Compost!

This week I dug out the “composting” half of the compost pile, and lo! there was a big load of beautiful rich black compost:

Nearly all dug out by the time this was taken, but you can see what's left is still good stuff.
Nearly all dug out by the time this was taken, but you can see what’s left is still good stuff.
Soil fertility in action
Soil fertility in action

I covered half of one bed with it to a depth of an inch or so, and added a couple of spadefuls to the beans and the blackcurrant beds. Very pleasing; I just hope the new “composting” half (I’ve switched them over) does its thing just as well by winter when I want to spread some more of it.

In other fertiliser news, I think comfrey has appeared in the west flowerbed, where there are a bunch of other miscellaneous things busily self-seeding. Thumbs crossed! I also harvested nettles from under the apple tree (by pulling them up; nettles are fabulous plants in many ways but not suitable for a very small garden with a toddler) and am making nettle tea at the bottom of the garden.

Watering and wicking system trials

I find it difficult to remember to regularly water all of my various growing spaces. Two of them (balcony and porch) don’t have any water source which means watering is harder work and thus likely to happen; the back garden has water but I still struggle to remember and find the time to get out there with the watering can (time consuming in itself). So I’ve been looking into watering systems.

I already have most of my tomatoes in self-built self-watering containers, which work wonderfully. Mine are very basic, based around two florists buckets stacked on one another (full instructions in Permaculture in Pots!). For the third year in a row, the tomatoes in those buckets are thriving, and I want to make a couple more for next year.

I’m likely to construct more SWCs for the porch and balcony, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at other alternatives to use in the existing containers, as well as in the ground in the raised beds in the back garden. In the light of the permaculture approach of “make small changes and observe”, here are the current experiments, all using things we already had lying around the house:

  • Mostly empty white plant container, with upended plastic bottle and a couple of small pea plants.
    This just drains straight out. Peas in the background, but nothing else is growing well.
    On the porch, this is just a plastic bottle upended in the soil. Opinion online seems divided on whether you leave the lid on (with a hole punched in it) or take it off. I took it off, and it seems to me that the water just leaks out again too fast. Part of the problem, I think, is that this box is too well drained; the first time I filled the bottle, it all flooded straight out of the bottom of the box. This area is entirely under cover, so I could use a container without drainage, as it can’t flood with rain. I will try a non-draining container here the next time the current one is empty.

  • Plastic bottle upended in soil, with tomato plants surrounding it.
    The plastic bottle drains very fast.
    This box, out in the garden, uses the same plastic bottle system, again without a top. There’s no drainage problem here (don’t think this box has drainage holes!), but water still seems to drain out of the bottle very fast. I think you may need pretty damp soil to start with for it to work (so not suitable for all plants, though tomatoes grow fine with wet feet). I’ll also try putting a cap on the bottle to see if that helps.

  • Ceramic pot buried in the soil, surrounded by seedlings planted under plastic bottle tops
    Ceramic pot — drains too fast. Surrounded by chard seedlings in mini cloches.
    Out in the back garden again, this is a ceramic pot buried in the soil. I got this variation on a traditional African watering system from the current issue of Permaculture Magazine. Again, currently mine seems to be draining too fast. Reading the editorial again, more carefully, suggested that I need a cork in the bottom, so I’ll try that. I also suspect that I’ve buried it a little too deep and it would do better with a centimetre showing above the surface, so soil doesn’t leak in. It could do with a cover to limit evaporation, but currently it’s draining too fast for that to matter.

  • A plastic pot buried to its rim in soil, with seedlings under plastic bottle tops surrounding it.
    Again, this is draining too fast. More chard seedlings here!
    On the other side of the same bed, I wondered whether a plastic pot with holes in the bottom would work similarly — like a cross between the ceramic pot and an upturned bottle. Again, however, it’s just draining too quickly, and it takes up more space in the bed than an upturned 2l bottle would. I will try replacing it with a large water bottle, lid on, and see how that works.



