March BlogOpen Close
March is here, and for me it’s arrival has mixed blessings. The Edible Garden Show is on at the end of the month! But I won’t be there, just not well enough. But, as the rain falls gently on our newly built raised beds and the chickens tidy all the pellets they have wantonly spread over their run, there is cause for cheer.
The world of self sufficiency does not come to an end because of illness, and there are still jobs to be done. I have made life easier for myself by having raised beds built in the garden. It is just easier for me to sit on the edge when I am working, and I don’t have to bend over too far either to work the soil and plant. It is much more manageable.
It is quite remarkable how much you can get into a raised bed. Just one - ours are about 2.5 metres by 1.5 metres and about 30 cm deep, will keep us in lettuce all the summer round - and I do eat a lot of lettuce. I am also starting to plant up the straw bale ares, which make brilliant receptacles for growing - particularly herbs, and flowers. What you do is to cur a hole in the bale and fill with compost. Of course, you can cut many holes. Then you plant in the compost. The plants grow into the bale too, of course, and eventually, when the crop is taken, you can compost the lot, or just throw it in the chicken run for them to seek out the roots from the straw, and poo on the rest of it.
Either way, you get really good compost - I prefer it poo’d on, it’s much better!
There have been a few other changes, irritating ones. I can’t easily climb the hill, so I only get away very slowly! But the hill has been more than my downfall. All the rain we have had this year has sent the posts that hold the gate in place on walkabout. It’s only maybe an inch in total, but this means, with the weight of the cast iron gate, the post - that is probably as old as the 300 year old cottage, is now on its way south, and we have fitted a new one - I say we when I really mean Darren did it, and a new home made gate to go with it.
Now is a good time to get new hens. If you but point of lay little brown jobbies (LBJ’s we call them) they will be laying by Easter, probably, and you will get a good run of egg production before the drop in light starts to affect them. LBJ’s tend not to go broody, so you can possibly get eggs from easter to Christmas any beyond! We have some we hatched ourselves, and it wasn’t all that successful a hatching. Of twelve we only got six, and one of those died - he was really badly deformed, and whereas we thought we could sort him, it was clear he wasn’t going to make it, and anyway the rest of the hens would have picked on him. This left us with only five, and one of them is a noisy cockerel.
So far the combination of dark mornings, the sturdy hen house and double glazing means he hasn’t woken us or the neighbours at an unearthly hour, but we are withholding judgement on him until the summertime. Quite what we will do with him is not finalized - I don’t want to eat him just because he is a pain in the ear.
Interestingly we were offered a cockerel from a friend recently. He looks a serious piece of work! I wouldn’t want to meet him on a dark night. But he bought him thinking it was a hen from a garden centre and when he started pecking at the children, he took it back. the garden centre wouldn’t take him back, even though he was sold as a POL chicken!
I suppose the moral of the story is buy from the experts, there are enough charlatans in the world.
In the garden it is time to be sowing. Get your potatoes chitted, and plant first earlies by the end of the month. Sow tomatoes, peppers, cabbages, caulies and while you are at it you can go for peas and plant onion sets too.
But most importantly get your tickets for the Edible Garden Show, and when you are there, enjoying all the fun, think of us.
February BlogOpen Close
Lets get into sowing! Why not, the weather is awful anyway, you can’t walk on the grass and it’s sort of impossible to do anything without being soaked or blown away. So the thing is, get the kitchen table covered with newspaper, buy or use your own compost, collect some seed trays and some seeds and lets sow. At least you can get a brew indoors while you watch the garden blow / flow / freeze away!
You can still, just about, sow onions. It’s nearly time for onion sets, but pop some seeds in compost and they’ll soon catch up. The traditional day for onions is Boxing Day, so you’ll see we are a bit late.
There is always time for spring onions or scallions as they call them around the world. I tend to grow them in containers of compost - almost any old container will do, and then grab a handful when I need them. So you can start them off now (I just sowed some in a cardboard box of compost) and these will end up in a frost free greenhouse, eventually.) and then in a month do some more. You can basically put them anywhere you like really.
You can start peppers off now, and this one really is a kitchen windowsill plant. I sow them in modules and keep them above 20ºC to germinate. The hotter ones need higher germinating temperatures, and some of the really hot chili need temperatures higher than 25ºC.
Keep them moist but not wet, so you don’t get damping off - which is a fungal infection caused by high humidity. At the next show there will no doubt be a number of people selling propagators, and if you buy one, make sure it has plenty of opportunities for ventilation. It doesn’t matter how hot you get your seeds, if they are not properly ventilated, they will not do so well.
Now sowing in February can have its own problems, especially if you are tempted to sow tomatoes. The thing is they will germinate fine, but they will keep on growing apace, making them too big and lanky to transplant properly. So wait until the end of the month if you can, or better still into March. I tend to sow a module tray now and keep three or four plants for growing on in the kitchen and leave them all the summer, my main tomato sowing takes place at the end of March.
It is time, however, for chitting potatoes - and this is something I have always done, even when the BBC suggested it wasn’t necessary. It is a kind of punctuation, something to do that starts the season. I use old egg boxes and simply leave the potatoes in the light in a cool spot. It is quite simple - once the enzymes start to convert starch in the potato into sugar, the buds - or eyes if you will, burst into life, and the potato goes all soft.
With all this water about I will be growing Sarpo this year, a blight resistant variety.
It is far too wet to work on the beds, so keep off them! However I am plonking garlic bulbs into module pots for my ‘lets confuse all the insects’ ploy. these are just garlic bulbs from the supermarket - I am not really growing them for food, but to increase the number of aromas around my beds so that when the summer comes, the insects might be warned off by their smell.
Normally I always say buy real growing garlic, and these are the ones to grow for eating, but the supermarket plants give you a great variety of anti insect patrol plants. But they are more useful than even that! If you haven’t a garden, you can grow these in pots and plonk them anywhere and when you need some garlic, collect one, chop the leaves up just as though they were chives and add them to your cooking. They are just as garlicy, just as good for you as the real stuff.
There is still time for pruning plants, disposing of raspberry canes and opening up gooseberry plants. If you imagine a dish, then your plant needs branches that are just like that - dish shaped. This allows the greatest amount of air circulation and the reduction of fungal infections.
Also cut out branches that are touching each other, remember to wear gloves. You can, of course, pot the cuttings on if you have a warm windowsill to keep them on. This is especially important now because it’s mild-ish.
Many plants will be throwing out buds because it’s warm, but soon enough all this wet will become all this frost, and we’ll have a mess on our hands, with dead buds - so you rose lovers, please have a winter prune!
January Blog 2014- Happy New Year!Open Close
It’s 2014 - Happy New Year Everyone!
As if you didn’t already know the year, except the odd few who were over zealous with the home brew. I imagine there is lots to think about, plan and do but January is a sluggish time of the year, it’s all that food. But there is lots to be getting on with in January!
You can start with onions seeds. It’s time for sowing onions, all you need is a deep tray, not one of those little things you get with plastic lids on, but you can use them if you like, but something twice the depth. Actually I have used all kinds of things in the past, an old pan, a roasting tin (suitably rusty) a cardboard box, a broken plastic toy box, the kind accountants use to keep your paperwork in just in case!
Fill with compost and then broadcast the seeds all over the surface, covering lightly and watering in. They end up on the windowsill where it’s reasonably warm, but they don’t really need that much heat. Keep them reasonably moist, though not that wet - avoid rotting them off, and then in late April or early May they can be transplanted.
All you need to do is tip them out, separate them from each other and then plant them in their final growing spaces. Easy really. Do exactly the same with leeks.
It’s also a good idea to start off small (5 inch ish) pots of chives to live on the windowsill, and every time you want them, snip a bit off. They’ll keep growing for ever so long as you are not too greedy with them, and keep them moist. I find them ideal for adding to soft cheese, whenever we make a batch its snip snip and the chives get a haircut and we get brilliant cream cheese with chives.
January is a great time for making cheese because it’s not too warm. Sounds a bit mad, that, since you need temperatures of around 30 C to make it in the first place. But what I mean is the bacterial side of things. I always have this argument with people about making cheese, of bacon or curing meat or even making beer. You have to be sure what you are growing in the mix.
So when I make cheese one way I do it is to add a pot of yoghurt to the milk as a starter. It adds flavour and increases the acidity that helps the rennet to work. Then, once the rennet is added and the curds cut, I press very lightly and then leave it in a sterile a place I can find for a few days to ‘mature’. What I mean by maturing is really for extra whey to evaporate, but still I get a reasonably crumbly, moist cheese by this method. However, the fridge is certainly not a sterile place! It usually is left standing in a box on a cheese mat, the whole lot having been cleaned with vinegar.
Now during this time, the bacteria in the yoghurt I had added will be multiplying, by the minute, and this is quicker in the warm! And will all the other bacteria that may have landed on the cheese. So I find as cool a place as possible to slow this process, and the utility room is best for this, especially now it’s January.
Well you just can’t be too careful.
You have heard me ranting on about potatoes for ages. Please grow them! It is not good enough to say you can buy them cheaply at the supermarket so what’s the point. Growing potatoes, and knowing how to grow them, is an important skill. Yes, there are books to read, but that’s not enough. The point is that to know what it’s like, to put them in the ground, to do it your self. To care for them, to dig them up, and of course, to taste new potatoes that were growing one minute, in the pan the next - these things can’t be written about!
Now is the time to start thinking seed potatoes and what you are going to plant. For my money, and this is all the advice I have, if the weather continues on this violent but mild route, I would buy blight resistant ones, such as Sapro.
Speaking of blight, it’s a good idea to get tomato seeds on order too. This year I want to grow lots of tomatoes and peppers, since last year was a bit of a washout for me personally. But then the whole of last year was an amazing experience I don’t wish to repeat.
Maybe the best thing you can do right now, certainly once pay day comes around at the end of the month and we all breathe a sigh of relief after the expensive holiday season, is to buy your Edible Garden Show TicketsHaving had such a wonderful time in past years, I am getting really excited about the new show at Alexander Palace!
Snug and warm in their raised bed!Open Close
One of the things we had planned this year was to start to raise hens from an incubator. Many Edible Garden Show friends are, I am quite sure, thinking exactly the same. Today saw the hens, now 12 weeks old, and full of feathers go into the garden. The problem is we started far too late. My heart attack knocked me back a few months, and we started in late August.
Normally, chicks are fully grown by the end of September, and quite happy with freezing temperatures. Indeed there is a debate running around about heaters. I never had a hen die of cold, not even -18C! But I have lost them in the heat.
But these babies are still small, half size and the first week in December is going to end with a really cold spell. So I worry about them. Fortunately I have an answer that might allow me to sleep at night, and I do hope the hens will benefit too!
We have some raised beds in the garden that have poly tunnel tops on them, hinged, so I can grow right through the winter, but unfortunately for much of the summer I couldn’t even lift the lid. So we have set the hens in one of them, so they can be outside, but at the same time get a little extra protection because they are still quite small.
Remember, the smaller the animal, the colder it gets. This is why little mice bury themselves in the dry stone walls in a little fur lined hole and sleep the winter through. (I just love our field mice, they scurry around, and i always leave them a few seeds to top themselves up with.
Hens take themselves to bed at night, but they have to be taught how to do it. When I first put them in the run they simply stood around and looked blank. After all they have been waited on hand and foot, meals and water on tap, central heating. Now they are still getting fed and watered (of course) but they are just learning how to be big chickens!
One thing to remember is they will eat more being outside. Yes, they enjoy scratching about in the soil, picking up worms and the like, but I always make sure they have plenty of extra corn about. Their diet is still layers pellets - actually mine are still on chick crumb, but they will move up to grown up food soon. The extra corn goes in during the late afternoon, and the digestion of the hard seeds keeps them warm at night.
Around the rest of the garden it is time for sowing, planting, pruning and tidying. Did you think because it was December and cold you could get away with it?
Still time to plant garlic, and I suppose you could just get away with plonking some onion sets in the ground if you cover them with a cloche. Onions are seriously hardy, and onion sets are particularly so. They have already been frozen to an extent that the flower bud, deep in the onion, has been killed, and this stops the plant growing to seed. So if you plant them now, they might not do much, but as soon as it warms up they’ll be off like a rocket.
