Thursday, 24 May 2018

Late May movement

Most things are growing fine.

I tweeted that recently, and it seems an apt summary of how things are at the moment. As ever, some things are growing *too* well - mostly unwanted plants like nettles (I won't call them weeds, as they are too useful), although also some crops that haven't yet got a home. It feels cruel to sow a seed and then let the plant linger in a pot or cell that is too small for too long, but I'm managing to move most on before they get too root-bound, and in my experience, many plants simply go into a state of semi-dormancy in that case - just don't leave them so long that they either die or try to set seed.

Do they look bigger? I think they are - roots are already starting to show through the pot bottoms.

Most repotting/pricking out has gone well. Ornamentals, which this blog isn't really about, such as cosmos (50-100 plants?), calendula (at least edible, though I'm growing it for its appearance and pollinator-friendliness), and more exotic things like Scabiosa 'Black Knight' - but also most of the veg. I have been cheered to see that the brassicas, that were not happy a couple of weeks ago, have started to grow rapidly once potted on. I'm not sure about some, like the brussels sprouts, but the red kale and red cabbages may yet thrive (see photo above). The second sowing of lettuces (see photo below), done in dense rows in a tray following Charles Dowding's method, were half pricked out a couple of days ago, and are already settling in, and yesterday I did the third sowing. The first ones, incidentally, are fewer in number but now almost big enough to pick - and thanks to being cosseted as individually-potted plants in a mini greenhouse, they are pest-free so far.

More 'Mottistone', ready to be pricked out into modules.

Yesterday I picked my first radishes, and today some more. I sowed some in a tray and stuck it in another mini greenhouse, but the soil was probably too poor (seed compost) and too shallow, and they wanted for light - they are only just starting to swell. But outdoors I also sowed some as a catch crop between onion sets, and these are now reaching maturity. Small but perfect, and very tasty - the whole plant is edible, so there's no waste. 50g so far, which is pitiful, but the start of good things.

'Red head' - white beneath the soil, pink where they're exposed to the sunlight.

Unexpectedly, the broad beans planted into the polytunnel - the first sown, but long since overtaken in size and vigour by other batches - have started to flower, even though they're very small. I don't expect much of a crop from them, but it was a rescue job, and the space will soon be needed anyhow, as I have a lot of very vigorous sweetcorn, courgettes, melons, cucumbers, tomatoes and the like that will do better there.

On the upper patio, I've started erecting new planters that once again I would not have chosen, but which weren't doing anything, and I need as much space to pop in small plants as possible now. Spring onions, turnips, beetroot, spinach beet, as well as some ornamentals as it's an area viewed fom the house (foxglove, sweet peas, and later calendula and nasturtium).

Mostly summer and winter squash, some French beans and sunflowers too - repotted and waiting to be covered with a cloche overnight.

It's been dry, if not always warm and sunny - yesterday was chilly and grey for the most part, and today started that way too, although both ended fine - and dry plus fast growth means a lot of watering. Up till now I've used watering cans but for the next few weeks I will use a hose. I intend to set up some water butts (much overdue), but even they won't provide enough. Thankfully, this is generally a very wet part of the world, so I don't need to feel too guilty about using irrigation when it is dry. But watering takes such a long time - a thorough soaking of everything may only need to be done once every few days, but it takes a couple of hours, and this is before lots of much thirstier crops, like cucurbits and tomatoes, get planted. Oh well.

Sunday, 20 May 2018

Too busy to blog

A lettuce of the variety 'Mottistone' from my first sowing. The largest were potted on a couple of weeks ago, these are now big enough to do the same. I experimented with grit, and not only did they push through fine, but it kept them moist, so it may be a good idea in future.

The previous entry was written weeks ago, but I wanted some photographs to brighten it up. In the end I published without the requisite shots, because one of the classic mistakes I make when blogging is writing an entry then not publishing until it's no longer relevant. Oh well.

