Growing Communities' Open Day on Sunday - all three market gardens were open and looking beautiful and highly productive. The sun shone despite the previous evening's forecast of heavy rain all day which had created a slight feeling of gloom for those of us who were due to work! Visitors included joggers at Clissold - who ran in and round the polytunnel, box scheme members keen to see where their salad bags came from, farmers' market customers, people who came to see our eco-classroom at Allens Gardens as part of the Open House weekend and lots and lots of people passing by who wanted to find out more about urban organic growing. It was really nice to have our Urban Apprentices on site - Shelagh and Jack at Springfield and Jo at Clissold as well as actual Patchwork farmers, Ximena at Clissold and Sophie at Allens who could tell people about the reality of running a micro-site. Apart from the key role played by all the growers, including Sara and Pip obviously, it's possible the real star of the day was the yards and yards of green and white bunting which was drapped all over the Clissold site and virtually developed its own fan base...I know there should be a picture of the bunting but I didn't take one, (too in awe??) so here's a lovely picture of Allens Gardens instead with our eco building and its green roof tucked away at the end of the site.
Category 'Urban market gardens':
The power of bunting
Goodbye from Sara - our grower
Sara - our lovely grower is leaving us to go back to Zimbawe - Sara has written a goodbye blog for us:
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 some time 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.
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.
Sara Davies, November 2011
A seasonal update from our grower
Paul Bradbury is Growing Communities' new grower and we asked him to tell us about what's going on at the sites right now. Given that it's January you might be expecting him to say " not much" but as you'll see below, there's more happening at the Urban Market Gardens than you'd expect. Over to Paul:
"Well, our gardens are resting under their winter fleeces, which I’m happy to say have so far survived the bouts of lashing wind and rain that we have had over the last few days. Storms aside though, the winter has been so mild that everything is still growing. As a result, we are harvesting a few bags of rocket which will be on sale at our Urban Farm Shop at the Old Fire Station next Wednesday. Also at the Farm Shop will be a rare chance to buy some Oca tubers. Also known as New Zealand Yam, Oca actually hails from the Andes and has a lemony flavour reminiscent of wood sorrel to which it is related. For that fresh crunchy taste, the tubers can be eaten raw but they can also be boiled, baked or fried like potatoes. In Mexico, they are traditionally eaten raw with salt, lemon and hot pepper. If all this wets your appetite, then be sure to pick up a bag at our Farm Shop – it may be the only time you see Oca on sale in London.
The downside of the mild temperatures is that aphids are still abroad. They are currently having a bit of a party in the Allens Gardens greenhouse, which I’m doing my best to break it up with my trusty nettle and garlic sprays. I think I’m making headway, although the greenhouse has taken on the aroma of an ancient piece of garlic bread! The gardens will be opening up again to volunteers at the beginning of February – an exciting time when we will begin planning and planting for the new season, so if you fancy coming along and getting involved, it would be great to see you."
What a difference a month makes
Well it’s been a crazy old month. At the beginning of February it was deepest winter, with our hardiest volunteers helping to scrape snow off the salad beds, but by the end of the month, it already seemed like summer and we were reaching for our watering cans. It’s been a confusing time for the plants that we have overwintering, facing first death by frostbite and then death by drought. But one should never underestimate the staying power of the plant kingdom and I’m pleased to say that for the most part our salad leaves have come through this testing time with flying colours.
February is also the month when I order the seeds for spring planting. This year we have 88 varieties of salad leaf going in the ground. We will be planting with the true spirit of explorers charting new territories with exotic oriental greens, colourful beets and multifarious lettuce leaves. In theory our lucky box scheme members could be getting salad bags in which no leaf variety is repeated more than once!
We are very sad to be losing our Assistant Grower, Pip, at the end of March. Over the years that he has been with us, he has turned our Clissold Park site into a place of bountiful beauty. If anyone wants to see polytunnel cultivation at its very best, I recommend making a trip to our Clissold site, which is open on Thursdays. Pip will be leaving us to travel the country visiting various different communities and growing projects and we wish him well.
It’s been a hard job finding a replacement for Pip, but we are very happy to be welcoming Sophie to the job. Sophie began as a volunteer then became an apprentice grower. She co-founded our Castle microsite, which she and Ida have brought to fruition over the past couple of years. I’m sure Sophie is going to be a great addition to the Growing Communities team.
Summer in the Gardens?
