I’m Tomás, the “T” in “LittleEcoT”. I’m a scientist who is interested in living a more sustainable life and what this means for us as a society, locally and globally.
As well as my 1st “eco-renovation” project with my fiancée to move a ~1900 “2 up 2 down” in York from a D to an A (in CO2 terms) for 10% of its value and latest attempts to do up a 70s flat in an “eco” way, i’m interested in a load of indirectly related “eco” things. This includes community energy locally in York, social investment (esp. in renewables), and just general ways to have a nice standard of life whilst reducing environmental footprints.
Blog posts from “LittleEcoT”:
It feels like today, many of us are becoming quite distant from the origins of the food we eat. We’re not shopping in the butcher’s, the baker’s and the grocer’s, and this means in general our food is travelling further to get to us, and we know less about the wellbeing of the people who make it and how they make it. It’d be easy to bemoan the march of the supermarkets and a valid response could be to only shop local for some. However there are other factors here: mass food has become more varied, less expensive, and its quality is policed with exceptional rigour (...even if taste is occasionally the innocent bystander hit by this focus). Thankfully there are lots of gems of local producers all around the UK, but I've found since moving to London trying to shop local now carries a hefty price tag. It seems to have become a pretension. Shopping eco and organic similarly can get pricey very suddenly, with alternative supermarkets like As Nature Intended and Wholefoods stocking hard-to-find eco goods in London but also charging well above the odds for them also.
So, how do you get your diet and groceries to be low food miles, fairtrade, organic, low meat, eco-friendly, varied and exciting, and yet not cost you an utter fortune?
What is Suma?
Time for a clever co-operative to step in. Suma have been running since the 70s and they are one of the most successful workers co-operatives in the UK. Their business model is very interesting; their main purpose is to sell organic, fairtrade, and environmentally friendly groceries wholesale to shops. However they also actively encourage sales to food-buying groups; individuals banding together to get to the same Minimum Order Value (MOV) as a shop would have, and then sending through one group order. Suma have strong principles about what they will and won’t stock; they are strict about products being environmentally sensible, paying a fair price to those who grew/made the food (whether that is Fairtrade label or other forms of worker protections), they don’t stock meat, and most (but not all) of their food is organic.
Over the years Suma have grown and are now an experienced brand in their own right; many of their staples are Suma branded and sourced. Suma practices what it preaches by paying all of its staff an identical basic wage of £15.60 per hour (~£32k p.a.) regardless of role, and all staff equally share profits and have equal stakes in deciding how the business develops. Staff are encouraged to turn their talents to whichever combination of roles they prefer; this radio program said tasks like picking and stacking are partially on a rota, but equally some workers are more accounts-based and others are more packing-based. I’m really fascinated by their model; it’s unabashedly utopian and logically one would say ahh, economics will mean one day they won’t be able to fill a skills gap and will have to pay one person more, then it will all fall apart. However they’ve been doing just fine for the past 40 years. My instinct says the answer to the puzzle is they’re offering a model of diversity and equality that really is worth more than money to some very capable people out there. Well, anyway, if you just read that and want to join the utopia, they’re over in Elland, West Yorkshire, and they’re hiring as I write this.
Back to the food; Suma stock a huge range of grains, staples, canned vegetables, nuts, fruits, drinks, oils, dairy goods, toiletries and cleaning products. If you have a special diet eg. low meat, dairy free, gluten free, vegan, they have a ton of specialist foods and meat replacement foods. Quality is very high and prices are comparable with budget supermarkets, i.e. it may not necessarily beat Aldi/Lidl/Asda/Morrisons but it’s great quality and great ethics for that same price. It’s excellent value.
There are a few other co-operatives doing something similar: Lembas in Sheffield and Rainbow Wholefoods in Norwich are notable examples and similarly have an ethos of equality and co-operative running. They’ll also sell in bulk to food buying groups. I believe there are a few more but I don't know them by name, feel free to comment and flag some others up.
What is a Food Buying Group?
