Tuesday, 19 October 2010

Comprehensive spending review. Parsnips, leeks and winter hardy lettuce.

As many of us in the U.K. wait for the government's comprehensive spending review's axe to fall over their heads, their homes and their lives - our allotments and gardens (if we are lucky enough to have one) - bring some comfort - and as food prices and the cost of holidays and days out for the family rise - fruit and veg growing offers some practical help too.

The unlikely parsnips in the picture are momentous. Really. It's taken me four years to get parsnips like that. Our allotment was derelict when I took it on four years ago. The soil was very heavy clay and riddled with bits of broken glass and brambles as thick as your thigh - so heavy for such a long time - it was well nigh impossible to sow seeds directly into the ground. The plot is quite a way from our house, so I had to rely on natural predators to keep the slug population down.

The parsnips in the picture were sown (last March) directly. Most of them are beautifully straight and blemish-free. Compare them to the parsnips I harvested two years ago - when I first started out which forked and got orange parsnip canker - a fungal disease.

See this previous post: Problems with parsnips

Also in this picture, leeks, parsnips, winter hardy lettuce and lots of Newton Wonder apples.

Last but by no means least - if you're having problems with the present government cuts (as well as problems with parsnips) - you might like to check out the the links on the right to the Coalition of Resistance...

Tuesday, 5 October 2010

Autumn in the organic garden

As we feel the first frosts in the air and the growing season slows down - I'm tempted to look back at the two years I've been writing this blog - and the others...we've had our allotment for four-and-half years now - taking it on coincided with more intensive striving towards publication of my writing. Gardening as a metaphor for writing?

As our plot became more productive and our soil improved - I started to write more and more. I've just finished the chapter of a book on the English Early Years Education system - which has been submitted now. The book (if the publication of it is on course - difficult to tell in the current climate...) - will be called "Dissent and the English Early Years Education System". I'd been  asked to join internationally-renowed early years researchers in the contribution of my chapter. The writing reminded me of converting our allotment plot from derelict. Really hard and emotional. Bags and bags of broken glass to remove, and sharp objects to take away. Endless word-composting.

The book will, I hope - take us all back to the beginning of everything. Remind us that our children ARE future generations - and how we need to take the greatest of care in the process of allowing them to BE during the ages of birth and five. Things that we write don't always see the light of print for lots of reasons and that's really hard - writing into a void. I really hope the chapter and the book do. My blog about Early Years Education is called "A Parent's Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage" and I've been writing that for over a year too.

It's time to look back. And forward. The peach tree is pruned and mulched. The asparagus bed is already cut down and mulched too. The leeks, parsnips, parsley, winter hardy spring onions and lettuces are nearly ready to go. We still have plenty of autumn raspberries. We need more mulch, some weeding out and some more compost heaps in readiness for next year.

I'm so grateful to this piece of land for all the things I've learned about growth and creativity in the past year. Not saying all of my writing has been brilliant, but some of it readers may find fairly decent, practical and useful (?)...

Try visiting my newly-created true sustainability and triple crunch series of articles at Brighthub:
Sustainability, the Triple Crunch and Solar Power

Or, the two hundred or so articles I've written at Helium. Here is a link to the Organic Gardening articles.

HeliumEnvironmental benefits of organic gardening.

You'll find plenty there too about Search Engine Optimization and Blogging.

HeliumPros and cons of blogging

And here's to another gardening year...look forward to sharing it with you all.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Canadian Tar Sands. Not the answer to Peak Oil.

Chief Al Lameman of the Cree First Nation (Centre)
with Chester Friends of the Earth and Greenpeace Delegation.
Odeon Cinema Manchester, England showing of "Tar Wars". Sept 17th.
Event organised by the Co-op Bank's Toxic Fuels Campaign.  
Left the allotment behind this week for the city and a big screen showing of "Tar Wars" - where hundreds of people came together to watch this BBC documentary - exposing the ecological and human damage caused by extensive tar sands exploration in Canada.

The message was: no matter how hard people try to take small steps in their everyday lives to cut carbon emissions - all our hard work could be thrown away by the multinationals.

Tar sands consist of oil trapped in a complex mixture of sand, water and clay. According to the Cooperative Bank - who are bank-rolling a huge campaign to stop the tar sands projects - the extraction and production of tar sands emits on average three times as much carbon dioxide as the extraction and production of conventional oil. Fully exploiting Canada's tar sands the co-op says "would lead to an estimated increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide of between 9 and 12 parts per million, enough to take us to the brink of runaway climate change". The oil industry is calling for $379 billion to be invested in the tar sands production by 2025 to massively increase production.

And there's a David for the Goliath oil corporations. At the film screening we had the privilege to meet Chief Al Lameman of the Cree First Nation. Around seventy per cent of all existing 'in-situ' operations are within Beaver Lake Cree traditional territories. Tar Sands exploration is set to triple within these territories over the coming years.

The Cree are mounting a legal challenge. Woodland Caribou are a symbol of Canada's pristine wilderness and an important part of traditional ways of hunting. They are found in undisturbed old growth boreal forest and forested peat lands. This small indigenous community are calling upon the Canadian government to protect the remaining ranges of the woodland caribou herds within their ancestral lands with immediate effect, including a moratorium on all new industrial developments. If this is not forthcoming they will seek a judicial review in the Canadian courts to force the Canadian Government to take this action.

All of these major new projects and expansion plans could be halted if the caribou herd ranges within the Beaver Lake Cree's ancestral lands were to receive legal protection. It would also prohibit a significant number of undeveloped leases granted in the southern Athabasca tar sands field.

Other speakers at the Manchester Meeting included: Jack Woodward, leading expert on Canadian aboriginal law and Beaver Lake Cree Counsel and Paul Monaghan, Head of Social Goals and Sustainability, The Co-operative.

To find out more about the campaign click here : Stop the Tar Sands - support the Beaver Cree Nation's Challenge

See also the feature : Fuelling the Future - Peak Oil what is it and why does it matter?
My article series on Sustainability, solar and the Triple Crunch.

Friends of the Earth on Tar Sands
Greenpeace campaign on Canadian Tar Sands

See this link to find out what the Canadian Government says about the "Oil Sands":
Canadian Government and Oil Sands.

