Archive for May, 2018

Rotovator? Surely Not?

Enough said ?

Surprised by a seven in the morning phone call to work on the outskirts of West Bromwich for the day I find that traffic is light but that – it seems – every local primary school is taking the opportunity (in gorgeously continuing warm weather) to celebrate tomorrow’s Royal Wedding (Prince Harry and Megan Markle).

I am somewhat exhausted by the time I get home, but determined to get up to the plot and burn the gathered pile of dried-by-the-sun weeds and timber scraps. So, a speedy cup of welcome tea, then up to the business as the sun settles on the horizon.

As expected the pile in the falling-to-rusty-pieces brazier ignites immediately. There is little smoke and leaping flames and I am glad I made this decision. We are away next week, heading to Jersey, and Friday is the only day of the week on which are allowed to have fires. So a job out of the way. We are, indeed, running out of plot space to have fires.

I remove the weeds from the row of thornless blackberries, adding them to the brazier as I go.

Little Dave drops by: a welcome visitor. Especially as he is bringing some news about the boundary stand-off. Just maybe there is an end in sight? After at least three years it is about time! But, we have had these “nearly sorted” rumours before.

We discuss other things too: society, knife crime, living in London, the wedding tomorrow (funny how my allotment fingers try to turn that to weeding as I type), other plots, crop successes and failures. Dave is up to burn some cardboard packaging. They are having a new bathroom/ toilet/ shower combination and there are umpteen boxes and associated packing to get rid of. But he’s tired and I offer to burn the lot for him. He barrows it over and the fire is re-born, blazing the unwanted stuff away in less time than it takes me to type a sentence*.

Besides which it gives us chance to talk for a little longer.

He is a good man, Dave, but when he thanks me for the sixth time I stop him. This, surely, is what an allotment – or any proper – community is about: people helping each other out; it was no great issue for me, the fire was already lit and Dave has so often been there when we needed something.

He offers some wire line to help hold the thornless blackberries up.Great I tell him, just not this evening eh? He offers cuttings from his own blackberries … but not until the proper time, of course. Again, great! Then he offers the use of his rotavator to finish the plot digging and I am – just a little – offended. So far, more by luck than judgement, I have been hale and hearty enough to spade dig it all.


After Dave has left I sit on the Overseer’s Throne and watch the fire die out, every now and then hoeing up a few more weeds when the energy returns.  In sitting I can congratulate myself for making the decision to come up here and do this. And I observe the formations of what appear to be dung-flies beneath the canopy of the plum trees in whose shade the bench now sits. The very place where forty eight hours ago stood the blanketed pile of sheep manure. Where do flies put their legs when they are in flight? I know I am tired when I ask these profound questions. But, now it has been put in my mind I look anyway; to find the answer. The careful, hydraulic arrangement and settling of limbs that makes the aerodynamic shape, somehow a cross between da Vinci’s helicopter drafts, the real-life Sikorski Skycrane and animated cartoon archaeopteryx.


The sun lowers itself behind the cemetery fringe of mature trees: lime, sycamore and a copper beech. And it is time to leave.

Sitting out on the back lawn later I am pleased to see the return of swifts, fast flapping scimitar wings, and smaller house martins. I have been wondering where they got to, a little worried they hadn’t made it. But, reassuringly here they are.

I still haven’t noticed bats yet, but maybe they are there when I’m not. And, sadly, honeybees are few and far between.

A text message swoops in.  I find that we have been gifted thirty mail-order sweetcorn plants by someone known to my sister-in-law. Of course, seasoned allotmenteers, we refuse – almost – nothing. We can always find space for a few more. Oh for that rotavator I looked down my smug nose at just a few hours before eh?


 *OK, so I type with only two fingers and my sentences are, sometimes, grammar-torturingly long – but I hope you get the idea. Yes?


46 Rings Some Bells?


Planning is recommended, fun and can be changed. We have spent many an enjoyable, if sometimes crazy, hour in discussion over the dark days of winter deciding where we would like to grow crops- and what crops – when spring eventually arrives (and it can seem so far away). Then, in the here and now, I forget and, up on site, inadvertently mention our “agreement” to “put the sweetcorn in the end plot”. And, it appears we made no such agreement. And, as long as I know I was wrong, we can both smile.

But, once agreed, one of the early jobs  – and exercise muscles in readiness for the craziness/busyness that will follow – is excavating and filling the runner bean trench. We try to practise crop rotation; at least insofar as we don’t plant the same crop in the same spot two years running. This year compost from the middle compost bin is barrowed down and dumped in the two spits wide one spit deep trench and unceremoniously buried. A line of old canes and random sticks marks the outline of the trench and the resulting row of displaced soil is dispersed by raking.

