Forbidden fruit?

As I began to write, Madame was eyeing up this bowl of quinces and wondering what to do with them. At the moment they are filling the room with the most wonderful fragrance. However as she was Googling possible uses, she informed me that they are thought (by some people) to be the fruit eaten by Adam and Eve in the Old Testament. Other (equally benighted) people – think it’s the apple. My goodness how awful that would be, if we could have avoided all that suffering if they’d just turned down the chance of a scrumped Bramley. Sadly, if people actually read the Bible instead of furnishing their prejudices with it, it was neither the apple nor the quince that introduced sin into the world – according to the incredibly important mythical story. The tree in question – and I quote – is the tree of the knowledge of good and evil.

A short diversion into dangerous territory

The power to determine between good and evil – or to remove the terms from their religious frame – right and wrong, is almost the only power not awarded to Homo sapiens in the Old Testament and it’s the usurpation of that power by fragile, impatient, greedy and none-too-clever humans that has been the Granddaddy of all the pain and suffering ever since. It’s called idolatry and it’s the almost universal temptation to worship the partial over and against the whole. And that’s my considered view as a card carrying Post-Christian lost soul!

It may seem anachronistic to brandish an ancient myth in a modern scientific and rational culture but – to risk just one more spadeful before the hole closes over my head – I’d say that idolatry is a greater danger now than it was in the past, except we are more inclined these days to worship ‘rational’ idols like The Economy, Efficiency, Productivity, GDP and so on, and these false gods come disguised as common sense. The high priests of this death cult wear suits rather than robes but make no mistake, they wouldn’t care if they reduced the earth to ashes and humanity to slavery as long as it turned a profit.

Back to Quince and Redlead Roundheads

It may be SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder) – or perhaps it’s a perfectly rational response to the impotence of our democracy to find anyone with more than half a brain to find the way back from the cliff; but this time of year always gets to me. There’s something inherently melancholic about the allotment which – until we clear it – is populated by the ghosts and skeletal remains of crops past. Angelica, Lovage and Sunflowers have passed into dry senescence, their seeds eagerly consumed weeks ago by birds and mice. After a drought-blighted summer, we went away for a couple of weeks and returned after the rain had encouraged a billion weeds to burst into new growth. The patch of Common Ramping Fumitory amongst the leeks, which I’d reprieved because it’s rare round here, had repaid my generosity by swamping the bed; I suppose there’s a clue in the name! Slightly late, we spent yesterday clearing and sowing winter salads which would stand a chance if the autumn is warmer than average. However average weather is an increasingly fragile concept as climate change moves into its terminal phase.

On the bright side, we dug potatoes and beetroot – we’ve been blessed with the best ever crops this year – and as I carried a box of apples up to the car, Madame disappeared for five minutes and then reappeared with four quinces, foraged from a neighbour’s tree. Neither of us have ever seen such a huge crop on that tree before; there must be hundreds of ripening fruits there. We’ll email her and ask her permission to take about ten pounds for jelly and, perhaps, marmalade. Meanwhile they’re a far better fragrance around the flat than the stuff that comes from an aerosol and makes your eyes water.

As for the Redlead Roundhead fungus, it was hiding under a wayward clump of Catnip and my eye suddenly caught a glimpse of bright red – hence Redlead – lead oxide. The battered specimen in the photo hardly does it justice, but it has an interesting backstory because it seems to be a species from Australia and although it used to be quite rare, the fashion for woodchip (its favourite food) for mulching and paths has given it a new lease of life.

The life of the allotment is the perfect antidote to the terrible modern myth that time is an evolutionary straight line where everything except us humans – the allegedly most highly evolved – is an exploitable resource. Real life, away from the trading floors, is cyclical, seasonal, rich and vulnerable; dependent upon wind and weather. Old Pete – something of a fixture on the allotment – leaned over the fence as we were packing up. “It’s a bit of a mess” – he said. I responded, through gritted teeth, “Well we’ve had the best crops ever this year”. Nature – real nature – is glorious, extravagant, messy and governed by relationships that the new high priests will never begin to comprehend. It’s just too immersive; there are too many variables, there’s too much about it that challenges their grey reductionist orthodoxy. So we choose not to throw in our lot with their nasty little gods. The Potwell Inn is on the side of the natural mess.

“Run the economy like a business” – are you completely batshit crazy? we need to run it like a garden!

Another night of strange dreams led to a sleepless night for Madame as I tossed and turned and made (as she described them) weird noises. I dream a lot, and years of work – hard work too – with a psychoanalytic psychotherapist, have taught me to treat them with the utmost seriousness. So here’s the deal – my dream was about cutting metre square sections of rough grass full of weeds, and setting them out in the usual unspecified way, to conduct an experiment concerned with watching weeds grow. I even dreamed of setting the trailcam to time lapse mode in order to get a continuous film of them growing. Principal among them was our old garden enemy – Bindweed.

Then this morning I was reading Robin Wall Kimmerer marvellous book – “Braiding Sweetgrass” when a connection dropped into place and I was able to see a very small part of a remedy for the crisis we’ve now created for ourselves.

The hot seat!

