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Early this month I will be sowing my parsnips outside in the veg patch. Unlike carrots, they are relatively easy to grow (once you have persuaded them to germinate), and since they store well in the soil over the winter they are a valuable winter storage crop.
When you have been growing your own food for a few years, it’s easy to forget what it felt like when you started out first. I am talking about that sweaty, daunted, vaguely frightened feeling - afraid to start, afraid to make a mistake, afraid to look foolish if it goes wrong.
The rise of carbs such as rice, pasta and cous cous has seen sales of potatoes decline by 20% in the last decade. In fact Bord Bia reports that sales of the spud could fall by as much as 40% in the next decade if the trend continues unchecked. The spud’s reputation has taken a hammering of late – it is deemed a little old fashioned, fattening and a hassle to cook.
And so it begins. Another season starts with the determined act of seed sowing in the potting shed. A bag of compost opened and tipped out on the sowing bench. Cold black plastic pots filled with even colder blacker compost. Seed labels lined up awaiting a scrawl of information. Seed packets fished out from my big box of tricks and ripped open to reveal their bounty. It's just tomatoes, aubergines and peppers today so five tiny little seeds are placed gently on the surface of each pot (one for each variety I will sow and 17 pots in all).
I reckon we could do worse then to make our 2016 resolution all about paying more attention to soil. If that sounds odd, bear in mind that healthy soils are the cornerstone of life on earth - not only the foundation for food, fuel and medical products, but also essential to our ecosystems, playing a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts.
Ok, so here's a confession. In almost ten years of growing I've never managed to successfully grow that quintessential Christmas crop, the Brussels sprout. This has been somewhat irksome as I am a fan of sprouts and generally speaking, really in to the idea of vegetables that grow well over winter.
Being a contrary sort I have always sown my garlic in the spring time, and it's an approach that has served me well over the years. In fact, it has worked so well that I never really saw the point of winter garlic sowing and I always felt very clever indeed for holding off until spring. This year however, I got caught out by mild spring weather. Garlic needs a prolonged cold snap (4-8 weeks of sub 10 degrees Celsius) to yield nice big tasty bulbs, and the spring weather this year didn't supply the conditions needed. The result? Puny little garlic bulbs and a dollop of humble pie.
This week I spent some time at either end of the food growing cycle: at one end, up to my neck in compost, turning the heaps at the end of the garden; at the other, up to my neck in a mountain of pears in the kitchen, turning them in to a pickle for the winter larder. When it comes down to it, you have to be willing to invest time at both ends of the cycle, if your food growing is to thrive.
After a couple of quiet weeks it’s time to get busy in the veg patch again, this time with harvesting. Our onions are ready to pick so it’s a job for a quiet Saturday, if the weather plays ball. Gathering onions and getting them ready for winter storage is one of the bigger harvesting jobs of the year, but I love it.
French beans are, I think, one of the most underrated of vegetables. Of all the legume family, they are my favourite to eat, more desirable to my mind than runner beans, broad beans and perhaps even peas.