Thursday, 3 October 2019

First Year Fails

I've just finished harvesting the last of the tomatoes, and all that's left in the garden is a few tiny butternut squashes that are stubbornly trying to ripen and I don't have the heart to cut down yet, the stumps of some brassica that have been entirely consumed by white cabbage butterflies, and some potatoes that appear to be trying to come back to life despite it being long past harvest time for them (they're growing in a bag and it was tucked away under the fuscia, so I forgot about them). My first growing season is coming to a close and, while there is still lots to be done, it feels like a good time to reflect on the growing year, and think about what has worked and what hasn't.

We've had some brilliant harvests, far beyond what I expected in our first year. Leaving aside the abundance of apples (since the tree was started years ago), our first year has given us buckets of tomatoes, a huge butternut squash, potatoes, curly kale, carrots  (more on those later) , sweetpeas by the armload, courgettes, fresh coriander (more on that later too), a bit of mint (more on that too - only I could kill mint!), some of the world's freshest smelling cucumbers, and three alpine strawberries.

We've also had some mega fails. 

I'm a total beginner trying to teach myself how to garden with no money. So if I see for example, damage on my courgette plants:

I'm scurrying off to the internet to look up pests and diseases of the plant, discovering that (in this instance) it's powdery mildew, and then looking up "free fixes for powdery mildew." There's a lot of trial and error involved, so some stuff is definitely not going to work.

We had a few courgettes before the plants succumbed to powdery mildew, but the fruits they produced after the leaf damage was visible were tiny, and shrivelled up on the vine before getting bigger. The plants are still trying though, and are flowering today, on the first of October.  Next year I'll look up preventative measures when I start my seedlings and consider spacing the plants further apart to stop the disease spreading from plant to plant as easily.

I won't be using the affected plants in my lasagna raised bed either, because I don't want the disease to stay in my new soil. Our council does garden waste collection, which I never usually use because I compost most of our garden trimmings or chuck them on the bug hotel, but I will send them my diseased plants for composting because the council uses a much hotter method to compost their waste, and that'll kill off the spores. If your council doesn't do garden waste collections, I'd recommend burning diseased plants rather than composting them so you aren't building up future issues in your soil.

Pintrest Fail

The internet has been a great tool for teaching myself how to grow food. It's also been a great way to teach myself a load of cobblers that doesn't work.  Pintrest, I'm giving you the heavy side eye right now.

If you've ever looked at garden stuff on pintrest you'll have seen the hanging strawberry planters made of drink bottles. They look lovely, masses of fruit pouring down in cascades from a happy healthy plant.

This idea ticked a lot of boxes for me. It's a free planter, it reuses something before recycling, thus making it a bit more sustainable, and I happen to have an ugly steel washing line post concreted into my garden that is crying out to have something pretty and living to adorn it. Drink bottles are made of food grade plastic so they're unlikely to leech harmful toxins into the soil, and the tops would act as protection from the pigeons and the elements.  It made so much sense.

And when I first planted it up, it looked great:

Don't they look adorable? I was so pleased with myself. I'd taken time to cut drainage holes into the bottom, tied them up with yarn, gave them plenty of space (one per pot), and I could see them from my favourite spot on the sofa. And best of all they were freeee. I do love a bargain.

An extremely short time later:

Nailed it.

I'm really not sure what went wrong. I'm pretty sure they had enough drainage. It's possible their roots didnt have enough room, but I couldn't see any roots trying to escape. In theory it should have worked. But in practice - huge fail. Not a single flower, runner or fruit from any of my strawberries, every plant completely dead.

I'm not sure why my alpine strawberries did so badly. I had them in a standard pot, medium sized. It's possible it was overshadowed by other plants and didn't get enough light/water. I wasn't expecting the potatoes to grow as big as they did, so they overshadowed the pot a fair bit, and I was a bit cavalier about watering them. They produced three fruits and one runner (which my dog promptly broke off). The plant is still alive, so i may pop it in the greenhouse over winter and see if it does better next year, but I'm not too hopeful for it. Next year I think I'll try strawberries in one of the raised beds instead of pots.


We were very lucky with pests in general this year, and didn't have many issues at all, but our poor brassica! 

I planted a lot of purple sprouting broccoli into my bookcase planters, next to the house. They were in with some rainbow chard, curly kale, and beetroot. The beetroot didn't germinate (I'm blaming that on ancient seed) and the chard was a bit spindly and feeble (again, very old seed), but it tasted ok in a stir fry. We got some lovely curly kale too, which I mostly chucked into curries and stir fries, but I did have a go at making some kale crisps. Would not recommend - they taste exactly as green as you'd expect.

The broccoli started off so well, I had really high hopes for it. But something kept stripping the bottom leaves. I did suspect mice, because they essentially have a sheltered path from the shed they sometimes hang out in for warmth and the beds since I put the raised beds in. But now I'm not so sure. 

The broccoli stalks continued to grow, but each new leaf was destroyed in days, disappearing in circular chunks until it was gone. It wasn't until my youngest son was marvelling at all the pretty butterflies that I realised it's highly likely to be a cabbage white butterfly eating them. Luckily I love butterflies more than I love broccoli.