About a fortnight ago it was time to plant the runner bean seeds and we measured (I use the word loosely) out the row to know how many seeds we needed to sow (in the greenhouse). By some weird and wonderful coincidence it turns out we have room enough for forty six: a double row with twenty three each side. Easier to pair the plants as the canes can be tied together at the top for extra rigidity. We plant at literally one (of my) boots between plants in each direction.

I rolled the number forty six as words around my brain, desperate to remember the exact number; but knowing that it rang a bell somewhere. Had some significance. But I simply could not bring it to mind. But, writing it down when I got home (as figures) it clicked. I got it!

<b>valentino</b> <b>rossi</b> <b>46</b> 2015 |

Forty six became 46


VR 46.

Of course!

The racing number of nine times Moto GP champion Valentino Rossi: one of my favourite racers of all time (along, of course with the legendary Barry Sheene). Valentino Rossi, irrepressible Italian joker and skilful rider. Part of this season’s Yamaha racing team. I wonder, in my easily distracted way, whether the Yamaha racing team would consider sponsoring our runner beans: our now-dedicated tribute to “the Doctor”.

Barrowing the compost out for the trench this year I noticed (this job was done in early March) that repairs are long overdue on the compost “box” which was originally made from the cannibalised -aka repurposed (how much better that sounds eh?)  remains of a dismantled, derelict shed. A whole different level of divergent thinking, the kind perhaps typified by seasoned allotment holders. That ability to see opportunities for salvage and construction. As deeply  satisfying in its own way as raising crops for your own consumption.

So the middle bin needs completely emptying first, the dividing wall long since rotted through and falling too far over for comfort. A chance, too, to tidy up the pathway, bending the overflow back to its rightful limit as the “doors” are also bowing outwards under the pressure of the brown gold stored, waiting, behind them.

I make the barrow runs a circuit, round the now-narrow path behind the shed, ever-so-much more treacherous at the moment as the once-wide pathway falls away where the old hedge has been taken out as part of the dispute over borders. Challenging but, with the spirit of Valentino Rossi behind me (in my head at least) it becomes manageable. I have to move some of the “spare” timber we keep there, noting which pieces will be useful in the repairs. A blue pallet, an old former wardrobe door, some stakes.


The compost is used to top dress the courgette and pumpkin beds. A kind of no-dig gardening. The goodness is put onto the top of the soil and, hopefully worked into the ground by the worms, beetles and micro-organisms in there. No-dig gardening was dealt with, in that practical, down-to-earth (pun intended) fashion on Beechgrove Garden this weekend. My preferred style, a psychological need based on the early influence of Grandy (my maternal grandfather), is that the autumn digging in of organic material is most beneficial. It means that, from the second year of digging over, that goodness interred last year is returned to the surface, and on and on. I am, however, quite prepared to accept the no-dig method, assuming that the mini-life is active enough in the ground to take in the nutrients.


But it turns out that we are in the wonderfully embarrassing position of maybe having too much compost (if that were ever possible!) I spread out a black plastic sheet and cover it with the last three barrow loads. This is where – I think – we agreed to put the sweetcorn, which so far has been slow to germinate. We have bought extra seeds, sown them and been offered free extra plants. Accepted, needless to say.

Then to work with saw, hammer, wrecking bar and imagination. A crow bar used to help drive the fresh cut uprights into the ground with a sledge hammer. Pallet dragged into place, old “wall” removed and dragged down to the fire drum (let it be dry on Friday please) and the, slightly smaller, new section is ready for filling. The six-month old pile of sheep manure (dung and bedding hay) will be mixed with the contents of the end bin and the soot I scrounged off the German chimney sweep cleaning mom’s chimneys (left the sensible period to allow toxins to escape). This will enable the pathway to be re-established and, as we say in these parts “Bob’s your uncle!”

Since this is seriously heavy, sweaty work, I take a breather by earthing up the emerging potatoes.


Oh, and does anybody out there have Valentino Rossi’s ‘phone number?

A Different Point of View

Forgive me if I start this post with reading. Forgive me and, if you please bear with me; I hope all will become clear. You have to understand that I love reading: Marvel* comics, gardening manuals, Sherlock Holmes, biographies, fiction, non-fiction, new books, classics and poetry. And, having read most of the books that immediately appeal to me in our local branch library I decided to try a “travelogue-stylee” effort  titled Walking Away from poet Simon Armitage. It’s not poetry, but a commentary on a walk he made, interspersed,, I seems, with readings en route at various – and varied – venues. And it contains this passage, which chimes so readily with an experience I detailed in Ravens?

