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From potatoes to pecans: What will you be growing in your allotment this year?

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Sheila Dillon Sheila Dillon | 13:32 UK time, Monday, 9 May 2011

Why devote all our time and energy into growing the cheapest, most available and most disease-prone crops when you could be filling your beds with something more interesting and costlier to buy in the shops? Three-quarters of our personal food growing land is devoted to growing main-crop spuds, carrots and onions. Is it time to turf out the usual suspects and make space for something new?

Different varieties of potatoes


This week’s Food Programme is all about finding new ways to grow food that is more resilient in the face of climate change. “Life is too short for unremarkable food”, says Mark Diacono who featured in the programme. When you visit Otter Farm, his 17 intensely planted acres a few minutes drive from Honiton railway station in Devon, you get a glimpse of what he’s on about. 

He has hedges of autumn olives (olive-like leaves, but pink, strawberry tasting fruit), stands of Szechuan pepper bushes, old varieties of strawberries as ground cover, Himalayan rhubarb, mulberries, medlars, Carolina allspice (grown for its cinnamon-tasting bark), blue honeysuckle with its blueberry-like fruit, and almond, walnut and pecan trees.


Going nuts...

It’s a botanical treasure trove: a mix of what our ancestors used to love (consider the mulberry) and the exotic (Japanese wineberries) that because of climate change can now be grown in at least the southern half of the country. Some people call it “the climate change farm”.  It is that, but that doesn’t quite capture its essence: 17 acres dedicated to deliciousness and a test-bed for how we might grow more of our food in the future.

Right now most of our staples come from annual crops: wheat, carrots, potatoes, celery, peas, parsnips, etc. All these crops are highly reliant on lots of water and sun, and, when grown non-organically, just as reliant on artificial fertilisers.  It takes massive amounts of energy just to make artificial fertilisers, then when they’re applied year after year they break down the structure of the soil, which means the soil doesn’t hold moisture as well as it did, and lots of it blows away.  Soil erosion is one of the major global issues we now face in feeding a growing population. 

If you start to produce more of your food from perennials grown at different heights with lots of ground cover so that the soil is never bare, you avoid most of those problems.  At the top level you can grow fruit and nut trees, underneath fruit, nut and spice-bearing shrubs, then on the ground the green crops, such as Good King Henry (introduced by the Romans - tastes better than spinach), garden cress, rocket and many others.

It’s an intense form of production that doesn’t cost the earth. But even to think of producing our food in this way requires a huge mind-shift. Monoproduction is what we do well, but the cost of it looks increasingly beyond our means.

So, can we learn from Otter Farm and from the agroforestry research that backs up its effectiveness? Is growing in rows and devoting toil to the resulting weeding and watering to produce what are some of the cheapest and disease-prone veg in the shops mad? You can have inter-planted trees, shrubs, climbers, and ground cover (a rather delicious looking floor of strawberries) that require none of the above, just plucking.

Listen in to Mark, Martin Crawford from the Agroforestry Research Trust and Gerry Hayman from the British Tomato Growers Association on this week’s programme and let us know what you think.     

Do you grow food? And what’s your plan for this year? Should we be ditching seed trays and the traditional annuals-based allotments people are used to and growing perennials instead, or making forest gardens?



  • Comment number 1.

    There’s been lively discussion of this issue on our messageboard yesterday. Please feel free to add to the debate.

    Capt-Lightning: This is all very well, especially if you live in the South of England - but I live in North of Scotland! I think that the blog ignores the fact that home-produced fruit and vegetables are generally far superior to shop (or supermarket) produce. Sheila quotes common vegetables such as carrots and onions. Firstly there are disease-resistant varieties of many vegetables, so by careful selection that shouldn't be too much of a problem. Secondly, many 'unremarkable' vegetables are simply not commonly available - well, not here anyway. Can you go to your local shop and buy chard, petit posy or kale that hasn't been butchered etc. - or a good selection of different carrots that actually taste of carrots? You're right Mark, life is too short for unremarkable food - that's why we should grow more ourselves and not rely on tasteless produce from the supermarket! So there!

    Joanbunting: I listened to the Food Programme yesterday and although I - as they say - heard what they were saying, I thought it was all a bit airy fairy. As for what we grow, it is perhaps better to say what we can't grow because of the soil and the climate. We tried onions and leeks for a couple of years without success, but strangely garlic does do well. No need to grow carrots because they are grown to perfection in the sandy soil in the valley and if you pick your grower they are fab! We have eight varieties of tomatoes, three of courgettes and peppers, and two of aubergines…. Loads of spuds because bought spuds here [in France] are ****, chard, artichokes (globe) haricots verts and, this year cardoons. Broad beans are finished and as we have a producer of peas and asparagus nearby, we don't waste space on those. We grow everything organically and have enough compost each year, so no to need to buy any soil improvers. I also have masses of herbs and of course salads - at the moment eight varieties.

  • Comment number 2.