If I do broccoli or cabbage next year (which I think I might, because I've not tried many autumn/winter/very early spring plants yet), I might net some of them with an old net curtain or something similar so we actually get some of the crop. I'll leave some of them unnetted though, because butterflies also have to eat. I don't mind sharing with the wildlife, as long as they leave some for me.


A lot of my crops bolted - went suddenly leggy, flowered and went to seed.

 We did have some extreme temperatures here compared to usual and I think that may have contributed, but with the coriander especially,  and possibly also the rainbow chard which also bolted, I think it was also because I wasn't harvesting often enough. If I had cut them more I think they'd have put more energy into producing leaves instead of going to seed.

I did intentionally leave some of my radishes to bolt so I could collect seed, but one of my children very helpfully pulled up "the dead plant" for me before it could seed properly. The flowers were very pretty though, and the bees seemed to like them. 

Sudden hot spells of weather seemed to precede all the bolting in my garden and if the upward temperature trend continues its going to be something gardeners are going to have to contend with more and more.  Planting more heat tolerant plants might be the way forward, but I would really miss my temperate climate loving plants if they had to go, so I will be thinking about planting in patterns that create shade and dampness for those that need it.

Carrot fails 

We actually did get a small crop of carrots, enough to chuck into a shepherd's pie at least. But I didn't space the seeds well at all, and they grew in little clusters and didn't have much room to spread out. Next year I am going to have to find a way to space them better, because carrots seeds are teeny tiny and I kinda gave up when I was planting this year. I thought as the carrots great eye might sort of nudge each other out of the way, but instead they just grew kinda long and spindly.

Over winter I will try and find some tips for spacing carrot seeds that don't involve cooking them into a floury paste (which seems a bit of a faff to me).


My pumpkins were another absolute fail and it's the thing I am most salty about. I can brush everything else of with a "meh, it's my first year, I'm still learning" but I was so excited to grow pumpkins and they started off so well.

I got this pumpkin (for a fiver, down from £25) on October 31st

It easier on big I couldn't lift it, and the very kind local shopkeeper dropped it round for me. I had to roll it through the house to carve it. It looked great when it was made into a lantern, despite my total lack of pumpkin carving skills.

Isn't he a happy looking lantern?

As you can imagine, such a huge pumpkin was overflowing with seeds. We toasted some because my daughter loves toasted pumpkin seeds, and we saved some to plant, although I wasn't sure they'd germinate.

They started off marvellous. Strong healthy happy little seedlings, almost visibly growing, they went so fast. They didn't suffer any transplant shock when I planted them out. We even seemed to get baby pumpkins forming:

But each time they'd get to about the size of a golf ball, maybe a little smaller, and wither and drop off the plant. The foliage started to look tired and droopy and die off. It didn't respond to feeding, but didn't seem to have any classic squash disease symptoms.

Positioning may have been an issue. I didn't plant them in one of my beds, or on the sides of the garden qhere most of my veg were. Instead I planted them on the side where my trees are, so they may have lost out on some nutrients, and some light. There's a holly tree nearby so that may have made the soil a little more acidic,  and it's also the area where my dog scratches and digs a lot, so it may not be the best quality soil. I'll try again next year with store bought seeds, in a sunnier, more fertile spot.

How do you manage to kill mint?

That area is also where I planted the mint that died. No one is supposed to be able to kill mint, it's highly invasive and spreads like mad, and you should really only plant it in a pot unless you want it to take over.

I actually wanted it to take over. The area I planted it in used to be grass but my dog scratches and digs at the ground in that particular area so much that it's just bare soil now. It's right outside the back door so in summer the kitchen is full of dust and in winter it's like a swamp. I wanted something hardy that would spread out and cover the ground, and mint seemed ideal. I imagine it'd smell lovely when the dog tries to scratch it up. But imagining is all I can do because the dog scratched it to death before it could establish.

I've chucked a load of bulbs into the ground now in the hope they'll discourage the mutt from scratching, but I doubt it will. He's quite set in his ways, and scratching the ground releases pheromones that mark the garden as his and help keep the neighbourhood cats out. I can't change his nature, so I shall just be grateful he isn't doing it on my main veg patch.

 I might try again with the mint next spring and see if some can take hold. My supermarket herb rescues usually do quite well  (I'm going to do a post on keeping your supermarket herbs alive soon) , so I'm actually impressed I managed to kill off the mint, given how invasive it is.

So those are my main garden fails of my first year. I hope they've inspired you to have a go, and not get too disheartened if things don't work out how you planned. Every major garden fail is a new bit of knowledge and experience under your belt, so the time isn't completely wasted. Even if someone is showing off a lot of successful harvests, it doesn't mean everything else in their garden is going to plan. Their grass might just look greener because it's infested with bindweed.

And if that isn't a metaphor for the whole of social media I don't know what is. 

