Farewell my London…

November 10, 2011

I’ve known for a while that come the end of the growing season I’d be handing over my gardening belt and heading back to Zimbabwe. Yet despite the time I’ve had to get used to the idea, it’s no easier to say good-bye, both to the sites I’ve been working these last five years and the rather amazing group of people I’ve worked with.

When I started in 2007, there was the grower, two of us apprentices, and a fairly flexible programme for volunteers. Now as I leave my post as grower, the volunteer programme is still going strong but as well as the grower there’s also an assistant, five Patchwork Farmers and four newly graduated apprentices. In addition to growing a serious amount of food, we’ve really managed to grow a fine team of growers!

With our Clissold site becoming more and more productive (we turned the butterfly tunnel into a polytunnel last year) and the Patchwork Farmers running four microsites as part of the Patchwork Farm, it’s become quite an operation. One which saw us harvesting and then packing over 80kg of mixed salad leaves at the height of the growing season: getting a bag of salad out to every member of the box scheme plus onto the plates of many more people through local restaurants – and we kept this up for 6 weeks running.  It’s been hard work to say the least, with the rather large dose of logistics that comes with growing at multiple sites. But the level of cheer and dedication from my fellow growers plus the honest appreciation for the delicious organic leaves we are growing right here in London has been more than enough to buoy me along. It’s been so great to work with an organisation that is pushing up the amount of food grown and eaten locally, making small but important steps towards an alternative food system.

I wish Paul well as he takes up the reins: may your secateurs be sharp, the compost rich, the robin friendly, the slug scarce and let the salad growing continue on.

Here’s me at our Springfield site, about to make one of my final voyages with the trailer, well loaded with salad after the harvest. Thanks to Amy Scaife for the picture – one of only a few of me on the sites in all my time at Growing Communities.

Passing it on…

October 24, 2011

So today I emptied out my tool belt. It’s my last week here at Growing Communities and one step in my final preparations for departure, is to sort out all this weight I have been carrying on my hip. Then I can hand this terribly useful belt over to Paul, who’ll be taking over.

Yes, it’s amazing just how much can fit in a small bag.

And more amazing, is just how long I have been carrying around all these VERY useful things.  Sure, the seceteurs are a necessity, always at the ready, the tool of choice for any salad grower, but the not-one, not-two but SIX jubilee clips? What have they been doing in there all this time?

Add my phone to all of this, never mind all the soil that had accumulated at the bottom, and I had seriously more weight on my hips than I ought to have.

Celebrating a life…

September 26, 2011

I know I’ve always just written about our urban market gardens on this blog, but today warrants a departure from tradition: Wangari Maathai died last night.

It’s devastating news and it took me some time to get myself together to get down to Allens Gardens after I heard it this morning. Luckily Julie was around to hold the fort until I got there.*

You see, in the last five years, alongside my focus on growing local and all the amazing things that accompany that, I’ve spent quite a bit of time working with the Green Belt Movement through the Gaia Foundation. Before I took on the rather more full on role of head grower with Growing Communities, this meant a few trips out to Kenya to check in with how the project was going.

Not only have I been blown away by all the stories of the work of this phenomenal woman, but I am also extremely grateful to have met her and been inspired by her energy, grace and brilliant humour.

So I dedicate this blog to Prof, and celebrate her life and the inspiration she has been to me and countless others. May her work continue through all of us.

It might not have been trees, but today I was just happy to be able to spend some time planting, a simple task of renewal and of life.

* last day of Julie’s apprenticeship…how quickly this growing season has sped by.

Packing it in…

September 21, 2011

It’s been a while since I have written about one of the most crucial elements of our salad growing operations, but yesterday, as I looked around me as we were packing the salad we had harvested earlier in the afternoon, it struck me just how much has changed in the last couple of years. All testament to the massive increases in our salad growing…

Now that we’ve got 4 microsites on board, the quantities of salad are reaching huge proportions. This year in June we hit our target of getting Hackney-grown salad into every one of our Box Scheme member’s bags, with salad left over to go to local restaurants. That was over 70kg of salad! It’s hard to imagine unless you’ve seen it. And we maintained that level of production for 6 weeks. Tuesdays have been full on days!

Packing the salad is probably the least appealing element in the process of getting the salad from plot to plate. It’s repetitive, attention to detail is vital at all times and, at the height of the growing season when you’ve got over 600 bags to pack at the end of a good day of harvesting, it can be a rather long session.

But I think it can also be the most sociable time for the growers: the one time during the day that everyone – growers, apprentices and Patchwork Farmers – who have been out working their sites can get together. We use it as a time, not just to pack the salad, but to discuss what’s going on, how things are growing and how things are developing, as well as all manner of subjects…apprentice Jack has a wicked salad humour, frequently getting us all into fits of laughter with his salad related quips.