For more pictures see this Guardian piece on the Tarnished Earth Exhibition - currently on London's South Bank.

Friday, 3 September 2010

Peter Melchett kicks off Organic Food Fortnight. Live Chat. The Guardian

Fellow organic and would-be organic plotters may want to tune in to today's Guardian live web chat which features Peter Melchett of the Soil Association. He's taking questions on organics for schools, hospitals and community organisations.

Tune in at this link: Guardian live web chat with Peter Melchett to launch Organic Food Fortnight.

Sunday, 15 August 2010

Peach harvest. Avalon Pride Peach Tree.

 Sorry I've been away so long, readers. We've certainly had some joys and challenges in the past few weeks. As far as organic gardening is concerned - I've had to prioritise 'doing' rather than 'writing'.  This is going to be a short blog post too as I need to get my head down to finish that chapter of the book on early years education I'm writing. (See link at the end of this post).

In June, July and August everything grows so fast (including the weeds) I often feel as if I'm on the verge of losing it. But here is the absolute Star of the Show. You're impressed, aren't you?

Here's a picture of our Avalon Pride peach tree. Bear in mind readers we waited four years for this particular harvest. I've lost count of the number of people who told me you couldn't grow a free-standing peach tree organically in the North West of England. Don't listen to them, I say - where there's a will there's a way...

Over the past few weeks we've harvested over eighty peaches from this tree. My daughter has been eating them like sweets and believe me, there's nothing like a freshly picked peach on a sunny day. They are brimming with Vitamin C, too, I understand. Glory and glamour down at the plot...

Every week now, I'm coming home loaded down with fruit and vegetables. Here we have the last of the home-grown peaches, large new potatoes (Lady Christl) - we use them for sausages and mash right now with home made onion chutney - broad beans some of which go straight in the freezer. Courgettes (not too many but just enough) - apples picked small - which went straight into the Peach and Chilli Chutney I made last week with the softest peaches.

Lots of raspberries too - golden and red.

To look back at the history of our Avalon Pride peach tree - check out some of posts listed below.
To check out what I'm writing right now on Early Years Education see my blog Parent's Guide to the Early Years Foundation Stage.
AND - if you're looking for some more guidance on organic fruit growing, you can't go wrong with Bob Flowerdew's book - here's the link:

Revisit some of my Avalon Pride Peach Posts here. Hope to be back before too long with instructions on how to make Peach Ice Cream. Heavenly.

How to grow a Peach Tree Organically

Monday, 28 June 2010

Community kitchen gardening and the National Gardens Scheme Open Day

With the hot weather, growing, watering, preparations for the Open Day and only a few weeks left of my daughter's first year of school - we've been run off our feet and I'm just catching up with the posting of some Open Day pictures. All in all it was a successful day. Our allotments association tells me we raised £750 on the gate which goes to the National Gardens Scheme - Claire House raised £450 on refreshments and said it was 'one of their best events yet' and the plant stall raised £250 which our allotment society keeps and which will be used for projects and improvements around the colony.

Readers will know by now - this is "Questioner's Garden Time" - I'm not in the business of spin - so this post includes some comments on where we've been and how far we have yet to go in terms of developing community gardening (an organic community gardening) in our area.

Our site must be one of the largest urban sites in the U.K. Our plot is turning into a bit of a show plot for organic gardening on site. It really is very pretty now. We found ourselves on the main thoroughfare on the Open Day and welcomed hundreds of visitors, including our Lord Mayor Councillor Neil Ritchie. I spent at least ten minutes talking to the Mayor and the First Lady about how we had converted our allotment plot organically from derelict four years ago. I'd tied some photographs to one of our apple trees along with some blog posts from this blog. I don't have a photograph of the Lord Mayor as he wanted to take a photograph with his own camera and the dignitories seemed to be enjoying themselves so much on the day I didn't like to intrude too much.

Perhaps the message is finally getting through to Cheshire West and Chester Council that community gardening is something that is particularly important for the welfare of citizens on the ground.

We've had some good news about the Council having completed a site visit in preparation for the installation of our composting toilet. The site is large - regular plot holders cope with squatting-in-a-shed-with-a-bucket on a day-to-day basis but if we are to hold public events like this we need better facilities.

In my conversation with the Lord Mayor I stressed the benefits of gardening organically - especially for families with children - (i.e it changes their eating habits for the better), pointing out that we were enjoying our plot that day with three generations of family.

However, there are still pressing issues that need to be tackled. There are lots of issues which create extra work and make life more difficult for plot holder families with disabilities like us. (There are no wheel-chair friendly plots on site and access is often a challenge for people).

 Before the Mayor left I made sure I also pointed out the derelict plot right next door to our half-plot.

This was the view from our half plot to the plot right beside it. Readers may recall this plot has been in this state for more than a year now. (See this blog post from last year's Open Day). There are around a dozen other plots elsewhere on our site like this and I've lost count of the number of conversations I've had with other plot holders about possible reasons why the plots are allowed to fall into disrepair like this. I explained to the Lord Mayor that having a plot like this next door to you - undermines your efforts to keep your own in good order - simply because you are constantly confronted with weed seeds that are blown over to your own plot. (If you have to manage fatigue as part of managing a disability then that's a serious issue).

Lack of maintenance on this plot has also undermined my efforts to garden organically. The plot and the paths are so overgrown that a neighbour has sprayed them with pesticides in desperation. I'm aware that my compost heaps are just next door to this path.

I'm still not sure what the problem is here - when  a plot-holder has difficulty keeping up their plot - perhaps due to a disability or family circumstance - are the Council too slow to offer assistance? We have a waiting list now, and theoretically there shouldn't be any vacant plots - but there still seem to be plots in disrepair.

Put yourself in the shoes of someone who is looking for a plot - if you were offered the one in the picture, would YOU take it? I mean our plot looked like that and I single-handedly converted it from derelict, but I don't think there are many people will the skills (or the bout of madness) that was necessary to  even attempt this. Surely the Council should be making it much easier for people to grow their own? 

So all in all - it's nice to be featured on the National Gardens Scheme programme as an demonstration organic plot, but despite the hard work, the fun we had and the money raised for good causes - the Open Day doesn't seem to have changed very much about the day-to-day problems we have on the ground.   

