It’s Been A While

Veg display in the new shop

The last few weeks have been a bit hectic with the opening of the shop and cafe so my blog postings have suffered in frequency. Sorry, I will mend my ways and get back on track posting more frequently.

This is a busy time of year even without those two new commitments. It is always a dilema that when you are at your busiest harvesting, you still have to keep up with the sowing and planting otherwise there will be nothing to harvest in the winter.

Keeping on top of things outdoors has also been a challenge this last few weeks with the heavy deluges soaking the ground through. Getting the tractor on the land to work it up for new crops has been an impossibility, putting us further behind. Growing wise, this weather has been great and the weeds are flourishing.

Huge storm cloud over Billinge Hill
Yet another heavy rain storm rolls down over the hill

This week I am trying to put those concerns behind me as I take a short break from farming and get on with some writing. It gives me a chance to reflect on what has been happening on the farm lately and realise the mountain that Greenslate Community Farm has climbed.

Firstly, there is the straw bale build and its opening event. Two years in the making, two years of toil for Kath and her team and then finally it is here. Well, nearly, if you could have seen the place the night before it opened with Kath still laying floor tiles and people painting whilst washing down, you wouldn’t have believed it could have gone ahead, but it did.

Move on a few weeks and the shop opens. A highlight for me to at last have a dedicated space for all the fruit and veg that we have been working on growing since January to be displayed and sold. It’s what I am here for, it’s what I needed to see.

Another week later and another labour into the night sees the cafe open. So now people are cooking and eating the food that we grew here on site, eating it in our own cafe. It’s the real deal, food yards not food miles. Hazel, Annmarie and their team, congratulations.

So many people have contributed and worked so hard to bring all of this together. It would be pointless even trying to thank and represent them all here. To honour them and what they have achieved, we now need the world to know about our cafe so that it can support itself; economic sustainability enabling environmental sustainability.

An Australian Winstanley In Wigan

Dane Winstanley

I had a great day last week working with a young man all the way from Australia who knew about Greenslate Farm before he set off on his journey to England. Dane Winstanley came on a journey during a break from college and he is returning to his studies on ecology in January. In the mean time he is on a road trip, firstly to meet up with family in the UK, then going on to other parts of Europe to see friends.

Dane had been reading about Greenslate Farm online in Australia and had decided to come and volunteer here during his visit. He picked beans with me and did other tasks, a really good worker who has had experience working on other farms. I treated us both to a scone from the Cafe (home baked by Annmarie and brilliant by the way) and we talked about all sorts of things as we worked and ate together including environmental issues and politics.

Dane was well aware of Gerald Winstanley and the forthcoming Diggers Festival which he won’t be able to get to as he will be elsewhere in Europe. As I showed Dane around the farm, we stood looking at the allotments and talked about Gerald Winstanley.

The relevance of his family name and the idea of a community farm and allotments worked by people to feed themselves and their families seemed highly symbolic and I felt my voice cracking with emotion as we talked about it. I said, “this is something to tick off your bucket list” and he agreed.

We Need Some Help

We Need Some Help

Seeing all the tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and cucumbers growing in polytunnel two gives me a real sense of satisfaction. If all goes well we should have an abundant supply right the way through the summer, but we have hit a snag.

Although we got the polytunnel ‘skinned’ a few weeks ago, one end has never been finished. This was fine in nice calm conditions but the recent windy weather has taken its toll and we need to get things secured fast.

Because of the pressure to get the ‘straw bale build’ finished in July, skilled joinery hands have been in short supply around here lately. I totally understand this, having the build finished on time is critical to the farm’s success.

So, I am putting out a special appeal to anyone handy with a hammer and a few nails to give us a hand to finish things off.

I will be back on site on Friday if you have the time to spare or even just to make arrangements to get things finished. Either email or give me a call on 07803 925446.

Letting Gravity Do The Work

Having polytunnel two on a slope provided us with a problem at first. We found that any efforts to keep the plants watered resulted in streams running down the paths between the beds with very little water penetrating the soil for the plants.

Inspired by a trip to Greece a few years ago where I saw a grower channeling water around his plants, I decided to use the same technique.

We are now using gravity to our advantage having sculpted out a series of cascading ponds that run down from one end of the beds to the other. We put the hose pipe at one and and watch the water slowly make its way down the little waterfall watering each plant in turn during its descent. Only time will tell if it is the right answer but it seems to be doing the trick for now.

Goodbye Mr Chard

We decided that our last remaining over-wintered Swiss Chard plant had finally had its day and gone to seed, so must give up it’s space in polytunnel one and go to the great compost heap in the sky (well, just outside the polytunnel actually).

This monster has given Roger, the occasional customer and I several meals over the few months that I have worked here. Each time we had hacked a meal off it, it came shooting back with more ‘bigger’ growth. It wasn’t very pretty but chopped up and steamed or stir fried it went down a treat. A great example of what a vast amount of food one seed and the right conditions can provide.