A food buying group is where a bunch of individuals get together and place group orders for food, so that they can access it cheaply. Some food buying groups can be purely cost motivated, but around the UK there's a really big trend of these groups also being about getting more environmental, more ethical products, particularly if you live somewhere where those items are not in the shops around you. The group normally has a focal point that makes it a natural little community; a certain cafe, or school, or allotment site. The group can be a co-op, with a constitution, members, bank account - or equally it can be a Whatsapp group and one person willing to have a pallet delivered to their house now and then.
When I was little we used to get our Rainbow Wholefoods supplies (inc. soya milk and un-sulphured apricots) from the delightful Fruits Of The Earth in Upper Orwell Street, Ipswich. It was my favourite shop because its smell was just incredible, all of the cooking spices oozing together, and to a child it seemed stunningly exotic. I have a treasured memory of watching the Chinese New Year parade passing whilst we stood on the high doorstep of the shop. Unfortunately for us this rarity in Ipswich disappeared, leaving us without a particularly good source of wholefood products for a while. A few years later my parents joined the allotment's food group - this is a really popular type of food co-op - and used to order in all the bulk items that a big family gets through; pasta, laundry liquid, loo roll, tinned tomatoes.
When we lived primarily in York, we were part of the University of York People and Planet Student food co-op (SCOOP, @YorkSCOOP). They have a sophisticated setup where they run a price-by-weight shop called SCOOP at cost out of the University. Most food groups don't have enough admin people to do this, but the students provided a big enough group that it made sense to "pony up" for the bulk and let people come and grab what they want. If you wanted something rare you might have to commit to taking a whole case of it before they'd order it in, but most stuff was very easy to get from there.
Now we're in London and surprisingly we've not naturally drifted into any food groups here. It seems to be a bizarre desert for food groups. For a while that puzzled me, but I've noticed a few factors in the dearth of food groups here:
Specialist diets have become normal - It used to be difficult to get dairy free/gluten free/meat replacement/vegan fare in most UK shops, and seeking out somewhere that would sell these to you would be the thing that originally nudged you into the wholefoods universe. Now Quorn is everywhere, and with 1/3rd of British customers now buying Free From products, even my convenience shop stocks soya milk and gluten free bread. It's far easier to get this stuff.
Combo of availability and money - London already has a lot of shops catering to eco food and cleaning products, they charge a lot but they are convenient and people here get constantly psychologically battered into thinking food costs a lot of money, so they don't seem to notice the markup.
Don't talk to other Londoners - our rep across the UK for ignoring each other in London is not entirely undeserved. Our community is simply too large to emotionally cope with, so I've noticed socialising becomes more focused; there's a club for literally any activity, but x club only does x activity specifically. Food groups seem to arise more naturally where the community is smaller so a successful club/society needs to accommodate a more disparate group of people attending and be a focal point for a broader range of activities. People then chat more about neighbouring interests and work out they'd like a food group.
What do you need to start a food group?
- £0 - no startup costs
- A group of people who can all communicate easily
- Enough interest to generate orders of minimum value £250 (total, not each)
- Someone who can drive a spreadsheet and knows super-basic accounting (i.e. if you do your own bills, you are totally qualified enough for this)
- Someone who feels confident reminding people politely to pay (can be consolidated into the same human as above skillset)
- A bank account to marshal the money up in
- Somewhere that a huge Arctic lorry (think double-decker bus size) can drop a pallet off
Read through Suma's "Start your own Food Group" guide to find out more. I used their web resources for lots of advice and help and found they were excellent. They had a "Top 100" list, which helped me show the possibilities to people unsure about jumping in.
Our food co-op: Musette
Musette is the food co-op I set up for the employees of Brompton Bicycle Ltd. I’m really proud of being able to set up a co-op of our own, and I’m thoroughly impressed with how enlightened an employer Brompton has been through the process. I'm also just blown away by how stunningly friendly Suma are as a company, and as individuals, which I'll say more about in a second.
I'll do another post sometime describing the nuts and bolts of how we run, and how orders come together, but for now I want to just chat a bit about how Musette came to be.
