Wednesday, 30 May 2012

normal service is resumed...

...sorry about last week's interruption to my normal service - I was really ill, but feeling much better this week. So it was back to the weeding on Tuesday.

Couch grass by brianpettinger
just one couch grass plant...:

 It's amazing how quickly the earth has dried out. We were weeding an area that has become infested with couch grass. A few weeks ago the long roots would have pulled out quite easily, but it was hard work teasing the plants out of the soil trying not to break the roots. I'm sure you all know couch grass... it's a nasty perennial which is virtually impossble to get rid of.  The roots are really rhizomes which spread under the soil surface and become entangled in the roots of other plants.

couch roots, 2.11 by 2_Sheds
...but a whole load of roots! 2_sheds

One small plant usually hides metres of root under ground. It grows incredibly quickly but at least it's sterile and doesn't spread by seed as well!

Couch grass has a number of names - twitch grass, witchgrass, dog's grass, scutch, quackgrass and has been used in herbal medicine since classical Greek times. The Romans used it to treat kidney stones and as urinary problems. The common name dog grass comes from the fact that sick dogs will dig up the root and eat it. According to Culpepper

" Tis under the dominion of Jupiter, and is the most medicinal of all the Quick- grasses. Being boiled and drank, it opens obstructions of the liver and gall, and the stopping of urine, and eases the griping pains of the belly and inflammations; wastes the matter of the stone in the bladder, and the ulcers thereof also. The roots bruised and applied, do consolidate wounds. The seed doth more powerfully expel urine, and stays the lask and vomiting. The distilled water alone, or with a little wormseed, kills the worms in children. "

I don't think I'll try it!!!

Sarah's off sick this week - hope she didn't get my cold! But there si more good news. The team have got on the short list to give training in composting - keep your eyes and eras open for more news!

If you want to volunteer at the urban farm come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at : 

Wednesday, 23 May 2012


...I've got a really bad cold, so no farming me for me this week! What a shame when the weather is so lovely!!!

Antarctica: South Pole to McMurdo on a C-130 by eliduke
But I am reading a book about why explorers risked their lives and various bits of their anatomy ( frost bite!)  to go to the antarctic. Apart from the usual stuff about " because it's there" both poles were presented in the thought and literature of the period as places at the extreme of the world and experience .... think about Mary Shelley's Frankenstein....

And, of course, they didn't know what was there.

In the early 1800s Captain Symmes of Cincinnati  seriously put forward the theory that there was a passageway at both poles that lead under the earth's crust to onion layers of different worlds where other beings lived.... weird!

The hundred or so years of speculation  all contributed to a sense of sublime awfulness - which fed into a love of gothic horror - which fascinated both the explorers and the public that read about their efforts.

I'll be better next week!

If you want to volunteer at the urban farm come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at : 

Wednesday, 16 May 2012

weird, weird weather!!!

I have to admit that when I went up to the farm last Thursday I suggested to Sarah and the team that they should cancel the big day on Saturday...luckily no-one listened. The Urb Farm open day was a resounding success with beautiful sunny weather and a great atmosphere! I couldn't make it - granny duty again - but eveyone seems to have a great time and there are some really positive messages flying around from the growing people facebook page - including one asking for more open days! If you took any photos let me have them and I'll post them on the blog.
view from the cabin during the hail storm
This Tuesday, though, was quite different. We had the full range of weather conditions  - cold and cloudy in the morning with warm, sunny spells. A downpour in the afternoon sent us scuttling for the polytunnels and then we had an amazing hail storm just as we were packing away! The whole area was covered in white.

This weird weather is having a bad impact on the urban farm, though. The ground is sodden, there isn't much sun and it's still cold - even for May! The greenhouses are full of plants that really need to be put outside, but the conditions just aren't right  and that means there's no space to sow or pot on the next set of plants to be ready for planting out later! It's quite a headache for the team...and now, with all this grumbling about the weather I'm beginning to sound like a real farmer!!!

It isn't all miserable though. DHL's UK Foundation have given the farm a cheque for £500 . The DHL UK Foundation is an independent charity which funds activities and programmes helping children and young people achieve their full potential. Some of the money will go towards buying a new bee colony and the rest - crazy though it might sound at the moment - will  probably go towards an irrigation system for the I back to writing about rain...????

If you want to volunteer at the urban farm come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at : 

Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Hurrah for the sun!!!

At last... a full day at the farm this week, with no break for rain! And we're really getting ready now for the open day on Saturday. ( Saturday, 12th May, between 1 and 4pm. We'll be having a barbeque, pizza cooked in the pizza oven, some great family activities and stalls selling plants, produce, baked goods and crafts.) The continuous rain has put everything behind.
water logging in the wooded area last week
You can see from the picture just how wet it was this time last week and after yesterday's absolute deluge in Wolverton I was expecting the worst when I went up this morning but even though the pond is nearly overflowing the water is beginning to soak in, so all should be well by Saturday!.

