Some silver linings

Well we’d better make a start with these early risers – just a dozen of the wildflowers – don’t say weeds – flowering this morning on the riverbank footpath.  We took ourselves out for an hour in the fresh air today, fairly certain that we were maintaining our social distances in the required fashion.  The only downside seems to be an increasing tendency for young people to look rather suspiciously at us as if we were causing the problem rather than being the principle victims.  You can’t blame them I suppose, they’ve been repeatedly told that we stole their pensions – a bit of larceny I don’t remember at all – someone else must have taken my share! On the other hand the sight of a man crouching amongst the weeds may have led them to conclude I was about to expire and reminded them of the admirable advice in the parable of the good Samaritan, that’s to say – to pass by on the other side.

So this year I fear my botanising will be largely confined to these local wild and weedy thugs – aside from a trip to Whitefield meadow at Dyrham Park where with a bit of luck we’ll find the elusive orchid whose name I’m not even going to mention. The riverbank was reseeded with wildflower mix a couple of seasons ago, following flood prevention works, and although it looked quite pretty for a while is just didn’t look right.  It was a jumble of wildflowers from quite different habitats including a few poppies. As I’ve mentioned several times I’m reading George Peterken’s marvellous book “Meadows”, (£35.00 and worth every penny), anyway he mentions in passing something that demonstrates exactly why the wildflower mix looked so wrong – there were poppies in it and poppies are arable weeds.  In fact he says that there are no red flowers in flower meadows at all. I’m in no position to verify that nugget, but it sounds exactly right and completely underlined why the riverbank attempt at flower meadow flora was a bit – well, out of tune.

What’s more to the point, though, is that these expensive usurpers didn’t, probably couldn’t, last the course.  They arrived in an alien environment; out came whatever passes for banjos and shotguns in the plant world, and the locals simply shouldered them out of the way as if they were old people in the queue for toilet rolls. The burdock that I was so sad to lose to the bulldozers and excavators has reasserted itself in its old home and the whole stretch of the river bank is restored to pretty much the way it used to be. Weeds!  How long, I wonder, before public pressure is brought to bear on the council to get the strimmers out?

More silver linings for the family.  The almost complete disappearance of tourists has led to a crisis in the holiday rental market and so suddenly, overnight, there are flats available for short term rent and our youngest son has found somewhere to live. Our middle son has just heard that the government is subsidising wages up to 80% – which will be a lifesaver in the catering industry where thousands have been laid off already.

But yesterday I spoke to our oldest, who is a teacher, and he was able to tell me about the traumas that students and teachers are experiencing when relationships that have taken years to nurture are suddenly ruptured. Young people have no idea how they will cope with the postponement of public examinations and they are quite properly distraught at being cut adrift at this crucial time in their lives, not knowing what lies before them.  So he’s going to be working harder than ever to make sure they’re safe, properly fed and cared for. When you read about the schools being closed, remember that teachers aren’t going to be enjoying ‘garden leave’ but struggling to keep the show on the road. My advice is not to crack jokes about the ‘long holiday’ if you want to continue to enjoy your own!

There were crowds up at the allotment today. We were too emotionally exhausted to do much but the weather looks fine for tomorrow so we’ll have a day with as little stress as possible. To adapt a quote from Churchill, who seems to be on everyone’s’ lips at the moment –

The government can always be relied upon to do the right thing – after they’ve tried everything else!

Bath pavement artist cheats death

 

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Rue leaved saxifrage

I’d never noticed this plant until we moved here – it’s a Saxifraga tridactylides the three fingered or rue leaved saxifrage. I first noticed it growing on our fire escape where, because it was only rooted in about 1 mm of grime, it was a tiny little plant and I thought no more of it until today when I spotted its more fortunate relative growing in a  luxurious crack at the bottom of an old limestone wall. Like most pavement plants it doesn’t exactly draw attention to itself, but unlike many of its posher cousins this saxifrage is an annual, and it survives the yearly baptism of Roundup by flowering and setting seed before the man from the council gets to it. Other pavement artists survive by looking as if they are entitled to be there.  The Mexican fleabane spreads because most people think it’s a daisy and therefore deserves a chance.  The Canadian fleabane plays Russian roulette with the ethnic cleansers (this is a very fertile city) so sometimes it gets hit and sometimes it gets away with it. The sowthistles seem to be resistant to the sprays, so they die back respectfully and then emerge stronger than ever. Ivy leaved toadflax grows on the walls and escapes that way. Let’s be honest, this obsessive tidiness isn’t remotely necessary, and the vagrant plants add a touch of life – even to our hallowed Georgian crescents. I’m just pleased to see anything showing signs of life.

