Thursday, 15 March 2012

The time is now

The first garlic is sprouting. The pale brown is blood-, fish- and bonemeal which I sprinkled.

Although in practice, growing and cooking takes place throughout the year (especially if you have a greenhouse or polytunnel, and a level of self-discipline), I tend to think of there being two pivotal times - almost six months apart. August-September is the high season for harvests - most things are ripening then. We are now entering the other - March-April is when the vast majority of crops are (or at least can) be sown, when the first hardy vegetables and flowers are planted outside, and when the natural world provides a great range of wild foods to make up for the garden's dearth (on which more in a future post).

Organisation is paramount. Every day's work now is worth a week later, or there abouts. The lengthening daylight, increasing air and soil temperatures, slightly lower rainfall than autumn and winter, and the end of the frosts* all encourage seeds to sprout fast, and grow well. That means both that you need a lot of pots and compost, trays and windowsill or greenhouse space to fit your sowings, and time and energy to fight the weeds - because they will respond to the improving conditions even better. Clearing brambles now, just as they are coming into bud, is a lot easier than in a couple of months, when their new growth may be half a metre long and they are covered in leaves. Hoeing soil encourages weeds to germinate, and re-hoeing when they have done so will destroy them and reduce the problem considerably - though weeds tend to have seeds that vary a lot in how long they are dormant, and how responsive to disturbance, another reason they are so persistent, so it won't eradicate them entirely.

On that note, I am tackling both sides at the moment. I'm trying to sow a few crops every day or two, which makes it seem a lot less work, and sets up a conveyor belt, with the larger plants able to move from the germination station (a bright daylight lamp by the fire) and onto the windowsills or outside. Three days ago I sowed scorzonera 'Duplex' (a black root vegetable), herb (as opposed to bulb) fennel, namenia (a leafy salad crop), green perilla, and broccoli 'Autumn green calabrese'. The next priority is other herbs - especially basil, parsley, chervil, sage, thyme - lettuces, onions, and annual flowers.

The first six purple-podded peas. Some are looking a bit sad.

Outside, I've started hardening off the first legumes I started soaking 6 weeks ago. They went from indoors proper (warm), to a cool spot by the front door for a couple of days, to the front step, which is sheltered but at the ambient outdoor temperature. They've thrived, and the first six purple-podded peas went into the front garden earlier this week. The broad beans - six 'Aquadulce longpod' and around 8 of an unknown variety that I bought as dried pulses from a local shop, are around 30cm tall, and will go in soon. Potatoes, which have sprouted nicely ('Red Duke of York' I think, though I've misplaced the label) have been put into four large planting bags - two tubers each. Plants I don't want - like red valerian (Centranthus ruber), which I like but find rather invasive; couch grass; dandelions and the like - are just sprouting, and have been fairly easily removed (though they will return).

The grow bags I grew most of my tomatoes in last year are spent, but they will be useful as a soil conditioner and mulch - they are largely free of weed seeds, and full of worms, and although most of their nutrients will have been exhausted, they raise the soil level, lighten its texture, and I am adding nutrition back in by sprinkling blood, fish, and bonemeal, and adding homemade compost.

There's a fair amount of sorting and shifting to do. The two raised beds I built last year became infested with couch grass despite weed-suppressant fabric underneath - the grass just pushed through. I've removed the soil, added a second layer of fabric, and fresh compost. The old soil will be thoroughly sieved and likely rested somewhere for a few months, to prevent the spread of this most pernicious weed (if it resprouts, I'll attack it until it's too weakened to return). I've enough materials for one more bed, and enough room for another, albeit odd-shaped one in the front - that gives me enough space for some peas and beans, garlic, and chard, with gaps around for perennials and ornamentals - rosemary, lavender, alliums, and later marigolds, nasturtium, and cosmos.

Yesterday, I started on the back garden. It's been hanging over me, but once I scouted round I thought about it, I realised the situation is quite manageable. I cleared out the fire pit/barbecue, and lit it, as I've lots of prunings and dry material that is best burned. Over a few hours, I disposed of lots of buddleia, raspberry, privet, brambles, grass, tomato plants, and calendula - all essentially brushwood - and the old willow hurdles that surrounded two large planters, that after two years have become too brittle to keep. They all burned well, and will provide nice sweet ash for nourishing fruit plants and root vegetables in particular.

