Thursday, 25 December 2008

Christmas Day Vegetables

After the lights went out around 8.p.m last night due to a fault (no chance of getting anyone out until Boxing Day) and I woke up to a blocked sink I admit Christmas stress started to get to me...

My three year old daughter and her beautiful smile saved the day. Looking at her I feel humbled, she is still totally happy with quite simple things.

Oh and then there's the prospect of fresh organically grown vegetables for Christmas dinner.

What's on the menu?

- A little home grown Giant Winter Spinach.
- Leeks (we have enough to last until February)
- Brussel Sprouts reared in pots
- Fresh Sage for Sage and Onion Stuffing
- Potato Dauphinoise with plenty of home grown garlic from the store

Didn't grow the carrots in the picture, great colour though. Maybe next year.
Enjoy yours and Happy Christmas all.

Wednesday, 17 December 2008

Last minute gifts

I've just looked at the Amazon website and there are only TWO days left to order for a Christmas delivery, so if you're still looking for something for that special someone here's the link to my recommended list again:

There are FIVE books I haven't commented on yet. So here's why I like them:

This would make a great stocking filler for anyone who is thinking about growing their own. Lovely pictures and gives you the basics to start. You can read it in fifteen minutes.

2.ALLOTMENT GARDENING: AN ORGANIC GUIDE FOR BEGINNERS by Susan Berger. Useful for someone on the waiting list for a plot, or who is just starting off. Sound and clear advice, what to do month by month and hearty recipes.

3.GROWING FRUIT AND VEGETABLES (organically) ON A BED SYSTEM - by Pauline Pears Everything you need to know on this topic - including really smart planting plans for small spaces.

Growing your own is all very well, but to save money and time you need to store your produce properly. This book shows you how, with dinky illustrations.

5.ORGANIC GARDENING - the NO DIG WAY by Charles Dowding.
Thanks Charles, for giving us inspiration and saving me time and energy with your no-dig sense. I'm a fan.

So folks, like I said, if you're floundering around for gifts, you can't go wrong if you buy these. Order today or tomorrow and they'll be with you in time for Christmas.... have a good one...

Here's the store link once again:
If you like this blog, buying from this link helps me to carry on writing it!

Don't Dig!

Every autumn on our site I see fellow allotmenteers stumbling up and down the paths, taking a break from their ritual seasonal digging. Usually they're groaning, if not in some sort of physical pain! The question is...


Alright, I understand some people LIKE digging. Good luck to them and if they really need the extra exercise, then fine.

But some of the finest organic gardeners like CHARLES DOWDING haven't DUG for the past TWENTY FIVE YEARS.

If the NO-DIG approach is good enough for a highly successful organic market gardener like Charles, then it's good enough for me!

Here's how I went about establishing my own no-dig system in brief:

Using a LOOSEN and LIFT system I removed all the perennial weeds I could find (things like dandelions, nettles and thistles) with a fork.

I don't intend to DIG OVER my plot ever again now that the majority of these weeds are out. All the evidence I've found (including my own practical experience) tells me that digging can actually INCREASE the rate at which weeds regrow, and it can actually DAMAGE rather than IMPROVE the soil structure. So I now use mulching to keep the weeds down. (I'll come back to this one)

As you can see from previous posts - I'm raising my own plug plants at home to plant out, so I rarely need the 'fine tilth' that mainstream gardening books often speak about. (When the small plants are planted out, they are generally sturdy enough to copy with larger soil particles). In the main I would spend the time having a break - sitting on my deck chair and letting the WORMS do the hard work.

To those who remain sceptics I'd say - spend some time with Charles Dowding's site Don't knock it until you've tried it and you could save yourself a lot of time and trouble!

Sunday, 14 December 2008

Is it really CHEAPER to grow your own?

Connected with my alter ego - BBC GARDENER'S QUESTION TIME on the radio today. (For non-Brits - this is a radio show which started up more than thirty years ago).

Opposites don't always attract - I'd got fed up with the programme in the past, as they only seemed to be talking about obscure (and expensive) flowers I'd never heard of.

Lately though, I've been listening in more regularly as they seem to be doing (more useful and free) tips on fruit and vegetable growing. Today's offering featured a question close to our budget conscious hearts:

'IS IT REALLY CHEAPER TO GROW YOUR OWN?' (especially with the supermarkets battling it out with discount fruit and veg...)

Peter Seabrook (Gardening Editor of 'The Sun'), Juliet Roberts (editor of 'Gardens Illustrated') and Tim Rumball (of 'Amateur Gardening' magazine) exchanged contrasting views.

