This is the first year the market garden at Sandy Lane Farm has been really put to the test. Traditionally, a ‘Market Garden’ is just that: a relatively small (garden sized) area of land where vegetables are grown to take to market. It’s the ‘little sister’ to the field scale method of farming which takes up a much larger area and at Sandy Lane, covers the carrots, potatoes, parsnips, leeks and brassicas. While it’s much smaller in size, this year, the market garden has the potential to really punch above its weight. Ellie and Jenny head up the market garden team and are determined to make every square inch as productive as possible - while always working with nature, not against it.
Last year, George found himself playing catch-up when a very sudden and unexpected increase in demand for veg meant the market garden had to become more productive - very fast. As any grower knows, when it comes to veg, it’s not easy to respond instantly. No matter what you do, a lettuce will still take 3 months to grow and singing to the seedlings won’t get you far! You can’t hurry nature. This year, George is prepared and with Ellie’s expert help, they’ve come up with a plan to really make the most of this wonderful fertile soil. In fact, it’s all about the planning….
At the beginning of the year Ellie sat down and did her sums. The equation goes something like this: how many veg fit into a bed, multiplied by the number of beds available, divided by the number of weeks the produce is required….plus however much more you can squeeze in! And repeat. The space in the market garden is very important so the aim is to create a ‘succession’ of veg, one crop after another, so the soil is always busy and there is a steady stream of produce. As Jenny said to me, the area is: ‘high value and high maintenance. It’s immensely satisfying when you get something out and something in on the same day’. These plans at the start of the year are crucial to getting the successions right, for example, when one batch of lettuce is ready to harvest, another needs to be coming along right behind….with the seedlings waiting in the wings for their turn. The same is true of the companion plants - the tomatoes couldn’t go in until the Tagetes (marigolds) were ready to jump in with them to keep away the pests with their musky smell. In theory, it’s very straightforward but at the start of the year, all these plants were seeds in packets and Ellie had to use her experience and imagination to get where we are now.
It’s important to understand that these constant successions are also extremely good for the soil. A healthy soil always needs something growing as part of its eco-system and as George says, with no planting, the web of soil life is missing a vital component. Furthermore, without guidance, the ground cover would be a weed canopy so these rapid successions of seedlings (and interplanting with little lettuces between the larger veg) provide that coverage while also being productive for the farm. Market gardening can be described as ‘intensive’ but in this instance that means ‘intense’ from a human perspective. It’s growing with care and attention, constantly thinking and planning the next step, while always endeavouring to keep nature in balance.
April is a fun but critical time of year for this newly expanded market garden. George was keen to be more self sufficient, so the team have propagated more of their own plants than ever before and now’s the time to get them in the ground. The start of the year saw a bit of a scramble for seeds (due to Brexit related import concerns and an increase in demand from UK growers) and George had to work hard to get what he needed. Luckily, he managed it but the plants don’t grow by themselves and Ellie and Jenny have nurtured these little seedlings for the past few months, while also keeping the winter supplies of greens going for the boxes. The new polytunnel has a big part to play, with extra space available for more crops, it has also meant George can extend to a five year crop rotation in the market garden. It’s not just the field scale that works on this system, the crops in the market garden are also moved on each year (and the longer the better) - a crucial method for organic growers to prevent disease and avoid pests lurking in the soil.
The ‘no dig’ area is also a major step in increasing productivity in this part of the farm. This method of growing literally means not turning or digging the soil at all, just removing the weeds where necessary and pulling the veg straight out without disturbing the natural layers beneath. It takes a considerable amount of time and investment to set up but now, George has 18 beds which (should) require much less weeding, retain moisture more efficiently and create an even healthier soil. This method might make it easier to manage the weed burden but, as George put it, we have to keep our side of the bargain and give the soil the alternative structure that it would normally get from that weed cover - our crops. So far this year, eight of the beds have already been planted with lettuce and spinach and the chard is next. George hopes that the no-dig beds will increase production by up to 50% and he has plans to start another two no dig areas this year….and another two the year after that! It’s ambitious but with a combination of increased propagation (so robust seedlings rather than seeds are planted, speeding up the time from planting to harvest) and these large, easier to manage beds, he could dramatically increase the farm’s capacity.
So what’s next? Right now, it’s time keep planting like crazy! The team have been keen to try and gently nudge along some early summer crops to bridge the Hungry Gap a little (more on that in a previous blog post!) so the indoor courgettes and bean plants are already in. The delicious Italian Agretti has been planted, a large variety of herbs are growing and the aubergines and chillies will be in the tunnels shortly. The outdoor crops are still being protected while we wait for the last frosts to pass but planting continues regardless - little and often to keep the successions going.
Ellie describes market gardening as growing on a ‘human scale’ - by hand, without machinery, with plants that require lots of care and attention. The productivity of the market garden needs to be high to make all the work worth it. There’s a reason that a punnet of tomatoes is more expensive than a bag of potatoes - because someone like Ellie has lost sleep over the seedlings on a freezing cold night, carefully tended to them and drawn up a plan in January that only bears fruit in late July. I’m sure the patience and planning will pay off this year at Sandy Lane and we can’t wait to see what’s next for the market garden.