Wednesday 28 December 2011

Flowering late December

Following the footsteps of other gardeners, such as Patient Gardner and Veg Plotting, I took some photos today of what was still flowering, out of season, this late in the year. These are all from my front garden, which is south-facing. Although the front garden has had frost, it obviously wasn't hard enough to kill off all flowering plants.

Good old Calendula 

The Helenium is more yellow than it's usual orangey-yellow tones, but I can assure you that it is 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'. I would add that it appears to be a perpetual flowerer. This year it started flowering in June and is still going at the end of December. I've had a lot of bunches of flowers for the house and to give to friends, and this wonderful plant just kept on flowering.

Helenium 'Sahin's Early Flowerer'

And good old Calendula again, a yellow variety

On to more muted tones, some of the Verbena Bonariensis still has flowers on it. I leave it over winter as goldfinches love the seeds, and I like it to self seed so I can pot up some free plants to pass on the next year.

Verbena Bonariensis

Finally, some Lavender, angustifolia 'Hidcote'. As usual, I trimmed all my lavender mid-Autumn to help prepare it for next years flowers. However, being so mild it decided to flower a second time this year.

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

Lavandula angustifolia 'Hidcote'

This time last year everything was under several feet of snow, and these pictures remind us of the changeability of the seasons. As ever, nothing is guaranteed in the garden, there are challenges and new delights every year, every season.

Tuesday 20 December 2011

Choosing heritage seeds

I never fail to get excited about the arrival of the next years Heritage Seed Library (HSL) catalogue. So many choices of wonderful sounding veg, often with great stories behind them. I've been a member for quite a few years now and have even started sending back some seed, such as my favourite pea 'Lativan', which I have written about in the past.

There are several vegetable varieties from HSL that are now favourites at Gwenfar's Lottie. Besides my Lativan Pea, this also includes the Estonian Yellow Mini Cherry, pictured below.

Tomato - Estonian Yellow Mini Cherry

This is incredibly prolific, something like 80-100 little cherry tomatoes on a branch and lots of branches. It also showed some blight resistance, in that when blight hit, not all of the Estonian toms were hit, and even if they were, they kept growing and fruiting anyway. I gave away quite a few batches of these, froze some, and of course ate quite a lot. They are incredibly sweet, just like eating sweets, and with the wonderful colour to go with them. Bursts of sunshine in your mouth!

Another favourite is Lettuce 'Bronze Arrow', and I've met a lot of people at least in Oxford who also love this variety. It's very reliable, has a slightly nutty flavour and is slower to bolt than many lettuces I've tried. I have saved seeds from it this year and will be sowing lots come 2012.

Lettuce 'Bronze Arrow' close to flowering, late August

Other favourite HSL varieties include Kale 'Hungry Gap' and another Pea, 'Robinson', which I've also written about previously.

My HSL catalogue for 2012 arrived last week. Like a child in a sweet shop I poured over the varieties on each page, getting excited by such a wonderful range of seeds on offer. As a member you can choose up to 6 varieties, and these are my choices for 2012.

Kale 'Daubenton': dating back to Victorian times, this is apparently a perennial kale and can be treated as a cut and come again veg. I've been thinking about growing more perennial veg in my front garden, to give it a bit more structure as well as an ongoing food crop (I grow a mix of perennial flowers, annual veg, fruit and herbs in the front garden). So this one hit the top of the list.

Brussels Sprouts 'Catskill': coming from the US, it is meant to be robust and be good for both eating fresh and for freezing. I have not tried heritage Brussels before, so thought I'd give it a go.

Broad Bean 'Martock': I couldn't resist this one, it's key attraction being that it was a mainstay of the medieval diet - that's some history! Grown in Somerset for centuries, it was donated to HSL in 1970's after the beans were offered to someone in exchange for a donation to the Bath & Wells cathedral roof restoration. Medieval bean, medieval cathedral - will it suit modern tastes?

Broad Bean 'Red Bristow's': as my friends know, I've got a bit of a thing for red and purple vegetables. I love purple/blue beans (see below), but they usually loose their colour once cooked. These broad beans are meant to stay red even when cooked, and have a delicious taste, so seemed like a good choice for palate and plate.

French Bean 'Blue Coco': I must admit, I just love the name and the fact that it is a purple/blue bean. Ok, I was also attracted by the fact that it is meant to be good in salads and be hardy, reliable and prolific. Oh, and they have purple tinged leaves and lilac flowers. I think this might be another for the front garden.

Dwarf French Bean 'Hutterite Soup': a variety coming from an Austrian religious sect that moved to Canada in the 1750's. I'm more interested in beans for drying to use in winter for soups and stews and this one is meant to be perfect for precisely that reason.

