Lady Muck has recently returned from a trip to Berlin to visit family, and reports that the asparagus season is in full swing there with various festivals and events to celebrate its joys. Of course being spring time the rather obviously phallic shape of the spears has certain fertility connotations, but what I hadn’t realised is that its popularity in Berlin and that eastern part of Germany is at least in part a reaction to it being very much disapproved of in the old GDR where it was denounced as a ‘bourgeois vegetable’. Cultivation being pretty much banned until 1990 (doubtless there were a few fields where it was grown for the delectation of ‘leading Party members’ who could be relied upon never to fall for bourgeois delights of any kind) the joy of being able to eat it without restriction subsequently, must have made the pleasure all the sweeter. It is a useful coincidence that the flat fertile farmland immediately to the south of Berlin, stretching out towards Wittenberg, is peculiarly suitable for its cultivation. Actually come to think of it, Martin Luther might have had a word or two to say about its cultivation too, and for not entirely different reasons than those of Party officials in the GDR 450 years later.
My friend Gunter, a long time Berlin resident tells me that back in the day Agriculture Ministry officials in the GDR, really divided up vegetable growing into those that could be produced on a large scale – suitable both for collective farms, and for mechanisation, and those like asparagus, that couldn’t. Naturally potatoes were an approved proletarian vegetable. More surprisingly so too was rhubarb. So much so that in the GDR rhubarb was more popular than potatoes (surely not as an accompaniment to fish!). But irony of ironies, rhubarb was very difficult to obtain in bourgeois West Germany and the souvenir of choice for west Berliners returning from a day trip to the East in those days was a supply of bottles of rhubarb juice, completely unobtainable in the West. Gunter still has some souvenir bottles – the genuine stuff from the GDR days, in his memorabilia collection.
It has taken quite a while for Spring to arrive this year – just in the past few days really. And while I’ve been sitting at home watching the rain pour out of the sky and taking occasional forays into the garden to see how the new hens, Tolstoy and Kropotkin are settling in, to paddle on the flooded lawn, or take dispiriting trips down to the allotment to observe the devastation, I’ve had plenty of time to reflect on allotment years past. In doing so I realised that it is 30 years since I took on my plot on Bartlemas Close. Not the first allotment I have ever had, but by far the longest in one place, and the one to which I am still attached. Casting back all those years certainly brings back a host of memories. It was the early spring of 1988 when the call came from Mike, field secretary to say a plot had come free and did I want it. We had moved into our house on Divinity Road a couple of months earlier, were in the throes of renovation, a new roof in December (yes really) an extension about to start, a new baby on the way – Nadine arrived in mid-March, and major commitments both as a City councillor for the area and in my job as Co-op development worker for Oxfordshire. No pressure then. But growing has been a central part of my life since childhood so there was no way I would turn down such an offer on a site just five minutes from my new house.
I don’t remember that much about the first months apart from getting a shed down there; the ground was so frozen that the shed could be lifted whole on to the back of a flat-bed truck and transported right to its final resting place at the back of the allotment, no crops in in the way and no chance of getting stuck in mud. The shed is still in use. The only other memory of ‘the plot as first seen’, was the unpleasant discovery of just how much couch grass there was on it. It is my fellow plot holders though that made those first few months down there with a new-born baby such a pleasure. My immediate plot neighbours, Chris Kingston from Ireland and Laurie Spencer from Barbados, both sadly no longer with us were a source of fellowship, good advice and ideas for vegetables and growing techniques I hadn’t come across before. Chris, far older than me but built like an ox was only too happy to help out digging over my plot when I thought the couch grass would get the better of me.
For several years that plot was a one of the fixed points around which my life revolved. Close to home, it was absolutely ideal for escaping the pressures of work and council life. Secure, rustic, rural even, it was a heaven for small children; there were plenty of others down there to play with, there was plenty of mud and water to get thoroughly messy in, there were dens to be made, wildlife to be discovered, field mouse nests, birds nests, hedgehogs, ants and woodlice, rabbit and deer tracks to follow, occasionally fires to be lit, ‘assistance’ to be given to daddy, and depending on the season, produce to be picked and eaten. ‘Green sweeties’ – peas straight out of the pod were a particular favourite and later in the season, raspberries and blackberries. Whole days could be and were spent happily down there with a picnic, quite often with visitors such as grandparents. A ten pole plot didn’t seem such a challenge when time was on your side.
