Category Archives: Organic food gardening

The title says it all – organic food gardening = growing your own food using organic methods.

Grow to eat

There is a long tradition in the UK of holding village shows at the end of the summer. The idea is that residents display the produce they have grown which is judged and prizes are awarded. Part of that tradition is competition between men (and it usually is men!)  to see who can grow the biggest specimens of common veg.

Entries are judged against strict criteria laid down in various books like The Horticultural Show Handbook published by the RHS. There are prizes for the biggest, heaviest, longest or ‘best’ specimens.

Onions, 250g or under

Merits Firm, thin-necked, blemish-free bulbs grown from either seed or sets with well-ripened, unbroken skins free from pest, disease or other damage.
Defects Bulbs that are too small or in excess of 250g, thick-necked, misshapen, blemished, or that have broken skins or have been skinned excessively.
Advice to judges All specimens must be weighed and any more than 250g must be disqualified. Bulbs should be as near to 250g as possible, of good form and alike in size, shape and colour.

In some parts of the country winning is taken to extremes with potential prize winning veg being guarded round the clock as competitors have been known to sabotage the competition.

I am often asked why I do not enter the local village show, usually followed by it is all for charity, and sometimes with a ‘do not be so miserable’.

The main reason I have never entered a show and never will is that we grow food to eat. We maximise gross yields to grow a surplus that can be stored over winter. In this time of global uncertainty when the dire effects of climate change and environmental destruction are being felt in many countries it seems immoral to grow vegetables purely to be shown, judged, raffled and then probably thrown away.

The way food is grown is critical to the impact that it has on the world. We grow organically and have done for the last 30 years. We believe that it uses less resources, has a positive effect on the environment and produces more nutritious better tasting food.

Our produce would be marked down for blemishes and the odd bit of nibbling by slugs, snails and other pests because that would spoil the visual appearance. To grow visually perfect veg you must use chemicals.

There is mounting evidence that the climate/environmental crisis is deepening and accelerating. There is also no doubt whatsoever that climate change will affect our ability to grow food. We cannot continue the way we are which means the way we grow food including how we cultivate our gardens and allotments.

That might seem extreme, but you only have to read the evidence out there to know that we are on the edge of a precipice. There are already there are millions of people starving, homeless and desperate.

The biggest problem we face in the UK is that people cannot or do not want to understand the severity and the gravity of the issues. It is this inertia, this desire to carry on as we are,  to get back to normal when Cove is finished, which is the most dangerous aspect of climate change.

That is why we grow food in a sustainable way and encourages others to do the same. That means not using the old methods. It is respecting the food we have grown and encouraging others to do the same. It might be painful and even be unthinkable to some, but we must move on and leave beyond behind the traditional ways of doing things. There has to be a new normal  to avert the massive crisis that humanity faces.

That is why we will never grow food to show, we will never try to win prizes for the biggest veg specimen. We will work on ways of getting maximum yields from the small plot we have and share what the way we do it. In 2020 we harvested 78 Kg of food from 17 square metres. The aim is to make that at least 100 Kg in the 2021 season. That is our prize.

Growing veg in Singapore

I follow Edible Garden City on FB because I love how Singapore responded to Covid. They grew only 10% of their food so were vulnerable to supply chain problems. Their response was a big campaign to get everybody growing veg.

I found this short film today of a family growing food and running a small outlet in the city. I recognised some of the veg they grow and have been growing them here. I made a note of others to try.

What got to me most was the father’s decision to grow without pesticides. He said that they scared him and he did not want his family eating sprayed food. His main concern for his family is to  “to eat with peace of mind, to eat healthily”. I could not agree more.

Foodscaping

Foodscaping is the American name for a font yard (garden) that is used to grow food rather than grass. This TED talk explains it all.

He talks about the loss of nutrients in produce from US factory farms. The same is true for the UK. For many years two UK government scientists measured the mineral content of  range of foods bought at random from shops around the country. This is an overview of what they found. (More details can be found HERE.)

If you want to have a go you can start with some small beds to find what works for you, see Microbed gardens – online workshop  If you don’t have garden then try growing in containers you will be amazed at what can be done.

Now is exactly the right time of year to start!

If you have any questions please email us

 

Over wintering veg

This year we tried overwintering oriental veg. The garden is in a cold spot, in a valley around 270M ASL open to the East. It has been cold with some sharp frosts in November. I am always doubtful about leaving any crops in the ground without protection but the oriental veg has survived.

Tonight, we used some Pak Choy leaves in a stir fry. We also tried some Wong Bok raw; the thick stems were delicious with the flavour changing as it was eaten. There are plenty more to harvest so they should last into March.

Wong Bok

Pak Choi

There will definitely be more next year with maybe some protected cropping from cloches  to give us all year round greens.

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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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.”

 

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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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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Progress in the garden

This is our fruit and veg  garden on 16 May 2020. We started work on the plot just over a year ago. There was a lot to do and it’s been hard work but worth it. We are looking forward to harvesting some tasty, pesticide free veg soon.

The weather made it a difficult year but gardeners always say that! The first few months were cold and wet and the top part of the garden was flooded a few of times due to poor drainage. That should now be fixed.

Spring has been cool and mostly dry here and again we are verging on a drought. There were frosts up until last week. That has caused some damage especially to the fruit bushes in the new bed to the left of the path, the top corner is just visible in front of the chairs.

We have done a lot recently thanks to lock down but there is still more to do to achieve our aim of an sustainable, zero waste fruit and veg garden.

New projects
We are lucky to have a corner of a large garden to grow food. Many people have only have a small gardens or just a balcony so we want to share some ideas. First will be an update to the lettuce table  made about 20 years ago. The plan is to make one using as much reclaimed timber as possible and use reclaimed butyl rubber pond liner for the waterproofing.

Next is the use of self-watering containers. We have used them before with good results. We will have peas, beetroot, tomatoes, courgettes and strawberries in various sizes of container. More to come on this soon.

We are also about to start making comfrey liquid fertilizer from the plants started in 2019. This is part of the closed loop, self-contained. zero waste garden we are working towards. It will not be on the same scale as our previous project.

We desperately need an extension to the compost bins as we are already getting short of space. So far we have a cubic metre of compost maturing in one of the bins. The second bin has active compost in it which leaves just one free for the next batch. The plan is to try a very simple way of locking boards together to build metre square bins that can be used when required and then broken down over winter.

As winter approaches we want to try some new ways of extending the season with the aim of having keeping some crops going through winter. That will mean some new cloches and cold frames to go with the solar pods stacked against the wall on the top right of the photo above.

That should be enough to keep us busy for a few weeks, we will post news with videos of progress here.

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