Wednesday 29 February 2012

Rapeseed Oil is GOOD for you!

For as long as I've been cooking, olive oil has been the oil to use. It's heart-healthy, stable, natural, comes with or without its fruity flavour, and most of all it's trendy - it's what the food-loving Italians swear by, after all, and what TV chefs told us we had to use for years.

But it's from Italy, Spain or Greece, and in my efforts to buy less from overseas and reduce my food miles, it just wouldn't do. Heck, I'm far from perfect in that endeavour; I still buy Spanish tomatoes in the winter when I feel the need, asparagus from Peru when I crave it, oranges from goodness-knows-where, and the occasional avocado, but I try to keep these things to a minimum, and cooking oil is something I use every single day. So about a year ago I gave up olive oil completely, in favour of cold-pressed British rapeseed oil - a truly British product grown here for centuries, with an impressive nutritional profile, a pleasant floral flavour well-suited to cooking or raw use, and a high smoke point making it suitable for all types of cooking.

Photograph by David Castor, via Wikimedia Commons

So imagine my surprise and horror when an online acquaintance told me rapeseed oil was terribly bad for me and should be avoided by the health-conscious individual at all costs!

A few minutes of internet research showed that she wasn't alone - it appears a great many people believe rapeseed oil (or Canola oil across the pond) is dangerous stuff. But I quickly noticed virtually all the information cited on the subject of its dangers was from just two articles; one derived from a book by a certain John Thomas and the other a viral email that did the rounds years ago, which borrows heavily from John Thomas' theories. These articles have been reproduced over and over again on blogs and websites - a Google search suggests some 6000 times - despite being packed with misinformation, misquotation, innuendo and lies, and widely discredited (see here, here or here)! So I want to set the record straight here. And unlike the anti-rapeseed articles, I will make all my sources available via links, so you can check it out for yourself and make up your own mind. 

The Myths About Rapeseed Oil

So for what reasons do some people think rapeseed oil is bad news?

Canola is not the name of a natural plant. 
No, but it is a natural plant. Canola was a trade name derived from the words CANadian Oil, Low Acid. Rapeseed oil was originally grown for industrial purposes and was not very palatable because of its high levels of bitter erucic acid and glucosinolates, but in the 70s, agricultural scientists in Canada developed a low acid, disease- and drought- resistant cultivar which made an excellent and cheap cooking oil. In Canada, much of the Canola grown is genetically modified to be resistant to herbicides. Here in the UK, it has been bred naturally to achieve the same low-acid properties, just as we have cultivated and domesticated pretty much every other food crop we grow to reach its maximum commercial potential. Canola is now a generic name given to rapeseed oils up and down America. Here, we just call it rapeseed oil.

Rape is part of the mustard family. It's the most toxic of all food-oil plants. Insects will not eat it; it is deadly poisonous.
Rape is indeed in the mustard family (usually called brassicas), along with such nutritious and common edibles as, well, mustard, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, swedes, brussels sprouts, kale, radishes, horseradish, pak choi, rocket and cress. Although eating the wrong parts of a few species of wild mustards might upset your stomach, it does not follow that rape is toxic. Rape stems and leaves have long been used as a food in parts of Asia. Insects do eat rapeseed plants; flea beetles and cabbage moths are a particular problem, as with most brassicas.

Rapeseed oil is used in insecticides.
Any gardener who knows his stuff will know that many oils can be, and are, used as insecticides. A spray of oil easily blocks the spiracles (air holes) which allow insects to breathe, and they suffocate.

Rapeseed oil is an industrial oil, used as lubricant, fuel, soap and even in making plastics.
The author had obviously forgotten that olive oil was used as lamp oil for millenia and makes excellent soap, and that flax oil has long been used in paint, sealants and linoleum. They obviously didn't realise that sunflower, palm and castor oil have all been used widely as lubricants, and had never heard that Rudolf Diesel designed his first engines to run on peanut oil, nor that Henry Ford's first automobiles were actually made from hemp and soybean, two more highly nutritious food oils which also make excellent plastics.

