A Fragile Existence

Across the track, directly opposite our plot, there’s a hole where a hedge should be, the charred remnants of a shed visible. The lower gate to our plot is shattered, the locks on both sheds have been forced and the contents ransacked. We don’t leave expensive tools, don’t own expensive tools to leave. It’s the arbitrary nature of the act that’s unsettling; one shed damaged, another on an adjacent plot untouched, why? What remains of the shed opposite might be the most obvious and dramatic evidence, but sheds have been broken into all the way up the valley.

Thankfully this doesn’t happen often, it’s been five or six years since a similar incident on the site, our sheds not targeted that time. Looking at the chaos in the top shed, we’re not so fortunate this week. That said, two trays of elephant garlic remained untouched, apart from one bulb, the cloves separated and thrown onto the veranda, and nothing taken apart from a small lump hammer.

We’ve been on this site for over twenty years, arbitrary acts of vandalism happen; years ago, a caravan on the plot next to ours was set alight destroying our neighbour’s occasional workshop, but fortunately they weren’t at home. Allotments are havens of tranquility, but vulnerable too; all too easily disrupted.

The damage done, we replace boxes on shelves, repair the locks and get on with life on this plot; the early potatoes have been harvested, the beds refreshed and our leeks are in the ground now. We’ve picked our first beetroot; Madhur Jaffrey has a wonderful recipe for beetroot purée that we never grow tired of, and we’re growing Golden Burpee courgettes this year. They have a lovely flavour, are much firmer than our other varieties and planted into manure and compost which is a mixture of tea, egg shells, and banana skins. We garden on chalk which can be poor, so the nutrients in the tea mix are valuable for greedy crops like courgettes and pumpkins.

We’ve been making lots of courgette frittatas:
Courgettes seared dry on a skillet
Potatoes, cooked & sliced
Onions & garlic, sautéed
Mixed Herbs + seasoning
12 eggs

 

Resilience through Seed Saving

You might wonder why I’m writing about seed saving in the middle of winter when we’re recommended to buy our seed from seed catalogues. My winter reading has included ‘The Seed Savers’ Handbook’, with a key section headed “Planning a Seed Garden’. I’ve never really understood this other than as a ‘A good idea’. However, I decided during autumn 2013 to save seed from an Heritage Seed Library Leek variety and this meant re-thinking what I did with the Leek bed. So, back to the seed garden idea.

I generally save seed each year from the easier vegetables, such as lettuce, peas and French Beans, all are self pollinated and don’t cross (easily); I attempted to save broad bean seed about 4 years ago as I had some Heritage crimson flowered seeds, which were quite expensive; I discovered it was possible to save the seed even though all the gardening guides on growing vegetables told me I shouldn’t. What the guidance should have added was, not that I shouldn’t but that I could and should, but also I would need to isolate the variety I intended saving seed from. Unlike French Beans, Broad Beans are similar to Runner Beans and cross-pollinate with plants of the same species. Only after germinating and growing my saved seed did I appreciate what the result might be – I had crimson flowered, pale pink flowered and white-flowered broad bean plants – they’d crossed with the Express Broad Bean variety grown alongside. The way to get back to crimson flowered plants was to rogue out pink & white flowered plants before they cross-pollinated yet again, save seed from the red flowering plants, isolate them and keep saving seed from red flowering plants until I’d selected out the white crosses.  Because cross-pollinating species [out breeders] require a minimum number of plants in order to retain genetic diversity of a variety, this is a time-consuming, although not impossible, task. Again, time reverts to an older framing, seasons and years rather than days or months.

bean seeds

Growing conditions in 2013 made growing food to eat difficult; growing plants to save seed from was equally challenging. The broad beans I intended saving seed from and had isolated with netting (lesson learnt) had all the ripening pods eaten by slugs/snails/squirrels – most likely the squirrels. I didn’t pick those that survived soon enough to dry and ripen off indoors so they rotted in the wet conditions. The same happened to our pea crop marked for seed rather than eating. I did manage to collect the Mooli Radish seed pods from the late sowing I did in early autumn – the pods were almost ready but rain was forecast for several days – I cut the stems and hung them in a warm corner of the kitchen to dry off properly. The good thing about radish seed pods is their hardness so they do survive quite well. However, those left on the allotment provided food for rodents, neat little piles of seed pods at the corners of the beds. However, the lettuce variety I had left to go to seed produced very little viable seed, mainly because they flowered as the weather worsened and it was difficult for pollinators to fly in the wet and wind, so flowers but little pollination and poor seed so I didn’t keep the little that was produced. Therefore, in 2014 I had very little new saved seed and had to rely on what was left from the previous year – I always save more than I’ll ever need, to share, swap, keep some back ‘in case’ I’ve nothing new next year.

Back to my leeks: I left an HSL variety of leek I planted spring 2013 to grow and flower last summer, but I had to plan my beds to accommodate the additional year this group of leek plants were in the ground. I also only saved seed from 1 variety of leek, as these, too, cross-pollinate. Leeks that have flowered sometimes produce bulbils on the flower heads, similar to those I saved from an elephant garlic plant I left to flower just to see what it looked like. These bulbils, according to Cherfas and Fanton in their Seed Savers’ Handbook, can grow faster than seed, so worth saving them if you do see any. Sue Stickland does caution against this in Back Garden Seed Saving, however, since they can carry over leek rust disease which tends to be endemic on allotment sites. However, it was so wet and cold in 2013 that our leek crop avoided rust almost entirely – rust is a fungal disease that develops in hot conditions, so 2013’s cold damp summer meant a healthy leek crop for seed saving.

Knowing more about seed saving and how difficult it can be even with ‘easy’ plants has led me to plan ahead more carefully which varieties I intend to grow for seed and which for food. One thing I’ve learnt about plants I want to save seed from is their categorisation into out breeders and in breeders; Leeks apparently are strong out breeders and should ideally have at least 16 plants for seed to maintain genetic diversity. However, I didn’t realise this when I sowed them, but a way to deal with this, and how to manage seed saving in poor years, is to grow and save seed from the same variety over subsequent years and combine the seed to broaden genetic diversity, over time. The seed remains viable for about 3 years.

The main problem with seeds from the major seed companies is the choice available, usually F1 hybrids that are advertised as ‘reliable croppers’ which usually mean the plants crop at the same time, usual give away: ‘good for the freezer’! These varieties are generally the byproducts of industrial agriculture and are bred for uniformity, cropping at the same time for harvesting by machine, not bred for the allotment grower. The most resilient seed is open pollinated, available from good local seed savers and from local and regional seed companies. Look for information that tells you how the seeds perform in specific conditions. Hybrid seed doesn’t breed true so we go back to the seed companies next year to buy the seed again. I will return to this issue another time, as I’ve discovered its complicated!

Now I understand more about seed saving I’m rather more critical about seed quality, origins, and harvests of anything I’m planning to sow. Consequently I rarely swap my seed at big seed swaps such as Seedy Sunday as the quality and provenance is rarely clear and I’ve picked up some terrible seed in the past. I now swap with other growers on a seasonal basis; Whitehawk Food Project has revived its seed library with their seed and plant swaps; their plan is to share some of their core food crop seeds with a few experienced growers to spread the seed across the city to ensure its survival in case of another terrible growing year like 2013. This makes for a more resilient seed supply, communally grown and shared. It’s also the genesis of a local communal seed bank and the development of seed saving expertise across important food staples, building knowledge about local conditions and seed/crop variability. It’s back to local seed production that reflects local conditions.

 

 

 

Seasonal seaweed: harvest of the seasons, gift of the winds.

We recently went on one of our intermittent winter seaweed scavenges, in order to re-build our compost and manure piles ready for spring. Our supply of seaweed is important during spring for our potato beds; we cover them in winter (Nov/Dec) and leave the seaweed to rot down, then plant through any remaining, which then gets covered with compost or soil as we earth up the growing plants. It’s also important for our rhubarb and our asparagus beds, as well as valuable addition to our compost piles, and liquid fertiliser for our courgettes and pumpkins. We use seaweed in place of horse or cow manure to avoid the possibility of amino/clopyralid contamination and potential devastation for our allotment, something that has happened to many allotment holders on our site and across the city.