    Mrs Vee: I think Sheila Dillon is missing the point and I couldn't disagree with her more. 'Growing your own' is not only about cheapness and availability. True potatoes, carrots and onions *are* cheap and widely available, but are they as organic, fresh and tasty as the ones growing in my garden, which are far from 'unremarkable'? I'll stick with my apples, greengages and plums, thanks - you can keep your Japanese wineberries.

    bellehelene: I am geographically challenged too. It is ok growing things like olive trees in Devon where he lives, but I don't think that sort of tree would stand a chance with the winter blasts from Scandinavia hitting my North Sea-facing plot. That is if I got permission to grow them in the first place from our association. I don't buy fertilisers either and make my own liquid feeds. I also buy disease-resistant potatoes from our association and had great success with my onions every year. Climate change is a challenge but you just roll with it and I (earlier than usual) planted out my butternut squash, pumpkins and gourds just last Saturday in that very welcome rain and my sweetcorn is up to eight inches right now. Not bad for up here. To me, this is remarkable! I am quite happy to grow unremarkable sure fire winners and so eat remarkably well tasting veggies to go with my remarkable dinners

    ChefMelanie: I am fairly new to growing fruit and veg, and am not the most green-fingered person ever, but thanks to me getting a load of free seeds from BBC Digin and building two raised beds last year, I am much more enthusiastic about ‘growing my own’. Because last year was the only time it’s worked really, lol! So last year I grew courgettes, tomatoes, spring onions (a cool purple variety), herbs and leeks. And my dad grew lettuces and carrots. This year I’m defo going to grow courgettes again, cause they worked so well last year (10kg from three plants!!! Insane!!!). I have also got chillies and French beans growing in the garden right now, and I've never grown them before but I really hope they'll work. The French beans are already climbing up well round the frames so I'm positive about them! Also I'll get dad to teach me how to sow the carrots properly. I love the taste of my homegrown veg- all of this (when it works!) makes me so supremely happy, it’s insane.

  • Comment number 3.

    Capt-Lightning - I think we are agreeing! If you cant grow everything you eat, then I believe what we buy should be the ordinary stuff and grow the more delicious - which is exactly the opposite of what most people do. 3/4 of allotments, ediblke garfens etc are devoted to maincrop spouds, carrots and huge onions - these taste very similar whether you buy or grow...and if you dedicate your space to growing them there's little room for much else. Even in the north of scotland ther's so much beyond these staples that you can grow. Im not suggesting people should grow the same things as I do - just that we should let go of the usual suspects and grow what we really love to eat, what will save us money, and hopefully do so in a low maintenance, low carbon way. cheers

  • Comment number 4.

    bellehelene, Mrs Vee - I think we might be agreeing too! Im not suggesting people choose to grow the same as I do, Im just hoping to encourage some to think beyond the usual stuff and see if there's anything that takes their fancy. As with you, flavour is always uppermost

  • Comment number 5.

    We don't actually eat very many potatoes or carrots and I buy frozen onions and shallotts as they make me cry so when preparing them. These crops also take up lots of space for ages and then have to be stored. I prefer to grow crops that are comparitively expensive in the shops - salad leaves and soft fruits - or things that are hard to find round here - cavolo nero, kale, purple sprouting, raw beetroot, Swiss chard, oriental leaves, Jerusalem artichokes - or things which just taste better fresh from the garden such as salad leaves, tomatoes, peas, courgettes and fennel. I also like a wider variety of pumpkin than I find in local shops - Blue Hungarian etc.

    This year I'm experimenting with purple kohlrabi and Chinese artichokes which I haven't grown before.

  • Comment number 9.

    Unfortunately we have no garden, but my dad has a sizable allotment. I buy him seeds in the hope I can scrounge the resulting produce off him! We've made a selection of good apple pies, and had some spaghetti squash from it. Either for value, or satisfaction, I know my folks get lots out of growing their own.

  • Comment number 10.

    Sheila I implore to continue spreading the word on wise gardening. It burns my heart to see people spend ridiculous money on crops that they could have simply planted in their back yard. I love planting myself and have been making adequate use of the rich soil in my backyard. I plant olives, pepper, tomatoes, celery
    and pumpkin grows at the side of my house. I think I can say that I have my own “Little Otter Farm.” You are absolutely correct about the perennial growth of plants. It protects the soil. I also try to use natural fertilizers from the cow. I am quite selective of which cow dung I use so I get my supply from my uncle’s
    farm since I know the cow is properly fed. All these factors are completely essential and should be at the fore front of your mind if you are a consistent gardener. But the climate is changing what and where we grow crops, and what is needed to be sprayed on the to keep them diesase free.

  • Comment number 11.

    My situation is similar to the user above me. We have a little pocket of earth cemented around and dedicated to planting. Since our yard space is not as huge we try economizing on our planting therefore small crops that won’t grow too big orwon’t shadow other plants can be found in our minute garden. Your suggested multi- cropping is a great method to not only combat the natural disturbance- soil erosion but also to prevent food shortage in times of droughts. However the question still lingers in my mind if this method could work for all soil types. Soil type differs in territories right across the world therefore can other farmers across the world experience the expected success of the implementation of this strategy on their farm?


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