Category Archives: gardening

Brexit and the Resilience Garden

Many people in Britain are growing their own vegetables for the first time. In a country which currently only produces 60% of its food supplies, that’s always a good move. It’s taken the uncertainties of Brexit to bring this home.

Emergency planning is the same motive that inspired me to create the Resilience Garden over a decade ago. I feel for those people out there at the beginning of their journey; the frustrations they will face and the triumphs they’ll enjoy!

allotment with resilience garden soil

There’s a lot to learn about resilience gardening. so much that I had to write another book about it. Here’s a selection of top tips from ‘Recipes for Resilience‘ :-

  • It’s all about soil. Look after it, feed it, don’t tread on it. Use raised beds, keep to paths.
  • A planting chart on your wall saves having to leaf through books or websites with muddy hands.
  • If you don’t have an outside tap, fill a bucket with clean water ready to rinse your hands. You’ll need them clean and dry to handle seeds.
  • Look after your tools; give them a wipe and put them away at the end of each session.
  • If you’re using stakes, cover the ends with padding so they don’t poke you in the eye. It’s hard to see them from above!
  • Collect old buckets and basins. Placed strategically around the garden, they will harvest rainwater for you, saving a trip from the tap. Make sure wildlife can escape from the water, and watch out for slugs moving in underneath.
  • You have to squish slugs and snails. Sorry. Once hedgehogs and thrushes would have done the job for you, and if you poison your pesky molluscs this day will be so much further away.
  • You also have to thin out vegetables like carrots. Steel yourself to compost those little baby plants! Avoid this trauma by becoming an expert at sowing thinly.
  • Cultivating vegetables is a compromise between what you like to eat and what the garden wants to grow. Allowing the garden to win gives you much less work. Leeks are just as useful as onions.

Do not dig up your potatoes to see if they are growing!

Happy gardening!

Spring flowers in the Resilience Garden

Recipes for Resilience‘ covers the whole growing year, with gardening tips, seasonal recipes and historical background. I’m excited to announce that the typeset draft has now arrived on my desk, so a publication date will be available soon.

Meanwhile, I’m having to change publisher for the Resilience Handbook as well – if you want one of the limited first edition copies, order now!

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Reflections on 2018 – the Year of the Earth Dog

A strange year, which somehow seemed to span two or three, yet provide hardly any time for writing.

I’m sure the dramatic contrast of heavy snow in March with the searing drought of June contributed to this illusion.  It was certainly hard work to grow food, and we’re going to redesign the allotment towards even lower maintenance.

It’s being replaced by more raised beds in the Resilience Garden, to fully utilise the south-facing aspect.  When I worked at outdoor events, this area was paved to store equipment trailers; now the slabs look untidy, so I’m just creating another layer on top.  Our experiences with the allotment validated our use of raised beds in difficult growing areas.  One day town car parks may return to the market gardens they once were.

I completed my photo diary of Towntree Farm in all its seasons.  It’s a pity I couldn’t catch it under snow, but I’d never be able to get there through the lanes!  Now I just have to sort the pictures and decide what to print.  I plan to make an album as a gift to the farmer.

Statue at Towntree farm

Having retired from event services, ambushed by a lack of pension, I supplement earnings from my writings  by cleaning in some of the high-end bed and breakfast places locally.  The sense of ambience developed by arranging festivals is a completely transferable skill.  A room cannot be cleaned properly for a new guest in under an hour – if I can’t have that when travelling, I’d rather go to hostels.

However, there are only a limited number of hours in the day to accomplish this.  Visitors start to leave at ten and new ones will arrive by four o’clock at the latest.  The work should be done by then – many cleaners prefer to be unseen by guests, like invisible fairies!

The nature of the job is thus that one must work six days a week to earn enough to keep a house going at even the most basic level.  A room in a shared house would be easier to manage, but this is part of the resilience agenda where I encounter barriers.  Shared housing is increasingly popular among young people in cities, but not well supported elsewhere.

Despite the hard work and general air of gloom over the latter part of the year, I did manage a couple of short adventures.  My daughter took me to Cardiff to see Jeff Wayne’s ‘War of the Worlds’ musical show, which was awesome!

waiting for the show to start war of the worlds dec18
waiting for the show to start

The whole concept is unique, harking back as it does to a book written 120 years ago, and the performers did it justice.  The way in which sound, lighting and special effects can be combined these days would surely delight the original author, whose love of science was well known!

