Saturday 22 December 2012

Another year draws to an end

This has been a busy year.

In the plot, I have grown a few new crops: oca, achocha, shark fin melon, salsify, scorzonera. And the year I tried seaweed meal as a soil conditioner and cardboard mulch in autumn. The year I planted more fruit bushes because I think perennials are much less effort and crop well (with the exception of strawberries, slugs' favourite meal over the summer).

I have achieved my RHS Certificate in Horticulture and moved on to study horticulture at a higher level.

I have also been on the plot rather little, considered how much time I had available - one excuse was the rather dreadful summer, with rain nearly every day for all of July and August. But I have cooked a lot more, with more ingredients and learnt how to bake sourdough, make yogurth and my own curries (I started with this book, which I really recommend).

This was the year I decided that I am going to shift my career to work in sustainable agriculture and food production (it might take a while, but I will do it, because that is what I am ultimately interested in).

All of the above activities and interests have brought me together with some very interesting new people, four of whom have influenced me in particular (in alphabetical order):

  • Carl Legge, who someone called a "Renaissance man", about whom I have talked before and half whose  library contains books that are in mine too. Except Carl also reads them, and develops a wealth of knowledge about permaculture, food and  human behaviour. In his Welsh paradise, shared with sweetest and sharp wife Debs and loveliest son, Carl is almost self sufficient, thanks to his extraordinary creativity. Generous with his time, knowledge and produce, Carl also set up the Seedy Penpals seed exchange scheme.
  • Joanna of blog Zeb Bakes, is a great baker, inquisitive cook, kitchen tools' geek, owner of a lovely poodle, gardener, and a lot more. To me, she's been a generous, helpful, supportive and understanding friend.
  • Pietro Parisi, "the farmers' chef" as he likes to think of himself (or a chef de terroir as a French would say), is a Neapolitan born, internationally travelled chef who loves his native region and the local farmers that still produce traditional fares in the traditional way, but risk being swept away by the modern food system. Pietro, through his restaurant and as many initiatives as he manages to take part in, is keen to share his knowledge of traditional cooking and preserving techniques with everyone, to inspire a more sustainable way of eating and producing. A Slow Food prize winner, Pietro has recently cooked for ex French president Sarkozy and writer Daniel Pennac.
  • Sonia Piscicelli, the author of the Italian blog Il Pasto Nudo and of recently published book Cooking, responsibly (which I had the pleasure of translating into English, for a Feb 2013 release). Sonia loves her food, which, she believes, is not just what we stuff our mouth and fill our bellies with, but the means to keep us healthy and active: that is why she chooses locally grown, fresh, organic or biodynamic, and home cooked.
Uhmmm... where did I start from... yes, I was going to publish a recipe...

One of the things I have realised this year is that producing food is inextricably linked to cooking and eating it; and both growing and eating food affects our health. I am thinking of relaunching the blog next year, to deal with those wider issues. Just thinking about it for now.

But I came on the blog to share with you what I ate for lunch - my first ever meal of salsify (Tragopogon spp.). They say it's also called oyster plant because that is how it tastes. I am not sure about that, but I loved it. With an unobtrusive taste (much like a potato's), and a crunchy texture, I found the flavours linger in my mouth lusciously at the end of the meal, so much so that I did not feel like coffee.

The recipe is Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall's for the BBC I have adapted it for my lunch alone today.

Salsify fritters

175 g salsify, washed, trimmed, peeled
1 egg
2 tbsp plain flour
20 g butter
2 tbsp extravirgin olive oil 
1 red chilli, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
pepper and salt to season

Salsify ain't too pretty or easily handled. My roots were knobbly, having grown in flinty soil, so they stuck to mud. Once cut, the roots ooze milky sap, and oxidise immediately, becoming an unpleasant shade of brown (acidulated water is no use either). This however gets fixed once they start cooking and the colour improves. 

