Are you making the switch and going peat-free this April?
You may have come across the #PeatFreeApril campaign on social media last year. Well: now it’s back, bigger and better, and more determined than ever to get us all growing in peat-free compost.
Every gardener I know cares deeply about the natural world, and most are increasingly uneasy about the environmental impact of growing in peat. If you garden in peat-based potting composts, you’re contributing to the destruction of a rare and valuable ecosystem, home to gems like carnivorous sundews, marsh saxifrages, wild cranberries and bog orchids.
Even worse, when peat bogs are dried out and dug up so that you can pot up your petunias or sow your spinach, they release carbon dioxide straight into the air, so you’re also contributing directly to climate change. In fact peat harvesting in the UK alone emits as much greenhouse gas in a year as three coal-fired power stations.
Most gardeners also want to grow the best plants they can, though. And they know that the potting compost you choose can be the difference between a garden bursting with lush, healthy veg; and a frustrating battle to get anything to grow at all. It often seems easier to stick with what you know works well, rather than risking your seedlings on something new.
But many complaints you’ll hear about peat-free composts are based on out-of-date information, or the result of simple mistakes which are easy to avoid. So if you’ve always grown in peat-based compost and you’re hesitating to take the plunge, read on to sort the truth from the tittle-tattle. Continue reading…
Just imagine a veg patch which goes on giving, year after year – no need to resow or plant up each spring, and nothing to clear away in autumn.
All that’s needed is a bit of weeding, maybe some mulch and a little protection from pests – and in return you get armfuls of produce not just this year, but next year too and for many years to come.
Perennial food plants come back again and again, usually getting a little better every year. You’re probably already familiar with some – asparagus, for example, rhubarb and artichokes (both globe and Jerusalem). Fruit trees and bushes are perennial, of course, as well as many herbs including rosemary, thyme and sage.
But there’s also a wide range of lesser-known edible perennial plants which grow perfectly happily in UK gardens and provide you with a permanent supply of day-to-day greens, roots and florets to eat – no resowing required.
Grow perennial veg and you’ll never be short of something to pick. You’ll be doing your bit for the environment, too, as you use much less compost, plastic pots, water and fertiliser when you sow once and grow for years. You’re also leaving your garden soil undisturbed, which is great for locking up carbon; it also allows the complex web of interconnected life underground to thrive, so your soil is healthier and so are your plants. continue reading….
Harvesting this month: French beans, carrots, the last of the courgettes and patty pan summer squash, Musquee de Provence winter squash, potatoes (maincrops to store), raspberries, curled-leaf and flat-leaf parsley, baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.
Sowing this month: Broad beans for overwintering, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.
This month I will be:
Clearing out the greenhouses
Pricking out greenhouse salad seedlings
Turning the compost
Mulching empty beds
Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
Juicing the last of the apples (mine and other people’s!)
Remember my poor mouse-beheaded beetroot seedlings from last month?
The obvious solution was to trap the mice – and that’s certainly what I would have done before I became aware of the need for sustainability in the garden.
I don’t like killing things at the best of times: and with mice in particular they’re a really important food source for larger predators like owls, so every mouse that you trap is one removed from the wider ecosystem.
Also mouse traps are, usually, plastic, and I have vowed not to buy any new plastic for my garden (even if it’s not strictly for gardening).
The wildlife photographer Simon King once said to me that we humans are really, really clever animals: so if we can’t figure out a way to keep other animals away from our food without killing them, we’re not thinking hard enough.
Quite right: so I put my humanoid thinking cap on, and this is what I came up with.
I bought myself a big roll of 8mm gauge mesh from B&Q for about £20 and made myself a mesh cloche (the roll was big enough to make two or three, but one step at a time).
It took a while to get right: I had to staple the bottom edges to wooden battens, burying these in the ground to hold the whole thing stable and prevent mice from burrowing underneath, and the ends are squares of mesh tied in with wire, again buried a few inches beneath the ground.
But I resowed my beetroot seeds at the beginning of the month and they are already much bigger than they ever reached last month before the mice got them. It’s tricky to get in and weed, but I sow into mulch so the few weeds that have come up aren’t too troublesome. Once the seedlings have developed into sturdy young plants, of less interest to mice, I will remove the whole cloche and stash it to use elsewhere. It should last me several years of mouse-free sowing.