In the greenhouse you can sow winter lettuce and broad beans. Beans will germinate in modules and you can transplant them on any day that is not actually freezing. Don’t grow them warm, they will just grow too quickly and be a waste of time.
I try to grow winter lettuce indoors, it takes a while for them to germinate, but once they do a cool greenhouse is enough for them to grow on. Actually, if you prefer, grow them in a box on a windowsill, then you can take a leaf for a sandwich whenever you want.
If you haven’t already, you can clean the greenhouse and the water butts, and add just a tablespoon of bleach to the water butt. It will freshen the water, and by the time you need to use it again, the bleach will have gone.
Make sure the panes of glass in the greenhouse are all secure. One year the wind too a pane out and I couldn’t find it anywhere. Eventually we spotted it, high up a tree in next door’s garden. It scared me to death thinking their grandchildren were in danger of being hit by glass.
So, what do you want for Christmas? Maybe tickets to The Edible Garden Show? For me it is to be fit enough next year to see you all there in the Spring.
One last task! If you want a little peace this Christmas, remember Boxing Day is the traditional day for sowing onion seeds. So a good hour in the shed, radio on listening to Christmas carols, a mug of Christmas Tea (send for the recipe - plenty of the hard stuff in it) and a couple of module trays of compost - just the ticket for a bit of peace.
November BlogOpen Close
November is often a thinking month and interestingly a lot of people think about starting gardening right now. It’s possibly the best time to start a new garden, so here are a few pointers along the way.
If you are going to grow vegetables on your land then you might as well go the whole hog and make them organic ones. And you can grow them in a way that benefits the whole garden.
There are five million people at the moment thinking of ‘downsizing’ and buying a house with some land. Even more are interested in growing vegetables of their own and perhaps keeping a few hens. So if you can show that your garden is capable of a good veg plot then you are well on the way to adding quite a considerable value to your property – as well as having some healthy food to boot.
Allocate your time
Don't bite off more than you can chew. People have large plans and consequently mess the whole garden. Take a small chunk first and convert this before you move on to the next bit. Allocate a small amount of time on one day each week when you can be at the plot and stick to it. Anything else is a bonus!
Have a good look round
Plan for water access, rubbish removal, what grows well in other gardens, and in particular where your plot is situated in relation to the rest of the garden. Is it higher up, close to possible vandal attack, drier, wetter? The numbers of perennial weeds - dandelions and docks are an important indicator to the basic fertility of the soil.
Decide on your paths
One of the major don'ts in an organic regime is not to walk on your soil if you can avoid it. This will also depend on what crops you wish to grow. If you want staples, and lots of them; potatoes, cabbages and the like, give yourself plenty of room between paths and work the soil from a plank. If you want smaller crops, herbs and salads, set your paths more closely, creating beds two arms distance apart; so you can easily reach the middle. If you can, cement in the edge of your paths and leave them proud of the soil surface. This will create fewer opportunities for slugs and snails to shelter during the day.
Plan out your plot
It is always a good idea to make a drawing of your plot and decide what you want to go where. This process will provide a lot of knowledge about your plot as you look again and again at the possibilities It will also allow you to get straight in your mind which areas you need to work on first, according to your priorities.
Muck and cover
With your plan pinned to the back of your kitchen door, mark off those areas you are working on and allocate the land to a regime of muck and cover. An excellent weed control system that feeds the soil. Cover any planned areas you do not wish to work on right away with a thick layer of manure and cover this with plastic. Over a period of time the fermenting process will have killed the surface weeds and worms will have dragged the material into the soil.
Get your hands dirty
There are lots of ways of clearing weeds from a plot. Turning the soil and leaving them to die is effective so long as you continue to hoe up material for a long time afterwards. By far the best way is to dig over the soil and remove by hand each perennial weed, thick root and leafy plant, leaving bare earth behind. This teaches you a lot about how weeds grow in your soil, and removes most of them.
Plan for rotation
Many gardeners believe they should copy farming rotation to aid the fertility of the soil. This is not strictly true because the average vegetable plot receives about ten times the amount of fertiliser than a farmer's field. Rotation is about disease prevention. You are looking to improve the soil so that it has a complete balance of predators and prey animals that will take out some of the nasties that attack your crop.
You will want to grow from seed, and this is greatly enhanced by having some glass to grow under. Plan for a cold frame, which can be heated from below by a deeply covered layer rotting manure, which was the way the Victorians used to do it, called a hot bed. A greenhouse will improve your potential even further, but don't just run out and buy one, a little patience on most allotments will find someone giving one away, and you can probably get them to help you erect it too!
October BlogOpen Close
Is now the right time?
I was asked by a lady about now being the right time for setting eggs off in an incubator. Let me explain. We have set up a chick cam, in an incubator there are 12 eggs, and once things start to happen with them you will be able to watch them hatch and their progress.
But it’s October! Won’t they get cold? Well, yes they would if we were going to keep them in the garden without protection. But they will spend quite a time in the house, where they will remain snug and warm, and then they are going into two special places in the garden.
We have some raised beds with poly tunnel tops on them, and these will be home to six youngsters each, assuming there are no casualties on the way, until they are big and strong enough to withstand whatever the weather can throw at them. Moreover, they will be ready for laying by Easter of next year, and consequently, we should get a whole Spring and Summer of good laying.
The birds we have are all kinds of crosses but some pure breed too.
2 Cream Legbar (blue)
2 Cotswold Legbar (light green)
2 Mottled Leghorns
2 Welsummer X Light Sussex
2 Rhode X Light Sussex
2 Rhode X Barred Plymouth Rock
These weren't what we ordered, and indeed I was a little disappointed that we had been sent only two eggs of the type. The chances of them both being cockerels is very high, and knowing our luck we’ll have lost four chicks (you always lose some) and the rest will be males. But it’s all good fun.
The moral of the story is to make sure you know where your eggs are coming from, preferably from a registered breeder and get eggs, or birds, you know well to be of the type. Preferably from someone round the corner too, as sending eggs through the post is always fraught with difficulty.
Ours arrived all intact, and I do believe they are all developing well, but problems are not uncommon from posted eggs. Once they hatch, which you will be able to watch live online, and I hope it isn’t going to be too harrowing, and then it’s off into the chick pen, where they will wander around, eat chick mash, drink water from pebble filled drinkers to keep them from drowning and hopefully develop into some lovely chickens.
Will we eat them? Yes!
Unless we can find a home for the males, then we will eat the males as they grow large enough. This might sound hard to do, and yes, I am as sentimental as the next person, but I feel I would prefer to eat a cockerel that has had some freedom to be what he was born to, rather than being stuck in a cage, or has spent a few short weeks in a huge shed with thousands of his mates, having to compete for everything, space, food, water.
At least this was a real chicken.
But if we get a nice pair of pure breed male and female, we have the starting of a good flock. Not that I would breed them together, but I would at least be encouraged to introduce some of the same breed from another source, so they are not so closely related.
One of the things about being self sufficient is that you are a bit of an all rounder. You’re not just a chicken farmer, you’re a beekeeper, a vegetable gardener, the builder of garden pizza ovens, the repairer of poly tunnels, a plumber, a seedsman, baker, brewer of beer, teller of tales.
We often forget, or simply lose out, on the social side of life. If we are lucky enough to have an allotment, then there is some interaction there, but we can be a bit solitary at times. Di and I went to the Harvest Festival of the Rossendale branch of Incredible Edible this weekend. It was a chance to thank the gardeners for a year’s hard work, and speak to the various stallholders who themselves did so many of the things we love to do ourselves. For example, there was a sausage maker who kept their own pigs, a chap who made chutney by the gallon (piccalilli was gorgeous!) and a cheese maker whose cows lived on the tops of the moors - sooner them than me! It was super talking about their techniques and how they overcame the same problems we have but on a smaller scale.
For example, making a hard cheese is not too difficult when you have 400 gallons of milk, but when you only have one gallon, it’s a bit tricky!
But just talking to these people is not only a serious joy and lifts the spirits, but it’s also informative, you get answers to your own little questions, sometimes just by osmosis!
That’s one of the main reasons why I love the Edible Garden Show, it gives me a chance to get out into the crowd and talk to people, to pick up ideas, see what’s new, and see some of the people we have contact with all the year through, but by email or on social media. We really do underplay the importance of simply getting together and chatting.
Of course, next year we are all at Alexander palace. How posh can you get? Well, I am sure the good natured down-to-earth banter of 20 000 self sufficiency buddies will keep our feet on the ground!
September BlogOpen Close
September brings all kinds of treats to the home self sufficiency enthusiast. For a start there is harvest, and for me this usually means tomatoes and what to do with them. For some time I decided not to force my green tomatoes into red, because they were always disappointing when it comes to flavour.
There are many ways of doing it so long as you remember that it is ethylene gas that actually does the ripening. It is a plant hormone that is particularly associated with senescence and death, ripening and the fall of fruit. It is given off by ripe fruit, which in its turn ripens the fruit around it. So greenhouses with rotting bananas have a higher concentration of ethylene and this causes the tomatoes to redden up.
But somehow, I am not that happy with the flavour and the nature of the flesh compared to fruits that have ripened on their own, and to be honest - in a normal year at least, I have enough toms not to bother.
This year, however, I have only a few,and the likelihood is they will all be green, but there you go, plenty of chutney.
Potatoes are another good harvest right now. I have none! When they should have been planted I was , let’s say, disposed. And the following months I couldn’t even pick one up. No matter, we have decided to eat fewer potatoes next year in favour of beans. But this means some hard work - particularly when it comes to the soil. You see, spuds like plenty of rotted manure in the soil, lots of nutrients, but more water holding too. But it’s the same with beans. We are going to grow lots of beans, runners and broad beans, of course, but more than that - haricot beans, because I have my eye on lots of kilner jars full of home made baked beans! Not the type that you have on toast, nor those insipid ones you get in a can, but strong, meaty, garlic ridden beans ready for a ragu or a million pasta dishes.
And then there are peas for next year. Of course, ordinary peas we all love, but chickpeas, the variety ‘Edamame’ which cost a fortune when in the supermarkets, and taste wonderful. I am hoping to get enough to dry some and make flour for chapati - such an easy recipe - just add water, a teaspoon of olive oil and a pinch of salt and cook on a griddle. I don’t know the quantities because I just add enough water to make a dough, and that’s it.
I know, I’m sad, but I get really excited when I think that people have been cooking this for 20 000 years. It connects me to the past, and gives me a warm feeling.
You know, it nearly destroyed me, that heart attack. Not just the actual event, but the after effects. How do you carry on trying to grow your own food, look after bees and hens and do everything when you can’t even stand up without getting dizzy or falling over or breathless?
Truth is, you know, you do it slowly.
And you have a wonderful family to help you on your way. Which brings me to something I feel I need to say at this point in the year. When you look to the past, and how we used to live, we did it in families. There was always someone there to do a job, to help out and to make sure things got paid or finished, or mended.
But the trend of the times is the individual. That’s why I hate the term Self Sufficient. I am less self sufficient than ever I was because I simply rely on people to help me. Sometimes to cut the grass, sometimes to collect wood, sometimes to water the tomatoes. Always to get me to the hospital or the doctors, which happens all too often.
So why say these things now, in September? Well, it’s because this month above all is a time for preparation. A time for making sure we get everything ready for next year, the winter and all that. We have started to stockpile wood - sometimes I have done it, in a small way, but Diana and Darren more so. But it is getting done! Maybe we should call it Team Sufficiency, for Family Sufficient!
Anyway, enough of the romantic talk
What should we be up to in September.
More than anything else, get some beer on to brew, some ham in soak and start a weekly day of sausage making because these will last you right through to Easter, and save you a fortune.
There are also billions of brambles out there to make wine, and believe me you cannot get better wine than bramble, if you add a little red grape concentrate to it too. Clear a space for some bottles and get cracking with it. The first will be just about ready to brush your teeth with for Christmas, and much better a couple of months later.
Perhaps the best bit of kit I have is the vacuum packer I got from the very good friend of the Edible Garden Show, Weschenfelder and Sons. It allows me to make bacon, vacuum seal it as though it was from the supermarket and then pop in the freezer. Same goes for sausages too.
