The Starting From Scratch project is about connecting our volunteers to the whole process of food. Many of our volunteers already prepare and serve organic food in our cafe; this project broadens their perpective by giving them the opportunity to grow organic food from seed. Teams of volunteers have helped out on local organic farms, and have put the skills learnt there to good use in the Greenhouse's courtyard garden. The project has also encouraged several volunteers to grow their own food at home.
This project has been made possible thanks to the generous support of the Geoffrey Watling Charity.
MONDAY 30TH MARCH
It may have seemed another world, but it was the origin of the Greenhouse's supply chain. David delivers vegetables to our café every week, and today was the inaugural site visit for our Starting From Scratch project, designed to demonstrate to our volunteers the process of food from seed to plate, and engage them in growing.
David began the day with a tour of his small farm. He has one large poly tunnel for growing herbs, and even so early in the season it was covered with seed trays and miniature plants. We admired the scents and textures of thyme and rosemary before moving to the other poly tunnel, where David grows salad leaves. The multi-coloured rainbow chard was already out in force, and the elongated and variegated leaves of a different plant caught my eye. "Try it," said David, breaking off a corner of leaf. A crisp peppery taste blossomed into a mouthfilling mustard flavour. "Chinese mustard leaf," he said, "you can sow some of those if you like."
He gave us a supervised introduction to seed sowing. We filled the trays with compost, made small indentations and put two or three herb seeds in each module. The golden rule, we learned, is not to bury the seed too deep. If the seed is 3mm long, then sow it 3mm below the surface. We sieved soil over the top, and watered them in, before leaving them on one of David's heated benches. Kept warm all day long and in the protection of the poly tunnel, the seeds should germinate rapidly.
And sure enough, David already had mini basil and parsley plants, and next he showed us how to pot these up. We watered the seedlings and pushed out the small plant, untanging the roots a little before planting them in individual pots with fresh soil. Soon Justin was scooping organic compost into pots and Mark and Lucy were planting out the herbs, whilstFrankie trimmed thyme plants to ready them for sale.
I was busy too, sowing some seeds to begin our own courtyard garden at the Greenhouse. Dill, fennel, sage, coriander and oregano should give us fresh herbs for the kitchen, whilst rocket, Chinese mustard leaf and crisp leaf lettuce will add variety and texture to our salads.
WEDNESDAY 22ND APRIL
Lizzie and Grahame Hughes have been growing organic produce for over thirty years, and have supplied the Greenhouse since 2000. They were core members of Eostre Organics, the organic co-operative that folded last October (see Trading Fairly: Going Local), and have since set up Hughes' Organics, working up some of their old contacts to found their own company.
Hughes' Organics is a wholesale business, and sources organic veg from neighbouring counties, supplementing it with their own produce, which they grow in a glasshouse near Bunwell, Attleborough, known as Walnut Tree Farm - the destination of our visit today. Three quarters of an acre under glass... a humid environment ideal for cultivating tomatoes, cucumbers and oriental leaves - but it made a few of us regret wearing jeans!
With the upheaval of making a living out of Eostre's remnants, Grahame and Lizzie admitted that they had missed out a growing season, and were only really beginning in the glasshouse. There were a few rows of rocket and swiss chard, and plenty of nettles. Grahame wryly informed us that messy gardens can be very fertile. Indeed, organic gardeners tend to cultivate a few weeds. At the fringes, they protect the crops from pests, and nettles put nitrogen back into the soil, an essential tenet of organic farming. We need to recycle nutrients into the soil to avoid using chemical ferilisers. Good news for untidy gardeners...
Lizzie had kindly laid on a tasty lunch, and the immediacy and freshness of growing your own produce was highlighted when she picked sorrel from the glasshouse and added it to the soup to bulk it up. The honest wholesome goodness of the braised leeks and beetroot shone through. And with the small cost of plants and the miniscule cost of seeds, this meal showed how we can eat fresh, nutritious, organic food on the most restrictive of budgets. As we sat on the grass outside the glasshouse, basking in the sun, it was a real rural idyll.
We were there to learn as we helped, to exchange abour for expertise. Soon Frankie and I were helping Lizzie make a final cut from a leftover crop of Swiss Chard, which they'd already used last year. We sought out tasty leaves and cut them above the root, and bagged them up for delivery. Meanwhile, Grahame gave Andrea, Anya, Beris, Emilie and Steve a crash course in planting, and by the time we left there were several neat new rows of basil, parsley and rocket.
THURSDAY APRIL 23RD
David Wrenn arrived, brandishing two trays of miniature seedlings.
"Are these our seeds?" someone asked.
"Your plants, you mean," he replied.
Sure enough, from the tiny seeds sown a month ago had emerged tender shoots of plants, and Steve, Mark, Maddie and I happily set about potting them up.
