Redesigning the patio

One of the problems I mentioned in my 2013 analysis concerned how much time we spend outside and how much we use the grassy area; as well as the herbs not being used enough in cooking. A couple of months ago I moved things around, but hadn’t blogged about it before today. So, some photos! (Sadly, some rainy photos, but there we go.)

I’ve move the mini greenhouse again, back up against the fence. This freed up the space next to the door for some of the most-used herb pots, and made it easier to get at the water butt. The herbs are now being used more often!

Patio corner, with house wall to left and tall fence at back of photo. Against the fence is a water butt, a mini greenhouse, and some herb pots. In front of the water butt is a folded rotary airer and some more herb pots stacked on paving slabs.

This little red paddling pool fits the space next to the door nicely. I’ve also hung a couple of the chairs on the fence to make more space.

Patio, house wall with window to rear of photo. Wooden table and chairs, with parasol, in front left of photo. Small red plastic paddling pool front right.

I moved the blueberry in the Butler sink to be in front of one of the raised beds, rather than next to it. This makes it easier to walk onto the grass from the back door. I’d still like to replace the concrete part of the patio with something more pleasant underfoot, and at the same level as the brick part, to increase the amount of usable space and reduce the perceived barrier between the parts of the garden, but that’s a long-term project. The strawberry planter is also not very useful (only the top section works well), so I may replant the strawberries elsewhere at the end of the season and get rid of it, with the same aim.

View of patio and grassy back garden. Wooden table and chairs on patio, various raised beds to back left of photo.

In unrelated news, so far the plastic bottle cloches plus copper tape are protecting the baby courgette plants from slug attack successfully:

Close-up of very young courgette plant, growing through the top of a plastic bottle placed around it on the soil. The bottle has copper tape around it.

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.

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!

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.