Category Archives: Growing food

A garden heals the worried mind

The stresses of the last few months have been hard to live with and there seems no end to the situation. For me the garden has helped enormously, I honestly don’t know what I would have done without it.

I found this article today by Helen Chesnut a well-known garden writer from Canada. What she says resonated deeply with my own experience over the years while trying to cope with what the TV now calls a life changing event. The garden healed in many ways, emotionally and physically; never underestimate the power of even gentle exercise. And, growing fruit and veg improves diet.

Helen says: “Then, there is the garden. Whether it’s a landscaped acreage, an allotment plot, or a collection of potted balcony plants, a garden is refuge and solace in the face of stress and anxiety. A garden heals. The worries of the world that buzz about in our minds slip away as we delve in the soil and tend our plants.” See the whole article here or click on the image below.

Photograph By Helen Chesnut

Now that lock down has been eased in the UK, for the time being, the urgency to grow food to fill the gaps left by food shortages may have diminished. There will be other critical events which have the same effect. Some say it will be a no-deal Brexit or climate change as new and unpredictable weather patterns decimate once reliable crops. We cannot know what the future will bring but we can be better prepared to look after ourselves.

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An improved lettuce table-update 26 June 20

It is 23 days since the lettuce table was finished and the first seeds sown. There is a good crop of three different types of salad mixes ready for picking. There should be four but the germination of one mix was patchy.

The original lettuce table can be found here

The radishes were removed as they were growing far too much foliage and swamping the salads.

The four colour Mizuna has done really well, it was a trial pack of seeds for 99p!

The watercress trough followed on the 15 June 20 with some cuttings taken from a standard organic pack from Waitrose.  Seed of unknown variety was also sown and it germinated in a few days. It might not have enough time to mature this year but we will try again next spring.

If using cuttings rooted in water the roots should be converted to soil roots gradually. After the water roots have developed gradually add soil tot the jar each day until you get a thick slurry. Leave for a few days watering daily and then plant out.

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“Urban dwellers yearn for ‘Good Life’ allotments”

By chance the BBC are running this piece today, it is well worth a read. They say:

“Land set aside for allotments in the UK has declined by 65% from a peak in the “dig for victory” and post-war era.”

“Lost allotments” could provide 6% of the UK population with their five-a-day fruit and veg

“We have already seen a huge increase in the number of people interested in growing their own food as a result of coronavirus, with garden centres and online shops selling out of seeds in the first weeks of lockdown.

“Coronavirus has… highlighted to people the fragility inherent within our globalised food system. In a time of crisis, interest in self-sufficiency rises.”

What more evidence do we need to take this seriously?

Singapore-gardening plots to increase twofold by 2030

Wow! If only the same could happen in the UK it would help build a more resilient food supply and improve nutrition. We need a vigorous, national campaign now!

From the The Straits TImes, June 18 2020

Rows of seedlings grown in an egg tray. PHOTO: NPARKS

“Second Minister for National Development Desmond Lee said: “The potential risk of disruption to our food supply during the Covid-19 situation underscores the importance of our local food farms and growing more food locally, as part of our strategy to strengthen food security and build greater social resilience.”

“The number of community plots for gardening enthusiasts will more than double by 2030.

The National Parks Board (NParks) aims to have 3,000 community gardens – up from 1,500 – and 3,000 allotment gardens, a threefold increase from the current level.”

 

What are people for?

Wendell Berry’s book “What are people for?” is more appropriate today than when it was published 30 years ago. In one paragraph he sums up exactly what it means to be a passive consumer of food.

“We still (sometimes) remember that we cannot be free if our minds and voices are controlled by someone else. But we have neglected to understand that we cannot be free if our food and its sources are controlled by someone else. The condition of the passive consumer of food is not a democratic condition. One reason to eat responsibly is to live free.”

Wendell Berry, “What are people for?”, North Point Press, New York, 1990. P.147

It’s time to think about winter

It’s almost mid-summer so time to think about winter planting. There are two ways to ensure you have fresh veg over winter: choose crops that grow in the summer and stay in the ground over winter or sow seeds in late summer of plants that can be harvested through the winter. Most veg growers do both.

The main thing about deciding how to get a year-round harvest is where you live. In the south and south west the winters are generally milder than in the north. That is not always the case and with the changes to the climate over the last 30 years it is hard to predict how the winter will be. Choose the varieties that suit your location. Ask other local gardeners what they do.

