…And Normal Service Resumes


Back to gardening! And I thought I’d make a list of some of the lessons learned trying to grow fruit trees over the last few years. Your mileage may vary, but here’s the start of my list.

Trees don’t want to grow in pots

I’m not even sure this is tree-specific. In my experience, growing plants permanently in pots is just making working for yourself. Pots heat and cool much more quickly, which means plants can be shocked into doing the wrong thing, or even killed if they’re a bit tender. They dry out quicker too, which means very regular watering. And then of course you’ve got the problem of nutrient depletion, which means feeding with chemical fertilisers or replacing soil.

Almost any plant is easier to grow directly in the ground, and that applies doubly for large shrubs and trees.

Dwarf rootstocks are too much hassle

So if pots aren’t working out, and you’re still determined to not let a tree be a tree, then the next stop is dwarfing rootstocks. There’s just one problem, and that’s that the really dwarfing ones are just as finicky as keeping something in a pot. They mostly work by being really bad at the job of being roots for the tree grafted on to them. They can’t tolerate any competition, they can’t tolerate drought, they can’t anchor the tree and stop it falling over if a stiff wind blows in the wrong direction. The stress they induce also, in my experience, makes the tree much more susceptible to disease.

I lost an apple on M27 and a cherry on Gisela 5, and that was enough for me. I’m not saying that you should always go for the most vigorous rootstock possible, but semi-dwarfing (QA, MM106, …)  should be the limit for low maintenance growing.

Quince is fussy

I’ve got pears and a medlar on Quince A rootstock in a well-drained corner of the garden and the pears especially have been less than vigorous. Quince likes moist, fertile, neutral to acidic soils. If your soil is dry or alkaline then you’re better off going for pear rootstocks, especially if you want the tree to go anywhere fast.

No tree ever looks like the pictures in the pruning guides

Books on fruit trees are full of pictures of young trees with nice evenly spaced branches, which can be trained into perfect goblet shaped bushes. At least for me, the world doesn’t work that way. For example, I’ve got:

A Fiesta apple that wants to be a weeping willow. It generates lots of thin, twiggy growth which then sags under the weight of an apple or two. Pruning it into a nice goblet is basically impossible, so in the end I decided to let it be a twiggy mess, since it presumably knows how to be an apple tree better than I do.

A Howgate Wonder which almost is a nice goblet shape, but which completely refuses to grow in one particular direction. Every year I carefully prune it to encourage it to fill the gap, which happens to be towards the south with no obstruction of the light, but the new growth just won’t go there. It will, however, happily grow towards the nearby, light obstructing leylandii hedge.

A Yellow Egg plum that’s almost columnar in growth habit, despite initial attempts to prune to outward facing buds and discourage vertical growth.

I’m sure I’m not unique, and my trees aren’t special in any way. It’s simply that plants have their own ideas about how they want to grow, and sometimes it’s not worth fighting. I personally just forget the pictures from the books and:

  1. Try to steer branches growing in awkward directions by pruning to buds facing in the right direction
  2. Remove dead, diseased and crossing branches
  3. Remove very vertical side-shoots

If the result looks nothing like a bush then that’s fine with me.

Old varieties are often less finicky

New varieties are often low vigour and heavy cropping. A tree that doesn’t grow much and diverts all its energy into fruit production while still very young is going to be a stressed tree. While I have some happy newer varieties (Fiesta), there does seem to be a pattern of older varieties being the happiest to look after themselves. Since most of them are no longer commercially significant, they’re also often more naturally disease resistant than the mass planted varieties like Cox, and they may have interesting flavours (modern varieties tend to be bred for supermarket standards and mass market appeal).

The cost of that is that those varieties often have their own problems, like more variable yields, biennial cropping, and less self-fertility. But for those of us who have to work for a living, low input – medium output may be a better deal with high input – high output.

