Snowy plants

Four or five inches of snow on my raised beds earlier this week, but looks like the beans, peas, & garlic at least are trucking along under there. I got my tiny garden apprentice to help me take a look under the snow, although he did try to pull up one of the beans when we located them (they’re quite firmly rooted, so it didn’t work). Garlic shoots are visible in the bed in the background.

Then he tried eating the snow, face-first, before climbing right into the bed to play snow-plough.

Last week, before it snowed, we spent half an hour out in the garden with Leon pottering around investigating things (and, um, eating dirt) while I dug in the first half of the wooden edging for the western bed, along the fence. I’ve used a couple of nice solid 2″x4″ lengths of wood from the scrap pile, as I wanted something that will be easily visible when weeding or cutting the grass. I’ll add a photo next time I’m out there. The bed edges are looking good, but more enjoyable was the sense of pottering round the garden with Leon, undertaking our own projects alongside each other. More of that when the growing season starts, I hope.

Apples, and Growstuff

Our apple tree grew two whole apples this year*, and on Tuesday we ate one of them. It was, as that update mentions, very tasty. Tonight we will eat the second one.

That update link goes to Growstuff, an awesome open-source project I’m involved with. We’re aiming to build a platform to track, discuss, and learn about edible gardening. A kind of Ravelry for gardeners, if you’re a knitter/crocheter and therefore aware of Ravelry.

I’ve tried many different ways of tracking my gardening over the years, and none of them have worked particularly well. I’m really hopeful that Growstuff will turn into a solution to this. In particular I want to see an Android app so I can add things from my phone while sitting at the kitchen table with a cup of tea after a bit of planting or weeding or harvesting. It’s massively early days yet, but it’s a fun project to work on, and it’s visibly improving every development cycle. This morning I worked with pozorvlak on adding multiple gardens — so (once it’s accepted and pushed to the dev site) that will be working. I’m still feeling thrilled about Doing A Thing that is a visible step towards a properly usable site.

If you’re interested, we’re actively looking for developers. We’re doing pair-programming, so if you have limited or no experience, you can pair up (remotely or in person) with someone. You don’t need much time — I worked on the gardens thing with 2 x 1 hr sessions, because that’s all I have right now. If you’re not interested in coding, non-coders are also very welcome to help work out what wants to be on the site (you could start by joining the mailing list).

Now I want to go out and do some gardening. Shame it’s pitch dark and cold out there. My peas, broad beans, and winter lettuce are all coming along nicely, though. Alongside that apple (and some bread and hummous), we had a small garden salad, which, in midwinter, is pleasing.

The nights have nearly done drawing in. Roll on spring. Hopefully by March I’ll be tracking my spring plantings on Growstuff.

* It actually grew more, but I broke off all but two so as not to overload it in its early years — it was planted as a 3yo tree last winter so I thought it could handle a couple of apples, unlike a maiden.

Peas and beans

I planted most of my broad beans last November/December, in two of the raised beds. One lot were planted in the polyculture winter veg bed, and the second lot in the bed next to it as a block on their own. Both sets, particularly the larger block, are doing very well now, and the flowers are starting to turn into small beans. A few more beans, planted at the same time in a polystyrene box, are a bit less vigorous — perhaps because their roots are more shallow? I’ve also planted a second batch in early March in another polystyrene box and those have just begun to emerge. With luck I’ll get a second later crop from them.

Broad beans taking up half of a raised bed, in front of a fence
The broad bean jungle

In further legume news, I planted some snow peas at the back of the broad bean block, thinking that they could use the beans as a support to grow up and around. However, the beans are so jungly that I can’t see much of the peas, so that may not have been such a smart move. On the other hand, I may find lots of happy peas when I finally get to them. I’ll venture into the bean jungle to investigate when I start harvesting beans.

Hopefully the spring pea plantings, in two more polystyrene boxes (one by the west fence, one south of the raised beds), will be more straightforwardly successful. So far they’re looking good, and I’ll soon need to find some sticks and/or string for them to grow up.

Finally, I have some sweet pea seedlings from my mum in pots on the patio, which may not be food-productive, but will hopefully make it even nicer to sit there once they get going (and if we ever see the sun again…).

Salad plantings

Also on my March planting list were green salad leaves. All of my preferred green salad leaves are cut-and-come-again types; from a permaculture perspective, that’s a more productive use of the soil as you can keep harvesting throughout the season rather than only getting a once-off harvest then returning to bare earth and having to replant. So I planted sorrel, endive, and rocket, to replace the rocket that’s been growing in the winter veg bed all winter and which will bolt soon.

I was also very pleased to discover a couple of bronze arrowhead seedlings (presumably self-seeded? I’m not sure!) springing up in the pot of my satsuma tree. Bronze arrowhead is one of my favourite lettuces, but I discovered too late that I was out of seed this year. I’ve transplanted the seedlings into the salad veg bed, as they and the satsuma want rather different water conditions, and they’re doing well.

Nothing is growing terribly fast yet, but as of a couple of weeks ago, this was the March-planted corner of my salad veg bed:

You can just about see the seedlings — sorrel and endive in the centre, rocket around the edges — between the cherry blossom fallen from next door’s tree; and the bigger and healthy-looking bronze arrowhead lettuces.

