Saturday, 26 July 2008

Suddenly it’s Summer It's days like these when my Welsh genes remind me I'm in the wrong place. Sitting here in the sticky early evening heat, you can feel the air throb. The blue skies that accompanied the dry heat of the afternoon have given way to a total covering of sickly grey cloud. I have to stop and listen to every distant rumble to check if it's a plane or thunder. At least the Swifts are still flying fairly high. feasting on flying ants and hopefully cutting a decent swathe through the mosquito population. Every now and then, the thickness of the air is cut through by the high pitched squawks of the local squadron of Ring Necked Parakeets. Earlier this week, the air was so still at night that I could hear the horses whinnying in the fields on the other side of the valley.

I keep promising to sit out at dusk and look for bats. I haven't seen one since the unseasonal hot spell we had in April. I fear that the erratic weather we've had since may have done for much of the local population. But I must do this soon, maybe even brave a full on assault by mossies and midges and organise a two person bat walk by the lake at dusk. If the weather holds, Tuesday may be a good day to try, with a lunar eclipse from 9pm onwards. But astronomical phenomena are a pretty good way of guaranteeing cloudy skies. so just leaving it to chance may be a better option.

The recent hot weather has brought my rather sluggish tomato plants almost up to speed. They are starting to flower at last, so there my yet be some home made tomato sauce and chutney to go on the shelves of the larder we made last weekend. There have been rumblings of more action by disgruntled hauliers over the Winter, when fuel prices are expected to climb again. In case of temporary breakdowns in the food supply chain, we decided to convert the downstairs coat cupboard into a long term food storage area - a small larder where we can keep tins, dry goods and my home made preserves.

I am old enough to remember the bread strikes in the early 1970's, and my mum baking a loaf every other day. I remember the warm yeasty smell as she left it to rise by the fire when I got home from school. I don't know if I have the patience to make yeast based loaves that often, but if the need arises (sorry - I've just realised what a bad pun that is) Howard or myself could make a loaf of soda bread within an hour. I guess we could go down the breadmaker route, but to me that feels like one electric gadget too far.

In spite of the financial constraints, having an allotment makes the idea of a three day week not such a bad idea. Whether the amount of food you could harvest instead of buying at the supermarket would be enough to make up for the shortfall in wages is questionable, but you'd have the time to at least try.

The notes for the last weekend of July pertain equally to the first weekend of August in the Wartime Weekend Gardener -

Sow more Spring Onions

Thin carrots. Some of the thinnings should by now be large enough to be cooked as "baby" vegetables and served with butter and black pepper. Another reason why it's better to buy butter than margarine

Thin parsnips. Same as for carrots. My mum sometimes used to fry leftover boiled parsnip in butter, then top with demerara sugar. Mashed and formed into curved sausages, these were the wartime delicacy "Mock Bananas"

Now for a bit of fun - keep and eye on turnips, rocket and swedes for flea beetle damage. In the WWG, various banned chemicals and methods, such as chimney soot, are mentioned. But a modern method of control is to wrap your hand in sticky tape, glue side outwards. Gently brush your hand over the plants, and the beetles will jump up and get stuck on the tape. Hours of fun for gardeners of any age.

Oh yeah - it's my birthday this Sunday. I guess if my mum had pushed a bit harder I could have shared my birthday with Mick Jagger instead of the likes of Jo Durie, Christopher Dean and Mystic Meg. Someone else is the footballer Kevin Friday, the subject matter of the song "The Man Don't Give A Fuck". He was born exactly ten years before me, and laid to rest in the same place as all my grandparents and several other relatives. But I also share the day with Kim Fowley, and somehow an eccentric, borderline psychotic musical maverick is more "me" than a middle class social climber.

Saturday, 19 July 2008

However hard you try, the corporate world still stuffs you

It's happened again.

We switched electricity supplier because the previous lot were reluctant to send us a bill as our use was lower than the previous occupants. The new suppliers have sent us an estimate and refuse to accept the actual reading as it "does not match projected use". Great. You act responsibly, reducing power usage, putting in low energy bulbs, nothing on standby, lights off when leaving rooms, and they accuse you of clocking the meter. If I thought we'd get a refund plus interest I'd stump up for the current bill, but I so doubt that will happen I'm going to stand my ground and only pay for the power we've used. Pretty certain there's enough of a difference between the estimated bill and the actual amount to buy a little wind turbine.

