From David Maughan Brown in York: Hedgehog Autumn

October 4th

Our allotment is exuding an air of untidy and slightly weary fecundity, as though all the effort to produce its varyingly successful harvests in the face of the summer’s topsy-turvy weather has been just a bit too much of an effort, and it is looking forward to a good long hibernation.  The bean wigwams, still fully clad and leaning drunkenly towards the East under the influence of this year’s often very strong prevailing winds, are passively drying any bean-pods we were too late to pick when green. The slowly withering stand of sweet-corn stalks is making a better job of standing, with half the cobs, their outer garments shredded and stripped bare, providing glaring evidence that the rats that infest the 180 odd Low Moor allotments got to the cobs before we did.  But only half the cobs.  It is a fine judgement as to when to pick them before the rats get there, with one night being all it takes for all the ones that didn’t seem quite ready to pick to be gnawed clean.  The rats clearly don’t draw such fine distinctions.   

The main crop, potatoes, particularly good this year, have been lifted; the gem squashes, vines withered, are lying hoping for a last bit of sun; the asparagus, grown tall, is grateful to have been staked against the wind; the leaves on the trees and the berry bushes are starting to turn.   Our agonising about what we did so wrong that the tomatoes started blackening and rotting just as they began to ripen – too much shade? too much watering? not enough watering? too much fertiliser? etc. – has been stilled by the BBC’s Gardner’s World assuring us last week that the weather has been ripe for tomato blight and that it wasn’t anything we did wrong.  So the plants have been stripped and significant quantities of green tomato chutney made.

The main reason for the allotment’s overall look of dishevelment probably lies with the fact that it hasn’t been strimmed for several weeks.   There are two and a half good reasons for that.  The half reason being that strimming with a heavy-duty petrol-driven, but theoretically self-starting strimmer, is not entirely compatible with degenerative spondylolisthesis – but it can be done, and was done earlier in the season, so it is only half a good reason – or perhaps one half-good reason.  A better one is that the strimmer itself has a degenerative fault – not caught from me, I hasten to add – and is going to have to be replaced.  A small plate designed to restrain the medium-duty strimmer line from unwinding itself and disappearing in a dangerous flash into the undergrowth, or, more worryingly, into the face of someone walking along the public path a few yards away, has fallen out and disappeared into the undergrowth itself.  Having been obliged over the past few weeks to focus intensively on the Health and Safety for those in the population who have attained the often dizzy heights of the Third Age, it wouldn’t do to decapitate a slow walker with a couple of feet of lethally rocketing strimmer cord.  But much the best reason is that we are, it turns out, proud landlords to a hedgehog family.  The family bit we have to take on trust from Harry who cultivates the next door allotment and tells us he has seen mother and baby – we have only seen the mother.

The mother is an eccentric – which probably suits the allotment, and may well be her reason for choosing us as her landlords.  I first met her walking towards my shed along the path down the middle of my allotment several weeks ago in the middle of the afternoon on one of the few seriously hot days we had this summer.  I told her that I presumed she knew that she was supposed to be nocturnal, and that I had to assume that she was very unwell.   She paused for a few seconds to eye me, rather more frostily than the weather dictated, and proceeded to divert from the path and lie down for a siesta next to one of my thus far unpatented rhubarb-forcers, an old metal dustbin which must have been radiating an unseemly amount of heat.  I assumed she had chosen that as her final resting place and that she might be trying to get on with the cremation part of things as well as the dying bit, but decided that putting an accessible container with some water near her was probably the best I could do.  

I went back early the next day half-anticipating that I might have to be a one-person burial party, but I was delighted to find that the water container was empty, and there was no sign of her. Susan and a friend spotted her a couple of days later heading up the path at a surprising rate of knots, and both Harry and I have seen her separately since.   As excuses for not strimming the allotment go, two facts are salient.  The first is that July 30th saw British hedgehogs being included for the first time in the International Union for the Conservation of Nature’s Red List for British Mammals, i.e. it is now regarded as seriously vulnerable to extinction. 

“Goodbye Mrs Tiggy-Winkle” is not a phrase anyone wants to hear. From an estimated total of over 30 million in the 1950s, the number of hedgehogs in UK is now down to fewer than one million. Our allotment’s one is the first live hedgehog I have seen in 15 years. The second salient point is that I have it on good authority that, in 1066 and All That terms, hedgehogs regard strimmers as very definitely falling into the category of “not a good thing”. What better reason could there be for a somewhat dishevelled allotment?

British hedgehog now officially classified as vulnerable to extinction

From David Maughan Brown in York: Rain!

June 3rd

Rain!  In York it doesn’t arrive accompanied by the unmatchable freshness of the scent of parched African grass being revived after a drought, nor does it usually come heralded by thunder and lightning, with the accompanying risk of hail damage.   But if allotments are into the business of praying silently for relief, their prayers have finally, if probably temporarily, been answered.   May 2020 was the driest May on record in England and the sunniest month ever, at least as far back as records go; this spring’s sunshine hours smashed the previous record by all of 70 hours, and have only been exceeded by summer sunshine hours in three previous years.  So you will gather that it has been dry.

Exceptionally welcome as waking up to unexpected rain has been after days of cloudless skies and temperatures in the mid to high twenties, it has brought a minor element of frustration with it.   Having seen an obese pigeon lumbering clumsily around in my strawberry bed two days ago, I concluded that it was past time to net the strawberries, and decided that, in spite of the heat, I needed to do that yesterday  afternoon.   I don’t enjoy the heat, and still can’t get used to finding that it seems to be hotter here at three in the afternoon than it does at midday.    When in the middle of January, in the deepest gloom of a York winter, people commiserate with me on the stereotypical assumption that I would rather be back in Africa, I assure them entirely truthfully that I would far rather be in York in winter than enduring the heat, humidity and mosquitoes of a Pietermaritzburg summer.  I suspect they don’t believe me.  But I digress.