So those are my heritage veg choices for 2012. As all gardeners know, at the end of the day, it doesn't matter what it says on the packet, it is how it performs and tastes that really matters. Based on past experience growing heritage varieties, I suspect there will be at least a couple of tasty winners in this selection.

Saturday 17 December 2011

Attacking brambles

Spent a couple of good hours in the sun down at the lottie, attacking brambles. Kevin and I were delighted to be joined by our friend Manishta, who for reasons best left to herself, thinks 'brambles are cool'.

Manishta, rugged up and happily cutting up brambles

Thanks to Manishta's help I am really feeling we are finally starting to really cut into the brambles. This pile Manishta is putting the cuttings on, goes under cover to help dry them out. Probably late January we can have a bonfire and burn them to the ground. Which will be good timing, as where the pile is now is where I'm planning on putting my shed in early Spring.

Of course, it wasn't all girl power. Kevin was a star, attacking bramble roots with great gusto. Or a pick. Or maybe we should call the pick 'great gusto'?

Kevin and the pick 'great gusto' 

And here is the offending root...

A proud Kevin holding up the root, "I got you, ha ha ha"

To thank Manishta for her work, I dug up some carrots and parsnips for her to take home. One parsnip was very well rooted and when I finally got it out, well, you can see why. That white long thin bit is a part of the root I pulled out. The whole thing was almost a metre long!

A day in the sun at the lottie. Definition of a good time.

Friday 16 December 2011

Mulching experiment: update 1

A month after I first began the mulching experiment, here is the first update.

 Experiment 1: after 1 month

For bed 1 (standard cardboard and compost mulch), you can see that the cardboard is starting to break down a bit. No annual weeds have come up. This may not seem significant, but on my non-mulched beds, like those still with spinach and chard, some annual weeds have sprung up, even though I weeded them at the same time as setting up the mulching experiment. Usually I wouldn't need to weed so late, but we had such a warm autumn. I suspect now that it's finally turning into winter (light dash of snow on the ground this morning), the weeds shouldn't grow any more now until end of Winter/early Spring.

Bed 2: mid-November 2011

Bed 2: mid-December 2011

For bed 2, with the cardboard and non-composted plant material mulch, if you compare to the first photo from November, you can tell, only slightly (!), that the plant material is breaking down just a little. I think adding the extra compost to hold it down has helped, as has finally getting some cold weather. But not a lot of change really.

Let's see how it looks in January!

Wednesday 14 December 2011

Mulching experiment

Green manure: Hungarian rye on the left, tares to the right. Will be dug in early Spring.

It's been the mulching time of year, well, more in Autumn, I'm just writing this up late! I decided to try experimenting with a couple of different mulching techniques on a couple of beds at the lottie which didn't have green manure in them, so they would not be bare over winter. The main reasons for mulching are:
  1. Killing weeds by denying them light
  2. To conserve water - reducing evaporation
  3. To protect the soil from erosion or capping
  4. To encourage biological activity
  5. To add organic matter and nutrients to the soil
(from The Earth Care Manual, p.194)

The first bed I am doing my mulching experiment on had potatoes growing in it this year, and will be planted with courgettes, pumpkins & squashes and corn in 2012. My key aim for the mulching on this bed was to add organic matter and nutrients in preparation for plants that will need lots of food. A secondary aim was to kill weeds (annuals) by denying them light.

Having already tried to clear the bed of perennial weeds like couch grass when it was first dug, and again after I pulled up all the potatoes, I had hoped that I had got it all. Couch grass is very sneaky and the tiniest amount left behind will start a new plant. Clearly I haven't quite mastered the art of getting rid of perennial weeds as I still have couch grass appearing! So I therefore first did my best to dig out any perennial weeds, again.

Experiment 1: standard cardboard & compost mulch

I then covered the bed with cardboard, and then added in a couple inches of compost on top of the cardboard. The cardboard should help kill off any annual weeds. It will breakdown over winter, and the worms will take the compost down into the soil, doing the handy work of adding it's nutrients to the soil.

This is a fairly standard type of mulching, so I'm not doing anything new. I'm going to monitor this bed over winter and see how it breaks down. I will probably add another layer of mulch in early spring, as pumpkins etc are hungry feeders and I want to give them the best possible chance of yielding lots of yummy food.

The experiment part really comes in with comparing this standard way of mulching with another bed I mulched. This bed had broad beans on it this year, and I will be planting brassicas on it in 2012 (in fact there are already some over-winter cabbages in the bed). Again, these need lots of nitrogen nutrients.

