Archive for February, 2016

Breathing Apparatus ?

And it’s only when I’m getting out of the car to unlock the site gates that I realise I’ve forgotten my boots. That I’m wearing trainers.

But I am on a mission and – just maybe – they won’t get too muddy. If I’m careful.

Then I, typically, forget about being careful and get on with it.

The plot has been tidied. Slowly but surely. Between rain and days at work we have amassed piles that need to be gone. And today (Friday) is the one day in the week when we can burn. So, load up the big oil drum we use as an incinerator and light it up. The fuel is too wet. Needs lighting three times. Then smokes like a sulky Cornish tin miner. Fitfully.

I’m not just watching the fire. Footwear forgotten I am taking the chance to catch up on some long overdue digging. Good exercise, great therapy and makes the plot look so much tidier. Cared for, dare I suggest?

And I’m wearing my Christmas present gardening gloves for the first time. They are really posh and I haven’t dared to wear them until now. Didn’t want to get them dirty sounds a poor reason, but it is the correct one. They are comfortable, warm, waterproof and make it difficult to pick up the brandling worms that I habitually collect and return to the compost heap.DSC03235

Across the Wolverhampton Road; where the building had been demolished the Hi-Viz vested chaps are putting up a fence. To begin with I was thinking it’s be a post and rail fence, but they are going for the full vertically boarded type. Using a nail gun. The explosions are off-putting to begin with, but soon settle into a rhythm. And the fence goes up remarkably quickly. I can see it without looking through the gappy, winter hedge.

The soil I am digging is water-logged heavy. On one plot – the middle one of three – it will become more friable as it dries out (this is the plot we plan to put the potatoes in this year as part of a regular rotation) but the one nearest the hedge is claggy and sucks the blade of the spade relentlessly. This actual ground has only been in proper season by season cultivation for three years and lacks the improvement that regular addition of organic matter produces. Oh and digging. For years it was in the shade of a too-tall –as in twenty-plus feet tall hawthorn and elder hedge. Only tamed when the householder moved on and I laid he beast.

Today the hedge still casts something of a shadow and the soil remains frozen to some degree because the sun hasn’t hit it yet.

ON TV last night was the news that Asda are going to start stocking “wonky veg boxes” with less than uniform shaped produce. It’ll be cheaper. But, of course the vegetables will still be vegetables and it should cut down on waste. How sensible. Or, actually how not sensible is it to have a system which treats vegetables to some kind of un necessary apartheid.

Image result for wonky veg boxes

None of our allotment grown veg would make it past the first censors; but it is tasty and we know how it has been grown.

Allan and his missus have been and had a general chat and Supermarket Dave too. He has some encouraging words: rents are due next couple of weekends, the potato order is in and – oh dear, that fire’s not going to well is it?

It isn’t! he offers some wood to get it going, but I shrug, not really caring and thinking about heading for home. The skies are getting cloudier, there’s snow forecast (actually it has been forecast every day this week, but, like some side plot from 1984 it’ll always be due “tomorrow, just as we predicted”) and I’m a bit fed up.

Then a new resolve kicks in: I said I’d get the stuff burned didn’t I?

I reload the bin, put some extra dry timber in and try again. This time, perhaps the initial attempts had been enough to dry it out sufficiently, it begins to flame healthily. Enough to keep me there. And adding a few extra bits and pieces. Including some shattered remnants of corrugated clear plastic we used last year as cloches. They have degraded, been blown about and smashed … and I don’t know whether they will burn or not.

So I give it a try.

Actually they just ripple, fold and collapse in a very Dr Who kind of fashion. I add some more, just to see.

When I add the third section the whole thing bursts into life.

Flame, yes

And some of the thickest smoke I have ever seen. Something almost volcanic. It seethes over the rim and falls to the floor, obviously heavier than air and squirms across the soil like a Ray Bradbury monster. I am, momentarily enveloped. It stinks! It catches in the throat and makes me choke.  Casting my eyes down I walk to the path, get out of the smoke and breathe. My eyes are bone-dry and hot. I blink. So this is why fire-fighters need breathing apparatus I realize, watching for a good ten minutes as the wall of dark, grey smoke creeps across the site.

