Tuesday 15 May 2012

Pumpkins - up or down?

Squash and pumpkins will expand to fill the available space, I find. If you put them in the garden they will run riot all over the garden. If you put them in the allotment then by September you'll find pumpkin stems and leaves trailing across all your beds.
My preferred solution has always been to train them upwards: to give them a climbing frame such as 10cm plastic mesh secured with bamboo canes. With a little initial encouragement and tying in, the plants soon get the idea and ramble upwards instead of out towards the neighbouring plot. I have indeed seen someone use an actual climbing frame, presumably one the kids had grown out of, for this purpose very successfully, but plastic mesh and bamboo will stand up to the task remarkably well.
Trained upwards, the fruit will hang down from sturdy stems. Off the ground, they stay clean and safe from slug damage.
This year, however, I need the squash to trail along the ground. I'm growing them as the Native Americans traditionally did, alongside climbing beans and sweetcorn in a companion planting partnership known as the Three Sisters. The sweetcorn provides a sturdy stem for the beans to scramble up; the broad-leaved squash will provide ground cover, suppressing weed growth and reducing water loss by evaporation.
Sowing squash seeds, each one sown 2cm deep in well-watered compost. These survived the cat inspection.
Once all the fruit have been harvested from each of the plants, the green matter can be dug back into the soil for the next year's crop. As well as nutrients from the gradually decomposing greenery, the beans will also fix nitrogen from their roots to feed the soil for the following months. 
Left on the ground, the plants will spread outwards and act as a weed suppressant.
Slipping a bathroom tile under the developing fruit will keep them some protection from the bare earth. 
The Three Sisters and other companion planting schemes is the subject of our next Secret Garden Club workshop on Sunday May 27. We'll be explaining how to adapt the traditional Three Sisters planting to the cooler, more unpredictable British climate, and how to grow specific plants together to deter pests. MsMarmiteLover is devising a Cherokee-inspired feast to follow the planting session. Click here for details and how to book tickets.

Monday 14 May 2012

The case for organic food

Why I love Organic kicked off its Organic – Naturally Different campaign with a debate and dinner at the Toynbee Hall in London, attended by a number of leading voices in the organic field, including Craig Sams and Jo Fairley, the founders of Green & Blacks, Helen Browning, the CEO of the Soil Association, and Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, the alliance for better food and farming.  John Craven of Countryfile (although he’ll always be synonymous with Newsround to me) chaired the meeting ably and genially.

On the pro-organic side of the debate, Mercury Prizewinning rapper Speech Debelle was an engaging champion for home-growing and local shopping. Craig Sams’ impressive command of detail, particularly over global land loss after years of intensive farming and the comparative sustainability of organic practice, met with an appreciative audience in a room that broadly agreed with him.
Dissent of a rather half-hearted nature was provided by the so-called 'sceptics': food writer James Ramsden and The Guardian's Oliver Thring. Neither of them appeared to be much against organic food – that would be a fairly difficult stand to take – so were reduced to objecting that it was expensive. 

Although billed as a debate, there was no robust ‘This House Believes That …’ to be contested. Unsurprisingly perhaps, there was no-one to speak up for the use of artificial pesticides and fertilisers, and no-one to champion genetic modification. Beyond essaying that there wasn’t enough food to go round and that more people needed to be working the land whether organically or not, the ‘debate’ about organic food appears to be won; what remains is how best to  make organic food the norm and affordable.

The discussion from the floor shifted, perhaps inevitably, to the need for a change in food culture (and observations that the French food culture so often held up by the Brits as a model is now in serious decline), to rely less on meat, and the proposal, which had some support from the floor and from the panel, that food labelling for non-organic food should be as stringent as that for organic. That it should say exactly what the food had been sprayed or treated with and how many times. I reckon you could watch sales of organic food rocket after that.
Following the formal debate, discussion spilled over into dinner, a sumptuous organic feast designed and cooked byMsMarmiteLover:

Salmagundi of vegetables, herbs and edible flowers
Hand made Burrata with tarragon salad and pomegranate seeds.
Asparagus mimosa with pansies
Dover Sole en papillote with home-grown kumquats and samphire
Ginger and mint new potatoes
British cheese selection with biscuits, organic walnuts and almonds, chutneys
British iced 'fancies':
Chocolate and beetroot cake topped with candied beetroot
Courgette and poppy seed cake topped with candied courgette
Carrot cake topped with candied carrot
Left, hand-made burrata; right, salmagundi
British iced fancies

Wednesday 9 May 2012

Growing ginger: progress notes

Those fresh ginger roots which I bought from a local mini-mart and buried in compost back in February have now outgrown their first 12cm pots, with roots protruding from the drainage holes at the bottom and the plants themselves about 60cm tall. I repotted them at the weekend into 20cm pots and have moved them to another sunny windowsill where they have more space.

As it is still so cold outside, especially at night, I'm not thinking of moving them out of the house anytime soon.

Most of the books and websites I've consulted suggest that I'll be lucky to get anything much in the way of new rhizome growth that I can call a crop, so for the time being I shall just enjoy the plants, which look very stately with their tall, upright bearing and slim leaves.