The tunnel

1It feels a long time after the crowdfund, but we have finally begun construction on our 100 foot polytunnel.

Polyunnels on this scale are really expensive, and it costs the same again to have it constructed for you. So, after a lot of ummming and aaahhhing we decided to use all the crowdfund money for the raw materials, and construct it ourselves. This meant we got a larger polytunnel and a very daunting task for October. It has been keeping us all very busy, and we’ve definately had some tension in the group, but it does look rather wonderful already. We have learnt alot!2

It is quite a task to construct, and there are many stages. One of the first tasks is taking delivery of it all, and trying to work out what it all is. It seemed so much timber and packets of ironmongery.

Then you need to very accurately measure it out, and dig 32 holes for the 16 hoops. The base plates then sit inside this, and are anchored on to tubes, and then backfilled. Measuring and levelling them took forever. Personally I nearly cried this day….

But then you can really quickly construct the hoops and something rather wonderful begins to take shape.

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Bureaucratic wins

We have been told by the planners we can build Reddy Lane Market Garden to the specifications that we want to, and we have had our organic licenses issued by the Soil Association.

Planning permission
Reddy Lane Market Garden has finally been granted full approval to build its  27.43 x 5.49m (90x 18 feet) polytunnel, and storage shed with packing area. It took alot of phone calls, a meeting, then complicated to-scale maps and done at home technical drawings. Oh, and a £90 fee! But we were finally told we could proceed without needing full planning permission, which felt like a major step forward, so now we can finally begin to build the site.

We were only allowed to proceed because the field we are in is many hectares, and therefore the landlowners have permitted development rights to farm their land. The landowners also kindly submitted the application in their names. There is no way we would have been granted permission on the original site that fell through in Strines, as the landowners only owned 8 acres, and that is not enough land. Dealing with some of the staff at the planning office was frustrating, and highlighted how far there is to go before we can even contemplate good availability for locally produced pesticide free food. The entire planning system for farm “development” would need to be re-hauled. Also, it would help if they could envisage that women under 40 years old might be capable of running farms.

Compost loo
The easiest building task to begin with was the compost loo, which we think is pretty important to ensure volunteers can feel comfortable helping out. It is being put together by building a frame and attaching fence panels to it. The floor is paving slabs and the ceiling is corrugated plastic. We are hoping this will come together at two fifths of the cost of buying one as a bundle, which can be eye-wateringly expensive for what is a small garden shed with a box and a loo seat in.

Organic license
Reddy Lane Market Garden is already part of a much larger organically certified farm called Abbey Leys Farm. It has already been through it’s three year conversion period, so the license for our market garden just had to transfer to our name, but this included a three hour inspection on crop rotation, organic seeds and inputs, and  fertility building. We will be audited another 2x in the first year to make sure we are compliant. We wrote a short why buy organic page here.

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We have started the set up

It’s taken a while since the crowdfund, but we finally began work on the site set up this week. We laid a few hundred metres of heavy black plastics, which will act as weed suppressants, and kill off the perennial weeds. There is an endemic Couch grass problem in the site that we want to deal with this year, by having the couch trying to grow during Summer, and being unable to, this will weaken it enough to kill it.

george complressedWe normally see House martins flying around in the sky, but they were very interested in the plastic. They were flying over it very close in larger numbers than usual, because they thought it was a body of water. There is plenty more plastic to lay next week, so it’s a good job George is having fun.

We have sent our application for the organic license to be transferred into our names, and are waiting for them to invoice us. It is good to find that the Soil Association have been forced to lower their fees for new entrants on small sites in line with the rest of Europe. It is still almost £500 though for one year. Everything will start with the certification process and audit once we pay them. Actually going through an audit process annually, keeping records and being inspected makes us different from community gardens and growers.

We are sowing courgettes, beans, kale and herbs to sell at Levenshulme Market now. As well as selling Charlotte from Glebelands lovely transplants too.

We complied with GDIP, and promptly lost over half our mailing list, made up of people who probably very much did want to keep up to date with us, but didn’t see that the email needed a response. If that applies to you, or you’d like to join the mailing list, please send us an email.

We are talking to the landowners about the planning application about the large polytunnel next week. And we have begun to get quotes and think about the rabbit fence. More on this in coming weeks….

