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Over the last two summers I’ve littered text with soggy simile, metaphor, adverb and adjective; written watery creative analogies; been moistly apocryphal, saturatingly colourful and squelchingly onomatopoeic. I’ve been sent bonkers by rain-driven frustration and suffered blue-gloom from lack of sunlight.
But now I’m emotionally ‘descripted’ out. From the once again watery swamplands of the farm I have absolutely nothing original to say about rain or sodden summers (though to be fair it’s only been July – it just seems so much longer – we did have a stunning spring and early summer, our memories though have been clean washed away).
I could, I suppose, thrill you with my efforts at pickling and preserving (but haven’t I told you about that a couple of times before?) or wax lyrical about the cleaning out and washing down of the cow palace (almost as captivating as watching paint dry, wouldn’t you say?).
Maybe I could let you into the little secret of the rat in the polytunnel…(ahha, I can see a glimmer of interest here!)? The one who munched his way through the whole of our corn crop in a night effectually destroying every cob? Who’s also gnawed each and every beetroot and is now thumbing his nose at us as he takes poisonously vicious bites out of all ripe or almost ripe tomatoes before we get a look in. Oh, and what about the powder mould that’s ripped through the courgette population and the worrying lack of growth with our second planting?
‘Yes!’ I hear you exclaim ‘Vengeance is sweet!’ Remember all the green ploytunnel envy?
The biome begins to blossom!
It began as a small seed of an idea in our heads following yet another atrocious summer and a rotting defunct vegetable garden.We decided to take the plunge. Cleared an area of scrub, trees and detritus behind the fruit cage and booked in digger Dave to level the site. Then wondered what we’d done as the rain continued and conditions became increasingly difficult.
Biting the bullet we ordered a polytunnel ‘kit’ and began the massive construction operation. Backs were almost broken along with spirits. Eventually the monster was assembled. The next task? Working hundreds of tonnes of sodden clay topsoil chockablock with tree, bramble and weed roots into a friable workable tilth. Tonnes of chippings and sand were added along with lime to produce a neutral soil. Robert hit his wall…but somehow found the strength to soldier on.
The biome, the biome, the biome…look at it, just look at it. Isn’t it pure pristine perfection?
No, I’m not blowing my own trumpet, rather sounding it for my wrecked other. After days and weeks, actually now I think about it, months, of exhausting back breaking work the polytunnel is finally ready for planting.
Beds made, paths laid. Tonnes, yes tonnes and tonnes of sodden top-soil, chock-a-block with roots and debris, have been deep dug, mixed with gravel, sand and lime. Rotavated with our tiny ‘Mantis’ to create a fine tilth and raked free of stones.
The central atrium will be paved and there we can recline in the dappled shade of the trailing vine, sipping Pimms from tall frosted glasses, all chinking ice, strawberry, crushed mint and apple heaven. Ahhh, summer will happen at Locks Park this year…
Back to reality. The biome, we know, will never look this immaculate again. In a couple of week weeds will run riot. But today the first onions were planted into its newness. Potatoes wait, chitting in trays and pots of all sizes are suddenly crammed onto every window sill. This year, whatever the weather throws at us, we will produce our vegetables. Organic veg box anyone?
The polytunnel construction is complete! Robert and Olly have spent an enormous amount of time, energy and patience on its erection; they’ve developed intricate diagrammatical code-deciphering expertise and brushed-up their plumb-line building and construction skills; not forgetting a considerable input of man-muscle-power. They’ve suffered aching backs, swollen chapped hands, cracked lips, frostbitten noses, fingers and toes and overcome the difficulties of working knee-deep in cloying clay mud. They’ve sweated and frozen, fretted and celebrated.
Not, it must be said, the ideal time of year to erect such a monster; nevertheless Robert was determined that we would get back to growing vegetables after the last two washout seasons (you’re now guaranteed a bone dry, blistering 2009!).
With polythene stretched as tight as a drum, sliding doors constructed to near perfection, the weighted, ratcheted side-ventilation panels working with the smoothness of oiled silk and crop-bars visibly waiting to receive an abundance of lush, verdant growth – the result is quite superb and very professional.