It's at times like these that heading for the hills (preferably the Brecons or the Black Mountains) and living somewhere off grid moves from fantasy to logical option.

However hard you try to free yourself from the stranglehold of the corporate world, it finds a way to bite back. The past couple of weeks has seen a story emerge that proves that yet again. Hundreds of gardeners grow their own vegetables have found that their crops, most notably potatoes and tomatoes, have become distorted and died. It turns out that an agricultural herbicide, Aminopyralid, is responsible. The weedkiller is used to kill specific broad-leaved plants in pasture without killing the grass. Livestock then feeds on the grass, either in the field, or as hay or silage. However, the chemical passes through the animals' digestive systems intact and continues to be in its active form in their manure for 18 months or more. This is not a problem if it is used on pasture, but if used on broad leaved crops (and most vegetables, barring sweetcorn and the onion family, are) the weedkiller is still active.

There has been much discussion as to whether it is safe to eat contaminated crops, but as the manufacturer states in the small (ish) print that it should not enter the food chain, intuition says no. But the main issue is that people who have taken the responsible move to grow at least some of their own food are suffering, losing crops and having ground put out of use for at least another growing season, plus all the related costs. It has now emerged that commercial potato growers are suffering too. Maybe that will be enough to prompt an end to the use of this product (or at least a moratorium).

There is now an online petition, calling for an end to the use of this weed killer:

Sign it, whether you grow your own food or are just worried about the price of chips.

Anyway, this week in the Wartime Weekend Gardener, only one task is pinpointed, and it happens to be one of the few non broad leaved crops - harvest Shallots. I love shallots, especially the ultra strong elongated type - especially Jermor. They're great used as you would onions but their finest use is roasted whole until sweet and sticky. Shallots are valuable also because you can save part of the crop to use as sets and replant either in Autumn or Spring.

One less thing to have to buy - always useful.

Saturday, 12 July 2008

St Swithin and all that....

Woke up this morning to discover yet another mosquito bite. Quickly rubbed in a drop of Tea Tree oil and hopefully that should keep it under control. Like bruises, it's the insect bites you don't realise you've got that cause the worst problems. Still, I'd rather a few mozzie bites - I can cope with that. I wake up much more comfortable after a night with a window open to allow at least some airflow.

This year doesn't seem quite as bad as last year for mosquitos. We're coming up to the anniversary of the floods of last year and so far, even taking into account some extreme weather in the past week, things seem better than last year so far. However, as with last year, the first flash floods happened in South Wales this past week. But being in Wales, and a working class area, the media gave only cursory coverage.

Even if the weather patterns of the past 18 months or so are a blip, more needs to be done to stop floods. The government have delicately tiptoed in with a small measure - as from September, anyone wanting to hard landscape their front garden will need to get planning permission and ensure that the surface they lay down so they can park their three cars in place of lawn and flowers will have to be porous enough to allow water to drain through. This is nowhere near enough. Contractors have been given far too much of a warning, and as many paving firms are not entirely above board, they're scaring people into getting shoddy work done ahead of time.

First of all, the move should have been immediate, and the planning permission should have been retrospective - say covering work done in the past 15 years. In some suburban streets, the prevalence of the car park front garden is such that it is no longer safe to be a pedestrian, for fear of being run down by some wannabe desparate housewive type, driving their 4x4 over the pavement at an angle over the pavement whilst talking on the phone.

Aside of the flooding risk by forcing all water run-off into drains and causing drought by preventing rain from reaching the water table, there's the security issue of making fronts of houses immediately accessible from the street. Very useful that, as many fly by night paving firms supplement their income with burglary. They often send someone round to other nearby houses seemingly to drum up business, but really to seem who's in and when, and if they have anything worth taking. As well as looking better than a flash car and tumbleweeds of crisp packets, a proper garden served the purpose by slowing entry - thorny hedges and rose bushes are functional as well as decorative.

Then there's the fact that hard standing affects the ambient temperature of the street colder in Winter and substantially hotter in Summer. Street trees are often deemed to be "in the way" of paved gardens, so they have to go, removing welcome shade, wildlife habitat and character in one fell swoop.

So from September, if you have the slightest inkling that yet another garden is in danger, tell your local council that you don't want to live in a desert where it's unsafe to walk the streets. Demand they review areas paved before September. And plant a tree. If you have nowhere to plant a tree, buy one for someone who has the space. Preferably a fruiting tree, and best of all, a native variety.

Rant over. For now.

Hopefully there will be enough of a break in the showers to get plenty of work done at the allotment. All our good intentions of getting to the plot during the week were lost due to heavy rain and work demands. But instead we got started on another "future-proofing" project at home. More of that another time.

Tasks set out for this week in The Wartime Weekend Gardener include:

Lift some more First Early potatoes. We're about a third of the way through ours, and have eaten most of them just boiled with butter and mint. A few left from the night before have been turned into potato salad, and some have been sliced and baked in layers of goats cheese and smoked salmon, a luxurious adaptation of the Swedish dish Janssen's Temptation (usually made with anchovies). In a month or so it will be time for Second Earlies, and the first home grown jacket potatoes and mash. Bliss.

Check over the herb bed and give it a nitrogen rich feed to encourage leafy growth. A compost tea made with nettles would be ideal for this. We've started harvesting from the herb bed at the front of the house. The nasturtiums are starting to flower and the local kids who have taken an interest were amazed when they found out that the leaves and flowers were edible.

Gently tie up Cos type lettuces to ensure they"heart" properly. Not a task that's as necessary these days. The most commonly grown variety, Little Gem, is small and compact. But if you do try this, check for slugs first.

Finally, sow some swede to crop this coming Winter. Great, as we still wait for a proper Summer, another reminder that Winter is just around the corner.

Saturday, 5 July 2008

A Lovely Summer’s Day

In between the rain showers and near gale force winds, it's finally starting to feel like Summer.

We spent today at the Smallholders Show at Ardingly, Sussex. No rain by the time we arrived, it was dry and sunny, if a little breezy. Only a couple of goats due to BT restrictions, but there were plenty of other attractions. Best of all was the Working Horses Trust, which promotes the keeping of Heavy Horse breeds, and encourages owners to use them for the purposes they were bred for. They had three working pairs at the show - Ardennes who were pulling a carriage giving rides round the show, Suffolks who took part in an arena display, along with a pair of Comtois horses - never seen them before - stunning animals. Bought a few essentials, like a sharpening stone and cheeses, and found on wonderful old book on horse racing, with photos of some of the great horses of the late 1800's.

At the end of the show, we sat in the van and ate the picnic we'd packed. As we sat quietly, we heard the thunder of hooves, and looked out to see the girls from WHT riding the Suffolks and Comtois round the perimeter of the showground. Magnificent horses, and at the gallop, manes and tails flying in the wind, amazing

We had orignally intended to drive down to Ashdown Forest and hang around until dusk in the hope of hearing or seeing Nightjars, but changed our mind. Instead we took the back roads from Ardingly to Box Hill, before reluctantly joining the M25 for home. We found some amazing places in that drive - Ardingly reservoir is hidden away among the Beech woods, and at the western end there are cottages round the shoreline - more like something you'd expect to see on the continent than at the far reaches of the commuter belt. Brockham is a village that sits below Box Hill, with chocolate box cottages around a vast village green. All that it lacks to make it the perfect English village is John Nettles and a series of eccentric murders. Take away the modern cars and the scene could have been from any time since the 1920's - right down to vegetable plots in the front gardens. There's something about the sight of runner bean wigwams and cabbages rubbing shoulders with Hollyhocks by the front door that to me indicate someone free of the stresses of modern life.

Which is this week's convoluted method of bring me to the instructions in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the second week of July - sow more turnips and carrots. I guess that by now the general maintenance - weeding, watering and starting to harvest - are taking up plenty of time.

But with the erratic weather we've had until now, there's still a little time to catch up and sow some thing, notably beans. Hopefully, now that Wimbledon, Glastonbury and all the other events that invite the rain are over, we should have fair weather from now until at least mid-September.

Real gardeners don't have Summer holidays - there's just too much to do.