April 2

Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino

This was my second attempt at reading this book. It just looked so loooong that I couldn’t face it although I thought I might be interested in the actual content. So, I started in the middle with Stichleton cheese and worked my way out, reading at random whatever caught my fancy and ended up reading most of the book.

Who wouldn’t be interested in the fact that we have many foods that are disappearing? The same arguments about animals becoming extinct apply to foods. Loss of diversity leads to greater dangers in a food being wiped out; lower diversity for wildlife and lower diversity for our gut microbiome. Often the people that continue with these foods are passionate about them or are part of a long tradition of making/growing them and when they die, so do the ways they know. This makes Saladino’s book really important in that it highlights what these foods are.

Stichleton cheese has suffered because it is made with raw milk. Can you imagine the French refusing a cheese made with raw milk? Stilton can only be made with pasteurised milk to be called Stilton. Pasteurisation did save many, many people from tuberculosis amongst other things but in eradicating raw milk we also lost something else.

Perry was also interesting – a cider type drink made with pears. I used to live in Worcestershire, one of the counties that made Perry, and in my time there orchards disappeared at an alarming rate. Now Perry trees are few and far between and their location has to be kept a secret. It is a delicious drink, quite deceptive and why wouldn’t the future of pears one day be dependent on some of the genes included in perry pears?

There used to be over 4000 varieties of potato, almost as many of corn, hundreds of varieties of apple and cheeses made where the sheep were grazing. Now we have one main type of potato – 2 or 3 if we are lucky – and half of the world’s cheese made with bacteria and enzymes from one company. It seems we have forgotten what happened with the Irish famine where everyone grew the same potato so that when blight hit, it got every single plant. This food monoculture is a danger to the planet and to our health.

Saladino has taken on the role of alerting us to the plight of these foods but it is someone else’s work to share with us how we can change this, what we can each do without it costing us the earth.

February 6

The Morville Hours by Katherine Swift

This was our latest Gardening book club choice, one I have tried to read before and not got very far with. Being a book club choice means I persevered with it and I am glad I did.

Katherine Swift was a rare-book librarian at Trinity in Dublin and her husband, Ken, a bookseller in Oxford. In order to lure her back to this country, they found a house where she could make a garden and Moreville House ended up being the lucky recipient of Katherine’s thoughtful research and reading about gardens.

This isn’t a garden book that will tell you what to do with sandy soil or which plants to use in shade, rather a very site specific treatise about the land, its people, history and geology with some botany thrown in for good measure. It is the sort of book that has a range of information that you could bring out on a quiz night and astound everyone such as the country name for daffodils is Lenten lily because they bloom in the liturgical season of lent or that there were 38 vineyards in Britain before the Romans arrived. The climate then was that of a warming one and so we are now and have vineyards again.

The book is structured around a book of hours used by the Benedictine monks who used to live on the land. It is a book of prayers for the different times of the day and so works neatly to fit the months of the year and for each ‘prayer’ or chapter to be a reflection and meditation upon the garden and how it ended up being there at that time of the year. In fact the structure is like that of a formal garden, neat, clipped hedging in the form of the times of prayer or seasons but inside each season or prayer there is a lushness and a billowing out of plants and people, history and geology. As readers, we are reading Swift’s reading of the landscape and it anchors her to the land and the garden.

I have seen it written that the book is a journey of self-exploration or that it is part memoir but all of these seem a generous description of the nuggets of her life that we are allowed to peep at behind the plants. Her writing about the garden is rich and descriptive with perhaps some of the longest sentences I have ever read, there are a lot of colons and semi-colons, but the writing about her family is greatly contrasted: short, spare, often tense or terse and never ever with any sense of her feelings about the situations other than love for her father. The nearer we get to the end of the book, the more she says until at last she explains that she has tried to tell the story of ‘why I am as I am’. She mentions friends and local people often, but of her husband there is little other than his understanding about her need to make a garden until she says that in 2008 the lease on the property would be due and they thought they would go and make a garden by the sea. She then says that he left before that and I was left wondering whether their marriage was over, had he died, did he have Alzheimers? As a reader, you have to do a lot of the heavy work about her life which is in complete contrast to reading about the garden. She has definitely done all the hard work there.

