Ten days ago (or a hundred years as it seems) we were shivering in the wind and rain in the western fells and lamenting the onset of autumn, but it seems the weather had different ideas and so here we are – still a little less north and just as west – enjoying what may turn out to be the last few days of the oddest season I can remember. Since the beginning of the year the seasons have switched on and off, occasionally in the wrong order, and kept us allotmenteers guessing. The settled order of the seasons has been torn up by climate change which leaves us wondering how bad this could get. The answer of course is – even worse than this. It’s hard when we’re offered these balmy days both very early and very late in the season not simply to embrace them and be thankful, but the inexorable warming isn’t just providing us with a few extra sunbathing days, it’s melting the ice cap, melting glaciers and raising the sea level whilst heating the sea and generating huge destructive storms. I’ve only been in the path of an oncoming tide once, when a spring tide corresponded with a big melt of snow and a strong wind blowing the surge up the river Avon in Bristol. We were living right next to the river and as the water topped the walls it came across the road towards our house making a sound I’ll never forget. We didn’t get much sleep that night until the tide turned and took the flood away.
But today the farmers were out baling the straw, and with a couple of days left before the rain returns, they’ll be ready for the winter. The last peaks of the Snowdon range that form a natural boundary to the Lleyn peninsula were standing clear in the blue skies. We walked along the clifftop and below us an abundance of birds were sunning themselves on the rocks – it’s a little paradise here when the wind drops and the sun shines. Much of the time it can be pretty rough. Near to where we’re staying there are a number of coves you can climb down to, all empty of humans apart from us.
Any spare tme I’ve had this week has been spent clearing gigabytes of junk off my long-suffering laptop which is ten years old now and I need to keep it going as long as I can. I hate the tedium of messing about with computers but, on the other hand, I completely rely on everything functioning seamlessly in order to be able to concentrate on writing – so routine maintenance is a necessary evil. But art will out, and aside from a few photos of the view I grabbed a closeup of the dried remains of a wild carrot which must have provided the model for an old style lobster creel – I’ll add it to the list of drawings I’ll attempt in the long winter evenings.
Every silver lining – it’s said – has an accompanying cloud, and one of the best things about allotmenteering is that there are always neighbours who will keep an eye on your plot while you’re away. But there are risks – your neighbour might treat the job as more of an aspiration than a commitment, although it’s usually our children who go down that route. On the other hand the risk to the Good Samaritan is that something horrible like blight might happen to the neighbour’s tomatoes and it’s them that will have to break the news. We have a friend whose daughter’s hamster died one Christmas Eve many years ago. He had to visit every pet shop in Bristol, with the deceased pet in his pocket, asking if they had another one “exactly like this.” Mission accomplished, and with the daughter in the dark about the ruse, they all celebrated Christmas without an accompanying cloud.
The reason for this visit to memory lane is that we arrived at the allotment this morning to find a Good Samaritan in a bit of a state – she’s always taken her responsibilities very seriously. Our neighbour’s tomatoes had suddenly developed some sort of disease while she was looking after them. We knelt and prodded and poked and examined the source of the problem which was not centred on the leaves but in the stems which had developed long brown lesions. When I cut one open and peeled it I could see decomposition beginning at the centre and it felt suspiciously soft. Later, at home, I checked with several books – the RHS book by Pippa Greenwood “Pests and Diseases” is especially approachable – and I decided it is probably Tomato Pith Necrosis, nasty but not completely fatal as long as you cut the infected stems off and burn/dispose of them. By the time we came on the scene she was already planning to dig them all up and burn them but we were certain it wasn’t blight (too early for a start) and she agreed to wait until the holder of the plot got back off holiday. She’d already texted him with the bad news and so I texted him later with the better news. The disease is soil borne and can be spread by splashing – for instance by watering with a rose from above – and also by handling. Tomatoes hate having their leaves handled. Needless to say we all solemnly washed our hands with gel and then we sped off to the Potwell Inn plot to make sure ours were alright.
Happily all was well in the tomato department but while Madame was picking some peas she found that the Pea Moth was cranking into gear – that’s why getting them sown and picked as early as possible is always a good idea.
Elsewhere the young leeks are doing fairly well, but along with the autumn and winter crops already growing, they’re a reminder that nothing stands still for long on an allotment, and the seasons are always queuing one behind the other.
