The Real Seed Catalogue
Welcome to our annual Newsletter. To those of you who haven't seen one before, we use this newsletter each summer to let you see a little 'behind the scenes' here at Real Seeds, and to tell you about what we've been up to.
A busy year (and it is only half done)
We've been very busy this last year working on our new fields. As many of you will remember from our last newsletter, recently Real Seeds bought two fields next to our original rented field.
This was really lucky as it meant we could expand without having to relocate everything - but the fields were pretty abandoned, and even worse were not fenced off from the 200 neighbouring sheep!
So we have been quite busy. First our friend Terry helped us put in some new fences, using very nice hand-cleft oak posts made by Adrian, who also cut us beautiful new oak gateposts on his sawmill.
The weather was awful in January but the work was so hot that we were wearing t-shirts in a snowstorm.
It took several days to put each gatepost in as Terry hit huge rocks just a foot down and had to break them up by sheer physical effort with an iron bar before we could lever them out of the ground with a long pole.
Then the tractor could drag the boulders away to fill gaps in the field walls. But finally the new fields were sheep-proof (hooray!) and we could plant things in them.
Getting our new land in shape
One of our big projects has been to plant trees on our land. The two new fields are about an acre each, but quite exposed to wind from the sea. So the windward side of each field - about 1/4 of the area - has been planted up with hedges and a small woodland to make a windbreak. All native trees , but mostly Ash, Hazel and Alder, which grow quite quickly.
The idea is that in about 10 years time the growing area in each field will be a sheltered, south-facing forest glade, giving us two isolated growing areas where things can be grown without crossing with each other.
The edge of the new woodland has also been planted with a selection of fruit trees - many different cooking and eating apples, as well as plums, quinces, mulberries, pears, and some nut trees.
It's very exciting looking at all the old variety names on the new labels . We should mention that we had really very good quality fruit and nut trees from the Agroforestry Research Trust, but you do have to order early in the year as (like us) they tend to sell out very quickly of their best varieties.
For those of you who want to grow more unusual perennial edibles, they also have an interesting selection of those in their plant & seed lists.
We had our soil tested and it was good in general but extremely low in calcium (which explains why our beetroot didn't like it!) , so off we went to the farm auction to get a second-hand spreading machine, to scatter some lime.
This will be done again next autumn, and should be a long-term investment in the soil - once there is enough calcium, green manures will grow better , so there will be more organic matter, which will retain the calcium better, so things will grow better, and so on in a virtuous circle.
Unlike meat or cereal farming, with seed production you are taking much less away from the soil each year (most of the plant gets composted and returned to the field), so we shouldn't need to do this repeatedly.
Right now the fields are sown to green manures - clover, vetch, ryegrass and so on, just to get the soil into shape, but all this extra field space means that over the next few years we should have many more exciting new vegetables for you to try out.
Later on in this newsletter, amongst other things we've got some news of some of the trials that will gradually be working their way into the catalogue in the future - they'll be grown in quantity on these new fields.
Work underway now
We are putting in a borehole for watering our transplants when we plant them out if it is very dry. This will really help with the very dry weather from March - May that we seem to be getting more severely as the climate changes.
The machine came a few weeks ago and the two friendly operators cheerfully drillied with ease right through the hard rock that we were fighting when we did the fence posts.
Luckily they hit lots of water not that far below the surface and we will be able to do with a small solar-powered pump that will slowly top up a tank for us to fill our watering cans from.
The silly thing is that we really only need a little water occasionally, but when we do need it, it is vital, and there's no way of drilling just part of a bore hole.
Later we will be working again with Terry to put new fences and gates on our second site about a quarter mile away. Once that site is also sheep-proof, much of it will be planted to native woodland, but leaving spaces for isolation gardens, so we can grow more varieties of vegetables without them crossing.
Plans for the future
Although we have started to clear and sow green manures on them , it will be 2 more years before we get the new fields fully laid out for seed production.
So while we bring the new land under cultivation, we are going to work to improve our facilities - so we can deal with all the extra seed we can now grow. Real Seeds has been saving up so we can invest in a new drying barn and machinery shed, and at last we have commissioned a local architect to draw up the design and plans for us, and we will be working with him over the summer before putting in an application to the planning authorities.
We don't want to just put up a 'metal farm shed' but are hoping to be able to build a traditional small wooden barn, with a very low environmental impact, using untreated, locally-grown timber. One of the main aims is to have the building put up using mostly hand labour, which we will do ourselves with help from friends, and this will keep the costs down.
The ground floor of the barn will provide a traditional threshing floor, aligned with the prevailing winds, while the loft will open at both end to allow good ventilation for slow drying of large seeds like peas and beans.
We'll keep you up to date and let you know how it goes over the next couple of newsletters.
The 2011 Growing Season
One of our first jobs this year was to put up lots of rabbit fencing. For some reason we've seen an explosion in the local rabbit population over the last three years. In the past we've always relied on temporary electric rabbbit netting for vulnerable crops.
But last summer was a constant struggle to keep the rabbits at bay, as with a bigger population, everything seemed to become ideal food for rabbits! They became bolder and bolder, eventually even chewing through our electric rabbit net depite it being at 5000 volts.
