Archive for June, 2007

Red Orache update

June 30, 2007

It’s been some time since red orache featured as Leaf of the Week but every week at the site they just get better and better and I wish I hadn’t given them fame quite so early! Really a wonderful feature in the salad beds. I thought I would share this picture with you, just to show you how big and beautiful they have become.

Red Orache grows up


Leaf of the Week: Turnip Tops

June 29, 2007

Well, having sparked your interest with the reference to turnip tops in the last Leaf of the Week, this week they take pride of place. They were delightfully abundant for this week’s salad, though if you got the bag you’d be forgiven for not realising they were in it: they look VERY like mizuna. However, they are not quite so strong in flavour and the leaf is slightly less spikey looking.

Turnip Tops

We pick them when they are nice and young so they will be tender enough for salad but you could leave them to grow a bit longer and then eat them the way you would spring greens. A good leaf but I wouldn’t go so far as to say it’s the ‘new mizuna’ in the same way that mizuna is definitely the ‘new rocket’!

Leave us on our own?

June 26, 2007

‘Whew!’ Huge sighs of relief today as Bruce and I cycle out of Springfield Gardens with 160 freshly packed bags of salad. A little later than usual, that’s for sure, but all feels rather good having managed to run the show and get the harvest in on this, the first day
that Ru has left us alone.

The first part of my day really does begin alone, for a rather worrying length of time I think maybe I will be the only person at Allens Gardens all morning. Ann-Marie, who is always there before me, doesn’t arrive. But, I stay calm, I do the rounds, relishing the quiet of the site and take an estimate of how much I think we’ll be able to harvest today. There’s been a lot of growth but I set on a figure of 8kgs – don’t want to overdo it as overestimating and then coming in short can be rather stressful. Then I give Bruce a call to find out how much we can get from Springfield – he was there yesterday, all day, in the driving rain. We agree to underestimate, though even an underestimation means a kilogram more than we’ve been harvesting recently. We settle on 16kgs!

Cos bed

The cos lettuce promises a good amout of leaves for the bags!

Still no one has shown up. A call from Rachel at HQ brings news that Ann-Marie won’t be in at all – oh dear! I speak to Nat, the buyer for Growing Communities, and tell her how much we will get to her. Then I get going on clearing a couple of beds for new planting.

Soon Nat (another one!) and a new volunteer Tevide arrive – thank goodness! I give Tevide a tour of the site, as I think Ru would do, and then she and Nat take on the planting. Lots of turnip tops to go in this week. They are the same family as mizuna, so they’re replacing the flowering rocket in the greenhouse and some older mizuna outside (more on turnip tops later…).

Before we know it, it’s lunch time. Precious arrives and we sit, chat and discuss the afternoon’s chores. We decide to get going on harvesting immediately after lunch except for Precious who’ll do some much needed weeding – you can hardly see what is rocket and what is weed on some of the beds. At 2, Parnell arrives and she, Nat, Tevide and I go through what needs to be harvested. I make sure they all know how each crop needs to be picked – cos lettuce, for example, can be pinched out with your fingers, taking only the largest of the leaves, while mizuna is a secateur (= hand pruners) job as it is a cut and come again crop (= this means you cut off all the leaves leaving only an inch or two of stems. However you need to make sure that you leave some sign of new growth, so it can grow back!) Everyone selects a bed to work on. Bruce arrives to join in. And Farah turns up to finish off the job she had begun last week – picking tarragon for drying. A great showing in the end – no need for concern!

We easily collect 8 boxes of leaves and at around 4, Bruce and I cycle over to Springfield, following Nat and Tevide who’ve gone ahead on foot. We get there by 4.30, half an hour later than normal – Bruce would usually have gone ahead with Ru leaving me to lock up but we wanted to go over together today, in case any of the boxes fell off the Brox. So already losing a bit of time. The beds at Springfield seem to be groaning with leaves. Very easy to fill our quota. Especially as I realise on weighing the boxes that we’ve actually
collected 11kg at Allens! All that delicious mizuna weighs more than we realise.

Despite the easy collection, two of the volunteers head off at six and with only three of us left to pack we resign ourselves to getting out a bit late. Definitely miss Ru’s speed with packing and chivvying things along…Still, by 8 it’s all in the Brox and ready to go, delightfully hitting the target we had set for ourselves. Sweet success for a hard day’s work. Big thanks to Nat for staying with us right to the end! And of course to everyone else who made the day go smoothly for us.

Weekly stats…
Grower: 0 | Apprentices: 2 | Volunteers: 4 | Support workers: 2 | Fox: 0

Harvested from the site…
Salad greens & edible flowers: 16kg | 3 punnets of black currants: 900g | 1 punnet summer fruits (strawberries, black currants and logan berries): 300g | Mint: 90g | Basil: 30g

Red-breasted resident…

June 23, 2007

I’ve been away this week so haven’t been to the site – hence the lack of words on this. The coming week, however, is going to be really interesting as Ru is taking a holiday and Bruce and I have been tasked with running the show. Definitely worth checking back here to see how we get on! I think I am most concerned about estimating how much we will be able to harvest for the salad bags. It’s one thing to say ‘wow, this has really grown!’ but quite another to work out how much that growth translates to in terms of weight!