Monday, 30 September 2019

From Bed to Bed

I've finally gotten around to writing up a quick how to about raised beds. It didn't take long at all (or rather it wouldn't have, but I'm married to an engineer, so it got complicated!), and is a fairly simple weekend project to get you started. I'll be showing you how I went from this:

To this:
And what still needs to be done to make it ready for planting.

What do I need?

You can make a raised bed out of just about anything. If it has sides and holes for drainage, you can make it into a bed. I made these out of some old drawers that the children had overstuffed with clothes and broken, and they worked brilliantly for my carrots for one year. I didn't construct them very well though, or treat them at all, so when I tried to move them this year they fell apart. 

I may still attempt to save the bigger one with a lot of duct tape and hope. When making these I literally removed the bottoms, stapled the drawers together and filled them up with compost. If I were doing the same now I would secure them with 4 stakes at the corners, and screw the sides to the stakes. I'm sure that would work a lot better than my quick bodge up from last spring.

You can make raised beds out of anything you have laying around, it's essentially the same as having a great big planter.  I had an old broken double bed and the slats were the perfect length for what I had in mind, so I used those, but you can use railway sleepers, corrugated iron or plastic, bricks, old drawers, shelves, anything you like. If you decide to use wooden palettes, first check to see if they've been heat treated. The ones that haven't may have been chemically treated, so might leech toxins into your soil. You can check by looking for a HT on the stamp somewhere on the pallette. It'll look something like this:

Once you start looking into toxins and raised bed building you can find a lot of information, some of it conflicting and all quite intimidating. I've generally grown food in recycled old furniture though, and I'm ok. Your mileage may vary so if in doubt, leave it out of your garden and ask a more knowledgeable gardner than me - they'll almost definitely be happy to give you advice.

You'll also need a screwdriver, screws, and if you're making a large bed, a friend to help you move it around.

Why Raised Beds?

A couple of people have asked me why I use raised beds in my garden when I already have great, easy to work soil. It's a fair question.

I actually do a mixture of raised beds and straight into the ground. You don't have to use them and if you put the work in your garden will reward you whether you grow in the ground, in raised beds, in planters or from hanging baskets. But there are advantages to using raised beds.

  • Soil Health and Quality.

Raised beds actually are a really easy way of improving soil health in a specific area. If you have chalk or clay soil that can be difficult to work and compacts easily, you can add nutrients in the form of mulches and composts to make it easier to dig over. If you, like me, have sandy soil that dries out easily, you can added organic matter to help it retain moisture.

  • Weeding

Weeding is soooooo much easier in a raised bed. Because the soil isn't as compacted, it makes pulling young weeds that have self seeded super easy to do by hand. And if you start your bed with a decent weed suppressing layer before adding in your growing medium, it's much harder for them to come up from under ground.

  • Defining the area

This may not be as important to you if you are the only person using your garden, but I share mine with 4 children (and their friends), a dog with a fondness for digging and scratching at the ground, and a husband who likes to mow the grass but doesn't know a buttercup from a butternut and might well mow over my veg patch without careful supervision. Having your veg in raised beds stops people from walking over the soil and compacting it down, making it much easier for you to work with hand tools and for your seeds to easily push through to sprout and form their root systems.

  • Extended growing season
Raised beds warm up much quicker than the ground, so you can plant stuff out earlier.

How to make your raised beds

As I said, this can be as simple or as complicated as you want it to be. The basic principal is to have 4 sides, anchored with stakes into the ground. Size doesnt matter, just make sure you can comfortably reach the middle of it so you won't have to walk on it to weed the middle of the bed, and don't let it be so long that you're tempted to walk across it instead of around it. We used an old bed frame that has been sat in the outbuildings for years because 1) it's too big to fit into my car to take to the tip and 2) I knew I wanted to upcycle it in some way but didn't know what I wanted to do with it.

I did intend to go and buy some stakes - they're not very expensive - but when I told my husband I was trying to build raised beds as cheap as possible he took it as a challenge and decided to make stakes from the part of the bedframe I wasn't using. I'll show you the different stages of his and try to explain how you can adapt it if you aren't using a broken bedframe.

One of the hardest parts of the project was trying to get the slats out of the bed without breaking them. There's no easy way to do that, especially if the bed frame has been sitting somewhere damp and the screws are rusting out. Taking it slowly, using a normal screwdriver (the electric one was making the screws disintegrate) and swearing at it loudly and often, seems to be the best method.

If I were doing this by myself I'd have screwed each plank to a stake in a rectangle and called it done. But, as I said, my enthusiastic engineer husband took over. So he used the existing posts that make up the sides of the bedframe to make the stakes. 
It's tricky to see in my pictures but the bed frame was shaped in such a way that making the corners was fairly simple, but a little different to how you'd do it with separate stakes.  It was easier for us to cut the bedframe around the last two, which will make up the head and foot of the bed, than to try and remove them. We didn't cut flush to the bed slats, because we will need that overhang to secure it into the ground.