The food group grew out of necessity; LittleEcoFlat gets through lots of TVP, soya milk, Boullion powder, Ecover washing and cleaning things, tinned chickpeas, and we were getting this all from SCOOP. As we spent more and more time in London we were having to take more and more of these foods down on the train from York. It's a ridiculous situation that this was still so much cheaper than buying those things here. So we had a think about who would make a good group; we thought maybe the allotment, but we were concerned on two counts. First was we are newbies. Rocking up and then starting to organise people who've been doing this a lot longer than you is rarely wanted or needed. Second is the allotment group is quite loosely connected and its organisation appears mysterious from the outside. Our secretary clearly has an excellent handle on things, but we really lacked the confidence that we could get this gang pulling together, communicating well, and placing big enough orders.
Instead I started to think about my workplace. The factory is massive; pallets and lorries coming and going is the day-to-day reality. My immediate colleagues include several who love to cook and like good quality ingredients, and the wider company is big and could get a minimum order together even if it's only a small % buying one or two items each. My colleagues include people who eat low meat, no meat, organic, palm oil free, and who use environmentally friendly laundry liquid etc., making them a decent fit for Suma's catalogue. Brompton isn't a campaigning organisation and doesn't have an environmental agenda, but the staff is heavily made up of cyclists and that has a correlation with many of us feeling quite environmentally conscious.
My first step was to gently float the idea hypothetically to a couple of close friends at work. They seemed keen and thought others would be too. After building up my confidence a bit, I went to our MD and pitched for permission. My argument was that his employees get access to a seriously good deal on good quality food, and all it's going to cost him is a pallet spot for 1-2 days which isn't even going to be a hassle. He didn't know much about Suma or food buying groups but was immediately keen. He gave me permission and said this is the kind of employee community activity they want to have, he was really encouraging. I'm glad I spoke to Brompton's management really early; if you are considering doing something similar, I would recommend doing it this way. I felt it was important to show my respect for the company before steaming ahead, and it definitely set the right tone of enthusiasm. I also appreciated that the MD showed his support by making sure he joined in on the first order, and spreading the word about Suma.
The first order was a solo affair on the admin side; I phoned Suma and set up an account alone, and did the promoting, order collection, money admin. When I first spoke to Suma the size of the task felt really daunting. But I needn't have worried - I had the pleasure of Lynne (from the New Business Team) taking me through the process with warmth and charm. She signposted me to all the info I needed and it genuinely was really easy to get started. Something I hadn't anticipated was Suma were so excited by Brompton getting in touch. Lynne was really impressed that our staff were up for this sort of thing, and Suma staff have a great love for cycling. Regardless of that, everyone I've had contact with at Suma has made it clear that they're so happy to have us, and that they genuinely love new customers coming along and getting to include them in something everyone at Suma deeply believes in.
My first order was a bit gunky, I made mistakes, I didn't know which foodstuffs were VAT chargable (it's seriously weird). I didn't check if things were in stock, and on the first order you don't have a credit line yet which means you need to pay for everything and then process a refund for anything which isn't able to be sent for whatever reason. But Brompton staff were excited and positive, whilst Suma staff were quietly efficient and dealt with everything very smoothly. The order was a big success overall, people loved it and made it immediately clear that they wanted to do it again. Meanwhile, the lady who packed our pallet for us slipped in a handwritten note which we proudly put up on the noticeboard:
Big love to Brompton Bicycles! Best in the world! Jane, Suma xxx
Thank you Jane!
After that there was a long hiatus due to me getting married, which rather maxed out my admin capabilities. But when I got back, we set about creating Musette. It's a constituted co-op with four Brompton employees making up the management committee. I'm chair and realistically I still do most of the order side, but it's lovely having the others to seek advice from, to help publicise the group, and to help me split out the goods when they arrive. I wanted to set up a full-blown co-op, rather than an informal group, partly so that the admin wouldn't all fall on one person, but mostly so that I'm not handling loads of my colleagues' money all on my own. The orders can easily break £1k each, and whilst my colleagues clearly have trust in me and have been happy with my management of the money, having a co-op means it's more accountable and transparent if any confusion ever did arise. Best to keep a healthy boundary between work world and money world.
