Tag Archives: winter

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: frozen patience

Looking up to the north there is snow on the moors, while in the valley the emerging wild garlic and snowdrops are frozen into the ground. After months of warm, wet Atlantic air giving a mild start to winter and an abundance of green veg, high pressure has anchored itself over Ireland. This is bringing bright skies and cold winds from the north and east; a mixed blessing for a vegetable farmer. Our southern-facing banks (the same fields we plant with our early crops) are not clear of frost until 10am, and we are unable to harvest leeks, cabbage, kale and the first of our purple sprouting broccoli until that time. Meanwhile our north facing slopes hold frost all day, and the sun is equally welcomed by crops and pickers. Any growth encouraged by longer days has stopped and I suspect we will be short of cauliflower, purple sprouting and anything green by the end of the month.

On the positive side it is lovely to see the sun, and, though there is nothing as sticky and slippery as recently thawed ground, most of the time there is less mud on your boots. It is also possible for the tractors to move without damaging our soil, especially in the morning when the frost is hardest. In my younger days we would have been hitching up the muck spreader and even the plough, but I soon learned that ploughing down frost was like thawing ice in a tea cosy; impatience just cooled the soil and delayed spring. Spreading muck on frozen ground is also a bad idea, partly because of the danger of run-off polluting water courses, and partly because we now realise that 60% of the precious nitrogen can be lost to the atmosphere as ammonia. In warmer conditions this is avoided by swiftly mixing the muck into the soil by ploughing or shallow cultivation, which helps the nitrogen attach to soil clay particles where it is held until a plant root absorbs it.

We are busy planting in France but in Devon we must be patient a little longer. As soon as the frost is out of the ground we will busy as nesting swallows; spreading muck, ploughing and planting the first early potatoes, carrots and spring broad beans. 28 years on, my heart still quickens a little at the thought.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: zen pickers & marauding cows

Despite the deluge, everyone is happy enough apart from the chickens. If it is to rain for eight weeks with barely a pause, it might as well be now when the days are shortest and not much is happening in our fields. On the whole our standing crops are bearing up well and there is little to be gained from cultivating or planting before March.

As you wash the last traces of our fields from your leeks, spare a thought for our pickers. It has been mercifully warm, but eight hours in a windswept field with ten pounds of mud clinging to each boot and the rain trickling down your neck day after day would break most mortals. I have never been down a mine or on a deep-sea trawler, but I reckon they are the only professions that could compete with winter veg picking for harshness of conditions. Most people just can’t take it, but there seems to be something in the makeup of a small minority that can shrug off such hardship; those who stick with it tend to be a pretty Zen bunch; perhaps they rise to a higher level of consciousness, who knows.

With the winter half gone we are taking stock, in the barns and the fields, and recalculating whether we will make it to spring. Spuds and onions are fine, right on plan but carrots will be short (they never really recovered from a dry summer and were more affected by carrot root fly than planned). In the fields the mild weather has brought leeks, kale, cabbages and cauliflower ahead of schedule; great for now but leading to potential shortages in March and April. The situation is not helped by a marauding herd of cows that broke into our spring greens one weekend. Not believing their luck they chomped through half a million or so before being detected, leaving a sizeable hole in our plans for your kitchens. We are hoping for a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli to fill the gap. Depending on temperatures we will pick the fields every five to ten days until the spears become too small for viable picking. My guess is that this year, with greens in short supply, we will be scouring the fields that would normally have been turned over to the sheep.

In Penny’s gardening blog – how to make use of those fallen autumn leaves

Image.

Autumn

The leaves this autumn are spectacular. I don’t know about any of you, but I have a tendency to get a bit down towards the end of September. The nights drawing in, everything coming to an end in the garden and the thought of a long, cold, damp winter fills me with dread, gloom and doom.

But once the leaves have turned I force myself out of my sorry state of mind and there is nothing more cheery than a good walk in the local woods. I am lucky enough to live close to Hembury Woods, which skirt the River Dart and is full of many ancient trees. It is predominantly a western oak woodland with a wet alder wood in the valley. There are plenty of silver birch, beech, holly and hazel. The colours alone are so uplifting that the experience of walking amongst these trees really gets me into the spirit of autumn and winter, hot fires and chestnuts, big scarves, thick socks, woolly hats and all those sorts of things.