On the bright side, the rain has made it easy to pull out the weeds and we were able to get stuck in weeding the strawberries. 
The sun was shining, we were all happy,  working together and chatting and remembering picking fresh strawbs last summer and eating eton mess in the shade of the trees!  Aahh! the good old days of summer and sun!  
I remember weeding the strawberries last autumn, but the couch grass and creeping buttercup have grown back.This isn't as disheartening as it might seem... there's a comforting sense of continuity about the inevitability of weeds. 

Wild flowers by Agilmente
The strawbs have been invaded
by creeping buttercup: Agilmente
The creeping buttercup, though, was in danger of swamping the strawbs and it gives off chemicals that inhibit the growth of other nearby plants so, even though it is quite pretty, it had to come out. Creeping buttercup grows in any areas where the soil is disturbed and can tolerate both waterlogging and a moderate drought - so not surprising that it's thrived this year!! It isn't a prolific seeder, compared with other weeds - most plants will produce 687 seeds -  but it does also spread by runners, as its name suggests. The runners had managed to get in among the strawberry runners, so it was quite a difficult job getting them out - as one of the trainees said "how come weeds always get into the most difficult area?" ... that's the nature of weeds!

The prison estates guys who came to help us chip the wood obviously took pity on us and have donated four very nice wooden benches for us to sit on - so no more perching on logs at tea break! We're very grateful!

If you  want to get philosphical, want to help grow strawbs for eton mess or just think helping at the urban farm is for you come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at : 


Wednesday, 2 May 2012

bloomin rain!!!!

We were rained off again this Tuesday. I know we need it but it's doing nothing for my mental equilibrium!!! I'm going stir crazy stuck in the house! And there's plenty to do around the farm in readiness for Open Day on Saturday, 12th May, between 1 and 4pm. If the rain holds off - surely it will have stopped by then? - we'll be having a barbeque, some great family activities and stalls selling plants, produce, baked goods and crafts. I'll have more details in next week's blog.

Cleavers, Stickywilly, Galium aparine ....#4 by Vietnam Plants & America plants
cleavers hook onto other plants and
 can  pull them down: phuonglovejesus
Luckily some of us volunteers did put in an extra day last week. In the morning we weeded the herb patch by the gate. It's the first area you see as you come in - but sadly the last one you see as you leave and realise that yet again you forgot to sort it out. It's been annoying me for weeks! The whole area was full of cleavers.Cleavers have a number of common names -beggar lice, clithe, cliver, cliders, goose-grass, goosebill, hariff, gripgrass, catchweed and a Scottish friend of mine knows them as sticky willies. You're sure to know what they look like. They are a native plant that grows in hedgerows and have tiny hooks on their leaves and seeds that stick to your clothes ( a prototype for velcro??) They flower from June to August and seed sets from July to October with each plant producing from 300 to over 1,000 seeds!  Luckily we got them out early in the year so  hopefully we've cut down their reproductive potential!  As with so many wild flowers, cleavers reputedly have a range of health benefits with diuretic, anti-inflammatory, tonic and astringent properties.

Wood Chipper | 127/365 by mfhiatt
watchin the chips shooting out
was impressive:MFHiatt
Sarah had arranged for some of the estate management team from the prison to come along with their chipper, so we spent the afternoon moving wood out of the compost rows in the long path at the back of the beds and clearing broken branches and odd bits of wood lying around ready for chipping before we got rained off again. We all thought we'd done realy well... but there was a pathetic pile of chipppings at the end of the day, which makes you realise how much wood the professionals must get through!

The prison estate guys were really helpful and put together some more compost bins for us. The plan is to move the rotting material from the rows into the compost bins - helping to cut down on compost costs and extend the beds. Not work for the rainy day we had yesterday - but probably next week!

If you think helping at the urban farm is for you come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at :

Tuesday, 24 April 2012

Urban Farm open day

If you are a friend of the urban farm on facebook you'll know that it's the spring open day on May 12th - starting at 1.00 and running through the afternoon. I'm not sure of all the details but there will be market stalls, home made food and the usual buzz of friends spending a happy afternoon together. Most of the seeds we sowed a few weeks ago have come good, so there'll be lots of veggie plants to buy just in case yours have failed...or like me you went away at the wrong time!!!

Groundsel by Barry Cornelius
Groundsel going to seed:
Barry Cornelius
In the meantime...we've all been sprucing up the site getting it ready for the big day! Which of course means lots of weeding!  The recent warm weather and rain have really perked up those weeds and the groundsel flowers particularly are just about to break out. I'm sure you know them. They are quite a pretty, unassuming sort of plant  with small dandelion type flower heads .The Anglo-saxon word means 'ground glutton' and they are aptly named - they really can spread if you don't get on top of them!  Each plant can produce around 1,200 seeds, most seeds can germinate at once and seedlings emerge within a few days to go on and produce more seeds which .... all through the spring and summer!  They aren't just annoying, though. Groundsel carries leaf rust, which attacks garlic and onions and can also host  the fungus that causes black root rot in peas. And then there's the couch grass, dandelions, docks, cleavers.....!