The courtyard space at the Greenhouse has long been a haven of peace for our customers and volunteers - a quiet space to sit, read and reflect whilst consuming fairtrade and organic food and drink from our café. Remnants of the courtyard's first planting give some green architecture to the space - the wisteria growing along the back wall, the grape vines offering a leafy canopy... but as far as consumable plants go, a hardy rosemary plant was the only edible offering. Our mission was to create an urban garden, from which we could pick fresh produce for the kitchen.
One tray of lettuce seeds makes for a lot of lettuce, and we spread them out in pots along a trolley that Frankie had made from scrap metal. Aesthetics will be important in capturing the imaginations of our customers, so we set about mixing the
colours and shapes of Mizuna with Chinese mustard leaf and crisp leaf lettuce. Architectural plants like fennel and dill made the display pleasing on the eye, whilst we gave the solitary mint plant room to bunch out. Around the same side of the large wooden tub we planted chives - as the mint grows upwards and the chives droop over the rim, they complement each other visually.
This project is as much about people as plants, and it was exciting to see Steve so enthused. He currently works as a maintenance gardener, cutting hedges and lawns, He's keen to learn more about growing veg to open up new career opportunities, and he was delighted with his two day's work, and left with several surfeit lettuces to plant at home.
WEDNESDAY 10TH JUNE
Dear Tom, Andrea, Frankie and Mark,
Thank you for your company and hard labour last Wednesday. I'm afraid it was a bit of a slog and not the creative satisfaction of the unleashing of life force from seed to plant but it was tremendously helpful to us. The following day Grahame rotivated and watered Frankie's patch and it now awaits the planting of tomatoes. The rocket patch is still under excavation and the endeavour was helped hugely by the valiant efforts of Andrea, Mark and Tom...and the making of salad bags has reached a new level of efficiency by setting out the crates in an assembly line as you did.
Thank you all.
Love and best wishes,
Lizzie and Grahame
THURSDAY 9TH JULY
A month of intense heat and vociferous showers has not always been kind to our courtyard garden. The intense heat made our rocket and mizuna bolt, whilst a tray of basil seeds were drowned on their first night outside. So a day of maintenance was overdue. The first job on our list was to pull up bolted mizuna and rocket - once a plant 'goes to seed' [ceases to produce edible leaves, believing that its work is done!], it releases a hormone that encourages surrounding plants to do the same. We added the plants to the veg peelings from the kitchen, which are composted off site, and I set to scrubbing the pots in rainwater, ready for re-use.
David Wrenn had brought us some plants to help fill our gaps. Four types of basil added their scent and deep green colour to the garden - lemon, lime and sweet basil amongst them, and Beris set to potting them up, dipping her hand in compost merrily now, where two months ago she was terrified of creepy crawlies! Marjoram and parsley added some variety.
WEDNESDAY 15TH JULY
Noam raided the garden for basil, picking fresh leaves a plenty to make our own home made pesto. Andrew helped Rose make potato gnocci to accompany them and a new special is added to our repertoire.
Meanwhile, Charlotte was volunteering with the Hughes' at Walnut Tree Farm. Here are her impressions of the visit:
Lizzie let Nathan, Frankie and I into the glasshouse, which is a long half-cylindrical building, eerily white from a distance. We could see that the plants are extremely prolific at this time of year - it was hot inside and very green, abundant, almost jungular.
Several rows of tomato plants ran widthways along the ground, all looking healthy but slightly ragged. Our first task was to tidy them up by snapping off any side-shoots from their joints (in the direction they'd break naturally, so they wouldn't weep too much), and winding their tendrils upwards upon thin rope. Two strings per plant were strung from the ceiling and attached to the ground - quite a gentle guiding system that must save on ties and sticks. After perhaps half an hour they all looked considerably leaner, smartly focused on their task, and my hands were caked in a blackish-green like toad-skin - this is what gardeners love, I expect, your hands right in the dirt of things, becoming useful again.
For the rest of the day, Frankie and I dedicated our time to sowing a couple of packets of beans (white, embryonic in shape) and broccoli (tiny, poppy-seed sized) in great square planting trays: spreading with soil, pressing the seeds into finger-sized holes and covering again. It was important not to plant the beans upside down, as Graham told us one volunteer had once done with onions- losing the whole crop as the seeds sprouted into the ground, unable to pull themselves round to the light. It was a nice job, meditative - a little like baking, somehow, with a longer gestation period.
It was also exciting to discover cucumber flowers. The ones I saw were white and drying, soon to be shed; very delicate for such an indelicate fruit. As a fruit, it grows like a long green child from the fertilised flower - the petals of which apparently hang on until the very end. I was genuinely amazed - after years of buying them at the supermarket (cut in half in a packet) it was like seeing someone properly for the first time having never really looked before.
Good to be surprised. Good to help out at soil-level.
