Something’s broken and it’s not just the weather

Common red soldier beetle – AKA hogweed bonking beetle!

The more times we set the trail cam, the smaller any sense of ownership or control we feel we have over the allotment. Last night the weather finally broke. We could feel it coming during the day as the temperature fell very slowly and an easterly breeze picked up. We spent the morning feeding the tomatoes, melons, cucumbers, squashes and courgettes; watered anything that was languishing in the heat and then sowed seeds for the autumn and winter. The weather front came up gradually and the sky filled with clouds – not the immense thunder clouds we’d half expected – but low and dense. Madame has a nose for the smell of rain on the way – it’s called petrichor – the smell, not her nose! -but there was nothing there. After we’d driven posts and ties in to support the taller plants in case of strong winds, we cleared up; ate our breakfast at lunchtime and then went on our accustomed walk eastwards along the river and back along the canal. The evening was still stifling, even with all our windows opened wide. Bath sits in a basin, surrounded by hills and in a prolonged period of high pressure the air gets more and more fetid. The much publicised clean air zone has reduced traffic by only one percent but repairs to the Cleveland bridge have diverted even more traffic through our neighbourhood so it’s worse than ever.

Consequently we’ve slept badly during the heatwave and last night there was the added distraction of imminent thunderstorms which we couldn’t wait to welcome – preferably without too much destructive power but plentiful rain to soak the earth and refill the water butts. We were up every hour during the night, peering through the shutters – our gardening lives are dominated by the weather – and around two in the morning we heard the first sounds of thunder some miles away; grumbling like a convoy of heavy lorries. At four the lightning came close and the rain began. With the wind in the northeast a cool draught woke us up again and we watched the rain gratefully through the window.

The rain didn’t last nearly long enough but at six I gave up and made tea and then kneaded a batch of sourdough bread for its second rise – which is when I decided to go up to the allotment to check for any casualties of the weather (there were none) and to extract and replace the SD card in the trail cam. It seems that we weren’t the only ones up and awake last night. There were video clips of a badger, a fox and later on, a ginger cat all out hunting on our plot. I love the way the fox hunts. He sits bolt upright and stock still with his ears almost flared; scoping the ground by slowly turning his head from side to side and rotating his ears independently. There were other clips of him coming and going along the paths so he spent some time on the plot. The badger hunts with his nose and the cat with all its senses primed. Fox and cat stalk their prey silently and then pounce, but it’s hard to imagine the badger doing anything of the kind. He’s a digger and a browser with a prodigious memory for the places he can find treats. Yesterday one of our human neighbours found a number of her bulb fennel plants dug up.

So how much sway do we actually hold on the allotment? Of course we can sow and tend our crops; but if we consider our work from a more detached perspective it’s clear that the major parameters, within which we garden, are largely beyond our control. Seasons; weather; pests; diseases, birds and larger animals are all part of the process, and if we try to interfere we often do more harm than good. Two days ago I found a dead rat on the patch. By the next day it was gone. The most likely culprit was the cat; but the remains could have been taken by either fox or badger after it had been feasted on by a multitude of flies and insects. Why tidy things up when that means depriving our neighbourly creatures of a meal? Wild gardening necessarily means stepping back from tidiness and control but it doesn’t follow that we have less food from the allotment. We expect to lose some crop, but that’s because the ground never belonged to us in the first place. It is we who borrow it from the teeming multitude of macro and micro life-forms who have been managing rather better without our help for countless thousands of years. The best we can hope to be is good tenants during our temporary lease of the land and so rather than just feeding ourselves we need to be mindful of the needs of all our neighbours. The thing about the earth is that when we treat it properly it brings abundance, but we are the first victims when we treat her carelessly and badly.

The trail cam just brings our larger neighbours to our attention. We’ve loved having so many bees, butterflies, hoverflies, dragon and damselflies as well as tadpoles and froglets in the pond. We do no more than provide a habitat for them and they pay us back tenfold by clearing up after us on the compost heaps, pollinating our plants and feasting on pests like greenfly and blackfly. To try to argue that these creatures lower the productivity of the allotment is crazy. The allotment produces abundance – more than enough to meet our need for food but also feeds our inner, spiritual needs as well; maintaining a huge community of which we are just one part. Even more significantly there’s evidence that the humble allotment is far more productive acre for acre, than many intensive farms; providing much more opportunity for engaging and creative labour. Farmers all over the country are going out of business, unable to make a profit. Local authorities, who used to be major holders of land for smallholdings, have sold off these resources but if they would lease new land from unprofitable farms it could be used to produce new allotments and smallholdings close to towns and cities that could produce good food locally and reduce food miles while improving biodiversity and creating many new jobs. Objections to this such a scheme can surely only be motivated by an ideological commitment to more chemicals, more false productivity and more growth.