Rape oil is strongly related to symptoms of emphysema, respiratory distress, anemia, constipation, irritability and blindness in animals and humans. Also increased risk of heart disease, low birth weight, disruption of the nervous system and cancer. It inhibits proper metabolism of foods, prohibits normal enzyme function and suppresses the immune system. In the blood, it causes red blood cells to stick together in clumps and congests blood flow.
No sources are given, and no evidence is available. Most of these claims appear to come from the book 'Young Again: How to Reverse the Aging Process' by John Thomas, in which the author makes many unusual claims which are completely unsupported. He uses no citations or scientific references, and in fact eschews science, calling the scientific mind 'muddled'. Some anti-rapeseed articles cite the Encyclopedia Britannica as saying rape is toxic. The online version does not make this claim, but clearly notes that it is a popular food crop. 

It contains unhealthy trans fatty acids.
Fats become trans fats when they are processed with hydrogen to make them solid, stable and increase their shelf life. It is true that a refined and processed canola oil may contain small amounts of trans fats - as any refined and processed oil may. Trans fats are legally limited to just 2% in Canada and banned in an increasing number of cities and countries. No cold-pressed oil contains trans fats. Some anti-rapeseed articles claim that the oil must be heavily processed to get rid of its strong odour, colour and flavour. Any fan of British cold-pressed oil, with its rich golden colour and peppery floral flavour, will disagree. 

Feeding rapeseed oil to livestock caused mad cow disease.
There is no evidence for this and no sources are given. It was rapeseed meal with the oil pressed out, not the oil itself, which was used as animal feed. Here in the UK, rapeseed meal is still used as nutritious animal feed and fish food, but there is no longer any CJD problem.

Rapeseed oil was the source of the chemical warfare agent 'mustard gas'.
This is just plain falsehood. Mustard gas is made from chemicals in a laboratory; commonly by treating sulfur dichloride (chlorinated sulfur) with ethylene. (Ethylene serves as a plant hormone in all plants, but has no special connection to mustard or its relatives.) The name simply came from its yellow colour and pungent mustard-like smell.

When rapeseed oil was fed to rats, they developed fatty degeneration of heart, kidney, adrenals, and thyroid gland. The fatty deposits disappeared when the oil was withdrawn from their diets but scarring remained.
The natural diet of a rat is grains and other plant matter. Is it any wonder that feeding them high levels of fats caused health problems commonly associated with consuming high levels of fats?

Rapeseed oil contains VLCFAs which can cause a rare fatal degenerative disease called adrenoleukodystrophy.
Adrenoleukodystrophy is an inherited disease which causes a disastrous build-up of fatty acids in the blood; not because sufferers consume too many VLCFAs (very long chain fatty acids) but because they simply cannot process those they do consume. The VLCFA present in rapeseed oil is erucic acid - the very acid that was bred out of rape cultivars (down to a maximum 2%, usually less) in order to make the product palatable. The source cited for this little claim (Fats That Heal, Fats That Kill, by Udo Erasmus) is severely misquoted; in fact the author actually goes on to describe how erucic acid has been used to normalise fatty acid levels and treat this very disease.

Rapeseed oil is a penetrating oil which leaves a stain on fabric that won't wash out.
Maybe I'm doing my laundry wrong, but I've never been able to get olive oil or sunflower oil spots out of clothes either... This does not make it toxic! 

Rapeseed oil causes lung cancer.
Any oil heated past its smoke releases carcinogenic free radicals. No cooking oil should be heated above its smoke point, nor reheated so many times that its smoke point is significantly lowered through deterioration. 

The Truth About Rapeseed Oil

Cold-pressed rapeseed oil is a healthy, natural, low impact food with an erucic acid level of around 1%. It contains only 6% saturated fat - that's half as much as olive oil - and has up to 11 times more essential omega 3 fatty acid and much less omega 6 than olive oil, giving it an essential fatty acid balance better suited to human consumption than any other oil (not enough omega 3 or too much omega 6, which is common, make us prone to inflammatory conditions and blood problems). Rapeseed oil provides lots of antioxidant vitamin E (though sunflower oil trumps it), is stable for up to a year, and has one of the highest smokepoints of any cooking oil, making it suitable for all kinds of cooking. (Source, source)

In short, rapeseed is the most heart-healthy oil, suitable for all culinary uses and with a far lower environmental impact than foreign oils.