Meanwhile I’ve been revisiting some of the calculations I did before I posted on the subject of watering with stored rainwater. When I went back over the figures the combined water gathering area of the shed plus greenhouse is not 7 but only 5.5 square metres. So I had a look around, and if I roofed the compost bins that would give me an additional 4.5 square metres, and if, as well, I built a rain gathering roof between the shed and the greenhouse it would add yet another 2.5 square metres. That would give a water harvesting area of just under 12.5 square metres. Because there is always inefficiency in harvesting, let’s say that the effective harvesting area is 10 square metres. That means that for every mm of rain that falls we could harvest between 10 and 12.5 litres of rainwater. The average annual rainfall in Bath is 761 mm so that would potentially yield nine and a half thousand litres in a year. That’s about 5% – peanuts compared with the almost 200,000 litres that would fall each year on the whole plot in any case, but the thing is that it doesn’t rain every day and so the stored water is buffer against temporary shortages. Three thousand litres of stored water would provide 75 full watering cans a week for a month, or 25 a week if the drought went on for three months. The harvesting area could refill the tanks three times in an average year and, most importantly they could harvest during those short heavy thunderstorms and intense showers that would otherwise be wasted in run-off to the rivers. Another thing I ddn’t factor in yesterday was that 20% of the overall area of the plots comprises pathways that don’t need watering anyway – that’ll teach me to check my calculations more carefully before I post!
So all this, combined with the other measures I wrote about yesterday, (soil improvements, mulching etc.) could easily be part of the way forward. What really struck me was the sheer volume of rain that falls in a year, and how much of it is wasted in run-off. I haven’t even mentioned grey-water because on an allotment it’s not a factor – but you can see the huge impact of more widespread adoption of water storage.
But yesterday I also alluded to compost as part of the solution to global climate change, and again I checked the calculations I made when I built the 4 compost bins in February. I calculated that the absolute maximum compost we could make would be about 3 cubic metres – and that would be pushing it. All the organic gardening books suggest mulching with up to 15cm of compost. Calculated for our standard allotment that would mean making around 30 – yes thirty – cubic metres of finished compost a year, and I’d say that would be an absolutely impossible target. Some form of rationing will have to be done unless we/you are as rich as Croesus. There are other soil conditioners like leafmould that we can make, but they come (free) in the autumn and the heap spends a year shrinking to less than half its original size. So that makes about half a cubic metre. Apart from buying in manure, which I’ve no objection to except that it takes up so much space (27 cubic metres? – don’t be silly) – that’s a quarry lorry full. So that leaves us green manuring, and, because we’re not digging, the green manure would have to be composted – no problem there.
Sorry, that’s a lot of detail but it makes me wonder how realistic some of the gardening gurus actually are. TV gardening programmes are entertainment, and just as not everyone who watches Jamie Oliver actually cooks his recipes (which, incidentally are very good), so too with gardening shows. Whole new gardens without a blemish are planted up in five minutes and never a pest appears to darken the horizon, and ….. I begin to wonder if coffee table gardening isn’t the first cousin of the romcom – not much reality.
Finally, just to leaven the lump a bit, not all vegetables need a great deal of water. While I was researching this I discovered that watering does nothing for parsnips, and carrots do worse if they’re watered any more than occasionally. Our own experience with potatoes shows they need very little, so there’s some silver lining there. For me the take-home point from all this work with a tape measure and a calculator is a better understanding of the inputs that make for a sustainable and drought resistant allotment. Far from being minor issues they need to be brought into the long term planning of facilities and crops.
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.
The 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!”
We’ve planted five varieties of potato this year –
Jazzy (first early)
Arran Pilot (first early)
Pink fir apple – maincrop but we dig them early for the best potato salad ever
Red Duke of York – again a later potato and fabulous roaster, but also good early
Sarpo Mira – which, being highly blight resistant, we leave in the ground.
The reason we try to get the vulnerable varieties out of the ground early is because the allotment site is plagued with blight. The problem with doing it this way is that we can be overwhelmed with new potatoes early in the season – but then, better overwhelmed than stuck with tasteless supermarket potatoes. But this season – need I say – has been very odd, with a dry early period followed by some pretty cold weather and now almost continuous rain for a couple of weeks. The rain has come just in time for the early potatoes which looked set to be a tiny crop, but they’ve plumped up nicely this week. The photo shows Jazzy at the back, and a few Arran Pilots next to the beetroot. It’s only when you see them together that the whiteness of the Pilots shows up. We’ve never grown them before but they’re the ones my grandfather and my parents always grew, and I remember what a wonderful flavour they had from my childhood, so I can’t wait to get them into a pan.
As for the rest of the vegetables, the weather is causing a mixed bag of results right across the site. Only the overwintered broad beans have survived the aphid onslaught, but at least the ladybirds peaked at exactly the right time and we’re seeing six plus larvae on a single plant. It’s the larvae, not the hatched ladybirds with the prodigious appetite for blackfly.
Tender plants have all suffered stress in the cool wet conditions, and the onion crop has been hit hard everywhere, but the cabbages have enjoyed every moment of the weather and made steady growth. So I suppose that’s the whole challenge of allotmenteering – no season is ever the same as the last one and with global heating playing the wild card, we just have to duck and dive and ride the weather.