Usually if you're making a bed with planks and stakes, you'll want your stakes on the inside of the bed, not the outside as we have done. That was purely us adapting the design to suit the materials we had. If you pop yours on the inside, only have them overhanging one edge (to go into the ground), and have the other edge of your stake be just a couple of inches below your topmost plank,  so you can cover it in soil and don't need to worry about sanding it down.

Once the corners were done, we attached the side planks to the existing "stakes"

And we had the frame of the bed.

This whole process would've been a lot easier if we had bought new screws. My husband decided to take the "frugal" part of my blog really seriously though, and decided to use a mishmash of screws he found lying around the place. They weren't great, but they did the job. An electric screwdriver and a drill made it a lot easier, but new screws would've made it easier still.

I made mine this length and height because that's how much wood I had, but you can make yours higher if you like, just attach your next plank up to the stakes too. Just bear in mind that the higher it is, the more it'll need to be filled up.

Placing your bed

Top tips for placing your bed mainly involve finding a flat place for it. You want your bed fairly level because otherwise one side will get very dry and the lower side may become waterlogged.

Once you've found a flattish spot for your bed, preferably in the sunniest spot of your garden, lay your frame out and mark the ground around the edge. We used lolly sticks, but you could mark it with a spade or a hoe, or even spray paint or string. Then move your frame out of the way and dig up the grass that's there already.

This bit is horrible, there's no getting round that. The only saving grace is that you don't have to dig too deep, just enough to get as many grass roots out as you can. Grass is hardy, and very invasive (that's why it's everywhere) and taking time to do that now will save you so much hassle further down the road when the growing season starts.

Once you've cleared the ground lay your bed frame onto the ground and slowly (so as not to rattle out all your screws), hammer your stakes into the ground. If you have very compacted or clay type soil, you may find it easier to dig a hole out for the stake with a crowbar.

We then sanded down the stumps that were still above ground, using an orbital sander  and grinder my husband uses for work.  If your stakes don't stick out above your planks, you won't need to do that because they'll be covered in soil. If they are a little big you can smooth them with sandpaper but it will take longer.

You can fancy it up by painting it, or make it last longer by lining the sides (not the bottom!) With old compost bags, if you like, but it isn't essential.

Now you've made your bed, well done! But you can't quite plant in it yet, it'll need filling up with compost first.

How to fill your beds for free (ish)

So you've built your bed from scratch and you've put your feet up for a well deserved brew and a browse at compost online. And then you realise, to fill this bed with shop bought compost is going to cost you an absolute fortune. Don't panic, even if you haven't started your compost bin yet or don't have space for one, you can still fill your beds for virtually nothing, so long as you've started in autumn or winter. 

I definitely can't afford the 8-10 sacks of compost it would take to fill this beast of a bed, so I'm going to be using this method as well.

Remember when I told you to save all your prunings to start your own bug hotel?  Well now we get to transform them with garden magic into compost.

I started by lining my bed with newspaper (ignore the diagonally placed plank in the middle, that's just an offcut I used to brace the bed until I fill it because the screws I used weren't great and it's a little rickety)
I lined the bottom of mine with a few layers of newspaper. You could use cardboard, or whatever you have around the place.  You could even use some fancy-pants weed suppressant membrane if you happen to have some. I wouldn't recommend using plastic for the bottom of your bed, because it can make everything soggy and cause your plants to rot from the roots. If you have a large sheet of black plastic though, don't throw it away just yet. When your bed is full you can throw it over the top of your bed to stop weeds getting in and warm the soil before planting.

Once you've got your first layer down, give it a good water. Nothing can grow without water and that includes your soil. You want it to be a living organism, full of worms and bugs, and life, not a sterile thing. Healthy plants start with healthy soil.

Now you can start chucking in whatever organic matter you have. All the garden trimmings can go in there (but maybe avoid invasive perrennial weeds like bindweed that seem to be indestructible, or poisonous plants like Yew that retain their toxicity after they've died down), leaves in various states of decay (provided they arent diseased), cut grass, veg or fruit peelings (go easy on the citrus), even brambles and nettles can go in there (I tend to avoid putting brambles in mine, despite having an abundance of them, because I garden bare handed and the thorns don't break down brilliantly). You can  split open spent teabags and chuck the tea leaves in, add coffee grounds, ground eggshells, anything that would go in your normal compost bin. 

Avoid things like meat, fish, or manure from cats or dogs. You can add in rabbit manure/used sawdust from your hamster, etc, but generally speaking don't add in poop from animals who eat meat. It can attract rats and can harbour diseases like Roundworm or Toxoplasmosis that can survive in your soil and pass onto you.

 You want a good mix of "greens" (veg peelings, etc) and "browns" (cardboard, newspaper, twiggy bits). Don't put huge great big bits in, if you have larger branches and things chop them up first. Add in spent compost from your old planters (for example I'm using the tired out compost I grew potatoes in this year), sawdust from making the bed, wood ash, last year's wood chip mulch, anything you have hanging around. Give everything another good water.

