Familiarity breeds contentment – and content we all were to be back in Julia and Tony’s kitchen en masse and anticipating Sarah’s talk. Sarah McCleery is a good friend of the group having led us through a wine tasting twice before. She had kindly given up her evening to drive up with her husband and present us with eight wines she had carefully chosen from the Vintage Roots catalogue.
Sarah is a passionate wine enthusiast and writer (www.wine-talk.co.uk) having spent the early part of her career as a buyer for organic vintners Vintage Roots (www.vintageroots.co.uk) with whom she still often works. Unfortunately on this occasion she was surprised to open the cases to find eight wines carefully selected by someone else! She was quickly back on top of the selection and she led us through the whites.
We started off with a £9 bottle of Prosecco and worked up to a £16 bottle of Verdicchio (which seemed to divide opinions). With a glass of Rosé in our hands we ate. Julia had promised a snack between the wines and exceeded all expectations by providing a wonderful supper with salads, cheeses and jacket potatoes! The reds ranged from a £9 Cotes du Rhone to a robust £13 Claret which certainly satisfied the group’s tastes.
The conversation went on long after the end of the session. Thanks Sarah once again for sharing your passion with us, and thanks again to Julia and Tony for being such perfect hosts.
The occasion was the group’s now traditional harvest supper celebration, marking the fulfilment of another growing season, and the promise of a gourmet’s delight of organic food never fails to get HEOG members out in force. But this year we had an extra attraction to tempt them away from - whatever it is they get up to on an autumn Saturday evening - because we also welcomed Garden Organic’s Pauline Pears as guest speaker.
Pauline is the longest serving member of staff at the charity having started working for the Henry Doubleday Research Association under its founder, Lawrence D Hills, at Bocking in Essex long before the move to Ryton Gardens 26 years ago. She is editor of the Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening and has headed the Garden Organic advisory department – or Knowledge Transfer as it is now known – for many years. She took as her theme Desert Island Veg, taking a cue from the long running radio show, where instead of choosing favourite recordings, she chose some of her favourite vegetables and explored why she would not like to be without them.
Her first desert island choice was French beans, for their ease of growing and versatility in the kitchen, being both eaten green and dried for keeping. Pauline then moved on to pumpkins and squashes where she discussed the many different varieties available and their respective merits, adding a plea for this family of vegetables to be taken more seriously as a prolific and versatile source of food rather than for ornament and Halloween lanterns.
Her next choice was leeks – again for their ease of cultivation. She suggested that if sown in modules they could be planted out at any size, as and when garden space becomes available, and also that if cut off at ground level they will re-grow. This drastic approach may help combat the allium leaf miner and the leek moth – pests which have newly arrived in the area in the past year. Pauline’s final choice for the evening was chard, pointing out that it will self-seed easily, so that once established a continual supply can be grown without further sowing.
She then answered questions from members, which ranged widely around various gardening problems encountered, from the leek moth to blight – or the lack of it this year! Then it was time to allow the hungry to attack the shared feast – which was done with customary enthusiasm. We thank Pauline for giving her time to share her encyclopaedic gardening knowledge with us and making a truly memorable evening.
We met on a warm Autumnal Sunday afternoon at the Temple Balsall car park to meet the Warwickshire Wildlife Trust volunteer warden Adrian Smith. The 6½ acre nature reserve was formerly part of the ornamental gardens of Springfield House and straddles the Cuttle Brook. Adrian took us on the short route past Temple Balsall Hall past the cemetery and across a field to the edge of the reserve.
Once you enter the woodland is delightfull, and the signs of the efforts of Adrian’s voilunteers are clear. We walked up along the side of the Cuttle Brook as Adrian explained the wildlife he had seen: badgers, otters, muntjac deer, buzzards, kingfishers, water voles, woodpeckers and squirrels to name a few. To cross the brook we had to walk back to the road to get to the other bank where amid the trees you can still make out the earthworks of the original lakes and ponds of the Springfield gardens.
To enter John Sargent’s Corley Moor garden on a summer’s afternoon is simply a privilege. John started the garden more than half a century ago to supply his Coventry grocery shop with organic fruit and vegetables. John greeted us on the lawn and took us on a tour of the impressively spacious and productive 1¾ acre plot behind his bungalow. John pointed out that the tall trees which provided shade from the summer sun had not been there when he bought the plot.
