Winter 2019-2020 Newsletter

‘Tis the season of cold and mud ………. and time to move inside.

The Autumn Vegetable Box & Polytunnel 2 planted with winter crops (and the last of the chillis!)

As autumn turns to winter, the delicate summer crops have finished and we have moved onto the more robust winter crops and planted up the polytunnels for late winter and early spring crops.

At Hammonds End the outside vegetable beds have been emptied and the remains of beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, calabrese and courgettes have been chopped and added to the compost heap. The smaller you chop the pieces, the larger the surface area for bacteria to break-down the stems and leaves and the quicker it turns to compost.

The empty beds have been sown with a green manure to keep the soil covered in winter and we have added our own “Foodsmiles made” compost to the raised beds in the Polytunnels.

Harvesting has moved from the squash, cucumber, tomatoes and chillis onto kale, perpetual spinach, chard and swede and the end of the salad and we will soon be tucking into the leeks, cabbage and cauliflower.

The squash harvest ripening in the polytunnel & kale ready for harvest

The onion and garlic were planted in October and are now coming up ready for harvesting next spring.

Overwintering Onions and Leeks

October and November have not been kind on the weather front with much higher levels of rain and lower sunlight than average resulting in some of the winter polytunnel crops being slow to get going.

This has not been helped by mice stealing the spinach and lettuce seeds and feasting on the seedlings planted out to grow in Polytunnel 4. This means we may be low on vegetables in the “UK Hunger Gap” next year. If anyone has any ideas how to protect the juicy tender crops from rodents please say!

What is the Hungry Gap? The Hungry Gap is the hardest time of year for UK farmers: a few weeks, usually in April, May and early June, after the winter crops have ended but before the new season's plantings are ready to be harvested. It all comes down to the UK's latitude.
On the positive front the newly enlarged polytunnel 2 is full of winter spinach, rocket, turnip, mizuna and carrots to keep us going in early spring. No mice in that one!

The big project of autumn has been refurbishing Polytunnel 3 – replacing the cover and adding some new doors and raised beds. It has been very wet and muddy work but thanks to our members determination we have now completed this. We have also improved our capacity for harvesting rainwater from the polytunnels digging large capacity water tanks into the Hertfordshire clay. These will be connected to pumps to irrigate the crops next summer, reducing water use and saving us time.
Polytunnel 3 undergoing its renovation

I’ll stop moaning about the weather – but would like some dry bright days to get some growth in the polytunnel crops before it turns too cold!

Harvests from our Hixberry site are well up on last year (almost double!) showing that whilst clay soils may be difficult to work, they are very fertile. We recently harvested a good crop of Jerusalem artichokes which was a new veg for members’ boxes. 

Bumper Squash, Swede and Jerusalem Artichoke harvests from Hixberry Lane

We have also been working hard on developing our fruit area more than doubling the size of the strawberry patch and planting out some great looking blackcurrant bushes we grew from cuttings. 
Over the winter we plan to increase the area for growing crops in the polytunnel to get more from this great resource.
In the polytunnel we are still harvesting fun shaped chillies from plants grown from seed saved by a member. 

Hixberry Lane Chilies

The Incredible Edible gardens will have NO WORK SESSIONS in December – we will return in January ready for winter jobs such as improving our paths and pruning fruit bushes. When you’re planning your Christmas dinner don’t forget that both gardens, especially the Civic Centre, have free herbs such as bay, rosemary, thyme and sage to pick all year round. Other crops to look out for over winter are parsley, lamb’s lettuce and winter purslane – all welcome greens in the dark months when there’s not much else green growing. Winter purslane in particular is extremely abundant at the Civic Centre garden – it’s a mild but succulent salad leaf, high in omega-3 fatty acids, which is a great addition to salads and sandwiches. We weeded out and threw away sacks full at the end of last winter so don’t be shy – PLEASE do help yourself!

Winter purslane in the Civic Centre Garden

We need more volunteers to help the gardens reach their full potential, so please have a think about whether you’d like to get involved next year. No experience is required and we’re a friendly bunch to work with – just drop in to any of our sessions to get involved. And look out for extra events coming soon too, such as workshops and social events…

There has been a lot of interest over the autumn months in the many different fungi popping up around the gardens. These all occur naturally – we haven’t put them there – and we are not mushroom experts so we can’t tell you whether or not they are edible varieties, so please don’t go picking them unless you know exactly what you’re doing! They are rather beautiful and an important (and amazing!) part of the ecosystem, so we tend to leave them where they are for your viewing pleasure. And for your reading pleasure, here’s a little bit about these remarkable organisms.