Image

Leaf Mould

My point is there are lots of leaves falling off the trees at this time of year. Raking them up is a good idea and why not make some leaf mould which makes a great soil conditioner when left to rot over the winter and ready for the summer.

You don’t want to put leaves onto your compost heap as they are slow to rot down. If you have space, make a separate heap for leaves alone or otherwise a put them in a black plastic sack with holes punched in the bottom.

Some folk rake all the leaves onto the lawn first and then mow them up, which chops them up a bit. You can mix them with some lawn cuttings too to help speed up the rotting process a little. Either way is fine.

Put the leaves in heavy duty black bags. Once filled, pierce the bottom of the sacks and put them in a corner out of the way and by next summer you should have some good leaf mould. This is a great low nutrient soil conditioner and can be spread onto your flower or vegetable beds or added to pots and tubs. It will improve the structure of your soil.

Next gardening blog

I am going to give you tips on putting your gardens to bed for the winter and what you can do in your kitchen gardens to prepare for next year. I will also make suggestions on things to plant now for a spring display.

looking after your plants in the cold months

growing veg in the cold weatherThroughout December, we’re posting tips, ideas, downloads and recipes on our Facebook page  (our version of an advent calendar). Today’s tips come from John, Farm Manager on our farm in Devon. He has put together some tips on looking after plants in your garden over the winter months.

  • Lots of winter veg can handle the frost, but it’s better to pull it out of the ground once it’s thawed, so rather than doing it on a frosty morning, wait until the afternoon.
  • If you have root veg growing in your garden over winter, you can put straw around the crown of the plant to add some insulation.
  • If you are growing celeriac, it’s best to harvest it before Christmas.
  • When growing root veg, keep checking the leaves, as once they start to drop off, the veg is less likely to handle hard frost. You can harvest a batch and make a clamp by putting the veg in a small mound and covering with straw and then soil. When you want to eat the vegetables, pull them out and wash them.
  • It’s a good idea to use garden fleece on your plants. Cover plants as early as you can to protect them from cold weather.

order garden fleece from Riverford Organic

a long back end

Winter seldom comes to Devon much before Christmas; this mild and protracted descent into winter is known as a “long back end” in farming circles. The fields take on a pallid, washed out colour, but with a warm and active soil; the leeks, cabbage, kale and cauliflower keep on growing unabated in the declining light.

We are clearing the last lettuce and the tomatoes, peppers and chillies have already been ripped out of the tunnels, to be replaced by winter salads. It is still warm enough for them to have grown a little more, but in the dismal November light the quality is always disappointing from these sun lovers. Better to accept the descent into winter and move onto crops happier in less light.

We are busy planning for next year and have already sown the first cabbage under glass and planted out over-wintered garlic, onions and sown the first broad beans outside. It has been a wonderfully dry and bright autumn, allowing the potatoes to be harvested in good conditions. Some have been affected by the dreaded potato blight. Rotting blighted potatoes are enough turn the nation to rice and pasta, so the worst will be fed to the cows. Rather than reject the lot, we will wash the less affected samples to give us the best chance of picking out the bad ones before they go in the boxes. Inevitably some will get through. Do let us know if you get unlucky and we will happily replace them.

After years of filling bags of spinach and lettuce by hand we have bought a fancy machine to simultaneously make, fill and seal the bags for us. We are not turning into M&S; there is no option but plastic for these delicate leaves and we have just had enough of doing it by hand. As with the existing plastic bags, unless you are confident that your local authority can recycle them, return them with the boxes and we will sort and recycle them here at the farm.

Guy Watson

ecology and gaffer tape

Will a hard winter mean fewer pests this year? I’m not holding out much hope. It all depends whether you believe the path to redemption lies in ordered hygiene or dynamic balance. In favour of hygiene, the cold will have cleaned things up; a lot of aphids will have perished and leaves and roots harbouring disease will have been killed, thus breaking the disease-carrying bridge between seasons.

Unfortunately my experience of cold winters past is that any benefit will be short lived. Taking an ecological “balance” perspective, this is easily explained. Most pests that make a meal of our crops are also a meal for someone else: aphids are eaten by ladybirds, lacewing and hover fly larvae and parasitized by certain wasps, slugs are eaten by carabid beetles and toads and predated by nematodes. Red spider mites are controlled by the predatory mite phytoseiulus. Unfortunately these farmer friendly “beneficial” organisms will have also suffered in the cold; in fact they tend to be more affected by the cold than the pests (not only do many die, the survivors get dopey and less hungry).

