Make soil not war

I have been feeling extremely glum over the past couple of days, reading more and more about the myriad ways we are screwing up our planet, particularly with respect to climate change. What saddens me most is the lack of foresight of politicians and those who wield power (political or economic). For example:

  • Sadiq Khan telling the Extinction Rebellion protestors that London needs to get back to “business as usual”, when that’s exactly what got us into this mess in the first place.
  • The supervisory board of Bayer supporting the CEO, despite 55% of shareholders voting to express their concern over the company’s acquisition of Monsanto… and all the issues associated with the fact that glyphosate (remember that “benign” weedkiller Roundup?) has now been scientifically linked to cancer. OK, the shareholders are probably concerned over profitability, but even so, the board still don’t care.
  • A report (the EAT-Lancet Planetary Health Report) extolling the virtues of a plant-based diet that, it emerges, was funded by global “food” businesses that make ultra-processed junk in their factories and (mis)sell it as being healthy for both people and planet… when reliable research is increasingly demonstrating the value of extensive, grass-fed livestock production for building soil and sequestering carbon and the adverse effects of diets that do not include nutrient-dense food, but rely on excessive carbohydrate intake. If you are interested, you can read more here.

I could go on, but it’s just too depressing.

Sometimes I feel as if I might as well embark on a gigantic shopping spree and sod the planet because it’s buggered anyway. And then I go into the limery and see what’s growing…

And so I remember the joy that comes with growing and nurturing the plants in a garden… a practical thing, but so, so important.


a bed of potatoes

On Sunday, outdoors, I planted potatoes – one of the raised beds is now full. I saved the sprouting tubers from last year’s harvest, so there will really be no food miles when these produce a crop. This bed was constructed on an area where, when we moved to the house in 1999, there was no topsoil. We’ve worked very hard to create conditions suitable for growing vegetables. Whilst I was planting, Mr Snail scythed the front garden (man-power not fossil fuels) and the cuttings went in the compost bin, to be resurrected in months to come as vegetables. So, in our future we have peppers and chillies and courgettes and squashes and potatoes and lettuce and beans and peas and carrots and parsnips and kale… the carnivores will keep the flies under control, the passionflower will bring joy to our eyes and eventually we might even pick an avocado (the plant came out of my sister’s compost heap!).

If you read about combatting climate change, you will find all sorts of great suggestions, but for me, the greatest joy comes with growing. Nurturing your growing space – whether it’s a tiny terrace or a vast farm – is a real practical way to help the planet. In particular, making compost and building your soil is a wonderful and effective way to lock up carbon. So, whether you are composing with bokashi in an urban apartment or have vast hot compost beds on your allotment or smallholding, keep at it. These are genuine ways to save the world… and even if the politicians and big food succeed in their drive towards planetary annihilation, at least you’ll have a salad to eat whist the world collapses around you.

Let us grow lettuce

These were planted a couple of weeks ago in a planter measuring 40cm x 60cm

These were planted a couple of weeks ago in a planter measuring 40cm x 60cm

In the past I have extolled the benefits of growing your own (gyo) lettuce, but now I’m even more convinced that if you want to eat the stuff (and I’m not saying that you should) it’s a great idea to grow it yourself. I read a piece in the Washington Post today outlining some reasons NOT to eat lettuce (and other components of salad), but to me they are just reasons not to eat commercially produced lettuce:

