the garden project

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, the garden project

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.

permaculture, the balcony project

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.

growing things

Northern-facing and shade-tolerant edibles

I’m currently planning planting for two shady areas: our front balcony and our front porch. Both of them are north-facing, so I’ve been researching north-facing and shade-tolerant edibles which will grow in containers. Most edible plants do prefer full sun; but if you’ve got shade, all is not lost.

Not all shade is created equal. Some people distinguish between open, medium, and deep shade. By that reckoning, I have open shade on the balcony (which is north-facing but very open and with little shade from the front) and medium shade in the porch (north-facing and covered). Another potential distinction is between partial and full shade. I have partial shade on the balcony and full shade in the porch.

Shrubs and climbers

  • Honeyberries look very interesting, are perennial (I like perennials), and apparently prefer partial shade. However, you need 2 plants for pollination. They can be grown in a half-barrel size pot, which is probably no good for my purposes as I’m not sure I want two of those on my balcony.
  • Kiwi vines are moderately famous for being a climber that will do well in partial shade. Again, you need both a male and a female plant, and something for them to grow along.
  • The Oregon Thornless blackberry will apparently also do well in partial shade, although again it needs a trellis to grow up and to be carefully trained. It flowers on one-year-old wood. In theory I accept that blackberries, as woodland plants, should cope well with partial shade but I confess I’m not convinced about how well they’d actually fruit. Your pot needs to be 2′ x 2′ x 2.5′ for this.

Lower/ground cover plants

  • Mint is one of the easiest things to grow in shade. I grew mint in a pot on the windowsill of a full-shade area outside our basement flat about a decade ago, and it did just fine. Mint is best grown in a pot even if you have ground available, as it is famously invasive.
  • New Zealand spinach is a shade-tolerant edible perennial, but needs to be blanched before cooking. Apparently it’s best started from transplant, so if anyone who’s reading has one and might be up for sharing a cutting, please let me know. Though to be honest anything that’s complicated to cook is unlikely to find much use in this household, so it may not be worth it anyway.
  • Apparently, swiss chard, peas, beets, and various leafy greens and salad greens are all shade tolerant too. This does fit with my experience of chard and leafy/salad greens as happy to grow through winter, when they don’t get much direct sun. It occurs to me too that planting in partial shade may inhibit bolting, meaning that we might actually have some salad greens to eat in midsummer. Similarly, I’ve had trouble in recent years with peas suffering in the unusually warm spring weather, so partial shade might help them. These can all be grown in pots, though watch this space for a roundup of which plants need deeper and less deep containers. The only problem for me with growing greens on the balcony is that they’re less harvestable for the kitchen, so cooking greens may not get so much use. Salad greens which can be nibbled while out there might be better.
  • Finally, in the fruit line, Alpine strawberries are shade-tolerant, perennial, and very tasty, and rhubarb is shade-tolerant (indeed, it dislikes full sun) and can be grown in a (large) pot. I have some down the shady end of my garden which I’m hoping will get themselves properly established this year.

Flowers

  • Pansies are tolerant of shade, are perennial, and are one of my favourite flowers (I already have some on the balcony, in fact), but aren’t edible.
  • Violets, on the other hand, are edible, perennial, shade-tolerant, and also lovely.
  • Other woodland flowers are also worth considering as they tend to be shade-tolerant.
  • Another option is plumbago: shade-tolerant, perennial, not edible, but butterflies love it.
  • I think nasturtiums should do reasonably well in partial shade, although probably not in full shade.

Other options

I found a list of other shade-tolerant edibles, which all seem likely to be a bit big for my purposes but might be useful for someone else, especially if you’re not limited to containers. There’s also a more general round-up of shade-tolerant gardening (not edible focused) at The Savvy Gardener. I’m very open to more suggestions if anyone has some, in particular for edibles although I’ll consider some pretty non-edible perennials as well.

Next steps: researching which plants need what depth of container (and in particular what will tolerate shallow containers), gathering my containers together, and constructing a planting plan for the spring.

growing things, the garden project

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?

growing things

New year, new growth

I don’t really do resolutions per se (this post by Meg Barker is excellent on the matter). But if you looked out, on a bright, sunny New Year morning, at your patio (or balcony, or windowbox…) and thought about growing food in it, you needn’t put the whole thing off til spring. Sure, it’s not the time of year (in the Northern hemisphere) for doing much planting, but there are still things you can get started on now.

First up is planning. If it gets to March or April and you haven’t given any thought to what you’d like to grow, that’s fine (it’s better to throw a few random seeds in than to do nothing), but even a little thought in advance can make your space much more productive. What veggies do you most like? No point in growing things you won’t actually eat. How much space have you got? Do you need to find some containers? Can you order seeds now? The Real Seed Company are good for seeds (and browsing their website may give you ideas), and nearly anything you can put some drainage holes in the bottom of can become a planting container.

This is also a good time for planting fruit. Blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, blackcurrant, and the rest will all grow happily in pots. Blueberry in particular may be better off in a pot, as it is ericaceous (lime-hating) and needs specific compost or acidic soil. (If you already have a blueberry, in fact, now is a good time to pH test the soil, and add compost, or water with 1-2 tbsp of vinegar in a gallon of water, if needed.) You can buy bare-root plants and get them in the ground over winter, though you’re unlikely to get a crop until summer 2014. I confess I’ve never personally managed to make blackberries or raspberries work in pots, but I am assured that it is possible. Perhaps I needed a bigger pot.

You could also consider a fruit tree (an apple, perhaps), if you have space and ground. Fruit trees too can be grown in (large) pots; I have a satsuma tree in a pot, but it’s not doing so well. Down at Downing Road Moorings, near me, they have a lot more success with trees in containers (of sorts). If you already have fruit trees or bushes, now is a good time to prune. You usually want to lose about 15% of old growth each winter.