The writing is wonderful but at times a little too rich. I couldn’t sit down and just read, I had to parcel the book up and read it bit by bit, a certain amount each day so that I didn’t tire of it. She has very clear sentence patterns and once I had found them, I couldn’t stop noticing them. There are wonderful images,

The cat flap in the kitchen door lifts open, horizontal: the cats flatten their ears and narrow their eyes before breasting the tide of freezing air like Christmas Day swimmers taking the plunge.


and the idea of a Norman deed to the house, parchment paper with formal language, dense with contractions and suspensions and conditions ‘like an airline ticket to another world.

She is big on the idea of ‘threeness’

Only in the eighteenth century did Morville attain that sort of stability: Morville’s was a tale of lost heirs, heirs defrauded, heirs dead before their time; of childless couples, bachelor uncles; of a succession that zigzagged, backtracked, skipped generations; of a house eventually surplus to requirements, bought and sold; its library, archives, contents all scattered


She is a lister, with all sorts of ways of listing

Pippins and pearmains, costards and codlins, leathercoats and russets; silver and white, rose-pink and carmine, pearly grey and apple green – the apple blossom of old England, now in flower once more in the gardens of Morville: Geneting and Gillyflower, Calville and Catshead, Quining and Quarrenden, the branches clustered with flowers like posies carried by school children.


Yes, there are parts that are overwritten and could have been edited a bit more firmly but Swift is a wordsmith and I greatly enjoyed that element of her writing.

There were also sections that spoke to me as a gardener. The challenges of knowing when a pear is ripe, ‘my pears are a mystery to me. We just don’t speak the same language’, and the temptations of seed catalogues

First to list the seed saved or unused from last year. Then to list what new seed needs to be bought. And then, only then, cautiously, to open the catalogues, with their honeyed promises of shapes and tastes and smells; their coloured photographs of laden baskets and ripe pods, purple aubergines and ruby chard; yellow flowers of courgette and soft sweet flesh of parsnip; leeks like thighs and lettuces like the frilled red skirts of cancan dancers; flowers like butterflies, like birds, as blue as lapis lazulis, as dark as bitter chocolate. And every year, despite my resolutions, I fall, succumbing to their thousand-and-one temptations and ordering far more than I need.


I know this is a bit over-the-top, leeks like thighs is not an image that works for me or all the birds and butterflies, but I do understand that feeling of wanting to try everything and believing everything the catalogue descriptions and photos tell me.

This will not be an easy book to discuss in book club. I can’t think of questions that can be asked of it and us as readers. I do want to follow-up on any thoughts others might have about the sort of person Swift might be based on the little information that we got in the book. Swift is an expert in reading the land and I wonder if we can read the landscape of the allotments in the same way. What do we know about its geology, history and people?

January 25

Carrot Plan

If I want carrots all year round, I will have to say it is for June 24 to June 25 as I can’t magic any up before then. What I do in late summer and early autumn will be critical for keeping me in carrots throughout the winter – ready grown but not harvested. There are several ways I could approach this task:

  • Do a bumper sowing in May and then pick over the year, hoping that I have enough to last me until the next July. This is the approach I normally take and guess what. It doesn’t really work.
  • Sow small amounts each month, making use of outside, polytunnel and pots. This might be my best approach but is a lot of sowing – I will forget and then have a gap!
  • Sow all in May but use a variety of seeds so that some are larger and grown for storage, e.g Oxhella and others are grown for eating straight away, e.g. Early Nantes. It might also be nice to have a few purple carrots too.

I’m going to try a mix of all three and then simplify it the following year when I know what happens. Sowing will start in April, a month before I would normally do so but I will need to get going.

April – sow outside, under fleece and one pot in the polytunnel. Variety – Early Nantes. These will be my summer carrots. Note how much earlier the pot that is started indoors is.

