Tuesday, 25 August 2009

Gardening --- In Partnership

Back in the sixties, many of us wanted to get back to nature, live off the land. That meant growing our own food and eating nettles. Forty years on we’ve come full circle, but not to the same starting place. Global warming and a shrinking food supply are the new realities. Many fertile regions are turning into desert because of low rainfall, or poor farming practices. Even economists recognise that food is not produced by a factory but by a growing, breathing and living land. The UK produces only 60% of the food it needs. A recent government report says we must produce 100% if we are to meet the challenges of a burgeoning population and global warming in the coming century.

Can it be done in Northeastern Scotland which has a short growing season, no dependable summer warmth, and strong winds that blow for days on end?

I started our vegetable garden to rediscover the lost art of working with the natural cycles and to produce vegetables whose taste arouses all your senses. Make dining a different experience. Thanks to our global marketplace you can buy any vegetable, year round. In December strawberries are flown in from Chile. Most are mass produced with artificial fertilizer, varieties bred for quantity and shelf life. They may not taste like much but they’re there. However they have no connection to the land. Unsurprisingly many kids these days aren’t sure where vegetables are from, other than that they come from Tesco.

Rather than rely on heated polytunnels, we plant what grows well in our climate ---potatoes, garlic, onions, large stands of broad beans, all the root vegetables, and vegetables that can be stored away for winter when very little grows. I’m not a purist. We grow tomatoes, courgettes and Mexican pepper (for our salsa) in a greenhouse, and cucumbers in a cold frame. Our long summer days give us a short but very rapid growing season. In July lettuce, radishes, turnip and rocket come and go so fast that you have to plant successions to keep your kitchen supplied. We dry wild mushrooms, or freeze them cooked, pickle beets make jams and Mexican salsa. By September the garden slows down. Leeks, kale, brussel sprouts and yellow turnip still grow but not as fast. Last November we still lived mostly from our garden: roasted vegetables, tomatoes that ripened indoors, potatoes and so on. By January we draw on our stored carrots and beets. We draw on mushrooms and beans from the freezer or from our dried supplies. Leeks, turnips, parsnips and brussel sprouts can still be dug up when the frost lets up.

I have much to learn about sustainable practices. This year the overall production is down, in part due to soil depletion. Neither I nor our friends have sorted out how to rotate crops to keep the ground fertile, use the right amount of dung, find the best varieties and plant the correct quantities. There is a lot of discussion of permaculture techniques, where you disturb the soil as little as possible. It works in England and Australia, but I’m sceptical about using it in Scotland.

Our plot is about, 60 by 40 feet --- a large plot by local standards. It barely supplies enough vegetables for our home, and our house in Scone. If city people are to grow their own in future, much more allotment space than is available today will have to be set aside.

We’re not self sufficient. Rather than raise hens we obtain eggs at the Smiddy --- the house at the end of our road. We buy fresh salmon from Buckie, a small coastal town. The local Deveron river has got salmon, but I don’t have the patience to catch it. I make rhubarb wine, dandelion wine and blackcurrant liqour, but they don’t satisfy our craving for French or Italian wine.

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