Allow me a small diversion to help explain the background. I was a school governor for over forty years and in that time we interviewed at least six head teachers. In spite of endless pains we still managed to appoint one complete dud but otherwise they were great human beings with a passion for making children into moral grownups. We interviewed them over two days, handed them heaps of data and gave them an hour to read and digest it then come up with a viable step by step plan. We tested their management and leadership skills by asking them to debate the difficult data with other candidates. We watched and noted those who could embrace challenges thoughtfully and without becoming defensive. It was exhausting for us and even worse for the candidates, but slowly the best candidate for our particular school – with its own unique history and challenges – would emerge.

If you compare that level of diligence with the present election for Prime Minister you will understand immediately how our political system makes such terrible decisions. As I once heard on a bus on the way home from Southmead – “That Jack B …….. he can’t tell shit from pudding!” I have a whole collection of those kinds of remarks, overheard from people who stretch the colloquial into Shakespearean beauty. We have a parliament full of people who share Jack B’s incapacity.

So back to dreams and weeds and revelations, and the connection is this. When we plan the next season on the Potwell Inn allotment we pay attention to the space we have, the nature of the local climate and its variabilities; the soil and its state and – in particular – we pay attention to our own needs. Do we need fifty purple sprouting plants? How many pounds of tomatoes do we really need?

And we also know that our land isn’t just for us – it’s for the thousands of species that – while we can’t eat them – play a vital role in the ecology of the plot. Some of the pests who predate upon the pests who damage our crops are visible – frogs, toads, parasitic wasps and so forth. Some are microorganisms. Some are mixed blessings – badgers for instance; and foxes, cats and even rats play complicated roles of fleas and smaller fleas in the terms of the old rhyme.

Weeds and pests and their many interactions play such a huge and poorly understood role in the overall health of the plot that we leave them alone. So to chase down an analogy – we either draw a binary distinction between friend and foe, and then bomb the foe out of existence in the manner of intensive chemically driven agriculture, or we nurture the richest possible mix of living creatures and edible plants and allow nature to find the kind of balance that allows us a crop, reduces pest damage and leaves the soil in good heart. And it really works!

Running the economy – and especially the ecology – of the earth as if it were a business completely focused on financial profit and loss is a form of ideological madness. Public goods are very hard to monetize, and yet we know that climate destruction brings tremendous costs. We know that farming practices which lead to wholesale species destruction will result in food shortages. We know that viruses can cross over between animals and humans and cause pandemics, and we suspect that the destruction of animal habitat through forest clearance makes this possibility greater. We also know that intensive farming of any kind causes pollution; carbon release and therefore global heating. The point of this line of argument is to emphasise that running the earth as a business so often ignores the cost of adverse consequences. If the full long-term costs of maintenance and disposal of radioactive waste are added to the business plan no investor in their right mind would take the risk. Sadly our government is able to use our money to make us compulsory investors in this dangerous industry.

Running the economy – basing our governance on its impact on the whole earth would make big business howl. Just as an example – the current price of all electricity is based on the inflated price of fossil fuels. This represents the mad economics of subsidising the oil companies by penalising renewables. In a genuine – that’s to say not rigged – market. The renewables would outcompete the fossils on price and the oil and gas producers would have to invest their ill gotten gains in renewables in order to stay in business at all. This is not fantasy economics.

Why weeds then? Why embrace pests and predators? Because any unstable ecosystem will be made more stable if a natural balance is reached. Climate catastrophe is the end point of ignoring the instability made worse by politicians who make stupid policies such as running the economy like a business – and then facilitate the predatory activities of corporate behemoths.

James Lovelock died this week. His Gaia theory gives us the best possible tool for understanding the harm we’ve done to ourselves and future people. The key is going to be diversity. The binary world of bad science and dangerous politics needs to be swept away so we can learn to tend the whole earth – in all its inspiring diversity – as a garden.

Wildflower? Weed? Herb?

In the foreground Creeping Thistle, and in the background Ragwort

Allotments very quickly get out of hand, such is the vitality of nature, and so the photograph of this neighbouring allotment isn’t the product of idleness or long abandonment but simply because the allotmenteers were unable to tend their plot for a couple of months due to circumstances beyond their control. Most interesting to me is the fact that the shot shows two of only seven UK plants which are legally notifiable. They must be removed by law. If Ragwort is incorporated into hay and dried it’s capable of killing livestock – whereas whilst growing in the ground – livestock avoid it. Creeping thistle is a menace because its rhizomes spread aggressively – rather like bindweed – so from an allotmenteers’ point of view it’s the more pernicious of the two. I won’t bother to illustrate the bindweed because anyone who’s ever gardened will instantly recognise those white underground rhizomes. But the Creeping Thistle is tricky because most ordinary gardeners are less likely to recognise it. Here are some more photographs :

It’s all too easy to uproot one of these thistles and, finding something that looks very like a tap root, conclude it’s one of the other less pernicious ones. Unfortunately you have to dig deep – really deep – to find the thick white rhizome that spreads like wildfire. Those plants that grow from seed – and it produces a great number – grow a tap root in the first year and then develop the rhizomes in the second. Fortunately the seeds aren’t that successful, but even a tiny percentage of many thousands can soon turn into a problem. The best way of dealing with them is to uproot them before they flower – as in the left hand picture – when much of their energy has gone into making seeds. The four roots in the middle picture were loosened with a fork and pulled firmly to extract as much as possible, but even so they snapped off leaving much of the rhizome intact and ready to produce more plants. All we can do is hope to weaken it by frequently pulling them up. Madame and I were talking about this yesterday and we thought that the only domestic animal capable of eating thistles is probably a goat. We kept one back in the seventies and she would eat absolutely anything. Brilliant for clearing scrub!

