready to go into the fridge. Busy times are ahead.

That’s it – we’re on the treadmill now

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I promise there’s no theorizing in this post!

In actual fact I could have celebrated the moment months ago when the overwintering broad beans, the peas, garlic, shallots and onions all went in, but that felt different. There was winter to contend with and, to be fair, spring is still a long way away  But today when Madame set out the seed potatoes for chitting it felt more like the first stirrings of the new season – as if the starting gun had been fired – and it’s true, once you’ve started the spuds (and the chillies tomorrow) you’re locked in.  Have we got enough I wondered when we surveyed the egg boxes. There are another couple of kilos on the way but will there be enough maincrops to take us through? If we get another summer like the last one, probably not, but if there’s more rain around we’ll manage. Last season we hardly watered the potatoes, there just wasn’t time since there are no hoses on our plot, and any watering has to be targeted. The biggest fear is that they’ll turn off the water supply to the troughs which would leave us rationing the 1000 litres we’ve got stored.  I’ve half a mind to add a fifth water butt for luck.

Perhaps underwatering has an upside though, because where they used to grow thousands of tons of early potatoes in Pembrokeshire we always noticed that when they were heavily watered the flavour was greatly diminished. These days in Pembrokeshire many of the farmers have given up on potatoes altogether and those that are left will be vulnerable when the pickers stop coming from Eastern Europe. Last season on the allotment however, although the crop was small, the flavour and texture were amazing.

So there was definitely a sense of excitement around in spite of very strong winds and downpours of wintry rain. We had to go up and check the fleeces and cloches which had suffered a bit overnight and to my delight the hotbed has already climbed to 15C since it was completed on Tuesday.  I drilled a hole in the side of the bed so I can push a thermometer into the centre without removing the cover.  Tomorrow all the timber for the compost bins is arriving and just as a special extra treat a fresh load of woodchip has been dumped at the site.  I feel like we won the lottery! The forecast is terrible and working in waterproofs is very sweaty, but somehow it seems as if we’ve got the wind in our sails.