Stories!

Slightly belatedly, I have a story, “A Dangerous Magic”, in Silver Blade issue 20.

I also have a story, “Blocking”, forthcoming in Strange Bedfellows from Bundoran Press. That won’t be out until April 2014 but I am greatly looking forward to it.

(There are another couple of stories on their way which I don’t think have been formally announced yet so I won’t mention. But I am very excited about them too.)

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New mini greenhouse

I’ve been planning to build a mini greenhouse by the back door. The original idea was to use various bits and pieces of scrap this and that to construct it from scratch, frame and all; but then my parents offered me the frame of their old one (the cover having expired).

So with a big pile of bubble wrap and some parcel tape, this is the result:

Bubblewrap Mini Greenhouse

As you can see here, there’s no proper door closure

Just in time to house my chilli pepper over winter. The highly scientific “put a hand inside it” temperature check suggests that it is doing its job in keeping things at least a little bit warm.

This was also one of my Permaculture Design Diploma projects, and you can read the first draft of the design writeup here.

This week I also harvested the last of my tomatoes, and pulled the old plants up. I have a fair few green tomatoes, but also a surprising number that had gone odd-looking — slightly brown or black, but not in a pattern suggesting blossom end rot. My only guess is that it’s been cold enough that they’re suffering from that. Certainly some of the plants have died off already, so it may just be that any surviving tomatoes died with them. I’m sure I’ve harvested this late before without problems, but perhaps it’s been warmer for longer those times. My tomatoes also started later than usual this year, due to the bad spring. I will bear it in mind for next year; and I still got a decent crop. The remainder of the red ones went in a very low oven for a couple of hours today with some oil, and became very tasty indeed.

Another go at the grape vine, with snail defences from the start this time.

Another go at the grape vine, with snail defences from the start this time.

Then today I planted a new grape vine, with full snail defences from the start. Let’s hope it’s more successful than the last one.

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Emergency Squash Cloche!

Somewhat to my surprise, my volunteer squash has actually produced a couple of baby squashes. (It turns out that it’s a butternut squash. Hurrah!) But as we head conclusively into autumn, there isn’t enough warm weather left for them to grow to a decent size, let alone to ripen.

Tiny butternut squash, still green, on compost

Really very small indeed

Apparently you can use unripe winter squashes (like butternut) in much the same way you use summer squashes (like courgettes), so I anticipate experimenting with Butternut Courgette in the near future. I’d still like them to get a little bigger first, though, so I raided the pile of bamboo poles, and the big stash of bubble-wrap in the garage, to construct an Emergency Squash Cloche:

Raised bed covered with bubble wrap hung on bamboo pole frame

Not the most attractive thing, but hopefully functional

I’m not sure if it’ll work, but it was free and took only 15 or 20 minutes to set up and tie together. It’s not a good long-term cloche, either, as it’s hard to get in under it, but it’ll do for the next couple of weeks to see what happens. My main problem at this point is preventing Leon from pulling it down in order to pop all the bubbles.

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Permaculture in Pots on the radio

Recently I was interviewed by Stef Geyer for his 21st Century Permaculture show on ShoreditchRadio. It was good fun to do, and it’ll be broadcast live on ShoreditchRadio at 8pm on Sunday 29th Sept. After that you can listen to it (or other older shows) at the mixcloud page. I am not sure I will be able to bear to listen to myself, but have been listening to and greatly enjoying the older shows.

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Recycling! Rubbish into toys

Natural Parents Network: Recycling Rubbish Into Toys for a ToddlerI wrote a post over at Natural Parents Network about recycling ‘rubbish’ into toddler toys.

However much we try to reduce the amount of packaging that comes into your house and waste that goes out of it, it seems that we are still constantly throwing things out. Meanwhile, the baby wants something to play with… In true permaculture style, I can solve two problems at once by diverting some of the ‘rubbish’ from the recycling bin to the toy box. Read on over at NPN for a few suggestions that have gone down well with Leon.

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Guest Post: Natural methods for keeping cats out of your garden

This post was written by Rachel Thomas from www.babysitting.net. Next door’s new kitten has just started using the containers in my porch as a toilet, so I will be trying some of the more permaculture-friendly options! We certainly have a lot of coffee grounds here, so that one is well worth a go.

Those of you who have cats understand the pain of keeping our furry friends out of the planters and gardens. Those of you that don’t, understand this pain as well. Natural repellents can save the day by protecting your flowers and vegetables from being trampled or eaten. Not only are these non-toxic methods to protect your plants and the animal, most of them are inexpensive and easy to try.

