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…
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).
So: onward and upward with my efforts to replace my stack of green and black plastic seed trays with lovely organic and handsome wooden ones instead. Here are the options I’ve been trying out this spring:
1: Home made
I have discovered that while you can buy full-sized seed trays off the shelf, the half-sized trays I favour for many of my sowings are more difficult to come by. You can make your own from recycled pallets, or get in some Western red cedar which I’m told by my carpenter husband is slower to rot than most woods, but is imported so less environmentally-friendly. It takes more time to make a seed tray, but it is phenomenally cheap: I am experimenting with different methods and will report back.
Second-hand finds at reclamation yards and online auction sites have, frustratingly, almost always wine boxes or fruit crates which are NOT wooden seed trays – they’re too deep, for one thing, and much too large. The ideal size for a seed tray is (about) 38cm x 23cm x 5cm: anything larger than this is getting difficult to use.
Proper wooden seed trays, even in those garden brocante places that charge the earth for old gardening stuff, are as rare as hen’s teeth. I’ve just scoured every stall in the Chelsea Flower Show, where garden brocante is de rigueur, and found not a single seed tray. So I’ve given up.
There are, I discover, lots of places which sell proper wooden seed trays, and very handsome they are too. I am feeling a product review coming on. The ones I’ve decided to trial this year are:
Great Dixter seed trays: These look a little on the deep side compared to what I’m used to, at 6.5cm, and they are expensive – £8 for two (plus £5 shipping, so that’s £6.50 per tray to you, guv). But they use them on the nursery to this day: and what’s good enough for the late, great Christopher Lloyd is good enough for me.
Burgon & Ball Wooden Seed Tray Set: One of the very few – actually, the only one I could find – to offer a half-tray option. A little froufrou for my liking (why is it that people can’t resist printing things on the side of wooden seed trays?), and I think I’m going to find them deep as the height is 8cm on these. Price is £12.99 + £4.95 shipping, so £17.94, more expensive and definitely a pricey option.
D&P Marchant Seed Trays: And last but not least: the eBay option. This is a small business based in the Lleyn Peninsula in north Wales, hand-making wooden seed trays (and other things) from reclaimed timber. They aren’t cheap, at £9.75 (though that does include postage) – but the attraction here is that they get a lot cheaper if you order more. I spotted a stack of 10 for £47.99, which is a much more reasonable £4.79 a tray. And no postage costs. And they do half-trays, too.
I have collected all three to put through their paces and will report back later in the year!
The year marches on: and I thought it was about time I gave a little update on where I’m at in my attempts to clear the plastic out of my garden.
One of the things that’s become very obvious is that the main cause of the plastic mountain that greets me right inside my gate is the annual seed-sowing frenzy that envelops me and my garden each spring (and, fitfully, for the rest of the year too). It’s a side-effect of growing your own veg: you effectively raise an entire garden from seed every year, and to do that you need a lot of stuff.
From March to May, I’m reaching for a seed tray, module or pot every single day. So my seed-sowing paraphernalia builds up into teetering piles on display for all to see. And most of it is plastic.
I thought I would start at the bottom, so to speak, and look at my extensive collection of seed trays.
I use seed trays for absolutely everything to do with sowing. I sow straight into them from time to time, especially baby-leaf salads which I like to transplant straight from the seed tray in chunks – saves a lot of pricking out.
Seed trays hold my modules and smaller pots too. They make useful carry-alls for transporting seedlings out to the cold frame. And they’re just the right size to fit on the shelves in my greenhouse.
So I wouldn’t be without them. But every single one I own is made of plastic.
As with so much in this particular crusade of mine, I’ve been looking back to Victorian ways of doing things for a solution.
Wooden seed trays are far more beautiful than plastic; and of course they’re completely biodegradable. I like the look of them, very much. They’re a bit more expensive, granted: but being wooden, if you don’t want to shell out for the posh versions you can also make your own.
Disadvantages: they are heavier, and of course they do deteriorate and give way, although I would argue plastic ones too have a limited life in a busy garden. Mine regularly crack through heavy use, get trodden on or strimmed to uselessness and have to be thrown out. And of course broken plastic seed trays end up in landfill – whereas wooden ones biodegrade back into the environment.
In terms of using them, they’re much the same: fill with compost, and extract seedlings for transplanting with a kitchen fork, the tip of a trowel or just your fingers. Just like you would with a plastic tray.
They do dry out more quickly: I have found this is becoming a bit of a theme with non-plastic gardening, as you use a lot more absorbent materials (plastic, of course, tends to hold moisture in). But on the plus side, once it’s watered wood holds on to moisture against the seedlings, too (because it is damp itself), more effectively than plastic where the edges can, I find, evaporate to dryness more quickly than the centre.