THURSDAY 30TH JULY
A lettuce-eating aphid is, well, eating our lettuce. Maddie and Mark pulled up the roots of some sad and sunken red leaf and found the tiny creatures crawling beneath the soil.
- Lots of lettuces in pots next to each other may attract pests. We have grown on an intensive scale for a small space, and a host of edible greens within wriggling distance of each other has proven a feast for a caterpillar.
- A lot of our lettuces have become stressed, competing for light in small containers. Whereas in the ground they might be a foot apart, in the pots they have half that space, which makes them vulnerable and more prone to infection.
- Shallower pots are on our shopping list. With the unpredictable weather, our deep pots have dried out on top in the intense sunlight, but are damp to the point of staining the terracotta with white mould at the base.
THURSDAY 27TH AUGUST
The lettuces are at an end, eaten from above by our customers and from below by the aphids. Caterpillars, too, were making a home for themselves in our garden, until we uprooted the caldo verde that they enjoyed so much. I must have found a dozen speckled black and white beings squeezed together, methodically eating every green inch of a leaf, leaving only a fibrous skeleton before moving on to the next.
We had to get rid of the aphid-infiltrated compost before we could begin again, clearing out pots and scrubbing them clean. The dirty job over, we turned to our spinach seedlings. Each one was showing two spinach leaves proper, in addition to the cotyledon (seed leaves) that announce the plants' entrance to the world.
Mark showed Justin how to delicately transplant the seedlings and pot them up into our newer, shallower pots. They interspersed them with a few red leaf lettuces, before sowing some French parsley, in the hope of a late crop, in what has been a sunny growing season in East Anglia.
TUESDAY 8TH SEPTEMBER
A return visit to Orchard End Farm, where our project began. In the back of the van, Mark told us of the ancient varieties of apples he'd tried at the Greenpeace Fair over the weekend - one tasted of strawberry, another of aniseed. There was plenty of fruit ripening at the farm - conference pears, discovery apples, greengages, some late season plums. David Wrenn handed out figs fresh from the tree upon our arrival. He wants to plant more fruit trees in the future, to replace the orchard that was cut down to create the farm.
But for today, it was a clear out job. The poly tunnel that was full of neatly sculpted lettuces, chard and mustard leaf when last we visited was now overgrown with flat beans and cucumbers, the last of some celery plants, and plenty of nettles. They put lots of potassium into the soil, he assured us. Which didn't make them sting any less...
We set about untying beans. So sweet and crunchy in early June, they are now stringy and inedible. We kept a few of the white beans from inside yellowed pods, to dry and use for seed next year, but all the green leaves and tendrils were destined for the compost. The same fate awaited the cucumber plants. We harvested the last of them - several were enormous, but a number had refused to ripen, and were added to the heap. By the end of our morning's work, the tunnel was clear again, the soil raked over, ready for rotivating and replanting. What would have taken a long time for one man was a three-hour job for a team of five.
David made refreshments, picking leaves from a lemon verbena tree and chopping them to make a refreshing tea, easy on the stomach and beneficial to the digestion. As we drank, he told us that in the biodynamic calendar, this is the time of year when energy is directed down into the soil. The upward energy of summer, when plants climb and climb is over, so growing slows down. It is, however, an excellent time to take root cuttings - and to plant root veg. David, however, won't be doing much of that. As his farm is very small, he cannot grow root veg on any profitable scale, so he extends the growing season of the greens by sheltering them in his poly tunnels.
Similarly, the limited, container-centred growing space of the Greenhouse's courtyard garden rules out root veg, so David advised some more robust greens, which should survive the autumn in our sheltered space. Leilai and Andy set about sowing plenty of rocket, some rhubarb chard, and some oriental greens - the return of Chinese mustard leaf, and the debuts of low-growing tatsoi and pak choy.
THURSDAY 1ST OCTOBER
David had delivered a small tray of colourful seedlings, the product of our labour three weeks ago. Light green rocket had sprouted with an enthusiasm worthy of its name, whilst elsewhere on the tray the red stems of rhubarb chard and scarlet-veined leaves of chinese mustard leaf added colour to a dull morning.
We have spent the morning embracing autumn, uprooting the stumps of well-picked parsley and basil plants, and replacing them with hardier greens. The bulbous green shoots of pak choy and the jagged, elongated leaves of chop suey now occupy pride of place. Pesto is out; stir fry is in...
Ali and Charlotte spent the morning transplanting miniature plants from their seed trays, including the winter spinach we'd grown from seed on the premises. Lifting the young shoots by their cotyledons, they carefully potted them up in organic compost, augmented with a soil improver, which should aid drainage in the pots and prevent the bases becoming waterlogged. We are hopeful that the sheltered microclimate of our courtyard will allow our new plants to flourish until the frosts begin.