Last week, I planted the April batch of greenery in the next corner of the bed: a different type of oak leaf lettuce, and a batch of Mystery Mixed Lettuces from the Real Seed Company. I’ll be interested to see what I get from those!

From pallets to shed

I spent much of February slowly constructing a shed (more of a tool cupboard, really; our garden is very small) from deconstructed pallets.

The first step was to measure up (my shed was 80cm x 60cm in footprint, and spade-height-plus-a-bit in height) and cut the pallet planks to size. I think I used about 2.5 pallets, and a hand-held circular saw (very very useful to speed things up).

I also needed four lengths of 2×2, one per corner, to attach the planks to. My design called for a sloping roof (so the rain runs off), so required two shorter lengths for the back, and two longer for the front. I nailed the back planks to the shorter lengths, and each set of side planks to one of the longer lengths (so at this point the side planks were braced only at one end).

The back wall, screwed into its 2×2 bracing at both ends of the planks.

One of the sides, with only one end braced. Note that its 2×2 rises above the planks; this is because it needed a triangular piece of planking attached later to allow for the slope of the roof.

The next step was to screw the loose ends of each side piece to the 2×2 bracing of the back piece.

Shed with three sides. Note again the space at the top of each side for a triangular piece. (Apologies for the sun flare in the photo!)

Shed corners screwed together.

I measured, cut, and attached triangular pieces for the top of each side (no photos, sorry). For the roof, I cut a piece of plywood which overlapped the sides by about 4-5cm in each direction. I intended to cover this with some thick black plastic left behind by our kitchen fitters, but my Dad came up instead with a roll of roof felt from in his garage, so I was able to do a more professional-looking (and longer-lasting!) job with that, roofing glue, and some roofing nails. Before covering the roof, I screwed in a batten at the back to keep it from sliding off.

The batten on the underside of the roof, and the roofing nails keeping the felt down. The felt was glued down on the topside of the roof.

Since installation, I’ve added a couple of battens at the front to keep it square and to brace the roof.

It still lacks a door (I’m on the look out for some large enough plywood), and at some point I will use a couple of L-shaped metal bits to attach the roof, rather than using bricks to hold it down. But as of now, it does the required job, and, given the high percentage of reused materials, for minimal financial or environmental cost. I’m also kind of proud that I built it at 38 weeks pregnant!

Making things

Recently, I have been making things:

Rave baby! (Leon with his hands in the air, aged 1 day)

The second one took a bit longer, and is kind of still under construction.

Actually the shed is also still under construction, lacking as it does a door; it has however had front battens added since that picture. Construction post to follow. I’ve also got going with this spring’s planting in the raised beds over the last month — more to follow on that as well.

Poly-veg winter bed: update

With the single currently-active raised bed in the back garden, I experimented with a winter polyculture, or mixed-veg bed. It’s now looking very healthy, with plants in various stages of growth:

  • Some garlic poking its head up, all around the edge of the bed. Garlic is often a good choice for edging beds, as it’ll help to keep off pests (when they return in the spring). I didn’t get around to getting a decent bulb of garlic from a proper shop, so I just stuck in cloves from a bulb from the Co-op. I wouldn’t want to save any cloves for next year from this crop (since I know nothing about its parentage), but it was a quick and easy solution.

    Garlic shoots, with other greens around them
  • A row of winter lettuce seedlings at the back of the bed.

    Row of small light green winter lettuce seedlings, with some dark green rocket seedlings
  • Some very healthy-looking broccoli raab and turnips (although the turnips themselves are not up to that much; I will use the greens as well when I pull them up, to make the most of the crop).

    Thickly-sown broccoli raab and turnip plants, looking quite intertwined with each other
  • A couple of small chard plants.

    Three small chard plants, surrounded by other greens
  • You may also spot a fair few small rocket plants scattered around the bed. I had lots of rocket seed so scattered it widely. It needs some fairly aggressive thinning, as it’s over-thick, but it’s very tasty so this isn’t a hardship. Having the soil covered thickly like this with plants I do want reduces the number of plants I don’t want (weeds) which can make their way in.

In addition to that lot, there’s a few snow peas and broad beans that aren’t quite up yet, planted where there were some bare patches towards the back of the bed. Looking for bare patches as the crops start to come up, and taking advantage of them, is another principle of polycultures and forest gardening type approaches.

I’ve also constructed another couple of raised beds (one has some broad beans in, but neither are full of compost yet), and transplanted the rosemary to its new home against the fence. The soil here is not great for a Mediterranean herb like rosemary; it’s very clay-heavy, and not well-drained. To give the plant the best chance, we dug a biggish hole and dug in some compost and sharp sand at the bottom of it and around the plant. It’s a sturdy plant (and was badly outgrowing its pot), so hopefully it’ll survive the winter and get going again in the spring. The cuttings that I took (in case it does turn up its roots and die) seem to be doing well so far.

For the end of November, it’s all looking pleasingly green; and I’m still getting regular (albeit small) crops of greens from it.

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.