The name refers to a musette bag from the world of road cycling, which is a light cotton bag with a very long strap so it'll sit on the rider's back easily, filled with snacks that gets chucked to pro riders in the feed zone, or generally taken on rides to snack from (See also: nosebag, bonk-bag). It took us a long time to come up with it, we were initially trying for a bad pun or slightly naughty acronym, but being a co-op based on the intersection of bicycles and food, Musette is such an appropriate name.
Together with the committee it's going really well. The hardest thing about it is that it involves payments and so people forget, or don't really want to pay, and you have to keep firm about the boundaries there. We've set a simple rule of payment before order, and the order's on a hard deadline. If anyone misses payment, their stuff doesn't get ordered, but we're really gentle about it and encourage them to try again next order.
Overall this experience has been excellent. LittleEcoFlat has enough food tucked away in it to weather the apocalypse, and I've gotten to see the enthusiasm from both Brompton and Suma employees. It reinforced my feeling that I'm really lucky to work at a place where people are interested in having a community, and are interested in having integrity and principle in how they live. I had no idea how a community that isn't primarily eco-focused would take to Suma; but it turns out my colleagues are open-minded and interested in the world, and they bloomin' love cut-price pine nuts.
- Suma (their website linked here)
- Radio programme mentioning Suma (part of an episode from Radio 4's "The Joy of 9 to 5")
- Some other food co-ops:
- "How to Sew Your Own Musette Bag"
Since our last allotment post we've obtained and reclaimed the second part our allotment plot. This adjoins to the north of the bit we already had. We've managed to grow a few things and eat them. Here is a little update on our efforts and some of what we've learnt so far...
The empire expands! - taking over the 1/4 plot next-door
So, we got the second part (1/4) of our allotment, making us up to a 1/2 plot, or 5 poles. For reasons of demand, allotments are split typically into 1/4s and 1/2s these days with only veterans really having whole 10 pole or multiple 5 pole plots. Annoyingly if we'd known we'd expand I wouldn't have wasted 1/2 a day re-building the beds that slightly went over the half way mark. Regardless actually wrestling the site to a state where things could grow took several cumulative days of effort. From speaking to others, this is pretty much always the case...
As well as a really interesting and lively group of local people who have allotment plots, we got a few critter friends too! We have numerous slow worms, birds, frogs, pretty insects (inc. dragonflies), and even a cat. We are particularly fond of our frogs, who seem to be very happy with our pond (made from an up-cycled bath as discussed in our last post). I was less positive about the allotment cat (as they are responsible for a vast amount of bird deaths - see CSE's graph comparing to death's from buildings/wind turbines), but after noting how many mice it caught (who might eat our mange-tout!) I might be slowly coming around.
Cooking from the allotment
We are amazed about how much we've got off the allotment so far. We are well on track to beat the money we've spent on the allotment with worth of crops off. A lot of it has been fortuitous, we've cashed in on what was grown in the soil previously and that amazingly survived our rebuilding of plots and re-taming the space. The highlight of this was a surprise asparagus, that provided many happy additions to dishes over a month period.
We've grown a ridiculous amout of courgettes and marrows. As you may have seen, we even posted the favourite three of the marrow recipes we cooked (blog post: "Don’t feel Marrow-se about your courgettes!").
Pestos & salads...
We tend to prefer lightly cooked vegetables anyway, but particularly from the allotment we're finding the tastes and textures of them raw a real delight. Our first red cabbage went into a huge coleslaw, and we've already had an experiment with making a herb pesto using marjoram, oregano and garlic from the herb bed crushed up with bulk-bought pine nuts (from the lovely guys at Suma) and olive oil. Major plus point; you can make it dairy free, if you are lactose intolerant, as long as you put in some salt - we discovered the cheese is counterbalancing a lot of sweetness from the pine nuts. We're now working on a little basil factory on our windowsill at the flat where it's warmer in order to do version 2.