Well it’s been a tricky year with this strange weather – moments of breathtaking heat followed by long bouts of rain. The plants have become a little confused at all the extremes. Some bolted during the hot spell and then, because the weather turned for the worst, replacement seedlings took a long time to grow to a harvestable size. Amongst this confusion, it’s been the lettuces that have really shone and amongst them, a lettuce named Catalogna gets my vote for summer crop 2012. It’s a beautiful deep green loose headed lettuce with slightly serrated leaves. It has a great taste and is a prodigious cropper week after week. Only the Springfield squirrels managed to put a dent in Catalogna’s glory by getting under the netting and chewing a third of the bed down to the stump - there was some wailing and gnashing of teeth the day that happened, but as gardeners we must expect this sort of disaster as par for the course (they say it's character building).
Now July is here the frenzied planting out of seedlings has finally come to an end and we are now busy sowing the seeds that will eventually become our overwintering crops. So for those of you who would like to explore the dark arts of seed composts and multisown modules, now is the time to come and volunteer! For all the info on volunteering visit our volunteers page.
Making a Cob Oven with Stoke Newington Secondary School
Today we delivered our first Spring workshop as part of our 'Grow, Cook, Eat' package and it was fantastic!
Pupils from Stoke Newington Secondary School came to our growing site at Clissold Park to learn how to make a Cob Oven with help from James, Sophie and Helen. Check out the photo below of the pupils barefoot on the site compressing down the sand mixture!
More to follow in a few days when they come back to complete the cob oven at Clissold and make our first ever Clissold Cob Oven pizzas - yum!
Workshops will take place this Spring at a range of locations including our Hackney growing sites, our local pick-up points and our Farmers' Market. Contact Fiona at firstname.lastname@example.org for more info.
Thanks to funding from the Ernest Cook Trust we will be delivering the following programme:
- Cob Oven workshops on both our Clissold and Allens' Gardens sites with pupils from Stoke Newington Secondary School
- Farm to Fork Salad workshops with a local primary school at our Springfield site until the end of the Summer Term
- Family activities at our annual Seed Swap event at Springfield on Sunday 5th May
- Organic and Seasonal Cookery workshops with Growing Communities' veg bag produce with a local primary school
- Seasonal Tasters at several of our pick-up points during the month of May
- Cookery workshops for Growing Communities' volunteers
- Herbal Plants workshops for families at our Allens' Gardens site
- Make your Veg Bag go Further workshops for families on our veg box scheme at our Farmers' Market
- Family activities at our weekly Farmers' Market
- Toddler and Parent/Guardian sessions at our Clissold site in June
Making a Cob Oven at Allens' Gardens
We continued with our 'Grow, Cook, Eat' programme today at Allens' Gardens. After Monday's success, we had a second group of Year 9 pupils from Stoke Newington Secondary School visit us at Allens' who started to build a cob oven. The girls looked a bit horrified when we said they would have to build the cob barefoot (the authentic way!)...but they got over it, and got stuck in and by next week we'll have a cob oven to make pizza on:-)
Some pics below...
Herbal Plants for Families
A fantastic day spent at Allens' Gardens, one of Growing Communities' market gardens.
Mihaela and Ida delivered the first of 3 workshops in the garden to families about growing, harvesting and using herbal plants.
Lovely to have children (aged 18 months to 10 years) and grown ups (ages not solicited - ha!) enjoying the garden space together and learning through doing!
The morning started with chat while we drank some fresh tea (mint and lemon balm from the site) and lemon & thyme cake - yum. We talked about what we were going to grow - calendula and chamomile and then we got to work. All hands on deck from children and parents in sieving the compost, washing the pots and sowing the seeds - all the while munching on some sorrel and rocket leaves while we worked!
The hailstones waited until after Ida and Mihaela gave us a tour of the site and we all had some soup (made from produce from the Growing Communities Box Scheme) and we're looking forward to the second workshop when we'll harvest our plants and start thinking about how to make them into a hand salve, ready to use in the home:-)
We'll be sure to report back soon. In the meantime, we're hoping our little calendula seeds (which incidentally look like wiggly worms) and chamomile seeds take well in preparation for our next family workshop next month:-)
Rushmore Primary pupils become Urban Salad Farmers!
We started our first of 10 sessions with Rushmore Primary at our Springfield site. The weather couldn't have been better and the kids had a tour of the site, had some nettle tea (yes, nettle!) and got stuck in with some seed sowing. Paul, our head grower, has very kindly let us take over a whole raised bed on the site to grow salad in and we're going to help the pupils plant up their own raised beds on their school grounds in a couple of weeks' time so that they can grow salad leaves and have a harvest in time for their summer fair as well as sell some of their seedlings at the weekly market at their school.