Today started with me feeling a little short of sleep. I seem to be dreaming my entire life in a more or less random manner – my mind is slowly coming to terms with the fact that at last, through the magical surroundings of the Potwell Inn, I’m safe, and so having packed up and moved here four years ago my unconscious is wrapping up the past and packing it away because it (he) knows I don’t need it anymore.

Today’s re-lived experience involved the 8 mm film I once made of the funeral of a gangster who – it was widely thought – had been thrown down a flight of stairs and murdered. The police conducted an unenthusiastic investigation that took best part of a year, but there were no witnesses, no-one was talking and, to be frank, most people thought he had it coming. I was riding behind the horse-drawn hearse when the coffin very nearly slid out on to the road because someone had forgotten to insert the bolts, and the coachman turned to me and said – “he frightened my bloody ‘oss – e’s bin in the freezer for six months”. The surreal picture of a frozen corpse rolling down the hill was an addition to life’s rich tapestry, no doubt, but I spent most of the day in barely suppressed terror. 

So enough of these troubling old memories, I’m wrapping them in newspaper and sticking them in some kind of interior shed – glad to see the back of them.  But there are many more, and I think I’ll be dreaming them for the foreseeable future.

The good news was that on Monday we went to an excellent talk on Giotto’s paintings in the Scrovengni Chapel in Padua – the paintings were in Padua, that is, we were in the inestimable BRLSI. In the days of our pomp, when we had two incomes; most of our half-terms (Madame is an art teacher) were spent in galleries around Europe, sometimes with school parties and sometimes alone.  Now we’re retired our scope is a bit narrower and we haven’t even been to London for years, but the talk reawakened all the old excitement and I suddenly thought – ‘well we live 10 minutes walk from a main line station, why don’t we buy a railcard and book ahead to get cheap train tickets?‘  I mentioned the idea to Madame and she added Glasgow and Edinburgh to the wish  list and after an hour online we had our card and our first ticket – to Cardiff for the National Museum of Wales – great place.  I don’t need to drive, or worry about where to park, and we don’t need to have the obligatory row as we drive in circles when the satnav fails. It’s a win win cultural feast with extra virtue on the side for taking the train. We’re like a couple of kids in a sweet shop when we go to a good gallery.

Back on the allotment (try to keep up – we get around a bit!) I checked the traps and for the first time this week there were no rats.  A little dig around the compost bin suggests that either they have moved out or there were only ever a couple of them. The heap, which has been topped up to the brim three times since October has now rotted down to about 25% of the initial volume and is ready to be turned into the neighbouring bin. Everything looks very dormant apart from the overwintering vegetables which are all doing well.  The garlic that we started in pots about three weeks ago is doing particularly well and even some red onion sets that we’d given up on have thrown up their first shoots. Suddenly I’m very aware that the chilli seeds need to be sown very soon to give them a long ripening season. Next week we’ll be complaining about having no time!

My friend Rose posted to say that she’d been down to Shapwick Heath to see the murmuration of starlings there on the Somerset levels. Lucky her, we’ve not yet been but I’m sure it was awesome.  We used to see murmurations over Redcliffe Church in Bristol when I was there, but I’d be surprised if that still happens now.  We did, however, see a robin on the plot today.  We no-diggers are a bit of a waste of time for a hungry robin, but he he may have just turned up for a chat.

 

 

Guerilla gardening

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Yesterday I got excited about a patch of winter heliotrope on the canal side, but I didn’t mention the little guerilla garden that popped up just below Cleveland House a couple of seasons ago. I’m no expert when it comes to guerilla gardening, but I know of three sites in Bath that have been planted up and (more or less) maintained for a few years now. If you walked past looking at your mobile or with your head full of music, or ran past checking your heart rate and distance, or shouting at your children to mind the water -you’d never notice it – there’s only half a dozen square metres of it after all. But it just happens that it’s next door to a favourite patch of Pulmonaria (lungwort) which was not showing much more than leaves yesterday and it contained some winter savory in flower.

