Polytunnel Progess

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The FoodSmiles team has been building a new polytunnel! When we moved in to Hammonds End Farm, we were fortunate to be offered the use of three polytunnels that were on the space... although one of them had lost its skin, and another had an acacia tree growing through it! With a bit of TLC though, we managed to recover and repair all of them and made really good use of them in our first year, growing tomatoes, cucumbers and peppers.
However, at the end of last growing season, on a particularly windy day, 'polytunnel 1' finally gave up and blew away in the wind, so since then, with the help of some fundraising through members, supporters and grants from a County Councillor, we bought a new polytunnel and decided to build a new one ourselves. For the last two months, we've been working really hard to get this built and ready for crops next year.
We first prepared the site for the new polytunnel - it's in a different place to polytunnel 1 - by flattening the ground as best we could. We then needed to dig two rows of eight holes, each hole two feet deep, that were perfectly parallel, evenly spaced and at right angles to one another - a throwback to GCSE Pythagoras!
The next week we constructed the hoops, and fixed them together and strengthened them with a centre rail, storm stays and side rails using a ratchet spanner.
After that was building the doors and door frames for each end of the tunnel, which we did from scratch using timber, screws and nails. We needed to dig more holes at either end of the polytunnel so the doorframes could be sunk into the ground in the right positions.
This bank holiday weekend was the final push; we planned to build the timber side rails (which will help us to harvest rain water), aluminium base rails (to attach the polythene to) and to fix the polythene. We encountered a few challenges though - the pressure treated timber side rails were a bit too much for our cordless drills to cope with, so we couldn't bolt the rail to the frame. We also discovered pieces from the kit were missing! The connectors that fix the base rails to one another were missing so the base rails couldn't be constructed. Also, in typical bank holiday fashion, it was raining so the polythene couldn't go on.
Despite the setbacks we made significant progress by building the timber rails (see the photo) and preparing the aluminium in position, so a huge thank you to everyone involved, who has donated and gave their time and energy to get to this stage! We have also enjoyed many picnics together over the last few months getting to this point where we shared food and had a good laugh about the progress we've been making (or lack of)!
We're very excited by this new build as it means our members will receive even more in their veg boxes next year. We're also pleased to know that 'Polytunnel 1' can be recovered, and our dedicated member Richard has done a fantastic job in getting this ready. This means next year we will go from having two polytunnels to four, significantly increasing our growing capacity.
Next weekend, we're having our second annual Harvest Festival, where we will be celebrating another year of success and growth with all our members and supporters. If you're interested in seeing the polytunnel or anything else on the site, do pop down any time from 12-6pm on the 12th for a picnic, barbecue, music and games. We look forwards to seeing you there!

- Tom Carman

Grow It, Cook It, Eat It!

We're delighted that FoodSmiles will be part of the St Albans and Harpenden Food and Drink Festival this year, with our joint event with the Transition St Albans Home Grown Food Group; Grow It, Cook It, Eat It! Unfortunately you won't find us in the festival brochure, due to an error, but that's not stopping us and we do hope you'll join us on Wednesday, September 23rd, for a harvest-time celebration of all things homegrown. There will be displays of produce and pictures of what we've been up to this year, there will be tasters and produce to take home, there will be seeds and seedlings available in return for a small donation, and members of both groups will be on hand to answer questions and give advice about growing your own at home. The event will take place in the yurt at the Blacksmith Arms so drinks, including a range of real ales, will be available at the bar. The event is free and you're welcome to drop in at any time between 8pm and closing time. See you there!

Grow It, Cook It, Eat It
The Yurt at the Blacksmiths Arms
Wednesday September 23rd, 8pm-11pm
Entry: Free!  
FoodSmiles St Albans and Transition St Albans' Home Grown Food Group bring you a harvest-time celebration of all things home-grown; an informal social evening, with tasters of some produce and seeds and seedlings to take home. A range of real ales are available in the pub and members of the group will be on hand to share advice and answer questions about growing your own.

FoodSmiles is Fundraising!

Polytunnels are an important tool for growing food throughout the year, but ours are very old and in poor repair, and part of our polytunnel space must currently be used as a veg-box packing area. We're raising money for a new polytunnel and a dedicated packing shed. This will enable FoodSmiles to raise seedlings safely and grow warm-weather crops and more winter crops; to care for our harvests better and provide higher-quality produce; and to keep promoting and producing local, seasonal food in the St Albans district.

FoodSmiles aims to supply local food for local people in the St Albans district. We started in April 2014, farming organic vegetables for our 25 members, and produced an amazing 980kg of food in our first season! This year and over the next few years, we hope to increase our membership significantly and become a bigger and better source of locally-produced food.

When we started up last year, we were very lucky to find a piece of land that already had on it three polytunnels we could use. They were in bad repair, but we patched over the holes and the tunnels were crucial in our first season for raising seedlings and growing warm-weather crops such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers.