Tim kicked off the debate with a suprisingly critical take on mainstream gardening media:

'I'm a fanatic fruit and veg grower - but I do think though that we have a PROBLEM...and that problem is that we are leading the public astray (I've been guilty of this) by encouraging them to grow fruit and vegetables at home with the false promise that it is EASY and that it will save them money - the truth is that it NOT EASY and it almost certainly won't save you money. There's no more certain way of putting people off gardening than FAILURE.'

Juliet reckoned your own veg plot might not save you money, but for the 'greater good' it was important, as it reduced freight costs, environmental costs and packaging.

Peter wished 'more of the media people would actually grow their own', as the 'advice new entrants received was often misleading'.

Here are the panel's positive tips in brief:
  1. Grow your own, it's a fantastic thing to do, you'll get the best produce ever, you can experiment - but be prepared to spend a little time learning and getting it right.

  2. Buy some books, seek out some gardening friends, learn as much as you can - have fun whilst you are experimenting...

  3. Try and find a MENTOR...and when they give you advice, and if it doesn't work GO BACK TO THEM - don't get advice from lots of sources.

All in all, quite a good discussion - what a shame no one on the panel mentioned ORGANIC GROWING and how it can save you money, resources, CO2 emissions...

(If you didn't catch GARDENER'S QUESTION TIME today, use the LISTEN AGAIN function on the BBC website - click here:

Wednesday, 10 December 2008

Kitchen Garden Trench Composting

Compost is the soul of every organic garden. I set up eight heaps this year, but the black stuff won't be ready until late Spring at the earliest. In the meantime our piles of kitchen peelings are mounting up. Good news...

It's not too late in the year to try kitchen garden trench composting.

You can do this up until Christmas if the weather allows. It is particularly useful for people who might have moved into a new house and lost their top soil (sometimes the builders take it away and sell it) - or for people who need to enrich free draining sandy soil. Kitchen waste is a free resource and come Spring you can plant beans, peas or courgettes on the bed and they will love the enriched and moisture retentive soil.

Here is how I used this technique in a raised bed:

STEP ONE - Dig a trench or hole about one spade deep.
STEP TWO - Collect some kitchen waste - vegetable and fruit matter only please, not including potato peelings - (they sometimes sprout) or cooked waste. I kick start the composting process at home with Bokashi bran - which is really useful to use if you only have a small kitchen. I get mine online along from 'Recycle Now' along with other reasonably priced composting items (including compost bins) but they should have it in your garden centre.
STEP THREE - Put the waste in the trench. If you have a lot you might need to layer it with more soil.
STEP FOUR - Cover the whole lot with soil. To insulate, (keeps the worms happy) top the lot off with cardboard and something to stop it blowing away.
Sceptics say doing it like this will attract rodents and foxes. Done properly though, it doesn't. The trick is to bury the waste deep enough. If you want to go by the Organic Gardener's 'Bible' check out page 48 of 'The Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening'. More about this book on my Amazon store link (click here):

The Turning

What's the scene on your high street just now? Ours is stuffed full of contradictions. There's the glitter and the stressed out (but still smiling) faces...

Shop windows shout huge discounts. Inside staff wonder if they'll have a job in the New Year.

People are falling behind on their mortgage repayments. More homelessness. Teachers know the changes will affect the leafy-laned schools as well as the inner cities as pupil behaviour is set to worsen as the recession hits.

It's a good three years since I wrote 'Fuelling the Future' - a feature first published in 'The Green Parent' magazine. It's about 'Peak Oil' and the effect it is having on the global economy. It was a challenging piece to write, and it changed me. You can read it here:

The picture shows a 'Newton Wonder' apple tree I inherited from a previous occupant of my allotment. It is a good size and must be at least forty years old. I pruned it quite heavily, planted a clover and rye grass lawn around, and gave it a dressing of manure. This year the crop was amazing - and the apples stayed on until December.

The Guardian reported today :
For millions of people in developing countries, eating the minimum amount of
food every day to live an active and healthy life is a distant dream...(from the U.N Food and Agriculture Organisation's hunger report).
I take my questions with me to the veg patch.

If there is a widespread recognition that the UK food system's 'dependence on oil will have to change' - why are governments and local authorities so slow to act in support of people who want to grow their own?

There are still a number of derelict plots on our site. And there shouldn't be (we have a waiting list). It's a huge challenge to bring land like this back into circulation and a lot more should be done to help those brave souls who are willing to try...

Wednesday, 3 December 2008

Crop Rotation for beginners

Firstly thank you all - my readership for staying with this blog while it develops. I really appreciate it - and all the lovely (and critically encouraging) comments I've received so far - face-to-face and by email. I was honestly really heartened to see that more and more people are following this. Cheers.

