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.

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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.

A souper weekend

Over the summer we often have eggs at lunchtime, but as laying declines in the autumn and the weather turns colder I start to crave warming soups. I years long distant, I might have opened a tin, but my tastes have changed and now I just want home-made soups. Whilst I sometimes use meat stocks, most of my soups are vegetable-based. So, on Friday I went and bought in bulk from the regular stall in Newcastle Emlyn:

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my ‘haul’

I’ve spent much of the weekend in the kitchen. I started off with spicy parsnip soup – a Jane Grigson recipe. She is one of my favourite cookery writers and her ‘Vegetables’ book is pure inspiration. Second, I made spicy roasted pepper soup using a recipe from Riverford, but with a few modifications, including using yellow and orange peppers rather than red ones. Third, I made leek and potato soup – no specific recipe for this one, just leeks, onions, potatoes, chicken stock and water. Fourth, I made sweet potato and roasted pepper soup – inspired by, but not exactly the same as a recipe from a Women’s Institute cookbook. After this I’d still got ingredients left, so I made more spicy parsnip and more roasted pepper. I still have plenty more veg and I also have a freezer drawer full of portions of soup for two.

Buying in bulk means that the ingredients are very cheap and having room for storage means that I can take advantage of this; but also knowing what to do with all these raw ingredients is important. I worry that people who don’t know how to prepare fresh foods are stuck in a trap of being forced to rely on processed and pre-prepared meals. A friend mentioned the other day that at school in ‘cookery’ classes, all her son learned was how to put toppings on a pizza base and all about the dangers of cooking food for himself (hygiene issues, food poisoning etc). She said that he was so frightened by the horror stories of what could go wrong when preparing food, that he daren’t cook for himself any more. I could weep, but instead I will continue to share recipes and inspiration, to share home cooked food with my family and friends and to encourage everyone to cook their own food whenever possible.

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many lunches to look forward to

Food, glorious food

… all homegrown…

All photogaphed today (25 July) in (or recently harvested from) our garden and limery. Never let anyone tell you that you need lots of land to grow your own food. Our garden is about 6m ×20m, including the limery, and it’s still not fully utilized!

 

Blooming food

Some time ago a friend accused me of not liking flowers because I mainly grow food plants. I was a bit surprised that he should think this, especially looking round my garden at the moment at the amazing range of blooms that are in evidence. If you are ever concerned that planting fruit, herbs and vegetables will mean you can’t have a beautiful garden, think again…

And those are only a selection taken in about 10 minutes… there are also (or have been or will be) passion flowers, nasturtiums, pot marigolds, climbing French beans, potatoes, raspberries, comfrey, red currants, blueberries, squashes, mint, chokeberries and more. I don’t really select for the flowers, but if you do, you can ensure an amazing variety of colours and forms and still enjoy a delicious harvest.

What’s in your dinner?

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potatoes

At this time of year I feel particularly lucky to have access to growing space. We don’t have a very big garden and we have chosen to prioritise food production, so that means we don’t have flower beds or a lawn, just space for fruit, vegetables, chickens and compost, with some paved sitting space that we share with lots of pots of plants. We used to have more space for outdoor sitting, but the limery took that over.

My reasons are partly because I love growing food – being connected to the seasons, eating food fresh from the garden and clocking up food metres not food miles. However, I also like knowing exactly what sort of chemicals go into my food. The Environmental Working Group (EWG) publish a ‘dirty dozen’ each year – a list of foods with the highest levels of pesticide residues. Although these data are collected in the US, the list is of interest wherever we live in the world. In 2015, the list was as follows:

  1. Apples
  2. Peaches
  3. Nectarines
  4. Strawberries
  5. Grapes
  6. Celery
  7. Spinach
  8. Sweet bell peppers
  9. Cucumbers
  10. Cherry Tomatoes
  11. Snap Peas (Imported)
  12. Potatoes

Closely followed by Hot Peppers and Kale/Collard Greens.

From this list, we grow Peppers (hot and sweet), snap peas (we call them sugar peas or mange tout, I think), potatoes, kale and some apples. The bulk of our apples come from friends who do not use pesticides on their trees, and the other items on the list we eat rarely or not at all. Of course you can buy organic produce and avoid issues with pesticides (and we often do), but growing your own delivers so many extra benefits.

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red salad bowl lettuce growing in a container

One of my particular favourite crops is salad leaves. I don’t think that there’s any substitute for freshly picked leaves. By growing your own, you can avoid packaging, the threat of salmonella, exploitation of workers and the use of chlorinated water for washing them – all issues that have been identified as being linked to bagged leaves sold in supermarkets (details here). And you don’t even need a garden – you can plant cut-and-come-again varieties of lettuce, along with oriental greens in pots, in window boxes, or in trays on your windowsill. Let the leaves grow up and then harvest them by trimming with scissors and allow them to grow back. If you plant a few trays in succession, you can supply yourself with a regular harvest for several months. And honestly, the taste just doesn’t compare with leaves that have been encased in plastic for a couple of weeks in a modified atmosphere so they don’t go off.

Herbs are another great windowsill crop and it’s lovely to pick your own fresh seasonings, even if you don’t have space to grow anything else.

So, however small your space, I encourage you to plant something to eat – you won’t regret it!

Peaceful Sunday

I was going to call this “Silent Sunday” and just post some pictures of the garden after a few days of sunshine and rain. However, I went into the fruit cage to take some photos and it was anything but silent, which large numbers of bees (not one of which I was able to photograph) buzzing around the raspberry flowers. So, rather, this Sunday is peaceful and pictureful, both outdoors…

… and indoors…

I hope you too are surrounded by peace and abundance today.

Sunny gardening

Us Brits are well known for being weather obsessed, so you will forgive me for telling you that the past few days have been glorious. The weather has been lovely and so this weekend has been all about planting. I had intended to complete my sketchbook contribution this weekend, but the timing of the good weather made it ideal for planting some of this year’s crops. The forecast for next weekend (when there are two bank holidays) is poor, so crafting is much more likely then.

In the past few days I have (whist wearing my new apron) potted up tomatoes and sowed lots of seeds: squashes, courgettes, a variety of purple sprouting broccoli that sprouts in the summer, chives, parsnips, asparagus peas, various lettuces, mizuna and rocket. I’ve cleaned out pots, weeded and removed brambles. From the shed I retrieved a plastic bin with a lid and filled it with nettles and water to turn into nitrogen-rich liquid feed – it gets stinky, but it’s good stuff and it’s free. And I planted a whole raised bed with potatoes and netted these to prevent Max (who I think is some sort of potato hound) from digging them up and eating them.

I’ve also been admiring the growth of other plants in the limery – lettuces, melons, lemongrass seedlings and carnivores:

The sun has gone in now, hence finding the time to write, but I am feeling very satisfied with my activities. What have you been up to this weekend?

Sow far sow good

Regular readers may have been wondering about the limery… well, now it’s time to plant seeds, the wide windowsills have come into their own. It’s lovely to know there’s plenty of space to give our crops a good start in life.

Already germinated and growing are broad beans, melons, peppers, chillies, tomatoes, oregano, parsley, sage and salad leaves (we are eating these – they are cut and come again). Planted today were leeks, courgettes, winter squash (five varieties), garlic chives, kale, runner beans, French beans and sunflowers. There are also potatoes chitting and the two citrus trees (one orange and one lime) are growing well and will be good to move outside once the risk of frost is over.

I cannot express how happy I am about all this – everyone needs a limery!