The weather is a mess of our own making; the air we breathe is polluted by our addiction to oil, and we are sick from extremes of poverty and wealth; eating industrial junk; and stricken by loneliness and separation from nature. We’re governed by a bunch of clodhopping clowns with no vision and no plan except more of what’s killing us and it’s high time we pushed back and demanded something better. End of rant – but I hope you like the video clip.

This may sound a little eccentric but ….

Just now the border surrounding the asparagus bed is looking as if it might take over – it certainly needs a dramatic thinning, but there is some method in the madness because we need to harvest a lot of calendula flowers to make cream, and calendula is also reputed to deter asparagus beetle. Allotments are peculiar places inasmuch as they can be plagued by pests that spread through the site from one plot to another. If every plot holder controlled their pests, preferably organically, they’d be less invasive. On our plot we’ve been overwhelmed this year with blackfly, which got going several weeks before the ladybirds(ladybugs) bred fast enough to limit their numbers. So we picked out the broad bean growing tips and harvested ladybirds wherever we found them so we could relocate them on an instant banquet. I’ve no idea whether it worked but eventually the blackfly were diminished and we’ve just finished harvesting a reasonable crop. What with the awful spring weather it felt like we were snatching victory from the jaws of defeat, but a few of the neighbours simply uprooted their beans and composted them. We’ve had allium leaf miner destroy our leeks for three consecutive years – it’s rife across the site – and so this year we’ve grown all the alliums – garlic, onions and leeks – under fine insect mesh in an attempt to keep the bugs out. We’ve also netted the carrot family in the same way; it doesn’t look so nice but if it protects the crops without any chemicals then it’s a good idea.

Asparagus beetle is another one. For three years – as soon as we allowed the fern to grow at the end of the season – the beetles moved in. Dozens of voracious little grubs would chomp their way through the fern, weakening some of the plants enough to kill them. It became a daily task to sort slowly through the bed, squashing every grub we could find between thumb and finger. We found it was the most effective deterrent, but each day there would be a new hatch and so it was hard work. We sprayed once or twice with organic pyrethrum, but it can only be done under perfect conditions early in the morning because it’s a broad spectrum insecticide and could kill friends as easily as foes. It’s also very expensive and so we kept on with the daily slaughter by hand.

This year we thought we’d try growing a border of calendula around the bed to repel beetles and it seems to be working. Madame has only picked off half a dozen grubs this week, and the fronds are looking sound – capable of feeding the roots for next year. However the vigorous marigolds are shading the asparagus plants nearer the edges so we need to take the flowers for drying and then thin the border dramatically. So far it’s one up for the companion planting.

I wanted also to mention a new (another one!) book which would be of more interest to UK and Northern European gardeners because it’s about garden wildlife. Titled “Guide to Garden Wildlife” it’s illustrated beautifully by Richard Lewington with the birds illustrated by his brother Ian. This season’s foray into deliberate wildlife gardening has forced us to pay a lot more attention to what’s flying around, wandering and crawling around, swimming around and tunnelling underneath the allotment. A single, portable, illustrated field guide ticks an awful lot of boxes since we are now so often confronted with an insect whose name we don’t know. Wildlife gardening removes the convenient (and deadly) division of living things into crops and enemies. The netting and companion planting that we’re experimenting with all flow from the desire to combine the protection of our crops with increasing the diversity and health of the birds and insects on the plot.

Here’s a typical decision we’ve had to make. Until we put in a pond I’d never heard of iris sawfly, but they’ve moved in with a vengeance – fat and juicy little grubs chewing off the leaves. For us they’re a nuisance – more of a cosmetic nuisance it has to be said; but for a hungry bird, or for one of the many other insect predators it’s a meal. So we put up with the knackered leaves and hope that the dragonflies, water boatmen and many other creatures enjoy a meal at the expense of a little patience on our part. Once we’ve accepted that we’re just another predator in the great wheel of nature, then the way we garden becomes a profoundly moral issue. We take what we need, discourage dangerous pests as far as we can and let the rest thrive.