Here's a photo of our half plot, which was taken last week. I've called this post 'Crop Rotation for Beginners'. I'm not sure that covers it, but we have to start somewhere, don't we?

It's a bit of a scruffy picture - but if you look carefully it reveals quite a few labour and cost saving techniques which may be useful to you on your own patch.

A year ago, this square plot was covered in nettles, brambles and bindweed. Using the black plastic techniques described in the post 'Reclaiming a derelict allotment' I prepared it for planting. As you can see it is now divided into seven fairly rough looking beds with a path in the middle made of cardboard with wood chip on top.

We are not the 'Ideal Homes' exhibition, so although I like pretty gardens - I also like things that work. Keeping our eye on the ball here - our main goal is easy and reasonably priced organically grown produce - not keeping up with the Joneses. If you're taking your vegetables home though, don't forget to put the largest and loveliest ones on the top of your basket!

A path like this is quick and cheap to make because the cardboard comes free with a parcel, and every now and then someone deposits wood chip on our allotment site which we don't have to pay for. The path usually only lasts a season, but I find this is okay as it is early days for this half plot, and I don't want beds that are set in stone, as I may decide to make them larger or smaller according to our needs at a later date. I also want to observe and learn from the soil and the weather as I go along. Partly in the interests of general efficiency but also because it calms the mind.

Looking at the picture - starting in the far left hand corner and moving around the plot in a clockwise direction we currently have a bed of leeks, followed by garlic planted in October, autumn planted onions just sprouting and still covered in netting to keep the birds off, more leeks, an empty bed ready for planting, garlic, and more leeks.

This square plot also has a Comfrey bed at the edge (out of the picture on the right) and if you look carefully you can see that it is edged by small bushes which are Cherry Plums (I'll come back both the Cherry Plums and the Comfrey in later posts). Now these are pretty (or they will be when they flower in February).

The beds are very simply constructed. They are nothing more than mounds of earth with sloping sides. If you have a large area to deal with (we have one whole plot and a half plot), or your budget doesn't stretch to timber or reconstituted plastic raised beds, making them like this is a good option. The leeks have grown really well so far. You can see a few weeds around them, I did hand weed them a bit when they were smaller but when the cold weather set in, I didn't really bother and it doesn't seem to have done them much damage.

Of course there's a lot to say about crop rotation - we'll touch on this again or you can read more about it in some of the books I've mentioned. Basically though it means not planting things in the same place season after season and year after year.
So as far as this square plot is concerned, I will have to think through exactly which crops I am going to plant in the seven beds in the picture once the existing crops are taken out and eaten.
I would imagine we will have finished off all the leeks by the end of February, so I will need to have seedlings ready in my plug planters to plant out in the leek beds by March(ish). Right.

I don't know yet what these are going to be yet (something to think about on those cold winter nights by the fire). I might have to go back to my seed organiser board - have a look what I've got and maybe order some new ones. If I'm following a good crop rotation system though, I'll bear one thing in mind:

Most of the crops currently growing on this half plot belong to the onion (Allium) family so whatever comes after this should be a member of a different plant family, potatoes for example (which, along with tomatoes belong to the Solanceae family).

Why go to all this trouble? It makes sense to me now to move crops around. You remember the slight touch of leek rust that I told you about last month? As I found out it is a fungal disease, and if I grew leeks (or onions) or other crops in that plant family in the same place all the time, it is fairly likely that this particular disease would gain more of a hold in the soil. So instead I understand it is better to ring the changes and put other crops in that are not susceptible to this particular thing. Simple.

Tuesday, 2 December 2008

Success Story. Winter greens.

American Land Cress. Looks succulent and delicious, doesn't it?

Tastes very similar to water cress but (being land cress) you don't need water to grow it.
I mean - you need some water obviously, to water it - but you don't need to grow it in a stream or anything like that.

I sowed this batch of seeds in my plug planter back in September this year and planted the seedlings out when they were about two inches tall.

Looking forward to using it in salads, (egg?) sandwiches - I'm on the look out for new recipes too. Soup might be good - posh starters for a Christmas dinner perhaps...

Took this picture on one of the coldest days this week - so I know this crop will withstand a frost - in Cheshire at least. Seems like a really useful thing to grow. Especially since a small bag of organically grown water cress will set you back around £2 these days. If you can find it, that is.

This is the second time I've tried sowing land cress this year. The first batch I put in back in March - but those went to seed (bolted) almost immediately and we couldn't eat them. Land cress seems to prefer colder conditions and some shade. So now I know. I'm better off sowing these in September and keeping them for winter and Christmas greens.

Success story!

UPDATE: Just found this link for a watercress soup recipe - using the white parts of leeks and cream. Enjoy!