A spiraliser proved to be useful and we did a huge salad of courgette, onion, cabbage (all from allotment) with carrot, cashew, and sweet chilli sauce (not from allotment).
Finally, sorrel is a bizarre, intense and lovely lemon-tasting leaf which has really thrived and we've enjoyed flavour-bombing salads with.
The kindness/glut of others
In addition to our own growing, we've been kindly given a variety of things from other allotmenteer's gluts. This has included parsnips, beans, and raspberries; all have at become the foucus of a meal. We've enjoyed returning the favour ocasssionally, but the the largest glut we've had was courgettes/marrows (there are still >10 marrows in our kitchen) and nearly everyone had enough this year (but we did manage to give a few to friends and family). Foraging bushes near the allotment has yeilded many kilos of blackberries, which hopefully will remain a nice addition to breakfasts and smoothies for many months.
My wife and I have a rather low opinion of our gardening knowledge and general green fingered-ness, but as we keep up our ~2hrs each per week we are pleasantly surprised at how much we seem to be able to grow. Slowly we seem to be making progress and working out how to get more out of our space. A few things we've realised:
- Things grow. Particularly potatoes. Often the things you didn't intend to grow do the best and you just have to work with that.
- Research is good. Getting allotment was a surprise and we decided to just take the chance and run with it, rather than our normal approach of hitting the books/internet beforehand.
- The more setup your site is the easier it is to look after and therefore the less time per week you need to spend on it.
So we went with the flow with (1) and are working on some plans for (3). For (2): We've slowly doing more research, but a lot of the big lessons learned have been experiential and on our plot.
- A graph on domestic cat's contributions to bird deaths, from CSE's Common concerns about wind
When does a courgette (or zucchini to our American friends) become a marrow....
When you go on holiday!
In our little journeys into growing your own, there've been lots of surprises. Certainly the biggest (by weight) surprise has been the mad expansion of our courgettes whilst we were on holiday!
The 1st Haul
We returned to harvest seven handsome marrows and promptly realised we had no idea what to do with them.
Look at these beauties, the 1st seven weighed a total of 10.5kg!
Here's what we've been doing to beat the glut without getting bored; if you have recipes to add we'd love to hear them.
Our first point of call was roast marrow. We had two tries at this, both turned out well but definitely the second was best.
- 1 huge marrow
- 1 pack of dry falafel mix (via the lovely guys @ suma)
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius (fan)
- Mix the falafel powder with 150ml of water (slightly less than normal)
- Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
- Brush the oil thinly over the marrow inside and outside
- Roast the marrow for 20 minutes on a pizza stone
- Remove and fill with falafel mixture
- Roast for 30 minutes
We found that the falafel went crispy on top and steamed underneath, which is what we were after. However we concluded the marrow was not too interesting on its own and could really carry more flavour.
Chorizo, tomato & paprika roasted marrow
- 1 huge marrow
- 4 cloves of garlic
- 3 tbsp of olive oil
- 2 tbsp of ground paprika
- 1/2 ring of chorizo
- 2 x 400g tins chopped tomatoes
- 3 tbsp tomato puree
- 1 tsp Bouillon powder
- 1 tsp soy sauce
- Admire your marrow
- Preheat the oven to 180 degrees Celsius fan
- Cut the marrow in half lengthways and scoop out the seeds and pulp
- Peel, crush and finely chop the garlic cloves
- Brush a little bit of oil thinly over the marrow skin
- Mix the rest of the oil, the garlic, and the paprika in a small bowl
- Score the inside of the marrow deeply in a diamond pattern
- Drizzle the oil mixture on and spread it out all over the insides with the back of a spoon
- Roast the marrow for 20 mins on a pizza stone
- Whilst that's cooking, chop the chorizo into bitesize chunks and fry for 5 mins in a large thick-bottomed pan.
- Tip in the tomatoes, puree, Boullion and soy sauce. Simmer & reduce until the marrow is done
- Put the tomato & chorizo mix into the marrow
- Roast for 30 mins
Definitely go overboard on the paprika - the resulting oil paste soaks down the scored sections and gives the marrow colour and flavour. We loved this and it stored really well for lunches.
