Tuesday, 15 May 2012

Take zat, Monsieur Renard...

As all eyes focus on Greece's potential exit from the Euro, I have been dealing with more prosaic matters: turds in the vegetable bed. Specifically, those turds produced by the kind gentlemen foxes that frequent these environs.  Fans of geopolitical humour may choose to fashion an amusing metaphor around the concept of poos, the Greeks and 'own patch', but I would not be so vulgar...

The solution to the foxy parps on my parsnips comes in the form of another almost-patented Montgomery Acme Inc invention, the Chicken Wire Duvet.  Think of it as being akin to that (apocryphal?) joke of putting cling film across a toilet opening ... but with chicken wire... and no toilet...

There will be naysayers out there that don't quite appreciate the thought that has gone into the design of this excellent tool.  The chicken wire (2 strips sewn together with the wire that came wrapped around the roll) is secured at one end (nearest the fence) with nails.  At the other end it is wrapped around one of the many cut branches that I have lying around and, again, secured with the wire that the roll came with.

To prevent under cover incursions, the 'duvet' is weighted down with bricks and also hooked around nails hammered into the sides of the raised bed, at heights perfectly suited to tearing the thigh muscle of a misplaced leg.

The main design flaw is clear.  When those sunflowers in the top left corner of the bed grow a little bit more (i.e. in about a week), the cover will need to be rolled back out of the way.

In terms of results, the duvet has clearly shaken the south east London fox community to its core.  On its first night in situ, it appears that fantastic Mr Fox jumped up expecting a cosy toilet seat on which to spend 15 minutes reading the poultry section of Country Smallholding - instead finding the protective shield of fine gauge chicken wire, it was so scared that it voided itself over the sunflower plants.

Another successful invention from the Montgomery stable then... Still, no poos since (from the foxes, in my vegetable beds - my own system is working fine, thanks for asking) and, more importantly, no unwelcome visitors trampling over the beds as my carrot and spring onion seedlings start to appear.

Marching swiftly on, some progress photos for all one of you to enjoy (hello, Adam):

My other (not ever likely to be) patented chicken wire invention seems fine (or rather it has not fallen down yet).  The peas and broad beans look reasonably healthy, though I must say that the broad bean plants I see in nearby allotments and on TV appear to be much farther on than mine.  Must try harder next year.  Behind the 'Pea Sheath' (or whatever I called it), I planted a row of the runner beans (Benchmaster, said in the style of Dexter Fletcher, circa early '90s).  All were germinated using the Walton germinate-in-a-bag method - let's see if they successfully pop out of the ground.

I have finally planted out my courgette plants (five of them), two of the butternut squashes and one of the pumpkin plants.  The rest of the curcubits will be going in the raised bed that can be seen to the left of this one in the photograph.  As can be seen, I am taking no chances with the cool nights, despite it being mid May...

And finally the rest of the runner beans, set in two quite deep planters and, again, germinated inside in a bag of moist compost.  I will do a dedicated post on this technique later in the show year, depending on the level of success achieved, but as a teaser, I was hugely impressed that every single one of the 20 beans that went into the bag germinated within 5 days, sending down a strong initial root (only for me to plant them out into this damp, cold May weather).


Thursday, 10 May 2012

The things I did today...

...Or rather on Tuesday.

Inspired by the health of my coriander plant in the mini-greenhouse, particularly given the state my attempted herbicide* (thankfully, not currently prosecutable under English law), I have decided to prepare to fill said greenhouse with warmth-loving herbs.  They can occupy the space that will soon be made vacant when I put my courgettes, squashes, pumpkins and peas out to pasture.

* Leaving it zipped up in the greenhouse during a hot week in March (i.e. the only nice week of the spring so far)

I tried a couple of different techniques to start the seeds off: in pots and once again in the coir Jiffy 7s.  I also took my first baby steps towards being a Monty Don, rather than a Monty Dumb (see what I did there?), by using vermiculite.  Clearly I have no idea how well it will work (or whether it will work), but it is nice to the touch and leaves a pleasing professional quality to my finished pots.  Also, and this is just a guess, I am hopeful that the water-retaining quality of vermiculite will be helpful in the warmer greenhouse environment.