Actually I have been taking photographs, but not enough and not yet mostly useful for here. But more importantly, I've been very busy outdoors, so this is once again falling behind. Four builder bags (those large, I guess woven nylon sacks, about a metre cubed when full) were delivered in the first week of May, two with well-rotted manure, one with ballast (coarse sand and gravel), and one with sand, plus a pallet of paving slabs. This is all for the vegetable garden - though I won't go into details too much until it's all done. The manure was in part inspired by my discovery of Charles Dowding's YouTube channel, where he does sterling work educating on the benefits of no-dig growing - basically you shove a load of compost or similar growing medium on top of the soil, then plant into it without disturbing what's underneath. This has the benefit of being less backbreaking, and suppressing most weeds, amongst other things - but requires a lot more compost than you might otherwise use. So to begin with, two cubic metres, maybe three quarters of a tonne, of well-rotted horse manure - I'll probably need more in the next few weeks.

Broccoli 'Autumn Green Calabrese' flowering already! This is not good, but there's plenty of time to re-sow.

Other than that, it's mostly a matter of watering, thinning seedlings, pricking out and potting on, and juggling increasingly limited space and resources (pots, labels, trays, etc). That does keep the pressure on to clear space - the vegetable garden we inherited here consisted of four long beds, two square ones, a small broken greenhouse, and a large polytunnel, and although not all of it has been brought back into cultivation yet, I've also added three raised beds so far. It will all be full soon - I have hundreds of plants now, some of which I don't even know where they will fit, so motivation isn't a problem.

These red cabbages are looking okay, and seem to have perked up a lot in the days since repotting.

What is growing? I have one raised bed approximately 1.5m x 1.5m with onions and radishes (the latter are a classic catch crop, which is sown between a slower-growing one, to be harvested before they get in the way), another bed the same size with peas, broad beans, and a little spinach, and one double size bed (~3m x 1.5m) with more broad beans, onions, and a little garlic. About a quarter of the polytunnel is back in cultivation, with some onions, garlic, and broad beans shoved in for want of space. In the original veg beds, there's direct-sown beetroot, spring onions, parsnips, and a row each of garlic and peas.

More brassicas! The ragged-leaved ones are kale, the spoon-shaped leaves are more red cabbages.

I urgently need to plant potatoes, more peas, lettuces, and a whole load more onions, all of which are ready to go in when I make room. I had module trays of brassicas and other things, but for some reason they have started to look unhappy - in fact, broccoli (calabrese) has started to flower (see photo above), despite being two or three inches tall, which is surprising, a little upsetting, but ultimately not catastrophic, as the sowing window for them is long, and I have quite a few alternatives (I sowed a tray of quick-heading broccoli and 'Aztec broccoli' which should still provide summer crops if things go well). I potted up the best kales and cabbages, because I frankly don't yet have anywhere to put them, and hopefully they will grow on safely until I can set up another raised bed somewhere. I've never grown either before, so it's hard to judge how badly I'm doing on that front. Indoors, there are about a hundred tomato plants, some of which are thriving, and some doing poorly - I'm not sure entirely why they vary (variety, pot size, compost type, even that some seeds were poor quality?). Aubergines, okra, some melons have been repotted; Also the first sowings of summer and winter squash and summer beans are growing strongly in pots. I'm already looking to incorporate some vegetables with flowers and bedding because I need the space, and beetroot and red kales won't look bad in that setting, but I still crave a classic allotment or market garden look.

The next batch of lettuces! They're a bit flattened because I watered them before pricking out. Note the great variation in germination. The two best varieties are speckled 'Mottistone', and dark red 'Bijou'. I'll sow even more soon to keep up a constant supply into the summer.