Your hands, however, will retain an unpleasant tinge of ochre.

Is it worth it? Definitely. 

Coarsely grate the roots. I found a box grater works well. Heat a small cast iron pan with half the butter, and cook the salsify until softer.

Separately, quickly whisk the egg, add the garlic and chilli. Pour in the salsify, add the flour and mix well. The mixture is rather loose, but will stick together once fried.

Using the same pan, melt the rest of the butter and add the oil. Make four fritters out of the mixture and drop them in the pan carefully. Once the bottom is well fried and sticks together, turn the fritters on the other side and cook on. I have used the smallest hob throughout.

You can buy salsify seeds from the Garden Organic Catalogue.

Merry Christmas - if you celebrate -
 and to a happy New Year of gardening and cooking!

Thursday 22 November 2012

Food price, at what cost?

wondering about increasing food prices, why people eat crappy food thinking it's ok for them, and figuring out how much it cost me to have an organic meal last night (with recipe)

The British, as portrayed in the media, are facing food poverty, or "nutrition recession" as the Guardian put it.

Now, this is the kind of information that turns my stomach.
And I tell you as someone that is currently out of a job: even if I cannot define myself other than rather well off, as a foreigner in this country during a period of economic stagnation I have to worry about my future budget availability. Am I going to skimp on food?

Definitely not, and certainly not as my first move.
There are quite a lot of things that are not essential in our lives: plenty of clothes, the latest technology gadgets, driving a car all the time - and those are just some.

But food is essential. It is the fuel that makes our bodies work. And what you put in, you get out. Adding the trouble of poor health to financial problems is doing nobody any good. Besides, food is an inexpensive pleasure that we can enjoy with our family and friends. It gives colour and flavour to life.

Is the price of food the first thing we need to address for better nutrition? Maybe not.

We do not spend that much of our budgets on food, anyway. In 2009, the average UK household spent 11.5% of their budget on food and drink, the lowest income households spending a bit more at 16% [1]. Back in the 60s, it was +20% [2]. So food is considerably more affordable now than it has ever been. And we are among the luckiest: in developing countries food costs way more, with Kenyan households spending some 45% of their budgets [3]. With all that extra availability, it is disgraceful that we do end up eating nutrition-poor diets here.

Even if rising, food prices are still comparatively low. So, why do people turn straight to cheap, processed food, that is nutritionally poor albeit "filling", and makes them sick and the environment worse off ? I find that a bit baffling myself, but I suspect there are many factors involved, as well as a healthy dose of laziness.

1. expectations and perceptions on the price of food

It appears a lot of people consider good, healthy food a preserve of the rich. And organic as the brand name for frivolously expensive food, not - as it actually is - the normal way to produce food, proven by millennia of human history. In fact, what we call "conventional" agriculture has been around only for less than a century, a lot of it spurred by a need to find a use for the thriving post-war chemical industry.

Besides, a 60 odd year-long ad campaign has drilled into our heads that food has to be cheap, we have a right to cheap food. It does not matter what the real costs are: how much it actually costs to produce food in the fields, whether our farmers are paid decent wages, if there are any drawbacks to current production and processing methods - on the environment we live in and on our health.

2. misinformation and lack of awareness

How many people really know what's behind the glossy appearance of the food supply chain? Who has the time and means to find out? Without mentioning that calling for cheap food wins votes - pointing out the real cost of food not that many.

Besides, many do not seem aware of the nutritional value of different foods, and, in any case, they would not know how to cook them.
Despite the proliferation of celebrity chefs - on TV, on the web and in the bookstores - everyday cooking from scratch is far from being part of the everyday life of most people.

We throw away enormous amount of food - often we buy too much without realising (allured by misleading promotions of all kinds [4], sometimes we do not know if something is still good to eat, most of the time - it's so cheap - we do not realise the effort needed to produce food [5].

