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Weekly Column – May 13th 2017

chaaaarrrrrd…

All around us nature is in the process of a remarkable transition from brown to green.  The potting shed is resplendent with emerging green seedlings; green leaves have emerged on the trees in our garden; brown soil is bringing forth rapidly growing green weeds.  The decay and stasis of winter have been replaced by renewal and growth.

Barbara Kingsolver’s wonderful memoir Animal, Vegetable, Miracle does a wonderful job of explaining why and how we should follow the arc of nature’s plant growth if we want to eat the most seasonal, most nutritious food throughout the year.  The arc follows a very specific trajectory through the seasons – from shoot to leaf to fruit and finally to root. In order to work out which foods are best for us at particular times of the year, we should simply look around us and consider what stage of development the plants around us are at.

Around now?  Plants are bursting forward in to life, producing green leaves which are nature’s great and wise spring tonic and the most seasonally appropriate food one can eat at this time of the year.  After a long season of earthy, heavy root crops, we are relishing revitalizing nettles, baby spinach, chard and salad leaves.

A little later in the year the plants will move beyond the leaf stage and start to produce seed pods (peas and beans) and flower heads (like broccoli).  Then in the summer, they start to set fruit.  It starts with the small fruits like tomatoes and cucumbers.  Then later in the summer the fruits get larger with harder skins (to survive the oncoming cold) such as squashes and pumpkins.  And then finally, as summer gives way to autumn and winter, the plants go down in to the soil in search of nutrients and we get root crops.

Most of the food that the food chain serves up is no longer nutrient rich, or at least not as nutrient rich as it should be.  This is because when it comes to nutrients, it all starts with the soil.  If there are not enough nutrients in the soil (and there’s not – the world’s farmland is between 75-85% less rich in minerals than it was 100 years ago), then there’s not enough in the food grown in it either.  And then of course, we pick food when it’s not ripe, and transport it half way (or all the way) around the world so that it loses even more of whatever nutrients it had to start with.  It’s little wonder that there is such a chronic lack of human wellness and vitality.

Home-grown food on the other hand gives you access to food that is nutrient rich because it’s grown in carefully-maintained nutrient rich soil, picked and consumed at the height of its freshness and by definition, seasonally appropriate.  That’s a virtuous circle of fully nourished land, food and people.

The Basics – Hardening Off

There’s quite an amount of “hardening off” to do now.  This is the process of acclimatizing seedlings, that have been grown indoors or under cover, to the colder temperatures outside.  So, here’s the deal: if you take seedlings that have been grown in the snuggly warmth of a sunny windowsill inside in your kitchen and put them straight out in the ground, they will probably die.

The key is to get them gradually used to the lower temperatures over the space of a week to ten days.  On the first day, put them out for a few hours, but bring them in again later.  Think of it like a recce to test the waters. The next day leave them out for a few more hours and so on.  As the week goes on, leave them out for longer and longer, until by the end of the week they should be out for the full day.  At this stage, they should be ready for life in the great outdoors.

All of this means that this time of the year involves a good deal of ferrying in and out between potting shed and veg patch with arms full of seed trays. Seed trays can dry out quite quickly if it’s sunny and windy, so keep an eye on the seed trays/pots and the weather forecast to judge whether they need watering or not.  Ideally keep them up off the ground so they’re less likely to get munched or trampled on (cats, dogs, snails etc) – on a bench or rack is good.

 

 
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