Saturday, 24 September 2016

Learning not to panic....

It's that time of year that makes me panic. I always have a wobble at midsummer knowing the light has reached its peak, but the Autumn Equinox literally builds into a crescendo of panic that for a couple of days can be tangible. People can see the upset I think, and I'm often asked, "Sara are you ok?".
And of course I smile and say of course.
And of course then I panic a bit more.
Occasionally that panic turns to tears. To a minor panic attack. It's almost worse than the seasonal affected disorder itself. It's a real and physical reaction.
The dark days of winter terrify me. The feeling of fog in my brain and the will to hide under a duvet, hibernating. 
Occasionally I think I ought to have been a hedgehog.
But just as I was in full on panic this week the thing that always smooths me through this point in the year began to happen.....
 
The seed catalogues began to arrive!!
Dobies of Devon, Marshalls and Unwins all have flown through the door this week, and have been placed on the table next to the sofa with a notebook so plans for next season can be made. When it's dark, cold and I'm in my worst place, these are the things that soothe, along with Mr Venn's homemade soups, friends and the gardens across the city being worked on by Incredible Edible Bristol.
These are the things that assure me the world will continue turning and next years season will come.
Shortly I'll be ordering my chilli seeds for sowing on the first day of 2017, and in the next few days I'll start sowing hardy annuals that I'll concentrate hard on keeping alive over winter, in my new little greenhouse on the allotment.
It's these small things that keep the panic and the SAD manageable. 
I know I'm lucky. I know I have the support of wonderful people around me. 
And I know through community gardens I am helping to set up safe  spaces for others who might find the next few months hard. And whatever happens those inclusive spaces are there for all to just be in. To gain refuge from the dark. 
To meet, drink tea and gain comfort from each other's company.
To talk about the season to come.
And so we will get through it and the light will come again.
 



Wednesday, 21 September 2016

A Visit to Charles Dowding

A couple of weekends ago we toodled off to deepest Somerset to visit the garden of no dig guru and all round good guy, Charles Dowding. Charles is well known for his no dig gardening techniques, using mulches of different types of compost, including a soil conditioner made from local green waste and home made compost amongst others, as well as cardboard and plastic sheeting. These mulches keep weeds at bay by stopping light, and keep the soil fed with healthy organic matter.
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No dig is a method of gardening that I am more and more determined to make a success of. Of course it doesn't mean you'll never see another weed, but it does seem to mean that perennial weeds such as dandelions and bindweed are weakened, and makes it simple for annual weeds to be hoed out.

 
I went to see Charles' garden in order to find out more about no dig and to see a garden I've always wanted a nose around. However, within seconds of arriving what was most amazing about the garden was that it is full of the most amazingly beautiful and healthy crops. It is a garden worth visiting for its beauty and design alone. It's proof that productive and beautiful are absolutely mutually possible and that food growing doesn't have to be untidy or poorly designed.
 
The health of the plants is, of course, down to the no dig system. Adding layer upon layer of organic matter to the land feeds the soil with beneficial bacteria and fungi and encourages biodiversity in soil flora and fauna. The soil is full of worms, the air is alive with bees, hover flies, butterflies and wasps, and the garden speaks of the importance of healthy soil as the backbone of any healthy garden.At the point we visited in early September, the garden was producing beans, salad leaves, brassicas, carrots, huge celeriacs, beetroots and much more. The fruit trees, fairly new as the garden is only 3 years old, were dripping with fruit, and the greenhouse and polytunnel were full of tomatoes, aubergines and peppers, growing with companion plantings of marigolds to keep the pests away. There were beds with perennial vegetables, full of asparagus, Daubenton's Kale, Oca, Mashua and more. And dotted around the garden and in the front garden were rich flowering plants, bringing pollinators into the garden to really encourage biodiversity.


Charles' partner Steph, in between ensuring cakes, teas, books and veg were available, kept reassuring me that te beauty of this garden, it's health and it's productivity is down to the fact that Charles works from dawn to dusk in the garden, and I left with those word singing in my ears. But it also made me realise that with hard work and the right support all of our growing spaces could be this productive, this beautiful and, in my opinion most importantly, this wonderful for the health of both people and planet. Mr Dowding, I salute you!!