However that was only a part of the day because this morning I took the first car-load of books down to the Oxfam shop. This is turning into a bittersweet time as I declutter my study to make space for new projects. Today’s books weren’t just old novels, some of them had been very important at the time for all sorts of reasons, and I could almost remember where and why each one was bought. When I came home I made a start on the serious collection of music books, which seemed more unsettling and painful than ever. I’ve been flunking this moment for four years – I knew I should have sorted through them when we moved here, but we ended up only letting the painless ones go. These latest ones represent a huge investment of time and money during the period I was deeply involved in music, and I had to summon up every ounce of resolve to pass them on to new owners. Music kept me sane for a very long time, especially during the most stressful periods. Anyway that’s enough, and I’m saying to myself that I was really using them as a comfort blanket – something I could define myself by during the period of introspection and loss of role after I retired.
By lunchtime we’d cooked soup for supper and then went for a second look at the Bath Society of Artists show. Julia Trickey – who taught me – has sold a magnificent painting of leaves found in the Bath Botanical Garden. Among the leaves was a Harts Tongue fern, and when I looked carefully there was even dry brush detail in the sporangia. Epic stuff. In the photo below the horizontal pile of books in the foreground has been resting on the lightbox for months now and that’s why I’m clearing up.
Here’s a photo I took when we stayed up in the hills on Cap Corse at the northern end of Corsica a few years ago. I suddenly thought of it during the night as I listened to the relentless sound of the wind outside. Of course, here in the South West we’re used to winds, but the Atlantic fronts usually rattle through for a few hours or maybe a day or two. However we’ve had this particular group of storms for two weeks now and the experience on the ground – as opposed to the weather charts – suggests that this is a bit of an outlier.
On Corsica we had our only experence of the Sirocco. For two weeks a 20C (my guess) – wind blew continuously across the island. We had access to a swimming pool but the wind was so unpleasant we barely used it. Down in South East France they have the Mistral which apparently drives people quite crazy. Elizabeth David wrote this in ‘French Provincial Cooking’.
“Provence is not without its bleak and savage side. The inhabitants wage perpetual warfare against the ravages of the mistral; it takes a strong temperament to stand up to this ruthless wind which sweeps Provence for the greater part of the year. One winter and spring when the mistral never ceased its relentless screaming round our crumbling hill village opposite the Lubéron mountain we all seemed to come perilously near to losing our reason, although it is, of course,only fair to say that the truly awful wine of that particular district no doubt contributed its share”
The fact is, too much wind can be pretty oppressive wherever you live. But it’s 15th March today and the spring equinox is in five days time on the 20th so could this spate of storms come under the umbrella of ‘equinoctial winds’? Not according to the meteorologists who seem to be a bit sceptical about the whole idea that this wind is a seasonal visitor. Looking out over the green outside I can see that two waste bins have been blown fully 50 yards across the grass during the night. Yesterday on the allotment a neighbour’s greenhouse rooflight had been bent back over itself as if it were made of butter. In north Wales, where we were staying last week, the Guardian reported on Storm Gareth with this story:
“Meanwhile, the residents of Llandudno in north Wales had unexpected visitors as a result of the storm when a 122-strong herd of Kashmir goats were seen wandering into the town centre by local residents, having been driven from their home of Great Orme Park by the bad weather.
The animals were spotted eating flowers in people’s gardens, as well as walking out in front of traffic. A spokesperson for Conwy council said there was nothing it could do to keep the goats away from the town: “Goats going into town is nothing unusual, particularly at this time of year. There is no way of stopping them. It is more likely in foul weather as they look for lower ground and shelter.”
Probably the simplest explanation is that – having experienced a few days of warm sunshine – we lazily assumed that the winter was over when, in fact, we’ve barely entered the spring. We still had frost fierce enough to kill off our first sowing of runner beans here in the first week of May last year, so it’s not over yet. For us the weather raises the usual questions. The potatoes are out in the hallway chitted and ready to plant and the bed is prepared, but when do we plant them out? Some of our neighbours have already planted and others are adamant they won’t plant theirs for two or three weeks yet. The two propagators are now filled with the re-potted long-season capsicums and aubergines and we’ll have to get them out soon in order to sow tomatoes. As always the south facing windows in the flat will be brought into service as an improvised greenhouse and we won’t be able to move or close the shutters until May without moving them all. Life’s rich tapestry!
Yesterday we were on our way up to the allotment in our tatty gardening clothes. We filled the lift with pots, ready sown half-trays, a potting tray, green kitchen waste (two small bins), and sack truck with a large bag of compost. The lift was so full I volunteered to take the stairs, but we managed to arrange ourselves and went down together. As the lift descended Madame said “do you wonder if the neighbours think we’re eccentric?”. We travelled in silence, praying that when the lift doors opened the hall would be empty. Later we dined on on an improvised shepherd’s pie (clanger pudding in our family, because it includes any leftovers you can find in the fridge) with our own carrots, purple sprouting broccoli and rhubarb. The allotment is surviving the weather, the beds are all ready to go – what’s a bit of wind?