However, our repairs to the tunnels are not standing up to windy weather well; polytunnel one completely lost its cover in recent winter winds, and we've had a constant struggle to keep polytunnel three intact through the winter; it is unlikely to last another year. We urgently need to replace at least one of them; polytunnel companies have advised us that the tunnels are so old it would not be economical to refurbish or repair them. Furthermore, we have realised that the tunnels are far from ideally positioned; tall trees shade them all morning in the summer, which means our tomatoes didn't get as much sunshine as they needed and our yield was poor. Polytunnel three is by far the worst for this. 

In order for FoodSmiles to continue to thrive and grow, we urgently need a new polytunnel in a brighter position, to raise seedlings and grow warm-weather crops. We will also repair polytunnel one ourselves as a temporary measure for this year, and continue to use polytunnel two as it is – this tunnel is in reasonably good health and gets just enough sun.


We also need a dedicated space for packing the weekly vegetable boxes and storing equipment – our tiny 6x4ft tool shed is simply not enough, and packing vegetables in a polytunnel means they wilt in hot weather and freeze in cold weather! This shed will be placed where polytunnel three is now, under the trees, since this tunnel doesn't get enough sun to produce a good crop and will not last much longer without refurbishment or replacement.

So we are seeking a combination of small grants and donations to help us fund these improvements, and if you have an interest in the St Albans area, in local and organically-grown food or in sustainability we'd like to invite you to donate to this project. No donation is too small - any contribution, any size, will be gratefully received!

£1050 will enable us to buy a basic 14x35ft polytunnel, which we will put up ourselves.  
£1250 will allow us to add crop bars and bracing to our tunnel, for better efficiency and security.
£2500 would also fund our packing shed, which we will build ourselves from a kit.  
£3000 would also fund the shed foundation and much needed interior shelving.
Any additional money raised on top of this will go towards repairing polytunnel one, and getting electricity to the shed for lighting and refrigeration.

If you would like to donate to keep FoodSmiles thriving and growing, you can do so via PayPal by clicking the 'Donate' button below. (You do not need a PayPal account to do this.) We don't have much to offer in return, but we will thank you publicly on social media and add you to our mailing list (let us know in the 'instructions to seller' box if you don't want us to do either of these things), plus donors will be very welcome to visit the site by appointment and see what we're up to, and you will receive an invitation to our Harvest Festival in September. And of course you will have the pleasure of knowing you are helping us to bring food production back home to our community!

Remember: please let us know in the 'instructions to seller' box if you do not want to be added to our mailing list or receive a public thank you on social media.

You can also donate by sending us a cheque – please email foodsmiles.info@gmail.com for the address.

Soil. It's wonderful stuff!

It's easy to think of soil as inert matter, but in fact it's a complex and active ecosystem, with innumerable processes taking place all the time. Soil is earth's most vital organ, supporting all life on the planet.

Just a single teaspoon (one gram) of garden soil can hold up to one billion bacteria of thousands of types, several thousand protozoa, and scores of nematodes, not to mention the odd millipede, spider or earthworm. Mycologist Paul Stamets says:

If you were a tiny organism in a forest's soil, you would be enmeshed in a carnival of activity, with mycelium constantly moving through subterranean landscapes like cellular waves, through dancing bacteria and swimming protozoa with nematodes racing like whales through a microcosmic sea of life.

Bacteria convert the waste products of decomposition into nitrates which plants use for growth. Some bacteria fix nitrogen into the soil, and some assist in the creation of humus. (Humus is the 'holy grail' of soil; the perfect end product achieved when organic matter decomposes thoroughly and bonds with carbon and clay minerals to reach a stable state; a non-cellular, amorphous sponge for soil nutrients and water.)

Fungi weave their tiny, root-like mycelium through every millimetre of soil – one cubic inch of topsoil contains enough fungal cells to stretch more than 8 miles if placed end to end. Saprophytic fungi – the decomposers – are vital for the decay and processing of organic matter in the soil, while mycorrhizal fungi connect to the root systems of plants, feeding off their exudates and providing them with more water and nutrition from the soil, as well as boosting their defence systems and allowing plants to send signals to each other! Connection with mycorrhizal fungi effectively increases a plant's root system by up to 700 times! Fungi also filter toxins out of soil water, and exude acids, antibiotics and enzymes benefiting plant health and the condition of the soil.

Protozoa, microscopic single-celled organisms, feed on bacteria, consuming up to 1000 per hour, and provide a food source for larger organisms. As they consume bacteria, nitrates are released and made available for plants.