Ragwort is a biennial and, once again, needs careful pulling to reduce numbers; but neither plant will ever be eradicated entirely because they have developed resistance to farm chemicals. Organic control (there’s a good leaflet on the Garden Organic website) is the only option for those of us who opt out of using chemicals.

Of course there’s a downside to controlling these plants because they are both highly attractive to pollinators and they make a lot of nectar ; so removing a weed also removes an important nectar or pollen source as well as a food plant for some of the butterflies and moths we most treasure. Our attitude towards so-called weeds exposes the mindset that places our human needs above the needs of all the other creatures. I’m not suggesting for a moment that we should let these weeds take over our plots, but I am suggesting that many of the small decisions we make on the allotment have an ethical and philosophical component that make our lives that bit more complicated; more morally responsible.

I’ve spent fifty or so years working with people who’ve got themselves into terrible trouble, because they came to a tipping point through countless tiny steps. Nobody sets out to kill all the bees, but they die anyway because a lot of people making little bad decisions can add up to a crime against the earth. These days we’re all creating wildflower gardens, but we shouldn’t neglect the contribution of less popular weeds. Even couch grass offers a particular niche for the Gatekeeper butterfly, and stinging nettles are vitally important for the Comma. Ragwort too is the foodplant for caterpillar of the Cinnabar Moth. While I was taking the photos for this piece I noticed that our Buddleia was devoid of butterflies, whereas I spotted five separate fly/insect/beetle species on the Ragwort. So what I’m suggesting is probably enough to give many gardeners apoplexy, but what is the real danger to an allotment site that would result from a few neglected patches around the edges? Another of our neighbours had an allotment that was truly out of control and, when she got a rude letter from the council, she sprayed it with glyphosate. The grasses and “weeds” all dutifully turned brown and keeled over which, in the present drought, presented a distinct fire hazard. But now after a couple of thundery downpours, they’re nearly all growing again.

So here’s a thought that dropped into my mind yesterday. Many of us enjoy watching gardening programmes on TV. We also love watching celebrity chefs promoting regional foods from across the world and cooking perfectly irresistible dishes. We watch nature via the TV screen and could almost come to believe that all’s well in the world. My challenging thought is this – do television, newspapers and magazines present a falsely rosy view of our situation within global ecological and climate breakdown? And if that’s the case are they functioning as a Panglossian ideological tool which, by presenting a false picture, allows us to think that things aren’t that bad after all?

I spend much of my life in a kind of enervating despair when I look at the present crop of politicians in the UK; the overwhelming majority of them unwilling to act effectively to address the challenges that face us. News bulletins recycle the dangerously stupid ideas dreamed up by politicians so morally corrupt you wouldn’t let them look after your pet dog for an hour. They cry “peace! peace! when there is no peace”.

I even worry that the Potwell Inn, when I write about the way we try to live in the midst of a collapsing culture, might feed the impression that at least some bits of the world are working optimally. They’re really not. We’re lucky enough to live in the centre of a World Heritage City and on some days as we look out over a green space lined with trees we could almost believe that we’re in the grounds of a Georgian stately home. But more often than not we look out on a public space where addicts gather to buy drugs from dealers on bikes (easier to escape on). The air we breathe is dangerously polluted by the constant traffic and the river is polluted to the extent that great rafts of foam float down it during flood conditions. While hundreds of dwellings have been taken out as AirBnb rentals, the waiting list for decent affordable housing in the City grows longer and longer. GP appointments are almost impossible to get; the waiting list for NHS dentistry is a minimum of three years and the local hospital is frequently overwhelmed. Meanwhile the more photogenic parts of the City are regularly closed off to facilitate the filming of endless TV series that draw ever greater crowds to see the places where invented characters do imaginary things. We live in a hallucinogenic haze of Jane Austin, TV soaps and Roman centurions suffused by fast food and the aroma of chip fat.

It’s the political roots of the present crisis that need to be dug out. We’re all too ready to ignore the roots of the pernicious weeds that thread through our political culture, choking out anything that might feed and sustain us. We don’t live the good life. The most we can hope for is to live the best possible life within a broken culture. Our tomatoes are just a tiny skirmish in the battle against climate collapse.

The Birds and the Bees – messy gardening.

The Potwell Pond

We were in our bed this morning and Madame was reading the RHS magazine and – over slurps of tea and biscuit dunking – we fell to discussing the merits and failures of the Chelsea Flower Show. She has the advantage over me in this instance because she’s actually worked on a display there. I should say, by the way, that we were in our own bed because our trip to the Cambrian Mountains had to be shortened since the advertised campsite shop was tragically empty, and what few things there were (paralysed longlife milk and potato crisps) could only be bought for cash. Either way round it was a return journey of 20 miles to find an ATM or a pint of fresh milk and some bread.

