Chairman’s Report March 2018.

 What can I say that has not already been said?  That is a rhetorical question because I intend to say it anyway.  Sogs is the greatest!  For evidence of this apparent hubris we need look no further than Potato Day.  Every year we ask ourselves “How can we make potato day better when it is already perfect?”  Yet every year we come up with ideas and improve upon the perfect.  (Note to self, discuss, at the next Sogs meeting, the nature of perfection.)

 What actually makes Potato Day great is the enthusiasm of Sogs members.  Every one of our adoring public whom we interrogate tells us that what is special about the day is the atmosphere; and we don’t even have to threaten to put a potato up their exhaust pipe to get this praise. It is easy to create this atmosphere: all you need is a big group of the friendliest, most enthusiastic, most hardworkingest, most committed, most inclined to volunteer people; add 14 years of experience, humour the chairman to make him feel useful but don’t let him get in the way and there you have it; anyone could do it...or not, as Gerol Jalving* is discovering.

 We are still the original and best Potato Day in Shropshire/UK/The World!  Well done every one.

 Siobhan is working her usual magic with the summer programme but here are some extra dates, which are what you might call ‘optional’.  (Note to self for next meeting, also discuss my meaning of ‘optional’.)

 13th May, Moat Project, grow some plants to sell to raise funds for this essential charity and it makes a great day out, see above for friendliest, most enthusiasticest, etc.

 13th May (yes there is a clash, but we can do both). Grow Local, Greenwood Trust, Coalbrookdale.

 17th May ‘Spring into the Garden’ Pontesbury garden club, evening event.  This is a chance to meet more enthusiasts, and possible new Sogs members.

 26 May ‘Sing for Africa’ The Square, Shrewsbury from 10 till 4; A Self Help Africa event.

 22 July Sogs at Cruck House, this is intended to be an activity day/preparing the Flower Show day/new members day/bring and share lunch day/cook a pizza day/chill out but in an intense productive kind of way day.

 29th July Plant Hunters’ Fair at The Ironworks.  We found lots of interest here last year.

 All this plus interesting visits, and all for a membership fee of £8!  It doesn’t get much better; but it can be harder to maintain perfection than it is to attain it in the first place - discuss.

*Gerol Jalving: "usurper and potato day rival"!


See below for some more details of these activities.

From Carol:

Sunday May 13th Plant Sale at The Albrighton Trust, Moat & Gardens WV7 3FL - wanted lots of plants: flowers, brassicas, tomatoes, herbs and cuttings. Also volunteers to help at the stall.

As in previous years, Carol will collect plants if required, otherwise bring them along when you come to volunteer for a chilled out day.

Phone: 01902 373905    Mobile: 0771 727 3516

 From Louise: Greenwood Trust, Coalbrookdale, 13th May.

We're organising the Grow Local event for this year.  It runs from 11am-3pm.  It’s a great community day.  We would love SOGs to have a stall if possible - various members have done this in the past.  Unfortunately it does clash with the Albrighton event this year, but any presence in Coalbrookdale would be welcome.

 We're also looking for spare plants, seeds, and gardening books!


Our winter talks:

November 1st Talk by Simon Spencer on self-sufficiency and running a smallholding.

 Simon gave a very detailed talk illustrated with images of his 8 acre smallholding in mid-Wales. He was inspired by John Seymour (1914-2004), author of The Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency. He was even more inspired by Lawrence Hills. However, he is not totally organic, as he has used weed-killers on non-crop areas, and uses Ferric Sulphate slug pellets instead of metaldehyde. Simon says although he farms at a massive loss, he eats well! The whole point of producing food organically is not to feed his family a diet of insecticides.

His grassland is some of the best in Montgomeryshire, and benefitting from it are his free range chickens and his Dexter beef cattle. He also has pigs, which act as rotovators, and for these he grows peas, chicory and apples. His family eat most of the pork and bacon themselves, while beef and lamb go to friends. His black Welsh mountain sheep graze areas where crops are not wanted, e.g. the orchard. In winter they go to a conservation site needing grazing.

 About half of Simon’s smallholding is species-rich pasture, which is never ploughed, limed, re-seeded, fertilised or drained. Species taking advantage of this include 27 types of butterfly. Although some species of bird are no longer seen in the area, such as curlew, lapwing and woodcock, others are attracted by feeders and nestboxes, including swallows, pied flycatchers, redstart and pied and grey wagtail.

