Tag Archives: spring greens

Guy’s newsletter: unruly cabbages; the last stand

I hope you are enjoying the spring greens that have started to appear in the veg boxes. They may look a little pale and unruly, with the occasional weatherbeaten leaf, but please don’t let them linger in the back of your fridge; they are a delight simply cooked for two mins in plenty of salted, vigorously boiling water. A small knob of butter might help, but I’d implore you to do nothing more.

You may notice that the individual spring green plants vary from 50-200g; this is partly from fighting off weeds and pests, but also a result of genetic variation as they are among the few remaining open pollinated crops which are not grown from ‘F1’ hybrid seeds. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seeds from the best of their crops, thus exerting a selective pressure which led to incremental genetic improvement. In the 1930s, American maize researchers found that if you created two intensively inbred, and therefore relatively uniform strains, and then crossed them, the first (‘F1’) generation could combine the best of both strains while maintaining uniformity and adding hybrid vigour. Hybrid plant breeding helped boost yields and reduce production costs through the late 20th century, and has contributed to the low food prices we have today.

When I started growing vegetables in the ‘80s, my crops were perhaps 20% hybrids; now it’s 90% plus. Mostly it’s a change for the best as we have benefited from better disease resistance, more vigour and increased yield. On the downside I suspect that we have lost some flavour in a few crops. Bigger issues are that hybrids often need near-perfect growing conditions to thrive (hence our open-pollinated spring greens still win out in the tough depths of winter) and most significantly, hybrids do not breed true; this means that farmers cannot harvest their own seed but must buy new seed in every year. Over the last 20 years the GM companies Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have bought up seed companies so they now control almost half the global seed trade; I would argue that this monopoly is a bigger issue than GM. Everything around food starts with the seed, so do we really want its future controlled by companies that have risen on the backs of manufacturing PCBs, Agent Orange, bovine growth hormone and glyphosate tolerant GM crops? Long live the unruly greens I say.

Guy Watson

Guy’s newsletter: greenery struggles

We are conscious that the vegboxes are lacking in greenery. Even with all our experience, late winter harvests and the resulting box contents are hard to plan; a few days lost in August due to drought or late planting, and crops don’t mature enough before growth shuts down in December. Or, as was the case this year, too mild an autumn (the ‘long back end’ as Devon farmers call it) and our cabbages, kales, leeks and cauliflower bury us in a glut before Christmas, leaving very little for the rest of the winter.

To add to the woe, a cold February has stopped the winter cauliflowers in their tracks; the hardy varieties bred to make a curd (the white head that you eat) at this time of year rely on drawing nutrients from a big plant frame grown in the autumn. During the winter they are said to ‘grow from their stumps’ rather than their leaves, but even this process grinds to a halt below 7°C. However we have been saved to some degree by the vagaries of a kale crisp-maker; we grew 20 tonnes for them to fry only to be told they were the wrong shape; we were only too glad to put this curly kale in the boxes instead. Additional relief is at hand as we start picking spring greens too; sown in July at a high density, they are traditionally harvested in the mild southwest as loose-hearted, immature cabbages from now to April. Without the regular addition of nitrogen fertiliser given to conventional crops, ours grow more slowly and will be smaller and paler, but the flavour is much better. Last year the cows broke in and ate most of them but this year, despite a lot of weed, we have a fair crop of this hugely underrated vegetable.

To plug some gaps in your boxes we are using more imported calabrese broccoli than I would like, but our own winter-hardy and infinitely superior purple sprouting broccoli will soon displace it. Harvest reaches its peak in late March and should continue to the end of April as the first new greens (already planted and growing away under fleece) start arriving from our farm in France. Along with some spinach and beans from our growers in Spain, we think we have the ‘hungry gap’ between old and new crops pretty well covered this year.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: spring greens & immortality

It appears I am going to live forever. According to researchers at University College London, up to 3 veg a day decreases mortality by 14%, 5 by 29%, 7 by 36% and 7+ by 42%. As I live and breathe the stuff I reckon I must be immortal. Maybe I should buy an annuity after all, just for the pleasure of getting one over on an insurance company. Will the actuaries now start asking how much cabbage you eat alongside how much you smoke and drink?

I am generally cynical about headline-grabbing research as scientists and university chancellors have often had PR training and become media tarts like the rest of us. That said, like most people I am always partial to research that backs up my own prejudice. Never mind wonder diets, cholesterol-busting superfoods and antioxidants; my abiding belief is that the closer our diet is to the one we evolved to eat, digest and assimilate over millennia, the healthier we will be. A varied diet including moderate quantities of animal fat and protein, minimal processed food and additives and loads of fresh fruit and veg with as little cooking as possible is a good place to start. If you can combine that with enjoying your food while not worrying about it, so much the better.

