Archive for the ‘Almanac’ Category

“Soon Be Getting Darker at Night!*”

 

Just a week ago I was at RAF Cosford with my wife, my mother, youngest daughter and her partner. A fabulous day out! Today, up on the plot I am reminded of it because, hearing the sound of an aircraft I look up. To see the Lancaster bomber (there are only two left flying in the world – over here with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight and one in Canada) overhead.  A stunning sight!

It is Father’s Day today. I am on the plot to do some strimming I meant to do yesterday, but believed, wrongly, that it would rain. But, for a few wonderful moments I am re-living last Sunday: this year the annual spectacular was celebrating one hundred years of the Royal Air Force. And every plane clearly and easily visible under hot, blue skies. Six thousand tickets sold (plus children going free) and we got a first class viewing parking space near to the crowd line. Plenty of space, great displays both in the air and on the ground made it a wonderful display. From the moment the RAF Falcons parachute display team stepped out of their Loadmaster plane we had an inspiring, relaxing day. The static displays were well spread out, cars not crammed together, people friendly and the fast, fly-by-wire jets (that Polish Mig Fulcrum, the French Dassault Mirage and the science fiction perfection of the Typhoon Eurofighter complimented the heritage aircraft (the superbly graceful and magnificent Spitfire, the steady work-horse reliability of the Hawker Hurricane, the now-stately, but once-upon-a-time state of the art World war One planes. And that moment of pride when the Red Arrows aerobatic team turn up and fill the skies with shape, power and precision.

And, avoiding the traffic jams on the way back by following a smart phone generated course down back lanes between fields of oil-seed rape and greeny-blue stalks of wheat.

Interestingly, mentioning this to Jim, he tells me he once worked for a major Black Country engineering firm that made and supplied parts for the prototype Concorde and Hawker harrier jump jets. When they were still top-secret in-development aircraft. Now Jim is a good talker and, doubtless adds a pinch or two of romance to his reminiscences, but there is likely to be at least a grain of truth in what he is telling me.

The parts and pieces of these experimental planes must have been actually made somewhere. The Black Country was, and still is, the cradle of a lot of such engineering. So why not?

Jim does tell me the name of the firm, saying they were paid (and, deservedly) above average wages, but, this being me, I forget.  He was, he tells me,  a union convener. Nosey with it. The metals and drawings arrived, he tells me with “AGRICULURAL MACHINERY” stamped on them. But, being smart and a little suspicious he noticed that the tolerances in the design specifications were amazingly specific.

“Hello,” I says to meself, “tractor parts don’t need such narrow tolerances. Where are these going?”

“When they told me, the bosses,” he goes on, “I said “hang on a minute; they don’t make agricultural stuff there!”

The armoured military vehicles we now know as tanks, developed during World War One (but now evolved beyond recognition) are so called because the original components were ferried about in boxes labelled “TANKS” (as in containers of liquid) to mislead spies and avoid detection by enemies. Until they were unleashed.

Incidentally British tanks were developed from, you guessed it, agricultural machinery.

I pick a carrier bag full of strawberries, add one or two raspberries from the wildflower area/beetle bank we have mid plot.

The runner beans have now started to grasp the bamboo canes, and the seeds I planted, belatedly to make up the row are emerging from the ground.

We had a discussion about how well the potatoes would crop this year. The consensus is perhaps not very well; they were late going in, the weather has been poor and, though it is not conclusive, top growth is well back this year. One fierce storm, while we were away in sunny Jersey, took all of the hoed up soil and levelled it out, exposing tubers and upsetting growth.

Our potatoes are flowering already. Little Dave shares a tip with me: take off the flowers, it’ll maybe add a bit more to the tubers below ground. Otherwise, the plant puts all of its energy into the little green “potato apples that appear after the flowers fall off. This is when it is easier to realise potatoes are members of the tomato family: those little green spheres are, to all intents and purposes tiny tomatoes. And, like tomatoes, will be filled with seed. It is a short cut way to grow potatoes from tubers, new plants will eventually grow from the seeds carried inside the green fruit.

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I decide to give it a go and, stroll along the row decapitating the haulms.

Across the path the newbies have made a brilliant job of clearing the annual weeds that were threatening to spread their profligate seeds far and wide. Not only that he has built some finely levelled raised beds and is there, as I start to strim, digging over soil to pop some courgettes in.

“By the way,” I drop in, “you annoyed me,” I tell him. You have to don’t you. Early on in a relationship: get things straight, let people know where they stand, not beating about the bush.