A few herbs survived today's overhaul. Our rosemary still stands tall and proud, ready to add flavour to roasted root veg over the winter. We're leaving perennials such as mint and chives alone till next year, and Ben cut back the marjoram ready for its winter sleep. The oregano is enjoying its sheltered spot, and the leaves are still a formidable green. This morning it was the sole occupant of a large pot, but Charlotte potted a selection of our oriental greens around it, to create a visually pleasing centrepiece to our display. It's easy to forget that edible plants can also be beautiful additions to a garden.
By this end of the morning the garden was green and verdant again, so we packed away our trowels. Charlotte and Ali took some surfeit spinach and rocket plants home. They have no garden space at home, but a windowsill should suffice. You don't need a lot of space to enjoy growing your own.
TUESDAY 27TH OCTOBER
Fairweather gardeners can drop out now. The windscreen wipers of our van fought the drizzle all the way to Kirstead, and the clay soil of Orchard End Farm was wet and spongy. There is a real danger of soil compaction when planting in clay soil on wet days, and Justin and Martin had to be careful not to step directly on the earth when sowing broad beans. Instead, they stepped on a long wooden board, to spread out their weight. Compaction is a real issue in large scale farming, David explained. As heavier tractors are used, compaction increases, and requires heavier machinery to break up the soil again.
This spiral is a long way from the poly tunnel based growing of David Wrenn, and even further from the urban gardening of the Greenhouse. Our connection with the earth can be felt in our fingertips. Justin pressed fresh compost into seed trays and started sowing another batch of oriental greens - tatsoi, bok choy, chop suey and chinese mustard leaf. Successional sowings of seeds should lead to a steady supply of greens for the kitchen over the autumn.
Meanwhile, Rosie and Andy were trimming the last of the annual summer herbs... basil plants with floppy fragrant green leaves, and short spindles of purple thyme. There was also an exciting range of chocolate, orange and lemon mint plants, and as our volunteers snipped, the last scents of summer filled the poly tunnel. British summer time may officially be over, but David is still harvesting a few tomatoes from his indoor shelter, and he came in from outdoors bearing a handful of sleek green veg with yellow and orange flowers.
"Courgettes in October!" he marvelled, shaking his head, "I've never known that!" It's been a long, hot summer and a good growing year for East Anglian farmers. Now the season of frenetic growth is over, and David is looking towards a slow over winter crop. He has just planted winter spinach and a slow growing variety of lettuce.
These leaves occupy the space in the poly tunnel we'd cleared during our last visit. After we'd torn down cucumbers and beans, David left his chickens in the tunnel for a fortnight to eat up scraps and insects. This is an example of the good husbandry that can thrive on an organic smallholding - the chickens fed on potentially pernicious slugs, and their droppings helped fertilise the soil. David just had to rotivate the soil and apply some biodynamic preparations, and he was ready to plant once more.
We were ready, too - to return to the Greenhouse, laden with generously donated herb from David. The volunteers in our kitchen were delighted to lavish fresh green herbs onto potato salad, and a bumper batch of pesto is in the pipeline. Rose, our cook, hung up some mint in the airing cupboard to dry; I prepared mint for the freezer, chopping it and adding it to ice cube trays before adding a drop of water. Now we can add a cube to soups, and preserve some summer flavours over the winter to come.
THURSDAY 26TH NOVEMBER
Light blue skies and golden autumnal sunlight for our final morning's planting in the Greenhouse garden. It's been a very mild autumn, and the green leaves continue. We picked the last little lettuce, but the hardier plants remain. Tatsoi now stands in thick dark green clumps, whilst the chinese mustard leaves, with their soft jagged edges, curl luxuriously back upon themselves. In amongst them are the light silky leaves of rocket plants, and the intricate architectural fronds of chop suey.
Growing can be a ruthless pursuit at times, and today we cleared out most of the rhubarb chard and the winter spinach, which have stayed stubbornly small. David Wrenn suggested that the problem lay with our compost. Non-organic compost has an additive that delays nutrient release; in contrast, organic compost has a shorter shelf life. We bought a different variety for today, so we shall see the effect over the next few weeks.
The plants have given this project a hard outcome - both in terms of fresh homegrown produce to use in our café, and as a living display to show customers what can be done with a small urban space. But the project has also been about people - growing food has become an increasingly isolated modern pursuit: lone farm workers often looking after 1,000 acres of land, whilst machinery does the labour. But at its most primal level, the creation of food offers a way for diverse people in modern communities to come together, and learn from one another. Today, Justin, an uncertain, novice gardener worked alongside Ben, who was visiting Norwich for a few days from a mixed farm near Stevenage (www.churchfarmardeley.co.uk).
Throughout this project, the enthusiasm for growing local, organic produce has been great, and even with the November chill upon us, it was an upbeat and satisfying morning's work.
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