Building the willow dome last year
Sarah's arranged for some helpers coming from the prison to come in later in the week to shred the growing mounds of compost which are lining the pathways at the edge of the site. We're building compost bins in the tree area and the shredded stuff will go in there to help cut down on the compost bills - it seems silly to buy in when there's so much vegetation there! ...and then there's the new chicken run still to finish off....and the willow dome .The fresh cuttings that we planted have all taken and the wet April we're having will help them to really take off. The willow arbour is shooting away like mad and we're all set to start weaving these to give it a bit more shape. If it carries on growing so well we'll probably be able to weave in the roof next year! The willow structures look great, but they are also serving a purpose. After months of worrying about the water table the heavy rainfall has soaked the ground near the pond and the orchard. The willow will help to soak this up and stop the fruit trees from getting root rot.    

So... there's plenty to do. The regular volunteers are going to put in a few extra days but we'd welcome more if you think halping at the urban farm is for you come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at :

Tuesday, 17 April 2012

Back to hard work....

looking for a handout:
Alan Entwistle
I had a fab time in Dorset and Devon over Easter but it was good to be back at the farm this week. It all seemed very lush and productive after the heavy showers we've had recently - it is April! After a spot of weeding in the big polytunnel during a particulalry heavy shower this morning we were out in the wooded area where we're getting on with creating a new run for the chickens  We've cleared a nice big area of brambles and nettles and spent most of today putting up a fence. The spot will be great for the chickens - they'll have much more space to run around in, with dead leaves and rotting bits of wood to turn over and peck at. Hens are naturally woodland birds and love foraging for their food - it keeps them alert and happy, as well as providing them with a varied diet - which, of course, means better eggs for us!
Hedgehog by Tina_S_White
on the prowl! Tina_S_White
While we were pile driving stakes into the ground to hold up the chicken wire someone mentioned that they hadn't seen any hedgehogs at the farm - not surprising since they are nocturnal animals...but I'd be very surprised if there aren't any around. I've got a very noisy one in my Wolverton garden. It snuffles and snorts around in the dark and once it walked into my leg - a very weird experience in the half light! They travel long distances - up to two miles - in a night looking for food so it could make it to the farm. It might still be a bit early in the year to spot them, but they will be coming out of hibernation soon, ready for breeding in May/ June. I did see a pair of hedgehogs breeding once - the male walks closely round and round the female until she goes a bit gooey eyed and sort of hypnotised and lies flat on the floor with her quills flattened. It was fascinating watching them.... and then there were babies... which was lovely but they were very sadly killed when a friend came round one evening and accidently dropped his motorcycle on them....hey ho!
But,I'm very relieved to say that the wildlife at the farm is thriving....we've got loads of tadpoles in the pond and there's still toad spawn wrapped round the weeds. There were frogs and toads keeping warm in the polytunnels, the birds are active and really enjoying the April weather, the fruit trees are coming into blossom and all the veggies are looking very healthy.
On a more serious note, it's not surprising that some of the trainees at the farm have anger management issues. Nothing happened this week but we do get the odd explosion every now and then. I'm full of admiration for the calm way that Sarah and Adrienne ( and Kevin and Heather before them) deal with it. As volunteers we just stay mellow and don't get involved but it is something to think about if you are interested in joining us.

If that hasn't put you off come along on Tuesdays after 10.00 for a chat or contact Dave at :

Wednesday, 28 March 2012

Phew! what a scorcher.... was hot, hot, hot at the urban farm today and we were all suffering and grumbling. It's hard to remember that it's only March and a few weeks ago we were glad to be working in the  warmth of the polytunnels and greenhouse! We were covering the space at the entrance to the farm with a woodchip mulch to suppress the weeds. That area has had a  mixed range of uses - for storage, as personal plots for the trainees and for flowers - and as a result it's always been a bit of a hotchpotch.
Bringing another area into use
with a bark chipping mulch
Sarah plans to bring it into cultivation and the mulch should have done it's job by the Autumn.

The heat and the hard work didn't dismay us, though and Adrienne and one of the trainees had a race off to see who could fill their barrows first and run them to the area we were covering. It was a close match - although I think Adrienne won by a handle.

We'll have squashes growing here
 in the Autumn
I took some time out at tea break to visit the orchard. The trees there are coming into bud and looking very healthy, promising a reasonable crop in the summer. Sarah has been very taken by Charles Dowding's method of growing squash under the trees and the trainees have been laying straw down as a mulch.   

The strings of toad spawn wrap around
 weeds to keep them in the water
I also took a look a the pond to see how the frogspawn is coming on. The gloopy masses are still there -in spite of a duck lurking round - and were throbbing and bubbling with life. Some of the spawn has turned into tiny tadpole - so it looks as if the frog population will be ok this year! The best thing, though, was that we've got toad spawn!!! Toad spawn comes in strings wrapped round weeds. I've seen it before, but not as clearly as it was today. The phot doesn't do it justice...but you can just make out the strings of toad spawn wrapped round the weeds.

