Another month, another stack of seed trays to prick out.
The greenhouse shelves are already full of overcrowded seedlings to pot on, and the cold frame is full to bursting as everything needs hardening off at once – that week to 10 days of delay while you get them gradually used to outdoor conditions.
It’s all a bit of a faff, really. Of course I could sow seeds direct, especially now the weather has properly warmed up: it’s quicker, and easier, and uses fewer resources like potting compost and plastic pots, too. But once I’ve sown the seed I still have to water every day, and fend off the slugs, and thin out the seedlings to regulation 5cm spacings…
Don’t get me wrong: all this is part and parcel of the daily routine of being a gardener, and I love it really. But recently I’ve been concentrating my efforts, and my precious hour of post-work gardening time, only on those seeds which really, really need my attention. The rest I leave to nature. Continue reading…
Also like people, a good diet is the foundation for health and happiness: and that means lush, leafy growth and a satisfyingly generous harvest for you to pick at the end of the season.
Making sure your plants have ready access to all the nutrients they need isn’t always as complicated as you might think. Some gardeners will come up with mind-bendingly detailed feeding routines to follow like a military campaign through the year, drawing from an armoury of chemicals in the garden shed. I prefer simpler, more planet-friendly ways to keep my veg happy. 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.
Harvesting this month: French beans, courgettes, patty pan summer squash, sweetcorn, potatoes (the last of the second earlies to eat, plus maincrops to store), apples and raspberries, plus cucumbers and tomatoes from the greenhouse, and baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.
Sowing this month: Autumn-sown (Japanese) onions and lots of salads, for outside (under cloches) and in pots to refill the greenhouse borders once the toms are out, including winter lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, American land cress, corn salad, chard, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.
This month I will be:
Clearing summer brassicas
Planting autumn-sown onion sets
Mulching empty beds
Taking cuttings of herbs and borderline-tender plants like salvias and pelargoniums
Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
Cooking apples (and tomatoes) to freeze for winter
New perennial crops for this year
Perennial vegetables are so much more sustainable than annual as you don’t have to continually disturb the soil (so no carbon release) and they require much less input in the way of resources compared to raising seeds and using lots of water, warmth, feed and compost.
There aren’t many of them, though, and some are very unfamiliar. So one of my projects this season has been to start a perennial vegetable garden. No soil disturbance, a fraction of the inputs (feed, water, fertiliser, compost) of annual vegetables, and you lock up more carbon with permanent planting too. And a fraction of the effort of regular vegetable gardening. But the trick is to find perennial vegetables you actually want to eat: here’s what I’ve started with.
Daubenton’s (perennial) kale is growing well: it’s under a little tent of mesh to keep the butterflies off but I’ll remove that once they go away at the end of the season.
The skirret was a total failure: sowed direct in May as instructed, absolutely no seedlings. No idea if the slugs got them or if it was too dry or if they just didn’t fancy it this year. It may have been the seeds themselves so will order from a different supplier next year just in case. And I will be sowing them into pots where I can keep an eye on them.
Salsify were more successful: several good leafy rosettes now from direct sowing in May. I am leaving them to establish for a year or two before I try to pull a few roots.
American ground nut (Apios americana): I planted these odd little tubers (they are actually beans but are more like small, floury potatoes to eat) at the foot of canes by the low wall. Not all survived, but enough did for me to think this will be an interesting taste test next year!
Chinese artichokes: Easy as anything to grow – they’re related to deadnettle. I’ve got them in an old sink in the back garden: I will wait until they die back before harvesting some of the knobbly roots to try (probably next month: watch this space).
And a new addition: Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). It’s not the most spectacular plant, being a clump of fuzzy-felt leaves and not much else. But it is bone hardy and a useful spicy salad ingredient. And when I say spicy, I mean spicy: I had a little taste and like most things Turkish it’s ten times stronger than anything you’ve ever tasted before. I am not sure if I like it yet, but I will persevere.
New mentoring service
Well actually it’s not entirely new: I’ve been mentoring several students recently and have found it works so well I am offering it more widely.
The idea is that you have me “on tap” for advice and help about organic and sustainable methods of food growing, over email (no complicated technology to master!) and when you need it. Arrange an hour whenever it suits you and I can answer questions, give you loads of ideas and inspiration, guide you in starting up a new veg garden or help you develop an existing one. It’s entirely up to you what we talk about and it’s completely tailored to you and your garden. Book a one-off session, or a regular time each week. It’s up to you!
A lovely comment from one regular student recently: “I’m SO glad you’re there!”
For more details contact me at sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com.
This year’s tomatoes: the verdict
I haven’t a lot of room in the garden to grow dozens of different types of tomatoes but I do like to try one or two new ones each year (there are about 7,500 varieties to choose from so there’s always one you haven’t grown before)
It has not been a vintage year. I’ve had lots of tomatoes: but only one of the three I grew came up to scratch.
Ailsa Craig Good old Ailsa. What would we do without her? There are relatively few straightforward medium-sized salad toms around nowadays – we all seem to be growing fancy cherries, black tomatoes and beefsteaks instead. But sometimes all you need is a straightforward slicing tom and this one is fantastic: reliable, prolific and great flavour too.
Coeur de Bue To be honest this is my own fault as I was being a cheapskate. I grew Coeur de Boeuf a year or two ago and loved it: all the flavour and size of a beefsteak without the difficulty (or low yields). This one came as a freebie and I thought, Bue? Boeuf? Not much in it… how wrong can you be. Insipid taste, pinkish red (so hard to tell when it’s ripe) and a sort of dry texture: a pale shadow of the original. Won’t be growing again.
Reisentomate Another freebie I should have turned down. It’s an interesting idea: a tomato that grows in segments, so you can pick off a segment at a time to eat rather than having the whole tomato. But beyond the novelty value, you’ve got to ask yourself….. why? Flavour insipid, texture dry, fruits small. Just no.
I have been battling the mice. You may think this would be something of an unequal fight, being as I’m several gazillion times their size but they are obviously far cleverer than me.
It started with them taking munchies out of my low-hanging tomatoes: I have never had this happen before in all my 25+ years of growing veg but it was definitely mice as they climbed on top of one fruit and left a lot of poo as a calling card. Yum #not.
Now they’re after my beetroot seedlings. I sowed them direct and they came up within days. Yet along came my whiskery friends and… no more beetroot seedlings.
I do have a feral cat but she is getting old nowadays and spends most of her time on the boiler. I am also starting to think a cat brings too much in the way of collateral damage: don’t mind the baby rabbits so much, but the robins are heartbreaking. So Sooty is to be my last cat and I will have to think of other ways to keep the little blighters off my food in future.
I could trap them, but I always prefer a live and let live policy so for now I am trying an alternative approach. Come back next month for news of its success (or not).
Well here’s a thing: I have a new place to blog! I’ve just started writing all about my exploits in the veg garden for Learning with Experts – the online learning portal where I’ve been teaching Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening for some years now.
I’ll be telling you all about everything I’m doing this season, from the varieties I’m growing to the new sustainable gardening techniques I’m trying. I’ll also be sharing my triumphs (loads of those, I hope) and tragedies (not so many, with a bit of luck) and all the things that go to make up the daily life of a veg gardener.
So I hope you enjoy it! I’ll let you know here whenever there’s a new post up – right now if you head on over you can read my first post, with a little about myself, my veg garden and what I have planned this year!
By far the most exciting thing to happen to me in the middle of a rainy and slightly frustrating week was the publication of my new book.
This is all a novel experience for me (sorry, dreadful pun) and I am finding it a little disconcerting: I have to draw attention to myself, for one thing, blow my own trumpet and generally go on about what I do instead of hiding in a corner of my living room bashing away at my keyboard behind the comforting anonymity of a computer screen.
However, now I find myself with book launches, author signings, talks and podcasts to do: publicity a go-go, and nowhere for a slightly reclusive gardener to hide. I can’t even go down to the far end of the veg garden where nobody can find me, as it’s (still) raining.
The book began as a simple idea: what if everyone could be just a little bit self-sufficient? Even if they lived a normal 21st century life in an ordinary house, without a smallholding, or much time, just like me?
And – as these things do – it mushroomed into an examination of what exactly it means to be self-sufficient, and from there became a gallop through the last 20 years of my life distilled into all the stuff I’ve learned about growing things and providing for myself and my family, on a journey of my own to look after myself as much as I possibly could through my own efforts.
As I’ve learned to supply more and more of my own food from my back garden, plus various borrowed fields, allotments and strips of land, I have realised lots of things.
First: there’s no such thing as self-sufficiency. Even the most dedicated off-gridder has to hew their house from the surrounding woodland with an axe someone else has smelted and forged. So once you’ve taken that on board, it becomes a question of how self-sufficient you can be.
