the garden project

Garden update

Despite the erratic weather, things in the garden are moving on happily. A quick list (no photos this time, may try to add some tomorrow):

  • Apples on the apple tree! Research suggests that as this is a 3-yr-old tree, I should thin the apples a little but don’t need to remove them all. So am hoping for at least one apple from the tree this year.
  • Tomatoes now planted out. Two in a polystyrene tub, two in the back of one of the raised beds, three in self-watering containers, and I will see which do best. My bet is on the SWCs. They’re all up against a west-facing fence so should get plenty of sun.
  • The broad beans have all come out now. A middling harvest; the ones in the raised beds did fine (although hard to get at the ones at the back for harvesting), but the ones in the polystyrene tubs did quite badly. I think they really need more space for their roots.
  • Peas are growing away merrily and have just started to flower.
  • Turnips also doing very well; thinned out last week and nibbled on a few of the thinnings raw.
  • Rocket heading rapidly to seed, so very very peppery.
  • Lettuces doing great and I really must eat more of them for my lunches!
  • Nearly none of the beets or chard have come up. I am wondering if the seeds were past it? Will get new seeds to plant for chard to overwinter, anyway.
  • Courgettes flowering but not yet any female flowers, only male ones. That quite often happens initially, so I’m happy to contain myself in patience.

I have a spare half-bed that I’m not sure what to do with; and a squash in a small pot that badly needs to go down to the allotment as there’s no room for it to do well in the garden.

growing things, the garden project

Flowers: permaculture and beauty

Permaculture isn’t only about the practical; or rather, “practical” covers more than you might think. Permaculture is all about sustainability, and that includes creating environments which are sustainable for humans in respect to all their needs.

A garden needn’t just be about food to be practical, sustaining, and sustainable; it can also be about beauty, or fun, or rest. Of course, food plants can also be beautiful (rainbow chard is one excellent example; or the little blue flowers that appeared on my rosemary bush in early spring). But the beauty in non-edible plants means that they’re also a worthwhile addition to the garden, simply for the joy of looking at them. And a garden you want to spend time in is invariably a more productive garden.

Which is to say that I have a bunch of flowers in our garden now, along the western fence by the rosemary and the raspberries. The first to go in, last autumn, were winter pansies. Pansies are my favourite flower, and their January blooms cheered me up no end. More recently I put in some forget-me-nots, which are very practical flowers in that they are self-seeding, but easy to pull out, so low maintenance in both directions. As mentioned in the peas and beans post, there are also now a few pots of sweet peas to make the patio smell lovely when they flower. And finally, a few evening primroses in with the pansies, because my Mum had some spares and it would have been a shame to waste them. (Actually, all the flowers were spares from my Mum. Thank you!).

Winter pansies and raspberries against a wooden fence
Pansies and raspberries (and some purple wild flowers that I don’t know the name of) earlier in the spring

the garden project

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…).

the garden project

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!

growing things, the garden project

Planting tomatoes for this year

It’s spring, so I’ve been doing a lot of planting in the garden. For once I actually have a month by month list, entered into my diary on a weekly basis, as the only way I’ll get things done on time while also wrangling a newborn. I feel alarmingly organised.

Last month was tomato-planting time, so I now have 5 pots of seeds sprouting away on the kitchen windowsill.

Two pots were from packet seeds (Lettuce Leaf, a bush type from the Real Seed Company, though it looks like they no longer stock them, and Peacevine Cherry, from a heirloom packet I got free) which I’ve liked in the past. All the seeds planted of both have germinated and are doing fine. The other 3 were seeds saved from last year’s plants; but only one of them has germinated, which I found a little disappointing.

It turns out that the problem is probably down to a cackhanded effort on my part to increase germination rates. If you’re saving your own seed, you can put the seeds in a jamjar with some water for 3 days, you can improve their germination speed. It turns out, however, that that is a strict 3 days – no more, no less. Five months in the jar? Not so good. Ah well; I have 9 baby tomato plants which is plenty, and will have to try seedsaving again this year. In fact last year’s plants started out at my old house and finished off at this one, so they might not have been the best-adapted to the new location anyway.

In other signs of spring: the apple tree has started to produce green shoots, after a couple of months of looking a lot like a stick.

That was taken a couple of weeks ago; there are more shoots now, all looking pleasingly healthy.

the garden project

Making raised beds from pallets

Last week I made a fourth raised bed for the garden; like the previous 3, the wood came from a couple of deconstructed pallets rescued from a nearby skip. It took me just over an hour (with power tools: a hand-held circular saw and a drill with screwdriver fitting; add about another 30-60 min if using hand tools), which did not include the time to deconstruct the pallets. Here’s how I went about it (apologies for the lack of as-you-go photos; I wasn’t thinking of blogging it at the time!).