Only use this lasagne method of planting this side of the fallow season. You want to give your veg peelings and things plenty of time to break down  before adding plants, at least 4 weeks in the winter, preferably longer. Exceptions to this are if you intend to plant a cover crop/green manure for winter. I'll talk you through that in a sec.

It shouldn't smell as it breaks down, if it gets pongy give it a stir about with a big stick and throw another layer of shredded newspaper, paper (not shiny printed paper with lots of colours) or grass on top.

A few weeks after you've filled it with this lot,  you should notice it start to sink down and look like it needs filling again.
Thats great, it means the worms are working on breaking it all down into lovely rich compost for you. At that point you can start the process over.

When it is very nearly spring, and I'm sure it's all broken down nicely, I'll top it with a little shop bought compost, just because that contains perlite (to help retain moisture) and added slow release fertilisers.  You don't have to do that though, as long as you keep adding stuff and watering it over winter if it gets very dry, you should have a decent planting medium by spring for pennies.

Once I've got my bed filled I like to cover it to stop weeds getting in. I usually do that with some cardboard, which you can either remove before planting or water thoroughly and plant directly into. You can use a sheet of black polythene (which has the advantage that it'll help warm your soil even quicker) to cover your bed or you can plant a cover crop. 

Cover crops, such as clover, aren't intended for consumption and are just there to hold the soil structure, and add nutrients like nitrogen into the soil. They also help suppress weeds by taking up all the space. When spring comes along you can just dig them until the soil for added nutrients and start with a blank slate.

Composting  is a huge subject,  and probably one for a different post, but there's loads of info out there about what you can put in, and not all of it is conflicting! You may want to add more of a particular item depending on what you're growing (for example if I wanted to grow very nitrogen hungry crops like peas or leafy greens, I'd add lots of nettles). You can really geek out over compost ingredients but I try not to overthink it. Just throw stuff in, try to keep it balanced, and see what works. My gardening style is very much trial and error, and I'm very much a novice, but it has worked for me so far.

What are your favourite composting methods? Have you ever tried lasagne planting in a raised bed? What worked for you? Let me know, and if you have a go at building your own raised bed, I'd love to see it.

Happy growing!

Apple Harvest

I know, I know, you were expecting a post on upcycling a bed into a raised bed this weekend.  I have actually finished that project now and it looks great, but I've been so poorly with tonsilitis that I've not had a chance to write it up yet. I'll try to get that written up this week ready for you to have a go next weekend if you want to.

In the meantime thought I'd pop my head round the door and show you our latest harvests.

After the hackening our tomatoes have started to ripen. I managed to catch a picture of some of them before they were devoured by my children. People keep asking me if they taste better than supermarket ones but I couldn't tell you because the children haven't let me have one yet!
As you can see, some of them are still green and on the vine.  That's because I accidentally broke that vine when trying to reach a ripe tomato.  I've put it in the basket with some ripe ones to ripen on the windowsill. In the next couple of days, before the frosts arrive, I'll be cutting all of the vines and hanging them in the window to ripen. Those that don't ripen will be made into green tomato chutney. I've never tried to do that before so if I end up making some I'll talk you through the process.

Our main harvest today was apples.

It's hard to believe all of those apples came from one dwarf tree! I'll be saving the best to try and store for the children's packed lunches, but will be making most into apple pies, apple sauce, and pectin for jams  and jellies (if I can work out how to store it, since we have no plums this year to make into jam). I really want an apple press! Pressed apple juice is my favourite, and cider one of few alcoholic drinks I actually like.

The tree looks relieved to have given up her fruit, she was so laden down her top branches were almost touching the floor. 

I've left a few of the more manky looking apples at the base of the tree to rot down over winter and feed the insects (so therefore the birds) and the soil, and after picking them all I gave the tree the same organic feed to give to the tomatoes, mixed with rain water. That's not a gardening tip - it's really more of a witch thing to want to thank the garden after harvest - but I've always given my trees a feed or a mulch after they've given me fruit, and they've always seemed grateful for it. Just remember if you're mulching a tree - whether that's with cut grass, bark mulch, leaf mold, or manure - not to let the mulch touch the trunk/stem itself.  It'll make the trunk soggy and that could lead to disease or damage. Leave the trunk a little room to breathe, the worms will take the mulch down into the soil for you to release the nutrients around the roots. 

Now is also a good time to check your fruit trees for any signs of damage (when the tree is heavy  with fruit and it's windy you can end up with split or snapped branches) and tend to it now before winter sets in.

It's new moon here (or close enough for my purposes) so I'm going to try planting some peas to see if they'll overwinter. I'm doubtful but I've read up on it and the variety 'Meteor' is supposed to be very hardy, so I'll let you know how it goes.

Happy growing!

Saturday, 21 September 2019

The Hackening

It's been a busy weekend in the garden, tidying things up and trying to ripen fruits before the first frosts, harvesting what we can, and building the big raised bed for next year. I'm super excited to show that to you, it's another garden upcycle and I'm pleased with how it turned out. But it's not quite finished yet, so I'm going to be sharing that one with you next week [edit: find it here!] If you're planning on growing along with me next spring, now is a great time to start thinking about where you're going to plant things, because a little work now will save a lot of work later. We'll talk more about that next week though. 

