growing things

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!

food, growing things

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.

growing things, the garden project

Garden Diary 25.08.2012

Planted:

  • Basil.
  • Leaf coriander.

Harvested:

  • Courgettes.
  • Very tiny baby carrots.
  • Salad leaves.

Other:

  • Discovered that three of my blackcurrant bush cuttings may have taken!
  • Snails ate many of the chard seedlings; but it looks like one or two have survived.
  • Ordered some autumn/winter seeds.

To do:

  • Thin out lettuce some more.
  • Dig/set in border of long west bed properly.
  • Transplant courgette plants which I think are overcrowded.
growing things, the garden project

Fitting a water butt

If you grow plants and have access to a gutter downpipe, it’s well worth finding the space and time for a water butt. Rainwater is better for your plants than tap water*; and of course you help conserve water as well.

Water butt against fence

For small spaces you can get slimline water butts; we have room for a 250l one, and it’s worked out very well. This weekend was the first time this year I’ve needed to fill the watering can from the tap. I did put off fitting it for ages, but in fact it was an easier job than I had feared.

You’ll need a downpipe diverter, and a hacksaw to chop through the downpipe. The diverter kit will have detailed instructions, but basically you cut through the drainpipe at a height just below the top of the water butt. You then connect diverter and water butt with a piece of tubing, and when the water in the butt reaches the level of the drainpipe, the water will flow back into the drainpipe and down the drain. (Here’s a basic explanation of the physics of how water finds its own level; imagine the drainpipe, which is ‘bottomless’, as one of the tubes, and the water butt as the other, with the tubing connecting them.)

A note: when measuring the height of your water butt, it is VERY IMPORTANT to place the water butt high enough off the ground that you can get a watering can in under its tap. We used spare paving slabs; you can also get a purpose-built plastic stand.

Once you’ve cut the drainpipe and fitted the diverter and its tube, that’s it — you’re done, and your water butt is ready to collect water the next time it rains.

The only problem we’ve found so far is that the angle between drainpipe and water butt means that our tubing has a couple of kinks in it that tend to gather gunk & allow algae to grow. This means that it needs to be cleaned out occasionally to keep the water flowing. We’ve just added gaffer tape to reduce the amount of light and thus hopefully also the algae.

Drainpipe diverter and gaffer-taped tube to water butt

Next job: fitting a smaller one on the front balcony. I need to check this with the neighbours first, though, as we share that drainpipe.

* If you can’t use rainwater for watering, when possible it’s a good idea to let tap water sit for 24 hrs before using it on your plants, to allow the chlorine to offgas.

growing things

Protecting tomato seedlings

A quick photo to illustrate why it’s worth keeping tomato seedlings inside (or in a greenhouse) for that little bit longer, rather than just dumping them outside once they’ve grown their first couple of leaves and been transplanted. These are the same type of tomato and were sown at the same time:

Tomato seedling with 2 leaves, looking a bit yellow, in a pot outside
Transplanted and put straight outside

Tomato seedling with 4 leaves in small pot on windowsill
Transplanted and given another week on the windowsill

Not only does the indoor one have a healthier colour, it also has an extra pair of leaves. I’m hoping that the outdoor one will pick up in time but it’ll certainly take longer to reach fruiting stage.

I am considering a further experiment by picking one plant to put straight out from the windowsill without hardening off, and comparing that a week or so later with its hardened-off siblings.

growing things, the garden project

Flowers: permaculture and beauty

Permaculture isn’t only about the practical; or rather, “practical” covers more than you might think. Permaculture is all about sustainability, and that includes creating environments which are sustainable for humans in respect to all their needs.

A garden needn’t just be about food to be practical, sustaining, and sustainable; it can also be about beauty, or fun, or rest. Of course, food plants can also be beautiful (rainbow chard is one excellent example; or the little blue flowers that appeared on my rosemary bush in early spring). But the beauty in non-edible plants means that they’re also a worthwhile addition to the garden, simply for the joy of looking at them. And a garden you want to spend time in is invariably a more productive garden.

Which is to say that I have a bunch of flowers in our garden now, along the western fence by the rosemary and the raspberries. The first to go in, last autumn, were winter pansies. Pansies are my favourite flower, and their January blooms cheered me up no end. More recently I put in some forget-me-nots, which are very practical flowers in that they are self-seeding, but easy to pull out, so low maintenance in both directions. As mentioned in the peas and beans post, there are also now a few pots of sweet peas to make the patio smell lovely when they flower. And finally, a few evening primroses in with the pansies, because my Mum had some spares and it would have been a shame to waste them. (Actually, all the flowers were spares from my Mum. Thank you!).

Winter pansies and raspberries against a wooden fence
Pansies and raspberries (and some purple wild flowers that I don’t know the name of) earlier in the spring

growing things, the garden project

Planting tomatoes for this year

It’s spring, so I’ve been doing a lot of planting in the garden. For once I actually have a month by month list, entered into my diary on a weekly basis, as the only way I’ll get things done on time while also wrangling a newborn. I feel alarmingly organised.

Last month was tomato-planting time, so I now have 5 pots of seeds sprouting away on the kitchen windowsill.

Two pots were from packet seeds (Lettuce Leaf, a bush type from the Real Seed Company, though it looks like they no longer stock them, and Peacevine Cherry, from a heirloom packet I got free) which I’ve liked in the past. All the seeds planted of both have germinated and are doing fine. The other 3 were seeds saved from last year’s plants; but only one of them has germinated, which I found a little disappointing.

