veg-patch-view

Mandy and her partner run a section of a cooperatively bought piece of land and run their Incredible Vegetables enterprise, as much as I would like to explain some details about their project, I will most likely be mirroring exactly what is already in the interview. Here are a few previous posts (Post 1) & (Post 2) regarding Incredible Vegetables for those who haven’t seen them yet.

What was your inspiration to create your enterprise? did you already have this in mind when you obtained your little strip of land or was it later on?

We didn’t have an enterprise in mind when we first obtained the land. We wanted to be self sufficient in vegetables, that was our main priority. The enterprise essentially developed from sharing what we were doing on social media and people starting asking us about the plants we were growing. There is such an interest in perennial vegetables that once people heard we were experimenting with such plants we had a huge number of requests. We thought why don’t we try and grow and supply a few of the harder to find edible perennials? It all developed from there and Incredible Vegetables was launched!

What is your reason for concentrating on unusual / bizzarre vegs and edible plants?

We spent many years as  ‘regular’ growers. By that I mean growing stuff in the back garden, including all the things you would normally find in a vegetable garden. We thought there must be more to eat and grow and there must be a different way of doing it. There are a myriad of edimentals and perennial vegetables out there and once you start researching them it is pretty hard to stop. Also we wanted to move away from enormous amount of work that annual growing involves.

We still do grow and love annual vegetables but the percentage of annuals to perennials is always changing in favour of perennials which now make up more than 50% of our food crops. We also wanted to grow food in a way that did not disturb the soil. It is also very exciting growing new plants and having the chance to try them out in the kitchen. Some of the perennial vegetables we grow are the tastiest of all our crops. The other passion of ours is growing crops for a winter/early spring harvest. Many of the perennials come into their own in early spring when all else is dormant. Tubers like Oca and Ulluco are harvested in December/January and Chinese Artichokes can be harvested from October through to April. Perennials dispel the myth of a  ‘hungry gap’ as they provide an amazing edible larder at very useful times of the year. Our garden never goes to sleep, it is always alive with something to eat. We are also very interested in resilient crops in the face of climate change. Part of this has been to join the Guild of Oca breeders (ocabreeders.org) which is a citizen science project open to all, trialling Oca varieties for UK/European climates as a potential future food crop. We will need to rely on perennial vegetables and other more resilient crops in the future with each year bringing weather extremes. So we feel it is very important to research and learn these things now.

Do you have any unique advice / tips you have discovered either on your own or together with someone on your plot of land?

Lets say for example,
for encouraging wildlife, making maximum use of the space, Deterring Pests / control, Recycling / Reusing resources / materials?

To encourage wildlife, I think diversity of planting is the key. Our land is stuffed full of insect friendly flowers, fruit trees and alliums as well as the vegetable crops. It is also interspersed with small ponds which are teeming with life. The butterfly diversity and overall butterfly numbers have increased since we have been managing the land. Planting Cardoons and Phacelia has encouraged hundreds of bees to visit, it is actually a bee paradise! We have researched bee friendly plants that flower at different times of the year to ensure a succession of plants for them. To make the maximum use of the space we interplant crops, grow horizontal and vertical crops in the same space for example. A lot of the diversity comes from self sowing plants like Orach, Giant tree spinach, Calendula, Nasturtiums, Borage for example but there are literally hundreds of plants emerging and disappearing in an ever changing, beautiful rambling way. We let them do their own thing. Pest control – again diversity of crops is the key, mixing vegetables with flowers, planting things in small flurries in multiple spaces. We also use things like horticultural sand around vulnerable plants to keep slugs off. We have 6 large compost bays in which we make our own compost that goes back to the land. We try and use reclaimed or re-cycled materials for infrastructure. In exchange for produce, we have a relationship with two local organic coffee roasting companies who give us all their bean chaff for free which makes an excellent mulch. We also get the jute coffee sacks for free which can be used for storing potatoes or can be laid flat and used for planting through.

You’ve inevitably heard about Permaculture, do you / have you followed any Permaculture methods / principles? (Go into as much detail as you like).

