Sunday, February 19, 2012

Planting Frenzy

Sunshine, a blue sky and rows of fluffy cumulus clouds sailing along just above the horizon: it feels like spring. And the annual food production has begun: in the week, I managed to get 167 cloves of garlic planted out on the allotment and, since yesterday, four different varieties of tomato - Sweet Million, Gardener's Delight, Beefmaster, Moneymaker - and sweet and chilli peppers have been germinating in seed trays under the Velux windows in the boys' warm loft room.

The past seven years of vegetable growing have taught me a couple of obvious things: it is worth growing as much as you can of crops that are expensive and it is worth growing as much as you can of crops that form a large part of your diet. As a family, we eat a lot of garlic but it is expensive to buy and we have had varied results growing it over the years. We have tried over-winter planting, we have tried spring planting; in both cases, the results have been the same: a moderately good crop but bulbs that are not that big. However, last year I planted spring garlic on the last day of January and had the best garlic harvest we have had. This year, the snow prevented similarly early planting but when the temperature rose earlier this week and the snow disappeared, I got out there with sixteen bulbs, broken into cloves, and had a planting frenzy. Last year’s garlic had run out by Christmas, I am hoping this year’s will last through until spring. I bought the bulbs on offer in a non-gardening shop and the person who served me asked how garlic grew. That each clove planted would turn into a whole bulb of garlic was a delightful revelation to her.

At the same time as I sow tomato and pepper seeds, I usually devote a seed tray to aubergines; but after persevering with these temperamental plants every year, this year I have given up. I have invested a lot of time in trying to grow them but germination has always been hit and miss. I have tried a number of different varieties and some have fared better than others but any plants that have matured have taken up valuable greenhouse space only to produce poor fruit. The dismal truth is that, in seven years, we have been rewarded with only a few decent sized aubergines. So, no more; the greenhouse space will be given over to more cucumbers, which the kids devour in the summer months. And that’s another obvious thing that vegetable growing has taught me: don’t spend time and money on a crop if it outweighs the value of the harvest.

Monday, February 13, 2012

My Funny Valentine

Padding around the orchards of Greenways Fruit Farm yesterday, with Smithy the dog, I fell in love with a thing of rare beauty: it caught me completely by surprise and still seems inexplicable because I had passed the obscure object of my desire many times before without a flicker of emotion.

Perhaps because I had changed the direction of my usual walk from clockwise to counter, and came upon it from the opposite direction, sight of it from a different perspective made me truly see it for the first time.

Perhaps it was the power of the music I was listening to on my headphones - my soul already stirred - that accounted for the feeling that overwhelmed me. As I came up the hill I was listening to Tiger Man from British Sea Power’s atmospheric instrumental album, Man of Aran; at the very moment I turned the corner at the top and caught sight of it through the gap in the beech windbreaks, the track shuffled to the extraordinary Decades by Joy Division.

Joy Division’s music is the perfect snow music: this was cemented in my psyche early on by Kevin Cummins’ beautiful photograph from January 1979 of the band on a snow-covered footbridge. At the highest point of the bridge’s curve, the four are isolated in the bleached landscape, trapped by the symmetry of the railings and streetlights. This connection between Joy Division and snow was probably further compounded by the fact that it seemed to snow a lot in those winters at the end of the seventies and the start of the eighties when I was listening to their music; mind you, I have never really stopped listening to their music and there has been a lot of snow since, too.

So, perhaps the ethereal atmosphere of the snow and freezing fog had made me insubstantial and vulnerable and, when I suddenly found myself in its presence, its towering imposition overwhelmed me.

Whatever prompted it, there is no denying that I fell in love with an electricity pylon; pylon number 4VM 029 to be exact. I had never before considered the beauty of one of these structures but with its graceful, curving sweep from broad base to narrow pinnacle, its delicate latticed framework and its deific trio of pairs of crossarms, it struck me as both magnificent and tender. And its position on the fruit farm, near the top of the hill, shows it in all its glory.

All transmission towers, as pylons are called in the trade, are variations of an original design by Milliken Brothers, commissioned in 1928 by Sir Reginald Blomfield for the Central Electricity Board. The design has since been used all over the world. My pylon looks like an L6 D model but I stand to be corrected.

The American poet (Alfred) Joyce Kilmer wrote in 1913, “I think that I shall never see/ a poem lovely as a tree”. Spike Milligan reimagined these lines from the view of a cocked-legged dog; the people at the Pylon Appreciation Society would probably reimagine the tree as a pylon. For them, the poetry of a pylon is plain to see and they dedicate their efforts to helping the rest of us see their worth. For most however, I am sure the pylon is an eyesore, the forerunner of the dreaded wind turbine. Those who would have the countryside preserved in aspic can only see beauty in a sentimental construct of thatched roofs and tea rooms. The giants of the national grid, roped together as they march cross-country, are a stunning sight on the horizon or at close quarters; and you only have to drive across Romney Marsh and see the towers of Little Cheyne Court in the distance to be filled with awe by wind turbines, too.

Kilmer, incidentally, died in battle in northern France in 1918, by which time every tree had probably been blown to kingdom come. He never got to see the likes of 4VM 029; he would have loved them.

Saturday, February 11, 2012

The Rites of Spring

With snow still on the ground, particularly in our garden where the kids’ sledge has compacted last weekend’s fall into an unshiftable and potentially lethal version of the Cresta Run, it’s hard to imagine that winter will ever end. Despite most of the landscape looking and feeling like the tundra, I have known for a while now that spring is just around the corner; and I know this because my seed potatoes have been chitting in the shed for over a fortnight and that means one of the rites of spring – potato planting – will soon be upon us.

Chitting is the process of sprouting the eyes of the tubers before planting. It simply involves putting them in shallow, open trays or boxes with most eyes facing upwards. They need plenty of natural light – a shed with windows, a porch, a greenhouse – and a cool but not frosty temperature. Chitting takes 6 – 8 weeks, or until the sprouts are an inch or two long. Each of these sprouts will produce loads of potatoes, thereby contributing to the miracle of the multitude produced by one innocuous-looking seed potato.

There is a school of thought that you don’t need to chit seed potatoes but chitting does seem to produce an earlier and larger harvest. Last year, I didn’t buy any seed potatoes until late February and, by the time of planting in March, they had been chitting for barely three weeks. As a result, my crop was slow to grow and the potatoes small in size; and holding off the harvest for as long as possible resulted in getting caught by the blight of early autumn.

Determined not to be wrong-footed this year, I took an early trip to Lime Cross Nursery (support your local independent!) between Herstmonceux and Windmill Hill where they sell seed potatoes loose so you can mix your crop up a bit. I went for two varieties I have grown before and know to be reliable: Pentland Javelin for first earlies and Maris Piper for main crop; and I went for Charlotte as my second earlies. Earlies and main crop refer to the time of planting and lifting: earlies can be planted in mid-March, main crop in early April; earlies need 16-18 weeks before harvesting, main crop 18-20 weeks.

Now I’m hoping that I might have a sight of the soil soon so I can start preparing; but with the temperature four below zero as I write this, even if I cleared the snow I don’t think it would take a spade just yet.