For the 2nd bed, I'm using the idea of 'three-layer grow through mulch' (Earth Care Manual, p.195), but adapting it. The 'three-layer' mulch first has cardboard or newspaper placed on the bed. Then manure is added, and then holes made plants, i.e. potatoes, planted though a hole. The 3rd layer is a mulch of grass mowings, straw, generally loose material, which helps contain moisture. This system is really used for when you are immediately added young plants/seed potatoes, not leaving it over winter.

For my experiment* I have added a layer of cardboard (after again doing my best to get rid of the perennial weeds), but instead of adding manure, I have thrown on all the left-over bits of plants. This includes everything from the remains of corn, chard/spinach I had dug up prior to it going to seed, carrot tops, broad bean and pea roots, the remains of the asparagus plants after cutting them down in autumn, etc. I then threw on some compost to help hold it down. The lottie is very exposed to wind and as the plant material is a bit light, I needed something to hold it down so it didn't just blow away.

*This isn't my own bright idea. I know I've read or heard about this, or something similar to it, a few years ago but cannot find where, so I'm unable to give the credit for the idea. I'm just using what I remember and adapting it to what I think might work.

Experiment 2: Showing the cardboard layer, then plant material on top.

I could put all the plant material in the compost and break it down that way as usual, but I wanted to see how it might go if I just add the material straight onto a bed in autumn. My thoughts were that maybe the frosts and snow will help break the plant material and cardboard down a bit, and then when it starts warming up in early Spring, I'm hoping the worms will get to work and start taking some of the material down into the soil.

At the very least, this mulch will help kill annual weeds and stop the soil from being bare and at risk of winds blowing away some of the good top soil over winter. If it doesn't break down enough, I don't loose anything as I can just pull up the plant material and put it in the compost bin, then add some standard compost back onto the cardboard and bed.

In nature, trees loose their leaves and just fall to the ground. It doesn't get raked up and put on a compost pile and then once broken down added back to the soil. It is left to do it's own thing and nature gets to work and over time it breaks down and releases all it's nutrients back into the soil. So I'm trying this because I was curious to see how much the plant material would break down over winter, when just left there as is, kind of mimicking nature a little bit.

The photos above were from mid-November. I'll be taking photos once a month over the next couple of months and report back how it is going.

Wednesday 30 November 2011

#Nov30 in Oxford

Updated 5pm: More pictures from the march and rally

Proud to support all workers on strike today. I joined the Unison picket line in Rectory Road, Oxford, for a couple of hours. A couple of pictures from striking Oxford workers.

Plus pic of the #Solidaritea chocolate cakes I made and dropped off at a couple of picket lines.

Monday 21 November 2011

Solving a thorny problem

Brambles - ugh!

Like many gardeners, I am regularly at war with brambles. I cannot control the council land that my garden backs onto. Although the council have promised, a couple of times, to remove the brambles, this has yet to happen. I clearly need to hassle them more. In the meantime, I have to do what I can to keep the council's brambles from trying to take over my garden.

This war has inevitably led to some injuries. Actually, quite a few injuries. There has been thorns stuck in my fingers. There has been scratches on my arms. There has been blood. It's not been a pretty sight. And I really need to stop swearing bloody murder every time I'm hurt. There are children living next door.

I've tried different types of so-called pruning gloves over the last couple of years but so far none of them have lived up to their name. So when at the Chelsea Flower Show this year, I specifically looked for some gloves that would stand up to brambles and that would leave my poor hands and arms unscathed and my need for band aids diminished. And the ears of my neighbours children uncovered.

Of all the stands I visited, the Gold Leaf glove stand looked the most promising. They had a glove on offer called a Tough Touch glove. It's made with leather, and has a gauntlet like cuff (you know, like knights used to wear) that goes over the wrist and part way up the arm.

Trying them on they felt good, warm too (fleecy inside). But would they really do the job? Obviously the sales people were used to suspicious gardeners, so they had some rose stems with thorns on hand (as you do) to demonstrate the effectiveness of the gloves. Wearing the glove and then grabbing the thorny stem, they did appear to be very strong and I didn't get any stinging or cuts. What's more the gloves were quite comfortable. Whilst I was still not 100 per cent convinced how they would work in practice, they were the best thing I'd seen so I decided to give them a go. I gave them £24, they gave me an expensive pair of gloves that I hoped would work.

I had a couple of bramble advances into my home garden over the summer that I had to halt, and used the gloves. They appeared to do the job. But I was still thinking, but what about when it's a whole bramble patch? Yes, I'm hard to please.