Let me make a couple of disclaimers. First, processed oil is a different creature from cold-pressed, and the sterilising, deodorising, degumming, bleaching and chemical treatment of any processed oil will increase its bad fats and decrease its micro-nutrient content. I do not recommend processed or refined oils, or generic vegetable oil which is usually full of low-grade and refined oils. Second, Canadian/US Canola is (largely, though not exclusively) genetically modified and I do not support this. Time is showing that GM/GE crops give lower yields and pose other risks, and multinational GMO agribusiness Monsanto is very scary indeed, threatening farmers and crops all across America and Canada - watch this video or read this or browse here. We need to fight back against GM foods and I do not recommend GM Canola oil. Thankfully, GM crops are not grown in the UK.

As long as it's cold-pressed and British, rapeseed is the oil for me.

Photograph by Prazak, via Wikimedia Commons

A Quick Lesson in Fats (more here)

Cholesterol is a substance made in the body (and consumed in animal products) and essential to cell structure, hormones and vitamin D production. Cholesterol also moves fat around the body. There are two main types of cholesterol, with which we are concerned here:
Low-Density Lipoproteins (LDL cholesterol) are manufactured by the liver to carry cholesterol to the body’s cells and tissues. When there are too many, LDLs form deposits on the walls of arteries and elsewhere, and increase your risk of heart disease.
High-Density Lipoproteins (HDL cholesterol) pick up and carry excess cholesterol from artery walls and bring it back to the liver for processing and removal. HDLs decrease your risk of heart disease.

All fat has the same number of calories per gram (9) and will make you fat if you eat too much, but fat is an essential nutrient for our brains and nervous systems, not to mention joints, skin and hair. We must all eat fat, but the type of fat we choose can make a big difference to our health. Dietary fat is made up of fatty acids, which are grouped into three main types:
Saturated fats increase bad (LDL) cholesterol. They are usually solid at room temperature. Examples are butter, cheese, animal fat, coconut and palm oil.
Monounsaturated fats decrease bad (LDL) cholesterol but maintain your good (HDL) cholesterol. They are liquid at room temperature. Foods high in monounsaturated fats are olives, avocadoes and many nuts.
Polyunsaturated fats decrease your good (HDL) and bad (LDL) cholesterol. They are liquid or soft at room temperature. Sources include corn oil, soybean products, many seeds, and oily fish.

Trans fats are man-made; they are unsaturated fats which have undergone processing (hydrogenation) to make them more solid (as in many margarines), or just to increase their shelf life and make them more stable (this is partial hydrogenation). They not only increase bad (LDL) cholesterol, but they reduce the good stuff (HDL) and have been reported to cause a number of side effects too. They occur almost exclusively in processed foods (small amounts also occur naturally in some animal products) and are the unhealthiest fats of all - in fact many countries are moving towards banning them. Unsaturated cooking oils (such as rapeseed) can break down and turn to trans fats when heated in cooking, but in a domestic environment under normal conditions this risk is negligible, unless your oil is already oxidised by age, air/light/heat exposure, repeated use or overheating past its burn/smoke point.

Thank you to Hill Farm Oils and Yellow Fields Oil for providing information for this article.

Tuesday 28 February 2012

Kale and pepper update

Remember my perennial kale, that drooped in the snowy weather? Despite lots of care, it didn't get better - the leaves went dry and crispy and I thought it had died. I was pretty miffed - it cost £5 plus £5 postage and it really should have withstood the cold weather better. Today, however, I spotted these new shoots coming from the base of the stem, so it looks like all is not lost after all! Hooray!

