Dawn over the windmills 22.11.20


Earth, water, air, fire:


That’s it. That’s the secret. That’s the answer. That’s how to do it. The four classical elements link closely with gardening: Soil, water. air circulation, sunlight.

I read somewhere this week that 40% of Russia’s food comes from small household gardens called dachas. The percentage was much higher – closer to 90% – during the height of the communist period.

America, by contrast grows less than 1% of its food on small, family-owned farms – incredible given its size. In colonial America, farming was the primary livelihood for 90% of the population. Today, farmers and ranchers represent only 1% of employed Americans.

I don’t know the figures for the UK but I hazard a guess that they’re closer to America’s  than Russia’s. That certainly hasn’t always been the case. Our sieged-island mentality has led us to be largely self-sufficient at times, the most recent example being during and after WW2.


Bottle retaining wall


Andy, one of the new kids on the block (i.e on our 12 acre hillside of allotments) has a friend from Bosnia called Buli who helps him out.

Buli told me that in Bosnia, having a food garden next to the house AND a field close by is the norm for most people. The same applies to large areas of Eastern Europe.

So why did that culture decline in places like America and the UK?

Convenience. That’s why.

Large-scale industrialisation of agriculture in order to feed ever-increasing populations has become the norm, and it’s controlled by gargantuan corporations, who in turn dictate the diet and therefore the health of populations. There’s one big drawback to this system. It isn’t sustainable. It’s driven by short-sighted greed and profit, which has to be responsible in part for the changing climate.

Dropping off compost and apple trees


The eternal argument is a simple dichotomy.

The human population is now so vast, that the ONLY way to feed it, is with large-scale mechanised industrial agriculture, including the use of chemicals.


Large numbers of small farms and gardens are ultimately more efficient and sustainable than the above.

The disadvantage of the second arm of the argument is that it’s time-consuming and labour intensive, but in a world of unhealthy, junk-food poisoned, bloated screen-addicted fatties that’s actually an advantage, not a disadvantage.

One advantage of the pandemic (and a greater awareness of climate change) is that the argument is tilting in favour of small gardens, especially as international trade is already affected by the pandemic and will be even more affected by Brexit.

People lucky enough to have their own growing space are turning to gardening in droves. (Buy your seeds NOW. They WILL sell out.) You could romanticise it and say that necessity is the mother of invention, but it’s simpler than that. People are sick of being stuck indoors, and there’s f’all else to do. There’s also a dawning realisation that the conventional supermarket and international import/export system could collapse.

It’s not even the new norm – it’s the ancient old norm.

I have a friend who works in a school, and she told me that they’re struggling to buy enough food for their school meals.

Elias and I planted 5 apple trees on his & Sam’s allotment yesterday. We called at the garden centre to get some compost and it was busier on a cold rainy November day that it usually is in high summer. The lady behind the counter said it was the busiest that they had ever been at this time of year. She said that they were likely to run out of compost.

Apparently, during the second lock-down garden centres are classed as ‘essential’ by t’govt due to their importance for t’wellbeing. Neat


Making the most of the light with a 2 storey greenhouse


How to grow your own food during a pandemic – anyone can do it – 10 tips


The reality of growing in a harsh environment isn’t always covered well in conventional gardening books. Here are 10 tips, based on years of doing it wrong. Next year’s growing season will be here soon enough.

1. Don’t give up when it doesn’t work first time. Lots of people give up when the first thing that they try is a complete failure. The commonest example is buying a load of (usually weak, mass grown) plants from a garden centre, planting them, then finding them all gone the next day, decimated by slugs. Growing, like anything else is a skill, based on simple principles (light, correct growing medium, protection and water). It’s easily learned with a bit of practice. A lot of people say ‘it’s just easier and cheaper to get it from a supermarket. That won’t be true for much longer and once you’ve got a well-established garden, it’s certainly not true.

2. Find the brightest spot and make the most of it. Whether you’re growing a few herbs on a windowsill or farming several acres, again the principles are the same. Your best chance of doing well in the Northern hemisphere is to place your most important growing area in the brightest spot with the most sunlight. For a big garden this translates to a poly-tunnel or greenhouse. After all my years of gardening I’ve finally built a greenhouse that is completely un-shaded.

3. Get the right growing medium. The success of all gardening depends on the nutrients available to the plants = soil. Successful growing requires large quantities of organic material. A lot of cheap ‘multi-purpose’ compost from garden centres is rubbish. What’s the point of growing your own food, then poisoning yourself with chemicals? Organic is a no-brainer. One of the best ways of doing it is to mulch beds every year with a layer of good quality compost, which eventually you can make yourself. Check out Charles Dowding’s no dig method – it works. I’ve been using it for a while.

4. Invest in irrigation early on. I’ve doubled my growing area over the last 5 years. Until a year ago, I was watering everything with watering cans, which was hugely time consuming. Build in irrigation as you go along. It’s fairly easy whether you’re off grid or have mains water. With a simple solar set-up and a timer, it’s fairly easy to automate it, freeing up loads of time.

5. Grow big strong plants in trays before planting out. If for example, you’re planting beans, you can plant a couple in a 10 cm pot. 20 pots would then take up a 40 x 50 cm area. Alternatively you could just plant 20 beans in a 40 x 50 cm tray and save quite a bit of time. I grow most of my stuff for outdoor planting like this and it does very well. Let the plants get pretty big, then harden them off bit by bit before planting out. The advantage is that the root system has more room to spread out. It’s easy to tease the plants apart when planting out. I drill a single 22mm drainage hole in one corner of the tray, which can be bunged up with a wine cork if need be, to return the tray to being watertight. I’ve tried growing in modules and it just didn’t work very well in my climate.


seeds from the Real seed Company


6. Invest in infrastructure early on. A good greenhouse or poly-tunnel is expensive (although there are plenty of ways of doing it cheaply DIY). Investing in one early will save a lot of time and money. I’ve been scrabbling about with half a dozen propagators for years when a greenhouse would have been far more efficient. The same applies to decent tools, irrigation etc.

7. Find the best seeds for your climate. A lot of the seeds sold in garden centres are grown generically in bulk and don’t necessarily do well in higher harsher climates. There are gardeners in countries far colder than ours that approach self-sufficiency through using tried and tested varieties bred for their climate. 

I’m a big fan of The Real Seed Company – they specialise in seed suited to small scale gardening unlike the more conventional seed companies. They also use varieties that will in turn produce ‘true-to-variety’ seed (= open-pollinated) which is absolutely crucial to re-establish small-scale local food production. Their website is very informative, with detailed instructions on how to save the seed of each plant type. A lot of their varieties have been developed in colder Eastern European countries, which is certainly more suited to the North of England.

With feverish excitement, I’ve put in a huge order with them yesterday. The ‘common ground’ project that Dewy and I are working on, is to help people we know grow their own food. The right seed is vitally important.

8. Start easy and build up. Planting a few veg that do well is better than planting vast quantities of seeds that are going to fail. Onions, beetroot, spuds, peas, beans, blackcurrants are perennial winners for me.

9. Plan the right protection early on. My hillside is very windy, which most plants don’t like. I’ve planted hedges everywhere, which act as wind-breaks and make all the difference. My biggest pest is homo sapien followed by snails. Fencing needs to be matched to the security of the area. Netting is important to protect against the pigeons, magpies and crows and other pests.

10. Team up with other like-minded gardeners and have a laugh. I’m pretty private and reclusive, but it’s got a lot more fun since our allotment association has become more convivial during the pandemic. We had some wonderful little plot to plate get-togethers during summer.


Tibetan Buddha by dawn candlelight


In other news, our little rock and roll aspirations have quietly moved up a notch and we’ve had a drum-kit drama, which has given us a lift. It’s fortunate that our lock-down ‘bubble’ is also the family house band. Sam says ‘think big’ and he’s right. The value of fam and friends is better appreciated in these difficult times.

I got very despondent at the beginning of the week, when one of our neighbour’s sons and a friend of a friend’s dad died reportedly from Covid.

Time and time again, I’ve said that I have NO trust in our government – regardless of politics, they are odious Toff’s, lining their mates’ pockets in acts of astonishing corruption, especially relating to Test and Trace contracts. Each week, there’s yet another example of them ignoring voices of reason (e.g. report on P.P’s bullying) and undermining the rule of law.

With this in mind, I remain very sceptical of widespread out-of-hospital community testing. For a start, there’s a massive conflict of interest, which is a non-starter in all valid science. There’s a high false positive rate and nobody knows its true magnitude.

At medical school, one of the topics that fascinated me most was the magnificence of the human immune system – all those armies of specialised cells, that can travel round the body to attack infection. My understanding is that viral immunity is largely T-cell mediated (not to mention IgA being predominant in the mucosa that most respiratory viruses infect). How relevant is testing for B-cell produced antibodies in determining longer-term immunity? I’ve just never understood the validity of widespread testing for fragments of RNA in the nasopharynx. Is there any evidence that the four common cold coronaviruses (with similar sequences to Covid in places) don’t give +ve tests?

Dying within 28 days of a +ve test is simply not the same as dying from Covid. An accurate cause of death requires history, examination and investigations to be considered together. All cause hospital deaths and ICU admissions always go up at this time of year.

I stopped listening to social media loons ages ago, but I’m still interested in the opinions of bona fide experts in their field who quote the best science. I still trust the BMJ (an interesting letter here) and the Lancet.

Rock & Roll business as usual at Hartley House