LED – kindly light!

Well I couldn’t resist the hymn title in there it reminded me of my mother who would often press them into service – not that she’d get the pun because she never saw an LED during her lifetime. However, the council have finally fulfilled their commitment to remove our streetlights and replace them with LED’s. Ever since we moved here our first floor living room has been flooded with orange sodium light in the winter, which had the effect of obliterating the sky altogether. Last night we were able to watch the moon setting and – even more lovely – see Orion, the winter constellation for me – riding in the dark sky.

Overnight we had a hard frost, but we still needed to be up at the allotment early because there had been a small delivery of wood chip which is a much fought-over resource. Refurbishing and topping up the paths is a regular job and, as I was writing yesterday, having finished replacing the retaining boards on the bottom terracing I needed to re-make the path. We made light work of six or seven barrow loads although steering the wheelbarrows down the steep and muddy paths was a bit of a challenge.

Then whilst Madame carried on replanting the overwintered broad beans I dug out and removed a second path from the new site for the polytunnel; all of which heavy work made us oblivious to the cold. Yesterday’s transplanted beans looked surprisingly good considering they’d been dug up, replanted and then subjected to a severe frost. The 15 x 10 patch is now cleared and roughly levelled after great struggles with the long wooden pegs which were devils to extract from the ground due to the very high water table. The photos at the top of the post show the before and after scene.

Our underground stream has broken out into the open after the storm

The emergency trench we dug to divert the underground stream away from the apples was still flowing vigorously all day, with no signs of abating. In a perfect world we’d dig a deep cistern and line it for water storage but this is (we hope) a temporary problem caused by the very wet autumn and the past few exceptional storms. There are many other people in the UK in real trouble from flooding. We have friends in the Brecon Beacons who are often cut off when the River Usk floods their access to the nearest town.

Transplanted broad beans in their new position

By mid afternoon we ground to an aching halt and packed up. When we left home the forecast was for snow and rain tomorrow, but by teatime it was promising a sunny and dry day; an opportunity to move the fruit cage boundary to let more light and air into the row of apple cordons. Carol – a Potwell Inn regular – commented this morning that we’ve been making ourselves extremely busy in what’s usually a quiet month. I’m not sure we could put that down to any particular virtue on our part. I know we both love what we do, but most particularly this winter we’ve done a big re-design, what with making the pond and the new strawberry bed; renewing and moving beds and borders and of course making provision for the polytunnel. It was always in our minds to provide as much food for ourselves and our family as possible; especially since brexit which is bound to undermine food security in this country. But we’ve also embarked on a far more diverse planting scheme by including the small mammals, birds and insects in our notional family. I think we just see the allotment through our magic gardeners’ glasses where it’s always summer and the crops are always ripening.

Last year we made a fairly half-hearted “three sisters” bed which wasn’t a great success; so this year we’ll try growing borlotti beans up the sweetcorn and small winter squashes underneath. I think part of the challenge is that in traditional first nation plantings it was the seeds; the corn and the pumpkin seeds that were the quarry and so it didn’t matter that the cobs were drying off under the foliage of the climbing beans. It may be – like so many borrowings from traditional planting schemes – that we are doing something quite different here. But – we’ll give it another try because we rather like the dense, messy plantings. Because interplanting and companion planting are on the agenda, timing becomes critical because we need to have each sequence of plants ready at the correct time to alleviate crowding out. So yes we’re busy, but come – let’s say – mid February, around Valentine’s Day; the sowing and propagating start in earnest and if we don’t get the repairs, civil engineering and bed preparation done now we’ll miss the boat.

Why write?

Why am I writing all this stuff? I sometimes wonder. In fact the blog is the child of a personal journal that I’ve kept in various forms for many years and it still performs some of the functions of its parent. While I was at work it had to remain private because the things I knew about and the people who shared them with me had to be protected. You could call it the rule of the confessional but people didn’t often confess as much as share private and personal stories. Nowadays I’m not confined in the same way and I just write a kind of open diary about the day to day challenges, thrills and spills of being human. I think I’ve come to understand that the key to staying sane in a world that’s pretty weird at times is to have one area – in our case the allotment – where we have real agency. Where we can dream dreams and even practice a different way of living in and with the earth. When I write about the things we do at the Potwell Inn it’s not because we claim any special insight or expertise but because – I like to think – in some small way it might encourage other people to give it a go. So I share the things that light me up, the books that excite and challenge me and the ways in which I think we can make a stand against the most dangerous aspects of our materialistic culture. I’m not setting myself up as a leader or visionary but just a rather old human being with a very rich hinterland and a headful of dreams.

A Dadaist loaf of bread?

Of which more later.

In a Micawberish way, working outside at a temperature of 1C equals happiness but working at -1C means you have to wear so many clothes you can barely move. But yesterday remained just above freezing all day and we managed to get a few hours of work in, pruning the autumn raspberries; burning some of the leeks that were affected by allium leaf miner along with the raspberry and vine prunings, and generally tidying around the plot ready for spring. I was surprised to see that the raspberry canes were already showing tiny shoots – possibly a premature response to the mild weather that preceded this cold snap.

