2022 was another interesting and challenging year in the life of our 7-acre walled organic vegetable garden!

As we get ready for the growing season ahead, I always like to take some time out to look back at the year just gone and write down my key thoughts and memories.

Perhaps the most significant development was Dom joining our team as a fledgling grower in November 2021 and Pete Richardson returning to Coleshill Organics to mentor and tutor him on growing organic vegetables from the soil up. This proved to be an incredibly successful collaboration between a hugely experienced organic grower and a relative ‘newbie’.

It has been a joy to witness Dom finding his feet over the last year or so, developing new skills, taking on an ever-expanding list of responsibilities, and generally embracing every aspect of the life of the garden and the business of feeding our local community with delicious and nutritious organic vegetables and fruit.

Two men, Pete Richardson and Dom, standing in a polytunnel talking about crops

Watching Pete pass on his knowledge, skills and experience of growing organic vegetables and fruit with such generosity and expertise was equally gratifying. This is the human side of our life in the garden and an aspect that is truly satisfying and so important: the ancient cycle of passing on hands-on skills and priceless experience learned over many years to someone passionate, receptive and eager to learn.

So it’s with great regret to announce that Dom is sadly leaving us in August. He’s caught the ‘dreaded’ travelling bug and is off to see the world while he can — and good for him! But therein lies an age-old challenge facing many small businesses like ours: once we have trained a young grower or apprentice, how can we ensure they stay? Of course, travelling is what many young people do, and we wish him all the best. While Dom will leave a metaphorical hole in the garden, life here goes on and crops need planting, beds need weeding and watering … So we are now actively advertising for a new member of staff.

We cannot look back at 2022 without discussing the extreme weather. Last summer saw record temperatures, hitting almost 50C in the tunnels. Although the extreme heat was seriously challenging for workers and crop management, we are lucky to have extensive irrigation equipment and the organic vegetables and fruit grew as if we were in the south of France, providing some of our best-ever recorded yields — even if no human could venture inside the polytunnels between 9am and 9pm and hope to survive long!

Work started almost at sunrise because it was simply too hot to work outdoors by 11am (let alone the polytunnels). Every air very and door was opened wide during the day, and we even resorted to putting sheets over the tunnels to prevent leaf scorch. The extreme heat thankfully meant there was little weeding to do, so most of our time was spent irrigating the organic vegetables and fruit, moving water pipes around, setting up timers, and doing our best to minimise the heat stress for affected crops.

The results? We had a glut of tomatoes, beans and cucumbers, the biggest celeriac we have ever grown, not to mention the sweetest strawberries. It was a bumper year for organic vegetables and fruit and we hope you all enjoyed the wonderful flavours!

The summer’s heat was then followed by an unsettled autumn and an extreme and prolonged cold period before Christmas. Although this was challenging to work in, it was not as devastating for us as it could have been, thanks to the relative protection offered by the Victorian garden walls, which hold a surprising amount of heat from the sun — even on cold days. Nevertheless, these weather extremes are of huge concern and offer a worrying vision for climate change in the future.

It is extremely important to note that empty shelves are a supermarket problem

While veg box numbers have finally dropped off after the Covid pandemic, our Stroud farmers’ market stall continues to thrive. This is particularly welcome in the context of the ongoing cost-of-living crisis, which is hitting everyone hard. Unfortunately, when ‘the economy’ is struggling, organic food is all too often presented by elements in the media as an “expensive lifestyle choice”, rather than reflecting the true cost of food production and, given the impact of intensive farming, an urgent necessity to protect the planet.

Empty supermarket shelves vegetables and fruit

Fortunately, interest in our veg boxes picked up once again when many shoppers began to face empty supermarket shelves. It is extremely important to note that this is a supermarket problem and is a direct cause of their appalling treatment of farmers and growers over the last few decades. Note that this ‘crisis’ has not affected our ability to keep supplying our customers with our own organic vegetables from the garden, nor our ability to source a wide variety of imported organic vegetables and fruit that we buy in to supplement our veg boxes at this time of year.

Why? Unlike supermarket buyers, we pay a fair price for what we buy from our organic wholesalers, who have established long-term contracts with European growers based on a relationship of mutual trust and respect. As a result, our fellow European growers are willing to keep supplying us with organic vegetabls and fruit despite the additional challenges and costs that Brexit has presented. Food for thought …

Going forward, we are obviously now doing all we can to ramp up our efforts and become even more resilient to the challenges of extreme weather and potential food shortages by focussing on continuing to improve our soil fertility while increasing the range and quantity of organic vegetables that we can grow here.

To this end, Pete and Dom have significantly expanded our compost-making operation and they have recently established an outside no-dig bed area on an area of unused land, just as you enter the walled garden (right). The no-dig systems have already proven to increase our productivity in the tunnels and should be highly productive outside, too.

No dig beds to grow organic vegetables

So, despite the huge challenges of climate change, the cost of living crisis, sky-rocketing energy prices, Brexit, and now losing Dom to the ‘travelling bug’ (!), we are still here, and we’re looking forward to a new season of planting, weeding, harvesting and supplying our wonderful customers (some of whom have been with us for well over 20 years!) with delicious, nutritious and planet-friendly organic vegetables and fruit over the next year — and beyond.

Here’s hoping for a more settled and less extreme 2023 growing season … and perhaps for day-to-day life, too!

Sonia