March 7th. Talk by birdman Jonathon Groom

 This talk was billed as being about Swifts, Swallows and House Martins. Jonathon, from Staffordshire Wildlife Trust and a fieldworker for the British Trust for Ornithology, did talk about these but his talk also ranged over practically every bird we are likely to see in our gardens. He was quite prepared to carry on after closing time, but was persuaded to stop and have some refreshments, and carried on answering queries while doing so. We are so fortunate in having wildlife organisations staffed by such dedicated, enthusiastic and knowledgeable people as Jonathon.

 Feeding birds: this activity is good for us as well as for the birds. What not to put out: mouldy food, cooking fat, polyunsaturated fat, dessicated coconut, bread – although seeded bread is acceptable. Remove mesh from suet balls; no mesh bags. Metal feeders are easiest to clean (once a week is recommended).

Squirrel baffle: try fixing a slinky at the top of the feeder pole!

Our gardens can also be a food source, if we have shrubs with berries, let some grass grow long and leave seedheads on flowers. Shelter and natural sites for nesting are also important. Birdboxes do not help diversity as they are only used by blue tits and great tits.

Hedges are the most popular nesting sites. We do not need to worry about trimming hedges where birds are nesting, as long as we proceed gradually and with care, as birds are quite tolerant of human presence. Providing ledgesand open-fronted boxes can help robins, wrens and blackbirds with somewhere to nest.

 Jonathon showed images of commercially made nesting places for swallows and swifts, and how cavities can be incorporated into house walls particularly for swifts.


 From Graham: in response to query in the last newsletter:

Feeling the Pulse at Berrington Hall


Have we grown chick peas?

Yes, we did this year.

Would we do it again?

No, life’s too short.

We sowed the bought seed in pots in the greenhouse, then planted half in the outdoor bean plot and half in the polytunnel. Both made good growth – attractive, straggly plants. Both produced plenty of flowers then pods. But what pollinates chick peas? Whatever it is, there weren’t enough of them. Every pod outdoors was empty, and half of those indoors. Pods only ever have one or two peas. Handsome and tasty as they were, our entire hard-earned, time-consuming crop of dried peas barely made an inch up a 2lb kilner jar. When someone summons up the courage to cook them, it will be the costliest cup of hummus on the planet!

We did venture some soya beans too. They didn’t even germinate.

 However, all is far from lost. We have been experimenting with other pulses for drying for 3 years now. 2 years ago we had a very good crop. Last year we were devastated by slugs and very few plants made it past the first night outdoors. This year, despite a late start, has been much better. One variety has been particularly successful – Czar runner beans make the best butter beans ever. If butter beans to you are those bland, undercooked nasty things in tomato gruel that I remember from school dinners, think again. These home-grown butter beans, properly cooked, are succulent and flavoursome. We happily eat them unadorned as well as in stews, casseroles and vegetable crumbles. We haven’t imported a single butter bean from China in two years!

Borlotti beans have also done well when the rabbits haven’t nibbled through the mature stems. And very delicious.

We have learned that while the Czar, when ripe, will dry happily in their pods, spread out in the greenhouse, Borlotti don’t. The pods tend to moulder and rot the beans. We pod them as soon as picked and dry off the beans separately.

 We might try some lentils sometime – but I suspect the labour involved will prove a bit much. Bigger beans are better.

In terms of year-round self-sufficiency, home-grown dried pulses make a significant and flexible contribution. But it’s a case of growing the right ones. We’re still working on that.


Also from Graham:

Why Waste Compost?

When we moved the old compost heap in the walled garden at Berrington Hall, the results were remarkable. Veg grown on the patch where the the heap had been were enormous and healthy – significantly so. It set me thinking.

 It’s common practice to site the compost heap or bins in a corner of the garden, out of the way. But lots of fertility-promoting nutrients leach out into a patch of ground that won’t be cultivated. What a waste!

So I started to experiment.

We have an eight bed rotation in the vegetable gardens. One bed each year is fallow. We are trialling composting on that fallow bed, capturing all the fertility for potatoes the following year. We grew the first such crop this year and signs are good. Maybe we could have grown a 2lb9oz tuber elsewhere – but amongst the huge Kestrel crop, that monster spud materialised on the composted plot. It will take more years to draw firmer conclusions.