Another of my raised beds, with some broad beans growing in one side. (The other side needs some more compost…)

The basic construction is 3 pallet-planks per side (for a total of 12 needed), cut to the size needed (in my case, 3 paving slab widths on the long sides and 2 on the short, to fit the intended gap). Measure up your planks, and cut them to size.


Long side of raised bed (once complete); 3 135cm planks.


Short side of raised bed (once complete); 3 90cm planks.

The next step is to attach everything together. It’s possible just to nail/screw the planks directly to one another at the corners, but that won’t be very stable. A better bet is to use a thicker piece of wood as a brace at each corner, and screw the planks to that. Happily, pallets are constructed with a couple of nice thick ribs down their middles which are ideal for this. Cut 4 corner braces from this. The length of each brace should match the width of 3 planks, so that it’s the same height as the plank-sides of your raised bed.

Take the first set of three long planks, and two of the corner braces, and screw the planks to the braces at each end. Repeat with the other set of long planks and the other two corner braces. You now have two long sides of a rectangle, each held together by the braces, but not attached to each other.


The bracing piece, shown from the inside (with both long and short sides attached).

Now screw the two sets of three shorter planks into the braces at each end, to make the short sides of the rectangle.


From the outside, planks on two sides screwed to the brace. As a rule, the long and short sides should be the same height, but my planks were slightly different widths and that didn’t quite work out. Aesthetically suboptimal but still perfectly functional!

That’s it! These should be pretty sturdy, especially once filled with soil to strengthen them. You can rest them on existing soil (in my case, where I’ve levered up the paving slabs from the garden), or, if you make them slightly deeper, you can put them straight onto concrete, put cardboard at the bottom and shovel compost in at the top, and treat them as a very large container.

Note on tools and fixings:

  • You can do all of this with a hand saw, and I have done in the past, but a hand-held circular saw makes it all a lot quicker (and in my case, at 7 months pregnant, makes it feasible; I’d have struggled to construct this on my own by hand).
  • Nails can substitute for screws, but they won’t be as secure.
  • Whatever the packet may say, screws go in quicker and easier if you drill pilot holes first. The screwdriver fitting on a power drill is also a godsend, but again, hand tools do the job, just a little slower.
  • A set-square is useful to get the cut lines straight. If you don’t have a set square, all hand saws have a right-angle marker and a 45 degree marker on the handle.
the garden project

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.

the garden project

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.

the garden project

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.

growing things

DIY rooting hormone with willow bark

I had a couple of cuttings to take (it being that time of year), but wasn’t keen to get commercial rooting hormone to help them along. Someone at the EAT 2011 course in August told me that you can use willow bark as a rooting tonic, which makes a lot of sense given the notorious enthusiasm with which willow will root.

With reference to instructions for herbal decoctions and instructions for willow rooting tonic, I went for the most straightforward option: a fresh willow twig from the tree opposite the house, broken into 2″ chunks, put in a bowl, covered with boiling water, and left overnight. Initially there seemed to be no change in the water and I was a little dubious as to whether this would work. By the next day it had definitely taken something from the willow, and changed colour.

Jar of willow bark infusion, labelled with the date, expiry date, and DO NOT DRINK
Apparently it keeps in the fridge for a couple of months.

The cuttings in question are rosemary and thyme. I want backups of my current plants, as I plan to move the grown-up plants out of their pots and into the ground next to the (rapidly-growing) lawn. My concern is that the soil there is very clay, and lacks good drainage — not great conditions for herbs. In mitigation, I plan to dig a big hole and fill it up with a combination of garden compost, two-year-old potting compost (since herbs don’t like a soil that’s too rich), and a little sand to improve the drainage, before transplanting. But there’s definitely still a risk that the plants won’t survive. Hopefully if that happens, at least one of the cuttings will do and can be nursed up to replace the plan.

I took twig cuttings as usual from both plants, cutting diagonally across the stalk and stripping the leaves from the bottom half so they won’t rot in the soil. I then dipped them in the willow bark infusion before putting them in the compost, and for good measure, watered afterwards with a little of the infusion as well. Now they’re with the other potted herbs on the back patio, and I’ll see if they make it to next spring. (Green) thumbs crossed!

Two small plastic pots of compost on a bench, one with rosemary twigs in and one with thyme twigs
Rosemary and thyme cuttings.