The book has enthused me enough to try to identify more of the species of bee and fly that look rather like one another. Hoverflies, for instance, are a big group with very different lifestyles and we want to move beyond bumble bees and butterflies. Even moths, I wonder recklessly, could be worth a go. It would be pure pleasure of course but more than that I’d urge you to get hold of a copy and read Ken Thompson’s marvellous introduction. His take on wildlife gardening is pretty radical because he refuses to get drawn into a sterile argument about what’s wild and what’s not. Words like wild and natural muddy the waters to no useful end. The sad fact is that gardens are a tremendous, and sometimes the only species rich environments left in a highly populated country, practising industrial farming and building more and more concrete infrastructure. If any moronic cash strapped local council wants to turn an allotment into a car park or (another) profitable housing development for the elderly wealthy, and believe me they often do, then it will be essential to have to hand detailed records of the allotment’s natural history and biodiversity.

We’ve had a trail cam for ages, but we’ve never dared deploy it on the allotment for fear of it being stolen or vandalised – sadly it’s a problem for almost all allotmenteers. But now we’ve got a purpose built padlocked steel box which should stop almost anything except a pre-prepared theft using tools. We’ve known about the wildlife that we share the plot with through seeing what they do. Badgers, for instance, have an amazing capacity for judging the sweetness of sweetcorn and unless you protect it, it will be stolen the day before you were going to pick it. There are rumours of small deer and of course we see the rats and the flying nuisances, mostly pigeons. Mostly though, we see the tracks and the sign but not the animals themselves. But now we’ve captured some lovely video of a fox sitting and cleaning itself right in front of the camera; a curious magpie almost tapping the box (it must have glistened) and a great sequence of a fat rat, nose twitching searching for our broad beans. Rats love the beans and occasionally we find a whole pile of empty pods. This one, however, was out of luck and it jumped over the boards into a cleared bed.

However, watching 30 seconds of video for a short glimpse of a fox is pretty boring and so I’m trying to teach myself video editing so that I can publish the best bits here. I may be some time!

The pond completed

Racing the weather today, we were up at the allotment early to try to get the pond finished before the storms arrive at the weekend. This has been quite a steep learning curve because it’s the first time I’ve ever built one – and every step in the process took longer than I’d anticipated; but you can see the process in the photos above.

I changed my mind at the last minute and reshaped the pool with three distinct and level steps rather than one continuous slope. There was a bit of a worry about something like a hedgehog not being able to scramble out across a very steep and slippery slope. I once rescued one from a kitchen drain where it had become firmly stuck and inundated with waste water from the sink. It took some getting out but in the end, after a feed, a wash in clean water and some mollycoddling, it made its way back to wherever it had come from. Hedgehogs are in such decline now that we can’t afford to lose a single one. So, after reshaping the slope, we lined the hole with two layers of underlay and then fiddled the waterproof membrane into place with a good deal of muffled cursing and even more rather untidy pleating. It was like wrapping the negative space of a very awkward birthday present, but after about an hour we were ready to start filling with water.

Luckily there has been enough rain to fill the water butts with clean water, and so we used our generator to power a very nifty pump and shift about 500 litres into the pond in a surprisingly short time. All the while the pond was filling we adjusted the lining to avoid stressing or stretching it and then, once it was filled and as smooth as we could make it, I refilled the outside of the frame with thirty of the bags of topsoil I’d removed and stored a few days ago – so that amounted to half a ton of water and the same amount of topsoil, no wonder my back is aching!

The plan now is to surround three sides of the pond with insect friendly, tall flowering plants and leave the paved side open for visiting animals to take a drink – all of which we hope to capture on a camera trap. Obviously we’ll also plant the pond up with water loving plants and with luck, next year we’ll give at least one of the local toads somewhere to spawn. We’re also moving tall herbs like lovage, angelica and dill, mixed with sunflowers for the birds, alongside the paved area, and hopefully I’ll have finished a pergola from which we’ll hang bird feeders.

