Tuesday, 26 August 2014

They came from the West

They came from the west. It was the call that made me look up and see two swans flying in line, forming a graceful arc in the sky. The trailing swan slowly lost height and somewhat ungracefully landed on the greensward that is the path dividing the allotments in two. The leading swan continued its circuit above the allotments before it too landed, but this time with more grace, in the field on the opposite side of the railway line.

The swan, our swan, indignantly shook its feathers before looking about its new habitat and then with that strange gait of a landlocked water bird went to explore. It crossed several plots before being abruptly stopped by the chain link fence that encloses Ranmore. And so with nowhere to go it settled down exhausted, to rest.

The curious and somewhat bemused that were working on their plots came to see the new arrival and stood looking with interest as the swan returned the stare with apprehension.

As is often the case some things are best left alone, and so it was for a couple of hours, before Marina concerned, returned with water. An uneasy truce held between them as they shared lunch. The crusts of a sandwich offered and warily received in the warmth of the afternoon sun.

Now its a strange thing that a mother swan with offspring that are reluctant to leave home will take them off on a flight from which they will not return. And thus, the swan in the field rose and headed back westward along the valley that divides the chalk downland of the north from the sandstone ridge to the south.

It would be a fine thing for the allotments to have such an unusual mascot, but it has rather less unusual foxes, and as it was getting late a decision had to be made. So for those left on site agreement was reached to corner the swan and cover it with a blanket, from there it was a short journey by car to the millpond in Meadow Bank. Release was greeted with an indignant hiss and the threatening arching of wings before sailing off to be met surprisingly, by another lone swan,

What a lovely thought it would be to think that a pair had been made, but alas as it is so very difficult to tell one swan from another, we shall all just have to dream.

Tuesday, 27 May 2014

Ne'er Cast a Clout

'Never cast a clout till May is out' is I guess a saying that most people have come across at one time or another, but you would be mistaken to think that it means the month of May as do other old sayings such as:-

Button to the chin, till May be in.
Cast not a clout till May be out.


The wind at North and East
Was never good for man or beast
So never think to cast a clout
Until the month of May be out.

Rather it refers to the Hawthorn, also known as the May tree or May blossom, which is a very common tree of English hedgerows especially since the enclosures when it was used for its fast growth. They all however warn against leaving off your outer garments (clouts) until this rather changeable month has past.

For me it is not only the May blossom that heralds the change from winter to summer but the bluebell Hyacinthoides non-scripta that carpet our deciduous woodland floors as the fresh green of emerging leaves appear (you won't find that colour on a Dulux chart). The bluebell can be found throughout northern Europe but the largest concentration is in England where almost 50% of the worlds bluebells can be seen. So popular is this sight that it is a tourist attraction not only now but also in the past when special trains took sightseers to the Chiltern hills to see the spectacular displays. Also flowering at this time is the Wild Garlic and where they mingle such as on the banks of the river Mole beneath Box Hill it is particularly attractive. Although common it is still none the less under threat from the loss of ancient woodland, taking from the wild, and to a lesser extent hybridisation with the Spanish Bluebell.

I think they are spectacular, but judge for yourselves:-
The English Bluebell


Bluebell and Wild Garlic

Spanish Bluebell

Thursday, 1 May 2014

The Good Friday Spud

Now that Easter has come and gone, Good Friday was the traditional day on which many decades ago the labouring poor of this country (and by that I refer to the agricultural poor) used to plant the humble potato. It did not have much to do with the weather as Easter is a movable festival falling as it does on the first Sunday after a full moon following the Spring Equinox, a formula devised way back 325, meaning that it could be either end of April. It was however everything to do with it being the first day of the year they had off and vital if they were not to starve. Time off for the labouring poor was a rare thing when the attitude of most farmers was that if workers had the energy to work for themselves they were by definition stealing it from their employer. Such attitudes prevailed even into the 19thC and was one often quoted as a reason not to provide allotments even though the enclosure acts had striped land from the poor, their only means to provide food for the table. Thankfully the clergy had the compassion to provide Church lands and persuade enlightened landowners to do likewise.

Anyway back to the potato. It is a small lumpy parcel of goodness containing as it does all the vital nutrients including vitamins A,C and D that ten people would need to supply their annual energy and protein needs from just one acre, just add milk for the calcium. In fact Parmentier when taken prisoner by the Prussians in the Seven Year's war (1756-63) lived on nothing else and made it his mission in life to convince the French of its value, which he did, and when he died in 1813, by way of gratitude they erected a statue of him in Paris and named a potato dish called crepes Parmentier after him.

