Godney Aquaponics

Godney Aquaponics
In the village of Godney, with the beautiful back drop of the Glastonbury Tor, Melv and Sal are embarking on a new venture. Fed up with the poor quality of veg in the shops, they have the ambition to set up an aquaponics system to provide fresh vegetables and salad crops for the village, and with a little help from their hens a supply of fresh free range eggs too.

What is Aquaponics??

What is Aquaponics??
Aquaponics is a sustainable method of producing quality food with minimal external inputs. It is a system that combines conventional aquaculture (e.g. fish in tanks) with hydroponics (cultivating plants in water) in a symbiotic environment. Water from the aquaculture system is fed to the hydroponic system where the by-products are broken down and are utilised by the plants as nutrients, and the water is then re-circulated back to the aquaculture system.

Sunday 31 May 2020

Where there's no muck theres spuds!

After seeing 95% of all our early potatoes behave in a deformed and depressing manner, with leaves curling and flowers failing to form we started to ask some questions...

As covered in a previous post we discovered that we were victims of herbicide contamination in muck we had imported to lighten our soils. True to this diagnosis in the same bed, the spuds which were not planted in muck were looking like early potatoes should.
They continued to grow well and produced leaves and flowers which were vibrant and healthy.
This week all flowers having made their appearance and the food cupboard without any potatoes in it (after not visiting the supermarket for 7 weeks), we decided to see what lay beneath. If we needed further evidence of the effect of the herbicide aminopyralid, it began to appear in a crate...
It is certainly proof indeed, where there isn't muck there are spuds - just in time for tea!!
It is now very reassuring to remember that the remainder of our spuds our not in contaminated ground, down the road in our next door neighbour's field and it is great to say they are certainly doing well.
Very well indeed...

Friday 29 May 2020

Positive planting

After the recent challenging contamination event and a visit from the biologist of the chemical company confirming it was the herbicide that we suspected and taking material away for laboratory testing - it was time to move on. As a result recent days have been spent on positive planting...

Plants happy to sit in contaminated muck - like Agretti took pride of place in the tunnel.

We filled the new cabbage tunnel with collards, black cabbage, swiss chard and kaibroc, over 100 plants - lovely.
Over 40 dwarf bean plans took pride of place in an unmanured bed 
Over 150 squash plants took up pride of place in the bed previously prepared for the runner beans 
Courgettes and cucumbers have been planted in known material in make shift containers outside, but adjacent to the tunnel so that they benefit from the warm air coming from the ventilation sections at the base of the sides.
Over 120 celeriac take their new home in a well prepared outside bed, a vegetable that needs loads of watering to develop a good fleshy root, covered in plastic to help with moisture retention. Originally grown for the Sheppey Inn and Bocabar, now to be ready for the roast dinners for all our Godney villagers.

Tuesday 19 May 2020

Learning the hard way - a silent destroyer

Neither of us have either worried about learning through trial and error, after all that is often the only way to learn when you are doing something new, to make a mistake and to learn from it. But when mistakes are caused by something that you almost could never have seen coming then it feels like really you are fighting a losing battle, and you ask at what point has it become just too hard.

It is now several days on and I feel that I can write a blog post, that's exactly what Dr Philip Morley, the Technical Officer for the British Tomato Growers’ Association said we would feel like - it will take a few days to regroup then you will find a way of how to move through this he said. He was right, slowly we are coming to terms with how to deal with our growing area, including our large polytunnel that have become contaminated with a silent destroyer, a potent herbicide known by the name of Aminopyralid.

The first signs that something wasn't right was when the new growth on the Alicante and Gardeners Delight tomatoes started to curl up and look deformed. This was something that happened last year and we couldn't work out why - eventually the plants grew through it, but never really recovered and the fruit off them was never really plentiful.

The damage is very obvious, especially when you compare it to a healthy plant...
Untouched plants growing in our tubs, have beautiful fresh green growth, broad leaves and an abundance of flowers, compared to the gnarled twisted and deformed growth of the affected plants.