Defra consultations

LWA-Policy-Phase-3_PRINT-01-216x300It’s an exciting and challenging time for farming at the moment, with Brexit shaking up what was previously unshakable. Large landowners have for many years been collecting huge subsidies simply for owning land, rather than actively farming, but Brexit is changing this. Our reliance on imports, 30% of our food is imported, is looking shaky. And the Department of Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) produced a report called ‘Health and Harmony: the future for food, farming and the environment in a Green Brexit’ in February. Then it went around the country consulting with farmers and food producers round the country and invited them to submit their comments online. I went to one of the consultation events organised by Friends of the Earth on 16th April in Manchester.

I went to the Environmental Management Systems discussion in the morning, and tried to make the case for schemes which would include small growers in a way that is accessible for them. I learnt in the discussion that these DEFRA schemes are incredibly complex, and haven’t been taken up well due to the application process. Using an approach used by grant bodies was suggested, in which the amount of information required is relative to the amount of funding actually being offered. The organic system of accreditation and auditing was discussed as already existing to show good practice in managing land and producing food.

In the afternoon I went to Farming Resillience & Profitability, and this was a more challenging discussion due to some of the people sat at the table. Most farming is unprofitable, and supported by subsidies, so it was difficult for the men at the table to accept I was on the cusp of profitablity on half an acre of organic land. I tried to make the case about more support for new entrants into farming, and the need for ‘starter unit’ of a couple of acre farms to be available for people like me to get into farming. This wasn’t contested, but it just isn’t available, and I know how hard (almost impossible) I found it to find half an acre to rent at a reasonable price. Accessibility to land is for new entrants to get into farming is essential if the UK is to have a farming future.

A good report with the issues at hand is ‘Making Food Sovereignty a Reality- Recommendations for Post-Brexit Agricultural Policy‘ by the Landworkers Alliance.

Big issue article

The Big Issue in the North published an article by me about market gardening and the land search. The link to the article on their site is here. The text is reproduced below.

My journey to running my own market garden was meandering but ultimately motivated by my desire for a food system that nurtures the health of our bodies and the land. I was the food writer at Ethical Consumer magazine for four formative years, before setting off into the world to learn those practical useful skills that were so necessary to a more sustainable life.

It was a ten year journey taking in living and working in Morocco, Spain and Ireland, studying horticulture for two of these years and visiting around 20 organic growing projects before an opportunity in Cheshire came up. I’ve been farming a half-acre organically certified site at Reddy Lane near Altrincham for five years, along with George, my dad.

During the growing season, George and I farm three days a week. The other two days I sell the veg we produce at Levenshulme Market and in our veg boxes. People can pick up their veg boxes or arrange a delivery.

My days farming with George are my favourites. We love watching and listening to the birds. There are friendly robins and pied wagtails, who come to look for worms in the soil we have disturbed. Once a fledgling tree sparrow flew out of the hedge and got caught in my hair for a couple of seconds. We see buzzards circling up high daily, and occasionally have seen them perched on the water tanks.

You get a real sense of a person when you spend the entire day weeding with them. The repetitive work is calming and encourages the mind to drift. I used to spend my weeks desperate to get into the countryside to get some space from the city and time alone, but now I just go to work. I love the autonomy – to work when I want to work and to just make a decision and act on it.

I have been trading at Levenshulme Market for four years now, and I really love being a trader there. There have been times like three years in, when we lost our crops due to rabbits, everyone else growing at the site left and I had just been diagnosed with endometriosis, when it would have been easy to stop. But I had built up the stall and got to know my customers. Their delight in the veg we have grown really kept me going.

Many people are drawn to the stall or the box scheme due to ethics, but they stay for the taste. Crops which have grown at their own pace and been harvested when they are mature taste better. They are a protest against the homogenisation of our food.

For Reddy Lane, selling our crops direct at the market and via the veg boxes is the only way to make my livelihood as a small-scale organic grower possible. I feel that the direct relationship increases people’s understanding of the real cost of our food. We need small-scale independent growers, as most farmers in the UK are on the cusp of retirement, without succession plans for their farms.