We stayed at the Park Plaza Hotel, which was pleasant and well situated.  We were able to walk from the central station and leave our luggage at the desk, since we were early for check in.  Xmas shopping was in full swing; we picked up novelties like chocolate spanners and giant marshmallow teacakes, which haven’t made it to rural Somerset yet.

A rare double decker carousel entertains Xmas crowds in Cardiff
A rare double decker carousel entertains Xmas crowds in Cardiff

An excellent buffet breakfast in the morning, and more retail therapy in the big city, before returning to Somerset by train and bus.  I’m using public transport, instead of driving, far more these days – another car on the roads doesn’t seem helpful.

The Park Plaza Hotel grows some of its own kitchen herbs
The Park Plaza Hotel grows some of its own kitchen herbs – very resilient!

There was barely time to repack my bags before I had to head off for a few days in London….but that’s another story

 

When I speak of the plans based on ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’ I refer to ‘Level One’.   This is, as described in the Handbook, the very basic level of practical resilience which should be second nature to any citizen, and is easily achievable even today.

The universal understanding of key infrastructure is crucial.  Remote, centralised systems should be moved towards local  management.  We need to become a resilient civilisation, and start the long process now.  There are clear, measurable goals at every level from personal to global.

I’ve refrained from describing further levels until now, collecting feedback on the first stages of the Resilience Project, but I have been exploring them.   The work I’m doing on food security would be about Level Five, I suppose.  It’s embedded in a much deeper lifestyle change though – living as though resilience was already happening.  What would be the same?  How might things change?

Buy ‘The Resilience Handbook – How to Survive in the 21st Century’ from this site, not through Amazon, so that the project actually benefits from your purchase. 

As the song says don’t ‘give all your money to millionaires’!

Next post – Ice and Mirrors

July Diary 2018

The hot dry weather continues.  Here in Somerset, we’ve only had about five days with even a light shower of rain since Easter.  It’s been a relentless round of watering; not so difficult in the garden, but a real challenge down at the allotment.

allotment irrigation

This gravity fed system delivers a trickle of water to the tomatoes and courgettes, but the barrel has to be topped up manually.

allotment view July 2018

The raised beds are filled with a mixture of leaf mould, shredded paper and soil imported from the Resilience Garden.  This is full of seeds from useful, fast growing annuals which are shading out the perennial weeds.   Borage, marigold and poppy can be seen in the picture; lower ground cover is supplied by scarlet pimpernel and blue speedwell.

These are easy to pull up, and good to compost, unlike the bindweed, horsetail (outwitting vertebrates since the Triassic) and couch grasses they replace.  Most of the weeds have to go to landfill just now, which deprives this poor soil of even more nutrients.

horsetail plant collecting dew
A horsetail shoot collecting morning dew in its specially designed leaves

We took some time out to go to the Scythe Fair in June.  Adventurous visitors could sail down the River Parrret and catch the horse drawn bus to site!

horse bus scythe fair

Most people came by car though, and this is finally becoming a problem.  It’s a wonderful event and its popularity means that some formalities will have to be put in place.  Perhaps it will lose some of its rustic charm…

rope machine demonstration at the scythe fair
A demonstration of rope making

scythe fair signwriter

….or perhaps not.  Suppose it was possible to close the whole lane for a day, so visitors had to leave their cars (in a convenient field) and walk or cycle to the event?   The locals would need to go along with the plan too, and not use their cars for a day.

The management felt that was too radical a concept – and I agree.  It’s a shame that everyone is so attached to their cars!

I’m just about to set off on another adventure, spreading the Resilience word …more when I return!

 

 

May Diary 2018

The challenges of growing vegetables continue; a very brief Spring has been swiftly followed by long hot days with no rain.  The seedlings, root systems stunted by the unseasonable cold, struggle to gather water from the hard soil.

A greenhouse is becoming essential to cope with this erratic weather.  If you plan to assemble your own, read the instructions carefully and proceed slowly.  Photos of the demonstration model in the garden centre could prove useful.