Sometimes you just have to cut your losses

Trees are a long term investment. They’ll hopefully be going for decades or centuries, so it’s hard to accept when after a few years a serious problem develops. But when it becomes obvious the end is coming, you’re better off accepting it. You have to be realistic – you know in your heart when something’s on its last legs.

There’s at least two reasons not to wait for a recovery that isn’t coming:

  1. If the cause of the death might be disease, you don’t want it to infect any other trees in the same family
  2. Given the long lead time to get a tree into production, you want to get the replacement in sooner rather than later if a tree really is doomed. That extra year or two for it to shuffle off this mortal coil could be time for its replacement to settle in and start growing.

The PLP Only Has Itself to Blame

Sorry for the politics! I promise normal service will resume soon, but this is the biggest political earthquake of my lifetime so I think I’ll focus on it a bit more. If you don’t want to see the politics, please filter to only see posts under gardening.

As you might be aware, there’s a coup against Jeremy Corbyn underway right now. Most of his shadow cabinet has resigned, and a vote of no confidence is scheduled for tomorrow. To me this seems like a huge, huge mistake. If the vote of no confidence passes, Jeremy has vowed to run in the new leadership election, and he probably stands a good chance of being re-elected. At that point, what is the Parliamentary Labour Party going to do? The chasm between the PLP and their voters will be clear and insurmountable, and there will be a stark choice between either representing the will of the wider Labour party or following the SDP party in breaking right and hoping that things work out better this time than last time.

The unfortunate truth is that both sides have a point. It’s true that Corbyn hasn’t demonstrated a lot of the kind of managerial competence that you might expect in the leader of a major political party. He seems to be much more in his element wandering the streets and talking to people than he does trying to orchestrate Labour’s response to the EU referendum. It’s true that his support for the Remain campaign seems to have been a bit lukewarm – he played a low-key role in the campaign and gave a nuanced view of the EU in his last minute intervention, rather than being an enthusiastic EU cheerleader. But then again, that personal touch and refusal to just go with the flow politically was why he was elected in the first place.

And this is the crux of the matter. The PLP has itself to blame because it has come to outright despise its own core voters. Out of electoral necessity, the Labour party became an alliance between socially liberal middle-class values and its traditional supporters, but now there is almost no-one in the younger ranks of Labour MPs who genuinely believes in any kind of real social democracy. They’re professional politicians, members of the managerial class who rely on focus groups and triangulation and throwing those ignoring racist working class council estate people just enough of a bone to get them to vote Labour rather than Tory. Old Labour has been completely purged.

The reason Corbyn won in the leadership election was because he was willing to advocate for something, anything, that was vaguely left of centre. He didn’t promise obvious managerial competence like some of the rest, but he did at least believe in some kind of better world, unlike most of the Blairite contenders who are perfectly happy with the status quo and whose main argument is that they might be slightly more competent and a bit less mean than the other guys.

The best choice for the PLP would have been to give Corbyn a true chance. It would have accepted the direction of travel democratically selected by Corbyn’s election and tried to offer the managerial competence that Corbyn lacked. Instead, the political pygmies and triangulators reacted with ill grace to a democratic rejection of their managerial, technocratic view of the political process, and did everything they could to destroy him short out outright rebellion. And since none of that has worked, they’re now about to tear the party about months before a possible general election because they’d rather lose than accept the risk a Corbyn-led government. God forbid that a Labour government actually tries to enact any kind of left-wing policies.

If the PLP wants a different result this time round, it needs to find a candidate to present who doesn’t just promise managerial competence and a better bedside manner as the market discipline is administered. It needs to find someone who has an actual vision for a better society that doesn’t amount to fiddling with the tax rates a bit or cutting government spending just a little bit slower. Otherwise, there’s a real risk that what they’ll get is more Corbyn, and then there’ll be nowhere left for them to go except to the life rafts.