“Ooooh,” he says “what’s that then mate?”

“See those raised beds you’ve put in?” I say, raising my chin in the general direction.

He nods.

“Well,” I say, they’re rather perfectly level. It upset me because I just nail mine together. I can never get ‘em like that!”

We both smile. But later he tells me he actually had upset another neighbour; pulling up carpet and digging out bindweed he believed were growing in a raised bed that belonged to his plot. Turned out they actually belonged to the Jag driver. Apologies were made, he said, but the jag driver didn’t look too impressed.

Heading for home for a planned late-lunch barbecue meal with my two daughters I am met by Gaffer. Gaffer usually has something negative to add to any conversation. He’s a supporter of local club Wolverhampton Wanderers who have just been promoted to the Premier League.

“They won’t stay there,” he predicts, “soon be back down again!”

“And, another thing,” there’s no stopping him, “after this Thursday it’ll be getting darker again.”

Happy Father’s Day!

 

*There’s always one, isn’t there?**

** If you can’t name the one, then it’s probably you!

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Back to Reality Meets W.H. Davies

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Our splendid Channel islands holiday is well behind us now. Reality takes its rightful place: nobody to tidy the bedroom, cook the meals, mow the lawn. I’ll miss the experiences, the “funny money” (apparently legal tender back in the good old U dot K) and loved the cheeky last minute appeal: the honesty stall in the airport offering Jersey potatoes (above picture). Me? I put fifty pence in and took the bag.

So, on the plot, we notice our onions are not doing at all well. Honestly we’re not sure what to do to help them. A quick ten minute search engine session tells us “general fertiliser” (hmmm) or nitrate of ammonium/sulphate of ammonium.

Waiting on a text from our youngest daughter, taken ill while staffing a charity bike ride in Italy/Switzerland/France,  we decide to visit a garden centre nearby. One that might stock the aforementioned remedies. We have general fertiliser (worm box leachate, chicken manure pellets) but are ready to step up a gear.

One thing leads to another (as happens in life, of course) and, several hours and a visit to said, recovering daughter sees us back at home and waiting for BBC Springwatch programme to begin.

But, being a little impatient I take it into my mind to nip up to the plot, swing out the nitrate of whatchermacallit and water it in (as per instructions) then get back in time for the BBC nature programme ( a magazine of information, data, live camera action and discussion).

But Mr Molineux is on site. It’s been a while since we bumped into each other. We chat: football clubs (though, unsurprisingly not the looming World Cup Finals), families, Jersey, booze cruises and, I’m sure, other important subjects.

Then, he has to leave and I stroll over to the plot. There I am distracted by a wasp (the first I have noticed this year?) chewing material for a nest from the one-time side of a wooden wardrobe I am storing to use as the side of a compost heap (when needed). This little wasp, too small to be a queen, is fully focussed on her task. 

I re-read the fertiliser packet instructions, break up the ground around the struggling plants with a hoe, then broadcast the white crystals in approximately the correct measure (one handful is 35 grammes, apparently; enough for one square yard*). Then water the whole patch.

While I am doing this task – and enjoying it – I notice the texture of one of the black polythene bin bags that I have tied to a cane as a possible bird-scarer. It is flagged out horizontally by an evening breeze and looks for all the world like an elephant’s ear.

I notice, glancing at my wristwatch, that Springwatch will have started. But I am content. I have noticed that other, recently planted crops need water: the courgettes and pumpkins, the carrots I sowed only yesterday might benefit from water, the runner beans, at last starting to look like climbing the bamboo canes (thank goodness!).

And then I start to pull up some gone-over forget-me-nots. These beauties self-sow and pop up everywhere. Generally we tend to let them flower – unless they are in the way of a crop. Sitting down to this job I hear, then see, a large bumble bee, working its way into and out of foxgloves (also self-sown). With no pressure but a half formed aim to make a quasi-scientific Springwatch-style observation (yes, yes, I know now it’s a kind of joke – but it felt serious at the time) I count the number of seconds this busy little creature spends burrowing industriously into each flower. About four. I watch as she creeps out of the twelfth. This somebody’s-sister bee has knees loaded with pollen and I wonder again about the phrase “bee’s knees”: surely it has something to do with this little insect carrying a valuable commodity?

Standing up, I challenge myself to dig another couple of rows of the “end plot”. It needs finishing, we have plans for the space … and, if I can manage two rows a day in this warmth, it will be complete by Saturday. In the sky there is the noise of a high –flying aeroplane, but lower down, below the level of neighbouring house roofs is the undisciplined honking from a loose gaggle of Canada geese. Seven of them. Heading from where they have been grazing for the day to a safer roost. I remind myself of the upcoming RAF Cosford Airshow. Have to make arrangements for that – but, hey, that can wait.