Anyway it’s not that I’m against flower shows, in fact the old and much missed Bristol Flower Show was an almost spiritual event in my estimation. However, show gardens leave me somewhere between boredom and incandescent rage. The claim that the ludicrous expenditure of time and energy – and here I also mean the sort of energy that flows from oil wells – is somehow justified by the fact that these playthings of the wealthy are subsequently loaded onto lorries and installed as wholly artificial showpieces somewhere else, simply doesn’t add up. Neither does the claim that these chimeras might inspire us to greater gardening heights. At best they are entertainment for those who can afford the tickets, and the recent eruption of rusting water towers and post industrial, angst ridden greenwashing is an insult to those of us who actually put a hand to the plough rather than treat nature as a gawping opportunity.

Abolishing the boundary between Nature and horticulture.

The Potwell Inn allotment raises a finger to beautifully coiffed paths and chemically sterile soil. Notwithstanding the eagle eye of the Head of Allotments we bend every sinew to abolish the boundary between nature and horticulture. We have Dandelions, Common Ramping Fumitory (vanishingly rare in this area), rushes, Nipplewort, Sowthistle, Sorrel, and any other weeds that come for a season and fulfil some useful service to the birds, bees and other insects. The Potwell Inn allotment is the meeting place of all of the pieces I write. The place where gardening, field botany, natural history, birdwatching, herbal medicine, cooking and eating meld into the rather fuzzy concept of being fully human within a community of shared (and occasionally contested) values.

…….. and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

What this doesn’t mean is that the Potwell Inn allotment is an unkempt wilderness; quite the opposite. What it does mean is that we spend as much time listening to what our patch of earth seems to be saying to us as we do, planning what we would like to eat; and we’re not the only metaphorical mouths that deserve to be fed. This morning, for instance, I was watering when a young dog fox came to within fifteen feet of me and marked his territory on a compost bin. The allotment depends for its functioning upon a breathtakingly complex set of relationships of which we are just one part. Bees, flies including hoverflies, beetles and bugs; fungi and bacteria feed on our plants but provide indispensable service to us as they pollinate and predate on other pests and pass our digested green waste back into the soil . We feed them and they feed us! It’s taken seven years to even begin to crack the code.

Heaven forfend! is that Bindweed there?

There are areas where, for no fathomable reason, nothing ever grows well. The underground hydrology has its own mysterious life with a water table that seems to rise and fall and sometimes even breaks out in the form of a spring beside the cordon apples. We know the track of the sun in winter and high summer and we know where the frost pockets are and from which direction the plants need wind protection. We have discovered that plants have minds of their own and pay no attention to textbooks or common practice. Our vegetable beds are all interplanted with herbs and flowers, many of them self seeded from previous seasons so, for example we don’t actually sow Foxgloves or Borage; Lovage and Angelica. As biennials they might not appear every season but they appear nonetheless. Our fruit trees are surrounded by Garden Mint and Catmint, Marigolds, Borage, Achillia and Nasturtiums. Our only physical pest controls are various grades of netting thrown over hoops. This kind of knowledge isn’t exceptional or mystical – it was the commonplace wisdom of gardeners and farmers for generations until the misbegotten birth of industrial farming turned malignant in the 1950’s, and you can’t put it on a lorry and take it to Chelsea because it wouldn’t work anywhere except in its own unique place.

This kind of gardening doesn’t have a name; doesn’t have an orthodoxy and endures no bishops, experts or high priests. Its sole guiding reference is time, patience and rootedness.

A Potwell Inn allotment photo tour.

Well it’s the tail end of spring now and after a frantic ten days of weeding, feeding and planting out after our break in Cornwall, the allotment is looking rather fine, we think. If you’re a regular you’ll know that over the past couple of years we’ve moved towards creating a more wildlife friendly allotment, hoping to attract many more pollinators and interesting insects. There are rules, however, because we’re not allowed to dedicate more than 25% of the plot to flowers, and we’re not allowed what are termed “non fruiting trees” Who’s definition of fruit?” – you might well ask; bearing in mind that a hungry bird in winter or a rare butterfly looking for its larval food plant might have different ideas of what constitutes a fruit or a weed.

When we took on the allotment we decided to create beds around 4’6″ wide, in blocks of two or four- fitted with corner posts so we could net them with 10’x10′ nets on frames with a 12″ path dividing them. This left a number of narrow borders at the edges which amount to much less than 25% of the total space and which we have used to grow herbs and wildflowers. Last year we added a pond with its own surrounding border. Wild (ish) borders feature tall herbs like lovage and Angelica interplanted with Foxglove and Sunflowers which we use to give a degree of wind protection from the East and South West. At their feet are self-seeded marjoram, plus Thyme, Tarragon, Dill and Fennel and five varieties of Mint all in pots to stop them spreading – although we move them around the plot for their capacity to distract Carrot Fly, Allium Leaf Miner and Asparagus Beetle. Two more of the borders have been planted up with fruit trees – cordon apples, plum and damson on dwarfing rootstock; and there’s a large fruit cage with red and blackcurrants, gooseberries and raspberries with commercial blackberry near the fence which is just gathering strength. Then there are Borage, Catnip, Margolds, Lemon Balm and Rosemary. I’m sure I’ve left some out. We welcome volunteers and there’s a Buddleia which moved in and which we’ll keep under control to evade the eagle eye of the Allotments Officer. We have our star guest – the Tall Ramping Fumitory which moved in four years ago and which is the only example in the entire Bath area – so we’ll be keeping an eye on it.