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From Clive Stace – “New Flora of the British Isles” 3rd edition

So how do we feel about these introduced and occasionally naturalized interlopers popping up here and there with a bit of human help. My “Atlas Flora of Somerset” has the plant established for a very long time on the walls of the manor at Mells. Stace has it naturalised in North Somerset – which may well refer to the same plants, so it seems to me to be completely pointless trying to establish its status as if it were applying for a visa. The brute facts are that this plant was almost certainly put there by the guerilla gardener(s)  who thought the patch was looking very neglected and needed cheering up. Maybe in a hundred years it will have naturalised and maybe it will just give up the ghost because it’s not in the right place – who knows? But yesterday it was in flower and looking very pretty in the shy sort of way that plants do when they’re surrounded by the usual badly behaved groundlings in disturbed soil.

It’s possible to get disquietingly touchy on the subject of alien plants, as if only ram-stamped British – no, English – subjects should be allowed. Is there a whiff of nativism in it? Neither plants, birds or insects respect our artificial borders – we’ve got a lovelorn parakeet hanging around on the allotment at the moment; should we shoot it in the pursuit of ecological purity or smile at its preposterous brightness against the winter trees?

There are a couple of serious points that should be made about planting up apparently neglected patches of ground. The first is that wildflowers often only show themselves for a brief period and then disappear again until next season. Most of us don’t notice that wildflowers adapt to their surroundings by timing their flowering period to coincide with any number of factors – space, daylight, pollinators – and probably many more.  The wonder of the weedy verge is succession and so although the patch of apparently boring ground may not be looking at its most showy today, in a month it might be a riot or a contemplative joy. As I discovered very early on in my botanical apprenticeship, not all dandelions are really dandelions, and not all of those green plants on verges are cow parsley. Wild plants have their own times and seasons and it’s not their job to provide us with year-round entertainment. I’ve come to see the random distribution of “wildflower seed mix” as just another form of vandalism alongside strimmers.

Another parallel point comes in a particularly poignant way here in Bath. The local council, bless them, always mindful of the strillions of visitors, like to make sure that the the grass and borders are a constant visual feast.  But to be honest, 50,000 tulips is a bit of an insult to any idea of biodiversity. God has an answer to bare earth, and it’s called weeds.  Weeds are beautiful, healing, occasionally poisonous, and home to billions of insects that feed birds and other insects. My mother, born in 1916, knew her wildflowers inside out; could predict the weather for the next few hours by looking at “Granny Perrin’s nest”  which, to my infant eyes, looked like a tall tree, and didn’t think of herbal remedies as the least bit ‘alternative’. She didn’t – to my knowledge – ever fly on a broomstick.

Teaching children to understand and recognise even a few local wildflowers and their properties (perhaps ‘gifts’ would be a better word), would do more to advance the battle against the coming ecological disaster than any number of wildlife documentaries. At Christmas our oldest grandson (7) showed me his new bird record book. Three pages of neatly ruled entries detailed all his sightings, and every one of them was a blackbird. I asked him if he’d seen anything else and he replied that he was only recording black ones at the moment.  It’s a start, that’s the thing. If we’re going to survive on this planet, the earth needs to be the object of our love and not just our understanding. So I hear what you’re saying, guerilla gardeners, but don’t be too quick to condemn the weedy patch or you might fall into the sin of municipal consciousness.

 

Meet the new parishioners

 

Two new neighbours, thanks to Richard Mabey’s book on weeds which has reminded me how we don’t know these plants because, through some cultural trick of the mind, calling a plant a ‘weed’ means we often don’t even see it. These two plants are growing on the pavement outside the flat and one of them at least is rather pretty. I don’t think the one on the right – Conyza canadensis, or Canadian Fleabane is ever going to win a prize for its looks, but the other, Erigeron karvinskianus – Mexican Fleabane is very pretty.  We’ve been here almost 4 years now an in that time it’s extended its precarious life in pavement cracks almost the whole length of the street.

There’s a direct parallel with the human population in our ward.  On a short walk into the centre of town it wouldn’t be unusual to pass people of half a dozen nationalities from right around the world. Among our visitors here, Chinese and Japanese are almost as common as the French and Spanish speakers.  Some residents have been here for generations, some stay for years and there’s a whole other mixed age group of students and others who are far more ephemeral. Mexican Fleabane and Canadian Fleabane are just two more visitors who came and stayed.

IMG_3768There are others too – this one is Saxifraga tridactylites – the Three Fingered or Rue Leaved Saxifrage that turned up on our fire escape steps in 2018 and promptly disappeared.  It was replaced by a fine crop of slime mould the following winter. I had no idea that slime moulds were mobile but this one slowly worked its way down the steps and on to the yard where it too promptly disappeared.

I love it – the constantly changing plants seem to fit the constantly changing population. There are beautiful plants of course, but there are loads of imposters, spivs and generally indestructable plants like Hedge Mustard and Wall Barley.  I’m not calling them weeds any more because if we’re going to bring the earth back from the brink we’ve got to start calling these plants by a different name.  I’m calling them parishioners because because like it or loathe it we’re sharing both our space and our fate with them. They’ve all got names,  parents and a history, just like the drunks and spiceheads who also spend their days immobile outside on the grass.

I hope I shall be Parson Woodforde to all my new parishioners of whatever life-form; speaking of which, the dog belonging to our neighbour Nutter is barking furiously (fruitlessly) at a hot air balloon passing overhead. His owner is sitting in the sun drinking beers – he hasn’t even gone out busking today – which is a great mercy to all our visitors.

 

More weeds

 

The family land holding just increased by 135 square metres, although when I say “holding” I mean rental because our middle son has just taken on a somewhat neglected allotment about 8 miles away from us. We spent Sunday morning there together with a 100 metre tape and some wooden pegs marking out where the beds would go and sampling the soil, the aspect and generally establishing some kind of route from where he is to where he wants to be. I’m immensely proud, but mindful of the huge effort of balancing his working hours as a chef with his family life with his partner and their three children, as well as growing an allotment. But ironically I was also a bit envious because the work of breaking an allotment and bringing its soil up to scratch is so rewarding. The pioneer days have their charms. His main challenge is the covering of rampant Blackberries across the whole plot.  Even no-dig demands at least one season of the usual hard work to clear the soil of the worst of the noxious weeds.

But following on from Sunday’s posting, I’ve been thinking a lot about weeds and I went back to the bookshelf to re-read Richard Mabey’s book – “Weeds- the story of outlaw plants”  It’s an absolutely lovely book from a writer who’s hardly written a dud word in his life and it’s definitely one for the Potwell Inn library. You’ll look at weeds differently once you’ve read it, and I realized, as I turned the pages, how much of his book had soaked into my memory and formed my own attitude.  The history of weeds often includes periods when they were immmensely valuable as medicinal herbs, and if you read the labels of many beauty products you’ll see that they’re still in use today. My favourite discovery is that a well-known brand of natural fibre sold as a laxative, uses the seeds gathered from a member of the Plantago family.  The plantains still have their uses, and instead of composting them I’m now inclined to let them fatten up and then harvest them as I might harvest  any other useful food plant. Quite apart from their use to us, weeds are of the utmost importance to many of our moths, butterflies and other insects, and a large part of the ecological crisis that’s unfolding is the result of the chemical war on weeds. We should love them for all their irrepressible vulgarity and powers of survival.

Back in the Potwell Inn kitchen, the incoming vegetables – particularly the unstoppable flow of courgettes and gherkins is testing our ingenuity.  I confess I’ve never been a fan of ratatouille – it’s a reaction to being force fed the stuff many years ago while camping. I can still see the cook crouching behind a windbreak muttering incantations and boiling it down into a dreadful slush that tasted mostly of methylated spirits. But in the interests of harmony I’m suspending all my food prejudices in order to find a way of enjoying all the stuff we grow.  Madame and I have between us tried just about every recipe for ‘rat’ that’s ever been written down.  Today it was the turn of Simon Hopkinson whose recipe Madame found in one of the cookbooks (we’ve probably got over a hundred). The advantage was that the vegetables were fried to the point where they still had some bite, and then they were anointed with some of last year’s tomato sauce, a couple of black olives and a handful of fresh basil from the windowsill. It was without doubt the best ratatouille I’ve ever tasted.

I’ll write one day about the dynasties of chefs – it’s a subject I’m very interested in because we have two in our immediate family and they are both very much the product of the mentoring and training they received.  More on that one another day, but now we’re getting to the start of jamming, pickling and freezing. Some of the brine pickles we experimented with last year have been quietly dropped, and we’re hoping that this year we’ll pull off some really decent pickled gherkins.

