Archive for January, 2016

Yes, We Have No Bananas … Tomorrow?

Must be a poor news day. Because as I’m driving to work, local radio talk show is giving details of the “threat to the future of our bananas” and asking how will we ever manage without them. Most of this has been said before and it goes hand in hand with discussions about monoculture, food miles, monopolies and why we don’t import other varieties of banana.

But …yes we have no bananas tomorrow apparently.

First you should know that it has been unseasonably warm. We have had daily temperatures (middle England, January) of ten plus degrees Celsius. Ok, OK a couple of nights where the windscreen was frosted over in the morning (that Night Before De-Icer we bought and “put somewhere safe” four years ago just didn’t work … for some reason. But not enough to worry the slug population that is, even as I type dreaming of invading the allotment lot from its never-cold domains. Anyway it seems that slugs and snails can live for seven years without emerging (isn’t it the same rule for weed seeds?) whatever the weather.

The plots look good, the November sown broad beans may have grown too tall, some have been bent and battered by the winds, having grown exceptionally well in the warmth. Looks like we can save enough of the crop by thinning them out and supporting with lines around poles, the remainder. The autumn sown onions are just growing on and on, but the soil is very wet and the bulbs may rot eventually. All around them, incidentally the weeds are swarming and thriving: bitter cress, groundsel and rogue potatoes.

We had gone up to the plot to empty the kitchen compost caddy (posh word for school paint powder and chicken pellet buckets we just go on re-using and re-using: air tight lids make them marvellously ideal for this – and other – such tasks).

In other years we have ceased collecting kitchen scraps: it has been too cold to take trips up to the allotment; but not so this year.

The council operates a fine bin system: a grey bin for general household waste; a bright blue bin for recyclables and a green one for kitchen and garden waste. In this latter we normally get rid of the couch grass roots, thistles and other pernicious roughage from the allotment – oh and, handily, the sawn down Christmas tree. (Waste from the general rubbish bin goes, we understand to the incinerator managed jointly by Staffs County Council and French company Veolia. The site is at Four Ashes, not so far away and generates electricity – great idea!)

Image result for veolia four ashes


At home we moved the bird feeding station: few birds seemed to be able to find it, so now it is a bit further away, a bit more difficult to watch but at least the birds (greenfinch, blackbird, blue, great and coal tits, chaffinch, a robin and a wren are using it now. 

Back to bananas (oh well, if we must) and this is largely lifted from a BBC web-site item by Duncan Leatherdale and is the intriguing back story of the Cavendish banana (i.e the one we almost certainly get if we are buying our bananas in Europe:

Bananas have been grown at Chatsworth since 1830 when head gardener Joseph Paxton* got his hands on a specimen imported from Mauritius. It seems he was inspired by a pattern he noticed on some Chinese wallpaper in one of the home’s 175 rooms. Today’s head gardener Steve Porter is sceptical about the story.

Image result for chatsworth house  Image result for joseph paxton 

“Certainly the timings fit”, he said, “but I think it’s much more likely that Paxton was always on the lookout for new and exotic plants and was well connected enough to know when the banana plants arrived in England.”

Paxton filled a pit with “plenty of water, rich loam soil and well-rotted dung” with the temperature maintained between 18C and 30C (65F and 85F) to grow the fruit he called Musa Cavendishii after his employers (Cavendish being the family name of the Dukes and Duchesses of Devonshire).

“At that time for a family in England to be able to grow their own bananas to feed their guests was very exciting,” said Mr Porter, adding: “It still is for us today.”

Indeed, in November 1835 Paxton’s plant finally flowered and by the following May it was loaded with more than 100 bananas, one of which duly won a medal at that year’s Horticultural Society show.

A few years later the duke supplied two cases of plants to a missionary named John Williams to take to Samoa.

Only one survived the journey but it launched the banana industry in Samoa and other South Sea islands (Williams himself was killed by natives).

Missionaries then took the word of God and the Cavendish banana to the Pacific and the Canary Islands. So the Cavendish spread, but it is only in relatively recent years that it has become the exporter’s banana of choice, its rise in popularity caused by the very thing that is now killing it off – Panama disease.