Though I haven’t been around, I am sure this little red-breasted visitor has been…

Robin up close

I took this picture last week. He was a wonderful subject and hopped around very close to my camera’s lens. We see robins a lot at the site as they absolutely love it when we dig up the soil, unearthing all those delicious worms.

Leaf of the Week: Golden Purslane

June 13, 2007

It is with just a little protest that Golden Purslane takes the title this week. Bruce was dead set on the rainbow chard which he painstakingly harvested, while Ru was sure that it was going to be turnip tops since he took the trouble to introduce me to them. But having first picked the normal purslane and then moved onto the brighter, more succulent Golden variety, I couldn’t resist. The name sounds like something out of King Arthur’s Knights of the Round Table. And now, I find, Golden Purslane, and to be fair the normal one too, is something of a wonder leaf.

Golden Purslane

This tasty little collection of leaves – you harvest them as a bunch – is regarded by some as a weed but it actually boasts more beta-carotene than spinach and it has lots of magnesium and potassium too. I’ve even discovered that it has alpha linolenic acid, which is a type of omega-3 fatty acid. Add this to the juicy texture of the leaves, it’s pretty good going then to get it in your salad!

Watering systems and foul smells…

June 12, 2007

With very little rain this last week, today is the perfect time to talk about watering. A friend of mine has been reading this and mailed me to ask how we manage watering at the site. She helps out with a community garden in Dublin and complains that a day after watering, their beds are bone dry. She thought I might be able to give her some advice. Merely an apprentice, I, of course, ask Ru.

Allens Garden generally relies on a once-a-week watering, unless it is very dry and then Ru goes back later in the week to give the salad leaves another drink. But the main thing is to give the soil a good mulch ( = a protective cover of organic matter over the soil, you’ll also see bark being used plus other synthetic materials) to help keep the soil damp. The mulch also helps to suppress weeds and improve the structure of the soil. I didn’t think we used a mulch, but Ru corrects me. The compost that we have been layering over the beds rather than digging it in, really helps to retain the water. Now I see the purpose of barrow load after backbreaking barrow load of the stuff!

It’s also a good day to talk about watering because, as we are taking out the coriander in the long bed on the wild side of the central wall, and are replacing it with a new crop, we decide to re-lay the watering system. The system takes the form of a hosepipe that runs up and then loops back down the bed. The one we take out is just an old pipe that we had put holes in with a nail. It really doesn’t work too well as the holes are too big and there’s not enough pressure to get the water all the way down along the bed – the longest one on the site. Ru has invested in some proper porous pipe for us to replace it with. It’s a bit of a finicky job as a lot of the plants in the bed – sorrel, oreganum, the Ceylon spinach and the fruit trees – are staying put, so we have to thread the pipe through without destroying them. And of course the pipe is a bit kinked and tangled and seems to have a life of its own. But, as the sun is shining again, we have some good volunteers to help with the job. And after a bit of direction, the pipe is down, we test it and the water goes all the way down. Brilliant!

The new crop we plant is another exciting addition to the salad bags – amaranth. I always thought that this was only eaten as a grain, but apparently the leaves are seriously rich in nutrients. I can’t wait to see them grow and eat them. At least I know they’ll be well watered!

A rather less exciting job is the draining of one of the liquid feed tubs. These are the tubs that we drown the bind weed and other very invasive weeds in. You can also add comfrey leaves and nettles to push up the nutritional levels of the liquid. Draining the tubs is a job that we have been putting down on the task list pretty much every week but we never seem to be able to tick it off. Today however, I see Ru determinedly making his way down to the compost area, armed with gloves and a waterproof jacket. I, rather reluctantly, ask if he needs help. Of course he says yes. So I don a coat from the shed and give him a hand.

It’s seriously foul smelling. The liquid is drained into bottles for use across the site ( = especially good when planting up new beds – you mix a bit into each watering can to put in the holes before you plant up the seedlings), then we have to lift the inner sack – full of rotting sodden leaves – out of the tub and empty it onto the compost heap, very careful not to get the liquid on us. If you do, you can smell it all day. Like all disgusting jobs that you keep on putting off, it’s a great feeling to have it done. Thankfully it’s not one that we have to do too often…

Weekly stats…
Grower: 1 | Apprentices: 2 | Volunteers: 6! | Support workers: 1 | Visitors wanting to use our compost loo: 3 | Potential volunteers: 2 | Dogs: 1 | Fox: 0

Harvested from the site…
Salad greens & edible flowers: 14kg | 6 punnets of strawberries: 1.8kg | Rhubarb: 2.45kg | Mint: 60g | Basil: 30g

Leaf of the week

June 8, 2007

So! This is mizuna. At last it finds its way into this weekly feature.


