Tag Archives: growing

Guy’s Newsletter: hasty veg & a bitter imposition

We are finally enjoying some very welcome cold, dry and bright weather. It will take another week before our most free-draining land dries enough to allow any soil preparation for planting though; spring still feels a long way off. Most winter crops are running four to six weeks ahead of schedule due to the mild winter so far, while our other fields look worryingly bare; it will be three or four months before the spring crops are ready. We still have plenty of roots, kale and leeks, but there will be gaps left by the hasty cauliflowers and cabbages, so we will have to juggle our box contents planning a little.

In contrast to this, over on our farm in France a break in the weather allowed us to plant the first batavia lettuce this week, as the sandy soils there are more forgiving. The first cos lettuce will go into the ground tomorrow; the seed bed was prepared and covered back in October, avoiding the need for any cultivation now when it is difficult to get machinery on the wet land. We plant by hand this early in the year, but still need a tractor to bend hoops and lay the low-level polytunnels that will protect and advance the crop, allowing us to start cutting in late March. Overall our farm in the Vendée has come a long way to filling the UK’s Hungry Gap, but it looks as if that gap might be wider than usual this year. Thankfully, after five years on our own, an organic neighbour will be growing spinach for your boxes in late April and May.

Most of the crop planning for the coming season is done, and seeds and plants ordered with just a few details to refine; I would be grateful if some of you could pass comment on the pale green, solid-ish, bitter and crunchy heads of pain de sucre (salad chicory) that have been in some boxes over the last month. I love growing and eating them and they provide some winter variety without the need to go 1000 miles south, but is this a bitter imposition or do you like them too? There is a very, very brief questionnaire at www.riverford.co.uk/paindesucre; I am just as keen to hear from the haters as the lovers.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: summer rain & sleepy potatoes

The August rains which ruined many a holiday have got our winter cabbages, leeks, kales, romanesco and calabrese broccoli off to a good start. The prospects for the later winter crops look even better as the slow drop in temperature prepares them for the first frost that typically arrives in early October. Meanwhile, when weather conditions allow, our farming co-op are busy harvesting main crop potatoes and getting them into store. The plants have been defoliated, either naturally through blight attacking the leaves, or through mowing the tops off followed by burning to prevent blight hitting; now we wait three weeks for the tubers to set a firm skin and for any blight spores on the surface to die before harvesting into one ton wooden bins. Few things smell worse than a potato store melting to slime with blight, so it is worth being patient. Initially the store is ventilated with ambient air to dry the tubers and allow any skin damage caused by the harvesting machinery to heal. After two or three weeks the fridges are switched on to bring the temperature down to 3.5°C over a month or so, and thus put the tubers to sleep. Valor, the sleepiest variety, will happily slumber on until next May or even June.

Those August rains were a mixed blessing; good for recently planted hardy winter crops needing to get established, less good for tender salads. Our spinach succumbed first to mildew brought on by the damp and evolution (new mildew strains have overcome the resistance bred into existing varieties), and then to nitrogen deficiency resulting from soluble nutrients being carried down through the soil profile by the rain; spinach is too shallow rooted and quick maturing to reach them. Later sowings are now recovering to some extent but you may have noticed your box greens tending more towards kale and cabbage as we look for substitutes for failing spinach. We are also struggling with a flush of the small leaved, succulent chickweed; it is often a problem in the autumn, establishing an interwoven mat which smothers out all but the most vigorous competition. Sorting the weeds from the crop is slowing the picking of salad leaves and spinach, yet chickweed is much prized in some parts of the world so I hope you will not be too indignant if a few harmless leaves make it through to your bags.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: the three rules of flavour

A few years ago we scientifically tested every willing Riverford staff member for the sensitivity of their palate. The best formed a taste panel to assess the flavour of everything we grew; a good idea but, like so much science, it failed to deal with subjectivity and was excessively reductionist, tending to favour ubiquitous sweetness over anything challenging or complex. If we followed the panel’s guidance we would never have sold a radicchio, endive or cardoon. More recently we’ve put together a group of in-house chefs and food enthusiasts to assess our carrots, cheese, wine and olive oil. Last week we sat down to taste the tomatoes from our tunnels; as always, our cherry tomato Sakura won, along with some new trial orange and yellow baby plum tomatoes.