Fungi facts:

1)      Fungi are not in the plant kingdom but in a kingdom all of their own – in fact, they are more closely related to humans than plants!

2)      Like human skin, mushrooms create vitamin D when exposed to sunlight – this means you can increase your vitamin D intake by leaving your mushrooms in the sun for an hour or two before eating them. Or by sun-drying them!

3)      The primary component of the cell walls of fungi is a substance called chitin, which also makes up fish scales and the shells of insects and crustaceans.

4)      Mushrooms are the fruiting bodies of an underground organism, the vegetative part of which is a branching network of root-like fibres called mycelium. The biggest fungus (and the biggest organism) in the world is believed to be a honey fungus (Armillaria solidipes) in Oregon, USA, which measures 3.4 miles across!

5)      Mycelium forms relationships with plants – particularly trees – and actually helps supply their roots with extra water and nutrients from the soil in exchange for food; a little sugar from the roots.

6)      This underground network of mycelium links trees in such a way that they actually communicate with each other through it. For example, if one tree is under pest attack, it releases chemical signals which ‘warn’ other trees to raise their defences. As another example, some trees have been found to send extra resources via the network to new saplings of their own species nearby, to support them.

7)      Fungi are hugely important as decomposers of waste in nature; they release enzymes to break the decaying material down, and then they absorb its nutrients. That’s one reason fungi are often seen on dead wood.

8)      But it’s not only dead plant matter that fungi can absorb – they have also been used to clean up oil spills, toxic chemicals, plastic waste, and even radiation!

9)      Fungi can even make it rain! In the Amazon rainforest, the spores released by certain mushrooms in dry weather actually help to seed new rain clouds above.

10)   There are 15,000 types of wild fungi in the UK. About 200 are edible, and about 50 poisonous. Some have impressive medicinal qualities. Many of the toxic varieties will only cause gastric upset, but of the most toxic species, one small slice is enough to kill several people and there is no antidote or cure!

Friends of Foodsmiles are welcome to come to work informally at the farm whenever they need some hearty exercise and company (and probably cake too)! It would be great to see you so please come along and say hello - there is always plenty to do! If you are interested, please contact us and we can let you know when we are working on site. You can also go on our 'active friends' list and receive our site newsletter if you wish to do this regularly (

Date for the Diary: Foodsmiles AGM will be held on 6th February 2020 in the Council Chambers in Harpenden – all Members and Friends of Foodsmiles very welcome. Watch out for the formal invite in the New Year.
If you are interested in being on the committee, please talk to one of the site managers.

Recipe Suggestion: Creamy Leeks with Cashews

2 medium leeks
4oz cashews
1 small onion chopped
¾ pint creamy milk, warmed
2oz butter
1 clove of garlic, crushed
1 tbsp chopped parsley
2oz 81% flour (light wholemeal flour)
Salt & pepper

Fry leeks, onion, cashews and garlic in butter until tender. Remove from the heat. Stir in flour. Return to heat. Gradually add milk. Bring to the boil stirring continuously. Add parsley and seasoning. Serve in split jacket potatoes with a crisp winter salad.

And finally, the muddiest site manager award goes to...

Autumn 2019 Newsletter

‘Twas the season of plenty...

Hammonds End as summer ends

We’ve had a great summer of growing at all our sites, increasing the amount we have grown in the first 8 months of the year by an impressive 30% (252kg) to over a tonne of vegetables.

At Hammonds End we are approaching the end of our summer crops, where we have grown more courgettes, chard, cucumber, fennel, beans, calabrese, salad, potatoes and spinach than the previous years. The cooler summer (especially the nights) has meant that some of the polytunnel crops have done less well and we did lose a lot of the strawberries to the squirrels and broad beans to the crows (more defences needed for next year!)

It has been a funny year of weather: July had the hottest recorded day and 40+ mph winds with extreme variation between day and night time temperatures. The lack of rain has meant we have been kept busy watering but the new polytunnel irrigation system has made this easier and we will continue to improve this over the winter months for next year.

Summer Crops: Squash / Sweetcorn / Polytunnel 2 / Borlotti beans

With summer behind us the main task is now keeping the leeks, purple sprouting broccoli, kale, swede, chard, cauliflower (no sign of the threatened Europe wide cauliflower shortage at Hammonds End!) and winter spinach relatively weed free and covered up from hungry pigeons. We will shortly be planting out garlic and onion sets and have also started to sow the winter polytunnel crops of pak choi, winter lettuce, rocket, turnips, carrots, spinach and beetroot to see us through to next spring.