Here you see it in the box, all harvested and ready to go into the salad bags. This week it was delightfully abundant at Allens Gardens. It’s part of the brassica family and, like shingiku also hails from Japan. You’d be forgiven for thinking it’s rather like its more trendy relation rocket…maybe it will become as popular now it’s been featured here.

Rotating the leaves…

June 5, 2007

A wonderful day at Allens Gardens today. The sun is out and with it comes loads of volunteers and visitors to the site. This means that while I clear a bed of rocket, that has flowered, to make way for mizuna, all around me chores are being done.

Clearing the rocket bed

And with the extra hands, Ru gets the cage for the fruit trees done…

Building the fruit cage

This wall runs down the center of the site, separating our major cropping beds from the more wild section. Along the wall, apples and other fruit trees have been planted. These need protection from the pesky squirrels…

The afternoon sees Precious making good progress on the beetle bank she started last week. This, Ru tells us, is another natural pest control. Apparently the beetles we attract by planting perennial plants, prey on the slugs – they even love the slimy beasties more than frogs do!

The extra hands also mean that I have time to ruminate on the subject of 5-year rotations. As I mentioned last week this is something that I have been trying to work out since I started as an apprentice. I’ve begun to understand why it’s such an essential part of organic farming, helped by Ru’s patient explanation and also by a book he’s suggested Bruce and I read. To get certification from the Soil Association, it’s also a practice that has to be done.

Crop rotation helps to manage pests naturally, without chemicals, and maximises the use of the soil without destroying it. It’s rather clever. In The New Organic Grower, Eliot Coleman says that ‘crop rotation is the single most important practice in a multiple-cropping program.’ This is because by rotating your crops you make sure that you get variety and variety, Eliot says, makes biological systems more stable. Basically the more diversity you have, the less likely your plants are to fall prey to pests (imagine how happy they are when they find fields and fields of the same delicious crop, and…how many chemicals you need to keep them away). And your soil will be healthier because each different crop works with it in different ways – remember the difference between the two green manure I planted last week? You can achieve this diversity over time by moving (rotating) your crops through different beds in one-year periods.

According to organic standards, you have to do at least a four-year rotation. This means each year you grow a crop from a different botanic family. In the main beds at Growing Communities we use umbelliferous (like parsley, coriander – this is the carrot family), goose-foot (like spinach, red orache), brassicas (salad kale, mustard leaves) and astera (good old lettuce). Then, when you add the green manures, to help rejuvenate the soil, you get our 5-year rotation system.

As there are different members of each family, it can’t get boring. Different plants are grown throughout the year in the same bed, as long as they are in the same family. So, for example, you can plant mustard leaves after the salad kale has come to the end of its cropping life, because they are both brassicas.

So you see, it is a little bit complicated! And a challenge to capture it in a couple of hundred words, whole books have been written on the subject. I hope by trying to simplify the process here, both for my own understanding and for yours, I haven’t confused you even more!

My day isn’t spent entirely musing on crop rotations. My mum (who’s in London from Zimbabwe) comes to visit over lunch with my cousin and her baby and by the time the day’s done I also prepare a new bed ( = put on SIX barrow loads of compost!!) and plant it out with perilla – a new salad leaf Ru’s trialling.

Forgive me, I’m exhausted, will let you know what family it belongs to next time…

Weekly stats…
Grower: 1 | Apprentices: 2 | Volunteers: 4 | Support workers: 2 | Excited kids running through : 10 | Other Growing Community staff : 3 | My family : 2 + baby | Dogs: 1 | Fox: 0

Harvested from the site…
Salad greens & edible flowers: 11.5kg | Perpetual spinach & chard: 1.6kg | 3 punnets of strawberries | 2 punnets of gooseberries | Rhubarb: 2.1kg | Rosemary: 60g | Tarragon: 100g

Leaf of the Week

June 1, 2007

Again I find my hand is forced! This week I was all set to give the title to the lovely little mizuna I had been weeding around but, at the last minute, Yaensuk reminded me that this is the last we’ll be seeing of another sweet leaf – miners lettuce.

Miners lettuce

I can’t really be too annoyed, though, as it’s a leaf I have been intrigued with since my very first day on the site. As we haven’t been harvesting too much of it lately, it had fallen off my radar. I always wondered why it is called miners lettuce? Well, having done a little research, I’ve discovered it is named after the California Gold Rush miners who ate it for vitamin C so they wouldn’t get scurvy. Comes up wild in the spring…perfect timing after the ravages of winter. It’s rather succulent and very pretty with its little white flower, which you can just about see in the picture.