Windfasting

We thought we were in for a good shriving when we went up to the allotment today. The plot is very well sheltered from the prevailing south westerly winds and so we don’t worry too much about Atlantic storms unless they get into the forties and fifties, but even then – when the sheds at the top of the site are keeling over – we can usually rely on the sheltering line of cypress trees. Today though the wind was blowing from the east, the coldest and least sheltered quarter, and it was due to veer later towards the north and the west while increasing in force. These are the winds that do most damage to us. Grape vines are particularly vulnerable to icy winds, and today there was no avoiding going up there and making the growing crops as windfast as possible. The broad beans (aquadulce claudia) are pretty bombproof and seem to relish the winter, but too much wind rocking sets them back, so we attached a windbreak to the big net cloches which we only use to keep the pigeons off. The biggest danger was to the purple sprouting broccoli which are five feet tall now and will fall over in extreme winds. They were already staked with canes but today we drove in tree stakes and tied them in with old polythene shopping bags which make surprisingly good plant ties and gives then a third use before we have to recycle them.

So within half an hour we’d warmed up banging in the stakes and clearing away all the dead leaves and since we were enjoying ourselves we looked around for another winter job to get on with. This year, because of travel restrictions, we can’t drive over to our usual source of fresh horse manure which a friend kindly heaps up for us every year about now. That goes into the bottom of the hot bed and gets covered with a soil/compost mixture to give us a quick start in February when it usually takes the soil temperature to over 20C. Twelve months later the whole lot has composted down and is full of worms so we recycle it on to a couple of lucky beds – it’s gloriously rich stuff. After an experiment with growing cucumbers and squashes in grow bags sited on top of the leaf mould bin last year, we discovered that the fabulous crop had been enabled by the roots breaking out through holes in the bags and working their way down through the leaf mould, drawing abundant moisture as they went. So today we capped the bin, newly stacked with another one and a half cubic metres of leaves, with about half the contents of the hotbed manure – getting on for a foot thick. This year we’ll plant squashes and ridge cucumbers directly into the super rich soil and then, in a year’s time we’ll recycle the mixture of leaf mould, manure and topsoil on to the beds again as a soil improving mulch.

The other half of the hotbed contents went on to the rhubarb bed where we intend to plant a third variety in the next few weeks, giving us continuity of supply over the summer. We both love eating rhubarb and it’s a remarkably tolerant and generous plant that needs very little attention aside from water and rich food. The water isn’t a problem because the bed lies above one of our underground watercourses, so we’ve incorporated a good deal of grit into the bottom of the bed so it doesn’t get waterlogged in the winter.

The third job, then, was to build an alternative hotbed using only the materials at hand on the site. The council had dumped what looked like a couple of hay bales up in the leaf bay; still green enough to give at least some heat I hope. So we started a new deep bed (just over 1 metre deep) layering up the grass with more leaves and wood chip, and with a sprinkling of dried chicken manure now and again to add more nitrogen. With a gallon or two of human activator and capped with our usual soil/compost mix we’ll see if it reaches any useful sort of temperature.

All of which shovelling, wheelbarrowing and forking had utterly vanquished the bitterly cold east wind, leaving us warm and content in the way that only a winter morning in the fresh air can do. There is no feeling in the world to match a completed job on the allotment snatched from the jaws of the sort of lousy weather that keeps most of us indoors.

But all the thoughts about wind and rainwater; underground streams and hotbeds; trees and perennial plants lead inescapably to a mea culpa on my part. We’re completely organic, we make compost, we don’t dig, we recycle almost anything including (the liquid bit of) our own waste, we’ve spent much of our working lives in community groups and even started an artists’ studio cooperative. We’ve lived in a couple of communes …. come on ……. join the dots and one obvious philosophy surely comes to mind 🙂