Greenhouse and field may18

Watering the allotment, some miles from where I live, is a daily chore.  Mature plants are doing far better than fresh sowings, but I’m still concerned about the meagre amount of food coming up.  The Resilience Garden benefits from waste household water and a handy tap.

The role of water in cultivation is highlighted by this drought.  The kitchen gardens of old came as much from the availability of used water as from the convenience of having herbs to hand.

Early summer is a time of leisure for the resilience smallholder, of watching the plants grow and enjoying the flowers.  Many events, cancelled because of the snow, reinvented themselves.  Seedy Sunday became Seedling Sunday…

Seedling Sunday RBB May18

Somerset Day was celebrated…

Somerset Day May18

…and there was a Graffiti Day at the skateboard park.

Skateboard park may18

We went to try out the archery at Mendip Snowsports Centre, and discovered Frisbee Golf!  Although not all the baskets were this deep in woodland, my frisbee always headed for the nearest nettle patch!

Frisbee Golf at Mendip snowsports centre

The centre offers bushcraft and target shooting, as well as the artificial slopes for snow-related activities.  There’s a pleasant cafe and bar; a good place to have a day brushing up your resilience skills.

Networking is an important part of community resilience, a whole section of the Resilience Plan.  People need to exchange news after the winter season, when travel can be limited.  It’s important to be aware of dangers and opportunities in the local area and beyond.

The concept of ‘Six Degrees of Separation’ was identified before the internet was developed; we need not be dependent on technology for our world news.  Local events, with their travelling pedlars and performers, were once key information nodes, and often more fun!

The free soap nuts were a great success!
The free soap nuts were a great success at the Repair Cafe!

 

May Day in Glastonbury 2018

When Spring finally arrived in Somerset, it came with all the gardening jobs it was just too cold to tackle earlier.  May is proving another busy month!  The festival of Beltane, marking the start of summer, should be the time when you can relax, stop treading on the soil, and watch your crops grow.

This year, I had three batches of peas fail to come up – though one is starting to show now – which was a disaster, since this is a heritage variety called Telegraph which I’m seed-saving from.  The very last seeds were being soaked before planting – something I don’t normally bother with – when I took a day off to attend the May Day festivities in Glastonbury.

Morris dancing to celebrate Mayday in Glastonbury 2018

The Tuesday market was occupying the Market Cross, so the Morris dancing took place on the newly acquired patio of the Town Hall.  Speeches and bardic recitations followed until the Maypole itself was carried down the High Street by the Green Men.

approach of the maypole GB18

More speeches and announcements followed.  I was at the edge of a growing crowd and it felt like the sketch from the ‘Life of Brian’ (‘What did he say?’ ‘Blessed are the cheesemakers, I think’).  The procession wended back up the High Street, past the White Spring to Bushy Combe, as described in this post from 2015.

The White Spring is run by a committee of volunteers now, who endeavour to keep it open  as much as possible.  It’s well worth seeing if you’re in the area!

Glastonbury white spring rules 2018

The Maypole was duly erected following more ceremonies and recitations.  I would have preferred blessings on my peas to vague invocations of universal love, but few people appreciate vegetables these days.

It’s a colourful spectacle though; both celebrants and audience take some trouble to dress up for the occasion.  The practical aspects, such as untangling the ribbons as the pole goes up, offer plenty of breaks for chatting.winding of ribbons in the maypole dance Glastonbury 2018

Quite often in previous years, the ribbons ended up tangled in a big clump off to one side of the pole!  Now, enough people have got the hang of the right way to weave in and out that they can keep others on the right track – anyone at the ceremony can take a ribbon and join the dance.

This nice tight winding lasted all the way down.  During most of the dance, four strong Green Men braced the pole, as it takes a surprising amount of strain from the flimsy ribbons!  The completed pole is moved when all is done, and stored until next year when a new pole and ribbons are sourced, since the field is needed for other things.

 

The Community section of the Resilience Handbook provides advice on organising your own community events.  These are a good way to meet neighbours.  Even casual acquaintance helps, should you ever need to cope with an emergency together.  Make a point of attending local events, if only in a ‘walk-on’ role!