Edit – 29/6/2016

It seems like there were more steps to the plan that I didn’t consider above. The PLP’s plan to avoid a new Corbyn win seems to be:

  1. First, try to break the man by a mob attack at the end of their night of the long knives
  2. If that fails, try to keep him off the ballot paper by means fair or foul so the party can’t re-elect him

Their goal is to avoid a true leadership contest at all costs. Plan (1) failed, so we’ll just have to see if they succeed in this terrible repudiation of democracy in the Labour party and manage to keep the membership’s preferred candidate off the ballots.

Their treatment of Corbyn is disgusting. Whatever they think of his leadership style or policies, he should be able to expect basic civility from his colleagues, and above all a supposedly democratic party should have some respect for the choice of the party membership. MPs are not, or shouldn’t be, an aristocratic class lording it over the rest of the party, and if that’s how they see their role then they don’t deserve the support of the membership.

Corbyn isn’t perfect, and perhaps he’s not the right man for the job, but he deserves better than the way he’s been treated during his leadership.

Don’t Blame the Immigrants

It seems like there’s a lot of hate going around right now from a small but vocal minority. EU nationals are being told to get on a bus, get on a plane, just go home now and abandon whatever life they’ve built for themselves here in the UK.

Even if you don’t like immigration, please don’t blame people who exercised a legal right that the British public and the British government gave them. Since the break-up of the UK is now a possibility, putting yourself in their place should be easy enough. How would you feel of you moved to Scotland years or decades ago and were subsequently abused and hounded out after an independence vote? Would you feel you’d done anything wrong by exercising your right as a British citizen to live and work in Scotland, under those circumstances? Or would you feel instead like you were being scapegoated for problems caused by others?

If you want someone to blame and harrass for historical immigration, might I suggest the following list:

  1. Anyone involved in the negotiations to join of the Harold Macmillan and Edward Heath governments in the late 60s and early 70s
  2. Anyone who voted Yes in the referendum of 1975, knowing that freedom of movement was part of the deal
  3. Anyone who lobbied for the expansion of the EU, which includes just about every British government for the last two or three decades and much of British industry
  4. Anyone in the New Labour governments after 1997 who was involved in the decision not to impose temporary restrictions when Poland and the other Eastern European states joined

The people at the bottom just trying to live their lives don’t deserve to be attacked just for being born somewhere else. If you want to blame someone, look to the powerful at home instead.

Brexit and the Crisis of the Centre

I thought I’d veer off topic a bit and enter the minefield of politics. The EU referendum is almost over and it’s looking like Remain has probably got the edge, but even if the status quo prevails for now, I doubt the supporters of Brexit will vanish.

I’ve been seriously torn during the campaign. Like most people, I don’t have much enthusiasm for the EU, but on the other hand it’s hard to see a Brexit being well managed since the Conservative party is likely to have a meltdown post-referendum. At that point, the non-manifesto published by the Leave campaign would be torn to shreds, and it’s anyone’s guess what would happen. The atmosphere is unlikely to be conducive to reasonable debate and decision-making, and that’s what worries me more than anything since I have close family living abroad in the EU on UK passports, and other family living in the UK on EU passports. I don’t really trust the reassurances about what would happen to all those people, so I’ve reluctantly decided to support Remain. But that doesn’t mean I think there isn’t a very rocky road ahead if we stay. I think things are going to get bumpy either way.

The problem is that the political centre is imploding under conflicting pressure from all sides. What we’re witnessing is a continuation of a crisis that began with the crash of 2007/2008. Before then, the acceptable part of the political spectrum was basically defined economically by ‘free-trade’, minimum interference policies. A debate was possible about how much government should spend, but pretty much anything else economically was off limits:

  1. Most governments explicitly renounced their powers to set monetary policy, and instead gave that power to ‘independent’ central banks with narrow inflation targeting objectives
  2. A number of treaties, bilateral, at the EU and WTO levels, as well as intense pressure from the economic giants, made it more or less impossible to: raise or levy import or export duties, impose restrictions on capital flows, nationalise industries, pursue an active industrial policy, …