3. culture and social pressures

And the culture around food in general does not seem to help. I was beyond shocked by an article last year: "toast sandwich is UK cheapest meal". Its playfulness I found appalling. The nutritional value of industrial bread with butter and seasoning must be close to zero. The fact that is filling is not really relevant. And that they called a contest to find an even cheaper meal isn't just sending the plain wrong signals? Well, it was after all the Royal Society of Che-mi-stry (rather than say a farmer or cook) to push this genius idea...

If it is more socially acceptable, aka "cooler", to eat lukewarm soggy stuff in a bag from a fast food chain, than spending a little bit of time turning vegetables into appetizing meals, well, then I do not see many people choosing to spend time figuring out what to do with vegetables.

With the fact that being overweight does not seem as big a taboo here as it is in Italy (you know it was very difficult to find clothes above size 16 when I was there? that worked to keep me on a diet!), there is not that much pressure to keep fit and knowing your food as part of it.


Grilled mackerel with beetroot salad

Now, last night I had a rather special fish meal, which was also very quick to prepare, healthy, filling and so tasty. All of the ingredients were sustainable and organic, a mixture of my own, Riverford's (cheaper, more quality but less variety) and Abel and Cole's (more expensive but more variety). Except coffee, which came from Sainsbury's. Did it cost me much? Let's try to figure out.

Cornish mackerel fillets 350 gr                                £3.39
extra virgin olive oil 4 tbsp/80 ml                             £0.55 (I buy mine from Riverford in a 2 l tin)
1 red chilli                                                              £0.55
1 knob ginger 10 gr                                                £0.13
1 garlic clove 10 gr                                                 £0.15 actually, I grew my own
potatoes 300 gr                                                      £0.35 actually, I grew my own
beetroot 300 gr                                                      £0.58
2 celery sticks                                                        £0.44
1 tsp mustard 10 gr                                                £0.20
1 tsp sea salt 10 gr                                                 £0.01 (price from Neifislife)
plus we had a UK apple each                                £0.85
and a fairtrade espresso each  20 gr                       £0.32

we drank tap water (price negligible).

Time to prepare 30-40 min.
Prepare the chilli, ginger and garlic infusion by chopping finely and adding to 2 tbsp oil. Set aside.
Boil the potatoes and beetroot - my auntie says: "under the ground cold water, above ground hot water" so I placed the veggies in the pan with cold water and brought to the boil, then added salt and simmered on for 10 mins or so until tender.
Peel the veggies and cut into chunks. Add the celery, chopped. Mix the mustard into the remaining 2 tbsp of oil, and season the warm salad with it. I did not use any salt but you could.

Wash briefly the fillets under a tap, score the skin, pour the infusion over them, place on a tray skin up, and pass under the grill until the skin is crispy, some 5 mins in all.



Now, this was a treat of a meal, yet very quick and easy to prepare, and came to just under £8 GBP for the two of us. Plus the fuel for the cooking, but not much of it.

Not many takeways that cost less, right? Even a Papa John's pizza meal offer costs £5/head - and you do not know what you are REALLY eating!

Instead, our meal was very nutritious with proteins from the fish, carbs in the potatoes, fibers and vitamins in the apples, beetroot, celery, ginger, garlic and chilli, sugars in the apple and some healthy fat from the oil. Then there was the coffee, not very healthy and not the most environmentally friendly of things. But at least it was fairtrade as well as organic, so the farmers got a fair pay for their work.

And we have a clear conscience. To make our veggies and fruit no pesticide were sprayed to kill bees and ladybirds and make the farmers sick, the fish was caught by day boats, not trawlers damaging the sea bed. The apples were not shipped from the other side of the world, burning oil and polluting. As most of the produce was from the UK, we supported British fishermen and farmers. Supermarket chains only provided the coffee, nothing else.

What do you think? Is price of food the real problem?