And then you realise that everyone can supply at least some of their food by their own efforts. Even if all you’ve got is a doorstep, you can plant a rosemary bush in a pot in the sun and never have to buy herbs wrapped in plastic from the supermarket again.
Add a middle-sized garden and you can become self-sufficient in half-a-dozen vegetables really easily, and another dozen or so with a little extra effort. Start to get really hooked (and you will) and you can knock more things off your weekly shopping list, including fruit, drinks, cough and cold remedies, tea, eggs, lamb…
There will always be some things I will have to rely on others for. Flour, for one thing, and bread, pasta and rice. Butter, milk and cheese (I could keep goats, but I value my sanity: I have chased far too many of my mum’s goats across various villages in the South of France to want to ever do that again. Long story). Clothes (I can’t wear wool. Besides – woolly knickers. ‘Nuff said); cars and transport, other than walking.
So actually, in the grand scheme of things, I’m probably not that self-sufficient at all. But the point is, it is hugely important to me that I produce as much as is within my power from my own efforts.
Why? Because that way, I can eat absolutely fresh, organic food that I know for sure has never been sprayed with any chemicals at all, or injected with antibiotics unless it needs to be – and there’s lots of it, and it tastes great.
Because there is something deeply satisfying about sitting down to a plate of food and knowing that you have provided everything on it, through your own efforts. It taps into some atavistic caveman instinct and there’s something profoundly reassuring in the knowledge that, come the apocalpyse, we’ll be all right. We certainly won’t go short of home-made chutney, that’s for sure.
And because when I’m providing for myself it means I’m not sitting like a baby bird, mouth open, waiting helplessly for someone else to feed me. It’s a matter of self-respect. Plus growing what I eat, even if it’s just a part of my overall consumption, makes me really think about where my food comes from, and appreciate the effort that goes into growing it: and that makes me waste less, and pollute less, and treat the animals that produce my food better. It makes me responsible, as far as I can be, for the weight of my foot upon the world. And besides, it’s a lot of fun. Care to join me?
Grab your own copy of Growing Self-Sufficiency at a hefty introductory discount from Wordery – here’s the link!
There I was, listening morosely to the tumbleweed (well, gales and splattering rain) and wondering if the winter would ever end. And then all of a sudden spring sprung. The frosts retreated, the snowdrops came out, and everyone emerged blinking in the watery February sunlight.
And all that sulking indoors has left a ton of stuff to do in the garden, so I’m already behind before I’ve even begun. And now that we can all agree it’s spring, there are garden articles to write and book proposals to hone and student assignments to mark and garden holidays to plan… Welcome to a new year!
Here’s what’s on my to-do list right now – all to cram into the remaining fortnight before it gets even more crazy in March. Wish me luck…
Hitching up the propagator: I think I actually love my Vitopod. It’s not often I say this about a bit of kit, but this has really transformed the way I can garden. It’s eye-wateringly expensive, but believe me: it’s worth it. The moment it comes out of storage each spring is the moment my year begins.
Sowing tomatoes: See above. This wouldn’t be possible, this early, without a heated propagator – and a good one at that. I set mine to 20°C, and then once the seedlings are up switch the thermostat down to about 12°C to grow them on. Frost? What frost?
Sowing the earliest root crops: I like to get an early crop of the hardy stuff going as soon as I can (cue: heated propagator again. Sorry). It’s too cold to sow yet, even in an unheated greenhouse; my rule of thumb is 7-10°C day and night before I’ll risk it. But once the toms are finished, turnips, beetroot and kohlrabi go in at 12°C and germinate like a dream.
Planting Jerusalem artichokes: There’s planting to be done outside, too; this year I picked up some of the not-quite-as-knobbly Jerusalem artichoke, ‘Fuseau’, along with the seed potatoes. They’re tall, and have flashy golden sunflowers in summer, so they’re going straight into the ground in the exotic edibles garden. Just hope I can keep them in bounds, that’s all – I have tried (and failed) to curb their enthusiasm before…
Lovely fat Jermor shallots waiting to go in the ground
Planting shallots: Shallots go in earlier than onions, so mine are in the ground this month. As always, I’ve gone for a French variety, ‘Jermor’ – though I’d have preferred ‘Hative de Niort’, fiendishly expensive but the largest, most reliable and – most importantly – tastiest shallot you’ll ever grow.