Finally, it’s never too cold and dark to try planting a tray of microgreens. Get sme rocket or any other green-leaf seed (mizuna is nice), plant it in a shallow tray on the windowsill, and wait until the second set of leaves (the first set of “real” leaves) appear. Harvest with scissors and eat.

See my book for more detail on any of the above, and ideas for getting going with permaculture container gardening whatever time of year it is. And watch this space for an update on my own plans for my garden this season; I’m planning to sit down with a notebook this weekend.

permaculture, the balcony project

The Balcony Project: sector & zone analysis

I’m planning planting for our balcony, and in my last post on this wrote up the surveying. The next step is to do the analysis: some possible approaches are to consider zones, sectors, and input/output.

For this project zones aren’t particularly useful. In theory it’s all zone 1 (close by house, for high-maintenance plants), but in fact due to the low foot traffic (see below) I may treat it as edging towards zone 2 (lower maintenance perennials).

Sectors:
– Sun: direct sunlight only during summer evenings, otherwise shady but bright. Need shade-tolerant plants.
– Wind: comes off the river. Some protection, but plants need to be quite robust.
– People: space not very well-used. Focus planting on area visible from indoors, being careful not to block view of river through door! Minimal maintenance as not heavily used.
– Water: edges get some rain, but assume water needs to be carried up. Plants should be drought-tolerant if possible but not drought-requiring.

Input/output: required inputs are soil/compost, containers, water, fertiliser, plants or seeds. Outputs are vegetable matter for compost, perhaps some food, beauty (!), perhaps seeds or potential cuttings. The compost heap in the back garden can help link some outputs to some inputs, and I can also use seeds and cuttings from there and from my parents’ garden. It may be worth considering a water butt.

Anything else I’m missing?

Next post in this series: plants, locations, and solutions that might work.

activism, permaculture

Potatoes, babies, and tricycles

I decided to plan for a very low maintenance allotment this year, given that I also have a new garden and (rather more time-consumingly) a new baby to deal with. Over the winter, the main beds have almost all been mulched with a double layer of cardboard to reduce weeding. The next stage was to plant potatoes (low-maintenance but tasty!) through the mulch. So, only a couple of weeks late, we headed down to the allotment last weekend to get planting.

The mulch is doing its weed-reducing job where it’s been put down, but around the paths and edges the dandelions are in glorious but weedy profusion. I ignored them in favour of getting 50% of the potatoes in the ground before the baby got too grouchy. (I should note that I did not actually plant anything but was instead acting in more of a supervisory/baby-feeding capacity. Many thanks to my glamorous assistant doop.)

The trip also provided the opportunity for the first test of our baby-transporting device, chosen after researching seats and trailers/cargo bikes: a Christiania trike with a car seat strapped in. Glorious success! Leon slept peacefully all the way there, and observed thoughtfully most of the way back, until a cobbly patch near our front door upset his equilibrium.


The Christiania in action


Baby in a trike!

permaculture

Permaculture principles: working with what’s there

I’ve been thinking recently about the design of a potential new permaculture garden project. It suddenly occurred to me that one of the underlying principles of permaculture, awareness of the limits and resources of your site and what you have to hand, also implies the consideration of your own limits, resources, and reality.

Like many people, I have a tendency to make decisions (in life in general as much as in gardening) based on what I would like to be true about me, or what I believe is true, rather than on reality. I would like to be the sort of person who is very efficient in the mornings; so I make plans that assume that, then get irritated at myself when things don’t pan out as I envisaged. I would like to be the sort of person who can tend carefully to brassicas to nurse them through to harvesting, so I put them in, then kick myself when I don’t net them in time and they disappear to the voracious appetites of caterpillars.

So in the context of this potential new project, I’m asking myself: what do we actually use in our existing spaces? What would we actually want from this new space (and, indeed, the existing ones)? And why?

For example, currently I have a variety of herbs out on the balcony, which even at this time of year are largely doing pretty well. However, they don’t get used for cooking nearly as often as I’d like; instead the dried herbs in the cupboard tend to be used instead. Why is that? I think there are two main reasons:

  1. Convenience. The dried herbs are right there; no need to walk through the house to get them.
  2. Concern for the plant. Mostly it’s someone else (the non-gardener in the household) who does the cooking, and he is nervous about accidentally killing the plants.

So, how can I solve these problems in the current space, or in a new space? There’s a few possibilities:

  • I can make sure that the herbs are as close to the kitchen door as possible (convenience).
  • I can consider whether they’d be better off on a suitable (again, nearby) windowsill rather than outside.
  • I can grow larger plants, so they’re more obviously healthy and can have large quantities taken from them. That would also solving the problem that there’s just not enough to cook with regularly.
  • I can grow more or large plants, dry them myself, and fill up the containers in the kitchen.
  • I can grow more plants; perhaps some on the windowsill and some larger ones outside.
  • I can be a bit more discerning, ask which plants we need most, and grow more of those and fewer of the others (to balance out the space taken up by larger plants).

Some of these ideas might work alongside each other; some are alternatives. There might be more possibilities, too. (Ideas welcome!)

In the immediate term, thinking about this has led me to decide that I’m going to upgrade the rosemary, thyme, and oregano to larger containers, and plant lots and lots of basil seedlings to get as big a crop as possible this year. Those are probably the most useful of the herbs, so it’s worth focussing on them.

In the longer possible-project term, I’m going to take all of these ideas into account when planning, and see if I can come up with any more clever ideas to make the herbs easier to use.

And in general, I’m going to keep thinking about the gap between belief and reality, and look for ways to bridge that gap and make it easy to do what I want myself to do.