“Montbretia has colonised some of the streams. Natural England don’t approve because it’s non-native, but Sir Hugh doesn’t mind it and neither do I. One species that he does object to, however, is ravens. They were here earlier in the summer and made such a din it could be heard from the Abbey, he says. It seems like an unreasonable prejudice, and also an unlikely story, but I keep nodding in agreement as he explains how his workmen have installed a height restriction at the top of the track to keep them out, like heavy duty goalposts and a crossbar, and only when he mentions that it took days to clear up the cans, bottles, needles and condoms do I realise that ravens aren’t the source of his irritation, but ravers.”

Then, back to our own back garden where we sat on a ten years old and more, repaired, repainted and patched wooden bench listening to a pair of tawny owls calling back and forth, somewhere in the dark, friendly warm and darkening distance. Weather has been delightfully warm, this is the third night we’ve been able to sit out, fire pit roaring. Stars are clear in the high skies by the time we creep back into the house which is, somehow colder than the great outdoors. The owls have been hooting for about a week now, new visitors to the area, and welcome.

We bought a new bench, self- assembly job, back in autumn in a sale, using a harvest of garden centre vouchers collecting from various birthdays, Christmases and grateful colleagues. The original plan (“it is better to have a plan than to have faith; you can more easily change a plan”) was to take this faithful, slightly rickety old friend up to the allotment. To sit on and view work completed, work in progress, to sit and think. Or, more likely, on some days, to simply sit and drink tea.

And, today, after a fine day spent up at the plot, putting up runner bean canes, weeding and sowing salad crop lettuce, we decide to put the new, all-white bench together. It is apparently a “New England” bench, the five pieces tied together in the cardboard packing with soft twine and a pack of eight Allen and four shorter self-tapping screws. Not forgetting the Allen key itself. This is Ultra-IKEA meets Lego. The only tool I have to supply is a screwdriver. The instructions are simple, straightforward and we get it set up in record time, with – surprisingly for me, no bruised fingers and no pieces left over. As idiot-proof as is possible then.

It’s simple white appearance is such a contrast to the warm wooden tones of the one it is replacing and those of the wood on which it  stands, obviously not only new, but newly born. But once it is settled in place on the freshly swept  “decking” (made from cargo pallets) above what we, laughingly, refer to as the “beach” it looks great. And it is comfortable – and, er, it actually fits (my measuring has never been reliable).

Sitting on it, with the ubiquitous cuppa, we are able to look across our back lawns and gardens, various sculptures and souvenirs on show after coming out of cold-weather storage, sit n sunshine, see sunrises, watch stars and moon; in short: watch another year unfold. No doubt in the process spotting the jobs that need doing and planning holidays, adventures and planting.

But, now we have a quandary. The three old high backed plastic beach chairs we have been using down in dell for fire-pit watching have been degraded by sunlight and have become unsafe and dangerously cracked and broken. The one I was perched on, unwisely leaning back on two legs, yesterday evening, broke in another important place and remaining on it introduced what must surely be a new yoga position to the world. That displaced  wooden bench is the perfect answer and means I don’t have to feel quite so guilty about replacing it with its brash new sibling.

So we lug it, feeling very heavy after the lightweight new one, into its new position. I promise myself that I will set to with wood glue to bind those loose joints at some –for now satisfyingly unspecified  – time  in the future.


 I have to log out some of the timber down there to make space, but it is good exercise and my mother is a grateful recipient of the ash, damson and willow logs.


*Other publishers are available and just as good.

The Death of Boots?

Sure enough, as predicted: rain. I make my own way to the site this morning but, even with a faster car, I am a little late in getting there (in my own mind at any rate). I change into rougher, site wear. There’s a wonderfully heavy high vis, waterproof coat to cover my layers and waterproof trousers too (thanks boss). The offer of wellington boots which I decline. We clamber purposefully about. The hole we dug yesterday is, unsurprisingly, full of water: field drainage and rainwater (essentially one and the same thing) because the neat excavation is, after all, a sump in the thick, stone-free red clay. We pump the water out, fidget the tank about, level it. Need to pump out the water again – that’s how fast the water is filling it!

Fret, discuss (not sure I’m much help in this) and plunge planks in to hold/keep the beast level. Start the infill tipping. Slowly, steadily; dry mix concrete will lap up the ground water. We nervously keep checking those essential levels. The electrician is back: cheerful, busy and focused on his role.

