Chris Wimmer of Captain Hydroponics recently dropped me an email to say hi. Having recently visited the Biospheric Foundation in Salford and seen their experimental urban aquaponics setup, I was interested and asked him a little more about hydroponics.

Chris says:
“Hydroponics is the practice of gardening without soil. This method allows you to grow your plants with less water and fertilizer than traditional gardening. You can even get creative by reusing existing household items in your hydroponic systems.”

His site explains it all in more detail. I quite like the look of this simple DIY system. I already have an airstone (bought for making compost tea) and I’m sure we have a plastic box kicking around somewhere. The 2-litre plastic bottle idea doesn’t even need an airstone, and this hydroponic microgreens setup is even easier. (Chris tells me that you can use non-peat alternatives to peat moss.) I shall see if I can give one of them a go this season — or if anyone reading does, please report back.

In case you’re wondering: the difference between aquaponics and hydroponics is that aquaponics also involve fish, with the idea being that the fish waste products act as fertiliser for the plants, with the plants therefore keeping the water clean. The Biospheric Foundation setup also involves compost, which in its turn produces worms to feed the fish. Graham Burnett at Spiralseed wrote up the LAND trip to Manchester that I was on which included that visit.

The Garden Project: 2013 problems

Following up on this year’s successes, here are the problems that I’d like to fix for next year.

  • Two of the raised beds had ongoing problems with seeds just not germinating, or germinating then being munched by snails. The bed in the left-hand photo had a great broad bean crop at the start of the season, then the turnips and chard I planted later just didn’t come up. I’ve now replanted chard and pak choi under little cloches in the hope that that will protect the seedlings. The bed in the right-hand photo had the same problem with seedlings not germinating or being eaten. The chard from last year, as seen, did great and has now gone to seed. I’m leaving it in the hope it’ll self-seed. I didn’t plant the squash, but wherever it came from, it seems happy so I’m letting it be and hoping that there’s still enough time for a crop (not very likely, sadly).
    Raised bed with plastic bottle cloches and pots buried in soil, and some parsley.
    No sign yet of any chard or pak choi seedlings.
    Raised bed with squash and chard that's gone to seed.
    Unexpected squash is unexpected. Chard is going to seed.

  • Bamboo sticks tied together in raised bed, with one bean plant just about visible
    Only one bean that’s actually flowering
    I planted a lot of beans, and only one (and maybe a half) have grown. Again, I think this is a snail problem as I’ve seen signs of munched leaves. There’s not a huge amount of compost there but that shouldn’t have had this much impact.

  • Blueberry bush in old ceramic sink.
    No fruit this year. Birds or bad management?
    No blueberries from the blueberry. I don’t know whether this was lack of water, lack of food, or bird damage. Plan for next year: net it early on, and be more careful with watering and perhaps some home-made fertiliser (nettle/comfrey/urine might all be useful).

  • Wooden fence with a lot of green weeds and some grass in front of it
    Jungly! Note very healthy rosemary
    The west fence is under-utilised. Currently it’s going mostly wild, which is fine, but what I wanted there was raspberries. I think maybe one of the canes I transplanted last year has survived, so I’m considering getting a handful more this winter. I love raspberries and they’re a big priority for me. As you can see in the photo, though, the rosemary bush is thriving, and we also have some nice flowers including poppies.

  • Satsuma tree in ceramic pot in front of wooden fence.
    Still no satsumas
    The satsuma tree is doing well enough, but still not producing any satsumas. I’m going to dig it up in the winter (and hopefully give it away; I dislike the idea of killing off a perfectly healthy plant. Let me know if you’d like it!) and replace it with another fruit tree that will do well in a large pot and will actually produce fruit. Possibly a cherry, but I need to do a little research.

  • Dead grape vine twig in corner of raised bed
    The grape vine died altogether. This is the thing I am saddest about! It got eaten by something (snails, I’m guessing), but even after I put in anti-snail defences, it was too badly damaged to bounce back. I really want to try again, but I am going to have to do some thinking about how to protect it come the spring.

  • White polystyrene box with chili plant and a few weeds, by brick wall
    Not a lot going on here, and no chilis
    Another space that’s just under-utilised: this box by the back door. I’m intending to build a mini greenhouse into this space over the winter.

The observant reader will have noticed that snails are my single biggest problem. My main aim for the winter is to find a solution to this problem. Ducks (or chickens? do they eat snails too?) would be ideal but sadly impractical!

I also need to think about what plants we’ve actually eaten and so what’s worth growing. I’m considering potatoes for next year as a low-maintenance crop that we really enjoy eating.

Garlic and snails

Busy times over here, with Leon starting to walk and lots of summer fun stuff happening.

