Oh strimmer man – where you gonna run to?

I fell asleep last night clutching a new wildflower book – I would have called it a flora but that would have been misleading since Madame’s name (which is a closely guarded secret) is not Flora. But it’s a sign that the natural world, in the course of a couple of riverside walks, has got me back in her grip.  I was lamenting the impossibility of botanising in Cornwall or Wales for weeks, but the last two days on the riverbank have energised me in much the same way – the sheer pleasure of recognising old friends that I never knew grew here in the middle of a small city; here today, wintercress and broomrape growing within a few hundred yards – neither of them rare.  The slightly mad abundance of plant life is a telling sign that nature doesn’t need us half as much as we need her. Over the river in the Crest Nicholson gulags they left a wildflower meadow in one corner of a field of hard-wearing perennial ryegrass – no ball games permitted – which struggles in the teeth of the siberian winds generated by the tall buildings. The grounds are maintained by a company with a cunning plan to mow another inch off the meadow with every cut.  It will then disappear; the last sop of ecological reparation for the destruction of the old gasometers and abandoned industrial buildings that really were a wildlife haven. But we still have the anarchic, weed infested verges; the real eco-deal thriving under their neglect by the strimmer army – long may their funding be neglected!

IMG_20200511_095741At home, energised by thoughts of weeds, I woke with cheese scones on my mind. I know that sounds like a non-sequitur  but there’s nothing quite like baking to calm you down, and so I baked a batch of the ultimate comfort food.  I really should have baked a Dundee cake but there wasn’t time because we wanted to go to the allotment to see how our wind and frost preparations had survived. The max and min thermometer in the greenhouse showed that the inside temperature had dropped to 5C during the night, so that meant the outside got down to around 2 or 3C – too close for comfort for the tender plants, so we were pleased that we’d gone to the trouble of wrapping them all up and building new screens. I’m beginning to sound a bit manic here, I know, but life’s too good to waste a minute – even in lockdown.

So everything in the garden was lovely (ish) and we added a new screen attached to the grapevine training wires. The bad news was that thieves had dropped by again and stolen our neighbour’s new shed which was waiting to be assembled and so rather vulnerable.  I find it really difficult to connect with a mindset like that – and even if  *’hell and heaven and all that religious stuff’ is abolished now, should we keep just a tiny corner of hell going for allotment thieves – just for old times sake?

Coming home we overheard a conversation about roasting rhubarb in the oven. I’m ashamed to say we’d never heard of it, but we promptly roasted half a kilo of our own Victoria, with some light brown sugar, and it’s delicious. We’ve eaten so much rhubarb in the last few weeks I think if you shoved a chimney pot on my head I’d lose weight and turn pink – I’d settle for being tall!

  • is a quotation from a rather fun poem by ee cummings

As an addendum, today we found a shop selling bakers flour, rye flour and yeast. The threat of torture wouldn’t induce me to say where it is, but for those in the know, if you flare your nostrils and search out the perfume of patchouli and listen carefully for Joni Mitchell you’ll know where I mean.

 

The meadow that’s around us

 

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A fox strolling across our site in broad daylight

I’d just finished writing a piece for the allotment society about taking on an overgrown allotment when I turned to writing this post. I’ve been really impressed with Simon Fairlie’s book “Meat – a benign extravagance” which was published in 2010 and today when I was flicking through a digest of the day’s news I came across a story about leaked emails written by a government advisor which had revealed that he thought neither fishing nor agriculture were really worth preserving in the UK.  The chain of idiocy that this attitude reveals is examined forensically in the Fairlie book, but as for the emails, I have no doubt that the author is a fully paid up advocate of and probably a shareholder in industrialized intensive farming.  My guess is that neither the environment nor unemployment, and certainly not public health figure in his analysis. Coincidentally another article – this time in the Farmers Weekly – suggested that there’s a rosy future for British agriculture freed from the petty rules and regulations of the EU.

This constellation of  dangerous thinking made me wonder whether Simon Fairlie had changed his mind in the last 10 years.  Maybe he’s recanted, I thought, and bought shares in Bayer – and so I looked him up and no, he’s now making a living (probably not a generous one) selling Austrian forged (as in hammers and anvils not fake) scythes and editing a magazine called The Land and even a quick glance will reveal that he’s lost none of his incisive way of dealing with unsupported claims by either friends or enemies.