Back later, kicking off my inevitably-mud caked shoes and abandoning the extremely smelly clothes by the washing machine I take five to read the local newspaper.

A house in Bloxwich has burned down. The fire was possibly caused by sub-standard equipment used to grow an illegal crop of marijuana/cannabis inside. There is more than one reason fire-fighters need B.A. after all.


Charlotte’s Grandchildren


In the distance, below the horizon ridge

A honey coated horse is head down grazing;

At rest,  firm edged shadow leaning long

Down the gentle February slope.

It is nearly possible to hear the explosions

In the atomic heart workings of the sun –

On a day which balances preciously between

Passing winter and welcome spring…

And Charlotte’s grandchildren are

Taking to the joyful jester-hope skies.


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Parsnips for Canada ?

Just back from a second day of actual work up on the plot.

Yeah, yeah, yeah we’ve been delivering kitchen scraps and some fortuitously collected horse muck to the compost heap on a fairly regular basis, but work …?

So, at long last, days off and a warm, dry spell coincide and we can get to setting things up.

And the first job is to prune the autumn fruiting raspberries, dig them out wholesale and untangle the nets of bindweed roots that are invading the patch. This is a truly pernicious weed, and amazingly tenacious and alien-like tricksy. If the smallest portion of root survives a whole new plant is created.

Image result for bindweed roots Image result for bindweed roots

The soil is still heavy, a little waterlogged and frosted and my fingers get cold.

But the work is satisfying. There are others up there too. Hard at work, preparing ground that has been too wet and heavy to work. It has not been a cold winter, but unusually heavy rains have dogged traditional winter digging.

People are taking up the last sprouts, cabbage, leeks and. Of course parsnips, which always taste better, traditional wisdom says after those roots have been frosted.

Parsnips there remind me of a discussion on the train to Crewe on Saturday. A farmer somewhere couldn’t make enough money from his potato crops, so he diversified into using the potatoes for crisps: he set up the equipment at home and started. It was extremely successful: the birth of Tyrrel’s crisps based in Leominster, Herefordshire. Their web-site – – is unashamedly nostalgic, but fiercely designer-label and, no doubt based on the latest psychology.

Image result for tyrrells chips

But … he was still growing more potatoes than he could actually use for crisps, so wondered what else he could do; that involved growing potatoes (at which he was clearly very successful).

Some Polish workers, apparently mentioned vodka, and that was that.

Product duly completed he set about marketing it: going to the best of London hotels, to local independent shops, to other prestige outlets, telling the buyers that this was the finest English vodka; that it would sell at £30 per bottle.

A fine, self-assured style of marketing:  it worked. After Tyrell’s Crisps came Chase vodka.

Love a success story!

But then in the local paper (Express and Star) was the story of Little Hay (near Lichfield) farmers, the Bartletts, who are shipping parsnips to the U.S. of A. to be made into crisps as there is the paper says a shortage of parsnips in North America this year.

“The business,” the paper details, “was established in the 1950s … when, at that time, it was on a site of just 50 acres. Today the father and son partnership … own 600 acres of Staffordshire and rent several hundred more …”

They also have a web-site – – and, brilliantly the parsnips they grow are Staffordshire Gold.

marketing  packing

Getting this little “creative county” of mine on the maps eh?

But, speaking of crisps: there is a brief discussion in my house – the night before the bins go out or collection: can Walker’s Crisp bags be recycled. me? I am absolutely sure that they can be – until I check. The silver inside them is not actual metal foil (of course it isn’t, how could it be, I realise now) and the bags have to be put into household waste. There is, however a charity that’ll ship ’em out from Southampton to the Philippines where they will be made into household items. However unlikely this sounds it was definitely on the internet, er somewhere.

Nathaniel’s Nutmeg

Our daughter and her partner came to visit last Friday. Always great to see them … but, knowing my love of reading there was an unexpected bonus. Books are the default Christmas gift where I am concerned, both in giving (for me something special about choosing a book for someone – and passing it over: especially if they have the same taste as me, because then it’ll usually boomerang its way back for me to read at a later date).

