Category Archives: Organic food

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.

Silent Spring

For many years I have wanted to read Rachel Carson’s “Silent Spring” but have not got round to it mainly because I thought it would be a bit too full on. Well it is and it is not! First impressions are that considering it was published in 1962 it feels like it was written yesterday.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What has changed in 58 years? Everything and nothing. We are now more deeply committed to high input agrochemical farming and even more reliant on pesticides and other chemicals that have invaded every part of our daily lives.

I was asked recently what is the best thing we can do to increase biodiversity in gardens. My answer is simple, stop using insecticides. There is no excuse for blasting everything with a spray just so it looks nice and kills all those supposedly nasty insects and then wonder why there are so few birds around.

This year Spring in our garden was better, the number of birds seemed to have increased and the dawn chorus returned. Then lock down ended and the birds stopped singing and spring became silent again.

I am left with the feeling that the only thing we have done since 1962 is to speed up trashing everything we depend on. It feels like we are on an increasingly steep downward spiral that will lead to the total destruction of the planet that gives us all we need unless we do something.

So, what can we do?  We can find the courage to be different and not be part of consumerist society where status is determined by ownership of the latest toys. We can find an alternative to factory farmed food soaked in chemicals and wrapped in plastic. That might mean spending a bit more on what we eat and less on holidays, mobile phones, or other non-essential goodies we are coerced into accepting as the norm. Or we do nothing and take it on the chin and leave the next generation with little but a dying planet.

The choice to downsize, consume less and eat organic food is no where near the hair shirt mentality touted by those who want to retain the status quo. It can be liberating, joyful even, like a release from always having to follow the crowd, to keep up, to gain status by being seen to buy the right stuff.

It took a brush with death for me to make new choices 30 years ago and yes, I did see my whole life flash in front of me like a failed B movie. You don’t need to go through that to realise there are better alternatives. Learn from others who have done it be proud to be different. Relax and enjoy what we have right in front of us. Now is the time to change and live differently, seize the moment.

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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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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Please note: we do not store emails, pass on details to anybody else or send messages after we have a responded to your question.

The usual shop bought lettuce

Ever wondered where those bags of bright green lettuce come from? The answer is from massive fields harvested by big machines.

Notice how perfect they are. How is that done? The answer is simple by repeated application of pesticides including insecticides and fungicides plus lots of artificial fertiliser to make then look very green.

Modern pesticides are systemic which means they get into every cell of the plant. They are designed to poison any insect that bites the plant. Systemic pesticides cannot be removed, no amount of washing will get them out.

The government sets the maximum amount of residual pesticide for each pesticide in common use. But there will a cocktail of different pesticides in every plant. There is no limit to the number pesticides used. There is little research as to of effects on human health of regularly consuming  pesticide cocktails, even if the residues for each individual chemical stays within the limits. Nobody knows how they might react with each other. Things are changing as concern grows about the food we eat, see this report.

Lettuce are fed a lot of artificial fertiliser to ensure that they grow quickly and look very green. That produces more problems. First, not all the fertiliser is used, the surplus is washed into ditches, then rivers and then the sea. Excess nitrogen in water is a big problem yet is virtually ignored.

The other concern is that the soil used on farms has become depleted. It does not hold together well so get washed off in heavy rain or blows about when it is dry because it contains very little organic matter. Soil loss from erosion is a massive issue for the UK and the world with a prediction that we only have about 40 years of topsoil left. What then?

When the lettuce will be ready to harvest they are picked by hand and packed into plastic bags ready to be shipped to the retailer. Supermarkets will control the whole process from telling the farmer what variety to grow, how to manage the crop and how many bagged lettuce they want on a certain date. The field becomes an extension of the shop floor, part of a mass production process geared to make the maximum profit for the retailer.

All this because consumers have been led to believe that the cheapest, mass produced factory food is best. Bur cheap food comes with hidden costs –  read about mineral deficiencies in modern food.

People often ask why bother to pay the extra for organic produce. The answer is simple, choose food that is grown in rich fertile soils without the use of pesticides that produces more nutrient dense food that is much more sustainable or stick with factory farming. It’s you choice!

Our first lettuce of the season, grown in soil with absolutely no chemical pesticides!

This is a link to a lettuce table we made a few years back where you can grow your own even without a garden. We are about to make another so stay tuned – video to follow.

Food glorious food

It really is time that we ditch supermarkets for good. There is still panic buying, stores cannot replenish stokes quick enough and now there is a huge PR battle raging to see who can come out on top.

They did not respond the toilet roll panic a couple of weeks back and could have easily done something like Danish stores who changed prices for multiple items – 1 pack of toilet rolls £1.50,  2 packs £55. No, they did nothing but make bigger profits and argue for customer moderation.

“We must help to shield the most vulnerable in our communities from this virus.” – ASDA CEO Roger Burnley.

Sainsburys are saying they will prioritise home delivery slots for the over 70s and vulnerable people. It seems like just more PR as they are not accepting new home delivery registrations and their help line is unobtainable. The competition is sure to respond and try to out do each other.

In the end supermarkets can do what they want, they can battle to come out on top in the PR stakes, but nothing will change. We have become over reliant on them and they have failed.

We must see this a wake up call and actively change the way food is grown and sold. There must be much more diversity, more home grown produce and a greater appreciation and understanding of food, i.e. seeing eating as  more than just chucking something down you neck as you walk around clutching a polystyrene tray.

The Community Food Growers Network – https://www.cfgn.org.uk/about/

The changes, no, the revolution in food production and consumption will mean teaching people how to select produce and cook it to make a meal, something that has been lost over the last 30-40 years. This must include learning about nutrition and its links to the immune system. We need more local food projects centred on growing, cooking, eating and understanding food.

Only then will we be able to survive similar events in the future, and there will be more.

Life goes on, seeds grow

Seeds grow with very little help from us. These are lettuce, Tom Thumb and Little Gem. We plant smaller varieties because they can picked and eaten in one go. No limp lettuce from the fridge when you grow your own.

Top left are Tom Thumb, bottom right Little Gem

There is nothing special needed, you can use margarine containers with holes in the bottom as seed trays. Use fresh, bagged peat free compost as soil from the garden is too heavy and dense. Water sparingly, don’t over water.

Sowing seeds

More later on what to do next.

End of year report

It has not been the easiest of seasons with lots of cool, dark and wet weather especially since September. We have enjoyed harvesting a few test crops and are looking forward to planning for the 2020 season.

One success has been the compost and we have ended the year with around a cubic metre of good compost ready to cover the beds over winter. That was from five batches made up to October. The last batch failed as it had too much woody stuff (carbon) and not enough green material (nitrogen.)  It will now sit there until next year when it will be mixed with the inevitable mountain of grass cuttings.

Click an image to enlarge

There is still a lot to do but at least we know that the beds are working especially the solar pods, which were completed in early October. Details can be found here: “Solar Gardening: Growing Vegetables Year-round the American Intensive Way” (1994.) It is available here at Google Books.

It is real treat to have home grown lettuce at this time of year! The pods will be used to get an early start in February/March next year. The bed behind the first pod has been covered with a wheelbarrow full of compost to protect the soil from compaction by heavy rain.

The three 1M square solar pods

Inside pod 1, some left over lettuce plants and springs greens