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.

The Garden Project: August update

Suddenly there is sunshine, after what felt like weeks and weeks of rain and grey skies. Here’s a quick roundup of things in the garden:

  • Fruit:
    • Two apples on the tree (I took a couple off when they first appeared, to reduce the load on the tree in its first year[0]).
    • A handful of raspberries, and the autumn raspberries flowering.
    • A handful of strawberries from three troughs.
    • Two rhubarb crowns transplanted from the allotment are doing well after wilting heavily at first.
  • Salad veg:
    • The bronze arrow-head lettuce has gone spectacularly to seed, with flower heads that are several feet tall. I’m hoping it’ll self-seed cleanly, but I’m not sure if there’s anything else around that crosses with it.
    • The rocket jungle, though extensive, is getting a bit too peppery as it too goes to seed. I may hoick some of the plants up as there really is a lot of it. It’s also self-seeded into the gaps between the paving slabs.
    • The misc lettuce still cropping happily in the salad bed.
  • Other veg:
    • The courgettes have started cropping and we’ve eaten the first couple.
    • The chard hasn’t really germinated terribly well. There are a couple of plants but I was hoping for more. Intending to replant for an autumn/winter crop.
    • No sign at all of the pak choi. Again, I’ll try replanting.
    • We had a reasonable crop of peas but those have gone now.
    • The tomatoes are growing away happily. The ones in the self-watering containers are doing noticeably better than the others.
    • The turnips doing well and we’ve already eaten the first row. Intending to plant another couple of rows for a late-summer crop.
    • There are plenty of carrots but they’re not growing all that fast. I’ve always struggled with carrots!
    • Very few beets germinated from the row I planted. Given the close relationship between beetroot and chard and the poor germination rates for both, I’m wondering if the conditions were just bad for these plants. (Alternatively, I may have had old seed as I’ve been using up seed from older packets.)

Things to plant in the next month:

  • Turnips.
  • Chard.
  • Pak choi.
  • Perhaps some winter cabbage or lettuce?
  • Rocket, except I won’t need to deliberately plant that as it’s happily planting itself.

[0] We bought it as a 3-yr-old tree; if it were actually a maiden I’d have removed all of the fruit in its first year.

The Balcony Project: plants for north-facing spaces

The next stage in the balcony planning is a little research on plants that will do well in north-facing areas. Given my other requirements, I’m most interested in edibles, and perennials or self-seekers (for minimal ongoing maintenance).

It’s a good idea to remember the difference between different types of shade: ‘open’, ‘medium’, and ‘deep’ shade. I have open shade (north-facing, but nothing much overshadowing it) which makes life a little easier.

In a small space it’s even more important than usual to consider height as wel as ground space, and I have a small area of wall and a railing available. Here’s a few potential plants:

Climbers and shrubs

  • Oregon Thornless blackberry: can be grown in a pot (2′ square x 2.5′ deep, ideally) and carefully trained up a trellis. It would need regular maintenance not to overrun next door’s balcony. But I do like blackberries, and in a pot it would be less of a menace than they are in the ground. It flowers on one-year-old wood.
  • Kiwi vines: will fruit in the shade, and could grow along the railing. I’d need a male and female plant, so one at each end. However, they would block the view through the railings onto the river, which is really valuable to me.
  • Honeyberry: prefers partial shade, so in that sense ideal. However, you need two plants (male and female), and they grow to 5′ so need a half barrel sized pot per plant. I think it’s either this or the blackberry.

Flowers

  • Plumbago: perennial, butterflies love it, but not edible.
  • Violet: edible, perennial, one of my favourites anyway.

Herbs, greens, etc

  • Mint: that old favourite for shady areas. I don’t actually use it much in cooking, but mint tea is nice, and mint, apple juice, vodka and ice is a lovely summer cocktail. Smells great on the balcony, too. I have a plant in the garden so would be easy to propagate.
  • New Zealand spinach: a new one on me. Perennial, best started from transplant, and needs blanching before cooking so realistically probably wouldn’t get used.
  • Chard, beets, other leafy greens: if they’re on the balcony, they won’t be readily harvestable for the kitchen, so we’re unlikely to use them.
  • Peas: in theory the above would also apply, except that raw peas fresh from the pod taste fantastic, so could be eaten on the spot.
  • Salad greens: could be eaten on the spot, so might be worth it, especially as the baby gets bigger and might be in and out of there more. Planting in partial north-facing shade might give some resistance to bolting and mean we get a midsummer crop, which is not possible in the south-facing and very warm back garden. I have plenty of salad green seeds so may try this out.
  • Alpine strawberries: very very tasty. Definitely try these next year.
  • Rhubarb: shade-tolerant, can be grown in a pot, but we already have it in the garden and it is quite large.

I did also find a list of some other shade-tolerant edibles, but they all seem a bit big for my purposes.

Now I have the list, the next step is to construct a plan. Watch this space…

Tip o’ the hat to: the Savvy Gardener on gardening in the shade, and Life on the Balcony on shade-tolerant fruit.

Cargo bikes, fracking, and raspberries

I have been writing things in other places!

UK Activists Tell Energy Companies To Frack Off.

Kids and cargo bikes. (Since writing that, we’ve decided to go ahead and get the Christiania trike. I am inordinately excited, though we won’t be ordering it for a month or so.)

In ‘garden’ news, yesterday I transplanted 6 raspberry suckers (4 autumn raspberries, 2 summer raspberries) from the allotment to the western garden fence. I’m unsure how they’ll get on with the clay (I dug in a little sand and compost), but as otherwise the suckers would have been snipped up and put in the compost, it’s worth the experiment.

Self-fertile apple trees for small gardens

I’m keen to have a fruit tree in our garden, and my mind turned to what’s really the default UK fruit tree: the apple. The thing with apple trees, though (and in fact many fruit trees), is that if you want to get actual fruit, the tree needs to be fertilised. For the vast majority of apple varieties, that means having at least one other apple tree, of the right pollen group and which blossoms at the right time, planted somewhere fairly nearby. In an orchard, a big garden, or even in an allotment where you can count on other allotmenters also having apple trees, that’s fine. If, on the other hand, you have a tiny garden like mine, one tree is going to be pretty much all you can fit in.

Happily, in this modern age, you can get self-fertile apple trees; that is, trees which will pollinate themselves. Even so, they’ll do better (crop more heavily) if pollinated by another nearby tree, but you’ll get a crop anyway. For my purposes, all I want is a few eating apples, and a tree to sit under, so that’ll work fine for me.

The choice, though, is a bit limited — here’s one list*, although note that some of those (the starred ones) are only partly self-fertile, so best to avoid if you don’t want to rely on having another tree in the vicinity. In my case, it’s limited further by the fact that the apples best-liked in our household are the Cox/Russet kind of axis. I couldn’t find any self-fertile russet types, but here is my list of self-fertile Cox-types:

For me, I think it’s a toss-up between Red Windsor and Winston, with a probable bias towards Winston. I shall consult the rest of the household.

A quick note as well on rootstocks. M27 will give you a very small tree (up to 2m), but unless you’re seriously space-limited or growing in a pot, you’re probably better going for M9 (full height up to 2.5m), which is a little bigger and significantly more productive. Both M9 and M27 require permanent staking. If you have the space, M26 is bigger still, and MM106 a decent standard size, growing to 2.5-4.5m. For my 40m2 garden, I’ll be choosing M9 as a good compromise between size and productivity.

* I have noticed some disagreement between different lists on whether or not particular apples are self-fertile. I recommend cross-checking a couple of sources before buying.