On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub – Imbolc 2023

Feb 1, 2023

On the Plot with Mr Fluttergrub is a seasonal column from a Yorkshire-based grower and friend of WWOOF UK.

Shortest Day and a Christmas Market | Wednesday 21st December

Although it doesn’t feel like it in the fading light of another dreary December day, the winter solstice is a turning point. From now on the days, imperceptibly at first, will begin to lengthen. At this latitude (Google helpfully tells me I’m sitting at precisely 53.9553119917773 degrees north), sunset today was 15:43. Tomorrow it’ll be 15:44. By the end of the month, it’ll have crept later by a further eight minutes. Although, meteorologically, there are still more than two months of winter to go, the passing of the solstice fuels a sense of optimism. We’re over the hump and slowly accelerating towards spring.

But first there’s Christmas. While I’m not someone who gets engulfed in the orgy of consumerism this has become, agreeing with George Monbiot that “(T)he Christians stole the winter solstice from the pagans, and capitalism stole it from the Christians”, it’s hard not to get swept up on the tide. And so today we went to a Christmas market. Not a ‘normal’ Christmas market though, but one staged by a local community interest company striving to promote local produce. Held in a community centre, this draws quite a crowd, many there to collect fantastic quality seasonal vegetable bags provided by a local Soil Association organic farm. We, along with some other smaller scale producers, were there to sell a more modest range of wares. In our case, just apples and pears: mainly bags containing a mix of late keeping eating apples, plus some culinary pears and Bramley cooking apples. Sales-wise, it was a reasonable success. The bags of eating apples nearly sold out, but the cooking pears were a harder sell and we returned with all but a kilo of the Bramleys. Cooking apples are out of fashion especially if, like ours, they’re flushed red and yellow from summer sun rather than a uniform green as sold by supermarkets.

This consumer resistance aside, the market was a pleasure to attend. As well as meeting with other local producers, crafty and foody (including E with her delicious Hungarian-style patisseries) it was good to catch up with people, many of whom hadn’t been seen since Covid. I’m not sure the strumming ukulele player added much to the atmosphere but at least it wasn’t piped Christmas carols or Bing crooning White Christmas.

Last Veg Box of the Season| Sunday 15th January

From late June until January we provide seasonal veg boxes. I say ‘veg boxes’, as this is the term generally used by the likes of Riverford, Abel and Cole, et al, but we also include fruit and pack in reusable bags so there’s no box and it’s not just veg. We usually have about ten regulars – I can’t call them ‘customers’ because most are acquaintances or neighbours (three live within 100 metres). They’re a very loyal bunch, most have been with us for several years with at least four being veterans of more than ten years standing. Indeed, a couple have gone ‘platinum’ – that is, they’ve eaten our produce for over twenty years. 

Each bag contains a minimum of seven different items. In summer there can be up to ten. There is no choice. We decide what the bags will contain but do try and vary the contents so, with the exception of staples such as potatoes and some form of salad, the same crops don’t recur week after week. Everything we provide is home grown. This final bag of the season contained potatoes, parsnips, carrots, mixed salad leaves, leeks, cabbage and eating and cooking apples. I should add that the bags are made available weekly on a Sunday afternoon and have to be collected. The current price is £7 but will have to rise next season as our costs, as will surely be the case for most other small scale growers, have risen substantially over the last year.

Because we supply only homegrown produce, mid to late January is usually the point at which we discontinue the bags. By then we simply do not have enough variety, quantity or quality to keep going. I’ve mixed feelings about the end of the ‘bag season’. On the one hand, I like the challenge of planning what to put in the bags and the sense of satisfaction in knowing that the contents will be eaten, and hopefully enjoyed, by ten households. But there’s also a sense of liberation. Until mid-summer when we start again, we’re freed of the need to cut and pick fresh produce on a Sunday. The day is reclaimed.

Solar Powered Rhubarb | Monday 16th January

Rather later than is ideal, we’ve finally got round to setting up the rhubarb forcing. In case you’re not familiar with the concept, ‘forced’ rhubarb is grown inside in darkness, usually with artificial heat. This provides an earlier harvest than rhubarb cultivated outside. The exclusion of light also produces stalks that are pale pink rather than red. Rhubarb connoisseurs claim this makes for tenderer eating and a more delicate flavour.

