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Urban harvest: reflections on yields

Despite its foreboding nature I love this time of year. The nip in the air and dark evenings are a precursor of the cold dark months to come but in daylight nature’s bounty is visible everywhere. So, with harvest festival approaching, it is good time to reflect on the rich and varied yields from our garden.

Merits of measuring

This season I have been keeping a sowing and harvesting log to encourage greater diligence with successional sewing. The first takes the form of notes scribbled in a small, soil smudged Moleskine. The latter is more 21st century: Capital Growth’s Harvest-ometer.

The sowing log has not exactly resulted in the fortnightly sowings that many authors recommend but has allowed me to fill in gaps as soon as they appear with seedlings that are big enough to tough it out in a busy space. The waves of seedlings have also made me better at selecting only the strongest ones for planting out.

Although it has its limitations, especially in terms of varieties, the Harvest-ometer has given me a much better feel for the volume of produce we are achieving from our micro-plot. By mid-September we had harvested almost 18kg of vegetables and herbs, with a nominal value of just over £95.

The numbers are of course only part of the story. If I had been more successful with mixed leaves the overall weight might be lower but value would be higher, bearing in mind how much shops charge for small bags of salad leaves. Similarly, before the growing year is out there should be more potatoes and tomatoes to harvest, pushing the overall volume up significantly but not necessarily the value.

And then there are the unquantifiable yields that my logs do not capture: the number of times I have headed into the garden in a mood only for it to dissipate within 20 minutes of sowing, planting or thinning out; the intense fibrous, sweet or bitter flavours you only experience from freshly picked produce; the satisfaction of knowing that every pound of produce from the garden is one in the eye for the powers-that-be and corporate interests that cling to the agribusiness model…

A harvest of lone ingredients and healthy meals

After the long hungry gap, my heart leapt in spring at being able to add a single homegrown ingredient to a meal. In recent weeks, however, homegrown produce has often made up more than half of our evening meal. Last Friday I hit a particular high when I served chard-o-pita (an English take on a Greek spanakopita) with a plate of mixed leaves, tomatoes, baby carrots, garlic… Apart from the pepper, filo pastry and a couple of ounces of goat’s cheese the whole meal came frame the raised beds and pots in our tiny garden.


Leafy greens, roots and herbs in abundance

As chard and kale have grown particularly abundantly, I have built up a repertoire of recipes based on them, from chard cakes to kale or chard pies. Mr M’s particular favourite is kale, chard and goat’s cheese empanadas. Any goat’s cheese will do but for an extra tangy kick I like to use tomette bleue. And for a crunchy healthier pastry, I use olive oil instead of butter or lard and add a handful of polenta to the flour. These über-fresh mini pasties stuffed with healthy greens make a perfect light evening meal and with only two mouths to feed there are always leftovers for lunch the next day!

Potatoes have been another success story. I know some patio gardeners do not bother with spuds in a small space but in my book they are definitely worth it. For one, I like the idea as of growing some of our own carbohydrates – no carb-free diets in our house! And as potatoes score best in terms of calorific value to acreage (or rather square footage), I include earlies and maincrop in our garden. As a result, apart from two King Edwards for baking, we have not had to buy any potatoes since late June.

One of my favourite mid-week meals is pickled herring served with new potatoes, boiled beetroots and a dollop of soured cream with dill. It is a ridiculously simple supper and when I harvest the beetroot young, takes no time to prepare but allows us to enjoy the concentrated flavour of really fresh hearty vegetables.

And then there’s the learning…

Another intangible yield from the garden is the learning that I pick up along the way. This is not limited to horticultural knowledge but includes the wealth of understanding and insights gleaned from watching and analysing the plants, soil, elements, garden visitors… and their relationships. One such insight has changed my life, almost overnight!

Back in early July I panicked at the sight of my potato plants. My first thought was “No, please not the blight!” but after closer inspection and a lot of research, I concluded that they were suffering from a lack of magnesium. I spent hours learning about the role of magnesium in photosynthesis and how to boost concentrations in the soil.


Nutrients for the soil and me

As I was wandering back from the pharmacy a couple of days later with a bag of Epsom salt for a plant feed, a memory stirred. Over twenty years ago my family GP had prescribed a magnesium supplement for me. As I could not remember why, I dug a little deeper into the nature and importance of magnesium. The symptoms of human magnesium deficiency were astoundingly familiar and the NHS advice that a balanced diet provides enough of this mineral was of little reassurance. As nuts are out of bounds, I need to rely on whole grains and leafy greens (and the occasional square of dark chocolate). However, if the vegetables in my organically tended garden are suffering from a lack of this nutrient, what chance does produce grown in fields depleted from decades of mono-cropping stand?

Although I prefer to get my vitamins and other nutrients from food rather than pills, I went back to the chemist the next day for a magnesium supplement. Within a couple of days of taking only a third of the recommended daily allowance, the transformation was astonishing. It was as if a turbo charge had kicked in: I suddenly had an abundance of energy. If magnesium is having this effect on me, I cannot wait to see what it will do to my potato and tomato harvest this year!


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