And she had been given a book, started reading it, but with little or no time to carry on, thought:

“ … bet dad’d enjoy this one.”

Well, suffice it to say I’m on page 53 already and it is extremely fascinating.

Written by Giles Milton it is the background to and story behind the Spice Race: European voyages of discovery to find the source of spices and overthrow the Venetian monopoly in nutmeg, sago and mace back in the pre-Spanish Armada days when the naval powers were Spain and Portugal. It is called Nathaniel’s Nutmeg.

Image result for spanish armada

It is necessarily global in nature, but speaks of politics, commerce, invention, discovery, human nature, the stubborn bravery of some of our ancestors and the rank stupidity of others.

Image result for nathaniel's nutmeg

The eponymous Nathan has yet to feature; there is background to be consumed about earlier explorers, the Fabled “North East passage” to reach the Indian Ocean via the north of present day Russia. A voyage not actually undertaken until nuclear submarines were venturing below polar ice.

But it is partly about food … food fashion; methods of keeping food preserved.

Oh and quackery: the medicinal claims being made for the spices. Medieval snake oil salesmen.

But it is extremely well written: descriptive, well researched, full of interesting anecdotes and description and I am, indeed, fascinated.

I have fond memories of my grandmother’s tasty sago puddings which, though delicious and hearty always reminded me of frogspawn, and the way she sprinkled grated nutmeg on her cooked-in-the-range rice puddings; adding a definite special taste.

Image result for sago pudding

Like bananas in my recent post ( ) I have no inclination to grow these spices, but finding out about their history during the cannot-get-to-he-plot weeks is filling the time.

Out and about I notice snowdrops, early daffodils, windflowers, and crocus blooms: some hedges are dusted with white blossom (my guess is cherry, but it might be blackthorn) and the hawthorn buds are beginning to break open.

We had tremendously heavy rain and fierce winds yesterday but it must not have been a storm because it did not have a name: I find this current alphabetical naming of storms to be irritating and, frankly, worthless as an exercise.

The Countryfile week-ahead forecast told me, twenty minutes ago that we will meet Storm Imogen during the night.

Meanwhile I will tuck myself up, with a lager and set about Nathaniel’s Nutmeg. Doubtless my daughter will have finished her other books-on-the-go and chores … and be looking to get it back soon.

Only In England

There’s a Gardener’s World Question Time programme on the car radio when I climb in after a brief visit to the allotment this is broadcast from the North east market town of Barnard Castle.

Image result for gardeners question Time Barnard castle  Image result for gardeners question Time Barnard castle

The presenter, Eric Robson, after the obligatory history-in-a-nutshell begins, to laughter from the audience by reading out an article from the Teesdale mercury newspaper, headed :

“Sorry, No Nudists Here.”

Last week the Teesdale Mercury reported how Welsh nudists would be part of a panel at Gardener’s Question Time … this was a mistake. What we should have reported was that panel members for the radio programme have in the past visited Welsh nudist clubs. Our young reporter momentarily lost his concentration when he read the word nudist in the press release and made the unfortunate slip of the pen.

However we can gladly report that sales of tickets for the event have gone very well since we published our initial story.

We apologise to anyone who has booked a ticket expecting to see naked horticulturalists.”

By the time the reading was over I was back at home, smiling quietly. I didn’t care to listen to the remainder of the show; some catching up of work to be done and the time just stole away as it is wont to do at weekends.

This can be a marvellous way to lose half an hour or so when I am in the mood: the information, the opinions, the topical tip and pure exchange of stories and banter is charming and educational.

And, every now and again there is a small jewel dropped in to the programme such as this No Nudists opening.

Only in England, I suspect.

Tonight driving home from work I cannot help but marvel at the layers of sky, from pale blue at the horizon, pink overhead with a range of grey clouds dancing in the periphery of Storm Henry … and noting that at five pee em it is still light enough to drive without lights … spring is coming; this is February 1st after all!

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