I'm away for the next two weeks - so no blogs over that period.Have a good Easter break!

In the meantime if you're interested in joining us at the farm, now that the weather's better come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Tuesday, 20 March 2012

A frog he would.....

Common Frogs Breeding 3 by erikpaterson
common frogs mating:erikpaterson
...and they are..wooing like mad in the pond at the urban farm. I was beginning to worry that the heron had eaten them all, but there's loads of frog spawn and lots of frogs poking their heads out of the water, legs akimbo or jumping around and on each other. They're quite a sight to see!

It takes about three years for our common frogs to become sexually mature. You can generally tell the commonn male frogs from female frogs by size and the females in our pond are huge compared with their paramours, but apparently in some species, males and females are hard to tell apart and the male frogs make a special release call when another male makes a mistake.
Mostly eggs are fertilised outside the female's body.The female releases her eggs and the male releases his sperm at the same time. To make sure that the sperm reach the eggs, the male climbs onto the female's back and clasps his forelegs around her middle - plenty of that going on in the pond today!. Frogs can stay like this for hours or even days depending on how many eggs the female releases - sometimes as few as one but our common frogs can lay anything between 1000 to 4000 eggs at a time.
All frogs' eggs need moisture to develop, and most frogs abandon their eggs once they're fertilized. We're used to seeing the gloopy masses of the common frogspawn floating in ponds, but a few species carry their eggs in their vocal sacs or their abdomens. Others lay eggs in dry areas and keep the eggs moist with water or urine.
Depending on the weather the tadpoles will hatch out in anything from a week to 40 days and will feed on their spawn jelly for the first few days. After that they begin to eat algae.  Spawn and tadpoles have many predators - fish, birds and grass snakes. On average, only 5 out of every 2000 eggs will survive to become adult frogs and I'm sure that heron knows where they are.... I'll be keeping my eyes open in April for tadpoles and also for toad spawn. We saw toads and newts last year - proof that the urban farm pond provides an important habitat for local amphibians!

Compost by nancybeetoo
loverly compost!!:nancybeetoo
It was a  lovely sunny day and the volunteers were busy clearing more space in the wooded area and potting up the seedlings that were sown a few weeks ago. Most of them have germinated and Sarah will have plenty of tomatoes for sale through the veggie mail scheme and on the market stall.

Last week I went on a compost making course at Hackney City Farm. I went expecting to learn how to make compost - but I should have read the details a bit more carefully. Sheffield's Heeley Farm have won lotttery funding promoting compost making. Their plan is to train up 15 or so hubs of accredited compost trainers around England. If Sarah's application is successful we'll be able to run compost making courses at the farm. Any potential rotters out there?

If you're interested in joining us at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Tuesday, 13 March 2012

In praise of worms....

Long Lunch by Texas.713
Gulp! Texas.713
A bit of a hasty blog this week - a group of us are going on a composting course at Hackney City Farm on Wednesday so hopefully we'll come back with refreshed memories and new ideas that will help us to combat the rising price of compost by making more of our own for the farm. The no-dig method that we use is quite greedy on compost, so we need as much as we can get. 

Thinking about compost made me realise we don't see many worms at the farm because we don't turn the soil over. I'm sure there must be plenty of them - with all that organic matter around they must love it! Earth worms are essential for good, fertile soil. They help to aerate the soil by tunneling; bring deeper and often nutrient rich soil up into the topsoil; and while they are doing this they secrete a slime that contains nitrogen - vital for healthy plants. They are also an important part of the ecosystem's foodchain - blackbirds love them, so do moles, badgers, foxes, toads.....They can live up to 8 years ( although I don't know how you find out?) but with all those predators their life span is usually quite short. Pollution and pesticides are, of course,also threatening to earth worms - toxins get into the soil and even if they don't kill the worm they can be passed on to their predators, while chemical fertilisers can make the soil too acidic for earth worms to survive. So let's be kind to worms and make sure that there is plenty of soil for them to live in and vegetable matter to eat!    

Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Frogs, toads, beetroots and hammers

Sarah had plenty of work for us this week, but as soon as I got the chance I wandered up to the pond this week.

Toad on the road?? by grakki
toads on the road:grakki
One of the volunteers had already told me that he has got masses of frog spawn in the pond at his allotment and the Guardian on Saturday announced that toads are on the move. Frogs are pretty undiscriminating about where they breed, but toads generally return to the ponds where they were born. This can mean that masses of toads cross busy roads heading for the same pond and inevitably their casualties are high. is a charity that is committed to the conservation of amphibians and reptiles - frogs, toads, newts, snakes and lizards - and saving the habitats they depend on.  At this time of year they are responsible for special road signs warning motorists about the toads crossing. Volunteer toad wardens also carry the creatures to safety, and last year gave 73,000 toads safe passage. And in Oxton, Nottinghamshire, one particular road is closed to all traffic in March for the toads to cross safely.