Image result for cavendish banana

There are, of course many other varieties of banana; with different characteristics and flavours (including one I have eaten in Peru named locally after the private parts of Amazon monkeys. It was very tasty and, in my defence, should it be necessary I only found out about its nickname after I had enjoyed it).

None of this news, however has tempted me to try and grow bananas on the allotment: I have enough trouble with potato blight and wireworm. But I may never look at Chatsworth, just up the road a ways in Derbyshire) in the same way again.

*The same Joseph Paxton who was also an M.P. and designing the original Crystal Palace.


The I.S.S.

So, let’s kind of agree that allotments began in medieval times. The feudal strip farming systems that gave the serfs and villeins a place to produce their own food.

At a time when mankind was concerned with the ground and making it work to sustain life … and wild birds were a source of food – if they weren’t the exclusive preserve of the landed gentry and poaching (with blunt ended arrows for example) would have you outlawed or having your fingers removed.


Or, just sometimes a source of wonder: just how did they fly? Where do they go? What can they do, that we, the earth-bound cannot?

And, earlier this week Major Tim Peake, former military test pilot, became the first Briton to spacewalk, early in his six month stay on the International Space Station.

Image result for tim peake 

This is, indeed, progress. The whole sale long-term big picture conquering not only of terrestrial flight, powered, faster, further and more comfortable … but that of space beyond our atmosphere.

Seeing the physical world, in all its entirety, as it really exists. Not as in an atlas; with political boundaries: pure and precious. A world that could not be imagined by any human back in the days of European strip-farming.

And food production has changed too, the range of crops, the methodologies, the morals and the abundance for some and lack for others.

But even as he was spinning around in orbit at prodigious speeds; my allotment, invisible but vibrant is below. I can look up – if I pick the correct times and skies are clear and see his passage. But he can see neither me nor my tiny plot. The piece of ground that has been rented and fed the local community in all of its evolutions, glories and misdemeanours since 1892 (and who was flying then?). The piece of ground that is my therapy, challenge and cheer. Things go well; I learn a little, talk a little, work out a little and wonder a lot.

Travel has widened horizons, made the world smaller (if not always better). The people who toiled here in 1892 laboured long and hard for money, then worked the ground for themselves: life is easier in those respects it can be argued – though modern life has its tensions.

They would have marvelled at some of the crops I grow I guess, at technology and the pace of life. But I also guess they had the ability to roll up sleeves and come to terms with it too; the new countries, fashions, customs, foods so readily available …

Meanwhile the Earth still spins and the I.S.S, wonderful symbol of cooperation orbits us all. And Tim Peake is the first Briton, flying the flag at a new frontier.

Progress, though it brings fits and starts, is undeniable, but the survival of allotments is no bad thing; although they are, necessarily far removed from the subsistence days of the Dark Ages. Flying weightless in the heavens just had to be beyond the ken of those feudal gardeners.

Didn’t it?

Thinking …

There was some random talk (or I was not really listening) about this often touted statistic that you “are never more than six feet away from a rat” in the developed world. Doesn’t bear thinking about in one sense.

And where, exactly did this come from? And, of course, is it true?

Interested? Take a look at

Up at the allotment, of course there are compost heaps which, inevitably attract rats. And the sheds provide shelter and routes for these intelligent rodents to move about and build nests. The shop makes rat poison available (free of charge) and there are a number of cats (and a fox) that prowl the site: day and night.

I have no real phobia or fear of rats: I believe that if we exterminate one, another will soon appear to take its place. If we exercise reasonable precautions and hygiene we should be able to co-exist, surely?

But it set me thinking about a couple of things.

Firstly, does the distance change over time? Was there, for example, ever a time when the proverbial distance between human and rat was less?

And … I am at times cursed (blessed?) with a divergent mind … what is the current distance between me and someone in education. To clarify that: children at school count: university and college students, teachers and classroom assistants (in all their glorious variety and job tiles) of course, but also people doing vocational courses and those, like me doing evening courses (German in my case).

Image result for education

And, the same question: has this changed over time? I am sure that here are more people who meet my definition of “in education” now than there were, even twenty years ago.

Then, at the same time I am wondering what the statistics would be for people involved in “food production”. Not “food processing”; just the basic working to grow or raise things to eat. Either growing for your own consumption or for trade. That would need to include livestock as well of course.