The next 100 years saw a frantic rush to breed ever more varieties and although it did not match the tulip mania seen in Amsterdam some quite giddy sums were paid for new cultivars. In 1874 a potato show at Alexandra Palace in London there were 1500 dishes of potatoes being exhibited which seems extraordinary now but in retrospect there must have been a huge problem with synonyms as seed catalogues in the early 20thC listed 200 of the variety 'Up to Date'. In 1919 the Institute of Agricultural Botany in Cambridge formed the synonym committee to make sense of it all and with the application of science came order.

Now most people will know that the potato comes from South America and is really not suited to our wet humid climate so is susceptible to an awful lot of problems both bacterial and fungal of which Phytophthora infestans (blight) is its nemesis. To this end most research into breeding, such as that carried out by the Savari Research Trust, has been to select and cross varieties to produce a potato such as Sarpo Mira that is resistant to P.infestans. Trouble is I didn't find it cooked  or tasted particularly well.

A better approach is to ensure that the seed potato starts clean and this is done in the laboratory where 'nuclear stock' is micro propagated to produce guaranteed disease-free 'minitubers' that can then be grown 'on' on farms that are inspected to ensure quality. Under EU standards they end up either 'pre-basic' (the best), 'basic' or 'certified'. The basic is allowed a degree of disease but below basic 'A' it can not be sold  as seed and in Scotland (where most seed potato is produced) certified is not permitted at all. So just as long as you buy from reputable seed merchants and look to see that the labels have 'safe haven' or similar on it you will be safe and providing the weather is good to you as well get a good harvest.

wonder why they are called rocket?
This year I am growing 'Rocket' in tubs on the patio which went in on 25th Feb so we'll have salad potatoes for June. On the allotment have gone 'Apache', 'Red Duke of York' and 'Kestrel' 14th March as first and second earlies for lifting before blight arrives and at home main crop 'King Edward' and 'Maris Piper' 28th March because I can keep an eye on them.

still exposed to late frosts though!

If you want to know more about potatoes then I highly recommend you look at Alan Romans 'The potato Book' and 'The story of the Potato' by Alan Wilson as well as look on line at The British potato Database www.varieties.potato.org.uk. Happy growing.

P.S. An update to an old blog 'serendipity', the fruit cages are now finished and to mark the occasion a sign erected - in pallet wood of course. I am already looking forward to the 'fruits' of my labours and our feathered friends will just have to go and nick it from someone else.


Sunday, 6 April 2014


During the winter of 2012/13 we had a hen blackbird take up residence in our garden. This is not unusual as we take delight in providing food and water in those dark months and are richly rewarded by the sight of not only our common year round avian friends but many of their country cousins which migrate south for the winter. What marked this particular blackbird out from the other blackbirds was its rather scruffy appearance, a slightly over large beak and a noticeable bald patch on the back of the neck. Probably, we thought, due to an over enthusiastic male during mating. However it became very friendly and came to wait patiently outside the kitchen window for us the throw it a special ration all its own. I swear from the look in its eye that it said thank you. Not surprisingly we named her Scruffy. And with the Spring she was gone, no doubt to do what blackbirds do, and hopefully rear a brood of healthy young. We thought no more of her.
It was a surprise that this last winter who should turn up but our very own Scruffy. But oh what a difference there was in her, for if anything she was more scruffy than before, still with that bald patch that marked out from the rest of the blackbirds in the garden, but now with a poor leg that could barely take her weight. Her flight was poor and she seemed to spend a lot of time hanging around the house either behind two large flower pots or under a spreading choisya. Not that she could not hold her own under the bird feeder and was quite capable of seeing off rival blackbirds for the bits dropped by the tits, its just she could not manage getting on the feeder itself. Slowly through that winter her condition deteriorated and came to rely on us to provide food sitting quietly while we placed seed near enough not to frighten her yet shoo away rivals. That look she gave us, was she really trying to say something?
As the winter cold turned to warmer days it was noticeable that her poor leg was worse and would sometimes give way leaving her staggering to stay upright. The other blackbirds now coming into condition were beginning to establish their territories and take on all comers and poor Scruffy was now fair game. More than once we rushed out when she was pinned to the ground by a squawking ball of feathery fury and for her to retreat behind those flower pots. She still came each morning for breakfast but now took to sitting forlornly in the middle of the lawn which was perhaps not the best place to be with the innumerable local cats and hungry Sparrowhawk that feeds on the birds that had fed from our bird feeder. What was she trying to tell us? Then one morning she did not come for breakfast - and our friend was gone.

