On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub – Winter ’22

Dec 16, 2022

Mucky Day | Sunday 29th October

Here in Yorkshire, manure is frequently referred to as ‘muck’. And today was very mucky as the two hundred odd sacks we’d filled with sheep manure over the last few weeks were dropped off in four trips to the plots by J, one of our occasional collaborators using his handy large white van.

We’re fortunate in having a source of free manure. Our grassland is let to A, a breeder of pedigree Hampshire Down and Ryeland sheep that win prizes at shows all over the country. One of the perks is that we can take as much manure as we want from the barns at his smallholding. It’s a quality product, as you’d expect from classy pedigree sheep.

Manure is used for three main purposes on the plots. A good quantity will be dug into the soil over the winter, mainly where brassica (cabbage) family crops and sweet corn will be grown over the coming season. Some will be kept until late spring and placed in shallow holes or trenches where pumpkins, courgettes and climbing beans will be set out when all danger of frost has passed. This is applied to promote growth but also because the bulky nature of the manure aids moisture retention. Manure is also used to mulch, mainly around nitrogen-hungry blackcurrants but also under some fruit trees trained in ‘restricted’ forms, such as cordons or espaliers which need more feeding than larger free-standing trees. Finally, some manure will spread and dug on beds in the intensively cultivated greenhouse and polytunnels where a high level of fertility is required.

As you’ll have gathered, manure isn’t routinely applied everywhere. Its use is tied to the rotation system. This is based on a four or five year cycle depending on the size and aspects of particular parts of the plot. In practice most patches receive manure at least every three years.

As a vegetarian, I’m attracted to the idea of using no animal products on the plots, in particular the stock-free veganic methods pioneered by Iain Tolhurst (to explore Iain’s major contribution to organic growing start here). However, with a ready source of manure making a change is currently a step too far. Moderate use of manure seems to pay dividends. To use an expression that’s still heard here, and is said to originate in Yorkshire, ‘where there’s muck there’s brass’ (brass = old Yorkshire term for money).

Monster Mooli | Monday 30th October

It’s been a good year for mooli (or daikon if you know it by the Japanese name rather than the Hindi word more widely used in the UK). If you’ve never heard of it mooli is a large oriental radish. The main differences from a ‘normal’ radish, other than size, are milder flavour and a somewhat longer growing period. We’re well into the harvest now but probably won’t pull a root bigger than the large and unusually bendy giant pictured below.

April Cross Mooli

Mooli has become a standard crop. For me its main advantages are its preference for summer growing (earlier sowings can lead to bolting, that is throwing up a seed head rather than producing a harvestable sized root) and relatively quick growth. These mean it can be used to ‘follow on’, succeeding crops cleared by mid-July such as broad beans, peas or early potatoes while maturing fast enough to yield before cold winter weather sets in. The variety I is use is April Cross. This year it was sown in mid-July following Coleen early potatoes. Four rows spaced about 30cm apart were sown in a 4×1.2m bed in shallow drills (grooves made in the soil using the corner of a rake head). The bed was immediately covered with environmesh (fleece type covering). I find this is essential. It both prevents caterpillars and wood pigeons from devouring the leaves of seedlings and protects the developing roots from mining by cabbage root fly.

Despite the dry weather the crop germinated quickly and grew away strongly aided by copious watering until the rains returned in September. Harvesting began in early October and will continue until at least Christmas. Although not a popular seller on the gate truck, mooli is a useful occasional addition to the veg bags while a small quantity is taken every week by the local community food market. We also consume quite a few roots, mainly grated as a salad addition or stir-fried.

Leighton Moss | Friday 4th November

This is the first time away from the plot for nearly a year. It’s only a short break, a few days staying overlooking the Kent estuary in the Arnside and Silverdale AONB, England’s smallest Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.

Early morning mist over the Kent Estuary

This small area on the borders of Cumbria and Lancashire is one of my favourite places. The landscapes and habitats are outstanding. If you’re ever in this neck of the woods, and woods it has in plenty, don’t join the throng hurtling beyond Kendal to the tourist traps of the Lakes. Turn off and spend some time in this quiet and under-appreciated area.

Today we walked over the Knott (a limestone hill with far reaching views over Morecambe Bay) to the one of the RSPB’s (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) flagship reserves at Leighton Moss. This reserve, comprising extensive reed beds and an area of saltmarsh, has an interesting history. The reed beds were drained for farming but in an early example of ‘rewilding’ were allowed to revert to wetland in the middle years of the last century. It’s now an important habitat known for a number of rare species including bearded tit, bittern and marsh harrier, the latter glimpsed as a pair flew low over the reeds.

Although some of Leighton Moss is accessible from a public right of way, most can only be entered through the visitor centre. To get into this non-RSPB members are greeted at the entrance by a volunteer ‘chugger’ (someone who solicits donations or subscriptions to charity). I’m not a fan of this method of fund raising but have to confess the volunteer was very enthusiastic and so persuasive that for the first time I’m now a member of the RSPB.