May – sow outside, under fleece as usual. These will be for early autumn use. Variety: Autumn King and Oxhella and a new one for me, Eskimo for winter and a purple variety.

June – sow outside but these will sit for a long time. Steve Richards recommends Touchon because they cope with sitting well. These will be ready late autumn and winter. I will also have pulled up and stored the Oxhella.

October – sow carrots for May time the following year – some in the polytunnel soil and some in containers to compare growth.

Things I need to do in order to be able to grow like this:

  • Put compost on beds for carrots rather than manure
  • Make sure I have enough packets of carrots of the right variety
  • Check that I have the right type of pots and bases to stop ants getting in them

I am going to try one row in the polytunnel sown late january just to see what happens. I have done this before and think that they are ready round about May but not very big.

One thing to think about is the more space a carrot has the quicker it grows and the bigger. I definitely oversow and don’t thin so may need to do that this year.

January 22

Challenges for 2024

I prefer not to think in terms of resolutions for the allotment, more things I would like to try. I have had several in the past: create enough compost for two plots (almost made it last year, might manage it this year), collect enough water to survive a six week drought (think I have managed this one) and finally, grow enough sprouts to last all winter. I have managed this one – I might have even over managed this one with sixteen plants left half way through January which at one a week will last a loooong time.

This year, having managed the sprouts, I want to challenge myself a bit more so I want to try and be self-sufficient in carrots. This is much more challenging because some years (2023 in particular) I didn’t manage any carrots.

Next, I want to try a hot bed just to see if it will grow anything earlier on in the year. I might try one in the polytunnel and one outside. (Ultimately, this will also be more compost for the beds as well.)

I also want to build a wormery on the soil at the allotments like the one Charles Dowding has. Worm compost is wonderful stuff and I can use it for potting up and generally plants that need a little TLC. (Compost gain!)

The last two won’t produce more compost because the inputs that I have are the same amount, it is just making it differently.

Challenges like these always produce a list of tasks I need to complete:

  • create a plan about how to grow carrots in order to have them all year round (June to June probably)
  • Order a load of cow manure to use in the hotbeds and place into containers
  • Prepare and gather materials for the wormery and create a space on one of the beds: piece of black plastic, tiger worms from the wormery at home, compost from one of the bins to start it off

I’ll keep you posted about how it is going.

November 15

Grow for Flavour by James Wong

I bought this book back in 2015, when it was first published and it set me off on a never-ending trial of tomato varieties to grow for taste. Nothing has really come close to Sungold apart from Shimmmer which I like best grown in a plantpot and underwatered. The taste is really intense if grown like that.

Anyway, this book has been chosen as our next book club choice and so I can read it again. It is a book that can be dipped in and out of which was probably necessary as we had all read The Overstory by Richard Powers for November and that is a loooooong book – good but long.

The book starts with some general principles for growing for flavour and then branches out into individual fruit and vegetables. The general principles are:

  • Choose the right variety for you and stress it slightly as that releases defence chemicals which make the plant taste better
  • The more sunlight, the more intense the flavour for most plants. Colour is important so red platic mulch for strawberries increases yields, green surfaces make for stronger basil, silver reduces aphid problems on peppers and melons planted through black plastic ripen earlier.
  • Watering – something people are always amazed that they need to learn how to do on the veg growing course we run. Leaf crops ned watering before picking, for fruits such as tomatoes, reduce the water before picking and would you believe the same goes for beetroot and carrots.
  • Soil and fertiliser – easy on the fertiliser and liquid feeds. However seaweed and molasses can have a positive effect on the taste of vegetables.
  • Pest attack is good – it is a type of stress and chemical defenses will be released. There are some sprays that can mimic an attack.
  • Prunng, grafting and thinning particularly with fruit will mean a higher ration of flesh to skin with fewer but bigger fruits.
  • Harvesting and storing. Harvest when totally ripe and the fridge is not always the best place to store fruit and vegetables, particularly tomatoes, squash, pears, strawberries etc. Salads should be picked in the morning, berries in the afternoon.