So there was the chain of thought that led to the image of a scythe.  The fox on our site that has killed more allotment chickens than you’d believe and yet still brings a thrill when he strolls insouciantly across the site; the kind of neoliberal economist who would empty your bank account and sell your granny without a hint of compassion; the trials of taking on an overgrown allotment and the memory of a traditional farm implement, all dancing around in my head at the same time. I should probably increase my medication.

If there is a crisis in agriculture it’s probably being cynically manipulated by the people who would rather throw agriculture, fishing and wildlife under a bus than give up driving their big cars and burning fossil fuels. The agrochemical industry simply loves the idea of sequestering carbon by planting trees because it will mean intensive chemically supported farming will be the only show in town once all that land is taken out of production, and as Simon Fairlie remarked ten years ago, there’s a real danger that the more extreme fringes of the vegan movement will forge an unholy alliance with them.  There’s a crisis in agriculture, and fishing too, because for decades the subsidy system has been used to encourage people to do exactly the wrong things, and there’s a cultural crisis in the West resulting from our disconnection from nature. When we lost the dirt under our fingernails we began to lose the sense of connectedness with the earth and her rhythms. As a matter of fact I think that watching cosy natural history programmes on the television (though I do it myself) is positively dangerous. It’s a voyeuristic substitute for the real food of connectedness – a kind of synthesised vitamin pill rather than the feast that’s everywhere around us.

The fox is an awesome predator but its capacity to do real harm is limited. Even apex wild predators are incapable of completely eliminating their prey species, they’re just not organised enough – but we are; homo non-sapiens, the creatures who’ve lost their wisdom. The economist probably doesn’t even know how to grow mustard and cress on a piece of tissue paper, but with a little help from industrial lobbyists still has the capacity to destroy the environment in an unprecedented fashion.

So there I was, yesterday evening, sitting at my laptop with this depressing sentence nagging me, when an alarm went off on my phone.  How could I have forgotten? We’d done two very long days on the allotment building the new rainwater storage and sowing some early seeds so we’d warmed up some clanger pudding (a Potwell Inn stalwart, comprising whatever’s left in the fridge), and were looking forward to an evening doing not much.  Twenty minutes later we were around at BRLSI – (Bath Royal Literary and Scientific Institution) for George Peterken’s talk on the cultural ecology of meadows. The place was packed with some awesomely qualified people – County Recorders, ex presidents of this and that national bodies, wardens, botanists, ecologists and mycologists – you really should join Bath Natural History Society if you live anywhere near here, these aren’t just clever people they’re really friendly too, and they can turn a field trip into a seminar.

And blow me if he didn’t talk about scythes!  Now there’s an example of synchronicity worth savouring. I used to have a scythe, but I never really mastered it. In the early 70’s we were drinking at the Cross Keys in Corsham when we met an very elderly man who’d been a gardener at Corsham court and who told us that they had cut the lawns there with scythes. He offered to give me a lesson – which I gladly accepted – and so later that week we met outside the pub on the verge, and he demonstrated how to do it.  My inelegant slashings were completely wrong, it seems.  When he used the scythe it looked more like a slow, deliberate dance.  Even for an old man with arthritis, he made it look beautiful – a kind of circular motion, step and sweep, step and sweep.  Even the short grass of the verge fell tidily beneath his razor sharp scythe. He showed me how to sharpen my scythe too and I wish I’d paid more attention but when you’re twenty something there’s always infinite time for learning stretching out before you. As a child I’d been roped in to rake the hay on my grandfather’s smallholding and I’d seen stooks and ricks being built; it was a grand day out and I could feel the heat of the sun on my back..

So last night’s talk on meadows was so much more than a technical exercise. In his opening remarks, George Petersen said he’s been surprised at how emotionally connected people are to these relics of an ancient agricultural system. I can vouch for that.  As he showed slides of fields, gloriously filled with wildflowers and orchids, plants I’d never seen and many that I know well, I was experiencing the kind of feelings you might reasonably expect in a concert hall. My guess is that there were more than a few tears lurking in the corners of our eyes as we contemplated the beauty and the loss of what we’ve collectively allowed to die in the delusional pursuit of ‘progress’. He spoke of the way that the ‘catastrophe’ of haymaking each year had led birds, butterflies and insects to make a living in the field margins.  He advanced an idea of ‘meadow’ that embraced a much more eclectic definition – field margins, woodland rides, roadsides and clifftops.  But he also spoke of the culture that created these environments and which sounded so much more appealing than the industrialised concrete canyons we now inhabit; fed on industrialised junk-food and entertained with industrialised natural history television.