[1] source DEFRA Food Pocketbook 2011
[2] source DEFRA Food Security 2006
[3] source Mother Jones
[4]  BBC Rip Off Food series was interesting in this respect, if you get a chance watch it
[5] more info on food waste and how to avoid it

Friday 24 August 2012

The how and whys of making yogurt

I should be writing about crop rotation, so why I'm posting on making yogurt instead?

It is a truth universally acknowledged that growing your own affects the way you cook and eat. In my case, it has affected the way I think more broadly, for example about reuse and recycle.

On the plot I reuse a lot of punnets, bags and all sort of food packaging, including yogurt tubs, with which I make seedlings domes. I started using them because - mostly coming in plastic 5 - they were not recyclable in our council scheme, which does only 1 and 2 (plastic bottles, basically). When I reached capacity on the plot, I got very annoyed to have to throw them in the bin.

Then I found that Rachel's used recyclable pots. Then Rachel's stopped using recyclable pots, and in any case I was so disappointed they used starch in the flavoured yogurt. Then I found that Woodland's makes lovely sheep yogurt in recyclable pots. But what if they stopped? I have had enough of unreliable supply of my favourite products - it happens a lot here in the UK: as soon as I  find something I like, it disappears from the market.

I thought I would like to make my own, so I asked around and ever resourceful Carl said it would be easy peasy and shared his recipe, with which I had a few mixed results trials. Then I also had a chat with Sonia (another great source of food-related advice), and, in just over a month, I managed to come up with a recipe that worked for me, and I'm not going back to tubs!

Trial and error is necessary, because results depend on the milk and tools you use.

I use non-homogenised, organic milk. If you can find it locally, so much the better. If you can find it in a glass jar, possibly even better.

And I process it with the kit in the picture.

Besides, you need some yogurt as a starter (after the first time, you will reserve a few spoonfuls of the previous batch). I tried several and the one I liked most was Yeo Valley Greek Natural, because it does not contain any funny stuff ("No added ingredients. No added sugar.") and because it contains

  • Lactobacillus bulgaricus;
  • Steptococcus thermophilus (the two yogurt bacteria); and 
  • Bifidobacteria (probiotics)
So, pour your milk in a thick bottom pan, plunge a food thermometer in it and place on the simmer hob at lively temperature, until it reaches a temperature around 80C.

Stir frequently to prevent a film from forming on the surface of the milk. 

When it reaches temperature, if you have stirred enough, it will look slightly foamy as in the picture.

Turn the hob to the minimum and keep the temperature around 80C (give or take 2) for 8 minutes. I guess this step serves to evaporate a little bit of the water in the milk, so it gets thicker.
It is likely in the past taking the milk to boiling temperature was necessary to kill all nasties, but now it's pasteurised already.

After the 8 minutes, take off the hob and leave it alone to cool down. 

The nice bacteria listed above eat and reproduce more happily in warm temperature, let's say roughly body temperature, so you need to have the milk around 40C for as long as possible.

Adding the starter, which is cold  and pouring the milk in your final vessel will cool it down. So, to allow for that, the milk is ready to take out of the pan when around 55-60C.

For 1.5 l milk I use 3-4 tbsp yogurt starter, which I place in the bottom of the jar. I usually take the starter out of the fridge before starting the whole procedure and keep a room temperature for a while just to avoid temperature shocks to the bacteria.

Then I pour my warm milk over it and stir well before closing the jar.

Finally,  I get out the very secret tool to perfect the recipe: an old woollen jumper.
I wrap my jar in the jumper, place it in a drought-free place in my sitting room and wait for a few hours. 
If you make it in the morning, it should be thick by evening and if you make it in the evening it should be thick by morning (but I have read 3 hours might even be enough).

Place in the fridge for a few hours to cool down and settle  before eating.
It will keep for a week (if you do not eat it before!), getting sourer with time. 

Oh by the way, if it does not work and you do not find it thick,the cause was the temperature not being warm enough for enough time. You can heat it up in the jar to around 50C by placing in the oven (mind any plastic that might melt), and let it cool down inside.