Both frogs and toads eat beetles, bugs and woodlice. Frogs eat a large number of slugs and snails, whereas toads favour ants, so very useful creatures to have around. Sadly, there was no evidence at all at the urban farm. We saw toads and newts last year so we know they are around. Maybe next week? But at least the water mint I planted last week has survived and looks healthy.

We've got two new volunteers - an ex-trainee who's back until he gets paid work (it can't have been that bad first time round!) and a friend of Adrienne's who's just moved into the area. It was great having them, they both got stuck in and helped us to crack on.

A self - selecting group of guys built a new compost bin in the woodland area that we cleared a few weeks ago. The price of compost has shot up and we're hoping that we can make more of our own. There was quite a hullabaloo at one point -  I'm not quite sure what they were up to but it seemd to involve an old beetroot and a hammer...

♪ Parsley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme  ♪ by Jill Clardy
parsley, sage, rosemary and thyme
:Jill Clardy

The rest of us spent the day taking root and shoot cuttings to meet an order for 1,500 herb plants that Sarah has secured for the farm. I'm not sure how many we planted today, but we must have nearly made the target!

The birds were singing, ladybirds were waking up and the scent of the herbs and the sun on our backs made us all feel very mellow!  

If you're interested in joining us at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Tuesday, 28 February 2012

Riddles and pots!

rudbekia by brockvicky
It's been a very flowery day today at the farm - potting up and planting and even though the sun wasn't shining it was warm and lovely to be working outdoors. We've had a load of compost delivered and volunteers and trainees took it in turns to riddle out any large pieces to make it suitable for potting - hard work but I consoled myself with the thought that it was helping to firm up my arm muscles - no more dinner ladies arms for me! We spent most of the day working round a big table outside the cabin potting a range of plants including white and red penstemons,rudbekias, lavender,salvia, thyme, lupins, lemon verbena and geraniums and lots more. Apart from the riddling, the work was relaxing, everyone was in good humour and working together like that gave us the chance to have a chat and a bit of banter with the trainees. They worked hard, joined in the chat happily and looked pleased when we praised them! A cliche - but it made it all worthwhile!
penstemon by M. Martin Vicente
Penstemon: M Martin Vicente
Once the plants were potted up we moved them to the large polytunnel to bring them on ready for sale in the early summer. Keep your eyes open for plants and cut flowers in veggie mail or on the farmers' market in the next few months. Later on I took a look at the seeds I'd sown a few weeks ago. They are all coming up, so there'll be a range of veggie plants on sale too!
Mentha aquatica by --Tico--
water mint: Tico
The pond is beginning to fill up with water at last - but no sign of the fish. Maybe the heron has eaten them all or it could be that they are hiding in the mud ? 

One of the volunteers brought in some water mint which we planted on the edge. Apart from being very atttractive with clusters of pink, blue or lilac coloured flowers at the tip of square shaped stems, water mint smells wonderful and attracts butterflies such as the small tortoiseshell and peacock so hopefully we'll be seeing those in the summer. And you can make mint tea from the leaves - though I've never tried it.

So, altogether a very satisfying day!

If you're interested in joining us at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Brambles and bees

Bumble-bee visiting a Snowflake by Josef Meixner
Bumblie on a snowdrop: J Meixner
What a change in the weather! All I can say is that I'm glad we were at the urban farm yesterday. It really felt like a spring day, the sun was shining and when we stopped for our midmorning cuppa we saw two bumble bees foraging for nectar from early spring flowers such as lungwort, spring bulbs and willow catkins. The sound of bumble bees is synonymous with summer days, but sadly they are under threat because of the decline in wild flowers in our countryside - over 97% of flower rich meadows have been lost in the UK and in the last 70 years at least two species of bumblies have become extinct.Others have declined dramatically.
The BumblebeeTrust's website gives more information and advice on how to help maintain the numbers of these vital insects. .

Making a start: Dave Meara
In the morning we started work clearing brambles from the wooded area.Brambles have featured in folk tales throughout the ages. It was thought by some to represent both generosity and others to represent grief. Blackberries were sacred in Pagan religions and were included in dishes made on feast days while Christians thought that when Lucifer was thrown out of heaven he landed in a bramble bush and cursed it and who can forget that Brer Rabbit escaped into the bramble patch when he was caught by Brer Fox!  Blackberries are lovely fruit but they do need to be managed and cultivated effectively to produce good fruit and our brambles have certainly been left to grow wild. It was tough going. The bramble shoots have curled over and the tips have rooted making a woven arched covering but once we'd done a couple of hours we could really see a difference and it inspired us to crack on - that and the thought of pancakes for lunch at Foundation House and a bonfire in the afternoon!

