EC and permaculture guest posts

I wrote about Elimination Communication, peeing on the floor, and the advantages of not going nappy-free, over at Natural Parents Network last week, in The Nappy-Free Potty Pause.

Then, at The Green Phone Booth, I wrote about tips for food gardening with a toddler. (Leon is now properly a toddler — he really got the hang of independent walking at Glastonbury last weekend. Having just made my plans for summer planting, I’m now reminded that I should keep a section of the NW bed specially for him. Perhaps marked out in some way in a likely-vain attempt to keep him away from the rest of it?)

Snowy plants

Four or five inches of snow on my raised beds earlier this week, but looks like the beans, peas, & garlic at least are trucking along under there. I got my tiny garden apprentice to help me take a look under the snow, although he did try to pull up one of the beans when we located them (they’re quite firmly rooted, so it didn’t work). Garlic shoots are visible in the bed in the background.

Then he tried eating the snow, face-first, before climbing right into the bed to play snow-plough.

Last week, before it snowed, we spent half an hour out in the garden with Leon pottering around investigating things (and, um, eating dirt) while I dug in the first half of the wooden edging for the western bed, along the fence. I’ve used a couple of nice solid 2″x4″ lengths of wood from the scrap pile, as I wanted something that will be easily visible when weeding or cutting the grass. I’ll add a photo next time I’m out there. The bed edges are looking good, but more enjoyable was the sense of pottering round the garden with Leon, undertaking our own projects alongside each other. More of that when the growing season starts, I hope.

New year, new growth

I don’t really do resolutions per se (this post by Meg Barker is excellent on the matter). But if you looked out, on a bright, sunny New Year morning, at your patio (or balcony, or windowbox…) and thought about growing food in it, you needn’t put the whole thing off til spring. Sure, it’s not the time of year (in the Northern hemisphere) for doing much planting, but there are still things you can get started on now.

First up is planning. If it gets to March or April and you haven’t given any thought to what you’d like to grow, that’s fine (it’s better to throw a few random seeds in than to do nothing), but even a little thought in advance can make your space much more productive. What veggies do you most like? No point in growing things you won’t actually eat. How much space have you got? Do you need to find some containers? Can you order seeds now? The Real Seed Company are good for seeds (and browsing their website may give you ideas), and nearly anything you can put some drainage holes in the bottom of can become a planting container.

This is also a good time for planting fruit. Blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, and the rest will all grow happily in pots. Blueberry in particular may be better off in a pot, as it is ericaceous (lime-hating) and needs specific compost or acidic soil. (If you already have a blueberry, in fact, now is a good time to pH test the soil, and add compost, or water with 1-2 tbsp of vinegar in a gallon of water, if needed.) You can buy bare-root plants and get them in the ground over winter, though you’re unlikely to get a crop until summer 2014. I confess I’ve never personally managed to make blackberries or raspberries work in pots, but I am assured that it is possible. Perhaps I needed a bigger pot.

You could also consider a fruit tree (an apple, perhaps), if you have space and ground. Fruit trees too can be grown in (large) pots; I have a satsuma tree in a pot, but it’s not doing so well. Down at Downing Road Moorings, near me, they have a lot more success with trees in containers (of sorts). If you already have fruit trees or bushes, now is a good time to prune. You usually want to lose about 15% of old growth each winter.

Finally, it’s never too cold and dark to try planting a tray of microgreens. Get sme rocket or any other green-leaf seed (mizuna is nice), plant it in a shallow tray on the windowsill, and wait until the second set of leaves (the first set of “real” leaves) appear. Harvest with scissors and eat.

See my book for more detail on any of the above, and ideas for getting going with permaculture container gardening whatever time of year it is. And watch this space for an update on my own plans for my garden this season; I’m planning to sit down with a notebook this weekend.

Tidying up the garden for the winter

At the weekend I hoicked out the tomatoes (getting a fair crop of green tomatoes in the process), courgettes, gone-to-seed lettuce, and a bundle of unexpected carrots, to clear some space before winter.

I also dug over the compost and found huge bundles of happy worms and woodlice doing their thing in there. (I should really have taken a photo, shouldn’t I?) I felt a bit bad upsetting them all in order to extract some of the lovely dark compost-y compost from the bottom of the pile. There was enough to spread over a single bed; hopefully by the spring there’ll be another bed’s worth as well. There’s something very satisfying about compost; all that waste turned into lovely rich stuff to help your plants grow. It just looks productive.

Winter lettuce is doing nicely and needs thinning soon; chard also doing well; pak choi suffering from slug/snail depradations.

I also planted one whole bed and an extra row of broad beans, and two rows of snow peas. By getting the beans in now, they have a chance to get going in the spring before the ants and the aphids move in. Which also means that after the first crop in the spring, I may as well hoick them out again as by then the ants and aphids have overrun the plants. That, in turn, means I can plant nearly as many as I like since by the time I want to put other things in, they’ll be out. Succession sowing is also very satisfying!

River of Flowers

I came across River of Flowers recently: a project aiming to plant and encourage urban wildflower meadows to help the flow of pollinators across London. (It’s now spread to elsewhere in the world.)

As someone who’s trying to create her own little wildflower meadow in the back garden (all 12 or so sq m of it), I found this a lovely idea. Unfortunately it looks like signup on their London map is just for parks, allotments, gardens etc, but browsing those is fun too. There’s also a list of urban meadow partners, and mention of an Urban Meadows Kit to encourage people to grow mini-meadows in their front gardens, though it looks like that isn’t available right now.

There’s also some information on helping pollinators, which reminded me of a talk I was at this week, on solitary bees. I already knew that they are deeply fascinating creatures, but now I am even more convinced of it! There’s much more info via the Bees, Wasps, and Ants Recording Society, including basic info and more detailed information sheets. We already have a nice pile of dead wood at the bottom of the garden to provide insect-housing; I’m now intending to make some more solitary bee homes this winter. And to visit Roots and Shoots over in SW London to see their awesome Trellick Bee Tower. All hail the bees!

(More on helping bees in another post….)

Self-fertile apple trees for small gardens

I’m keen to have a fruit tree in our garden, and my mind turned to what’s really the default UK fruit tree: the apple. The thing with apple trees, though (and in fact many fruit trees), is that if you want to get actual fruit, the tree needs to be fertilised. For the vast majority of apple varieties, that means having at least one other apple tree, of the right pollen group and which blossoms at the right time, planted somewhere fairly nearby. In an orchard, a big garden, or even in an allotment where you can count on other allotmenters also having apple trees, that’s fine. If, on the other hand, you have a tiny garden like mine, one tree is going to be pretty much all you can fit in.

Happily, in this modern age, you can get self-fertile apple trees; that is, trees which will pollinate themselves. Even so, they’ll do better (crop more heavily) if pollinated by another nearby tree, but you’ll get a crop anyway. For my purposes, all I want is a few eating apples, and a tree to sit under, so that’ll work fine for me.

The choice, though, is a bit limited — here’s one list*, although note that some of those (the starred ones) are only partly self-fertile, so best to avoid if you don’t want to rely on having another tree in the vicinity. In my case, it’s limited further by the fact that the apples best-liked in our household are the Cox/Russet kind of axis. I couldn’t find any self-fertile russet types, but here is my list of self-fertile Cox-types:

For me, I think it’s a toss-up between Red Windsor and Winston, with a probable bias towards Winston. I shall consult the rest of the household.

A quick note as well on rootstocks. M27 will give you a very small tree (up to 2m), but unless you’re seriously space-limited or growing in a pot, you’re probably better going for M9 (full height up to 2.5m), which is a little bigger and significantly more productive. Both M9 and M27 require permanent staking. If you have the space, M26 is bigger still, and MM106 a decent standard size, growing to 2.5-4.5m. For my 40m2 garden, I’ll be choosing M9 as a good compromise between size and productivity.