With familiarity came a certain confidence – not just in growing, the plot with others on the site was opened to the public as part of an HDRA (now Garden Organic) ‘open gardens’ event for a couple of years and attracted the local television channel to the site, but also photographically. Allotment sites are an absolute joy to photograph; their quirkiness (both plot holders and their produce), their traditions, their informality, their provisional ‘edgeland’ nature, cold frames, irrigation systems, sheds… the opportunities were endless and by the end of 1990 I had amassed a collection of pictures, starring both Laurie and Chris as well as Mike gleaning cherry tomatoes with a gang of children, which on 2 January 1991 opened as an exhibition at the Photographers Workshop entitled ‘Earthly Paradise: people and landscapes on allotments.’ The exhibition toured widely that year; to local swimming pools and leisure centres, doctors surgeries and other allotment sites, and was picked up by the late great Roger Deakin with a number of the pictures being used in his Anglia TV programme ‘The ballad of the ten rod plot’ (‘…a wonderful little film’, Robert Macfarlane) broadcast in 1992. My goodness, just writing this makes me realise just how much joy and creativity came from that little patch of land. Far too much for a single blog.
I killed my hens a few days ago. I’m not in the habit of doing this; I’m very fond of hens and have been keeping them for getting on for 20 years (and indeed kept them as a child), but if you look after them properly they grow old and stop laying eggs. Actually that isn’t quite true. The first hens I had were Warrens the breed created for the intensive laying industry. They are pretty easy to obtain and they are bred to lay and lay and lay for a couple of years and then die. That’s the economic model of the industry. Why pay for the feed and housing of hens that don’t lay? Being new to the game I didn’t know this when I got them. When they predictably, died, I got some pure breeds, a White Sussex a Barred Plymouth Rock and a Rhode Island Red from memory. They were lovely and lived to a great age, ten, not laying an egg between them for about the last two years of their lives and only about 50-60 a year for a couple of years before that. Actually they might well have lived a while longer, but they made the ultimate sacrifice and final contribution to the household economy and after I’d killed them they ended up in the pot. So most recently in 2012 I set off again to the Domestic Fowl Trust then still based outside Pershore for three more. These were crosses of various kinds including a Speckeldy, some kind of Plymouth Rock cross and some kind of Sussex. Six years later the time came round again for the killing spree. No eggs laid since about September and no sign despite the lengthening days, of any more to come. Two more (the third one died about three years ago after being severely frightened by a fox) to add to the statistics – which in the UK alone is in excess of 600 million hens a year slaughtered – yes really. That statistic kind of summarises my position on this. As a vegetarian for the past almost 40 years I’d be a lot a happier about meat eating if people slaughtered it themselves (road kill allowed). I think that might reduce meat consumption quite a bit, helping both the planet and peoples wallets and carbon footprint. To say nothing of animal welfare. But I digress.
My friend Premier came round to help. She was originally from Zimbabwe and learned to slaughter, pluck, gut and joint chickens from the age of ten. So she knew what to do. We killed one each. Pretty quick, pretty easy, but her method was more elegant. My experience is just once every 5-6 years. Mind you the phrase ‘headless chicken’ hasn’t passed into the language for no reason. They really do flap around, and if you gave them the chance, run about for a good minute or so. Stone dead, but looking alarmingly alive. Prepping them up for the pot was an eye opener – I’ve always avoided this part of the process in the past. Plucking is made much easier by pouring very hot water over them – the feathers come out real easy then (actually I knew this part as I’d read about it in novels like Edna O’Brien’s ‘The country girls’ – life in the west of Ireland in the 1950’s). Gutting them is a real skill; I wasn’t going anywhere near this part, definitely not ‘Blue Peter’ try-this-one-at-home style. Premier managed to extract all the offal and separated it away for consumption; heart, liver, kidney, gizzard, the lot, with of course the sole exception of the gall bladder which she carefully cut out – bursting that and you spoil the lot. Then to the jointing. Even here nothing is lost. The legs are descaled, and the feet are removed and kept – presumably for soup, there isn’t anything else on them. Ditto the head. Bones are broken and legs, wings and rib cage are reduced to manageable sizes. Thirty minutes or so later there was 2.5kg of edible (in one form or another) chicken from each bird and waste amounting to half a cup full from the pair of them. Now that is the way to honour their lives. Thank you dear hens; you were great company, an ornament in the garden, delightfully productive in your lives, and equally so in your deaths. May your souls soar and when I come to eat you I will raise a glass to your memory.