It’s a critical time for Reddy Lane Market Garden – we need to find a new site for the next growing season

I would like to see more support for people producing food in a sustainable way, as opposed to the current system of subsidies that pays landowners for owning land rather than using it to produce food. The recently published People’s Food Policy manifesto challenges the current approach to food policy making, as it articulates the kind of food system we need and puts value on the people who produce our food.

It’s a critical time for Reddy Lane Market Garden as we have been given notice to quit our land and need to find a new site for the next growing season. I am spending the next few weeks trying to connect with as many landowners, farmers, organisations and local authorities as possible, to see if there is a suitable piece of land out there for us.

Our criteria is on our website reddylanemarketgarden.com where I blog about farming, I tweet at @reddylane about the farm and the land search as it happens. I can be contacted on 07875 242608 and contact@reddylane.com with leads for land. The more I farm, the more I want to farm, and I really believe I can create a viable farming business.

Best season ever!

So, Reddy Lane Market Garden is having its best season ever. The dry Spring meant we could crack on with planting, and the coolish Summer with intermittent rain, has provided us with a field full of crops. It is the first year when we have used all of our 1/2 acre. And already this year we have grown and sold locally 650kgs of organic veg.

broad bean cropThe only crops that have finished for the year is the broad beans and the shallots. We harvested and sold 80kg of broad beans, up from 55kg last year. Shallots were a new crops for us, but I am happy with selling 138 bunches, from 2.5kg sets. We have lifted all the garlic, and have sold 21kgs so far, but there is lots left.

We are still harvesting beetroot, though we’ve sold 117kg already. Our total beetroot sales for last year were 106kg. We are still harvesting kale, though we’ve sold 77kg already. Our total kale sales were 37kg last year.  We are still harvesting purple sprouting broccoli, though we’ve sold 14kg already this year. We are still harvesting tomatoes, though we’ve sold 28kgs already. We have some catching up on last years yield though, which was 78kgs total. We are still harvesting cucumbers, though we’ve sold 62 already. We still have some way to go to catch last years yield of 138.

toms crop

If you were wondering how yields relate to income, kale is the winner so far, with twice as much income as the second best crop. In second place its broad beans, and third is garlic, though there’s plenty more to be sold.

cuc plants crop
Our cucumbers flowering just before fruiting.

The French beans, maincrop onions, runner beans and carrots are nearly ready for harvest. The leeks are some way off yet.

The only outside sowings left to do are the Rainbow Chard and the brassica salads, but it has been too wet for the last few weeks to get the rotavator on the soil. It’s not too late in the season though. The Winter salads go in the polytunnel when the tomatoes and cucumbers have finished.

Summertime

Summer is here 🙂 And I am tentatively optimistic about the season so far. The first garlic-cropmaincrop of the season, the garlic, has been harvested. And its a whopper, definately the best yield we’ve had from our 5kg plantings yet. We’ve sold 10kg ‘wet’ so far, and there must be at least another 50kgs drying in the polytunnel.

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Purple sprouting broccoli.

We’ve had some seriously hot weather and droughts though, which resulted in the 60m of brassica salads bolting 😦  But the hundreds of kale and broccoli’s have survived, and we have been selling them. They are slightly drowning in Phacelia flowers, but I am also selling the flowers too.

The 40m of carrots are coming along well. But sowing 8 rows in a 1m bed has not worked. This is Joy Larkcom’s ‘How to Grow Vegetables’ advice, as the dense planting is supposed to crowd out weeds. Well, days and days of finger weeding, say this doesn’t work on our soil. Weeds flourish and there’s no space for my hoe. If (and I mean if) I grow carrots again I will revert to four rows, with twine down them so you can see where you sowed, and space to hoe.

I started selling from the first 60m sowing of beetroots. The seeds used to fill in the gaps in germination have germinated too, so there should be a good succession too. They look and taste fantastic. Last week I sowed another 60m of purple beetroot and 60m of chioggia (pink/white) too.

The broad beans are almost ready, and we’ll be harvesting at the weekend. Not even had a taste yet myself.

The first shallots were harvested last weekend for the veg boxes. They are delicious, and should easily cover the high cost (£24) of the sets.

