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Home News If the climate’s in chaos, why are my vegetables doing so well?

If the climate’s in chaos, why are my vegetables doing so well?

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We all know about climate change, global warming, even climate chaos. How are we going to survive?

My way of surviving has always been to trust my own observations.

But according to the media, ‘we’re doomed!’

Happily, each year since 2014, my outputs have increased in quality, quantity and variety. During the 2019 heatwave, I grew the longest, biggest parsnips ever. I grew the best swedes ever. I harvested beetroots quicker than ever.

Part of my garden, October 2019, after welcome rain

How have I done this?

Firstly, by converting my 50sqm growing area in 2014 to a no-dig organic garden using aspects of permaculture and biodynamics. The UK’s best source on no dig gardening is Charles Dowding. The Biodynamic Association is the site to learn more about biodynamics. Permaculture is an acronym for ‘Permanent Agriculture’ and is really concerned about achieving sustainability in all that we do. The Permaculture Association is here.

The most important thing I did was lay out four permanent beds of 5m by 1.5m (if I were doing it again, I would make five 5m by 1.2m beds instead) with 50cm paths between them. No-dig is best practised by normally not standing on your soil.

Secondly, I have been recycling all the garden waste from both our garden and that put out by neighbours for green waste collection. I thus make enough compost each year to completely feed my vegetable garden through application of 3-5cm of mature compost on top of the beds, between September and June.

200-litre compost bin filled to the brim with organic goodies, here showing plenty of comfrey leaves

The combination of not digging and feeding my garden compost has had very noticeable effects over a 3-5 year period.

Firstly, slugs tend to eat far fewer young seedlings. Secondly, crops which could not be grown successfully (most notably carrots and tomatoes) have become staple crops. Thirdly, pests such as blackfly tend to have less effect on beans (especially if you plant marigold plants next to them).

The third way things have improved is through seed saving and identifying great seed suppliers.

I now use exclusively UK suppliers and their seeds are almost always excellent. Seed Co-operativeReal Seeds and Chiltern Seeds all have my loyalty for good reasons.

This year, three-year-old home-saved Alderman pea seeds germinated twice at 95 per cent efficiency. Six-to-eight-year-old home-saved tomato seeds are still germinating at 90 per cent efficiency and I have rarely had a dwarf bean seed fail after saving them here annually since 2016.

Alderman peas germinating in module trays

Cupidon dwarf bean seeds, home-saved: 100 per cent fired

The fourth way to hone your productivity is finding the best times to sow different seeds.

Everywhere is slightly different but every vegetable has optimal times for growth. Here, in the London area, the first week of April is pretty optimal for sowing radish and spring turnip; 10 May to 10 June for sowing carrots for winter storage; early August for sowing autumn turnips.

Purple Top Milan autumn turnips

The fifth way to improve productivity is to plan to have two or more crops per season across most of your garden.

Last year I successfully grew three crops in succession, namely spring turnip, then dwarf bean, then Florence fennel. This year, I am having a go taking a 0.6m by 1.5m area to grow four crops in one season: radish, July beetroot, spring onions then winter lettuce (Valdor strain). I will not be surprised if I get 30lb of juicy food from just 1 sqm of plot.

The best way to achieve much of that is to do a lot of sowing in trays, module trays and small pots, so that what you plant out has already germinated and established itself as a young plant.

Pretty much the only things I sow direct now are parsnips, carrots, potatoes, radish, turnips and winter radish.

None of this takes huge amounts of time. Planning in winter is repaid in full during the growing season. Spreadsheets are an organic gardener’s trusted friend.

Obviously, extreme weather can adversely affect growing. Late frosts in spring and early ones in autumn have to be factored in, but often they are short-lived and 30gsm horticultural fleece will often provide sufficient protection. Droughts in summer will cause pole beans to struggle, but copious rain in the autumn can be the best friend of turnip, winter radish, fennel and lettuce.

The effect of 4 inches of rain on an autumn garden: glorious!

Piers Corbyn of Weather Action www.weatheraction.com is one source of advanced warning of such events: he is not infallible, but certainly a worthwhile go-to source.

Reality is that we can more than compensate for any changes in our weather through improving our vegetable growing knowledge and expertise.

I win prizes at local shows but am no global guru.

Sweet Candle Carrots grown in bags 2017

What autumn brings from a no-dig garden (2017)

Medwyn Williams has won umpteen gold medals at Chelsea from a growing area in the cool and wet Anglesey. French horticulture around Paris led the world in the 1800s, despite summers being hotter than here and just as dry.

Yes, we must adapt our growing to our local climate but no, the sensitivity of food crops to climate is not so extreme that minor changes to climate will affect our growing patterns unduly.

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Rhys Jaggar
Rhys Jaggar was a research scientist and management consultant who took up gardening around 2014 and spent six years turning a tired infertile plot in north-west London into a highly productive 50sqm.

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