Light in August

As the season turns, a tale of two allotments – one grand, one homely. The first is the kitchen garden at Packwood House, near Lapworth, where they do things on a lavish scale – with the help of, well, the Help.

As any gardener knows, the main ingredient in successful growing is the work put in – in Marx’s words, mixing your labour with the earth. This makes labour sound like compost – which it is, in a sense: composted time. A lot of compost goes into Packwood.

After touring the gardens, we began a walk from Packwood toward its sister estate, Baddesley Clinton, passing other labourers on the way.

The other allotment of the week past is of course our own. The 2016 season has been alternately slow and accelerated in the Midlands, with a long cold spring followed by brief heatwaves and cool cloudy weeks punctuated by tropical downpours. Comme d’habitude pour l’Angleterre, at least in the age of global warming.

With August comes a change of light. Sweetpeas fading, sunflowers bigging up, verbena bonariensis glowing at the edges. Labour stays in the picture.

Hi(gh) summer

It’s been a while. We’ve missed documenting an eventful 2015, and are now deep into a turbulent 2016. But blog is not dead. So here’s a brief overview of our growing year, from earliest January to mid-July.

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New year’s amaryllis

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From Emily Jacir’s show at the Whitechapel Gallery this winter

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Adorno’s urban allotment, Frankfurt, mid-January

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Camellia on display at Frankfurt Botanical Garden

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That’s its name, yes

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Our new home (a fixer-upper)

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The allotment on 17 April

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First fruits

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27 April

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Bluebell walk, 8 May

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The allotment at Chastleton House (Wolf Hall in the BBC series)

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Zoe communing with the watchful Rollright Stones on her birthday in May

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Allotment border on 9 June

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Hollywood lighting, looming storm system – 24 June

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West Sands St Andrews – a kelp allotment

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The English Garden in Berlin’s Tiergarten – how English is it?

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Encounter on Milburngate Bridge, Durham, mid-July

Kefalonia

A week on this aromatic island off the Ionian coast, where every morning we woke up to this view of Ithaka:

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View from the hills outside Evreti

“Keep Ithaka always in your mind.
Arriving there is what you’re destined for.
But don’t hurry the journey at all.”

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The recent theory is that our view did not take in Ithaka, Homer’s Ithaka, after all (it’s now supposed to have been the Paliki peninsula on the western side of Kefalonia itself). No worries; we were in no hurry to actually get to Ithaka. Not when there were limestone shingle beaches like this one to explore:

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Or tavernas like this one, in Agia Efimia:

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Grilled sardines, stewed octopus and rabbit for lunch

Or cave lakes like Melissani to circumnavigate: ‘Visitors can tour the lake on a boat and admire the wonderful colours in the water, which constantly change as the sunlight falls on it through the aperture in the roof above.’

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Roadside beach north of Sami

One thing a picture can’t convey is the island’s soundscape: a ceaseless rasp of cicadas in the noon heat, together with the tinkle of bells from goats grazing on the hillsides. No wonder some of us drowsed off while chilling on the veranda.

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From the town of Assos we climbed to the Venetian castle on the peninsula above (once used as a prison – but with views to die for).

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Kefalonia’s recent history is marked by two traumas: the massacre of 3,000 Italian soldiers of the Aqui Division by invading Germans in 1943 (inspiring a novel and the inevitable Hollywood treatment), and an earthquake a decade later, which leveled most of the island’s Venetian buildings. Today it builds its economy on the export of Med staples: olive oil, wine (Robola is the native grape) and tourism.

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Khoi pond in Fiskardo

The most intriguing historical angle on the island may be its hosting of an early Christian gnostic sect, the Carpocratians. Who they, you ask? Groupies of Carpocrates, who made Kefalonia his base in the 2nd century CE. Irenaeus wrote disapprovingly that Carpocratians claimed themselves to be above Mosaic law, believing differences of class and property ownership to be unnatural, and also that in order to leave the earthly realm behind one had license to do ‘all those things which we dare not either speak or hear of.’ Early Ionian hippie commies, in other words.

In the end, though, it’s the sea we’ll remember: turquoise and acquamarine, translucent to a depth of over twenty feet, saltier than the Atlantic and warm as bathwater.

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Beach looking north to Lefkada’s mountains

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Return of the blog

It’s been a while. Seeing as how we’re in the late stage of one of those rare, near-perfect summers in the middle of middle England, though, it’s time to re-boot and take stock. First a look back at the interim since September 2013, beginning with a sample from last year’s harvest:

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Boltardy, Crimson King, Golden

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Borlotti beans

An October chestnut gathering expedition to Crackley Wood, with transatlantic help:

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Putting the allotment to bed in November:

Putting allotment to bed

Seasonal cheer in the dark days:

Community hut Xmas tree

Inauguration of the new community hut, an idea of Volutina’s carried to completion with the help of many hands

N & K at Saxon Mill

Sláinte!

The ritual New Year’s hail to the light from a hilltop in Ilmington:

Ilmington shadows

Spring visitors:

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Late January, Aston Cantlow. Thanks for visiting, Aunt Gretchen!

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Glad too that Erika and John could visit. Herewith the album cover for our new band, Vichy Douche Slab (name inspired by object in the spa museum, Leamington). We will literally rock you.

The allotment in mid-April:

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New fruit trees, apple and pear

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A lichtsome Easter voyage up to Glasgow, the isle of Mull and Iona, to see our friends before the oil wars break out at Gretna Green after this September’s referendum:

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Bird? Plane? Independence?

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Sketching en plein air

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This may be the solution for our shed roof

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Hebrides or the Med?

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Front garden in Iona

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Fragment of the abbey on Iona

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Our column outside the Iona PO

An early May gathering at the new community hut:

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Constructing an insect house with Bonnie’s help

Later in the month we stayed in London courtesy of visiting grandparents, checking out this year’s borders at Kew Gardens:

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In June an al fresco supper of peas, beans and strawberries:

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And harvesting sweet peas in July.

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Weather-wise

Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

Sunflowers glow in September sunlight.

What a difference a year makes. I’m not much better a gardener today than I was last year at this time, but if you measured my success by “vegetal output” you might think I was. For instance, in 2012 my tomatoes, so lovingly mulched with grass clippings and fed on homemade comfrey tea (vile-smelling but richly nutritious), lay withered on the vines, besieged and vanquished by fungal blight. We managed to harvest about five in total, which turned out to be wan and watery.

Consequently this year I transplanted my overgrown tomato seedlings into a patch of earth with few expectations. I didn’t mulch them, nor did I feed them with any kind of specially prepared sludge. Beyond tying them to a few stakes, I left them alone to fend for themselves. Who wants to get too attached to something that’s going to fail? Besides, I swore last year (see prior posts) that I would stop bothering to grow tomatoes outdoors because it always ends in disappointment here in England. I was going to content myself with peas and potatoes and kale. So what was I even doing chucking a few into the ground now?

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

This year the tomato bed is an almost impenetrable thicket. Yellow and red fruit lie hidden within.

Well. We came back from our summer holiday to find the tomato plants had grown into a jungle. With no one to nip out the side shoots and re-stake them, they had become massive sprawling plants, dripping with clusters of ripening fruits and festooned with  yellow blossoms. Even more amazingly, several plants had seeded themselves in other beds and were just as vibrant. I cut off the growing tips and tried to strip a few leaves from the lower branches, but basically I’ve left the plants as is (as you’d see them in the New World, their native environment).

Ripening tomatoes - a joyful sight.

Ripening tomatoes – a joyful sight.

Now, blight might still be around the corner. Surely not all those green clusters will get to ripen in September sunshine before frost and falling light levels put an end to them. But hey, this year we can say we harvested tomatoes: piles of yellow (Ildi) and red (Gardener’s Delight) cherry tomatoes, and several luscious Marmandes. And they’re delicious.

Abundance

Abundance

How susceptible we gardeners are to the vagaries of weather. Despite our efforts to protect and cosset plants, it really comes down to light levels and temperature and hydration. I experimented with miniature polytunnels this year for the first time – and will do so as we head into autumn and winter – but I know that this kind of environmental manipulation only gets you so far. What you really need is good weather – and good luck!

Summer’s lease

Late summer flowers line the path to the old apple tree. Welcome back to the allotment!

Late summer flowers line the path to the old apple tree. Welcome back to the allotment!

After a month away, the garden has transformed. Sun and warmth have worked their magic (and friends have deployed the watering cans). A proper summer at last.

Bean tendrils reach for the sky.

Bean tendrils reach for the sky.

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We’ve been gorging ourselves on green and purple and runner beans.

Peeking through a  wall of climbing beans.

Peeking through a wall of climbing beans.

Rudbekia, cosmos, dahlias, and sweet peas tangle together along the border, inviting bees and butterflies to visit.

Rudbekia, cosmos, dahlias, and sweet peas tangle together along the border, inviting bees and butterflies to visit.

Photo of the Week!

Had a recent trip to the allotment to take some snaps (while it’s fully robust and simply an elegant escape). One of the most enchanting plants there, are of course, the sweet peas – bursting with fragrance and splashes of colour. You wouldn’t expect much less from the sweet pea winner of 2012 now would you?

The anticipation of blooming.

The anticipation of blooming.