Sometimes it comes out of the jumper with yellow residue water on top, I am not sure why, but it does not affect quality that I can tell. I had experiments in which the whole thing was watery, like diluted curdled cheese, and I strained and ate it with great pleasure....

Besides doing you good eaten as is or with cereals, it is delicious to cook curry with: tried and tested!

Are you going to have a go? Or you are an expert and have any tips? Would love to share.

Tuesday 21 August 2012

Seedy penpals

I must have written before that I have a collector streak in me, and it comes out with seeds.

Every winter I get all the packets out from the recesses of my shed and take stock: I usually end up with some 150-300 species on my database (they have grown over the years both with perennials - which I also catalouge - and new seeds). Then I sort them by month of sowing, put them in coffee tins and padded envelopes with some silica gel to keep them dry, and they go back to the shed, to be picked out at the right month...

 ... which sounds quite orderly, but it isn't really, as I tend to run late after April every year (for some curious reason) so previous months' tins lie about for a while, and then of course seeds can be sown over a range of months and I buy new ones on top (as I need them or it catches my fancy)... basically, by this time of the year I have lost track of what I have used and what I still have! That is why the winter stock taking is so necessary for me.

As my garden and allotments are getting to capacity, after four and five years of working on them respectively, last winter for the first time I realised I had simply too many seeds to use, so I started looking for someone interested to share, and I found it surprisingly difficult! It was only in spring that someone showed interest. I then mailed my seeds, which they might or might not have received. Never heard from them again. That I found sad, as I care for my seeds.

Then Carl came up with the idea of "seedy penpals", like the penpals of yore, sending letters to each other, swapping surplus seeds, and keeping in touch on gardening progress. It is a great idea as you get to try new seeds, share your surplus and know what happens to it, and get to know someone at the same time: I enrolled straight away.

Seedy Penpals Big Badge
The first seeds swap ever under the scheme was scheduled for early August, and it has now gone through, so I have now virtually met Rebecca and Lucy, and we swapped seeds.

Rebecca is my receiver pal. We had a lovely exchange of emails and, based on her preferences, I selected some seeds to send her. Always a difficult task for a seed hoarder like me :D , but I enjoyed trying to match species to Rebecca's asks and writing to her about them. I thought some seedlings would also fill up for the fact that we are at the end of the season and you cannot sow so many things now as you would in spring. I hope she enjoys my little parcel.

Today I also received my own parcel from Lucy. Collector's paradise here, it will increase my collection rather than keep it in check! Lucy warned me she was quite busy at the moment, but despite that she managed to send me a rather wonderful parcel with a selection of flowers (for my new wildflower/cottage front garden, which I told her about) and veggies. The most interesting thing for me is she seems to have collected some of the seeds either from her own garden or other places, which I admire: I do not trust myself at saving seeds and have only occasionally attempted it- it's something I've always wanted to take up, though, so here's someone that I can learn from!

I'd better stop sitting in front of this screen, writing, and get going: a lot of sowing to be done!

Then, this winter, when I take stock of seeds again, I will have my seedy penpals in mind and the next swap in March to look forward too. :D

Sunday 24 June 2012

Have you ever cooked artichokes?

After 4 years of toiling on the artichoke patch, this first week of summer yielded the first three edible ones: pride and joy!

I love artichokes, and it is quite difficult to find them here in the UK... a few years ago, when staying at Bangors Organic in Cornwall, Gill served them for dinner: whole, just steamed (or boiled?) with a butter serving - de-li-cio-us! So, before leaving, I was eager to ask for some to take away, I mean, we were ready to buy some! When we went back more recently, Neil recognised us as the people who asked for the artichokes - he said he was surprised by the request at the time! I like to think that that episode might have contributed to spark off the idea to open an organic farmers' market at their place, The Big Green Shed, which they have inaugurated this month.