My current veg enthusiasms include spring greens, though quantities are limited due to some unplanned foraging from our cows. After a long winter the greens are small and look a little rough but are the tastiest we have ever grown. Lightly cooked they are so tender it’s almost sacrilege to add salt, butter or lemon. From the woods my children and friends are busy picking wild garlic; great in a pesto with hazelnuts, folded into an omelette or, for the hardy, raw in salads. However my absolute, liver-cleansing favourite is dandelions, blanched, lightly cooked with garlic and chilli and tossed with pasta (recipe overleaf). We have a few cultivated ones from our polytunnels for sale on extras, or pick your own.

Meanwhile for those among you with a garden of your own, we have used agricultural fleece available to keep the insects and the worst of the weather off your veg; roughly 30-40m2 for £4.99, with proceeds going to Send a Cow.

Guy Watson

guy’s newsletter: zen pickers & marauding cows

Despite the deluge, everyone is happy enough apart from the chickens. If it is to rain for eight weeks with barely a pause, it might as well be now when the days are shortest and not much is happening in our fields. On the whole our standing crops are bearing up well and there is little to be gained from cultivating or planting before March.

As you wash the last traces of our fields from your leeks, spare a thought for our pickers. It has been mercifully warm, but eight hours in a windswept field with ten pounds of mud clinging to each boot and the rain trickling down your neck day after day would break most mortals. I have never been down a mine or on a deep-sea trawler, but I reckon they are the only professions that could compete with winter veg picking for harshness of conditions. Most people just can’t take it, but there seems to be something in the makeup of a small minority that can shrug off such hardship; those who stick with it tend to be a pretty Zen bunch; perhaps they rise to a higher level of consciousness, who knows.

With the winter half gone we are taking stock, in the barns and the fields, and recalculating whether we will make it to spring. Spuds and onions are fine, right on plan but carrots will be short (they never really recovered from a dry summer and were more affected by carrot root fly than planned). In the fields the mild weather has brought leeks, kale, cabbages and cauliflower ahead of schedule; great for now but leading to potential shortages in March and April. The situation is not helped by a marauding herd of cows that broke into our spring greens one weekend. Not believing their luck they chomped through half a million or so before being detected, leaving a sizeable hole in our plans for your kitchens. We are hoping for a good crop of purple sprouting broccoli to fill the gap. Depending on temperatures we will pick the fields every five to ten days until the spears become too small for viable picking. My guess is that this year, with greens in short supply, we will be scouring the fields that would normally have been turned over to the sheep.

guy’s newsletter: bruised, but still here

The first of the big winter gales has blown through, leaving us a little tattered but still standing. One older, single-span polytunnel was ripped open, but it was overdue for re-skinning anyway. Meanwhile our newer, terrifyingly light gauge (but better engineered) multi-span tunnels survived with only minor damage. Outside, the gale has brought our borlotti bean harvest to a premature end after the crop was left beaten into the mud. 

Even the most determined picker would struggle to maintain quality, but we’ve been sufficiently encouraged by their flavour and your response to try again next year, both in Devon and further south on our French farm. Perpetual spinach and chard were another casualty however. They are happy in the autumn conditions and would grow on until the first hard frost, but their delicate leaves don’t mix with gales. Sorting through the damage makes harvesting slow, demoralising and economically dubious at best.

There are ways of minimising storm damage however. Compared to our farms in other parts of the country, here in Devon we are blessed with high hedges, relatively small fields and plenty of trees, affording good shelter for our crops. Given my time again, and without the compromise of rotating our fields with the dairy herd, I would definitely plant even more windbreaks; the combined impact of a reduced cropping area and added shading would be countered many times over by the additional protection they would bring.

To add to the calamity last week, our normally well-behaved heifers broke through an electric fence and munched their way across most of our spring greens. My sister Louise blames the introduction of three bulls for pursuing (or enticing) her fair, well-trained maidens into such unruly behaviour. Some of the plants may grow back where the growing point was spared, but it will be a late, uneven and much diminished crop.

All is by no means lost; these are minor hiccups in what is and continues to be a great growing year. Indeed, a greater concern is veg growing too big, particularly cabbage and radicchio, but on reflection (and certainly compared to our farming woes this time last year), that’s a good problem to have.

Guy Watson