As to whether it’s working as a wildlife garden our only answer is that it’s costing a fortune in field guides. The Mint Moth, for example, encouraged us to buy a standard guide on moths which was lovely but we didn’t know that moths are split into macro and micro species. That necessitated another guide plus the one I bought three years ago. So you might argue that the principal beneficiaries of the wildlife garden are the publishers of field guides who are now £100 better off. On the other hand there are vastly more visitors – damselflies, dragonflies and hoverflies, frogs, snails, butterflies and moths – most of which we still can’t name. They add immeasurably to the pleasure of the allotment – although we haven’t – never will – reach the glory of the Leicestershire garden belonging to Jennifer Owen. I once tried to buy her book but it’s long out of print and costs a fortune. Her Wikipedia entry includes this –

In thirty years of study she recorded 2,204 insect species in her own garden while also finding 20 species new to Britain and six which were previously undescribed. She wrote a book on the study, Wildlife of a Garden: A Thirty-Year Study. As well as the insects she counted Owen grew over 400 different plant species to determine the best food for the insects being tracked.

Wikipedia entry.

I hope you like the photos – I’ll end with some taken of the plots when we first took them on in April 2016.

Now the allotment is a nature reserve!

The garlic patch has been invaded by an extremely attractive but rather invasive plant. It’s been hanging around for years, and for years we’ve yanked it up by the handful and got rid of it – occasionally on the compost heap I suspect. Three years ago I had a go at identifying it because it definitely wasn’t anything I’d seen before. After a trawl through the books I got as far as a family name – Fumitory – but further investigation foundered when I discovered that it’s one of those so-called difficult plants for which you need specialist skills.

Oh no it’s not – oh yes it is!

I called on my friend Rob who has abundant specialist skills, and he gave me a very hesitant answer emphasising he wasn’t completely certain but it could be Fumaria muralis, the Common Ramping Fumitory – which isn’t at all common in these parts. Three years later my ID skills have improved a bit and after a bit of a thing with some Fumitories while on holiday in Cornwall last week I became fairly confident that I know what a Common Ramping Fumitory looks like, but when we got home I could that see that our allotment invader doesn’t quite fit the bill. So I took a lot more macro photographs, came up with a possible Fumaria capreolata, the White Ramping Fumitory which looked closer to mine, and sent them off to another local expert who thought that they were the (uncommon), common type after all; closing the circle and going back to square one. However she suggested that I might send off the photos to the National Referee and get his opinion.

Philosophy, like science, is as concerned with good questions as it is with good answers, but any half decent philosopher will tell you that questions can be troublesome or even dangerous at times. I emailed the photographs to the National Recorder and two hours later a very brief note came back saying it wasn’t either of the previous two ID’s, but is a Tall Ramping Fumitory – the appropriately named Fumaria Bastardii subsp hibernica. It was only when I searched on the distribution map for the plant that I realized it hasn’t been seen here in Bath for at least 40 years. I was so excited I couldn’t sleep and gave up trying after 5.00am. In my emails were congrats from the local recorder and the President of the Bath Natural History Society.

So that’s the good news for the day – although I have to say my only contribution to the find was a sharp eye and some persistent questioning. All the rest was done by a great team of experts, and thousands of volunteers who helped create the maps. But the next question is much trickier. What do we do with a rare plant in the middle of the garlic patch? – oh and another plant in the broad beans? I suppose the greatest reward for me is to have learned so much about a difficult family of plants. I can look a Fumaria in the eye now. That’s quite a feeling.

So aside from all the excitement we used the extra daytime to bake some bread and go up to the allotment early and get some watering done – the last three months have almost amounted to a drought – mercifully broken last week when we harvested around 500 litres of rainwater. After that we weeded and planted out the outdoor tomatoes, and fed the asparagus which needs to recover during the summer. We don’t spray for anything, so we have to pick the asparagus beetle grubs off by hand. We’ve had a great crop of strawberries from the new plants too. May is a tricky month and most of us take the risk of getting runner beans in as early as possible. Over the years we’ve learned to do two sowings a fortnight apart so that we can fill any gaps due to frost damage. The Potwell Inn allotment is sheltered from south-westerlies but very vulnerable to cold easterlies which can hammer even hardy early sowings. We had a few losses among the Borlotti beans but we were able to fill the gaps today. Our biggest enemy at the moment is Field Bindweed which spreads like wildfire and is almost impossible to eradicate.

Finally we’ve spotted Damselflies on the pond. It’s into its second year now and maturing nicely. The pond is in a small area no more than maybe 12′ X12′ and surrounded by narrow borders which are crammed with Foxgloves, Angelica, Lovage, Catnip and many smaller herbs and flowers. A proper miniature cottage garden.

I also put together a little collage of photographs of the polytunnel. In the autumn I sieved a big load of our home made compost and we spread a 3″ layer across the tunnel beds. LIke the rest of the allotment we don’t dig. Now we’ve planted out tomatoes, aubergines, basil, Minnesota Midget melons and marigolds which are doing really well. The photo at the top is where we’re at right now, and the others – left and right of the sieving (hard work), are where we got to last summer. The melons were absolutely stunning so we’re giving them lots of food, love and water in the hope of even greater glories later this year.