Then there are beds to make. Not in the bedroom, in the garden. When you empty your beds, fertilise them, dig them over, cover them up and prepare them for crops.
Alliums for planting now include:
Garlic – don’t use shop bought garlic, buy from the garden centre or dealer. Press a clove at 20cm (8 in) intervals into the soil about 3cm (1in) deep.
Onion sets – Over wintering onion sets (little bulbs not seeds) can be pressed in to the soil at a depth of around 1cm. Use a dibber to make a hole first 1cm deep and firm them in well otherwise they will throw themselves up again. Space at around 30 cm (1 ft)
And you can sow seeds in September:
Spring onions – in drills (a ‘scrape’ in fine soil 6 – 8 cm (3 in) deep and as long as you wish) at 3 cm (1 in) apart. Keep the drills at least 40 cm (18 in) apart.
Spring Cabbage – treat them like spring onions, but then you will thin them down gradually until you have plants at something around 40 cm ( 1 ft to 18 in) apart.
Turnips – treat exactly like spring cabbage.
Salad – rocket, mizuna, lettuce and other salads can all be sown. So thinly in a drill a little more densely than spring onion. Keep the drills at least 40 cm (18 in) apart.
And finally, the equinox comes in this month, which means the tides are high, and low too. So you can, if do fish, fish for pollack, bass and mackerel, salt them, take them home and make fish pie.
August BlogOpen Close
We are trying something new. We are incubating some chicks, not that that is new, but we are also going to put them on the internet - we’re setting up a web cam so people can check their progress. That’s what’s new.
We have a spanking new incubator which seems to be all singing and all dancing. The first ones we ever saw were quite wonderful beasts - a heater with a lid and that was that. You had to turn the eggs manually and you had to work out the humidity in your head by taking the temperature with a wet/dry thermometer - not that we bothered, we just kept it moist with a wet sponge.
This one we have is somewhat different. There is a reservoir with a tube that feeds a sponge, and the on board computer works everything out, all you have to do is turn it on, do the settings and you’re away. The rocking motor turns the eggs and that’s that, 20 days later you have chicks.
However there is a little more to it than that. The machine doesn’t candle the eggs, to see if there is a live embryo inside, so you have to do that. Maybe, in the future, there’ll be a genetic tester also to let you know which are male and which female, allowing you to discretely get rid of the boys leaving the girls to develop. However, that’s just a pipe dream!
Actually, that’s what the eggs do - when they are about to start pecking their way out of the shell. They start piping, probably as a warning to mum, and as a wake up call to the other chicks to get a move on.
It takes around 21 days for eggs to hatch, but they are clever, eggs. Once laid they remain dormant until the temperature rises, and then they start to develop. It’s a brilliant idea - imagine the difficulty of having chicks being born every day and then having to raise them at very different stages of development. This way they all hatch more or less on the same day.
Of course, in nature, this happens when mother hen goes broody and decides to start sitting on the eggs she has carefully gathered together, perhaps over ten days or so. She sits on them, warming them up, triggering the development and then, 21 days later you have chicks!
Of course, you have to expect problems. First of all you might have some dud eggs, which are dead, and this reduces your catch. Then chicks die, and you have to be ready for this. It’s not altogether pleasant, and it can be upsetting, but it’s life in the bird world. Then you can be left, say out of a clutch of a dozen eggs with six males, which generally you don’t want, three dead, and three females - or worse!
So you need a plan. I know it’s not all that popular an idea with many, but we will eat most of our males. They will live an excellent life, they will be well fed, clean, with loads of space to run around in and they will have the run of the ladies too. What more could a virile cockerel want in life? And, on top of this, he’ll live a lot longer than his commercially bred counterpart.
It’s a part of living self sufficiently, or as self sufficiently as possible, getting into the nitty gritty of life. For two pins I could be a vegetarian, but I don’t think I could live without eggs. If I buy eggs, even free range eggs, I am causing chicken kind some misery - particularly when it comes to the disposal of males.
This way at least, I am making sure the hens that feed us, both eggs and meat are getting the best start in life, and do enjoy a good life too.
In order for this to happen I need to make sure they are immunised against all the various poultry problems that come their way. Of course, some of this is for my protection too - particularly when it comes to nasty bugs like salmonella.
Once they have hatched, the fun starts. It will be a question of keeping them warm, which is done with a lamp, 24 hours a day. I wonder how they might get by with the light on all that time. Too low and they get too hot, too high and they are cold, and huddle together for warmth. And they need good water and chick crumbs to eat. Above all they need leaving alone, despite the desperate temptation to pick them up!
The big problem we have is the cat, who pretends not to be interested, then having worked out in his mind how he will do it, rushes in to have a go at opening the lock to the cage to get to the chicks. Thankfully our dog, Pippin, thinks he us big brother and is usually to be found somewhere on guard.
Preparing for a Winter cropOpen Close
Benefits of using Polytunnels
The polytunnel extends the growing period, turning Manchester into Mexico and London into Lisbon. So now is a good time to think about what you could grow in the winter.
You can easily say that the polytunnel turns our four seasons into three, a warmish bit, a very warm bit and a cool bit. The winter is six weeks late and the spring a couple of months early. Not only is it useful to get your frost sensitive summer plants a good start, you can fill in the hungry gap with plentiful crops.
Not so spring clean
The problem with using the polytunnel intensively is that pests and diseases can easily build up, particularly as the soil is hardly ever heavily frosted. Choose a day after the major crops have been removed and give it a good wash with Jeyes’ Fluid solution (Don’t you just love the small?) Clean the outside as well as the inside, the paths and the soil that is not planted up. A good wash will allow more light through for those precious winter crops.
What to grow
Potatoes in large pots do well. Plant in September, watering lightly. By Christmas you could well have some new potatoes to harvest. In hot South America they plant potatoes on December 1st some 14 weeks earlier than here at home. The polytunnel makes it possible for you to have new potatoes by Easter.
Broad beans and peas can be sown in late November and will crop in April. Carrots sown in October in a mixture of sand and compost will do very well.
You can sow lettuce, endive, beets, baby spinach and various salad leaves such as rocket. Sow from September onwards right through to November and beyond. Use these as crop and come again through the winter.
Courgettes grown in ring culture pots, if you have the space, will crop in March / April if sown in December in a lightly heated space in the polytunnel.
You can plant onions in December, but the normal outside regime is probably best, and there is not muck benefit in planting garlic because to get the very best they do need some frosting.
Watch out for disease, which will not really be a problem is the temperatures are on the cool side. You might choose to spray once a month with Bordeaux Solution to keep botrytis and other fungal problems at bay.
Remember, even in the winter daytime temperatures can reach double figures outside, so on warm days open the doors for a bit of ventilation. However remember that heat is expensive and plants are precious, so keep it shut on cold days. A single icy blast can stop plants from growing for a couple of days.
Plants have immune systems just like people, although they work much differently. A chilling can shut this down and ten plants become vulnerable, so aim to keep the temperatures even.
July BlogOpen Close
It is a well known fact that people start gardening about now. I suppose it’s because they see Chelsea on the television, and of course Gardener’s World is back and it’s warmish, and the garden centres are full of plants. So people start gardening.
But when you read a few books, and possibly a magazine or two, you will find that Spring is the time for starting vegetables and all of a sudden you can begin to think the whole thing is a waste of time. Even worse, so many people, while walking round the supermarket, think “I’d love to grow some onions” and pop them in the basket without thinking only to find that when they get home, the packet says, “Sow in April”.
WellI think we have a bit of a problem when it comes to vegetables. We are so desperate to get perfect, supermarket vegetables that we forget that they are for eating, not showing, and so very often we can get perfect food even though it might not be quite as ‘perfect’ looking as we think.
What I am saying is this: you can grow vegetables at almost any time of the year, and get something perfect to eat, even though the packets say you should have started months ago.
That goes not only for when you plant and sow, but where and how. Take cabbage as an example. If you plant a cabbage in the ground, you will get a perfect head. Incidentally, if you sow the variety ‘All Year Round’ you will get perfect cabbages in October / November.
But if you sow and grow a cabbage in a 10 inch pot, you will get a tall plant that looks rather more like a lily than anything else, but it’s a cabbage! You can take the leaves and cook them or put them in a salad, and they are perfectly cabbage flavoured.
So let’s look at onions. Sowing the seeds now, in July, will give you pencil shaped onion plants in August, and with a little judicial protection from rain and frost, they will be still in the ground in November, where they might just have produced some bulbs. But it doesn’t matter if they haven't. The main reason we grow onions is to cook them, and a chopped up onion is a chopped up onion in my book. You can cook the whole of the plant and still it is perfectly onion flavoured and ideal for the job.
Actually, this way you can grow them all the year round if you happen to have a greenhouse or poly tunnel in which to grow them during the winter months. I do exactly the same with garlic. I have all around the garden little garlics in pots which are there for the taking. I cook the whole plant, and even though the majority of them will never bulb up, it doesn’t really matter, they are still wonderfully garlic flavoured and just as healthy and good for you.
Of course, you can grow almost any leaf crop at any time. We have already mentioned cabbage, but lettuces, endive, spinach are all ready to be sown now, and will provide a crop right through to Christmas. The secret to keeping them going that long is the cloche. Protect them from driving rain and cold, and certainly from the frosts of November and December, and they will keep right through.
The way I keep these crops warm in frosty days varies. A cloche is about 5 degrees warmer than the outside, and if you can get something hot in there, its even warmer. What I do is to pop a night light inside a hollow concrete block, every few metres along the cloche.
It doesn’t get too hot, but certainly keeps things well above freezing. I am also a great believer in the hot bed, which is a two foot thick pile of rotting vegetable material, with a good two foot layer of compost on the top, which stays warm all the winter through, and have been the provider of some of the best Christmas carrots I ever ate.
Other crops for now include peas, French beans, and at a pinch runner beans. These you can sow directly in the ground. The latest I have sown peas and still had a crop - albeit a pretty poor one, was September, and they were mangetout. It’s actually better if you can look around the garden centre and pick off the plants on the bargain shelf they can’t sell. This way you get a head start. Of course, you can still sow carrots and root crops such as turnip and beetroot to get some sumptuous autumnal roasts.
Finally, of course, while you are doing all this, you can plan to plant and sow next year’s veg at the right time. But one thing is sure, you won’t manage the whole year without some mishap and some reason to grow the right veg at the wrong time. But hey! That’s what growing your own is all about! Variety, as the little lady used to say on the TV, is the spice of like, so there you are!
Grow herbs in potsOpen Close
The Edible Garden Show website is filling up so quickly, and there is already lots of information about what to do in June, July, and so on... certainly enough to keep us all busy. So I thought it might be a good idea to branch out a little and look at some of the ways we can squeeze plants into the garden and make life a little easier.
Truth be told, growing in pots is all I can manage at the moment. Not allowed to do any digging, lifting, pulling or more or less anything strenuous, I realised there must be lots of people who have the same problem.
Either because they are incapacitated, temporary or otherwise, or because there simply isn’t the land space available - many of us have to grow in pots!
There are some good consequences for growing in pots; I can have them close to my kitchen door, which means that I can pick them whenever I need them and they are always to hand. Another advantage is that they can be moved around the garden or patio easily so you can find the perfect place for them to thrive. For some very invasive herbs, such as mint and lemon balm, it keeps them in one place and stops them growing everywhere.
They are relatively easy to grow, although watering is very important, especially for herbs grown in terracotta pots, as they dry out much quicker than when they are grown in plastic or other material. If you do like growing them in terracotta, line the bottom of the pot with some plastic liner and allow it to come one third up the side of the pot. It still will require some drainage holes at the bottom, however.
If it is the first time you have tried growing herbs, have a go at lavender, thyme, parsley, lemon balm, sage and chives as I have found these are the easiest to grow successfully. Try two or three different herbs to begin with, your favourite flavours are a good place to start. All the instructions this month are for the easier-to-grow herbs.
Others to try are rosemary, basil, coriander and marjoram. These need a little more care and attention, but are worth attempting when you feel more confident about growing herbs.