Fast forward to now, here are my artichokes, just back from the plot: don't they look appetizing?

If that was a new veg for me, I'd feel intimidated how to approach it... how do you pick, clean and eat? Any safety concerns?

I was like that with gooseberries when I first saw them... now I love them, thorns and all! I was not yet entirely comfortable with artichoke in the field, either: when are they ready to pick? Now I know: the leaves need to be starting to come apart.

For those that have never cooked with artichokes, I have asked Gianfranco to take some pictures of me cleaning them: nobody should be put off such a lovely veg! They are fairly quick to deal with when you know how: it took me 48 mins from basket to plate, with taking pictures and all. Pictures from all steps are on Flickr, I copy here the essential ones to keep it shorter.

First thing to know, is that artichokes oxidise and go unappealingly brown as soon as cut, unless kept in acidic conditions, which in my family we do by washing and keeping in water in which lemon has been squeezed.

Second thing to know if you do not want to be put off from ever eating artichokes again is: the tasty bit is the heart, all the rest is basically a way for the plant to discourage pests eating it (humans as well) you have to be absolutely ruthless with what you take away - everything that feels like cutting into cardboard, anything spiny and the choke need to go.

I start by pulling out the external leaves. The smallish ones are composted, while the bigger ones can be used later - take care to keep them whole at the base. As soon as they are off, put in lemon & water. Everything that is green at the base is off, you have to be left with yellow and red.

If the stalk is not too woody, you can keep it on for cooked recipes, but have to peel it (up to the first leaves' remains). It's not too good in raw recipes, so you can keep it for later together with the leaves.

Take the top of the leaves off. I have left too many tougher leaves (see the greenness there?): always tempted to keep as much as possible - this is the time to take them off, really. Also, you have to decide how high up to cut depending on how tough those internal leaves are.

Half the heart and then quarter it.

Remove the choke. There is a line where the blade goes in easily at the bottom of the fluffy choke. Do not cut into the flesh, that's what you eat! Take away all the internal spiny leaves too: they look deceptively innocuous. Get them in the water & lemon asap to avoid discolouration.

Ready for eating!

I love them raw, sliced with salt, extravergin olive oil and lemon. Also delicious sliced and deep fried in a batter of egg, dusting of flour, lightly salted: OH granny's Easter speciality.

This time, I braised them in lemon juice after lightly frying with garlic & chilli. Stirred in a few fresh basil leaves, chopped. Et voila!

I kept the tough leaves in acidic water until next day & boiled until tender: the fleshy bit goes green and you can see veins. Holding the leaf at the top, you can dip them in butter and scoop out the flesh with your teeth (guilty pleasure, that's how I ate them at Gill's back then).

My aunty, more refinedly, scoops them out with a spoon to make puree.

How will you cook them?

Sunday 17 June 2012

What can you do with lemon balm? And other plants

There are plants that I introduced once on the plot and now grow largely unasked. Their weedy behaviour means they multiply and tend happily to survive slug attack. They are usually loved by pollinators.

It's a pity to weed them out, given their success, so I have decided to find a use for them. I refer in particular to three plants: opium poppy (Papaver somniferum), borage (Borago officinalis) and lemon balm (Melissa officinalis). Let's forget the poppy for a moment, but when a plant has 'officinalis' in its name it means it has been used in herbalism as a medicine - it's not just a pretty flower.

Opium poppy, I discovered a couple of autumns ago, is the very useful source of poppy seed.

I love poppy seeds in my bread, so I have been collecting them for the last couple of years, trying them both as is and dry toasted. Number one plant sorted.

By the way, not all poppies have edible seeds, but the opium poppy (whose seedpod milky sap incidentally will make opium, the reason why the plant was introduced in England, then becoming naturalised) is THE ONE. Warning: apparently, if you eat too many you might test positive for opium.

Oh, and the seedheads make lovely winter display in a bunch at home.