Why is it that we need to ascribe humane emotions to animals, it is after all rather illogical. The blackbird came because it got an easy meal, the other blackbirds knew this too, so we shooed them away, we were conditioning the bird to act in a certain way for reward. Pavlov came to much the same conclusion with his experiments with dogs. And talking of dogs, why when you take away a dog from its pack do we think it is loyal when it adopts you as its new pack. Whereas cats on the other hand being solitary creatures we think of as being aloof, looking at us with distain or indifference. The fact is Scruffy was nearing the end of her natural life and we felt sad for her because she could not. The new dominant pair in the garden were her natural successors in the order of things, and in time if they do not fall victim to predators, would be succeeded in turn. As for the new cock bird strutting his stuff as if King of our garden, well we could not help ourselves but give him a name as well, we call him Putin!


Friday, 21 March 2014

Wet ever the Weather

What would we talk about if it was not for the weather? we have had it all in the last twelve months. Too hot, too cold, too dry and now way too wet, and with a new growing year on our door step we tentatively prod the soil only to find it sodden. Not only has it been wet but it has been so mild that the seasons have crashed into each other so that while we need to prepare the ground for sowing we are also getting good pickings from crops that should have long since gone. Thankfully it is now going to seed and we can get going clearing it away and digging over the sticky ground for sowing, but as one allotment holder ruefully observed 'the weather may feel like April but the ground is still in the winter'. Unfortunately tramping over the plot while its like this will lead to soil compaction which while it may be great for Brussels sprouts (one old timer reckons you should plant your seedlings with a crowbar!) is not so good for making a seed drill. Seeds do like a nice crumb for the roots to grow well.

Now its at this point those who have the sense to use raised beds are asking 'what's he on about' as they never need to tread on the bed or do much more than rake it over after clearing and adding a mulch of compost so leaving the worms to do the digging. Never having been blessed with a great deal of common sense I instead look for complicated solutions to simple problems and sometimes come up with an idea that's worth passing on.

If you can displace your weight then soil compaction can be kept to a minimum, and in days gone by that was usually done with a plank but if you have dug in compost you will probably have a bit of a camber that will set you see-sawing like a drunken tight rope walker. Instead get hold of a pallet (where would allotmenteers be without pallets) a length of polypropylene rope and a handful of staple nails. Cut the pallet, once you have wrestled it apart, into lengths that are convenient for you (mine are 40cm) and the rope into two 3m pieces. I use poly rope because it never rots and the ends can be melted to stop them fraying. Now space the pallet wood far enough apart that you will always be standing on three and then staple the rope to the boards with two nails each. What you now have is a very portable platform that can be rolled out to work from, that will follow the contours of the soil, and be rolled up again for storage.  Simples!

An update about my penchant for old tools (boys and their toys) is that on a visit to a recent car boot sale I came across a lovely old scythe anvil that came from France, according to the stall holder, which I snapped up. At home in the workshop I peened the edge of my weed blade and it came up a treat and is now sharper that it has ever been. And the cost - £5, a bargain!


Thursday, 13 February 2014

The Green Grey Conrete Grass of Home

Dorking from space
Not so very long ago in the classified section of our local newspaper, The Dorking Advertiser, there was for sale three acres of pastureland some miles south of us. The asking price was £70.000 and no doubt it was snapped up immediately. What's remarkable about this is that the average value of agricultural land for England in 2013 was £10.300 an acre and this parcel, being in the greenbelt, was most definitely agricultural and therefore never likely to get planning permission. Or so it used to be!
You see, if you can get planning permission its value goes up and in 2013 the average cost per acre for building land was £33.300 and even higher, I would think, in the south east.

So what on earth is happening? Well the Government is the answer. It has ordered all local authorities to identify areas of green belt on which new homes could be built, although it is doubtful it is in anyway for the benefit of locals who could not afford the £550.000 most affordable new builds go for around here. I fear it is more to do with intense lobbying by developers who have been feeling the pinch in the recession with low profits. Much the same way the lobbying of oil industry led to that unedifying spectacle of Tony Blair kissing the mad dog Kadafi in order to secure a £billion oil deal for BP.

Mole Valley District Council response was to start a consultation (which is now half way through) on a document called 'the Housing and Travellers Sites Plan' where developers were invited to submit their investments for housing. Sixty sites are in the plan but once the consultation began a further twenty were quickly added as speculators suddenly realised the significance of the document. It seems that this is the new Klondike, that there is gold in them thar Surrey Hills, that those that are not chosen for development this time around will be first in line for the next wave, for as the document states 'saying NO is not an option'. Not that taking part seems that easy either as one action group has been set up to help objectors phrase their responses in the 'councilese' favoured by all officials unable to understand plain English and another action group to simply say NO.

The Green Belt was born in post war Britain when the 'tide of London development' had got to the point where London was not a nice place to live. I know, I grew up there, and remember clearly going to school in those infamous London smogs that were so thick that busses had to crawl along searching for the kerb with powerful fog lights. The town planners answer was to throw a green lung around London, a line in the sand if you will, and say, no more development - this land is inviolate. And with 9 out of 10 people in Britain now living in urban areas those green lungs are becoming precious for our health, wellbeing and sanity.

