A year of growing

I can’t quite believe it but it has been a year since we first heard about our first round of CCF funding for the Tayport Growing Space Project at the end of March 2015. Admittedly, it took a little longer to get it all going – so in effect we ended up with only 8 months to do it all in!

And it has been a busy time – and we have achieved so much! The keystone of the project, our Tayport Community Garden, appearing as if by magic within the last 3 months, almost fully formed…(I can assure you that the ‘magic’ involved a massive, behind the scenes, effort from the committee, volunteers, Fife Allotment’s Officer Peter Duncan, and growing coordinators – amazing job all!)

And we have just heard the good news that we have been successful in our application for another year of financial support from CCF to continue and expand the offering. Yipeee! More details to come shortly on this…

So – it is a perfect time for a bit of reflection on my own modest growing and blogging experiences last year, in preparation to setting of new personal goals for the new growing season.

Let’s have a look at my goals in July 2015 and what I managed (or failed) to achieve:

  • Grow some vegetables
My tatties from bag to plate
My tatties from bag to plate

Growing your own food is massively satisfying – you get the best of the freshness and the taste AND you get to cut your carbon foodprint (growing your own and eating local and seasonal being the central tenets of food print reduction). As you may remember I do not have a massive amount of growing space so I was unlikely to provide for all my dietary needs, but, inspired by Vertical Veg, I wanted to see how much I could pack in it!

I have to admit that I did get slightly obsessed with tatties (see here for planting and here for harvesting post). But to be fair, it was my first year and tatties seem like a natural choice for a begginer’s bag garden. And they are rather wonderfully diverse once you go beyond the standard supermarket offering.

I was quite impressed with my yields from such as small space (tatties were joined by a decent zucchini crop), despite the total, yet so very predictable, fail on the outdoor tomato front. I think at 12 kg from my 2.25 square meters this may even put me in a running for the Tayport Growing Challenge prize this year. Awaiting for more details of how to start weighing my produce with anticipation (if you would like to take part – join the project’s Grow@Home support scheme)! I did not weigh any of my salads or herbs last year either so I expect I will have to get into the habit of doing so…

I am sticking with tatties this year but I promise to expand my repertoir!  A pleasant side-effect of getting involved in a gardening group is that I have already accumulated ample donations of unwanted seeds, tubers and cuttings from other PLANTers…thanks guys! I think my next post may be something akin a growing plan so watch this space.

  • Grow more herbs and pollinator-friendly plants

We use herbs a lot in our home cooking and they can be expensive at the supermarket (not to mention their often massive carbon footprint due to airfreight and/or hothousing). Some of them, like thyme and rosemary, are excellent at feeding the pollinators too! So I have grown small quantities for a while on the balcony.

Although I did not blog about it, last year, in addition to my usual fair, I ended up growing loads of nasturtiums and marigolds on the balcony and in the green – they have a double benefit of feeding the bumblebees and providing a tasty and decorative addition to salads. Definitely to be repeated! As usual, parsley did wonderfully well as did the mints and the lemon balm but I managed to kill off another lot of rosemary, thyme and oregano seedlings. Perhaps I need to do a bit more research on keeping them going this year. Ideally, I would like to grow enough to keep me in dried/preserved/frozen herbs all winter.

My outdoor tomato plant failed miserably at setting fruit (never mind ripening them)  which I blame on lack of bumblebee-attracting flowers in my drying green. So there is another project in the making  – a mini-wildflower meadow to attract more pollinators into the space?

  • Feed and protect my plants from pests and diseases with low carbon ‘solutions’
Bucket full of comfrey leaves
Collecting comfrey for the fertiliser ‘tea’

Commercially available fertilisers and pesticides, especially those based on oil products, can substantially add to garden’s carbon footprint. Again, I have not managed to blog about this but I did have a go at a DIY pesticide and fertiliser.

The chilli and garlic soap pesticide worked wonderfully on aphids and black fly infestations which seem to be a recurring scourge in late spring/early summer. Will definitely use it again – perhaps in a simplified version of a weak dishwashing liquid or soap flake solution which seems to be the main useful active ingredient. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely to be effective for the real nasties such as potato blight:(

The comfrey/seaweed/nettle fertiliser was a less satisfying experience – lots of work foraging for the materials, requires storage in large unsightly containers and, worst of all, stinks to high heavens. Perhaps something to be saved for when I have a more private growing space?

When growing in containers, potting mix can be another cause for carbon concern. To minimise my impact, and to keep it affordable, I went for the mix of local municipal compost and horse manure which worked OK. I have just fetched another lot of compost to start my tatties, but local source for horse manure has dried up this year – I am just casting my net to the horsey friends further afield in Fife…

But the most exciting low carbon plant-feeding project was my soil-making wormery! Admittedly, it has been very slow to produce anything over the cold months, despite being transfered from the balcony into the indoor staircase, but it is still full of worms. They even had loads of babies! I think the design may need some adjustments as it tends to dry out too much but on the whole, I am very happy with it.  I may need to build some more, given how slow it is to get going though.

