Hydroponics

Chris Wimmer of Captain Hydroponics recently dropped me an email to say hi. Having recently visited the Biospheric Foundation in Salford and seen their experimental urban aquaponics setup, I was interested and asked him a little more about hydroponics.

Chris says:
“Hydroponics is the practice of gardening without soil. This method allows you to grow your plants with less water and fertilizer than traditional gardening. You can even get creative by reusing existing household items in your hydroponic systems.”

His site explains it all in more detail. I quite like the look of this simple DIY system. I already have an airstone (bought for making compost tea) and I’m sure we have a plastic box kicking around somewhere. The 2-litre plastic bottle idea doesn’t even need an airstone, and this hydroponic microgreens setup is even easier. (Chris tells me that you can use non-peat alternatives to peat moss.) I shall see if I can give one of them a go this season — or if anyone reading does, please report back.

In case you’re wondering: the difference between aquaponics and hydroponics is that aquaponics also involve fish, with the idea being that the fish waste products act as fertiliser for the plants, with the plants therefore keeping the water clean. The Biospheric Foundation setup also involves compost, which in its turn produces worms to feed the fish. Graham Burnett at Spiralseed wrote up the LAND trip to Manchester that I was on which included that visit.

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?

Tidying up the garden for the winter

At the weekend I hoicked out the tomatoes (getting a fair crop of green tomatoes in the process), courgettes, gone-to-seed lettuce, and a bundle of unexpected carrots, to clear some space before winter.

I also dug over the compost and found huge bundles of happy worms and woodlice doing their thing in there. (I should really have taken a photo, shouldn’t I?) I felt a bit bad upsetting them all in order to extract some of the lovely dark compost-y compost from the bottom of the pile. There was enough to spread over a single bed; hopefully by the spring there’ll be another bed’s worth as well. There’s something very satisfying about compost; all that waste turned into lovely rich stuff to help your plants grow. It just looks productive.

Winter lettuce is doing nicely and needs thinning soon; chard also doing well; pak choi suffering from slug/snail depradations.

I also planted one whole bed and an extra row of broad beans, and two rows of snow peas. By getting the beans in now, they have a chance to get going in the spring before the ants and the aphids move in. Which also means that after the first crop in the spring, I may as well hoick them out again as by then the ants and aphids have overrun the plants. That, in turn, means I can plant nearly as many as I like since by the time I want to put other things in, they’ll be out. Succession sowing is also very satisfying!

Adventures in Parenting: food from the garden

It’s taken a looong time this year (possibly because of June’s dreadful weather), but finally I am regularly harvesting food from the garden*. Carrots (my first ever really decent carrot crop!), courgettes, little cherry tomatoes, chard, and the last of the garlic.

Simultaneously, L has started on solids, which is great fun. We’re doing baby-led weaning, so I’ve been putting slightly more effort into lunch (ie not just hummous sandwiches) then just giving L some of whatever I fancy eating. If possible, including at least a little of our back garden veg. Stir-fried chard, courgette, carrot, and a little garlic, with rice or rice noodles; a few halved cherry tomatoes or some rocket on the side; pasta with garden veggies in a tomato-y sauce; steamed veg with a baked potato.

L is a big fan of courgettes and carrots (most of it eventually ends up on the floor, and thence in the dog, but he grabs and sucks and gums with enthusiasm). The first time I gave him a cherry tomato, he pulled the most peculiar face and drummed his feet on the high chair, and I assumed he must not like it. But no; when it fell out and I put it back on the table, he grabbed with enthusiasm and shoved it straight back in, for another flapping-and-grimacing session. I guess tomatoes must be pretty intense (and home-grown fresh tomatoes even more so) after six months of breastmilk.

Seeing him starting to experiment with food has been fun; being able to share food that I grew with him has been fantastic.

It’s not that I want to be parenty-high-horse about it. L is also eating plenty of stuff I didn’t grow; and I don’t garden because I think it’s better for L, although I do want to reduce household food miles**, but because I love doing it. It’s one of the non-parent things I’ve tried to keep up while submerged in newborn parenting.

But I love growing food, and I love eating food I’ve grown, and I love being able to include L in that. Some of those plants I planted (or watered, or thinned) while carrying him in a sling over the last six months. I harvest them while he plays on the grass, and then we both eat them. It feels like the way I want my life to fit together, with the various parts of it feeding (ha!) into one another.

And then I blog about it, and the words join into the same pattern.

* There’s been salad all summer; but we haven’t eaten that much of it. I have to conclude that we just don’t eat much in the way of salad leaves, even nice ones, and intend to plant much less of that next year.
** Not that our tiny back garden meets more than a fraction of our food needs, although I’m trying to improve on that over time as I work out what’s best to grow.

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.

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.

Protecting tomato seedlings

A quick photo to illustrate why it’s worth keeping tomato seedlings inside (or in a greenhouse) for that little bit longer, rather than just dumping them outside once they’ve grown their first couple of leaves and been transplanted. These are the same type of tomato and were sown at the same time:

Tomato seedling with 2 leaves, looking a bit yellow, in a pot outside
Transplanted and put straight outside

Tomato seedling with 4 leaves in small pot on windowsill
Transplanted and given another week on the windowsill

Not only does the indoor one have a healthier colour, it also has an extra pair of leaves. I’m hoping that the outdoor one will pick up in time but it’ll certainly take longer to reach fruiting stage.

I am considering a further experiment by picking one plant to put straight out from the windowsill without hardening off, and comparing that a week or so later with its hardened-off siblings.

Allotment weeding with a baby

We already solved the problem of taking the baby to the allotment (and to lots of other places). This weekend for the first time I managed to get something done while I was there, too, rather than just telling doop what to do.

After a false start when Leon insisted that this was NO GOOD and he wanted MILK instead, I got him snugly up on my back & started clearing dead asparagus. Shortly after that I had sleepy baby breathing in my ear.

Untitled

With Leon in the allotment 1

All the potatoes are at last in, only a month late (although half of them did go in last month, and are already poking above the cardboard mulch). We have, from north to south (1.5kg of seed potatoes each set):

  • Orla (1st early, planted mid-April, to lift early July)
  • Lady Balfour (west of the apple tree) (maincrop, planted mid-April, to lift late August/early Sept)
  • Amorosa (1st early, planted mid-May, to lift early August)
  • Arran Victory (late maincrop, planted mid-May, to lift mid-Sept)

Not sure how well the Amorosa will do, given their late start, but if all goes well then we’ll have a nice spread of potatoes to harvest over the summer/autumn.

The final bed, in the south, will have butternut squash planted in it when the seedlings currently on the window-sill are a bit bigger. I should also think about a late summer catch-crop for the Orla bed.

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

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…).