The 100 white onion plantlets and 100 Red Baron plantlets are doing ok. There has probably been a 30% loss, with the trauma of being posted (see early crops), then planted, but this is within acceptable parameters.

frenchbeans
French bean seedlings

The French beans are germinating and all their netting is up ready. There are some Fat hen weeds coming close to them too, so if it is nice tomorrow, we will be hoeing them. The Mange touts did not germinate well, so I have ordered some Runner beans to sow instead.

The 40 tomato plants are doing ok. I tasted the first tomato a few days ago, so hopefully many more will follow. The yellow cherry ‘Mil de Fluer‘ variety is living up to its name, with more flowers on a vine than I have ever seen. I have had to use crates to keep the low ones off the floor, so should probably have nipped this first vine out.

The cucumbers are all planted out in the polytunnel, and the first gorgeous yellow flowers are appearing. I have tied up some of them, and pruned out their side shoots. But due to the heat this has been tricky. Rain is due tomorrow, so will get on with sorting supports for the remaining cucumbers.

The squash and courgettes have been planted out through the plastic. Some were lost to slugs, but most have survived. I have a few more still to go out. I may also sow more, which I may just about get away with, while its raining tomorrow.

I have ordered 144 leek and 144 lettuce transplants for planting out, as my sowings with these crops were not very successful. Well, you can’t win them all. Hopefully we find time and breaks in the rain to get these planted out when they arrive.

 

Early crops

This is one of the easier weather starts to the season that we’ve seen in the last few years. We have 40m of rocket and 20m of red mizuna planted. It is ready for harvesting now, and will be on the stall at Levy Market and in the veg boxes this Sunday.

We have planted out 200 kale and 200 purple sprouting broccoli. They are protected from pigeons by mesh, fleece or netting. They seem to be doing well.

We have two 1x20m beds of carrots, and they have just germinated. We have had to spend  many hours finger weeding the weeds, as they are very susceptible to weed competition at this early stage. We have sown 8 rows in each bed, so are hoping once they are bigger, they will crowd out the weeds. More established market gardens would use a flame weeder.  20170524_180338

The 60m of early beetroots have germinated, and are looking healthy now. I went down the rows, and sowed extra seeds in the gaps yesterday, as it is quite patchy germination.

The broad beans have germinated, and we have taken down the bird netting and old CDs that were protecting them. We use this because birds pull them out thinking the little shoot is a worm. Myself and George have spent a good amount of time digging out couch between the plants, so this isn’t exactly a crop success, they would have been better in a section with better control of couch. But weirdly we have found this digging quite satisfying.

I have done a trial of shallots, and bought 2.5kg in sets, at a staggering £24 (they have to be organically certified). It felt quite futile, and a waste of money, but they seem to be doing ok now. They have about 10 shoots coming off each one, so should produce 10 small shallots. I did check Joy Larkcom’s bible ‘Grow Your Own Vegetables,’ and apparently if you want larger shallots you should thin to 6 shoots. But I think I have left it too late for this, so small ones we will have.

crop
Bare rooted onion plantlets

We have also planted out 100 white onion plantlets and 100 Red Baron plantlets. I ordered these bare rooted from Tamar in the Winter, and they arrive beginning of May. When they arrive there is a million other things to do in the garden, and they arrive live, wrapped in wet newspaper and will promptly die if you don’t get them planted asap. I did trench them in some pots of compost to buy myself a few days, and then got them planted out in there permanent beds as thankfully a very large group of volunteers had been scheduled in that week. They are still alive weeks later, and hopefully will start growing vigorously soon.

The 40 tomatoes are planted out in the tunnel. They were not growing so much in April and early May. But in the last couple of weeks, as the temperature has increased and the days have lengthened, they have shot on.

Most of the cucumbers have germinated, and some that have their first true leaves, were 20170524_180237planted out yesterday in the tunnel. The rest will be planted out, when we get round to rotavating in the muck in the rest of the tunnel (which will be soon!) We have traditionally lost alot of these sowing to mice who eat the seeds before they germinate. But we have trialed placing crates with there handle holes taped over, on top of the seeds. When the seed germinates it is then moved from under the crate where it is darker than in the rest of the tunnel. It has had a 100% success rate, and is nicer than using mouse traps, which we have tried in past years.