The other thing you can do is protect your crops, that means covering them. Don’t be fooled by the idea that you can use a cheap fleece ‘blanket’, and everything will be fine. Fleece might stop ice crystals forming on the foliage which could help them to survive, but it will not insulate the crop from the cold.

The 3 solar pods made last year. The beds are 2m x 1m with a centre divider. The pods are 1m square so can be used on any bed. The long bed on the right has been divided into 4, 1msquare beds.

To keep out the cold you need something substantial like, a  poly tunnel, a cold frame or a DIY solar pod. It is possible to be harvesting lettuce from January – March if you protect the crop and get the right seeds. One year we had lettuce in a polytunnel  that were completely covered in ice. It thawed and we ate them! Or if you are really dedicated you can make hot beds which uses the heat from manure buried under the soil to keep things warm. It does work but is a lot of work. See how to make hotbeds here.

Hot bed with insulated walls.

The practical approach is to choose plant varieties that will thrive through winter and use some physical protection if you can.

Things we don’t sow try to over winter: garlic, we use a short dormancy variety with cloves planted in January when the weather is suitable. Neither do we sow broad beans in the autumn. Our garden is 300m ASL so winter can be long cold and very wet! If you live further south it is always worth trying to over winter as many crops as you can.

Another option is to move the plants out of the garden. A greenhouse is fine if you have one but a good supply of salad leaves can be grown on a sunny windowsill. Our salad crops are grown in trays on the lettuce table which can be moved into the greenhouse. Watercress will be in a smaller tray and again will over winter in the greenhouse. You can also grow in containers that can be moved inside when it gets colder.


Red lettuce in a bucket.

Don’t forget to make holes in the bottom. Fill with bagged compost – not garden soil as it is too dense for small containers. You can grow a lot of food in containers, see this site.

These are some varieties we have like.
Lettuce: Winter Density and Winter Gem.
Spinach: Perpetual  also known as Spinach Beet.
Carrot: Bolero, Eskimo F1, a new variety we are trying this year.
Kale: Cavolo Nero because the curly green variety is everywhere now.
Parsnip: most varieties will sit in the ground for months, we like Tender & True.
Leeks: Musselburgh, they can stay in the ground to February/March.

Potatoes are lifted and stored in hessian sacks and can last into March.
Onions are harvested, dried and stored in net sacks.

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French beans – timing is critical

We tried to get off to a good start this year by deciding when to sow seeds linked to the date they would need to be planted out. Dwarf French and climbing French bean were sown in small pots on April 23 thinking that we would plant out around the first/second week of June. All went well except the weather was a lot warmer than usual and the plants matured quicker than expected.

This week it was obvious that the plants needed to be in the beds as they were growing well and risked becoming pot bound. They had been slowly hardened off so yesterday, May 30th they went into the beds.

Climbing French bean – pot bound roots – Roots teased out before planting

Looking at the roots it was clear that it was the right decision especially for the climbers. They looked good and we were thinking we had got it about right.

Climbing French bean – damaged tip Climbing French bean – good tip

Another thing to check is the growing tip. If it has been broken off then ditch the plant.

The climbing beans were tied onto the canes to stop them being blown about. Please note: they were loosely tied, the twine was not tightened as that would cause damage to the stem.

The bed of Dwarf French beans

Later we checked the Met Office forecast for the coming week. On Thursday and Friday  June 4 & 5 the night-time low is 3C. That is a slight frost! We can cover the dwarf beans with a solar pod but not the climbers. Wrapping in fleece might work but who knows, we could lose the lot. And, of course, the potato tops will need covering. Nice as it is to live in the Peak District hills a move a few miles further south would greatly improve the gardening!

Next year the seeds will be  sown a couple of weeks later so they are ready for planting out in mid/late June.

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We need new food systems

It is 30 years since the Met Office Hadley Centre for Climate Science and Services was opened by Margret Thatcher. She said; “What it predicts will affect our daily lives. Governments and international organisations in every part of the world are going to have to sit up and take notice and respond…” They have not done that.

What the scientists are predicted 30 years ago was exactly right; the climate has changed. The weather patterns we are seeing now are here to stay. They affect everything we do especially growing food. It is no use saying that if things go wrong here we can go to ‘the market’ because the effects of climate change are worldwide.