Some pests always survive and, after a cold winter, there are fewer predators to keep them in check. As pests tend to get going sooner and breed faster, a cold winter might be expected to result in a higher population peak before the predators catch up. Hence cold winters may help the hygiene approach to pest management (as propounded by pesticide salesmen) but are not much help to those looking for balance.


Bookmark and Share

farming in the snow

The ground is hard as iron, the cabbage leaves as stiff as boards under the snow and the ice on our reservoirs thick enough for a light skater. At least the mud is frozen, making it easy to get about the fields; more than can be said for the roads. I hope that your orders have arrived more or less as expected over the last three weeks and, if not, that we have at least communicated satisfactorily with you. With people struggling to get to work we have often not had enough people to man the phones, let alone pick the veg. It’s pretty when the sun is out and my boys are loving it, but what started as a valiant struggle is descending into a trying fiasco.

Most days have seen a mini thaw in the afternoon when we rush out and pick what we can for the next day while the leaves are pliable enough to handle without shattering. The daily grab is then stashed in the banana room (kept at a steady 14C) overnight to thaw out ready for packing the next day. I hope it is holding up when it gets to you; it is always a bit unpredictable how things will last after such enforced thawing.

As I write I have no idea what will be in next week’s boxes but I suspect there will be plenty of roots from our stores, limited greenery from the fields and a lot of last minute substitutions according to what we can get out of the ground on the day. The last un harvested carrots will certainly be ruined but most crops survive this sort of dry cold far better than when frost gets in to waterlogged plants so I am confident that our losses will be small when things finally thaw out.

Last week saw the annual Oxford farming conference grabbing the headlines as never before. Just two years ago, with commodity prices on the floor and share prices on the ceiling, our government could not see much importance for agriculture and this bunch of tweed clad, conservative voting dinosaurs; “rich countries like us will always be able to buy our food (normally more cheaply) on the open market”.

This year Hillary Benn (secretary of state for the environment) chose the conference to unveil a raft of initiatives addressing food security while the reducing environmental impact of agriculture and connecting us with how our food is produced. It all sounds great if a little too overtly vote-grabbing in places; the problem lies in his suggestion that these changes would be led by pressure from informed consumers. One might ask where that information will come from when even the experts in his own department are unsure about how to measure a carbon footprint or balance the importance to water footprints with carbon footprints or all the other factors (Professor Lang thinks we should measure 18) that might make one food better for the world than another.  

In 2008, for a period, we worked out the weekly carbon footprint of each veg box with Exeter University and printed it on the newsletter and website. We explained the tortuous calculations on a dedicated website (www.riverfordenvironment.co.uk) in the absurdly naive assumption that caring consumers would choose a lower carbon box and hence incentivise us to be a lower carbon business.

Two million vegetable boxes later I have yet to hear from a customer who fully understood what we were up to and changed their buying as a result. Many respected the effort we had made (and the exercise did teach us a lot and helped us reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and reduce our carbon foot print so it was not wasted) but at the end of the day the process is too ambiguous and complex to practically guide consumer choice. I am convinced that carbon labelling as the tool that will enable consumers to exert pressure for lower carbon products is a waste of time; it is just too complex and hence open to abuse. We need leadership from our government not continued and irresponsible abdication of responsibility to market forces. When will we grow out of our simplistic faith in market forces to resolve complex social and environement problems? The cynic in me suspects that big business’s enthusiasm for carbon labelling and carbon trading is just a delaying tactic to deflect attention from the need effective legislation. What value is consumer choice when even an experts cannot decide what a good choice is? Must we go to hell in a hand cart in the name of market forces or will our governments show some leadership.        

I hope you approve of the new form newsletter complete with more recipes and that you have received a binder for filing them in as the year progresses. If, due to the currently pervading chaos, you have not received a folder let us know and we will deliver on next week.


Bookmark and Share

delivering in the snow (& playing)

boxes-on-a-sledge

sledging in the snow

snow

charles-in-snow1

Most of the veg is perfectly happy under snow; it is less of a problem than a hard frost and can even provide valuable insulation stopping frosts from penetrating into the ground and damaging roots. Picking snow encrusted cabbages can be challenging on the fingers in the morning but the real problem with the snow is getting the veg from us to your doorstep; sorry to those of you have had delayed deliveries this week