  • Try some new ways of preserving local, seasonal food (perhaps with inspiration from Cathy;))

Getting creative with seasonal gluts seems to be a key skill for a home grower, saving you from monothematic dietary overloads and keeping the food going outwith the growing season. I blogged about making saurkraut recently – and will definitely repeat the experience as it was both easy and tasty. Next on the to do list of fermented cabbagey foods is kimchi! These should help me take advantage of one of the most abundant local Scottish vegetables while transforming it into something a tad more exotic;)

Talking of bug-driven cousine, I’ve also had a go at sourdough bread but I found it rather labour intensive and messy, although very tasty. Unfortunately, I also managed to assasinate my starter 🙁 In winter, the dough-raising stage required additional heating which did not sit right with low carbon aims  – perhaps something to revisit in the summer months. Less frustratingly, I have also been experimenting with yeast-based vegan pastries and cakes inspired by Jadlonomia, where eggs are usually replaced by another locally abundant ingredient – carrots!  The results have been absolutely phenomenal and will definitely stay on the menu – especially as a way to deal with carrot, soft fruit and apple gluts. I shared some of this baking with our Gardening Workshop participants – for the collection of all the recipes, including mine, see here.

I did indeed get inspired by Cathy and other Tayport ‘preservalists’ and also made a good supply of jams based on local fruit, harking back to the tastes from my Polish childhood. I made stewed cinnamon apples, foraged bramble jam, plum powidła, strawberry konfitura. All the fruit either came from donations from other Tayport gardeners, local farms or foraging around the locality. I also discovered that the UK still has one remaining sugarbeet-based sugar producer so I managed to avoid the imported sugarcane-based stuff, trying to keep my overall food miles as low as possible. We are still eating through them – and there was enough to give some away as Christmas presents too!

  • Try doing all this cheaply and by upcycling/reusing

I did stick to this promise, especially when setting up my bag garden which would otherwise be quite expensive due to its requirement for containers and soil. I ended up trawling local businesses for plastic buckets and old veggie boxes, scavenging the logged bits of the local forest for stakes, and making ties from old clothes. Components for my wormery came from a friend’s shed and compost bins. I looked into reusing some of the food packaging for growing too (beyond the usual reuse of jars and bottles in making preserves) – and blogged about some upcycling ideas to reduce carbon impact of packaging here.

So far there are no complaints from the neighbours about the bag-garden’s raggedy appearance – and recently one even offered me a beautiful old Belfast sink to use as a growing container (maybe this would keep my oregano alive…)! I plan to extend the garden by using similar methods this year.

  • I am also hoping to learn a little more about carbon foodprint (PDF) – it seems like a very complex creature indeed! (I am still a scientist at heart and you will have to forgive me an occasional foray into the land of facts and figures;)
Graph showing origin and miles travelled by the vegetables
Miles travelled by vegetables bought at the local shop.

What I have learnt is that carbon foodprint is indeed a complex beast and I merely started scratching the surface in my understanding of it. It is clear that it is hard to calculate, let alone understand even for the experts! So for everyday decisions it is probably best to stick to some simple rules of thumb;)

From my research I remember a few trivial factoids – did you know that potato crisps were first to have carbon footprint information provided on their packaging in the UK?

But I also found out some more useful things.

While looking at my worms I found out some fascinating stuff about how a well-cultivated living soil can help reduce carbon footprint – this is infact driving French climate-friendly agricultural policy just now. This approach has implications for gardening as well, for example, organic, no-dig or permaculture food cultivation methods tend to have lower carbon footprint than the conventional ones.

From my research on food miles for the gardening workshop reports here and here, I learned that despite capturing the headlines related to carbon foodprint, their overall contribution to an individual’s carbon emissions is far from straight forward. Not only does food transport account for only around 10% of overall emissions, but the method of production and mode of transport may have much greater impact than miles travelled.

So, in addition to growing more of my own food and buying food with low miles, I also started avoiding local tomatoes likely grown in heated glasshouses, or herbs likely freighted by air from North Africa (although it is not always easy to determine this!).

I also found that, apparently, the most impact on my personal foodprint can be made by switching to a vegetarian or vegan diet, and reducing my food waste – so I started paying more attention to these two ‘rules of thumb’ as well.

As I rather like my numbers and statistics, I found http://shrinkthatfootprint.com/ website particularly helpful in understanding the facts and figures on this – although it may not be everyone’s cup of tea. The Fife Diet website also provides some good, locally flavoured, practical low carbon principles, together with pointers to local resources.

  • Blogging

Finally, I also learned that 1 to 2 posts a month for my garden diary might have been a bit of an ambitious goal – I wrote 5 posts over the 8 months. I don’t feel too bad though as I also managed a few gardening workshop and event writeups. Taking my time in researching the posts paid off though – I did learn loads about topics I covered in my own posts and reinforced and expanded my learning from the workshops I reported from (planning the plot, fruit trees and bushes, seed saving).

Food on a table
Goodies at the local food swap

However, I think the most important part of my experience in participating in the project was getting to know some like-minded people in our community and beyond, including my fellow PLANT bloggers. Being involved in the project prompted me to look out for and participate in quite a few climate action and food-growing networking events (Scottish CAN Unconference, Seed and Tree Festival, 2015 CCF Project Gathering, 2015 Winter Pruning with DUO, Greener Kircaldy AGM – Powering up Communities). I also joined a local-ish food swap group and even started blogging for a sister-project Greener Kirkcaldy. I feel like I have become a member of a growing local food community over those last 12 months. I am looking forward to deepening these friendships over the next year!

So that’s me for now – and off to get going with my new spring growing:)

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