Netting the strawberries involves the simple process of putting the various sections of a tubular steel frame together, positioning it over the strawberry bed and putting the net over it.  Simple in previous years, not simple in 2020.   The soil is rock hard, water poured onto it to soften it had about as much chance as it would have had on granite, so I couldn’t push the uprights into the ground.  The BBC weather forecast did predict a change in the weather, with the possibility of some rain, but the weather-app said there was only a 60% chance of rain in York, and experience tells me that a 60% chance almost invariably flatters to deceive where York is concerned and is more realistically a 0% chance.  So I decided I needed to make my way back to the car, go home, collect my largest hammer and hammer the uprights in.  Careful as I was in that process, the ends of the steel uprights were slightly splayed by the lengthy hammering and the plastic connections wouldn’t slide cosily onto the tops of the uprights any more.  So my whole netting structure has been compromised – and today it rains.

Keeping the allotment going through what has been a mini-drought has involved refilling our water-butt on a far more regular basis than usual.  This means dragging one end of a length of three connected hosepipes all the way to the nearest stand-pipe, and doing so as early in the morning as one can face getting up so that one isn’t monopolizing the tap when other people need it.   That is something of a hassle, but it is compensated for by the birdsong  – and at least one can still do it.   At the end of the driest May on record, one might have expected a hosepipe ban.   The reason that there isn’t one in the offing, and that the muttering about the possibility of one coming is still very muted, is that December, January and February were very much wetter than usual.  While one can be thankful that the reservoirs are still around 75% full, the contrast between the exceptionally wet early months of the year and the exceptionally dry spring, another entry in the record books, is almost certainly another indicator of climate change.   With all the other, Covid-19 induced, anxieties lining up to be worried about, one can probably be forgiven for allowing climate change to slip down the list a little.  But it certainly mustn’t be allowed to fall off the list altogether, and gardens and allotments will equally certainly help us to keep up to the mark on that one. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Of Sheds and birds.

May  20th

Our allotment came with a shed.  We acquired it in bygone days (about twelve years ago) when there wasn’t a waiting-list list of 50 to 100 aspirant fruit and vegetable growers anxious to get their hands on a piece of earth to till.  We even had a choice of allotments, whereas now people are lucky if, when they get to the top of the list, there is a vacant quarter of an allotment for them.  There is an element of lottery to what one finds. If you are very lucky your allotment will come with a greenhouse, or established raspberries, or apple, plum or pear trees.  One of the ones we were shown had three knarled apple trees at the far end, but was some way up the hill from both the main path and the nearest tap; another was an impenetrable bramble jungle.  The one we chose was on the main path and, in addition to a world-beating crop of couch grass, it had a shed, inherited from many generations of allotmenteers who have tilled that piece of land before us.

This isn’t the kind of shed David Cameron bought to lick his wounds and write his memoirs in after the Brexit referendum, nor is it a Roald Dahl bottom-of-the-garden, cosy book-writing type shed.   Our shed looks as if it was somewhere on the fringes, rather too close to the trenches, during the Battle of the Somme.   The vintage looks about right, and, while it doesn’t appear to have sustained a direct hit from which it has been resurrected, it gives every evidence of having had its now rusting corrugated-iron sides pierced by a variety of shrapnel and the occasional stray bullet.  This is surprisingly helpful in a number of ways.  We were able to have a choice of allotments partly because there had been a spate of vandalism at the time and a number of the tenants had given up in despair.  Our shed looked as if it had already been so severely vandalized that there wasn’t any point in setting it on fire.  It appears never to have had a door and looks so decrepit that nobody in their right mind would dream of keeping anything valuable in it.   So through all these years I’ve kept all my garden tools there quite safely, using a motorcycle lock to secure the wheelbarrow, spade and fork to one of the still very solid uprights.  

Best of all, the shed allows free passage to any intrepid bird interested in exploring it, and right now it boasts three blackbird chicks in an appropriately dilapidated nest on a high shelf in the far corner from where the door isn’t.   The nest, like the shed, has clearly been inherited from a venerable lineage of previous tenants.

The morning’s jobs being done, we sat down to have tea in the only significant shade on the allotment at present, which happens to be beside the shed, to the evident consternation of the two adult blackbirds who were intent on feeding the chicks.  The male had tried a couple of intimidatory fly-pasts quite close to me during the course of the morning to let me know I wasn’t welcome and, deciding there was no mileage in that tactic, concluded that stealth was the answer.  As the female sat at a safe distance waiting her turn with a beak-full of grubs, the male flitted nearer and nearer from cover to cover:  from behind the cordon apples, to the rhubarb, from there to a clump of lupins, getting closer and closer to the shed with each flit.  If either of us looked directly at it, it suddenly remembered that it had urgent business elsewhere and headed off back to the cordon apples to start again. When we pretended not to be watching it, once it had stalked close enough it would make a couple of feints to see what we might do, which was obviously precisely nothing, and than take a giant leap for blackbird-kind by flying in through one of the shrapnel holes and depositing its worm into one of the eagerly waiting mouths.  As soon as the female saw that her pioneering mate had made it past us, she flew straight in herself.   He, however, still didn’t share her newly acquired confidence and, once he had collected his next mouthful, which he did surprisingly quickly, he started the whole routine all over again.   So our tea took much longer than usual. TV and Netflix have their uses under lockdown, but there is a greater immediacy to live entertainment, and one gets it where one can.