He has a number of traditional tools including an orginal cast iron shredder which Diana and Mike demonstrated for us. John’s vegetables include field beans which he grows in preference to broad beans and his impressive Hungarian Sarpo potatoes. This blight resistant variety often has the reputation of little taste, which John has overcome by planting his own seed. There are no garden-centre canes for the runner beans, which are much better supported by willow and sunflowers.
If the vegetables are impressive then the fruit garden is beyond imagination. It is not surprising that the squirrels enjoy a share of his crop of loganberries, plums, damsons, pears, blackcurrants, raspberries, cherries, walnuts and apples. John also has plans for the future with a Medlar ready to plant out. To the side of the house we found the caravan where 21 HEOG members once met to discuss the future of the group and met his ten year old geese. The visit was concluded with a fine tea on the lawn.
There is no doubt that John’s garden provides inspiration to organic growers of all ages. Thank you John for such a wonderful afternoon.
Always ready to answer calls of distress the “7”, led by trustee Ross were in attendance at Corley Moor. As summer heightened, the crisis had gotten worst, even Dave Cameron had abandoned his holiday, and although unable to attend, had sent his good wishes. The cloudy dry spell which had followed our early Summer, which used to be called Spring, had been interrupted by sudden sunshine, which was sending Sunday 26th of June into the record books. The showdown was fixed for High Noon. The rest of the country was gripped by drought, and wilted vegetables, but in Big John's garden everything grew – 50 years of organic gardening had provided a soil so rich in humus that it could retain water in the middle of the Sahara. And the weeds had taken full advantage, shooting up so fast that John's crops were in danger of suffocation, and his planned opening in two weeks was in peril – just the sort of job that the Super Seven relish.
So why was I there? Yes, as usual, for the beer. For years I've sought out the Bull & Butcher, thinking it to be in Corley, so when the directions arrived, they specified meet at John's house, opposite the B&B – perfect: join the “7” (making 8), 5 minutes on the hoe, 55 in the pub, that was to be my work pattern, but I reckoned without the tight supervision and Eon-honed management style of Ross. So we got to it – there were 2 major weeds in the garden – both annuals – milk thistle and chick-weed. The 2 commonest weeds are chick-weed and groundsel, but the clear winner in Corley Moor was chick-weed (botanical lesson over). Now instead of being assigned weeds we were given areas to clear, and Big John got out his scythe and started on the nettles.
I had intended to take “before and after” photos (full pint and now an empty pint), however it was difficult to identify the beds at the start, but by the end, after we had toiled, sweated, built a compost heap the height of the UK national debt, and suffered sunburn - It was a garden to be proud of – especially after several glasses of Johns (non-alcoholic, he claimed) elderflower champagne. John was nearly in tears when I left – I'll get the hang of that lawn mower next time – and the dog was hoarse, but it was time to visit the B&B, which I then discovered was child friendly – I'll have to write to CAMRA and get it delisted.
A popular subject brought out members in force to hear Stephen Trotter, the recently appointed Chief Executive Officer of Warwickshire Wildlife Trust which has 23,000 members, 50 staff and about 500 volunteers looking after all aspects of nature conservation in the county.
Woodlands are considered the ‘climax’ vegetation for the UK, and are important not only for their wildlife biodiversity, but also for the production of timber, as recreational spaces and as a means of carbon capture – an estimated 5 tonnes of carbon dioxide per acre per year. They also provide a means of managing ecosystems in the form of shade, water and flood management.
He offered two possible explanations of the origins of our ancient woodlands, one seeing the trees spread north as the glaciers retreated 11,000 years ago, to create a close canopy covering all except the higher peaks. However, the presence of plants adapted to ‘edge’ habitats, where there was more light, suggests an alternative scenario with people and animals also moving in, creating a patchwork with more open areas much like parkland.
Broadleaf woodland in the UK is subdivided into 25 types, and the oak/bluebell woodland is the type most typical of Warwickshire. Woodland management seeks to manipulate the light levels to encourage smaller understorey trees like hazel and rowan which are important for wildlife. Too much shade causes the ground flora to decline and the use of ancient techniques like coppicing, where areas of a wood are cut down in rotation and allowed to re-grow, gives a periodic boost to light levels to encourage the smaller plants.
Stephen described some of the lesser known plants of woodland, such as the parasitic toothwort which is only found in woods, wood sorrel and yellow archangel which relies on the symbiotic relationship between the orchid and a woodland fungi. He also touched on the issue of climate change, noting that the areas suitable for particular species are moving north and west at a rate of 6km per decade, and that much of southern and eastern England is predicted to be unsuitable for oak trees by the end of this century.