Growing Communities is delighted to have funding from the Ernest Cook Trust this summer to allow us to be doing this work and helping schools in the area get inspired by our growing sites and start doing some food growing on their own school land!
Stay tuned, as we'll be sure to post more later in the growing season to let you know how they're getting on:-)
Activities for kids at the annual Growing Communities Seed Swap and Plant Sale
The GC Seed Swap / Plant Sale was a great success on Sunday 5th May at our Springfield site. And the weather was absolutely fantastic!!!
We had something for the kids too - seed sowing, nature palettes and identifying & tasting our salad leaves straight from our site...thanks to everyone who dropped by...
Parent and Child drop-in at Clissold
Thanks to more funding from the Ernest Cook Trust, Sophie (our Assistant Grower) and Helen have been running drop-in sessions at our Clissold site for the last couple of weeks on Wednesday mornings for parents and pre-school children. The sessions are part of our 'Grow, Cook, Eat' project taking place this Spring/Summer.
We plan to continue these sessions until mid July. It's been a great opportunity to welcome more people onto our sites and great to start learning about where our food comes from from such a young age:-)
Rushmore Primary's first harvest
We've been working with Rushmore Primary School this Spring/Summer helping their Year 5 and 6 pupils grow a variety of salad crops on their school grounds. We started the project (funded by Ernest Cook Trust) by welcoming the pupils to us on our Springfield site where they propogated their seeds and tasted the variety of salads we grow for the Growing Communities box scheme. Then we started work back on their school grounds in three raised beds next to their wildlife pond.
6 Weeks on... and today we did our first harvest with help from Jack (one of Growing Communities' patchwork farmers). We harvested chard, rocket, lettuce, sorrel and more! And to celebrate - we shared the harvest at the school's summer fair this afternoon.
To raise money for the school, the pupils sold their harvest as well as freshly made elderflower cordial (Helen and Sophie helped them make it last week from the elderflower tree at school) and teas made from mint, lemon balm and nettles freshly picked on their school grounds. Also, some pesto!
And looking into the future, the school is thinking about having a regular stall at the Sunday market that takes place at the school and has also been approached by a cafe up the road who is interested in buying leaves on a regular basis! It's been a great project and we're looking forward to staying in touch with the school beyond the summer to find out how they're getting on and what they grow next.
Patchwork Visit to Organic Vegetable Farm
Following Growing Communities' visit in August to Stocks Farm in Essex, which supplies meat and eggs to the farmers market, it was the turn of the Patchwork Farmers and Apprentices to go to the other end of the agricultural spectrum and visit Ian Tolhurst's (stock free) vegetable farm in Oxfordshire.
Ian and his business partner have been growing organically as tenant farmers on that site for over 30 years. Ian showed us round the walled garden (built at the time of the English civil war!), polytunnels and fields, where the sweetcorn is protected by electric wire to keep out the badgers (not one of the problems our urban growers have to deal with).
Encouraging insect predators to deal with pests is an essential part of organic farming, so they cultivate nettle patches ("no insect wants to be more than 25 metres from nettles") and divide the crops with corridors of colourful wildflowers -- "beetle banks" -- which link up with the hedgerows of native trees. The approach seems to work -- our growers marvelled at the lack of cabbage white caterpillar damage on the cauliflowers...
But the main message of the day was the importance of "green manures" to build soil fertility -- they let the soil rest every few years by planting crops like clover and trefoil which are not harvested but incorporated back into the soil, increasing nitrogen levels and organic matter, and encouraging earthworms. They even sow them under other vegetables, or whenever there is a gap between crops (never leave soil bare!) Being "stock free", they don't use animal manure, so the only thing they add to the soil is composted wood chip from a local tree surgeon.
The fruits of their labour were on display at the produce stall, set up at the field gate with an honesty box. They run a weekly local box scheme of their own produce, but competition from nationwide box schemes (who shall remain nameless!) in recent years has encouraged them to diversify, selling produce at farmers markets, the farm stall and by catering for public events on the farm. It's on a very different scale from what Growing Communities' urban growers are doing, but inspirational, in terms of looking after the soil and encouraging biodiversity.
The growing year
There’s never a dull moment when you’re a grower at Growing Communities. One minute you’re rebuilding compost bays and the next you’re talking veg with a Korean film crew (and hoping that the smell of compost which you’re exuding isn’t overpowering the camera man). There have been highs, such as winning in the Fruit and Veg Category at the Organic Food Awards, and lows, when a whole bed of endives gets razed to the ground by our friendly neighbourhood slugs.