Despite the growing season starting to wind down, there's still lots to be done in the garden in September. 

Another Tiny Harvest

We've been busy harvesting. Even our toddler was able to help with that, and he really enjoyed pulling up the carrots.

I grew them in a raised bed made from an old drawer this year. It was great in that the fine, less compacted soil prevented forking, and they were ridiculously easy to pull up. I didn't space them brilliantly, and I could've easily grown another row. I'll definitely do them in my raised bed next year, but I'll plant a lot more, and space them more carefully.  We didn't have any signs of carrot fly at all; whether I can attribute that to the fact I didn't bother thinning them, or if the height of the beds helped, or if we just got lucky, I can't say. 

Another job this week was to clear the dead sweetpeas from the cot bed frame and collect their seeds, ready for the overwintering peas to go into that bed next month.  I cut them down with scissors, leaving the roots in place to slowly release nitrogen into the soil over winter, picked off all the brown seedpods, and dumped the trimmings on top of the (now empty) old bookcase beds. I'll be adding some other bits and bobs over the next month or so to help the soil recover and replenish nutrients over winter.  Again I'll talk about that next week, when I show you my new beds, and how to fill them with nutrient rich soil for very little cash.

One of the things I did add though, was tomato leaves. It really pained me because, as you know, I have a fear of pruning, but it needed to be done. 

Tomatoes - The Hackening

The unseasonably warm weather has been great for my tomatoes. They've produced brilliantly despite basically being neglected completely since being planted. They laughed in the face of cane supports and decided to explore the garden instead, rambling off almost as much as the squashes

 They are (or rather, were) still producing flowers even though September is nearly over and the nights are getting cold. The trouble is, the plants are putting so much energy into producing leaves and new flowers and teeny new fruits, they have none left to ripen the green tomatoes already on there, and I'm worried the frosts will arrive before they have a chance to ripen.

You can ripen green tomatoes indoors using a banana or a sunny windowsill, or make green tomato chutney, but they're sweeter if they ripen on the vine and my children will eat them as if they're sweets. So it was time to get over the pruning fear and get them chopped.

By removing most of the leaves, all of the flowers (*sob*) and the tiniest fruits (*further sobs*), the plant will (hopefully!) start putting all of its energy into ripening the fruits it already has so that the seeds mature. The added light to the tomatoes should help too.

As you can see in the above picture, I just used normal scissors to trim them. You could use a sharp knife or clippers designed specifically for the garden, just so long as whatever you use is clean.  I tried to cut diagonally across the stems so that any moisture could run off instead of hanging around creating the perfect habitat for bacteria to breed.

Again we were very lucky with the tomatoes this year and have had no signs of blossom end rot or major issues with pests.  Even the pigeons have left them alone (so maybe overfeeding them has helped a little). That may be more luck than judgement, but it's possible that the eggshell I added to the compost I had them in as seedlings helped too, so I'll be doing that again next year.  I save up our eggshells through the week, then bake them for 10 mins in the oven to kill off any salmonella type bacteria that might be hanging around and stop them getting smelly, then crush them up and keep them in a jar til they're needed. You can use a pestle and mortar to crush them, but I don't have one of those so I use a mug and a rolling pin. 

Once I had massacred my tomatoes I felt a bit more confident about pruning, so I removed the dead leaves from the butternut/cucumber trellis to give the fruit some more light. I didn't realise until I did that we even had cucumbers still, but I found 2 tiny little ones hiding under the dying leaves 

We've had one butternut already (and delicious it was too, I've never eaten butternut squash before, but was given the seeds and decided to try it. I'm so glad I did, hassleback butternut is lush) but there are a couple of small ones still on the plant, and one tiny one, the size of my little finger. I probably should cut it off for the same reason I cut off all the tomato leaves and tiny fruits,  but I just didn't have the heart to. I'll leave the teeny ones and give them another feed, and see how they do.

Garden Jobs This Month

I'll be talking more about this in my upcoming post about sharing your space with Mother Nature, and getting a hand from her in return, but if leaves are falling and grasses are going to seed in your garden, you might be tempted to give your garden a big pre-winter clean up. Don't do it! Relax, put your feet up, and start planning what you want to grow next year instead. 

Leaf litter provides much needed habitat and shelter for all kinds of garden friendly bugs, and in turn that helps feed the birds over winter. The leaves also provide much needed nutrients to the soil as they rot down. We'll be collecting some of them up for our raised beds over the next month, but a tidy garden is rarely a wildlife friendly garden,  so I won't be fretting about raking every last leaf up. 

I will be planting some peas next week to have a go at overwintering them (I'm using the variety Meteor, because I've heard it's very hardy,  but I'm not very optimistic. I'll the you know how it goes), and cutting back most of the dying perennials, like the giant daisies and fireweed.

 The fireweed has been spreading its seed everywhere, so I've cut some and taken them to areas I want it to grow in next year. I'll leave a few stems when I cut them back to the ground for ladybirds to shelter in. 

