Peas, Beans and Greens

I first grew peas in my back garden in Galway in some small raised beds, with a complete lack of preparation for their extensive growth and sprawling nature, or the eagerness of birds for their sweet produce. I watched them grow with an element of childlike anticipation. I had gotten a packet of Prean Peas, an old Irish heritage variety from Seed Savers and was full of enthusiasm for their end result.  They produced the most beautiful sweet scenting flower in an unusual maroon colour. The pea itself is quite large and bean-like hence the name Prean Pea. Ever since then I’ve been hooked on the pea growing process. These beautiful peas can still be ordered at Irish Seed Savers (www.irishseedsavers.ie), just keep in mind their tall growing nature.  

Peas and beans are part of the legume family. They are nitrogen fixers, with the ability to fix nitrogen in the soil via their root nodules through a process called nitrification. Their roots nodules support a symbiotic relationship between the Rhizobia bacteria and the plant, leading to the ability to convert atmospheric nitrogen into ammonia, an available nitrogen source for plants to uptake. Nitrogen is a vital requirement for plant growth as it is the building blocks of cells including chlorophyll, which is essential for photosynthesis. Hence a plant lacking in nitrogen will result in yellowish leaves and slow growth due to the inability to photosynthesise efficiently. The bacteria is really quite cool in the way it has developed a relationship with its host, entering the plant through its root hairs and taking advantage of the cell development to form nodules. You have to love the science of it all.

Root Nodule Formation  [1]

Root Nodule Formation[1]

This process of nitrification is an important part of the crop rotation system, specifically within an organic system with the plants suppling a natural resource of nitrogen to the soil. This can also be seen in the application of green manures in particular those of a nitrogen fixing variety such as alfala, winter field beans or clover species.[2]  Green manures are cover crops which can be sown in bare soil. They are not necessarily nitrogen fixing species with other common covers including mustard (Brassicaceae family) or buckwheat (Plygonaceae Family, basically the rhurbarb family).Sowing green manures allows the soil to rest and helps with soil fertility and structure, while increasing organic matter content. This is achieved once the green manures are dug back into the soil. Once again it always comes back to quality and importance of soil health and fertility.  What more could you want from crop cover. I have never personally used green manures in my own growing space but they have definitely been added to the ever growing list of goals and objectives for my gardening trials.

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Back to the peas. Since then I’ve tried a few varieties of peas and beans, waiting on each one’s harvest with equal anticipation as the first time. This season I’m growing some dwarf broad beans, nothing fancy. I find them easy to manage due to their height as they require less space and staking. I grow them in the ploytunnel but they would be equally successfully in the outdoor elements. This particular variety produces a white and black flower, which draws the eye in with its striking pattern. The pods are long and strong, and when split open have the most symmetrical display of smooth beans. The inner pod wall is lined with a dense soft fibre, protecting the seeds. They are just the business. I tend to cook them by very quickly blanching, adding some butter and salt. I often freeze them by blanching providing a good supply later in the year. To be honest, a lot disappear by eating them raw when being shelled.

As for legume growing advice, space and staking to get the most from the plant is the best thing I’ve learnt so far…and keep an eye on those pea-loving birds.

 

[1] https://www.studyadda.com/ncert-solution/11th-biology-mineral-nutrition/413/29399

[2] https://www.rhs.org.uk/advice/profile?PID=373

Soil Satisfaction

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It is very rare for someone to find a true passion in life, something that inspires them, gets them up in the morning and adds happiness to their day. I am lucky to have found such a grá in the art of vegetable gardening. I’m not claiming vegetable growing is the meaning of life but I can firmly say it provides me with unreserved satisfaction and accomplishment. I believe the time working in my garden provides me with the opportunity to become so engrossed in an activity that the part of my mind that harbours worry, anxiety and stress switches off. One aspect of growing vegetables which I find so satisfying is working with the soil, encountering its ability to support life and provide the necessary requirements for growth.

The soil supports a fascinating world of organisms working together to create the soil food web. This food web supports a range of organisms including bacteria, fungi, and invertebrates like the humble earthworm (Lumbricus terrestris). Earthworms play an important role in soil structure and function by recycling organic matter into the soil by breaking down material, contributing to the creation of humus and producing casts enriched with nutrients.[1] These actions improve the soil conditions by increasing nutrients available to plants, along with soil aeration which aids root development.

The soil hosts a vast variety of bacteria. One such bacteria supported in the soil is Mycobacterium vaccae. This bacteria is known to boost serotonin in our systems. Scientific trials have shown that after  treating mice with the bacteria, it changed their behaviour in a similar manner as antidepressants.[2] The bacteria has the ability to reduce stress, therefore having positive impacts upon mental health.[3] This is just one of many reasons why the protection of soil is not only vital for food production but also a wealth of potential undiscovered resources.

Soil is one of our most valuable commodities, and it one of our essential natural resources along with water and air. Soil provides us with a range of ecosystem services such as carbon sequestration, food production, recreational value, flood alleviation, water filtration and biological diversity; to name a few.[1] However, despite the large range of services our soil provides us, it is often undervalued and misunderstood. Soil is currently at risk from degradation and erosion, a problem which appears to be worsening due to intensification, deforestation and drought. To put it into context, depending on the local climatic conditions it can take up to 500 years for an inch of topsoil to form, therefore not exactly making it a renewable resource. However, there are initiatives to raise awareness of the importance of soil, its preservation and the ecosystem services it provides. One such initiative is Grow Observatory, a Europe wide project which aims to engage growers, scientists and those passionate about the land. It aims to achieve the following objective; to help people understand and improve soil and food growing practices, by contributing soil moisture data over a large geographical scale, by empowering people to work on these topics collaboratively aiding climate science, impact on policy and make a difference in our own actions. For greater detail on the goals and objectives of Grow Observatory check out; www.growobservatory.org

Today more than 50% of the world’s population live in cities (DG Report 2012). Although these cities only occupy 2% of the Earth’s surface their population use 75% of the Earth’s natural resources (UNEP & UN-Habitat 2005). This has the potential to lead to a population isolated from wilderness, nature and becoming even more distant for the knowledge of the ecosystem services the environment provides us, in particular the soil. I believe the importance of soil, and the services it provides, can be highlighted to the public through opportunities to work with the soil in a positive and engaging way. One opportunity to do so is to promote and encourage urban and community gardens within towns and cities. This offers people the ability to grow their own vegetables, become engaged and educated in the process of food production, while also learning about the benefits of healthy soil ecosystems. There are many chances to participate in community gardens in numerous locations throughout Galway City. More information on these resources can be found at www.letsgetgalwaygrowing.ie.

The satisfaction of sowing a seed, providing the correct environment for its growth and development, watching it produce a crop to harvest and enjoy, to me this is the upmost connectivity with nature, our precious soil and earth. It may be just be the mental health boosting bacteria talking but working in my vegetable garden lifts my mind. Although I recognise the chores requiring attention around me, I view it very much as a means to end. The means just happen to be enjoyable, that tiredness in your body after an afternoon digging, weeding and maintaining beds is much more of a physical achievement as opposed to the often mental strain and stress of staring at a screen all day.

This piece was originally written for An Áit Eile (www.aae.ie)

[1] http://www.epa.ie/irelandsenvironment/landandsoil/

[1] https://link.springer.com/article/10.1007/BF02205570

[2] www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2007/04/070402102001.htm>.

[3] https://www.colorado.edu/today/2017/01/05/study-linking-beneficial-bacteria-mental-health-makes-top-10-list-brain-research