One of the reasons I like plants so much is that they don’t move. They might sway in the wind, spread across paving, or clamber up trellises, but you know where to find them. With reasonable eyesight you can spot even the smallest ones and take your time identifying them or appreciating them as the spirit moves you. The same can’t be said of birds, and that is why I’m not a ‘birder’. They do annoying things like perch high up in inaccessible trees, on telegraph lines, or in bushes. They even hide in their nests or the bird box I so thoughtfully provide in the crab apple tree. Worse still if you approach them they often fly away. When did a plant last do that? But this doesn’t mean I don’t appreciate birds. A murmuration of starlings is one of the wonders of the natural world. Robins have sweet personalities and are great company for an afternoons digging. The sight of a raptor, especially a large on like a red kite, gliding on the thermals of a warm day effortlessly scanning the ground for prey (or abandoned kebabs if in a city) is a thing of beauty. Blue tits, swallows or blackbirds nesting are a delight, and not so unusual. But my identification skills either by sight or call are pretty poor. I’m an expert at a dozen – seagull, rook, owl – either you know where to look – rookery, seashore, landfill site; or their call – ‘de-wit de-woo’ is distinctive enough not to be mistaken for something else.
So it has been with great joy that over the past few weeks I have been able to extend my range of recognisable garden birds. To my considerable amazement an unknown to me, bird of some size has been a regular visitor to the garden. I’ve enjoyed being able to watch it from the window of my study, strutting over the grass and taking the occasional peck at the ground – worm? insect? remains of Snicker Bar buried by a squirrel? Trying to photograph this lovely visitor proved too big a challenge – too far away, no suitable lens and a tendency for the thing to fly away when approached – did I mention that? But I did have time for a good look and a consult of my ‘Complete Garden Bird Book’. And the big reveal? Its a Green Woodpecker. Not so rare, ‘a large sturdy woodpecker found throughout most of Europe’ is how its range is described, but new to my garden for sure. Its nice to know it thinks my garden is sufficiently wooded to be an attractive habitat, and according to the book it is probably after ants when poking its long beak into my lawn. Some day soon at this rate I will be able to identify two dozen birds. Will that make me a ‘birder’ after all?
I love to go exploring for interesting fruit and vegetable growing, and produce markets of all sorts when on holiday. Lord and Lady Muck’s recent visit to the Dalmatian Coast – mostly Croatia but also a little bit of Bosnia (the tragedy of the 1990’s civil war is still raw, but that is another story) included admiring hill side beehives above Makarska (and trying the local honey), exploring narrow valleys amongst the karst limestone mountains and checking out what grows well on the tiny patches carved out of unremitting rock and shored up with intricate terraces and winding cascades of steps. Olives, cherries, figs, almonds, oranges and lemons on the more distant terraces; aubergines tomatoes, vines, cabbages and other brassicas nearer to the front door.