Does this all sound a bit eccentric? I also had next year’s seed order in my pocket and tucked in at the end is a list of new fruit trees; a Shropshire damson, Victoria plum, Conference pear and a Bramley cooking apple – oh and new strawberries, some primocane blackberries (just now appearing in the UK, I think they were developed in the US); a Tayberry and a Japanese wineberry – all this, remember, on our 250 square metres. I could go on about the need to grow as much of our own food as possible, but lurking in the background is a rather deeper and even more spiritual pursuit. There are no prizes for figuring out that the earth is in a mess at the moment. Bad politics, bad economics and bad science have led us into a predictably bad place, and gardening, especially gardening with food, beauty and wildlife all sharing in the enterprise, is a chance to hold on to those precious values that we’ll need if we want to rediscover what being fully human feels like.

My inner critic whispers ‘why bother spending all that money when you’ll probably be dead in twenty years time?’ – and that’s true. But is it so pointless to lift our spirits, to set an example of what’s possible with time and a bit of hard work and to feed ourselves well in the process? Putting a little beauty back into life could never be a waste of time, and every worthwhile project needs to embrace the risk of failure – otherwise we’d never allow ourselves to fall in love.

Our allotment is so much more than a way of feeding ourselves and our family – it’s love letter to the earth.

The new pond takes shape

The new pond – which Madame rather acidly refers to as ‘the lake’ is all but finished now. We’re just waiting for the membrane to arrive and it should be filling with rainwater within a week. I suggested that perhaps a wave machine might add something but she wasn’t biting on that one and merely asked when the fish were arriving.

Enough of the Potwell Inn domestics – we’re nowhere near as much fun as the landlord of one pub we used to go to. He would lurk in the lounge bar and his wife was in charge of the busier public bar; and they would hurl abuse at one another through the connecting passage: it was the best show in town. Every night at ten o’clock on the dot Mr Rossi would turn up in his chef’s apron smelling of heavenly Italian food and we would vie with one another to sit next to him because we could never afford to eat in his restaurant.

And speaking of Italian food; his year- at last- we’ve had success with the Florence fennel. We’ve tried often before but it tends to bolt very easily and so, when we read somewhere that it’s best to delay sowing until after the equinox – as the day length declines – we decided to give it a go and it’s paid off handsomely. Tonight we feasted on onion soup, followed by a pear and fennel salad and I have to say in all modesty (ho ho) that it was the best and most tender fennel we’ve ever eaten. It’ easy enough to buy it in the supermarkets, I know, but we often find it rather tough and sometimes quite stringy, as if it’s spent a long time on a lorry – which of course it usually has. Our own fennel, not as big as the supermarket ones but with a properly formed bulb, had a sweetness behind the aniseed flavour and best of all, sliced very thinly, it was as tender as a cos lettuce . We ate in respectful silence enjoying every mouthful. I guess it’s one of the strengths of seasonal food that when it appears it’s always at its prime; and when there’s none left there’s usually something different but just as good coming along.

The related job on the allotment is to use the soil from the pond to build up a new strawberry bed. There’s been a good deal of to and fro with the wheelbarrow, but it’s all coming together and we’re now ready to order some new strawberry plants. The fruit cage is almost clear and at last the apple cordons have been given more space to breathe by relocating some redcurrants and gooseberries.

It’s been hard work, and there’s a lot more construction still to go. It would be easy to think of an allotment as a rather static entity; but as we learn more about the soil and the microclimate on the plot we move things around and add new features. This winter we’re planning for pollinators, insects, reptiles and small mammals – that’s for the earth, and for us a sheltered level area to sit and enjoy the wildlife.

Gert lush

I’m not sure if the phrase gert lush ever properly existed as Bristol slang. Lush certainly did, and meant really good; and gert did too, meaning big. But the combination seems to have come into existence as a bit of a joke when non Bristolians tried to speak like us. However the Bristol accent is not to be trifled with and the dialects tied you down to a single parish sixty years ago; so adding an ‘ul’ to China and saying Chinul or Africul wouldn’t get you very far into my affections. I say I’m a Bristolian because it’s an easy way of describing a complicated situation. If I was being pedantic I’d say that I come from Gloucestershire, but that opens a whole can of worms because the boundaries have changed so frequently over the years that for my first twenty years I lived in three counties without moving an inch. I now live in a fourth newly minted county but I could walk in a few hours to the place I was born. Where I was brought up we still used thee and thou when we thought no-one was listening; and when strangers or teachers were around we could lapse into impenetrability very easily. I love my accent even though once, in a restaurant in Birmingham, the waiter leaned across confidentially as we were leaving and asked “are you a farmer?” I thought it was very funny, but I’m not sure she saw the joke. Nonetheless I have needed to remind one or two people that having a local accent – even a very mild one like mine – doesn’t mean I’m stupid.