Give Them Away
Next we dealt with another two by giving them to friends who eat healthily, but don't have a growing patch of their own. One of them tried roasting their marrow with nut roast stuffing which they highly recommend. The other is still considering their options...
We also made our normal bolognese recipe (lots of veg, soya protein instead of mince) and put most of a marrow chopped up in that as a nice bulker. It'd also disappear into soups in a similar way.
Marrow & Stem Ginger Cake
I enlisted my work colleagues to eat and rate V1 for me and came up with V2 today. Based on the feedback, this is my optimised recipe. It comes out sticky and with a powerful gingery kick, I recommend it as a loaf cake but it also works as an iced circular cake.
As we all know, cake is a serious business and benefits from the application of SCIENCE (or at least, graphs) and so here is my peer-reviewed cake:
Based on this I put more ginger and more marrow into version 2!
- 300g marrow, skinned cored and grated
- 200g self raising flour
- 200g butter
- 100g brown sugar
- 227g (1/2 jar) Lyle's golden syrup
- 175g (1/2 jar) stem ginger & ginger syrup (tried 4 places for this and eventually found it in Morrisons)
- 1 egg
- 2 tsp ground ginger
- 1/2 tsp ground cinnamon
- 1/2 tsp mixed spice
- 1 tsp baking powder
- 1 thumbnail-sized chunk of ginger root, fine grated
- Preheat the oven to 160 degrees Celsius fan
- Line your tin, I use a silicone one so I just put a thin coat of butter on it and toss a teaspoon of flour in it
- Beat the butter and sugar together. Brown sugar is a right pain if it's got lumps in so it's really worth crushing those out first.
- Whisk the egg and beat it into the mix in little bits. The butter I use is Pure Soya Marg and it has a tendency to curdle when mixed with egg, so to avoid this I sieve in just a bit of the flour first.
- Pour in the syrup and mix
- Chop the stem ginger into chunks about 4-5 mm wide. Make sure to keep at least one or two pieces back and cut them into bigger bits, about a cm wide, so that there's concentrated bits of ginger to bite into. This was a key innovation introduced after version 1!
- Stir the stem ginger pieces and grated root ginger into the mix.
- In a dry bowl stir the flour, baking powder and spices together. Sieve into the mix and fold in gently
- Tip in the grated marrow, and stir in as gently as you can (don't want to lose too much air)
- Fill the tin and bake for 40-50 mins or until a skewer (or knife, if like me you don't have any skewers) comes out clean with no cake mix on it
- Place on a cooling tray for about 5 mins but if you're using silicone don't let it cool all the way in there; turn it out fairly promptly
- Cover with a tea towel and allow to cool
- OPTIONAL - ice with buttercream. 1 qty butter to 1.5 qty icing sugar
- Enjoy the sweet victory of your work colleagues insisting you feed them more of your glut item
Our Other Ideas
Our Mums have been sending us lovely recipes and we've also had some recommendations off friends. We want to try courgette fritters, spiralised courgette noodles, ratatouille, and much more besides. But that is a matter for to-marrow...
The Situation Is Now Under Control
Its been a bit of a marrow-thon, but of our mighty glut only one marrow remains - handily when they get big their skins get thick, so it's safe to store it for a couple of weeks. In the meantime our courgette patch has been giving us civilised normal sized courgettes which are sweeter and firmer. These are now slotting into our normal cooking habits (steamed with a meal, fried/roasted in slices, grated in salad, chopped in risotto) and saving on our grocery bill!
- Friends & family have shared lots of cool recipes with us, here are a few:
- Good Housekeeping's How to Cook Marrow: top marrow recipes
- Technical side note on the use of the word Celsius or Centigrade
A few months back, we got a call out of the blue asking if we wanted an allotment. We suddenly remembered we'd put ourselves on the allotment waiting list about a year and a half prior to this, thinking (rather optimistically!) by the time we got to the top of the list we'd have finished up our flat renovations and read a bit on growing things. However, as we knew it'd probably be ages before we'd be asked again we decided we'd give it a go with a fixed amount of time each week (2hrs each) and muddle our way through.
