Saturday, 20 September 2008

Life is diamond shaped (possibly)

Well, the Autumn Equinox is nearly here, and the the other traditional herald of the new gardening year happened this week - the first 2009 seed catalogues belly flopped onto the doormat. Strange how the weather has finally become Summery for more than two days in a row now that we're packing hot weather things away. Never mind. Maybe the weather is working a three year rota, and 2009 will be as sunny as 2003 and 2006 - hopefully not quite as hot as 2006 though. There's no point in the weather being too hot to move about in.

As hinted in the title, I've been wondering if the year as circle analogy is entirely right. I seems to me the peak of Summer and trough of Midwinter Solstice time, plus the way work seems to be hinged by the Equinoxes, seem to hint at more of a diamond shape. Nothing to do with jewellery, so don't worry about me. I'd still rather a pebble from a favourite beach than something sparkly and over girly.

Spent part of the day planting bulbs. A decorative pot of tulips and narcissi to brighten the front of the house when most of the herbs are dormant, and LOADS of Saffron crocus. The Saffron I planted last year yielded a few threads, which I carefully saved and used sparingly. When the plants died down I carefully lifted and stored the bulbs. On coming to replant, I realised that those bulbs had multiplied about five fold last Spring, and instead of two sparsely planted troughs, this year I have two large pots and one trough, much more closely planted, plus a seed tray of bulbs ready to transplant to a raised bed at the allotment as soon as it's ready.

Saffron is one of those plants it's easy to obsess over - sparse cropping, but made worthwhile by being expensive to buy and good to look at. At least I can get a decent amount of bulbs to replant - maybe I should keep that in mind when looking for potential cash crops.

Events of the past week have brought the need for a level of independence from the conventional commercial world to the fore again. At least action has been taken on both sides of the Atlantic to prevent total meltdown, even if it meant some of the most guilty escaped reprimand. One other positive thing to take from this is the willingness of the Bush administration to take such a huge chunk of government funds to plug that gap. Does that mean that they have accepted that Obama will will the presidency and have to clear up their mess? The last thing the world needs is any more of the evangelical inquisition. Much has been made of Sarah Palin's unsound views on women's rights, but McCain's views are just as neanderthal and damaging. I could go into more detail, but the prospect is horrifying for the whole world. Just have to think positively.

Plan to spend as much of tomorrow at the allotment. Taken some sausages out of the freezer and splashed out on a couple of tins of baked beans with ring pull tops so we don't have to break our day for lunch. Much of the day will be spent breaking ground for raised beds and levelling a spot under the trees to put the shed up, but tasks suggested by the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this week include:

Tidy the Rhubarb bed, removing any dead leaves and adding a new layer of manure mulch.

Lift any of this year's onions still in the ground. Take advantage of any remaining dry weather to harden the skins outside before storing them. If not, store them on wire racks indoors for a few days.

If you have any spare ground, start thinking about ordering some fruit bushes or trees to plant late Autumn or early Winter. Having lost a couple of apple trees in the move, this is pretty high up my list. I'd suggest looking at the Common Ground website to see if there are any Apple Day events near you in the next few weeks. I know Berrington Hall in Herefordshire are holding their Apple Day event next weekend. We went to that last year and it was excellent - a lovely walled garden packed full of apple trees and a gorgeous setting, looking out towards the Black Mountains.

Yes, I urge one and all to have fruity thoughts, this and every weekend!

Sunday, 14 September 2008

Belonging - a forgotten art?

Among her multitude of acts against this country in the 1980's, one phrase uttered by Margaret Thatcher probably goes to the core of the the way life seems to have changed for the worst:

"There's no such thing as Society"

This gave permission to those who wanted to get ahead at the expense of others, and paved the way for many of the problems we are experiencing today. Houses became little more than a commodity, to be traded for the most profit to the detriment of those who most needed them. Education became a status symbol, as parents decided their precious darlings were too good to mix with the locals and either drove them for miles or removed them from the secular state system entirely. We now have children who can't cross the road on their own, are unwilling or unable to make friends at home, or join gangs in an attempt to feel wanted or part of something.

Another major crime of those years was what MacMillan called "selling the family silver" - the privatisation of the many nationalised industries and utilities. The short term benefits are long gone and we are now reaping the whirlwind - especially with the energy companies. It is difficult to go off grid or use solid fuels such as wood if you live in town, so most of the country, and in particular the poorest sectors, are being held to ransom by energy companies who claim they have to raise prices because of the cost of oil. In reality a) they stockpiled oil before the price rocketed, b) the oil price has gone down substantially and above all c) they don't want to drop the price as it would mean lower profits and less money in dividends for their shareholders.

Over the years, many sections have been targetted for abuse - single parents, asylum seekers, disaffected youth, the unemployed. All have been the scapegoat of a given moment, blamed for any given problem. One section of society that has never been singled out in this way, but truly are Parasites are those who gain money by holding shares in companies they have never worked for. The dividends they earn are taken from money that should either have been used to pay better wages to the workers, or to reduce prices. If the great lie on the early 20th century was (as written by Wilfred Owen) Dulce decorum est pro patria more, then the lie of the past theiry years or so is that the Captains of Industry are the wealth creators, as opposed to the shop or office floor workers, or consumers in general.

It is often, and probably accurately said, that the British don't have the stomach for protest, but we do have the ability to ask awkward questions. Ask you energy provider what proportion of your bill went to shareholders and directors' salaries. Ask them when you will get a refund to take into account the drop in the oil price. If you have a pension fund, ask your provider if it is an ethical fund which excludes shares from former national assets.

