The Garden Project: 2013 analysis

As part of the ongoing maintenance of the permaculture design for my back garden, I made a list of the issues highlighted in my successes and problems posts:

  • Lack of time for maintenance; this led to no blueberry fruit (lack of netting and fertiliser) and a poor strawberry harvest (lack of watering).
  • Lack of time? inclination? for harvesting.
  • Snails eating seedlings (and the grape vine).
  • Some under-utilised space.
  • More of an observation than an issue: the things that have done best are the things which require the least input, and are the least vulnerable. (eg tomatoes, which largely look after themselves once the seedlings are robust enough to go outside, especially with the self-watering containers.)

After thinking about it for a few days, I concluded that the maintenance and harvesting problems actually break down into three factors:

  1. Real actual lack of time.
  2. Not spending enough time out in the garden. ("The best fertiliser is the gardener's shadow"). This is largely because it is so very hot out there in good weather.
  3. Watering is a big faff: the watering can is slow to fill from the butt, and heavy to fill from the tap, and one watering can isn't much for a whole garden.

I took a look at the permaculture principles while thinking about designing a solution. (The whole design maintenance process is about principle 4, "Accept self-regulation and feedback".) (Italics are conclusions or things I need to add to my to-do list.)

Living with the snails

My very first conclusion was that however many solutions there are to snail and slug problems, my preferred solution was to learn to live together with the snails. (Principle 1, "Observe and interact; beauty is in the eye of the beholder.") As a vegan, I can't really justify killing the snails, who are after all only trying to feed themselves, the same way I am. Observing the plants that struggled, the ones most at risk are small annual seedlings (carrots and turnips, courgette, basil), and that grape vine. This suggests a multi-layer approach (principle 10: "Use and value diversity"):

  • Just give up growing carrots and turnips. They're not a great crop for a small space, I've always struggled to germinate carrots, and I've never been that impressed by the taste of my home-grown ones.
  • Work on getting plants big enough to resist snail attacks. That means protecting my annual seedlings (bean, courgette, basil) better (starting in the already planned mini-greenhouse, perhaps also using copper tape for the basil pot), and planting more perennial veg, which are better able to resist attack.
  • For the grape vine, which I really want to try again: a mechanical solution. An anti-snail fence did seem to work this year, but the plant was already too damaged. Next year I can use it from the start.

Lack of time, and lack of time in the garden

My next problem was the lack of time, combined with the lack of time spent in the garden. The obvious solution to a lack of time is to grow plants that need less attention, which broadly speaking again points to perennials. (Snail-resistant and easier to grow! Principle 5: "Use and value renewable resources and services".) A second solution is to plan what maintenance I do need (eg checking the soil pH of the blueberries, fertilising fruit trees) a bit better over the winter, ready for summer. (Principle 2: "Catch and store energy"; that is, use my winter energy to better direct my summer energy.) Making comfrey and nettle tea is also on my agenda.

The lack of time in the garden is strongly related to our excessively warm south-facing patio. We have a patio umbrella, but it doesn't provide much shade, and it doesn't shade the wall of the house which then radiates heat back out. It's actually a difficult space to shade, because it is so very south-facing! One solution might be an awning with a 'curtain' falling a couple of feet around it. However, my preferred solution is another grape vine, trained over the patio. This will produce a grape crop, provide all-day shading for the house wall, and the transpiration of the green leaves will cool the space under them. I thought we would need a pergola for this (difficult to install on our concrete patio), but in fact installing strong wires should do the trick at least initially. (Principle 9: "Use small and slow solutions", principle 3: "Obtain a yield" (of both shade and grapes!), principle 2: "Catch and store energy" (grapes store sun energy), and principle 8: "Integrate rather than segregate" (two functions, one solution).

There were other awkwardnesses in the patio space which I've already fixed and which are already meaning I spend more time out there and water a bit more, as the weather cools:

  1. The table and chairs are an awkward shape for the space -- the table is too big and the chairs are in the way. However, it turns out that the chairs hang quite neatly on the otherwise-unused tall patio fence, which meant I could move the table out. It's now much easier to navigate.
  2. Leon's paddling pool was similarly awkwardly sized. Ebay provided a smaller, easier to manage second-hand pool.

Watering and harvesting

I'm currently working on watering and wicking solutions to make watering required less often, and easier when it is required. I'd like something in all the annual beds and anywhere else (eg the blueberry and cherry pots) it's needed. I also need to add a longer hose to the tap for when I need to use that, to make the watering can easier to fill.