The digging is satisfying. I cannot dig level lines, so I start at one end with two spits, but have to switch half way across to add a third. I string a line to let me know where to stop. There is a deep trench, then the gooseberries and Worcester berries.

Back at home, still lightly sweating,  I climb, well satisfied, from the car and notice the buddleia globosa is loaded with honey bees, crashing the flowers with typical urgency. Springwatch has nearly finished on TV, but I’ve been out in the real-time, real thing.

 

What is this life if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.
No time to stand beneath the boughs
And stare as long as sheep or cows.
No time to see, when woods we pass,
Where squirrels hide their nuts in grass.
No time to see, in broad daylight,
Streams full of stars, like skies at night.
No time to turn at Beauty’s glance,
And watch her feet, how they can dance.
No time to wait till her mouth can
Enrich that smile her eyes began.
A poor life this if, full of care,
We have no time to stand and stare.

W.H. Davies.

 

 

“Your Hands Are Clean!”

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“Your hands are clean!” she says.

I look. And she is right.* We are three days into a seven day holiday on Channel Island Jersey. I am carrying tied together training shoes by the laces, walking trousers rolled up to my knees (not a pretty sight but an image to juggle with) paddling on the edge of an outgoing tide. The sand is fine, damp but reassuringly solid. The beach impeccably clean (like the island), the sum warm (as it will be for the whole week.

But my shining baby pink hands! I am a gardener, more often than not up to my knuckles (at least) in soil, compost, weeds; or taking apart strimmers, lawn mowers or splashing myself – and, occasionally a shed or wooden panel – with fence stain. With a hammer, an axe or bamboo cane in my mitts. And, largely because of my impulsive, not to say impatient nature, shunning the wearing of gloves. At least until I have been stung or have to grub out blackberries and thistles.

The flight from Birmingham was gentle, a fine view of the jig-saw piece that is the Isle of Wight fitted and framed perfectly by the window. The sea and a long, slow descent over what I now know is Five Mile Beach. The shuttle drive from the airport along sunny, narrow lanes, a driver wise enough to know what to say – and very helpful too. I see very few dairy herds. Even fewer Jersey cows: the source of very creamy milk. How well I remember the pair of Jerseys in the herd at Home Farm back when I was a child. Faces somehow better framed, less bulky than the ubiquitous Holsteins and Fresians (though I also remember an Aberdeen Angus and an Ayrshire).

 

Some fields of potatoes too, visible as we scuttle to the hotel perched beautifully above the beach and a balconied room with a sea view.

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On holiday, busily doing walking, sight-seeing … and, this time, above all, taking in the wonderfully peaceful, uncluttered atmosphere that envelopes us. The island is split up into twelve parishes, each named for a saint (Saint Helier – giving his name to the capital of the Island – was beheaded by ne’er do wells hence the parish badge of crossed axes); each parish has a committee that twice a year goes around and inspects gardens and premises with fines for those whose upkeep is below standard. Really! The same is true of roadside hedges.

It seems very harsh, but, after all it is what happens on the best of allotment sites (on a much smaller scale of course)… and, in Jersey’s case works marvellously well. Gardens are blooming. No doubt partly because of the climate but also because of the system?

We have spent days on the sand, picking over shells, paddling aimlessly (unless the aim be to simply relax and enjoy the passing of time). Very speedily getting into a holiday feel with a few ice creams and a few more beers ( lovely local pale ale named Liberation) On the south coast our hotel lies mid-way between St Helier and St Aubin and the tide goes out a long, long way, leaving stretches of spotless sand. There are few rocks here and very little seaweed on the strand. A guy at the airport (as we are leaving) comments that Jersey is “four countries in one island”, referring to the different natures of each of the coasts. Succinct but correct I reflect.

One of the “secrets” of the potato growers is that they collect the seaweed from the beaches (twice a year) and use it to fertilise the land where they will grow spuds; in some cases on seemingly impossibly steep banks (cotils in the local language). The earliest – and arguably the tastiest potatoes, covering them with polythene sheets to stop the vraic (the top dressed seaweed fertiliser) and seed potatoes being washed away by rain!