Having said this, it really puts your skills in multi-tasking to the test – can you chat whilst still stuffing a perfect mix of fresh fragile leaves into a bag? Can you chat while weighing up the bags or sealing them, so that you don’t get a mountain of stuffed bags piling up in front of you? And how about getting all those salad bags counted up and in the cold store before the evening runs away?

Here Ida leads us all in a mid-pack stretch, definitely a requirement after a long day’s work and an hour or two left of the pack!

This grower’s going…

July 20, 2011

Well, I’m heading to Zimbabwe at the end of this growing season and wonder whether any of you reading my blog might be interested in my job. As you’ll know from my last few years of writing on here, I totally love the work that I do with Growing Communities, and so I hope I will have inspired you to have a think about it. It’s proving to be really hard to disentangle my deep roots in London but the pull of family is just too strong and I’m going home.

All the details are here.

The closing date is 5.00pm Friday 19th August and we’ll be interviewing on Thursday 1st September, so get your applications in!

What does this mean for this here blog? I haven’t quite decided but, here or there, I figure I’ll still be a growing apprentice for a long time. So my tales might still be told….

Destructive beauty…

July 3, 2011

My hands are stained with the insides of tiny maggots, the larvae of the asparagus beetle, which is laying waste to our small but fine crop. It feasts on no other plant and when I saw the adult beetle, despite it being my first sighting, I knew instantly what it was. So today I have spent a good half hour squishing the beetles and their gorging young.

Here’s the adult beetle – really a thing of beauty!

And so you can identify it on your own asparagus, here’s the larva – this one is so fat it could pop!

There’s no other way to deal with them organically, yes it’s certainly the grim side of growing. These beetles have three cycles a year, so if you don’t catch them early, they’ll have a good three goes at ravaging your delicious asparagus. This really weakens the plants and could eventually kill it.

Luckily I was able to go some way to off-setting the feeling this taking of life gave me with the sowing of four trays of Esmee rocket – a quick growing brassica from which I hope to get a good harvest before the winter crops go in.

It’s back!

June 11, 2011

Yes, the red orache is well and truly back. We’re harvesting rather great quantities and still it’s managing to get to a cook-able size. Somehow this one slipped into the salad trough…

…weighing in at over 10g just for one leaf we figured it would rather dominate the 80g salad bags we were packing. Such a delicious leaf though. Our red orache is planted from saved seed and does really well on the sites. We love it!

Here we go!

April 1, 2011

So, here we stand at the brink of a new season…of course the growing season has begun already, this week we harvested over 15kg of the finest salad…but this is the time I traditionally think of as the start. For next week our new apprentices begin their programme of growing with us at our urban market gardens. This year there’ll be four of them – Jo, Jack, Shelagh and Julie – each attached to the various sites and coming together on a Tuesday afternoon to harvest, mix and pack our wonderful salad. Pip and I can hardly wait!

And as if this wasn’t enough of an exciting beginning, next week Stephanie will be starting as our Patchwork Farm Coordinator. She’ll be getting going on finding new pieces of land in Hackney for this year’s brood to cut their teeth on come the end of the growing season. Send any prospects our way!

Leaf of the week – May King

March 30, 2011

It’s the quintessential lettuce – bright green, buttery and delicious – just like the longed for lettuce in the story of Rapunzel. May King is delighting us all with its perfectly formed leaves and super abundance in the polytunnel at our Clissold Park site. This week we harvested a whopping 1.8kg from a bed a mere 2.5 metres long. And this from a stretch of soil that had given us 1.3kg a week before. It’s amazing what a little Spring heat can do!

May King is a butterhead variety and you can pick off the outer leaves to give a good continuous harvest. These were planted last autumn and have overwintered rather nicely in the protected environment of the polytunnel.

And sow it begins…

March 11, 2011

Couldn’t resist that heading as we start to sow this year’s seeds. If you head out to any of our sites, you’ll find a vast array of seeds beginning to do their thing on the graveled benches on which we do the propagation. The benches are essentially tables with a shallow lip which we’ve lined with plastic and have put a load of gravel. We fill this up with water so the seed trays sit on top of the gravel and can draw the water up as they need it, it acts like a mini-reservoir. This helps keep the water levels right for the precious vulnerable seedlings. We try to get to the sites as often as possible to tend to them, but it’s a little tricky when you can’t make it every day.

The orache seedlings make a first appearance next to the turnip tops…

This year the propagation operation is bigger than ever. With the new sites at the Tree Nursery and St Michael’s the tables are truly groaning under the weight of future salad plants. We’ve done a central seed order too, for the urban market gardens and the growing Patchwork Farm, which is proving to be an interesting exercise in logistics – how to make sure that the seeds you need are where you want them when you need them? Just another of the not-unsolvable but remarkable challenges of having multiple sites!