Image result for food production Image result for medieval farming

Back in pre Industrial Revolution times I suppose everyone was involved, indeed it was necessary to produce food for your own family. Later with enclosures and the drift of the population to towns the allotment movement took off.

Then in two World Wars it was essential to turn land to food production.

Image result for dig for victory

And after that it was traditional that houses had gardens big enough to grow food. However the processed/convenience food boom came along and it is unusual now that new-build houses have significant land attached to them. And what there is, is effectively entertainment/ leisure space: patio, barbecue, lawn, trampoline: easily maintainable and, if possible labour free. OK there may be fruit trees such as apple or pear; possibly cherry. But often the crop is not harvested.

Now, looking at even our own road those of us that actually have even fruit trees can be counted on half the fingers of one hand. I correct myself somewhat because I believe we all have a bash at grow bags with tomatoes. So, at a stretch that is food production. Isn’t it?

But, given even that I wonder what the distance would be ….

Between me and someone involved in food production.

Twelfth Night

Having been dogged with what my “new” doctor diagnosed as a virus (so no anti-biotic panacea/placebo) I had a fairly inactive – but nonetheless enjoyable – Christmas.

But suddenly it’s the 6th January (Happy New Year everyone!) and the end of the twelve days of Christmas.

No partridges, pear trees no lords a leaping and, most depressing of all perhaps, no gold rings (dammit).  I digress slightly (why not?) to wonder exactly how many calling birds, swans and ladies dancing I would actually have after the twelfth day of the song … because, of course, my true love sent to me a partridge in appear tree on each and every day of the twelve so, logically I now have twelve of each. Then from day two; two  turtle doves, so eleven times two gives me twenty two of ‘em …  Gettit?

Image result for twelve days of christmas

The words originally represent something Biblical I seem to think and this aside came from a lateral thinking quiz I happened across (as you do).

Taking down the few Christmas decorations we have is always a labour of love: each decoration comes with some history: this bauble we bought from the German Christmas market, this one reminds me of one we had when I was a child (though my mother denies any such thing ever existing: the bauble I remember not me as a child that is), this one we bought in Austria … and so on. They are not fancy-fancy. And there are not hundreds of them, but they mean a lot.

Image result for christmas decorations

There are two sprigs of holly too, in memory of my grandparents: back in the day we always had a holly Christmas tree, cut from one of the farm hedges by my grandfather and hung with lights and glass decorations, chocolate coins and so on. s usual this year I crept out and trimmed a couple of twigs from the garden. But superstition says they don’t come into the house until Christmas Eve!

Image result for pictures of holly at christmas

So far we have always had a real one: is it sustainable, eco-friendly? I believe so because new tress have to be planted and farmed as replacements. We opt for a Nordmann Fir because they shed their needles less, apparently,  than other species.  And me;  I would never usually put it up until Christmas Eve: traditionally the beginning of the old-time Christmas festival. But these days people have the trees up as early as the last days of November. So ours goes up a week before the 25th.

We actually thought we had left plenty of time to get the tree. From the Forestry Commission sales at Birches Valley on Cannock Chase. But when we actually pulled on to the car park it was deserted and the marquees, side stalls and usual paraphernalia were nowhere to be seen. There was a notice pinned to  a post that’s aid there were a few remaining, unsold trees for sale from the “office car park”.

Didn’t sound too promising, but we went to take a look. Indeed there were only a few left, but one of them was the best tree I have seen for years: seven feet tall, well-shaped and with lovely patterned bark on the trunk. We took it; the guy in the office saying that the site had been closed even during the sales as the weather made it all unsafe for customers.

So, the tree is down, sawn in half and bundled, unceremoniously into the green, council-collected bin.

Christmas is over, the decorations taped up into a cardboard box again and up in the roof space.

The allotment has been visited. The weather has been warm and wet: floods elsewhere have people having to abandon inundated houses and shops.

It has meant we have carried on with the kitchen caddy waste and have taken to two recycled chicken pellet buckets up to the plot compost heap. Usually, because of the cold weather we take a break.

Slugs and weeds are, no doubt, doing well in this warmth. But maybe we will have a cold snap that will sort them out. 2015 saw us get great harvests (especially proud of the solid cannon-ball sized cabbages) – we look forward to 2016.

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