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January in the GIY Garden

I reckon we could do worse then to make our 2016 resolution all about paying more attention to soil.  If that sounds odd, bear in mind that healthy soils are the cornerstone of life on earth - not only the foundation for food, fuel and medical products, but also essential to our ecosystems, playing a key role in the carbon cycle, storing and filtering water, and improving resilience to floods and droughts.

Our soils work hard.  But we will work them even harder in the decades to come – population growth will require a 60% increase in food production, but instead of working to conserve and protect this precious resource, we’re literally treating it like dirt.  The world’s soil is under immense pressure – it takes 1,000 years to form a centimeter of soil, but we’re losing it permanently (and at dizzying pace) to relentless urbanization to accommodate the expanding population.  An area of soil the size of Costa Rica is lost every year and here in Europe, 11 hectares of life-giving soil are sealed under expanding cities every hour.  Globally, a third of all our remaining soil is degraded from erosion, compaction, nutrient depletion and pollution. Given the role it plays in feeding us (95% of our food comes from it), Vandana Shiva says that our determined destruction of the soil globally represents a ‘species-level act of suicide’. 

As GIYers we play an important part in the management of this critical resource, not only by our gentle stewardship of the soil in our own gardens, but also by developing a deeper understanding of how soil works (and sharing that knowledge with others).  Of all the things I have learned about food growing in the last ten years, a deeper understanding of the soil has been perhaps the most important (and certainly the most satisfying).  I am starting to understand that food growing is not about growing plants at all, it’s about growing soil.  If you get the soil right, the plants really look after themselves. Of course that means many mucky, sweaty hours spent turning compost heaps, lugging barrows of farmyard manure or collecting seaweed, but that’s OK too – you don’t need gym membership when you’re a GIYer. 

Gradually my soil at home has come to life, no longer the heavy potters clay of when we arrived here first, but friable and teeming with life.  My job here is about shepherding nutrients around the place from the compost heap to the veg patch plants, to the kitchen table and back to the compost heap again.  So this year, resolve to love soil. Pick up big handfuls of it in your hands.  Smell it.  Stand in it in your barefeet.  Care for it.  Nurture it.  It is literally where all life begins.

Things to do this Month

Plan. This is the time to decide where and what you are going to grow this year.  If you are just starting out join your local GIY group for advice and check out our website for handy “getting started” guides and videos.  Consider building or buying raised vegetable beds.  Order your seeds, onions sets and seed potatoes. Turn over the soil in February only if the weather is dry – if the soil sticks to your boots it’s too early for digging!  “Chit” seed potatoes – put them in a container (e.g. used egg carton or empty seed tray) and leave them in a bright warm place to sprout. 

Sow. In mid Feb, in seed trays and pots on a sunny windowsill indoors sow celery, globe artichokes, celeriac, leeks, onions, lettuce, tomatoes, peas, aubergines, peppers/chilli-peppers.  Weather permitting outside you can try sowing broadbeans, spinach, kohlrabi, onion and shallot sets, Jerusalem artichokes, parsnip and early pea varieties. 

Harvest. You may still have winter cabbage, perpetual spinach, chard, leeks, kale, cauliflowers and Brussels sprouts in your veggie patch and depending on how successful your growing/storage regime last year was, you may well still be tucking in to stores of potatoes, celeriac, carrots, parsnips, onions, cauliflower, jerusalem artichokes, winter squash, pumpkins, leeks and red cabbage

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