For all fruit and veg, great flavour comes from a combination of three things:

Variety: The more you intensively select for yield or early maturity, the more you lose less easily quantified traits like complex flavours and nutritional value. Over 30 years I have seen many of the varieties we selected for flavour dropped from breeders’ lists. Consolidation in the seed trade just adds to this; after a global buying spree Monsanto now owns a staggering 23% of the global seed trade and is negotiating to buy Syngenta who own a further 9%.

Growing conditions: Up to a point, slow, steady growth from a healthy, well balanced soil creates the best flavour. Excessive water and soluble nitrogen gives the luxuriant growth and high yields which look great in the field but disappoint in the kitchen. Too much stress can result in excessive bitterness, toughness and ‘off’ flavours, particularly in the brassica family, though in carrots and some herbs drought can result in incredible flavour, so it is hard to be dogmatic.

Harvest freshness and post harvest storage: Ideally fruit should be harvested fully ripe and never see a cold room, while green veg should be picked with the dew on them and eaten as soon as possible. Refrigeration can greatly extend life with variable impact on flavour; fine for salads, not great for courgettes.

Subjectivity can come close to snobbery and exclusivity but, without some trust in personal sensitivities, life would be very dull; a bit like supermarket veg.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: bumper crops, caterpillars & gleaners

We are picking the first of a fine crop of sweetcorn on our farm in France; six weeks ahead of the main UK crop and in time for your BBQs. Annoyingly you are in competition with the European corn borer, a moth which particularly favours maize and sweetcorn for nursing its young; the eggs hatch into a voracious caterpillar which feeds on the ripening cobs. The agri-tech solution would be to regularly spray insecticides, or to grow a GM variety where every cell of every plant continuously generates its own insecticide. Instead we use a minute wasp called Trichogramma which lays an egg inside the eggs of the corn borer, devouring the pest from within once it hatches. This is a well-proven system of biological control used for over 100 years, but it does rely on breeding and releasing enough wasps at just the right time; I suspect we were a little late. Where damage is not severe we will trim in the field; however the occasional cob is bound to slip through so please accept our apologies. One could say it is the price of insecticide-free food, but we’re happy to replace if you feel hard done by.

Nearby we have good crops of padron peppers and tomatillos, which will appear in most boxes over the summer. The padrons make a great snack when quickly pan-fried and salted; about one in five are mildly hot but it varies according to the plant, weather, maturity and where they are grown. Meanwhile tomatillos form the basis of many Mexican dishes, most particularly salsa verde; great with just about anything grilled or fried. There are some good recipes here.

At home we are coming to the end of a record breaking crop of broad beans; lots of spring sunshine helped the bees thoroughly pollinate the flowers which, coupled with just enough rain, has resulted in well-filled pods. We have upped the portions in your boxes (on us), and our veg men and ladies will carry some complimentary bags to give to those of you who are not beaned out, but even this will not shift the colossal harvest. According to the Old Testament’s Deuteronomic Code, we should leave part of the crop for widows, orphans and strangers; even after six years of austerity we don’t find many of them wandering the parish, so we have called in Gleaning Network UK to come and pick the remains for distribution to food banks and other charities.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: farming to order

Back in 2007 we took on the tenancy of Sacrewell Farm near Peterborough, just off the famously fertile Fens, to grow veg and pack our veg boxes for customers in the east of England. After a lifetime in Devon’s restrictively small, hilly fields I was seduced by the prospect of farming 500 acres of level, freely draining, relatively uniform soil; surely this would be easy. It turned out that the land was exhausted, flogged by 20 years of continual conventional cropping with potatoes and cereals. We set about sowing grass clover leys to restore natural fertility, planting an orchard and hedgerows and converting to organic methods; early crops were disappointing but eight years on our farm team are getting better crops each year as the life comes back into the soil and we learn which crops suit the silty loam. The harder climate and lower humidity means we get much less fungal disease so we now grow most of our onions here to avoid the mildew that inevitably hits us in damp Devon, and this year’s crop is looking very good.

Watching the transformation of Sacrewell has made me appreciate how much farms on our relatively small island can vary as a result of their natural geology and how the soil has been treated. In Devon the mixed farming my father employed for 50 years has protected the loamy, balanced (if shallow) soils, and the thick hedgerows are a blessing; it turns out that they help keep insect pests under control by providing habitats for insect predators to overwinter. In the east, while we have created a rich, biodiverse farm at Sacrewell, monocultures and huge fields are the norm where a ‘hedge’ is a sparse, stunted row of thorns. While their influence means we still have rapid outbreaks of aphids here that we never see in Devon, the change in the past eight years has been incredible; an RSPB survey last year counted 70 species on the farm including lapwings, corn buntings, grey partridges and red kites.

Organic farming means treating each farm as an individual and finding its virtues; it has taken us a few years to appreciate them, but now we are undoubtedly bringing out their best.

Guy Watson

Guy’s Newsletter: an aphid’s view

If things are this good why grow wings, why even move? Why have sex and risk producing variable babies that may not be as good as me? Sexual reproduction is so full of uncertainty. Why not just stay put, plug in, suck that sweet, sweet sap and pour out a stream of babies identical to me through parthenogenesis; they need only shake free of my abdomen, plug in and enjoy the same good life. Within five days the young’uns will be squeezing out their own; it’s perfect.

Two weeks ago, looking around the peppers on our farm in France I calculated that about 20 million wingless aphids were sucking the life out of my crop; each leaf had up to ten mothers with a stream of look-a-likes plugging in within millimetres of their mother. Marco, my ever-calm agronomist, told me not to worry; “I’m on top of it,” he said. The temptation for the macho and inexperienced would be to wade in with some soap spray (restricted but permissible under organic regulations) which effectively suffocates the aphids it touches by invading their spiracles, but this would also risk killing the predators already feasting on the aphids and destroy our chances of reaching the holy grail of organic pest control; balance. Marco’s policy was to wash off the worst colonies with water and introduce more ladybirds to mop up the rest. I was nervous; a ladybird can eat 5000 aphids in its life but can’t compete with their reproduction rate. Who would eat their way to the top? As well as ladybirds we often seek help from my favourite aphid predator, Aphidius colemani. This tiny parasitic wasp oviposits a single egg in each aphid which slowly digests them from within before emerging two weeks later, alien style, as an adult wasp ready to lay another 200 eggs; we introduced some of them for good measure.

Two weeks later, Marco was proved right; the ladybirds won and it looks like we will have a good, if slightly delayed, crop of peppers. Having seen the scenario played out so many times since we gave up spraying soap on aphids 15 years ago, I should have had more faith in the under-promoted virtue of using less and understanding more. If a fraction of the money spent on pesticides and GM went into studying agro-ecology, most insecticide use could be avoided.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: french flings & devon dalliances

The boxes are still looking fresh, varied and full; not a bad achievement in the depths of the hungry gap, and largely down to a good harvest on our farm in the French Vendée. After a parched and sunny six weeks, April ended with a 100mm deluge making me very glad of the money invested in drainage here last autumn. We have lost some squash (wrenched out by the wind) and spinach (dying in a bog) and I fear for sweetcorn and sunflower seeds germinating in waterlogged seedbeds, but with luck the water will subside before the drowning soil becomes anaerobic and toxic to our crops.

Despite gales, mud, striking dockers and four French bank holidays in May (all staunchly observed with Gallic militancy), the veg boxes must be filled and harvest must go on. With 35 largely novice recruits picking lettuce, chard, turnips, garlic and cabbage to fill a truck a day we are stretched to breaking point. Thankfully the first lettuce will be harvested in Devon this week, allowing us to catch up on weeding before the sweetcorn and peppers disappear under fat hen, red shank and nightshade. By mid-June, as harvest in the UK gets in full swing, our French farm will be cast off like a jilted lover until next April when the hungry gap leaves holes to be filled in your boxes once more.

