Saturday 21 May 2016

Fixing My Own Food Systems

It's only May, but it's feeling like a tough year on the allotment already. We made a great start, and took advantage of the mild winter by getting everything cleared and the soil prepared in good time, so that it was all ready for planting and sowing come March. But March and April were so cold and windy and forbidding – and so busy for us in other ways – that we somehow still got behind with things. Now, we're just about back on track – at least we would be, but the slugs are eating everything in sight, and the warm spell we had in early May means the weeds are the healthiest thing on the plot once again. And I seem to be having trouble germinating any squashes, which is unheard of and really frustrating.

In the garden, however, I can really keep an eye on things, and the fact I'm going to be hosting one of Transition St Albans' Open Food Gardens later in the summer has provided extra motivation to make it great this year. In the garden I can do a quick two minutes' weeding here and there as soon as I see the need, and I can go out at night and pick the slugs off things. The garden brings me pleasure every day; every time I look out the window.

Yet there's one thing that's really bothering me in the garden. My March-sown spinach plants are bolting and I haven't picked a single leaf yet. My gorgeous stand of rare perennial kales has been virtually untouched all spring. My radishes are going woody. I'm somehow far more efficient in the garden than I am in the kitchen, and gorgeous organic homegrown produce actually goes to waste. Can you believe it? I'm ashamed to admit it. And it's strange because I used to have a great, great passion for cooking, and love to spend hours in the kitchen cooking up complex dishes with virtually any ingredients.

Since I quit my nice safe (frustrating, oppressive) full-time job five years ago, I feel like everything about me has changed. I see the world differently now I've learned different things about it. Some old hobbies and passions have been replaced with new ones – others are just... gone. I've struggled to fill my time, and then I've overfilled it. I don't think I have time, anymore, for a passion for cooking.

I had a bit of a revelation watching Rick Stein's Long Weekend in Bologna on TV last night. It painted a picture of a culture which still makes real, handmade food the absolute centre of their lives; where everyone spoke of the wonderful local produce, and all those involved in making food were real craftspeople. TV is always selective in what it depicts, of course, and I do wonder how true a picture it was of the place, but clearly it was different from the food culture that I know. Towards the end of the program, Rick asked food blogger Enrica Lazzarini what she thought was so 'particular' about the cuisine of Bologna. "The love of cooking and the love of food is in our DNA," she said. "We grow up looking at our granny and mother cook from the very beginning of the day, all day long". And I thought yes, that's what it takes. Growing and harvesting and preserving and cooking and feeding and clearing up and storing and composting... It's an endless cycle. It's not the first time I've thought this, but it was certainly a timely reminder. You've got to be dedicated. You've got to give time. "It's your identity," she finished. "Without food, who are you? No-one."

You probably already know that I believe fixing our food systems could fix or improve a great many of the world's problems, and that food is and must be a central focus of our lives. Yes, our identity. 

So is it a worthwhile compromise that for man to occupy himself with more advanced things he must sacrifice his health and the world's by forgetting where his food comes from? Do any of the 'more advanced things' really matter anyway? Advancement is eating the world. Industrialism consumes itself. Automation removes the need for people. Innovation consumes the innovation of the generation earlier. 'Advanced' modern factory farms are poisoning us and 'advanced' modern crops need more chemical application than ever. What is the great goal? Wealth, of course, but for what? Convenience? Luxury? The freedom to sit back and get fat and sick? The freedom to enjoy leisure activities in diminishing open spaces and polluted air? The freedom to produce art about how dreadful everything is?

I'm not about to quit everything and become a full-time home-farmer and housewife – I couldn't possibly – but in the quest to fix my own food systems I need to make time for cooking again and try to get that passion back.

There are people that think I should be doing something 'better' with my time and energy; something more 'intelligent' or 'noble' or 'advanced' or even 'useful'. To me there's nothing more noble, useful or intelligent than feeding those around me real food that is produced in harmony with the natural world; I'm already growing food for us and for the community but I just need to get that spark back in the kitchen. And 'advanced' can go screw itself.

Friday 11 March 2016

Looking Back: Year of Flowers!

Last year I set myself two new challenges: to start a cut flower patch, and to grow some cauliflowers.

I'm pleased to report that my late summer cauliflowers were pretty successful, although varying in size. These 'Autumn Giant' caulis from Real Seeds were sown in April and planted out in May, and by mid-August we were enjoying them. The slugs enjoyed them quite a lot as well... But I'm calling it a success and we'll hope to grow even more of them this year. I've sown them earlier this spring, to give them more time to get nice and big...

The spring cauliflowers still on the plot now (variety 'Aalsmeer') are not doing quite so well; they haven't really gotten big enough, a few have disappeared completely, and I'm not very hopeful they'll provide us much worth eating. But still, I think I'll put that down to 'probably planted out a bit late' and give them another try; anything that crops in early spring is worth striving for as it can be a lean time in the veg garden.

The cut flowers were a roaring success, brightened up the plot no end and brought more beneficial insects to our plot than ever before, and they'll certainly be a permanent feature from now on! We brought home flowers once or twice a week, most weeks from May through to October - and we won a first at the allotment show with them too!

Here are eight things I learned about growing cutting flowers:

1) Deadheading (and harvesting the flowers too for that matter) takes aaaages.

2) We didn't provide proper support for our flowers, but it turned out we didn't really need to. As it's a small patch and the flowers were grown close together, they generally supported each other. They did sprawl out across paths on the outside of the patch, but a simple bamboo-cane fence round the perimeter was enough. I'll put this in from the beginning this year.

3) I'm not very good at arranging flowers. (I'm not letting this stop me.)

4) It's hard to know where to cut the flowers sometimes; for example cornflowers are very branching - should I cut at the first branch, which doesn't leave me a very long stem? or should I cut a whole branching arm from the plant?

5) Cosmos are not actually that great in the vase, with their scrawny, twisting stems. But they're so good on the plot - attracting bees until well into the autumn - that I'll keep growing them anyway. Corncockle, with short stems and a short vase life, weren't terribly useful either, but again the bees loved them so I might grow one token plant...

5.5) Sweet peas are amazing.

6) Some others weren't so good in the vase either but I know it's because I haven't got the knack yet of conditioning them properly. Cerinthe was the worst - absolutely lovely, but always the first to wilt. Apparently you're supposed to dip the stems in boiling water, which frankly just seems wrong... But this year I'll give it a go.

7) Mixed seeds are never a good mix. My 'mixed' scabiosa were all white, my 'mixed' snapdragons were 90% pink, and my 'mixed' salvia viridis were 90% purple. Just buy the individual colours you want to grow.

8) It's SO worth it. Give up just a few square metres of your plot for some flowers and see for yourself.

Unfortunately I somehow missed out on sowing flowers last autumn for an early show this spring (except for some October-sown sweet peas), so I'm a step behind with my flowers this year, but nevertheless I've invested in a few new varieties to try and I'm looking forward to seeing them brightening up the plot again soon :-)

In addition to the annuals and biennials I plan to sow, I've got a few other flowers coming up...

Our local nursery, Aylett Nurseries, is a bit of a dahlia specialist and has a dahlia show every September. I went along for the first time last year and, though I find some dahlias a bit too much, was wowed by the bright colours and the huge variety...

So I've invested in a single 'Finchcocks' dahlia tuber (pictured above, bottom right), just to see how I go with it... Actually it's not my first dahlia; I have a compact, dark-leaved 'Mystic Illusion' in a pot. As you probably know by now, I'm really not one for fiddling about with plants with complex needs, so there was no digging up tubers when winter came; I just bunged the pot in the summer house and hoped for the best...

Anyway, today I potted up my new tuber in some compost in the summer house to start sprouting. I doubt this one will get any coddling either; I may just mulch it in winter and see how it does by itself.

I bought a verbena bonariensis 'Lollipop' plant last summer just because the butterflies and bees seem to love it so much, and I adore that deep purple glow - but this could be a good cutting flower too, and it's now planted out by the side of our pond on the allotment. I heard they self-seed easily, so I crumbled some of the seed heads over a tray of compost last autumn, stuck it at the back of the greenhouse, and whaddaya know...

I can't possibly use all of these seedlings, but I pricked some out and potted them up today so that now I can enjoy them in the garden as well as at the allotment - and so can the bees :-)

Monday 15 February 2016

And We're Off!

I don't feel quite right these days when I'm not actively growing things; in winter my green fingers begin to itch, and boredom and frustration creep in, and it's a huge relief when February arrives and I can justify getting a few early seeds started. I used to wait until mid-Feb - Charles Dowding recommends this as there are ten hours of daylight or more from this time and seedlings are less likely to get leggy - but I sometimes feel that my chillies and things are a bit behind, so this year I started sowing slightly earlier; at Imbolc, which marks the halfway point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox.

So here we are; my first (slightly leggy) seedlings are tucked up in the heated propagator, the seed potatoes are chitting, and I've even treated myself to a nice new cloche to get some things started early outside in the raised bed.

Last year I vowed not to bother with peppers and chillies this year and concentrate on plants that would actually crop for me instead; they're a lovely idea but without a polytunnel or greenhouse they just don't seem to be worth it here, and end up a waste of space. Of course, when I actually got round to sowing it was hard to stick to that decision  - I just wanted to sow as many things as I could get away with, and I had to remind myself of those past failures! But I did allow myself two varieties: 'Basket of Fire' chillies, which I'll grow under a bell cloche to see if that helps them along, and some 'Ancho' chillies which I did really well with a couple of years ago. I also started some 'Bonica F1' aubergines, and two each of three early tomato varieties; 'Latah', 'Stupice' and 'Jen's Tangerine'. I'll sow some more when I sow the other tomatoes in March, and see if the early start really made any difference... Germination has been excellent, except from the 'Ancho' chilli seeds which are a bit old. I'll set the seedlings deeper when I pot them up, to counter the legginess.