The courgettes and squashes have all been sowed, and in the same way placed under the crates. The ones that have germinated are being kept outside now, as its very hot in the tunnel, and nighttime temperatures aren’t going to be below freezing now. Next big jobs are getting the beds ready for french bean sowing, and sowing more carrots and beetroots.

Agriculture in Malta

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Pockets of agriculture

So, what do burnt out market gardener’s do in Winter? They go on holiday. I went abroad for the first time in years. And intended to totally forget about the stresses and strains of running the farm.

I wandered around Malta’s museums and cathedrals, ate ice-cream, and enjoyed the Spring like sunshine. The capital Valletta has fantastic alleyways and cafe culture, Medina is a tiny walled town, and Marsaxlokk has fresh fish to eat by the sea.

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Fertile belt

But I am a market gardener, and couldn’t quite separate myself enough not think about Malta’s farming. Especially as it appears to be a country of market gardeners. With fresh crops growing everywhere I looked, in small fertile pockets and terraces, and larger spaces with cloches and polytunnels. And it was really small-scale, nothing bigger than a few acres, and often much less. And higgledy piggledy in a way I love, everything on different levels, due to the inclines in the terrain.

I saw (and ate) lots of strawberries, garlic, courgettes, tomatoes and

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Local veg on display in supermarket.

broad beans. And also some pea and potato plants, onions, cabbages, and one stall had rocket. The markets, stores and supermarkets were full of freshly grown local produce. The small stores also drew attention to the freshness and localness of their Maltese veg.

Due to the small size, the cultivation was done by small rotovaters, which is what I largely use

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Farm to truck to store

at Reddy Lane. They are small tractors that you walk behind to guide. They are small to manoeuvre, and plough up the topsoil, giving you a weed free tilth to work on. But they do not disturb the subsoil or compact the soil in the way a tractor does. In Malta, growers were also using a very small one that weeds in between your rows of crops. This gives a quite distinct style to their market gardens, as everything looks very neat and tidy, and straight rows are an absolute must. I do not do this at Reddy Lane, which often does not look neat and tidy, so its something to think about. But its a lot of effort simply to make something look tidy, though not necessarily more productive.

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Local cauliflowers at market.

I was unable to tell whether the crops were organic with a small O. They certainly weren’t certified as organic, but lots of small-scale providers don’t certify, due to prohibitive costs, they just don’t use pesticide. I saw a couple of gardeners walking down with backpack sprayers, and this could have been a pesticide application, or a traditional compost tea. The aesthetic quality of the cauliflowers, calabrese broccoli and strawberries did suggest pesticide use though.

I saw a couple of women out there with pushing the rotavaters too, and driving trucks to market, and working on the market stalls.

And if you get the chance Malta was lovely in lots of other ways too 🙂

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Marsaxlokk which has a lovely market- fresh fish, olives, veg

 

 

Where did Autumn go?

Wow, where did Autumn (and Winter) go? I’ve been meaning to write a blog entry about how the maincrops did for months now. Well, I guess it’s probably to be expected in terms of the demands of a market garden. The torrential rain of early Spring finally subsided, it got very busy, and we finally began to harvest some decent qualities of crops.

The herb garden
This section was covered with plastic last Winter, as perennial herbs weren’t proving viable afterall,  and had 30 kale plants put in. 20 were lost early in the season to slugs, and the final 10 succombed to Diamond Moth which is ravaging brassicas around the country. So, far this has been the most unsuccessful part of the garden over the four years, and nothing has changed this year.

Roots
The 5kg of Therador garlic bulbs I bought has done excellently over Winter. And I managed to sell lots ‘wet’ and then dry the rest for the veg boxes. They have stored well, and have been very popular with customers.

The beetroots, parsnips and carrots were all direct sowed using the seeder on the 27th May were variable. The carrots were my clear favourite, as I’ve not grown them on this scale before and they were good, I definately want to scale this up next year. The beetroots were ok but approx one half of the crop was taken out between mice and slug bites. The mice damage was worse here than it has been in other parts of our site. I put some dog hair down to deter them, and this actually did seem to reduce damage.

I did a sowing of beetroot in June, direct sown from the seeder, and these did really well. Normally I use a setting smaller than the suggested setting when sowing with the multiway seeder. But these were sown on the actual beetroot setting, and far too many seeds do fall out, but this does work ok for beetroot. You can select your biggest ones to sell as baby beets, and the others grow into the spaces.