Permaculture

Twenty years ago we had a brief flirtation with permaculture – I even took part in an astoundingly popular TV film about it and – (utterly tongue in cheek) – displayed the dreadful 1950’s woollen carpet given to us by our neighbour – being used for weed control. In those days we kept a flock of chickens and, to be honest, the film company were desperate for someone who could talk confidently on screen and who lived close enough to Jekka McVicar to justify bring a film crew down from London. It was her fault for putting me forward! So chickens; a row of California cylinders steaming away; some nice veg and an orchard complete with a pair of pants that had blown off the washing line – what could go wrong? For goodness sake – I even showed them where the dog and various cats were buried! The garden was a total mess so I told the crew we were using permaculture principles. You simply wouldn’t believe how many complete strangers said to me “saw you on telly last night“.

But it’s taken all this time to overcome my inexplicable prejudice against permaculture. Maybe it’s to do with the way some of its advocates seemed insufferably smug, or treated it like a religion. I couldn’t seem to shake off the feeling that it was an immensely wasteful way of using land; that it was first cousin to foraging but would never be any use to anyone except rich kids who could afford to shop at Sainsbury’s and save the world by picking a few blackberries.

I was wrong on almost every count – I’ll repeat that out loud – I WAS WRONG! – this confession will possibly amaze my friends. There is a marvellous book of meditations by Anthony de Mello that I once used in group work all the time. One of my favourites was the story of a fish that decided to look for the ocean, not realizing that the ocean was the very matrix in which it lived and swam – so ubiquitous that the fish couldn’t see it.

I don’t believe in the god you don’t believe in either!

The misconception about permaculture being about a sort of foraging is very widespread. Ken Thompson, in his otherwise pretty sensible book “The Sceptical Gardener” completely dismisses it (P106) while confusing its whole overarching philosophy with forest gardening. Just for the record, I don’t think that forest gardening will feed the world either; nor do I think that permaculture is the same thing as regenerative farming, but I do think that aligning our whole way of life to the rhythms and patterns of the natural world; living sustainably and generously with our neighbours; breaking free from the prison of endless growth and using whatever we find “to hand” – whether wind or rain or sunshine or soil as creatively as we possibly can by designing systems that balance inputs and outputs.

All my sleepless nights pondering hot beds, thermal storage, hydraulic ram pumps, composting, water storage, tree planting, hot spots and frost pockets, wind power solar panels, ponds polytunnels and insect friendly planting schemes ….. blah blah blah. Like Anthony de Mello’s little fish I couldn’t see permaculture anywhere out there because we were already doing it – up to our necks in it, but just on the small 250 square metre plot we happen to have at our disposal rather than on a grander but imaginary smallholding. Which means that we won’t be able to use my design for imaginary portable chicken arks or indeed eat the imaginary eggs which, fattened by grass and grubs would be the goldenest and most delicious and sitty uppest eggs you ever saw; but we’ve done that and it was marvellous, and we hope that many others will be able to enjoy it as much as we did.

So there we are. We were looking for a philosophical home and it turned out we were there already. The Potwell Inn is like that – full of surprises.

Speaking of sheds and storms ….

 

As you may be able to see, storm Gareth has wrought his worst with some of these sheds on the site.  The new one that just blew over was so heavy I couldn’t even lift it a single inch.  The rest – to be fair – had seen a bit of life previously but the storm delivered what’s probably the coup de grâce for most of them. What’s surprising is that most of the damage was done the day after the worst of the storm was supposed to have passed by. Even today there were some thumping gusts but the sun shone brightly.  The place was half deserted because of the the Bath half marathon which puts us in lockdown between 10.00am and 3.00pm.  Anyone planning to drive there would have to have to have come very early or waited until later. We walked up at 9.00am but the stewards were all in position already. We watched thousands of runners pass us just the other side of the trees while a rock band on the skateboard park played its entire repertoire over and over.  We must have heard “Losing my religion” about 100 times. Somewhere a long way away a thundrous drum ensemble celebrated the fastest and encouraged the slowest runners – and quite a few walkers too as they entered the second lap.