In a word: busy! The weather has mostly been co-operative; April was cold, but May has been warm and sunny - indeed I have lost a few plants to scorching, because the mini greenhouses and propagators I set up to protect from early spring cold are now getting too warm. Multiple learning curves at once, but enough plants should pull through that the garden is good in a few weeks' time, and to be honest there is so much going on I can't get sentimental about losses. Currently I've sown over 140 types of seeds - mostly vegetables, but a few key ornamental flowers, like cosmos and calendula. The end is not yet in sight, however (and indeed it's exciting to think that plenty can still be sown now for popping in after the first summer crops are harvested, let alone thinking of autumn). Can I sustain this?

Thursday, 17 May 2018


I was given a load of modular plastic raised beds, and originally didn't think I would use them, but being a convert of no-dig vegetable growing, and short of places to put plants, I set this one up, then another, and a third. This one is filled with onions.

The garden and this blog are alike in one way - I return, do a bit, then leave for months. Actually, I do more in the garden than I write about here, partly because creating a blog entry seems onerous - in fact, it's not the writing but making sure I have a few nice pictures to add that usually holds things up. Anyway, this is by the by - the garden is still there, and although I did mostly abandon vegetable growing from midsummer onwards last year (see the previous entry), I have been very busy recently, and want to record it here.

In fact, I got off to the best start of any year this time. It's been gradual - I suppose I started by getting my boxes of seed packets out, and going through them. I sowed sweet peas first, because they were a bit more urgent than most other things (although, having sown them in good time in mid-March, they sulked and only started germinating a month later). Then I decided a spreadsheet of all the seeds and plants I had would be a sensible step. Like most gardeners, I have a variety of stuff left over from previous years - and last autumn a trip to the nearest garden centre yielded a lot more seeds, as they were considerably reduced in price.

Then something unexpected - I received a lot of garden paraphernalia for free; although it wouldn't have been stuff I would have chosen to buy, a lot was useful - seed trays and propagators, a mini greenhouse, garden shelving, that sort of thing. So there was now somewhere convenient to sow more seeds, and to put them out of the way. The spreadsheet encouraged me to be systematic, sowing those crops that needed an earlier start first. The spring was exceptionally cold, with several feet of snow spread over a number of heavy falls, but in fact that made it feel less stressful.

And it's always the way that doing a little encourages more - clearing a bit of the patio, pruning a shrub, planting some bulbs, you see what else needs to be done, and a positive feedback can begin to build. It can't last forever, but I've been riding the wave for over a month, which is good by my standards.

So what is growing? Well, a lot. Along with the mini greenhouse, I had a cold frame which was another bargain in the garden centre sale, although that has mostly hosted flowering plants for another part of the garden. And amongst the free donations was another one, which I built straight away - they're so useful I wish I'd got one years ago. The second has mostly been for vegetables so far. Above all, my guiding feeling this spring has been no more self-limitation. In the past I would say 'I'm not growing X because I won't have enough time/space to devote to it' - but why? Instead, I am trying everything, knowing that some will fail, and the more there is to start with, the more should succeed. So for instance, brassicas are a group of vegetables I've shied away from, which is partly self-sustaining, because a lack of familiarity and experience with them makes me less confident to grow them. But it's not rocket science (one of my favourite clichéd phrases), and this year I'm trying the lot - cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli, kale, etc. Actually, the only common vegetable I can think of that I'm not growing this year is asparagus (although I am trying asparagus peas). Peas, broad, French, borlotti, and runner beans, sweetcorn, peppers, chillies, tomatoes, aubergines, cucumbers, all sorts of salad leaves, Jerusalem artichoke, carrots, parsnips, beetroot, turnips, chard, spinach, kohl rabi, swede, celeriac and celery, leeks, onions, garlic, shallots - the list is very extensive (I'll put a full list of varieties in another blog post sometime). I've sown around 67* different types of vegetable seeds so far, in addition to onion, shallot, and garlic sets. There's a way to go, but I'm getting there.

The next job is making sure the garden is ready to receieve them. More on that in due course...

*I wrote this in late April, but didn't publish until mid May, by which time I was up to 115.

