For the last few years Michelle Obama and I have been working on something together – well not exactly together, but we ARE both new organic gardeners.
We’re not alone – more and more of us are rushing to grow our own food again. Ten years ago waiting lists for allotments were virtually unheard of, with many unoccupied, overgrown and unloved. Today the average waiting list for a UK allotment is over two years. In one part of London it is now supposedly a staggering one hundred years. Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall’s Landshare scheme, which connects owners of land available for cultivation with potential growers, has over 60,000 members. Growing carrots is hot !
You may even encounter gangs of roving guerrilla gardeners out there planting-up roadside verges and areas of derelict land, inspired by the Diggers of 350 years ago. The contaminated land officer in me feels obliged to point out this isn’t always going to be a good idea!
The last time the Nation was this enthusiastic about growing vegetables we were singing along with Vera Lyn and ‘digging for victory’, but it’s not just the UK. In the US there is also a significant rise in interest in growing vegetables and self-sufficiency, and it’s a trend right across the developed world.
The obvious question is why ?
The answer seems to be a complex mix. We have an increasing appreciation of food and awareness of issues such as localism, seasonality and pesticides. Various celebrities have also had an important role, but the key factor no doubt is the current economic climate, giving rise to feelings of uncertainty about the future, as well as rapidly increasing food prices.
The second most obvious question is why do I do it ?
I’m new to gardening, I’d never grown anything until five years ago and had never previously had any interest in it whatsoever. I used to watch The Good Life as a kid, but the only thing close to a gardening programme I’d ever seen was Ground Force – and I don’t recall them ever planting vegetables !
When we moved to our current house in the Forest of Dean I was faced with a large garden south facing, including a pretty neglected vegetable patch. I was going to have to do something. The other key factor was wanting my children to have an appreciation for where food comes from and nature in general, and I thought growing vegetables would be a good way to go about it.
Five years later it’s weirdly become a bit of a quiet passion.
I’ve decided to include the occasional gardening article on this blog, so apologies in advance if that isn’t your thing – the photo above shows our vegetable patch. I certainly won’t be giving any ‘green fingered tips’ though, because quite frankly it’s all a bit of a struggle and the most positive but truthful way of describing the extent of my gardening success is to say that every year is a voyage of discovery. When people ask me what I grow, I usually answer weeds – they are the key problem in my garden. In terms of biomass produced they probably exceed everything else put together. There’s plenty of useful books in our bookstore if you’re hungry for gardening help.
I’ve gone for raised beds to make life easier, which is another hot gardening trend apparently. The ones I have now are the second generation. The first ones I built in a very eco-conscious way, using recycled scraps of untreated timber, a bed frame, the back of a piano etc – and needless to say they rotted away in no time! I put my new raised beds together this winter, and they’re a lot more robust, with anti-weed liner and bark chippings between them. The soil is a mixture of the natural soil, which is quite a heavy clay, mixed with the decent loamy topsoil, and our own garden compost.
The theory behind raised beds is that they create better growing conditions; as the soil remains uncompacted and they allow a separate micro-climate to form in the bed, warming the soil quicker. Opportunities for pests are also decreased, but the biggest advantage of raised beds is their ease of management. By having easy access from all sides and being raised off the ground, weeding and plant care are much less of a chore, and so tend to be done more frequently. Additionally by having a number of separate beds, it’s easier to break tasks down and control the space. I find myself spending much more time weeding, watering etc than I did without them – just because it’s more enjoyable. As a result raised beds are generally considered to be much more productive than traditional ground level cultivation in most gardens.
The American horticulturalist Mel Bartholomew proposed a further refinement of raised beds with his square-foot gardening method. By breaking down the beds even further into square foot blocks, they become even easier to micromanage and optimise growth . . . it all seems a little bit too much effort for me at the moment, though I may be converted in the future.
We’re fully organic in the garden, at least in the sense that we use no pesticides and only organic fertilizers (essentially bone meal and seaweed) in addition to our own compost. I like that I avoid adding industrial chemicals to my garden, but I am far from being absolutist about organic. I do think there’s much to recommend an organic approach in a domestic setting, where I’m not relying for my families survival on the success of my potatoes every year. But when it comes to feeding the world I’m unconvinced that fully organic is sufficiently practicable, efficient or cost-effective, though clearly traditional farming does need to lower it’s energy and water inputs, and adopting some organic techniques may help. There are a lot of strong opinions on either side of this debate, so I’ll come back to it in the future. All I’ll say for now is that I feel good that we grow organically, but I’m not too bothered about buying organically.
Successful organic gardening seems to be all about creating conditions to avoid problems before they happen; mulching (I tend to use grass cuttings) to minimise weeds, companion planting to encourage predators and careful rotation to avoid disease build-up in the soil. To an organic gardener if you’ve too many slugs, the real problem is you’ve not enough ducks!
We’ve had a few failures. One year we discovered that vigorous washing didn’t remove ALL the small green caterpillars from broccoli – but not until we were eating them . . . . we don’t grow that much broccoli any more. If anyone’s interested, steamed caterpillar tastes like chicken.
Despite our mixed success, what we have managed to grow has been as fresh and as locally produced as it’s possible to get, with far lower water and energy requirements than commercially grown food. It’s free from pesticides and preservatives, has no packaging, and we’ver been able to select varieties for taste rather than yield. Of course, it’s also been far more enjoyable to eat knowing we’ve grown it ourselves.
Just as importantly the unhurriable process of preparing soil, planting, feeding, watering and then harvesting is extremely relaxing and provides a bit of an antidote to the pace of normal life – slow is the new fast. I often seem to be very meditative when gardening, I don’t know if that’s just me. It’s also all outdoors and hence tops-up my vitamin D . . . take note Farmville addicts!
The kids have also been involved, though they only enjoy the planting and picking – running away when they’re asked to do any weeding or digging. Watching them pick and eat raw peas out the pod for breakfast during the summer holidays makes it worth it by itself.
I’m not convinced growing vegetables saves us that much money, though it obviously depends on what we grow. We had a phenomenal glut of raspberries a couple of years ago, to the point where we were feeding them to the chickens – I recall they were a couple of pounds a punnet in the supermarket at the time. We’re trying to concentrate on the more expensive crops, and have managed to have armfuls of rhubarb this year, so our economics are improving.
I’d estimate that the last couple of years we’ve managed to grow about 5-10% of our annual fruit and veg. I’m hoping to get closer to 15% this year by having more successional planting and more winter vegetables, but increasing it beyond 20% would require devoting significantly more space to vegetables, a lot more time and effort, and most importantly getting another freezer or two for storage.
We’re not really striving for anything resembling self-sufficiency, so growing 15-20% of our own fruit and vegetables will be enough, and in the event of an unexpected zombie apocalypse I’m sure I could quickly scale it up!
Photo attribution : http://www.flickr.com/photos/kiwanja/254235434/