The stems I do cut will be going into the raised beds, to enrich the soil and act as a mulch. If I didn't need them for that, they'd be going into the bug hotel - a (now giant) pile of garden trimmings, cut grass, leaves dropped by nearby trees and bits of wood in various states of decay that's tucked behind our compost bin under the hedge at the back of our garden. There's an old rabbit hutch somewhere under there (rabbit removed beforehand) which is an ideal hibernation spot for local hedgehogs. The birds use it as an food source and shelter all year round, and in spring it's alive with ladybirds, a very welcome visitor to any garden. If you have even a tiny space to keep a pile like that, go for it. Our wildlife needs all the help it can get, and in return, it'll help you.

I'll be harvesting the last of the apples around the autumn equinox too. We've had a lot this year, so I'll be baking apple pies for the freezer and maybe trying to work out how to dry apple slices, if they last that long. My children think the best place for long term food storage is in their bellies and when it comes to fruit and veg I'm inclined to agree with them.

And of course the most important job this month: enjoy the last of the warm weather and sunny days before the dark half of the year. 

Half the fun of gardening is in stopping to smell the flowers.

Merry Mabon my lovelies, happy growing x

Sunday, 15 September 2019

"Dwarf" Fruit Trees

In my first post, I mentioned that when I first moved in to this house, I planted three dwarf fruit trees. I promised I'd tell you more about them later. This probably counts as one of my biggest garden fails, was a total rookie mistake, and I'm still not sure how to fix it. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

When we first moved in I was super excited about the idea of food forest gardening - a low effort gardening technique that mimics the multilevel production found in nature. I wanted to get fruit trees planted quickly, so theyd get on with producing fruit quickly (generally speaking, fruit trees take about 3 years to go from bare root plants to producing fruit).

I ordered bareroot dwarf grafted apple, plum and pear trees (Braeburn apple, Conference pear and Victoria Plum if I remember rightly, but it was a long time ago). 

My planting technique was good -they arrived in early November and the weather was quite mild with the soil neither frozen nor waterlogged. I dug a hole about twice the size of the rootball, threw in some fish, blood and bone fertilizer, and planted the trees, backfilling the hole with a mixture of compost and the soil I'd dug up to plant them, up to the soil mark on the trunk where they'd obviously been planted before. They stood about 4 feet high, and the planting instructions (such as they were, you don't get many instructions with budget plants) assured me they'd grow to around 5foot, maximum. That suited my garden size. So far so good.

What went wrong?

My planting technique was great. But my planning left an awful lot to be desired, and my pruning...well.

I've always been scared of pruning. I worry about cutting back too harshly and damaging the tree, or inviting in disease and pests. And I figured that wild trees never get pruned, and they're fine. This was one occasion where I should've ignored my instincts and got some advice from a seasoned gardener.

Fast forward 10 years, and I'm trying to reclaim the garden. The apple tree is a nice size. It struggled to get going because the corner I planted it in doesn't have a lot of light and it is competing for nutrients with a huge overgrown hedge and other wild plants, but this past two years it's given us a bumper crop, with no maintenance at all. One out of three aint bad I guess.

The Conference pear and Victoria Plum are now both well over 30 feet high and still growing. 

Here is the Victoria Plum, taken from an upstairs window. Dwarf tree she most definitely is not. Despite all that blossom, we had only one plum this year. I'm not sure if that's just because the birds were stripping the fruits off when they were tiny, or if the tree has just put so much energy into height, it has nothing left to give for fruit.

As you can see, I planned the site of the tree badly. It's up against my boundary, so I can't walk all the way around the tree, and my lack of pruning means it's now helplessly out of control, and I'm not sure how to rescue it, or if it even is salvageable at all. If you have advice, I'd be very happy to hear it.

It's a similar story with the Conference Pear. It shot up and is a similar height to the plum, but it has never fruited, and blossomed only once.

 Looking back I think it may have had signs of pear tree rust when I first got it, so I always assumed that's why it didn't fruit, but much like the plum, it's now far too huge to manage anyway, and poorly sited so I can't walk around it.  At least the birds love to nest in them, and we get the joy of being greeted by song every time we step out the door.

So, that went wrong. That's something I find myself saying a lot when it comes to the garden. But there's hope for my mixed orchard yet.

The picture is pretty awful, but during the years of neglect the Victoria Plum must've dropped a plum, and it has grown into a healthy looking little sapling.

It's currently just under my shoulder height, and seems really happy, so I'm going to wait until the dormant season and then attempt to move it across the garden to become part of my mixed native hedge.  It's really important I don't let it grow out of control like the others (apart from anything else, that would upset my neighbours and block light to my planned veg garden) but I'm thinking that if I'm brave about pruning it should be fine. And if I cut it back too hard and it dies, I won't have lost any money on it.  I'm not sure it'll ever fruit, coming from a dropped seed rather than being a grafted tree, but I'm always happy to have more nesting sites in my garden for the birds and the insects. After all, they were here before me, it's their home too.

