Farm Ireland

Saturday 24 March 2018

Gardening by the book reminds me of patchy history of growing food

Joe Barry

Joe Barry

The lengthy dry spell we enjoyed up to Easter Monday was most welcome and allowed me to complete all the essential springtime gardening tasks with ease.

The early spuds were earthed up and the seeds for the summer vegetables all germinated with some transplanted out. They promise a wide variety of fresh, healthy food for the summer and autumn. Carrots, leeks, parsnips, turnips and potatoes along with cabbage, kale and purple sprouting broccoli will carry us through winter and also through that "hungry gap" which made our farming ancestors pray for the arrival of summer.

The wonderful polytunnel has continued to prove its worth and has enabled us to get seeds started early and enjoy a wide variety of salads throughout the year. Later in the summer and autumn the beans, peas and other veg, along with fruit such as raspberries will be stored in the deep freeze.

After a hectic few weeks of digging, manuring, sowing and planting the arrival of rain was a blessing and allowed me to take a break and catch up on essential reading.

I firmly believe we never stop learning about the workings of and interaction bet-ween plants and soil and one new book I am currently enjoying is Trevor's Kitchen Garden by Trevor Sargent.

Many farmers were and are very sceptical about the policies of the Green Party of which Trevor was once leader but no one can deny his honesty and commitment to the Grow it Yourself movement.

This is real gardening and not the stuff of trendy land-scape gardeners beloved by TV producers. I found myself ab-sorbed by the content and read it from cover to cover, for it is the ultimate practical guide to feeding oneself economically with home-grown produce.

Week by week, Trevor takes us through seasonal tasks and keeps us amused with a range of fascinating facts relating to the soil, the history of gardening and the seasons. Each chapter is bursting with hints and tips and is the complete book on gardening that teaches us how to feed the family from a relatively small area. Even non-gardeners will enjoy leafing through the pages, for they contain much wisdom and are written almost as an entertaining story.

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On reading Trevor's Kitchen Garden I was reminded of other authors whose books I read when trying to learn more about the interaction between soil, food and human well being. Back in the 1960s, we were only beginning to realise the damage we were causing to the environment by using DDT and how harmful they were when allowed to enter the food chain.

Rachel Carson's famous book Silent Spring illustrated dramatically how minute particles of pesticides were causing many bird species to become infertile and how we were rapidly poisoning our farmland, rivers, lakes and sea. Recently, Teagasc has begun to realise the importance of organic matter in soil and the advice we were given in the 1960s and 70s has been turned on its head.

Does anyone remember when we received grants to bulldoze hedgerows and drain wetlands or how continuous tillage was encouraged without a thought for the long-term health of the soil? We are now relearning lessons from the past, for 50 or more years ago when we abandoned crop rotation and began eating more processed foods, we embarked on a farming and dietary revolution which damaged not only the landscape and soil but affected our own health and that of our children.

Another hugely influential author of that time was Andre Voisin whose best-known work was titled Soil, Grass and Cancer. This classic book illustrated the importance of the subterranean world and how soil fertility was directly linked to human and animal disease.

He mapped the elements of the soil and their effects on plants. He saw the hidden danger in oversimplified fert-zilisation practices and the use of toxic chemicals that ignore the delicate balance of trace minerals and nutrients in the soil.

Copies are still available on the internet. There is more to growing food than just adding N, P and K.

Indo Farming