Having been kept off the ground for much of the last fortnight, we spent the morning and most of the afternoon planting out sowing and netting the succession crops and the overwintering peas. At last it’s OK to sow carrots and leeks straight into the ground, and while Madame was doing that I cleared the carrot patch ready for a salad catch crop.  I dug up a bucket full of a mixture of Nantes and Chantenay carrots.  It seemed a good idea to clear them out before the carrot fly arrives again. There wasn’t a trace of fly in last season’s crop which we grew under Enviromesh from sowing to harvesting. The succession broad beans have rooted wonderfully well in the root trainers and they went in during the afternoon.  By lunchtime we’d installed the pea netting and supplemented the mouse and slug eaten gaps in the overwintering plants with healthy ones grown in the greenhouse. Then there were innumerable little jobs that we needed to catch up with. It was a lovely day but we’ve both come home with backache!

Leaving Llŷn. Mark V watering device – DOA

2018-02-06 16.13.36There are several ways of driving back from Llŷn but we’ve settled on the shortest by distance, the longest by time and the one that surpasses any other route for sheer beauty. Naturally the sensible way would be to drive across to the M5 and plough down the motorways, concentrating grimly on not being trapped in a long line of lorries attempting to overtake one another with a 0.1mph speed advantage. Not being sensible but loving mountains, the scenic route takes us through Snowdonia past Cadair Idris, through the Cambrian Mountains and the Brecon Beacons, finally entering Bath via the last remnants of the Cotswold Hills. Somehow the drive through the landscape effects a similar transition in the mind.  Leaving and arriving need time if they’re not to jolt.

IMG_5059The weather last week was pretty stormy and in consequence we hunkered down to writing and drawing, sharing a table in companiable silence for hours at a time and punctuating our days with trips to the local Spar shop (8 miles away!) and further afield to visit galleries. We had a lovely time, but at the back of our minds we knew we’d left a load of very young plants in the heated propagators with only my Heath Robinson watering device to keep them going  Outside on the allotment we were concerned about the broad beans in the high winds and all the seedlings in the greenhouse.

IMG_5063The Mark V watering device proved a complete failure.  Every modification I had introduced had increased the level of complexity and the possibility of failure.  What never even crossed my mind was that the string with the key tied to the end as a counterweight to keep the corks from turning turtle – bear with me here –  would dry out and stick to the side of the repurposed kitchen waste bucket thereby suspending the business end of the apparatus in mid air over the reservoir. Happily the young plants were entirely indifferent to my care-plan and got on with getting bigger anyway. If there’s a lesson in that I’m determined to ignore it!

IMG_5056The allotment turned out to be in great heart – not only had all the seeds in the hotbed germinated, but the broad beans had survived the winds that had been so strong as to lift the (toughened) glass panels from the top of the coldframes and throw them several feet away. The beans are very securely netted and supported with string, so that must have saved them. Far from being damaged, a couple of the plants have come into flower which, we were inclined to think, wasn’t a great idea. The meteorologists might call this early spring but it’s not too late for a dose of severe cold.  The hotbed is mooching along at a constant 15C: not as hot as I expected but plenty hot enough to germinate spring onions, radishes, lettuce and beetroot. It would have fed my pride if it had shot up to 65C, but then we’d have needed to wait so long for it to cool down we’d have lost all the early advantage.

IMG_5057As if to underscore the resilience of nature and the indomitable will of young plants to survive, the Sweet Cicily that survived my clumsy attempts to germinate them plus repeated slug attacks last spring, is beginning to romp away in its inauspicious corner next to the water butts. Eight seeds – one plant.

On the aparagus bed the first couple of spears of Mondeo are peeping through, needing to be covered with fleece once more I think, and back at the Potwell Inn the potatoes are chitting very well.  I took a tip from Alys Fowler in the paper and I’ve sprayed them a couple of times with very dilute seaweed solution.  It probably stimulates the growing shoots, but possible keeps the tubers moist as well so they don’t shrivel up too much.

 

 

%d bloggers like this: