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.

Foraging Log 8

Time: Perhaps 90 minutes on a weekday evening
Place: Mudchute Park and Farm
Gathered: A good handful of blackberries and 600g plums (mostly yellow with some red ones mixed in).

This was an ad-hoc foraging session; two friends and I were walking back from somewhere else and couldn’t resist looking around. We stopped because it was getting too dark to forage, I’m sure there would have been more plums hiding if we’d covered a few more paths. Also we would have managed more if we’d had a chair to stand on. We also saw loads of hazelnuts, which are huge this year though not yet ripe. When they just start to ripen is the time to pick them, wait any longer and the squirrels will have the entire lot. I should really plan better, I was wearing sandals and got stung by nettles quite a bit.

Foraging Log 7

Time: Perhaps 2 hours
Place: New River Path, Islington, from Essex Road to Canonbury station.
Gathered: A handful or two of lemon balm, some walnuts for pickling, and a few early-but-edible apples

A friend asked me to arrange some foraging as she was going to be in town, so I did. I had some difficulty choosing a location but decided on the New River Path because there is quite a variety of plants there and also because I had promised to point out Amelanchier alnifolia. It’s also quite handy for getting to the Pembury Tavern, which has good food and good beer and, on this occasion, also had Morris dancers.

There were quite a few of us – 6 or 7. I pointed out many of the plants I could identify, and some I couldn’t. It was hot and sunny and we were glad of the shade provided by the trees. We gathered some lemon balm near the beginning. The wild strawberries were pretty much past eating so we left them well alone; edible weeds in a vacant carpark behind a closed branch of MECCA weren’t looking particularly healthy so they were left. Many lovely walnuts were picked from the walnut tree, though, and the little red heart-shaped apples are nearly ripe.