2012: growing food in difficult circumstances

I’ve been leafing through my allotment diary, reflecting on how difficult growing food has been, thinking about the key issues of the year, some about battles with weather, others more overtly political:

January
In January we experimented with potato recipes, mainly pastry because Denis has a gluten allergy, & we discovered a delicious potato pastry using non-wheat flour. We also had an excellent supply of main crop potatoes from 2011 stored in our shed for use during winter. So, plenty of tubers to experiment with.

February
February was raw with cold, along with much discussion over access to seed & to land for growing.

This month tested the cold hardiness of our over wintering crops. Snow & frost rendered the soil hard & impenetrable. Yet, the kales were remarkable; I used to leave them to get very large because that’s what I thought you did with them, but learnt the hard way during winter 2010 that large leaves also disintegrate into smelly mush when there’s a freeze. Now I crop the plants as soon as they produce large enough leaves to eat, plant them closer together, so have more for cropping more regularly. I added pictures of the various varieties, with commentary, to my post on kales, useful now I’m planning the varieties to sow in 2013.

February also marks the Celtic festival of Imbolc, the time chosen for Brighton’s Seedy Sunday, an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. This gathering was marked by anger & concern over a threatened allotment rent rise that broke apart the superficially apolitical world of allotment gardening. A petition circulated, with much lobbying & planning in the background. The failure of the Allotment Federation to do anything to either inform or protect allotment holders from what was judged a predatory raid by the council on allotment rents as easy revenue, was also seen as a double betrayal by the 1st Green council in England.

March
Consistently cold, and our seedlings just sat sulking in seed trays after germinating. It was also a month of frantic work to encourage allotment holders along to the Allotment Federation AGM, where the Fed’s failure to stand up to the council was set for discussion. The meeting itself was a tempestuous affair, and dodgy decisions that might otherwise have gone unnoticed, started unravelling. Pottering amongst the cabbages was never so fraught.

April
For us, April ushered in a hosepipe ban, the 1st to include allotments. Wet summers but dry winters, when most of the rain is absorbed into the ground, had left the aquifers dangerously low. We all made frantic efforts to fill our water tanks & set up water collection systems before the ban took effect. At least 1 positive outcome of the Federation AGM was a supply of scrapped wheelie bins for water storage. Instead, the month turned out cold & wet, with sharp frosts, & parsnip & carrot seed struggled to germinate in the continuing low temperatures.

The Asparagus grew very little, although, in 2011, it had started cropping at the end of March; there were suggestions that it might sit in the ground gathering strength, then crop as soon as the temperatures rose, which duly happened through to June. I also experimented with zigzag pea frames, in an attempt to create microclimates in the triangles between the frames for lettuce & spinach, creating shade with the peas to minimise the need to water. Unfortunately the cold, wet weather that started in April continued & the slugs feasted instead.

The frantic lobbying in March had left little time to get our potato crop planted, so we ended up getting them into the ground at the beginning of April, timings we’d later regret – we tend to plant in March & keep the beds covered with builders bags until the last frosts have passed.

May – August
Cold winds continued across the Downs. These 3 months were a battle to get anything to grow large enough to survive the burgeoning mollusc population. I’m sure the blackbirds had a fine time, but our crops didn’t. I continued to sow carrot seed, which germinated only to be hoovered up; the parsnips eventually grew, but the less robust varieties were eaten, along with the carrot seedlings.

Squirrel or rat feast?

Squirrel or rat feast?

I germinated & grew courgette & pumpkin seedlings at home & planted them out under large cloches until June. Courgettes were this year’s success, despite the cold summer, & our search for different ways to cook them led to a couple of lovely recipes. The pumpkins, on the other hand, suffered from strong winds that limited flying for many pollinating insects, & later, rodent damage to those that did crop. The sweetcorn did little over the summer, cropping only minimally & suffered from the lack of any real sunshine. The squirrels & rats benefited from it more than we did – the 1st time I’ve had such a poor crop. I’d sown a variety bred for shorter northern climates, but summer 2012 even defeated this.

tuber blight-these literally dissolved into mush!

tuber blight-these literally dissolved into mush!