I'm going to close with some good news. As most of us did - our bee man worked very hard talking to Open Day visitors on site. I'm very happy to say that due to the presence of his three hives, yields of soft and tree fruit and vegetables have increased in the last year. Here are some more pictures of the hives, the cage he has constructed for them, the flowers he planted around the cages and the lovely posters he put up for Open Day.

And two pictures of the hives:

Friday, 18 June 2010

Allotments Open Day. National Gardens Scheme.

Haven't posted recently I know - good excuses though. Preparing the plot for Allotments Open Day this coming Sunday. We're part of the National Gardens Scheme now and it was really popular last year. Gardening today at my Little Ones school too. They're expanding and developing their outdoor space.

For more about the National Gardens scheme and to find gardens near you - see National Gardens Scheme.

And here's a link to our allotment association website: Hoole Allotments visit the site for dates, times and a map.

Thursday, 20 May 2010

Becoming self-sufficient with your kitchen garden

On the fourth birthday of our organic allotment - which we converted from derelict (when I say, derelict - I mean derelict - at least one hundred sacks of broken glass and rubbish removed) - it's time to take stock.

Our ultimate goal was to become as self-sufficient as possible in fruit and vegetable production. To produce fruit and vegetables for a family of three. And more - to barter with friends and neighbours for the things we don't or can't produce. We wanted to do all this with as little effort as possible.

We failed on the first count - (using as little effort as possible) - as the process has involved a lot of hard work. However - now that our plot is four years old - and now that we've learned a lot more about organic fruit and veg growing - things seem to be getting a little easier. We can get by with two afternoons or two evenings a week work.

So what will we be eating? Crucial question.

Our apple trees (two of them) will be providing us with a large harvest this year - we'll be swimming in apples again. What luxury! One of the trees fruits early autumn - and with the other one - the apples can stay on and be used as late as December. That's useful.

We won't be short of autumn fruiting raspberries. Of course many of these don't make it home as we eat them straight off the bushes like sweets. But that's fine - especially as far as our four year old daughter is concerned.

The blackcurrants, the gooseberries and the redcurrants are looking good - they liked the cold winter - so we'll have the ingredients for those summer puddings that taste so lovely - and they're actually quite simple to make.

We pride ourselves on not having to buy any salad greens all year. We've got various Mizuna and Mizuba greens and Little Gem lettuces growing in the court yard and on the plot.

The new potatoes will be along in a few weeks. They're First Earlies and they were off to a slow start this year. We harvest them gradually, digging them up when some are tiny and we leave some to grow larger. They should last until the end of August at least.

Herbs are a lovely accompaniment. In a few weeks we'll have parsley, coriander and basil on hand, as well as the usual perennial suspects like rosemary. This year we've also got Lovage - which deserves a separate post and a photograph - it's an attractive looking plant - you can blanch the stems and eat them like celery or you can add the young leaves to chicken dishes.

It seems an odd time of year to be looking forward to the winter - but we're doing that too. The beds which are currently filled with broad beans and dwarf french beans will be planted up with winter brassicas as soon as the beans are harvested.

So, in short, this year, for the first time ever - we're aiming to fill up every single bed on the plot - and as soon as one crop has finished we have plug plants ready to fill the bed up again.

We've now stopped harvesting the rhubarb and the asparagus to let the plants establish themselves and become stronger for the future.

We also have staples like garlic and red onions we can use in salads, together with spring onions and a nursery bed full of leeks.

Flowers ( attracting pollinators like hoverflies) include poached egg plant, a lovely Duckling clematis that survived the winter, plenty of self-sown Calendula, Nasturtiums, Delphiniums and something called 'Dancing Ladies'.

Things have been so hectic lately - I'm behind with photographs, but no doubt will catch up on this one soon...I'm looking forward to Open Day this year on the site. June 20th. Stay tuned.

Monday, 10 May 2010

Growing and eating Asparagus organically

I'd resolved to post at least once a week on this blog. This last month though, has been so busy I just haven't managed it. The weather had been so cold for so long, once things started warming up, I spent every spare minute on the allotment, or organising plantings to catch up. Even so - we're talking just two afternoons a week - that's all the time I had. Not even enough time to take photographs and post them here.

But it's been a wonderfully productive time. Last week we finally had our second meal of home-grown asparagus. Inspired by a Jamie Oliver recipe - we ate it with soft boiled eggs and warm, italian bread. When I say 'cooked' I mean - I put it in a skillet for about two minutes and then it was done. As you can imagine it didn't stay on the table for very long, and my four year old daughter loved to eat the long stems with her fingers and dipped them into the egg.

Apologies, readers, for the lack of a picture of my own - missed out on an opportunity there - just so busy DOING - I'm going to try to catch up this week though with words and pictures but here's what Jamie has to say on Growing Asparagus and a useful video on Preparing Asparagus

Sunday, 18 April 2010

What's growing in the kitchen garden now?

Time is short. People often think they don't have enough to maintain a kitchen garden. This week I had just twenty minutes to spare. So I picked rhubarb and a little asparagus and shot these pictures hastily. An overview of what's happening on the plot. We're about three weeks late with Spring this year. Generally (and without having attended a permaculture training course - I've adopted many permaculture principles. Many of them are just sensible and helpful for people who don't have much time, or people who have physicial challanges. I don't dig, some people like it - but no-dig gardeners have been having success with this approach for years now and we do too.

Long awaited daffodills and an apple tree (around fifty years old) - one of two inherited from previous plot holders. I pruned it heavily in previous years and it still fruits well. It's our plot-and-a-half's fourth birthday in June. We converted it from derelict. (And I mean derelict). I shot these pictures with an automatic, compact camera - the colour is a bit iffy, but for documentative purposes they've presentable. Hope you like them.

The Peach Tree. Variety Avalon Pride. In the third year and just about to burst into bloom. I think we've missed the frost now, thank goodness.

Comfrey. An essential ingredient of any organic garden. I harvest it three times a year, wilt it and use it as a compost activator. I'm pleased to say that we haven't burned any of our green waste in four years. Composting is much faster with comfrey and it can also be used as a plant food or a mulch. Although soaking it in water is too much faff for me and it smells terrible. You can also feed it to rabbits (in small amounts) and chickens.