So it was with some delight that we came across the ‘11th Croatian Festival of Jams and Marmalades’ last weekend in Dubrovnik. Its aimed at tourists of course (thought Dubrovnik is a lot quieter by early October) but this doesn’t preclude some fascinating conversations and opportunities to sample the stall holders wares. Take Made Jakobusic and her daughter from Petraca, a small village 10 km south of Dubrovnik up in the mountains near the Bosnian border. The family has been farming in the village for over 200 years. One of their main products is olive oil. Their groves were seriously damaged in a fire in 1983 and again by invading Serbian forces in the ‘Homeland War’ in 1991, but have since recovered. Though now they have to get the oil processed in a mill 60 km up the coast at Ston. Its too complicated to pop a few kilometres over the border into Bosnia – Croatia is in the EU, Bosnia isn’t. Figs are the other main product with some fifty fig trees. They grow the small blue ones. ‘They are designed for drying’ says Made, ‘They have thicker skins that allow the fruit to remain juicy and soft in side when dry. We wash them in seawater and dry them in the open air and the wind of the bora.’ Oranges, lemons and some 30 almond trees complete the picture. As well as olive oil their product range includes fig jam, fig salami and fig cake, dried figs, orange jam (so-called marmalade), and loads of items preserved in sugar. We depart with sugared almonds, dried figs and candied orange peel in our bag.
The previous week, exploring the mountains above Makarska, we luxuriated in the autumnal bounty, admiring the terraces almost toppling over with vines, figs, cherries, walnuts and olives tended by their elderly but very fit owners. ‘When I retire I’d like to do something like that’ say I to Lady Muck, ‘But you are retired she says’ (some hope!). And anyway I reflect, I already have vines, cherries, figs and walnuts in garden or allotment. So all I need now is an olive tree.
Blimey, the season of mists and mellow fruitfulness has arrived early this year! Its still August and the apple harvest is well ready. And what a harvest it is. The most abundant apple crop I’ve seen in years, if not ever. Not so surprising remembering the abundant blossom. Some apple varieties don’t hang about either. Its been good eating the James Grieve over the past couple of weeks, but others like Lord Lambourne are coming down the track, and already the James Grieve are beginning to look a little ‘over the hill’; they bruise easily and as soon as they are ripe the birds go for them. So rather than waste them its time to get local apple juice company Tiddly Pommes in to harvest them. I did this first in 2013 when I broke my shoulder in a bike accident and couldn’t harvest them anyway, but I soon realised what delicious juice they make, and it doesn’t go off unlike the apples – at least not for 18 months.
So here we were, Rupert Griffin and Lord Muck on a rather misty morning, stripping the tree of all that fruit. Rupert who founded Tiddly Pommes several years ago is not only an apple expert but a great engineer who loves to improvise, and developed a pressing and bottling business in his back garden. Its gone well and is now installed in the abandoned glass houses where Oxford City Council used to raise all the bedding plants for its ‘Britain in Bloom’ Award winning displays (I remember visiting them when I chaired the relevant committee as a councillor back in the 1980’s). Public sector cuts have seen to that – its all contracted out now, but at least the greenhouses have been re-purposed. Today is a good day for harvesting James Grieve because the convent on Fairacres Road has three trees and they can all be pressed in sequence without the need to clean out the machinery. He is off there next. Actually Rupert really likes to keep varieties separate. Customers, whether they be local restaurants, deli’s or farmers market clients, like to buy a pure juice; ‘Apple juice,variety unknown’ doesn’t have much of a market (if that’s your thing try Tesco, who last time I looked, were marketing theirs with the come-on ‘Serve lovely and cool’, not like the horrible and cool stuff all the other supermarkets flog of course).
Last years target was 10,000 bottles. Rupert said rather gleefully as we picked away, ‘We made it just, 10,001.’ So my 30-40 bottle contribution seems like pretty small beer. But neighbours have contributed similar quantities of apples; Henrietta’s Worcester’s and Elizabeth’s Grenadier’s are both from garden trees in Divinity Road. Favourite apple? ‘Adams Permain’ says Rupert without missing a beat.
It shouldn’t take long to see the results; a small number of free bottles, and as many more as I like at ‘trade price’. As for the rest? Rupert has them for sale, so when you are next at a farmers market in Oxford, or eating out, try some. Lord Muck will be entertaining guests with a few bottles in the coming months; the sweet aromas and tangy joys of those James Grieve’s will live on accompanying some of the other produce of this glorious season.