Sowing begins today - I'm planning a trough of mangetout, a tray of peas for shoots, two pots of parsley, a few early Swiss chard seeds in the greenhouse as an experiment, short rows of carrots, radishes, spinach and lettuce, and tomatoes and celery in the heated propagator. Really must get my broad bean seeds in at the plot soon too...

And to make space in the heated propagator, I've potted-on all my early chillies, peppers and aubergines. They're doing great and many are on their third pairs of leaves. I'm making a few extra sowings though, as one variety gave me zero germination (from seeds bought just last year!) and the ancho/poblano chillies, which I was really looking forward to, have only given me one seedling from ten seeds. Rubbish!

I'll leave these pots on the windowsill for now, to get used to not being heated from underneath, but as soon as we get some decent March sunshine I'll get them out into the greenhouse during the days and bring them in at night.

Saturday 25 February 2012

Spring is in the air...

There's no doubt about it - spring is definitely in the air. The birds are singing, the sun is shining, flowers are popping up all over the place and everything is starting to grow again.

It's nice to see the sorrel and chives sprouting fresh new growth.


I know some people are harvesting purple sprouting broccoli by now, but mine still isn't showing any signs. Maybe it didn't get big enough before the winter. I wait with bated breath...

The lamb's lettuce is big enough to eat now, at last. This definitely needs an earlier start next year - and more of it too!

The radishes in the greenhouse haven't done anything worthwhile and are starting to look a bit sickly, but the spring onions have put on excellent growth over winter and are about ready to eat.

The claytonia has been going steady all winter long - I've picked handfuls from time to time, but I could (should) have eaten much more of it! In fact, I think I'd better thin this lot before the kale gets swamped!

The perpetual spinach, too, has kept producing slowly all winter, and I've picked the odd handful to add to veg dishes. The normal spinach did not do so well - something killed all but two of the plants! Next winter I'll make sure I have lots more perpetual spinach and chard going, since they stand so well through cold weather.

Like most gardeners, I'm chomping at the bit to start sowing again. I've already started a few potatoes - three 'Foremost' earlies - in a planter in the shelter of the house. I wouldn't plant them in open soil this early, but in dry fresh compost in a well-drained portable container it's another matter. The right temperature for planting spuds is about 8C, and most of our nights are 7 or higher at the moment, so as long as I protect them if we have another cold snap I reckon we're in with a good chance of a few super-earlies!

I bought six of these huge fold-away planters to use this year, thinking it'd be tidier than hoardes and hoardes of pots, the soil would be deeper, and I could plant lots of things closer together, rather than all in individual containers. The huge bags don't half hold a lot of soil! I don't know how I'm going to fill them all! In the first one I have planted my nine (one went mouldy in the greenhouse during the snow) everbearing 'Albion' strawberries, plus three which were too cramped in a pot in the garden. There's another planter ready and waiting in the background for some early carrots, lettuce, radishes and things, which I'll sow soon under a protective layer or two of fleece...

Oh, and my leek seedlings are doing well. They looked a bit frazzled today because I accidentally left them out in the cold last night, which must have come as a bit of a shock, but they'll recover, and I'm glad they got this head-start.

Can't wait to get stuck into some more sowing...

Monday 20 February 2012

When you next eat a meal...

I was challenged today by this tweet from Brigit Strawbridge: "When you next eat a meal ask yourself 'Do I know where this came from? How it grew? How it died? Who picked it?' If you don't know find out."

While I am already well aware of the reasons for knowing where my food comes from and I didn't expect any surprises, I thought it would be an interesting exercise - to check up on how I'm doing, if you like, and see if there's anything I should improve. Of course, it's near impossible to figure out the finer details such as 'who picked it', but I would find out as much as I could.

Tonight's dinner was my favourite sausage and squash casserole - planned since yesterday with all ingredients already bought, so no prep was done with the exercise in mind!

Here we go...

Butter - Sainsbury's Basics. British, like all Sainsbury's milk too, though there's no other info on the pack.

Oil - Cold pressed Borderfields' rapeseed, grown by 'Coastal Grains' in Northumberland.