The Veg Range Keeps Expanding

News of our increased crops seems to be spreading and we have been getting some good feedback from our customers. Potatoes, mixed salad leaves, lettuce, pak choi, radish, spring (green) onions, coriander leaves, parsley, kale, chives and carrots have all been selling through the shop in the last couple of weeks. And, there is much more to come. This calabrese is nearly ready so expect it to appear in the shop soon.

Calabrese nearly ready to harvest.

Here are a few comments that have been fed back to me recently, coincidentally both about our Beetroot:

From Nicola Whitehead (resident of Glossop, but visiting this area): “Beetroot are very nice. I’ve never had the golden ones and the taste is very delicate and less earthy.”

From Pat Whitehead (resident of Baltimore, USA, but visiting this area): “Bought some organic beetroot here in the States – not a patch on the ones I sampled from Greenslate Farm last week.’

John giving us a hand in the polytunnel on Wednesday

 

A New Month Begins

Now the warmer weather is here it is time to move up a gear with our growing. This time I have direct sown our salad mix into one of the outside beds rather than the poly tunnel. Densely packed rows of Mizuna, Rocket, Red Russian Kale, Giant Red Mustard and Golden Frills Mustard will go nicely with true Spinach, Leaf Beet and mixed lettuces in our salad mix. All being well these crops will be in the shop in 4-5 weeks.

The Earthway Seeder in the picture allows me to pack in seven rows of baby leaf salad into a 30 inch bed. It is a very fast and efficient way to sow rows of seeds quickly.

Little Things and Big Things

Let’s start off with a little thing. Hoping around the poly tunnel yesterday was one of amphibious friends.  It has found its own way there because it knows the climate is right and it will find a source of food in the form of slugs and other things that we don’t like in our poly tunnel. Little one, you are very welcome, we will always have a place for you.

Moving up the scale, twin lambs arrived. Both boys, they are doing well and this picture was taken twenty minutes after they were born.

There is a time when you need to bring in the big boys if you want to make things happen fast and that is the position that I have found myself in. I want to use the minimum of carbon in my growing,  but I also need to get some results from our growing now, this season.

The crazy economics of the world and the way we have to live our lives means that time costs and we cannot always take the time we would like to when making an area fertile for growing food. Loosing all our brand new tractor equipment in the fire last week has also had its impact.

I had to bring in a contractor and in less than an hour we had a lot of ground opened up for growing. Once opened up and turned into growing beds, the small two wheel tractor will be all we need for future growing. Using only a small tank of fuel is needed to run it all day, this will have a much smaller carbon footprint. Using permanent growing beds will also mean that much of the work in the future can be done with hand tools.

There is still going to be lots of work needed to get the plots up and growing but at least we now have a fighting chance.

Turning the rough ploughed land into nice beds fit for sowing and planting will still take lots of work. By the time I finished on Wednesday night, three quarters of it had been rotavated in and we now have a decent amount of growing area to be working with for this season.

Six hours behind  a bucking and bronking two wheel tractor will take its toll and I know I will be stiff by tomorrow but it will all have been worth it. Let’s hope the weather holds so we can get it all finished on Friday.

On the left of this image is the freshly ploughed land and on the right, the smooth rotavated soil in which we will form new growing beds.

Midweek Update 30th March 2017

Another short window of weather opportunity opened for us on Tuesday after the lovely dry weekend. We got straight to work getting the ground ready for the next crop that we want to plant, onion sets.

As the soil is so compacted the rotavator had difficulty penetrating the surface so we used the broadfork to lift and aerate the soil. After this the rotavator had a much easier time and was able to break up the soil to a deeper level. We only forked the growing beds, leaving the area in between as paths to be walked on.

If the weather behaves itself and gives us another few dry days we might actually get some crops planted.

The baby leaf salad crops we direct sowed in the poly tunnel a couple of weeks ago are developing nicely and they have now been joined by a row of lettuce grown with the soil block growing system.

Lollo Blond lettuce grown in a soil block
Well established root system

These plants look very healthy and have a good root system established which allows them to get away growing quickly when they are transplanted out. Their transition from tray to growing bed doesn’t seem to cause them any trauma and I am convinced that they had grown overnight when I came in this morning.

We have grown some additional plants which are for sale to other budding growers. Depending on interest, we are looking at expanding this side of the operation, so let me know if you would like to buy plants in the future and what you would be looking for.

We currently have tomato plants, lettuce, beetroot and aubergines. The quantities are low at the moment, but we can scale up if the demand is there. One allotment holder asked us today about growing leeks so we will be sowing some extra’s for him. Email me at: greenslategrower@gmail.com to let me know what you need.

Gardener’s Delight Tomato seedlings. Monty Don’s favourite, apparently.

More Movies

Chester University Film student Elliot Booth has been filming around the farm for the last couple of days, putting together a small movie about Greenslate. it will be interesting to see the farm from someone else’s perspective and I am looking forward to seeing the results. Thanks Elliot.

Spring weather, two tractors and ‘flying’ seedlings

 

It’s nice to see a pair of Mallard pairing up on the pond at the farm, a reminder of spring.

