Winter can be a challenging time when it comes to supplying seasonal veg in the UK. Our short growing season means that once you get to the autumn there is no chance to plant again if things go wrong.
We plant a wide range of crops so that we have things to fall back on if something doesn’t do as well as expected. If everything went well we’d probably have surplus but in general it all balances out. This Winter went pretty smoothly all things considered. Although not everything was perfect, there was little anxiety about filling the veg bags each week. As always we’re glad of the polytunnels in the colder months and we’ve had some fantastic salads and leafy greens since the turn of the year.
In March things get going and crops come out of dormancy and start to grow again. We have an abundance of spinach and chard in the polytunnels and some nice spring greens. In the field the leeks are doing us proud and we’re eagerly awaiting spring cauliflower and purple sprouting broccoli. This mixed with the last of the winter roots and onions will see us through to May when it gets a little trickier.
May is our ‘hungry gap’ when the last season’s produce is finished but much of the new season’s crops aren’t ready. There is only so long you can keep stored crops at ambient temperatures before they go soft or start to grow. In the field crops will ‘bolt’ – putting up their flowering stems ready to make seed. Of course we do our best to ameliorate this situation, very much helped by the use of polytunnels and fleece covers in the field to give the plants their own more favourable micro climate. Inevitably veg share’s become much lighter and leafier at this time – leaves being the first thing to grow before roots, shoots and fruits develop. It’s another challenging point in the calendar. but we make it through each year, if by the skin of our teeth and biting our nails! Somehow it always just about works out.
Our minds are very much on some exciting new developments that are happening this year. We’re awaiting the installation of a borehole which will give us our own free supply of water. We currently get our water from the mains but this can be pricey especially in a dry summer. The borehole should easily pay for itself in a few years. In order to run the borehole pump we needed power and so we’ve taken the plunge and invested in a mains power connection. This has the added benefit of supplying our new lorry container packing shed with power and lights taking us into the 20th century at last! It will be great to be able to run power tools without firing a generator, and having a kettle and radio in the packing shed won’t go amiss. We also have plans to erect a new polytunnel complete with heated benches for propagating seedlings in the early season and maybe even an automatic watering system.
Everything is on hold at the moment as UK power networks have been repairing storm damage and so unable to connect our power, but we’re keeping our fingers crossed things will start moving again soon. In the meantime we are gearing up for the new growing season. Our newly adopted no dig system in our polytunnels is working well, with the soil being thickly mulched with a layer of compost, meaning the weed seeds are buried in the soil so there is much less weeding to do. There are also great benefits to the soil fauna and micro-organisms, being left to work their magic, recycling nutrients and making them available to the crops.
We’ve planted spinach, lettuce, Pak choi, fennel and mizuna in the polytunnels and sown carrots and peas. In the field we’re nearly ready to plant out the eagerly awaited delivery of our onion sets which will be the first thing to go in the ground. We’re glad of some dry weather which has allowed us to get the soil ready to plant on time. We’ll also be glad of some rain once we’ve planted!
By the end of November we’re in a position to pass judgement on the the successes and failures of the growing season. The main crops are either in the store or if hardy enough, left in the ground waiting to be harvested, so by and large we can now see what we’ve got to play with over the winter.
This is where the principle of a ‘veg share’ is put into practice, as the crops are shared out between the members on our winter veg share plan. We have to strike a balance between the quantities we give and how long we want the crop to last and this determines what you will get in your weekly veg share. Having finished the winter veg share plan the good news is we feel confident that we have enough to keep our members fed through the winter months.
The over riding feeling is that the 2021 season was a good one. On the whole the weather was in our favour. For once we had a reasonable amount of rain. The onions and Brussels sprouts went through the whole season watered only by the rain and are the best examples we’ve ever grown. We’re really pleased with our main crop carrots which seem to have evaded the worst of the carrot root fly – their nemesis – to give a lovely crop of perfect sized carrots which we hope will see us through until April. We’re equally happy with our beetroot and leeks which we will rely on as we head into the hungry gap in late spring. In spite of the rain there was enough sunshine to give us a healthy squash crop – we particular love the long stripy Delicata squash which for all you sweet potato fans is the best alternative we can grow here in the UK. Butternut, the most well know of the squash, also did really well and next year we’ll mainly grow these two as they are always the most reliable.