The picture above on the right is a Cherry Plum. I keep them small and they provide a good wind break. It's flowering for the first time in it's third year.
Garlic made it through the severe winter - whereas the autumn sown onions didn't. They usually do very well, so I've planted red onions instead, along with lots of spring onions and winter hardy spring onions.

Raspberries. I've treated all these as if they were autumn fruiting i.e. cut them down to the ground in the autumn. here they are coming up again. It's quite dry at the moment, of course the sunshine is lovely but we do need some rain. I hardly every water anything unless it is newly planted. Luckily we have clay soil which looks dry on top but the this type of soil holds a lot of water and so just underneath the surface it is actually quite moist.

The next picture shows our second bed of raspberries which were planted in autumn.

The plant in the picture on the right is an important one. Poached Egg Plant. I sowed a few in early spring last year and they've survived the winter brilliantly. Of course they're fantastic for pollinators like bumble bees and the hoverflies like them too. And they're very low-maintenance plants. They self-seed. If you've got too many, they are easy to pull up and put on the compost heap.

Blackcurrant bushes. (Seem to have mislaid this picture). Three of them in all. One is quite small at the moment. I'm using the destructive pruning method as mentioned in the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening. That means instead of pruning individual branches you cut all branches down on one in three of your bushes each year. So you still have two fruiting ones. This saves time and the blackcurrants seem to respond well.

Two rhubarb plants, looking healthy. We'll be able to pick some this year. They were planted the autumn before last.

Rosemary. This one is for the bees really. It is usually the first bush to flower.
This is our pear tree in it's third year now. Can't remember the variety (always write it down!) but I do remember it's September-fruiting.

In this air-brushed media world of ours - I feel social realism is important! We need to think about what didn't work as well as our successes! These broad beans were a victim of the poor weather we've had. I planted them in root trainers at the usual time and they didn't germinate well in our courtyard. Then the frost got them and they lost their tops. The good news is, that in year four of our clay soil allotment we've improved the soil so much with the compost we've made and the rabbit manure we added - that we can now sow more things directly. Less work I hope.

You can only just about see these, but on the right here the asparagus is coming up now. It's been a long wait. We can't harvest much this year, but they're delicious!

Very happy to see that this clematis my mother gave me made it through the winter
Some Little Gem lettuces I planted out. We could do with some rain.

Friday, 9 April 2010

What to plant in Spring

Now that the first really warm days are upon us - we're finally able to do a little more in the veg. patch. At this time of year - when things get busier - I have a job writing everything down that I'm doing. So here is a very quick run down.

New potatoes

Still not showing yet. I'm a little concerned as I put them in shortly before a cold spell and didn't bother watering them. Keeping my fingers crossed.


The big news. This arrived in the post this week and I was able to make a trip down to the allotment straight away to put it in. But that warrants a separate post. I did take pictures, but can't find them right now, so stay tuned.

Broad beans

Currently still in root trainers. I'm hoping I can plant these out in the beds I've prepared at the weekend.


Very slow, they might catch up


Planning to sow these at the weekend too.


Showing. We'll be able to start eating this for the first time this year. I've got some good recipes lined up


Not showing yet. Needs some time, but it won't be long before we can eat this, no doubt

Spring onions

These have gone in - but they're not showing yet either

Clematis/Christmas Roses

Very, very glad to say that both of these have survived the winter. So I'm looking forward to being able to bring some more cut flowers home

Cherry Plum bushes

For the first time, we have flowers on these. Must take some pictures.

Little Gem lettuces

These are just about ready to plant out - I'm really looking forward to them as I'd bought a few bags of green leaves from the co-op and they taste of nothing compared to home grown.


Very slow, needs a bit of TLC.

Autumn sown onions

Lost these over the winter for the first time, so have planted some red onions instead


Last of the leeks pulled up today.

Strawberries in planter

These seem to be doing well. Watering is easy.

Monday, 29 March 2010

Allotment Plan update

It's an important time of year - but where we live the ground is still too cold to sow seeds without cover. The new potatoes I planted two weeks ago are not showing yet. That's fine, they will eventually and it's a job I won't need to do again.

So yesterday down at the plot I spent time weeding and revising our planting plan a little. We lost almost all of our autumn sown onions, which is a shame, but then so did our neighbours - the winter was just too harsh and they rotted. So we needed to think about solutions to this problem. Got hold of some red onion sets instead  to fill the spaces and will be planting more spring onions for use in salads and later on, some winter hardy spring onions. The chives have germinated - so these will be useful too.

It was hard work yesterday - and fairly boring and the plot still looked quite bare as the leaves weren't out yet. The peach, pear and apple trees are all ready to burst forth with their buds and I'm hoping we'll get cherry plum flowers this year too - as they haven't fruited yet at all.

After tidying out the shed, I realised that in the last spate of burglaries we had lost our rechargeable light weight strimmer. I hope the thieves are satisfied - may it weigh heavily on their conscience that they have stolen from a family with disabilities and a small child.

Friday, 26 March 2010

Communication and Organic Gardening

Where did that familiar expression come from: "There's no point in doing something - unless you tell people what you're doing"?

It's an expression which is so important for many of us who are involved with organic gardening initiatives and community gardening on so many levels. You might be an allotment holder who wants to pass on some useful knowledge to a neighbour. You might be a community organisation - large or small - who wants to know how to write a decent press release. However you set about telling people what you're doing - you want to communicate in the best way you can.

My own intensive involvement in organic gardening began a mere five years ago. I wondered why - of all the things I had done in my life - that I didn't have practical gardening skills. When my daughter was born, I began to ask my parents more questions about their parents and I realised that both my mother and my father's family had had allotments.

My father's family had a grand total of three allotments. Every day after school he would go to the allotment site to tend these plots - including the livestock they had - (a goat and lots of rabbits). For them it really was a matter of subsistence. As a boy my father hated doing it and vowed he would never push his own children into fruit and vegetable growing.

So my parents encouraged me on the academic side of things instead- and I didn't come to practical gardening until much later in life. Of course I'd connected up the issues. I worked for Greenpeace Germany's North Sea campaign in my twenties - and as part of the Toxics Team we had a Water Campaign which led a huge initiative to convert every school canteen to organic food. They were really successful - and that was way before Jamie Oliver came along. I'm talking the 1980s here!