When I move it, I'll try and film the process to show you how it's done.

In The Beginning...

The Kitchen Witch's Garden

Most of the people reading this blog will have come over from twitter, where my kitchen garden journey began under the hashtag #VsBoringGardenTweets. Those folk will have to forgive me for going over old ground here while I catch you all up with the story so far.

I moved to my current home about 10 years ago. Before this place we lived in a tiny flat with a shared garden we weren't allowed to cultivate, so when we were given a small front yard and medium sized back garden we were really excited. Ha!

We planted three "dwarf" fruit trees (more on those later) out back, then focused on trying to make the front garden neater. I had visions of restoring what had obviously once been a beautiful cottage garden. My dreams were quickly swallowed by bindweed, brambles, and ground elder. In the end I rescued what I could (a few of the giant daisies and the fuchsia) and plonked them in the back garden, then ripped up what was left, covered it in weed suppressing material and topped it with gravel. I was gutted - I try hard to work with Mother Nature rather than against her, and a sea of stone chips isn't exactly environmentally friendly. It felt like a huge fail, and that my dream of wandering through my kitchen garden, deciding what was for tea based on what was ripe, was destined to stay just that-a dream.

Disgruntled, disenchanted, and more than a little daunted, I ignored the back garden completely. For about a decade.

You know what happens when you ignore a garden for 10 years? Mother Nature gets to work.

The pic above shows about a quarter of the garden before I started working on it, but the photo doesn't really do it justice. The brambles were taller than me (I'm 5'3") and as thick as my wrist. I had no money, no skills or expertise, and no tools to speak of.

The advantage to starting with an absolute mess though, is that whatever you do, you can't really make things worse. Armed with some kitchen scissors, a small hacksaw, and a lot of determination, I went in. A full-on smallholding wasn't going to create itself (and a fully self sufficient one is likely not possible on the little land I have) but I could make a start.

I didn't know I was going to be blogging our journey to a kitchen garden when I started, so unfortunately I didn't take many pictures of the clearing out process.

I chopped everything to the ground with my trusty kitchen scissors and an elderly hacksaw. It won't lie and say it was easy, it was horrendous. A few days in though, I was lent an electric hedge trimmer. That made the process much quicker and, despite having a budget of basically nothing, I decided that was an investment worth making, so I bought one of my own. That made the whole process much easier and quicker and, despite having cut myself to ribbons on brambles and not having a single speck of my body that wasn't covered in nettle rash, I managed to get most of the brambles, ivy, nettles, and bindweed cut to ground level. I felt like a superhero, and my garden felt huge.

I had no idea what to do next, so I appealed to twitter to give me no-budget garden tips. Turns out, the gardening community are absolutely adorable and love nothing more than helping a clueless novice like me get growing.

I was inundated with advice, and given some seeds, gloves and even some gardening tools. Definitely easier than trying to dig with a tablespoon and prune with kitchen scissors.

My shed is currently full of old junk that I couldn't take to the tip, so I decided to reuse what I could, both to save money, and as an attempt to make less of an impact on the natural world. I didn't take pics of the process (although I'll try to make you a step by step guide for a future post) but I turned a couple of broken drawers and old bookshelves into raised beds/planters, and turned my youngest's old cot into a pea trellis.

When I was done clearing and building some beds, it looked something like this:

Hard to believe it's the same section of garden, isn't it?

The path was already there (which was news to me), but the rest if it was built by me, over the course of a couple of weeks.  In the top left of the picture, you can see the base of the cot leaning against the house. I dug the bottom of it in to stabilise it and that will (hopefully!) be the trellis for my jasmine plants to climb up.

Below that in the pic, still on the left, you can see the old bookcases I made into raised beds.  The bed next to them is where the giant daisies and fuchsia from the front garden were dumped, and you can see a planter with some strawberries in, and a green bag that has seed potatoes in.

On the top right of the image is the pea trellis I made out of the cot sides (I'll do a detailed post about that in the near future) and below that is the raised beds made of old drawers. It wasn't too bad as a quick bodge, but I'll be doing my future raised beds differently.

The garden is a huge work in progress still. We've learned what works, what definitely doesn't, and why, pretty as it undoubtedly is, we hate bindweed. We've had some excellent crops and some epic fails, and learned a lot about the needs of our particular garden. I'll try and catch you up with the story so far in future posts.

Next year, I want to go all out, and turn about half the garden into a fully functioning allotment. I till have no idea what I'm doing (although I feel more confident in my ignorance now), I still have no money, and this very "helpful" beast

has decided that he really likes digging too. But the benefits, for my mental health, for my physical health, for my children's newly found tolerance of vegetables, and for the local wildlife, far outweighs the nettle rash, bad backs, and epic pintrest fails.

I've loved growing some food this year, and feeling closer to the earth. Hopefully now I have the skills under my belt to scale everything up -or learn a few hundred more ways that don't work.

Come along with me as I battle bindweed and brambles and try to turn my neglected garden into a functional kitchen garden on a shoestring, without upsetting Mother Nature too much.