I’ve been trying out a few different types this spring. I’ll outline which in the next post – with results later in the season, once I’ve put them through their paces. Watch this space!
Not much gardening going on yesterday: it was blowing a hooley again and though it wasn’t exactly raining hard, what there was flew at you horizontally on the wind like needles. I am an unashamedly fair weather gardener: I don’t see the point of turning your garden into a muddy slurry pit under your feet and mashing your soil into a sodden pulp just so you can say you’ve been gardening in the rain. Good job I don’t work in a Proper Garden where they can make me go outside even if I don’t want to. Anyway: on days like yesterday, I beat a dignified retreat and spend the day at my desk.
Today though was a different story: lovely sunshine, a balmy breeze and everything was drying out nicely. Time to do a bit more sowing: the first peas and broad beans are already in the cold frame hardening off, and the next batch of mangetouts are now cooking nicely in my 15°C propagator.
I’m not quite venturing outside yet: the soil is still chilly to the touch and we’re regularly slumping to zero at night so direct sowing is still a few weeks off yet. That’s not to say you can’t plant, though.
The above curious little witchetty grub lookalikes are a new venture for me this year. These are Chinese artichokes, crosnes, or Stachys affinis: take your pick. Whatever you call them, they’re hardy so you can plant them direct outside whenever you want – unlike my other exotic veg (mashua, oca, yacon) which are still confined to the frost-free greenhouse. So I’m going to give them a go.
I’ve planted them in a patch by the pond in the exotic edibles garden. It’s a little triangle that’s quite nicely confined, having a stone wall on two sides and the pond across the third. The reason for the fencing is that these are veg with ambitions: they will multiply and spread, even if you eat lots of them, and while it’s never a bad thing to have a lot of anything edible it can be a pain if they’re anywhere near other plants (see Jerusalem artichokes and mint, to which Chinese artichokes are related).
They were easy enough to plant: bury on their sides about 5cm deep, and around 15cm apart (not that it matters too much as they’ll soon form a dense mat). They look like deadnettle once they’re up, so I may have to liven them up with a few flowers or this is going to be a dull little corner indeed.
You harvest them from about October. Cleaning is a bit of a faff: it’s easier if you grow them in lighter soils, but in heavy soils you’ll need a bit of elbow grease and a nailbrush. There’s no need to peel. They have a crunch like water chestnuts and a delicate artichoke flavour. Sounds great. I shall report back.
As always in April, there’s a traffic jam in my greenhouse. Outside, the cold frame is jam-packed with evicted seedlings but still they keep coming, as April is second only to March in terms of how much needs sowing yet you’ve still got the tender plants sheltering and taking up space, to say nothing of last month’s seedlings taking their time over growing big enough to go outside in their turn.
Still, so far, so good and there are lots of promising little things going on.
Uchiki Kuri squash seedlings, for instance. Aren’t these lovely fat little things? I do think they’re gorgeous. They’re getting in urgent need of potting on – amazing how quickly five fat squash seedlings can fill a 10cm pot.
It took me a long time to realise that Uchiki Kuri were the same thing as Potimarron – a French squash I’ve grown before and absolutely loved. They taste of chestnuts – a smoky, savoury flavour quite different from ordinary squash. I’m growing these just to make sure that they really are the same thing and not some Japanese upstart imitator (with apologies to the Japanese, who thought this was their heirloom squash and have no doubt been cross with the French ever since). I have had great success overwintering my little collection of scented-leaved pelargoniums this year: this one is P. quercifolium, with pretty leaves the shape of oak leaves. I took quite a lot of cuttings this spring too as I was potting the parents on and trimming them back in their start-the-season haircut: and most of them have taken, so it’s going to be a bit of a scented-leaved pellies summer. These are going outside to harden off just as soon as there’s space in the cold frame… And finally I thought it might give you a laugh to see the tip that passes for my potting bench, in one corner of the greenhouse taking up valuable room when actually it ought to be in the shed (but we didn’t get around to building it this winter).
In case you were wondering, the peanut butter is for trapping mice (I keep the last scrapings from our breakfast spread, which is why it’s three pots – only a little in each one).
Three casualties so far in the gardener-vs-whiskery ones skirmish which followed the clandestine savaging of a mangetout pea sowing one night, but it’s all gone quiet again: I even dared to put in the beans a week or so ago and nothing’s gone missing (yet). So I’m hopeful that they’ve learned their lesson and are staying clear.
I do hate trapping mice – it’s far less humane than our feral cat which is my usual control method. But they make it impossible to grow any legumes (or sweetcorn, come to think of it) if you don’t – so I grit my teeth and get on with it. Artemisia leaves laid on the floor of the greenhouse are supposed to keep them off, as is mint – they don’t like the smell, apparently. I’ll give that a try next time – but I’ll keep the traps handy, just in case.