There was a television programme on recently called 'New Lives in the Wild' where Ben Fogle spent a week living in the Himalayan Foothills with the most marvellously eccentric character Steve Lall, former Indian Air Force fighter pilot and contrarian kicked out for refusing orders, who ran an isolated hill station with his wife. Totally isolated they resisted all inroads into their way of life chasing off trespassers taking fodder and wood. When Ben asked if he felt sympathy for the villagers Steve said 'pick up a handful of soil, that inch you hold has taken a thousand years to form and when its gone its gone forever'. Why must we go to the Himalayas for wisdom?

Dorking - a unique Town

Friday, 17 January 2014

Boys and their Toys

Now Christmas is over and the wrapping paper recycled boys can now start playing with their new toys, not that big boys ever needed Christmas as an excuse to get a new toy. Perhaps you should really read tool for toy and bloke for boy for if there is anything more 'Blokey' it is the absolute need that before any new task is embarked upon you must first get the right tool for the job, even if what you have will do the job just as well. I guess every 'better half' will recognise this peculiar trait in the Bloke of the species as if it were a genetic tick, rather like if the Bloke driving from A to B takes a wrong turn but rather than turn around just puts his foot down in the belief that eventually you will end up on the road to B. Well okay maybe that's getting a bit too close for comfort, but really I did need that tool and we did get there in the end.

This rather curious preamble is because some time ago at an open day on the allotment, and after a series of thefts from plot holders tool boxes, I did a little talk about what tools were really necessary and what were not. Basically all you need is a spade, fork, hoe and rake with a trowel for planting. Simple portable and if of the best quality you can afford, durable. In fact rather than go to the garden centre and spend a fortune, try the local car boot sale were you can pick up a top quality items for a fraction of the price. Just because it is old will not mean it's knackered, rather, think that it has already lasted someone a lifetime and will probably last yours as well.
After the talk and quite unashamedly, I thought to my self  "I'm the last person in the world to do what I preach", the damn things are spilling out everywhere. In my defence it maybe because I have a reluctance to throw things away and, as I learn more and get older, there is the realisation that an old hand tool is often better than the raucous smelly 2-stroke that looked the ticket in that catalogue. I have to admit to a shed full of petrol tools of which the lawn mower is the only one now in use. The strimmer is now superseded by a scythe and a sickle, the hedge trimmer by adjustable shears and the chainsaw by a 3' bow saw that cost me £1 a foot down the car boot.
The other thing I have are shelves full of books on allotments, gardening and the way it 'used to be done'. The forgotten Arts (John Seymour), The Victorian Kitchen Garden (Jennifer Davies), Old Garden tools (Kan N Sanecki) or The Kitchen Gardens at Heligan (Tom Petherick) where they garden as if it was still 1870. What comes across most clearly are the number of similar looking but very different tools each designed to do a specific job (can you see a link to the 'bloke' thing here) but strip away the regional differences and what you have are tools that are designed do the job, efficiently. It is at this point that you realise power tools are a bit of a blunt instrument who's only saving grace is speed, and that over accuracy.
Take for instance the spade. Once made from wood (which was a significant improvement over the antler) now in its metal form can be for heavy digging or delicate border work or as a shovel to move loose material. The fork, which surprisingly was not really developed until the 1860's, does much the same task but is better for lifting root crops with one just for potatoes. Then you get the crossover tools like the adze hoe and Canterbury hoe which can be used to dig or hoe, and then the hoe itself which of all tools appears in more shapes than you can shake a stick at. As a narrow onion hoe or as a draw hoe for ridging potatoes, as a dutch hoe for weeding or oscillating for both push and pull. Rakes by and large are rakes but I have long handled draw hook (for pulling dung from carts) which is used like a rake so I keep off the beds.

The last set of tools that I can't be without are for cutting. Bill hooks for coppicing and chopping (the smaller the bits that go in the compost bin on the allotment the better) sickles for the grass paths (I cleared my last plot using a reaping hook from a boot sale) and now the scythe which came about after watching youtube and reading The Scythe Book (David Tresemer) which is brilliant for large areas but requires a knack in using it and sharpening it (you use a hammer! and its called peening) but the swish and rhythm of cutting is a pleasure and the speed at which it cut down the wild flower meadow at home - amazing.

As I mentioned before these tools have been given or bought from boot sales for sometimes as little as a £1, others such as the scythe and oscillating hoe were quite expensive but all together they probably would seem a bargain. What I ask myself is - would I have heard the three buzzards mewing over head at the allotments if I had been using a power tool.