Sausages - Sainsbury's Butcher's Choice reduced fat sausages - the only ones I ever buy (I stock up every time they're on offer and freeze them). They're British - Sainsbury's sells only British pork sausages - and they bear the Red Tractor 'Assured Food Standards' logo too, which means they comply with the safety, welfare and environmental standards found here. Great stuff. British standards for pig welfare are much higher in the UK than pretty much anywhere else in the EU or US, as outlined here, so this is really important.

Onion - Sainsbury's again. Grown by 'Martin Greenshoots', it says on the bag, in Cambridgeshire. Their website says Greenshoots' objective is to help our members to collaborate in producing and marketing vegetables in an environmentally sustainable way, whilst exceeding our customers expectations”.

Garlic - Ummm, I don't know where I got this. I think it was from Budgens, who use British suppliers wherever possible (see here), so that's cool.

Sage - I get this from my garden when I can, but my plant is looking a bit weak and weather-beaten at the moment, so I used dried sage, which I got from the market - a local St Albans business called Sycamore Wholefoods which sells every herb and spice you could wish for (and a few others too) in big bags, plus grains, pulses and other bits and pieces. I refill old jars with these great-value bags. The label on the bag says... 'product of Turkey'. Ah.

Squash - This beauty was from Budgens, under a big 'local growers' sign!

Vinegar - Sainsbury's White Wine Vinegar, 'produced in the UK'.

Sugar - Silver Spoon, who grow all their sugar in the UK and claim to be 'the most efficient sugar manufacturer in Europe'.

Black pepper - Schwartz, 'packed in the EU'. (I'm guessing you probably can't grow black pepper in this country.) Schwartz's parent company, McCormick, says here "Over the years... we have created joint ventures in India and Indonesia, developed key strategic alliances in other major spice growing countries and generated a network of over 150 suppliers. Our joint ventures and strategic alliances provide year-round work for more than 1,000 employees, offering fair wages, medical assistance and advancement opportunities."

Chopped tomatoes - Sainsbury's Basics, 'produced in Italy'.

Cannellini beans - Sainsbury's. These say 'produced in the UK', which pleasantly surprises me!

Stock - From a Knorr Chicken Stock Pot. Knorr seem to have most of their factories in Germany, Austria and Switzerland, and are owned by Unilever, one of those huge global corporations I automatically don't quite trust. But Unilever's website is pretty encouraging, with details of their three big goals to halve the environmental footprint of their products, 'help more than one billion people take action to improve their health and well-being', and source 100% of their agricultural raw materials sustainably - and it seems they invest billions a year in communities and have strict standards for their suppliers which ban child labour, less-than-minimum wages, poor working conditions and the like.

Potatoes - Charlotte spuds from Sainsburys, grown in Cornwall.

Peas - Birdseye 'Field Fresh' Garden Peas, which means they were grown either in Lincolnshire, Yorkshire or Perthshire, using "sustainable farming methods". Nice.

That's eleven out of fifteen products from the UK (one from Turkey, one from Italy, two don't-knows), Red-Tractor-approved meat, and eight companies clearly striving for welfare, fairness, sustainability and low environmental impact. Not bad at all.

So what should I change?

If I grew more and stored better I could perhaps have been eating my own potatoes, peas, squash, onions, garlic and maybe even beans in the winter - that's an ongoing process and I'm sure I'll keep getting better and better at it. But there's nothing inherently bad about industry or trade - Britain's businesses need our support, of course, and so do food growers and communities abroad. I use a heck of a lot of chopped tomatoes, but I want to preserve some of my own this year, which will hopefully cut down those particular food miles.

I don't really think the black pepper is a massive problem, and it seems like the company's doing right by its suppliers. The sage from Turkey is a surprise - surely we grow sage here in England that would be more economical? I looked for information on where and how Sycamore Wholefoods sources its goods but they don't appear to have a website - maybe I'll chat to them next time I'm there and find out.

Then there's the stock. Nothing really bad going on, and I like the Knorr stock pots - and honestly, I'm not about to start making my own on a regular chuck-it-in-for-a-bit-of-extra-oomph basis. But perhaps there is a better option; Kallo's stock cubes are all organic and natural, made in the UK and Europe only, and the company is commited to sustainability, fair trade, recyclable packaging and all other good things. And they're cheaper. And they have a low-salt option. Right then, decision made.