1. Citrus Fruits - The peels from citrus fruits can be pungent to the point of repelling a feline from an area. These fruits consist of oranges, lemons, grapefruits and many others. Placing these peels on or around your garden can shield the plants from the kitties and deter future visits. Once you’ve noticed the feline traffic disappear, simply remove the peels. While not all cats have been repelled by this method, there has been a great deal of success among people.

2. Used Coffee Grounds - Many people have had a degree of success using used coffee grounds. Whether they are sprinkled in or around the pot, these grounds produce a smell that is unattractive to many cats. They will avoid the area if possible and find a more appealing location for their purpose. 

3. Rough Stones - Placing porous and rough stones in your garden can create a very uncomfortable location for a cat. Depending on the style of garden you have, a layer of stones on top of the soil could help reduce the amount of water that is evaporated from sunlight as well as protect against the pitter-patter of feline feet. Many gardens look beautiful as they support a white quartz background to a series of blooming plants.

4. Black Pepper - Many people have had success repelling cats by using black pepper on and around the garden area. It’s a non-toxic method of creating a terrible smell that the little creatures are discouraged by. However, you do not want to use salt in your garden. It will kill the plants and make the soil useless for future growth.

5. Mothballs - Some people don’t like the idea of using mothballs for they contain naphthalene, which is deadly to life. However, you can greatly reduce the harmful effects if you load them up in a mason jar or even a pop bottle. Once you poke large enough holes in the containers to allow the smell to permeate the garden, cats will avoid the area.

6. Motion Sensing Sprinklers - If you have an elaborate garden, you can attach a motion sensing switch to activate your garden’s sprinkler system any time an animal gets too close. Although this can be a bit more costly than the above alternatives, it is a near fool proof method to deter cats from the area. The sound of the sprinklers themselves is enough to drive fear into most felines.

When protecting virtually any area from unwanted animal activity, it’s all about decreasing the comfort level. In addition to these methods, there are sprays and other materials you can pick up at any pet shop that can help discourage cats from entering your garden. Nearly all of these are non-toxic repellents and many of them are organic. Regardless of the size of your garden, there are ways to keep it safe from becoming a restroom or a bed for your own or your neighbor’s cat.

Author Bio:

Rachel is an ex-babysitting pro as well as a professional writer and blogger. She is a graduate from Iowa State University and currently writes for www.babysitting.net. She welcomes questions/comments which can be sent to rachelthomas.author@gmail.com.

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Planning the ‘Forest Garden’ beds

Following up from my analysis of where my garden needs some redesigning, one part of the solution was to plant up half of the raised beds as a forest-type garden; or given the size of the space, in a forest-garden-influenced style. The beds are the ones along the left-hand (western) fence in the photo below. I’ll be keeping the other two beds for annuals.

Several raised beds with paving slabs between them in most of picture, 6 foot fence to left, some grass to right, rose tree in background.

Back garden, early summer 2012

So this is what I’ve come up with:

South-west bed (the long one along the fence in the above photo):

  • Fig at back. Ideally it would be trained as a fan along the fence, but that may be more effort than I have available in terms of management and maintenance. I may instead just prune it to come forwards from the fence rather than backwards, but let it grow (a bit?) outwards. I’ll need to read up a bit more about it before the spring
  • Herbaceous perennials: Daubenton’s Kale, Good King Henry, possibly also planting some (non-perennial, but may self-seed) chard through the ground cover.
  • Ground cover: strawberries (alpine and other), sorrel, hopefully periwinkle if I can get hold of a plant.
  • North-west bed (the one just by the herbs):

    • Grape vine (again) at the back, with extensive manual anti-snail defences. To be trained up fence above the herbs.
    • Herbaceous perennials: bay, fennel, possibly others next year.
    • Ground cover: oregano and thyme. The oregano should do much better in the ground than it is doing in pots. Alpine strawberries, as I got a huge load of runners the other week. Rocket (not perennial, but self-seeds).

    There should be room for next year’s tomatoes in pots between the two beds against the fence, and then south of the south-west bed, where they’ve been this year.

    I’ve read that you can grow asparagus through ground cover as a herbaceous perennial, which if it’s true I may try the year after next. (I like asparagus, but the last time I grew it my feeling was that it took up quite a lot of space, which you couldn’t use for anything else the rest of the year, for a very small crop.) I’d also like to investigate other perennial salad leaves, but for now that is enough to get started.

    I’ve ordered my various bare-root trees/shrubs from Martin Crawford’s Agroforestry Research Trust, so am looking forward to their arrival in December!

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Article in Juno

In non-garden-related news, I have an article on equal parenting in the current issue of natural parenting/family magazine JUNO. Which is a good read all round (the magazine, not specifically my article, though I am very pleased with that too). Available from their online shop, in some newsagents, and as a digital edition from Exact Editions.

Juno cover issue 33

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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.

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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

    WOE

    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.

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