Permaculture Diploma presentation

I’ve finished my Permaculture Diploma (all the designs and so on are up here)! I’ll be doing my final presentation at the London Permaculture Festival this Sunday, from 11:30-1:30. There are three of us doing a bunch of mini-talks and chatting to people about urban permaculture and the diploma, so it’s not just 2 straight hours of being talked at.

Come along if you’re free; there’s loads of stuff going on at the festival as a whole, and if you’re at all interested in permaculture it’s well worth going.

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.

Back Garden: annual veggie planting

This year I am planning my annual veggies based on four criteria: ease of growing, how much better they taste home-grown than bought, whether we will actually eat them, and whether they’re expensive in the shops. Here’s how the analysis looks (green plus, orange maybe, red negative):

Veggie analysis

The ones with green stars to their left are the ones that make the cut: anything with one or more red minuses or no green pluses was out. After a little more debate I have ditched podded peas in favour of just growing mangetout (mostly eaten straight from the plant in the garden, mmm). Which gives me:

Vegetable Plant Harvest Bed
Potatoes Mid-March – May (earlies) 9-10 wks after planting (early June – August) South-west (once broad beans are up)
Chard Spring/self-sown Throughout year South/north-east perennial beds
Rocket Throughout year (not July) Throughout year Wherever there’s space
Misc lettuce Throughout year (not July) Throughout year North-west bed
Courgette Indoors mid-April, plant out mid-May From July/August North-west bed
Pepper Mid-Feb onwards indoors, plant ‘out’ mid-May From July/August (harvest green to increase yield) Greenhouse
Garlic Nov (already in) June In edges of various beds
Mangetout March June Next to fig up fence; in tomato pots until tomatoes ready
Broad beans Nov (already in) April-May South-west bed
Podded beans May July Square bean bed
Tomatoes March in greenhouse August/September In pots along fence

So my tasks so far look like this:

  • February:
    • Look over that list and existing seeds, buy seeds as necessary
    • Transplant herbs into perennial beds
  • March:
    • Sow rocket as necessary (wherever)
    • Chit potatoes (late March)
    • Plant peppers on windowsill / in greenhouse
    • Plant mangetout (in tomato pots / next to fig)
    • Plant tomatoes (in greenhouse)
  • April:
    • Sow chard as necessary (perennial beds)
    • Sow misc lettuce as necessary (NW bed)
    • Plant courgettes in greenhouse (mid April)
    • Pull up broad beans (late April)
    • Plant potatoes (SW bed)
  • May:
    • Plant out courgettes (NW bed) (mid-May)
    • Plant out peppers (greenhouse) (mid-May)
    • Plant podded beans (square bean bed)
  • June:
    • Harvest garlic
    • Harvest mangetout
  • July:
    • Sow chard as necessary
    • Sow rocket as necessary
    • Harvest podded beans
  • August:
    • Harvest potatoes

Next I need to work out what other tasks I need to do: fertilising, tying in fruit, peas, and tomatoes, etc. Then I can transfer it all into my calendar — thus minimising decisions to make and enabling me just to do things when I have a moment.

Permaculture in Pots on the radio

Recently I was interviewed by Stef Geyer for his 21st Century Permaculture show on ShoreditchRadio. It was good fun to do, and it’ll be broadcast live on ShoreditchRadio at 8pm on Sunday 29th Sept. After that you can listen to it (or other older shows) at the mixcloud page. I am not sure I will be able to bear to listen to myself, but have been listening to and greatly enjoying the older shows.

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 problems

Following up on this year’s successes, here are the problems that I’d like to fix for next year.

  • Two of the raised beds had ongoing problems with seeds just not germinating, or germinating then being munched by snails. The bed in the left-hand photo had a great broad bean crop at the start of the season, then the turnips and chard I planted later just didn’t come up. I’ve now replanted chard and pak choi under little cloches in the hope that that will protect the seedlings. The bed in the right-hand photo had the same problem with seedlings not germinating or being eaten. The chard from last year, as seen, did great and has now gone to seed. I’m leaving it in the hope it’ll self-seed. I didn’t plant the squash, but wherever it came from, it seems happy so I’m letting it be and hoping that there’s still enough time for a crop (not very likely, sadly).
    Raised bed with plastic bottle cloches and pots buried in soil, and some parsley.
    No sign yet of any chard or pak choi seedlings.
    Raised bed with squash and chard that's gone to seed.
    Unexpected squash is unexpected. Chard is going to seed.

  • Bamboo sticks tied together in raised bed, with one bean plant just about visible
    Only one bean that’s actually flowering
    I planted a lot of beans, and only one (and maybe a half) have grown. Again, I think this is a snail problem as I’ve seen signs of munched leaves. There’s not a huge amount of compost there but that shouldn’t have had this much impact.

  • Blueberry bush in old ceramic sink.
    No fruit this year. Birds or bad management?
    No blueberries from the blueberry. I don’t know whether this was lack of water, lack of food, or bird damage. Plan for next year: net it early on, and be more careful with watering and perhaps some home-made fertiliser (nettle/comfrey/urine might all be useful).