I've also started some 'Monarch' celeriac, and some 'Golden Spartan' celery - a variety we saw looking particularly impressive at Wisley last autumn. (It's no guarantee we'll be able to replicate the success of the Wisley gardeners, of course!) We've never succeeded with celeriac yet, so let's hope it's third time lucky... These seeds are in an unheated propagator indoors on a windowsill.

Potato varieties chosen this year include 'Pentland Crown' and 'King Edward' which both did well for us previously, plus 'Desiree' on the recommendation of several Twitter friends. I've always steered clear of red-skinned potatoes, mostly due to a memory of eating them weirdly soaked in vinegar at a French friend's house as a child... But they've gotta be worth a try, right? For earlies to grow at home, I really wanted 'Accent' - we grow them at FoodSmiles and they produce extremely well and taste delicious - but couldn't seem to find them except by mail order, with a £5 delivery fee of course! So I settled on 'Home Guard'. Then, at Seedy Sunday in Brighton last weekend, there they were; I picked up not only six 'Accent' but six 'Yukon Gold' to try too! We certainly won't be short of potatoes this summer...

My new cloche is from Harrod Horticultural; a rigid plastic thing that slots together in sections, so I can extend it in future if I want, and it seems very sturdy indeed. It has indentations in the roof to collect rainwater and let it drip through tiny holes to water the plants, so it shouldn't dry out beneath and is easy to water, and it's so much simpler to handle than faffing about with fleece, which I detest. As soon as I've cleared space (the right space) on the raised bed, I'll get it in place, let the soil warm for a week or so, and then start sowing early carrots, spinach, lettuce, radishes, rocket and spring onions under it.

So off we go! Another growing season begins. Isn't it funny how every one is just as exciting as the last? :-)

Tuesday 26 January 2016

Conquering Compost

They say composting is easy. They say you just chuck your garden and kitchen waste in a big box and leave it a year. Then they talk about greens and browns, and layering, and mixing, and activating it if it's not going well. They talk about insulating it, ventilating it, aerating it, covering it, making sure it's not too wet, making sure it's not too dry. Then they talk about formulae; two thirds brown and one third green, or maybe it's 90% brown and 10% green (and what kind of waste do we create more of? Green!), or maybe it's half and half. Then some guy says you've gotta add ash or clay, and another says you've gotta buy worms, and another says you need a bokashi bin, and another says a hotbin is the only way, and another says you only get really good compost if your heap is three cubic yards. One guy says you have to turn it regularly and another guy says never turn it. Then there are the big questions: how hot does your heap get? Is that really properly-formed humus, or is it just decomposed organic matter? Let me tell you, compost is THE number one most hotly debated subject at our community veg-growing plot at FoodSmiles.

Me, I find life's too busy to worry about it very much. On our allotment, we have a two-cell bin made of pallets. We fill it up, it sinks a bit, we keep filling it up until we can't fill it any more, and then when we have to - usually every two years or so - we dig it all out and use the good stuff at the bottom and in the middle. There's always a lot of uncomposted stuff, on the top and round the edges where it's exposed to the air, so we just return it to the bottoms of the bins to keep going. It's slow going, and the compost isn't going to win any prizes and is usually still full of fibrous bits of root and twigs that didn't quite break down enough, and a few bright white bindweed roots to pick out, but it makes a satisfactory mulch, must contain plenty of nutrients, and disappears into the soil soon enough - and I certainly can't complain about the quality of my soil.

Last autumn, though, we were despairing about the size of our compost heap, which just didn't seem to be breaking down at all. It may be because we moved it into the part-shade of a tree, or because of the big piece of cardboard we threw in without tearing it up, or maybe we just produced more waste than usual for some reason. But we couldn't add any more to the mountain - we even had to start a new heap in another corner temporarily.

In November we started forking all the uncomposted matter off the top onto an empty bed. We didn't have time to finish the job and it just sat there all through December, but yesterday, at last, we got back to it. We forked out the rest of the uncomposted stuff, piled the good stuff into the right-hand bin (plus three plastic dustbins) ready for use, and piled the uncomposted stuff back into the left-hand bin.

We also wrapped black plastic sheeting round the bins and stapled it in place. Despite the popularity of compost bins constructed from old pallets and a lingering notion that bins should be well-ventilated, I've noticed lately that bins without ventilation seem to be much more effective, and by enclosing the waste you don't get a layer round the outside that dries out and doesn't break down. We'll have to find a lid as well, I think...

Somehow, almost everything fitted back into the bins (we did also fill three 80 litre plastic dustbins with good stuff), and despite mostly ignoring the bins for two years, one of them was 80% or more good compost and the other about 50%. The mountain is no more - hurrah!

I guess composting is easy...
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