This week, we’ve been chatting to Laura, an organic gardening expert and proud owner of @OurOrganicAllotment. Laura is passionate about all things organic and shares with us her amazing and practical tips for getting started on growing fruit and vegetables in an environmentally-friendly way. This is her organic gardening journey…
Hey Laura. How did you first get into organic gardening and food growing?
Hello! I’ve been growing food for as long as I can remember - as a child there was always a growbag of tomatoes or cucumbers on the patio at home, and I would love to go and pick ripe tomatoes from my Grandad’s greenhouse when I visited him. The smell of those tomatoes was such a good memory that I knew I wanted my children to grow up with their own homegrown food, and knowing how to grow it themselves.
Whilst we have always grown what we can at home (a tiny new-build with impossibly poor soil), we were lucky enough to be given an allotment in 2018. We’ve been growing organically on our plot with our two girls since we took it on and our crops include; blueberries, blackberries, black and redcurrants, rhubarb, asparagus, artichokes (globe and jerusalem), beans, peas, onions, garlic, leeks, squashes (many varieties) and lots of different herbs and edible flowers. We’ve managed to establish an apple and pear tree in the new-build garden too, as well as tomatoes, chillies, lavender and dahlia in pots. The allotment is a luxury, but even the smallest gardens can achieve homegrown crops.
What organic practices do you implement in your allotment?
Comfrey. It is like a herbal goldmine. You can cut it to the ground three times a year and it will spring right back, you can soak it in water to make the most amazing plant feed, you can cut the leaves up and mulch them around your plant for a vitamin boost, or add it to the compost. The bees absolutely love it too.
I try to use companion planting as much as I can, planting plants that naturally attract or repel pests from each other or add nutrients the other requires to the soil. Marigolds, nasturtium and calendula are left to self-seed wherever they please on our plot as catch crops for aphids and blackfly. For beans I use pinching out methods (taking off the growing shoot once flowers have appeared), which naturally reduces the attraction of the plant to aphids, reducing the need for sprays. Where sprays are needed I have made my own, using garlic water to make the plant less appealing. An old allotment on our site guru told me that many pests do not like the smell of oregano - whether this is true or not I don’t know - but I have oregano growing on every bed on my plot. It is a great herb for almost every dish, so it gets well used.
Slugs are a huge problem… there are organic slug pellets on the market, which I will admit we have had to use at times. To reduce the need, I’ve tried; beer traps (doing it OUTSIDE the allotment to draw them off, instead of inside the allotment and attracting them in; leaving out sheets of wet cardboard or wood for slugs to live under, then turning them slug side up and picking them off (!); I’ve also built a wildlife pond to attract frogs and hang bird feeders to attract birds, both of which will also help reduce the slug population.
I’ve also learnt to just go with whatever seems to grow best on your allotment, and not try to force anything. When we introduce plants that are non native to our environment (think pretty much anything that needs to grow in a greenhouse) we start to need to treat them differently, adding heat to help germination, artificial lights to stop them getting leggy when sowing in our dark February days… The best plants in my experience are simply those that pop up on their own, so that is what I try my best to encourage.
What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learnt over the course of starting and running your organic allotment?
Only grow what you like to eat - no one wants a whole bed of cabbages. Okay, maybe some people do, but I don’t! We’ve tried growing all sorts over the years, just for the sake of growing them, only to give the crops away or compost them. There was the year I sowed an entire seed packet of black Spanish round winter radishes (at the same time). One or two would have been adequate. I think I gave radishes to everyone I knew that winter. Or the time I grew Chinese “shark fin” melons. Really successful and plentiful I was told, and the perfect substitute for the shark fin in the soup (which I’ll add I have never eaten and had no need to grow the substitute for)… well they weren’t wrong. It quite literally grew itself around my whole allotment. We had so many melons. I made the soup once. It was adequate. I donated the rest of the melons to the food bank, where they sat abandoned because no one knew what on earth to do with them. Grow the food you buy in the supermarket - grow what you love to eat; food you can store and preserve and you will never waste a thing.
What are your favourite fruits and favourite vegetables to grow?
Boysenberries are my favourite fruit to grow, who knew they were even a thing! They are a bit like a blackberry crossed with a raspberry. They grow like a bramble, so you don’t need to take too much care of them and they are absolutely delicious. My favourite vegetable to grow is broad beans. I’ll be starting my autumn sown broad beans off in the next few weeks ready to plant out at some point in October. I’ll grow aqua-dulce as they can withstand the cold winters and frosts, and then I’ll grow a second batch in the spring to extend my harvests. Not only do I love broad beans, but I recently found out that my great-great-grandfather won some competitions for his broad beans at his allotment shows in 1914, so it must be in the family.
Organic gardening is on the rise- what would you say to anyone wanting to change the way they garden and shop to become more organic?
Growing organically is a really important and positive step that you can take towards helping the planet and reducing your carbon footprint. By choosing to grow plants that will naturally thrive in your own environment you can cut back the need for fertilisers. Through companion planting or planting herbs that act as insecticides, you will attract new insects and wildlife to your garden which will increase and improve biodiversity. Embracing some of our more native edible plants such as comfrey, stinging nettles, dandelions and chickweed was showcased at the RHS Chelsea Flower Show this year. It can not only change the look and feel of your garden but learning to add them to everyday meals in place of shop-bought lettuces or spinaches is a great way to save pennies and get a wider variety of vitamins into your diet.
What’s next for the Organic Allotment?
September is always a busy month for us at @ourorganicallotment. We have many beds to clear into the compost heaps and winter vegetables to plant out. This winter we are growing three types of kale (for pestos and winter stews) and purple sprouting broccoli, which will be in season around February time. We will have autumn garlic and onions to plant out, plus the leeks are ready to go in and over winter. Our apple and pear trees are full, so it is time to start harvesting and preserving those. It has been an unsuccessful year for our squash crops, mainly because of the hot weather and hose pipe ban, so we don’t have an awful lot of those to harvest. We were hoping for our first crop of peppercorns but it seems they are still taking root, so hopefully, that will be our next big exciting step in our journey to being more sustainable.
Who or what is your biggest inspiration for organic gardening and living?
Guy Singh-Watson, founder of Riverford (an organic veg box scheme in the UK) is a real inspiration to me. He has been leading the way in organic farming methods on the commercial veg scene for years, often challenging supermarkets and non-organic growers on issues of pesticides, global warming and soil health. He is outspoken, passionate and most importantly a real gardener. He loves globe artichokes, which led me to plant some too. I love how he experiments with interplanting crops. He really does lead the way in organic farming methods. Check him out if you haven’t heard of him. He loves a grumble and a moan, which is always worth a read.