In spring, sow the seeds in new compost. A soil-based one is the best, as it contains a high level of nutrients which the herbs thrive on. I plant them in individual cell pots, planting two to three seeds in each one. Prick out the least vigorous plant as they begin to grow. Once they are sown cover with polythene or a plastic lid and keep warm. I leave them in the kitchen or the conservatory. Keep them well watered using a spray rather than a watering can, as this is far more gentle on the tiny plants.
As the plants grow they should be very carefully transferred to a larger pot to develop their root system. Once again, pot in soil-based compost and use a 7–10cm (3–4in) pot. They can be kept in the greenhouse but protect from any late frosts – I tend to use a little fleece if necessary.
This is the fun bit. You will probably have far too many plants for your own use. Why not make some pots for friends and neighbours? Herbs can be planted in many different pots, troughs and hanging baskets. As long as you remember that they like to be kept moist and don’t like to dry out, planting on is easy.
Plant some together in larger pots if you wish, but I prefer to plant each one in its own pot. Mint and lemon balm should be planted singly as they take over any other plant that might be growing alongside them.
If you are using old pots wash them well before planting your herbs. Always put some pebbles or broken crocks at the bottom of the pot before filling with compost because, as you are using soil-based compost, the drainage holes will clog up very quickly, even with the first watering.
Have the pot and soil ready with a hole in to receive the plant, as this makes transferring the herbs much easier.
When removing the young plant from its pot it is best to do so when the soil is moist. Be very careful not to disturb the roots too much. Place in the hole and bring the compost up around the plant, firming in gently. Water well and remember that most herbs grow and spread so make sure they have enough room to do so.
Perhaps the easiest way to get herbs into the garden is to get cuttings or whole plants from friends, ready made as it were. There is nothing wrong with growing on ‘living herbs’ you find in supermarkets, though they need some TLC. Keep them indoors for a few days, in a new pot of fresh compost, on a windowsill. Then the following week put them outside during the day, brig them in at night. Then after that, you can put them outside.
Looking After Your Herbs
In the summer, always keep your herbs moist but if there is a heavy downpour, as we tend to get at the moment, shelter your herbs as they don’t like to be drowned and bashed about by the rain. Feed weekly, preferably with a seaweed-based liquid feed. Pick the leaves regularly, but check for over-picking as they will need some of their leaves to keep growing.
Pick off any flowers that appear in early summer, as this will make for more vigorous growth, but later keep some to dry, or wait until seeds appear and then store some for the following season.
When the weather starts to get colder, place the pots in a sheltered spot or back in the greenhouse, or bring them into the kitchen so you can continue to use them in your cooking easily.
If your sage or thyme is getting too big for its pot, just transplant into a slightly larger pot and top up with some extra fresh compost. This is best done on a bright, sunny day. Again, water well and allow to stand in a sunny spot to recover.
Too late to sow?Open Close
Have you, actually like me, missed the chance to sow many of your favourite veg this season? Well don’t worry, you can always buy some plants from the garden centre or many of the on line nurseries you find on the internet.
Here are a few plants I have my eye on at the moment that are not too late to get in the ground, and who will know you bought them from the shop - I won’t tell if you don’t.
What to do with the plants
Bought from the garden centre they will be in trays or modules, and all you need to do is use a pencil, a dibber or a trowel to make a hole for the plant and then simply push the plant from the container and firm into its new home.
Often, plants bought from the internet come wrapped in wet newspaper, and it is important these plants get into their growing positions as soon as possible. If it is cold, give them some protection too, just for a few days, a cloche is a good idea, or some clear plastic.
Don’t over water - though you will need some. People make the mistake of swamping new plants - it can often cause more harm than good.
When you read the books you will see plants have to be spaced at certain distances, but often they give information for sowing spacing. You need to use the spacing needed for adult plants.
Plants that produce strong flavours or colours will need a lot of nutrients to manufacture these in the plant. A week after planting, give them a feed of organic fertiliser and keep them moist but not too wet for a couple of weeks. Don’t worry about slight wilting - they will come right in a couple of days.
I saw some in my local garden centre - big plants they were. They are hungry, and not all that easy to transplant, but put them into very rich soil. Their needs are simple: moisture and nutrients – but they must not be too wet. Add a little sand to heavy soils, and make it as crumbly as you can. Persistent hoeing before transplanting is important.
This goes for all brassicas. You get some leggy plants for sale - buy the most compact. If they are indoors in the garden centre, harden them off for a few days.
There are still seed potatoes out there - don’t use the ones that have long roots and shoots on them. Look for some firmness, not too soft.
You can buy these, but to be honest, they are so easy to sow for a couple of months yet. The latest I have sown and had a crop from is the end of August.
You still see onion sets. I have bought some and will use the smaller onions for chopping and freezing. They will be pulled from the ground much too early and simply will not store.
Jobs for MayOpen Close
We all know, because we’ve going on about it for ages, we have had a slow start to the Spring, but let’s not get all down in the dumps. May, with a bit of warmth and a bit of rain will soon catch up.
In particular, sowings and plantings will catch up rather quickly, because they have had a warmer start, and don’t forget the old addage - ‘Ne’er cast a clout ‘till May’s out!’ Frost in May is not out of the question - so maybe the Spring hasn’t been that bad after all.
Almost everything from salad crops - which I will be sowing all through the Summer anyway, so lettuces, chards, spinaches (all of which I use as salad leaves) radish, will go into the soil now. I will be repeat sowing right through the summer. But I will also be sowing salad onions and planting garlic.
Why garlic? Well normally they are planted in autumn and overwintered, but I will be putting them in the ground probably for another month - and worse than that, I will simply be planting corms from the supermarket! Why this ridiculous action? I am not looking for a great harvest of corms, but simply the whole sprouted plant. They grow to about six inches, I pull them out and chop up the whole plant for cooking.
In much the same way I grow garlic chives too - but the sprouted garlic does very well indeed. You also get another benefit - I grow them everywhere - and it adds to the complex web of companion planting around the plot.
I dare say, a carrot fly might find my garden a little more difficult to negotiate if it smells of a strange mixture of garlic and marigold!
Cabbages, sprouts, caulis and other brassicas can be sown too. I start them off in small pots and transplant them, with plenty of lime to ward off clubroot.
And you can sow beans (French and runner beans in rich soil, but if you prefer you can start these off in pots too.
It’s not too late to sow tomatoes or peppers, cucumbers even though many would have been nestled in a warm greenhouse for ages. However, since I missed most of the Spring, I have no option. I might have a later harvest - but I will get one all the same. Otherwise you can plant them out into their final positions ready for the big grow.
It is time to sow corn, in pots, indoors, give them a good start and plant them out in June, in a grid, to improve the chances of good wind pollination.
Blog - May In The GardenOpen Close
It would be an understatement to say that the Spring has been slow, and that on the back of a deep winter, a miserable Autumn and a washed out Summer. If you had to rely on what you have grown in the garden for your food, then it would be a sorry mess.
For this reason, and just in case this Summer is as bad as last year, I am building raised beds with varying amounts of protection. Darren has built them, designed so that we can use our two polytunnel tops, and the others will be fitted with fleece. This way we should get a constant supply of good salad crops, which is what we eat most of in our house.
The fundamental idea of self sufficiency is to grow what you eat - so if you don’t like cauliflowers, you don’t need to grow them - obvious that. So this is why we have a conveyor belt of salad crops in the garden, plus some roots, and plenty of garlic, onions and fruit.
The fruit side of things has been difficult for us. Many of you will know this is a new garden for us, and since last year was a wash out, we haven’t really got started. However, we are slowly clearing parts of the garden for fruit - which will be grown against a fence in an espalier fashion.
There are some absolute musts: I love pickled onions, so we have to have shallots, and we love jam, but all we have to show for it at the moment is a blackcurrant which we inherited and rhubarb plants, just beginning to show a stalk.
However, we have a great place for a strawberry bed - an overgrown spot which is gradually being cleared. Some late summer fruiting varieties such as ‘Florence’ are just the ticket for August and September harvests.
In order to fit our planned crops into the garden we have had to move an overgrown hedge. It’s not a hedge in the farming sense, but a combination of overgrown roses and a hypericum. We have been burning the hypericum in the fire for some time, it was really huge - about 30 metres by 5 metres over the lawn, and whereas it looked fine when in flower, most of the wood was rotten, and the disease was spreading it’s way around the garden. Also it represented a huge waste of land which at the same time stopped us from getting to various parts of the garden - making it just untidy.
Since the other side of the house is in woodland, this was the only light part for growing crops we could find.
Shade loving crops
That said, we have plenty of space for growing. There is a bed currently filled with mahonia which will be pulled out to form a bed for growing crops. The rule of thumb is that leafy crops do OK in shady conditions, not dark conditions, but dappled shade. So we can grow salads, cabbage, other brassicas, kale, spinach, chard, endive in that spot.
Root crops can be grown, it just takes longer for them to develop - which I don’t mind at all because I prefer smaller carrots and turnips.
Growing in shade actually prolongs the season, and plants like lettuce stay in the ground for longer because they tend not to bolt when in shade. You might get looser cabbages too, but that’s fine too. I often grow cabbages in small pots - they bolt, and you get lots of small, lancelet cabbage leaves - ideal for stir-fries.
Another shade crop is salad onions. They do really well, growing slowly, hardly getting anywhere more than a stalk, but what else do you expect from a salad onion? They last all summer - just throw the seeds in the soil and leave them to it.
When considering crops for shade, think about what the plant has to do to make the crop. Leaves are sometimes enhanced by shade - they fill up with chlorophyll in order to compensate. Roots are storage organs, and if a plant has to make a lot of sugar, in order to make starch, then it needs more sunlight. Making lots of fat seeds is even more energy dependent, so leave them for full sun.
We don’t have room for loads of potatoes and root crops, so they get spread about the place in containers of all kinds. I usually plant potatoes in May because for me April is often really busy with work and I’m not at home that much. Besides, yes there is something beguiling about having new potatoes in June, but to be honest, I can wait until August and get something with a bit more flavour. It is commonly said that you should plant ‘First Earlies’ by St Patrick’s Day. Fat chance with me I’m afraid, I am either at the Edible Garden Show, or in hospital having a heart attack!
I also grow carrots, leeks, turnips, brassicas, salads, garlic, peas and salad onions in containers - fitting anywhere they will.
April BlogOpen Close
First of all I would like to thank everyone for their kind comments during my recent hospitalisation and say that I am beginning to feel much improved. A major heart attack certainly concentrates the mind and almost as soon as I came out of the operating theatre I was being told the importance of correct eating. No matter how often I told them that I did eat healthily, and that I was a part of the Edible Garden Show team, it cut no ice. Nurse after nurse gave me the same mantra: eat healthy!
Is it true, is my vegetable rich, home grown food unhealthy? Are there ways of making it better, what can I cut out and what should I add?
We always make our own cheese, and of course we add salt and use full fat milk. I love cheese, and when I spoke to the recovery nurse, she said I was allowed no more than an inch cube of cheese PER WEEK!
So it's experiment time! Over the next few weeks I will be experimenting with cheese made from skimmed milk and low salt too. Of course, low salt has important implications for how the cheese tastes and keeps, but then we don't keep cheese for long at home. There is also a lot to be said for the reduced fat in the skimmed milk. I am sort of hoping that a little gingery pokery with the bacterial starter will make a difference. Watch this space for the results.
Cholesterol control is important. When I was on the operating table the doctor who was twiggling with my heart had a real problem digging it all out. At one stage he looked me in the eye and asked if I didn't mind his using a pneumatic drill.
So, the nurse said, how much do you like eggs? I explained about my hens and how wonderful an egg cooked straight from the chicken could be. She said I was allowed about a tenth of what I normally ate in a week.
But there is something I could do to make my eggs healthier, I can feed my hens so that their eggs are rich in Omega3 fatty acids, and if there was one thing the nurses said every ten minutes was to increase my omega3 intake. Actually, if you feed flax along with the layers pellets, a lot of the omega3 is deposited in the yolk of the egg. Wether my birds will like flax remains to be seen!
In the hospital was an excellent lady. At 6am each morning, she would enter the ward and at the top of her singing voice would proclaim "breakfast lady, rise and shine!" It was cornflakes and toast every day, so when I jokingly asked for bacon and eggs, she went to the ward manager to ask if I was allowed. This precipitated a furore, and I was sternly warned about the dangers of salt and bacon in general.
