Category: Gardening

Growing Barley by Cliff Jordan

Plot at Old Hall with Barley crops just beginning to germinate

Many people who want to grow their own food start with herbs, and then vegetables and fruit. Some are ambitious and keep animals for meat and milk. But an enormous part of our diet is made up of cereals – grains such as wheat and oats – virtually all of which are produced by industrial scale monocrop agriculture, with huge fields and huge machines. I became curious – what would it take to grow just enough for a household’s
consumption?

In the UK, we each eat an average of nearly 50kg wheat in a year. Say you want to produce enough for a household of four: that would require maybe a tenth of an acre – a plot 50 yards by 10 yards in size. Way bigger than your usual garden, but miniscule compared to modern arable fields. I live in a community by the River Stour where we collectively farm 70 acres, within which I found a strip of land about half that size to experiment with.

Modern industrial agriculture is amazing; its constant leaps in productivity rely on new and better machines, new techniques and continual improvement of varieties. These are bred repeatedly to provide a crop that the machines can handle well. But unless you have half a million pounds worth of combine harvester, new varieties may not suit you. They tend to be fussier than old varieties, needing the right nutrients and weed control regime to produce optimum results. Partly fuelled by artisan bakers, and many people discovering intolerances to contemporary wheat, there has been a resurgence in interest in recent years in old varieties of wheat, and in landraces – a mix of different varieties grown together, rather than a field full of plants each with an identical genetic makeup.

You might be familiar with pearl barley – this is a barley grown for human consumption (most barley grown in this country is for feeding animals and for brewing beer) that has been through a machine to remove the hulls – a hard outer casing on each and every grain. Pioneers in this country have started in the last three years to grow ‘naked barley’ again. The yield is thought to be lower than modern barley varieties, but it does not require that stage of processing to make it good for human consumption. This is what I decided to experiment with.

I waited until the winter rains had finished, and the ground had dried out enough to work and then cultivated my plot (with a tractor and power harrow, because we have that equipment and it would be purist and perverse not to take advantage of it. That said, I spent as much time attaching the harrow to the tractor, and turning at the end of each row, as I did actually cultivating the plot.) I marked out some lines with sticks and string, and used a manual push- along seed dispenser to sow each row of barley seed. I did this during that magical week in late March when it seemed summer had arrived. It has been cold ever since and no rain has fallen. I look each day to see if the seed has germinated. If I were a subsistence farmer I might be praying by now, or sacrificing to the gods.

My hope is that the soil will warm up and that April showers will cause tiny roots and shoots to burst out of the buried grains, and I will have rows of barley popping up. I imagine having to hoe between the rows once or twice, to hold back the weeds that I know are lurking, but I hope that, once established, the barley will out-compete them. I can already picture a golden summer’s day with scythes, harvesting the barley and gathering it into stooks to dry out, and then bringing it into a barn to thresh and winnow. All being well, we will harvest a hundredweight or two of grain to last us the year. Even if reaping, threshing and winnowing with hand tools prove too difficult for us, we have chickens that will gladly glean the plot for us, so the efforts will not all be wasted.

Fingers crossed.

Cliff Jordan. April 2021

Carrots by David Hodgson

A crop of early organic carrots at Old Hall

There is a common myth that carrots are good for your eyesight and in particular for
night vision. Indeed the RAF pilots were persuaded to eat copious amounts of carrots
every day during the early years of the Second World War as were all service
personnel. The myth was created, not because eating them improved your night vision
when you were out on bombing missions, but because the government had mistakenly
set such a high price for carrots in 1941 that farmers produced a huge glut to capitalise
on the inflated price. The armed forces were forced to eat the lot.

Mind you, carrots are good for you and if you have ever taken a supermarket carrot and
eaten it raw alongside a fresh home grown organic carrot you might never want to
waste your money buying supermarket carrots again. The difference is truly a
gastronomic delight.

Which brings me on to growing your own. Here in the Stour Valley, here at the Old Hall
community, we have been growing our own organic carrots for more than forty five
years. I have only grown them for twenty of those years however. If you want some
figures we grow about eight rows and each row is about eighty metres long. That is
enough carrots to feed 60 people from early June one year to February the next year
assuming the carrot fly don’t get to them first.

Carrot fly love carrots. They travel several miles in search of carrots and can smell them
from a mile away. Considering that they are poor fliers and cannot fly higher than
eighteen inches, 450mm to you millennials, that means one hell of a sensitive nose for a
creature smaller than a small fly. When they find your carrots in early spring they will lay
their eggs in the ground around the carrot heads. The larvae hatch and burrow their way
into the carrot, where they eat, live and grow. Rendering them inedible to you and me.
Job done.

Four tips to avoid carrot fly.
One. Never plant your carrots in the same place year on year. Rotate your site on a four
year rotation if you can. There may well be larvae left in the ground over winter.

Two. Companion plant carrots alongside your onions and garlic. The smell throws them
into confusion. A sensory overload so to speak.

Three. Cover your carrots in carrot fly netting once the shoots appear, or better still, as
soon as you have sewn them. Carrot fly are a bit predictable, they hit carrots twice a
year. Once in early spring and then again in late summer. So avoid the early spring by
planting late April and May when the first wave offensive has waned. I usually plant my
Early Nantes on the first May bank holiday and my Autumn King on the last May bank
holiday. Or I pick the full moon closest to these dates. But that’s just the old hippy in me.

Four. Stop thinning and weeding your carrots once the onions have been lifted and
keep the netting on all the time after that. This way you will avoid the autumn attack.
Remember digging up or thinning or weeding around a carrot increases the smell. Push
the soil back around any carrots disturbed by this process to avoid this. Most important
in the autumn when the onions are gone.

Long rows in a garden ready to be planted with carrots

Rows at Old Hall ready to be planted with carrots

Carrots seeds love a warm sunny sandy soil. Do not plant in clay. Dig, rake to a fine tilth
before planting, removing stones and weeds. Do not compost. April is a good time to do
this. Not once, not twice, but three times over a couple of weeks and your bed should
be perfect, ready for planting. Shallow drills, half inch deep should do it. If you want, mix
your seed with five times as much dry sand or bone meal. This helps spread the seed
more evenly and sparingly along the drill resulting in less thinning, therefore less
exposure to the squadrons attacking your carrots while you remove the netting to weed
and thin them. Watering twice a day is a must, early morning and again at sunset.

The River Stour Festival this year has a theme which encourages us to source our food
from as local a source as is possible. Eat all your food for thirty days from sources
grown no more than thirty miles away. Food miles being important factors. The best
thing you can do is to grow your own organic fruit and vegetables. Healthy eating, zero
carbon footprint, healthy planet.

David Hodgson