Fast forward to last weekend. I was talking part in my Allotment Association's working party on Sunday. A large part of it was spent clearing brambles. I suspect this may be a regular occurrence on lotties up and down the country! So, out came the magic gauntlet gloves and I got to work.

You know what? They bloody worked. I was right in the thick of it, grabbing thorny branches, pruning and carrying a stack of the thorny buggers to the fast-growing-pile-of-things-to-burn. All through it, I didn't get one cut or scratch on my hand or wrists. I have to say, I'm quite impressed.

They don't stop branches falling on my head because I cut the wrong angle and then didn't get out of the way quickly enough. They won't stop brambles growing in the first place. But they did do just what they said on the tin. And the neighbours children can play outside without bursts of bad language disturbing their play. Finally, a solution to a thorny problem.

Thursday 17 November 2011

Agroforestry talk - some musings

I attended an excellent talk on Agroforestry by Professor Steve Newman of the Agroforestry Research Trust (and BioDiversity Int.) last night, put on by Oxford Permaculture. Whilst I might live in an urban environment and won't be setting up a forest garden on a piece of land, the talk was still relevant as you can still use elements of the forest garden in a small garden or at your allotment. This might be something as simple as growing strawberries underneath your pear trees, as I currently do. Or it could be creating several layers of crops within a small kitchen garden or on your allotment, as I plan to to do as I develop my kitchen garden and lottie in the future.

Steve also repeated one of best definitions of permaculture that I've come across...
Permaculture is an approach to designing human settlements and agricultural systems that is modelled on relationships found in nature.
I must try and remember that next time someone asks me what permaculture is!

Steve also questioned 'what is food?' and thought maybe we needed a new definition. So much of our food comes from monoculture, and have been brought down to the lowest common denominators: grasses (wheat, rice etc), potatoes and maize.

However, I think the question isn't 'what is food', but 'what food is appropriate to grow in a given environment?' For example, as Steve pointed out, in the UK we should be growing nuts (walnuts, hazel nuts, chestnuts) rather than cereal like wheat (or at least growing more nuts and less cereal). Our environment is highly suitable for nut growing and nuts are high in protein and carbohydrates and are more nutritious than wheat. Nuts can be ground into flour and used for baking. And from a permaculture/agroforestry perspective, nut trees can fit really well in a diversified agricultural system.

One example Steve showed was of nut trees with wheat growing underneath (see - you can have your cake and eat it!). As the leaves on nut trees come out quite late, wheat can be sown in the autumn when the nut tree has lost it's leaves (which go into the soil and add nutrients). The wheat starts growing before winter sets in, stops during winter, then gets growing again in early spring once the temperatures start rising. By the time it gets to summer, the leaves on the nut tree will be out, but by this point the wheat isn't doing much photosynthesising. Therefore the shade of the tree does not impact on the wheat as it now putting its energy not into photosynthesis, but into using the energy stored in the plant to develop the grain.

Getting the initial design and spacial relationships right is very important. The nut trees should be planted carefully so they are not too close together.  With careful design you get two yields from one area of land (and probably more but I'm just limiting this to nuts and wheat for as an example).

As someone who rather loves her potatoes and fresh bread from the farmers market, I don't want to give them up. But Steve's talk did make me think about how what I see as key food items, wheat and potatoes, is quite limited and not necessarily giving me the best nutrients. Wheat is grown in as a monoculture in the UK in a way that is clearly unsustainable. However, if we shift what we think of as key food products, and start using agroforestry techniques to diversify, we have the opportunity to grow more food locally that suits the UK environment, build resilience (because if would be less likely that both crops would fail in a given year), and of course we would get to try lots more new ways of eating yummy food.

Thanks to Steve Newman for such an inspiring talk, and for Phil Pritchard from Oxford Permaculture for organising it. I know it's a cliché, but it really was, food for thought!

Monday 31 October 2011

Bavarian & Bonn holiday

Ok, it's taken me about 6 weeks, but I've finally got around to sorting through the rest of my over 600 photos from our holiday in Bavaria and Bonn back in September. I briefly posted back in early October, but here is a fuller photo story of our holiday...

View from our cabin in Bayerisch Eisenstein. It was so beautiful and the air was so fresh I almost felt like I was on a high!

Wandering in Bayer's streets.

Bayer is in the Bavarian Forest, right on the boarder with the Czech Republic. In fact, the train station is half in Germany and half in Czech, as I demonstrate here!

Us on the top of Grosser Arber.

A day trip out of the forest to the beautiful Bavarian city of Regensburg. It was a bit grey and cloudy that day, but I can assure you the city is very beautiful.