The planned perennial beds, with full ground cover, will also help retain moisture in the earth, as will adding more compost as it becomes available. I'm going to abandon the strawberry tower which doesn't work at all well, and use the strawberries as perennial ground cover.

Harvesting: we don't use as much rocket as we have; but as a self-seeded low-maintenance plant which gets eaten sometimes and is nice to nibble on while gardening, I'm happy to just let it keep on keeping on. I'm going to stop planting annual lettuce, but might plant a salad-type perennial leaf (low-maintenance, available if wanted).

I am going to put sticky notes on the herb jars which are for things we have outside, to remind cooks that the fresh herbs are there!

Under-utilised space

Finally, in terms of under-utilised space (principle 6: "Produce no waste"), a handful of different solutions:

  • Two small and slow solutions (principle 9): a cherry tree to replace the satsuma in the big pot (principle 3: "Obtain a yield"), and a couple of raspberry canes to go into the wild east border. The raspberries should need little maintenance once established, the cherry might need netting once it starts bearing fruit. It will also help shade the patio a little.
  • A mini-greenhouse for the sunny south wall by the door. (Principle 2: "Catch and store energy"). As above, this will also provide a safe place for seedlings to grow big enough to resist snails.
  • Perennial plants in both west beds, using forest-garden-style stacking underneath tall plants against the sunny fence. (Principle 11: "Use edges and value the marginal".) This also, as above, helps to solve the watering, time, and snails problems.
  • Moving some of the herbs (thyme and oregano, most notably) into the north-east raised bed next to the herb garden, where I think they will do better and will also act as ground cover. This is really part of the perennial bed planting and reduces my outlay on new plants in favour of ones we use.
  • An autumn olive in the far south-west corner, above the rhubarb, for fruit, beautiful berries, and nitrogen-fixing. (Principle 11: "Use edges and value the marginal", and principle 8: "Integrate rather than segregate".)

Overall...

Generally, my aim is to set things up so that, as much as possible, they manage themselves. It's going to require a certain amount of work over the winter to set things up, and over the first year or two to help them get going, but in the long run this should significantly improve the way the garden works, heading towards the "harvesting as maintenance" goal.

The big part of the plan is forest-garden style planting in the two western raised beds. I've worked out my plan for that and will write about it in my next post.

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.

Allotment plans for the next few weeks

I'm feeling a little unfocussed about a lot of things right at the moment.  For the food-growing, at least, one solution to this is to make a list of what I need to do before the end of November.

Allotment

  • Planting:
    • broad beans, meteor pea, early dwarf pea.  Probably one lot of each this week, and another lot in a fortnight.
    • more kale and mustard greens; the germination rate for the last lot was a little low.  In fact I may start these off inside, then move to the balcony, then plant out in the cold frame on the allotment. 
  • Harvesting
    • more raspberries!
    • dig up the rest of the damn potatoes.
    • sweetcorn and squashes.
  • Tidying up:
    • finish cutting back the blackberry.
    • cut back the autumn rasps, once they're actually finished (still going at the moment!).
    • check for any seed that can be saved.
  • Infrastructure: 
    • build the cold frame for the mustard greens and kale.  I want to at least start this this weekend.
    • get more planks down for the raised beds.
    • finish deconstructing the pallets so they're out of the way.
    • dig over the compost heap, incorporating some of the blackberry cuttings.
    • amalgamate the extra compost heap (mostly consisting of blackberry cuttings...) into one location.
    • go out to collect leaves from the park for mulching down (needs to happen soon; easiest way to do this would be to use one of my old compost bags & take it round the park when I go round with the dog!).
  • Planning:
    • keep reading the Permaculture Book and actually take some notes.

Balcony

  • Planting:
    • ? another batch of salad veg?  Don't have any more room in the cold frame though!
    • maybe some meteor peas.
  • Harvesting:
    • keep eating the salad leaves.
    • dig up the potatoes.
  • Tidying up:
    • sort out all the old pots and work out where they should go.
    • work out where to put the salad veg cold frame that isn't "on top of the wormery".
    • bring the basil inside.
    • take up the dead peas.
  • Planning:
    • the best thing I could do this month, I think, is establish a routine of checking up on the balcony daily.
    • decide what to do about the wormery - the answer probably is "dig some worms out of the allotment compost heap and relocate them".

Ha, turns out that that's quite a lot of things to be going on with.