Category Archives: Vegetable gardening

First 2011 sowings, and some very late parsnips

I have woefully neglected the blog, but determined to get back on track. 2010’s patch was, well, patchy, mostly due to a phenomenally busy year. Now, as we count down the last days before our first baby arrives, we have more time to devote to the patch once again.

So today we have started sowing. RB cleverly spread well rotted manure and all our home compost on our 20 raised beds over the winter, so we were delighted to see how easily the beds forked over and how dark the soil looked today.

I’ll get to what we’re growing this year later, but in the meantime we were surprised to find some abandoned parsnips that had started to resprout. With great trepidation, we dug them up expecting a cankerous mess, and were rewarded with some of the nicest looking parsnips ever. And big!

late harvesting parsnips

Supper tonight will be our favourite spicy parsnip soup recipe by Jamie Oliver.

First harvest of 2010: radishes

This year RB and I decided to try our hand at inter-cropping and catch-cropping in order to make the most of the space in our vegetable patch, and radishes were the perfect easy and quick choice. We planted our first catch crop of two rows about 6 weeks ago in what will be the sweetcorn bed, and they quickly reached maturity. We have harvested 16 and will pull up the rest for a dinner party we are having later.

I must confess I have never purchased radishes in my entire life, so I was a little bemused as to what we were going to do with them at maturity. In practice, they barely had the chance to make it back into the house! The crunchy texture and sweet-yet-peppery taste are wonderful and make a great addition to a salad or as a snack with hummus.

We have already planted the seeds for the next catch crop in a bean bed, and later we will inter crop in the runner bean bed. We are aiming to have radishes all summer long.

Window farms: allotments for city dwellers

I just caught wind of this brilliant new movement, started by a very cool chick in Brooklyn, New York. By combining recycled 1.5l water bottles, clay pellets, plastic tubing, a fish-tank air pump, and a dash of hydroponic know-how, this clever gal has developed a vertical window system for growing greens in the city. Watch her film here:

The project has become an international collaboration, and window farms are popping up in different and improved iterations across the globe. It looks like these farm ‘curtains’ will also soon be available to purchase off-the shelf, although there are clearly extra green points for using the recycled elements.

Loved seeing this modern micro-farming idea – very clever!

Kitchen garden economics for all

Last June I decided to be very geeky and track the effective profit/loss of our kitchen garden. It was ultimately a rewarding exercise, if sometimes tedious (when you want to sink your teeth into a tomato, the last thing you want to do is bother weighing it first). We were delighted to know that we were well into the black at the end of our first year, even having built pricey beds.

This year, with our patch nearly double the size and our seedlings already well on their way, I decided to beef up the spreadsheet – and to share it with anyone who might also have a geeky gene.

This spreadsheet is very easy to use and requires NO mathematical understanding. All you have to do is:
— insert your vegetable/fruit names
— insert the cost of the seeds/plants
— track the costs of your overheads (beds, compost, etc)
— track the weight and units of harvesting per item
— once a month, find a comparable shop cost

The spreadsheet will do all the whizzy adding up, multiplying, and will tell you how you are getting along with your ‘profitability’ relative to what you would have spent at a shop.

You can download the spreadsheet here and start tracking your kitchen garden plot’s productivity straight away.

Good luck, and don’t forget to report back your progress!

The last harvest of 2009

RB and I spent a solid day working in the garden today. Between sowing seeds, clearing beds and pruning back bushes, we’ve been busy!

We pulled up the last of our leeks this morning, the last of our 2009 vegetable garden. It is amazing to think that we planted these guys nearly a year ago – they are extremely tolerant considering this is the coldest winter we’ve had in the UK in over 30 years. These leeks are the ‘Meziers‘ variety, so they are long and thin. For 2010 we are going to try a fatter variety, although we may not be enjoying them as long as we did these.

It is zero degrees here, so we decided to make a leek and potato soup to warm us up when we came in around sunset. It is so easy to make, and really warming. Some crusty homemade bread and a small pile of crunchy toasted chorizo on top gave it an extra kick and turned the modest soup into a treat.

New year, bigger vegetable garden

Hoorah, we have added 8 new raised beds to the vegetable patch! And when I say we, of course I mean RB who built them in December (read about how to build raised beds). Here is a photo of the whole patch of 20 beds in the snow.

We have used our snowy downtime to order seeds, and here is our final tally for the 2010 vegetable garden:

Wild Rocket
Fiorana Spinach
Golden Ball Onions
Potatoes – Mayan Gold, Charlotte, Golden Wonder
Green Globe Artichokes
Beetroot Sanguina
Yellow Carrot Jaune Obtuse de Doube
Fat Leek Monstrueux de Charentan
Burgess Vine Buttercup Squash
Summer Crookneck Squash
Striato di Napoli Courgette
Napia Red Pointy Pepper
King of the North Sweet Pepper
Nigels Outdoors Chilli
Red Top Radish
Double Standard Bicolour Sweetcorn
Garlic (planted in autumn)
Broad Beans
Runner Beans
Asparagus (planted in autumn)
Parsnips
Rhubarb
Calabrese Broccoli
Strawberries Cambridge Favourite (already in situ)
Red Iceberg Lettuce
Tomatoes – Rose de Berne, Gold Medal, Millefleur

Most of the seeds come from The Real Seed Catalogue which stock only non-hybrid seeds. It means you can safely save seeds from the plants which is a sustainable and common sense practice. You can’t seed save with F1 Hybrids. The Real Seed Catalogue urges all growers to seed save, and we like that kind of business ethos.