But on top of all this there are grandchildren to be looked after from time to time, and our campervan which has a fridge that won’t work as it should on LPG. Mechanics are expensive and I’ve come to question their skills over the years so I’ll have a go at anything I’m legally allowed to do. Yesterday I spent a couple of hours measuring voltages and resistances and pondering over the service manuals.  Most problems are stricly logical ones – X doesn’t work because Y – and so forth. The difference between mending it myself and paying someone else to do it can amount to hundreds of pounds so I’m eagerly awaiting a package with what (I hope) will solve the problem inside. It’s important because in a few weeks we’re celebrating Madame’s birthday with a week in the Yorkshire Dales and then onwards into the Borders and Scotland. With a bit of wildcamping in view we need the gas fridge.

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Muckyannydinny Lane

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Muckyannydinny Lane was the name we used, as children, for a narrow, wet, rubbish filled and overgrown short cut from “The Lane” to halfway down Seymour Road. It was such an uninspiring dump that, so far as I know, no-one ever actually used it except couples who in those far off days needed somewhere out of sight to consummate their relationships. Consequently it became imbued with an almost erotic overtone for me as a child – which may or may not explain a great deal!

Moving rapidly on, I think it’s time to remind everyone that the Potwell Inn is not a real place but a fictional creation of H G Wells whose leading character Alfred Polly had more influence on me growing up than a whole garrison of teachers freshly returned from the 2nd World War, many of them suffering from the same sorts of depressions and mental disturbances that afflicted my Dad. Mr Polly, in the course of the novel, burns down half the town in which he lives unhappily, by setting fire to his stairs while attempting to commit suicide. He becomes an inadvertent hero by rescuing a trapped elderly lady and in the ensuing chaos slips away to search for something better – which turns out to be the Potwell Inn where he only has to get rid of the psychopathic Uncle Jim in order to find his paradise.  Uncle Jim, being vanquished in an act of bungled heroism quite as daft as the suicide bid, washes up dead some time later wearing Polly’s jacket, therefore allowing the hero to be declared dead and consequently free to pursue an idyllic life with the plump landlady of the establishment.  So not quite the story of my life but tremendously resonant for a teenager living in a house haunted by PTSD, falling for Madame who, though she was as slender as a whippet had plenty of  crap to leave behind as well.

So after those two oxbows and the confluence of  several small streams in the great journey of life, I want to say that yesterday was something of a disappointment. “What you want and what you’ll get is two different things” my Granny (who could start a fight in an empty room) would often say.  I was missing the campervan, missing the coastal path walks, missing the botanising and feeling mightily grumpy about it.  Madame, noticing the dark cloud moored over my head, suggested a walk up to Prior Park to look at the plants. Absolute bomber direct hit! that was exactly what I needed to do.  And so all fired up I downloaded a new plant recording app for the phone, packed pocket magnifier, notebook, copy of Rose and even a six inch steel ruler and we set out.

Setting out involved passing the astroturfed bankside, but I did notice one or two dodgy looking plants that might have stepped right over from Muckyannydinny Lane.  Prior Park has become a bit of a building site because they’re repairing one of the dams that’s been tunnelled into by marauding Signal Crayfish. The new app refused to work and after my third attempt to log in I had a huffy message to say I’d been barred and needed to email the management. The Cafe was shut, and there were nothing but weeds and Cabbage Whites to look at and so we turned back and walked home again.

As we walked back with my dudgeon level set to nine, I began to think a bit more rationally about what was going on. Not all of the plants along the bankside were Bohemian interlopers.  There were some that looked like – well, proper weeds which had emerged from the builders rubble and the subsoil, briefly resurrected from their tarmac tombs. There’s a certain muscularity about these plants.  Nature abhors a vacuum almost as much as it abhors architects’ fancy wildflower mix, and the bankside has become a grudge match between the flowers introduced for their attractive colours, and the native weeds. Milwall versus the local croquet club. Guess which was winning?

IMG_5883And so a new project began to form in my mind.  Obviously I’d really love to spend my life in places of outstanding wildness and beauty, recording stunningly lovely and rare orchids.  However I actually live right next to the Bath to Bristol Cyclepath which is much loved by commuters on foot, runners, lycra louts on their handbuilt racing bikes, drunks, homeless people and drug dealers who rather appreciate the opportunity of a swift exit if the police arrive. That’s why all our local dealers ride bikes, because they’re over the river and away before the police can do a thirteen point turn and chase them. The litter bins have proved particularly useful for hiding stashes of drugs by taping them up under the lid, like a kind of unofficial click and collect service.