This year we’ve tried to open our growing sites up to as many people as possible. We’ve welcomed delegates from Organiclea and Food From the Sky to our apprentice tutorials, helped parents and children make their own herbal remedies and run gardening sessions for toddlers to encourage the next generation of growers. One of our 2012 apprentices, James, ran cob oven building workshops and the cob oven he built with pupils from Stoke Newington Secondary School at Clissold Park will be the centre piece of our volunteers’ Christmas feast. This year we also welcomed back our special needs groups to our Clissold and Springfield sites.
There have been some new crops this year as well. In the summer we turned over our polytunnels to cucumbers, tomatoes, climbing beans and even melons, which has been great fun. At the height of the season it was a challenge to get from one end of the polytunnel to the other, such was the profusion of climbing plants filling the space.
Things have moved on quickly this year with our patchwork farm project. We now have nine patchwork sites run by our graduate apprentices in addition to our three market gardens; at the height of the season we were producing over 100kg of a salad each week. Next year, when the new sites go into full production, we are expecting to produce twice that much and plans go on apace to develop our market and bring the wonders of Hackney Salad to as many people as possible. All in all 2014 looks like being an exciting year.
Seeing the future
Well, it’s been a lovely warm winter, so you’d expect that the market gardeners of Hackney and beyond would be delighted. And it’s true that last year we produced only 24 kilos of salad by the second week in March, whereas this year we racked up 113 kilos by the same time. But gardening is not just about seeing what is, but much more, what will be. So what does this warm weather hold for the future? The lack of frosty nights in the last few months means that the usual winter cull of pests hasn’t taken place. High up in the branches of Hackney’s poplar trees there are tiny galls filled with the terrifying lettuce root aphid. In normal years the frost would have burnt a few of these galls off, maybe killing the very colony of aphids that was planning to decimate your salad crop in the coming season. This year that gall survives! I’m fully expecting this to be a pestilential year for our salad, although hopefully there will be more ladybirds, lacewings and hoverfly larvae to gobble them up and redress the balance.
And what of the crops that have overwintered? They are all producing like crazy at the moment, but just as we gardeners jump up and celebrate, we notice the flower heads rising ominously from our brassicas and lettuces. Last year, I could’ve expected winter lettuces to keep producing until May, but this year, some have already gone over and it’s only March.
Looking into the future and reading the signs, we got sowing fast and early this year. I planted my first spring seeds on 10 February. Our greatest worry is having crops come to the end of their productive lives with no new seedlings ready to replace them, so panic spring sowing has been the order of the day. But sowing so early means we run the risk that the summer crop may not last until August, which is the earliest we can start thinking about planting out our overwintering crop. We may have to stick in a quick catch crop just to get us through the season.
And there will be other changes. Our biggest spring harvests (“peak salad”, as we like to say) occurred in May last year, but this year I’m predicting we’ll be at peak salad by the beginning of April. Peak salad is followed by the hungry gap – traditionally June, but this will come forward to May... and so it goes on.
The huge variation in weather from season to season certainly keeps us on our toes – and this year the peaks and troughs of salad production will be at some very odd times.
Goodbye from PWF Coordinator
My three-year post as Patchwork Farm coordinator comes to an end this week. The job involved finding new growing sites and helping our ex-apprentices set them up, as well as making sure the project met its targets. It was difficult at times. I visited around 80 possible sites - some were too small, too shaded, without water... others would have been perfect but the landowners had other plans (eg building flats!) After securing initial agreement, there were months of liaising, problem solving and negotiating leases before I got the keys and we could actually get started. Transforming the sites into productive growing spaces was not always straightforward either – Kynaston, for example, required the Patchwork Farmers shifting around 30 tonnes of rubble by hand and replacing it with the same amount of compost.
But with determination, hard work, funding from Local Food and the generosity of the landowners, we now have nine certified organic growing sites in Hackney, plus a greenhouse for propagation. They are run by former apprentices, growing Hackney Salad for the box scheme and other shops and restaurants. Click on the image below to see a map of all the sites.
The project has increased the amount of land in sustainable food production in Hackney by 1500m2; trained 14 new growers who are earning an income from food growing; and increased the amount of locally grown food in Hackney (we estimate that we provided 3,350 people a week with fresh organic salad last summer, grown on the Patchwork sites and our urban market gardens.)
So I leave this week knowing the project has been a great success, and confident that the Patchwork Farm will carry on into the future. All that Growing Communities' customers have to do now is to carry on eating and enjoying its fresh, delicious local produce!