While the weather had been uniformly wet, windy & cold from April through to late July, the combination of damp, humid conditions & temperatures hovering above 10oC provided perfect conditions (Smith periods) for the spread of blight across the UK’s potato crop. It rolled down the allotment site & appeared in our early varieties in early July; we took action, removed blighted foliage & gradually dug up our 2nd & early maincrop cvs, so still had tubers to eat through to late summer. The early & late maincrops higher up the hill were hit later, but as most of them were heritage varieties that need a long growing season to develop good tubers for storage, it was disastrous – we’ve never experienced such extensive tuber blight.  Normally we have late main crop varieties in storage for eating through to February, but we’d eaten all our potatoes by the end of August. If there’d just been a couple of dry weeks at the end of June, its likely that blight wouldn’t have damaged so much of the crop.

red goo rather than potato tubers!

red goo rather than potato tubers!

My response to no potatoes or carrots for autumn was to sow turnips, beetroot & chard in August for autumn cropping. I’ve never been very successful with turnips, probably because I’ve sown them haphazardly & not thinned or taken much notice of growing conditions; this year proved the exception. I got my head around sowing & thinning as soon as they emerged. I transplanted the seedlings rather than waste them, as they don’t seem to mind this, although with carrots & parsnips it’s more difficult, often resulting in forked roots. I also did a last sowing of carrots in the hope they might survive the cold & grow on in the spring.

Although we had chard last February from an autumn 2011 sowing, we won’t have any this coming year. Most of the chard seedlings were eaten as they emerged – only a few small plants I germinated in early autumn now interplanted amongst the leeks (Coloma/HSL, growing for seed) – wondering if they’ll grow large enough to pick when the weather warms up.

So much of our salad crops had been eaten by slugs & snails that we had little growing that would normally stand over autumn & winter, so I resolved to explore other ways of having salads to eat in winter. Charles Dowding offered inspiration in his Winter Salad book & I adapted his sowing & planting guide to the seeds & other resources at hand – don’t buy stuff if you don’t need to.

September – December
I continued experimenting with overwintering salads in containers, with the intention, during 2013, of finding the money & materials to build a polytunnel. I also returned to my investigation of how & why growers do the things they do, questioning received opinion, as I thought through how I might have better success with our root crops in 2013. I ended up on a breadcrumb trail across the web, searching for evidence, finding little & concluding most people merely regurgitate received opinion on their blogs or their columns, which is lazy & needs to be challenged. Hence Fanged Parsnips in April & my return to the subject in September.

A major result of my research has been a better understanding of soil & its life. I got hold of a copy of Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s guide to the soil food web, by Lowenfels & Lewis. Lots of biochemistry & soil science, but clear enough to demonstrate the importance of building soil structure & minimising the damage we can do as gardeners. This led me to start another experiment on our allotment with no dig, as we prepared the ground over winter for spring planting; I’ll aim to write a separate post reviewing the evidence early in the New Year.

2012: a lean year, a mean year

The key issues have been how vulnerable allotment sites can be to a change in council policy, & the importance of raising the profile of food growing as a necessity, not merely a lifestyle choice; it also underlined the resilience you need to be a food grower & the value of shared help & advice; circumstances reinforced the need to experiment & break the rules in order to find ways to grow food. Understand what, work out how, question & ask ‘why not?’.

4 thoughts on “2012: growing food in difficult circumstances

  1. I like to think that I don’t regurgitate anything on my blog. In fact I think it’s quite the opposite.

    Would you like to join our chilli trial?

    • Oops! Wasn’t including either yourself or Gwenfar’s Lottie in my comments.
      However, when I’m searching across the web for information, I come across so many sites that merely ‘cut&paste’ without either acknowledging their sources or adding anything new to the debate, I despair.
      What I’ve really come to value, however, is the sharing of knowledge & practice amongst growers, this last year more than ever.
      Joining your chilli trial would be great, as neither of us have grown chillies before, have no idea what or how to do it, so a challenge indeed! Hope you give advice as we’ll need it.

  2. I clicked “like” but that may seem a little backwards given the nature of this post!!
    What I meant was: an informative read, thanks! Here’s to a better 2013, with a few less trials and obstacles! It’s certainly been a steep learning curve for me, given the weather. Good luck in the future also with your “green” council.

    • Thanks – a ‘like’ is appreciated even if it isn’t quite how I might describe last year! Do add your own growing experiences to any of the links as I think it’s really valuable to know how growers with different levels of experience manage to grow through to harvest. New growers often bring a fresh approach to the tasks we sometimes do on automatic. Asking ‘why are you doing it that way? Why not this way?’ can force us to think through the ‘how’ & ‘why’ more clearly.
      Good luck with your growing this year -I suspect it will be no easier but it might be more fruitful.

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