As soon as we started to see the first signs on the tomatoes we then started to see the new potatoes going the same way.
And again when compared with a plant not affected, the distortion is made even more obvious.
Our hearts sank, were we going to see a repeat of last year, when this similar deformity affected all our beans as well, with our 200 runner plants hardly bearing any fruit at all. Before we hit the panic button, especially with all the tomatoes we had planned and the early runners we had been nuturing, I took some photos and wrote a few emails, one of which was to the British Tomato Growers Association. 

Phil Morley, replied almost instantly, he had certainly seen the symptoms before and after what we had told him he suspected that it was the presence of residual herbicide. Knowing also that we had been bringing in farmyard manure to lighten, improve and boost up our soil this material can be a carrier of such a poison. Aminopyralid herbicides persist in pasture once applied, and then incredibly persist even through the gut of the animal and remain persistent through composting. It was very frightening to learn that contamination levels in compost as little as 2 parts per billion have a significant physiological/metabolic effect on plants such as tomatoes, potatoes and beans. Such species are highly sensitive to such contamination which causes virus like symptoms of miss-shaped plant growing points and lack of fruit set.

It was almost unbelievable, but explained many episodes from the year before, we felt sick, but if we needed further evidence we only had to look at our early dwarf beans - not exactly healthy specimens.
After a very helpful chat with Phil Morley, he went on further to explain that it can have devastating effects, wiping out entire crops. 'Key symptoms are distorted leaves and growing tips on tomatoes, potatoes and other veg affected by the herbicide. This is a particularly potent herbicide. It does not degrade in composting, it is found in hay, grass and silage cut from sprayed fields and the chemical passes through feeding animals into their manure.

Aminopyralid was approved for use in the UK in 2005 as a herbicide that targets mainly broadleaved weeds including ragwort. It didn’t take long before allotment associations were reporting catastrophic damage caused by people using contaminated composted manures on their plots. Use was suspended in 2008 and new legislation brought in, the theory being to prevent the herbicide from leaving the land where it was sprayed and contaminating other land.

However, the problem did not go away. In 2011 George Monbiot wrote an article explaining some of the serious consequences of the herbicide and called for a suspension of sales, but that didn’t happen. It has continued to be a problem for growers and gardeners alike, which has increased significantly in recent years.

The only way to beat this contamination and deal with it is pretty much down to time, it is broken down by soil organisms and microbes, how long this takes can depend on the intensity of the contamination, but it can take years.

Phil Morley concluded, 'Just why such chemicals are allowed to be applied is something of a mystery though they are deemed acceptable and are applied.'

With our whole planting plan now blown out of the air, we ran around like headless chickens for a few days, with a very limited attention span, hard to know what was a priority and what to focus on. But as time has passed, we have gained clarity and adapted our approach - Plan B all round for all the vulnerable species - and to achieve this we need to squeeze more out of everyday if possible. 

However, when we look back, one of the real positives of this whole experience that we have to mention, has to be the amazing people that we have met electronically. We have mentioned Phil from the British Tomato Growers' Association, but we have also had speedy and good advice from Valley Grown Salads, The Tomato Stall, Eric Wall Nursery and Charles Dowding, the latter who has so much experience of this hateful herbicide: 'We need to stop this'. These dedicated folk have helped us through a period which has been extraordinarily difficult - at what was a challenging time before we encountered this.

Thursday 14 May 2020

Signs of the season

Transforming the polytunnel from winter to summer is a very special time in many ways, some more obvious than others, but all a real delight all round.

The broad beans sowed in the late autumn are now coming to fruition with large bulging pods, full of those classic tasting beans, rarely found in the shops.
Harvesting is a real treat, especially knowing that they are going to be appreciated and enjoyed by both us and all in the village.

There were some whoppers
Once all harvested they will make room for our hot loving produce such as chillies and aubergines. However for the heat lovers already in, we are seeing the early signs of the season.

Cheeky courgettes...
Cute mini cucumbers...
Summer strawberries...
And of course early tumbling tommies with flowers a plenty...

Wednesday 13 May 2020

Godney greens

Greens certainly play an important role in our diets, but especially in times like the 'hungry gap' when little else can be grown in the UK, without artificial heat, but also at times like we are currently in. Greens are very important and essential in promoting and maintaining a healthy immune system. 