Our beds are big – 20x5 metres. We produce plenty of compostable material – old straw, hay, grass cuttings, comfrey crop – as well as all the garden waste. We can build a substantial windrow at one end of the bed, which we roll and add to month by month down the plot. By next Spring the whole plot will have been covered and the composted material will then be spread back over the whole area and incorporated into the potato planting. I don’t know yet how crucial the size of the windrow is. Perhaps a smaller one would not achieve a high enough temperature? Maybe, on a smaller scale, it could work with a couple of compost bins, swopping from one to the other. And not everyone will have the luxury of a fallow bed.

But one thing I am convinced of – there is undoubtedly a great deal of potential fertility to be lost or gained.


Frank’s photo. Potato Fest in full swing.



 Ros McGregor sent a cutting from the British Medical Journal: 4. 11. 17:  Weedkillers and the Liver

 ‘“Where Man is not, Nature is barren”, said William Blake, and I agree. But I’m not sure Blake would have approved of fields made barren by Man using glyphosate as a herbicide before using the land to grow high yield wheat. This ubiquitous practice has led to more and more glyphosate appearing in the urine of humans, at least in southern California where it rose 13-fold in two decades from 1993. At the same time, we are seeing an epidemic of fatty livers in richer countries, attributed to obesity and/or alcohol. Now it so happens that glyphosate in very low concentrations causes liver steatosis and fibrosis in mammal models. More epidemiology here please, and hurry up’.

From Carol Lovell. Shropshire Star, 29.12.17 Pest!

 Yet another garden pest to be on the lookout for, as it is causing trouble on the continent and the RHS warns that it could spread to the UK. It is a bacterial pest Xylella fastidiosa, which restricts water movement in plants causing their death. 350 types of plant are affected including lavender, hebe, rosemary and flowering cherry.

 D.T. 6.2.2017 Heliciculture is taking off in Italy.

 Snail farming has increased more than 325% in Italy, to meet demand for snail slime from cosmetics makers.

The land snails can of course be eaten and their eggs used as caviar (50g of snail caviar costs up to 100 euros or £86).  They can also contribute their slime to be used in expensive skin creams. Some snail-breeders have developed cruelty-free ways of extracting slime, instead of the formerly used methods of dunking in water with salt, vinegar or other chemicals. They put the snails in a sauna – a special steam bath, which releases the slime.

D.T. 3.11.2017 Bury your cotton Y-fronts!

 If you have any old Y-fronts or other cotton garments to discard, you could do what Iain Green, a Scottish farmer, has been doing. He has been burying his in various fields around his farm for a couple of months, after which officials from the Scottish Agriculture and Horticulture Development Board have inspected the disinterred garments to check how much they have broken down. This can be an indicator of how healthy the soil is. Microbes and bacteria in healthy soil devour the cotton, so if you are left with just the elastic strap, the ground is healthy. In a very damp field the pants remained intact, showing that the bacteria had been starved of oxygen.

(I once put a cotton t-shirt in my compost heap, and when taking out compost later I wondered what the strange mass of fine tangled threads I uncovered could be. The t-shirt had contained elastane, a synthetic substance which, of course, would not biodegrade. M.B.).

D.T. 6.11.2017 “Forgotten Foods”


The Forgotten Foods Network, unveiled by the Prince of Wales, aims to diversify diets by popularising crops which may in future be needed in case of failure of one or more of the main food crops of wheat, rice, maize and soybean which make up 60% of the world’s food. So, following on from the success of quinoa, we may become familiar with Bambara groundnut, moringa, amaranth (or pigweed), proso millet, winged bean and dragonfruit. (Info on all these can all be found online).

 D.T. 14.8.2017 Harvests from churchyards

 With long waiting lists for allotments, the Church of England is helping out by offering the chance to create communal gardens in parts of some of their churchyards or neglected land around their buildings. For example, in Old Trafford, Manchester, St John the Evangelist church has volunteers growing fruit and vegetables, and even melons in a polytunnel. Children grow crops at All Saints Church, Wolverhampton, and a group of refugee women cultivate a corner of the churchyard of All Saints, Nottingham.


