Friday, 27 November 2015

Green for 2016!

Do you consider the impact your gardening habits have on the environment?

With World leaders going to Paris this December to try to reach an accord over Climate Change it might be time to consider our own habits.
Now living on a Croft, growing my own vegetables, being frugal in my habits may make me feel quite smug but one shouldn't get complacent.

Frugality comes with necessity, I don't have huge amounts of money and it seems counterproductive to grow for the table at a cost which would make the vegetables more expensive than they would be in the shops. But I do use peat, plastic pots, heat in the greenhouse, buy in seed and take my products to market.

Peat is something that we are all being asked to use less of. Peat is a carbon sink, all that plant matter locks in carbon from the air and then our extraction of it is fuel hungry and damages the peatlands with their fragile ecosystem. My use of peat is very targeted, I only use it for seed sowing and then I mix it with some John Innes Seed compost and silver sand. Why do I use peat? Because I know it to be sterile and an easy medium for seeds to germinate in. Most of the multi-purpose composts contain recycled green waste, which is good, but is chunky in its texture, contains a lot of wood and is not always sterile. Adding John Innes and silver sand helps to make the mixture more soil like, easier to wet and gives more nutrients, as well as reducing the peat I use. Also seed is not as cheap as it was and you don't want to lose money with a failed sowing. I have used coir as a peat substitute, it needs more preparation, isn't quite as homogeneous in its texture, but is a good alternative. Unfortunately it isn't as widely available, but as a by-product of the coconut industry it is eco-friendly and worth giving a try if you can get hold of it, and certainly I will use it when I can.

Plastic pots are a necessity these days, clay is beautiful and sustainable but costly and needs more cleaning. Consider also that plants grown in them have a higher requirement for water due to the porous nature of the pots, and in water scarce areas (not the Highlands!) that is a consideration in itself. I recycle my plastic pots, and I get given them from other gardeners for the Nursery. By recycle I mean reuse, there are no facilities to recycle them into other products here. They don't even need cleaning. It has been found that plants grow better in pots that contain traces of soil bacteria etc. from previous use. That is because the compost we use has mostly been sterilised, so soil bacteria and fungi etc. are pretty much absent, yet plants need them to help release nutrients from the soil. Any study that says no cleaning is good by me! Obviously if you have had a serious soil problem you would clean or discard the soil and pots, but I haven't had any problem in all the years I've been gardening.

Heating the greenhouse is something that I can't avoid if I want my plants ready for market in the spring. But I have reduced the amount of heat I use. Our winters have got milder over the last few years. I now don't contemplate any heat until around the beginning of January, when I start seed sowing. I gave up autumn sowing because I found that seedlings in spring quickly caught up, and overtook, autumn sown. With the extra cost of heating and caring for autumn seedlings it didn't make sense. I reduce the size of the greenhouse by insulating it with bubblewrap, now in its 9th year of reuse, and hanging the bubblewrap over a network of wires to lower the height and avoid heating the roof space. I restrict the heat to the propagating benches, using tubular heaters suspended beneath the top bench to provide top heat for the bench below and bottom heat for the one above. At night I use fleece to cover the benches making a cosy duvet for the seedlings. You need to check seedlings daily anyway so this little extra work doesn't impact on time and it's quite fun to peel back the fleece and see what has sprouted in the night! Polytunnels get no heat, but fleece is always to hand and if it is stored away during the summer it lasts for years.

Buying in seed is a yearly expense. I use a number of companies and favour the smaller ones with their minimum carbon footprint. Gardening is big business. Nurseries supplying garden centres and retail stores are using vast quantities of peat, heating enormous greenhouses and transporting plants hundreds of miles. Sadly too often the product is left to languish if over ordered, or sent when weather conditions are unfavourable for purchase, and eventually chucked out. What a waste! Buying from small local Nurseries means that the plants are usually grown hard (like mine!), are ready when the conditions are right, and haven't gone far in their short lives. Most of my plants are seed or cutting raised. The seed has less of a carbon footprint than plants, and I don't have much choice about whether to buy or not, but I do try to be canny about storage and sowing. Use an air tight tub and keep it in a cool place, use silica gel packets to absorb any moisture, and most seeds will last a few years. Work out how many seedlings you want and only sow that many seeds - perhaps a couple extra just in case. Date the sowing, then if there is a failure you will know quickly and be able to re-sow or buy a fresh packet. This year I sowed my French beans from seed that was a little too old, after two weeks when nothing was showing, though the runner beans were up, I bought a new packet and off they went. Looking at the old seed packet I saw that the seeds were 'Use by 2012' - so they had lasted about 3-4 years!

And finally the day comes to sell my precious plants. Most of my customers are local. They come knowing that the plants are garden ready. When I go to the Market I only travel a few miles, the car is packed full, and the bags are reused too! It's not only a green conscience that keeps me local, my time is valuable and spending an hour to drive to the next Market doesn't appeal, and the local market usually takes all that I can grow. When I started the Nursery I was surprised by what the other Nurseries said they threw out each year. In my first year I too threw away lots of unsold plants. I realised quickly that it represented not only cost, compost and a sense of failure, but that it also represented a waste of my time, potting up, watering, caring for each plant. Now I restrict the number of plants that I grow, and fortunately, as most are perennials and grasses, they do grow bigger in the following year if not sold in their first year. But vegetable plants don't keep! I do restrict numbers, and I sow frequent small batches to keep plants at peak readiness rather than one large batch of seedlings that then become pot bound. What I don't sell or use gets recycled. The hens can have the top growth and the roots and compost goes into a separate bin for use in potato pots, as soil conditioner etc. Obviously I make tonnes of compost, but that's another story!

So when you consider your garden and plans next year think about how your habits might be adjusted to reduce your footprint on our Planet. If you have any tips, don't be shy to share!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Time to review!

This year has been non-stop. It started with a slow cool spring, moved into a damp cloudy summer, and finished with a lovely warm autumn.

The growing season has been mixed: fantastic runner beans in the polytunnel, abysmal onions in the veg patch. Potato blight on some varieties, others in the same patch unaffected.

Fortunately each year gives different results so it is not the time to be despondent. Instead it is the season to review, prepare and plan.

Review means making a note of what varieties you liked (and didn't like), what you need to grow more of and where and when, what you noticed others growing that you would like to try, etc.

For our patch one thing I will make a note of is that my idea that I wouldn't grow summer leeks outside again - because we don't eat leeks then, and they don't last through the winter outside - was valid. But I need to grow more in the polytunnel for the autumn/winter season, which is when we do like eating leeks.

Also though I do like spring cabbage when there are fewer vegetable varieties on offer, by summer I'm not interested in cabbage. But in late summer, autumn and winter I like red cabbage and savoy cabbage. Kale I will eat at any time of year, particularly 'Red Russian' or Black Tuscan kale. These varieties I will grow in the polytunnel and outdoors. All other varieties of kale I've dropped, if the supermarket want to sell curly green kale but none other that's fine by me, that's one of the reasons for growing your own vegetables!

Prepare means getting the vegetable patch ready for next year, cleaning and mending tools, ordering seeds (always one of the best winter tasks). Last winter was wet and my preparation of the vegetable bed was severely hampered. Consequently I was behind when it came to getting things planted (and that was also delayed because of the cool spring). I felt I was playing catch-up well into summer. This year the ground is already mostly snug under black plastic, dug, fertilised (where necessary) and I feel much better and ready to go. Black plastic doesn't look nice I admit, but it keeps the ground drier, stops the weeds, protects the soil fauna so they can concentrate on working the soil and muck, and I just pull it back in spring and plant straight into lovely clean soil.

Plan this means putting your review into effect by make a decision about quantities, varieties, timing. I don't like gluts, I have little time during a busy summer season to do anything other than freeze vegetables or fruit which I know I will use during the winter. If you know you won't eat 20 cabbages why grow them? Think about what you will eat and when and in what quantity and make your plans to that. If you buy vegetable plants you will find that many companies send out quite large quantities of each variety - consider sharing with a friend rather than have 16 broccoli plants all ripening in the same week. 

And finally if you find you have spare ground in your vegetable patch don't waste it. You can use a green manure, but it will be prettier and beneficial to insects and birds if you plant or sow a few annual flowers. Cosmos, cornflowers and sweet peas, all will brighten up your patch, provide cut flowers for the house and encourage beneficial insects in to predate on any troublesome pests.

Happy gardening for the next season!