When typically we would in 'normal times' be supplying the Sheppey Inn their greens for Sunday lunch and the Bocabar as a weekly veg, in recent weeks we have been fuelling village folk with rainbow chard and collard greens. Both have been very popular, rainbow chard a little like spinach, but holding more body when cooked. The very different collard greens, which are popular in America, produce more of a traditional cabbage leaf with a taste to match.

The leaves we have been enjoying recently have all been grown in the polytunnel and have benefit from both the protection and the micro-climate that the tunnel creates. However, now they need to make way for the summer produce, especially tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers and chillies, to name a few. 

However, growing greens outside is a challenge, as not only do people like to eat them so do a long list of pests, such as caterpillars, flea beetles and leather jackets. So appreciating their significance we have been working on installing a dedicated tunnel just for them.

The same size as our dedicated salad tunnel Melv made a start a few weeks back at getting the ground prepared before the frame was up - so he could let the mini digger do the work and allow the girls to finish off scarifying.

Once the ground was opened up it didn't take long to get the basic frame in place
Again, whilst access was easy Melv formed the basic structures for the grow beds and added the muck, to break up the clay soil, provide structure and provide the ground with a bit of a boost.
With as much of the beds constructed that we had timber to complete, the door frame and door, one originally off the main polytunnel, was in place - it fitted a treat.
Next it was the tricky it which required a calm day!! - The netting...
As the tunnel was going to be devoted to cabbage species and greens such as rainbow chard it was designed to provide protection from pests rather than heat and shelter from the weather - and so was to be covered in netting rather than polythene.
In previous years we have used small scale tunnels made from water pipe covered with net like above. Whilst these worked, they were very difficult to access for harvesting, often weren't tall enough for varieties such as purple sprouting and also were never 100% sealed and as a result caterpillars often found a way through and it doesn't take many caterpillars to strip numerous leaves.
Soon draped over the top, I must admit it took a little longer to get the net in position and tight, but as with many jobs in this business perseverance paid off and soon we could start to visualise the completed structure that we had always aspired to have was going to look like.
Finally just the sides and ends were left, which were far more straight forward.
We whizzed round, Sal on the netting, Melv on the timber to secure it from the strong winds that we seem to be having of late.
The end result was very pleasing and we couldn't wait to get the plants that we are holding in large pots in, where they would be safe and could flourish.

Here's to great Godney greens!!

Saturday 9 May 2020

A change of approach

It goes without saying that in these current times, the way we now get produce to our customers has changed dramatically and like every business we have had to adjust the ways we work to avoid contact and ensure both our safety and the safety of others.

The biggest change is that we now do deliveries 3 times a week to local villagers, in an attempt to enable people to have fresh produce regularly, whilst enabling us to stay in complete control of how we engage with people. Orders are taken via email and every Monday, Thursday and Saturday the truck is loaded up and we head round the village, armed with gloves and hand sanitiser.

This approach not only gets fresh produce to the village, but also provides a point of contact for many of the older folk that are self isolating and don't get any further than their back doors and gardens and so have minimal opportunity for face-to-face contact, although at a safe distance.

When we can, we also offer produce to the neighbouring villages of Polsham and Panborough and they have designated people who come and collect from outside the barn.

With regards to our local businesses, the village tearooms is offering a delivery service for indulgent treats such as cream teas and afternoon teas and the take-up has been incredible with their demand for salad trays as a result increasing dramatically!

Although our salad leaves only form a very small part of the platter, for recent VE day celebrations, their order was their largest to date, with over 110 bookings they needed 15 living salad trays - over 3.5kg of leaves!! This presented the opportunity for us to provide a selection of different colours and varieties, which looked bonny in the sunshine.
Change is always difficult and when combined with uncertainty can be a challenge, but now several weeks down the line it the way we work has become what they seemed to have named the 'new normal'. Like all of us, we just need to adapt our ways to do things different and the best we can to keep safe and others safe, but with fresh food locally. Where there is a will there is a way and at the end of each day I thank my lucky stars that I live where I do, have the job that I have and that we are both fit and healthy.