Its been a weekend for harvesting soft fruit and variously freezing it, making jam – oh joy some gooseberry jam is now safely stowed in the cellar after several years of eking out a very limited supply; daughter Nadine and I share a particular delight in homemade gooseberry jam. And making summer pudding. Well Wimbledon does start today and its so much nicer than strawberries, with cream. Ah, summer pudding making. A very long tradition in the Muck household. When children were small and time tight, getting it all made before the fruit went off in the heat, and the pressures of school nights – home work supervision, PE kit assembly and the like, meant cutting corners. In a nice way of course. One of these – most obvious when the puddings came out of the freezer some autumn evening, was the presence of what came to be known as ‘fruit bones’. Yes the sheer joyful laziness of chucking the redcurrants into the boiling mixture still on their stalks, rather than faffing around laboriously picking off each tiny berry. The compromises of parent hood. The don’t improve a summer pudding, but like small bones in a fish, they go with the territory. You can pick them out, choose to eat them, or a bit of both. Just like fish bones. Hence the name – invented here. I know its not Robert Macfarlane’s shtick, but when he’s finished his successor book to ‘Landmarks’, maybe he will turn his attention to those quirky words for culinary activities. ‘Fruit bones’ will surely be ripe for inclusion.
A few days ago I was sitting in my lovely new garden room having had the French windows open all day with all this warm weather, and was talking on the phone to Lady Muck, when all of a sudden out from under the sofa opposite a pair of tiny, dark, beady eyes appeared. And then another pair. Field mice. As I talked, these two ran across the room and back under the sofa again, only to re-appear somewhere else like characters from behind the arras in an Elizabethan play. It was only when I’d finished the conversation that I was able to assume my own part in their play – ‘Exeunt, pursued by a bear’. I was charmed, and it brought to mind my encounters with a frog the previous Sunday. I was prepping up to open my garden to the public as part of the Divinity Road Residents Association Open Garden (or more accurately ‘lets be nosy in our neighbours gardens’) scheme. I was advertising mine as organic, strong on composting, climate resilient, wildlife friendly….that kind of thing; so moving a bag of grit out of the way of visitors and finding a frog beneath was a very pleasant surprise. Frogs, tadpoles, bumble bees and honey bees, nesting birds (blue tits in the nest box), field mice, squirrels (they appeal to the visitors, but not to me); there was some sign of success, though I’m sad to say I haven’t seen or heard, a hedgehog for about a decade.
The visitors, some 40 over the afternoon, were impressed; several remarked that the garden didn’t feel ‘manicured’ like many others (the wildlife wouldn’t like that and I’m not into ‘outdoor housework’, I struggle enough with the indoor variety). The things they were most impressed with otherwise? That the garden isn’t flat but has different levels – at least in part a reflection of the fact that its built on a hill, and the arch with clematis and honey suckle growing over it. Coming through the side shed it is the first thing they saw in the garden, and it made more of an impression on them that it generally does on me. The range and variety of pots and statuary around the hen house impressed too, including the water barrel and guttering system for collecting rainwater off the hen house roof. Of course that is for reasons of hen security as much as for aesthetics; foxes, and there are a few, are definitely one aspect of the local wildlife I do not cherish!
It is a year since I took up my post as Chair of Garden Organic, and this week was the first time I had to preside over an AGM. It sounds like it could be the most tedious aspect of the entire role, but far from it. The event is something Garden Organic has always taken seriously – after all it is a membership organization and its Trustees are elected by and from the membership. So inviting them along and giving them a good time (as well as telling them about the grisly details of the finances) goes with the territory. And the ‘territory’ this year? Doddington Hall just outside Lincoln. It is a grand Elizabethan pile built in 1595, still in private ownership, with a set of facilities ideal for a gathering of organic gardeners. Apart from a conference hall suitable for 120+, approximately the number of members who came along, an excellent cafe (and the inevitable retail therapy opportunities which along the predictable ‘farm shop’ and ‘country clothing’ outlet, included a bike shop) it has a delightful garden (only open to the public twice a week during the summer months, but available to peer into through wrought iron gates at other times) and a two acre walled Victorian kitchen garden. More on that later. The assembled members were entertained by Garden Organic’s CEO James Campbell clad in a vivid lime green jacket, President Prof Tim Lang, whose ‘Unfolding agenda for Garden Organic’ ranged widely across everything from the risks of using fossil fuel-based fertilisers in a world where fossil fuels are increasingly scarce, to our ability to actually harvest the food we grow post Brexit, if the migrant labour isn’t there to do it. Commenting that we have an opportunity to unleash a rethinking of the food system, he urged us to ‘love the present crisis.’ And finally, Chris Collins, Head of Organic Horticulture, and former BBC ‘Blue Peter’ gardener, whose talk on Food Growing Schools in London project was by turns inspiring, laughter inducing and a dose of sheer common sense.