So this year we decided that we had to invest in some permanent rabbit fencing. We are using heavy-duty plastic deer fencing that was originally designed to keep deer out of coppice woodland, and (touch wood) it seems to do the trick. We're still checking daily for digging or chewing, and although a few of the rabbits have managed to nibble through it in places so far it seems to be working well enough. Everything grows so much better when it isn't grazed down to the ground overnight. . .
Following a very dry April, we've been fortunate enough (unlike the east of the UK) to have a reasonable amount of rain from late spring onwards, so at the moment everything is growing well. There are long runs of all sorts of interesting veg all over the plot - some are comparative trials, and some are for seed production, and it is great to see it all looking so healthy.
Real Seeds News from the Office
Our office is in a council business unit in the Old School in Newport. Back there, we said a sad goodbye to Felicia in March, as she has now gone off to France to start her own farm in the Pyrenees (and hopefully grow some seed for us in the future).
But we're very happy to welcome back Catherine from her maternity leave ready to pack orders and help keep the office running smoothly.
This summer quiet period we had a big clear-out and fitted heavy-duty warehouse racking round the walls of the office, over the seed barrels, which will help us organise the boxes of packed seed much better in the busy season.
Because everyone quite understandably buys their seeds in a very short space of time (we send out 60% of the annual orders in January - March ) then we need to have thousands and thousands of packets ready in advance.
Storing them neatly is an important part of keeping it all working smoothly in the busy season, when we are sending out hundreds of orders every day.
Another infrastructure improvement was our solar panel array. Real Seeds has always been powered by renewable energy as a matter of principle, and in our previous sites we generated it ourselves using sun, wind and hydro power.
When we moved into town we no longer had these systems, and although we had been buying green electricity from Good Energy, it didn't feel the same as actually generating our own onsite.
So this year we installed a 1.2 kW solar power system supplied by our neighbour Bob Robarts of Sustainergy and it has been working very well, generating more than enough power to run the house and office. Surplus power is exported to the grid.
New things in the gardens this year
Following our pea trials last year, we have decided to bulk up two of the best varieties for larger scale testing: one fresh pea, and one for use dried.
Firstly an old variety called "Lord Leicester". It is a white flowering climbing variety that grows to around 5 feet, and it did really well in last years' trials of old pea varieties.
We found that it started to produce early, but then crops for a long period. Last year it continued to grow and flower right until the end of August. Its a tasty pea, not as sweet as some varieties, but with no bitterness. It has green wrinkled seeds, and we think it should be ideal as a maincrop cooked green pea.
The other one we are producing this year is the Latvian pea, which was given to us by a friend, Simon Skerritt. It can be eaten as a fresh pea, but its real stand out use for us is as a very productive drying pea.
For anyone who is interested in growing their own bulk protein, peas are generally easier and more productive in the UK climate than french beans/haricots. Because they can be started earlier, its much easier to get a good dry crop as they can be ripening their seeds in the warm days of summer. As an extra bonus, the Latvian pea has very beautiful speckled seeds, red on a green/brown background.
We're also very pleased to finally be able to add to the catalogue a variety from our previous pea trials a few years ago.
Charmette is a dwarf pea, that will happily grow self supporting in a double row. It produces lots and lots of small pods full of very tasty little peas - a real gourmet 'petit pois'.
Overall we think it really lives up to its name, definitely a charming variety that should please anyone who likes peas.
Onion trials - growing from seed, not sets.
Most gardeners who grow onions, probably grow them from sets. But growing from seed is a very good option for anyone who has a little extra time and some undercover space to bring the seed on early in the year. Its much cheaper than buying sets, and of course there are more varieties to choose from. As well as regular onions, shallots also grow very well from seed.
In practice, for those who haven't tried it, starting onions from seed isn't actually that tricky. You need to sow early to get the best sized bulbs, with a little heat to get the seed started, but (unlike peppers, aubergines and other heat lovers) just the level of warmth in an average centrally heated kitchen is usually enough to get them going. Once the seeds are germinated, they can go outside into an unheated greenhouse and will be fine there through the cold months of early spring, then outside once they are thoroughly hardened off.
You can also sow the seed directly in the soil in March, though we'd only recommend it if you have a good weed free bed to sow into as they're very easily overwhelmed.
So we have a whole range of different varieties of onion seed, each chosen for a partciular reason - be it sweetness, or long keeping, or earlyness or whatever. We put them on the website for you all to try, as a mass 'crowdsourced' vegetable trial, and we are growing them too.
The idea is that you email us back with your brief views on the ones you have grown, and though we won't be able to answer all the emails, the information will be gathered together to make recommendations for the next catalogue.
We are also doing a small trial of sowing the same onion variety both from seed and sets, and with early and later sowings of the same varieties to compare the yield.
So far we are surprised to say that there is very little difference in how the early seed sowings are doing compared to the sets. The sets did get going faster, but the plants from seed have really caught up. The later sowings are still rather smaller, but are just beginning to have a good leaf area so may yet catch up as well. We will weigh and compare at the end of the season.