Anyway, after that long excursus, we were on the allotment last evening and a hot air balloon took off from Victoria Park a couple of hundred yards away. It’s always a lovely sight, and I once had a balloon ride from the exact same spot on a similar summer’s evening some years ago. The launch site is surrounded by tall trees and buildings and so it’s necessary to gain height very quickly; therefore the technique seems to be to fill the balloon with hot air to the point it’s straining at the leash, and then release it like a cork from a bottle. A pretty thrilling experience. In my case we flew south and east, following the course of the river Avon until we swung north and landed somewhere around Marshfield. When the burner was silent we glided noiselessly above the fields and at one point followed a fox which was apparently unaware of our presence above him. All this was thirty years before we moved here and tracking the flight from memory on a map today, I can see that we would have passed exactly over Bannerdown where we spent the day yesterday.

It was – to use the phrase I started with – lush – and I’ve only just remembered that the owners of the balloon were our new next-door neighbours when we first moved here. Lush, then and a bit weirdly prophetic too. The pilot on my flight was a police inspector and I probably found a way of thanking him without using the dialect word to avoid evidencing any potential criminality on my part.

“Lush” – such a rich word; made for a couplet like “lush grass” … Lush, flush, blush; all wonderfully suggestive of fullness, of flow, of generosity or suddenness.

Odd then, to think that what encourages the immensely rich flora of meadows and limestone grassland is a kind of poverty. We’re planning to make a pond on the allotment this autumn, and we’re also going to create a small area for grasses and wildflowers, and that’s led us to an interesting conundrum. We’ve spent four years increasing the fertility of our ground and now, the bed we intend to convert is far too rich to support much more than the rankest of rank grasses and weeds. So the rather complicated plan is to remove most of the topsoil on the proposed “meadow” bed and move it to some new raised beds where it will be just what we need and better than any soil we could buy in. Next we’re going to do the same with the topsoil where the pond is going, and then while digging out the pond, move the less fertile soil and subsoil to the meadow bed to bring it back to level. The exact composition of the surface layer will need to be worked out, but to reduce fertility any other way would mean cutting and disposing of plant matter for years and growing something like yellow rattle to discourage the rank grasses. It’s my favourite occupation – making experiments. For wildflowers and their associated invertebrates, less is most certainly more. We couldn’t resist another trip to Bannerdown yesterday and I went armed with a notebook and a couple of plant cribs. So while Madame hunted butterflies I did a quick survey and in a couple of hours I’d listed fifty species and increased the grass total to fifteen and all of this on very thin limestone soil with rocks poking through in places.

And what struck us most was the heavenly smell of wildflowers. Madame said it was like being a child again. If there was a downside – and it wasn’t a big one – we were accompanied by a land rover towing a seed collecting box behind it. This was part of a project (with input from the Cotswolds Conservation Board), to create a wildflower corridor through Bath and yesterday’s seeds were on their way to Swainswick to re-seed a piece of land there. As we were leaving we passed the fruits of the day’s collection on a large tarpaulin on the ground, and we talked to the recipients and owners of the about to be reseeded field, who were tremendously excited about the project. We can only presume that our little allotment patch of a few square feet will form a tiny part of the whole in years to come.

It sounds counterintuitive to think that to regain lost species we need to make the ground less fertile, less lush; but one of the principal causes of our ecological crisis is the current agricultural policy of driving the land harder and harder using chemicals and artificial fertilizers, and if you’d been able to stand with us yesterday and enjoy the ridiculous numbers of wildflowers and grasses, you’d see why it’s so important to change our whole attitude to farming. But of course the takeaway point is that we can’t avert the coming destruction by writing new rules just for farmers, although that needs to happen. None of us will escape the coming moment of truth unless we all of us change our ways.