Thursday 7 May 2020

Feed for food for free

The Somerset rural roads are a picture at the moment, lined with cow parsley and of course with the current lockdown situation they are a lot quieter. During my early morning cycle rides the recent weather has produced beautiful light which has displayed the verges at their best.
Despite their simplicity, the white umbels of the feathery parsley are delicate and beautiful, and along the verge as a swathe they look a little like a dusting of pure white snow.
However, as a bonus, if you look closely there are also some other delights often hidden in amongst the pure white stands...
The creamy bell flowers of comfrey, and as a special treat there can also be the more unusual pink variety.
However not only does the comfrey add to the beauty of the roadside verge, it also has some rather special qualities which makes it very attractive to us - it makes an excellent fertilizer. The plant has a deep taproot and large root system, and so pulls its nutrients from way down in the subsoil, where most other plants can't reach. Comfrey is high in just about every nutrient a plant needs, including the big three, nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and many trace elements. These nutrients are stored in its leaves. By harvesting the leaves and letting them break down, you can create a rich, dark, nutrient-rich plant food to use around the garden. It’s especially rich in potassium, making it the ideal feed to promote flowers and fruits in a range of plants, including tomatoes - and there lies the link...

These leaves are going to feed our tomatoes, with over 20+ different varieties and so a large number of plants we need to be planning ahead of how we are going to feed them all!!

With our ambition to grow so many different types and such a large number planning how to feed them in these challenging times is important. So we set to harvesting comfrey leaves, mainly off our own land, but topped up from the roadside locally.

All harvested, a stripping we did go and leaves were separated from the stalks on a commercial scale!
Stems and flowers not wasted and used on the compost heap, providing both valuable structure and nutrients.

The leaves and all the goodness were put into two blue barrels, one which we leave to decompose without any addition and so to release their liquid neat.

The other we added water to - and with taps in the barrels we are ready to draw off after 4 weeks, to dilute appropriately and feed to our tommies - feed for food for free - lovely!

Sunday 3 May 2020

Its time to begin the magic of Godney Royals

Due to the high number of pests in our soil, as a consequence of being under grass for so long, we really struggle to grow a number of root crops and tubers such as spuds, which is very frustrating to say the least.

This year we really wanted to grow Jersey Royals and Pink Fir Apple and optimistically bought in a total of 1,000 spuds ready for chitting in the hope that we might be able to create some pest free ground. Both varieites were looking good, the Jersey Royals, which we know as the Godney Royals, an early variety, were showing lovely shoots, with a purple hew. 
The pink fir apples a little further behind as a main crop, were also chitting well, but the shoots a little smaller.

But both were ready for planting, and with the recent shift in emphasis in our growing and so an even further increase in the demands on our time, we just won't get chance to create a pest free area on our own ground.

However with the current pandemic we feel that it is even more important for us to try to find a way to get them in the ground as spuds play such a significant part in people's diet. Racking our brains about how, we approached our neighbours, Phil and Manda Ryder, and they agreed to kindly let us use some of their wireworm free ground - a lifeline for us and the spuds indeed. So no time to waste, we loaded up the barrow, filled the back of the truck and nipped down the road a few 100ms. 

Phil had been a star and had kindly prepared the ground for us with his tractor, with trenches already excavated, all that was left for us to do was to place the spuds in the ground, rake over and mound up. Without the preparation it would've taken us so much longer and may have not even be possible to get such a large number in.
A little short of space for the number of seed potatoes we had, we crammed them in with the thought that although space length ways may be a little limited they could expand width ways.
In a matter of a few hours all spuds were in the ground and the final job was to get them covered and soil mounded up on top of the trench. A really rewarding task and one we were so pleased to be able to have the opportunity to undertake. Planting seed potatoes really is a magical process, and one that never ceases to amaze me, how one slightly shrivelled seed potato can multiply to produce up to 20 perfect potatoes - now that is magic and definitely something to look forward to, especially in these challenging times.

Home grown

Now normally with our horticultural hats on when we talk about home grown we are refering to vegetables. But for the first time since we hav...