Then, earlier this month, I tried borage leaves.

Borage leaves are used in Genoese cuisine to make pasta filling, and I liked them cooked, tasting very much like nettles. They can be also eaten raw in salads, taste apparently cucumber-like, but need chopping finely, they are so hairy.

It turned out, however, that they contain an alkaloid poisonous to the liver, so eating too many is not a good idea. Number two plant not really sorted.

But they can be used as green manure as the taproot accesses nutrients deep in the ground - that's sort of how I had used them in the past. And of course bees adore the flowers, which can be safely eaten, and are usually added to ice cubes as drink decoration.
Interesting fact: with seeds they make starflower oil, a GLA supplement.

Finally, I decided to tackle the tons of lemon balm on the plot. Lovely smell, but they grow in every nooks and crannies!

First search yielded tea recipes to be made with fresh or dried leaves. That would not however sort the quantity issue for me. Then, my friend Carl suggested I have a look at the Plant for the Future database: a note at the bottom of the page indicated you could make pesto. Eureka! Search online for lemon balm pesto and you will find an abundance of recipes. I went for lemon balm, walnuts, garlic and parmigiano cheese, then soak in extravirgin olive oil. On pasta, it did pass the husband test, and it is fairly quick to prepare. Here's how it looked at the various stages:


Ready and soaked in oil

Lemon balm pesto linguine

Friday 15 June 2012

Totally undeserved yet humbly accepted Liebster Blog Award

My lovely friend Carl Legge, truly generous as he is, did think about my ailing blog when making nominations for the Liebster Blog Award, in an attempt to encourage me to write more.

Thank you Carl, I am honoured by the nomination and humbled - would love to blog more, even though at the moment I seem to be lacking inspiration - and, most of all, time. 
All my free time I spend keeping the plot tidy (endless pursuit as it is), studying horticulture (in order to be able to do more effective plot-tidying...) and translating into English an Italian recipe book of the organic, "real food" persuasion (you have to use up all that produce in the end!). 

But I will, Carl, I'll come back and write about what I've learnt: you are an inspiration with your thorough understanding and openness to sharing.

In the meantime, I keep the picture albums and the interesting links up to date, as that is less time consuming. And I sometimes tweet about my allotment.

The Liebster Blog Award comes with some rules:
  • Thank the person that gave you the award in a post on your own site
  • Nominate up to five blogs with less than 200 followers
  • Let the nominees know they’ve won by leaving a comment on one of their posts
  • Add the Liebster image so all your readers know that you are a recipient.
Bad enough at thanking people, I'm even worse at reading blogs - talk about going out of my comfort zone! Really, I do not read blogs regularly. I follow links on Twitter and search on Google, that's about what I can manage in between all the rest, and how I find interesting content, and people.
Besides, any blogs I have occasionally followed have far more than 200 followers: Carl's Llynlines with his allround sustainable life pursuit, Saidos da Concha with Constanca's home made life,  Il pasto nudo with Sonia's "rebirth" in real food...

Promise I will look out for a couple of blogs with fewer followers, nominate them and let you all know... and you could suggest some for me to have a look at?

Sunday 25 March 2012

Caring for the soil - part 1: crop rotation, companion planting and intercropping

As you know, I have tried do grow organically over these four years or so. I have always believed that working with nature makes more sense than working against it: fire-fighting against pests with chemicals, for example, instead of working in a balanced ecosystem with pests and predators even themselves out - that at least is the thinking.

In my efforts to do and know more, I have been a member of several organisations in the organic sector, among which the Soil Association, but somehow I never bothered why they were called like that. Then, I had a eureka moment earlier this year, when I read something: you should not be fretting so much about your plants but first and foremost care for the soil they grow in, because if the soil is healthy the plants (more or less) then take care of themselves. The soil sustains all life.

So I started thinking: how to take better care of my soil?


I have practised 4-year rotation quite strictly according to Garden Organic suggestions.