Coming from Gordon Brown, suggestions to cut down on energy use are patronising, bordering on Marie Antoinette land. This government, as any other, is beholden to, if not controlled by big industry, and afraid if not actually unable to act i a way that will benefit the majority of voters. However, using less energy will be to the detriment of the energy companies, and where your health allows it, there are many enjoyable ways to stay warm without turning up or maybe even switching on, the heating. Cosy socks, snuggly jumpers, hot drinks, home made casseroles, porridge in the morning, a brisk walk to the next stop rather than waiting for the bus, an early night under the covers. All save money and keep it from the corporations.

I was lucky this weekend to mix with people who in spite of this every man for himself ethos, are happy to do something for other for no return:

Yesterday morning I pottered about, deadheading and tidying my herb bed at the front of the house, and chatted to the man next door. He was adding a few thyme plants to his front garden, and I gave him some pot marigold seeds. He has taken it upon himself to start planting up an untidy grassy patch at the end of the close, by a block of garages, so we were discussing what else could be planted there. It's a patch of ground that could be really lovely, south facing and sheltered in the main, about 5 foot deep and the width of the three houses it backs on to. I have offered a couple of my hollyhocks from the front bed, as they have romped away and smothered my bay bush. Everything planted so far has been cuttings, divisions and spare seedlings, including Acanthus, Rowans and Kerria, so that would fit in. I'm tempted to lift the Bird Cherry saplings at the allotment to plant there and provide colour from blossoms early in the year.

Later in the afternoon, we went to our allotment society's show. We didn't enter anything, but it was a chance for everyone to get together and chat. We were walking to the bus stop and a couple who live in the next street and have a plot near ours offered us a lift, which was really nice. Even the prizegiving was fun. There's one man who's really serious about show vegetables, and wins almost everything he enters. Thanks to him, our society is in line for the best club prize from the town show. Anyway, they read out a list of all his wins at the start, so he collected all his to get them out of the way. There was someone who won almost as many in the fruit and cut flower categories, but for amusement value they called him up for each prize individually. Everyone, whether they had an allotment or nor, whether they had produce entered or not, was made to feel welcome and part of the event.

This is in a suburb of Greater London. Not everyone has surrendered to the every man for himself ethos, and they're not all of an older generation. Our neighbour of the same age, if not younger than us, and the winners of the main allotment prizes (not including the children's competitions) spanned several decades.

After that we went down to the allotment to plant our first batch of Autumn onions. Seemed appropriate - the show signalling the end of one growing season, and the onions the first crop planted for next year. One of the women on the plot came down with a couple of friends after the show and had tea on her plot, with one of the near tame foxes (she treated them for mange last year) hanging round on the offchance of leftover cake.

Our new little allotment pal, the ginger near kitten, popped by when we were filling the watering cans and came to investigate. He was most upset that the dip tanks didn't contain fish Laughing

As we left the site, the moon was rising over the woods, all big and butter yellow. A lovely end to the day.

Was up early today as Sheba has taken to sneaking onto the pillows and I was woken by fishy breath in my face. I can hear wrens and woodpeckers and have just watched a squadron of geese circle and land on the lake. We'll be heading over the allotment later (hope to catch Countryfile first as they may be footage of the Rare Breeds Show we went to a couple of weeks ago) and hopefully it will be as productive as our last visit.

The Wartime Weekend Gardener also reflects that the year is turning. The only task given for this week is to thin the winter roots, such as turnips and swedes, plus a quick run over with the hoe to keep on top of any weed seedlings are they emerge. It may have been a bad year for many crops, but the weeds always thrive!

Saturday, 6 September 2008

Wild Things

Dotted around the housing estate where we live are hedgerow plants. Those of us in the know make use of that. Directly opposite the house is a little thicket that includes a Cherry Plum tree. Earlier this "Summer" I picked a couple of ripe fruits from it. Very nice - sweet and juicy. On the path that leads down to the brook and the lake there is a blackthorn (sloe) bush. It seems that this year has been a bed one for Sloe berries, and the shrub on the path only has a couple of berries on it. Barely enough for a miniature sized bottle of sloe gin. Still, better than nothing.

The garden maintenance guys have done for the brambles in the visible parts of the estate, but thankfully we have an unmanicured area near the house and I've gathered a few snack sized portions in the past couple of weeks. I've also spotted some good clumps of elderberries destined for the preserving pan.

But my favourite wild fruit is only just starting to ripen - the rose hip. There are only a couple of Dog Roses nearby, but much of the estate is hedged with the more luscious Rosa rugosa. If I can bag enough before the maintenance men hack things down for the winter, I hope to make a few jars of Rose Hip jelly.

The estate roads are also lined with hazel bushes. But the squirrels always beat us to the nuts. Earlier today, however, I was able to take advantage of the hazel. Someone was cutting back the shrubbery near their house, and I spoke to them and bagged some decent hazel poles for the allotment. There were some smaller branches too, some destined to be pea sticks, other to make a rustic trellis.

Hope no-one has been hit by the floods. Some of the roads in Enfield have been hit by flash floods this past week, but so far we've bee unaffected. My little rainfall gauge in the garden has recorded well over 2 inches of rain in the past week. I'm starting to worry that the weather will turn the soil at the allotment against us and we'll struggle to complete the raised beds in time for next spring.

Providing you're not under water, The Wartime Weekend Gardener this week instructs you to:

Thin tomato trusses to give the fruits the best chance of ripening. I seriously doubt any of mine will ripen now. I forsee a green tomato chutney making session of the horizon.

Oh well, I bought some tulip bulbs and the first batch of over wintering onion sets today. I can get started on planting for next year's harvest.