These sturdy bags have been part filled with compost, and planted with two chitted seed potatoes each. I'll top them up with more compost as they grow. There are four altogether, and I may get a few more yet.

I gathered intact plastic pots and trays, that had blown hither and thither, for cleaning and reuse. Plastic waste (mostly pop bottles and plastic cups used in last year's sowing and watering) can be recycled. Other stuff will be thrown away (polystyrene, plastic bags that have blown in, that sort of thing). Pernicious weeds will go to municipal composting, benign stuff will be rotted down here. After that, a bit of sweeping and pruning, and I can set to fixing the broken greenhouses, relaying the terrace, painting, and the like. A fair amount of work, but nothing I've not done before.

Incidentally, a great deal has survived the winter - tulips, lemon balm, even a tray of mixed salad leaves. And life is returning - birds, ladybirds and seedlings abound (mostly unwanted in the latter case). Spring is a good time.

*Admittedly I am writing this from the perspective of my own garden. Here by the sea, there are few frosts in April (none last year) and almost none in May - although traditional gardening wisdom cautions they may occur as late as June, in my experience this is almost unheard of, especially nowadays.

Sunday, 11 March 2012

In lieu of an allotment

It's definitely spring - the frogs are swarming through my friends' (and their neighbours') garden, and there's plenty of spawn. Frogs can be startling when disturbed, but are useful for keeping down numbers of slugs and snails.

Last October, the waiting list for the allotment site I visited in August stood with person #19 at the top - I am #45. As of just now, nothing has changed. That's pretty galling - that there has been no movement in nearly half a year. I don't expect to be around here for long enough to get even close to the top of the list - which is a shame, because the site is really lovely.

But a couple of years ago, before I ever considered such a formal move, I had another idea. My friend, who I helped with tomatoes last summer, has a large (classic, metal-framed, glass) greenhouse, and a long garden, in which she and her fiancé have started carving a garden - including raised beds. It crossed my mind I could make use of some of the space - they like the idea of a garden, but are very busy and not totally sure about what to do. But I pushed it from my mind - they live far enough away that I might not have been assiduous in visiting, and a garden needs discipline. And last year, they made some effort of their own accord - I gave them plants, and a little advice, but let them see how it went for themselves.

However, I decided to make my suggestion a week ago, partly because I know they had an imperfect time last summer. It was a bad year for tomatoes, and although their chillies and runner beans thrived, I don't think they felt terribly spurred on by the experience. Surprisingly, they were very keen, so I've effectively doubled my planting space. So here's the plan:

I sent them a list of the seeds I have. They picked what they most wanted to grow and eat. That's the core of the planting - because it's their space, and because it will hopefully encourage them if they can pick what they enjoy eating. Most of what they wanted can go in now - beetroot, spinach, carrots, onions, salad leaves, radishes - and the rest (such as squash) can follow on in two or three months. The idea occurred that, in the time before the tomatoes and peppers go in their final positions (we have both sown some, and can share plants and varieties, in case either of us suffers unexpected setbacks), I can sow some pots of spinach, carrots, and beetroot in the greenhouse to get a faster crop - perhaps a couple of weeks to a month earlier than the outdoor crops.

I went over today, to check out the space (it's been a few months), and get started. We made excellent progress - all the crops were sown, except the 'forced' roots and leaves, which I'll set to next weekend. We also got in some sweet peas, basil, and yet another variety of tomato, seeds of which my friend had lying around. I had bought some onion sets last week, and those went into modules to start off, ready for planting outdoors in a week or two. I also helped clear some of the perennial weeds.

Fresh sowings. In a week, the first shoots should have emerged - even on a resolutely cloudy day like today, the greenhouse was much warmer than outdoors.

The raised bed. My friends may build more, but for now, this is the centre of outdoor planting. We divided it into four, sowing three sections with two rows each of carrots 'Amsterdam 3 sprint', spinach 'Medania', and beetroot 'Boltardy'; the fourth will be planted with onions.

At the centre here is a bed of blackcurrants - they give a crop every year, but are swamped by brambles and what my friend describes as 'grass', although I suspect it may be a member of the lily family.

After a concerted attack with a sturdy knife and secateurs, I've made some headway - I'll continue on my next visit.

Having a second garden to tend to has already encouraged me to do some work in mine - I'm hoping I'll learn a bit of discipline this year, something I could use a lot more of.