At last I had an answer! Our bacon, the stuff we make at home, has a third of the salt in shop bought bacon. I have to say it is no longer permitted for me to enjoy a plate of belly pork, which I love, but a couple of slices of low salt bacon made from pork loin will do just nicely, once a month if the nurse has her way!
So what about exercise. I have to take it easy and exercise at the same time. No pulling, lifting, pushing, digging. Ha! I'm just in the middle of tearing out old bushed to increase my growing space. We're building raised beds and its all lots of hard work. Plenty of exercise there, but alas, not for me I'm afraid.
I am allowed to hobble to the polytunnel and set the seeds off, which if I hadn't been ill I would have been chomping at the bit to do, and like millions of gardeners around the country would have ended up with long, leggy, useless plants.
The weather has kept planting back, but worry not, Nature always catches up, so April and May are great for starting off. So my hope is to have seedlings ready for when I am fit enough to get them into beds.
March BlogOpen Close
March comes in like a lion and goes out like a lamb, and just in the middle is the Edible Garden Show! I used to start my year with the planting of First Early potatoes, which should be in the ground by St Patrick’s Day, but now the year is punctuated by the show. It also gives me a good opportunity to be a little late with the spuds. Actually, it doesn’t really matter - its a bit too cold at the moment for growing and there are plenty other things to be getting on with in the garden.
Strawberries are tough little plants - if a little greedy for nutrients. How you protect them from the soil, and indeed from slugs and snails, is up to you, but for me, straw is still as good as anything. I cover some of them right now with a cloche and stand amazed at how quickly they get themselves in flower and fruit. It is always a joy to watch Wimbledon with my own strawberries in hand.
Soon enough they will send out stems that cling to the ground, called runners. Along the length of the runners you will find a leaflet which will grow into a new plant. Take some compost in a pot and place the plantlet on top - anchoring it with a ‘U’ nail or a pebble. This will grow into a new plant, genetically identical to its parent.
Who can go into March without mentioning them? Maybe you are thinking they have no self sufficiency use, but you’d be wrong. Wear gloves and squeeze the contents of the bulbs and you get a fantastic glue. I say wear gloves, because they are poisonous! But for me, Spring bulbs start with Galanthus - or snowdrops. They get me in the mood for Spring, and that’s enough. They are perfectly happy being naturalized into the lawn, but actually are at their best on the edge of a rockery.
Snowdrops come from the Crimea, where the weather is very cold in the winter, and they cope over here very well, but prefer not to be too wet, so be sure to keep them well drained.
The radio blurted out this morning that the winters are getting colder, and lasting longer. So as I look across the lawn towards the bees, the frost on the grass tells it’s usual story. On the whole, bees don’t mind the cold - it’s grubs that suffer and die quickly. Adult bees huddle together and keep themselves going on a diet of energy rich honey, and have the neat trick of being able to raise their body temperature, at a cost in fuel.
So this Spring is going to be spent making bee food - syrup, lots of it. It is fairly easy to do, and doesn’t take too long.
Feeding bees is a bit of an art because if you are feeding syrup, its strength is important. At 50% sugar, it more resembles nectar, and the bees will fly in order to find where it all came from. Right now, you don’t want this, and therefore stronger solutions are needed. Candy is the strongest of all, being a 4:1 mixture of sugar and water.
The old tried - and - trusted method of hefting the hive to see how much stores are inside is only a part of the answer, and I feel that the best way to go is to make sure they have a surplus.
In the greenhouse
Don’t get rid of the heater just yet. The old saying ‘Don’t cast a clout till May’s out’ always holds true, probably even more so now than ever. But I have a greenhouse that is unheated, too - well, almost.
I keep a water butt inside the greenhouse, which warms up during the day and releases its warmth at night. Another tip is to put a candle in the greenhouse. If, like me, you live in the inner city you can hide it inside a breeze block where the light is dissipated to heat.
Sometimes you need a specific temperature, and for this you could use a propagator. You need a power supply to the greenhouse and then you can keep the propagator at the right temperature for seed germination, leaving the cool greenhouse free for plants that are simply over wintering, such as my potted camellias.
One plant you can get on with are beans. I have a theory why we grow so many beans in this country. Everyone is chomping at the bit to grow something - you get a nice warm day in early march, and you get all heady and want the Spring to come. Well what can you profitably grow? Beans!
So everyone grows beans and we end up with tons of them, and give them away to friends who don’t want them, or we fill kilner jars with them because they look pretty.
Well , not really, but you get the idea.
There is a secret to growing runner beans: water, plenty of it, and lots of well rotted manure. I dig a trench that is about 60cm across and just as deep, about as long as the row I want. The bottom 30 cm of it I fill with good quality, well rotted manure. On top of this goes the top soil, leaving me with a little mound.
I sow in small drink cups, or even 5 cm pots in a cool greenhouse. This way, by March they are only a few cm tall, and not leggy. I plant them out in April, with protection. You could sow them directly, but I like to see them growing in the greenhouse - it reminds me of spring.
Jobs for FebruaryOpen Close
Stay in bed if you can, it’s always rough in February!
More onions if you like them, and chitting potatoes. Indoors i sow salad boxes up for early spring leaves, and get the beds ready for carrots and parsnips.
Sow summer cabbages in modules (add plenty of lime to the compost)
Prune fruit bushes and force rhubarb if you like it.
Catch your seedsman as soon as you can and get all the information on what is new and what’s the point of growing them. I always try to grow one new plant each year. Making notes is a brilliant way of bringing your hobby into a different level.
And of course, get your tickets for The Edible Garden Show - it’s only a few weeks away now, and it is the best way to kick start your self sufficient year!
February BlogOpen Close
February can be the coldest and is certainly the shortest month of the year. It comes in the dark, and hardly changes all the month through. It’s cold at the start and it’s still cold at the end! Actually, since March comes in like a lion, the end of February can be even worse than the beginning!
So there are things that must be done and things that might be done in February but might not actually get done.
I get sick of winter, I seem to be saying the same old things, time and again - but there is a limit to the number of times you can clean the greenhouse, sharpen your tools, make plans for the new season, disinfect your tubs and pots.
By now the mad rush for blight free potatoes is on, and I wouldn’t mind betting my trowel that you will be finding it difficult to get “Sarpo” or other blight resistant varieties.
Pop them in boxes in the light and the magic of chemistry will soon start the conversion of starch to sugar, and the buds will burst into life.
While we’re on the subject of potatoes, go over last years beds and remove any potatoes you left behind in autumn. They will grow up, and there is no worse thing than a potato growing out amongst the carrots or cabbages. They can promote disease, so make sure you get rid of the lot.
It is time to think about sowing parsnips, and it would be a good idea to make a warm bit of soil to do so. Parsnips are in the ground longer than any other vegetable, but the temptation to sow in February should be tempered. Place warming black plastic on the soil and make sure the soil itself is fluffy. You need the same conditions as for growing carrots, and by the way, you should still have some parsnips in the ground for lifting.
A good bit of frost is the best thing your parsnips can get.
If you started onions off in late December, it will be a good idea to start some more off in February. You simply cannot get enough onion, but you don’t always need onions themselves. From now I start a box of onion seeds off almost every month, allow them to grow to pencil size and then chop them up for the kitchen. On the whole we chop onions up anyway, for stews and what not, and the fact that they haven’t had to be peeled is a huge bonus as far as I am concerned.
The same goes for garlic. You will hear me bang on about growing only specially bred garlic for our climate and not trying to grow garlic from the supermarket. Well don’t do as I do....
To be honest, I always grow supermarket garlic. I plant them all over the place, let them grow, pull them in when they are about pencil sized (or less depending on the needs of the kitchen) and chop them up. Yes, you can’t beat what you might call ‘proper’ garlic, but I can’t stand peeling garlic - and much prefer growing them quick, and using the whole plant.
For the most part I have used the deep litter method of keeping hens warm in the shed partly because it does work, it keeps them warm and you get some great compost for growing mushrooms.
The deep littering method is this: you put straw down (and before anyone writes in about straw and hens, yes I had an allergic hen once too) and let the hens poo on it. Then layer straw on top of the poo after about a week, and continue this process. Amazingly, it doesn’t smell, and it does keep the hut a couple of degrees warmer.
It has it’s drawbacks. After about six weeks, I clear it out and start again, composting the material. This is a job that makes you sweat, even on a cold day.
February is a cold month for hens. I like to keep them as dry as possible and use wood chips on the run, which soak up the moisture very nicely. I supplement their food with some corn in the late afternoon, and sprinkle a few mealworms about the run to encourage them to get a little fresh air - especially if they have been indoors for too long.
Any animal with sneezes goes straight into the broody hut - not really that good at keeping them free of infections, but it can help a little, and I feel as though I am doing my bit.
It’s round about now that I start to think about putting some fertile eggs into an incubator and setting them off to hatch, but before I do, I always have a dummy run in February. I do this because i have had several casualties. One year the automatic egg turning facility broke, and the eggs died. Another year it grew too hot, and still another it was too cold. So I always make sure that the incubator is always working to specification in Feb to avoid messing about.
When I was a student we had to do chicken pox experiments on eggs, and the resultant mess put me off being a scientist for ever - it’s nice these days to be able to make up for it with real chicks, but I do so hate it when they don’t work for some reason.
Finally on hens, give them a good dose of ACV (apple cider vinegar) a couple of tablespoons in their water is enough. It is amazing how this simple vinegar perks them up - they look and are healthier because of it!
January Blog - A Fresh StartOpen Close
It’s cold and miserable in January, and I always feel there is too much moping around, thinking back to Christmas and the New Year, wondering what the year will bring and so on. What we need is a jolly good stint of hard work to make the New Year actually happen. Blow the cobwebs off and get on with it.
Consequently, for me this year, is is all about avoiding the trouble of last year. I know, it probably won’t rain as bad and I won\t see my potatoes being washed down the hill into the Medlock river. By the way, anyone fishing in the Mersey, fed by the Medlock, those fish were fed with my spuds!
First job for the new year is to build some raised beds. I used to know a gardener who had only one raised bed - it was the size of the whole plot!
For me, the raised beds will be in all areas of the garden because I live in a wood, and chasing good sunlight is important. So I have a wall on one side of the cottage and a lawn on the other. In the wall, at the moment, is growing some Mahonia plants, which will be pulled out and I can then start to plant this up with salads.
Actually, there is a problem with the salads - horses go by every day and I worry in case one of them fancies a snack en route! There is another problem too! There is a wasp’s nest inside, so I am going to have to tread carefully. The wasps don’t bother me, but they have lived there a lot longer than we have, and I don’t want to destroy their home.
This kind of fortuitous site is really cool because the walls are strong and sturdy, making an ideal raised bed - but the lawn is a different matter.
In the other garden we had a lawn. I say had - it was surrounded by a forty foot hypericum - honestly. The branches went all over the garden, and we are still burning the wood! Don’t get me wrong, I love hypericum, but this took away half the lawn - that and an unruly fuchsia on the other side.
The lawn was so small, but now we have removed most of the plants, we can get on with the task of making what lawn we want into a really good one, and putting more raised beds at the front of the garden.
Living in a wood is a bit of a problem because of light - but we have just encountered another. A huge branch fell from a tree and almost crushed a car that padded in its path 30 seconds before. It was an Ash, and we are worrying about die back!
The way to spot it is to look for die back (obviously) of the leaves, and then cuts or lesions in the bark. Our tree is huge, and we can’t see anything on the trunk, and we will have to wait for early Summer to check the leaves. Fingers crossed. No one wants to see the old chap die away; we reckon this tree is home to a vast array of wildlife.
The raised beds in the front will be made from wood - and we have found the best new wood to use is treated staging. It is fairly cheap - but certainly robust and strong enough for leaning against. That is one of the most important jobs of a raised bed - can you lean against it without breaking it - or more importantly, without getting cramp in your legs!
It’s one thing having raised beds, but quite another filling them with something. I think I need a good couple of tonnes of topsoil to fill my new ones, and that’s another problem - for me. We live in a wood, as I keep on saying, but it’s a steep wood. Cars can hardly get up and down the lane, let alone trucks! It was designed way back when horses were the transport. So we are going to have to have the soil dropped at the top, and I will have to barrow it down the hill?
