DEFRA Demonstration: International Peasants Day 17th April

april 17th flierI’m looking forward to the demonstration outside DEFRA tomorrow in London from noon, organised by the Land Workers’ Alliance (LWA). I’m giving a brief talk about the issues facing new entrants to farming and land work generally – and of course the main one is access to land. The demo should be a really good day (especially if the nice weather holds); and there will be a mini farmers’ market stall there too, to highlight how productive small- and medium-scale farms and market gardens can be, even in the middle of the Hungry Gap (rather unfortunate timing for veg growers!). We are hoping to remind DEFRA and other policymakers that smaller scale agriculture and land workers really does need more attention when it comes to formulating policy and implementing EU legislation. Grand sweeping schemes to ‘help farmers’ often equate to sops to wealthy landowners and corporate agribusiness, which do nothing to help us – in fact they often have the opposite effect if large-scale farming practices get subsidies and grants from central governments, therefore undercutting artisanal producers trying to earn a basic living wage, often on rented land; who often produce more food per acre in a more sustainable way, and using more labour rather than fossil fuels and chemicals (therefore creating more jobs).

The demo is to mark International Peasants Day, as the LWA is a member of international peasant organisation La Via Campesina. It’s all very exciting; I just hope that there are some DEFRA people around to notice. Someone told me that they tend not to be around much on a Thursday afternoon. Maybe if they have the afternoon off they can come along and join the demo? Everyone is welcome; banners, beards and bailing twine aren’t mandatory.

Frog’s Chorus

IMG-20140414-00854 copy IMG-20140410-00850 copyWell I’ve been very much enjoying this sunny spring for the last week or so! I’ve been able to munch my lunch by the pond in the company of a frog or three; and made up all kinds of stories about what the three that I can see get up to in the pond (I assume some of the frogspawn at least is theirs). They like to poke their heads above the weeds around lunch time too, and catch some warm sun rays; so we don’t disturb each other too much.

 

 

IMG-20140409-00843 copyThe herbs are coming along well; although usually I have a bit more time to enjoy the French sorrel before the dock beetle moves in. Not this year – they are busy having orgies all over it at the moment, leaving my lovely lemony-tasting leaves full of holes and yellow larvae underneath the leaves. The sorrel does usually recover one they’ve moved on and the larvae hatched, and I’ll be able to pick nice hole-free leaves next month hopefully; perhaps the mild winter has brought the pests out earlier than usual.

 

 

IMG-20140411-00852 copyThankfully I have been able to borrow the rotovator and tractor again; which has meant that I’ve drilled the parnsips (Halblange White and Tender & True); carrots (St Valery again as part-trial, Yaya F1, plus a mixed row of Purple Haze and Yellowstone – the mice in the shed had bitten through these plastic packets to get at the seed so I had less than I’d have liked). Plus I’ve sown a row of mixed mustards, mizuna and rocket, four rows of French dwarf beans, a row of turnips, lots of beetroot (Boliver, Boro, Chioggia and Golden Detroit), and a row of spinach; plus a row of rainbow chard. Oh, and planted a row of lettuce and endive; and today I managed to plant out the first lot of brassicas too (curly, red Russian and nero kale, plus a few Savoy and PIxie cabbages). And planted some Jerusalem artichokes in the damp patch next to the strawberries. Phew. The trouble is, now I would quite like a shower or two overnight soon – the ground is so dry on top, despite being wet underneath. Never happy, eh? Meanwhile I will enjoy the sun and get more jobs done…

New Life

IMG-20140404-00841 copyForget gambolling lambs, newborn chicks and cute calves: spring in the market garden means an explosion of life all round, from insects (hurrah for ladybird larvae!) and arachnids to bees and amphibians. Every year I see hundred of baby spiders (spiderlings?) appear in the module tunnel, huddling together and looking like a pile of spilt brown seeds; then they grow up (most of them), make webs of their own (some of them), and catch naughty aphids and other intruders in the tunnel (a few of them). They also catch me sometimes, covering my hair and face in claustrophobic webs, blurgh; but (usually) I tolerate it because they catch pests too.

 

IMG-20140404-00839 copyMost excitingly this year, frogspawn has appeared in my pond – of its own accord! I’ve also seen one of the large common toads in the pond that hang round the poytunnels (either Norman or Todd, it swam away too quickly to tell); and small froglets (probably from last year’s spawn that I placed in the pond) hopping around the pond stones too. So beware slugs, your days are numbered…

 

IMG-20140331-00837 copyI pulled up all the brassica stems last week, just before rotovating the field, and I’ve piled them up in a corner of the field to rot down gradually. I’m hoping that a toad or hedgehog or two may find this mansion appealing (and not too whiffy) and move in; although I suspect that at first the local field mice will colonise the pile. I can always hear the mice sqeaking away to each other round the edges of the field; although they keep quiet when a sparrowhawk is on the wing.

 

IMG-20140328-00827 copyI’ve left quite a few of the overwintered brassica salad plants to carry on flowering too; since the bumble bees and others are out and about on sunnier days, scoffing the nectar hungrily. I’ve also seen some honey bees around too, which will be the new batch that have come through the winter as grubs and now hatched, ready to start a season’s gathering for the colony. It only takes one sunny afternoon to hear and see all the life springing into action, ready for the sunny (ooh please please!) summer to come.

Turning The Soil

IMG-20140403-00838 copyLast Thursday I simply couldn’t wait any longer – the forecast was for more showers to come over the weekend, so I went for it and rotovated over half the field with the tractor & rotovator, as shallowly as possible. The ground was ok to start with, but still cloggy and damp at the top end; although I managed to do enough to at least let me get going with spring crops. The green manure of red clover and lucerne (and some weeds) which has been growing for about 18 months was turned in too, along with the manure which had been spread on top (also keeping more moisture in); and I’ll need to go over that again with the rotovator before planting the first brassicas in that plot in a couple of weeks.

IMG-20140404-00840 copyMost importantly however, I’ve managed to out in three rows of broad beans, hurrah! One row of Aquadulce, one of Supersimonia, and half a row each of Hangdown Green and Ratio.  I’m also hoping to put some early dwarf French beans in if the ground dries up a bit this week, along with carrots and parsnips, and a few rows of spinach, chard and beetroot. Fingers crossed anyway…

Monoculture vs Polyculture

IMG-20140328-00834 copyForgetting all the hard scientific evidence that diversity of crops is good for soil health, bio-diversity, productivity, combatting pests and disease problems, offering pollinators a food source throughout the year, spreading crop/economic failure risk… I think this picture says it all. In the sun this small wobbly herb beds between two polytunnels shows French sorrel, lovage, oregano, garlic chives, thyme, winter savoury and lavender; plus some cultivated patches where nasturtiums will go in. Aside from all the good reasons above to grow a wide range of crops – I just like looking at it.

What I Did On My Holidays

IMG-20140317-00799 copyI’m starting to get back in the swing of things after a brilliant week’s work/holiday out in California last week (San Francisco & San Jose area). While in San Fran, I took a trip to Alemany Farm to poke around and nose about: it’s a brilliant project, where volunteers help grow food for low-income local residents, encouraging them to get involved too – pus any surplus produce is passed on to other food projects around the city. So locals get free, healthy food (which is really needed for so many people in dire straits – San Fran makes you appreciate the welfare state in this country, no matter how much it could be improved); and residents also get to enjoy the gorgeous surroundings of the ‘farm’. They are encouraged to pick the food when it’s ready, and signs in Spanish and English are placed in beds that have crops ready to harvest.

IMG-20140317-00802 copyIMG-20140317-00803 copyIt’s a not a huge site (just over four acres), on the side of a hill/cliff, and right next to a very busy freeway; but it’s also integrated with a nature reserve at the end of a public tree-lined park, and walkers are encouraged to stroll around the paths. There is a large pond with huge rushes, housing exotic (to me at least) colourful and noisy birds; and there is a permaculture feel to the lower slopes, with broad beans, fruit bushes, rainbow chard, herbs and flowers all inter-mingled.

IMG-20140317-00800 copyThere are also some clear delineated beds though, and some raised beds next to the houses; with tall flowering broad beans (IN MARCH!), brassicas such as collard greens, garlic and strawberries. I couldn’t resist a poke in the greenhouse; but most things had been planted out already (IN MARCH!). The higher slope also housed a new top fruit orchard coming into blossom. I asked long-term volunteer John whether this sunny ‘banana belt’ spot had trouble with slugs – incredibly he said yes. IN CALIFORNIA! But that the garter snakes and lizards did a good job keeping on top of them (puts my lazy toads to shame).

 

IMG-20140323-00823 copy IMG-20140323-00821 copyI also couldn’t resist checking out the huge farmers’ market in Campbell near San Jose later in the week, which one of my best friends visits with her family most Sundays and says is always heaving – the market takes over the whole of the town centre, and offers a range of organic fresh produce from many different growers, as well as breads, cheeses, pestos, cooked corn on the cobs, chill sauces… I am extremely jealous of pretty much all of their produce: so much and so early in the year! Also two types of sweet potato, which I’d love to grow here. It was a bit weird seeing spring crops such as massive radishes and beetroot alongside leeks and Brussels sprout (sprouts are strangely popular there; and avocados so plentiful you can buy six for less than a dollar).

IMG-20140323-00822 copy It was tempting to check out the land for sale up the road in Half Moon Bay, the fertile floor of the valley; but then of course I wouldn’t be able to whinge about the weather. Although they have had a terrible drought, so I could complain about the lack of rain? Blimey, imagine that…

Seedy Friday

Beautiful salad burnet seeds

Beautiful salad burnet seeds

Today was a lovely seedy day: more sowings of tomatoes, peppers, nasturtiums (for leaves/salads/flowers), red amaranth, salad burnet, green purslane (fleshy summer variety), and climbing French beans. Brilliant fun, sowing away in the warm module tunnel, listening to music and PG Wodehouse: gorgeous. Bit of a panic on because I’m off to San Francisco tomorrow for holiday/work/seeing friends for a week, so trying to get ahead a bit now so I’m not too far behind when I get back. I think that’s what life is like generally for gardeners and commercial growers; trying lots of cheeky tricks and tips to get ahead, full in the knowledge that something will probably happen to stymie you down the line – so if you’re ahead already, it won’t matter too much. An optimistic pessimist; or pessimistic optimist? Maybe a realistic optimist.