What I am on the lookout for are things that I can try next year. I am going to focus on trying to grow carrots for all year round. Wong suggests Purple Sun carrots as a different sort to grow, grow them in cooler conditions and cook them whole. The other vegetable I might try is hamburg parsley and grow it just like I would parsnips for a different taste.

This is a book jam-packed with ideas for trying on different vegetables with almost too much information to take in. I like the recipes that are included as well as the more unusual items at the end of the book. I do have a szechuan pepper tree which fruited this year and now I know what to do with the fruit.

It really is a wonderful book.

October 18

Big Butterfly Count results

The results are in for the Big Butterfly Count and so I thought I would compare the wildlife garden results with the national results. It is a mixed picture. Some butterflies are doing really well and others are struggling. I counted on 12 separate occasions and tried to get at least one photograph of each sort although I wasn’t always successful. The images below include a moth that was in the count – a Silver Y.

Name of butterflyWildlife garden numbersNational resultsIncrease/decrease for national results compared with 2022
Red Admiral83248,077+338%
Large whites73216,666+11%
Small whites47190,506+15%
Holly Blue234,655+22%
Comma 149,173+26%
Common Blue1 (I think)30,009-13%
Painted Lady3411,893+3%
Speckled wood329,708-11%
Green veined white0 (I might have had 2 but was unsure)24,093-0%

Strangely, not that different from the national results in terms of most seen to least seen. The plant that had the most butterflies on during the counting time was the Buddleja bush. How appropriate. At times there were more than 10 Red Admirals on it and upto 8 Peacocks, particularly in the mid-morning sun.

August 10

Composting Masterclass by Tony O’Neill

I can’t remember why I bought this book and I wish I could because it is not an easy read and I can’t see why I would need to know most of the information in this book to make compost. Spreadsheets so that you get the right ratios of carbon to nitrogen, weight and moisture percentages etc. It is almost too much. I’m not sure what I was expecting though.

I did like the explanations of the different methods of composting, many of which I have on the go – cold composting, vermiculture and composting tree shreddings but haven’t tried bokashi composting. I also liked his idea that composting is not just a managed decomposition of organic materials for the benefits of the soil but that it is a farming of micro-organisms. That puts a whole new spin on it. The other tip I picked up is that I need to get a thermometer to stick into my compost bins to see what sort of temperatures they are reaching.

I think I wanted things to do and I see that O’Neill has published a workbook to go alongside this book almost as if this is the theory which I think is a bit of a swizz. The workbook should be included in this book if it is a masterclass. I was also expecting it to link to videos of examples on his plots to exemplify what he talks about. But no. Perhaps that is my book to write!

One for the compost heap.

August 2

Gardening book club – Animal, Vegetable, Miracle by Barbara Kingsolver

Barbara Kingsolver is a name appearing all over the place at the moment due to winning the Pulitzer Prize and the Women’s Fiction Prize with her most recent novel, Demon Copperhead. We chose Animal, Vegetable, Miracle as it describes a year in her family’s life where they chose to eat only locally produced food, much of which they grew themselves as they have land. The book is divided up into gluts of veg by month so July was courgettes (!), May was asparagus etc. but we were all particularly taken with her description of making mozeralla – apparantly it is quick and easy, you stretch it across your kitchen as part of the process and you stick it in the microwave to finish it off – and so a couple of the group might give it a try. We await the results.

There were foods that they had to do without and we did discuss what we would have to give up if we were to eat in this way. Kingsolver was pragmatic and so they did buy tea and coffee and we also wondered how far away is local – a 70 mile radius in their situation which is rural Appalachia in the US. We considered lemons, spices, red wine, chocolate but in actual fact apart from chocolate, we can grow more than we realised: ginger, tumeric, lemon grass, pepper corns etc although many of these are growing on the edge of their preferred conditions and often an indoor space is needed.