The overarching thought was for Ele and I to get some experience trying to grow our own food. We've been doing lots of daydreaming and some planning about a hypothetical self build (at least partially...) "eco-home" in the future for a while now. As part of these ideas there'd be an element of growing our own food, so here is a little summary of the first few months of our experiment...
What do you get?
For our £37.50/year we got a "plot" of land of area similar to that of many of the 1-bed flats we looked at when we moved to west London (~25 sq. metres). The plot was rather over-grown, but obviously had been loved at one point. There was lots of wood, which we could re-purpose to build our things.
Pulling a plan together
We started putting together an plan of what to grow where and how to use the space before "breaking ground". We got lots of useful info from the Royal Horticultural society (RHS)'s guide for newbie allotmenteers, and pulled together a little map our plot (below)...
We then started trying to work to our plan. The first thing was a lot of tidying up, collecting up wood on site, and seeing how good the raised beds were...
The raised beds were mostly OK, but had a lot of rotten bits and needed a fair few screws to get them to hold earth again. We built a couple of sturdy new compost heaps so we could start being able to enrich the soil back to state for growing and make new beds from the areas of the plot that were mostly just London clay instead of top soil.
Whilst moving the beds we saw a few toads! So this led to the acceleration of one of our biggest additions to the plot, the pond. Someone kindly fly-tipped this near our house, prematurely cutting short its noble life, so we thought a new lease could help! We thought the toads might help with slugs eating up our crops...
With the site closer to our ideas, we then put in some crops. As it was early in the year at this point, we mostly just got in onion sets and garlic. We also got some plants kindly given to us by other allotments and family, which made our rather barren plot really start to feel more alive. A highlight was strawberries which had grown in someones path and were free to use if we dug them up and re-planted them...
...and from here?
We started the with the idea that ~£40 to give growing a go in London was reasonable and we would be happy if we just managed to grow a few edible things. After a few months slowly preparing the site and starting to plant more things we're cautiously optimistic. We seem to be very good at digging things. We're starting to get edibles off the plot, and see what works and doesn't. We still have a great deal to learn, and we don't know yet what to do when things go wrong with our baby plants.
That said, we also got the second (north) part of the allotment, so our empire has doubled and now includes the skeleton of a shed (below, which I am re-building)! I'll do a blog in the near future (pt. II) about the second plot and what we're actually growing now in main season...
- A great overview site that gave us a lot of ideas, including a month-by-month guide to what to plant: www.allotment-garden.org
- Royal Horticultural Society (RHS): "Allotment basics"
- Royal Horticultural Society (RHS): "What to consider when starting an allotment"
- A brief history of allotments from the National Allotment Society
- Government link for if you’re interested in applying for an allotment
After looking at our carbon footprints via a nice (and relatively quick ) tool called REAP-Petite a while back, we realised that food was an area we needed to really work on. When life moved us to be based in west London, getting a home with a garden was off the cards, as it is for most. However, we've found that we can get a remarkable crop just from some window boxes (even through the winter once!).
We've also been looking at a load of other things to bring down our food carbon footprints, including setting up a local Suma wholefoods buying group, exploring new veggie/vegan recipes, and trying to take our growing a bit further. So here's a little post on seeing our first attempts at food production skyrocket...
We just have a "Juliet Balcony", so there isn't somewhere outside for us to put plots. If you do have somewhere for boxes, then many people have shown that you can really produce a lot! (e.g. @VerticalVeg, who grew £900 of veg in six foot of space in London) We started with four boxes. There were a lot of options (including much cheaper ones), but we ended up choosing ones in zinc to fit with balcony for ~£15 a pop (links at end of blog).
Since this was our first attempt we just jumped in and got supplies from shops near us, hopefully with time we'll get a better idea of what works well. We also choose to focus on the more expensive and "easy to grow" crops of cut-and-come-again lettuce, rocket etc. After getting the boxes, next on the list were seeds and compost.