One of the reasons I succumbed was admiration for the lead role the charity recently took in speaking out against the government’s proposed bonfire of environmental protections. The RSPB, with an income of £117 million and over one million members, is one of the largest UK charities. There’s power in these numbers, and it’s good to see in being less reticent in wielding it. Reserves such as Leighton Moss are fantastic, but they are only ‘reserves’, small refuges that can never compensate for the degradation of nature in the wider environment. Let’s hope the RSPB will continue to shift its focus and see the big picture.

Last Juicing Consignment | Wednesday 10th November

The last 20 crates of apples went off for juicing today. It was the third consignment. Two earlier batches went in mid-September and mid-October. Altogether we’ve sent almost 54 crates, each with 15-20 kilos of apples – that’s probably not far short of a metric tonne (2,205 pounds if you still think in Imperial weights). Despite the drought, it’s been a good apple season with many trees carrying a heavy crop. Indeed, a few overdid it, one youngish tree sadly splitting so that half will have to be amputated.

Only substandard fruit are juiced: apples that haven’t ripened fully or evenly, are too small, or have blemishes such as light scabbing (scab is a fungus disease causing brown/black blotches on the skin: severe attacks can cause the fruit to crack and become unusable, even for juicing). Windfalls and fruit invaded by pests such as codling moth are excluded. Juicing is arranged through a CIC (Community Interest Company) that seeks to promote locally produced food with which we closely collaborate. They take our apples off to a local small scale processor where the fruit is pressed and the juice pasteurised, bottled and labelled.

Based on previous years we expect the fruit will yield about 800 bottles. We could take these and drink and sell ourselves but I’ve mixed feelings about apple juice. It’s a shame to see large quantities of apples processed rather than used whole. A good number of those pulped and squished would have made perfectly good eating, while almost all could have been cooked or otherwise used for culinary purposes. Unfortunately, apples that aren’t big, sweet and red can be a hard sell. Many people seem to believe apples that don’t resemble the impossibly perfect ones paraded in plastic on supermarket shelves are unfit to eat. The healthy image of fresh apple juice is also deceptive. While modest intake can be beneficial, juice lacks the fibre of a whole apple and has high sugar content – a large glass can contain more than half the daily recommended sugar intake.

We’ll only drink a small fraction of the 800 bottles. It’ll keep for up to a year and will mainly be an occasional pleasure on hot days next summer when it’s cool and refreshing qualities will be most appreciated. We also won’t be selling the bottles ourselves. A few will be given to our veg box customers as a Christmas treat, but otherwise, we’ll leave the rest to the CIC to market. If last year is anything to go by they’ll sell like the proverbial hotcakes. Instead, we’ll take the cash. It’s a tidy amount. In fact, although we do sell a lot of apples for eating, almost half the money received for the season’s crop will come from juicing.

COP Out | Monday 21st November

Is this COP a cop-out? The 27th annual Conference of the Parties (COP) has ended. However you look at it, the outcome is disastrous. There was no commitment to the rapid phasing out of fossil fuels. In fact, if anything there was backsliding from COP 26. In a conference infested with fossil fuel lobbyists, there was a concerted attempt to rebrand gas as a low emitter. There was also shilly-shallying by many governments on commitments made last year in Glasgow. As a result, it’s almost impossible to see how the widely accepted 1.5 degree Celsius ‘safe’ limit to prevent catastrophic global heating will not be exceeded by the early 2030s.

There was one minor positive to emerge in the dying days of the Conference. So-called developed countries, led by the EU, finally accepted, albeit in very guarded and at this stage vague terms, the principle that there should be compensation for vulnerable and poorer countries devastated by extreme weather. Of course, you could also see this in a negative light – confirmation that developed world governments are moving from prevention to adaptation.

Last Salad Seedlings of the Season | Wednesday 30th November

The newly germinated winter salad seedlings

The final sowing of winter salad was made seven days ago: rocket, mizuna, three types of mustard and corn salad. Placed in the warmth of the propagating unit set to a steady 18 Celsius all have now germinated and have been removed to the comparative chill of the greenhouse. Depending on the weather, the seedlings should be ready for planting out in mid to late January. They’ll replace spent salad crops planted in the autumn. Lengthening days and, hopefully, rising temperatures should ensure the first cut can be made by the end of February.

Winter salads are a key crop for me. The aim is to have a continuous supply of mixed leaves from November to April. I usually eat salad every day, but most of the crop is for sale on the gate truck or is used as to boost the content of our customers’ weekly vegetable bags. It’s not just these crops that are used in the salad mixes. Leaves of spinach, chard, radicchio and lettuce are also added. All these take longer to grow and so are sown earlier.

Most of the winter salads are grown under cover, either in the ‘big’ greenhouse (its 20 metres long) or in smaller polytunnels. None of this protected space is heated. All are multi-sown, that is between three and five seeds are placed in each module and allowed to grow to maturity and harvest without thinning. Final planting is either in soil beds or ten to twenty litre pots previously used for tomato plants. Compost in the pots is not changed. Rather it is simply ‘fluffed up’ with a hand fork and boosted with a pinch of trace element rich calcified seaweed.

I do also grow a few winter salads outside. These include some types of radicchio and, in particular, land cress (sometimes known as American cress). The latter is one of my favourites so I’ll sing its praises another day. In the meantime here’s a picture of one patch of this year’s crop.

Land cress growing alongside radicchio
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