How many wheel barrows of soil make 2 tonnes? Answers on a post card.
Jobs in JanuaryOpen Close
Wrap up warm! It promises to be cold - maybe it is just as good to sit in the shed with a cup of hot tea, watching the world go by, and there is always a robin or two for company in January.
Cabbages, onions, leeks, parsnips under cover. It is surprising how much can be sown in January. If you keep a greenhouse above 5C then you can put all the Christmas plants - orchids, poinsettias and the like, in there - they will prefer it much better than a hot windowsill.
Bring some strawberries inside too, for an extra early crop.
You can paint fruit trees with grease guards at the end of the month, ready for codling moths and the like, so you get better fruit next year.
Order your potatoes - go for blight resistance - there is a lot of it about in the soil.
If you buy any chemical this year - make it lime. Get a stock in - it’s perfect for growing brassicas.
Mulch your beds
If the weather permits, mulch your beds with compost - as rich as you can make it. Cover the rhubarb completely in its own little pile. If you have any old compost in grow bags, pop it on the compost heap - it will act as an insulator and will be boosted by your compost too.
If you haven’t already, give the greenhouse a good clean and clean and sharpen your tools at the same time. Oil the cutting tools - I use motor oil in a sand box - just a few pushes in and out will do the trick.
December Blog - Sustainability over ChristmasOpen Close
December is so exciting...
...but to many of us who are trying to live in a low key way, one where we have little impact on the planet, where we try to make and grow our own, it can also be a little daunting. A neighbour of mine once got a brand new car, and they were full of it. They knocked on our door to show us, and we were delighted for them, and especially privileged to be able to share in their joy. It was about that time that we were going through financial difficulties and we had taken our car off the road. You can imagine how we felt: all kinds of feelings spoiled our week, from guilt, inadequacy, jealousy, greed and, eventually, understanding.
It has guided us ever since. You see, everything we do now is seasoned with the idea that we are doing what we do and there are consequences. I can’t say we have turned our back on the material world per se, we still have a car, go shopping, have possessions. We’re not hippies or dropouts, we’re just normal. But the way we live means we have plenty of the best food in the world, but not much actual cash.
So try as we might, we can’t really do Christmas like most other people. Oh, they’ll be a turkey and all the trimmings. We have bottles of the best wine in the world, too - and some we bought. The beer is on and the plans for sausages and hams and cheeses are well under way. Diana is knitting stuff and Darren is hard at work in the shed making things I know not what. But we won’y be spending a fortune in actual money.
We can’t really give presents, but we can give our affection, and that is what this time of the year is about. To be able to spend time trying to care for people in a very special way, and enjoying a good feast at the same time.
That way, we are able to keep Christmas without financial cost.
But there is a cost, however.
Part of that cost is in the reason why I started this blog in the way I did, about the car and financial hardship. You see, the biggest problem I had then was my children. I didn’t want them to be upset, or even ashamed, by the neighbours brand new car and our rust bucket jacked on bricks on the drive.
The cold walk to school might have done their bodies good, but it might not be so healthy for their pride. And thats the cost, spending time in such a way that they feel good about themselves.
I sometimes feel like Good Kind Wenceslas’, peasant collecting firewood from the woodland that surrounds the house...
But there is so much to be said for a wood fire at Christmas, if you can manage it. In particular, holly is a great burner, even the trimmings last for ages and the logs themselves are tremendous.
Of course, it wouldn’t be right to simply chop down all the trees in the wood just for our fire, but the keyword is management. The proper thinning of trees and their replacement is important. Out little garden is so full of out grown trees, many of them rotting and in poor health, we are on a constant program of replacement. Consequently we are good for wood.
One such plant, believe it or not, a hypericum, is well over forty feet across. It is as woody as an oak and full of fungus. It took an area of garden almost as big as an allotment, and all but the good bits are now in the wood store.
Fires at Christmas are an ancient thing, possibly predating Christianity. They represent the doing away of the old, of cleansing by fire and of course nourishing the land. This is one of the main reasons for having a fire, the ashes make a brilliant fertilizer. More than that, they make great soap too, but I won’t be using lye from the wood ash to make soap for pressies this year.
Of course, the big thing about Christmas is the tree...
This is a German custom. People were offered as human sacrifice by being tied to a tree and decapitated. Some saint - whose name is unknown, intervened in such a sacrifice, and chopped the tree to the ground. The following year a sapling appeared in the stump, and this became a symbol of new life.
We’re surrounded by trees, but, we will have one in the house too, and then on 12th night, we’ll burn the yule log in the fire, spreading the ashes on the onion patch. It’s not that we are superstitious, but everyone need a little tradition in their lives from time to time, and why not now.
Jobs for DecemberOpen Close
December is a funny month in the garden. Traditionally, when men wore slippers in front of fires, it was time to read the catalogues and order your seeds for next year, and it’s not a bad idea too, though you are more likely to be at the computer with your credit card in your hand.
In December particularly it is time to sow onions - yet I don’t understand those books that say you should sow them on Boxing Day! Haven’t we got something better to do? But then after Christmas manic madness with the family, maybe a few hours alone in the potting shed is a good idea.
This week, heel your sprouts in so they don’t rock about in the rain. They can be a real pain when the sprouts blow - and it can happen very quickly, and it is mostly caused by rocking at this time of the year. The frosts don’t hurt them at all - in fact they taste much better if frosted a little.
Plan your spuds
I predict a real rush on blight resistant potatoes, after last year, so get yourself in the front of the queue. Personally I prefer ‘Cara’ but if you plant early enough, your first earlies will miss on it anyway - so look sharp and plan for some new spuds next year.
It’s about the only thing I really yearn for, a plate of buttered new potatoes in late May - from the polytunnel, or late June outside. Plan to cover them, and get them growing in February in a warm tunnel, or covered on a hot bed in April.
Start your bean trench
Don’t fall down it, but dig a trench about 75 cm deep and as long as the row of beans. Half fill it with vegetable matter, leaves, kitchen waste but no meat or gravy. When half full, cover with soil to the top and leave it to rot. In the Spring, sow in this.
Cover compost heaps
If you haven’t already, cover your compost heaps. Give them as much insulation as you can to keep them as warm as possible over the winter. Do the same with your delicates - camelias, olives, prune the roses back and generally go round the garden taking off the detritus of the last season.
It is amazing how much you get off for the fire at this time of the year. We are still dealing with a hypericum which was so large it will probably keep us warm all the winter!
November Blog - Benefits of growing your ownOpen Close
November used to be the time when people prepared their pig for slaughter, more or less giving them meat for Christmas and the New Year and that made November and December a really busy couple of months. A full pig, weighing a good 80 kilograms would be simply wasted if left alone, and in days before freezers, they had to be preserved, made into all kinds of products and put down to salt.
These days we simply buzz off to the supermarket and buy a few grams of bacon when we need it and the same goes for everything else - vegetables, bread and all our food.
Now people who know us at the Edible Garden Show would guess that we believe strongly in making our own, growing our own and so on. And they'd be right. So how does it stack up? Why or how can it be that the old system, collecting and preserving our own harvests ever be better than simply nipping in the car to the shops?
Leaving aside some arguments..
I am not going to try to argue about things that might never happen. For example, it could be said that the future will not be like it is now. Lots of people, major universities around the world included, think there might not be the food in the shops like there is today. No matter how much I'd like to argue in this way, I don't think it's helpful. It's a bit like my father's reasoning why I should be a good boy - because it would be worse for me if I wasn't. I never was persuaded by it, and it seemed to me I'd be missing out on a lot of fun.
Actually, the arguments I prefer to use are quite the opposite. Genuinely, if you want real food, that is not poisonous, and with so much flavour, and food that the getting of it actually makes you fit and strong and healthy, the only real way of doing this is to grow it yourself.
Let's take the humble egg as an example
You can buy organic eggs for about £1 for six. You can keep a hen and get your own for about the same financial cost. They are equal, the bought and the home grown, in nutrition, more or less. The shop bought ones can be about a month old. There's the rub. You simply cannot compare an egg collected on the morning it was laid to one that has been sitting about for a month on a shelf. They are two completely different flavors!
Cakes made from really fresh eggs are amazing; there really is a huge difference in quality. But on top of that, what about all the fun your hens give you and the feeling of care and wonder everyone should have in their lives.
Well, essentially, the same goes for all our food. Growing vegetables will quite literally keep you alive for longer because the very thing your body has evolved to do, that is gentle but ongoing physical work, is what it takes. Think of it as going to the gym but with lots of extra benefits besides.
My work, the work that pays the rent, has me sat in front of a computer for hour after hour, and it is wrecking my body. A day spent in the garden or on the plot is such a blessing. It lubricates, restores and keeps my heart healthy.
For me there is nothing better.
The Edible Garden Show
At the Edible Garden Show you will find lots of people in the same boat. Often new to gardening, in need of lots of help, with questions and worries about how to do or plan or even start gardening for food. Perhaps the most often asked question is “How much land do I need to be self-sufficient?
The answer is easy. Only a bit. Start out with what you have and enjoy growing, enjoy keeping hens and bees and get good at it, with whatever land you actually have. Then, when you need to expand, the space will come. You will find an allotment, or you will be offered a bit here and there, or you will simply buy it, or rent it. Land is not a problem, because you will always be able to find a bit more, one way or another. It’s enjoying growing on it, making the constant effort to do it that is the first obstacle to get over.
Jobs in NovemberOpen Close
It used to be that when you get to Bonfire Night, we could all start looking forward to Christmas. Well these days it seems that Christmas starts in October in the shops! But in the garden, November is a time for preparation, getting ready for the rest of the winter.
With all the leaves blowing onto the floor, it is a criminal waste just to leave them to be blown away by the council. Get them swept up and compost them. They can be plonked into a wire net to make leaf mould, or simply added to the heap. By the way, November is a good time to turn your heaps if they are full enough.
It’s a good time to start things off for the first time. Grape vines are a case in point - If you can make a wire fence and plant some vines next to it, you will be able to train them along it in the Spring. Vines are very hardy, and can cope with frost - it’s sunlight they need in Summer that’s all. November is also a good time to start a strawberry bed, get young plants out and cover them to give them a little protection. They prefer a very rich soil, and a bed used for potatoes last year is excellent. You can also plant new raspberries and blackberries.
You can continue to sow broad beans, hardy peas and plant garlic. These can all be protected if the weather gets too bad, and in the Spring you will be amazed how they burst into life!
Protecting your plants
If you haven’t already, cut down your asparagus fronds and compost them, and apply mulch to trees and shrubs. Anything delicate, cover with a cloche, fleece or bubble-wrap. Any winter cabbage or salad you have can be netted to keep the birds off, they are starting to get hungry now, so why not put some bird feeders out to keep them going? What would the garden be like without them?
It is a good idea to go around the garden and check that young trees, shrubs and bushes are firm in the ground. As the wind blows the continual rocking makes them vulnerable. So check, heel in where necessary and be sure supports actually are supporting!
It is time to prune apples and pears, looking to make an open aspect to the trees, and cut away wood that is touching, crossing or interfering with any other part.
Finally, if you haven’t already done so, give everything a jolly good clean, and if you have a greenhouse heater, give it a good service ready for use - you don’t know when they will be needed at the moment.
Jobs for OctoberOpen Close
October is one of those months when our emotions and activity sort of mix to create a strange combination of feelings. The days get shorter, the plants die back, the colours become brown and golden, and before you know it you find yourself in sleeping mode: as though you were a dormouse awaiting hibernation.
But have none of it! There is too much to do in October, in the kitchen, the garden and the greenhouse, and we always start with a massive tidy up.
There are plenty of times in the year to do this really, but its a good punctuation in the year. Wash and disinfect everything - I use soda crystals in some warm water with a little bleach added (be careful, I only use a capful per bucket) and I wash the insides of the greenhouse and polytunnel, the work benches, the nooks and crannies where infection can hide… Then I do all my tools, spades to trowels, so the lot is clean and ready for action.