Adopting permaculture principles has happened over time through observation and learning. I think the main things are obtaining food in a long term and sustainable way while looking after the soil. Perennial vegetables need hardly any input, yet give amazing abundance. No watering needed, no compost needed, low maintenance crops. We don’t leave the soil bare and we make the land as insect and animal friendly as possible by leaving it untamed and diverse in plants. We have recently dug a small reservoir to be able to capture rain water. We also do a lot of bartering in terms of sharing knowledge in exchange for help on the land. One of the steep learning curves has been running a nursery for perennial vegetables in a sustainable way. For example, rather than pot up perennial kale cuttings, growing them on as plants and trying to stuff them in a box and post them, we are now sending unrooted cuttings in the post – no pots, not compost, less packaging involved. The person at the other end gets to learn how to propagate perennial kales and get lots of cuttings to grow on. We have also made nursery beds to keep perennial plants happy which can then be lifted and sent bare rooted, so this involves much less work as they pretty much look after themselves.

On your youtube video ‘Vegumentary’ I see that you have grown Fat Baby Achocha as well as that ‘Padron Pepper’ that seemed to be unmolested by slugs, I grew the exact Achocha with nice results and I have half given up on Peppers due to the slug issues, any tips? Was that particular variety a bit resistant to the slug attacks or did they go for another nearby sacrificial plant you placed?

The Padron peppers do need some nursing through their tender stage, as you know slugs will climb up them in the night and you are just left with a stalk! We grow them on in pots first, plant out in the tunnel with coarse horticultural sand around the base. It just about protects them enough to get them going. It’s always touch and go though! Achocha grows rampantly in a polytunnel, so be careful if you don’t want it climbing all over your other plants.

Do you have any Perennials you personally advise people to try out (I’m mainly thinking those which require least effort but add in your own preferences too and explain why)?

Taunton Deane kale is the best tasting of all the perennial kales, sweet, nutty and tender leaves all year round. It grow massive, more than 2m wide and high if left to its own devices. One of these in your garden and you will be eating your own body weight in greens before you know it. Also, the most incredible thing has happened since we have been growing perennial kales on our land. They make the most amazing companions for other brassicas. Now you wouldn’t immediately think of planting a brassica as a companion for another brassica, but since the perennial kales have been planted our other kales such as Cavolo Nero can grow happily without being netted. Naked kale growing is definitely the way forward! The perennial kales attract the pests away from the others, but being so robust themselves are able to survive the onslaught of caterpillars and white fly, just shrugging off any damage from their enormous edible boughs. I like to think of them as the wise elders of the brassica world, showing the others how it is done. They have such remarkable resilience, it is wonderful to observe. Other than a bit of mulching and a whole lot of eating… they need nothing at all. At one time in the not so distant past, Taunton Deane or Cottager’s kale would have been common in peoples’ gardens as a food staple but the encouragement of annual/biannual growing relegated these plants to obscurity. They also only flower occasionally so do rely on the passing on of cuttings rather than seed. I have definitely done my bit to re-populate the UK with Taunton Deane plants! Another favourite is Hablitzia Tamnoides, a perennial semi shade loving climbing spinach that grows for decades and can be harvest in spring and summer, usually at the time when your winter spinach is bolting and its too hot to plant your next lot out. So a very useful and tasty crop that the slugs don’t seem to touch either.

What flower types do you observe that best serve the bees and other pollinators?

We have all kinds of flowering plants but bees love Cardoons and Artichoke flowers, Borage, Cosmos, allium flowers, sedums, flowering herbs, Phacelia, Crimson Clover, even Gladioli. Skirrets are great for hover flies with the added bonus of being a tasty perennial root vegetable at the same time.

You should do a video on your youtube channel regarding your pond and other wildlife beneficial plants or habitats you have planted / created – have you noticed a difference in slug numbers when after you established the pond? I did notice a big difference even with my small storage tub pond at home.

I think there has definitely been a sense of equilibrium in the veg patch between plants and pests since we have introduced ponds. There are a lot of toads about that’s for sure and the sheer diversity of plants attracts so many insects. In the last day or two there have been crickets and Elephant Hawk moths hanging out in my polytunnel, newts in the pond, grass snakes in the compost, lizards in the tool store!

