The hungry gap is the period when, traditionally, food was scarce, since winter stored crops had begun to spoil or run out, and spring sown crops were not yet ready to harvest. This period fell in April/May in the UK and was a time of low variety and increased scarcity for many home growers.
In the past, many people grew their own food in their own gardens. Higher self-sufficiency was the norm. Our ancestors would typically have been very much in tune with the passing seasons, seasonal food, and the cycles of nature. They simply understood that some times would be leaner than others, and learned to make hay while the sun shines.
But industrialisation, the growth of cities and the rise of the lawn, and later, the advent of supermarkets and global supply chains meant that many people lost touch with the natural rhythms of the year and with local food production. Fewer people grew their own food at home. Now, there is a resurgence of interest in local, seasonal food and home growing. People are one again realising the natural patterns of the gardening year.
Fortunately, today, we do not need to suffer from the ‘hungry gap’ – even while remaining as self-sufficient as possible. We can grow and eat fresh, healthy, varied organic food year round. We can preserve food far more easily and safely than our ancestors. And, like them, we can take advantage of the wild bounty nature provides.
Here are some key things you can do to make sure you grow your own year-round, and don’t go hungry in the spring:
Investing in a polytunnel means that you can grow your own food year round. Growing outdoors in winter is challenging in most parts of the UK. But with an undercover growing area you can keep plants safe over the winter months, and enjoy earlier harvests come spring. In fact, with the right strategies and plant choices, you could be eating from an unheated polytunnel in the UK all winter long.
Preparation and Planning
The key thing to remember, however, is that even when you have a polytunnel, careful planning, preparation and management is required in order to make sure that you have things ready to eat when the traditional period of the hungry gap rolls round.
Planning for harvests during the hungry gap begins in the mid-late summer, when you can sow a range of brassicas (cabbage family plants) and other leafy crops. Planting these in the summer will give them a chance to start growing and become established before the first frosts. They will then go into dormancy over the winter, and romp into new growth early in the spring. They should grow well in a polytunnel at the first hint of spring warmth, and provide a harvest long before even the earliest crops sown in the spring.
One of the useful hungry gap crops to consider is sprouting broccoli. Purple sprouting broccoli is one of the crops that can provide abundant yields across the hungry gap. Asian brassica crops are also excellent options to consider overwintering in a polytunnel for the hungry gap. Traditional spring cabbages are another crop to consider. Of course, winter lettuces, perpetual spinach and chard can also provide yields over winter and into the spring in a polytunnel garden.
In some years, winter peas/mangetout may also be ready to harvest before the end of May. Sow in your polytunnel in September of the previous year.
Whether you have a polytunnel or not, windowsill growing can also help you avoid scarcity in the spring. You can sow indoors early in the year to get started earlier than you may have imagined, but can also grow over winter indoors for additional sustenance when not as much food is available in your outdoors garden.
Try sowing quick crops like leaf lettuce, spring onions, radishes etc. early in the year, long before the last frosts. Remember, some of the quickest growing crops can give a harvest within a month of sowing. So sowing in early March indoors will provide yields of these crops during the traditional hungry gap. You can also grow micro greens (brassicas, pea shoots, cress etc.) for quick, nutritious yields too.
Freezing Home Grown Produce
As well as planning and planting for year-round food production, those wishing to avoid the hungry gap today can also take advantage of modern technologies which were not available to our ancestors. A freezer is something that many of us might take for granted. But it can enable us to keep food fresh and nutritious. Potentially, we can store food by freezing it right through from one summer to the next. So we can eat food harvested from our gardens in July or August during the traditional hungry gap period in April/May.
Canning Home Grown Produce
Safe modern preservation techniques also allow us to store food for longer than our ancestors were able to do, even without freezer space. Modern knowledge of pasteurisation and modern canning jars with sealing lids allow us to can (or bottle) home grown produce and store it for over a year in many cases.
Traditionally, people would have had to rely on root cellars, and traditional techniques like pickling, brining and salting to keep food right through to spring. But canning in a water canner or pressure canner allows us to store foods fresh – often even without strongly sweet, salty or vinegary flavours. By following reliable recipes from trusted authorities, we can enjoy foods from our gardens all through the hungry gap and beyond.
Finally, we can adopt a strategy to improve our diets during the traditional hungry gap period in a way our ancestors would also have done. We can forage for a wide range of spring greens – in our own gardens and in our surroundings. There are many wild foods which can supplement a home grown diet in the spring.
Stinging nettles, ramsons, chickweed, sorrels, dandelions and more all add sustenance from the wild larder during this time of the year.
So while we should stay in tune with the natural rhythms and cycles of the gardening year, there is no need for us to go hungry in the spring, nor to compromise on the variety typically found in a modern diet.
How do you avoid the hungry gap? Let us know below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.
To get in touch, visit https://ewspconsultancy.com.