Sunday, 12 September 2010

My food / gardening philosophy

Did any of you read the article by Gaby Bartai in the October issue of The Kitchen Garden magazine, about Paolo Arrigo and his business Seeds of Italy ? Talk about Italian passion! Paolo describes how so many people in Italy still take a really close interest in the production of their food. They are involved. Apparently in Italy it is still common for offices, factories, railway stations, schools and even hospitals to have an "orto" or allotment in which they grow their own veg. Just imagine that happening at Clapham Junction station or your local branch of B&Q! As Gaby writes, Paolo's opinion is that "In Italy there is no separation between gardening and food -- there's just food."

This gardening / food item is a real work of art!

I like to think of myself as being passionate about food too. I derive huge pleasure from shopping for food, from preparing food, from eating food, and above all else -- from growing food. Whenever I am abroad on holiday the things I am most interested in are what the locals are growing, and what's available on the market.

Just recently we visited our younger daughter Fiona, and her husband Juan, in Ferney-Voltaire, France. [They both work for the UN, in Geneva, but they live just across the border in France.] While we were there we visited the weekly Saturday market in their town. It was Foodie Heaven! Stall after stall selling the most fantastic - and local - produce. Mostly fresh fruit and veg, but plenty of other things too, like cheese, bread, meat, olives, herbs & spices, preserves, flowers, plants etc, etc. Even wine.  And most of the stallholders were evidently the producers too, so this was what we would call a Farmer's Market.

A market stall in Ferney-Voltaire, France

In England these things are rare. Around our way you can visit a Farmer's Market once a month if you're lucky, but the normal weekly market in our town is bland by comparison with the one in Ferney. There are only two veg stalls and they both sell what I would describe as "Regular" produce. It is mostly uninspiring and very functional, and there is seldom any indication of its provenance. If the stallholder is feeling a bit more enterprising than usual he may advertise "English asparagus" rather than just "asparagus", but almost never anything more specific -- such as "Grove Farm asparagus from Evesham".

Of course when you grow your own veg there is never any doubt about provenance. You know exactly where the food has come from, and your conscience will be clear when Food Miles enter the conversation. Jane and I often joke about "Food Yards" (or should we say "Food Metres" these days?) when I'm bringing indoors something I've harvested.

No doubts about the provenance of OUR veg...

When you grow your own you also have total control of what goes into or onto your crops. I use very little in the way of chemicals in my garden, because they are seldom necessary. But I'm not evangelistic about this -- I admit that I do occasionally use a little bug-spray to eliminate an infestation of blackfly on my beans. Used properly a spray of this sort is fine. But if there are only a few blackfly I am quite happy to squish them with my fingers. Another chemical remedy that I use regularly is the slug pellet. I have tried other types of slug-control, but they are pretty ineffectual, and a couple of slugs can wipe out your cherished crop overnight if given the chance.

When it comes to feeding my plants, I again try to use as little as possible of the artificial stuff. I use lots of home-made compost (I currently have 3 compost bins on the go), and I use pelleted organic chicken manure as a fertiliser. I have a small patch of comfrey plants, and when I have enough of it, I sometimes make comfrey "tea". My method for this is very simple -- put a batch of leaves and stems in a bucket, cover them with water and leave them for about a fortnight. Then drain off the liquid and use it undiluted as a plant food. The stems will probably be only partially-decomposed (but VERY smelly), and are best added to the compost bin. The comfrey tea is really good for plants that produce fruits - like tomatoes and chillis. Actually, since comfrey tea is only occasionally available, I also feed my tomatoes and chillis with commercial feed (e.g. Tomorite), about once a week once the fruit begin to set. Without a boost like this the plants will soon run out of nutrients.