The big greenhouse clearout
That’s it: time to admit defeat. I had a good pick over of the last tomatoes to cook down and freeze, and now the plants are undeniably finished. They’ll go onto the compost heap (I had a spot of blight during the season where the rain got inside the greenhouse – but even blighted foliage can be composted as the disease doesn’t survive once the foliage breaks down).
Once the toms are out I’ll give the glass a good wash, then weed out the borders and refresh with a good thick (5cm/2″) mulch of garden compost before replanting with greenhouse salads (see below). My only dilemma is that I can’t bear to pull up those lovely French marigolds just yet; I sowed them back in February and they’ve been flowering their socks off all summer, no deadheading required. I guess the salads will just have to go in behind them till they’re done.
Pricking out salads
All the salad plants I sowed last month are now big sturdy seedlings and ready to move on into their own individual newspaper pots (the above are Winter Density lettuce (left) and mizuna (right)).
I’m a big fan of newspaper pots: zero plastic and pretty much zero carbon (as you’re reusing waste newspaper to make them) and the seedlings do so much better as their roots grow through the sides and don’t circle as they would in plastic. I get much better results from them every year – well worth the extra 15 minutes it takes me to fill a seed tray with paper pots.
The last of the windfalls: I have a lovely little Devonshire Quarrenden apple tree, very early eater with a lovely sweet, strawberry-like flavour. But my only slight problem is that it crops so early in the year – over by about mid-September most years – that I miss all the Apple Days and my windfalls are already long gone before I can juice them.
This year, what with the coronavirus an’ all, Apple Days aren’t really happening – or at least not the ones with the big community juicing events. Luckily, though, I’ve found a friend with access to a scratter, to chop up the windfalls into rough pieces, and a press, to make the juice.
I am taking along my own few remaining windfalls, and scavenging apples from everyone I can think of with a surplus. It’s one of the best ways I know of storing the abundance our apple trees provide: tip the juice into saved plastic litre bottles and freeze, then savour the rich, sweet flavour all through winter. Yum.
Actually I can’t remember being cold before Christmas before (well, a bit chilly, perhaps, but not cold of the three layers and double socks kind just yet).
We have, I think, become a bit soft in recent years what with all this global warming malarkey. Things may be a little extreme in this respect at my end of the country, around 20 miles from the south coast and never the coldest of places generally.
But since the epic winter of 2010 (when we had about 10 winters’ worth of snow, hoarfrost and ice for a memorable three or four months from November to February) we’ve been lucky to get a frost at all. Last year the lowest temperature I recorded was around 1°C, in February; the previous year we dipped to an adventurous -2°C for one night only. It was hardly the second ice age.
Anyway, all this is by way of saying that this month in the garden I have had to get my skates on (not quite literally but you never know) in a way I have not been accustomed to doing, and do all those getting-ready-for-winter things I’ve previously been putting off till about January. So here’s what I’ll be up to…
Planting garlic I have had a bit of a garlic crisis this year: every last plant succumbed to rust. I am therefore launching an experiment: I’m replanting the bulbs from the garlic which survived the longest, in an attempt to select a strain that copes better with the (now endemic) garlic rust in my garden. I will report back with results.
Collecting leaves There are so many leaves. So, so many leaves. I watched them rain down the other day like a golden snowstorm. And so to work with my trusty rake and wheelbarrow to fill as many leafmould bins as I can before they all run out.
Putting the veg garden to bed The endless task continues: clear crops, cart off to compost heap, weed, mulch, cover, repeat. I am still only halfway down the veg garden and I’ve already run out of soil improver.
Spring cabbage still going strong after around ten straight months of harvesting
Picking spring cabbage Yes, you read that right: spring cabbage. I planted it last August (that’s August 2015) and it has been going strong ever since, mainly through my laziness in not getting around to pulling it out, so it just sprouts again. A happy accidental discovery: I shall be doing this again…
Clearing the greenhouse The cucumbers are spent; the green peppers picked. Time to strip out the last of the summer crops and get the greenhouse ready for its winter role. I have only one this year, as we’re having to move the other: I am bereft.
Lining said greenhouse with bubblewrap insulation You save around 25% on the average heating bill by insulating your greenhouse, so they say. I know it keeps things much cosier, and often means I don’t have to turn on the heater at all.
Winter lettuces, ‘White Lisbon Winter Hardy’ spring onions, American land cress and a couple of rows of corn salad and radish seedlings tucked up safely in their plumbing pipe cloche
Planting winter salads under cloches Since I am deprived of my winter salads greenhouse this year I am resorting to planting out my greenery under cloches instead (or rather, one massive cloche made of blue plumbing pipe and clear polythene).
Wrapping bananas The Musa basjoo in the back garden has been going great guns this year, so the plan is to wrap it in the time-honoured way (chop leaves off, wrap in straw and hessian or fleece, big bubblewrap hat) and leave it outside for the first time.
Digging up pelargoniums My scented-leaf pelargonium collection is expanding all the time: I do need to bring it in for winter, though. This year they’ve been in containers on the front steps, making this particular job much easier.
Planting tulips Ah yes: there is some joy to be had this month. This year’s order includes ‘Ballerina’, ‘Jan Reus’, ‘Purple Prince’, ‘Violet Beauty’ and ‘White Triumphator’. I am looking forward to spring very much.
I’m mostly a peat-free gardener: life’s too short and the world too precious to ruin a peat bog for beans and lettuces, and besides I kind of accidentally started peat-free (long before it became a hot topic in gardening) so I learned to garden without peat without even particularly knowing the environmental implications. You do treat peat-free composts differently: they’re more open, for one thing, so I’m used to watering my pot-grown seedlings a little more often. I had a go at growing stuff in a peat-based compost once, just to see if I was missing out on anything, and everything drowned.
But that word ‘mostly’ is in there for a reason. I’ve never been able to escape the use of peat in seed composts: I’m kind of fussy about what I start my seeds in, mainly because it can be the difference between modest success and abject failure, so I’ve always taken the safe course of action and plumped for John Innes seed compost blends. These are soil based – but they also have a proportion of peat. I’ve not been able to find out what proportion (compost makers are notoriously cagey about exactly what goes into their recipes) though some John Innes style mixes give it at one part sphagnum moss peat to two parts loam. Still too much for comfort as far as I’m concerned.
I had been turning a blind eye to this, reasoning (slightly uneasily) that since I don’t use as much seed compost as potting compost in an average year it was only a small proportion of the compost I get through. I’ve been stewing up a plan to make my own as an alternative, but haven’t quite got the leafmould together yet (one year done, one year left to do) and I never have enough garden compost.
And then I came across Carbon Gold. It’s got two very of-the-moment things in it: the first is mycorrhizal fungi, which is to say types of fungal organism which can form symbiotic relationships with roots, plugging them in to the soil around them so they access nutrients and moisture better. And the other is biochar: basically, charcoal.
Biochar comes in soil improver as well as seed composts; it acts like a sponge in soils, absorbing moisture and opening up the soil (rather like any kind of organic matter). And best of all, it acts like a carbon sink – so you’re doing your little tiny bit to help the environment by gardening, instead of carving it up.
I thought all this sounded rather wonderful: so I decided to try it out for myself and see if it really worked as a seed compost (the acid test: whatever it’s got in it, there’s no point in using a seed compost if your seeds don’t actually grow in it). And I (or rather the hubster) filmed the results: click play for the lowdown, courtesy of the crocus.co.uk Youtube channel.
We don’t quite have daffodils up and blooming here, like they do in all points from Cornwall to Cheshire apparently: but we do have a lot of confused flowers.
Never mind spring flowers, either: we have summer flowers in bloom here. Asparagus peas in brick red, marigolds and celandines, pretty little pinks and neon-coloured salvias still going strong. The sweet rocket has been in bloom since April; we have hellebores and strawberry flowers and even the tree chilli is gamely putting out a few purple blossoms.
I don’t blame them: I’m confused myself. The temperatures we’ve got right now, in the mid-teens, are more akin to what you’d get in June.
Mind you, the torrential rain and stormy weather is of more normal December quantities, so you still get the horizontal rain blowing your hat into the next county and ankle-deep mud to slosh through on your way to get up the veg garden to pick the kale for tea. Only difference is, you’re doing it in a t-shirt (bare arms dry so much quicker than jumpers, don’t you think?)
Apparently it’s something to do with the Azores, a straggle of half-forgotten islands about four hours’ travel off the west coast of Portugal. Maybe they’re getting their own back for nobody knowing or much caring where they are on the map. I can’t help noticing their weather is more-or-less exactly the same as ours right now. Rather worryingly it goes up to 18°C next week. Hope that’s not coming our way.
It’s not going to stop till at least the middle of next month. After that, who knows: maybe we’ll get the deep freeze the Express was screaming about last month (rather laughably, as it turns out).
I do hope so, or we won’t have any apples, blackcurrants or garlic next year. All three depend on a prolonged spell of chilling: 7°C day and night for three weeks is the figure generally bandied about.