  • Wooden fence with a lot of green weeds and some grass in front of it
    Jungly! Note very healthy rosemary
    The west fence is under-utilised. Currently it’s going mostly wild, which is fine, but what I wanted there was raspberries. I think maybe one of the canes I transplanted last year has survived, so I’m considering getting a handful more this winter. I love raspberries and they’re a big priority for me. As you can see in the photo, though, the rosemary bush is thriving, and we also have some nice flowers including poppies.

  • Satsuma tree in ceramic pot in front of wooden fence.
    Still no satsumas
    The satsuma tree is doing well enough, but still not producing any satsumas. I’m going to dig it up in the winter (and hopefully give it away; I dislike the idea of killing off a perfectly healthy plant. Let me know if you’d like it!) and replace it with another fruit tree that will do well in a large pot and will actually produce fruit. Possibly a cherry, but I need to do a little research.

  • Dead grape vine twig in corner of raised bed
    WOE
    The grape vine died altogether. This is the thing I am saddest about! It got eaten by something (snails, I’m guessing), but even after I put in anti-snail defences, it was too badly damaged to bounce back. I really want to try again, but I am going to have to do some thinking about how to protect it come the spring.

  • White polystyrene box with chili plant and a few weeds, by brick wall
    Not a lot going on here, and no chilis
    Another space that’s just under-utilised: this box by the back door. I’m intending to build a mini greenhouse into this space over the winter.


The observant reader will have noticed that snails are my single biggest problem. My main aim for the winter is to find a solution to this problem. Ducks (or chickens? do they eat snails too?) would be ideal but sadly impractical!

I also need to think about what plants we’ve actually eaten and so what’s worth growing. I’m considering potatoes for next year as a low-maintenance crop that we really enjoy eating.

The Garden Project: 2013 successes

A quick round-up of this year’s garden successes, as the summer growing season comes to a close and I start thinking about autumn planting.

  • Garlic! No photo, but I got between 12 and 15 garlic bulbs, all of which are tasty and fairly easy to peel. That’s 4-5 weeks of our garlic supply, which is great. (We use a lot of garlic.) I will definitely be putting more in in November.
  • Rhubarb plants in front of fence, with grass and a few weeds.
    Doing nicely in the shady corner
    The rhubarb I transplanted from the allotment has settled in fine, despite being transplanted at totally the wrong time of year. No harvest this year as I’ve been letting it gather its strength, but looking forward to rhubarb crumble and rhubarb jam next year.

  • Small, young apple tree in small patch of grass in front of fence.
    Lots of apples but looking a bit bendy
    The apple tree is doing very well, despite some concerns with the ants earlier in the year, and we should have a good dozen apples this year, assuming they keep growing and no further problems. It needs a good prune over the winter.

  • This is just one patch of tomatoes; there are others further up the fence
    This is just one patch of tomatoes; there are others further up the fence
    The tomatoes are doing wonderfully. I’ve just started harvesting the first few this week, and they taste great. I have about 50% large (which will mostly be cooked down into passata) and 50% cherry (which will mostly be eaten straight off the vine). The ones in the self-watering containers have once again done best, so plan for next year is to make a few more self-watering containers.

  • Lots of herbs in pots, stacked at different heights on a concrete patio.
    Doing well overall.
    The herb garden has mostly done pretty well. I still think it’s a little underutilised (not all of my pots have been filled). The basil struggled a lot, which I think might be a snail problem (see the problems post for more on snails. Main plans for next year: plant more basil and coriander, deal with snails in some way, find a way of reminding other cooks in the house that the fresh herbs are there.

  • Rocket plants growing right out of their little trough
    The rocket is trying to take over…
    We have all of the rocket in the world (this is just one of the many rocket jungles, some of which emerge from cracks in the paving slabs), mostly self-seeded. The bees like it too. The only issue is that we’re not eating that much of it; I need to think about harvesting strategies for next year. However, as weeds go, I’ll take rocket over most things.

  • Chard and rocket (flowering) in raised bed.
    This all self-seeded, I think. It’s doing great.
    The chard is also doing very well (note also more rocket). I think this lot self-seeded, but I might have planted it. I eat chard quite regularly, so it is being eaten.



The thing I note from this is that it’s the low-maintenance and self-seeded plants that seem to be doing the best. Something to bear in mind when planning for next year.

Maintenance notes for next year:

  • Prune apple tree.
  • Make more SWCs for tomatoes.
  • Consider snail strategies.
  • Plant more basil and coriander.
  • Consider harvesting strategies.

Watering and wicking system trials

I find it difficult to remember to regularly water all of my various growing spaces. Two of them (balcony and porch) don’t have any water source which means watering is harder work and thus likely to happen; the back garden has water but I still struggle to remember and find the time to get out there with the watering can (time consuming in itself). So I’ve been looking into watering systems.

I already have most of my tomatoes in self-built self-watering containers, which work wonderfully. Mine are very basic, based around two florists buckets stacked on one another (full instructions in Permaculture in Pots!). For the third year in a row, the tomatoes in those buckets are thriving, and I want to make a couple more for next year.