The idea became to let the ‘market’ do what it does and then, at the discretion of national governments, possibly compensate the losers. And as long as the cake kept getting bigger it worked, most of the time, although with increasing signs of the strain. The renewed growth from the Thatcher years onwards was bought at the cost of an ever-growing asset-price bubble and a corresponding debt bubble, turbo charged even more by the supply-side policies that capped and put downward pressure on median wages. The economic model contained the seeds of its own destruction from the start, although most people were content to ignore the problems until the bubble burst and a response beyond throwing money at the problem was needed. What was needed in 2007/8 wasn’t more or less spending, but fundamental redesign of the rules of the game.

The problem is that such a solution clashed with the free-trade, globalist ideology that almost all politicians had accepted as the centre ground for their entire political careers. Since that viewpoint regarded all local difference as barriers to trade, and trade was held to be an unmitigated good, more or less the only good, that made everyone better off, it followed that local differences has to be removed from the equation. The word of the last decade or two was harmonisation, the economic elimination of space and distance. And what harmonisation meant in practice was the removal of decision making.

Instead of a system which allowed dynamic response to local problems, a system of binding rules was constructed which removed all intelligent management, under the theory that no management was even needed. This is what we see with the EU more than any other international trade body, since integration is further advanced in the EU. The effect of EU market harmonisation has been to remove the ability of national governments to respond to crises in ways that go beyond money, which wouldn’t be so bad except that the EU hasn’t stepped into the breach. Instead of intelligent regulatory adjustment, what we’ve had instead is paralysis and desperate attempts to paper over the cracks and pretend the system everyone built still works. There’s too much invested to change it, and too many stakeholders in an institution that makes it easy to block change.

That’s where the anger of Brexit comes from. The EU is deeply dysfunctional precisely because it takes away local decision making, and fails to replace it with any form of centralised decision making for the common good. Instead it leaves a vacuum where the only possible ‘winning’ policy is a race to the bottom, the economic equivalent of destroying the village to save it. To take one issue as an example, Jeremy Corbyn’s proposal to solve the wage-undercutting immigration issue, raising quality of life in the source countries, is probably the right one, but isn’t something even seriously on the table at the moment.

The status quo is clearly unsustainable. The EU needs either more integration to give it a strong executive and legislature, like the US federal government, or it needs less integration to give countries more room to solve their own problems. The problem is that neither direction seems possible given the inflexibility built into the institution. Reform will only be possible when the organisation faces a truly existential crisis, one so large it can’t be papered over any more, and at that stage there’s going to be a lot of collateral damage. Greece is just the beginning.

The question, for those whose families aren’t at risk of being torn apart by the result, is whether the UK being in when that happens is like being in the calm eye of the storm (Remain), or like being in the middle of the blast radius (Brexit). Will we be a winner of the gradual collapse like Germany, or a loser?


Drink Your Garden

I love gooseberries. They’re easy to grow, very productive, and delicious. People who’ve only tried rock-solid, unripe ones from the supermarket don’t know what they’re missing. Try a juicy, ripe Langley Gage or Whinham’s Industry and you’ll discover that gooseberries easily deserve a spot in the dessert bowl alongside the raspberries and strawberries.

The problem is the season. They do keep for a while on the plant, but like most soft fruit you don’t have that long to get though kilos and kilos of berries. Even after making enough jam to keep us going for a year or two, we still had enough fruit to half fill a freezer, and that fruit from last year is still there even as this year’s season approaches.

So, if we can’t eat it all we’ll just have to drink it. Two kilos of gooseberries is now busy fermenting away in my first experiment making country wine. Since this is the first time I’m a bit nervous that it’ll end up tasting like vinegar, but it did at least smell nice (and incredibly alcoholic) during the open fermentation phase. And having strained away all the bits, the demijohn looks a beautiful rosy red.

I’ll let you know what happens in a few months…

Gooseberry wine

Homemade gooseberry wine