It turns out that the problem is probably down to a cackhanded effort on my part to increase germination rates. If you’re saving your own seed, you can put the seeds in a jamjar with some water for 3 days, you can improve their germination speed. It turns out, however, that that is a strict 3 days – no more, no less. Five months in the jar? Not so good. Ah well; I have 9 baby tomato plants which is plenty, and will have to try seedsaving again this year. In fact last year’s plants started out at my old house and finished off at this one, so they might not have been the best-adapted to the new location anyway.

In other signs of spring: the apple tree has started to produce green shoots, after a couple of months of looking a lot like a stick.

That was taken a couple of weeks ago; there are more shoots now, all looking pleasingly healthy.

growing things

DIY rooting hormone with willow bark

I had a couple of cuttings to take (it being that time of year), but wasn’t keen to get commercial rooting hormone to help them along. Someone at the EAT 2011 course in August told me that you can use willow bark as a rooting tonic, which makes a lot of sense given the notorious enthusiasm with which willow will root.

With reference to instructions for herbal decoctions and instructions for willow rooting tonic, I went for the most straightforward option: a fresh willow twig from the tree opposite the house, broken into 2″ chunks, put in a bowl, covered with boiling water, and left overnight. Initially there seemed to be no change in the water and I was a little dubious as to whether this would work. By the next day it had definitely taken something from the willow, and changed colour.

Jar of willow bark infusion, labelled with the date, expiry date, and DO NOT DRINK
Apparently it keeps in the fridge for a couple of months.

The cuttings in question are rosemary and thyme. I want backups of my current plants, as I plan to move the grown-up plants out of their pots and into the ground next to the (rapidly-growing) lawn. My concern is that the soil there is very clay, and lacks good drainage — not great conditions for herbs. In mitigation, I plan to dig a big hole and fill it up with a combination of garden compost, two-year-old potting compost (since herbs don’t like a soil that’s too rich), and a little sand to improve the drainage, before transplanting. But there’s definitely still a risk that the plants won’t survive. Hopefully if that happens, at least one of the cuttings will do and can be nursed up to replace the plan.

I took twig cuttings as usual from both plants, cutting diagonally across the stalk and stripping the leaves from the bottom half so they won’t rot in the soil. I then dipped them in the willow bark infusion before putting them in the compost, and for good measure, watered afterwards with a little of the infusion as well. Now they’re with the other potted herbs on the back patio, and I’ll see if they make it to next spring. (Green) thumbs crossed!

Two small plastic pots of compost on a bench, one with rosemary twigs in and one with thyme twigs
Rosemary and thyme cuttings.

food, growing things

Vegan chickweed pesto

There’s not that much growing at this time of year; but you will find fresh chickweed in UK gardens and allotments, even in the middle of the snow. It’s usually considered a weed, but in fact it’s edible, nutritious, and even quite tasty.

You can eat it raw, but I’m not very enthusiastic about it like that. Alternatively, you can treat it like spinach leaves and wilt it before eating. Or you can make chickweed pesto, which is what I did.

When harvesting chickweed, take only the tops of the plant. The lower leaves are tougher, and also by taking the top, you just encourage it to branch and produce more tops for future harvesting.

Chickweed pesto recipe

  • A few good handfuls of chickweed tops (I had maybe a couple of packed mugs’ worth).
  • Handful of pine nuts or sunflower seeds.
  • 1–2 cloves raw garlic (if you can leave the pesto overnight to mellow), or 2 tsp minced garlic / garlic paste (if you want to eat it immediately).
  • Tbsp nutritional yeast (use parmesan for a non-vegan pesto).
  • Generous pinch of salt.
  • 2-3 tbsp olive oil (add as you need it while blending).

Throw all the ingredients into a blender and keep blending until it looks like pesto. Add the olive oil as needed to help the blender out (you can also add a very little water), and as needed for texture.

It worked well on pasta, but I also enjoyed it on crackers for the next few days as a mid-morning snack. And since chickweed will, apparently, grow on my allotment regardless of what I do, I might as well make the most of it, especially at this time of year.

growing things

Autumn growth

Down the allotment this week (at sunset in only a T-shirt — in October!), I noticed that the raspberries are cropping again. Admittedly they are autumn raspberries, but ‘autumn’ in raspberry parlance usually means August/September, not October/November. They’re not as sweet as the earlier ones, possibly because less sun means less sugar developing, but they’re big and juicy and still quite tasty. I reckon I’ll get at least another pot-full, and maybe two.I also harvested what I think will be the last couple of smallish courgettes. There are still some more setting on the plant, but it’s late enough in the season that the insects aren’t really doing the pollination job any more; one of the harvested ones obviously hadn’t been pollinated properly. I’ll leave the plants for a bit longer, but I think that’s it. The end of October is very late to be harvesting courgettes, though!The chard is doing nicely, as are my late planting of broad beans (not a huge crop, but worth the effort of chucking a few seeds in the soil in August, I think). It’s also time to cut back the asparagus and shovel a good helping of compost over it; to dig up the last of the potatoes; and to finally tackle the Horseradish Horror (planted several years ago, and never dug up since digging up one of the four took so much effort).