I am looking forward to a whopping return on this year’s vegetable garden economics!

The economics of vegetable gardening

Last June, when our first Strawberries were picked, I decided I would keep track of our vegetable patch’s productivity, much like a business does. As an economist and entrepreneur it made perfect sense to question the cost/benefit of money invested versus lovely organic produce generated. Rather geeky, I know!

There are so many variables and everyone’s patch is different, so this case study is not making any universal statements – it only applies to The Modern Gardener vegetable patch and our approach. After all, some people don’t have tools when they start out, others don’t bother with raised beds,  and some stick vegetables between flowers and in window baskets – all of which would certainly affect ‘profitability’ (where profit basically = value of vegetables out of the ground minus money handed over to the seed and soil merchant).

On the other hand, time is money too, so many of you may argue that the countless hours spent sowing, watering, weeding and harvesting must also be calculated as an ‘opportunity cost’ (the value lost when you could have been doing something more lucrative). This would in turn require that we calculate the mental and physical health benefits of fresh air, exercise, and in my case having quality time with my husband. And finally, we get car loads of free well-rotted manure from a farm down the road – how to account for that?

I have decided instead on a very simple model of separating out the CAPEX (capital expenditure – the initial investment outlay in, say, timber and pots), and directly comparing OPEX (operational expenditure, basically seeds and soil/food) against the value of the produce. Value of produce was calculated using the Waitrose organic price at the time of picking. We use Ocado to deliver our shopping as we both work, so although we could have found a cheaper price it made sense for our purposes to use them for the value comparison.

Here are the results in short:

Capex                                    £189
Opex                                        £89
Revenue                                £293
Gross profit 2009        £204

So in 2009 The Modern Gardener vegetable patch made a profit and paid off our initial outlay. In 2010, we expect to be a in the money by a long way!

My other observations are to do with best value, so if you only grow one thing make it either courgettes, runner beans, parsnips or tomatoes (avoiding the last if you’re short on time). On the flip side we learned that potatoes have a negative return if you don’t take the time to earth up for a larger crop.

All in all it’s an interesting, fast and easy bit of information to compile that I am going to repeat year after year to see how our patch ‘performs’ over time. But it’s a far cry from the perfect study – the spreadsheet certainly doesn’t tell you how good those carrots were fresh out of the ground and therefore their incalculably high value to us!

Harvesting parsnips

RB and I harvested the first dozen of our parsnips last weekend. A few frosts are purported to improve the flavour of parsnips, so with a couple of cold spells behind us we decided to start harvesting.

harvesting_parsnips_3

These parsnips took a bit more work to get out of the ground than carrots. We had to carefully dig away the dirt from the top third of each parsnip, enough to hold it and twist it out of its place. It is worth being careful as the parsnips can snap in place if tugged or bent in haste.

harvesting_parsnips_2

Roast parsnips are a favourite, but our first batch went into a spicy soup for 10 people. We used Jamie Oliver’s recipe which incorporates Garam Masala, and it was a resounding hit. As the soup is fairly dense it also looks great with a little olive oil and fresh coriander decoration on top.

harvesting_parsnips

Parsnips can be left in the ground until January, a great way to save room in the refrigerator and provide fresh home grown vegetables for the holidays.

This has to be one of the biggest winners of our vegetable garden this year – easy to sow, relatively low maintenance, and big reward when most of our kitchen garden has already stopped producing.

Harvesting butternut squash

We harvested 4 butternut squashes last week. The foliage had started to die back and the squashes sounded ‘hollow’ when knocked. Tonight we made homemade butternut squash tortellinis which were lovely. It is great to finally have a use for all the sage we have planted.

harvesting_butternut_squash

I have heard some seasoned allotmenteers saying that butternut squash is not worth the space as you get so little volume or added flavour for how much ground you sacrifice. But I have to disagree. The taste was magnificent.

Harvesting sweet corn

Sweet corn brings back California for me, with barbecues and Mexican food being two of my favourite culinary categories. I really wasn’t confident about the prospect of getting cobs in Southeast England, but it has been with great pleasure that we have harvested 7 this weekend.

You know to start thinking about harvesting sweet corn when the silks (the hairy tassels at the top of the cob) start to brown. Sweet corn should be picked in the ‘milk stage’, when a milky liquid is drawn from pressing a fingernail into a kernel. If the liquid is watery, it’s too early, and if doughy, it’s too late. Be sure to pull the husk down sufficiently when testing, as the tips of the cob are most immature and can deceive you into thinking they’re not ready.

harvesting_corn

There’s not much magic to harvesting sweet corn: just hold the stalk with one hand, hold the ear at the base with the other. Twist the ear firmly downward, like turning a door handle. Sweet corn starts to lose its sweetness as soon as it’s picked so it’s best to harvest when you know you can eat it, otherwise refrigerate.

corn_cobs_green_bell_pepper

For lunch we rustled up a simple dish using corn, onions and green bell peppers from our garden with a bit of Spanish chorizo. We sweated the onions and then fried up the rest of the ingredients – it was wonderful!

corn_chorizo_peppers_lunch