A good night in

I like to watch a little televisual crap like the next man, but I broke the habit the other evening to watch a DVD made by good friend Martin Crawford. Truly inspiring, as is his work at his forest garden near Totnes - as fine a couple of acres as you'll find anywhere in the country. Quietly, wonderfully impressive

Here's a preview



...and you can buy it from his website

Sooner than you think

The third person I've asked for an opinion thinks the same as me. So do the previous two: two wet and unsunny summers followed by a proper winter and divided by a wind, wet and warm winter is just about the best recipe there is for something marginal to become gradually wearied. The absence of what it likes - sun - couldn't be tolerated for that long. Knowing they've not succumbed to some weird ailment is strangely comforting. Just my judgement to blame. At least I've some peaches to look forward to.



I've managed a look at the olives, and there's a sliver of encouragement: there's one variety that's doing way better than the other 5 - ie most are alive rather than most are dead. This may be a case of seeing the glass three quarters full rather than half empty, but bear with me a second. As the Dutch footballer Ruud Gullit (amazing footballer, good pundit, shite manager) famously observed, 'the difference between successh and failure ish all little detailsh'.

Let me wind back the clock a couple of years. Having got a little ahead of myself for a change, by actually having planted most of the trees I had ordered that winter, I found that Spring's adventures done. Someone mentioned an olive grove being the ultimate climate change fruit, the same weekend someone emailed to ask if I was interested in maybe planting an experimental grove. What I knew about olives could be counted on the fingers of one foot. Two months later and the olive grove was planted. It all went a little weird for a few weeks. After a piece in the Independent, the phone rang endlessly - there was CNN, all the broadsheets, R4 Food Programme, Radio New Zealand, and Richard and Judy. Yes, Richard and Judy - an wholly unexpected pleasure.

Built around an olive oil tasting with Gennaro Contaldo, Richard and Judy and the head food buyer at Harrods, the UKs first (since the Romans) olive grove was to be the topic of conversation. The train timetable meant I arrived early, mooched around the green room, nosed through researchers notes about all the guests left out for us, nibbled and sipped. Then the dash to the table while the ads were on. Handshakes and nervousness all round. Everything rattled along entirely easily: interesting questions, lots of laughing. Then Richard asks Gennaro what makes olive oil 'extra virgin'. 'Well.....why notta aska Marka'. Life stopped. Tumbleweed blew across the set, cars halted. It was a perfect the-piano-stopped-playing-and-the-saloon-doors-kept-on-a-swinging moment. A millisecond passed.

'It's all to do with acidity Richard, it has to be below 0.8% and the oil extracted by physical (rather than chemical) processes.' Richard: 'See Gennaro, the chap knows what he's talking about'. I never had chance to meet or thank that researcher whose notes I'd read 9 minutes earlier, but just so the balance of karmic thank yous is retained I'd like to say here and now - thank you for saving me from making an arse of myself in front of 2million+ friends, family and strangers.

Why the confession? Hopefully it's a window into how some things happen at Otter Farm. If I'd waited until I knew what I was doing, until I'd researched everything I could dig up about the varieties, a chance would have gone, a year would pass until I could do it again. So I did it. It reminds me of an interview with the great Tony Wilson who ran Factory Records going on about his philosophy of doing something and finding out why you did it afterwards. Just the kind of handy self-justification I need. And with rather convoluted and contrived coincidence, he was good friends with and used to work with Richard Madeley back in the day at Granada TV. I could've been an 80s DJ with links like that.

A year after I planted the grove, I heard about a strange new variant of a strange old Spanish olive that the Catalan government had thrown many millions of pounds at to improve. By all accounts it had worked - this olive grows halfway up the mountain, flowers late (dodging the frosts), produces early in its life, and the oil is of incredible quality. Why didn't I wait and plant that one? I admonished myself. Cause I'm not like that I huffed back.

As luck would have it, last year a friend of a friend was passing one of the major nurseries raising this new olive on his way back from a holiday - as the few nurseries that raise them focus on the new, huge superintensive olive groves they normally only supply you with tens of thousands of seedlings. Fortunately the craggy-faced owner took pity on the pasty-faced English grower bending his ear on the phone and allowed the friend of a friend to load up a carbootful of the foot-high lovelies to bring home. The chance seemed too good to miss but having planted the best areas already with olives I had no idea what I'd do with them. A year later, I guess I've found out.