The path is a unique environment all of its own.  There’s the river bank on one side, parks, houses and factory buildings on the other.  It’s much altered and constantly dug up for building work and it enjoys heavy traffic most of the day. If dogs’ turds and discarded cans and bottles contribute any nourishment it must be highly fertile.  Graffiti add a certain edginess to the flat surfaces, but in real life, notwithstanding the fact that the Council like to boast about it as a great achievment for the environmentalists, it’s a frog and no amount of kissing is going to make it into a prince.

But it’s my frog and I like it. This morning I was up at the crack of ten o’clock to take some photos.  I’ve already ID’d three native plants I’ve never seen before and I can feel a big list coming on. Prickly Lettuce and Weld are hardly going to draw in the twitchers, but as I’ve said so often – if you don’t know that it’s there you won’t know when it’s gone. One day, I hope, the Natural History of Muckyannydinny Lane will stand with Gilbert White’s Natural History of Selborne. Meanwhile a few photos to whet the appetite.

Meet the neighbours

 

“These are not weeds, they’re habitat.” – Rose

That’s Rose my friend,  rather than Francis Rose whose book “The Wildflower Key” goes with me on all my expeditions. With surgical skill she reorganised my prejudices and enabled me to see that these ‘pernicious weeds’, growing less than ten feet from the Potwell Inn allotment are a haven to wildlife of all kinds. Let’s start with the Ragwort (“Stinking Willie”), which carries the additional burden of being listed as poisonous to livestock and a favourite hate plant for lazy gardening journalists.  So dangerous, in fact that Norman Tebbit in his days of pomp wanted to force unemployed youths to uproot it as a form of community service. A typical example of the politician rising above the facts, because it’s likely that uprooting the plants would be more likely to spread them further.  Even HRH Prince Charles had a poke at them and wanted something to be done about it, as did Adam Henson of Countryfile fame.  Mercifully, the lineup of the outraged is such an offense to common sense I’m only hardened in my determination to leave it alone. It was the host plant for the first caterpillar I learned to identify when I was a child, when we would collect jam jars with a few stalks of the plant with their caterpilars and hope to see them hatch later as Cinnabar Moths. They are fantastic attractors of nectar loving insects and they look beautiful.  Yes they are poisonous to cattle – like many other plants – but cattle won’t eat them green, which is why you often see them standing tall in fields that are otherwise grazed flat. They are poisonous in hay admittedly, but that’s not an excuse to exterminate the species by dousing every field with agent orange.

The Rosebay Willowherb, the Hedge Bindweed, the grasses including Cocksfoot and even Couch, the Stinging Nettles the list goes on and on – they are all important habitat for the very same insects, the Hoverflies, Lacewings, Ladybirds that predate on the pests we really do want to discourage, and the butterflies and moths  we’re fighting to save from extinction.

These photographs, taken feet away from the allotment could so easily be regarded as the ‘enemy at the gate’ – that favourite trope of the agrichemical industry whose devoted attention to productivity and profit over the last fifty years has brought us to the brink of disaster. But these so-called weeds are not the problem, they’re the solution.  Good allotmenteering depends (as does all great human endeavour) on minute attention to detail.  Industrial farming has no idea how to do this because it works from inside an airconditioned cab without the faintest idea of what’s being destroyed.  Getting to know the weeds gives us the ability to keep them out of the places where they’re a nuisance while giving them space to help us in the bigger picture. There’s a heartbreaking correlation here between our obession with “alien” plants and “alien” people. 90% of these nuisance weeds can be controlled by attention and a little hard work. The annual seedlings are easily hoed off as they germinate and if you learn to recognise the leaves they can be added to the compost since there are no seeds to cause trouble later on. Even Bindweed gets fed up in the end – it can’t survive without making chlorophyll and so we pick the leaves off as they appear. Looking across at the abandoned plot next door demands that we recognise that it’s a gift, an opportunity rather than a threat. Hello all you pollinators, welcome aboard.