Sarah and the team want to move the chickens into the clearing. As woodland birds they will be quite happy there and it will open up the chicken pooh rich land that they were on for further cultivation. Sarah's also planning to put a series of large bins on the edge of the clearing so that we can make more of our own compost.
Spring must be on its way  and making us more lively - on Sunday a group of us went to the farm to fix the willow dome. We made it last year, but a lot of the willow staves died because of the dry summer. One of the team brought freshly cut willow and we simply pushed the staves into the ground following the same pattern as last year's dome. Hopefully, if we don't go into a prolonged drought this year they will all take,the dome will start to fill out and we'll have a lovely seating area . 

If you're interested in joining us at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Wednesday, 15 February 2012

enterprise at the farm

two seater with a central table
There's always something different at the urban farm. This week when I got there we had a set of garden furniture in front of the cabin.I thought they'd been donated and was just thinking they'd be rather nice near the pond and the orchard on a sunny summer afternoon, when Sarah told me that they've been made by the trainees on the Christian Foundation's construction project and are being showcased at the farm.
two seater
There are two designs - one has two chairs joined together by a table, the other is a two seater sofa style.I tried them out and they are very sturdy and really comfy.

The photos don't do them justice so if you want to get a good look at them or try them out pop along to the farm any day after 10am. Each item costs £65.00.

Someone has kindly donated a bag of seeds so we spent the morning sowing tomatoes and aubergines.I know quite a lot of people who are nervous about growing from seed and if you don't have much success young plants ready for planting out are a good fallback. Sarah is planning to sell the young plants in the spring at the farmer's markket and through veggie mail.
Dark room for endive by Sandro_Lacarbona
forcing endives: Sandro Lacarbano
The team are also growing endives at Kiln Farm so we went along after lunch to take a look at them. It's not an easy vegetable to grow and needs to be forced in the dark during its final stages - a bit like rhubarb - to get those yellow and white, crisp leaves. They're looking really good so the team should be well pleased with their efforts. They might be ready to harvest soon so keep your eyes open for them!

 It's worth popping round to the workshop at Kiln Farm. The trainees make a big range of itens  - not just the garden furniture. While I was there I picked up a box of briquettes.I've got a French wood burner at home - the sort that was used by concierges to keep the stair well warm.It's a slow burner and can't really cope with big chunks of wood. I've seen the briqettes advertised at the Christian Foundation but I never thought about using them before.The briquettes are made from compressed paper - total recycling-  and burn slowly releasing a gentle heat. I'll try them out over the weekend and let you know next week how they go. Amazing Waste are giving the briqettes away for free to pensioners and for the rest of us are selling them at £4 a box for briquettes and kindling and £4 for a large, post office sized sack of kindling. If you're interested email: . The briqettes will be ready to collect from Foundation House on Thursday afternoon or they can be delivered to pensioners who live in Wolverton.

If you're interested volunteering at the urban farm come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Friday, 10 February 2012

potatoes, polytunnels and greenhouses

Inside our polytunnel : Alan Entwistle 
I'm reading a book at the moment about life as an Anglo Saxon in the year 1,000. One thing that's really surprised me is that there was a "hunger gap" in July when many peasants were seriously short of food. It seems strange when for us the least interesting time of year for food is round about now. But Anglo Saxons were heavily reliant on cereals - wheat, barley and oats - to provide the carbohydrate in their diet. The new crop doesn't come in until August and any stored seeds were well past their best by July. There is a suggestion that many ate mouldy grain which contains the  same chemicals as LSD and has an hallucinogenic effect ...hmmm!

So, thank goodness for potatoes, polytunnels and greenhouses which have provided us with alternative,good food and have helped to extend the growing season either side  of summer., not to mention fridges and freezers!

Experimentation has played a large part in extending our growing knowledge and skills and Sarah and the team were contributing to that this week at the farm. Those of you who've been on the tour at open days will know that we've got a small heated greenhouse on the site and a number of polytunnels. We were donated a large number of seed packets recently and Sarah thought it would be interesting to see if we could get any of them to grow so early in the year. So, huddled away from the cold snow and winter wind we sowed among other things aubergines and tomatoes , just to see what will happen.  It may be that they are reliant on daylight hours rather than temperature, or a mix of both but even if they don't survive  it's very cheering on a cold grey, slushy day to think of bright purple blooms on aubergines and ripening fruit on tomatoes!

