It’s All About Da Herbs!

leadareo_herbFresh herbs  – What’s not to like? Apart from the sticker shock when you pick up one of those miserly bags from the supermarket. But it doesn’t have to be that way as they are so easy to grow from seed, even in small spaces. I read somewhere that 90% of all the_TDF4594 nutrient goodness is lost within 10 minutes of picking. Whether that’s true or not it’s so nice to grab a handful of the stuff to add flavour to the meals we cook.

Some of our herbs we grow in raised beds – Chives, Sage, Rosemary, Oregano, Thyme & Chamomile. Mint grows in pots as you don’t want to let it loose in open ground!

We grow our herbs in an enclosed aero-hydroponic system. The plants sit in small net pots filled with clay pebbles with their roots growing in the air. A water pump then pumps nutrient rich water through a sprinkler system that sprays the roots. surplus water drains back into the tank and recirculated. Periodically the water and nutrients are topped up, to make sure the growing conditions are optimum. Having said that they seem to grow pretty strongly even if neglected a little once they are established.

At the end of a growing season we empty the nutrient rich water into either our raised beds, garden or use to feed the fruit trees. So nothing is wasted.

Our hydro-aerponic tanks hold 40 small pots, so it is quite large but with everything hydroponic is is very scaleable. There are plenty of DIY hacks on the internet and even small scale windowsill options available.

With a system like this most commercial growers heat the water and provide additional artificial lighting to increase production yields. We don’t do this in the polytunnel , but it doesn’t seem to be a problem at the moment even with the off and on sunlight we’ve been having throughout July.

So what do we grow?

  • Basil Genovese
  • Cilantro (aka coriander)
  • Italian Flat Leaf Parsley
  • Dill

We tried growing Russian Tarragon from seed, as French Tarragon is propagated only by cuttings, but frankly we found it had none of the aniseed tones of its European counterpart.

So What to do with loads of herbs?

Here are just a few suggestions…

Nando’s style Macho Peas – Whole peas covered with mashed peas, mint, flat leaf parsley and red chili. Try swapping out the herbs for dill or basil. glass_herbOur favourite was basil and chili combo._BYS0025

Always looking for ways to spice up my veggies, I found a recipe for Bakla (broad bean salad) in “Middle Eastern Cookery” by Arto Der Haroutunian. Usually made with the whole young pods and eaten whole, I adapted the recipe for a quick mid week meal as I didn’t have time to follow the recipe to the letter but made use of the main ingredients, broad beans, mint and the aeroponic herbs  Dill and Parsleybroadbean

Cook the beans in water with a little allspice
Once cooked, drain and sprinkle the fresh herbs over the beans and chopped scallions
Toss in lemon juice and olive oil and serve.

Salad Dressing to accompany seafood and shellfish
Flat leaf parsley
Squeeze of lemon
Hemp or Olive Oil
Spot of Balsamic Vinegar
Whizz that up in a blender or food processor to toss with crisp green lettuce and french bean salad.

Building a Watercressinator!

watercress

We love watercress –  the peppery bite goes really nicely in warm winter salads and is particularly good at cutting through fatty meats.

The plant is very high in calcium, iron and vitamin C. It can grow wild in the UK but it’s really too risky to forage because of the possibility it’ll be contaminated with liver fluke.

So let’s grow some then. It’s a good candidate for a first hydroponic crop as it’s so easy to grow.

Watercress loves flowing water so I thought I’d build a cascade of pools for itIMG_6388. A hydroponic watercress setup like this could also easily be built on a smaller scale and is ideal for a patio – you don’t have to go quite as mad as this! On the other hand, this would scale quite well for a larger setup.

 plan

Ok so here are the materials we used:

  • 1 x 90L reservoir tank – a black tank will minimise algal growth though you can still expect some
  • 3 x tote boxes – we bought food grade plastic for these
  • 6 x plastic “mushroom” trays or similar
  • 3 x Speedfit tank connectors, 22mm
  • 3 x 22mm Speedfit elbows
  • 6 x 22mm Speedfit inserts
  • 1 or 2m of 22mm Speedfit pipe
  • 1 x Hailea HX-2500 650lph Adjustable Pump with Air Pipe
  • 1 or 2m silicone tube for water
  • Assorted wood offcuts to support everything

This is what I did

  • Drilled a hole suitable for the tank connector – you can see I had to take a part of the lip away to get this as high as I wanted.
  • Then it was JG Speedfit pipe to the rescue once again to join on the elbows.
  • On the lowest one, I made the pipe down a little longer. This goes back into the reservoir but should still allow the water to splash in.IMG_6341
  • This will provide plenty of oxygenation of the water so I didn’t really need the pump to have an air pipe on it and could have bought a simpler one.