Tomorrow is the last chance this year for a look around Whitefield meadow.  I’ve printed off the Vice-County list – these are an incredibly useful resource obtainable online from BSBI. I’ll take Rose – the other one – and a hand magnifier, but what I’m really after is a Bee Orchid. Oh and I’d love to see a Marbled White butterfly again, they’re so beautiful.

We’ve had family commitments for five days out of the last seven so we’ll be there as the park opens, with a picnic. Bliss on steroids.

 

 

First batch of garlic

IMG_5698Actually that’s not quite true because we’ve been eating new season garlic for quite a while as the main batch dried in the greenhouse.  The picture shows about half the crop, and the results show that the variety Early Purple Wight was the most successful of the three varieties we tried. We’d thought that most of the alliums were a bit of a disappointment this year, and we dug up the onions when they appeared to be suffering from some kind of (unidentifiable) affliction. However, less fearful (diligent?) allotmenteers left their affected plants in and many of them have recovered and now look well, so maybe we were overcautious, but the combination of twisted and wilting foliage with softness in the sets suggested some kind of rot. We found no evidence of fly infestation at all. so that’s another one to put down to experience.  There’s a lot of “no idea” in gardening if we’re honest, but plants are amazingly resilient and can come back from the brink.  It’s been so dry this season, and it’s been difficult to give the plants enough water.  When we planted the leeks out a couple of weeks ago they looked terribly sorry for themselves, but even the sickliest have pulled themselved into the ground and are looking more vigorous now. Our sage plants, particularly, respond to ruthless pruning with loads of new growth. Parsley seems to hate being watered from above with a rose, and most of our plants seem to prefer a good soaking straight from the can at ground level. There’s a mass of detailed experience that comes into play on the allotment, and so many things that can go wrong – but the rewards are immense, and we don’t beat ourselves up too much if we get it wrong.  Life’s too short to waste with gloomy reflections on the inevitable failures.

So it’s been water hauling, garlic peeling, thinning out and weeding in the warm sunshine.  I had to get the strimmer out yesterday to deal with a couple of out-of-control paths and a big patch of nettles on an adjoining plot. Actually I’m quite happy to have nettles around the place because, as my friend Rose says, they’re not weeds – they’re habitat.  However they’re also deep rooting mineral miners and great as accelerants in the compost heap and so I took half of them for the heap in the hope that they too will regenerate with fresh new growth.  But strimming in hot weather is a pain and it’s fearfully noisy and smelly with exhaust fumes. We’ve now got four abandoned allotments neighbouring ours and when I put up an insect barrier to protect the eastern edge of the plot from strong winds it was soon decorated with airborne seeds.  How much habitat is too much? We have much discussion about what it’s appropriate to put in the compost bins and my rule of thumb is to exclude bindweed and couch roots and any weeds that have actually set seeds, but bung the rest in, roots and all, mixed with all our kitchen peelings, tea leaves, eggshells, shredded paper and cardboard. Since I don’t encourage the heap to get too hot it probably doesn’t kill seeds, but since we don’t dig, thereby bringing new seeds to the surface, most of the seeds that germinate when we spread compost are easily hoed off.

While we were in Cornwall rediscovering the meaning of chilling out we decided to limit time on the allotment to something more manageable. Naturally that resolution didn’t get much further than the allotment gate, and yesterday we were there for best part of six hours, but with fresh peas available I couldn’t resist making a risotto when we got back. I can’t pretend it was a vegetarian dish because there was home made chicken stock and a little pancetta along with the arborio rice, shallot and parmesan. I always use butter rather than oil in this recipe, and I always add a splash of white wine in the early stages. There’s something very comforting about pulling up a stool and a glass of wine to drink while I keep the risotto moving in the pan. But some, at least, of the ingredients had come straight from the allotment and we finished off with a pile of summer raspberries from a neighbour.  Beware of allotmenteers bearing gifts, they’re usually about to go on holiday! Our corner of the site is a small and unofficial cooperative where we take mutual obligations seriously, so no free lunches then, but you can get away for a break without worrying too much about the plot!

My newly revived interest in medicinal herbs has led to our son’s partner calling the flat “Hogworts”!