It is also time to get to work on any machines you have, servicing the rotavator, the greenhouse heaters to make sure all is working efficiently. There is nothing worse than having the first frost of the year and not being able to keep your plants warm!
Time to sow broad beans
If you live in the south then you can sow your broad beans in the ground, and cover them with a cloche. Sow them in double rows, one row with seeds about 18 inches apart, then another row about a foot away. The next double row is then sown two feet away from these.
They will germinate before the end of the month, grow a little and then stop - but in the spring they will catch up with gusto and give you an early crop of beans before those sown in spring. Expect a crop around the end of May or early June.
In the north you can sow in pots and over winter place them in a cool greenhouse and plant them out at the end of March, to get similar results.
It’s garlic time
Time to buy garlic! Don’t mess around with stuff bought at the supermarket for cooking - they are grown in much warmer countries and won’t do well here. Buy garlic specifically grown for the UK, and you won’t be disappointed. Plant them in rich soil that is fairly free draining - their only problem is they don’t like to be too wet, around a finger depth and largely forget them. They are much better flavored if they get a good frosting, and expect a crop in early summer.
I am planting Chesnok White - light skinned bulbs with rich black veins on the outside and 6 to 10 purple cloves inside. Strong and robust flavor makes this an ideal choice for garlic bread or for adding to stir fries.
Cabbages, carrots and turnips
You can sow anything with the variety name of ‘All Year Round’ and this is especially true of cabbage. There is no reason why you cannot have cabbage in the ground at any time of the year - there is always something to eat!
I sow in 8cm pots in compost, with a tablespoon of lime to deter the clubroot that seems to be everywhere on most allotments, and then leave them in the polytunnel until they are around 4 inches tall.
If I have room I will put some of these in the polytunnel soil to grow out, but otherwise they will go outside in a cloche. They will grow more slowly, but they will be ready around March onwards.
I sow cabbages about every two months, giving me more or less a never ending supply of greens.
They need to be settled into less exposed conditions - which is difficult in my garden. The weather is usually appalling in August, never mind in autumn and into the winter. I tend to go overboard with straw, and just make sure they have a warm time of it.
These last couple of years it has been minus 18 here in Lancashire and my poor hens have had a really bad time of it - so this year I am going to house them - hutch and all, inside a small polytunnel. It won’t be heated, and if we have a warm day, it will be around 12 degrees inside, and if we have a really cold one, it will be around about ten degrees warmer than the outside - still pretty cold, but not as bad!
The major bonus is they will not get soaked; driving rain is probably the worst killer of hens than anything else.
More or less, they are finishing their varroa treatment, and settling down for the winter. I am going to put a good ten kilos of candy in the hives so there is plenty of food available - it has been such a rotten year, there is hardly any honey at all. But that’s beekeeping! I suspect the price of colonies is going to rocket next year - be warned.
Sowing and growing in OctoberOpen Close
Continue to sow:
Beet for baby leaves
Plant winter bulbs in pots for gifts - hyacinths etc
Go around the garden firming in shrubs and trees with the heel of the boot, and be sure to check stakes are firm too. This is to prevent damage from rocking in high winds.
Mulch rhubarb and remove asparagus ferns - composting the fronds.
Now is a good time to turn your compost heap - pick a cold day for comfort, and then replace the insulation so the heap gets warm before the frosts.
Sowing and growing in SeptemberOpen Close
Continue to sow:
Lettuce (last chance early in Sept)
Beet for baby leaves
Peas (Last chance - use ‘Meteor’)
Japanese onions at the end of the month and into September
You can still buys vegetable plugs (too late for sowing)
Garlic - it is time to buy your garlic corms for planting out. Don’t use supermarket ones - they are always a disappointment.
Work your soil
It is a good idea to make sure, every time you clear a bed, to prepare it for winter and your next crop. Dig it over, remove everything from your last crop, compost or manure it and dig it over again.
You might consider a green manure, such as field beans, I dig them in spring.
Clean the greenhouse, clean everything and sit down and plan next year - don’t forget to incorporate a visit to TEGS next year.
Jobs for SeptemberOpen Close
Moving your hens
Every three months I move the hens on to fresh ground. There are many good reasons for this. Firstly, hens ruin all the vegetation! It’s amazing how quickly they turn a nice bit into something resembling the Somme of 1916.
The second good reason is to take the birds away from the parasites that have built up in the soil. A rota of four patches for your hens is ideal for them to have a new patch of land each quarter - it takes six months for the parasites to clear.
Dealing with varroa
September, after the honey harvest, is the best time for treating with Thymol. It is also time to start thinking about getting the colony ready for winter. Make, or buy your candy for feeding the bees with through the winter - I use quite a lot of it, about 10 Kg per colony on average, and it is time to start thinking of making frames and new kit for next year.
Jam making, pickling and preserving the harvest. Remember to treat produce gently! Rough handling at this stage will damage tissues, and this in turn will lead to fungal infections. While you are at it, why not look at where you are storing your food - is it dry, pest free, adequately ventilated?
Planning next year
Look at your rotation, what went well this year, is there anything you need to repeat, change, improve? Plan at least one big project to improve your lot every year!
Sowing and growing in AugustOpen Close
Continue to sow:
- leafy salads
- beet for baby leaves
- french beans (only in the first week for a very late crop)
- pak choi
- peas (first week)
- winter cabbage - a bit late but 2012 has been a bad year!
- start to think about Christmas potatoes - I grow these in containers
- Japanese onions at the end of the month and into September
Also watch out for blight on potatoes.
Continue to shade caulis - bending leaves over the curds. (I pull them as soon as they are ready, blanch them for 20 seconds in boiling water and then freeze them straight away.)
Jobs to do before you go on holidayOpen Close
August is holiday season, and many of us go away for at least a few days in the month, leaving behind gardens and animals - obviously with some kind of care plan. For me we have to go away so often for work that life would be impossible without someone to take care of stock.One of the things I have noticed is getting the right person is really important because when you do go away, some of your animals miss you.
Obviously, bees are fine. They don’t need to be spoken to or made to feel welcome or anything. But having someone on hand who knows about bees in case of emergency is no bad idea. Swarming, for example, is not unknown in August - I have had one in September! A phone number for a beekeeping friend, just incase a black cloud of bees appear, is useful.
The hens are quite a different matter - they need feeding, and more importantly, watering. So they need attention by someone - but there is a little more. Yes, I know it’s my fault, but I like to give them the odd titbit around about 11 am, and I know my birds miss this when I am away. But then, they do get used to not having it.
I have noticed, they poo a lot more when I am away. Perhaps it’s because I don’t notice it gradually, but when I return from time away there always seems to be a mountain! But what if a bird gets sick while I am away? I know it is asking a lot of the next door neighbour to deal with such an emergency - so again, a phone number to a hen keeper is a good idea.
So far this year the garden has been a flop. Sometimes I feel that I am going to miss out on the whole season. This is partly because we are now in a new garden and haven’t managed to sort out growing crops on a reasonable scale - it is all woodland, and dark. But when you let someone into your greenhouse to water for you, if you manage to teach them what to do with tomato side shoots at the same time, that’s a real bonus. (Not that I will have any trouble with tomatoes this year - they are completely washed out!)
Potatoes might also be a problem this year, because all the moisture about makes an excellent breeding ground for blight, and the chances of having a really poor crop - if any crop at all, are high. It is too much to ask a neighbour to lift your potato crop I know, but if you do return to a black mess on the plot you will need to lift what is left of the vines and burn them, and probably the potatoes too. And you won’t be growing potatoes there for a few years either!
If you are going away on holiday this August, do have a great time, confident that all the bases are covered back on the plot.
Jobs for AugustOpen Close
Cleaning out the hen hutch
There is a reason why birds roost in trees! It is so their poo doesn’t build up on the branches. The amount of poo is proportional to how much they eat, and the temperature. August poo seems to be the smelliest, most horrible poo of all! (Actually it isn’t, it just seems like it!)
So give the birds a nice clean odour free place to sleep and check for red mite at the same time.
Dealing with varroa
September, after the honey harvest, is the best time for treating with Thymol. But in August you can give them a three week treatment of hive clean, which deals with a lot of varroa. This way you can really clear out the mites after harvest too, and then again with oxalic acid in winter - and you should have a really perfect colony!
Yes, I know, colonies are rarely perfect - but you get the idea.
Thinking about other livestock
Can you home a goat, sheep or even a house cow? For most of us it is out of the question, but there are some possibilities emerging around the country.
Allotments were once a place where the authorities were not allowing livestock of any kind. But in these more enlightened times they are coming back. One site in Manchester I visit regularly have pigs, goats, a donkey and horses. So if they can do it, why not you?
Going on a course
I go on courses to meet other people, find out how they do things and generally pick up new tips and ideas. There are dozens of courses out there, from cheese making to bee keeping - so have a look through the internet and find one near you.
Jobs for JulyOpen Close
It is time to start thinking about potatoes for Christmas.
Fill a large container with ordinary compost. Actually I use large pots made from clay, about 50 cm across. I put seed potatoes in each. Fill up with compost and water.
Leave them outside for August, and take them into the greenhouse or tunnel around the middle of September.
Never let them dry out, and I feed mine with pelleted manure, that's all. I stop feeding around October, but keep them not wet, but moist.
The variety is important: choose a First Early variety and you'll be fine. The logic behind this is that the potatoes only take 12 weeks to mature, but since the temperature and light drops intensity, so their growth slows. Consequently they need a little longer to mature.
Get all your brassicas in the ground for the winter production. If you haven’t already, source your Japanese onions for August planting.
It is aphid time, and you will find them mostly on beans. The basic bean fly is black fly - and they congregate at the tip of the plant - so just snap them off and you will have fairly free plants. Breaking off the growing tip will not have any problems for the plants.
The rest you can just rub them off with your fingers - or alternatively, use a soapy spray. Now a lot of people worry about the aphid - and I know what you mean. Consider this, the insect is much better killed with your thumb, that takes less than a second, to a long slow death by poisoning or dehydration - which is what happens when they are soaped.
Of course, blue tits eat blackfly, and I always leave some unmolested for the world to enjoy - and yes, blackfly have their right to live too, and the world would be worse off without them.
The very best way of protecting your crops from aphid attack is simple - horticultural fleece!
Start deadheading! It really is important around the garden - you will get more flowers for longer if you do. Just snip off the spent flowers as they turn.
I know it’s wet, but just be sure you collect as much of the stuff as you can - you never know when it comes in handy, and be careful to cover your water butts - for safety’s sake.
Onions should be turning this month - and certainly the Japanese ones you planted last year are ready for use. Don’t bother storing them - they don’t last, but the harvest is coming, so spend some time cleaning your food store because you need the cleanest conditions for good storage.
- First early potatoes.
- Salads and any vegetables that appear juicy and tempting enough to eat.
- Don’t forget to cook any thinning you have.
Pests and Diseases
- Fungal problems caused mostly by honeydew.
- Aphids of all kinds are rife.
- Vine weevil attack.
- Protect all crops from birds.
- Use fleece to protect from egg-laying insects.
- Deadhead all pollinated flowers, particularly delphiniums.
- Give your spring flowering clematis a trim. The same goes for spiraea, which can be trimmed from an unruly growth while deadheading.
- Weeding! Particularly paths and any pebbled areas you have.
- Water the greenhouse evenly and copiously – don’t allow tomatoes to get blossom-end rot.
Jobs for JuneOpen Close
- Continue to sow all your salads for successional cropping. Radishes, lettuce, and even spring onions and leeks. You can continue to sow runner beans, dwarf French beans, kohlrabi, carrots, marrows, cauliflowers, peas, ridge cucumbers, sweetcorn, swede, endive, squashes and spinach.
- It’s still not too late to plant potatoes.
- Plant out all the bedding as soon as you can, assuming there are no frosts – yes, it has snowed in June before!
- You can plant all your summer bedding.
- First early potatoes. If you started them very early, they will be ready at the end of the month – just.
- Salads started in the spring.
- First turnips are nice, though small.
Pests and Diseases
- Millions of slugs and snails.
- Fungal problems caused mostly by honeydew.
- Aphids of all kinds are rife.
- Vine weevil attack.
- June is probably the first month you can use biological control methods, once the soil has warmed sufficiently.
- Protect fruit blossom and all fruit against fungal infection.
- Protect all crops from birds.
- Open cold frames.
- Decide on the shading for your greenhouse.
- Make sure your water-butts are full just in case of drought.
- Feed all your flowering shrubs, spires, and caeonothus in particular, and especially feed your roses to encourage perfect blooms.
Growing SageOpen Close
There is a long list of plants that we have gathered together with the general umbrella title – herbs. Their origins often reach into distant past, before there was fast food or even kitchens, and many of them, like garlic, have been helping the human immune system deal with invaders for thousands of years.
The Romans introduced many herbs into the UK, they decorated their heroes with herbs and used various plants as disinfectants, as did the Greeks and many more modern uses for herbs, placing them in between linen sheets, pot pourri, and window bouquets also reflect this ancient use.
The early use of flowers was two fold. Firstly for the aroma which was used to mask the smells of the home. Secondly was for preserving and keeping insects away from meat. A piece of meat buried under rose petals was effectively hidden from flies where a hanging piece of meat was quickly attacked. Thirdly, plants with a strong aroma were thought to have spiritual or magic powers. In truth, most of these magic powers were down to antiseptic properties which improved health and at the same time preserved food from rotting.
In recent years some people have lost their connection with herbs and would not understand why, for example, sage is used in Sage and Onion stuffing. So that’s where we will start.
You can sow sage in modules - its easy to grow. Start them off in the greenhouse from April onwards, or outside in May - June. Sow two seeds to each compartment and discard the slowest growing plant. Grow some sage plants - no more than 6 of so, each year and use them to replace the older ones in your garden. They can be transplanted in the summer - give them plenty of water when you do so.
Sage takes a while to establish itself but once is has it will grow year after year without much problem. It is fairly frost resistant and as long as you feed it in the spring with compost and through the summer with some organic fertilizer, it will provide you with great leaves through the summer.
It will grow well in the soil or a container – all it needs is full sun. It doesn’t mind dry soil, in fact it prefers not to be too wet. When you are harvesting sage, pull off a sprig or single leaves. Always tear the leaves rather than cutting them off.
When they have grown for three years they get woody and this is when you need to replace them. If you dig up an old plant, remove as much of the root as you can and replace the compost to plant your new sage in it’s place. Don’t take any leaves for at least a year.
This way you will have a range of sage growing in the garden, some in full production and some coming into maturity.
If you don’t want to sow sage, you can buy small pots from the supermarket or garden centre. Keep them warm until the last frost has gone and simply dig a hole outside and plant them. By the following winter they will be quite hardy.
Sage as a preservative
Sage adds flavour, but also helps to preserve meat. A confit of sage is made form chopped leaves, mixed in hot molten fat. The oils in the sage are dissolved in the fat and when added to hot meat seal in the surface from he action of air borne bacteria and fungi, thus preserving the meat. Confits are basically a fat covering, keeping out the air. The meat is cooked and then while very hot the fat is poured over, thus sealing the meat.
Sage is also widely used in sausages. Lincoln sausages are flavoured with sage, along with a number of northern European sausages. Sausages are preserved with salt - that’s what the word ‘sausage’ means, but sage is frequently used as an added preservative. Sage oil seeps into the meat adding a measure of anti bacterial and anti fungal properties.
However, it is not strong enough to preserve meat alone. Salt should always be the first line of defense.
Sage as a health product
Neat sage oil is around 50% thujone. This is a strong drug that should really be avoided, but in an ordinary portion of sage as a herb there is so little of it you can completely ignore its presence.
Sage is used to reduce sweating, and a cup of sage tea will help if you have night sweats due to menopause. However you need to be sure about dosage. Just a pinch of sage leaves per cup of boiling water is enough - no more than 3 g.
Sage also calms the stomach and alimentary canal. If you ‘have the colly wobbles’ due to bad nerves, and this frequently affects the digestion, a cup of sage tea will help, again not too strong a tea.
If you don’t like the flavour of sage tea you can always put a few leaves in ordinary tea or add quite a lot of lemon and honey.
A stronger concoction of sage - 5 g per cup can be applied externally to cuts and scrapes as a part of the cleaning process.
Growing Winter CabbageOpen Close
It’s time to get your Winter Cabbages set in their growing positions, but if you haven’t sown any, don’t worry. The variety ‘All Year Round’ will set off nicely and grows well at any time of the year - it just needs a little warmth to get going. Sow in small pots and transplant when they are about as wide as your hand.
Cabbages are easy to grow, and there are not many rules to stick to either. They are very frost hardy and can withstand temperatures that would ruin other crops.
If you look at it one way, there are basically two types of cabbage: balling and leafy – and the conditions required for balling are quite different for leafy cabbages. That doesn’t mean that balling cabbages don’t have leaves, you understand.
Then, on the other hand, cabbages can be classified according to when they are harvested – spring, summer, autumn and so on. It is true to say that you can have a cabbage almost every day of the year if you plan accordingly, but be aware – the sulphurous compounds in the cabbage will play havoc with your personal exhaust system, so be prepared to spend a good few hours standing outside.
That said, in common with all the brassicas, cabbage produces its own chemical warfare substances, mainly aimed at invertebrates, that can help keep your gut in good order – a little like a low dose of garlic.
This is the big problem when growing cabbages. Well, not growing them actually. It is caused by a fungus (Plasmodiophora brassicae), which invades the root cambium (the growing and dividing cells in the root) and causes them to create all kinds of contortions.
The result is a root that won’t work, and therefore a starved cabbage. The fungus isn’t poisonous to us, so there are no problems there – you just get small, weedy cabbages.
There was a chemical solution to this problem but it was withdrawn some years ago. This leaves only one option: biological methods.
The recommendations say you should leave the soil dormant from cabbage or other brassicas for a decade, but this is not always possible – how many of us have room to achieve such a thing? One thing you can do is to leave the soil free from human feet. At least you should be able to avoid spreading spores about the place by not walking on your soil.
Then, when you plant out your cabbages, do it in a lot of lime – I mean a real lot of lime. This inhibits the fungus, and if you plant your cabbages late, they will have a well-developed root system. I always dig a big hole, half fill it with fresh compost and lime (about 3:1 compost to lime) and then plant in this. Before you do, sprinkle a trowel of lime in the hole too, so you get a barrier.
Sowing and Growing
You can sow cabbage directly in the soil, even in early spring, if you protect it with a cloche. However, it is frequently best to sow indoors in large modules or 8cm pots. Again, use lime and sow about three seeds per module/pot. Discard all but the fastest-growing plant. If you sow in March, by May you will have large seedlings to plant out as described above
Now you can continue sowing every few weeks, and I suppose we eat about two cabbages a week, so it forces me to sow enough seed for eight cabbages a month, and I can manage this right through the year, using the polytunnel and cloches for a little extra warmth and protection in the winter.
There is not much to do to them once they are in the soil. I plant them about 30–45cm apart in rows, with about 60cm between the rows. This way they ball up nicely.
We used to worry about cabbages. From butterflies to aphids, there was always something at them. Pigeons eat the young seedlings as do mice, rats (always rats on allotments) and then the hens have their fair share too! My young bantams got out once and ate almost every cabbage on all the plots – I was not popular!
These days there is a single solution to most, if not all, of the protection problems with cabbages. Horticultural fleece is just perfect for keeping insects out and cabbages in. It is a nylon mesh, which keeps out everything except rain and air.
All cabbages need to be treaded in to stop them from rocking about in the wind. This rocking motion has a physiological effect on the plants, causing them to grow ‘loose’ – that is, they don’t ball up properly.
Cabbages need around 15°C to germinate. Sow them indoors, mostly in the winter, and transplant from modules. It is the only time the plant is really temperature sensitive.
They do best in soil that was previously used for potatoes: fairly fertile and well dug. They should never be allowed to dry out, and will never recover from a period of drought.
Neaten Your GardenOpen Close
So many people these days try to fit too much into their gardens – they fill them like the Victorians filled their parlours with nick-nacks. The result of Christmas tree 1992, 1993, 1994 and so on for the next decade, paths leading to nowhere, water features in various parts of the garden completely unconnected either aesthetically or in the imagination, various bits of beds cut out on a whim, old sand pits for long grown up children, make the garden into a nightmare.
You would be forgiven for thinking that if it was neat and tidy everything was all right. One problem with such a garden is that they need so much effort to actually keep them in good order, especially in the Spring when everything is growing. Further, so often these gardens are completely out of keeping with the property they surround and are in need of a good clear out not the least because they actually detract from the value of the property.
Standing where you mostly see the garden, draw a plan of what it looks like now. Then in red marker draw some lines. Now the majority of new gardens need some help because they are the wrong size and shape. We have to start playing tricks with the eye. To make a garden look bigger, draw a sweeping curve from where you are standing to where the garden ends. Curves to the right make the garden look bigger while at the same time preserving the illusion of proportion. Curves to the left just make the garden look longer.
If your garden is an odd shape this can be controlled by formality. In this case the lines, that might become paths or hedges or even flowerbeds, should run from the centre of the house to the end, and side branches parallel to the house cuts the garden into a grid.
Anything in the garden that falls on the lines has to go. How they are replaced is up to you. The aim is to reduce clutter, so perhaps the best way proceed is to make the lines into paths and you are then able to deal with the spaces one by one.
Many people do not realise that trees are frequently protected and to remove them can be an offence unless you have planning permission. A check with the gardens department will be a good idea. Trees placed ad hoc in the garden have implications for the other plants and the overall design. If you remove a tree, with professional help if necessary, replace it.
Follow the line with tree planting, especially if it is to become a path. As the trees mature you will create a compartmentalised garden that will be very useful. For example, in a small garden you will create a hidden area, ideal for the shed or compost heap.
You have now created some beds, or at least have planned to. Having uncluttered the garden, don’t reverse the process. Every garden needs a water feature of some sort, but not four! Think chic rather than chintz.
Beautiful BordersOpen Close
We often miss out when thinking about only edible gardens, in as much as loveliness and pretty borders and flowering plants take second stage. However, even the hardiest veg growers need something pretty to look at too, you know. You don't have to have a strip at the edge of the lawn and they can be shaped, sweeping and even built up. There are so many options that will improve not only the look of your garden but also the type and quality of the plants you can grow.
Sweeping curves tend to accentuate the width of a garden, particularly if the border at its widest point is populated with tall colourful plants. The sweep of the border from right to left makes the garden look wider than it actually is. Tall plants, from mature shrubs in the background to the beautiful fuchsia and magnificent ferns, with a splattering of deep blue agapanthus, add to this effect.
In particular the change in colour from hot to cool, from red crocosmia and the bronze phormium to more subdued achillea, draws the eye along the curve. In the mind, mostly, the eye travels from hot colours to cooler ones, from burning reds to cool sky blues, and so it is possible to plan your planting to create special effects or emphasise the shapes you have cut in the ground.
A brilliant idea I saw once was to build a gully beside the path leading to the lawn as a very long narrow pond, with fish in it. Its shape followed the sweep of the border. A clever trick anyone can copy from many show gardens is to grow some of their plants in pots and set them on plinths within the border. The plinths can be painted black and surrounded by other vegetation so they cannot be seen. It gives a depth to the planting, making plants like hostas look taller than they should be and at the same time making the management of that plant easier. This method also allows plants that prefer different soil conditions to be grown together.
Parallel straight lines make the garden look longer, particularly if you can set a barrier to partially obscure the view to the end of the garden. If you raise the path from the ground, by making it from decking, for example, you create a garden that is almost an exhibit; you feel that you are walking high above your plants. The borders are very full and are parallel. Nothing draws the eye to the far point except the natural perspective of parallel lines. In a way this is very classical in form, the eye being drawn along the path and border to the square at the end.
You can have borders of all shapes and sizes, particularly if you can manage to follow or accentuate the shape by a path or a fence. The more intricate the shape you have, the more important it is to make sure that the border is edged in some way to mark it out. However, if you have a simple line then you are more able to allow the planting to spill out and make a rough edge.
The major difference between a flower border and a flower bed is that the former tends to be populated by perennials and the latter is usually cleared out at the end of the season ready for a new planting scheme in the following year.