I love this time of year when we transition from one growing season to the next. The slate is being wiped clean and we’re starting all over again.
Throughout the year I find myself listing all the things we’ll do differently next season and now is the time we can put those thoughts into action. There is of course no one right way of doing things. What works one year may fail the next. The weather is the biggest uncertainty, and whilst nature is our friend, it also presents a great many ever-changing challenges in terms of pest and diseases. There is always something that wants to feast on our lovely veg!
Each year we begin again, learning from our mistakes. We’re forever tweaking our crop rotations and planting schedules, trying to optimise the system and get the most out of the land. We can get two or three crops from some beds if we plan carefully.
There’s also a balance to be achieved when it comes to planting times. Plant too early and you have too much ready at the same time but plant too late and you can miss the boat entirely. We’ve been a bit late on sowing some of our root crop over the past couple of years, caused by our effort to create a less weedy seed bed to sow them into. This is risky as there is less time for crops to mature and little time to re-sow if something goes wrong. We’re going to try and bring sowing forward a bit this year to reduce the risk.
Pest and disease issues can also be mitigated with timing and rotation. We try to harvest turnips before the cabbage root fly take hold and try to avoid growing too much broccoli in the cabbage white caterpillar season.
This year we’ve changed our crop rotation to give more space between crops susceptible to violet root rot which has caused problems in our celeriac recently. We’re also going to be growing French marigolds in between our Brussels sprouts to try and deter the white fly which always seem to be a problem.
Each season there will be fine tuning and new ideas. It’s like a big puzzle with multiple solutions. It’s what keeps the whole thing interesting and whilst I know deep down that it’s unlikely to happen, I still can’t help striving for the perfect season, where we get it all right and everything goes our way!
The weather was fine for the 2021 Potato Harvest at Bennison Farm. Lots of members came along to help bring in the potatoes and see the tractor in action! Many hands made light of the work, and we were able to harvest most of one of the plots of potatoes. Thank you to all our members who made it and volunteered on the day. We really appreciate all your hard work.
We have several varieties that are now in the stores, with red and white potatoes offering a mix of cooking and taste possibilities. We have Alouette, Twinner, Heidi, Sarpo Axona and Vitabella potatoes to share with you.
Check out our recipe section on our website for ideas of dishes to enjoy with all your Bennison Farm veg.
Before we know it next years harvest will roll around and we hope to see lots of you there!
The timing couldn’t have been better for installing our new borehole last May. Soon after the installation it stopped raining for the whole summer and it wasn’t until the middle of October that we had a half decent amount of rain. Of course we’re used to dry summers in this part of the country but this summer was exceptional. Goodness knows how big out water bill would have been without the borehole.
The borehole is essentially a narrow well – a six inch diameter perforated pipe sunk into the ground with a pump in the bottom. Ours is 7m deep and sits in the sand and gravel which holds the ground water. We weren’t sure if there would be enough water to see us through the drought but we were pleasantly surprised that even after a dry winter and summer the borehole was still flowing.
In spite of a free and plentiful water supply it was still a real struggle to keep on top of the irrigation, and not all crops got enough water to achieve their full potential. Inevitably we prioritised some crops and unfortunately dropped the ball on others. Our main crop beetroot was pretty patchy which might have been partly due to inadequate moisture during germination. Brussels sprouts missed out on irrigation and so never quite reached their full size and yields were also low for some of our potato varieties.
On other crops pests got out of hand, perhaps favoured by the warm conditions or due to a lack of natural predators which may have suffered in the drought. Swede were completely decimated by flea beetle who love the hot and dry weather and some of the broccoli and cabbages took a big hit from aphid. Normally these are controlled by the larvae of parasitic wasps but as the adults feed on pollen and nectar I wonder whether the drought could have had an impact on their food source and ultimately their numbers.
On the whole though we faired pretty well. Heat loving crops such as squash, tomatoes and aubergine we’re exceptional. Aubergines were staple in the veg bags for most of July and August, tomatoes were beautiful and in abundance and squash were large and plentiful giving us a bumper harvest for Autumn and early Winter. We’ve also had plenty of carrot, leeks, parsnips, celeriac, Savoy cabbage, and winter greens to see us through the colder months. Other veg that worked well have been a selection of lovely herbs, greens and salads in the polytunnel. So we’ll eat well this winter. As always you win some and you loose some but we plant enough of a variety of crops to make sure that even if some don’t do as well as others there is still plenty for the veg shares.
Now our thoughts are turning to the next season. We are putting up a new polytunnel for propagating our seedings. Until now we’ve had to buy in any plants which require additional heat to get started. Now we have electricity on site we’ll be able to build a heated propagation bench to give our seedlings a head start. This will be particularly useful for our first early plants which we’ll be sowing in January and February and also for the heat loving crops such as tomatoes, peppers, aubergines, cucumber, courgettes and French beans. We’ve also being working on next years cropping plan and tweaking our crop rotations to maximise productivity and keep the veg shares as varied as possible through out the year. It’s now time to order seeds and then it won’t be long before we start sowing again and so the never ending cycle continues!
We’re very please to have had a borehole installed at the farm. A borehole is basically a narrow well that pumps water out of the ground for irrigating our crops.
Until now we’ve relied on mains water which costs a lot when watering on our scale, especially as we’re in the driest part of the country.
We were confident that the contractors would find water as the farm sits on sand and gravel on top of London clay which provides good conditions for a shallow borehole. They drilled 7 meters down to the London clay and lined the hole with a permeable pipe which allows the water to flow in as we pump it out.
We couldn’t be sure of what the supply would be like until the pump was installed but we were not disappointed. We have a consistent supply of 45 litres per minute. That’s 2.7 cubic metres per hour which is plenty for our needs.
We can now water twice as much as before which is helped by installing a wider pipe across the farm to insure that we don’t loose pressure along the way. Best of all the water is free! (once we have paid our loan off!)
This year we’re celebrating our 10th Anniversary. It been quite a journey to get here, with plenty of sweat and a few tears along the way!
We arrived at Bennison Farm in February 2012 with no money but some experience and fortunately plenty of local support for the venture. We borrowed a small amount from family and were very fortunate to be given an old tractor from a farm where I used to work. We scraped through our first year with poor soil giving mixed results. Our fantastically committed members supported us through a lean Winter but as we invested in the soil and our yields grew, so did our membership.
In August we will have been packing veg bags for 10 years! We’re very proud to have provided veg shares to our members every week since we started and apart from the first winter all produce has been grown on the farm. We’re also delighted to have a few members who have been with us for the whole time through thick and thin!
Community Supported Agriculture really works for us. The support and help of our members has been critical to getting the scheme off the ground and keeping it running and our thanks go out to our Steering Group for playing a key role this. It makes a real difference having a steady and predictable outlet for our produce. When times are good we share the bounty and when times are hard it’s a comfort knowing that we have committed members who will stay the course. A great many thanks to the members, staff, volunteers and family who have supported us over the years. We couldn’t have done this without you!
On the Saturday July 30th Bennison Farm’s 10th Birthday Party so do come and join us from 3pm for fun, food and live music whilst we step back from our work and celebrate 10 year of providing fresh, local Organic veg!
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!