Let's get visual:

So that's a pot each of:

Basil Sweet Green
Basil Lemon
Parsley Plain
Coriander Leisure (which, let's face it, sounds like a 1980s caravan)

The basil and parsley (being small seeds) were sprinkled on the surface of the compost, with a light tap to push them down, then covered in the vermiculite.  For the coriander, being slightly larger seeds, I made small holes in the compost with an improvised dibber, and popped 3-4 in each one.

Incidentally, the Basil Lemon and the Coriander were both purchased in 2010 (and planted with little success I hasten to add), so are theoretically out of date (the packet says to plant by end of 2011).  To counter this, I used more seeds than I did for the in-date ones.  As with all things gardening, we will await the result with patience and serene calmness (and in no way have I checked the pots for progress on an hourly basis since planting...)

Next germination strategy:

Jiffy 7s.  I was prompted to purchase these having read the excellent River Cottage Veg Patch book by Mark Diacomo.  I attended Mark's course at River Cottage back in 2009 and found him a thoroughly nice guy (any incompetence you find in this blog is my own etc etc).  His website is definitely worth a read.

I am not sure I always use Jiffy 7s appropriately (and I mean that in the gardening sense - I don't spend my evenings trying to stick them up my bottom).  They are probably better suited to the larger seeds / seedlings, but I do find them extremely useful, for the following reasons:

  • They are the right size for 1-3 seedlings - so I'm not wasting unnecessary compost; 
  • They fit easily into these handy gardener's carrying trays (or takeaway containers, to the untrained eye) - so I can bring them into the kitchen to germinate;
  • They are made of coir - so no need to worry about using peat-based product;
  • Staying on coir, I am pretty sure you don't want (or maybe need?) the medium for germination to contain much in the way of food - the seed contains all the necessary to get things going, then when the seedling reaches the size where it does need more food, you can pot it on into a more appropriate compost mix.
And here ends today's sermon on the wonders of Jiffy 7s (the coir ones, of course).  Again, we will wait with baited, sleep-deprived, breath to see if anything germinates.

And, yes, I have a third germination strategy to share with you today, good people.  This one comes care of Terry Walton and his allotment podcast.

Essentially, in a bid to increase the speed and efficiency of starting my runner bean seeds, I have filled a freezer bag with compost, shoved in 20 seeds (5 for each of two planters, 5 for the relevant bed and 5 spare), put in a dash of water, rolled up the top of the bag and put it in a warm place near our boiler.

The photographic evidence:

(Hmm, that just looks like I've mixed a tin of baked beans with some soil...)

The aim is to maintain a pretty close eye for the initial root to sprout, and then move the sprouting beans quickly to their next home.  I am undecided whether this will be straight to the planters, or, as an intermediate step, into pots or Jiffy 7s.

As an aside, beans and peas are probably one class of crop where I have been using J7s (I am tired of typing the full name each time) inappropriately, given their need for a long root run.  For next year, I might well collect toilet rolls or purchase some root trainers.  However, I have not had a problem with the roots having planted in J7s, as long as you pot on the seedlings quite soon after germination.

As an aside to the aside, I did have a problem this year germinating broad beans in J7s (although the peas germinated very successfully).  For some reason, they just never appeared and, upon investigation, many had simply rotted.  Hopefully the Walton method above will mean that I will not have this issue in the future.

My final 'achievement' on Tuesday was the creation of the Montgomery Pea Sheath (patent pending...).

I am sure it is immediately obvious to everyone what this fine contraption does.  It is the top of an arch that we used to have supporting an unknown, triffid-like climber (unknown to us, probably known to the vast majority of competent gardeners).  I then attached chicken wire all around it, to act as a support for peas, should they ever deign to grow more than an inch from the ground.

So what motivated such a marvellous invention, Professor Brainstorm?  Well, (i) I understand that peas like to climb thin supports rather than thicker ones (ruling out a cane wigwam, for instance); (ii) I had the top of an arch lying around; and (iii) I have just purchased some chicken wire, primarily to build a holding pen for leaf mould.

Finally, and this occurred to me only after making and positioning it, it might (might!) dissuade the array of cats and foxes that variously like to sleep, dig and poo in my precious vegetable beds.  Foxes Live my arse! (for those residing in the UK, watching Channel 4 and reading this blog at the time it was written (May 2012)).

Monday, 7 May 2012

... and you're back in the room

Straight down to business.  The 'plot', or rather the left hand side of it.  In total we have six beds, two of which are raised.  The raised beds I filled with compost and top soil back in 2010; the other beds seem to contain the original soil (they were here when we bought the house in 2009).  The beds have been sporadically cultivated since we got here: success with brassicas (particularly cavolo nero, which I can only assume must be growable by complete fools, given my level of success) and strangely with tomatoes (but as I type this, I recall that actually these were largely grown in a grow bag further up the garden) and some peppers (sweet and chili); abject failure with courgettes (which are apparently fool proof), rhubarb (?!?), radishes (I know...).  This year it will be different....

The first bed is just after compost heap (it is right next to the old heap, which truly is a heap).  It is raised and I'm sure could do with being topped up (hopefully with that much-heralded compost).  It is arguably too close to the compost heap, which may well be a breeding ground for horny slugs.  As in many things (including life), we must deal with imperfection.

The four seedlings we can see at the back are sunflowers that I started in Jiffy 7s (the coir ones).  In addition, on 30 April, I planted rows of:

Radish (summer mix - raphanus sativus, it says on the packet);
Spring onion (White Lisbon)
Carrot (Autumn King)
Parsnip (White King)

I also planted out some of the Swiss Chard (Rainbow Lights) which I had started in the good old Jiffy 7s.

My rotation system is somewhat haphazard, based on a hazy recollection of previous years' activity with the other plant groups.  As of this year, bed 1 is roots and onions (... and, yes, a sneeky brassica, should the radishes decide to grow) plus the chard, which I think I can grow anywhere within the system.

Next, bed 4 contains beans and peas (legumes to you sir).  Broad beans (Masterpiece Green Longpod) around the wigwam; peas (Hurst Green Shaft) to the left of the photo.  In time, there will be runner beans (Benchmaster) on the right (as well as growing in two planters on the deck near the house). 

A line o' peas, just before something had a nibble....

In case you're wondering about beds 2 and 3 (who wouldn't!), we've passed over them on the basis that they are a combination of weeds and cavolo nero gone to seed.  In time, one will contain cucurbits (courgettes, butternut squash, pumpkins) and the other will contain... more cucurbits.  These ones will be pretending to be brassicas this year (for the purpose of the rotation).

My two vines (Pinot Noir, on the left; Kentish Claret on the right).  I think it's fair to say that there won't be any wine made from the grapes produced by these two, er, brutes for some considerable time...

I am undecided what to number the following bed.  It is either 5 or 6.  In any event, this year (2012) it is potatoes (Pink Fir Apple).

And finally, bed 6 or 5, recently planted with asparagus (Jersey Knight).  This might well turn out to be a gaff, since the bed appears to be rather more shaded than I originally thought. 

Our tour concludes with a photo of the apple tree and environs, which look rather messy (and in fact are rather messy).  I have no idea of the variety of apple tree, other than to say it produces a cooking apple and it received a very close pruning in winter 2010/11.  So hopefully we'll see some apples back this year.  It was prolific previously (too prolific...).

There we have it.  A tour of the garden, as of first week of May 2012.  If we ever get sunshine, as opposed to the incessant rain, I might even be able to grow something.  A tout a l'heure...

Sunday, 6 May 2012

Garden tour revisited... or so he thought

And so I attempt to complete the garden circumnavigation started in my first post.  Let us all pause a moment to revel in the glory that is ... writing a second post.  Very rare that I elect to continue something I have started, particularly when it involves writing words on a page (electronic or otherwise)....