Dull

I feel as flat as a witch's tit.

The olives which took a rather extensive nibbling last year, are staging a rather dramatic protest at what they see as my abject failure in providing appropriate working conditions over the last two years. Leaves falling, branches drying out: if they're not dead already, they're dying. Or at least most of them are. How many, I'm not quite sure. I can't quite bring myself to wander round counting.

Worse, almost all the almonds have died. So many of them had shot up from 4 feet tall to 12 feet in 18 months, defying their Meditteranean deciduous CV and keeping their leaves through the first couple of winters, even in the snow.



This is one of the good ones...ie it has a couple of tiny leaves trying to cling to the trunk



Having spent days in the February of 2005 with flu digging 100 holes for 100 trees, driven by the news that I was to be a dad and soaked daydreams of her growing up running about in the almond orchard, I'm especially down about almost all of them giving up the ghost. Gone also, the marketman's dream of making my own nutty bread: (Mark's almonds tainted loaf).

Almost amusingly the apricots, noticing their exotic cousins are playing up, have started making their own plea for attention. Perhaps half of the 50 in one of the apricots orchards has inconsiderately developed blossom blight....don't click unless you're an aspiring plant disease anorak.

This unpleasant disease infects blossom, drills into the leaves, branches and eventually the trunk, cutting off the plant from the engineroom of it's leaves. It's a fairly quick death. Loppers, secateurs and the pruning saw are your main friends in dealing with an attack - you chop til you come to clean tissue. In this case a couple of dozen trees hacked from 12 feet to one or two, with little more than an even chance of springing back. Perversely, it's their success that's cost them...they opened the door to the disease by blossoming - only the best have been punished.

It's the sort of day where everything turns heavy, the air's hard to walk through and the phone in my pocket feels like a brick.



I'm not very good at being tired or flat. I force a walk around the place, anywhere but the olives. I just don't get the chance to nose around so much at this time of year as I'm too busy doing, and unsurprisingly I pick up on a few lovelinesses that have passed me by. The rosa rugosa hedge coming into flower with whites...



...and pinks



A few of the mulberries I'd thought hadn't been butch enough for the winter are telling me (as folklore goes) that not only are they alive, but that the cold weather is completely behind us



The apples and plums are loaded up with just-set fruit, which after the last two wet years is a real pleasure to see, but this is England, and flourishing apples and plums is hardly a revelation. There are some positive signs - the pecans are growing away happily and the persimmons are popping out their usual late glossy leaves in front of the flowering hawthorn...



....but it feels a little like the old hospital joke...

Doctor: Mr Jones, I've got some good news and some bad news....I'm afraid we've had to amputate your legs
Mr Jones: And the good news?
Doctor: We've sold your slippers

Book of the week

My word, no-one told me...guess they didnt know about my Lithuanian lesbian assistant

SW3

At my age there are few firsts. Few good ones anyway. This week, I went to Chelsea Flower Show for the first time. I know I know, it's flowers, you can't eat them, and even though I discovered plenty of veg-heavy gardens and stands what there is to eat you're not allowed to eat.

I went because I could (Press Day ticket, darling) and I went because I love a window into another world, and I went to meet Tamsin and Cinead from The English Garden (more on that in a bit), and to watch Emma T eat bacon, and to see what the whole thing was about. And to see if I got it.



First things first - I saw Rolf, so trainfare justified. I said hello to at least 4 famous people, having recognised them and in the same millisecond (ie the millisecond before I made the next step and recognised them as FAMOUS people) said hello. I have a strategy for such occasions: I figure they meet so many people they could never be certain that they didn't know me, so I carry on chatting. Wife alright, yeah, yourself? Been doing much since that last series dived? Thought not.

Second things second - being the sort of day that's essentially about something good, a celebration, a coming together, it's always likely that you'll come across more than one or two very fine people. I ran into an old work colleague from a dozen years ago, he the height of tanned french fashion, me clashingly less than resplendent in my coarse fair Englishness. I also finally met the enormously entertaining James Alexander-Sinclair who I'd previously only known in this fabulous world of blogland, and Jane Perrone from the Guardian who for some reason imagined me considerably less tall (do I blog in a short way I wonder?). She wore the same coat as Emma T, although there was no confusing the two as Jane could, I'm sure, eat a bacon sandwich while retaining the faintest modicum of decorum.

