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.