We have had a couple of busy days trying to take advantage of the small window of good weather that we have just experienced. To make the best of the weather I brought my own tractor to the farm so that Roger and I could cover as much ground as possible before the rain started again. People don’t always appreciate how much the weather impacts on growing, you cannot work the soil when it is too wet, it just causes compaction and ruins its structure.

The Farmer Technical Bit

We need to prepare a relatively large area of ground and in an ideal world this preparation should have started last year.

Our strategy was to use the equiment at our disposal to try and get from a grass and weedy compacted pasture to light  worked soil ready to plant into. This wasn’t going to happen in one day, but we needed to make a start so we can be ready to plant as soon as possible.

The flail mower

The first thing we did was to use the new flail mower. This piece of kit both mows down grass and weeds but also chops them down into small pieces leaving them as a mulch layer on the surface which could be rotavated into the soil during a later process.

The power harrow in action.

The next process was to harrow the ground. Harrows slice and cultivate the ground in a vertical plane breaking up plant structures especially intertwined grass roots. A mat of well established grass holds the surface of the soil together with impressive strength. Rotavaor tines just bounce off the surface, not being able to penetrate.

The power harrow that works with the BCS two wheel tractor has three sets of pointed vertical blades that rotate. As the harrow passes through the surface of the grass, the tines tear down ripping the grass and roots apart and leaving them in a layer on the surface together with the flailed grass clippings.

The rotavator; the soil on the right has been worked.

Finally, it was the turn of the rotavator. The rotavator has tines/blades that rotate in the opposite plane to the power harrow. These blades rotate down in the horizontal plane into the soil chopping and stirring the soil and carrying the mowed and harrowed particles of vegetation that was sat on the surface downwards, burying it in the soil.

Of course these processes can be seen as bad for soil structure, especially if they are over done. But we have used them to help rid ourselves of weeds (grass is a weed in this scenario) and to open up and let oxygen into compacted ground. The top few inches of soil will start to dry out now and further treatment will get it to a fine filth. The land used for potatoes will need to be rotavated deeper to get the necessary volume of loose soil in which potatoes can thrive. The next dry period should see us right for planting.

The Inovative Bit

I don’t know if anyone else has done this before, but I thought of it last year when I wanted to keep my plants away from the dreaded slugs. It is also a handy way of generating more space in the poly tunnel.

I had an old set of ladders at home that were not doing anything so I have brought them in to act as suspended shelves over the summer. Strung up from the poly tunnel roof, these ‘shelves’ should prove ‘mission impossible’ to our slimey friends.

If you have any old aluminium ladders at home that you don’t need, we could do with borrowing some more as our seedling collection grows. Courgettes and squash are especially vulnerable to slugs and snails

Direct Sown Brassicas

The direct sown brassicas that I sowed just over a week ago in the poly tunnel have suddenly sprung up. They weren’t there on Wednesday but they were well up this morning. Rocket, Mizuna and Red Russian Kale have all been sown for baby leaf salads, spaced at seven rows across a thirty inch bed. Radish were sown at five rows per bed. The Spinach is slower to germinate so will probably be through next week.

The Kohl Rabi that was potted on into the 2 inch soil blocks on Wednesday looked a bit wilted after their trauma. However, this morning they were standing tall and rearing to go.

A new experience for me will be trying this Salsify, a vegetable that I have never had before. It was given to me by Paul, one of the Greenslate allotment holders straight out of his patch. Apparently it was very popular with the Victorians and is a member of the dandelion family.

And finally, the sun came out just as I was about to go home.

Stale Seedbed and Lettuce Transplants

Running the irrigation on the Poly Tunnel beds the other day has yielded a few weed seedlings which is what we want, to try and get the beds as weed free as possible before we do any direct sowing. Expect more info on stale seedbed techniques soon.

The lettuce seeds that we germinated in the propagator have now grown big enough to transplant into the two inch blocks. I am really pleased with the germination rate and how they have come on.

Feeling Warmer

Greenslate has been a cold place to work so far, but today that trend changed. It had the feeling of a spring day with birds singing away in the hedgerows.

I finished off planting out a garlic bed that Roger and I started the other day and felt so carried away with the warmth that I went on to sow a couple of rows of broad beans. The soil was dry enough to work up a nice tilth.

The poly tunnel reached 15°C so I started to water the very dry beds to see if there are any weeds that want to germinate before we get sowing and planting.

I realise it won’t last but today felt really great and I cannot wait to get into spring proper when it does come.

Friday Update

Quite a productive day in the end. Rhiannon helped me finish off emptying the poly tunnel hotbed, then some of the building crew helped me assemble a new work bench with the remains of the hotbed. Some of the Care Farm students helped move the seed compost into place. Finally Chris and Dan put a temporary electricity feed into the greenhouse so we can get propagating some seeds.

A great day for teamwork on the growing side of the farm.

Early next week we can start sowing seeds in earnest and get some of this Greenslate produce under way.

It has also been a day of ‘Permafrost’ up here on Billinge Hill and no mud pies were made in the Mud Pie Kitchen; it was all frozen over.

 

Neil