* I have noticed some disagreement between different lists on whether or not particular apples are self-fertile. I recommend cross-checking a couple of sources before buying.

Permaculture principles: working with what’s there

I’ve been thinking recently about the design of a potential new permaculture garden project. It suddenly occurred to me that one of the underlying principles of permaculture, awareness of the limits and resources of your site and what you have to hand, also implies the consideration of your own limits, resources, and reality.

Like many people, I have a tendency to make decisions (in life in general as much as in gardening) based on what I would like to be true about me, or what I believe is true, rather than on reality. I would like to be the sort of person who is very efficient in the mornings; so I make plans that assume that, then get irritated at myself when things don’t pan out as I envisaged. I would like to be the sort of person who can tend carefully to brassicas to nurse them through to harvesting, so I put them in, then kick myself when I don’t net them in time and they disappear to the voracious appetites of caterpillars.

So in the context of this potential new project, I’m asking myself: what do we actually use in our existing spaces? What would we actually want from this new space (and, indeed, the existing ones)? And why?

For example, currently I have a variety of herbs out on the balcony, which even at this time of year are largely doing pretty well. However, they don’t get used for cooking nearly as often as I’d like; instead the dried herbs in the cupboard tend to be used instead. Why is that? I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Convenience. The dried herbs are right there; no need to walk through the house to get them.
  2. Concern for the plant. Mostly it’s someone else (the non-gardener in the household) who does the cooking, and he is nervous about accidentally killing the plants.

So, how can I solve these problems in the current space, or in a new space? There’s a few possibilities:

  • I can make sure that the herbs are as close to the kitchen door as possible (convenience).
  • I can consider whether they’d be better off on a suitable (again, nearby) windowsill rather than outside.
  • I can grow larger plants, so they’re more obviously healthy and can have large quantities taken from them. That would also solving the problem that there’s just not enough to cook with regularly.
  • I can grow more or large plants, dry them myself, and fill up the containers in the kitchen.
  • I can grow more plants; perhaps some on the windowsill and some larger ones outside.
  • I can be a bit more discerning, ask which plants we need most, and grow more of those and fewer of the others (to balance out the space taken up by larger plants).

Some of these ideas might work alongside each other; some are alternatives. There might be more possibilities, too. (Ideas welcome!)

In the immediate term, thinking about this has led me to decide that I’m going to upgrade the rosemary, thyme, and oregano to larger containers, and plant lots and lots of basil seedlings to get as big a crop as possible this year. Those are probably the most useful of the herbs, so it’s worth focussing on them.

In the longer possible-project term, I’m going to take all of these ideas into account when planning, and see if I can come up with any more clever ideas to make the herbs easier to use.

And in general, I’m going to keep thinking about the gap between belief and reality, and look for ways to bridge that gap and make it easy to do what I want myself to do.

How to deal with ants: pt 2

I posted before about eco-friendly ways to deal with ants in the garden. Today I dug up the small box of potatoes I was growing (harvest small but hopefully tasty!), to discover an ants’ nest, or at least a lot of ant eggs, in the bottom of the box.

This was especially irritating as I’d seen fewer ants around of late, and was hopeful that the cinnamon was doing the trick.

On this occasion, I did decide to try the boiling water, primarily aimed at getting rid of the eggs. As the potatoes were out of the box, it wasn’t going to destroy any plants; and despite my reluctance to kill them, I am really not up for hosting an ants’ nest on my 5m x 1.5m balcony.

After the boiling water (a kettle-full over the couple of buckets that the compost had been transferred into), I chucked a watering-can full of cold tap water in as well, in the hope of drowning or scaring away any remaining ants. Or at least convincing them to take their nest elsewhere.

Watch this space for results… [sigh] Unfortunately I think it’s going to be hard to get rid of them altogether, since I have a lot of plant-pots that I’m loathe to dig out altogether; so there’s always somewhere else for them to go.