Back in Devon we are running a four day, hands on, growing, harvesting and cooking course in partnership with neighbouring Schumacher College this June. Teaching will be by their chefs and growers and ours in their kitchens, gardens and our fields. Geetie (my ethical pioneer wife and founder of our pub, the Duke of Cambridge) and I will also be contributing. The college might be a step or two beyond us on the spectrum towards the cosmos (pre-breakfast meditation is optional) but we have had our hands in the soil for 30 years so you can be assured the course will be well rooted on planet earth and there should be some healthy debate as well. Visit www.schumachercollege.org.uk for more details.

If you would rather cook in your own kitchen with a little celebrity help then for the next two weeks Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall has created some guest recipe boxes with us, and very good they are too; visit www.riverford.co.uk/recipeboxes to order.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: hot & busy in the Vendée

A dry and sunny Easter gave ideal conditions to get ahead with planting at home; we are already irrigating in earnest to help the seedlings out and get the first lettuce, cabbage and spinach away to a good start. This meanwhile is being typed 250 miles south, under a tree on the banks of the reservoir of our farm in the French Vendée. As we come to the end of leeks, cabbage, purple sprouting and cauliflower at home I am here to check on the start of our hungry-gap-plugging French harvest. This morning we cut the first of a fine crop of outdoor lettuce and chard which are already chilling in the cold room ready for the trip north tonight; just as well, because it is already 25°C and climbing. The irrigation pump is purring away, sending water to germinate the first sweetcorn. Two weeks ago, many of our fields were too wet to travel on and our crops were being chilled by bitter easterlies; this week we are irrigating gasping plants and our peppers are keeling over from heat stress. The crop covers and low-level tunnels we use in early spring advance crops and keep off the wind, but the big question is always when to remove them. Ideally you pick a damp, warm overcast day to minimise the shock to the plants; if none are forecast, we take them off in the evening, water immediately, and hope.

In a bid to keep up we have brought in contractors for the heavy work of muck spreading and ploughing, allowing our team to pick in the mornings before moving on to sow and plant sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, sunflower, cape gooseberries, tomatillos, butternut squash and fennel in the afternoon. Every rusty wreck of a tractor is dragged from the back of the barn and every able body pressed into action in an attempt to keep up with the work; the next six weeks are critical here. Planting will soon be done but there is a scary amount of vegetables to be picked by a largely inexperienced team. The aim is to plug the hungry gap at home while we wait for those new season UK crops. To go from a plod to a sprint in just a few weeks and then back to a plod again is a management challenge, but we are getting better at it; my accountant even tells me that, for the first time, we made a very modest profit here last year.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: clouts, saints & impatience

With the soil drying well and the occasional T-shirt moment to be had in a sheltered spot, I find myself growing impatient to see some plants going into the ground. “Ne’er cast a clout til may be out,” warns John, my ever-stalwart farm manager, reminding me of all the years when the seedlings pushed out of the greenhouse into a cold, wet seedbed in March have been out-yielded by those planted in warmer April soils. The “may” referred to is hawthorn blossom (not the month) and while we have planted some early potatoes and carrots and the first spinach plants are hardening off, the may buds are some way from bursting, so John will have his way for a couple of weeks yet. Meanwhile, I will hope that our fields are not sodden when the hedges turn white.

In France, with no intelligible temperate guidance to restrain me, we have been busy planting for two months. There are occasional raised eyebrows, despairing shakings of heads and mutterings about “Les Saints de Glace” from our neighbours, but my French is not good enough to catch the nuances of implied recklessness; actually things seem to be going rather well. We are cutting wonderful lettuces and pak choi from the big tunnels, soon to be followed by our first lettuces from crops covered with mini tunnels, and then fleece, then the first unprotected crop in mid-April. When they are finished in early May, John may have cast his clout and there should be lettuce to cut in Devon.

As soon as the tunnels are cleared later this month we will be spreading compost and replanting them with chillies, peppers and padrons. Outside the cabbage, kohl rabi, garlic, beans and swiss chard are all doing well, but we have never excelled at growing crops from small seeds; we just don’t seem to be able to get a seed bed consistent enough to ensure the machines can sow to an even depth. This year, following local practice and the advice of neighbours, we have sown the seed on the surface and covered with about 7mm of sand. Apparently it warms quickly in the sun, giving rapid and even germination and emergence; the proof will be in the turnips you’ll (hopefully) find in your boxes come May.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson