Solar ovens

I made a pizza box solar oven at the weekend. I’ve been meaning to make a solar oven for a while, but this one struck my fancy because I had everything I needed already (including an old pizza box).

It turned out looking rather like this:

I used an A4 plastic document wallet (cut open and retaped to fit the hole I’d cut) for the film, and some black card (again, cut and retaped) for the bottom.

I tried it out with biscuits yesterday, and unfortunately wasn’t all that impressed. I’m not convinced that the box itself seals particularly well (so the hot air is escaping), and even allowing for half an hour to heat up, the biscuits were only halfway cooked an hour or so after I put them out. They did definitely warm up quite a lot; but not to anything like the temperatures suggested in the instructions linked above.

This may be to do with the UK climate, but my south-facing balcony catches the sun pretty well, so I’m loathe to give up entirely. Instead I intend to try this option, as soon as I’ve collected the necessary kit and have some free time.

Dealing with ants

We have ants on the balcony. We also have ants on the allotment (farming the aphids, mostly, which is both impressive and really, really annoying, leading as it does to the death of the broad beans). I have, therefore, been seeking ways to get rid of ants.

The executive summary seems to be: you can’t; learn to live with them. I have been trying this for some time, but the depredations are getting to be just a bit much. (Especially as they seem to have killed off the worms in the wormery as well.) So I’ve tried a few things.

I’m not prepared to do boiling water; plus it would take ages to boil enough with the storm kettle on the allotment, and on the balcony, it would kill whatever plant was in the relevant pot as well.

On the allotment, the best solution without a doubt has been ant nematodes. The compost heap was absolutely swarming with the damn things before I applied these, as was the paving by the pear tree; both are now clear. I also tried it on the balcony, but with less conclusive effect; the satsuma tree (which seemed to be the worst affected pot) looks to be mostly clear now, but they’ve just moved to the potato box.

Flooding out is one option (if they’ve built their nest in a pot where the plant won’t mind that). After emptying most of a watering-can into the potato box, I very soon saw lots of frantic ants carrying away eggs. But where to? I fear I may need to excavate the Area Under The Herb Table. I’ll repeat the treatment on the potatoes again shortly (and the potatoes should do well for it, as well).

Another suggestion I’ve seen a lot is cinnamon. So last night I went out and sprinkled cinnamon in copious quantities all over the balcony. Curiously, I couldn’t actually see as many ants anyway as I had before, so maybe the drenching has sent them off to find a nest somewhere that isn’t my balcony. I’ll report back on the cinnamon in a couple of weeks.

Germination and experimentation

I’ve had better success with carrot germination this year than in previous years, on both allotment and balcony. This might be due to very thick sowing; the rate is still poor, but the actual number is higher. Carrot seed doesn’t last from year to year, so you may as well sow the lot and thin if necessary, especially given the tendency to poor germination. Turnips and parsnips, on the other hand, have been worse than previously. According to the packet, turnips shouldn’t be planted in May (presumably due to pest problems?), but as we’re now into June, I planted another couple of rows this weekend, along with some more carrots and beets.

Another interesting suggestion in the book I mentioned in my last post is to reconsider advised planting times. The author mentions sowing French beans as a late summer catch-crop, sowing brassicas in June or July to avoid pest problems, and sowing carrots in June (advice which I’ve seen before elsewhere). What I’ve mostly taken from this is to experiment. Once the squash have gone out into the space reserved for them, I’m going to start planting other seeds into any spaces I have left, and see how they do. After all, the worst that happens is nothing, right? I should, though, probably keep slightly better records than I have tended to in the past.

Experiments started so far:

  • Late May carrots and beets.
  • Early June turnips, Brussels sprouts, and kale (some under protective hats, some not, mostly because I ran out of protective hats).

Experiments yet to be carried out:

  • June leeks.
  • June mange tout. (I have already planted some on the balcony.)

Last year I conducted some accidental experiments with tomatoes, as my tomato seedlings didn’t get out into their final pots until July. The result: fewer tomatoes, and most of them still green by October when I finally had to take them in. (I did get some very nice green tomato chutney, though). This year, the first seedlings were planted out in early May, and they’re already starting to flower. I’ve also found in the past through experimentation that tomatoes do much better in pots on my south-facing balcony than on the allotment, so the balcony is crammed with them and I’m looking forward to the first eating.

Experimental gardening does invariably involve a few failures, but at the least you wind up better informed about why the usual rules are what they are; and you may get surprisingly positive results. The usual rules are really just guidelines; it’s only practice (and experiment) that gives you information about your space.

we are weeds, vegetation

Things I do not recommend doing if you are a gardener (or, in fact, even if you’re not, although it does get you out of doing any washing up for about two mnths): breaking your thumb. Despite this handicap, I have managed to be moderately productive on both allotment and balcony over the last month. You would think that weeding might be a one-handed activity, but it turns out that I use the other hand for balance more than I would previously have thought. Nevertheless, in the ongoing battle versus the weeds, I’m just about coming out on top. Two weeks off was more than enough to make it hard to catch back up; but when I did get going on the top bed (planted to roots this year), I found that carrot, beets, and one or two parsnips were making their way through the jungle. (What has happened to the rest of the parnsips? Who knows.)

I’ve also been reading a new book, “Organic Gardening the Natural No-Dig Way”, by Charles Dowding, and so far have come up with a couple of useful messages. The first concerns weeds: “a year of weeds is seven years of seeds”.

This has implications for green manure – if you don’t intend to dig in your manure (see ‘no-dig’), it will go to seed, making more trouble for you in the future. Dowding isn’t in favour of green manures unless (like mustard) they’re killed by frost before seeding.

It also has implications about the amount of work that needs to be done over the winter. This winter I did only very minimal weeding, as the weeds were growing only minimally, but in practice this just meant that I didn’t get on top of it before they went to seed in the spring. I’m definitely seeing the results.

I’ve been reminded during the intensive weeding process of the last couple of weeks of something I read from Bob Flowerdew: that it pays to keep going back to a bed you’ve weeded thoroughly before it obviously needs weeding again. Keep cutting off the tops of the weeds (if using a hoe) or uprooting them (if weeding by hand) and they’ll get weaker, so the job will become progressively easier.

I am constantly debating the issue of whether or not to bother keeping weeds that have gone to seed, and rhizome-type weeds, out of the compost. On the one hand, this is often recommended as otherwise your compost will just grow weeds. On the other hand, I’m never going to get rid of the weeds for ever anyway, and it seems a bit of a waste of compostable material. My current compromise is to leave the rhizome-rooted weeds out on the paths for a week or so to dry up before composting them.

This season I’ve also been thinking more about hoeing to speed up weeding. Making seed rows a hoe’s width apart helps, but the problem I’ve then encountered is that my rows aren’t always straight. With the next lot of planting (which will be the subject of my next post), I intend to actually use pieces of string, as I see the older gardeners on the allotment doing.