Tuesday, 19 November 2013

Is vegetable gardening a worthy occupation?

You may think what a silly question for a blog about vegetable gardening to ask but sometimes we do need to check that we are doing something for the right reasons.

When I first started vegetable gardening in Scotland it was primarily because I had a large enough garden, time, a keen interest in gardening, and the local shops had very little to offer in the way of fresh vegetables or variety. As a vegetarian that restricted the meals that I could cook. Therefore the answer was simple, grow your own or restrict your diet/travel a long way to get ingredients.

Since then we have moved to the Croft (even more space to grow) and have more mouths to feed, but supermarkets have opened up not so far away and the variety on offer is much better.

So does it continue to be a necessary occupation to grow my own vegetables? No, but....

I still get more variety by growing my own - from potatoes to salads, I grow varieties which are not marketed by the supermarkets.

It is cheaper (not counting my time), the amount I spend on seeds is tiny to the return I get from my crops and since the spring I have bought almost no vegetables from the shops.

The products are fresh, from being picked to eaten is often less than an hour, how many can say that the salad in their sandwich was picked ten minutes previously?

The taste is better, obviously fresh salad has more appeal but also tastes nicer, and as for sugar snap peas or beans, even cabbage, I would argue that they all have more flavour than any bought from a shop.

All the vegetables are chemical-free, I grew them and they didn't need any chemicals to keep the bugs off or prevent them deteriorating on their way to market.

Pride comes into it too, how much more satisfying to serve your family with food you have grown yourself.

But is this a worthy thing? Ah, now we get to morality and whether it is a good thing. In short, yes.

My 100 square metres of vegetable garden are the most productive part of the Croft, the food they produce, even when only operating for 6 months or so, is of more value than would be gained by the land being put to grazing etc.

In addition a large proportion of the food we eat has no food miles and, because most of the food I buy from the shops is dry food, I make fewer trips to the supermarket. One monthly supermarket shop for the main items, and local shops for the milk etc. Agriculture and associated transport of agricultural products and fertilizers, chemicals etc. contributes hugely to carbon dioxide emissions. Individually I cannot make an impact that would make any difference but collectively we could.

I accept that I need agribusiness for cereals and other foods I cannot grow myself, but my dependence on them is less than it might otherwise be. Often you will decide to make meals that use your homegrown ingredients in preference to reaching for commercially made products or bought-in ingredients.

We waste very little, partly because I only harvest what we want to eat, when we want it, but also because any 'waste' is put in the compost bin and then back on the soil.

Pleasure. I enjoy gardening, I enjoy growing food, I enjoy sharing the results with my family. I accept that some people don't find it appealing, I feel sorry for those who do and don't get the opportunity, and I think we all need to share the pleasure as widely as we can.

And now there's snow...

Snow in the Highlands is not unusual, but to have a snowfall in November is uncommon, especially at our level.

Today we woke to a good centimetre of the white stuff, and a fold of cattle who were eager to see us break into the hay store. A complete contrast to two days ago when Chris and I were emptying out the compost bins and spreading the lovely friable compost over the potato patch. Then the sky was blue and it was warm enough to strip down to a t-shirt.

Autumn is a good time to empty the compost bins; the contents had been quietly breaking down over the summer and were now a dark, rich, crumbly material full of organic goodness. I forked over the bed making sure I removed any stray potatoes, stones and persistent weeds (mostly docks). The worm count was tremendous, and it was nice to see how moist the soil now was after the very dry summer we have had. Then we spread the compost over the surface, and covered it with black plastic held down with tyres and old fence posts. All the time being carefully not to walk over the freshly tilled soil. Over the winter the worms will work the compost into the soil and I will have a perfectly ready bed to start growing the beans and peas in next year.

It is very satisfying knowing that you have achieved a job that leaves you gardening-ready, but the sight of plastic covered ground does make you think about the productivity of the vegetable garden.

Thursday, 14 November 2013

Stormy weather..

I feel very sorry for the people of the Philippines, we are having wet and stormy weather here but it is insignificant to what they have endured.

As winter and stormy weather approaches we take sensible precautions to prevent as much damage to the polytunnels etc. as we can. When I put the first tunnel up I set it out in a south-north direction to get the sun on both sides. Unfortunately I wasn't aware of how strong the winds from the west could be at the Croft. They get funnelled down the valley and come sweeping across our land. One year we had a particularly bad storm which whipped up from nowhere and took the tunnel and a 150 year old oak tree. I managed to save much of the tunnel but it needed a new cover and re-siting.

We reorientated the tunnel to run east-west, hugging close to the bank, and exposing it end on to the wind. To further reduce the wind we built a simple slatted fence, with gaps between the uprights to allow the wind to filter through. This makes a huge difference to reducing the wind speed and also provides a sheltered area just beside the polytunnel. The second polytunnel lies in the same direction in line with the first tunnel. Now the tunnels have been up a number of years and are well embedded into the ground. Even in a strong wind they feel quite safe to work inside.

Outdoors all plastic sheets are weighted down with tyres and posts. Even bags of rocks etc. Any plants in pots are put in sheltered areas, sometimes within old fish boxes etc to stop them being blown over and rolling around. My young blueberry plants (originally planted but then the cows got to them and they needed remedial care) have been buried in their pots in part of the vegetable bed to keep them from becoming frozen solid. Most perennials are less prone to being caught by the wind because their foliage disappears over the winter. These are placed in areas of the Nursery where they won't become waterlogged or frozen to the benches.

Generally the winter isn't too bad, you expect poor weather, winds, rain, snow and ice. Problems generally start once spring is expected, then the fluctuations in weather can cause more difficulties, especially when you are nurturing young vulnerable plants. I understand many farmers in the Philippines have lost all their crops, many mature coconut and banana plantations. Recovery from that makes our vegetable gardening problems pale into insignificance, particularly when it isn't our livelihood at stake.

Friday, 1 November 2013

Keeping the greenhouse warm.

1st November and we have had a couple of cold nights on the row. Grass frost and thin ice on the water tubs.

The tender plants are in the greenhouse now, some will be allowed to go completely dry and dormant, like the dahlias, but a few will need to be kept in a frost free environment waiting for the warmer weather to return.

With the cost of heating bills very much in the news it makes sense to take various measures to reduce the costs.

The first thing I do is to reduce the internal volume that needs to be heated. As I am needing most of the staging my way of doing it is to reduce the height by creating a false ceiling with training wire and bubble wrap. It is always a relief when this is taken down in the spring (the training wires remain in place), but there is no point in heat going into the roof space. The walls of the greenhouse also get an internal skin of bubble wrap, not only does this cut down the draughts but it stops the heat going straight through the  cold glass. If you don't need all your greenhouse consider creating an internal division so that you are only heating a small area. Alternatively consider investing in one of those cheap, plastic-fabric freestanding 'greenhouses' which can be put inside the greenhouse, and then only heat that space.

The next thing is to group the plants that need protection. Try to raise them off the ground - cold air will sink and the ground will suck any heat out of the pots. On cool nights it may be enough just to put some fleece over them, but if the temperatures fall lower then you may want to ensure that any heater is placed close to those plants that really need the warmth, with the hardier ones on the edge of the heated area.

I use electricity to heat the greenhouse. I have a fan heater with various settings which I do not use all the time, and two tubular heaters which are suspended underneath the metal staging. These cost little to run and provide a gentle, non-drying background heat. They provide base heating for those plants on the top, which is perfect for propagating in the early spring, and also radiate heat to the plants on the lower shelf. On a cold night I can safely drape fleece over the benches and keep the heat in more efficiently. I do have a back up paraffin heater, but I am glad not to have had to use this as it requires frequent visits to the greenhouse during the night and is hard to regulate.

The greenhouse has a double door, and I can only insulate one side, but that is better than nothing. The main problem with all this internal insulation is that it restricts ventilation, on warm, sunny days I do try to open the door and ensure a change of air.

Of course all this only works if you do spend time checking on the plants and heating regularly. It does mean that you can't completely forget about gardening over the winter, but it won't be long before you will begin sowing seeds and a warm greenhouse will mean an early start.