The module tray parsnips were unsellable. They were so forked and disfigured, that I don’t even think Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall could have sold them. The direct sowed parsnips were delicious, but germination was so poor and the price is so low for them, that I wouldn’t bother with them again.

I filled the gaps in with chard transplanted from another bed which had been sown too thickly. They looked like they weren’t going to make it, and had to be hand watered a few times, but did fine and cropped well. They looked very pretty mixed in with the carrot fronds, beetroot stems and parsnip tops. But it’s a market garden not an allotment, and having odd plants dotted about randomly, wasn’t a time or cost effective way of

george-brassicas
George hoeing the rocket.

harvesting.

Brassica family
Inevitably our fantastic rocket started to bolt, and we rotovated, and planted out Westmorland kale and Cavelo Nero (Black kale). The other half stayed as phacelia and self seeded itself. As the kales were taking off, it became late summer, and on I direct sowed 100s of metres of Rocket, Mizuna and Purple Frills (formerly called Red Mizuna). These did crop well, and were successful for us, but were planted a little too late.

Curcurbitae

courgette
Courgettes planted through plastic.

After a disappointing start with the courgettes, over 100 lost to slugs, the remaining 22 did ok. They are always popular on the stall, so will try to get more through to fruition next year. The uchiki kuri squash planted out later did much better, and we had the right amount for the stall and the veg boxes.

Beets and chard
I also planted two rows of chard and three of beetroot in late June. The chard did well, producing 70kg, and I’d like to increase this for next year. The beetroot did well too, and this was the best sowing date, of the three sowings. They also seemed to succomb to mouse and slug damage less despite being closest to the mice nests. On the whole though, we didn’t do as well with beetroot as last year, but that suited me as I had over-eaten them previously.

Legumes and lettuces
The broad beans planted in March did well, but the second sowing on 25th May was disappointing, and I wouldn’t try and sow this late again. We only got one harvest of any mention from them. And when we were clearing them there were lots of nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots, which it was a shame to be pulling up.

We had 160m of French beans, and they did reasonable, but nowhere near as good as they might have done. The first sowing was sowed in very wet ground, and I think they developed a fungus disease due to this which meant many beans had a brown discolouration on. The second sowing was far too late and barely cropped at all.

The third sowing of mange tout finally came good, and we had a good sized cropping well into October. This crop was large enough to wholesale some too. It took a long time to harvest though, and whilst £5/kg wholesale price seems good, actually I’m not sure that this is a viable crop. Or not at our speed of harvesting anyway.

The spring lettuces over 60m were great, as the damp and cool weather gave them a good start. I was unable to maintain this as the temperatures and other demands of the garden increased though. Despite sowing successionally through the summer, nothing else notable came from these beds. From late summer I had also done module sowings, so had a good amount to go into the tunnel.

In the polytunnel
The polytunnel had 30 cherry tomato plants in.

summer-tunnel
Full size Cherry tomato plants on the right.
cucs
Marketmore cucumbers just starting to flower.

Despite a poor start in the cool spring, which was resulting in squishy skins and insipid flavour, they did perk up in summer. Yields and flavour were good eventually, and 30 plants gave us 78kg to sell. Just 30 plants in 1/4 of the tunnel still represents our second best crop income wise.

I grow my own cucumbers from seed, but these didn’t perform anywhere near as well as the tomatoes. Over half were sown far too late, in mid May to early June, and these barely yielded at all. Those sown earlier did far better, and cropped heavily, and were popular. But the value of them is much less than the tomatoes.

winter-lettuces
Module lettuces being ‘cut & come again’ in the polytunnel.

The whole tunnel was planted up with winter lettuces from modules when the tomatoes and cucumbers came out. These did really well as they were really well established plugs when they went in. Then brassica salads were also direct sown, and these were great for the last few weeks of the veg boxes when outside brassica salads and indoor lettuces had finished.

End of the season
As ever I ended the season in December burnt out and exhausted. I was very much looking forward to resting, spending weekends relaxing catching up with friends and jobs around the house. Farmers must be the only people who look forward to the Winter. It is the only time they can actually take a real holiday, which is what I am doing later this week.