Poisoned muck

We had a delivery of manure to the allotment a few weeks ago. So I did what I usually do: rearranged everything else to spend several hours with a fork and a wheelbarrow, getting as much of it as I could manage onto my plot before it all disappeared. In another year or two I hope not to have to take such drastic measures, but the heavy clay I’ve inherited doesn’t have much organic matter in it at all.

But the other thing I did was to sow some pea shoots, in two separate containers: some with just expandable coir, and some with coir plus some of the manure mixed in. This is to test for pesticide poisoning.

These were the results:

Some rather crowded green pea shoots in a cardboard pot, itself inside a plastic tray. A wooden tongue depressor to one side indicates that these are the variety Serge, and that this has no manure.
Pea shoots, as before, but these ones have cupped leaves and very stunted growth. The wooden tongue depressor says “PEA SHOOTS ‘SERGE’ WITH MANURE” on it.

Well, that’s pretty clearly a problem.

I’ve written to the allotment society committee, and I will also be contacting Corteva about it as mentioned at https://organicgrowersalliance.co.uk/aminopyralid-the-herbicide-that-hasnt-gone-away/

Legumes and nightshades are especially sensitive to these pesticides, but I understand they can also affect sunflowers (including Jerusalem artichokes), cucurbits, lettuces and other broad-leaved plants. It can take well over a year to break down in contact with soil and sunlight, and longer in a storage pile or compost heap. It doesn’t affect grasses, but binds to the lignin in them, which is how it ends up in horse manure after the horses eat grass that has been sprayed.

A more detailed description of what these pesticides do is available at https://deepgreenpermaculture.com/2021/02/24/how-to-identify-and-treat-herbicide-contamination-of-commercial-soil-compost-and-manure/

I’m not really content with just contacting Corteva, though. So I ordered quite a bit of Pleurotus ostreatus grain spawn, stirred it into both my manure heaps, and gave it a good watering in. The centre of the heaps was still quite moist already despite the hot weather so I’m hoping the oysters will get established there. (We do get various ink cap species growing on the manure, usually, but I don’t think they can break down petrochemicals the way oysters may be able to.) I kept back a bucket of the contaminated stuff, so if the oysters do colonise the manure pile and manage to fruit, I will run another bioassay with more peas.

I’m really glad I thought to check this manure out before putting any of it on my potatoes, tomatoes or squashes.

Fruit diversification

I have quite a variety of fruit, between the back garden and the allotment.

Brambles: tayberries (allotment), black raspberries (home and allotment), Japanese wineberries (home and allotment), blackberries (home, though I’ll probably bring some to the allotment when I find a cultivar I love enough to grow — I tend to forage these instead and this makes me picky about what I’ll give space to), and autumn-fruiting raspberries (and one autumn-fruiting blackberry, to try it out).

I also have several types of strawberries at home and the allotment, and further at home, some blueberries, honeyberries (not yet flowered), and patio mulberries. There was also a Saskatoon berry here when we moved in, which doesn’t make the highest-quality fruit but it’s certainly edible.

In terms of top fruit, there are apples, pears, cherries (too young to do anything just yet), plums (ditto), damsons, and figs to be getting on with. A plum at the allotment that was there when I arrived has died, a combination of my inept pruning and it getting its roots disturbed too much when we were putting in our raised beds made it susceptible to disease, and I thought it might pull through, but there are no sprouts at all this year. I’m thinking of replacing it with either a medlar or a mulberry, neither of which should be susceptible to the same diseases; I think a medlar may be a better bet because they bloom late enough to miss the frosts and are generally pretty cold hardy, but first I need to find out for sure whether I like medlars! A quince (likely the Chaenomeles variety) is another good option.

Even within fruit varieties I have this built-in diversification. I have a few different types of figs (for, um, reasons), one of which has got two big figs on it now and several of which appear to be focusing on leaf growth first. I’ve tried to have a mix of early, mid-summer and late strawberries, though this has been a bit haphazard. The pears… well, we’ll see. We were given a pear tree as a wedding gift several years ago, but it was only partially self-fertile, and it turns out that our gift-givers assumption that there would be some other pears around with in bee-distance was incorrect. I’ve long since lost the documentation on just what sort of pear it is. So I’ve acquired a couple more pears, and this year they did manage to flower all at the same time, and now all three pear trees have pears on them, but I only know the right season for the stripey ones. Oops. But I do enjoy pears, and it’s lovely to finally be getting some fruit.

The idea here is to draw out the length of the season as far as possible. Our cold spring doesn’t seem to have bothered the tayberries or the strawberries, though perhaps they’re fruiting a bit later than they otherwise might; the autumn-fruiting raspberries will keep going right into October if the weather holds (though they aren’t doing particularly well, I’ll be honest, between winter waterlogging and summer weeds), some of the pears are traditionally picked in fall and then stored until spring. It might be more efficient to have all apples, or all strawberries, or maybe one or two fruit varieties; but “efficient” also means getting overwhelmed by a glut that has to be processed. This way, I get dribs and drabs of fruit — and sometimes quite a lot of it — all summer. That means I can make small batches of jam or wine or syrup, it means I can put small amounts in my freezer at once (berries have to be frozen on a tray first and then put into containers if you don’t want one big block of them), and it means that bad or unseasonable weather is less likely to destroy an entire crop. This little-and-often method of preserving and storage, not to mention eating, suits me rather better than having three kinds of fruit and so much of it at once that I have to drop everything for three days to deal with it.

Onto the treadmill

I have less time for writing at this time of year, because I’m mostly occupied with sowing and with readying the ground at the allotment for the plants.

So far I’ve sowed leeks, chives, beets, chard, lettuce, kohl rabi, celery, celeriac, tomatoes, peppers, pepino dulce, tomatillos, peas, aubergines, spinach, red orach, winter purslane, chervil, parsley, basil, dill, shiso, rue, oregano, marjoram, spring onions, hyssop, and various squashes. I need to get on with the carrots and parsnips pretty sharpish, and hurry up with the back garden Bean Cave, too.

Other tasks have included transporting water butts and getting them set up, assembling greenhouse staging, and testing out a fire barrel I hope to use for biochar.

I have also been doing some reading, though, particularly about no-till, continuous cultivation grain growing. The “classic” method for this as set out in Masanobu Fukuoka’s “One-Straw Revolution” is to grow rye, barley or winter wheat in the winter, followed by rice in the spring, using the residues (i.e. straw) from the previous crop to mulch the current one. Could I do this on part of our allotment?

Well, the rainy season in Britain is really at the wrong time for rice, at least going by the last few decades. I could use legumes for the summer part of the rotation, but even the tall peas and beans I favour don’t generally produce a lot of crop residue, at least compared to something like wheat. Corn, on the other hand, seems like it should be possible… so I am thinking about alternating winter wheat with a three-sisters style polyculture of corn, squash and drying beans, underplanted with clover, and maybe with some sunflowers thrown in for good measure and increased carbon. That will be a tight schedule, though: the wheat may not be ready to harvest until July but I’d want to plant out the corn, squash and beans in early June, and even if I interplanted I’m not sure they’d get enough light. I think if I’m harvesting the wheat by hand or we have a good warm spring it might be possible. Another option would be a much simpler rotation of winter wheat followed by broad beans, which do have higher crop residues; but I tend to prefer overwintering my broad beans for an early crop, rather than fighting with the blackfly later in the season, and I’m not so fussed about eating them that I want to grow an entire bed of them, if I’m honest. If the wheat harvest is later — say, August — then I could follow it directly with peas, which don’t mind the cooler autumn temperatures so much.

The other thing about growing winter wheat followed by a three sisters polyculture is that I am always looking for more space for squashes, and it would keep that ground occupied right up until time to plant them.

Of course, if I don’t want to eat the wheat — if I’m growing it entirely as a winter cover crop — then I can simply cut it down whenever I’m ready to plant the next thing. There is something to be said for that approach, as I’d still get to use the biomass to build up the soil; but the idea of growing an edible crop like wheat and then not actually eating it is extremely frustrating to me.

Potatoes three ways

We planted out the seed potatoes last weekend — they’d been chitting on the windowsills for a while and I needed the space, really, for seedlings.

I’m growing ten varieties:

– Red Duke of York (1st early, floury)
– Accent (1st early, waxy)
– Charlotte (2nd early, waxy)
– Lily Rose (2nd early, waxy)
– Purple Rain (2nd early, waxy)
– DesirĂ©e (early maincrop, waxy)
– Blue Congo (early maincrop)
– Bergerac (maincrop, waxy)
– Maris Piper (maincrop)

Plus some ?? King Edwards from last year. (We were told they were KE but they weren’t labelled…)

Two of each, we’ve planted traditionally: fairly deep in the clay south of the shed. We’ll need to earth them up later in the season. Eventually that bed will be for hardy perennials, some of which will hopefully get planted out when I harvest the potatoes. I also had three spare Maris Pipers that I put into the legume bed with the soup peas; by the time they are ready to dig up the peas should be ripe and dry.

Three of each, plus an extra 3 of Charlotte, Maris Piper and King Edwards, we’ve put in a no-dig bed. I put the potatoes into holes I made with the hoe handle, scattered some organic pelletised chicken manure about (to mediate any nitrogen robbery problems), and then we put about six inches of wood chips on top. Oh — there are two soaker hose lines at soil level, too, they aren’t hooked up yet but they’re there. We’ll need to add more woodchips, for around a foot total, but there weren’t enough available on the day. I’m sure more will arrive. I’m not sure how well this will work or whether I’m really just creating a giant feeding area for the mice — should we have encased the lot in metal mesh? Or will the allotment cats do their job? But the potatoes that my spouse threw on the cold compost, which is mostly woodchips, seem to be growing pretty well, and having an extra woodchip composting area without giving up on it as a growing space is quite appealing, so, we’ll see. Maybe we need to research effective mousetraps, too, but there’s an infinite number of mice and I don’t want to harm other wildlife — or the allotment cats, for that matter.

Nine of the Charlotte potatoes are also in cloth bags. I don’t like using plastic fabrics, but I have these leftover from a few years ago when I was a little less conscientious about microplastics. Anyway those ones are in a mixture of rehydrated coir (including some of the leachate liquid from the hot composter) and more of our heavy clay, and they’ll get topped up with more coir as the plants grow. I’ve grown potatoes like this before, the yield isn’t always great and keeping them fed and watered can be an issue, but the bags can be moved around and anyway, we had run right out of beds to put more potatoes in. At the moment the bags are mostly in places where I am planning on adding some more perennial herbs. Hopefully by the time the herbs are ready for planting out, I can harvest the potatoes, then use the “compost” to backfill the holes for the herbs.

This isn’t a particularly scientific experiment: the woodchip bed has irrigation while the other one and the bags don’t, and they’re in three different spots on the plot with varying amounts of sunshine and wind. But watch this space and I’ll try to remember to post an update when harvesting starts.

This weekend the plan is to move the rest of the 350L water butts from home (a horrible job: they only barely fit on the bike trailer, and one of us has to push the bike along by the handlebars while the other steadies the butts to prevent them shifting around and fouling the wheels, for the entire two and a half miles), and try to get the rest of the irrigation system north of the greenhouse set up. I hope the peas and broad beans have survived the wind and hail we’ve had recently. If there’s time after that, there’s quite a bit to be done in the way of finding a use for the four old 100L water butts (which weren’t very stable, and tended to bend and fall over when they heated up in the sun); I am thinking that cutting them in half and using them as small raised beds/big plant pots is the way to go. I’m toying with the idea of a small pond, but they aren’t really the right dimensions for that.

Additionally, there are still leeks, celery and some perpetual spinach (actually a chard) to harvest, and some of the other chard is slowly getting going again, too. I’m wondering if I can perennialise some of the chard by cutting off the flowering spike it develops, but maybe I’m just trying to reinvent Good King Henry and should sow the latter instead.

Is this thing on?

It’s been over a decade, oops.

I’m still foraging! Also gardening. In December 2019 I got an allotment, but I’ve also been living in this house since 2012 and have done a fair amount of veg growing in the back garden, too.

I’m not making any ambitious promises about updating here more often, but I have been thinking I would like to. Watch this space, I guess.

Tentative wave

I’ve been madly, madly busy with academic work: details of some of that over on my <a href=”http://artsyhonker.blogspot.com”>Artsy Honker</a> blog. I can’t really commit to much outside of my current workload and writing here has definitely suffered as a result.

I am tentatively considering re-establishing this blog, however, as I have been finding a bit of time to get out and about for some foraging recently.

Long Time No Post…

I’ve been busy with studying, and with moving house (and losing my outdoor garden space in the proces, *sob*), and I’m not done yet. After that I’m going to be visiting family in Canada for a few weeks. I’m hoping I’ll be back on a more regular basis in January.

What would you like to see me write about? More foraging? Gardening without a garden? Learning to cycle in big scary London?

Foraging Log 9

Time: An hour, early evening
Place: Hendon Park
Gathered: a handful of fairy ring champignons, a smaller handful of mulberries

The hazelnuts are nearly all gone now, the squirrels have got the lot! There may still be time to experiment with acorns, although they do require significant preparation.

The mulberries are almost gone now, they’re too delicious to keep hanging around and they don’t last well once they are off the tree.

The fairy ring champignons will very shortly be an omelet ingredient in my brunch. Yum!

This afternoon there is a plan for blackberry picking, so I’ll probably have another foraging log in the next few days.

Note: The Utopia Experiment is still desperately short-handed, if you think you can get up there, even for a weekend, please join the Yahoo! group and let us know when you can get there.

Easing back into the real world…

I’m in Somerset this week, at Ki-Aikido summer school. The class schedule is relaxed enough that I’ve been able to get out and about a little bit. I haven’t done huge amounts of foraging while I’ve been here – about a pound of plums the other day that were hanging over a car park in Highbridge, and the odd handful of blackberries from beside the various lanes. Lots of things are starting to ripen nicely, and I expect I’ll have plenty to harvest when I get back to London if it hasn’t all been rained away.

Things to watch for, at least in the south of England, in the next few weeks:

  • Hazelnuts–ideally you want to get this when they’re just starting to ripen, if you wait until they’re properly ripe then the squirrels will have the lot.
  • Mulberries–these are planted as ornamental trees, usually, but the fruit is quite edible once it gets dark. It doesn’t keep at all so you need to either eat it, juice it, freeze it or jam it the same day you pick it. Personally I tend to eat it straight away.
  • Walnuts are getting big now and, just like the hazelnuts, if you want to eat them instead of letting the squirrels take them all, you’ll have to get there quickly.
  • Elderberries–some people find that there are laxative effects from eating these raw, although personally I’ve never had a problem with the odd handful. They make good wine, good jam and good juice or syrup. I’ve even had elderberry port, although to be fair I didn’t make it myself.
  • Grapes are also quite common as ornamentals and can range from deliciously sweet to rather too tart for eating.
  • Apples! Some won’t be ready yet but it’s difficult to tell this year as the weather has been quite odd.
  • Blackberries, of course.
  • Fennel seeds when they start to ripen, which may be pretty soon. You can use them as a condiment, or sprout them.
  • Various other seeds – hedge garlic, rocket, shepherd’s purse and various other wild brassicas are good for sprouting.
  • Poppy seeds are edible and have a nice nutty flavour, although collecting any great quantity from the wild can be daunting.

That’s probably all from me until after I’m back to London, unless I find something really spectacular that warrants a post of its own.

Chop Wood, Carry Water

In a departure from my normal urban foraging, I’ve spent the last little while at The Utopia Experiment, in Scotland. The fresh air and good company are doing me a power of good, and I’m very, very glad I managed to get here.

I have been doing some foraging while I’m here. I’ve found chanterelle mushrooms for the first time, as well as some blackcurrants that are so big and juicy and sweet that I’ll eat them straight from the bush although I’m normally not a currant fan. The wild cherries, or Gean berries as they are called here, are quite delightful, and the raspberries are superb. I’ve also found most of the usual greens – hedge garlic (sadly past its best), sorrel, shepherd’s purse, various oilseed rape escapes, yarrow, narrow-leaved plantain, broad-leaved plantain, bladder campion, goosegrass, ground elder, chickweed and of course, nettles. The nettles here are quite fierce and I’ve come out in blisters from their sting a few times.

Other than foraging I’ve been doing bits and pieces around the site. We cook with wood here, and after getting quite tired of blowing ash into my face I built a bellows out of discarded plastic bags, cardboard boxes, foil tape, wood and a beer can. It works well, but the wooden handles keep coming off – I think some modification will be necessary for a more durable tool. I’ve been chopping wood, refilling the kettle from the standpipe (still on mains water but work continues apace on the water filter), sleeping in a yurt, feeding the chickens and the pigs, helping with general garden things (weeding, planting out autumn brassicas, and the all-important harvesting of peas…mmm… peas…) and doing quite a bit of cooking.

I’ll be leaving this place on Saturday to spend a week in Somerset studying Ki-Aikido, and we are very, very short of volunteers up here. I’ll be back in London after that and unable to get away again for quite some time. If you’re in the UK or planning to be in the UK before TUE comes to an end in September 2008, staying here for a while is a wonderful opportunity to get out of the city and learn a bit about some self-sufficient living and pass on some skills of your own.

We really really really need more people – special skills don’t matter too much if you’re willing to learn and can apply common sense and stamina to a problem. After about the middle of August it’s really sparse. If you’re interested in coming – even just for a weekend – please contact tue[at]the-earth-effect[dot]com for more information. The website is a bit daunting but really, the people here are lovely and it’s great to get into the countryside for a while.