It's worth pointing out that Charles has written several books, all of which are well worth reading and which are available at all good bookshops, or from his website, www.charlesdowding.co.uk.

Wordless Wednesday

 


Cerinthe major Purpurescens 

Sunday, 18 September 2016

Dahlia Love

I've always loved bright colours and larger than life blooms. I remember visiting garden centres as a 70's child and sneaking over to look at the dahlias and gladioli whilst the more adult members of my family were oohing and aaring over subtly toned roses and small flowered shrubs, and questioning whether they'd fit in with the pale border, or the pink bed. 
Whilst all this was happening our side of the garden fence, next door I saw the brightest blooms, grown for the house, and asked question after question of our wonderful neighbour about what his plants were called and why he grew them. Jim called them his jewels and that's just what they were, bright, cheery and colourful. Dahlias, glads, marigolds, sunflowers, anemones, chrysanthemums and more. 
"What would you like Sara?" was always asked but there were tuts and sighs when I pointed out bright dahlias, anemones and glads. Even when I asked for Rosa Ferdinand Pichard, that amazing, I think, white and Crimson striped rose, I was told it was gaudy and to look at something else. 
 

And then of course I found Great Dixter!! For a while Christopher Lloyd was on Gardeners World, in those halcyon Titchmarsh days, and I remember a change. An interest in how those borders at Great Dixter, whilst being a riot of supposedly clashing colours, just worked. Books were purchased and plant lists reviewed at my parents, but still the glads and dahlias never appeared.
But by then of course I had my own little plot and I soon learnt that not only are these plants magnificent, but they are reasonably easy once you've fought the snails at the beginning of the season, and they give a great display until the first heavy frosts, both inside and out, as they cut like a dream. What's not to love? 
 
So this year on the new allotment, half of which is being given over to flowers, the dahlias and glads have begun to be grown again, in their own beds where the mix of the different forms and colours startles the eye and excites the soul. Next year there will be more for certain, mixed I hope with bright perennials such as Heleniums, Echinacea and Rudbeckia. 
And in pride of place will be my new Rosa Ferdinand Pichard. Let the gaudy begin!
 

Monday, 12 September 2016

#Glee16

I visited Glee for the first time this week. It's a show that describes itself as "The UK's biggest and most valuable garden and outdoor living tradeshow" where new products are launched and all the big guys of the garen retail world meet to show off their wares. I visited on Monday, the opening day, and was actually quite surprised at how few people were there, although I guess Monday probably isn't an ideal day for many.
Grow your own flowers range from Unwins

As all these shows are, Glee has it's fair share of what I would call garden centre nik naks and some quite bizarre offerings too. Whereas I understand candles and garden furniture, a 20 foot dinosaur was unexpected, but each to their own! Needless to say it didn't come home with me. There were rows and rows of trade stands with the big horticultural giants at the centre of the show, with huge stands and coffee bars attached. I took some time out to visit the Westland stand as I had been invited and was pleased to hear that their Unwins seed ranges will begin to really talk to urban food growers with limited space with a new range where they have subtly designed a colour sceme in, which although a little bit of a novelty perhaps, certainly helps small spaces to be both beautiful and productive.

What I liked the most was the two new flower seed ranges. The first is aimed at first time flower growers and whereas it's never going to be a wide enough range for a flower farmer, for those wanting to grow some cut flowers in their gardens and who prefer to buy seed in a garden centre rather than online, I would think this range is a good start. The range fits in with Unwins own, new florists bouquets, much of which they tell me are sourced in the UK but I am yet to be convinced and actually might buy some to see. They certainly are not guaranteeing 100% UK grown. However, with each bouquet a packet of these seeds will be sent giving the receiver the opportunity to grow some flowers of their own next year. Again this is a novelty and I fear many of those seeds will end up in the back of a kitchen cupboard but I hope it's a positive step forwards.
Productive and Beautiful.


However, what stood out for me were three sets of tools that I saw and fell in love with. None of them are cheap ranges but equally one gets what one pays for usually, although I have to say that the Poundland tools are still all going strong, with the hanging basket onto it's winter show and the cloche pots about to be used for some tropicals I am growing over winter! So what are these ranges i hear you cry.......

Firstly I was thrilled to see the wonderful Niwake with their incredible range of ladder and Japanese crafted secateurs, knives and shears. They have 2 new tools in their range, both of which are hand crafted in Japan and are extraordinary both to look and and to handle. Teh first is a pair of topiary shears and the second is secateurs made in the same way. I handled both and to use they would be wonderful, as they sit in the hand almost as an extension of the hand, and I expect in coming years they will be, as Niwake secateurs have become, the tools of choice for anyone who does enormous amounts of pruning or topiary. There are also new leather holders for these tools as well as a holder that both secateurs and a knife will fit into and all of which will sit snuggly on a belt, and there is even a Niwake belt if you felt you needed that too.

Niwake Secateurs




I would like to add a bit about Niwake ladders at this point as often I am asked why anyone would spend such a sum on a ladder. Niwake is all about the Japanese gardening traditions and these ladders play to that tradition. Having spent weeks at a time at the top of them, pruning topiary, trees and large shrubs, it is their immense stability that makes them such highly regarded tools. Being 15ft up a ladder is a somewhat vulnerable place to be, but these tools ensure safety because they just do not wobble at all. They are also ridiculously lightweight so can be easily carried by one person which is not something that can be said for a standard 15ft ladder.


There were two other sets of tools that stood out, one from Bulldog and called Pedigree and one from Rob Smith, working with Dobies of Devon. Both are sturdy, well made and look as if they will last. The tools from Bulldog are based on designs from the early 20th century when Bulldog was the tool of choice in the UK and made in Wigan. The handles are ash with caps for strength, there are double rivets holding the handle to the metal spade but the stainless steel is lightweight and easy to handle whilst being durable. And there is a lifetime guarantee. The whole range has been rebranded with Hugo the bulldog as it's mascot and is very sensibly priced with the highest price being £39.99. I was impressed by this range and am keen to give it a go as I want to know if the tools are as durable as they look and are designed to be. They have a round point spade which is one I am definitely keen to try as I love that design of spade but it is usually hard to get one that is suitable for people of my height.


Rob Smiths range for Dobies of Devon.

 The second range that really impressed are made for Dobies of Devon and are endorsed by Rob Smith who won The Great Allotment Challenge and has been working with Dobies for a while. These tools are made of carbon steel and are again designed with vintage, long lasting tools in mind. Rob syas he wants these tools to last like his grandfathers have for him, and having had tools passed down to me that have lasted far longer than any I have bought from new, I understand this need. I hear from Rob frustration at new tools that break and I hope his range proves to be as long lasting as the tools we all see in our grandparents sheds and gardens. Whilst the range isn't quite as extensive as the Bulldog range, it has everything in it you might need and having handled them today I can confirm they are sturdy and useable. I may have been seen standing on them to try to see how they might be in the garden! The price range is just slightly cheaper than the Bulldog range, with £34 being the higest price for the long handled tools, and the bonus with this range is that there are multi buy prices which make the sets as they are offered considerably cheaper than buying the tools separately. However, for me the icing on the cake is that these tools are made in Devon, by Greenman Tools, meaning British horticulture is once again supporting British manufacturing which I personally think shows in the quality of the products.

But the best point of the day? Getting home to find in the press bag that there was a tiny bottle of Elderflower Gin!!

I just must add that nobody has paid me or given me any reason to endorse these products!! That said, I'd be more thn happy to give them a real trial and any tools that can put up with my Bristol clay sre to really be recommended!!

Saturday, 10 September 2016

A trip to the Incredible AquaGarden.

It is no secret that this year I have become fascinated by aquaponics and it's possibilities, and have had a large aquaponics unit in my living room in which I have been growing carp and leafy vegetables and herbs. The results of that experiment will be seen soon, but it is fair to say it has made me think long and hard not just about aquaponics but also about it's viabilty as a process to not just really create huge growing opportunities in small spaces in urban environments, but also it's use as an educational tool. As we face, in the horticulture industry, not just a dearth of skills generally but of people even being aware that a career in horticulture is possible, and it isn't just mowing grass or maintenance gardening in the worst possible way, these new technologies must help to inspire young people to join our industry and to be excited around these new technologies and how they fit into the urban sphere.
Chillies at the Incredible Aquagarden


So it was with great excitement that I recently visited the Incredible AquaGarden in Todmorden, home of the original Incredible Edible, in the beautiful Calder Valley. The AquaGarden has an enormous aquaponics section, growing a huge variety of fruit and vegetables using aquaponic and hydroponic principles, and they also grow outside in real soil and in a polytunnel, mixing the conventional with the high tech and constantly experimenting with different methods to see what works best for them. All the data that has been captured is available as open source material and so there for anyone wanting to set up a similar project. This openness for me just proves that they are such an important part of the Incredible Edible family, offering support and training to local schools, colleges but most importantly to urban farmers of the future across the world, helping to create a different, kinder future.
Pam Warhust keeping an eye on the fish!!


What never fails to amaze me about any aquaponics system, is that the produce always looks extremely healthy and lush. Having had a system myself, and having stood back from it and watched when the fish were first introduced as the levels of nitrites and nitrates and the pH settled themselves to their ideal levels, I have first hand experience of panicking as the plants started to look a bit sorry and yellow, and then being very happily surprised when a week later they had returned to lush growth and a healthy green colour as those levels evened out. The produce at the incredible Aquagarden is completely lush and proof that a system that uses fish waste as its nutrient truly works and can produce huge amounts of food in a very small space. There are chillies with more fruit on than imaginable that are growing also with the help of LED lights, as well as melons, tomatoes and aubergines that many a polytunnel grower would be green with envy to see.

The question I have to ask is will there ever be enough investment in this type of farming for it to really gain traction and become something that is seen across the country in urban spaces that previously would never have been even thought of for food production. Recently I went to the opening of Grow Bristol, an aquaponics business that I have had the pleasure of working with here in Bristol. These guys are growing tilapia as their fish of choice, and growing micro greens in a vertical aquaponics system, which are now being sold into local restaurants and to growing groups including a local Food Assembly. Their system is housed in a shipping container in a tiny yard behind Temple Meads station, an area of industrialisation and the most unlikely space for a farm. These guys, as a social enterprise, are also working with organisations such as the Princes Trust to being young people into the business and offer them training and more importantly a look at a way in which they can get involved in something they may never have thought about but which really inspires them. Already they are telling tales of those young people and offering them placements.
Microgreens at Grow Bristol!


I'm looking forwards to seeing how all these organisations scale up and start to reallyfeed into local food supply in our cities.....













Squash and aubergines at the Incredible Aquagarden.



Thursday, 8 September 2016

A Quick Allotment Catch Up!



I consider myself extremely lucky to have my beautiful new allotment and whilst it hasn’t quite been as much of a success as I had hoped this year for reasons I shall get to, we are having an extraordinary bean harvest, the courgettes are going wild and the pumpkins and squash are covering the ground like mad things and are fruiting so let’s see if the weather remains ok and they swell and ripen. There are raspberries enough for our breakfasts and the six artichoke plants left by the previous person were so productive I ended up giving loads away!


There have been issues though. The land is like concrete if there hasn’t been any rain and although the clay is really quite fertile, getting enough water onto new plantings is a constant challenge. But the main challenge has been that Mr Venn has been laid up with a bulging spinal disc for the last 3 months, unable to go to work or do anything physical as he has been, and still is, in immense pain both in his back and in the nerves in his legs. This has led to a summer of relative quiet and quite a lot of frustration from him as he hasn’t been able to manage his allotment roles of strimming and some digging, not to mention master of the beans, which he always gets super excited by! Fortunately he is slowly improving but it continues to be a long and difficult recovery and keeping him from overdoing things is an ongoing challenge.

That aside what I have realised is that there is no rush. Ideally the whole plot would have been dug by now, particularly the area I plan to use for flowers next year which at the moment is weedy and sad, but I have now decided to cover in black plastic over winter and then cover with compost and truly go with a no dig solution. What matters is productivity and although I want to see the plot as both beautiful and productive, I need to remove my nurseryperson’s head and treat is as a joy, not a chore. A few weeds don’t really matter and, although I can’t believe I am thinking this, let alone putting it out there for all to read, I am not going to be obsessive about them, or try not to be at least. I’m doing ok at that so far!! So the ongoing plan is to mainly stay calm, continue to crop, eat and preserve the harvestsand start to plant spring flowering bulbs for the year ahead whilst ordering a ton of manure and compost ready for spreading on a cold, crisp winters day……