We’re still able to eat at least some of our own produce because we’ve got savoy cabbage, red cabbage, brussels sprouts, cavolo nero, all ready and a big crop of broccoli about to start producing; so plenty of greens. We’ve also got all the food we preserved by bottling and preserving as well as the frozen, plus some stored squashes. Obviously this is nowhere near any kind of self sufficiency but there’s a real kick in putting something from the allotment into most of our meals, and it’s not just flavour but also the fact that it hasn’t helped consume fuel on its way to our table. Human energy is renewable but diesel fuel isn’t.

Coincidentally, a (another) new book arrived yesterday. John Harrison’s newly published “Dig for Victory” features facsimiles of the whole collection of wartime (and post war) “dig for victory” pamphlets, accompanied by explanatory notes for younger readers who have no idea what £4 19s 6d is – it could be a secure password I suppose, but in the pamphlets it represents old pre-decimal money. Rods, poles, perches and chains and even acres also need explaining to the fully metricated readers. There are also explanations about why some of the chemicals mentioned are no longer legal. Sometimes that’s a good thing but occasionally they represented fairly innocuous substances that would have cost a good deal of money to licence and so the agrochemical industry – which had money to burn on lobbying – had them banned in favour of much more dangerous substances made by them. The pamphlets take the reader through the gardening year and much of the advice is just as applicable today as it was in 1945. For me they were very familiar. I was born in 1946 and so we lived under food rationing until 1954 when I was eight years old, and gardening was a necessity as much as it was a hobby. These pamphlets were a constant feature of my childhood; tucked inside my grandfather’s gardening books and behind the clock on the mantelpiece. Looking back they seem hilarious at times – there’s a cartoon showing the difference between the fast moving centipede labeled friend and the slow moving garden enemy, the millipede. Guess which one’s flying the swastika! My dad kept a couple of pounds of Growmore NPK fertiliser inside an empty National Dried Milk tin in the shed, and we knew from the beginning that the ribbed bottle of brown stuff contained a deadly poison called nicotine . Vegetable growing was something everyone did and as we flicked through the pages yesterday I realized that our lives span the whole of the era of agrochemicals and intensive industrial farming from before it gained its stranglehold. We are among the few who remember what life was like before plastic and fast food and, equally important, what cuckoos and turtle doves – even house sparrows – sound like. There are generations younger than us who have no such memories and it’s going to be hard to convince them that we were probably better fed and much healthier back then. There’s both sadness and virtue in being able to remember when biodiversity was more of a fact and less of an aspiration. “Dig for Victory” is a good read and a useful introduction to gardening in the age of (relative) ecological innocence but I’d add that ferociously poisonous substances like arsenic were frequently used in Victorian gardens. Eden was a very very long time ago. My grandfather was tormented in his old age by dreams of the cruelty inflicted on animals in the late nineteenth century when he helped slaughter animals in his village in the Chilterns.

Anyway, enough of that. Yesterday’s supper was squash soup. In the supermarkets you’ll usually find butternut squashes because they keep well and the skins are so tough they’re almost indestructible. But if you can get hold of an organic Crown Prince or Uchiki Kuri or better still grow them yourself, they store for months and the flavour is in a different league. On Tuesday we went to bed and I woke at nearly midnight, remembering that I’d forgotten to make the sourdough batter. So up I got and mixed it up ready for the morning. Then at five thirty a.m I remembered that I needed to compete with all the other furloughed folks to book a food delivery and so I got up once more and logged on only to find that there were plenty of available slots. Ah well, most of the time we get a decent night’s sleep.

So winter squash (crown prince) soup with warm wholemeal bread, along with some tomato stuffed peppers flavoured with our own indoor grown basil. As we were eating we agreed that it would be hard to match the intensity of flavours with most non vegetarian meals. The loaf was on the table and as we finished our supper I looked at it and cracked a conundrum that’s been puzzling me. In France (and elsewhere for all I know) loaves are marked with a pattern of slashings that relate to particular households. It’s an entirely practical system because when villages had communal bakeries, it was easy to tell your bread apart from from all the others. I normally slash mine with a form of curved cross, for no particularly religious reason but I like the shape. However, 100% wholemeal sourdough is a good deal more sedate than its refined flour cousins, and doesn’t really need slashing at all. So there we were, listening to the news, and as I looked at the pattern left by the banneton on the top of the loaf, I realized it strongly resembled a woodcut of Ubu Roi made by his rather scandalous creator, Dadaist Alfred Jarry.

The dreadful news of the invasion of the Capitol in Washington was just beginning to filter through on the radio and that may have been the catalyst in awakening my imagination. Here’s what Jane Taylor wrote about Ubu the antihero of Jarry’s farce –

 “the central character is notorious for his infantile engagement with his world. Ubu inhabits a domain of greedy self-gratification. Jarry’s metaphor for the modern man, he is an antihero – fat, ugly, vulgar, gluttonous, grandiose, dishonest, stupid, jejune, voracious, greedy, cruel, cowardly and evil

Jane Taylor – quoted in Wikipedia

When we were art students I was really interested in the Dadaists in general and Jarry in particular. I wanted to write my dissertation on Jarry, but Clifford Ellis the Principal told me I couldn’t because he already knew everything there was to know about Jarry and there was absolutely nothing I could write that would be of the least significance or interest. “Fair do’s” I thought; so I chose to write about Eugene Boudin on the grounds that I’d never seen a single painting by him and anyone whose name was so close to “black pudding” was bound to be a secret dadaist. Vexingly I got a distinction for my faked up dissertation and even more vexingly I really liked Boudin’s paintings when I finally found some in the Tate.

Anyway, in one of those coincidences beloved of Jungians everywhere, I managed, completely intuitively, to find the only possible connection between Donald Trump, Père Ubu and a loaf of wholemeal sourdough. Brilliant! – although it’s not likely to come up in a pub quiz anytime soon. But I’ll think about getting a different banneton.

Turning over an old leaf

It’s a bit of a funny time on the allotment, especially for no-dig allotments, because where in the past we’d be using up every suitable occasion during the winter to dig the last few patches of ground, now there’s not so much of the warming work to be done. That’s with the exception of path making and mulching. We’re lucky to have supplies of free leaves and woodchip provided by the Council, and it can be hot and heavy work taking it all down in the wheelbarrow. The paths are nearly all finished.  When they were made, it took many barrow loads of woodchip because they were 18″ deep so they could function as drains to the beds. They function very well, but the chippings rot down surprisingly quickly and we need to add at least a couple of inches every year to keep them full.

The leaves, taken from all the parks in Bath and shared between the sites are incredibly useful for building humus in the soil.  Most of us put anything up to six inches on any empty beds, and then cover them with some kind of membrane. It’s amazing how they seem to disappear before spring, taken down by the worms and chewed into small pieces by woodlice, earwigs and all the other insects, but the impact on soil structure is profound, and even after four years there’s no comparison with the heavy and dense clods of clay that used to be there.

So today we moved a couple of gooseberry bushes into better positions, made possible by removing the strawberry bed to another plot outside the cage. If there’s one lesson that comes up over and again with gardening, it’s the negative effect on yields of overcrowding the plants. Then, after a weeding session I started trucking the leaves down while Madame spread them around the cage in a thick layer. There was no-one else working on the site and no competition for the leaves, so I was able to hunt around at the bottom of the heap to get the ones that had been compressed and begun breaking down.  I find my ancient stable fork perfect for the job, and the leaves go into a council cardboard sack which, when full weighs a ton (figuratively speaking) but  I can get three barrow loads into one bag.  Five full loads later the job was almost finished and I had a backache.  That’s the point at which you say to yourself “we’ll be glad we did it in the spring” which is true but no consolation.

Our departing neighbour also bequeathed us his storage bench and half a dozen office water cooler bottles which have been outside in the frost, sun and rain for at least four years functioning as mini cloches. They work brilliantly with newly planted sweet corn, but at the moment they’re encouraging some chard.  There’s a load more stuff in the greenhouse waiting but after weeks of rain and a few nights at -2C we’re waiting for the soil to dry and warm up a bit. Now’s one of the weird times when the weather can go from wonderful to frightful and back again in a day.  In previous years we’ve sown seeds too early and had to protect tomatoes and chillies while they grew leggy and weak.  This year we’ll be more careful – this is where a diary is particularly handy.

The potatoes have all gone now.  The sack of Pink Fir Apple I was storing in the garage have all chitted too early to be of any use for eating or growing, but in any case we’ve lost the big chunk of land which we borrowed from our neighbour, so we’ll grow far less potatoes this season. But the other roots are still in production  – Madame would love to know how to dig a parsnip without putting the fork through it somewhere! The roots in general have done well, the alliums were disappointing and we’re still holding our breath hoping that the purple sprouting will deliver.  Every year we discuss whether it’s a waste of space and every year it comes good at the last possible moment and we have our feast. The other crop we’re eagerly awaiting is the asparagus which we’ve mollycoddled for two full seasons while it got its feet down.

The weeds are all under control at the moment, although I noticed a few acer seed propellers in the leaves, so I daresay they’ll all germinate. The couch grass is all but vanquished in the beds but the bindweed never gives up.  They don’t call it devils guts for nothing, although that’s a name that’s used traditionally for all kinds of pernicious weeds like dodder which we hardly see these days. We worked quietly until about 4.30, appreciating the growing day length, and then misty rain and gathering darkness drove us off and, because we were the last people on site, we came home and wolfed down a couple of mugs of tea and some biscuits.

Our youngest son, who’s a chef like his older brother, has just inherited a new general manager who can’t say a sentence without management-speak creeping in. He’s full of the kind of inspirational garbage that makes you want to chew your own arms off, but our son entertains us with such wicked impressions of him – it would make a tremendously funny novel!