Hang on, the combination of literary navel gazing and fate tempting has conspired to rouse child number 2 from her nap and for child number 1 to insist that I come to see the 'long train' that he has constructed on his track (which now, as it happens, I can hear him destroy....).

Away! To domestic bliss and a child that will cry solidly until I have prepared her lunch.  I will attempt to revisit the garden element of this blog this evening, boosted by alcohol.

Thursday, 3 May 2012

Life starts here

Right, I have limited time whilst child number 2 has her nap and child number 1 is at pre-school.  It is a wet morning in early May and I am going to jam as much information on here as possible before the cry of the well-known toddling warbler signals the end of my productive day.

The aim of this blog is to catalogue and record my experiences in the garden, having committed a spectacular career suicide just over a fortnight ago. More on that in another post I feel.

The purpose of this account is to act as a record of what I was planting and when, what worked and what didn't, and what I can do better in future years.

So here goes.

I think it would be helpful for all of us (and by all of us, I of course mean just me) to start with a quick summary of where we have got to so far and what we have to work with.

The "greenhouse":

I'm actually quite pleased with this.  Full of promise.  The courgettes haven't yet had the opportunity to disappoint me by producing two withered edibles; there isn't a slug or snail bite in sight - except a little nibble on one of the sunflowers...

And for all those natural light fans out there, let it be known that I do take my plants out for a walk each day...

...which is where the sunflower plant received its little nibble.

The only plant that doesn't seem to like to go outside (much like my son) is the coriander:

Carrying on our tour, the herbs, flowers and shrubs.  Don't ask me to name the flowers and the shrubs (and if anyone does ever read this blog and is able to name the succulent that is thriving in the pot on the centre right, that would be most appreciated).  However, on the herbs side we have bay (looking a bit sad), thyme (common), sage, chives, tarragon (french) - apparently tarragon does not like to be in a pot, but seems to like it for us - various lavenders/lavendulas and, finally, parsley.  

Here I am trying to grow swiss chard (rainbow lights) in a planter.  Who knows if it will work.  I grew far too many chard seedlings so have decided to try them out in a couple of different places.  If any of these experiments are successful, then as a family we're going to have to up our chard consumption (from zero currently).

The white bits are blossom rather than some sophisticated new growing media...

Onwards and downwards, hacking through our uncut lawn.  Ladies and gentlemen I give you ... sweet peas, planted by my wife:

We are hoping that they will happily climb up the twine that I have looped round these amateurish supports.  Time will of course tell.

So this fence is replacing one that I burnt down last February, along with my neighbour's shed, the contents of said shed and a substantial proportion of their leyland cypress (Cupressus x leylandii, Latin fans).  The ceremonial burning of this beloved tree was the silver lining to this sorry episode.  The building of the replacement fence, which required significant guidance and assistance from my father-in-law (essentially he built it and then left me to undertake the apparently straightforward task of attaching the feather-edge boards), has now taken nearly 15 months.  

A slightly quicker project has been the building of my compost "heap".  Heap is the wrong way to describe this hulking monolith.  I am sure that all eyes in the architectural world will this year be focused on the various Olympic venues and the completion of the Shard, but I am convinced that the more considered members of RIBA will want to come down to my garden to revel in the elegant beauty and magnificent practicality of this celebration of compost creation.

The fact that the majority of it is made with relatively fragile feather-edge boards from fences past and present means that it is likely to collapse with the first sniff of a decomposing vegetable, but for now my basilica of biomass stands tall and proud.

On which soaring rhetoric I must bring this inaugural post to a close.  This is somewhat premature, since I had plans to discuss the contents of my beds (vegetable), but the squawking from the nursery (child's) has reached fever pitch.  I can't imagine my wife's definition of success in our domestic role-reversal plan is having social services called round by our neighbours.

I do, however, have time for my final garden job. So, with a rattle of my tambourine and a twang of my ukulele, I cast off my clothes for the daily naked sun dance.  Until next time folks....

[Photo removed]