We bring the watercress seed on in grow cubes and in a propagator in winter. These then slot quite well into holes snipped out of the bottom of the mushroom trays. The cubes should be about half way into the water. As it turned out we don’t really need 4 holes cut in each one as watercress grows really quickly!IMG_7922

Once it starts going you have to keep harvesting it to stop it flowering – give it a good “haircut” every so often and it’ll grow back really quickly!

 

We do put some nutrients in the water but have also run it with clean water and it seems to do ok. Water ph should be 6.5 to 6.8 The EC should be 0.4 to 1.8 (EC or Electrical Conductivity is a measure of the dissolved salts or nutrients in the water – I’ll go into this more in a later blog focusing more on hydroponics). Not enough nutrients or too hot a temperature and the watercress will bolt and start flowering so good to keep an eye on this.

Every so often you’ll have to start over again as things get clogged up and overgrown. Recently we’ve just started using some of the existing plants to do this rather than start from seed again. On the junctions of the stalks you’ll notice the watercress will start roots. If you just pop these into the water the plant will regrow quite quickly.

We usually run this hydroponic system in rotation, cleaning out one of the totes at a time and re-seeding it before doing the next one a couple of weeks later. You shouldn’t run out of watercress!   

Oh and if you’re got too much and have some chickens – they love it!!

For more information on the health benefits of watercress or more information in general try www.thewatercresscompany.com/health-benefits

Suppliers for the various bits that went into this include:
GroWell Hydroponics www.growell.co.uk
Booker Wholesale www.booker.co.uk
Screwfix www.screwfix.com
Amazon UK www.amazon.co.uk
Nisbets Catering Supplies www.nisbets.co.uk
CN seeds cnseeds.co.uk
Just to clarify, we’re not directly endorsing any of these companies and we get nothing from them for mentioning them. They’ve just proven themselves to us to be efficient and reliable suppliers – 5 stars to all of them, We’ll continue to try and give you a head start by doing this throughout this blog as half the difficulty is trying to find out where to get the things you need to make something yourself

Update:

We’re running the pump off solar now which feels good. Our solar panels charge up a leisure battery in about 4 hours (on a good day!) and this runs the pump via a small inverter for about 3 days. When the battery get’s down to 40% capacity I swap it for another one.

Future plans:

Get an Arduino to monitor the battery capacity and tell us when to change the battery – this will save us checking the batteries every morning when we’ve got better things to do.  Make the tech work for us!

Can We Do This?

tunnel1So here we are, got a couple of polytunnels, one with raised beds, one with 3 or 4 hydroponic systems in, a couple of greenhouses, some land outside and some raised beds outside.

We’re going to try and do this and see what works. One thing – our weather can be simply grotty. It rains often so we scrabble to grow things sometimes. We are going to have to rely on technology a lot and don’t really have time to do everything. Also we love to cook and I’m a photographer so I’m apt to spend 4 hours in the studio getting the perfect shot of a basil leaf.

 

What we want to find out is can we do this? Can we provide a fair amount of our food, with not too much effort, relying on the rest from locally sourced suppliers. We’ve made a start with our chickens – they’re paying for themselves at the moment…We’ve got free eggs!

Why do this?

It’s difficult to know exactly when, but we’ve had an increasing distrust of the commercialisation of food production for some time. You see films, Food, Inc.,  read books, Farmageddon, all talking about the demise of the modern day food industry. The mis-sell of sugar and the addition of high fructose corn starch in our food chain.

The media then oscillates between one opinion and another – things are good for you then bad. We couldn’t help thinking that what we ate when we evolved in a non commercial state is probably what our bodies are designed to process best.

We dug deeper and wondered about how some of the most basic life sustaining ingredients are making us ill all of a sudden. An important moment for us was finding out that the industrialisation of bread production by the Chorlywood process removed the stages of fermentation that process gluten into something we can handle. Bread’s really important – we started making our own and felt better almost straight away.

Seeing supermarkets reduce the shelf space for ingredients in favour of processed meals is accelerating and quite shocking…

So this is where WE are now.

We think it’s time to look at personal food production. It’s been done before. Wales has a great history of organic and grassroots food production and we feel the time to evolve is here again.

We’ll apply all the technology we can to try and produce and cook decent food for chiliourselves and others. We’ll source or swap everything else locally and from people who believe in similar ideals to ourselves.

We’re talking about feeding ourselves good honest food.

This is not about clean eating or diets. It’s about enjoying food.

Time to take responsibility for what we eat. Knowing what goes into our meals and its provenance.

Going back to basics, learning to cook well with the simplest of ingredients.

Seasonality in the modern world.

I hope you join a couple of tech hippies on their 21st Century food production adventure.

 

Why Not Just Pots?

If you follow our journey you will see that we throw convention to the wind at times. Pots are not necessary for cooking or planting there are other options.