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Country cousins

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A month later a leisurely and dusty tramp, plump equatorially and
slightly bald, with his hands in his pockets and his lips puckered to
a contemplative whistle, strolled along the river bank between
Uppingdon and Potwell. It was a profusely budding spring day and
greens such as God had never permitted in the world before in human
memory (though indeed they come every year), were mirrored vividly in
a mirror of equally unprecedented brown. For a time the wanderer
stopped and stood still, and even the thin whistle died away from his
lips as he watched a water vole run to and fro upon a little headland
across the stream. The vole plopped into the water and swam and dived
and only when the last ring of its disturbance had vanished did Mr.
Polly resume his thoughtful course to nowhere in particular.

A change turned out to be every bit as good as a rest, and the trip to Wales – although it involved as many hours of wildflower hunting as we would have spent on the allotment – was a complete change of tempo. I photographed the angelica in the photo above on the allotment yesterday. It really is stunningly beautiful, as are many of the other Apiaceae (carrot family) herbs that we grow.

We grow carrots and parsnips, parsley, coriander, caraway, celeriac, chervil, celery, lovage, dill, angelica,  fennel and sweet cicily – all in the same family. In fact without them our cooking would lose most of the interesting flavours.  But like all good families there are black sheep and the umbellifers can boast (if that’s the word), some of the most deadly poisonous plants we have – like hemlock water dropwort for instance – that tastes rather sweet (so they say) and kills you without any ado.

But this particular group of plants have a reputation for being difficult to identify and before we went to Wales I bought a copy of the BSBI handbook no 2 “Umbellifers of the British Isles” by TG Tutin (of Clapham Tutin and Warberg fame). Anyone who knows me will know that I find the dense descriptions of botanical language a bit daunting, but they gradually penetrate my stubborn mind and I find myself consulting the glossary few enough times to take away some of the pain. I know parsley from dill, but could I tell dill from fennel at ten paces and without crushing the leaves and smelling them? In his introduction Tutin suggests that the sheer usefulness of some of the family probably drove the need clearly to identify them. The line drawings in the book are exquisite in their sheer usefulness.

Botanical photo books have improved so much over the years that if I’m stuck I often use them to make a start, but when you get down to the difference between a greater and a lesser pignut, it’s out with the hand lens and a key – and there begins the hand-to-hand combat with the truth that any beginning botanist will reconise.  Like Jacob wrestling with the angel by the Jabbock brook, we demand “what is your name?” and the plant usually refuses to tell us until we’re half dead with exhaustion.

The process involves all the tools books and instruments I’ve already mentioned, but beyond that there’s the intangible sense that birders call “jizz” which surely must be the product of memory and experience. My problem with jizz is that sometimes there’s so much background noise that I don’t pay enough attention to it. Like bumping into an old school friend fifty years on, you know that you know them but the name just won’t come.  It happened twice in Wales with two plants I had the strongest sense of familiarity with and yet I couldn’t force my brain to make the connections.

Four photos of two plants, but in each case the photo on the right was taken in St Davids and the one on the left was taken on the allotment. The top pair gave me most trouble and yet, side by side it’s so blindingly obvious that they’re country cousins I could kick myself. On the left some chard in the process of going to seed on the allotment. On the right the plant I found on the coast path and vaguely recognised but coudn’t quite name.  When we went to the allotment yesterday the connection was instantaneous – my coast path plant is, of course, sea beet.

But sometimes the information flows the other way.  With the lower pair, I found the clump of pink flowers and with very little effort recognised it as exactly the same plant that infests our ground on the allotment. So it was fumeria – end of! – until I got back to the van without bothering to take a sample, and discovered that there are no less than thirteen contenders, more than a Tory party leadership contest but considerably prettier. So there was nothing to do but find another one the next day, hoping that it was the same plant, and do the hard work all over again. Quick cheat – it’s a good idea to take a copy of the BSBI recording card for the county you’re in, and you can quickly find out which of the family don’t even live where you are and can be discounted. Needless to say I hadn’t done this so all thirteen contenders needed to be interrogated.  But we got there in the end.

I don’t think there’s any happier feeling than sitting identifying plants outside the van in the sunshine and with my books all around me, but needs must – and we desperately needed to water after a week of warm sunshine. Madame set out more tender plants and I carried down some half rotted leaves that the council had dumped on the site and mixed them with two big bags of grass mowings that our son had passed on to us. Grass mowings on their own make a filthy anaerobic mess, but mixed with some high carbon dry material they’re plentiful, free and useful in the compost heap. If I’ve come back with one lesson it’s that the natural world doesn’t divide itself conveniently into domestic and wild plants.  They’re all country cousins.