I’m likely to construct more SWCs for the porch and balcony, but in the meantime I’ve been looking at other alternatives to use in the existing containers, as well as in the ground in the raised beds in the back garden. In the light of the permaculture approach of “make small changes and observe”, here are the current experiments, all using things we already had lying around the house:

  • Mostly empty white plant container, with upended plastic bottle and a couple of small pea plants.
    This just drains straight out. Peas in the background, but nothing else is growing well.
    On the porch, this is just a plastic bottle upended in the soil. Opinion online seems divided on whether you leave the lid on (with a hole punched in it) or take it off. I took it off, and it seems to me that the water just leaks out again too fast. Part of the problem, I think, is that this box is too well drained; the first time I filled the bottle, it all flooded straight out of the bottom of the box. This area is entirely under cover, so I could use a container without drainage, as it can’t flood with rain. I will try a non-draining container here the next time the current one is empty.

  • Plastic bottle upended in soil, with tomato plants surrounding it.
    The plastic bottle drains very fast.
    This box, out in the garden, uses the same plastic bottle system, again without a top. There’s no drainage problem here (don’t think this box has drainage holes!), but water still seems to drain out of the bottle very fast. I think you may need pretty damp soil to start with for it to work (so not suitable for all plants, though tomatoes grow fine with wet feet). I’ll also try putting a cap on the bottle to see if that helps.

  • Ceramic pot buried in the soil, surrounded by seedlings planted under plastic bottle tops
    Ceramic pot — drains too fast. Surrounded by chard seedlings in mini cloches.
    Out in the back garden again, this is a ceramic pot buried in the soil. I got this variation on a traditional African watering system from the current issue of Permaculture Magazine. Again, currently mine seems to be draining too fast. Reading the editorial again, more carefully, suggested that I need a cork in the bottom, so I’ll try that. I also suspect that I’ve buried it a little too deep and it would do better with a centimetre showing above the surface, so soil doesn’t leak in. It could do with a cover to limit evaporation, but currently it’s draining too fast for that to matter.

  • A plastic pot buried to its rim in soil, with seedlings under plastic bottle tops surrounding it.
    Again, this is draining too fast. More chard seedlings here!
    On the other side of the same bed, I wondered whether a plastic pot with holes in the bottom would work similarly — like a cross between the ceramic pot and an upturned bottle. Again, however, it’s just draining too quickly, and it takes up more space in the bed than an upturned 2l bottle would. I will try replacing it with a large water bottle, lid on, and see how that works.



I suspect that the best solution will be different in my different growing spaces, as the parameters, requirements, and limitations are different in all three areas. However, I would like to get some kind of watering solution in place across all of them before next summer. Watch this space for more experimental results!

Rocket plants growing right out of their little trough
The rocket is trying to take over…

Meanwhile, the rocket is doing just fine anyway.

Balcony planning

For some reason I found it really hard to get to grips with a plan for the balcony. Perhaps because it’s a space that at the moment we really don’t use (since it overlooks the road, although it also overlooks the river, and which I’m aware has no nearby water source.*

I’ve already done a survey, a sector/zone analysis, and some research on north-facing plants** but I’m still not feeling hugely inspired. However… planting season is coming up, and I’d like to put something out there.

As a result, I’ve constructed an interim plan, with nothing permanent and no huge time, money, or effort investment at this point. It’s a fairly small space, long and narrow. The plan looks like this:

  • A couple of pots (at least 9″ deep) of peas at each end, against the fence dividing our balcony from next door on each side. I’m not sure how well these will do, as it may be a bit too shady, but I have loads of pea seeds so may as well give it a go.
  • A collection of pots/troughs/containers along the railing, with a mix of salad greens (rocket and lettuce), nasturtiums, marigolds, alpine strawberries, violets, plumbago, and pansies (the pansies are already there). Perhaps also some poppies as I have some seeds from last year.
  • A big pot of mint (transplants from the back garden).
  • Chuck in a few seed bombs — I have some from EAT 2011 and some from a Christmas present exchange.

I’m considering mini kiwis for next year, but I’ll see how this year goes first. I don’t want anything too tall or too vigorous to grow along the railing as it would get in the way of the view of the river from the sofa.

This is my task list, then:

  • Move all the big pots up to the balcony.
  • Fill all the containers with compost.
  • Throw in my existing seeds (rocket, lettuce, nasturtiums, marigolds, poppies, seed bombs).
  • Order some violets (plants here; apparently it’s the wrong time of year for seeds), plumbago (blue or white), and alpine strawberries (plants or seeds).
  • Transplant some mint into a big pot, possibly amidst some of the seed mix.

I’ll update once everything’s planted…

* There’s a drainpipe at one side, which I could put a diverter into for a small water-butt, but I think I’d need to talk to the neighbours on that side about it, and we never really see them.
** It turns out that I already wrote a version of this up last summer, which goes to show what’s happened to my memory of late.