We need is to change the way food is grown and distributed or starve. That means radical new solutions that serve local communities and get away from a centralised system that relies on huge farms selling though a few large retailers or the dwindling number of wholesale markets.

One solution would be to move to community supported farms, CSAs where people invest in a farm in return for a weekly supply of seasonal veg. Farms, in CSA terms, would more likely be known as market gardens in the UK.

This is a good example of how an American CSA responded to Covid-19

This is how a CSA adapted to the Covid-19 pandemic

CSAs are similar to how food used to be grown and sold 50 years ago in areas like the Vale of Evesham, Kent, Lincolnshire and Norfolk. There are still remnants of it on the Lincolnshire Norfolk Border.

A Norfolk market gardener who has a small shop next to his house.

Villages and towns should start to harness the power of allotments through food shares and mini produce markets. That might require some changes to allotment regulations, but it would be far better than allowing surplus produce to be wasted.

We could also return to selling at the garden gate like many used to do in the 1950s and 60s. Again, there are probably regulations that prohibit it but we desperately need to be creative or face food shortages very soon.

Most of all we need food to be grown sustainably i.e. in the most environmentally friendly way possible without the use of pesticides or chemical fertilisers.

Making fertiliser – comfrey & nettle juice

Our aim is to make a productive fruit and vegetable garden with zero external inputs or outputs. That means that everything comes from within the garden including fertiliser. Being organic gardeners, we do not use chemical fertiliser mainly because of huge amounts of energy  used to make it and the mining of mineral like phosphates is not sustainable. So, we make our own from Comfrey, or Symphytum, and nettles both of which are grown in the garden.

The Comfrey patch. When buying Comfrey plants make sure you use the Bocking 14 variety as it will not spread! We have used Dalmore Croft for many years – no connection just happy customers.

In the previous garden we made comfrey juice by filling barrels with the leaves and stems and then pressing the contents with broken paving slabs. It worked very well, there are details here. In the new garden we will do exactly the same but in 60Ltr, barrels.

There is also a simple way of extracting the juice using a piece of pipe and a bottle weight. Details here

Lawrence Hills, the founder of HDRA analysed comfrey juice and found that the nutrient content was very similar to Tomorite. We are also making nettle liquid which is high in phosphorous. Combined with comfrey juice this will make a balanced fertiliser.

Please note: we make concentrated juices and NOT comfrey teas. The juice is pressed out of the plant without adding water.

This is how we added the drain and made a stand for the barrels.

(Hover over the image to see the caption, click to enlarge.)

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Strawberries

It is strawberry time!  The quintessential British (and Japanese) fruit –  red, ripe, sweet and juicy fresh strawberries. That rules out the tasteless varieties sold in supermarkets, so it means having a strawberry patch in the garden! If you want to taste real strawberries then grow your own, pick them and eat them straight away.

You need to find a variety that works for you. That is more difficult in the Derbyshire hills. Strawberries like sunshine and warmth, we tend to get that in small doses and can easily have frosts in May and September which makes the season short. But, it is possible to grow these delicious fruits.

Commercial growers use polytunnels or hoop houses as they are called in the US. Unfortunately the Peak Park District National Park have a total ban on them because they don’t look very nice. Shame. One alternative is to grow in containers which is exactly what we are doing this year.

Using containers makes it easy to move the plants into the greenhouse over winter which might just extend the season. These are two old containers made several years ago. There is about 4-5cms of gravel in the bottom and a row of holes is drilled round the sides just above the top of the gravel to prevent flooding and water logging. The troughs were then filled with peat free compost.

This year we managed to get a selection pack of six plants of five different varieties. They were just about acceptable and looked if they had been kept in small pots for too long due the closure of garden centres. They have all taken well and are producing fruits. There are two Elsanta and one each of Vibrant, Flamenco, Honeyoe and Symphony. It will be interesting to see how they do.

Looking at the area in front of the greenhouse has sparked an idea – a new strawberry bed 3m x 0.75m! The best time to plant bare rooted plants is around October/November. In the previous garden we had two large beds and one was planted with Vibrant. It seemed to do OK on an equally cold and windswept site. Just an idea!

And now just to get the gastric juices going here is a film about strawberry mania in Japan –  click on the image below. It shows that they take strawberries very seriously with each variety grown to give a different experience.

Click to watch the video

And then there is Japanese “strawberry short cake” near the end of the film. You can find a recipe here. Can’t wait to try it!

Click for recipe