And what have I learned?

Well, it looks like even the global giants are really pushing for sustainable and fair principles these days - great news - and we're seeing things like hydrogenated fats and monosodium glutamate slip more and more out of use.

I've learned that, though I got lucky this time, I don't always pay enough attention to where vegetables come from when I buy - I didn't know what to expect about most of these items until I went round the kitchen and checked. Buying British is important to me - I just need to remember that more often while I'm actually shopping! And I don't buy much organic stuff, do I?

And I've learned - okay, reaffirmed - that Sainsbury's is pretty awesome! A glance through their policies shows they source produce from the UK absolutely whenever possible (of foodstuffs that can be grown in this country, they say they source over 90% from Britain) with 100% of their milk, eggs, fresh chicken and frozen whole chickens, fresh sausages, and own-brand crisps and ice-cream all British, plus 100% of lamb when in season, and all cooked hams. All their bananas, coffee, tea and chocolate are fair trade, all their tuna is pole-and-line caught, and they're working hard towards using only sustainable palm oil. They use regional produce as much as possible, they use MSC certified fish whenever possible and keep a close eye on sustainability when it's not, all their kitchen towel, tissues and toilet roll are FSC certified, they have over 800 organic lines, they don't use hydrogenated fats, and they're committed to reducing waste, improving health and reducing their carbon footprint. As supermarkets go, it rocks.

Interesting. Well I thought so. I might even try it again a few more times.

Anyone else care to take up the challenge and assess your next meal?

Or do you see anything else wrong here that I should fix?

Thursday 16 February 2012

Survival Gardening - Twelve Vital Principles

I've had a funny feeling about 2012 ever since the new year hangover wore off. I'm not one to worry about ancient prophecies, and I dunno, maybe I've just got too much time on my hands, but with the next great depression predicted, potentially disruptive solar activity about to peak, and the US/Israel/Iran conflict threatening anything from a fuel crisis to world war three, everything seems to be spiralling deeper and deeper into turmoil, and I've been thinking a little about taking a few extra precautions to make sure we could get through a crisis. It doesn't take much, after all, to stock up on a few extra dried/tinned goods and some bottled water, and think a little about how you might get by without utilities or if you were forced to leave your home. Failing to plan is planning to fail and all that. And I know what you're thinking - nothing bad ever happens here in the UK (except the occasional crippling snowfall, and the odd mindless riot, and devastating floods in some areas...), but our food supply chain is more fragile than we'd like to think, as the petrol crisis in 2000 showed when supermarkets warned they were running out of food, schools were closed, and public transport, the Royal Mail and other services were threatening to shut down - all within just a few days - and if the brown stuff hits the fan on anything more than a local level, do you really think we can rely on the government to provide? When was the last time you securely relied upon the government for anything?

Even if you think I'm being dramatic and all that's a bit unlikely, one thing's certain - I ain't earning too much money right now, so for me at least, taking steps to be more self-reliant makes perfect sense. Being a veg-grower already and having the allotment is a great advantage, but we're not nearly as self-sufficient as I'd like to be. Of course, veg-growing advice for beginners is to focus on luxury crops - those that you really enjoy and save a lot of money on by not buying them at the supermarket, such as tomatoes, runner beans, aubergines, peppers, purple sprouting broccoli and asparagus - and that's a really great start. But you can't live on those things, and with a bit more time, experience and space, the goals get bigger... While I'm hardly about to start growing enough wheat to keep us in bread and pasta all year round, there's plenty more that I can do to improve things - and if we ever did have to grow food to survive then we'd need to follow the very same principles:

1) Grow as much as you can. Yeah, like I needed an excuse. The allotment is fully in use and another one is out of the question, but I'm planning to grow more in the home garden this year, utilising lots of my smaller pots that don't often get used - for individual chard and spinach plants - and some large growbag-style planters. If you think you haven't got room to grow food, remember you can still grow a significant amount on windowsills, indoors and out - explore Vertical Veg for some amazing inspiration and tips! Also think about nurturing edible plants in public places. Get to know your native wild edibles, find out how to use them, and nurture them in your local area. Some people have even grown-their-own in public places by sprinkling seeds out of the way here and there (but remember it's illegal to dig plants up without the landowner's permission).