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

What happened in 2017

I last posted here in June. Alas, the story of 2017 resembles that of many previous years - I was enthusiastic and quite industrious in the spring, but once summer arrived, I lost my grip on things. Why is summer a problem for me? Well I think in part it's that it cannot match springtime's positive feel. In spring, everything is upward - the light levels are always increasing, temperatures are creeping up, all the plants are growing, and the world is garlanded in flowers in a way that it isn't at any other time. Forgotten bulbs turn lawns, flower beds, and even roadside verges into extravagant floral displays. And so many trees light up, each in turn - blackthorn, then plum, apple, cherry, horse chestnut, and finally the crescendo of hawthorn, lilac, elder, and laburnum. In summer the trees are just in leaf - which is better than the bareness of winter, but it's a bit monotonous, even oppressive. And after the solstice, the leaves start to look tired, as weather and insects take their toll. The fresh green, glossy new growth of spring turns dull. The light starts to slip away, even as the weather can get hotter. But especially in Britain, summer weather is usually less good (especially away from the south east) than we hope or imagine - it's not often sunny and warm, there's too much rain, and indeed more often than not the whole season is a washout. I'm a fair weather gardener, and the combination of summer wet and my absence means weeds grow fast, slugs and snails multiply, and demoralisation turns into abandonment.

The purple potatoes were extraordinarily beautiful when freshly washed. Sometimes when cooked they would go blue - possibly due to an acid/base reaction? 

Last year then. I harvested what was there - and it was good. The broad beans were healthy, although the patch wasn't big enough, and the whole crop was used up in one big batch of falafel. Shallots were great, but I stored them too long and most went bad over the winter. Potatoes were beautiful, although I don't eat them much, and some were made into gnocchi. I stored them in the fridge, and they only started sprouting this spring when I finally brought the remaining ones out again. The garlic has sustained me ever since - along with some I grubbed up from the polytunnel, planted by me three years previously, and which has somehow survived without water ever since. I use a lot of garlic in cooking, and I've not had to buy any for at least eight months. The cloves are small but wonderfully fragrant and delicious.

Incidentally, I ordered new garlic sets in August, for autumn planting. But I didn't - they languished in their paper bags until this spring, when I started them growing in modules and pots. Hopefully they will still provide a crop. They are at least growing!

More homegrown potato gnocchi, with a white-fleshed variety - here served with a creamy tomato sauce, really delicious (sadly the tomatoes were not homegrown).

Gardening is an act of arch optimism, and each spring I feel it's all possible again. Self knowledge helps - I know my weaknesses, I can try to offset them. Maybe this year will be the one.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The end of spring

Things have grown. The line of pots have been sown with summer and winter squash, which will go into the bed at upper left, currently swamped with goldenrod.

I was away for part of May due to unavoidable commitments, and in the meantime, the plants grew rapidly - both my crops, and the wild ones around. At this time of year, anything seems possible. Throw a few seeds down and in no time they're thriving. But the others - in the context of the veg patch, 'weeds' - threaten to retake the ground that's been cleared, so there's no end of chores to do.

I'm behind in many regards. The tomatoes are now small plants, desperately needing potting on, but a lack of suitable pots hindered me. I got all my pumpkins and squashes sown, but they'll not be big enough to plant out for another month at least - but since there's not yet anywhere to put them, that's a bit of breathing room.

A few harvests have brought pleasure - mixed salad leaves, courgette flowers (from the plant I bought a few weeks ago, for an early crop), basil. There's more mint than I know what to do with. And everything else looks healthy and strong (see below). This isn't an ideal time of year to be doing major ground clearance - yet needs must. I often hit a mental wall in June, as the springtime slows, the light peaks, and autumn creeps into my thoughts. However, a week's work now will pay dividends in two months' time, and fill that season (which I don't enjoy) with the achievement of a good harvest. Meanwhile, at least there are lots of flowers around, and everything in general seems at its most alive - the leaves are all out, and still fresh green, supple, and mostly un-nibbled; invertebrate life is busy and endlessly fascinating.