 

In my allotment brain I formulate a plan: we have another coastal holiday booked later in the year. Mainland Dorset. May be I will  take a couple of bin bags, collect some seaweed, dry it out and lump it back to the compost heap on the plot. Maybe this won’t be allowed by those I travel with, but this is Jersey, I’m on holiday and surely a time to come up with crazy plans?

And, after all, my hands are – for once – clean!

 

*No surprises there, she usually is. Even when she is wrong!

 

 

 

 

 

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.

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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?

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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 | 6am-mall.com

Forty six became 46

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.

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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.

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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.

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

Not The Day To Be Planting Potatoes Then?

Not The Day To Be Planting Potatoes Then?

Sunday, 18th March, 2018

 

We were at the Garrick Theatre (Lichfield) last night; actually our third visit inside a busy week. Last Saturday a rearranged concert by long-time local stalwart band (happy troubadours and many line-up changes) Quill, then a high energy excellent version of John Godber’s Teechers (sic.) and finally last night a spoof Agatha Christie “Crimes Under the Sun”. But, as predicted, as we drove home the snow was building up short sharp flurries carried on a “mini-beast from the East” wind all day, but settling in overnight.

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And it ruined my plans which had been to put the enthusiastically sprouting potatoes into the allotment today.

The story of getting the potatoes is itself – I hope – recording. Here goes.

Several weeks ago – we went to the Shropshire Potato Show. Something I had first come across in the daily (evening edition) of local newspaper The Express and Star. Held at Harper Adams University (one of the premier earth-based degree universities in the U.K.) just across the county border in Newport the annual event promised to be a tuber extravaganza. And we needed somewhere to get seed potatoes from. Some years ago we joined the on-site bulk buying scheme that had certified potatoes ordered at significant discount prices. But the people who organised it so efficiently then have left the committee and those that took it on make a poor fist of it. We bought seed potatoes from Wilko for a year: good results; but the local branches have closed.

So this looked like a safe adventure. And we didn’t have to buy, did we? We could just check it out.

The whole day is the kind of event I could once have imagined our own allotment hosting. Before the wheeler-dealer people left the committee (in exasperation largely) and the committee became introspective and less community minded; reactionary rather than pro-active.

Not quite sure what to expect we set out, driving the opposite way along the same one-time straight Roman road (the Watling Street).

Harper Adams is in Newport and is one of the premier earth-based degree universities in the U.K. Surrounded by very rural Shropshire which, as we enter the car park with jerked pork and burger vans, has a population interested in potato day. We are forced to circle the well-laid out car park and end up, maybe illegally, leaving the car in the Staff Car Park; to be fair, and in my defence, an arrow with “Additional Parking” did lead us there. We stroll in warm sunshine to the entrance.

Craft sales on the ground floor and an upstairs hall filled with tables of stalls of – what else – seed potatoes. There were bee keepers there, makers of children’s quilts, free tea and coffee, ubiquitous cake stands and apple juice bottlers. But the tables of potatoes dominated the space!

There were other vegetables on sale there too: challots, onions, broad beans and peas which were (self) measured in a half pint dimple glass. Satisfyingly tactile and reminiscent of days gone by when I would visit the seed merchant in Pelsall and buy these seeds “by the pint”. So, a little heritage and a nod to the past; nothing wrong with being reminded of traditional ways.

But I skip ahead of myself. The room was literally jammed full and then packed a little tighter. So, swaddled in more layers than were necessary (I had mistakenly believed the event would be largely outside!) I opted for a sit down and a free cuppa. And by the time there was pace to swing an onion bag all of the Arran Pilot seed potatoes had been snapped up. So we bagged up some King Edward and Desiree (main crop) tubers and decided to go for Rocket as our early potatoes.

I was also tempted by the “heroic” and wholly listenable-to* tales of the origins of the seed to get ten Arran Victory potatoes. The prefix Arran I now know means that the seed was developed on the Scottish Isle of Arran, but designated Victory to celebrate the ending of the First World War (1918)

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The unsung hero of British potato breeding (done by cross pollinating the flowers and growing the “literal” seed on: a long a and time consuming process) is Donald McKelvie. The variety was first developed in 195 or so and its name commemorates the Great War victory. However, we were told it can be said it contributed to the winning of the Second World War as it reliably cropped heavily and provided home-grown sustenance during the Nazi blockade which prevented the large scale import of foodstuffs.

Going even further back, given that potatoes originated from South America, there were oca on sale: tiny but bright tubers about the size of unshelled monkey (pea) nuts. We considered buying some but felt that might be a step too far. It came to me as I pondered that there is a South American instrument called the ocarina which is made from a potato: oca = ocarina. I was tempted by the bright peanut sized mini-taters, but resisted the impulse buy. Maybe next year eh?