Then just to cap a busy day we picked a mixture of white and purple elderflowers and put them to soak in boiling water with lemon and orange zest. We’ll do two batches which will keep us self sufficient in Elderflower cordial – until next May. In fact I was so thirsty I was drinking the last of the old supply while I was grating the zests. And we’ll probably be in bed by 9.00pm.

How to change the world

If only it were so easy. I was originally going to call this post “The morning after”, if only because, having done a fair bit of research and finding several target species I wanted to emphasise the fact that as sure as night follows day, there’s always a stack of work to do. I was feeling mightily pleased with myself and I envisaged myself cantering towards the finishing line and pressing the send button on the reporting software. Pleased, that is, until I started to look more closely at the photos.

I’m very used to the dead hand of confirmation bias when I’m out and about looking for a particular plant. I find something that looks a bit like it and instantly every nerve strains towards putting the tick in the box; even – or perhaps especially when there’s something that doesn’t quite fit the frame. As I was writing that sentence I thought of one of my most forensic, and therefore valuable tutors at theological college who would seize on the slightest mention of any hard work that had gone into the draft sermon I’d just delivered and say – “really Dave; no-one wants to listen to you pissing from the pulpit!”

Bugle – Ajuga reptans

Indeed not, but I hope I’m making a point of general interest here. Point one is that there are an awful lot of little white flowers around at this time of the year. They’re often quite tiny and inconspicuous and I usually have to prostrate myself with a hand lens and take a closer look. Point two is that a phone camera with a decent zoom capability is the most useful gadget in the world for recording a pile of information you didn’t notice at the time you were squinting at the specimen, but discover you desperately need when you start leafing through the 1266 pages of Stace 4 (no pictures) at home. Macro photos are so immensely useful for identification that I even bought a little clip-on macro lens which makes life even easier.

Nonetheless, the morning after feeling creeps in like mental wet rot as you stare at the photos and realize that in the cold light of day, Hairy Bittercress; Alpine Pennycress, Dwarf Mouse Ear, Common Whitlow Grass and even Barren Strawberry look like – how shall I put this delicately? – cousins, and my report if I ever send it will be seasoned with doubts. Today at a Bath Nats meeting I shared some of those doubts with a really ace botanist; so good he can enlarge at any length you like on the 275 plus subspecies of Blackberry. I say I shared, but as soon as he discerned the drift of the conversation he paled visibly and offered to look at my emails in the same tone of voice you might use to say ‘you must come round for supper some time’ – with not the least intention of specifying an actual date.

So maybe it would be better to have walked on by and enjoyed the lovely skies last week; but here’s the point. After you’ve sat and struggled with an ID for a while, the world becomes an infinitely richer place. Instead of noticing the little white flower and passing by, you now understand that it could be one of … who knows; it could be hundreds! Suddenly the world needs to expand to accommodate this new piece of knowledge because now there are five new friends where there was once only one.

Changing the world, especially at the moment, seems like a fruitless and depressing waste of emotional energy but changing it just by making it bigger, more diverse and more beautiful than it was before, is achievable. These little white flowers aren’t especially rare, although they can sometimes survive in a place that no other living thing could survive in. However they are under threat and whilst I’ve no pretensions about my own modest abilities, we footsoldiers; the botanical infantry if you like, can record them so that they can’t become rare or even extinct without someone noticing.

Of course we talk to the allotment – how else would we know how to keep it happy?

It’s Good Friday today and English tradition demands that we plant potatoes. Of course traditions can be very local or just plain wrong. With Easter tied to the phases of the moon, Good Friday wanders about a fair bit because Easter Day is calculated by the first full moon after the equinox which – this year – falls on Sunday 17th April; making Good Friday the 15th. The obvious explanation underlying the tradition is that the Easter weekend has always constituted a four day public holiday in this country and so for working people it was the ideal opportunity to get the new season’s crops underway. Jetting off to Spain wasn’t even on the cultural horizon and so my childhood memories of Good Friday are always triggered by the smell of freshly turned earth – scientific name, petrichor; the queues at Palmers seed store and at Flook’s the fishmonger, the owner of which had been working with fish so long he closely resembled a tall cod in his wellingtons and oilskin apron.

Here at the Potwell Inn, the latest frost (since we’ve been living here) was on May 6th so it’s clear that although potatoes, being planted below the surface, would be OK; there are many frost tender plants that wouldn’t. In the real world of allotmenteering, potato planting demands warm earth, no sudden cold or frosty spells on the horizon and time to get the job done and, as far as we’re concerned that means tomorrow because the potatoes are all chitted and ready.

As we were busy setting up nets and prepping beds yesterday I was mulling over the perplexing reason that allotmenteering is so good for the soul, and I think the answer (if there is one) has changed greatly over time, for me. Our first allotments and gardens – if I’m honest – were a bit of a struggle. Weeds and pests demanded constant hand-to- hand combat and any successful crops were snatched from the jaws of death. I can remember once losing an entire crop of beautiful Marmande style beef tomatoes to blight and watching potatoes turn to black slime for the same reason. It was hard to feel any kinship with the earth when it seemed to push back so harshly. We were always opposed to using chemicals, and so our options seemed limited. Sometimes we just gave up and walked away; disappointed and resentful.