Winter along the south coast can be surprisingly stormy, and generally we’re assured of good supplies of seaweed during these months. Several days after stormy seas the seaweed harvest usually starts arriving on the shore. This year there’s been very little evidence of this. There are large seaweed beds off the coast at Bognor Regis, which provide the supply of Laminaria during the winter, one of the best seaweeds for mineral content. The Seaweed beds off Bognor are to the SW of Brighton, and the seaborne seaweed is moved along the coast through the process of longshore drift. The prevailing winds are from the SW, and the line of travel for longshore drift is also W-E. Hence, stormy seas tear seaweed from the seabed to the West of us, longshore drift transports the seaweed W-E along the coast then deposits it on the beaches, nearby. This year, the lack of seaweed suggests something else is happening.

Our current cold weather across the UK is caused by a weather system over the near continent. High pressure between Iceland and Norway has led to winds blowing East-West, from the high pressure to the north of us towards the low pressure to the west of the British Isles out in the Atlantic – remember ‘Winds blow from high to low’. So, I reckon, the winds have been blowing in the opposite direction to usual during winter, while longshore drift continues its movement West-East. This, I think has led to storm-torn seaweed clusters not moving inshore, but remaining suspended off-shore; the winds blowing from the East and longshore drift acting from the West has created an equilibrium. Hence, the distinct absence of seaweed this winter.

Such a small shift in our weather patterns, yet it could have a significant effect on our crops and harvests this year; I reckon we need to do some research.

collecting seaweed [2]

Beetroot: a love/hate relationship

My memories of beetroot are stained with the sour taste of it boiled, then pickled in malt vinegar, served on Sundays as part of our tea, along with boiled eggs, lettuce and cucumber, the egg yolk stained purple by the vinegar. My mother grew beetroot to pickle and to boil for salads; I refused to touch it once I left home, traumatised by these formative experiences.

Yet, its relative lack of pests, other than pigeons who peck the tops off if you forget to net the plants, and the occasional slug, makes beetroot such a lovely vegetable to grow. Full of vitamins, with white, yellow, orange and red varieties, the leaves also make an excellent green to eat. The Romans brought white beetroot to Britain, and you can get seeds of an open-pollinated white variety from Real Seeds in Pembrokeshire.

This recipe was the one that truly converted me to voluntarily eating beetroot; rather like a bright purple hummus, it livens up a salad, is wonderful with baked potatoes, and delicious in pittas with lettuce, or as a spread.

This is adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian. In her introduction, she tells us that a young nun called Protokliki, or ‘First Called’, in the Ormylia Monastery in Macedonia gave her the recipe. We make it without the bread, as Denis can’t eat wheat, or gluten of any sort. We bake the roots, rather than boil them – I’m obviously still traumatised by the thought of boiled beetroot. Very rich due to the walnuts, with an earthy flavour, a little goes a long way – it also stains clothes quite permanently if made with red beetroot. Simple and quick to make, weights are more a guide than exact – just pop everything into a food processor and taste as you mix.

beetroot [1]

Macedonian Beetroot Salad, or Pantzarosalata

Ingredients
180 gm/ 6oz of raw beetroot – can weigh slightly more as it will be peeled.
4 tablespoons chopped walnuts
30 gm/1oz of cooked potato [The alternative is the same weight of stale bread]
1 clove of garlic, peeled – I don’t think this is enough and we usually add at least 2/3 large cloves
6 tablespoons good olive oil (cold pressed, not light)
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
½ teaspoon salt – or to taste

Method
Bake the whole beetroot wrapped in foil, allow to cool; the skin should peel off really easily, just don’t wear anything too light as it will stain. Your fingers will definitely stain.

Put the peeled beetroot, walnuts, potato, garlic, olive oil, vinegar and salt into a food processor. Blend until smooth – it should have a similar consistency to hummus.  Enough for six people.

Leeks: moon sowing, no trimming.

Leeks traditionally follow early potatoes in rotation, which grow on for approximately 90 days, although we’ve usually harvested our 1st earlies at about 75 days, with good yields. I plant our 1st Early chitted tubers in mid-March, covered by old builders bags, until the threat of frost is over.  So, while March-sown leeks have their bed already allocated, germinating leek seeds early also means working out where, in the allotment, this earlier crop is going to fit, and that means reorganising beds to accommodate them. I will be planting out the early sown seedlings in a nursery bed in early February, 5 weeks after sowing; they’ll then be transplanted into their beds for growing on between early March & mid-April (10-15 wks), depending on where I decide to put them, just as the potatoes are being planted. However, as early leeks tend to mature faster than winter-hardy varieties, I would be wise to plant the seedlings out early to ensure they can grow on as quickly as possible for harvest during late summer/early autumn.

leek seedlings [2]

Various gardening writers offer advice on sowing and planting schedules for Leeks; Charles Dowding is adamant that you shouldn’t sow before late March, with mid April the best time, and appears to have only one sowing/planting time, which probably reflects their place in his yearly planting cycle. Joy Larkcom, however, suggests trying several sowings, and it is her advice I’ve drawn upon in my experimenting. It really depends on how you organise your vegetable garden and how much you like leeks – we are northern and love them! Continue reading

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. Continue reading

Winter Salads: hardy souls

My experiment at growing winter salads undercover seems to be going to plan. I picked enough salad leaves on Christmas Day from 2 of the planted mushroom boxes to feed 4 people. I haven’t harvested anything from either of these salad boxes since 21st November (see previous post for more details). Below are my before & after pictures:

Salad Box 1-25th Dec, before cropping

Salad Box 1-25th Dec, before cropping

Salad Box1 after cropping 25th Dec

Salad Box1 after cropping 25th Dec

SaladBox2, 25th Dec before cropping

SaladBox2, 25th Dec before cropping

SaladBox2- after cropping

SaladBox2- after cropping

Since picking leaves I’ve watered the boxes (with lukewarm water+few drops seaweed extract) as they were quite dry; I also noticed that the plants had produced lots of fine roots near the surface, possibly to compensate for lack of depth in their tray, so I added a top-dressing of fresh compost and raised the level about 1″/3cm, as well as firming compost around each plant. I’ve also regularly cleared weed seedlings & any yellowing or dead leaves. I’ll leave these trays now, probably for about 1 month, before picking again.

What this has demonstrated so far is how much the decrease in light levels & drop in temperature affects plant growth through the cold winter months; certainly I’m learning a great deal about the relationship between sowing & planting times on growth & harvests during winter. I’ve also discovered how tough oriental brassicas can be if they survive past seedling stage & slug attack. The plants I’ve been most impressed with have been the Oriental cabbages: Pe Tsai & Bekana salad cabbage as well as Yukina savoy; the larger, more sturdy lettuce seedlings have done better than smaller specimens, demonstrating the importance of sturdy plants established with good root systems before cold & lower light levels significantly close down growth. I’ll watch the smaller lettuce plants  with interest to see if they manage to catch up as temperature & light levels rise in spring. Spinach hasn’t done very well at all (wrong variety, sown at the wrong time?) & the Black Tuscan Kale isn’t doing very much, although seedlings from the same batch are surviving very well on the allotment in the open without any protection. Similarly, the red & green mustard frills have produced very large plants under white builders’ netting on the allotment, but only moderate growth here, in comparison. It’s also interesting to note the different rates of growth across the range of plants: I think pak choi, leaf chard & kale would probably benefit from growing together, as their relative slowness in relation to the oriental cabbages & lettuces means they’re in danger of being shaded as they grow. Or, is it just these varieties, & should I have sown seeds earlier so the seedlings were bigger when I planted them into their boxes? All interesting, all to be noted for next year.