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Early May

It's the busiest time of the gardening year. I have pots and trays of seedlings and small plants both indoors and outside. I've hoed and dug more of the vegetable beds, and started clearing the paths around them, and planted more crops - broad beans the latest to go in (which I'd started in cardboard tubes back in March or early April).


There's so much more to do. It's not too late to sow many things - especially this far north, and spring here has been slow, with daytime temperatures only picking up into the mid teens since the start of this month. I recently got a book I've wanted since the last time I blogged here a lot - a book on heirloom tomatoes. This has rekindled my love of lycopersicon, so I ordered a few more varieties - it can't hurt, even if they don't eventually fruit. I have the advantage of a greenhouse and polytunnel here, although both need repairing, so I should be able to extend the season somewhat.

I bought a courgette plant from the botanic garden shop - a yellow-fruited variety. I will grow more from seed, but this tiny plant had even tinier embryonic flowers already sprouting. I repotted it on the first day, and in a week it has roughly doubled in size (I've put it out in the sun during the day, brought it in on the chilly nights). It should provide an early crop until the home-down ones get going. I've never grown a yellow variety - they are so pretty, I couldn't resist.

Elsewhere, I've been tackling an area towards the end of the garden near some trees. I've always envisaged a woodland garden there - bulbs and shade-loving perennials with a seating area. So far it's been the hard task of lifting encroaching turf, digging some organic matter into the hard, dry soil, planting (primulas, Trillium, Cardiocrinum, foxgloves), and mulching. It'll need some care, as it's naturally drier there than I'd like, but then it's been a dry spring so far.

Finally, I've been planning ahead in a less glamorous way, making liquid plant feeds from nettles and comfrey, and dock as it seems similar to comfrey in its growing habit. And for the even longer term, I lifted and divided some comfrey, and potted it up - I'll need lots more leaves in the coming months.

The veg plot a couple of days ago, above; and today, below. Progress!

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

Beginning again

This bed was as overgrown as the one behind it just a few weeks ago.

I've neglected this blog for a few years, in large part because I stopped doing the two things it was set up to document - growing plants (especially edible ones) and cooking. Not that I lost my love for such pursuits, but changes in my personal circumstances and health meant I was no longer inclined to devote so much time to them. One thing that took the place of these activities was in fact due to this blog - I bought a cheap secondhand DSLR to take better pictures to post here, and it began a passion for photography that has become an essential part of my life.

However, I'm willing to try again, especially with growing vegetables. I had never had enough space where I was based before - I signed on to the waiting list for an allotment, but never heard back from them, and now I live somewhere else. The upside is, the garden here is very much larger, and came with a vegetable and fruit patch. The first spring I got stuck in, but having weeded, dug, enriched the soil, and planted lots of crops, I was forced away for several months, so it was largely wasted.

Three years have passed, and I am in a position to start afresh. So far, I've sown a few seeds, and begun to bring the beds back into cultivation. It'll be a slow process - I can't do a lot at once, but cheeringly the work I did before has made it much easier this time round. The soil and paths were lost under a thick growth of nettles, goldenrod, coltsfoot, and creeping buttercup, amongst others, but the soil beneath is still friable and quite rich. Hoeing the top growth, then forking and removing the roots and runners has been largely successful, and the first crops are now in.

So far I have planted out shallots, garlic, and potatoes, and sown broad beans, more shallots, mixed salad leaves, beetroot, tomatoes, and basil. There's a lot more I want to try - there's no limit but the effort I make, so this year I won't put artificial limits on what I set out to achieve. Conversely, I am very realistic and know that I can't do everything, and unforeseen circumstances tend to rule, so I won't get upset with myself if things are left undone.

I'll try to document the progress that I and the garden make together this year. I can certainly take a lot of pictures, at the very least.