I’ve harvested my garlic, and for the first time ever got a really decent crop (14 bulbs) which look like they’ll be very usable. Unfortunately I left it a week too late and the stalks are too dry to be plaited and hung to dry, so the bulbs are drying on a plate in the kitchen and being turned occasionally. I planted these garlics from a bulb (sold for eating) from the Co-op rather than buying proper seed garlic and they’re my best ever, and I’m not quite sure what to think! I’m debating whether I should save a bulb for next year (usually discouraged I think if you’ve planted supermarket seed?), buy another Co-op bulb next year, or buy a ‘proper’ one.

Depressingly, though, my grape vine has died altogether. It got heavily munched by snails/slugs, but when I wrote to the nursery they thought it would recover. Sadly not. I am probably going to try again next year, but in the meantime I need a plan of action for dealing with the slimey beasties.

I’ve also started work on my Permaculture Diploma, which is exciting. I’m using the Back Garden Project as one of my designs, so have been pulling posts together from that and writing up my analysis more formally. Other projects on the horizon include a mini greenhouse for the back garden, a plan for the balcony and the front porch, and very excitingly, a plan for my friends’ new allotment.

I’ve also been writing about mastitis with an older baby over at Natural Parents Network, for World Breastfeeding Week.

Anti-snail defences

My grape vine has been getting munched up by (I assume) the snails; and one of my (still tiny) courgette plants is looking at risk too. After perusing the Organic Gardening Catalogue, I have acquired a set of little spiky fences to go around the grape vine, and some copper tape around the courgette. I will report back.

I’ve also got ants farming aphids on the apple tree. Apparently, a ring of gaffer tape, sticky side out, around the tree will solve this problem. Again: defences are in place, and I will report back.

And here’s a blog post elsewhere on permaculture and container gardening.

A final note: half of my broad beans appear to have grown without any actual beans in the pods (well: the beans are there, but they didn’t fill out). My assumption is that this is to do with the crappy weather, but I am nevertheless sad. Maybe the green beans will do better? If the sun ever comes out for any reasonable time…

Northern-facing and shade-tolerant edibles

I’m currently planning planting for two shady areas: our front balcony and our front porch. Both of them are north-facing, so I’ve been researching north-facing and shade-tolerant edibles which will grow in containers. Most edible plants do prefer full sun; but if you’ve got shade, all is not lost.

Not all shade is created equal. Some people distinguish between open, medium, and deep shade. By that reckoning, I have open shade on the balcony (which is north-facing but very open and with little shade from the front) and medium shade in the porch (north-facing and covered). Another potential distinction is between partial and full shade. I have partial shade on the balcony and full shade in the porch.

Shrubs and climbers

  • Honeyberries look very interesting, are perennial (I like perennials), and apparently prefer partial shade. However, you need 2 plants for pollination. They can be grown in a half-barrel size pot, which is probably no good for my purposes as I’m not sure I want two of those on my balcony.
  • Kiwi vines are moderately famous for being a climber that will do well in partial shade. Again, you need both a male and a female plant, and something for them to grow along.
  • The Oregon Thornless blackberry will apparently also do well in partial shade, although again it needs a trellis to grow up and to be carefully trained. It flowers on one-year-old wood. In theory I accept that blackberries, as woodland plants, should cope well with partial shade but I confess I’m not convinced about how well they’d actually fruit. Your pot needs to be 2′ x 2′ x 2.5′ for this.

Lower/ground cover plants

  • Mint is one of the easiest things to grow in shade. I grew mint in a pot on the windowsill of a full-shade area outside our basement flat about a decade ago, and it did just fine. Mint is best grown in a pot even if you have ground available, as it is famously invasive.
  • New Zealand spinach is a shade-tolerant edible perennial, but needs to be blanched before cooking. Apparently it’s best started from transplant, so if anyone who’s reading has one and might be up for sharing a cutting, please let me know. Though to be honest anything that’s complicated to cook is unlikely to find much use in this household, so it may not be worth it anyway.
  • Apparently, swiss chard, peas, beets, and various leafy greens and salad greens are all shade tolerant too. This does fit with my experience of chard and leafy/salad greens as happy to grow through winter, when they don’t get much direct sun. It occurs to me too that planting in partial shade may inhibit bolting, meaning that we might actually have some salad greens to eat in midsummer. Similarly, I’ve had trouble in recent years with peas suffering in the unusually warm spring weather, so partial shade might help them. These can all be grown in pots, though watch this space for a roundup of which plants need deeper and less deep containers. The only problem for me with growing greens on the balcony is that they’re less harvestable for the kitchen, so cooking greens may not get so much use. Salad greens which can be nibbled while out there might be better.
  • Finally, in the fruit line, Alpine strawberries are shade-tolerant, perennial, and very tasty, and rhubarb is shade-tolerant (indeed, it dislikes full sun) and can be grown in a (large) pot. I have some down the shady end of my garden which I’m hoping will get themselves properly established this year.


  • Pansies are tolerant of shade, are perennial, and are one of my favourite flowers (I already have some on the balcony, in fact), but aren’t edible.
  • Violets, on the other hand, are edible, perennial, shade-tolerant, and also lovely.
  • Other woodland flowers are also worth considering as they tend to be shade-tolerant.
  • Another option is plumbago: shade-tolerant, perennial, not edible, but butterflies love it.
  • I think nasturtiums should do reasonably well in partial shade, although probably not in full shade.

Other options

I found a list of other shade-tolerant edibles, which all seem likely to be a bit big for my purposes but might be useful for someone else, especially if you’re not limited to containers. There’s also a more general round-up of shade-tolerant gardening (not edible focused) at The Savvy Gardener. I’m very open to more suggestions if anyone has some, in particular for edibles although I’ll consider some pretty non-edible perennials as well.

Next steps: researching which plants need what depth of container (and in particular what will tolerate shallow containers), gathering my containers together, and constructing a planting plan for the spring.

Replanning the herb garden

I took advantage of a brief sunny period mid-week to go out and rearrange the herb patch.

Sadly I don’t have a very good before photo, but this one from this time last year is a reasonable representation:

Herbs in pots against a fence

This is what it looks like now:

Herbs in pots, in different configuration (see text)

Left to right: strawberry tower (transplanted the strawberries this morning); slab stack with empty pot (for basil), oregano, 2 lavender cuttings, empty pot, another lower empty pot, & a big pot of sage; bay tree at the back; another slab stack with parsley, chives, empty pot, and mint lower down; and a thyme trough at the front.

I moved the concrete slabs very slightly so they’re right back against the fence, and reorientated a couple of lower ones to provide an extra ledge for a plant pot, to make more use of the vertical space. I also repotted the oregano and bay into bigger pots, and the thyme into a shallow trough. I’ve since added a few more empty pots, for a total of 9.

My wanted herb list is:

  • Basil (lots)
  • Oregano (lots — will take a couple of root divisions now it’s in that larger pot, although this is not the ideal time for that)
  • Thyme (want another couple of plants)
  • Sage (will take cutting in the spring to fill up that big pot)
  • Chives
  • Winter savoury
  • Mint — will probably take cuttings for another pot to go at the other side of the patio, as well
  • Parsley (lots, which is fine as it has self-seeded EVERYWHERE)
  • Coriander
  • Dill
  • Strawberries (OK, not actually a herb)
  • Bay
  • Rosemary — over the other side of the garden, in the ground
  • Lavender — also planted on the other side, in the ground

With nine empty pots to fill, I make that: basil x 2, another oregano, possibly another parsley, dill x 1, winter savoury x 2 (it’s hard to buy), coriander x 1, and one spare pot in case something else takes my fancy. I’m tempted to try ginger, although it’s not cold-hardy. Any other culinary herbs you think I’m missing out on?

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!

Adventures in Parenting: food from the garden

It’s taken a looong time this year (possibly because of June’s dreadful weather), but finally I am regularly harvesting food from the garden*. Carrots (my first ever really decent carrot crop!), courgettes, little cherry tomatoes, chard, and the last of the garlic.

Simultaneously, L has started on solids, which is great fun. We’re doing baby-led weaning, so I’ve been putting slightly more effort into lunch (ie not just hummous sandwiches) then just giving L some of whatever I fancy eating. If possible, including at least a little of our back garden veg. Stir-fried chard, courgette, carrot, and a little garlic, with rice or rice noodles; a few halved cherry tomatoes or some rocket on the side; pasta with garden veggies in a tomato-y sauce; steamed veg with a baked potato.

L is a big fan of courgettes and carrots (most of it eventually ends up on the floor, and thence in the dog, but he grabs and sucks and gums with enthusiasm). The first time I gave him a cherry tomato, he pulled the most peculiar face and drummed his feet on the high chair, and I assumed he must not like it. But no; when it fell out and I put it back on the table, he grabbed with enthusiasm and shoved it straight back in, for another flapping-and-grimacing session. I guess tomatoes must be pretty intense (and home-grown fresh tomatoes even more so) after six months of breastmilk.

Seeing him starting to experiment with food has been fun; being able to share food that I grew with him has been fantastic.

It’s not that I want to be parenty-high-horse about it. L is also eating plenty of stuff I didn’t grow; and I don’t garden because I think it’s better for L, although I do want to reduce household food miles**, but because I love doing it. It’s one of the non-parent things I’ve tried to keep up while submerged in newborn parenting.

But I love growing food, and I love eating food I’ve grown, and I love being able to include L in that. Some of those plants I planted (or watered, or thinned) while carrying him in a sling over the last six months. I harvest them while he plays on the grass, and then we both eat them. It feels like the way I want my life to fit together, with the various parts of it feeding (ha!) into one another.

And then I blog about it, and the words join into the same pattern.

* There’s been salad all summer; but we haven’t eaten that much of it. I have to conclude that we just don’t eat much in the way of salad leaves, even nice ones, and intend to plant much less of that next year.
** Not that our tiny back garden meets more than a fraction of our food needs, although I’m trying to improve on that over time as I work out what’s best to grow.