The urge to food production coincided too with the birth of my first child. I'm not going to romanticise breast feeding. It can be really hard work. Although it can also make many things a lot easier - nothing to carry if you go travelling - no bottles to wash and usually fewer childhood illnesses. It was the first time I had been solely responsible for another very small human being. And in the case of food production - I was very clearly physically responsible. Your body works very hard then - I couldn't go for one hour without having a snack or a pint glass of water (or two). The summer of 2005 was very, very hot.

I made a direct connection between myself as a human being and the earth then. I'm not romanticising this either, I hope. But the connection was there. The term 'Mother Earth' is often used as an insult in this society - and I heard it myself when I was breastfeeding (someone said to me "but it's okay, you're not the Mother Earth type..."). And that's true - somehow I'm not. I wonder why you never hear the expression "Father Earth"?

Why am I writing this here? Well, where I'm standing just now in my life - I'm faced with lots of important questions - like - how do I communicate some, all, or any of this to a new generation? I'm confronted with this every day as my daughter is just four and a half.

I hope you like this new template. It seems more fitting for Spring. Over the past four and a half years since I became a journalist (and organic gardener) - I've tried to sharpen up my skills. I'd like to do this writing/blogging/photography thing better. And I'd like to be a more efficient and effective gardener.

One of my photographs earned substantial praise from experienced photographers at Shutterpoint recently. Let me know what you think. To see it follow this link:

Shutterpoint. Frances Laing

The contrived tree rends a healthy workload

Tuesday, 23 March 2010

Quaker Winter Gathering

This weekend brought a change from sowing and planting:

"Living adventurously" - the Quaker Winter Gathering weekend in Bala, North Wales.

I took a series of photographs on Sunday morning, including this one. It was a great weekend, especially for the young people and the children. A big thank you to all the children's helpers and the organising committee.

There were quite a few conversations going on around growing, sowing, bee-keeping and allotments. I touched base with Lisa Mundle and Jonathan Garratt from Bangor who've set up a new training intiative called http://www.foodskillsforall.co.uk/

The site will be of interest to all those working with schools to encourage organic growing. Good to see you again, Lisa and Jonathan.

Wednesday, 17 March 2010

Strawberry Planters

Things were looking a bit dismal in our courtyard. Partly because I've tried to go low maintenance this year. But there's one project I wanted to complete very soon and that's the strawberry planter. I've stopped growing strawberries at the allotment as I found with twice weekly visits it just wasn't very practical as far as the watering and maintenance was concerned. So this tower was my answer.

I looked at various types and finally settled on this one. As I found out when it arrived, it has pros and cons. It is a lot flimsier than I thought. On the website it actually looks like a solid structure and I was really disappointed to find that the middle section is just a concertina type fairly thin plastic shell. You can find this model easily on many gardening websites - compare the blurb with the reality in this blog post...

It wasn't easy to put together - you need two people and already I'm thinking I wouldn't buy this again. For the amount of work that is involved in filling and constructing it - I'm not sure we'll get the return. The flimsiness of the structure means that I don't think it would tolerate being moved - and the instructions say it will only last three years - so given these points it is also relatively expensive. But that might be me being too cynical. I wish someone would make a solid more sturdy one - send it to me folks and I'll do a review perhaps...

On the plus side, all thirty Strawberry plants I bought fitted in to the tower. As you can see I've placed it on an old filing cabinet so that I can wheel it around in the sun. There's a central watering tube which I hope will help.

Eighty litres of compost are required. I used a mixture of perlite, coir and nutrients/plant food.
The strawberry varieties I used were a mixture of early fruiting, mid-season fruiting and late fruiting varieties. Ten of each. Strawberry Christine, Irresistible and Florence.

Here's what the tower looks like on the inside. I discovered when I had almost finished that I had got the main body upside down, but wasn't going to take it off and start again as I don't think the structure would have stood for it.

So. A little bit straggly perhaps, but here is the finished structure. It will look much better I hope when the plants have grown a bit more!

Not including the cost of the labour involved the plants cost £10 and the planter plus compost - £38.85. If it doesn't work well, that is going to be expensive, isn't it?

If it DOES work well we might be harvesting five fruit per plant (thirty plants) - that's 150 fruits - that's 10 punnets of strawberries at say - £2.50 each...all in all a bit of a gamble.

Thursday, 11 March 2010

What to plant and sow now

Lady Christl new potatoes went in on the allotment yesterday. Didn't bother watering them in as I'm expecting it to rain soon and that's part of my new strategy. Working with the weather.
I was really heartened by how lovely the soil looked and how many worms I found. I must have sowed about thirty seed potatoes this year - rather more than I expected. We'll start eating them in June and harvest a few at a time. They'll probably last until August and they're still good to eat when they are bigger.

Sowed spring onions and chives outside on the plot too. Watered these in with the water from my new water butt right next to the bed. What an improvement! Didn't need to walk the length of the plot with two heavy watering cans. Work smart not hard, I say.

Lost some autumn-sown onions due to the heavy winter, but I've bought some red onion sets to fill in the gaps.

At home in the courtyard things are progressing nicely. I've just planted out some Little Gem lettuce seedlings in a newly acquired deep trough from Wilkinsons. Very reasonably priced. Tumbler Tomatoes are now outside in the mini-greenhouse - along with celery, broccoli and Nine Star Perennial. I'm not sowing carrots in pots as I think it's just two much work. I'll sow them outside fairly soon instead.

Still on the radiators indoors we have plenty of basil. Basil tends to take a long time to germinate. We don't really have any sunny windowsills but as long as I move the pots as soon as I see the seedlings - we're generally okay.

Monday, 8 March 2010

International Women's Day, Chester. Organic Fruit and Veg growing workshop

Thanks to everyone who came to the International Women's Day Organic Fruit and Veg growing workshop I led in Chester on Saturday.

Joan Meredith - a Trident Ploughshares Activist (pictured) and I united under the banner 'Make Gardens Not War'. At the Peace Stall there was an appeal for solidarity with the Yarl's Wood Hunger Strikers for women to sign along with information about why the women are on strike.

The organic fruit and veg growing workshop went quite well. I asked women to draw a picture of their growing space, be it window box, balcony pots, containers, courtyard or allotment. I then asked them how much sun, shade and knowledge they had before sharing some suggestions about what they could grow. I think most people went away happy and some went away with Lady Christl new potatoes to plant.

We were sharing a room with two other groups - Garden Organic's Master Composters and the Northgate Locks Art Project. This was great partly because I could end the advice sessions with: "If you want any more advice about composting - go to the Master Composter's Stall".

On the walls of the room were paintings from the Northgate Locks Art Project. People wanted to look at these too. Local subjects included the canal and 'women's work'.

For more updates on Yarl's Wood see my news blog: http://www.franceslaing.co.uk/ and scroll

Here are two of the Northgate Locks Arts Project pictures:
This one spoke to me because the canal is so much part of our everyday lives and I recognise the scene. I also liked the colours very much.

The second picture on the left appealed to me too - because - well it shows how hard women work in their lives.

Friday, 5 March 2010

Fruit and Veg Growing Workshop tomorrow in Chester

In case anyone local is reading this, I'll look forward to meeting you in person tomorrow at a fruit and veg growing workshop in Hoole, Chester (England). It's part of International Women's Day. The theme of the workshop is:

Make Gardens Not War

The workshop will run at Hoole Community Centre from 12.30-2.00 in one of the rooms at the back (the main hall is given over to dancing, food, interesting stalls like the Master Composters, chat, socialising and the like). Look out for the pictures of bumble bees and follow the signs.

Hoole Community Centre. Hoole Community Centre is on
Westminster Road
in Chester.

I'll be there together with Joan Meredith (veteran Trident Ploughshares activist who has been arrested for direct action against the nuclear threat more times than you've had hot dinners).

We're hoping to entertain, inform and share ideas, I'm going to ask people to draw a picture of their growing space, (be it container garden, window box, courtyard, garden or allotment) and then help them along to success with what they would like to grow. Might do a site visit to our allotment afterwards if anyone is interested in that.

There will also be a stall and information on the wall about anti-war activities and peace issues.

Make Gardens Not War has become quite a slogan internationally in the past few years. As readers will know, I'm a political animal - and so I try to combine my interest in organic fruit and veg growing with discussion on pressing world affairs. There's a lot to say about women's situation globally of course. We're still doing two thirds of the world's work for one third of the world's pay, (according to the U.N). I read recently that only 23 per cent of M.P's are women (must share that with Christine Russell M.P who usually opens the event and last year waxed lyrical about how far we women have come with women's liberation...).

Across the globe many women are forced to flee conflict zones. Some of them end up in immigration detention centres like Yarl's Wood in Bedfordshire, England. If you'd like to read more about this, check out my articles on the Yarl's Wood hunger strike here and here. We hope to send a message of solidarity to the women, children, families and friends at Yarls' Wood tomorrow. If you feel strongly and are able to lobby your M.P. ask them to sign Early Day Motion 919 in support of the strikers. Latest information about the strike check my newsblog; http://www.franceslaing.co.uk/

Look forward to seeing you, there's a lovely creche there tomorrow, so bring your littlees along...all welcome I understand. The event starts at 11.30

Sunday, 28 February 2010

What to sow in March

Time for a reality check. I'm sowing seeds in succession and checking my list for March. So, what shall I start off today indoors? Big decisions. I'm going for Nine Star Perennial and Calabrese.

Carrots Early
Little Gems succession
New potatoes - Lady Christ
Spring onions
Nine Star Perennial
Tumbling tom
Lettuce leaved basil
Salad leaves in succession
Calabrese (Waltham)

Thursday, 25 February 2010

What to plant in March

Only a few days left of this month. It's still really cold outside and I've got a sick child to watch over today so I'm using this quiet time to consider what to plant (and what to plant out) in March. The story so far:

Broad Beans

I've started these off in root trainers. They're outside at the moment in the courtyard. Broad Beans can germinate in fairly cool conditions so I'm just leaving them be just now and hoping they'll get going soon.


My seedlings germinated a few days ago. I've left them on a bright windowsill, but won't consider putting them outside in the unheated mini-greenhouse yet as it is far too cold still.

Little Gem lettuces

The first batch of these germinated about ten days ago - again - I feel it's too cold to put them in the greenhouse outside.

Time to check the weather forecast and think about what to sow next. Oh dear, it isn't good news. No chance of the weather warming up this week. Let's hope they've got it wrong...

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Allotment Plan

By special request. This is quite definitely a 'working allotment plan'. Didn't take me long to do - nothing fancy. Doesn't do the beautiful plot justice though. As to the size of the plot...not very good at exact measurements (I pace things out usually when I'm there) - I get the impression though that our plots are larger than most.

If you click on the photo you should be able to see a larger version of it. The plot-and-a-half is L-shaped. The boxes outlined in red are my Rotation Beds. The remaining features marked with a 'P' are all either permanent plantings or perennials. The next photograph shows which beds are planted up and which need to be filled. Looking at the photograph and the plan - I'm starting to feel we're doing well. The allotment was derelict in 2005.
My planting plan for the crop rotation beds:
1. Autumn sown onions (already sown last year)
2. Same
3. Same
4. Flexible
5. Autumn sown garlic (already in)
6 Flexible
7. Flexible
8. Flexible
9. Lady Christl new potatoes (chitting)
10. As bed 9
11. Broad beans Sutton small (started already in root trainers in courtyard at home)
12. Carrots (sharp sand mixed in beds)
Yet to decide: for flexible beds celery, lettuces, parsnips, calabrese...
My working definition of crop rotation at present is don't plant the same crop twice in the same place twice. Anything else is too stressful at the moment and the soil is not yet in danger of becoming exhausted as it has had so much organic matter added.
Tomatoes, basil, salad leaves in the courtyard at home. That's it!

Monday, 22 February 2010

Allotment Plan

A special 'hello' to the friend who describes herself as old (no such thing as 'old' I reckon)...and suggests my doing an allotment plan - well, yes, love to, it's just that I'm really RUBBISH at drawing - but for your sake I'm going to try to have a go...I realise it might be useful for those following this...by the way seem to have mislaid your contact details...hope to be in touch then...before too long...

Monday, 15 February 2010

Spring Flowers (Pansies)

I'd almost given up on these pansies in our courtyard and was about to whip them out and sow something else. Looks like I won't need to now - flowers in a few days perhaps! What a relief - something has started to grow! And what a striking colour!

Sunday, 14 February 2010

Composting systems...

Today's allotment battlefield site...

After waxing lyrical last week about the labour-saving benefits of a no-dig system - here I am contradicting myself and engaging in two and a half hours of hard physical work. I've decided I want to re-locate the compost heap. No time like the present.

More than one reason for this. Firstly our allotment-and-a-half is L-shaped. Aesthetically speaking - it would be really nice to visually connect the two parts of it, and most importantly as far as I'm concerned - to be able to gaze at the flowering cherry plums which frame the half-plot in my tea break!

The wooden slot-together compost heap originally stood on the left of the picture - last year this was quite a good place for it as I hadn't cleared the bindweed from the ground on the right of the path. But I really wanted to move the structure to the right as soon as I could.

I've got a rough idea of how much green waste we produce per year and how quickly it rots down. We're going to need some huge empty containers again this year, and we're going to need them at the start of the season. I don't want to be moving compost heap containers whilst I'm trying to sow seeds. So the work I did today really needed to be done now. It has been dry this week (never, ever try turning or moving a compost heap after a rainy spell - it's DISGUSTING work).... the sun was shining a little, I figured if I did the work quickly today the worms wouldn't mind too much and I could tuck them up again before the cold of evening descended.

That was the plan, anyway. I should have learned my lessons by now though I mean NOTHING, BUT NOTHING on the allotment goes exactly to plan...

The wooden compost bin itself was bought the year before last. It set us back around a hundred pounds - about a third of our current allotment budget. Expensive then. I expected it to last more than two years and I expected it to be able to move it.

Somewhere I'd miscalculated. I could take it apart alright, but when I tried to put it back together I discovered that the wood had rotted in a number of places and that some of the screws which held the joints together had fallen out. Maybe I should have taken the time to paint it in eco-friendly wood preservative? Admittedly I could have been more patient with the re-assembly, but it wasn't easy by any means.

Anyway, to be really truthful, I think I would now advise against the purchase of such a system for an allotment holder. Sure it looks fairly neat, but it doesn't seem to last long and if you have even basic joinery skills (I struggle with this one) - you could easily make your own. Lessons learned.

Another fairly expensive purchase last year were the cloches you can see on the right of the picture. Someone once told me you didn't need gimmicks to grow fruit and veg. I understand what they meant now. In theory these cloches are a brilliant idea and they look quite fetching. But in practice they are almost impossible for me to use on the plot. The ends tend to fall off. The biggest difficulty in practical terms is that you need to check them (or lift them to water or ventilate) on a regular basis. If I'm only aiming to visit the plot twice a week I simply can't do this so they are practically useless. Unless I use them without the ends, which I may do occasionally.

Back to the compost heap structure. I feel there is an awful lot to be said for a simple pile, covered up with tarpaulin. Here's the next picture in the series, the composting structure is duly moved to the right hand side of the path:

That's a relief. I seem to have lost some of the slats on the way, though, I suppose they'll turn up sometime...

The good news is, there's lots of almost-ready compost in a huge pile on the left and two more large empty compost bins ready for spring. I'm going to have to put a few nails in this frame now to hold it together as due to the rotting wood it's looking a bit rickety, but I'm sure we'll manage that. We're not the Ideal Homes exhibition, after all.

I've covered the almost-ready compost up with a frost protection sheet. There are so many worms in the pile I need to look after them - so that they'll be fighting fit to start their work as soon as the weather warms up. It's going to be a cold night tonight.

A final picture before I go. This is what I mean about the L-shaped plot. Once I've ditched the cream coloured frost protection sheet and the small trees show their leaves - it will all look much better. Looking forward to those cherry plum flowers this year. Fingers crossed. The plants didn't flower last year. I assume they take a while to get established. Either that or there weren't enough pollinators around last year. The newly-established beehive on our site will no doubt help things along on this front, no doubt.

As for the spot where the compost heap structure used to be - I've created more space now and I'm dreaming of a grape vine...

Thursday, 11 February 2010

A vegetable planner

There are masses of vegetable planners out there, but I wanted to make ours as simple as possible. A simple sowing plan designed so that we don't miss any windows to plant seeds. Tick off when done... :

FEBRUARY: Broad Bean - Sutton Plant in Root trainers - 16 plants
Tomato Money Maker Started off indoors paper pots 11th. Feb
Little Gems Indoors 11th Feb

MARCH: Parsnips
Carrots Early succession sow
Little Gems succession sow
New potatoes - Lady Christl
Spring onions
Nine Star Perennial
Tumbling tom Tomatoes
Lettuce leaved basil
Salad leaves in succession
Calabrese (Waltham)

APRIL Any I've missed or those which have caught the frost/slugs

MAY Leeks Early In plug planters, Leeks Late


JULY Winter cabbage

AUGUST Radicchio for the winter


OCTOBER Onions, garlic



Monday, 8 February 2010

Putting your seed order together

Looking back at journals and seed orders can be really useful. This is what our first seed order of the year looks like. (I buy from the Organic Gardening Catalogue by post and make the most of the member's discount). I'm a little late with the seed order this year - had to source my first early new potatoes Lady Christl from elsewhere as they've run out. There's plenty of information on the Organic Gardening Catalogue site - about planting times and the advantages of different organic varieties.

1 x CARROT Amsterdam Forcing £1.43
1 x CARROT Paris Market £1.43
1 x CARROT Resistafly F1 £1.98
1 x BROAD BEAN The Sutton SMALL £1.43
1 x LETTUCE Little Gem £1.15
1 x LEEK Monstruoso de Carentan £1.85
1 x LEEK St. Victor £2.71
1 x ONION White Lisbon Winter Hardy £1.43
1 x ONION White Lisbon 10g £1.98
1 x CHIVES £1.64
1 x CELERY Tango £2.71
1 x BROCCOLI Nine Star Perennial £1.85
1 x TOMATO Tumbling Tom £1.85
1 x Basil Lettuce Leaved £1.43
1 x PAPER AND COIR POTS 25 pots £4.95

Garden Organic Member Discount (Not applicable to Special Offers):

We're not going to grow main crop potatoes this year. They take up too much space and need too much watering. We're not bothering with runner beans either as you need to pick them so often. In spring and summer I'm hoping to get away with twice weekly visits to the plot. Not had much success with carrots yet - (due in part to the heavy clay soil) - but we're going to try again and with the help of hundreds of worm allies and a bag or two of sharp sand mixed in to the beds, we're hoping for good results.