- Seeds - we've tried a mixture of sources, e.g. IKEA (Vaxer), Wilkinsons (Wilko), and the organic gardening catalogue. The ones from IKEA and the organic gardening catalogue grew well, but we didn't rate those from Wilko. We even tried buying the reduced cut and come-again salads from supermarkets, but although cheap, they never lasted that long.
- Compost - we just got a load delivered cheaply from a local chain hardware store, Wickes (avoiding peat compost for carbon reasons).
We started with four boxes, then expanded to five to use the whole top balcony rail. I'm still deciding whether to put up the second row, which would double the amount we could grow. The really essential addition, post buying off-the-shelf boxes, was drilling a line drainage holes about an inch up on each side of the boxes to make sure the soil didn't get too wet (photo below).
First we planted up baby spinach, rocket, cut-and-come-again salad leaves and some herbs. These grew well and even through the winter in the first year (2015 was mild). We're still amazed with how much grew and the sheer amount of salad that we had. Considering the kind of salad we were growing would cost around a £1 or more a bag in the shops (e.g. rocket and mixed leaves), the savings/worth per week could probably be ~£3 or more.
We did have a time when we got a lot of coriander, more than could be used at once. However, we found that any extra is easily preserved and led to some interesting recipes (e.g. see this guide on 5 ways to preserve 'Cilantro').
However, after our thoughts of giddy success our vigilance dropped and we failed to notice the drainage holes were slowly blocking up. We then re-seeded the plots with only an little extra compost, but the seeds didn't even really germinate. This was in all likelihood due to the soil just being used up and we started looking into how to improve the soil choose to add some fertilizer (100% Vegetable ingredients), which improved things. Window boxes are a very different eco-system to growing in soil and we probably had naively not though about this enough... We were kindly given some small herb plants too which got us going again. However the streak did not continue through the winter as it was harder that 1st year we have done this and the drainage still wan't good enough so we lost our herbs and our salad stopped growing.
So we've had some highs and lows, but are learning slowly how to keep the window boxes growing well. We've upped our game a bit now and are growing with the aim of having a constant supply of the special salads (e.g. radicchio, mustard leaves etc) as-well as cut-and-come-again lettuce/rocket. It may seem obvious, but keeping an eye on the plants is the main thing and most of the issues we've had could have been avoided if we'd been better with this all along...
Overall the money in (seeds, compost etc) vs. money out (cost savings/worth) is very good once the initial outlay the for the window boxes is paid off. Buying the seeds and seeing them grow is definitely a lot cheaper and more rewarding that just buying from a shop. The fresh salad also taste a lot better, there is less packaging and the carbon emissions will be lower.
We've been cycling the soil and looking into how to improve it/make it more appropriate for what we want to grow. We now always germinate the seeds inside after sowing inside (just by a window). This seems to really help give them a head start.
Although I recently bought enough boxes for a second row and started hatching a plan of how to attach them, we just got a call saying we were being offered a local allotment! (if allotments aren't something you have heard or know much about, here is a nice explainer.) We put ourselves on the list about a year and half before we were called, which is notably fast as often the waiting list is several years or more. Getting an allotment has really upped the magnitude of what we can grow and meant that our window boxes are now transitioning to be full of delicate leaves and a few herbs for salads as we can now plant anything more hardy on the allotment.
A downside of all this is if we keep on getting better at growing I might need to remove "non-green-fingered ... gardener" from my twitter handle...
- REAP-Petite - Stockholm Environment institutes's (SEI) personal carbon & ecological footprint tool
- Window box (Zinc) from Wayfair for ~£15
- Blog from Mark Ridsdill Smith (@VerticalVeg) on his successes growing in small spaces: http://www.verticalveg.org.uk/
- Article on carbon from peat extraction and alternatives - "Gardeners urged to stop using peat-based compost" in the independent
- A guide showing 5 ways to preserve Coriander/Cilantro
- A brief history of allotments from the National Allotment Society
- Government link if you're interest in applying for an allotment: https://www.gov.uk/apply-allotment
- "Animal Free 4-4-4 Fertiliser" from Chase organics