The point is that sets are so much more expensive, and people seem to have forgotten about growing onions from seed these days, even though its really not hard at all.
We will be selling generous packets of onion seed very cheaply in the catalogue again this autumn & encourage you all to have a go.
A new ingredient - cooked Huauzontle
We've been growing huauzontle (also known as Aztec spinach) for a number of years, and have always enjoyed its soft, spinachy like leaves. We've also appreciated it for being very easy to grow, and one of those plants that you can let self sow and just establish itself as an opportunistic edible in the garden.
We've recently discovered, though, that traditionally in Mexico the unopened flower spikes (or huauzontles) are eaten, a bit like we eat broccoli. We've also found some delicious looking recipes for 'huauzontles rellenos' - literally 'stuffed huauzontles', but in practice a kind of fritter of the huauzontle flowers and cheese.
Of course, normally we don't want to eat the flower spikes from our plants, as we always want them to set seed. But this year, we've planted some extra huauzontle plants this year, and we will let you know if they taste good cooked like this!
Some new Oriental greens
Many of you will know that we are particularly keen on our range of oriental greens, and we're always looking out for good new varieties to add to our range. This spring we've been trying out a number of new chinese cabbage and pak choi varieties some of which have come to us by a slightly indirect route, via the Czech republic!
We've found a couple of particularly nice frilly green chinese cabbages, called 'Sobi' and 'Bekana'. We like these a lot as they're good both cooked and in salads, and also make nice shoots when they finally start to bolt. And we have a new mustard green called 'Gold Frills ' that you can try in the new catalogue this autumn.
We always try to mention a few books each year that we have found interesting or inspiring. We've been very pleased to add Joy Larkcom's wonderful book on Oriental Vegetables to the small selection that we sell through our catalogue. Although they are becoming slowly better known in the UK, there are a whole range of delicious oriental greens, many of which grow well in cooler weather and are ideal for helping gardeners get through the hungry gap. This book should certainly inspire readers to try them for themselves.
So that our growing is genuinely sustainable, we we aim in the long term for a 'closed system' where we generate all the fertility we need for our growing from our own land. Traditionally in organic farming, that fertility generally comes from animal manure. However, as seed growers (and with quite a small area of land) we don't keep any animals and therefore don't have easy access to manure for fertilising our crops.
We use a lot of green manures, but we are always interested in new ideas that will help us to improve our soil over the longer term without having to import large amounts of material. Jenny Hall and Iain Tolhurst's book Growing Green is specifically aimed at vegan organic growers, but will be of interest to anyone growing on an allotment scale or above who - like us - doesn't have lots of muck to spread and doesn't want to use chemical fertilisers. As well as information particular to stock free growing, it also has lots of general information about propagation, planting times, rotation, pest and disease control and even marketing produce. Overall it is the nearest UK equivalent we have found to Eliot Coleman's New Organic Grower, and we would definitely recommend it whether you are vegan/vegetarian or a complete omnivore!
Any gardener with more than the tiniest plot is likely to end up with gluts of produce from time to time. Of course, its always nice to be able to give things away to neighbours, but its also good to preserve some of your summer abundance for leaner times in the winter. We have a few books that we find very useful in making good use of our surplus. 'Home Preservation of Fruit and Vegetables' does just what it says on the tin.
This book was originally produced by the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries & Food in 1971, but has been updated a number of times since. Its an exellent resource for all sorts of recipes for chutneys and jams and also has lots of information about bottling fruit safely. (Beware that if you buy this book from Amazon it comes as print-on-demand, rather than as a proper bound book. There are lots of proper copies available second hand on Abebooks and similar sites, though, if you can't find it in a local bookshop.)
For storing root and other vegetables over winter then Nancy Bubel's book Root Cellaring explains all you need to know about the temperature and other conditions needed to keep your crops in good condition. Despite the name, you don't actually need a cellar - we store turnips, swedes, carrots etc very successfully in a small section of our garage in crates filled with sawdust.
And finally, I don't think we've ever recommended a fiction book in this section before, but how could we resist a detective novel that features - among other things - the theft of an experimental plot of oca tubers. Acts of Destruction is written by gardening & mystery writer Mat Coward, and is not only great fun, but at the same time a very thought provoking look at what Britain might look like in the near future.
Keep sowing through the summer!
Our annual reminder to gardeners - to avoid getting a huge glut in summer, and then nothing to eat later in winter, it is important to spread out your sowing over the year.
That's it for this year... until the new catalogue:
The new 2012 catalogue will come out in late October/early November - there are some really great new varieties in it, and we hope you'll enjoy it.
You'll get a copy automatically if you bought seed by post in the past year, and if you ordered over the internet you'll get an email letting you know when its available, so there is no need to request one if you had seed from us this year.
We hope you have a really good gardening year and that you manage to save some of your own seed at home, and perhaps even start breeding your own varieties.
Ben, Kate & Catherine, June 2011
(If you've enjoyed this newsletter and you're new to Real Seeds, you might like to have a look back at our earlier newsletters which have lots of articles and some nice recipes in them too.)