Rhubarb and strawberries need chilling for good crops, too: and goodness knows what’s going to happen to my strawbs this year. They were flowering in November, then we had one atypical night of hard frost and all the centres turned black. I thought that was it, but no: they’re off again.
At the moment my inclination is to pick off the flowers to persuade the plants to keep their energies for themselves for the time being: let’s just hope they’re not exhausted by spring.
The daffs are unlikely to be back, though: they have a once-only performance, so once you’ve had it, you’ve had it. This, though, is the new normal: for we have forgotten what the old normal even means any more. So we’d better get used to it, I’m afraid.
*Apologies to those of you who prefer their sentences grammatically correct: my ability to write in adult is dwindling the longer I live with two teenagers. Roughly translated, for those of you over the age of, oh, 15, this means ‘Goodness, isn’t the weather remarkable for the time of year!’ Which makes you sound like Hyacinth Bucket instead.
You won’t be gardening long before you feel the need for a little electricity.
I don’t mean excitement: goodness, there’s quite enough of that what with mouse invasions and that branch falling on my greenhouse roof and stoving in several panes at once. And positive things too, like the gorgeous Ensete ventricosa (deep purple banana) which arrived on my doorstep as a foundling (unwanted gift from a non-gardener); or the loquat tree which miraculously survived losing every single branch in the heavy snows of winter 2011.
No, I mean power: the juice which runs your greenhouse heater, or lets you install a pump in your water butt so you can run a hose off it, or makes a heated propagator and thus transformation of your seed-sowing life possible. [read more…]
Just when you thought there was nothing new under the sun, they go and invent a sunflower that’s actually a table lamp.
Well actually it’s not that new, as it’s the same technology as you used at school when you plugged a couple of electrodes into a potato and made a little lightbulb glow. In every piece of vegetative matter there is a chemical energy created by photosynthesis which can be converted into a small current: which is why you can make an electric circuit out of a potato, or a tomato, or a sunflower.
Anything green can be persuaded to generate electricity: even grass clippings. In 2012 some scientists in America created a solar cell from a few fragments of vegetation. The technical term is biophotovoltaics.
I can’t pretend to know much about the science, but I do know this is pretty cool: the electricity you generate from plugging into a sunflower is enough to charge a mobile phone battery, or a computer (after a while, I’d have thought). Imagine what a field of sunflowers could do. Looks a whole lot nicer than a power station, too.
I may be acquiring one of these from those nice people at Thompson & Morgan later in the summer, so I’ll let you know what happens. Should be electrifying (sorry, couldn’t resist).
**STOP PRESS**: Have just heard that T&M are so taken with this particular technology breakthrough they’re going to start a new energy company to harness all that sunflower power. Word has it the new company will be known as Avril Fuel. Now that’s one to watch out for.
The other day on the radio, a scientist was making a convincing case for the fact that we should all eat more insects.
You can listen to the programme again here. The basic premise is that for the majority of the world, which is to say everyone who doesn’t live in the developed West, the main source of protein is six-legged: the likes of deep-fried bee larvae, baked termites and mealworm meatballs.
Hmm. They’ve got a bit of a PR mountain to climb before they convince us all to give up our lamb chops in favour of cockroach sandwiches.
But they’ve also, surely, got a point. I use up a couple of acres of good grassland to raise my sheep, and they provide us, plus maybe a couple of other families if lambing goes well, with about a year’s worth of meat. The same amount of land could grow vegetables for a small village; and hold hundreds, if not thousands of insect farms, feeding hundreds of people, not just half a dozen. It’s much more efficient, too: 10kg of feed produces 1kg of cow, but 7kg of insects. They even poo more cleanly, with all that implies for greenhouse gases and climate change.
You can eat snails’ eggs, too: they’re known as snail caviar
Farmed snails grow twice as fast as garden snails (even though they’re the same species), reaching maturity in six months. You can keep six in a box the size of a propagator, and the only maintenance they need is a quick spray with water and a powdered feed mixed with chalk once a day.
Before you want to eat them, just remove the food for a few days, then drop them in boiling water, slow cook for at least 1 1/2 hours and there you go: escargots on toast. They’re particularly good on pizza, apparently.
Snails at home in their propagator-sized case
You can start your own snail farm for £30, which buys you a breeder pack of six snails, food and housing. Add a cage full of crickets and a bag of mealworms and you can be self-sufficient from your spare room. As long as you can get over the yuck factor, that is.