Eating your own food often means preserving gluts so that you have something to eat during the winter. None of us were wild about spending long hours in the summer slaving over a hot stove, although if the weather is like this August we might be glad of something to do other than be out in the rain. This way of living does take time and commitment and that might not be possible for all. We wondered how working people might find it, but in fact Kingsolver and her husband both worked during the year that they did this. She mentions in the book that it is about a mindset and prioritising this way of living. She probably didn’t watch much TV in the evenings.

Somehow, the kit you need to preserve foods came up: pressure cookers, dehydrators and fruit juicers. It turns out that you can get a dehydrator and fruit press from the Library of Things in Exmouth. You pay a small fee to join and then can borrow the items. What a wonderful idea.

Dotted throughout the book are snippets written by Kingsolver’s husband about the science of whatever she was talking about and her elder daughter’s point of view and recipes to match the gluts. These really enhanced the message being given in a book that was written in 2008 but still so relevant today.

Our next meeting is on the 19th of September 2023 in the community room on HL plots at 7pm and we are reading The Botanist’s Daughter by Kayte Nunn.

July 24

Gardening in a Changing World by Darryl Moore part 5

Plants as possibilities.

In the early 1900s a Swedish botanist, Gote Turesson, discovered what he called ‘ecotypes’ of plants which is the same plant but with small genetic changes depending on where they grew. Understanding the ecotypes of plants provides a better fit of plant to place with climate, soil, latitude and altitude giving the greatest range of ecotypes.

How can this prepare us for the future? Well, some ecotypes are better adapted to warmer temperatures and so may help in a changing climate. Different ecotypes offer different rates of carbon sequestration and oxygen provision. Variations in leaf size and shape offer alternative responses to light and moisture. They can extend flowering seasons and therefore will be suited to different pollinators. Now, instead of saying right plant, right place we can say ‘best plant in the right place’.

Since 2012 Sjoman working at Gothenburg Botanical Gardens has been looking at ecotypes in trees to ensure the best plant not just when it was planted but for long-term success. His focus on drought tolerance of trees means that it will be possible to diversify the trees planted in urban areas. And we know from earlier chapters that a greater diversity in plants + a greater diversity in wildlife plus a greater likelihood of surviving temperature changes.

James Hitchmough has been focusing on this when looking for plants for his new house in Dorset and his research with Sjoman and others suggests that adaptation of trees in urban areas needs to be studied in greater detail to match the tree with the specific site, e.g. near a pavement or a busy road. The limiting factor here is lack of knowledge.

Plant communities are not, as previously thought, in competition with each other. Many plants have positive interactions known as facilitations where one species alters the environment for another and enhances their growth, reproduction and survival. This might be through reducing temperature, moisture or nutrients. Trees do this by moderating the light levels underneath them as well as the moisture content and alters the nutrient levels through leaf drop. Some plants will provide shelter for others such as in windy environments and enable it to survive in conditions it wouldn’t normally. This can also be planned for in changing climates.

But what about what is going on underground? Roots do not just anchor a plant into the soil but also transports carbon into the soil and extracts nutrients and water for growth and reproduction. The microbial populations assist in adaptation to environment as do the plants themselves. Different leaves when they decompose offer different nutrients and this will affect individual plants within a community. This leads to the idea that if the microbiome of the soil is varied so will our microbiome be as well. We’ve moved a long way from colour theory here . Could we offer planting schemes that provide particular bacteria to people walking through them?

You can read part 1, part 2, part 3, part 4, part 5 and part 6 if you click on the links.

July 21

Butterfly Count 21/07/23

A bit of variety today but only because I went down to the wildlife garden to count in the afternoon. It was much windier and less sunshine. This is definitely the week of the peacocks though.

At times there were up to 4 peacocks on one flower of the buddleia. I wonder if that is because they are starting to go over and so the small flowers with nectar are all at the end of the group. The small white was on the fading Nepeta or Catmint and the Gatekeeper on a Geranium leaf.

In this picture you can see the probiscus of the Peacock on the flowers.