But in a way this was all a prelude to the garden tour. What a treat it was being taken round by the head Kitchen Gardener, James Mellors (a wonderfully Lawrentian stately home-ish name). The garden itself was only restored from desolation a decade ago, thanks to a Heritage Lottery Fund grant and the expert input of the ‘Lost Gardens of Heligan’ team. Now a team of five gardeners – deployed across the whole estate, has turned it into an organic marvel. Top fruit and soft fruit trained up the walls, including gooseberries climbing to six feet, asparagus beds like I’ve never managed – the secret seems to be the sandy soil – not clay like mine, a line of runner bean poles that is so huge it looks more like a Civil War stockade, quantities of broad beans whose pinched-out tops we were told were in the salads in the cafe that day, and parsnips that Chris Collins admired while confessing that ‘buttered parsnips’ were his favourite vegetable.
And this was to say nothing of the magnificent greenhouse with the merlot grapes and lemon tree, the biggest cold frame I have ever seen, and a set of compost bins, the heart of any organic garden of course, which our CEO James Campbell described as being ‘the size of my garden’ – well, certainly big enough to park an SUV in – indeed one did have an SUV parked in it! Said bins were located remarkably close to the church, but if you have your own church in the grounds I guess you can put whatever you like next to it.
To round off the day an ‘organic gardeners question time’ panel (not including me, I’m not expert enough) fielded questions from a highly informed audience. Questions like ‘What should I do with dandelions on an acre of lawn?’ The questioner was clearly angling for some kind of organic ‘magic bullet’ as an alternative to spraying them, but of course the panel took a completely different approach, suggesting that the obvious answer is to leave them there; as a supply of leaves for hens (I can confirm their love of them) or tortoises, for salad (of course), and the flowers for the bees and as the basis for dandelion wine. And dammit, just because they are pretty. With advice like that dispensed with such authority and good humour, who could argue with James Campbell’s (still in ‘that jacket’) concluding remark that Garden Organic membership at ‘less than the cost of a pint per month’ was a refreshment to savour.
It rained last night. That wouldn’t sound like such an amazing statement in the normal course of events in England. But its been dry, very dry, for a couple of months. It has rained occasionally, but April’s rainfall in southern England has been no more than 20% of normal and that has itself followed an unusually dry winter. Though not a cold winter – no snow at all this year, there were enough consistent and hard frosts in December and January to see off garden pests that thrive in warm winters – hopefully.
From my perspective the only consolation about this dry weather has been that at this time of the year evaporation levels are relatively low – the water in the soil by and large stays there. Helped of course by plenty of compost, muck and mulch. Thank you chickens, thank you compost heap. It has also been rather cold. Some sunny days, but chilly quite a lot of the time. Drought doesn’t necessarily mean hot sunshine.
But on a more positive note what an impact this has had on spring blossom. Several weeks of sunny, still and dry weather brought the blossom out – rather alarmingly early perhaps, and then temperatures plunged, the weather stayed calm, and the blossom bloomed and stayed blooming. Doesn’t the allotment look beautiful! Apart from a few late blossoming apple varieties, it has mainly gone over now, but the fruit crop has set – thank you bees – and assuming we now get some decent rain we could be in for a bumper fruit crop this year. Updates through the season.