Crop rotation is an ancient system, it dates back at the very least to the Romans who apparently called it "food, feed and fallow". It helps with management of both soils and pests, namely:
  • pests and diseases are family-specific, and some of them may persist in the soil, so if you keep growing the same plants over and over again in the same spot you are more likely to be hit; 
  • families of plants use up more or less the same type of nutrients, so if you grow the same plants over and over again in the same spot, they will use up all the same nutrients and there will be little or none left in the soil, leading to all sorts of problems (depletion, erosion etc).
It is exactly the opposite of monoculture, which is the prevailing system in industrial agriculture. 

Rotation works like this. Botanically, plants belong to families. Families with similar characteristics and requirements can be grouped and planted together. Plants from one group should not be planted on the same spot year on year to avoid the problems above. So you divide your plot  in areas (more easily done with beds), and rotate your crop groups. The minimum advised rotation is 4 years, which means you will only plant a group of families in one area once in 4 years. 

Garden Organic suggests to divide plant families in 4 groups (I provide links to Wikipedia but do not bother too much with family names as they change all the time as botanists becomes clearer which plants belong to which family, and whether a family is still a family or some sort of sub or super-grouping of something else).

The groups are labelled A,B,C and D, which I find quite convenient to mark my beds on the plot:

A:  solanaceae (the nightshade family, including tomato peppers and potato), cucurbitaceae (your pumpkins and courgettes);
B:  alliaceae (garlic and onions);  papillonaceae (peas and beans, vetches and clovers);
C:  brassicaceae (the cabbage family, also including spicy salads i.e. rocket and cress); poaceae (the grasses, including cereals and corn); asteraceae (the daisy-shaped flower family, including most salads that are not spicy);
D:  apiaceae (the plant that have flowers umbrella-shaped i.e. parsley, carrots, parsnips), chenopodiaceae (mostly weeds but also spinach and beets) - both families together can be roughly identified as the root crops.

There are other families with less common plants, those are outside the rotation and can make up an extra year in the rotation or could be associated - consistently - with another group.

Crop rotation goes with other methods of soil care, which I am planning to discuss later on.


Of course, even within the sustainable agriculture persuasion (basically anything but monoculture), there are other schools of thought. For example, one that advocates something that is not so neatly organised: "companion planting".  This is also about pairing plants/grouping, on the basis that:
  • some pests locate the crops by sights (mixed planting confusing them); 
  • some plants emit smells that can deter pests from other plants;
  • some plants may provide nutrients for other plants.
There's no excess of scientific evidence of this working - possibly because of lack of interest from science, which nowadays seem to be mostly focussed on technological innovation, genetic engineering to create new and "better" species at the forefront. But it makes sense to me and a notable example of this system was traced back to the Americas where the "three sisters": corn, beans and pumpkins were planted together - corn providing a climbing support for the beans, which fix the nitrogen for hungry pumpkins and pumpkins shading the roots keeping weeds at bay etc.

Yet I have not found a way to make the two systems work together, except in cases where the "extra" plants are out of rotation or within the same rotation group. Not that I have spent too much time exploring this, I barely have time to follow one philosophy, what with gardening around a full time job with travelling, and keeping the house and feeding myself and husband etc. Gardening definitely requires a lot of hands on experience and observation.

Which reminds me it's time to go to the plot, as it's a gorgeous day and there's so much to do.


But I will conclude on a another practice that deserves a mention in this context: intercropping. To make more profitable use of the often scarce resource of space, one could grow quick maturing crops (i.e. salads) while waiting for slower crops to develop. Similarly, catch crops are used in between planting of other crops (i.e. while waiting for the seedlings to be ready in the greenhouse). 

I know next to nothing about this, and I sense there might be a tension between wanting to produce more and the need to keep the soil in good shape - but you may know more.

Please leave your comments if you have experience on any of these practices and how they might work together in a sustainable way.