Spring 2020 newsletter

And so the growing cycle begins again, welcome to the new season!

 The March Vegetable Box & Rhubarb at Hammonds End

What a very different winter to last year, warmer with very few frosts but much, much wetter (last years spring newsletter mentioned “an incredibly sunny February”, this year it has been an incredibly wet one). That hasn’t stopped us harvesting fortnightly with recent boxes containing: leeks, kale, spinach, chard, rocket, mizuna and land cress.

Storm Ciara and Desmond blew all the crop covers off and knocked over some of the Purple Sprouting Broccoli, but it has been so mild a fennel plant not harvested last year has survived the winter!

Wild Weather: Storm Damage & Fennel in January

Hopefully we will have enough veg to keep us going through the UK “hunger gap” before our spring sown crops are ready, though mice have been a real problem in the polytunnels this year and we lost our early sowings so now everything is growing under mesh.

Polytunnel 4 lettuce protected from the mice

At Hammonds End we have sown the first of this season’s crops: 300 Broad Bean seeds, 350 parsnips along with the first of the cabbage, lettuce, spinach and beetroot. In addition, we have sown 50 tomatoes, 30 aubergines, 30 peppers and 8 chilli peppers which members have at home to bring back to site once the last frost has gone.

We have also started to prepare the vegetable beds for spring sowings. At FoodSmiles we try to operate a 'no-dig' plot, as it is better for the soil structure and microlife. Weeding is done by hand, and compost or manure is added to the surface and left for the worms to incorporate. We do this because whilst it is easy to think of soil as inert matter, 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, complex fungal structures, and scores of nematodes, not to mention the odd millipede, spider or earthworm.

When you dig soil it can 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 also 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! 

So to prepare our beds we first remove large weeds digging out the deep tap roots from dandelions and docks and try to remove as much of the root as possible on weeds like bindweed or thistles.  We then use a Broadfork to break up the soil without turning it over or mixing the layers together. Air and water can get in again when soil has been compacted at the surface, but we don't cause so much harm to the soil's microbiology. The Broadfork is like an enormous fork, plunged into the soil to loosen it but not to turn the soil over – fun to use and a great workout! 
 Bed 6: weeded, with a layer of compost on top ready for the Early Potatoes & the Broadfork

In the next few weeks (including our spring sowing day on Saturday 21st March) we will plant out potatoes and sow calabrese, cauliflower, leeks, celeriac, beetroot, chard and spinach. We will also be running some members training sessions.

Our repair crew have also been busy this winter and our wheelbarrows now have lovely new wheels and the newly covered polytunnel 3 has had a good tidy (how long will it stay like this?) and we have added some new raised beds.

Wheelbarrow wheel repairs completed and inside Polytunnel 3 (beds filled with lettuce & cabbage)

At our Hixberry Lane site seed sowing in the polytunnel is well under way.  We have also been coming up with ways to protect the seeds from mice which love eating them, especially the broad beans and beetroot.

Seeds Growing Under Protection to keep out the mice in the Hixberry Lane Polytunnel

Working on the land is out of the question at the moment as it is completely waterlogged with several patches of standing water.  The rhubarb however doesn’t seem bothered by this and we hope to start harvesting soon.

We were delighted to be selected by Waitrose as a recipient of their Community Matters fund this January.  We plan to use the money to buy a fruit cage to protect our newly planted blackcurrant bushes and strawberry plants.

New Members?
We still have a handful of memberships available this year if you want to join or know someone who might want to become a member. Why not come along to one of our sessions on 11th, 14th 18th or 21st March to find out a bit more about Foodsmiles.

At Incredible Edible Russell Avenue this spring we have built two Hugelkultur beds – well, we say built, but it’s really just a very simple matter of mounding soil on top of logs! This is a new experiment for us, but we hope that they will help us to combat dry conditions in the summer. 
Hugelkultur Bed at Russell Avenue

At Incredible Edible Civic Centre there is loads of winter purslane and lambs lettuce to be picked at the moment – please help yourselves as it will flower and die soon – plus lots of herbs, sorrel, sea beet and more.

Lamb's Lettuce & Winter Purslane at the Civic Centre Garden

We’re really pleased that RSPB St Albans have put up bird boxes at both the gardens to help increase their value to wildlife – we’re not sure if any birds have taken up residence yet but they have certainly shown some interest! We’re also grateful to Aylett Nurseries, who have donated chippings from their Christmas tree recycling scheme to top up our paths again this year.

As always, feel free to come along and join us pulling a few weeds and spreading a few seeds at any of our sessions – we’d love to see you. All our dates can be found on our webpage – and we will of course have some events at the gardens as part of SustFest20 (details below) so don’t miss those!

 Russell Avenue Site & the New Bird Boxes

Upcoming Events (n.b. current events may impact these events - please check social media or contact us if unsure)

Hammonds End Spring Sowing & Members Training
Saturday 21st March from 10am (training session Part 1 at 10:30am, repeated at 2:30pm)
Sowing the early season crops and planting out the early potatoes

Hammonds End Spring Sowing, Planting & Members Training
Saturday 25th April from 10am (training session Part 2 at 10:30am, repeated at 2:30pm)
Sowing the later season crops and (hopefully) planting out the early season crops sown on the 21st March

One Plant Promise from April 2020
Take the One Plant Promise this summer and pledge to grow at least ONE edible plant - every one makes a difference! Register on our webpage from April:

Come and Grow! Saturday 23rd May 10am-1pm
St Albans Incredible Edible Russell Avenue garden, Russell Ave, St Albans, AL3 5EB
Sowing, planting and weeding at this open-to-all community food garden. Join in (no experience required!) or take a tour and explore the garden.