After all, this is not just a polytunnel, this is an R & O polytunnel!
I have been away for a few days; a flying weekend visit to Marseille to catch up with my son, Ben, his partner Berengere and little Camille (their daughter). They’ve recently started new jobs, found a flat to rent and settled Camille into childcare. I haven’t seen them since May; it’s been far too long.
In brilliant blue skies and unexpected freezing mistral winds we bundled up in coats, hats, scarves and gloves and set off to shop the colourful seasonal markets. Occasionally we took refuge in a hostelry where we could warm ourselves by a roaring fire, eat steaming platters of warming daubes or nurse mugs of rich thick hot chocolate before facing the elements again. We visited the ancient ochre-yellow hilltop towns of the Luberon and explored the extraordinary Village des Bories. Camille, a tiny Nordic ice-princess, with white blond hair, milky skin and the bluest eyes, was at home in the unusual icy conditions, laughing and running excitedly in the wild bitter winds. At home we caught up on six months of news, chatter and plans over long suppers and wine. It was over too quickly.
Robert and Olly were holding the fort at Locks Park and hoping to press on with the next stage in our fabulous polytunnel construction; the digging of sixteen deep holes (no mean feat on this land) and the concreting in of sixteen poles (to within a millimetre or so accuracy), which will form the structure’s anchor as well as becoming fixings for the tunnel’s huge metal hoops. They, the holes and posts, need to be deep, very strong and precise. With conditions such as they are it’s a tall order.
Earlier last week we were busy getting a former cattle shed ready to wean half a dozen or so large calves; they’d been preventing some of the smaller calves from feeding in the creep area we have sectioned off in the main cow palace. They are only nine months old but they’re big, very big – almost as hefty as some of my 18 month olds. As they were eating well I thought they would be easy to wean and happy at having a large, roomy space and more food all to themselves. How wrong was I! The poor little buggers have taken it hard with non-stop bawling and bellowing; if they hadn’t lost their voices I reckon there would still be a deafening cacophony instead of heartrending pathetic squeaky squeals. Their dams, after an initial twenty-four hour shout, have luckily settled down with contented sighs of relief at not being biffed by their overlarge offspring; they were, interestingly, my senior high-ranking cows.
I always try to avoid any unnecessary stress to my cattle and have over the years adopted a policy of weaning at the latest conceivable moment, encouraging as natural a weaning process as possible. It’s a delicate balance between cow and calf. I try to ensure the cow isn’t too exhausted and depleted before her next calving and that her calf won’t suffer any growth checks and is ready to exchange milk for cereal protein and good quality forage.
It’s interesting that my huge hulks may have looked ready in body but certainly weren’t ready psychologically to cut the cord. Though I’m pleased to report that now I’m back they’ve switched allegiance; every time they hear my voice or catch a glimpse of me around the farmyard strange strangled whistles and wheezes fill the air. And their mothers ? They look at me with knowing glances, as if to say “Well, m’dear, you’re welcome to them!”
Oh lordy, lordy, lord, I’m suffering from Man Back. Man Back you question? Let me explain a little better.
The man in my life has been throwing himself, body and disheartened soul, into violent, frantic polytunnel site preparation work. This on a long, dry, light-filled summer’s day would be a pleasant enough job: you know the sort of thing; working up a bit of a sweat, mildly but not unpleasantly aching muscles resulting in huge satisfaction at work accomplished. As it is work has taken place during dank, semi-dark days of relentless rain, in a mud morass, a glooping energy-sapping quagmire. Hundreds of tonnes of stone, chippings and an insy-winsy hired mini tracked dumper truck were being sucked avariciously downwards into the bowels of the earth. Distraught, as once again the little dumper slurped to a sinking halt in the quicksand of dirty yellow-grey clay, Olly and him of the wide shoulders and snake hips decided to dig out and stone with frenzied revenge a 50 metre or so of trackway so the work could continue. It did, perfectly, with no more mechanical breakdowns save that of the man’s back.