I suspect that the best solution will be different in my different growing spaces, as the parameters, requirements, and limitations are different in all three areas. However, I would like to get some kind of watering solution in place across all of them before next summer. Watch this space for more experimental results!

Rocket plants growing right out of their little trough
The rocket is trying to take over…

Meanwhile, the rocket is doing just fine anyway.

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.

Summer planting

I’ve just cleared out three of the raised beds in the back garden (some failed crops – no sign of turnips this year; some that are over – broad beans and winter lettuce) and need to plan my summer planting. To the seed lists!

  • Greens:
    • Pak choi
    • Tatsoi
    • Tsoi sim (a good catch crop as it is only 3 wks to harvest)
    • Mixed and oak leaf lettuce
    • Winter lettuce from August
    • Rocket

    I also have broccoli raab and mustard greens, but previous experience suggests that we just don’t eat these, so there’s no point in growing them. I’m actually a little ambivalent about the lettuce, but I’ll give it another go.

  • Veg
    • Carrots (til end July)
    • Petrowski turnip

To avoid the perils of the monoculture, the planting plan looks like this:

  • NW bed: rocket, lettuce, pak choi (all broadcast)
  • SE bed: carrots, pak choi, tsoi sim in between the rows (to come up in 3 wks to make more room for the other veg as they grow)
  • SW bed: turnips, tatsoi, lettuce between the rows (to come up as microgreens / mini greens to make more space as the other veg grow)

Normally I’m all about the succession sowing, but I think this time I’ll get it all in at once, and see what’s come up and where there’s space in two or three weeks, and decide then whether to plant more.

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…

Baby tipi, and another guest post

I really wanted to put a willow den in our back garden for Leon to play in.

Bamboo canes pushed into a grassy lawn and tied into a small tipi, with a sheet clipped over them, in foreground; in front of that the top of a blueberry bush, a rosemary bush to left of shot, apple tree behind, blue sky
Baby tipi between the blueberry bush and the rosemary

Unfortunately, that was scuppered by the realisation that there’s a sewage pipe running underground through the middle of the garden. You’re not supposed to plant willow within 3m of any pipes (it seeks water, and can sneak into the pipe through any cracks), and the apple tree prevented me planting further down the garden than that.

Instead, it occurred to me this week that after building the bean wigwam recently, I had lots of bamboo cane left over; and a couple of old sheets in the bottom of the airing cupboard. So now we have a baby play tipi.

Unfortunately the baby was unconvinced, because it has grass on its floor, and he is somewhat mistrustful of grass on bare feet. Hopefully as he gets steadier on his feet he may be more enthusiastic; in the meantime I might put a blanket down in there tomorrow.

Baby focussed on playing with a box of rice
Those moments of total absorption are a lesson in mindfulness.

In other news, this week I wrote about the competing pulls of parenting over at the Natural Parents Network: The Two Minds of Parenting.

Bean wigwam

Lousy weather notwithstanding, I am soldiering onwards with planting in the back garden. (And, indeed, some things are even growing.) This week, it was time to establish the new bean wigwam.

First job was to prise up some more paving slabs, as this is an area I haven’t used before. Next, to shove a few bamboo canes firmly into the ground and tie them together. Here it is, modelled by my glamorous and somewhat grubby assistants Leon and Sidney.

Dog and baby 'helping' spread sand around
Paving slabs up, sticks in, lots of sand (underneath which is London clay).

The other beds are all standard raised beds (made from pallets), but this time I haven’t had a chance to build a proper bed. So for now I’m just piling compost around the poles and planting into that. Leon helped me to trowel compost out of the bag and spread it in a circle.