2) Save seeds from one year to the next, and always keep a good supply. This ensures you always have free seeds to grow, develops micro-varieties adapted to conditions in your growing space, and means you're not relying on seed companies every year. Popular f1 hybrids don't reproduce true-to-type - that is, if you save the seed and sow it next year the results will be unpredictable and not the same as the parent plant - so use only heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. Some seeds are trickier to save than others, so it pays to know exactly what you're doing, and I don't know a better place to learn than Real Seeds - take a look. Seeds need to be kept dry and cool to remain useful - keep them safe.

3) Extend the growing season as much as possible, by starting early under protection, sowing successionally for repeat crops, and making late sowings under protection too. A big greenhouse or polytunnel would be ideal, but a cheap plastic greenhouse and a roll or two of horticultural fleece are a great start. 

4) Get the most out of what you grow. This means saving extra seeds to sprout indoors for winter greens too - brassicas are especially good for this - and looking out for opportunities to get second crops from plants. Broccoli, calabrese, cauliflower and even cabbages will give you new shoots if you cut the heads and leave the plants in the ground. Radish seed pods can be added to stir-fries. Lettuces will produce new leaves after cutting. Pea pods can be made into soup (or wine!) Pumpkin leaves are great edible greens! (Don't eat the tomato-like fruit of potato plants though - they're poisonous.) I must get better at doing this kind of stuff!

5) Grow more substantial vegetables. Since grains are pretty much out of the question for me, that means more potatoes (spacing several sowings throughout the growing season), more starchy root veg, and more beans for drying. (Once dry, freeze beans in an airtight container for three days before storing, to kill any bean weevil eggs and avoid results like those below. Ugh.)

6) 'Three sisters' planting is ideal sustenance gardening. This traditional Native American method means growing sweetcorn, beans and squash together. The beans climb the corn and add nitrogen to its soil, and the low-growing squash leaves shade out weeds, slow moisture loss from the soil, and even deter rodents with their prickly stems. All three store well and are excellent nutritional staples, with corn high in starchy carbs, beans full of protein and fibre, and squashes packed with vitamins. Again, I'm not about to grow a meaningful amount of dried maize on my little plots, but this planting method is one I've always wanted to try, and this could be the year.

7) Preserve more. Pickles and jams are the most obvious examples, along with dried beans and peas. But you can dry pretty much any fruit or vegetable with just a little bit of knowhow, and I know I could be making much better use of my freezer too. Most veg can be frozen after blanching, and of course you can freeze sauces, pestos and herbs too. If things go to plan this year, I hope to have a freezer full of chopped tomatoes for cooking next winter, and I'm thinking about getting into dehydrating too...

8) Grow for winter as well. This is something I've always slowly worked towards and this spring, for the first time, I have purple sprouting broccoli, kale and some salad greens which have made it through the winter - hurrah! But now it's time to up the ante and grow more cold-weather crops, earlier, so we can use them all winter long. Great winter crops include many brassicas (swedes, turnips, cabbages, broccoli, Brussels, kale), endives, chicory, celeriac, leeks, parsnips, and lots of leafy greens such as chard and spinach. Some lettuces and salad greens can be grown under cover during the winter too, as well as radishes, carrots and spring onions.

9) Feed the soil and the soil will feed you. I have a terrible confession to make: I've been tossing my kitchen and garden waste in a green wheelie bin for the council to take away for the last two or three years now. Enough! I've reinstated the compost bin at the bottom of the garden and ordered a replacement missing part for my bokashi bin. Buying fertility from the garden centre is expensive and makes no sense! Remember to include a good mix of 'wet' or 'green' waste (raw food scraps, teabags, leafy plant material) and 'dry' or 'brown' waste (cardboard, paper, shredded woody plant material).