Sympathy was poured out and hot baths with soothing oils were run. Fevered brows were stroked and tender muscles administered too. Words of praise at works accomplished were sung.
The night was long and difficult. It was full of tossings, turnings, groanings and moanings. Sleep was not a big feature. Being rolled out of bed and asked very loudly if I was being disturbed was. The following morning the pain had become terminal and walking, standing, sitting or lying was no longer an option.
I collected together tinctures for the body, remedies for the psychic and unguents of macerated comfrey, hypericum and arnica infused with essential oils for the back. In case these alternative options were unsuccessful I stocked up with conventional pain killers and ibubofrin rubs.
Another night of restless agitation followed. The man and the back were not responding. Life had taken a downturn. Hopelessness and depression had set in. There was only one thing for it now a back amputation or emergency osteopathic treatment. The latter was chosen and in full ambulance mode I transported the not so patient patient to the osteopath. Within seconds the problem was diagnosed as acute lumbar muscle something-or-other and with appropriate massage and manipulation the said muscle was undone and unstrung and living was on the cards again!
We are progressing – slowly. Of course anything like washing up, picking-up clothes, bringing in wood, emptying the compost bucket, fetching a glass of water and…and…and is completely out of the question. So now you understand; Man Back is (now I’ve experienced it) very similar to Man Flu.
We have a project. What with the diabolical summers we’ve been having (not forgetting possible climate change freak conditions; can it get worse?), credit crunch (why did I mention that? the term’s trotted out at every conceivable opportunity –it’s so beginning to grate), global meltdown and Armageddon hazily waving from the horizon (positive sightings from our very own doom and gloom merchant), we thought we’d better become geared up and equipped for any eventuality.
We have, after long and serious thought and debate, decided to erect a polytunnel! Now what this has ensured for you is, obviously, quite the most perfect growing season next year, weather-wise that is. And for us? Well our plan is to be able to provide ourselves and the family with enough fruit and veg throughout the year. You know the sort of thing – wonderful orange, lemon, peach, apricot, greengage and fig trees down one end, complete with vines, yes, grape and kiwi; the odd almond and olive tree too – chairs underneath to enjoy the ambience – you get the picture? The rest will be given up to the most tempting and varied array of vegetables. Glossy, inky aubergine, piquant sweet pepper, hot chilli, big fat tomatoes, elegant ladies fingers (okra), garlic, ginger, fennel, french beans, squash (lurve!), sweetcorn and even our courgettes (oh to get a glut again) and early, early new potatoes (sans slugs)…our green house would continue to produce our salad crops and our productive kitchen garden would be given up to brassicas, roots, onions, runners not forgetting our brilliant asparagus bed. As you may have gathered, we’re not talking little squiddly-polythingy here but a gargantuan, stonking beast. A polytunnel.
But where to site it? It’s horrid, ugly, an eye sore – so we don’t want to see too much of it; at the same time it has to be accessible for vast quantities of dung, compost, sand and grit and all those encouraging-to-grow things. And there’s the lazing around with glasses of the finest homemade bevy. And I’m possessive and neurotic about damage to my fields and the lawn, sooo…?
After lots of head scratching, umming and ahhing it was decided to clear away an area of scrub behind the fruit cage in between the kitchen garden and Top Meadow. Why was it scrub? Well, like most rough areas on farms they evolve around an abandoned, broken, rusted-out piece of farm machinery; an old plough, a dung spreader, cart and such forth. This grew up around a dumped cart.
Olly set to. Chainsaw, machete, slasher. Mincemeat was soon made of bramble and withy, fires lit, our very own slash and burn. Digger-driver-dave arrived and with consummate skill grubbed up tree roots and levelled the site. Fortunately we’d chosen somewhere with a half decent covering of top soil. All we need now is a respectable dry spell, a month or two of hot sunny weather should do it (hollow laugh), and we can fork out the remaining roots, mix in grit, dung and so forth. Next step is to actually order the polytunnel; then the real fun starts.
So next summer, as the world collapses around us, and civilisation as we know it disintergrates; we will be languidly supping our G&Ts in a sub-tropical paradise. How smug are we?? Yeh, right, dream on!