Tag Archives: The Daily telegraph

Spend more on food rather than holidays

Patrick Holden, director of the Soil Association, has caused a stir by saying that we should spend more money on food than on holidays, according to The Telegraph. That is bound to be a headline grabber and bound to get a strong reaction but is he right?

Some years ago there was a statistic floating around which said that in the UK we spend 9% of income on food whereas in France it was nearer 19%. That says a lot about how food is valued. Some would argue that cheap food is almost a right but I would counter that by saying nutritious food is a right and not the useless pap that many companies sell as ‘food’.

How much we are willing to pay for meal also says a lot about what food means to us and generally we don’t value it all. In supermarkets food is sold on price and price alone, the cheapest being seen as the best. Low prices have to come from somewhere and it is the continual screwing down of farm gate prices which keeps the shop price artificially low. That benefits nobody in the long term as it leads to a precarious supply situation which easily creaks and breaks at the slightest problem.

Then there is organic food. For a long time organic has been branded by the opposition as a niche market and as high priced food for tuffs. The perception is that, at best organic is much more expensive and at worst a con which is no different to the chemical soaked alternative. Organisations like the NFU have vigorously defended conventionally produced food and have been quick to reinforce the niche market claims. What this has done if to create confusion and an air of suspicion in the minds of consumers.

The recent debates about food security have also jumped on the organic knocking bandwagon and made wild claims about links to starvation and organic farming. The argument is that we need even more intensive chemical farming combined with unproven technologies like GM. Government has joined that camp because it gives them an easy way out of a difficult and frightening problem.

What we really need is to increase food production in the UK and diversify the way food is grown. That does not mean super farms in the East of England supplying 98% of English carrots, cabbage or anything else. That is not resilient agriculture it is sheer lunacy. The prolonged drought in the East Anglia last year and the recent disruption to supplies during the cold spell have shown just how precarious our food supply really is.

Farmers need to be seen as a crucial part of society and valued for the work they do and not constantly knocked or seen as scapegoats for the bad practices of the retail sector.  Agriculture and horticulture need to be sold to young people as worthwhile and engaging careers. There should be incentives for young people take on small holdings of land to grow food sustainably without chemicals. Land should be seen for what it is, an absolutely crucial part of keeping us alive and not as an investment opportunity.

What about organics? A large scale move to organic agriculture is not just desirable it is essential to produce a sustainable production system that is not totally reliant on oil. It is no use tinkering with the existing system in way that increase or perpetuates reliance on fossil fuels all that will do is delay the inevitable crisis. We must begin to move to a post oil agricultural system with more local production and distribution.

The days of cheap food have gone. We will have to pay more for food and I sincerely hope that we recover our respect for what we eat. A more nutritious diet could make a huge difference to public health of this country. The best thing is that people might even begin to enjoy good food again instead of scoffing plastic meals out of plastic trays while walking around our cities.

In the end it is not about whether organic food is just for rich toffs it is about the facing the realities of declining oil supplies, climate change and population growth. Food production has to become sustainable and just has to be less dependent on oil.

Telegraph – “Homebase peat-free compost ‘not worth buying’ says Which?”

According to the Telegraph the performance of peat free composts are, to say the least, variable. A recent article reports on testing carried out by gardening Which. The conclusions are that some peat free composts are not worth buying.

The best for seeds were: “…  B&Q Multipurpose, B&Q Sowing and Cutting composts and New Horizon Organic and Peat Free Growbag.” And for small plants “… B&Q Multipurpose, B&Q John Innes No.2 and Westland West + Multi Purpose Compost.”

Bits of ground up plastic coated particle board found in JAB New Horizon in 2009

I have used bags of “New Horizon” for seed sowing for many years with great success. Last year I was alarmed to find what looked like the remains of ground up kitchen units in most bags. There have been other similar reports about not so natural foreign objects in the compost. I have not found anything from the makers (William Sinclair) to explain what happened.

When growing from seed it is really essential to produce strong, vigorous plants as they are more likely to thrive and resist pests and diseases. For that you need good compost either commercial or DIY.

Some people make their own seed compost  mix but to be honest the one time I tried I got severe damping off – a fungal disease that rots the stem where it enters the compost and can fell a whole tray of seedlings over night.

If you are interested then try a mix and see how it performs. Some suggestions: mature leafmould (~ 2 years old) is said to work on its own but can be mixed with sterilised (to avoid damping off)  loam at a ratio of 1:1. Or garden compost, leafmould and sterilised loam at 1:1:1.  [From “Encyclopaedia of Organic Gardening”, p.116, HDRA/Dorling Kindersley, 2001, ISBN 07513 33816 ]

Is biodynamic the new organic?

According to The Daily telegraph today there is an upsurge in interest in Biodynamic farming and gardening. Like most of the media the article concentrates on planting by the moon and ignores that rest of the quite complex system of plant and soil care of biodynamics.

The Telegraph article is more balanced than most and outlines how biodynamics is becoming more mainstream. The spoiler is the throw away sentence at the end of the piece about howling at the moon!

The key to all this is the holistic approach to producing food and to life in general. Organic gardening goes some way to reengaging with natural cycles and living more in tune with mother earth. Biodynamics takes it several stages further.

I have used a moon planting calendar for a few years. I do not always get it right because sometimes it is just not possible to sow seeds on the recommended days but when I do it seems to work. Take, for example, the winter lettuce sown in the pollytunnel on Wednesday 23 September which according to the planting calendar was a leaf day. I noticed yesterday that they had germinated, that is just 4 days and is the kind of vigour that means healthier plants.

Some will argue that there are so many factors involved it is impossible to isolate just what helps. While accepting that it does no harm to follow a biodynamic calendar especially if it produces strong, healthy and tasty plants.

Check out details of the Biodynamic Food Fortnight; on from 3 October to 8 October see www.biodynamic.org.uk

Best tomatoes for hanging baskets

Last week the Daily Telegraph ran an exclusive preview of trials carried out by Gardening Which which to find the best variety of tomato to grow in a hanging basket. Trials like this are interesting but in the end the best variety is the one you like and the one that will grow best where you live so experiment to find what is best for you and your garden.


If you are tempted to have a go then start with one of the popular varieties. For some years I used Tumbler and found it worked well. Great taste and a good yield.

The other good thing about hanging baskets is that you can take them into the greenhouse to keep production going into the autumn. One year we even managed to pick a couple of ripe tomatoes on Christmas day. Do not expect much in the way of flavour as the sun provides the sweetness.

The Telegraph article gives details on how to grow toms in a hanging basket but it is definitely NOT an organic approach. They suggest using water retaining gels and artificial fertiliser, neither of which are ‘organic’.

All this has given me an idea, resurect the self-watering hanging basket and try again this year using home made comfrey liquid as a fertiliser. It should be fun and might even give us some toms right outside the front door.