10) Include animals in your garden! As well as providing another source of food, they add more fertility to the soil and put even uncompostable scraps to good use. (Vegans and veggies may disagree of course, but then I do wonder how a lot of vegans and veggies might get on if the deluge of exotic grains and fruits imported into this country ever dried up.) I'm not allowed to include animals in my garden... But if things do ever get tough enough to change that - or when I get my own patch - chickens or rabbits are first on my list!

11) A sustainable garden must be an organic garden. Ban chemicals, which harm beneficial insects as well as the pests, and instead nurture your garden's ecosystem by growing plenty of variety, adding nectar-rich flowers to attract pollinating insects, providing insects with places to hibernate over winter, always removing dead matter that may harbour disease, improving your soil's microbiological health by adding lots of healthy organic matter, strengthening crops with seaweed extract or nettle/comfrey tea or similar, and paying your plants plenty of attention to make sure you notice any pest/disease attack before it gets out of hand. No-dig gardening supports better soil health and worm activity - and is something I want to try this year if I can. When you must deal with pests, do so manually wherever possible.

12) Practise, practise, practise. Did you know you can buy (from America) canisters of 'survival seeds' - freeze dried and vacuum packed heirloom varieties certified for up to 25 years - to stash for emergencies? Sounds all very good, but do people that buy these things expect to just sprinkle them over some bare ground and get any measure of success? I'm always learning in the garden and on the allotment, and if my survival ever depends on my ability to grow things, at least I'll know what I'm doing. If you want to feed yourself and your family in the future, there's no time like the present to begin.

Bonus Principle No. 13) In real times of anarchy, it'd be best if your veg garden didn't look too much like a veg garden, since you probably wouldn't be the only one whose cupboards are bare (not saying you shouldn't share, of course, but no-one likes to share with looters and thieves). Three sisters planting would be quite good for this, as the whole thing looks like a bit of a jungle. Avoiding long obvious rows of veg is another strategy - go for a more random look with different vegetables dotted about. Too survivalist for you? Remember four- and six-legged pests will do more damage where lots of the same crop are grown together, and less where plants are intermingled! Fleece might help too. The best strategy of all is to have a back up plan: more seeds to grow, more plants elsewhere, food stored indoors.

So what do you think? How far along the way are you to being able to keep eating if the shops stop opening one day? (I still have plenty of work to do!) Or are you happy enough just to keep saying it'll never, ever happen?

Saturday 11 February 2012

How Hardy is Hardy?

So as you may know, I invested in a supposedly super-hardy, super-tasty, super-perennial Daubenton's kale plant for the plot this year, which has been sitting patiently in a pot outside the back door for a few weeks now.

But since the snow, and despite the relative shelter provided by the house, it's started looking really unhappy - it's limp and has lost several lower leaves. What's up with that? I moved it to the greenhouse a few days ago but it hasn't perked up, and I don't really know how else to help it. The soil is moist (when not frozen) and it has no signs of pest attack or disease. Should I bring it indoors or would the warmth be a bit of a shock? Should I wrap it in fleece as well as putting it in the greenhouse? Is it maybe too small and not strong enough for freezing temperatures? It's supposed to live outdoors all year round - I don't get it. Any advice on how to help the poor thing?

Wednesday 8 February 2012


So winter came after all!

Just in time for the arrival of ten new bare-root strawberry plants. There's nowhere for them to go - all the soil is frozen. I can't even pot them up! They've been sitting wrapped in wet newspaper for a week now - I hope they're happy...

My pepper and chilli seedlings are doing all right in the heated propagator - they're a tad leggy but not too bad at all. Hopefully this early start will get me some peppers before September this year!

There's not a lot else going on in the garden, as I'm sure you can imagine. So I've been watching the birds (and squirrels) instead, and with the fields covered in snow we've had four fat redwing visitors to the garden, stripping the berries from the cotoneasters. They were really tricky to photograph - they move so fast and kept sitting behind things - but here's one:

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