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The Answer Lies in the Soil - at Unstone Grange!

Posted Saturday, July 7, 2007

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The Answer Lies in the Soil – at Unstone Grange!

`the key to successful gardening is doing the right thing at the right time'

The key to successful gardening is doing the right thing at the right time, and although the month of November traditionally marks the end of the growing season for many and presages a traditional lull in proceedings along with some blank pages in the gardening calendar, this is not the case for organic gardeners – and especially at Unstone Grange!

`gardening is an all-year-round activity'

There is still much to do – and especially in the vegetable garden, in fact for the organic grower who uses only what nature provides, gardening is an all-year-round activity – and November is a busy month!”

So says Androo Thornton, who bridles at the use of the term `expert’ and simply describes himself as an`organic gardening enthusiast’.

Androo is a voluntary coordinator at Unstone Grange, where the organic gardens, including a restored Victorian kitchen garden, are host to educational courses in Organic Culture and Cultivation, sponsored by the Learning and Skills Council and funded by the European Social Fund.

Expedited via the Unstone Grange Organic Gardening for Health Project, the courses are part of the Open College Network Programme and are designed to help develop an understanding of the social and cultural significance of organic food production, and to cover the key concepts involved in organic growing.

Unstone Grange itself is a rambling Victorian Country House with extensive grounds and gardens covering just over five acres, situated about six miles north of Chesterfield, and set amidst the rolling hills of the North Derbyshire – South Yorkshire border country between Unstone village and the nearby hamlet of Hundall.

Apart from the Organic Gardens, which constitute the only land in the area certified as Organic by the National Soil Association, Unstone Grange is listed both as a Conference Centre, and a Centre for Personal Development. In actual fact Unstone Grange is a multi-use complex run by a community based charity with a holistic world view, and is set up to provide a venue for related group events and activities to take place.

Organic gardening is seen to be both a healthy and therepeutic pursuit, and as Androo pointed out,

“Here at Unstone Grange we believe that growing organic produce can help improve human health considerably, and we make the link between our own health and the health of the soil – and the health of the plants that grow in that soil. We also believe there are, physical, mental, spiritual and social benefits, as well as the benefits to our general health from a genuine organic environment”.

He went on to explain the benefits of following the Lunar Planting Calendar, for apparently the moon’s gravitational pull not only affects the world’s tides and ocean currents, it also regulates the natural agricultural year and the seasonal planting, growing and harvesting of crops.

This resonates and echoes back through history to the days or our prehistoric farming ancestors, who also used the Lunar Calendar to mark their crop growing cycles long before the days of fertilisers, chemicals and genetically modified crops, so in effect. they were the original organic gardeners!

The focus is firmly upon what is natural at Unstone Grange, where course tutor Richard Clare, who has been a dedicated grower and proponent of organic food culture since 1988 has spent ten years restoring the organic gardens, specifically to create a demonstration centre for the benefits of growing your own organic food. Richard, who developed and currently maintains eight allotments on the western edge of Sheffield, half of which are forest or permaculture gardens, also founded the Ponderosa Environment Group in 1990 which planted a community orchard and four acres of native woodland in North-West inner-city Sheffield. In 1997 he began Sheffield Organic Food Initiative to promote the benefits of urban growing, and in 2001 the S.O.F.I. won first prize in the Soil Association’s Organic Food Awards.

The restoration at Unstone Grange has been aided by the help of volunteers, who have spent every Wednesday for the past five years restoring the Victorian Kitchen Gardens, and currently the organic gardens can boast one acre of raised beds for vegetables and herbs, a large polytunnel with sloping raised beds, and more than fifty organic fruit trees, including an early twentieth century apple orchard.

“The polytunnel extends the growing season by four months” explained Androo, “and the late autumn and early winter months are ideal for growing leaf vegetables. The same plants grown during the spring and summer seasons, have plenty of sunlight and much drier conditions which causes a stress reaction and forces them to flower and fruit. But grown out of season this does not happen and the plant produces far more leaf foliage, ideal for winter salads with plants like Comet Suna, Swayling and Giant Red Mustard and almost every other leaf vegetable”.

I also learned that there are two excellent natural organic fertilisers used by the team here, basalt rock dust for mineralisation, and humous or leaf mould which Androo informed me, “is like gold dust to an organic grower”.

Another good tip is to place pieces of cardboard in between vegetable plots to counteract weeds and pests – “being bio-degradeable it will break-down naturally in the elements and add an excellent mulch to the soil”.

I admired the sloping raised beds in the large polytunnel, and enquired about some of the strange and unfamiliar looking vegetables growing there.

“That’s Skirret said Androo, a sort of cross between a carrot and a potato, a favourite vegetable of Henry Eighth, and part of the staple diet of Tudor England”. There were also fifteen different varieties of mint, an abundance of different herbs, including the medicinal Ginko plant, and Tomatillos, also known as Cape Gooseberries. I noted rows of Italian Squash, which Androo pointed out. makes wonderful winter soup, and Common Comfrey which, he said was once known as `knit-bone’, and he proved it’s power and provenance by displaying his recently-healed index finger.

“Six weeks ago this finger was broken, and needed several stitches to close the wound”.

Andrew explained how he chewed the comfrey and made a paste which he applied and bound with comfrey leaves.

“The paste formed a protective cast, and when I removed it the finger was as good as new. Such is the healing power of nature”, he added, smiling!

“We’ve always got something growing” said Androo, pointing out the fact that “there is no bare soil in nature”.

He also pointed out a few organic tips to look out for in the vegetable garden: “As a general rule, the richer the colour, the more anti-oxidants and enzymes contained in the growing plant, then the healthier and more nutritious - and the better the taste and flavour. Eating live, organic food fresh from the garden, full of enzymes and coloidal minerals aids the digestive system, adds zest to the metabolism and helps to generate a sense of well-being”.

Before I took my leave Androo offered me a drink of pure organic apple juice squeezed direct from the Unstone Grange apple-press and suggested we walk the Lavender Labyrynth. The drink was delicious. I felt rejuvenated, and as we trod the mystical labyrynth I reflected seriously on Androo’s words:

“Once you become thoroughly engaged in natural organic philosophies, it begins to impact on your life, and reflects how you tread on the planet”.

Unstone Grange is a natural, relaxing place with a wonderfully peaceful atmosphere and offers a welcome alternative lifestyle, and a thoroughly organic and strangely exilerating experience to the visitor!

Volunteers are welcome every Wednesday, and Organic Culture courses, which run for fifteen weeks throughout the year, are free to all, especially if you live in Derbyshire and are either unemployed or working less than sixteen hours a week.

Contact Unstone Grange 01246 – 411666 or 07771 8322759 – or for further information visit the web-site at .

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