Swaddled in layers, trundling barrows of stone and sand, shoveling, climbing, I am definitely warm enough. And then some! My boots become at first caked, then encased in the thick gruel of clinging clay, cement powder and stones. The tread in the soles is filled in; traction is tricksy at best, maneuvering in the laps of the site gods. My boots become huge and force me to walk something like a pantomime version of Frankenstein’s creature. Slow me down. They refuse to be cleaned, kicking them on the ground, against the kerb, wiping them on longer grass does nothing at all.

But eventually the rain eases of. Becomes a warm, gentle fall. We are able to shed layers. The gloves we wear to protect our hands steam, drying out from the body heat we are generating. The house martins venture out once more and about their aerial ballet/dog fights again.

The tank, internal sections filled with ballast water, is holding steady by the time I have to leave. I need to get to my Reading Group meeting (Instruments of Darkness, which gets an overall average score of seven out of ten) and a lot of queries about why I appear so ruddy

“Aussi rouge qu’une pivoine,” says one member, born in France, then helpfully translates the idiom “as red as a peony.” Er, did she know, I wonder that the peony was one of my maternal grandmother’s favourite flowers? That we used to salute its rise from dead ground every spring, marvel at the cushions of petals?

Back at home, I ease my not-surprisingly aching joints with a bath, and then set to, fetching the accumulated stiff, dried-porridge debris off my boots with a broken-bladed butter knife. I wonder whether the boots will actually survive the punishment/treatment.


But they do. And so are ready to go up to the plot on Thursday, where strimming the grass paths can be deferred no longer.  In fact the footwear now feels so light in contrast to the deep sea diver’s boots I was dragging around yesterday. No wonder my knees and hips are giving me some stick! The strimmer is reliable, though it eats up plastic line at a rate of knots, and is defeating the sudden spring growth of grass, comfrey, brambles and assorted annual weeds in warm sunshine. There is a lot of land to bring under control. The spaces around the blackcurrant bushes, the margins of gooseberry and Worcester berry plantations and the four paths. I decide to leave a decent “headland” by the hedge, nettles will surely be used, I hope by butterflies for laying eggs. It is all looking good, when …

The line in the self feed mechanism jams beyond my mobile capacity to clear it. It will need the tools and strength I have after a cup of tea and some Digestive biscuits. So I traipse about the plot, feeling reassured by the overall tidiness of the vegetable plots, the emerging potatoes, the broad beans, pegs where radish and lettuce have been sown and the row of dogwood and hazel pea sticks that show where Hurst Green Shaft peas will eventually, late frosts permitting, pop up. But, while casting about I notice a piece of jewellery on the ground. By the pallet bench on the edge of, as yet unstrimmed grass. It is clearly not an expensive piece, brooch or whatever, but how did it get there?  There have been some thefts (mainly of timber) on the site. Is this evidence of some sort? At least it shows that trespass has been committed, doesn’t it? 

I decide to track down a committee member to let them know. Strolling up the slope I spot Cliff, deep in conversation with another plot holder (who is busy hoeing up annual weeds to tidy up his ground). As we excuse ourselves and move away a confident male blackbird hops down onto the soil; very close to the working end of the hoe.  This can be typical learned, opportunistic behaviour on gardens, the blade turns up food for the bird, the bird, symbiotically clears up pests and weed seeds. I think as we wander away, just who is taming who? That conundrum of the laboratory rat training the scientist to bring it food whenever it rings a bell echoes somewhere in what passes as my mind.

<b>Soil</b> is amazing – honestly, it is - Scottish Nature Notes ...

Cliff takes the information on board, but, in reality there is little hope of finding out who the thief is … less chance of this moving the allotment committee (proving toothless and apathetic in the main) or the parish council to get the “boundary dispute” settled so that a wall/fence/hedge can be put in place to add some semblance of security to the area.

About to leave the site I stop to talk with Tadpole Bob. I mention our theatre trips to the Nikolai Tesla presentation (very good, if overly educational) and Blood Money. He has just had some arthroscopy carried out on a knee. A follow up trip to a specialist has him believing the operation was unnecessary, that a knee replacement will be needed. But he is stoical about the prospects and we can smile about things (at least in public). Leaving him I bump into Richard who, it transpires has just had a knee replacement.

“Talk to Bob,” I tell him, “he’s just had some arthroscopy on his knee.”

“Oh,” says Richard, “I had that a year ago.”