In the now empty beds we have sown a green manure (both phacelia and field beans) which will keep the soil protected over winter, smother the weeds and provide some goodness to the soil as it composts down. In addition, the bees are really loving the phacelia flowers.

Bees and the Phacelia Green Manure

The plans for the winter include putting a new cover on Polytunnel 3 and continuing to develop the Polytunnel rainwater harvesting (for when it does eventually rain!) and crop irrigation systems. We will also be strengthening the strawberry bed defences to try and keep out the squirrels next summer.

Hixberry Lane has had a great summer with good harvests of a number of crops.  Onions have done well both those grown from sets planted last autumn and those we sowed as seed in the spring.  We also had a bumper garlic harvest. Conditions seem to have been perfect for beetroot which we have been harvesting weekly since mid-July.

Other crops we have been particularly pleased with have been fennel and kohl rabi.


There is still plenty of veg to come – leeks, squash, sweetcorn, sprouts, red cabbage and swede.  We are also trying out late summer sowings of some quick growing crops including Chinese cabbage, pak choi and kailaan.

Our Incredible Edible gardens inevitably have a bit of a lull in the summer months - the ground gets extremely dry and sessions are quiet while people go away on holiday. But nevertheless, they are ticking along with a steady stream of herbs, berries and salad leaves available, and a few courgettes, beans and tomatoes too.

Russell Avenue Site in Summer

We are very grateful this month to Morgan Sindall Construction, who as part of their volunteering scheme, have replaced our broken tool storage box at the Civic Centre garden and created new woodchip paths in the forest area of our Russell Avenue garden. These paths provide important structure to the space and will be a great help in developing our forest garden in the coming months. We would love for more volunteers to join us in developing the garden, so if you'd like to help please come along to any of our sessions (dates on the website - ) We also have an open day coming up as part of the Open Food Gardens programme, on 26th October 11am-1pm, when we hope to be able to show you lots of seasonal food for late autumn and winter - come along if you can!
Did you know we have a small free library of books about permaculture and growing-your-own at our Russell Avenue garden? You are welcome to borrow them or swap one for a similar book - for access just come along to any of our Russell Avenue sessions.

Russell Avenue Library and Morgan Sindall “path laying” team

Harvest Festival: it was lovely to see so many people at the Harvest Festival at the start of September for an afternoon of chatting, eating, drinking and a challenging treasure hunt as well as the opportunity to show off our site to St Albans and Harpenden Mayors.

Harvest Festival in Full Swing

Friends of Foodsmiles are welcome to come to work informally at the farm whenever they need some hearty exercise and company (and probably cake too)! It would be great to see you so please come along and say hello - there is always plenty to do! If you are interested, please contact us and we can let you know when we are working on site. You can also go on our 'active friends' list and receive our site newsletter if you wish to do this regularly (

And a big thank you for Ayletts for continuing to supply compost and equipment to us.

Date for the Diary: Foodsmiles Open Day at Hammonds End on 28th September between 2 and 4pm as part of the St Albans Food Festival. Do come and visit as we say farewell to summer and prepare the site for winter.

Finally following the site managers' homemade wine tasting at the Harvest Festival, Jayne has agreed to share her secrets:

At the Harvest Festival a few members asked me to divulge my recipe for making wine so here goes.
First buy a demijohn, air lock, tube for syphoning and yeast (maybe). All these are available from Wilkinsons at a very reasonable price or from ebay.
For blackberry or rhubarb wine add 3 pounds of fruit to 3 pounds sugar in a big plastic box or bucket with lid. This is creating a must. Leave the must for about one week to break down and become juice. I help it along with a blender.
Then add a sachet of yeast and cooled boiled water and filter out the fruit to fill the demijohn. You do not have to add yeast if the wine is fermenting well by itself. So I add it for just blackberries but sometime I add a carton of pure grape juice and then I don’t add yeast.
Attached the air lock and let the wine bubble away for about 12 weeks. During this time you can syphon the wine if it is not clearing or has a lot of fruit/sediment still in it. After the wine has stopped bubbling then it can be bottled and is ready to drink in another four weeks.
Some wine makers use campden tablets to stop the wine fermenting, I don’t as I prefer the less chemical approach.