Regular readers of this blog will know that I work as a volunteer on Saturday mornings at the Old North Stables Community Teaching and Display Gardens in Worcester. It was there that I first came across the principles behind “no dig” gardening, a growing technique pioneered by Charles Dowding.
When Transition Worcester first acquired the land at the old stable block on the side of Worcester racecourse, it was heavily overgrown with weeds and brambles. Under the direction of Tony Kennell, who runs the gardens, the land has gradually been brought it into arable use, in part through a technique known as “kill mulching”. Rather than digging out the weeds, they are instead covered with layers of cardboard to block out the light. Grass clippings and other organic matter is then piled on top of the cardboard, and the whole thing is left for a few months to compost down into a friable, rich, organic topsoil into which planting can take place. The soil structure beneath remains undisturbed, with no need for tilling, rotavating or digging.
The more I have come to learn about “no dig” gardening, the more I have become convinced of the logic behind it.
Advocates of “no dig” say that one of the most damaging things we can do to the soil – apart from pump it full of agrichemicals – is to till it. That is because underneath the soil there is an extraordinary ecosystem about which we are still learning.
At the heart of that subterranean ecosystem is the so-called mycelial network, a mass of tiny thin fungal threads which connect plants to one other. Because it cannot photosynthesise, the mycelium depends upon food in the form of carbohydrates, which it takes from the plants to which it connects itself. In return, through its network of tiny fungal fibres it provides those plants with nutrients in the form of nitrogen, phosphorus and water.
There is also increasing evidence that plants use the mycelial network to communicate with one another.
As far-fetched as that claim may sound, research by South China Agricultural University has shown how, when tomato plants are attacked by blight they send out signals, in the form of chemicals, to neighbouring plants via the mycelial network. Those plants then activated their own chemical defences against the threat in a bid to minimise its impact.
The existence of this mycelial network ought to change the way we view plants. Rather than growing in isolation, they are all interconnected and work cooperatively to support one another. It should also cause us to reflect on the way we farm and garden.
This tart takes very little time to put together, and yet it tastes wonderful.
I have used shop-bought puff pastry for the base of the tart because, well, life’s too short.
You could save even more time by using a shop-bought pesto sauce but, believe me, home-made is vastly superior and well worth the effort. Once you’ve made your own, which takes all of about five minutes, there will be no going back.
asparagus, ricotta and basil tart
200 g ready made puff pastry
12-16 asparagus stalks
200 g ricotta
1 egg yolk
for the basil pesto
25 g fresh basil
20 g vegetarian Parmesan cheese
50 ml olive oil
20 g pine nuts
1 clove garlic, finely chopped
1 tbsp pine nuts, toasted in a dry frying pan until lightly browned
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1. First make the pesto by putting the basil leaves, pine nuts, garlic, olive oil and Parmesan in a pestle and mortar, or a blender, and combining until you have a thick pesto sauce. Set to one side.
2. Pre-heat the oven to 170°C (325°F, gas mark 3). Roll out the puff pastry into a rectangle and place on a lightly greased baking tray. Prick a few holes across the pastry with a fork. This will help prevent it bubbling up in the oven. Score the pastry with a sharp knife in a straight line ½ cm in from the edge of the pastry all the way round.
3. Whisk the egg yolk with one tablespoonful of water. Tip the ricotta into a bowl and add most of the pesto, keeping back one tablespoonful which will be used later. Mix the ricotta and pesto to combine then spread out evenly over the puff pastry rectangle, making sure to keep it inside the scored lines. Remove the woody stems from the asparagus by bending the asparagus spear near its base until it snaps. Arrange the asparagus evenly on the ricotta and pesto mixture. Depending on the size of your asparagus you should be able to fit between 12 and 16 stalks across the tart. Brush the edges of the puff pastry with the egg and water mixture, then place in the oven to cook for 25-30 minutes, or until the pastry is crisp and golden.
4. Mix the reserved tablespoon of pesto with a tablespoon of extra virgin olive oil. Drizzle over the top of the tart and scatter with the toasted pine nuts