The traditional heartland of forced rhubarb on a commercial scale is the ‘rhubarb triangle,’ an area not too far from here between Leeds, Bradford and Wakefield. Until about fifty years ago, partly because of the availability of cheap locally mined coal, there were hundreds of farms producing forced rhubarb in long and low heated sheds. Today there are far fewer farms, and gas is used for heat instead of coal, but the triangle lives on and still produces the bulk of the UK’s forced crop. Rhubarb has also been appropriated by the local tourism and heritage sectors. You can now go on rhubarb ‘tours’ or celebrate everything rhubarb at Wakefield’s annual rhubarb festival (https://www.yorkshire.com/events/wakefield-rhubarb-festival-2023/).

My method of forcing rhubarb is similar to that used commercially, but there’s no purpose-constructed shed and no artificial heat. Instead there’s a greenhouse, an old wooden crate and sheets of black plastic. In December (as I’ve said: it was left late this season) a few outdoor rhubarb plants (known as crowns) are dug up and taken into a greenhouse. The dormant plants, which may be divided using a spade if too large, are placed bud-upwards in a crate half-filled with old potting compost and covered with black plastic sheeting. The latter is key, excluding light while accentuating any sun-generated warmth flooding through the greenhouse roof. It’s usually six weeks or so before the first few stalks are ready to pull. Harvesting then continues until the crowns are exhausted and the outdoor stalks are ready.

Forcing rhubarb this way may seem a bit of a palaver, but it’s more effective than other techniques sometimes recommended – these include covering outdoor crowns with an upturned bucket (a recipe for rotting stalks in my experience) or heaping on loads of straw or leaves. Essentially it’s the same method as used in the triangle but harnessing the sun rather than coal or gas – solar-powered rhubarb.

Update (25th January): despite freezing weather there’s already signs of growth.

Cold Snaps Finished? | Wednesday 25th January

We’ve just emerged from another spell of cold weather. The temperature today reached the dizzy height of ten degrees Celsius, a contrast to Saturday when it failed to creep above freezing. Last week we had hard frost most nights with the ground frozen sold. We also had several bouts of freezing fog, a weather hazard to which this locality is prone. Overall it’s probably been the most intense cold period since 2010/11. The only difference is that we’ve not seen a single snowflake.

The cold has impacted most crops. The outdoor over-wintered cauliflowers have been reduced to a smelly, rotting mess. Some of the less hardy kales have also succumbed including Nero di Toscana (Black Tuscan), which I’ve previously found to be a bit of a wimp in cold conditions. Celeriac, even though protected by straw mulch, has turned brown and mushy at the tops. Worse still are the globe artichokes. I’ve come to expect nearly all the plants of this semi-perennial crop, more at home in Brittany’s Atlantic tempered climate, to survive a Yorkshire winter. This year, although regrowth may yet sprout from the base, frost has obliterated all signs of life above ground. 2023 could be the first year for over a decade with no artichoke heads to enjoy in early summer.

Other outdoor crops have survived relatively unscathed but wresting leeks, parsnips and carrots from the ground has been a challenge. A spade with many decades of service has been damaged in the process. Fortunately, enough could be pried out without resorting to hammer and chisel.

Undercover crops have also taken a hit. Aquadulce broad beans sown in pots in late November and grown in a large greenhouse were wiped out by the December frosts. The replacement batch sown just before Christmas seem to have come through the latest bout of frost with only a few casualties (see picture below). These spent the last week in a protective bubble wrap tent. So too did some salad seedlings. Most also seem to have survived. Again, I’ve found some salads at the seedling stage are hardier than others. Corn salad appears indestructible whereas some of the more fancy mustards, such as Golden Streaks, are less so.

C:\Users\Jane and Tony\Documents\WWOOF MR F\Broad beans jpeg.jpg

The replacement broad beans. The trays are atop upturned plant pots to prevent mice excavating and eating the bean seed

Hopefully there’ll be no further cold snap in February or, worse still, March. I appreciate many enjoy cold, ‘true’, winter weather but if you grow on any scale it’s painful both to crops and growers – as the chilblains on several fingers remind me.

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