What other wildlife visit / uses the pond?

We see dragonflies quite a lot and a lot of different larvae in there.

How did you obtain your little plot of land in Devon? Any advice and tips especially regarding any red tape / planning permission etc?

The land was bought as a co-ownership plot, so we own a share alongside 8 others. We didn’t know any of them very well at the beginning but we all share similar ideas and philosophies and have got to know each other by working together. Basically we all put in what we could afford at the time, some more than others and we are gradually equalising the shares at time goes on. Planning is always difficult, basically I would advise people to put together a very good proposal of their plans, aims and objectives to any planning authority.

Where do you see Incredible vegetables 10 years from now?

It is very hard growing plants to sell by mail order, so we are thinking more of a diverse, botanical, perennial, edible garden as an example garden that people can visit and then take away plants with them. Possible perennial vegetable growing courses too, and also produce a book at some point.

You have an amazingly sized polytunnel, what are the costs of replacing the sheeting and how often? what was the overall cost of the tunnel before the first deterioration of the sheet?

  The original cover has been on for 5 years now and survives 90 mph winds. It is worth buying the best grade tunnel cover you can and also the thicker gauge tunnel hoops. The 3m x 10m tunnel cost about £1000, replacing the sheeting will cost about £150 and you can get about 7 years out of each cover if you maintain it well. We have more than covered the set up cost in terms of the enormous amount of produce that comes out of it.  Last year we grew sweet potatoes in there and got 2KG per plant. Actually the left over bits of tunnel cover I am using for an outdoor sweet potato experiment this year. I created wells in the earth,   laid it over and dug the sides in and planted sweet potato slips through slits in the plastic and they are growing at a rapid rate as we speak. The wells allow rain water to trickle down the plastic and into the slits to water the plants. The clear plastic allows the sun to heat the ground around the sweet potato plants much faster and at a deeper level than using a black mulch. There are biodegradable mulch films you can get too, but we thought we would make use of our left over tunnel cover on this occasion.

For a new gardener who suddenly decides to strip a part of their garden for the purpose of vegetable and fruit growing, what foods / plants would you recommend as to start out with?

That’s a tricky one, as it depends on how much space you have, but the main thing is only grow what you love to eat. Have a mixture of perennials and annuals and herbs and flowers. Perennials like walking onions and Babington’s leeks are delicious and don’t take up much space and can be left to do their own thing. I would definitely have some perennial kale in there somewhere too for a year round supply of greens.

What other things would you recommend they do personally before they even plant – my own one is establishing a composting and leaf mold area so as to (as early as possible) eliminate the need of running off to the Garden centre everytime the bags of processed compost run out.

Definitely set up your own composting system, make your own comfrey feed. Look at the way the sun moves around your plot so you can decide what to plant and where. Make use of the marginal spaces…with perennial growing you can get away with a lot more, for example Hablitzia ( mentioned above) will grow in a scruffy shady part of your garden up the side of a shed or an old tree in a place that no tomato or courgette would ever dare to venture. In fact some of the perennials positively love just popping up between other plants and shady places. Design your space so that it is energy efficient in terms of how you go back and forth, use mulches and plants for ground cover and capture your own rain water. As I mentioned before having a balance of perennials and annuals gives you all your favourites to eat and a permanent larder from which to graze upon.

Regarding smaller delicate fruiting veggies such as your Skirrets, what is the best advice for people new to these types of veg’s especially about cleaning / using them? I’m sure you understand how people always want the easier to clean / prepare food so how do you prep. them? (Congrats on being featured on BBC / Monty Don by the way)

Skirrets can be scrubbed rather than peeled and are delicious eaten raw or can be sauteed in a pan with herbs ( they go all gooey and unctuous) or can be oven roasted along with other root veg. You could always try an ‘olde skirret pye’, or skirret pasty too.

Thanks Mandy for the detailed and in depth email interview!

Mandy sells some of the species (Seed, Tubers, Roots / Crowns and Cuttings) that she and her partner grow over at their website Incredible Vegetables.

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