In the meantime, if you're interested in experimenting or just growing you can do both as a volunteer at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

to dig or not to dig....

 compost waiting to go on the beds
My partner has just taken over a derelict allotment site. We've  worked well together - dug out old shrubs, cleared a load of rubbish, unearthed a few vole nests and have decided to plant potatoes there this spring. That's when our horticultural harmony was interrupted by dischord. He wants to go for the no - dig approach but I'm all for digging. I understand the science of no-dig. Firstly it doesn't do your soil any good to stand on it, even if you then turn it over. Your weight will impact the subsoil well below spade depth.
Secondly, by opening the soil up to the elements you will lose nitrogen into the atmosphere and all those micro-organisms that go to making a healthy soil will be made vulnerable to the weather and thirdly, turned over soil and a bit of daylight is heaven for all those annual weed seeds just waiting for the chance to burst into life and reproduce!
The no-dig method is practised at the urban farm with good results. I can see it working all round me - so why can't I just let go of the spade? I asked Sarah her views on no-dig. Knowing Sarah's horticultural background I wondered if she was as convinced by the method as her predecessor - Heather - who introduced the system to the farm. She is. She thinks it's fantastic, the only way to go. 
No support there, then, but I'm sticking to my guns because I like potatoes - they are a fantastic,versatile but much abused vegetable. We treat them roughly and use them to clear the land and break up the soil but my view is that with a little bit of care we could have a much bigger and healthier crop. The allotment land is impacted clay full of pretty toxic weeds - bramble, nettle, bindweed and dock roots -  pity the poor spud that has to contend with that lot! ... and I did catch a snippet of no-dig guru Charles Dowding  on Gardener's Question Time the other day admitting that he has dug occasionally when the ground is particularly badly infested...hmmm...   So we're having a  potato bed each and we'll see who has the highest yield. I'll let you know how it goes.

In the meantime, you'll be glad to know that you won't spend much time digging if you decide to volunteer at the farm. Come along any Tuesday after 10.00 for a chat or email  

If you've got any thoughts on this or anything else to do with the urban farm just leave a comment in the box.

Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Erection at the urb farm!

One of the chickens watching our efforts
Sorry about the naff title but the joke and variations kept us going all morning! All very juvenile - you had to be there really -and thankfully the trainees weren't around at the time. The weather was finally good enough to get out and do some work and we were all excited at the thought of erecting the fruit cage that someone has kindly donated to the farm. In spite of the drizzle we made good progress and now have the uprights in place. It wasn't plain sailing, though. The uprights had mysterious plates attached to them which we finally worked out weren't designed to catch your shins every time you walked past but were meant to rest on the ground to prevent soil falling into the tubes that hold the uprights in place. Once that was sorted out we only had to deal with uneven ground and a sloping site.  We're hoping to get it finished next week and then we can start to move the fruit bushes into it. At the moment one of the chicken runs is in the middle of the cage but they weren't impressed at all by our combined brain power and all the activity going on round them. The next question is whether to leave them in there to clean up after the fruit has been harvested or move their run into the wooded area so that they can start to clear some of that area for us.
Spring and spring cleaning is definitely on the agenda. Sarah and her team have been cleaning out the greenhouse and getting it ready for spring sowings - which is a cheering thought. Sarah said that she'd seen male blackbirds and, unusually, thrushes squaring up to each other - a sure sign that spring is on the way. 

 We're also tidying up the website, so take a look this week at the new veggie box page at We're hoping the new design will make it easier for you to see what's on offer and to order your veggie boxes. All the vegetables are grown locally, of course, cutting down on travel miles and making sure that your food is as fresh as it can be.

If you want more information the person to contact is Adrienne.
Her email addresss is 

We still haven't sorted out a date for fixing the willow dome, so if you are interested in helping get in touch with Dave at . If you're interested in volunteering on Tuesdays come along and have a chat. We're usually there from 10.00.

Wednesday, 18 January 2012

frozen pipes and new ideas

frozen kale at the farm
It was freezing – literally - at the urban farm this week, fingers, toes and pipes, so sadly no tea! But it wasn’t all bad news. Sarah had bumped into one of last year’s apprentices. He’s working with Chris Bridgeman, landscaping and planting at the Olympic site and is loving it, even though it means leaving MK at some horrendous hour of the morning to get down to East London. It’s really satisfying to have a success story and makes the effort feel worthwhile for staff and volunteers.  One thing that always surprises me about the trainees is that the volunteers turn up (nearly) every week and they never ask us why. I suppose teenagers are generally only focussed on their own lives and we’re just part of their experience. I asked the other volunteers and their answers were quite mixed. One of the team sees it as an opportunity to get some exercise in the fresh air and uses it as a green gym; for another it was the love of growing and the wildlife. Other reasons included putting something back into the community; the sociability; and, for all of us a strong commitment to the principles of the urban farm.
Not everyone is free during the week to volunteer at the farm so we wondered if some of the farm’s supporters would like to get involved in weekend work parties developing specific projects. Over the past few weeks we’ve batted round quite a few ideas, some more long term than others but we have identified two that we’d like to get going in the near future.
building the dome last year
Last year we built a willow dome near the orchard. There’s a mellow feeling inside the dome. Everyone who's visited the site has been attracted to it and all the trainees like it. During last summer’s open day I remember a group taking it over, playing guitar and Northumbrian bagpipes, chatting and singing and just chillin’. The dome suffered badly during the summer's drought and winter's high winds and needs replanting to restore it. It isn’t a lot of work but it would make a big difference to that area.