But yesterday I realized it all felt very different. We’ve learned the hard way that birds and caterpillars will decimate brassica crops if we don’t protect them with nets. Allium leaf miner and asparagus beetle too are endemic on the site but we use a lot of fine insect mesh to keep the bugs out. We grow blight resistant tomatoes and maincrop potatoes (Crimson Crush Sarpo Mira), and we clear up any dead leaves; minimise the places slugs like to lay eggs and let the blackbirds take the rest. We net the fruit trees until the buds have set and so-on. Finally we don’t plant out tiny fragile little slug takeaways but grow them on until they can take a nibble or two. Badgers need something approaching the Maginot line to keep them off the sweetcorn – and so it goes on.

We also do a lot of companion planting and in the last two years we’ve doubled the number of perennials; increasing hugely the number of insect attractors and pollinators. We don’t dig and we make over a ton of compost every year; the net result being that our allotment can look a bit scruffy but the food plants grow well and we just accept that in a sane world, we simply have to share with all the other creatures. Gardening has become a silent dialogue with the plants, small; mammals, birds and insects who share the space with us. There are no weeds and no pests because we all have a right to exist.

Of course the non-polarized world of the allotment comes up against the binary world of allotment bureaucracy pretty regularly. Recently we had an epistle from on high regarding “non fruiting shrubs” which the writer wanted us to other and promptly remove. What’s a non-fruiting shrub? I wondered. What about cotoneaster for instance? – much loved and needed by birds in the winter. What about our Achillea plants: they have no humanly useful food – although the stalks are useful for casting the I Ching – and they provide pollen for insects – isn’t that fruit in a broader sense? Does our Borage fail the food test? What about Good King Henry? which side of the friend/enemy dichotomy does that fall?

Perhaps the Bible really is to blame in this one respect; (it’s a wonderful collection of texts with some really duff bits!) -maybe the idea of sovereignty over the earth has been really bad for the human race and we’ve got ourselves addicted to smiting anything that’s not directly useful. My own view of the Kingdom was formed more by my Grandfather’s huge row of sheds where anything and everything that ‘might come in handy one day, boy’, was piled high. He was a great rescuer of broken things, and among the finest of the remains were two or three old paper roll pianos (nickelodeons). He would give me and my sister a few pennies and we could bring them to life again. Is that a resurrection story? It’s a bit late for me to be called a heretic now!

Growing things is the silent dialogue between the gardener and the earth and it has to be a life of constant thanksgiving. We learn the proper names of all our plants, including the invasive grasses and the bindweeds that pierce through the soil out of sight and where they’re becoming a nuisance we remove them by hand and say ‘thanks but not here‘. Many of them are very beautiful in any case and to divide the earth into good (food for humans) and bad (food for everything else) – is a corrosive state of mind. The little annuals that take their chances early in the year; the Dandelions, the Rosebay Willowherbs that drift in clouds, the chancers that drop by for a year and then disappear; all full partners in the earth.

So will we be spending any time in church this Easter – (Oestre – work it out) – weekend? Well no, thanks but no thanks. We’ll be planting potatoes and if it seems right I might even sing the exsultet to the apples.

Good hunting!

Sweet Vernal Grass – Anthoxanthum odoratum

And for all this, nature is never spent;

There lives the dearest freshness deep down things ….

Gerard Manley Hopkins; “God’s Grandeur”.

Yesterday I set out with the target of finding one single grass species, and we were on a 270 acre site where there’s an awful lot of the green stuff, so it was a test of patience mixed with good luck and Madame’s extraordinary eye. She was the first to spot the tiny flowers amongst the ruffians, not knowing at all what it was. Our minds converged and I had my plant.

It’s not that it’s the least uncommon – just that it’s very small; flowers very early in the year before the other grasses and then lingers as a dried skeleton for the rest of the season. I don’t suppose anyone in the UK could justly say that they’d never seen it but it’s also true that very few indeed would have noticed or known what it was. It’s all in the name; or very nearly all. It’s probably known as sweet more for its perfume than its taste. The thing about it is that it really is the smell of fresh hay; and that’s down to the alkaloid coumarin that gives the same perfume to Meadowsweet: a kind of delicious and evocative vanilla fragrance. The second part of the name, verna, comes from being one of the earliest grasses to flower. Most of the perfume resides in the roots and, as is so often the case, smelt close-up, to me it’s more like Dettol than vanilla. It’s also true that although it was once sown in meadows, Coope and Gray say that it’s neither very productive nor palatable to cattle and so it’s out there on its own.

We also went back to the dark rings in the grass to see if we could find any St George’s mushrooms – Calocybe gambosa and we were lucky that overnight a clump had emerged. They’re the easiest of fungi to identify as long as it’s spring. The white gills and the strong mealy smell are vanishingly unlikely to be anything else. Later on in the season, however you need to be very careful indeed because there are some truly dangerous nasties out there. Here’s an unexpectedly atypical Death Cap we photographed in September 2019 in Cumbria. As always, the devil’s in the detail and – just like all the other plants – you have to consider tiny details of shape and form; smell; season and habitat. That single death cap would certainly be enough to kill you!