 

 

 

 

 

More about Foraging

Wild garlic, or ramsoms, is growing in profusion now.  It can be used in many recipes, added to soups and stews, or washed and munched raw.wild garlic growing

Below is the young leaf of a Cuckoopint, or Arum Lily.  These often grow in the same patch as wild garlic – weed them out of your own forage area.  Pay attention to the leaf veins.  They are branched, as opposed to the garlic which has parallel veins like a grass blade.  The arrow shape becomes more pronounced as the leaves mature.

arum leaf growing

If you eat cuckoopint by accident, it will cause a burning sensation in your mouth which can last for several days.

bluebell roots and leaves

Bluebell comes out a little later, so it’s fairly easy to tell the leaves apart from wild garlic, which will be moving into the flowering stage by then.  It occupies the same woodland habitat as the garlic too.

All these leaves vanish completely in the summer, except for the cuckoopint which goes on to produce its vivid orange berry spikes.  These are also poisonous to humans.  No sign of any of these plants is visible in autumn and winter.  However, the edible bulbs of the wild garlic are still there underground.

When learning this plant series, it’s identifying these bulbs which you should concentrate on.  Without any other clues, it could be tricky; you need to avoid including cuckoopint or bluebell in your forage.

wild garlic close up bulb

arum lily bulb close up

bluebell roots

Establish specimens of each in pots and watch them grow.  Dig up some roots and study them.  Wash your hands after breaking up the cuckoopint; if you have sensitive skin, it may be worth wearing gloves.  Once you have thoroughly learned all three, you are equipped to forage for them in the woods, should you ever need wild food.

In order to protect these important plants, it is illegal to dig them up in the UK without the permission of the landowner.  Hence you should grow your own for study.

When you do, you will observe  that the tiny first-year roots of all three look much the same – an oval white bulb about the size of a match head.  Only gather the larger wild garlic bulbs which have developed the brownish root skin.

Action task 9 in the Food section of the Resilience Assessment  requires you to go on a walk to identify edible wild plants.  Look for wild garlic in local woods or under trees in parks.  Are there more plants which grow in that area, such as daffodils, which you need to be confident of identifying?

The simple questions in the Resilience Handbook encourage you to establish a layer of underpinning knowledge upon which you can build your resilient lifestyle!

April Diary 2018

The weather in the Summerlands went straight from cold and icy to cold and wet.  I planted some onions, but the peas went in the neighbour’s greenhouse to get started, and the potatoes are still chitting in the shed.  I found out that you should wait until the soil is roughly the same temperature as the potatoes before planting them.  I’m experimenting with new varieties this year, so there should be notes.

The wasabi plants thought they might die, so they flowered again; they haven’t done this since the last snow, seven years ago!  There are four pots, all cloned from the same rootstock, and they all flowered at once, even the one kept some miles away at the allotment.

wasabi flowers UK

Starting with a scrawny two-year plant from the market, over the years their leaves have become smaller, glossier and tougher.  Wasabi are awkward customers in that they like damp but cope badly with slugs; they make up for this by thriving in the cold weather.

I planted out the burdock salvaged from the resilience field.  Three plants had shared a pot over the winter, and their calorie-rich roots grew so fast that there was hardly any soil left.  I’m hoping to start a breeding colony in the woodland strip.

I’ve written about burdock in ‘Recipes for Resilience’ as it’s a good emergency food source.   The root fattens up in the first year, and is used up in the second summer to produce the large flowering stems.  This is a good time of year to harvest these roots, but only the spring leaves can be seen.

spring burdock

Compared with….

The spring leaves of poisonous foxglove

Growing both these plants in your Resilience Garden enables you to study them in detail, so you won’t dig up the wrong one – note the foxglove is kept in a pot.  Feel the leaf textures and observe the shades of green.

Practise  identifying them on a forest walk – but don’t dig up wild plants as that’s illegal in the UK unless you have the landowner’s permission and it’s not an endangered species.  Take pictures, and return later in the year to see if you were right.  It takes a couple of years’ study to really learn a plant.

The dismal, threatening weather meant the planned Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving was filmed for YouTube.  None of us were confident about travelling to Lyme Regis, given the weather forecast!  Although we didn’t get much snow here in the South, the rain was relentless and there was a lot of water on the roads.

