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.

the garden project

The Garden Project: quick-win vegetables

So, we planted one side of our new garden with grass already. On the other side (the eastern, and thus west-facing, side), the first quick win was to move the pots of tomatoes and herbs from the old balcony. The west-facing fence was ideal for tying up the tomatoes, and it immediately made the space look more garden-like.

My parents also brought along four or five large polystyrene tubs (from frozen food deliveries) and some bags of compost, so I used those to plant a few turnips and some rocket and mustard greens, all of which do well in late summer. Another good quick win.

My intention is to construct a bunch of raised beds, as the ground underneath the paving slabs is compacted London clay, which hasn’t been cultivated at all for at least a century or so.[0] Instead of trying to improve it enough to grow directly in it, it’s easier to put compost on top and let the soil underneath improve gradually. (It’s also safer, as we don’t know what the ground might be contaminated with, other than certainly lead, like any other patch of inner-city ground.) However, I want to think about the placement of these for a bit, and observe the flows (of sun and frost) in the space, before I do anything too much.

I decided that a single raised bed would be OK: at worst, it would be manageable enough to dump all the soil out of it next spring and relocate it. So I turned a deconstructed pallet into one raised bed, and took out the paving slabs and weed matting under that area. That left me with about an inch of sand, and compacted London clay underneath. I stuck a fork into it all a few times, then dumped some half-rotted leaves and about 100l of old compost/new compost/’soil improver’ (cheap from the Southwark waste recycling centre) on the top of it.

In deciding what to plant, I took the polyculture annual veg approach I learnt in a session on the EAT course. There’s a limit to what will do well planted in late summer, but I started off with a few kale and broccoli raab plants, which by now have a few small edible leaves. A couple of weeks later, I planted a few transplanted turnips (success: middling), some chard, and a lot of rocket and other mixed greens. The salad seedlings are coming up well now, and in a week or so I’ll be able to harvest the first baby chard leaves.

In late September, I planted a row of spring cabbage towards the back of the bed — it may be too late for these to do well, but we’ll see; I might get lucky with the weather. Later this month I’ll plant some garlic around the edges (good for keeping the pests off), and in November, some broad beans wherever there’s a bit of space.

It was definitely worth the effort – even if I end up having to move it in the spring – to have that bed already in place and seedlings growing for the winter. It feels something like a proof-of-concept, or perhaps just a promise to myself that there will be a lot more of these by this time next year.

[0] The house was built in the mid-1990s, on land that used to be occupied by a warehouse, which was there from at least the early 20th century; we’re not sure exactly when it was knocked down, but at best the land will have just been derelict for a bit before the estate was built. Prior to the warehouse, there was either housing, or possibly boat-building, going on in the area.


Cycling in snow & ice

In the cloakroom queue after seeing Leftfield last weekend, while London was still covered with snow, another punter spotted my bike pannier.

“You’re cycling?” he asked in tones of mingled surprise and enthusiasm. “Wow!”

“I’d far rather that than hanging around for the night bus,” I said.

“Nice one!” he said with a grin that indicated he still thought I might be a little deluded; and I went off to start layering up for the ride home.

But really, the weather has to be really pretty dreadful for public transport to be a better bet than cycling. (Even more so when, as on Friday, the public transport option is two night buses and a very chilly 20-minute wait at Elephant & Castle, watching inebriated revellers throw up into the gutter). There are a few precautions that are worth taking first.

Wrap up warm

Perhaps an obvious one, but cold hands don’t operate brakes well, so find yourself some long-fingered gloves. Woolly gloves are better than nothing, but the wind tends to blow right through them; really you want gloves that are at least windproof and preferably waterproof as well. If, like me, you have really rubbish circulation, consider glove liners as well.

A Buff is useful as a scarf/hat; alternatively, if you’re wearing a regular scarf, make sure the ends are safely tucked into your jacket and can’t get caught in any of the moving bits of the bike. If you’re suffering from chilly feet as well as chilly fingers, waterproof overshoes are really helpful*.

Check over your bike

Letting a little bit of air out of the tyres is a good bet if riding on slippery surfaces like snow, slush, or ice, as it increases the amount of contact surface with the road. If you want to take the really hardcore route, you could switch to studded tyres (or do your own DIY version either with screws or with cable ties!). Tyres with tread may be a good idea if you normally ride on skinny smooth tyres.

You should also clean your bike a bit more regularly, as grit and salt splash up onto the frame, and are bad for the metal if left there. Your chain might need a slightly heavier-duty oil than in the summer, and will probably also need oiling more regularly. If you’re nearly at the point where you need to replace chain and/or cassette, it’s probably worth waiting, if you can, until the spring, as they’ll wear much more quickly in this weather.

Make sure that your brakes are working well — slippery rims will slow your braking down.

Riding in snow

The most important thing to remember is not to make any sudden moves. Stop and turn more slowly and carefully than you normally would, and don’t corner too sharply or your back wheel may come out from under you. Brake well in advance, and gently.

Be more aware of hazards like metal access covers, which get very slippery in rain, snow, or ice. Watch out for black ice, and if in doubt, it may be worth getting off and walking for a bit if the surface is particularly treacherous (minor local roads may not have been gritted well or at all). However, if you find yourself already riding over the ice when you notice it, just stay calm, keep pedalling, and don’t turn or brake if you can avoid it. (If you have to, brake very gently.)

Stay well out of the gutter, which is where all the snow and slush will have been pushed by the cars. Of course, you should always be riding well out of the gutter to maximise your visibility, but in poor conditions you may want to ride even further out. You’ll be more readily seen, and you’ll be more likely to be able to stay on the dry part of the road. Where possible, choose where you’re riding to stay on the dry patches, but be careful – don’t put yourself in danger by riding over on the wrong side of the road unless you’re very, very certain that it’s safe to do so. If in doubt, get off and walk until it’s safe again.

If it’s dingy, foggy, or actually snowing, put your lights on to increase your visibility, as well.

In summary: take it carefully, allow more time to get where you’re going, wrap up warm; and you’ll be sailing merrily past all the bus queues despite the weather.

* This year I’ve been wearing bike sandals and waterproof socks, instead of switching to my lightweight bike shoes in the autumn. (I confess that a significant driver for this is the fact that the dog chewed both velcro and laces off the bike shoes back in April, and I still haven’t sorted that out.) Somewhat to my surprise, it turns out that thick socks + waterproof socks + sandals has kept my feet warmer than my closed-toe shoes ever did. The overshoes are good if it’s below zero (when I’d need them anyway). I think this is probably because wearing two pairs of socks in my regular shoes doesn’t leave enough room for my toes, reducing circulation and thus making them cold. This doesn’t happen in the sandals. Of course one is then wearing sandals with socks, but I am less bothered about that than I am about having cold feet!