Experimenting with new stuff: This year it’s Welsh onions – I never have any luck with spring onions, so I thought these perennial bunching onions might prove a useful substitute. Also Carlin peas, aka parched peas, thanks to a kind gift from skilled kitchen gardener and Charles Dowding‘s other half, Steph Hafferty. And tiger nuts, if I can keep them warm enough. All of which more at a later date.
Cutting hazel stems: You’ll find me swinging monkey-like among the thickets of hazel that line the back of our garden this month: they’re perched precariously on the side of the bank but produce some lovely long, straight stems. Cut at around 2″ diameter, just before the buds break, they supply all my beanpole and peastick needs.
Potting up dahlia tubers: What’s a dyed-in-the-wool veggie type like me doing growing something as fancy as dahlias, you ask? Well, dahlias are edible too, so they earn their place in my kitchen garden. Plus they’re dead pretty. I pot mine up in 2ltr pots this month to save them from the slugging they’d otherwise get in the open garden.
Ripe with promise: the potato crop chitting on my windowsill. Not strictly necessary, but I do like to get them out of their bags while they’re waiting to be planted.
Forcing new potatoes: The one time I bother with growing potatoes in sacks – otherwise an exercise in retrieving the minimum harvest possible from the maximum outlay – is in early spring, when I force a couple of sacks’ worth of new potatoes just for the smug value of eating them weeks before anyone else can.
Mulching & feeding fruit: The fruit garden gets a lot of attention this month: I’ve just about finished all the pruning, but right behind the secateurs are the spade and wheelbarrow. A good scattering of slow-release fertiliser – I’m a fan of pelleted poultry manure or Vitax Q4, but this year I have Carbon Gold to try too – topped off with a thick layer of mulch sets the whole fruit garden up for the rest of the year.
There are some garden plants which can’t make up their mind where they belong. Kitchen garden? Or flower borders?
The answer, almost always, is both. I’m a big fan of including ornamental-but-edible plants in the bit of the garden that isn’t explicitly for growing food: things like the fuchsias I harvest for their berries, or the lavenders and scented-leaf pelargoniums which on the rare occasions I have time and opportunity to channel my inner domestic goddess I use for flavouring cookie dough.
Crabapples fall firmly into this territory. They are pretty little garden trees, with lovely spring blossom and pretty good autumn colour too. They behave themselves impeccably, never outgrowing their space and needing little pruning: the worst you can say of them is that they have a bit of a meh outline that can look downright scruffy if you like your gardens architecturally pleasing. But in a wild garden like mine, that’s fine.
My best crabapple harvest ever
We inherited a crab with the garden but it has never, until this year, fruited. I’m not sure what’s brought on its current outburst of generosity: perhaps it’s because I pruned the top out last year to give it a slightly better shape and pulled off the curtain of Clematis montana that had – as it does most years – leapt across from the fence over which it grows rampantly alongside to climb up and over the crabapple as well. The montana is a lovely plant, and I forgive it everything each May when it smothers said fence (about 20ft long) with a confection of flowers so dense you can’t see the foliage underneath. But it’s sometimes hard to keep its ambitions for world domination in check.
Or maybe it’s just because it’s been a good year for apples: the Devonshire Quarrenden in the veg garden has been prolific this season, too. But anyway: for the first time the ground beneath was carpeted with little miniature apples. Pound after pound of them. They’re gorgeous.
I’m pretty sure our crab is a ‘John Downie’, the variety most often recommended if you want the best fruit: and I can vouch for its prolific harvest of large (2-3″) fruits. They are flushed red, but cook to a honey yellow.
For brilliant red crabapple jelly, you might try ‘Red Sentinel’, particularly lovely as the (smaller) fruits glow so bewitchingly against the foliage in autumn. ‘Golden Hornet’ I’m not so fond of: there was one in the gardens at Bicton College when I was studying there and its fruits turn an unappetising brown when overripe, still on the tree. It doesn’t, as they say in the trade, die well.
These are the three I have personal experience of: I’m told ‘Gorgeous’ and ‘Dolgo’ are better choices if you like your crabapple Jelly scarlet as the red fruits are somewhat larger than ‘Red Sentinel’. Crabs are naturally high in pectin and mix well with other fruits, so if you’re making jelly or jam, add a few crabapples to help it set: hedgerow jelly, made of crabapples and blackberries, is sublime. And as if that weren’t enough on the usefulness scale: crabapples will also pollinate domestic apples, so if you don’t have room for two full-sized apple trees, try one apple tree and one crabapple instead. They can even be espalier-trained if you only have a fence to spare. Versatile or what.