Saturday itself was almost a nice day.  I worked on some of the infrastructure projects in the garden, feeling that these should have been finished weeks ago.  The plum tree is blossoming with the utmost caution; the bumblebees are about, but I haven’t seen any honey bees yet.

plum flowers 2018

Winter slinks out of the door, turning to snarl “I’ll be back!”, as Spring tiptoes tentatively in.

 

 

 

 

Some Notes on Apples

It’s starting to look like a late Spring here in a thawed, but still shocked, Somerset.  Plants are cautiously emerging, but the buds on the trees remain resolutely closed.  As their roots are still dormant,  you’ve a little time left to plant out saplings.  This should be done before late March.

Apples are such a staple food that it’s good to have a tree in your garden.  Our estate was built on an old orchard, and a few of the original trees are left.  My neighbour has one, left to grow to its full size over several decades.

You don’t necessarily want one that large.   Techniques for growing smaller trees have been developed over the centuries since the sweet Chinese apple came over the Silk Road to Europe.  Our native crabapple was bitter, but adapted to the climate.  The sciences of grafting, pruning and cross breeding were known to ancient cultures.

Today, a vigorous rootstock is grown, then the top part of this tree replaced with a branch from a ‘fruitstock’.  The resultant apple tree takes on the shape of the root variety, yet provides fruit  from the graft type.   You can buy dwarf trees, bearing your favourite apple but staying quite small.

These aren’t cheap, and will be something of a fixture; it can be several years before you get any fruit at all.  It’s worth going to a short course with an expert to learn the basics of orchard management and how to apply these to your garden.  Knowledge of this kind is a community asset, as described in the Handbook, so I went on a refresher course.

Anthony Ward, our tutor, is the keeper of the Chalice Well orchard in Glastonbury.  We were planting some trees in a new field at Brook End Farm, situated where the Levels rise into hillier ground to the east.

You can see the knobbly bit on the trunk from the graft.  If you have a pot-bound tree like this, dig your hole square so the roots can spread out easier.

The stake is driven in after the tree is planted.  Modern ties allow more movement, as the action of the wind strengthens the roots.  The grass is kept away from the trunk with a mulch; a precaution ignored with less valuable trees.  For the first few weeks, make sure the sapling neither dries out nor sits in a puddle.  Then forget about it till it needs pruning, which is a whole other story.

This is the apple tree in the Resilience Garden.  It grew from an apple core hidden in a plant pot by my daughter.  Although it produces good red eating apples, it clearly wants to be a very large tree.  It’s an example of very bad pruning;  I tried to make a ‘goblet’ shape without taking into account the shading from the fence behind.  After that, I appreciated the courses more.

The mulch to the right of the tree is the filling from a defunct futon mattress, which I’m covering with a thick layer of leaf mould.  I have access to a large pile of this; otherwise I’d use soil exported from the raised beds.  The green shoots are wild garlic; they’ll be ready to harvest soon.

Wild Garlic Pesto

2 rounded tablespoons of crushed nuts (50 grams; 2 ounces)

2 handfuls of wild garlic leaves, washed and shaken dry (100 grams; 4 ounces)

1 tablespoon of Parmesan cheese – vegans can substitute yeast flakes

4 – 6 tablespoons of olive oil (100 – 150 ml; 4 – 6 fluid ounces)

a dash of lemon juice and a pinch of salt to taste

Blend everything together and serve with pasta!

I couldn’t resist adding that recipe, from ‘Recipes for Resilience‘…..wild garlic does make a lovely pesto and it has quite a short season.  I grow a lot of it under bushes and in the wild areas, as very reliable spring greens.  The nettles are coming up too – vitamins arriving at just the right time!

I’ve been asked to talk about resilience at the Earth Hour event in Chard, Somerset on the 24th March; I’ll be signing Resilience Handbooks too.   The daytime events are free, so drop in if you’re in the area!

 

Return to Resilience

Things were very quiet after I returned from China.  It rained a lot in Somerset, even when it snowed over the rest of Britain.

snow in the shire
Snow in the shire!
The sky is falling!

Although we’re continuing to work on the allotments, Glastonbury Town Council has promised the government they will sell the land to developers.  I expect there will be letters to the Gazette. The Resilience Handbook Community section covers the basics of setting up a local organisation – you never know when you might be ambushed by outside forces!

Consequently, the Resilience Garden will be coming out of its fallow period, so plenty of work ahead there.  I wanted to see how it would perform for edibles if left alone for a whole season.  The leeks did well, and the self seeded broccoli has given a steady harvest of green leaves.  I did plant out some courgettes and squash in the summer; their huge leaves and sprawling vines were a great weed suppressant.

It’s the Chinese Year of the Earth Dog now  – I wonder if that’s auspicious for digging? I got the bus to Bristol, to meet up with my friend Val from Swansea, for the New Year celebrations at the Wai Yee Hong Chinese supermarket.  They lay on a stage, host a street food market, and hire the Lion Dancers.

Lions 2018

The supermarket itself is entertaining enough for a visit.  The gaudy labels sometimes condescend to have a English translation stuck over them, but there’s still enough mystery for shopping to be something of a lucky dip.  The range of exotic fruits – tinned, dried, crystallised, salted – and the unique cuts of pork….

….anyway this is getting to sound like an advert.  Be careful though – I ended up in China itself after my first New Year Lion Dance here!

Detail from Lion costume
Detail from Lion costume

My intrepid publishers at Magic Oxygen are on an expedition to Kenya.   They’ve been funding tree planting and building school classrooms in Kundeni, initially through an annual literary prize.  Now they’ve formed a charity, the Word Forest Organisation, to further these projects.

They’ll be back in time to host the Magic Oxygen Literary Prize Giving in Lyme Regis on March 31st – I’ll be there to answer questions about resilience – then add the finishing touches to ‘Recipes for Resilience’.

towntree farm red brick gateway

 

Routine life provides a backdrop to exciting travel adventures in the way that a simple chain highlights the jewels strung on it.

However, there are mysteries to be discovered in ordinary settings and one of these, pictured above, is the legendary Town Tree Farm…..

….more next week

July Diary 2017

Things haven’t felt as hectic as they’ve clearly been, for here is the evidence in my long gap between posts!

I joined the local parish council to work on the Emergency Plan for the area.  While exploring emergency routes on my bicycle, I found this milk vending machine at a farm gate!

milk vending machine 2017

My fridge broke, I replaced it from a local independent store where there are people who can fix it if it goes wrong.  Score a ten in the Resilience Assessment!

I celebrated by freezing some of my home made elderflower cordial – diluted – into ice cubes with flower petals and mint leaves.

flower ice 2017

It’s still all about food and growing.   Someone dropped out of the Resilience Allotment project, so we lost a third of our growing area.  Maybe it was too much to manage, as the new hedge in the field needs a lot of attention.

hedge mulch 2017

We’re continuing with the cardboard mulch, which is working well so far.  The perennial weeds can’t get through it easily; eventually the trees will shade them out.  Note the edges of the holes around the saplings are pushed downwards, to channel water to their roots.

‘Recipes for Resilience’ occupies a lot of my desk time.  I’m working my way through the final selection of recipes.  Some recipes I’ve never tried before, but they illustrate important techniques in preserving, which you may need come the Zombie Apocalypse or even a few months of international trade disruption.

I thought I’d try dehydrating strawberries.  The internet confidently assured me that, on a low oven, this process could be accomplished in two hours, after which you could powder them into a jar.

It was a chilly summer evening, so I decided to do this instead of turning the heating on.  I set my cooker, which runs on bottled gas, on to less than gas mark 1, propped the door slightly open and put the strawberries in.

dehydrating strawberries 2017

The greaseproof paper was crucial, as they leaked puddles of juice, which then began to scorch.  I moved them on to a clean piece twice, which was tricky as they were very soggy at this stage.

After four hours, I had not very much of something which looked like it might keep for a few weeks, but certainly couldn’t be powdered.  All those strawberries came down to one large tablespoonful.

dehydrated strawberries 2017

Although the dried fruit was chewy rather than crunchy, the taste was quite intense.  It was more like a fruit leather than something dehydrated.

It’s not usual to make fruit leathers out of summer fruits – you wouldn’t want to have the oven on all day when these are in season.  If you were getting some of your electricity from solar power, though, it would pay to buy a dehydrator.  You could preserve your strawberries free of both cost and sugar!