Continuous rain and east wind brings cold feet!

Last week – or was it just a dream? – there was the first intimation of spring, somewhere in the daylight. It doesn’t require any special powers or supernatural skill, just the memories of February days stored in that part of the brain that can recall and discriminate precise sensory details like the smell of newly turned earth or fresh rain. As it happens, someone’s measured and named the first smell of the earth geosmin and the second, rain smell – petrichor – which might earn you some funny looks if you try to slip it into a conversation. Which reminds me that while I was teaching ceramics in a prison one of my class told me that he and a number of others who had been involved in a long trial would randomly choose words from a dictionary and then try to insert them in to their evidence in order to win a mars bar, which was almost a currency in those days. “There I was M’lud, tending my cannabis plants and enjoying the petrichor ….”

Anyway, then there was a break in the universally depressing weather – wettest January since the days of Noah etc – and we dared to hope that we might make a start on erecting the polytunnel; the first step being the installation of foundation tubes and securing them to buried steel plates to stop it blowing away, or being nicked. The manufacturers are so proud of the wind fastness of their design that they’ve got a video online of one of their tunnels in a storm on Shetland. The east wind was not strong enough to rock a tunnel but it was cold enough to strip the flesh off our fingers; and that was before it started to rain. So all we managed to achieve on the first day was to peg out the positions of the anchor points, and even that was fiendishly tricky because the tunnel is a tight fit – in the same way that my waist band used to be: – overlapping in several places. I have not previously seen Madame wear three hats at once, and a photograph would have been too provoking to be worth the risk; but we came home with the quiet satisfaction that comes from discovering that the job is going to be an absolute pig from start to finish. For instance, the point at which we needed to secure the U bolts to the ground tubes looked likely to be underwater if it went on raining like it was. There’s a point in every allotment project when you reflect on what you’ve just dug out and what’s likely to replace it and wonder why you ever started. The garden of Eden looking photo on the left reflects what the empty space on the right looked like on the 15th July last year the other one is our blank canvas.

Several days later …

Did I mention the job being an absolute pig? True to form the rain never really let up and so the installation of the foundation plates took place largely underwater; thick muddy and very cold water that was so impenetrable the securing nuts at the bottoms of the holes would disappear as the water level rose inexorably beyond my baling capacity. What should have been a morning’s work took several days during which it rained on and off the whole time. Twice we came home soaked through and so caked in mud we had to wash almost everything. Naturally it would have been simpler to wait for a week, but we had spotted a window of opportunity for getting the frame up and by yesterday morning with the help of a larger baling mug the last two foundation posts were in and we turned to the pile of tubing, nuts and bolts that needed assembling. Luckily I’d rehearsed the operation in my head so often (we watched the video five times) that we’d gathered together and bought the last few tools we would need; among them a professional range electric drill promising twice the torque of my smaller one which often fainted at the sight of a wall. True to the blurb it almost broke my wrist when I forgot to adjust the torque setting. I think I’m just not professional enough to use proper tools!

So in two long sessions which were 20% bolting and 80% sorting through the pile and inspecting the instructions; and with an even fiercer east wind biting our cheeks we’ve all but finished the framework and cultivated the soil we’d trampled in spite of the planks. All credit is due to the company that supplied it – no ads here – we just need to bolt in the tensioning rails and make the doors up and then wait for a sunny day with no wind to fit the polythene cover.

Our 15′ x 10′ polytunnel – oriented north/south after a great deal of conflicting advice; and it’s big enough to stand up in.

Not only are we absurdly proud of ourselves for putting it up without any shouting – just a bit of muttering – but more pleasingly still we provoked a storm of structure envy among the neighbours. From what they were saying the whole site is going to look like tent city by the end of the summer. Everyone’s seen what’s happening at the border and investing in ratatouille growing capacity.

By the end of last week I was feeling pretty down with all the news and I really don’t like writing about what’s going on because it doesn’t change anything. But a week on the allotment transformed our mood. We’ve worked through rain, frost, east winds and even wintry showers. I thought several times about one of our elderly parishioners who lived alone and who, every winter, would wrap an old raincoat around herself, tied up with a length of baler twine and dig her garden from end to end, regardless of the weather. She was one of the most cheerful people you’d ever meet; completely unburdened by the spirit of the age.

So perhaps when we enlarge on the therapeutic effects of a bit of nature we should be more honest about the way allotmenteering does it. My feeling is that the only way to discover your inner peasant is to crack open your comfort zone by exposing it to the weather. Some seeds are like that – garlic, angelica and sweet cicely don’t really thrive until they’ve had a hard winter. It’s called vernalisation. Muddy overalls, white fingers and blotchy skin are the price of emergent life in us humans too, perhaps?

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.