  1. It occupies land that could be used for more nutritious crops.
    But if you gyo, it takes up hardly any space – grow cut-and-come-again varieties in progression in containers and you can have fresh salad leaves from spring to autumn (or longer)
  2. Weight-for-weight it has little nutritional value compared to other vegetables because it contains so much water.
    No matter if you gyo, you will be getting fresh green stuff on your plate whatever space you have… it’s a challenge to grow broccoli in a windowbox, but no problem to grow lettuce.
  3. All that water makes it delicate to transport, requiring refrigeration and packaging.
    So transport it a few metres from your garden/balcony/windowsill to your plate and there’s no need for packaging or any special treatment.
  4. All that water makes it expensive to transport (calorie per calorie) relative to other vegetables and uses relatively more fossil fuels.
    See 4.
  5. Salad is the top source of vegetable food waste, apparently accounting for 1 billion pounds (weight) of waste globally each year*.
    Again – gyo, pick what you need and nothing goes to waste except that which keeps growing and photosynthesising and can eventually be composted to turn into more lettuce next year.
  6. Green leaf vegetables (of which lettuce is one) accounted for 22 percent of all food-borne illnesses in 1998 to 2008*.
    Freshly picked leaves washed and served straight away will have had little chance to pick up many nasties and certainly won’t be covered in chemicals to make them last longer or ensure that they don’t have bugs on them. If you gyo, you know where they’ve come from and what they’ve been in contact with. Yes, soil contains all sorts of pathogens, so make sure you wash your salad leaves.

On top of all these things, having started, it’s now impossible in our garden not to grow things that go in salads (although not necessarily lettuce):

Growing like weeds... Calendula (petals look very pretty in salad) and Blood-veined sorrel (yum)

Growing like weeds… Calendula (petals look very pretty in salad) and Blood-veined sorrel (yum)


* According to the article in the Washington Post, although the link to the source of this figure did not work, so we’ll have to take them on trust on this!

** Again this is from the Washington Post article and although the link did work it just took me to the Centers for Disease Control web site and I couldn’t be bothered to search for the actual page that would confirm this figure.

Gardening without a garden

We are very lucky here to have a bit of land around our house that allows us to garden. Over the years, the lawn has completely disappeared as we have built raised beds, constructed a fruit cage, built a greenhouse and (the final straw) started keeping chickens. We have expanded into spaces originally considered unsuitable for growing and now have designs on the small patch out the front.

As I write, I am, however, conscious of people who do not have any land. People who live in flats and apartments that may just have a balcony or even only a window sill, perhaps not even that.  For a while Mr Snail-of-happiness worked in Reading, where we rented a flat for him to live in. The only room that had a useable window sill was in the kitchen, but it was tiled and got quite a lot of sun, so I took him several sweet pepper plants and chillies, and they grew happily there for a couple of years, providing him with some fresh produce, even if only a little. In addition, he had some herbs in pots… a lovely way to add fresh flavours to your cooking.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

However, things like peppers can be a little bit daunting for a complete beginner and, if you want to grow them from seed, it’s best to start them off at the beginning of the year, so they start to get long days as the plants mature. What if you want to start growing something right now? In that case (whenever you may be reading this, and whichever hemisphere you are in) I can suggest nothing better than oriental leaves. Buy yourself a selection of seeds (you can even get mixed packs), fill a seed tray with compost, sow your seeds, cover with a little more compost, place them on a tray to catch any water, water them and put them on a window sill or table in a light place. Keep the compost moist and wait for your crop. First, you will get heart-shaped seed leaves, then the plants will start to grow proper leaves which you can harvest once each plant has a few of them. Snip the leaves off and more will grow.

Baby leaves like theses are not strongly flavoured and are ideal for salads, but can also be used in stir fries, or wilted into a risotto a minute or two before cooking is finished. Next time you go to the supermarket, look how expensive bags of baby salad leaves are and this should convince you that the activity is worthwhile!

Seed compost isn’t full of nutrients, so the leaves might be a bit yellow after a time and, if so, a bit of plant food is in order. Eventually your plants will become ‘worn out’, so after a couple of weeks, plant another tray to get going whilst you are using one… this way you can have a succession of fresh leaves throughout the year even without a garden.

Civil disobedience 2 – down and dirty!

So other than making my own pants and socks and not buying that new mobile phone, what activities could be considered to constitute civil disobedience?

Civilly disobedient chickens!

Civilly disobedient chickens!

Perhaps the best example is getting your fingers in the soil and growing some of your own food. Even a little bit. Indeed, the term ‘civil disobedience’ was coined by Henry Thoreau and related to him going off into the woods to fend for himself and avoid paying taxes to support a war that he disagreed with. You can read the original essay here, but you might just want to get out there and get some dirt under your fingernails instead!

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