How to eat an artichoke

First catch your artichoke . . . . . . . .

at just the right moment; don’t wait until the leaves ((bracts, actually) start to open out. If you squirted soapy water on it now and then as it grew, it should not have any lurking insects, but you can wash it under running water before trimming the stalk and cooking. No need to follow the recipe books which tell you to trim half the leaves/bracts. If it is about the size of a tennis ball, a freshly picked one cooks whole in boiling water in about 15-20 minutes. To test whether it is done, pick off a leaf/bract and see whether the base is soft. Now the fun begins. You need plenty of time to eat an artichoke, as you peel off one leaf at a time, dip it in melted butter or vinaigrette, and scrape off the soft bit at the base with your teeth. You need a large plate or dish for the abandoned leaves, which soon become a mountain, and eventually you reach the centre where the tiny leaves are probably soft enough to eat whole. Then you come to the heart. In a shop-bought artichoke you first encounter the ‘choke’, a furry clump which you can grasp and remove (as it can make you choke), but which in tender home-grown tender specimens you can safely eat with the solid, delicious heart. 


You can, of course, opt to leave the artichoke to develop its beautiful flower and attract the bees instead.  M.B.

(From the Brogdale website)

What is Hanami?

Hanami is the Japanese festival dedicated to cherry blossom (sakura) and is celebrated across Japan every year.

The word Hanami elegantly captures the reflexive happiness and enjoyment of seeing blossom in full bloom. For generations, families and friends in Japanese towns and cities have gathered together in the fresh spring air to enjoy an afternoon under the Cherry Blossom; enjoying drinks and a meal together under the beautiful trees.

Brogdale is one of the only places in the UK to celebrate Hanami and with the largest collection of fruit trees in the world, we really do have a sight to see! Our collection holds over 350 flowering cherry varieties with the added bonus of celebrating all the other blossoming fruit trees including Apples, Pears, Apricots and Plums!

(Brogdale is home of the National Fruit Collection, with over 4,000 varieties of fruit including 2,200 varieties of apple. What a pity it is in Kent – too far for a Sogs visit!)

Article sent by Peter, seen in The Telegraph 22.8.2017

By Deborah Robertson

Stand by your beds! Your flower beds, that is. Or slouch, lounge, pull up a chair, whatever you fancy. The Royal Horticultural Society, that shining citadel of horticultural rectitude and soothing dispenser of good sense, has given us permission to be messy. I haven’t been so relieved by an edict since Vogue decreed bushy brows were back.

 For this new report, the RHS observed 36 plots to discover whether native species or exotics were more beneficial for wildlife (native, natch). But the lazy person’s take away from this is that we can all give the loppers a rest. The RHS’s principal entomologist, Dr Andrew Salisbury, says we should, “Relax, refrain from spraying plants at the first sign of pest attack, reduce trimming and allow some plant debris to accumulate in order to support the garden’s food chain”. Someone pour that man a Pimm’s.

Even caterpillars and greenfly, which lead conscientious gardeners to rend their aprons in rage, play an important role in healthy garden ecology, providing food for beneficial ladybirds, birds and hedgehogs.

The RSPB have long lamented the damage done to wildlife by modern, “sterile” gardens. All that concrete and decking, those smart fences, and acres of lawn, leave little room for the magic of chance. A patch of nettles shimmering with butterflies, a hole in the fence hedgehogs can trundle through, a log pile providing the perfect insect penthouse, thistles lively with finches: all of these can be yours and all you need to do is, well, less. We are redefining beauty, where a healthy garden is slightly wild and released from the tyrannous stays of perfectionism

Imagine buttercups and dandelions as though seeing them for the first time, so golden and cheerful, how could you not love them? A path edged with moss, old man’s beard scrambling over a fence, flower beds bobbing with rose bay willow herb – charming visitors we didn’t haul back from the garden centre at great cost, and which require no effort. We should be thankful, but in our quest for perfection, we often resent them. We sometimes forget just to enjoy our gardens, instead turning them into another obligation.

Of course, there’s nothing wrong with pursuing a little bit of horticultural order, but don’t be afraid to let your standards slip. My parents, as they’ve grown older, don’t spend the time they once did tending their garden into submission. And now? It’s really lovely. Birds dance in and out of hedges, there are juicy blackberries for many pies, and plenty of hedgehogs cracking across the lawn to startle the dog when he goes out for his evening wee.

So I encourage you all in the name of science, to relax and smell the roses, even if their petals are scattered all the way across the path.

Who remembers our visit to Uplands allotments in Birmingham 10 years ago? I wonder whether this “sheddery” is still standing or whether it has been tidied up - or merely collapsed.