Later on we trudged back to the Meadow Foxtails to see what other successional grasses might be on their way and found Yorkshire Fog in leaf there. I really should go back and do a full inventory but my grass I/D skills are still quite rudimentary and I fear it would be a slow job. It occurred to me while we were looking that I may not have noticed the Meadow Foxtail growing there before because until recently there was a free ranging herd of deer that would have eaten the tops off as soon as they emerged. Sadly they became infected with Bovine TB and had to be slaughtered, and so the grazing has had a two year rest. Preparations are obviously being made to reinstate the herd with hundreds of yards of new deer proof fencing going in. Hopefully they’ll soon restore the grass to its previous state.

One brilliant little find was a quantity of Flattened Meadow Grass; the same species that I found in Cornwall recently and which I’m still waiting to get signed off for the record. A double check on the BSBI database later confirmed that it’s known in that 10K OS square, and that’s good enough for me. Once you’ve sweated for hours over a plant you tend to remember it in the future!

The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men

All too often this quotation from Robert Burn’s poem “To a mouse” is trotted out as bleak comfort offered to someone who probably had it coming. In fact it comes some way into the poem which includes this thought provoking phrase:

I’m truly sorry Man’s dominion

Has broken Nature’s social union

An’ justifies that ill opinion

Which makes thee startle,

Robert Burns – To a Mouse.

The poet (and farmer) has just disturbed the mouse in its nest whilst ploughing and pauses to reflect on the cost to the wild world of our illicitly claimed sovereignty over the earth.

In the photograph above the poem, the third year of an expensively and poorly conceived piece of planners’ greenwashing in the centre of Bath. Nature – some daft city-born architect must have thought – can be bought by the metre, just as books can be bought by the metre by the illiterate rich, to dignify a patch of bare land. If I could land one blow for common sense amongst town planners it would be to teach them that meadows and their flowers are quite different from arable wildflowers. They’re highly specific habitats and attempting to transplant either group into an alluvial spoil heap by way of a seed impregnated membrane is just about as magical as magical thinking gets. Of course the developers didn’t give a flying fish about the wildlife, but a bit of greening always plays well with planning committees.

The first year the poor things germinated they were almost immediately suffocated by their thuggish neighbours. I was pleased to photograph some corncockles there a couple of years ago but now there are nettles and rough grasses which would have grown anyway. These meadow specialists would never be grazed, and neither would the arable weeds enjoy their brief moment in the sun at harvest or in spring; but grossly overfed by the alluvial soil on the riverside would succumb to their sturdier neighbours. The only survivors were some Comfrey and some rather lovely Vipers Bugloss which will be lucky to survive the redevelopment about to be unleashed upon them.

But not to exempt ourselves and the Potwell Inn from the possibility of hubris -I have to confess that the very day our illustrious leader, the Smirking Codpiece, announced that he had personally abolished Covid in fierce hand to hand combat; Madame and me caught it good and proper and had to shut the Potwell Inn down for ten days while we coughed, sneezed, sweated, wept and dribbled in ways too terrible to describe. We too – our son was quick to point out – had it coming because we went up to London to see the Who in the Albert Hall, and everybody knows that pensioners are the principal vectors of infection and five thousand of them croaking and puffing on their ventolin inhalers whilst singing Pinball Wizard in weird old peoples’ voices was bound to lead to trouble. I felt one step away from being compelled to sign an enduring power of attorney agreement!

The photograph was taken today while we went out for a long therapeutic walk along the river and the canal. It was great to be out again after our negative tests, until – that is – we were caught in the most tremendous winter storm. The sky turned to Paynes Grey and a clap of thunder preceded a truly magnificent hailstorm that went on for ages. We managed to find a bit of shelter behind a wall and under an Elder tree with no leaves, on the canal side. But while Madame had a rather posh hydrophilic fleece on, mine was filled with old hens feathers and collapsed into a soggy heap after a couple of minutes.

I had hoped by now to have done at least one more trip to Velvet Bottom, having got hold of some fascinating geological maps to sort out what’s going on under the surface and in the soil. In the process of gazing at the maps I had one of those moments of sudden intuition that illuminated to me the reason I’m so in love with these places. It’s because I’ve spent most of my life living in them and the plants are childhood friends. I never knew their names and my mother couldn’t really help because she’d been born on the Chilterns and her foundational plants were quite different, but a bare field of fescues shimmering in the wind can reduce me to near tears. Everywhere I’ve loved has been post industrial; mostly post mining. The house I was born in was in what was once a mining area; part of the South Gloucestershire Coalfield. Opposite my primary school was the Cossham Hall – a community centre and once a library, founded by Handel Cossham. Cossham Hospital which we all made use of was also paid for by him. He was everywhere. A few weeks ago we visited Greyfield Wood with the Bath Nats, and again it was a strange meeting that I couldn’t put a name to – until we got home and I discovered it was the site of a huge coal mine which, in the nineteenth century, produced hundreds of thousands of tons of coal. Only the subtle traces remained but they were sufficient to make the neural connections that constitute a kind of cultural memory. Lizard, Pembrokeshire, Dartmoor, South Wales, Mid Wales and Snowdonia all bear the same scars and carry their unique heritage of half recognised plants.

So as soon as we get over the post-covid exhaustion we’ll go back to Mendip armed with a list of heavy metal loving plants that appear on the BSBI maps of the area. I’ve already found one and I can remember several more from pre-recording days which I can’t claim until I’ve found them again. I’m slowly turning into a trainspotter – heaven help me!

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