Tag Archives: organic gardening

Want to grow food but can’t wait 4-40 years for an allotment?

With the ever increasing waiting list for allotments there has to be an alternative to waiting 4 – 40 years to grow your own food. The average waiting list in many parts of the UK is around 4 years. In some parts of London it is 40+ years. But why wait when there is a way of achieving high yields from small beds?

That is the challenge taken up by Bakewell & District Organic Gardeners with the launch of the Micro Bed Gardening Project yesterday. The aim is to encourage more people to grow food by starting with small raised beds just 1m square. Following from successful trials over the last two years the project web site will help people replicate the amazing results achieved.

Newcomers will be guided through the whole process by a step-by-step guide and an online library of linked articles. There is information on all stages from selecting a site, creating beds, sowing seeds and harvesting the crops. Sample planting plans are provided.

If you do not have a garden you can grow food in containers. Again step- by-step instructions and continuing support will be available via the web site.

Although based in Derbyshire anybody anywhere can sign up and the first 50 people revive a 50% discount on the subscription.

For more details see  Quick easy square metre beds

Why organic? A personal response

Over the 20 years or so that I have been an organic grower I have been asked why organic; what is so special about organic gardening. There is not an easy one sentence answer but I will try to explain.

The first answer is that I took a decision about what I wanted to eat and that ruled out food with pesticide residues. Although the government assure us it is perfectly safe to eat food grown with pesticides there is growing evidence that the daily ingestion of small amounts of chemical poisons has an effect. A study at the University of Rochester showed that a combination of two common pesticides caused effects like Parkinson’s disease when fed to lab mice at residue levels.  There is other research but it is always challenged by the agrochemical companies and often suppressed by governments but it can be found.

Is organic food better for you? My answer is definitely! The University of Newcastle proved that organic milk contained higher levels of essential nutrients. There have been other reports saying the same but the UK government still says there is no difference.

In terms of sustainability organic has to be the only way to grow food. Conventional growing relies on big inputs of chemically produced fertilizer and pesticides. That means using oil and gas to produce the artificial aids, or props, that underpin modern agriculture. Even the experts are saying we are running out of oil so we need to find other ways to grow food. Add to that the huge amounts of CO2 produced by using fossil fuels and it is obvious that we cannot continue as we are.

The other big issue is food security. We have become used to a lifestyle that includes being able to buy any food at any time of the year. That means that we not only import food from around the world, often by air, but that we depend on an infrastructure of mass storage and delivery. There is increasing awareness about food miles and the costly supermarket distribution systems but there is no wringing of hands and no alternative suggested apart from the UK eat local idea which does not address the other issues of chemically produced food. And even local food can travel a long distance before it reaches the supermarket shelves.

The current system has become so accepted and so powerful that it has erased memories of how things used to be. Within a generation we have stopped eating seasonal produce and become hooked on the goodies in the over lit enticing atmosphere of the local superstore. We CAN produce a lot more food in the UK but it means small changes to our lifestyles.

So, that is why I choose to grow organic food and why I like buy it in preference to the other stuff. It is not a ‘lifestyle choice’ but just common sense. I would also argue that anybody remotely interested in sustainability should be doing the same. I would argue that it is no use using low energy light bulbs but at the same time supporting a food system that is wasteful and unsustainable.

Making leaf mould

The last few days has seen a massive leaf drop here so that means it is time to make leaf mould. Collecting leaves and making amazing soil conditioner for next year really does mark the changing seasons.

The common advice is to use a container made from chicken wire strung around four wooden poles which are knocked into the ground. Like many other pieces of received gardening wisdom it is not the best way. The problem is that the leaves at the edges dry out which really slows down the fungal rotting process.

Over the years I tried several different methods and found the easiest and cheapest was to use builder’s big bags, or bulk bags, that are used to deliver sand and gravel. The advantages are that they are free and stop the wind from drying out the contents.

The other solution is to line a chicken wire container with cardboard.

Do not cover the top. Leaf mold is a fungal process which needs to be wet all the time.

Here is a video Monty Don making leaf mould on a large scale.

There is no need to use any of the magic additives on the market or to add anything other than leaves. You can shred them if you wish, and that certainly speeds up the rotting process, but just plain old leaves in a big bag are all you need.

There is also a lot of discussion about how long it takes for the leaves to rot down. Some say 2-3 years but I usually get usable leaf mold in 12-18 months. It depends on the leaves as some rot faster than others.

Now is also a good time to use leaf mold on the garden. Spread a 50mm (2 inch) layer over beds to stop winter rain compacting the soil. Do not worry if the leaves are not totally rotted as worms will help incorporation and rotting will continue over winter. By next spring you will have a bed of wonderful soil ready for sowing.

You can also use it as part of a home made potting compost mix. Note: leaf mold does not contain any nutrients.

Updated 02 October 2019

Urban food growing in Cuba

Cuba has long been seen as an inspiration for anybody interested in changing the way we grow and distribute food. This film shows Monty Don (ex BBC gardening presenter) getting very enthusiastic about what he finds on a visit to some organic growers. Who wouldn’t be inspired!

He is right; we could do the same here. I know we don’t have the weather or the same urgent need to grow food to avoid strvation but please let some of Monty’s enthusiasm rub off on you. Great music!

Dirt! The movie

Dirt/soil is our most precious natural resource and it’s under threat. Decades of intensive agriculture has depleted soil of nutrients and made it much more vulnerable to erosion.

The film says we have lost a third of our top soil in the last 100 years but that has gone virtually unnoticed and unreported. Lets face it dirt is not news.

