Garden League half-time score: Slug Barons 1, Aspen House nil

In common with many people who support the idea of locally produced food, here at Aspen House we grow some of our own fruit and vegetables, thus becoming part of the local food system in the most personal way.  With a desire to do no harm to the environment of which we are all part, we also maintain a chemical-free organic garden and operate what is known in green terminology as eco-friendly pest control, although ‘pest control’ is a phrase you will not find in my personal lexicon.  I prefer to see myself working with ‘pests’ rather than against them or indeed imposing any kind of control on them.  After all, what gives me the right to impose control on other creatures in their own habitat?  More than that, of course, I don’t see them as pests at all.  All I see are other living creatures with a basic need, and an implied right, to forage for food.  I believe that it is incumbent on me to make allowances for this.  The garden at Aspen House, as much as it is a cultivated space organised to our requirements, it is also a space to be shared with those creatures that live in it.

Thus, when it comes to slugs, for instance, I will not put down poisonous slug pellets for them to chew on.  Apart from anything else, I do not want our resident hedgehog foraging in the middle of the night and picking up a toxic treat.  So other methods must be found to keep the slugs off the tender new shoots of our emerging vegetables, and my aspiration was to forge a working relationship with the garden’s gastropods.

I have tried being reasonable.  I’ve talked to the sluggish ringleader and made my point about leaving the weeds growing, so that there is something to eat other than nascent carrot tops, but all I get is, “We don’t like weeds any more than you do. We like juicy little newborn carrots. Juicy little anything really. New veggies are us.”

“What about lettuce?” I say.

“Lettuce is fine – especially young lettuce.”


“Yeah, cabbage is okay. Ish.”


So, last year I very obligingly went out every night during the growing season, headed for the slugs’ main foraging patch and sprinkled the ground with chopped discarded lettuce and cabbage leaves.  It takes a certain amount of dedication to go to these lengths, but the goal of that working relationship was in my sights.  Strewing the ground with shredded greens worked a treat until I forgot to do it for a couple of nights.  Came the dawn, and the growing cauliflower plants looked like victims of Agent Orange.  Despite the fact that it was well past sun-up, a couple of fat and sticky gastropods, too distended to make it back into the safety of their damp dark crannies, lay slumped against each other like two drunks on a park bench.

I tried to be more diligent after this incident, but the truth is that I was outwitted at every turn, not least by the fact that these slugs could put away shredded leaves at a frightening rate.  Basically, I couldn’t supply enough to satiate them.  For all I know, shredded leaves are the gastropod equivalent of popcorn and I was feeding a junk food addiction.  That part of the vegetable garden became a write-off, a wasteland, an embarrassment and a testament to the voraciousness of legless troublemakers.

Through the winter, my mind ticked away, sifting different ideas to combat these wily slitherers.  By the end of March, when my thoughts turned to the planting of heritage carrots, my mind was made up.  I opted for the technological fix and bought three metres of netting and four hoops.  The plan was simple.  Plant some rows of carrots and beetroots, put in the hoops, cover same with netting, batten down the netting all round and – bingo! – a totally impenetrable slug-proof barrier.

I have to say, it worked.  As the tiny shoots broke through, I would peer at them through the netting, well pleased with my own inventiveness.  Through the dry spell, I gave them periodic sprinklings of water from the rainwater butt behind the shed, and the shoots continued to grow.  When the rain came, the shoots shot.  They seemed to triple in size at the speed of tropical bamboo.  Pleased with progress, I planned a great unveiling, a day on which I would roll back the netting before an expectant audience and wallow in the pleasure of their astonished gasps at the lush rows of silky green tops.

On the morning of the ceremony, I went out first thing for another look at my latest gardening success.  Peering through the netting, I grinned with inward satisfaction at the row of beetroots on the far side of the netting.  Checking for the carrots on the near side, the green line of new growth was less obvious.  Peering more closely, the reason for this was immediately apparent.  There was no green line of new growth.

Looking on the bright side, there were three new healthy carrot tops at one end of the line, one somewhere near the middle, and another one near the other end.  But everything else had gone – the little blighters had had the lot!  Despite my inventiveness and the large sum of money spent on netting and hoops, despite the battening down of the edges with planks (held down by house bricks), despite everything, a whole row of carrots had virtually disappeared in one night.

Don’t worry though.  I know what to do.  A cunning plan was forming even before I began to tell this tale.  Next time, there will be nothing for the slugs.  What I’m going to do is this: I am going to leave the ground bare, shred up some nice green cabbage leaves, wilt them down in a pan with some butter and a sliced fresh onion . . . and serve them up for Sally and myself.


Local food – what’s the point?

Amongst the new buzz words and phrases that have recently entered the lexicon, ‘local food’, ‘local produce, ‘locally sourced’ and others have come to define the trendy idea of supporting local producers rather than global retailers.  Detractors criticise this ethos as being no more than another example of hippy dippy thinking along the lines of the ‘wholefood revolution’ of the 1970s.  “What’s the point?” they ask disdainfully.  Supporters, on the other hand, cite well-argued and undeniably convincing reasons for their commitment to thinking local.  But is it really that black and white?

Farm shopThe usual reasons given for sourcing local food include: buying from people that can be trusted; supporting our local farmers; keeping money in the local economy; cutting carbon emissions through lowering food miles; and finding food that is fresh, tasty and seasonal.  These are all valid reasons that make perfect sense.  What one rarely hears, however, is the argument that links local food to health, an idea that merits further discussion.

To be swept along by the new wave of ethical evangelism and to enshrine the phrase ‘local food’ as the solution to our troubles is to miss the point.  ‘Local food’, though highly laudable as a concept, is not a destination, neither is it a starting point, but it is a crucial part of the journey before us.  That journey concerns health, and health should concern us all.  We are an increasingly sick species living in an increasingly sick environment, and we are all culpable.  The damage, degradation and destabilisation of our own species and of all life on this unique planet are down to us.  We have got things terribly wrong.  To understand this and to allow ourselves the humility to accept responsibility for it is to take the first step on that journey, a journey that promises to be exciting, scary, eventful, daunting, emotional but ultimately enlightening.

At the risk of sounding too simplistic, I believe that the industrialisation of our food is the culprit largely responsible for the devastation of our planet, and that real food could be a major part of the solution.  For clarity, I define real food as fresh, seasonal, produced using the principles of good husbandry, unadulterated and uncontaminated by chemicals.  To fulfil these criteria, it will usually be produced using organic methods on a small-scale at a local level – this is where the significance of ‘local food’ comes in, as part of a much bigger jigsaw and the source of real food.  Real food is what sustains life in all its myriad forms.  Real food starts with the soil.  Healthy soil teems with life, supports healthy plants and healthy animals, sustaining in turn healthy human beings and ultimately a healthy planet.  Industrial food does none of these things.

By sourcing local food that is real, we are making a stand against a culture of destruction and bad health.  We are told repeatedly that our current food system is the only one that will feed the world, but this is a lie.  The system that will feed – and heal – the world will be localised production of real food.  Yet some real foods (e.g. butter, eggs, unpasteurised whole milk, yoghurt, full-fat cheese and fatty red meats) are regularly demonised by an industry fully conversant with the high profitability of adding value to basic commodity crops by processing them, packaging them in brightly coloured containers and marketing them to obligingly compliant consumers.  To satisfy the demand for commodity crops to feed the factories, many millions of acres of what was once prime land are now under vast intensive monocultures saturated with life-taking pesticides (the suffix -cide means ‘kill’) and other toxic chemicals.

In contrast to this insanity, real food stands as a beacon of hope.  It is not disguised by processing, fancy packaging and slick marketing.  It is honest food produced by people who care – for their soils and farmland, for their crops and livestock, for the health and welfare of their customers.  They farm sustainably, ethically and organically without ever needing to use these words, and they live and work in the midst of us all.  Thus, in buying local food, we support and nurture them, because the rebirth of healthy future communities lies in the symbiosis of local producers and their customers.

We should be mindful, however, of two traps that can catch the unwary: local food is not necessarily real food, and buying locally should not exclude buying from artisan producers in other areas.  To illustrate the first point, there may be a local enterprise that uses imported ‘industrial’ ingredients in its products that damage the planet (for instance, palm oil, soya or corn products, all three of which are doing untold damage around the globe, and do not represent anything that might be called ‘local food’).  Is such a product ethical, sustainable or real?  It is a question that we must be brave enough to ask.

Secondly, when it comes to real food produced locally in another region, its purchase should not be excluded simply because it does not come from our own region.  We are in the early stages of trying to regain our connection to real food production, and all artisan producers who meet the criteria should be given support.  In an ideal world, all of the food needs of any given community will be met by the producers within that community.  We don’t yet live in such a world, but there is no harm in acknowledging everyone who is helping us to get there.

There is much more that could be said on this theme, but for now let us be satisfied that local real food will play a major role in the recovery of our damaged planet.  And, to return to the original question, let’s be clear – the point of local food is that it is only at a small-scale localised level, wherever it might be, that we can find the real food we need to sustain us, produced by people who understand the relationship between this and a healthy planet.

Model Farm


Author profile:

Rob Elliott is an advocate of small-scale, ecologically benign, localised real food production, as well as a believer in local economies in general.  He is the author of two books, The Food Maze and How To Eat Like There’s No Tomorrow.  Together with his partner, Sally Dean, he ran a ‘real food’ B&B near Ross-on-Wye for 12 years until 2014.  Both Rob and Sally are now active in bringing locally sourced nutritional food into the community through the development of food hubs.  For further information, contact Rob and Sally directly on (tel 01432 840353).