I’ve been reading Ann Pettifor’s book “The Case for the Green New Deal” and I think it’s the clearest summary I’ve seen yet on what needs to be done. Better than that, it seems really do-able if we can just knock the idea of continual growth off its perch and stop worshipping the economy as if it were some kind of abstract God, demanding constant obedience to the “Market” – a set of concepts I find almost as difficult as systematic theology. Today, as I write this we’re sheltering in the flat with the temperature approaching 30C. At what point do we start noticing that the king has no clothes?

Watch out! Noah’s built another ark

And it looks as if he’s heading out … We spotted this one on the canal today; it was busy for the first time in months with holiday hire boats colliding and grinding with everything in reach and the family of swans we’ve been watching for months, effectively blocking the entrance into Deep Lock by refusing to move with their cygnets. The permanent human residents and their boats have been shuffled around up and down the pounds as the canal is being dredged and they’ve all been temporarily displaced as work moved towards Dundas. There’s a sizeable community of permanent residents at this end of the canal, living in boats ranging from luxurious to waiting for the last weld to give way, and it’s not uncommon to see a pile of bedding on the side of the canal and a half sunken home dangling on the end of its string. But house prices and rents in Bath have become ludicrously inflated as empty properties have been bought up by ‘buy to let’ landlords and Airbnb speculators and the social housing schemes are starved of funds, so buying a narrowboat in poor condition becomes one of a number of options being taken up by young people. Another, less pleasant option, has been to move into one of the tents or benders hidden along the canalside. During the early stages of the Covid 19 pandemic most of the homeless were moved into temporary housing, but it’s anyone’s guess whether they will be back on the streets now the lockdown is being eased.

But Noah’s ark seemed to be alive and well today. It was a bittersweet moment to reflect on the government’s evident intention to ignore the looming environmental tragedy, tear up the regulations and spend billions of pound building dodgy houses while pouring more and more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Anyone who’s ever gardened or farmed would understand that the weather we’ve experienced over the past decade is all the evidence we need to understand the gravity of our situation. Today we saw a plea to reduce the use of chemicals by 50% if we are to save major extinctions of insects and pollinators.

We’ve always grown our allotment on the assumption that whatever we can grow organically ourselves means less burden on the earth. But in one of those long conversations that old friends have, we’ve come to the decision to replace about a third of our crop growing space with plants for the other part of our family, the insects, pollinators, aquatic beasties, birds and mammals who have their rights as well. So today we paced around the allotment in the rain, mulling over the best places for a pond, more wildflowers, more seed bearing plants, more early and later flowering plants for the bookends of the seasons, more bird feeders and a place to sit and contemplate. This autumn we’ll clear some beds, move a few bushes to better places, plant some more fruit trees and lots of beautiful plants. I long for a trailing species rose, clematis, Malus floribunda John Downey, perhaps a quince, maybe foxglove – who knows, it’s a major change of direction for us but in the face of the crisis we’ve collectively brought on ourselves, it’s a step in the right direction. Our 250 square meters is evolving to meet the new needs.

Today, while we were walking I was thinking how lovely the weeds were, just as the strimming brigade were out in force levelling them to the ground. So here’s my weed for today. It’s an absolute pain but it’s really beautiful too. Hedge bindweed is almost indestructible and grows in choking coils all over our plants if we let it. But it’s good to remember how beautiful it is as well. If you look closely you’ll see a railway arch behind – I think it gives the picture an edgy look! Immediately opposite on the same footpath were a group of greater celandines. A few weeks ago they were in full flower, but now the verges are beginning to look a bit tired as many of the plants set seed and die back. Tempus fugit – it’s a phrase that belongs with its companion carpe diem – time flies away, so grab the moment and make the most of it. I might redeem the shining hour by doing a “weed of the day” spot on the Potwell Inn blog – a sort of page three photo for botanists with strange tastes.

Yesterday’s rather industrial white split tin loaf was, as expected a bit of a non event. Exactly as I thought, the sheer speed of fermentation and proving limited the development of the wheat flavour. With a thick layer of home made marmalade it was OK and its texture would mean it could do for a summer pudding, being perfectly close textured and stodgy to prevent the escape any of the lovely juices – but really? ….no, not really. Give me our everyday sourdough any time.

Oh and I notice that two readers clicked on the Dr M grass i/d video – does that mean I’m not entirely alone in the universe? Another new unexplored grass today, I’m on a roll!

%d bloggers like this: