A Little Bit Of Earth Magic While Out Foraging For Leeks And Parsnips

Well one thing was certain, when I waded through the snow to the allotment yesterday afternoon – no-one else would be daft enough to be there. A hundred or so yards from the house, I almost turned back. The snow was coming in over my wellies, and it truly was hard work tramping through the low drifts. My well trodden path along the field edge was no longer familiar. The world was iced blue-white with only a passing buzzard to break the stillness.

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You might wonder what had induced me to go up there at all – with all the garden plots buried under a foot of snow. But I needed parsnips, and I needed leeks, and parsley and Tuscan kale from the polytunnel. And once I was there, I thought I’d better shift some of the snow from the polytunnel roof, since we’d been promised all-day snow on Sunday, which has indeed come to pass.

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It took a while to find and extract the parsnips. The soil wasn’t frozen under the snow-blanket, but was very, very sticky – doing a good impression of stuff stuck in quicksand. But mission accomplished, veggie-wise, I noticed a change in the light and started taking photos instead.

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As I was heading home, I realised I could hear the whoops and cries of happy sledders. You can just make them out on the hillside north-east of the church tower. But for the power-lines (that intrude on most views of Wenlock) it might be a traditional Victorian winter scene.

Which reminds me. While I’m here, I’d like to thank all the local farmers who have been out on their tractors clearing roads and spreading grit. My entranced-by-snow moments are all very well, but some people need to drive places. Multiple gold stars to the farmers then.

copyright 2017 Tish Farrell

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Winter At The Allotment

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It looks pretty dreary on the plots, and these days the only person I see at the allotment is an elderly man who likes to walk his dog around the perimeter path. But there’s still stuff to harvest – parsnips, carrots, leeks, kale, perpetual spinach, Swiss chard, purple sprouting, and in the polytunnel lettuce and various Chinese mustards. There are also 8 compost heaps to turn or add to, and now is the season for collecting leaves to make leaf mould. I’ve filled three new bins with leaves from the wood, and last autumn’s caches are beginning to rot down nicely; I’m hoping they’ll be ready for spring sowing. So despite these gloomy looks – all is filled with new possibilities.

February’s Changing Seasons ~ Shots From The Plot

 

Way-hay – it’s spring, or so it seems, and now I feel I need to garden on the run in order to catch up. Much earth moving must be done at the allotment – all the jobs it was too wet to do in the autumn. All the jobs that it’s still to wet to do now. But at least the temperatures are kinder.

And the light is so promising. I’m celebrating that fact in the re-composed top shot of an allotment sunset, captured through the neighbouring hedgerow.

In fact every day now you can see the over-wintered plant life responding as light levels and temperatures rise: purple sprouting sprouting, cauliflowers hatching inside their leaf-folds, chives shooting, rhubarb unfurling, spinach expanding. Then there are carrots to pull from their bucket in the polytunnel, and Chinese mustard and Russian Kale; the autumn sown lettuce are starting to fill out.

Meanwhile inside the polytunnel a big makeover is also afoot. He-who-makes-raised-beds-out-of-old-pallets has been dragooned  into  commissioned to reorganise the planting zones. Instead of wide beds along each side and a path up the middle, the plan is to have one continuous narrow but deep bed on one side, a narrow raised bed down the centre for tomatoes, and three separate raised beds down the far side.

After two days slog establishing the first and second phases, HWMRBOOOP heroically informs me that the stage 3 separate beds are now ready, flat-pack style, for the final part of the installation. The only problem is that it is now windy and raining and we don’t feel like leaving the house. Also this last part of operations will require shifting tons of soil from the old side bed into the new beds, and there’s only so much heaving and hauling one can do in a week.

I’ve already shunted and prepared the soil in polytunnel beds 1 and 2, turned over three big squidgy compost heaps (my compost making technique leaves a lot to be desired), sifted out enough usable stuff to cover several outdoor beds, while starting a new heap with all the stuff that needs to go round again. I have another six heaps to deal with.

At the moment I have one and half allotment plots, but I’m aiming to dispense with the top half of my oldest plot this March when the rents are due. Ultimately, I’d like to retreat altogether to my polytunnel half plot, by which time I should have a fully functioning NO DIG raised bed/terrace system. The theory is that since this system will be more manageable and productive, a half plot should be more than sufficient for our needs. However, as I’ve mentioned several times in other posts, this approach does rely on making loads of compost every year, and that takes up space. Anyway, one step at a time.

And in between compost turning,  moving the gooseberry bush, and pruning the autumn raspberries, there is always time to take a few photos. So here follows a gallery of shots from the February allotment, one of which makes me realise that my polytunnel now also needs a good wash. Heavens to Betsy – is there no end to the gardener’s toil:

To take part in the monthly Changing Seasons challenge please visit Max aka Cardinal Guzman.

Changing Seasons ~ January To And From The Allotment

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The field path behind the house is littered with skeleton apples – windfalls thrown out from a neighbour’s garden. The apples were whole, if a little bruised, back in October when they were tossed there, but it is only this month that the birds have been truly feasting on them. Blackbirds mainly. Little by little the flesh is being pecked away until all that is left is the thinnest skin, and perhaps some fibrous filaments around the core.  I was thinking of fellow blogger, Sue Judd at Words Visual as I shot and edited this ‘still life’. She captures beauty in decay with great flair. Anyway this painterly edit sums up January for me.

But then today I decided to go the long way round to the allotment. There was misty sunshine, and so the chance to get enough shots to make a gallery in line with Cardinal Guzman’s  alternative version for his monthly challenge. Pay him a visit to find out more.

The long way round involves going up Sytche Lane that skirts the field behind our house. In the top corner Shropshire Council is busy digging us an attenuation pond to slow down the flash flooding when a storm hits our catchment. The town has a long history of flooding, and the Sytche Brook, a generally nondescript trickle of a watercourse, can become treacherous, and has been known to add considerably  to the deluge that hits the town centre from neighbouring hillsides. Another pond is being built at the other end of the town. Neither are seen as total solutions, and some would argue that these measures are not suitable in a steep catchment such as ours. Only time will tell. In the meantime, the big digger driver posed to have his photo taken before I trudged onward through the mud.

The path behind the excavations then wends on along the field boundary and into a wood. You are right above the town here, so in the gaps between the trees are some good viewpoints for photos. From the wood I can then drop down to the allotment.

The following gallery shows all the things that caught my eye today. These include – apart from the ‘views’, Jenny’s watering can hung in a cherry tree, Simon’s wheel barrow, Phoebe’s budding rhubarb, my leaning shed with globe artichoke, and Ron’s much smarter blue shed. On the way home the sun was setting in the wood.

 

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copyright Tish Farrell 2017

January: Winter Garden Harvest

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Yesterday, after several days of rain, I trudged, stick in hand, clad in big hat and waterproof – (looking a bit like Gandalf, I thought, but definitely without any concealed fireworks) along a very squelchy field-path to the allotment. To say the plots are not looking their best is an understatement. All seemed dank, dreary, waterlogged, weedy, and downright dismal, and certainly not worthy of a photo – not even a moody, atmospheric one. BUT there was produce, much of it still thriving in the mild, wet weather. So here we have it – on the kitchen table my winter harvest, a humble ‘still life’ tribute to the Flemish masters who created such scenic wonders out of lemons, melons and grapes. And also inspired by Jude who kindly said we could interpret her winter garden challenge any way we liked.

So please pop over to her garden photography blog for more Winter Gardens

Bee-ing Bee-Minded

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An old meaning of the word vivid is lively and vigorous. And what can be more lively and vigorous than foraging bees? They and their produce are life-enhancing too, and in elemental ways. Their importance in the human life-cycle, for one, is marked in an old Shropshire custom of ‘telling the bees’ when someone dies. So it is my belief that we can’t think too much, or too often about bees. Not only do nearly three quarters of our food crops depend on them for pollination, but the natural environment needs them too – those plants and trees whose flowers are also pollinated by them.

Up at the allotment we are very lucky. We seem to have plenty of bees, and many varieties too, but then most of the allotment gardeners rarely use pesticides apart from the odd slug pellet. Yesterday when I was there, my raspberry patch was thrumming with bee-hum. It was mesmeric. They also love my neighbours’ phaecelia which is grown as a green manure. Pete and Kate decided to leave theirs standing just for the bees. The flowers are beautiful anyway.

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My field beans are another favourite. Again these beans, a relation of the broad bean, are usually grown to dig in before flowering and fruiting. But courtesy of the bees, I leave mine to produce masses of pea pod sized pods. The beans are small, and more delicious versions of broad beans. So thank you, bees. Also the bean blossom has a blissful scent. It’s a win-win-win situation.

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The debate over whether neonicotinoid pesticides are responsible for the massive bee deaths across the globe wrangles on. You can follow some of the arguments in the two BBC Science reports at the links below. One recent startling discovery by a study at Newcastle University, is that bees are attracted to the pesticides. They seem to like the nicotine in much the same way humans do. Researchers have yet to discover if bees also get hooked on the stuff.

So why do we need pesticides? The actual fact is that any large-scale, mono-crop production will attract, in huge numbers, the pests that use that crop for their food and reproductive cycle. Monoculture environments also lack the kind of predator insect diversity, that would, in a naturally diverse ecosystem, keep such crop pests under control.

So the demand for pesticides is created, and the drive for profit, and for the production of cheap food keeps us locked into pesticide dependence. It’s not hard to see why we seem stuck with this system. The economics of unpicking it look impossible to broach.

Here’s another thought though. Mono-crop systems are also vulnerable to new pests whose advent is ever more likely, either through accidental imports, or by climate-shift trans-located pests that may have no natural predators in their new-found homeland.

I have personal experience of what happens when dependence on one particular crop meets an alien pest. In the 1980s the Central American Larger Grain Borer beetle was introduced into Africa in a consignment of food aid maize, and once there, spread up the continent like wildfire, chomping the contents of village grain stores to dust. (And being faced with such a pest, who would knowingly want to put insecticide directly onto their food before eating it?).  This infestation is what took us to Africa in 1992 where Graham was working on a project to introduce a natural predator to check the LGB spread. (See Carnations, crooks and colobus at Lake Naivasha, and Letters from Lusaka part I ).

The consequences of this particular dudu’s arrival  were compounded by the fact that, since colonial times, maize had become a staple in many African countries (European settlers doled it out as rations in part payment to their African labour), so largely replacing the local cultivation of a wide range of native, more nutritious small-grain crops. Maize is also a hungry, water-demanding plant that can easily fail if there is insufficient rain. And, if repeatedly grown on the same ground, it will soon deplete fragile volcanic soils and contribute to erosion. This happened on Kenya’s native reserves during the World War 2 when Western Province farmers were encouraged to grow maize for export to Europe to support the war effort. They grew bumper harvests, but the land suffered, and probably has never recovered.

So we see in just one example the kind of vicious downward spiral of impoverishment that can result when humans think they know better, and don’t consider the consequences of tinkering with an existing system.

In fact when we left Kenya in 2000, German agricultural aid workers were advising rural farmers to go back to cottage garden farming methods, mixing different crops up together to fool the pests, and so avoid the need to buy expensive pesticides. i.e. advocating precisely what Bantu farmers had been doing for a couple of thousand years before colonial agricultural officers told them that inter-cropping was bad practice, and that they  needed to adopt European cash-crop methods in order to grow export-worthy produce.

All of which is to say, we all of us need biodiversity for our well being, if not for our survival. With climate change, we cannot afford to limit options in food production by remaining in thrall to the reductionist models perpetuated by factory farming, supermarket buying power, genetic engineering that reduces native crop diversity, and by the pesticide hegemony in general. At the very least we need the bees. Anything that threatens them, threatens to seriously limit our good food choices. The health of humanity and the planet’s ecosystems depends on them.

As consumers we have buying power. It is perhaps the one real power we do have, otherwise corporations would not spend so much money trying to persuade us to buy their goods. If we are able, we can support small local producers who do not use pesticides. We can say no to genetically modified crops that have caused their producers to give up, or lose their native crop varieties. We can grow bee-friendly plants, and if we can afford to, buy only organically cultivated produce. We can grow as much of our own food as possible. It’s amazing what can be grown in containers if garden space is in short supply, and sprouted seeds can be  grown in the kitchen all year round. So let’s keep our bees vigorous and lively, in whatever way we can.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

Bees get a buzz from pesticides

Widespread impacts of neonicotinoids ‘impossible to deny’
Vivid

To And From The Allotment: Finding A Beautiful Blue

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Readers who have been visiting my Edge for a while will know that at Christmas I mourned the loss of my Kodak EasyShare point-and-shoot. It died on a beach in Anglesey, and its last image was of me peering into the lens, though I’m not sure what good I thought that would do. Anyway Santa Graham had bought me a Lumix replacement, so I wasn’t without a camera for long, and I was quickly enamoured of its dynamic monochrome facility.

But then some people are never satisfied. And the thing was, not to be ungrateful, I still missed my Kodak. And since the Kodak company is no more, this led to a little trawl on Ebay, and the purchase of a rehabilitated, slightly upgraded version of my original digital (more zoom), and all for the princely sum of £17.50. It is thus the camera I mostly take to the allotment, because you never do know when you might want to snap the portrait of an especially fine cauliflower, or record progress of the lettuce in the polytunnel. (I am not joking. Just you wait).

But first things first. The butterfly. This was spotted yesterday in the corner of field between our house and the allotment. I was carrying a big blue IKEA shopping bag of kitchen waste for the compost heap and a bunch of 6 foot bean poles, and it was very windy. Nonetheless, despite all these handicaps, trusty Kodak captured this gorgeous, if tiny, Common Blue butterfly. In real life it is probably less than half the size of the first photo image. You can see it more in context of this next shot. It is about 1”/2.5 cm across:

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See how wonderfully it posed, and with great gusts of wind too. Here’s a shot with  breezy blast thrown in:

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I thus dedicate this post to blogging chum, Ark, at A Tale Unfolds. In his Leading you up the garden path posts, he has been treating us (among other things) to dramatic entomological scenes of ambush and slaughter inside a yellow gazania; and all from his garden in Johannesburg. At different times he has also captured some splendid shots of butterflies, birds, more spiders and several praying mantis. He apparently does this while roaming his domain with a mug of coffee in one hand. For some reason this makes me think of the Mad Hatter, though I don’t think he wears a hat, and certainly not a topper. Or do you, Ark?

And now to conclude this inaugural series of to-and-from-the-allotment, here are some more dandelion clocks (broken and intact) because I’ve decided to consider them wonderful instead of a curse on my plot:

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and followed by the cauliflower, which is what I really wanted to show you all along, and is also a thing of beauty, produced on my plot without pesticides, but overwintered under enviromesh. And just to boast, it was at least twice the size of the photo, and tasted delicious with kamut pasta in a goat’s cheese, parsley and onion sauce. And no, I do not do takeaways. Sorry. Though I do share excess, uncooked veggies, but you  need to come to Much Wenlock to get them.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell