The heady, exotic, musky, smutty scent of valerian flowering from mid-May heralds summer full-steam-ahead. The plants grow as tall as 8 feet!
May has flown by and we’ve tumbled head over heels past mid-June with everything at its most lush and green. Plot to plate season is here. I can take up some mayonnaise, boil some spuds and broad beans, then mix it all up with peas, rocket and lettuce. Yum. It feels nutritious.
Still, It’s a mixed bag, with some things doing well and some doing terribly. There are more pests than I’ve ever had before with lots of rust on the chives, the rye and the goat willow. The hawthorns are all infested with Juniper Hawthorn rust, which causes weird hairy bobbles.
I think I was in too much of a rush to get things planted as soon as the risk of frost was gone. As a result, all the beans have started off tired and yellow; the peas were slow, but picking up nicely now.
Elsewhere, the fruit trees and bushes are packed in contrast to last year. We’ve had the first harvest of gooseberries – loads of them.
I had my annual full-moon-of-May camp out, but I didn’t see the moon because it was cloudy. I’m getting more intrigued by the ancient links between natural cycles and spiritual/pagan traditions – the more you look, the more there is to find. It transpires that according to those hippy French cards, I’m the King of Swords. More than one witchy person has told me that. I keep quiet about it. Double-edged innit.
For many years, Toad of Toad Hall style, I’ve waxed lyrical about growing plants to sell.
Typically, I grow a couple of hundred, do a token sale, then run out of steam, after multiple attacks by the twin demons of procrastination and doubt. I end with lots of leftover plants.
This year I’ve moved up a notch – so much so, that we’ve now done 3 plants sales: two on Tod market and one at Tod carnival. Tyler has been to help out at the last two and Helen comes over and helps, so it’s quite sociable. She’s made a load of coloured laminated labels.
Tbh it’s a vast amount of work preparing the plants, loading them up etc but that’s not the point. It’s a step in the right direction. Surprisingly, the native wild plants have been selling as well as the food plants. It’s also a convivial thing that sidesteps the onset of obligatory digital: ‘Do you take card?’ ‘Er no.’ ‘There’s a cash machine over there.’
When food shortages do inevitably kick in (yes – I know I got the timescale wrong), allotments will be the easiest of targets. Ours are quite remote, bridging two of the town’s most challenged areas, so security is difficult. Break-ins are therefore inevitable.
Someone has been coming into mine quite regularly, leaving barely a trace, and it’s most unsettling. The barn is full of bits of pipe and plastic, beehive parts and timber. I notice a subtle sign that he’s been in again. It takes me a week or so to work out what he’s nicked – a small lagged copper water tank that I had made for my planned hot water system. He also took the little bows and arrows that we sometimes get out at ranch parties. What upset me most was that they were in a leather quiver that I’d made from the back of an old settee. One Christmas, I made both the lads fibreglass bows with leather quivers, in a Lord of the Rings stylee.
I put up a grille over the top of the barn door to stop him climbing in, but he just snapped it off when he came back a couple of days ago. Alas, as societal desperation increases, this can only increase. There are food riots already in Sri Lanka and other places, but we see little of it on the news.
The greenhouse is now in its second year. I built it so that the top floor sits above any vegetation, getting full sun all day long.
I have to be fully on the ball opening the doors, otherwise it gets too hot and plants get scorched. There are five doors in total – a pair on the top floor; a pair on the bottom floor and a single big door on the bottom floor. I have a max-min thermometer on the top floor which tells me it got to an astonishing 45 degrees on the day that I didn’t open the doors, due to being at a plant sale. At first I thought the curled leaves on the tomato plants were due to being short of water, but they were scorched.
Opening all the doors allows a circulation of cooler air from below, drawn up by the hot air on top.
I’ve had mixed results with the plants in pots too and I think it might be down to the compost. I buy it locally in cubic metre bags – organic is difficult to find. It’s gone up this year from 45 to 65 quid and it’s not particularly good – there are bits of glass and plastic in it. I try and improve it with rotted manure.
I’m getting lots of plants yellowing and I can’t work out whether it’s the compost or too much or little water. The sooner I can make my own, the better. I’m experimenting with alternate layers of fresh woodchip manure and hay from the field, in the big triple compost bins. The idea is that the heat from the manure kills all the seeds, and I get decent potting compost.
There’s a saying in Zen Buddhism ‘Why get worked up about the chattering of sparrows?’ More than ever I need to turn inwards from the lunacy out there, and remember to seize the day in this magnificent secret garden. Sparrows are supposed to be in decline but I have hundreds – chattering and twittering all day long.
Outwith my sheltered life secret garden life, there’s hot allotment action. Mog and I pay a visit to Jon’s new plot in the heady heights of Blacko – the view is stunning. I instruct them on the use of the scythe, but the longstanding allotment king leans over the fence and is clearly not impressed. He gives friendly advice and suggests Roundup. We wince. Back at Mog’s, Dewy turns up and as ever, he is the calm voice of gardening reason. He will have a look and lend Jon his strimmer.
Cosi (who happens to be mayor) asks me to divine for a lost water source on some allotments in Cliviger – it’s non-stop action.
My one and a half acres could potentially feed half a dozen people, but it’s too much for one person to maintain and I wonder what will happen in the future when I can’t do it any more. None of my fam have the slightest interest.
There’s the paradox of me being a curmudgeonly recluse a lot of the time – oh the horror of unexpected uninvited guests on a sunny afternoon.
I’m always on the look out for ideas to develop and somehow share the land, but nothing has come up yet.
In another thread of serendipity, Neil Patton, an old schoolmate gets in touch. He’s read the book (or at least most of it until someone nicked it). He still has family in Burnley and visits occasionally, but has lived in France for a long time with his partner Freddy. She’s an avid organic gardener like me. They visit and they’re impressed. They tell me about the AMAP scheme that Freddy is part of. It stands for Association pour le Maintien d’une Agriculture Paysanne (association for maintaining small-scale family farming). I’ve always been a Francophile and adored my time in France, so it’s yet another thread of serendipity.
The gist is that members pay the farmer’s wages in advance and in return get a share of the harvest regardless of its success. They also contribute so much labour. All food for thought. I could perhaps keep a private bit for myself and get folk helping out on the rest of it?
My dad was a bit of a pompous gobshite at times – patronising schoolteacher through and through.
He started off doing an engineering apprenticeship like me, then got an HNC in the air force which allowed him to teach. He worked hard, doing a degree in the evenings when we were little. He ended up head of economics at Pleckgate. He could have been headmaster, but took early retirement when my mum was poorly.
He had a stock phrase that he repeated over and over again:
‘If you want a good career, that gives you fulfilment, a decent wage and plenty of spare time, then you can’t beat teaching’.
That was of course a guarantee that becoming a teacher was the last thing on earth that I would ever do. Louise frequently calls me schoolteacher-like when I’m having a twat tantrum (which are less frequent since I ditched the ratrace).
I did sort of become a teacher by a mistake, despite my best intentions. Teaching is an integral part of medicine, so I spent quite a bit of time teaching and I quite liked it. As consultants, we’re encouraged to become GMC Educational Supervisors, which is all part of the job.
I’ve said often throughout the pandemic how much I’ve felt for the plight of children and teenagers and what a perfect classroom the ranch would be.
My friend Gill happens to be a head teacher, and when I mentioned it in passing one day, she was most interested.
Fast forward a month and Gill and Gary, another teacher (who used to be our neighbour – god help him!) are walking along the track with five lads aged 11 to 14.
As soon as they get through the gate, Gill sternly says ‘You must be polite and well-behaved’. ‘Rubbish’ I quip. ‘It’s anarchy and you can do what you want’. Gill almost panics.
I somehow default to inherited schoolteacher mode, showing them lots of stuff including how to use a scythe. They adore the tractor, especially when I start it up and let them all have a go at sitting in it and revving the engine. Even better when they all stand in the link box on the back and I drive off. Gill looks decidedly nervous.
They have a garden and polytunnel at school and take some plants. There’s something quietly wonderful about the whole thing. A reciprocal trip is on the cards. Oops. never listen to your dad – you’re nothing like him.
I’ve been hearing about chem trails for yonks now and they’re a bit far out on the loon conspiracy fringe for my liking. Nevertheless, I’m seeing them with my own eyes on a regular basis and I want to know what they are and why they are there. We know that contrails are ice crystals condensing out of the back of planes, but how come so many at 90 degrees to each other? Could it be backed up planes circling, waiting to land?
There are various jokes and anecdotes apart farmers being able to predict the weather for the day ahead and even beyond. I have a pretty accurate feel for how the weather will turn out over the ranch during any particular day. On a sunny day like today for example, with passing cloud, typically the skies clear late afternoon into clear evening sunshine.
Today, there have been several criss-crossing plane trails across a crystal blue sky from about 7am, They’re now slowly spread into an amorphous grey haze and by mid afternoon, the sun is just a hazy outline.
I know there’s a branch of science devoted to weather control, which uses aviation, but how come it’s happening so regularly now on sunny days and how come I’ve never seen it before? It’s not just me. There are reports all over social media from all over the country.
It’s a red one!
The Don Quixote part of my persona searches endlessly for my own Rocinante.
An appropriate all round steed that will do everything – get up the steep ranch track, take me camping and so on. After five years of looking, I settle on a Peugeot Expert which has an extra front wheel traction thing for extra grip on rough ground.
After the last plant sale, I took the VW up the the ranch to unload. Stupidly, I thought I’d see how far up the field it would drive. In a trice, it was right at the top. It’s impossible to convey the magnificence of this wonderful vehicle that will travel where only Land Rovers and tractors will dare. The difficulty would be getting back down around the tight bend opposite the barn. Oops it’s stuck. Fortunately Helen arrives and she drives it whilst I pull it out with the Massey Ferguson. It wasn’t easy. What kind of vehicle buffoon am I!
Later the same afternoon, I nearly have a serious accident as I hurtle downhill in the Massey, with the brakes doing little and the engine not stopping when I pull the kill switch. I have a split second before I smash into the gates at the bottom. Fortunately, I manage to plough into the hedge which brings the tractor to a halt, leaving me unscathed but very shaken. I resolve to inspect and rebuild the brakes.
Rock & Roll
I’ve no interest in anything other than farming these days, but Rock & Roll has its own momentum. The lads are autonomous now with their own cars and equipment. I’m free! Not quite so. I continue to be pleased and flattered that our little inner musical circle carries on under it’s own steam.
Firstly, Tyler, Sam and I were chilling in the back room one evening and we all agreed that it would be a good idea for Sam to get his songs down in the simplest form. We’ve done four so far. The whole idea is that it’s immediate. We film the song, record it, mix it, edit the vid then have it up on the internet by the end of the evening. For the second one, I played double bass and Tyler has played drums on the last two. My favourite is Mrs Razzamataz. Sam plays double bass and sings and I play rockabilly guitar.
We have Sagefest four by mistake – spontaneous with just a couple of days notice. Again it’s Tyler’s fault. It’s a sunny forecast and he suggests having a little music do on the ranch just with the most basic equipment. In the end, I’m up at 6.30 and at the supermarket by seven stocking up on fine requisites. I leisurely spend the day packing the van with all the music gear, decks and PA.
It’s the best so far. The same core of us are there, but there are new faces too and several people get up and play, with Tyler drumming throughout. The Black Sabbath bit at the end is my fave, with Dave (formely of Slack Babbath) on bass and Sam and Natty banging out a few songs.
Afterwards Steve plays ace African records, then Bryn and Natty DJ for the rest of the night, playing my singles. It’s a good do.
I feel privileged to have played on a classic album. Notsensibles Instant Classic isn’t a classic in the same sense as a lot of more well-known examples, but, with its schoolboy humour and naïve pop songs, it’s still a classic.
Despite not being that bothered, serendipity has dictated that we’re playing at two festivals. Me and Gaz and the Strange at Solfest, and just me at Beatherder. I think The Strange are a bit disappointed that there isn’t room for them at Beatherder this year.
At first, I feel like playing a punky set with at least a few Notsensibles songs. We then come up with the idea of playing the first version of Instant Classic in its entirety. Tyler is playing drums and the three of us soon realise that in order to do it justice, we need to replicate the original 5 piece line-up, so we recruit a singer and a keyboardist. Ahem. Cough cough. Nothing to do with The Strange.
No way are we claiming to be the Notsensibles. I heard someone recently say that tribute bands are a bit like orchestras – i.e keeping the music alive when the original artists are no longer around to do it. All five Notsensibles are around, but Kev Rog and Haggis aren’t playing live at the moment. Fair enough. We’re on at Trash Manor at 1.00pm on Sat 16th of July.
Phil G and I have a lovely evening trip up to Cumbria (he’s got new wheels too), for a birthday party and to catch up with some of the Solfest crew. I finally get to meet Hannah Appleyard. She’s a livewire artist and has been most supporting and encouraging of my book. The sky and sunset on the way back are exquisite.
My boyish fascination with Spitfires is eternal. Have they arranged for me to sit in one for father’s day? Have they fuck. Apparently there’s a replica one up Towneley today – that’s as close as I’ll get. I’ll go and have a look.