A healthy bunch of "Sungella" tomatoes

Another vital part of my gardening philosophy is to grow only what we like to eat. I know this sounds ridiculously obvious, but I reckon that many gardeners grow stuff that never gets eaten because they have not thought about what they will do with it. How many people do you know who grow vast quantities of courgettes simply because courgette plants are easy to grow and produce lots of fruits (some would say too many)? This is where having a good understanding of cooking and ingredients becomes important. I am incredibly fortunate to be married to a person who is probably one of the best non-professional chefs in the world -- Jane. She loves cooking "from first principles" (i.e. not using ready meals and so-called "convenience foods"), and shares my passion for fresh ingredients. She has what is quite possibly the widest personal repertoire of recipes in the whole world -- and a store-cupboard to match. Our study is crammed with cookbooks from around the world, many of them purchased whilst on our travels abroad, and although many of the recipes from them may never have been followed exactly "according to the book", almost all of them have provided the inspiration to create dishes "in the style of..." So we eat something different every day -- well, maybe not EVERY day, because even we have some old favourites which we come back to again and again, but our way of doing things is certainly not "It's Monday, so it must be Spag Bol tonight".

So when it comes to deciding each year what I am going to grow, a conference takes place. I no longer grow Pak Choi or Swiss Chard, because Jane dislikes them, and we both dislike aubergines, but we also both agree that beetroot is a Must, along with Runner beans, parsnips, tomatoes, lettuce etc, etc. Fortunately we like so many vegetables that the challenge is really only "How many of our favourites can I cram in this time?". I do try to grow something new each year as well, just to ring the changes and see how well it performs in my garden. This year's experiment has been with Tomatillos -- and how successful that has been! Anyone who wants some tomatillo fruits should come round to our house, because we have loads of them. We have even given some of them to Emma, our older daughter, to take for a friend at work who is from Mexico, and has been pining for tomatillos, which are next-to-impossible to buy in England.

A small part of the tomatillo harvest. Not MORE salsa, please...

Another key principle, I think, is to grow crops that are good value for space. I have adopted this idea from Joy Larkcom, a prolific author of gardening books -- particularly about edible gardening. She was also, significantly, a great fan of exotic veg, especially Oriental and Italian ones. It was from her books that I learned about chicory and radicchio, which are now some of my favourite salad ingredients, and what she called "Saladini" (which I have adopted as my "Daddy Salad" -- see my earlier blogpost on Salads). In my collection I have two really useful books by Joy called "Vegetables for small gardens" and "Salads for small gardens", which have been very influential for me. She assigns each crop a VSR (Value for Space Rating), helping you to think about not only how big the plant is eventually going to be and how much it is likely to produce, but also how long it will occupy the ground. This latter factor is very important when you have limited space available. A good example is Sprouting Broccoli (a vegetable that I love so much that I grow it every year). Some people would judge this vegetable as poor in terms of VSR because it occupies the ground for about 10, sometimes 12 months. If you are happy with this, then grow it, but if not, consider something different. For instance take Rocket: this grows very rapidly and it may only occupy the space for 4 - 6 weeks. A good knowledge of the life-spans of each type of plant will enable the canny gardener to grow his crops in the most space-efficient manner. In this next photo you can see a couple of Cavolo Nero plants that are just about ready for harvesting, and beneath them some young endives, which will mature after the Cavolo Nero has gone. At the far end of the bed are some Chicory seedlings that have just been planted out. So this raised bed is going to carry on being productive for weeks or months to come!

A bed with plants at various stages of maturity

My final "gardening philosophy" thought is this -- I like the idea of handing down my knowledge / expertise to another generation. Both my daughters have inherited (in their own ways) a fair bit of my passion for gardening -- as indeed I did from my Dad. And now there is a new generation too: Emma's little girl Lara is already showing signs of following in the family tradition... May it always be so!

Lara is already beginning to take a close interest in gardening...

1 comment:

  1. I don't know whether you will get the comment on this old post - but having just read your gardening philosophy I would just like to say that it is a very good post and I agree with every word of it. In a way it's just common sense but we gardeners do get carried away with just the thought of growing rather than if we are going to eat it.


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