Daily pinta

Today's pint

Today’s pint

There used to be an advertising slogan in the UK ‘drinka-pinta-milka-day’… being lactose intolerant rather puts the kibosh on this, but currently I am picking  a pint of raspberries every day. It’s turning out to be a very good year for berries, so each day I go out to the garden with a plastic pint jug (that’s a UK pint, so 20 fluid ounces) and fill it with raspberries. Once it’s full, I come back in and don’t pick any more – it’s enough. Every day I have raspberries for breakfast with my homemade yoghurt and homemade granola… what a joy, especially if they are just picked, still sun-warmed from the garden. The remainder are being put into the freezer for a delicious taste of summer in the winter.

Yesterday's courgette harvest

Yesterday’s courgette harvest

And raspberries are not the only abundant thing in the garden… the courgettes (zucchini) are prolific. I picked a kilo and a half yesterday, despite the fact that the day before I had turned a kilo of the things into soup. I probably shouldn’t have planted six plants, but that’s what I’ve got! It’s quite early for a glut, but the weather here in June was so good that the plants have just romped away. Never fear, though, they do not go to waste. Apart from soup and courgettes fried in olive oil with garlic, we will be enjoying courgette moussaka (replace the aubergine with courgette), courgette risotto, roasted vegetable sauce… just not courgette cake – Mr Snail will not eat any sort of cake containing vegetables! What we don’t eat straight away will be turned into either soup or simply roasted in chunks and frozen. I love to have a freezer full of soup for use in the less abundant months – it’s so good to be able to defrost a block for lunch on a chilly day. So much nicer than opening a tin and I know what all the ingredients are.

On the horizon are runner beans, mange tout and shallots. All of these are grown without the aid of chemicals and from traditional seed varieties. I just want to remind you, though, that my vegetable patch consists of an area measuring 4m × 6m, with an additional 2.5m ×1m plus some pots and a 1.9m × 2.2m greenhouse, then I have 3m × 4m for fruit and herbs. So, it is possible to grow a significant amount of your own food in a really small space… you don’t need a farm. And all these crops help me control what I’m eating and cut down on food miles, to say nothing of making me feel a connection between my food and the seasons, the soil and the sunshine.

Experiments in gardening

As regular readers know, I have quite a small garden, so I have to be choosy about the crops that I grow. For a long time I focused on things that were expensive to buy in the shops, difficult to transport or were simply not readily available. Over recent years, however, I have realised that there are lots of good reasons to grow some of the more common things, especially if they form a staple for us (see my post, for example, about whether it’s worth growing potatoes here).

This year, however, I’m going to be able to expand a bit… not because we’re moving house but because my sister is! Now, I know that I shouldn’t have designs on her garden, but she is buying a house much closer to me and with a decent-sized garden that already has a vegetable patch and greenhouse. So, when I ordered my seeds the other day, I knew that I could experiment a bit more; not only this, but that any excess plants can go to my friend Perkin who has loads of space for growing and who will be just a few miles from my sister!

Making good use of vertical space

Planning to grow lots of mangetout again this year

So what have I chosen that’s a bit out of the ordinary? Well, a couple of things from the Heritage Seed Library: Shark fin Melon (a rather rampant sort of squash from which you can eat the fruits, shoots and leaves) and Callaloo (a leafy green, much used in Jamaica). The latter I’ve been intending to try for a while, but the former was just a whim… apparently it covers a lot of ground, so I’m thinking of growing it over my shed as well as giving plants to sister and Perkin. I have  few other heritage seeds coming from the lovely Kate in Australia… I chose genuine Australian varieties of lettuce, pumpkin and pepper, which will be interesting to experiment with. And then my big seed order was from The Real Seed Catalogue. This included some tried and tested varieties that I have written about in the past, plus a few new things for me and my sister to have a go with: Rainbow Quinoa (for the seeds), Groundcherry, Tall Giant Sugar Pea (this has HUGE pods, apparently), Really Red Dear Tongue Lettuce and a previously untried pepper called Nova.

I don’t know what will work and what won’t, but I’m certainly looking forward to trying out both old and new varieties here and with my sister… are you trying anything different this year?

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