Conspiracy theory? Case rested, surely?

Hedgehogs and House Martins.

I’m out in the garden early this morning: 6.30 a.m. To put a few scraps on the bird table. To check the garden for hedgehogs. There were, surprisingly, two of them yesterday, one either attacking the larger, curled up one, trying to mate (complete lack of subtlety in this case) or administer some animal form of first aid. Eventually the smaller, more feisty one bumbled off, across the greenhouse slab and into the border. The other – was it suffering/dying? – casually uncurled and headed off n another direction. But not before I snapped a couple of shots. Not super wildlife photography perhaps, but enough to show our neighbour; she for whom I built a hedgehog hibernation chamber last autumn.

And, in the trees there’s a dark presence. A crow. Big, confident giving the impression of being easily able to muscle through and past the burgeoning leaf growth on the silver birch. New opened leaves that are particularly resplendent as the low spring light penetrates each of them like an X-ray machine. A glimpse of the soul of a leaf. In which case it is too, too easy to see the crow, perched now where a sparrow hawk sat yesterday evening, as a manifestation of darkness and a force of evil. But, imagination aside the crow is welcome and plays its part in the garden life.

There are the remnants of a grass frost, low temperatures last night, not totally unexpected at the end of April, usually a capricious month. And some fear about peas up on the plot. Hurst Green Shaft, susceptible to frost, so I’m hoping they haven’t germinated yet, or at least not got above ground level. Potatoes are hoed up. Thanks to the Plantation Owner’s Wife.

I’m trying my hand at helping (I use the word most advisedly) to install a septic tank. Went well yesterday and the weather was much better than expected. This morning I’m out in the early sunshine waiting for my lift. Blossom is everywhere; pink, white but matched by the light, fragile fresh leaves in this sunshine.

My mind flicks back again to the hedgehogs. I watch from the upstairs bedroom window with my wife. A frog erupts from the border, launching itself across the grass, then freezes. It seemed injured. I go out to check, a little grateful, at least,  that the pair of intelligent crows that were so adept at fishing them from the pond and butchering them on the lawn, didn’t get them all. And that there is spawn in the pond, now hatching to release wriggling commas of life. But as I step out of the house that hedgehog reappears. Perhaps it spooked the frog. We all freeze. I watch the frog blink. Very slowly. The hedgehog brushes past the amphibian. I believe frogs are standard hedgehog prey. But this one has the secret. Or I have, in my turn, spooked the hunter. The hedgehog disappears and I return to the house.

The white van’s arrival interrupts my reverie.  The journey takes us, coincidentally, past a pub named The Hedgehog. An hour and a half later I am on site, taking a breather.  The lawn turf, full of ground beetle larvae and leatherjackets, is re-laid atop the drainage piped trench. The house is in a rural setting (hence the septic tank) and the road to the golf club next door is busy: small, self-important silver BMW Minis. Each to their own as the electrician said yesterday as we both sniffed the air by the extractor fan: a faint whiff of something not quite legal hanging in the air. I am sitting with a cup of sweet coffee from the couple next door sunning myself, studying a pale blue starling egg that had been dropped on the lawn. A magpie is my guess. And a reminder that not everything survives.

Across the lawn the impossibly bright yellow JCB (what else?) is using hydraulic sorcery to fetch curls of red marl from the depths below the one-time meadow topsoil. It is operated with skill and finesse born of long practice and a knowledge of mechanics, the three limbs mimic the human arm. Incredible flexibility, making short work of the jobs, crawling slowly but steadily and surely.

Eating our sandwich lunch we are pleasantly surprised by the screaming, joyful aerobatics of three pairs of house martins. They wheel, spin and side slip around the gables and eaves of the house. They weren’t here yesterday. They have arrived and taken up, probably, the nests they had last year. Under the unprepossessing roof of the house we sit outside. Stunning little birds, less famous than their swallow and swift shape-alikes. But here after long, arduous migration and such beautiful performers.


Siting in the van cab, craning our necks to watch we joke about house martins as building inspectors, here because they approve of the work we are doing, the levels, the drainage falls, the mixing-concrete-with-the-digger and the painstaking way we have lowered, changed, tweaked and settled the bio-disc fibre glass tank into the  red clay.

We are speaking too soon.  Just as we are congratulating ourselves, the water inside the tank to hold it in the soaking mix shifts, the tank overbalances and we are reduced to lifting it out and dislodging stones with a hose and a broken hickory axe handle. Rain is forecast for tomorrow. We’ll have to do the task again in wetter, less favourable conditions.

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