Finally, after Leon was in bed (so I wouldn’t have to hoick him out of the compost heap), I dug a few spadefuls of not-yet-composted material out of the compost heap, and piled that in the middle of the wigwam. (Ideally I’d have done this before setting up the poles, but baby and dog assistance precluded.) The idea is that the beans will surround this pile as it composts down, creating new soil in the middle of the bed. Once the beans are done for the year I can also chop those off at the base, leaving their roots in place to help improve the ground, and pile the rest of the dead bean plants in over the compost to rot down further over the winter. This bed only gets sun during the summer so won’t be in use in winter anyway.

Bean wigwam and compost

French bean seeds planted around the poles, and I was all done.

Gardening and parenting: a note to self

If I intervene with horrified shrieking when Leon plays with dirt and hoicks things up now, he is less likely to be positive about the garden later on, at an age when he can learn the difference between ‘weed’ and ‘not-weed’. It is therefore worth sitting on my hands as dirt and plants go everywhere. (The volunteer broccoli raab from the satsuma tree pot may survive; the rocket certainly won’t but there is plenty of rocket.)

Leon pulling a handful of dirt from a large pot
Scattering dirt is fun!

A corollary: any potentially vulnerable plants that I really seriously care about are going to need some form of defence. I’m thinking in particular of my carefully-nursed autumn olive seedling, the sole survivor from a handful of seeds I stratified last winter and planted out in the spring, currently overwintering on the windowsill.

It was a lovely afternoon to be out in the garden, though. I planted peas by the fence, and Leon ate moss and dirt and threw soil around by the handful. Happy times.

Back garden fruit

Having rearranged the herb garden, I looked at the vast expanse of 6+ foot high, south-west facing fence behind it, and thought “Something should be growing across that. Specifically, a productive climber that produces something tasty…”. So last week I planted a dessert grape vine (Lakemont Golden Seedless Dessert, more info here), which I’m hugely excited about. It’s supposed to do well in this climate if in a sunny spot, so I have high hopes – and grapes are one of my favourite fruits. I need to get some organic tomato fertiliser and apply regularly this season, and read up on pruning next winter. Grapes grow on last year’s vines so nothing will set this year. Lakemont are heavy cropping, self fertile, suitable for outdoor growing, and very sweet, and harvest in London should be late September.


Grape vine hacked back to recommended three buds

Over the other side of the garden, no sign yet of this year’s autumn raspberry canes. My thumbs are crossed that they’ll spring up soon from the canes I brought in from the allotment last summer. If not, I may have to buy some more next winter.

I’ve also been thinking about the farthest end of the garden, where the compost heap and shed are, and where there is a little less sun due to the back fence. There were three major issues on my mind:

  • The compost heap, while a glorious thing in many ways, is not wildly attractive when viewed from the back door.
  • There is a couple of metres at that end of the garden that is currently still paved and underused (occupied, as it was at the time, by paving slab piles).
  • Small gardens benefit from having things to break the line of sight up. Dividing the garden up a little can make it seem bigger.

A bush of some sort in front of the compost heap, just at the limit of the shaded area, seemed the perfect solution. And since I wanted something productive, a blackcurrant bush (Ben Sarek Organic, a small-middling bush which fruits mid-to-late season) was the obvious choice. So I’ve taken up another two paving slabs and planted a tiny stick of a blackcurrant bush there. Hopefully it too will thrive. I’m a little concerned about how much sun it will get; I think it should be just about enough (the tomatoes against the fence there did fine last year) but we shall see.


I always find it difficult to imagine that a twig like this one, barely visible beside its stake, will ever grow into a big fruit bush, but hopefully…


This was previously occupied by a big pile of paving slabs. Clearly I now need to work out what else to do with it. Possibly a bean tipi this year?

One final note: I planted the grape vine in the corner of the oldest of our raised beds, put in 20 months ago when we first moved in. At that point, the soil underneath when we pulled the paving slabs up was heavy, compacted clay, which I shoved a fork into a few times before dumping compost on top. Now, I could dig right down into it with a hand trowel with no trouble, and it’s full of worms and soil life. That’s just from adding compost and green matter on top, and planting in it. An incredibly pleasing change to see!

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?