Of course it’s never perfect. Sadly neck rot has meant we’re losing a lot of our fantastic onion crop in the store. We think the thick necks and large amount of foliage meant the crop took longer than expected to cure and went into the store too early. Hopefully a few tweaks to our post harvest handling of the crop will ensure this a less of a problem next year. Celeriac were a wonderful size but around a third of the crop were affected by violet root rot which may have been exacerbated by damp conditions in that part of the field. Savoy cabbages are a little sparse after being hammered by slugs as young plants but this should be balanced out by other varieties we’ve planted.
The CSA model means that we don’t put all our eggs in one basket. We can’t expect every crop to be successful every year but by growing a range of types and varieties we insure there is always something to eat. Every year there are lessons to be learnt. The timing of our autumn crop this year was out, with some too early, some too late and some which we didn’t find time to plant. We’re determined next year to nail this and provide plenty of broccoli, cauliflower, salads and leafy greens next autumn which will help us save our winter crops for a bit longer. No doubt there will be new lessons to learn, which I will be sharing with you this time next year, but as 2021 draws to an end we can feel happy that we gave it our best shot and got some great results. Thanks so much to our great team of staff and volunteers who work so hard to bring us our weekly veg shares.
When the season starts there is always part of me that is wishing for the perfect year. A year when the weather treats us kindly and we get everything right! Of course this never happens but we’ve got a few things to be pleased about so far.
For the first time in several year we have had a good amount of rainfall on the farm. This means we have had the biggest onion harvest yet. The onions are huge, perhaps too big for some people, but we should have more than enough to see us through until next spring. We can give a generous share of onions each week and we may even have some spare to wholesale. Our potato crop has also benefited from the rain and we are hoping for a good harvest of them after a couple of disappointing years. We now have an ex supermarket insulated lorry trailer for crop storage. This should give us plenty of space to keep the crops frost and rodent free for the Winter.
The down side to the rain has been the slugs which came out in force. We normally use an organically approved slug pellet, but since the crows got a taste for it and started to destroy our fleece crop covers to get to it, this became harder to rely upon. I’ve realised they make a home in the soil bags we use to weigh down crop covers so we’re switching to sand bags which are less favourable to them. Encouraging ground beetles which can feed on slugs and slug eggs can also help. The slugs have meant that some of our winter cabbage beds are looking a bit sparse and the parsnips also took a bit of a hit, but on the whole we’ve planted enough for this not to be a major problem.
The overall picture of the farm is that the main crops which we rely on for the autumn and winter – potatoes, carrots, onions, beetroot, celeriac, leeks, kale, brussels etc are all looking good so far. This means we can feel confident of a good veg bag each week through the colder months. Our attentions now turn to the poly tunnels where we’ll plant a selection of winter salad leaves, spinach, chard, pak choi and spring greens to keep the veg shares fresh, green and leafy through until the spring.
It’s said that Britain has no climate, only weather, and working on the land that often rings true. After a dry summer praying for rain, we wished it would stop this winter when we had standing water all over the farm. Fortunately it was dry enough for ploughing by mid March and our plants went in the ground on time. April was then one of the driest on record so we were very glad of the rain in May, but then of course wishing it would stop just long enough to prepare for the next phase of planting!
April was also cold which meant a slow start for our early planted crops. This makes the May ‘hungry gap’ a little hungrier that usual with last years crops long gone and the new ones not quite ready. Things tend to catch up though, and by the middle of June we’ll have more than enough of everything. We’re always thankful for the polytunnels in the spring. Even when the air is cold outside, with a bit sunshine they turn spring into summer, and the early spring crops look amazing. Tunnel crops are ready around a month earlier than those outdoors and at this time of year we could always do with more polytunnels.
