Summer is on its way after what feels like an endless winter, the nights are getting lighter and flowers are beginning to blossom. With 300,000 acres of garden land and allotment space in the UK, the excitement of getting back out into the garden to relax, play, grow and build is very apparent.
Scotland produces an abundance of seasonal fruit and veg, but unfortunately with so much ‘fast food’ on offer these days, young people and children are becoming more detached from how their food is produced. On average, one third of children are overweight or obese when they leave primary school.
So, to get all the family outdoors and learning about where food comes from, we are setting you the challenge of growing your very own Organic Garden.
Believe it or not, allowing your children to get their hands dirty with a bit of organic soil can actually benefit them. Just as we eat pro-biotic foods to ingest good bacteria, soil actually contains stronger strains of beneficial bacteria which also contributes to building a strong immune system.
Although many children don’t need encouragement to get outdoors, if your's does, why not encourage their curiosity and buy child-sized gardening tools, get them to document the gardening process with photographs, or choose fast- growing varieties that will achieve quick results (such as lettuces, beans, peas, beetroot).
By managing your garden using organic principles you can encourage bio-diversity, improve your local environment and be confident in the quality of the food that lands on your plate. Growing using organic techniques is the safest for you, your children and your pets and is also better for the environment. What’s not to like?
So lets get to the root of organic farming, the soil. Not only the foundation for the growth of seedlings and crops, soil is a living entity. In fact, there are more living organisms in a handful of soil than there are people on earth. As with every other living thing, we must nurture and care for it to ensure quality, health and longevity.
A healthy soil produces a resilient, nutrient-rich plant. Adding organic matter to your soil will improve the structure, bring nutrients and increase levels of nitrogen. And in turn, the more nutrients present in the soil, the more the plant can soak up.
A good way to monitor your soil health is by counting worms. You want not only a lot of worms but also a good range of sizes and species. A particularly fun job for the kids!
Whether you have a large plot of land, a compact garden or simply a sunny window ledge for a window box, you can be a part of the organic growers community. With less than a third of all gardens in the UK used to grow fruit and veg, we need to pick up our spades and trowels and get growing!
Find out what conditions your chosen plant originated in and then try to recreate them. Is it a woodland plant or a mountain plant? Is it a temperate or an equatorial one? Do you want to have easy access to it, for example with herbs you may want to nip out quickly to pick some for dinner, therefore place it close to your door.
In most cases plants like to be in full or part sunlight so avoid any shady areas.
Also trees suck up lots of moisture so try to avoid planting near them, as it will affect your plants growth.
With the warmer weather sadly comes all sorts of garden pests including caterpillars, aphids, slugs and many more. Before growing, think strategically about how to limit damage while maintaining an organic ethos. Offer the pests an appealing alternative, for example piles of straw for ladybirds and lacewings and log piles for hedgehogs. Another option is to carry out ‘companion planting’.
Certain plants deter pests so these are ideal to plant next to your seedlings. Chamomile is a good all- rounder; chives are great near beetroot, tomatoes and carrots. French marigolds are useful in greenhouses and garlic has a pungent smell that aphids avoid.
Planting the right seeds at the right times is paramount to achieving the best crop. By April the majority of vegetables grown for summer use can be planted outdoors, but one must be wary of the unpredictable Scottish weather and make sure plants are protected from frosts and cold winds and are watered frequently.
Once your seedlings have been planted, to help them grow into tasty, nutritious produce, it’s important that you nurture them. Creating your own organic compost couldn’t be easier. You know those food scraps you throw out every evening, and those grass clippings and leaves that build up in your garden? Well, make a heap of them in your garden, keep it moist, and over a few weeks it will break down in to a kind of soil we call ‘humus’ which is one rich in organic matter.
Fertilise your crops by spreading a three to four inch layer of compost on top of the soil; however keep it at least two inches away from plant stems. The compost nutrients will make their way down to the roots of the plant, enriching it from within. This should be done every year.
By July, the majority of your organic produce should be ripe and ready for the picking. There’s no exact timing for when to harvest, but the general rule of thumb is to pick sooner rather than later so as to maintain a delicate, sweet flavour and it can also encourage the plant to produce more.
As well as helping the environment and producing more nutritious food, growing organically is extremely cost efficient and much cheaper than buying produce in the supermarket. As organic growers use natural fertilisers and pesticides, it’s actually cheaper to grow organic than the non-organic alternative. So, what are you waiting for?
• Soil Association is the UK’s leading environmental charity, promoting sustainable organic farming, and championing human health. For more information on growing organic and the work of the Soil Association, visit www.soilassociation.org