Permaculture Garden Tour:  Sunday 24th May 12-4pm
Incredible Edible Civic Centre, outside Alban Arena, Civic Centre, St Albans AL1 3LD
Visit our community garden in the city centre and learn about permaculture with our printed tour guide. See how we make good use of permaculture’s principles.

Market Takeover Stall - Sunday 24th May
Come and visit the FoodSmiles St Albans stall at the Sustainable St Albans market takeover

FoodSmiles Open Day - Saturday 30th May 1-3pm
FoodSmiles, Hammonds End Farm, Hammonds End Lane, Harpenden AL5 2AY
Find out more about FoodSmiles St Albans. Explore our large organic veg plot, where members learn to grow food together, sharing harvests in a weekly veg box.

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 (membership@foodsmilesstalbans.org.uk).

Foodsmiles AGM 2019: we had a well-attended AGM in February where we celebrated a fantastic growing year with a vegetable box 46 weeks of the year containing over 44 different types of fruit and vegetables. In 2019 we grew 2,157kg of vegetables an increase of 39% (610kg more). Hixberry Lane was amazing with a 172% increase up by 324kg to 512kg of vegetables, contributing nearly 25% of the annual Foodsmiles production. At Hammonds End we grew 1,645kg an increase of 21% (286kg more). The biggest Hammonds End crops (by weight) were potatoes, courgettes, chard, tomatoes and lettuce (all producing more than 100kg). Top growing crops at Hixberry (by weight) were potatoes, squash, beetroot and leeks.

Special thanks went to the Site Managers, Treasurer, Secretary and Committee Members who will all be serving again this year. If you would like to be more involved in Foodsmiles and join the committee, please contact us (membership@foodsmilesstalbans.org.uk)

Seasonal Recipe Suggestions (2 this time):

Allotment Pie (no Shepherds) recipe - completely meat-free
Serves 4-6
2 medium red onions
1 celery stick
FoodSmiles veg such as parsnips, kale, chard, spinach can be added to the mix.
3 garlic cloves
4 sun-dried tomatoes, plus 2 tbsp oil from the jar
1 sprig fresh rosemary
3 sprigs fresh thyme
1 large carrot
500g mushrooms
2 tbsp tomato purée
1 tbsp yeast extract (e.g. Marmite)
1 tbsp balsamic vinegar
250ml red wine
100ml vegetable stock
400g pre-cooked puy lentils, or tinned beans such as borlotti, or cooked lentils or just cooked FoodSmiles borlotti beans
Salt and black pepper

Potato Topping:
1.2kg Maris Piper or other floury potatoes
40g dairy-free butter
150ml plant-based milk
1 tbsp Dijon mustard

Preheat oven to 180°C | Fine grater or Microplane | 2 large saucepans | Food processor | 20 x 30cm lasagne dish | Piping bag fitted with a wide star nozzle, optional

Make mash potato with added mustard

Now to the filling | Peel and finely dice the red onions and celery | Peel and grate the garlic | Finely chop the sun–dried tomatoes | Remove the leaves from the rosemary and thyme by running your thumb and forefinger from the top to the base of the stems, then finely chop | Peel and finely chop the carrot | Put the mushrooms in the food processor and blitz to mince

Put the second saucepan over a medium heat | Pour in the sun-dried tomato oil | Add the onion and a small pinch of salt | Fry for 5 minutes, stirring | Add the garlic, sun-dried tomatoes, rosemary and thyme and cook for 2 minutes | Add the carrot and celery and stir for 4–5 minutes | Add the mushrooms, turn up the heat slightly and stir for 2–3 minutes, until the mushrooms start to sweat | Add any extra veg and reduce the heat and cook for 5–7 minutes, stirring occasionally

Stir the tomato purée into the pan | Add the yeast extract and balsamic vinegar and stir for 1 minute | Add the red wine, stock, and lentils, turn up the heat and simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated, about 10 minutes | Taste, season and take off the heat

Spread the filling over the bottom of the lasagne dish | Spoon the potato into the piping bag, if using, and pipe tightly packed walnut-sized whips of potato all over, otherwise spoon over the potato and spread it out with the back of a spoon, then drag over a fork to make rows that will catch in the oven

Put the pie in the oven and bake for 25–30 minutes, until starting to crisp and turn golden brown | Remove and serve!

Beans & Wilted Greens

Another great way to use up the spring greens, chard, kale and perpetual spinach

450g cannellini beans, haricot beans or chickpeas (soaked overnight)
1 onion
1 carrot
1.5 litre water or stock
Large bunch of spring greens/ chard / kale / perpetual spinach (or a mix of all) - chopped
3 cloves of garlic
5-6 tbsp Olive Oil
1 tbsp chopped Rosemary

Drain beans and put in a heavy bottomed pan with onion and carrot, cover with water/stock and bring to the boil and then reduce to a simmer, season and leave for 45 minutes until tender (might need longer for chickpeas) and then remove from the heat removing the carrot and onion.

Sauté the garlic and rosemary in olive oil for 1 minute. Add beans and a cup of the cooking liquid and simmer for 5 minutes until some of the beans have crumbled apart.  Add the greens and stew together, uncovered, until the greens are wilted and tender.

Season with salt and pepper and serve drizzled with a little olive oil. Serve and Enjoy.