In general things are going to plan on the farm and we’re pretty much keeping to our schedule. The planting tends to come in waves, starting with the first polytunnel crops in March, followed in early April by potatoes, onions and crops for late spring and early summer. Mid May is busy, planting winter crops: leeks, celeriac and brussels as well as summer crops: courgettes, sweetcorn, tomatoes, aubergine, cucumber and peppers. It will then ease up a little with another big wave from late June though July. This will at least give us a little more time to keep on top of the weeds and sow seeds for the next wave.
Producing year round veg shares for a CSA scheme involves some careful planning, and timing is really important. Planting too much too early would lead to late summer and autumn gluts and not enough for the winter, but plant too late and crops won’t have enough time to mature before it gets too cold. We follow a planting schedule which is carefully planned out and tweaked each winter – always searching for the perfect balance! Of course this is only a plan and there are many things that could interrupt the schedule, so we’re always trying to think a few steps ahead and err on the side of being slightly early in case factors beyond our control make things late!
We had an enjoyable day at the summer social. A keen team of workers weeded the bulk of our parsnip crop which was very much in need of it. The children ran wild in our social area enjoying an impromptu obstacle course and some games organised by Wivenhoe Woodcraft Folk. We barbecued, shared food listened to music and toasted marshmallows on the fire. Much fun was had by all and it’s a very big thank you to the volunteers who made it all happen.
Meanwhile we are on tenterhooks at the farm waiting for our tractor to be fixed. We have a back log of very hungry looking brassica plants waiting to be planted out and what’s more the contractors are unable to come and plough for us as they are too busy! We will get the plants in by hook or by crook but it’s going to be a frantic few weeks as we’re close the end of the window for getting these plants in on time. Wish us luck!!!
We love the rain and consider ourselves lucky when we get it as we’re growing in the driest part of the country. The plants love it and so do the weeds but at least it makes them easier to pull out. We’ll be weeding carrots and onions this week and planting brussles sprouts (a bit late) if we can get the tractor (which is currently out of action) fixed. We’re very glad of the new potatoes. They had to be pulled by hand as we normally used a machine behind the tractor. The carrots are delicious and we have broad bean aplenty so nice heavy bags for the time being!
All land has now been ploughed and power harrowed ready for planting. We’ve planted beetroot, spinach and chard and are planting onions this week and potatoes too if we have time. We also have a delivery of plants due on Friday which we hope to plant next week – cabbages, broccoli, lettuce, pak choi, chinese cabbage, fennel, parsley and for the first time – celery. It’s a busy time but the weather has been on our side so far and we are on track. A drop of rain once we get things planted would be welcome.
We have already planted the polytunnels with fennel, lettuce, spring cabbage, pak choi, chinese cabbage and onions and have sown carrots. The tunnels are invaluable at this time of year to get things off to a head start and should produce crops a month ahead of those in the field.
It’s all hands on deck to get ready for the new season now. We are digging the last of the roots out of the old plots and clearing out the old salad plants from the polytunnel and preparing them for planting in the next couple of weeks. Our very old tractor is due back from the mechanics and should have a new lease of life having been fully service with various oil leeks fixed and the dodgy front steering overhauled. I can’t tell you how much I’m looking forward to being able to drive in a straight line again! Once it’s back we’ll be spreading muck and then getting the contractors in to plough as soon as possible whilst the ground is dry.
Nest week we’ll be preparing the polytunnels for planting in the next few weeks. Our first early plants will be delivered at the beginning of March. There will be spring cabbage, lettuce, fennel, beetroot, spinach, chard, pakchoi and Chinese cabbage. We’ll also be sowing carrot, radish and mix salad leaves. It’s an exciting time of year and it always feel good to be getting ready for the new growing season.
Last week we harvested all the beetroot. We picked around 450kg which is less than we might have liked but good quality at least. This should be 8-9 weeks worth and will give it every three weeks or so. We currently trying to estimate harvests of of winter crops so see what we’ve got for the winter veg shares. Celeriac and jerusalem artichokes look good. Parsnips and cabbage look great. There’s plenty of kale and the leeks are reasonable so although it’s been a difficult growing season, we should have enough to make it through the Winter.