Here is last year's order for comparison:


We've resolved to spend £30 a month on the allotment (including our £36 and £18 allotments bill). Total: £360 minus £54 leaves £306 to spend on seeds, manure, mulch, pots, e.t.c.

Wonder if we'll come in on budget this year. In the past few years I've made a few (expensive) mistakes. Buying a hosepipe system that I couldn't use because the water pressure wasn't good enough. I've got a few seeds left from last year that I need to make the most of too...

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Spring Plantings. Preparing the ground. No dig.

Today I spent a mere three hours out on the allotment. Pretty much working consistently, but with time for fairly leisurely tea breaks. I'd like to share a 'before' and 'after' picture with you.

As regular readers will know, I adopted no-dig techniques about two years ago. We're in our fourth year of the allotment now. There are two basic steps to the no-dig approach.
1.First you need to remove the perennial weeds from the ground (the types of weeds will vary according to the region you live in and the soil conditions). We're talking about things like dandelions - any weeds that come back each year.

2. Once you've completed step one, you need to use a mulch on your piece of ground to prevent weeds returning and most importantly, provide some food for your worms. They need to feel happy, reasonably warm and sheltered - and if you look after them they'll reward you by doing the digging!
Some gardeners and plot-h0lders seem quite sceptical about the no-dig approach. Some people like digging. Can't see the point in it myself. I observed one of my neighbours working very hard 'digging in' the cow manure that they had had delivered today. It seemed to take a long time (at least a few hours). It was really heavy work, unpleasant, smelly and dirty.

As a no-dig gardener, I use manure too. But I don't dig it in. At the top of this post in the 'before' picture you can see one of the areas I prepared for planting today (using no-dig techniques). This particular bed is destined for new potatoes which I shall be chitting soon. I usually plant them out in the soil in early March.

Back at the end of October last year, I started preparing this no-dig bed. There were quite a few weeds on it. Feeling a bit lazy I covered them up with cardboard and placed a thick layer of rabbit manure on top. I'd never tried this before, but basically I hadn't touched the bed since then at all.
Today, I could see that most of the cardboard had been dragged down by worms, and had rotted away. Most of the rabbit manure had been dragged down into the soil too. So instead of digging all I had to do was to 'loosen and lift'. The soil was beautiful, crumbly, not at all waterlogged and even on this fairly cold day in February, jam packed with worms. As I worked I tried not to disturb the soil too much to give the worms a chance to settle down again and carry on doing their job, eating up the rest of the rabbit manure and cardboard and producing worm casts.

My 'loosen and lift' weeding session took me less than an hour. The second picture shows the same area when I had finished. I decided I wasn't going to rake the area over - as I'll be checking briefly again for weeds when I put the potatoes in. You can see how crumbly and well-drained the soil is now.

The no-dig approach meant that I had much more time and energy for other tasks that needed to be done in preparation for Spring. Pulling leeks for example. We've still got masses.

Some are quite small - probably because they went in too late in August - but all of them are untouched by white rot (I feel that is due to the no-dig technique too). Here's a picture of the pile - note the crumbly texture of the soil they are lying on. What a difference four no-dig years have made...to the heavy, water-logged clay soil we started out with.

Wednesday, 27 January 2010

Lovage and Tony Blair (a tenuous connection, I know)

Tony Blair has just gone for lunch. (I'm following the Chilcott inquiry - see my newsblog). So I've popped into the courtyard for a little sunshine and to check a few plants:

I wonder if Tony tends a Kitchen Garden...With the size of the pension he'll be getting - and his lucrative lecture tours - somehow I don't think he'll be tending spuds anytime soon. No matter fellow Kitchen Gardeners - he just doesn't know what he's missing...LOVAGE for example...

Yes, I know at the moment it doesn't look like anything much. That's because it's only January and the poor thing has been covered in snow for weeks. Come March and it will spring into life. Purchased from Victoriana Nursery. Good with chicken. In soups and salads too. Here is a link with recipes How to cook Lovage

Sunday, 24 January 2010

BBC City Food Lecture

Listen to Chief Scientist David King at the City Food Lecture on BBC Radio 4 at this link:

"It's predicted that the world population will reach nine billion in 2050. Simon Parkes reports from the City Food Lecture, where former Chief Scientist Sir David King spells out his vision for how we can meet that challenge".

Monday, 18 January 2010

Spring plantings and perennials/Vision 2050

The snow has only just cleared and already fellow plotters are out in force at the weekend making preparations for Spring plantings. It's great to see everyone is so keen. (Local government rhetoric on tackling climate change is all very well - but plans to do this are still only words on paper in some places - see Vision 2050). Organic gardeners have been getting real about it - and getting our hands dirty - for years now. We have to educate our elected representatives, that much is clear.

Stopped by our Allotment Society shop yesterday to renew my membership and catch up on plans. A sense of relief was in the air and I had the chance to exchange a few words with our lovely Chair, who promised to update me on the progress and politics of our long-awaiting composting toilet as soon as she has some news.

But the best was yet to come. With a bag of sharp sand on the back of my tricycle I headed down to the plot. It's Year Four. With all those additions of home made compost and the many mulches I've put down during the last four years the soil is looking better than it has ever been. The pay off for all that hard work. The sunshine was beautiful.

Cut the raspberry canes down. Tweaked the guttering on the shed. Pruned the pear tree.

The no-dig approach definitely works - soil condition is better than it has ever been. I felt sorry for a fellow plotter who gloomily told me: "I've still got so much work to do..." (they dig the plot from front to back every autumn/spring). As I've said before on this blog: "Why do it to yourself?".

We'll be picking asparagus this year for the first time (April). I hope the cherry plums will flower early - we can harvest rhubarb too.

It suddenly dawned on me that the time to start raising seedlings at home for the plot is a mere SIX WEEKS away. I'm really glad that my approach has been 'little and often' - Spring really seems like something to look forward to now. Hope you'll still be reading then to share it with us...