Everywhere we go, we find gaps. Especially common on the London Underground, we are reminded of their presence every few minutes. Then of course there are the “gap years”, still hoping to squeeze one into my life somehow. The “generation gap” – not as common as it was in my youth but apparently still active. Those of us living near the Thames will be familiar with the Goring Gap, that beautiful stretch of wooded river that generates the gap between Oxon and Berkshire. Of course there is the clothes chain Gap, in fact we are truly surrounded by gaps of all descriptions. Maybe you are wondering just exactly where this is leading to…. Well, I would like to give you my analysis of the Hungry Gap, and I have put it into capitals as I consider it to be of the utmost importance, at least to those who grow or eat vegetables.
You may never have heard of this important period in the annual horticultural calendar but it is alive and well and becomes especially active from now until June. To define the “hungry gap” I decided to resort to a web search and was rather surprised to find a great number of references to it which probably serves no better purpose than to distract me from the job in hand. Wikipedia was top of the search and looked good enough as a starting point, “
“In cultivation of vegetables in a British-type climate, the hungry gap is the gardeners’ name for the period in spring when there is little or no fresh produce …”
Well that is pretty clear then, but is it? Because this is not just about gardeners having little available produce in the soil. What about people that eat vegetables as well, and more to the point what about those who choose to only eat what is in season and grown locally? If you wish to follow local and seasonal, then the options get pretty narrow during the “hungry gap”. Joe public demands variety all year around. The Supermarkets have pampered to this whim and with globalisation a strawberry picked in the irrigated deserts of California can be on your plate in 36 hours from picking. The fact that this logistical piece of genius consumes many times more than its own weight in fossil fuel, is by most people not given too much thought.
The Hungry Gap is largely a result of the ending of the over-winter crops and before any spring sown crops are ready to harvest. The UK has what is officially termed a “maritime climate” – one which is not generally subject to extremes of weather, although extremes do happen. So, an equable sort of climate but one which includes an annual environmental disaster of epic proportions called “winter”! Between October and March absolutely nothing grows in the UK due primarily to poor light levels and cold soils. So the actual growing season is just 25 weeks long in the south, considerably less if you are in the north of Scotland and less again if you are half way up a mountain.
So, whatever we grow has to be done during the period of the growing season. We choose varieties of crops that can be left in the ground during the winter period, or ones that can be stored in ambient temperature. Squash are a great example of this – a relatively new crop that has extended the season of vegetables. We use a variety of cultural methods and systems to cheat the weather and allow us to produce crops out of their normal season. For example, we sow tomatoes in a sheltered greenhouse during early February, they are planted into a tunnel in Mid-April. If we are lucky and the season is reasonably kind, the very earliest will begin to crop in early July, over 20 weeks after sowing. It can be a long wait, usually they will crop until late October or even longer some seasons.