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We couldn’t resist buying lily bulbs: possibly an impulse but why not?

We scrounged some woven (not plastic) carrier bags from a composting stand and took ourselves to the University dining room (café style) for a mid-day meal. Travelling home we felt truly satisfied: the planting year is – almost – under way.

Worth the Wait.

9.29 a.m. I’m sitting in a car. Waiting. As patiently as I can. Outside the well-cut hedges of Sean, a man the local farmer says “messes with sheep”. I’m supposed to be meeting Little Dave at 9.30 to load up a trailer of valuable sheep manure for our muck pens. Maybe the arrangements aren’t as solid as I had believed. Maybe I was mistaken – I hate it when that happens!

There’s a smart looking Alsatian hound keeping a sentry’s eye on me from behind a house window. He may be barking too, but I can’t hear it.

At ground level there’s a rough-house wind blowing. A flock of daffodils, like the hopefuls in an early chorus line audition are throwing shapes and wobbling. On the opposite verge is a fat, glossy and definitely disinterested woodpigeon: the poet inside me has him as the casting director:

“Don’t call us, we’ll call you!”

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I’ve exchanged text messages with the Plantation Owner’s Wife. Nothing new at her end.

Ten minutes later I’m still waiting. Definitely less patient. Looks like this is the third annoying thing – and it is still so early. A day of things-going-wrong maybe? First it was the alarm clock going off at half past stupid. I don’t remember setting it but accept that it must have been me: habit most likely. Secondly there’s the ridiculously loud tapping of the kamikaze blue tit throwing himself at the back bedroom window. Why does he (it is almost certainly a male – do that? Protecting a territory against the reflection that he thinks is a rival?

Just as I’m about to up-sticks and leave the sheep rancher and Little Dave arrive. Phew! It is wonderful that I have been given the opportunity to grab some of this rare resource: manure is droppings and bedding (in this case hay) mixed as opposed to just droppings. This anticipated treasure should fill the two freshly emptied compost bins and come in useful after a “cooking” spell. There’ll be up to forty barrow loads of the stuff, so I’m told.

But first we have to dig it out of the “lambing shed”. Filled with twenty ewes. No lambs.

Image result for Ewe Sheep

“I had my mate’s two tups over,” Sean explains, slowly.

“Looks like they was only here for the grub!”

We scrape aside the recently added looser surface layers of hay. Drive the forks into the solid foot and a half of packed, padded down “good stuff” below. It is not easy work and soon our jackets are laid aside. The dozen or so white geese penned in next door are let out and it gets suddenly quieter.The ewes keep getting underfoot, but they also have a calming effect. The skilfully backed in trailer takes just over an hour to fill. Then it’s back to the site, where there is a wonderful surprise for me when I arrive ahead of the 4X4 towing he laden trailer: the Plantation Owner’s Wife has been industrious and got the early potatoes planted.

She’s roped in to transfer the off-loaded manure to the plot. We have the use of two barrows and get a system going. Little Dave gamely staying on to lend a much-appreciated hand. Again this is solid hard work, especially as our plot is as far away from the central roadway as it is possible to get. But we get our backs into it.

The looser hay goes down first, dowsed with water. A handful of compost activating chicken pellets scattered on it, then subsequent layers added. Bit by bit the heap by the notice-board shrinks – I’ve lost count of the number of barrow loads at thirty – until we are driven to adapt an inclined plane system to get the barrows high enough.

It’s rare to be able to get sheep manure, but it is recommended. It’s not as bulky or as plentiful as horse or cattle manure (sheep droppings are so much tinier of course) but contains 0.8% Nitrogen, 0.4% phosphorus and 0.5% potassium so compares favourably*. My grandfather was known for collecting sheep droppings from the pasture, tying them into a hessian sack, submerging the sack in a water butt and using the “tea” produced to feed his crops.

Three hours after I started digging in the sheep pen we have the heaps packed and retained. We pull recycled black plastic sheeting over each of the heaps to help the processes get off to a good start. I’m planning to add worms from the back-garden wormery (it needs emptying anyway) to boost the rotting down.

Too hungry to wait – and, frankly, too knackered to cook – we retire, after a wash’n’brush up to a favourite garden centre eatery. There are times when only chips will do!

 

* Horse manure is 0.6% Nitrogen, 0.6% phosphorus and 0.4% potassium; cattle manure is 0.6% Nitrogen, 0.3% phosphorus and 0.5% potassium.

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