We were given a fascinating introduction to a subject with great significance for our environment, landscape and biodiversity, and we thank Stephen for sharing his enthusiasm with us.
A new venue and a new subject brought out 20 Heogers and guests to Temple Balsall to hear Anton Rosenfeld from the Research Department at Garden Organic talk about their current three-year project aimed at encouraging and supporting people who want to grow non-traditional vegetables in this country.
Some areas of Birmingham and the Black Country have ethic minorities amounting to 60% of the total, and it is natural that these people would want to grow crops familiar to their cultures, while the wider population has also been exposed to more unusual crops both as a result of foreign travel and also the popularity of cookery programmes. Some first and second generation immigrants have been growing their native vegetables here for upwards of 50 years, but their knowledge has been difficult to access and spread, so there is a real danger that it may be lost as those people age – the majority of these growers are now over 70.
The project has a number of aims, which include surveying growers of non-traditional plants and collecting and testing seeds. The best of these will be added to the Heritage Seed Library collection (www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl) and information sheets and a handbook produced, along with a demonstration garden at Ryton to encourage more people to try these crops.
Anton went on to discuss a number of particular plants which are being grown in this country. Those familiar with Bangladeshi or Caribbean cookery will have heard of calaloo, which is an amaranthus species which seems to grow well here, while others such as chayote (also known as christophene, chuchu and many others, grown like a summer squash) are more difficult because like many tropical plants their flowering pattern is disrupted by our long summer days – they are adapted for more even daylight and darkness. Sweet potatoes also suffer from this, but special varieties have been bred for UK growers. A member of the bindweed family, they are grown from cuttings but must have warm soil and no frosts. Okra also needs lots of heat – a heated glasshouse crop in this country – as do yard-long beans, which is prolific, drought-resistant and grown like a climbing French bean.
He also brought along some packets of seeds for members to try, with a request that they let the project know about how they got on or any problems they had. Unsurprisingly, the little brown packets were enthusiastically received.
HEOG membership may under-represent ethnic minorities at present, but this very different kind of subject proved surprisingly relevant and stimulating for everyone who came, and we look forward to seeing how this project develops. www.sowingnewseeds.org.uk
Kenilworth is not specially noted as the Green Hub of the Midlands, but the greenies turned out in force when David and Sue Searle opened their new-build eco-house for the group’s inspection. Looking from the outside like almost any modern detached house, only the solar hot-water and photo-voltaic panels on the south-facing side of the roof give any clue to the technology within.
David started the evening by outlining the story of their project, the difficulties they encountered in the planning process – especially the reaction of their neighbours – and the research which was required to bring the whole idea together. This also required the demolition of their old house and the sale of half of the plot to provide the finance for the new build.
With 25 visitors in their living room, David’s first action had been to open what he called ‘the emergency ventilation system’ – two windows in the side wall of the room which normally remain closed. Because the house has a heat-exchange ventilation system where the heat from the extracted stale air is used to heat the incoming fresh air, up to 90% of the heat that would normally be lost by ventilation through open windows is saved.
The 450mm-thick walls contain 250mm (10”) of insulation, and the internal leaf of the walls is made from high-density concrete blocks to provide a thermal store to smooth out heat fluctuations in the rooms. The only source of heat for the house is provided by a centrally situated woodstove which also provides a winter boost for the solar hot water using an innovative boiler in the chimney flue. With only a small fire in the wood stove they have been able to keep the house at or above 21 degrees C throughout the coldest of the winter weather we have experienced recently.
The photovoltaic panels on the roof feed any surplus electricity not needed by the house into the National Grid, although David is unsure of the cost savings as yet, due to the change over to a new feed-in tarriff – he expects to be receiving money from this in the near future.
The house also has rainwater harvesting which is used for toilet flushing and the washing machine, and the system has run these without using mains water for all except a couple of weeks since they moved in.
We then split up into parties of eight to look more closely at the hardware involved. What would elsewhere be an airing cupboard is filled by a giant hot water cylinder which stores hot water created by the solar panels and the stove. Hot water is taken from this via a heat exchanger and a thermostatic mixer valve which limits the hot water at the taps to about 50 degrees C – the water in the storage cylinder has been up to a scalding 85 degrees C in the summer.
A big thank you goes to David and Sue for throwing their house open to us and especially to Sue for providing refreshments throughout the evening. We hope the visit will inspire others to follow their lead, though demolishing your house to start afresh may be a step too far for most of us!
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