We totally rely on soil for our food; if soils are disappearing or becoming less productive then the whole world suffers. But this is one of those problems where we can really help. The answer is to put something back. For gardeners that means compost, compost and yet more compost! And manure. For farmers it means adding organic matter. For government it means making sure that soil is valued as the most precious natural resource we have.

Adding lots of organic matter to produce rich, fertile soils has a really useful side effect; it reduces atmospheric CO2. (See The Organic Revolution: How We Can Stop Global Warming.)

Finally, looking after your soil produces bigger crops with higher nutrient content. So, my New Year resolution is to compost everything I can, especially kitchen waste, so that nothing leaves the house or garden that could not have been returned to the soil.

Why there’s no sign of a climate conspiracy in hacked emails

There is a really good article in New Scientist this week about the hacked climate change emails. The sceptics, and other oil company supporters, are hailing it as a victory and as proof that climate change does not exist. Having spent most of my working life in science and technology I do not share their optimism.

As a gardener I know that things have changed over the last 20 years. Spring is earlier and old weather patterns have changed. It used to be relatively easy to predict when pests would arrive e.g. carrot root fly had two periods of activity so it was possible to avoid, or reduce, attacks by planting at the right time. Now it is virtually impossible to predict when they will be around.

Summers might not always be warmer but the trend is for an increase in average temperatures year on year. We are also getting many more extreme weather events. What I have noticed is that rainfall patterns have changed and we also get lots of very heavy downpours now.

Much as I would like to believe that climate change is not happening, and that manmade CO2 is not contributing to, it that is just not true. I particularly remember some predictions from NASA some years ago that nobody wanted to believe. All  they said has now happened but actual measurements have far exceeded their predications.

There are challenges ahead for gardeners but we are a resourceful lot and will adapt and respond. The best advice is to find what works for you in your garden and keep records and if you are really keen record the weather.

What support do organic food growers need?

For a while now I have been thinking about just what support organic food growers want/need. Is it access to online help? A telephone hotline? A regular printed magazine? Or an electronic newsletter? Membership of a local group? Belonging to a national society? All of these?

With such a massive upsurge in interest in food growing there have never been so many people gardening, well not since the 1940s. So what drives new gardeners and where do they get help? I really would be interested to hear either direct to info@organicgarden.org.uk or by comments to this post or by joining the forum discussion.

Garden Organic sells Ryton retail arm – the end of an era

According to a recent article in Horticulture Week,  Garden Organic has agreed that Webbs will take over the running of the GO retail arm which includes the, shop, catering and conference facilities at Ryton Gardens. (Please note: the Organic Gardening Catalogue is not included in this deal.)  The article also mentions redundancy negotiations with 90 staff.

As a long time member of HDRA and now Garden organic I am shocked and surprised by this announcement. To sell out the retail arm to a garden centre group is an amazing development. Ryton Gardens have always been the showcase organic gardens and the organic restaurant has won awards for many years. With the new ‘garden centre’ selling organic and non-organic products how can the site retain its organic credentials?

What bothers me most is that GO has been a campaigning organisation and have done extremely valuable work to promote the organic gardening message. Will they still do that? What about member’s services? There are so many questions that need answers as soon as possible.

Please see the comment from Myles Bremner (Chief Exec) which clarifies the position and offers some reassurance about Ryton’s organic status. What bothers me is that members should hear the news from a commercial press site rather than from GO direct. That only serves to encourage rumours and unease about such major changes.

How to grow 100lbs of potatoes in 4 square feet

This idea has been around for some time and while there are many ways to grow potatoes in containers this system has some advantages. The first is that it is set on soil so the tubers can root as deeply as they want. Second, by using a wooden box with removable sides it is easier to harvest the spuds at the bottom of the pile.

I must admit to being sceptical about the claimed 100lbs (45kg) from 4 sq.ft. (0.36 sq.m.) Using good soil beds we get around the same yield from 60 sq.ft. (5.5sq.m.) so a 15 times increase would suggest a lot of extra inputs in terms of fertiliser and water. Careful management would be the key to getting such good results.

4squarefoot potato2Most posts suggest using a base frame with four uprights used to attach the sides. Remember not to use any sort of treated timber for the box in contact with soil.

The photograph shows 9 halves of seed potatoes (whole tubers cut in half) in one square foot. Even with good fertilisation and lots of water that seems like very close spacing. Potatoes are hungry feeders and very thirsty plants and maybe this is over optimistic?

From my experience last year with potatoes planted in a dustbin (trashcan) I would use 3-5 seed tubers for a variety known to be good for container growing e.g. Charlotte and maybe 2 tubers for my favourite Sarpo Mira.

I plan on making this one of our 2010 trials to see just what yield we can get from such a small space.

Here are detailed instructions of how to make the box.


The Organic Revolution: How We Can Stop Global Warming

“The heretofore unpublicized ‘good news’ on climate change, according to the Rodale Institute and other soil scientists, is that transitioning from chemical, water, and energy-intensive industrial agriculture practices to organic farming and ranching on the world’s 3.5 billion acres of farmland and 8.2 billion acres of pasture or rangeland can sequester 7,000 pounds per acre of climate-destabilizing CO2 every year, while nurturing healthy soils, plants, grasses, and trees that are resistant to drought, heavy rain, pests, and disease. And of course organic farms and ranches can provide us with food that is much more nutritious than industrial farms and ranches – food filled with vitamins, anti-oxidants, and essential trace minerals, free from Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs), pesticides, antibiotics, and sewage sludge.”

-Ronnie Cummins, “The Organic Revolution: How We Can Stop Global Warming,” October 12, 2009