Third things things third- I can't help a quiet feeling of being a bit dim. I loved the nursery stands...the producers, the growers, the nursery(wo)men...or at least a good number of them. The Jersey Growers stand (above) made me smile. I'm in no way a veg show goer, but it was perfection in it's own just-so way. As was Jekka's. And a good few others - including the Eden Project's Key Garden, below. Some of the small gardens out on the periphery really caught my attention too. But it was the big show gardens (if that's the right way to put it) that I wasn't sure about. Some were awful, end of..and some were very clever - even a dumbo could see that, but few really grabbed me. Or was it that I just didn't get it? Is it that I don't have the gift of seeing in the right way? I'm genuinely not sure. With music, with films I have the mental equipment to understand, to see beyond the initial fluff, to see (say) Bladerunner as anything but just another sci-fi flick. Most people do I'm sure. But more than once I felt like I was staring at the Emperor, nude (or at least in some very poor slacks). As a teenager I didn't get jazz - it sounded (as the great Eric Morecambe said in another context) like all the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order - and most of the day I had a similar feeling. Perhaps, I wondered over a rather marvellous blueberry muffin, my currently ignorant self would soon acquire the appropriate understanding to perceive the Best In Show Daily Telegraph garden for the majesterial joy that it was commonly beheld.



It wasn't that I hated the Telegraph garden, I just didn't get the wild acclaim. By the end of the day I'd seen it many times, spotting the rather marvellous Adam Nicholson, without shoes and in what looked suspiciously like rugby socks, interviewing someone or other in the room that was at the garden's centre. 5'll get you 10 it was for the the Telegraph. By 3 when the proles had to go, I could see something ok about it, but I still didn't get the fuss, the adulation that went with it from most people including the Gardeners World folk come the evening show. But by the end of the day I did have a sense that it wasn't like the jazz thing, it felt more like prog rock: technically admirable in a male sort of way, not without some interest here and there, but too many notes, not necessarily in the right order. And it left me wanting a little more soul.

Going back next year mind.

Today I have mostly been....

....weeding asparagus.

I never could stand Bette Midler. Like the next person, I have my dislikes and, like the next person, I get attached to even the most irrational of them and don’t particularly want to give them up. There are few things more annoying than having a loathee revealed as someone you’ve something I common with, much less to have to accept that you might have got it wrong about them. Nosing around Jane Perrone’s excellent blog a while back I was slapped across the face by a Bette Midler quote: "My whole life had been spent waiting for an epiphany, a manifestation of God's presence, the kind of transcendent, magical experience that lets you see your place in the big picture. And that is what I had with my first compost heap." I’d been wondering about how to convey the enormity of what composting is all about for the Veg Patch book, to try and tie what is on the face of it a faintly ridiculous grubby pastime with our place in the world, and our worlds place in the whatever, and I have to confess I was struggling. The last thing I was prepared for was Bette Midler doing it in a few dozen well chosen words. I also didn’t welcome having to reconsider my irrational dislike, although obviously the case for the prosecution still has the excreble ‘Wind Beneath My Wings’ on its side.



It's been a week of wrestling with a proposal for an Otter Farm book, and getting nowhere. If I can't even write the proposal, you may be wondering, what chance the actual book? Not an unreasonable point that. My problem is that I'm too close to it. Everything I write makes everything plain. I pull this* back to kicking a pigs bladder, turn this** into just hitting skins with sticks. The essence won't come out. I need a Midler moment.

I turn to weeding asparagus. Like painting and decorating, it uses up just enough of your brain to allow the other part to wander off without feeling like it's idle enough to attach itself to some task, a little worrying or anxiety of any kind. After 4 days of struggling to write, I hope a little weeding will get the brainpipes cleaned. Tomorrow I'll find out - I have to get the proposal finished and sent off. Today it looks dull.

I took the camera out for the first time in a while too - a peach starting to develop just behind the dying papery flower.

A year ago, I figured out what was doing for some of the olives, two years ago I was pondering the ups and downs of Spring, three years ago the olives had just arrived, and four years ago it clicked what that weird noise pheasants make sounds like.



*if you remain unconvinced by the ballet that football can be, check the loveliest millisecond of his second touch, undercutting the ball so it reverse spins to a stop millimetres from the opponents stretch but still just where he wants to head off from. Like he's wearing slippers

** if you're the sort to be put off by a little noise, stick with it, it just gets gets better and better

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