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

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: 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;

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