The other project we’d like to work up is the pond area which is a bit neglected at the moment. There aren’t enough pond plants to keep the water clear and we’ve had an infestation of blanket weed which looks a bit disgusting, especially when the water dries up in summer. We’d really like to fix the pond floor using the traditional canal builders’ method of puddling clay. Once the pond is functioning properly we’ll plant up a bog area and have wild flowers growing in the grass round it – attracting more wild life into the area and creating an attractive area to sit in. 
We haven’t fixed a date for any of this activity yet, but if you would be interested in helping with either of these projects or with any others please email Dave at: and we’ll be in touch.

If you’ve got any ideas for more projects share them with us and other readers. Put a comment at the bottom of this page.  

Thursday, 12 January 2012

Hawthorne and Weeds....

Hawthorne Blossom by Jenny Mackness
May Blossom  Jenny Macness
I was called away for granny duty this week, so didn't make the urban farm. It's ok - I'm a volunteer but I'm beginning to get withdrawal symptoms. One of our more reliable team members told me that he'd spent the morning weeding around a hawthorne tree that's near the path at the edge of the main vegetable growing area. The tree was choked up with quite a range of weeds - couch grass, docks,dandelions and anything else that could get in there. It really isn't the best spot for a tree, but it does add its own beauty to that area and we've all felt we'd rather keep it despite the inconvenience and weeding problem.
Hawthorn is one of our oldest native trees which might explain why we all feel so protective towards it. It also has an interesting folk history. Apart from being closely connected with fairies it was strongly associated with fertility and sexual abandonment . The common name for Hawthorn is the May Tree. Its blossoms appear in time for the May Day celebrations when people and houses were decorated with may blossoms and local processions celebrated the May Queen. Cutting may blossom symbolised the beginning of new life and the onset of the growing season. The maypole is, of course, a phallic symbol and maypole dancing is symbolic of renewed life and sexual union. According to Glennie Kindred it was the custom in some parts of the British Isles for young men to erect a may tree outside the home of their sweetheart - which has all the potential for being extremely embarassing - I suspect size really did matter.... 
I didn't know that another name for the Hawthorn is the "Bread and Cheese Tree" and that you can eat the young leaves and leaf buds. They have a sweet nutty flavour and can be added to salads along with the flower buds. I must remember to try that in May.

If you're interested in becoming a volunteer at the urban farm, come along any Tuesday for a chat. We usually start at 10.00 and break at 12.30 for a free lunch ( one of the volunteers perks) at Foundation House. 

Tuesday, 3 January 2012

rain stops play.....

Slug eggs: urtica 
Rain - and wind - stopped play this Tuesday, the trainees were not due back until Wednesday and it was a good time for Sarah and her team to catch up with paperwork so volunteering day was cancelled.
The heron is back, though and seems to have set up residence in the area. Sarah’s seen it in the pond and on the roof of one of the houses on Windsor Street opposite the farm. ( If anyone can get a photo of it please send it in and we’ll put it on the blog.) 

There is a theory that if there are predatory birds around then the food supply must be plentiful, which in turn suggests that the supporting environmental infrastructure is healthy too. I hope that’s true. I’ve spent a bit of spare time over Christmas reading about slugs. ( I had a bad cold , television was rubbish - what else was there to do?) There are between 24 and 30 different types of slugs and there seem to be as many, if not more approaches to getting rid of them. Slugs do have their role - they clean up by eating decaying vegetation but they seem to be committed adherents to the view that life is a continuous process of decay starting with those healthy young plants that you lovingly nurtured  until they were ready to plant out and moving on to the roots and tubers which you can‘t even see have been attacked until you come to harvest them! 
If you want to take an ecological approach then maintaining a healthy and clean environment seems to be the best way to minimise slug damage. Slugs need cool, shady and damp places to protect them and their eggs from drying out during the day.  If you keep your vegetable plot tidy you reduce the number of places where slugs can hide and places where they can lay their eggs - which is no bad thing if you think that hermaphrodite pairs of slugs lay batches of 30 eggs each and any one individual slug has the potential to produce arond 40,000 eggs. These can hatch out after 10 days if the weather is warm. Young slugs take under a year to mature and can live for a further two or more years, munching and breeding...

Some gardeners recommend creating natural barriers from substances that are likely to irritate slug skin - like coffee grounds, sand, grit etc; others recommend turning the soil over in spring and autumn to expose slugs and their eggs to the elements and predators, but this doesn't fit in with the no dig method practised at the urban farm. We don’t seem to get huge amounts of slug damage, though. This might be because the wood chip paths around the beds create a rough barrier which is enough to deter slugs - why crawl over that when there's the woodland area full of decaying vegetation just waiting to be eaten? Or it could be because of the wide range of natural predators that are around, including the insects, frogs, toads and newts and birds all attracted in by the pond which in turn attracts the heron….

Tuesday normally is volunteering day at the urban farm. If you are interested come along for a chat. We're usually there from 10.00.