Wednesday 28 May 2014


Well, I haven't really been blogging as much as I intended this spring, but there's a very good reason. I've been unexpectedly busy with an exciting new community food project...

I joined the steering group for FoodSmiles back in September when it formed - the outcome of a public meeting run by Transition members as part of the St Albans Food and Drink Festival. The idea was to start a CSA - Community Supported Agriculture - project in St Albans. CSAs across the world take many forms, from meat-shares and food co-ops or 'hubs' to community-run farms, but our aim was to rent a smallish piece of spare land from a local farmer or grower, grow our own produce there, and share it among our members, with the aims of reducing food miles and making food-growing and locally-grown food more accessible to the community.

In April we secured a piece of land at the organic-certified Hammonds End Farm, just outside St Albans. It's small, but it's a lovely spot, with polytunnels already onsite, and we couldn't ask for a more supportive landlord!

Starting late in the spring has meant it's a bit of a race-against-time to get all our seeds in the ground, which is hard clay and very stony (the farmer generously ploughed and harrowed it for us before we arrived, but it still needs lengthy prep before sowing!) and a bad flea beetle problem has meant resowing the first of our brassicas. The polytunnels had some big holes and needed repairs before use (one still does), and the organic certification of the farm, while a really positive thing, means we have to be very careful to use only organic seeds and plants, soil amendments and treatments, and keep strict records of everything we do onsite. So as 'site co-ordinator', I have been quite busy...


But we've got some dedicated and enthusiastic members, we've had some great support from local garden centre Aylett Nurseries, who donated organic compost and equipment to get us started, and it's all go on the site! Our potatoes, carrots, lettuces, parsnips, swedes and broad beans are all growing well, we're raising courgettes and squashes ready to plant out soon, and we're about to fill the polytunnels with cucumbers (from seed), peppers, chillies and tomatoes (from Rocket Gardens).

As you'll know if you read this blog often, bringing food production back home and back to communities is something I'm really passionate about, so I'm enormously honoured and proud to be so heavily involved in a project like this, and very grateful to those with the vision to kickstart it! We can only support 25 to 30 members this year, but we hope to grow and grow, possibly producing eggs, meat, and who-knows-what-else in the future, and truly bringing a new source of local food to St Albans. Its hard work at the moment but the plot's already a wonderful place and I know in a few months it will be bursting with lovely fresh veg for us all - and it's great to see lots of new friendships between like-minded people blossoming too!

FoodSmiles is on facebook and twitter if you want to know more or follow our latest updates. We still have a few membership places available so if you're local and you'd like to join us, get in touch!

Thursday 8 May 2014

Perennial Kale Cuttings

Perennial vegetables have loads of advantages to both the gardener and the planet. Where perennial crops are grown the soil can relax and get on with being great soil with abundant microlife, while ploughed soils for annual crops lose their vitality and are more prone to leaching and erosion. An area filled with perennial plants, which mimics nature, supports much more wildlife than an area that's replanted each year or each season. For the gardener, perennials save on labour and often need less care thanks to their extensive established root systems, and plants tend to suffer less from insect damage. Perennial food plants also get a head start on the new season and can help fill the 'hungry gap' around this time of year, after the winter crops have finished but before the summer ones are ready.

The perennial Daubenton's kale I bought from Backyard Larder last year did really well and was tasty and productive, putting out new shoots at every leaf node, but I neglected to give it the support it needed and it ended up a bit unruly and bent-over - and I had to move it to a pot early this spring to make way for a new raised bed.

Towards the end of the winter it put out loads of new shoots all up and down the main stem, and I saw the opportunity to propagate some new plants from it, to add to my new perennial patch on the allotment and perhaps to replace this original one if it didn't make a good recovery.

I'd never taken cuttings before and I couldn't really find any information on how to take brassica cuttings online, but in January I carefully cut a few shoots from the plant, poked holes in some soil in a deep tray, popped the cuttings in and firmed them down. I left them outside in the cold and made sure to keep them moist. They wilted a bit and some of the outer leaves died off, but then they perked up again and seemed sort of healthy.

When I lifted them after a few weeks, however, they still hadn't formed any roots. So I tucked them back into the soil and tried a second batch, using bigger shoots this time as I thought perhaps they'd have more energy. They looked even worse than the first lot had!

I stuck with both batches though, and after another month or so I noticed some looked different to the others; some looked blueish and dark, while others were a brighter green. I lifted them again and sure enough, the greener ones had lovely white healthy roots.

Another month on, all seven plants have now rooted and are potted up and doing well, albeit at different stages of development! Some of them took as little as four weeks and others took nearly four months, but it just goes to show that a little patience and care pays off. The most important thing is to keep the soil moist and the slugs away! The original plant is now propped up and doing well again but still stuck in a pot, waiting for a new home, and I'm looking forward to planting my new perennial kale plants out on the plot and giving the rest away at our allotment association plant swap this weekend!  :-)

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