Nematodes are tiny, slender worms, ranging from microscopic to around 5cm long but only ever a few microns thick. It is estimated that there are up to a million species of nematodes, inhabiting virtually every ecosystem on the planet. 90% of soil nematodes live in the top 15cm of soil, preying on smaller organisms and feeding larger ones, and while a few are garden pests, others prey on garden pests and can help to control, for example, snail and slug numbers and cutworms.

Arthropods in the soil range in size from microscopic to several inches in length, and include insects such as springtails, beetles, and ants; crustaceans such as woodlice; arachnids such as spiders and mites; and myriapods, such as centipedes and millipedes. In farm or garden soils, several dozen species might be found in a square mile. In forest soil, several thousand species might be found! Arthropods can be grouped as shredders, predators, herbivores, and fungal-feeders, based on their functions in soil. As they feed, they aerate and mix the soil, regulate the populations of other soil organisms, shred organic material, mineralize nutrients to make them available to plants, burrow to improve soil structure, and stimulate microbial activity. Ground beetles are major predators of soil pests such as slugs and cutworms.

Pseudoscorpion, a tiny arthropod in garden soil!
Earthworms need no introduction; they are major contributors to soil health, including cycling of nutrients, improvement of structure, drainage and aeration thanks to the tunnels they burrow through the earth, shredding and burial of organic matter and stimulation of more microbial activity.
Soil isn't static – it's constantly moving and changing, with all sorts of nutrient and life cycles going on that we only really know a little about. Healthy soil is jam-packed with living organisms, even if you can't see them, and these organisms make soil nutrients available to plants. Healthy soil is structured around fungal networks and the burrows of worms and arthropods.

But when we dig our soil, we destroy all that's going on, harming small creatures and exposing them to predators, killing microbes by exposure to light and air, disturbing ground beetles' pathways, mixing up the natural structure of the soil and forcing many of its cycles to begin again at square one. Digging makes soil more susceptible to erosion by wind and water, more susceptible to leaching of nutrients, and less effective as a carbon sink. In short, soil is best left alone to get on with it as much as possible!

That's why, at FoodSmiles, I'd like to encourage a no-dig approach as far as possible. Charles Dowding, popular garden author and no-dig advocate, has run a number of trials comparing the results of dig and no-dig growing, and reports healthier, stronger growth all round, slightly higher yields for some veg, and fewer weeds – mulching with organic matter keeps them down and digging often brings old weed seeds to the surface!

It is, however, important to make sure soil isn't too compacted either – compacted soil allows less water and air to penetrate, is hard work for plant roots, and suuports less life – and our heavy soil is prone to compaction. That's why I hope the broadfork will become a key tool for preparing soil before planting.

The broadfork allows us to break up the soil without turning it over or mixing the layers together. Air and water can get in again where soil is compacted at the surface, but we don't cause so much harm to the soil's microbiology. It's a good idea to also rake the surface after broadforking, to give a better tilth for sowing new plants and to discourage hard crusting on the surface.

It is heavy to carry but easy to use, and though it works your whole body, it doesn't involve any of the bending and lifting that digging does and thus is much easier on your back! Simply press the tines into the soil, using your foot on the crossbar – or both feet in hard areas – to push it as deep as possible, wiggling if necessary to work round stones. Next, pull back on the handles, bringing them down to waist level or so, to lever the tines up and gently lift the soil. Then pull the fork out, move back six inches or so, and repeat. One person can broadfork one of our beds in less than an hour this way (extra helpers can assist by picking out weeds and stones, and raking the surface over). You can see a little demonstration of how to use it in the short video below:

You may find that our clay soil still sticks together in hard lumps when using the broadfork - don't worry as you're still providing aeration and breaking up the worst of it. I expect that our soil will loosen up with time and the addition of organic matter, so we should see it getting better and better.

We will still dig if the need arises, whether from time pressure or cultivating a new area of tough ground or to get those potatoes up, but I hope that we can do the best for our soil by protecting its structure and microlife whenever we can.

Additional measures we can take to nurture our soil are:

  • Minimise walking on crop-growing areas, to minimise compaction, especially when soil is wet.
  • Cover bare soil with a green manure (cover crop), a mulch of organic matter, or weedproof fabric to prevent erosion and protect microlife. (We weren't very good at this over winter but let's try harder.)
  • When adding manure or compost, apply it to the surface and leave it – worms and other creatures will incorporate it into the soil in their own time.
  • Don't work soil when it is wet and clings to your boots – it is damaging to soil structure.
  • Avoid chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which upset the soil's balance and kill beneficial organisms as well as detrimental ones. (Or course, on our organic plot at Hammonds End we are prohibited from using most of these things anyway!)

References and Further Reading:

The Soil Biology Primer, published by the Soil and Water Conservation Society

What on Earth? Your soil health explained, produced by the James Hutton Institute

CharlesDowding.co.uk, website of popular author and no-dig advocate

Mycelium Running, book by Paul Stamets