We walked home knackered and excited in equal measure – in the words that once featured on the front of the Whole Earth Catalogue –

“We can’t put it together – it is together”.

 

Wildflower meadows part II

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So today was our second day at RHS Rosemoor.  We always like to split a new garden into at least two days, the first to get the lay of the land and the second to go back in more detail.  In fact you’d need to go two days a week for a year to truly get the measure of the place. After my big worry yesterday I was able to relax and enjoy the gardens for what they are and, hardling surprisingly, we spent a lot of time revisiting the wild meadow areas. The first thing to say is that the RHS aren’t trying to pull the wool over anyone’s eyes. These meadows are as ‘artificial’ as any of the other (equally beautiful) gardens. It’s we visitors who like to put labels like “wild” and “cultivated” on what are basically different styles of garden: this kind of “wildflower meadow” style is developed by sowing and planting, using any means that works, for instance some of the plants are developed in modules and planted out. There’s no purism in the selection of species; no absolute rule that only native plants or archaeophytes are allowed in, and a scientific mowing regime is applied to  encourage self-seeding. Plants that don’t do well, or do too well and start choking the others out are dealt with by removal. This is a highly labour and resource intensive version of ‘natural’.

Imagine my sadness at reading in today’s Guardian that while many of us are working flat out to try to turn around this environmental and ecological catastrophy, our government are secretly eroding controls on harmful and cancer causing chemical insecticides that are absolutely banned in the EU but which may well be reintroduced by ministerial fiat if we leave. This is the greatest danger we’re facing today.  While I absolutely applaud the environmental efforts of bodies like English Heritage, the National Trust, The RHS and other non governmental authorities, we can’t save the world by building a few nature reserves like insect zoos.

Today I had a long conversation with a woman from Wolverhampton who is (pretty much singlehandedly) trying to build a wildflower meadow on a piece of land next to a housing estate. Last year was a terrible year for her and most of her spring sown seeds died during the hot summer, but she’s not daunted and today she was in Devon, at Rosemoor, trying to find out how she can give things a better chance and develop the plot. Her budget was about £250, and I think she might just pull it off, but all her work could be undermined in the stroke of a pen by a minister in thrall to the agrichemical industry lobby. I’m not very big on organised religion these days but sometimes I long for a bit of smiting from a higher power. Just a small plague of boils would do, as long as it was targeted at the right people.  Better avoid the flies and frogs, though, in case Bayer come up with some new and even more horrible chemical for dealing with plagues of  flies and frogs. The only (and more sensible) alternative is to make a stand with those who are trying to end this madness, and change the way we think about our relationship with (and complete dependance on) the earth.

 

The Pale Rider of the flower beds

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This is a white crab spider – I’ve never seen one before and neither had the gardener at Rosemoor who found it. I think it’s not so much rare as difficult to see, since it’s a bit of a pirate, ambushing its prey by sitting on a white flower and blending in until the unfortunate victim alights and gets more than it bargained for. If I’ve got the ID wrong blame me and not the gardener, I just googled “white UK spiders” and came up with this elegant assassin.

IMG_5498So our first day at Rosemoor was not nearly as wet as the forecast promised, although we kept our waterproofs on all day.  Last night’s rain was prolonged and heavy so we weren’t taking any chances. Our main interest was in the vegetable gardens because I wanted to find someone who could help us to understand what happened to our onions this year.  So I trailed around with the pictures on my mobile, accosting gardeners and largely discovering that they were no wiser than we were.  Aphids were mentioned, as were all the usual suspects – flies, fungi and eelworm, but none quite fitted the bill. In the end Madame suggested that it could have been that the sets, which arrived early and had to be stored for ages, had simply deteriorated before we planted them out.  The idea made sense to both of us, although it would mean that almost everyone else on the allotment site stored them badly as well. Anyway we’re getting an email address for a free ID service for members and I’ll send off the photos to see if there are any more suggestions.

As ever there were some wonderful things to look at – alliums were everywhere, as befits their recent ‘must have’ status; and as wide a range of plants as you could hope to see, but I’ll never be a gardener in the Gertrude Jekyll sense.  Notwithstanding the efforts to make borders and beds look “natural”, there couldn’t be anything less natural than this kind of English garden, absolutely stuffed with non natives and hybrids it reminded me of the way the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford used to be, apart from the fact that the labelling is a lot better. Two large tulip trees were still in flower, the photo on the right above is pretty much real size, and very spectacular they are.

I think the biggest question I came away with centred on the idea of nature. I have to confess right now that I’m a bit of a fundamentalist, and it’s not something I feel particularly happy about but my default position is that the less human intervention there has been, the better I like it. I can see a million reasons why that’s an unhelpful mindset because if anything is dynamic and ever-changing it’s the natural world and there’s no point in railing against Himalayan balsam, for instance because it’s here for good.

Much of the area occupied by Rosemoor is a relatively recent (1989) addition to the older gardens and involved digging out 13,000 tons of heavy clay and redistributing it around the gardens to achieve level beds.  That’s a lot of dirt being turned over and moved around, enough to keep a ‘no-digger’ awake for a week. So you just have to accept that this is a blank canvas garden of the kind beloved by hard landscape contractors, big flower shows and TV gardening programmes.

And I think I just have to accept that gardens like this are showcases where you can go and look at national collections of your favourite plants, and exquisite displays of plants from all over the world, and I’m sure that if I raised this with the RHS they would say ‘we’re not trying to recreate a natural landscape we’re creating a natural looking one’.

_1080773However, there came a moment when the dilemma became acute for me and that, ironically, was when the garden started to offer something I really wanted to see. There are now some quite large areas of wildflower meadow which I fell upon with joy. There were southern marsh orchids in flower, ragged robin, knapweed, oxeye daisies, umpteen grasses like crested dogs tail and so on, yellow rattle and an unexpected white flower that I don’t think I’ve noticed before which turned out to be Star of Bethlehem – Ornithogalum angustifolium . It was all too good to be true, surely? There, in a patch half the size of a football field, was a collection of plants I’d expect to find one at a time in a day’s search over a much wider range. All this in an area that had been turned over by earthmovers less than 30 years ago. It’s a wonder, a triumph of science and the gardener’s art.  A horticultural Las Vegas in the depths of a Devon valley.  I’ve never seen a better display of plants in a wildflower meadow; it exactly fits our current anxieties about biodiversity, and I don’t suppose the birds, the insects, moths and butterflies that flock to it will give a hoot whether it was there in 1930 . Compared with the usual miserable sowing of ‘wildflower mix’ that developers ususlly throw around their bleak gulags to persuade the planners that they really care about nature, this was xanadu. So why was I troubled? I think a large part of it was my stupid attachment to authenticity – whatever that means – and the truth is, starting from where we are (which is a pretty dreadful starting point) there’s no other show in town except the Las Vegas route, re-creating at great expense and with enormous skill, the flora and fauna of the environment we’ve allowed to decline to the point of no return. There’s no way back to the good old days before we lost nine tenths of our wildflower meadows, because simply abandoning a patch of ground to ‘nature’ can’t possibly succeed.

So my takeaway point is that there’s no cheap way of restoring these habitats.  If we’re serious about restoring them, throwing around a handful of imported and non-native wildflower seed is a dangerous distraction.  It will take time, skill and an abundance of resources.  Notwithstanding my reservations, I think the RHS have cracked it, bless them.

IMG_5512And just one more little joy – they’re developing a new orchard here and it’s dedicated to one of Madame’s old bosses – George Gilbert, a delightful man who probably knew more about apples than anyone else alive. We also saw a plaque in his memory at the Lost Gardens of Heligan, commemorating his contribution to the gardens there. He died in 2007, and took with him a lifetime of experience. His students are a big part of the future if we’re ever to rediscover and recreate the lost varieties of apples, pears and soft fruit, lost to careless agricultural policy, and that’s another star for the RHS who do so much to train the next generation of gardeners with apprenticeships, courses and such like.