Julieanne in front of another part of the Roman wall. Notice how they built the 'newer' buildings into the old wall.

The elusive Lynx. It's blurry (it's been cropped), but it was very rainy and being a cat, it did not like being out in the rain much, so it hid deep into the trees. At Falkenstein Naturpark, Bavarian Forest. And yes, there are still some Lynx in the wild in the Bavarian Forest too.

And now the Wild Cat. Though hard to tell in a photo, these cats are much larger than your usual moggie. At Nationalpark Lusen.

Tree-top walk at Nationalpark Lusen.

A riot of colour at the Bundesgartenschau in Koblenz. Was enjoyable to visit, but Chelsea, it's not!

Playing on the chairs at the Bundesgartenschau in Koblenz

The Ehrenbreitstein Fortress, other side of the Rhine in Koblenz. Another part of the Bundesgartenschau also held here.

Colourful Cauli's (Bundesgartenschau).

Cycling in the Ahr valley (part of Rhine region) with our friends from Bonn. This is all of us (well, minus me) in the town of Mayschoss. L-R: Alexander, Kate, Simon, Sam & Kevin.

Fantastic use of permaculture 'edge'. Grape vines, Mayschoss. The tunnel to the left is the bicycle tunnel, and to the right, the train tunnel. I love the Germans, they are so organised.

Julieanne, Kate & Simon. Between Dernau and Ahrweiler in the Ahr Valley.

Sam & Kevin. Who's the cutest?! In Ahrweiler.

New glass chicken from the Regensburg Glas-haus graces the lottie.

It was a really relaxing  holiday in the Bavarian Forest and we had a great time visiting Kate, Simon and the boys in Bonn, and came back refreshed and relaxed. Somehow though, it already seems an ice-age away...

For the extra keen, I've posted more photos from the holiday on my web album.

Monday 10 October 2011

Container gardening with legs

I saw this when on holiday in Germany, as we were cycling into Dernau, in the Ahr valley (near Rhine) with friends. Gives container gardening legs, don't you think?!

Sunday 9 October 2011

Block the bill - NHS block the bridge

Ok, I realise it has been yonks since I've last blogged. I promise I'll catch up soon and will supply you with pics and stories from our holiday in the Bavarian Forest and visiting friends in Bonn. In the meantime, today I was at the NHS Block the Bill action in London.

There is a lot of hope that the House of Lords will hold up the bill by referring it to a committee, effecting stopping it. Ironic that it might be a bunch of unelected predominately rich white men, that may help save the NHS. However, not counting chooks yet...

Jenny & I on #blockthebridge
More pics here and here.

Saturday 3 September 2011

DIY trellis

Since undertaking the Permaculture Design Course last year, my confidence in trying to make my own objects for the garden has increased. I've also got better at noticing how I can increase the use of the different resources that I come by.

A couple of months ago I pruned the Phyllostachys Nigra, the black stemmed bamboo, above. It was planted quite close to the fence we share with our lovely neighbours Fung & Simon. Whilst they like the bamboo well enough, it was trying to get a bit too close and was pushing out the fence in a funny angle and making it a bit unstable. Furthermore, on our side, it was starting to take up lots of space and block out some light, so pruning was in order.

If you know Phyllostachys Nigra, you will know that the black stems are a lovely shiny black. Bamboo is also quite strong, hence the large number of imports from China to garden centres throughout the UK. In general, I don't buy bamboo canes for staking, I either get hold of some hazel branches, or keep any branches that are relatively long/straight from pruning trees in my own garden. When Kevin and I pruned the Prunus (prune Prunus - ha ha) I collected a large number of stakes that I have been using for anything from growing my French climbing beans to staking Brussels sprouts at the lottie. Hence, rather than cutting up and throwing away the pruned branches, I saw them as potentially useful objects for the garden. Even the smaller stems are drying out and will be used for kindling. So when pruning the bamboo a couple of months ago, with it's lovely long black stems, I knew I would find some use for them and so put them aside to dry out.

Today I made use of those bamboo canes, making my own trellis. I needed a trellis for a new evergreen Honeysuckle, Lonicera japonica 'Hall's Prolific'*, that I am going to grow up the front wall of the Lemony.

laying out the vertical canes

First I put the container I was going to plant the honeysuckle in on its side, then placed the 5 bamboo canes inside to the bottom. I arranged them into a fan, with the tallest in the middle. I then cut a smaller cane to go across (horizontal) the long canes. Because I wanted to get the trellis to fit in a small space, I used this cane to measure up next to the wall. Good thing, because I had arrange the fan to be too wide. I cut the horizontal cane to side, then arrange the long vertical stems accordingly, starting from the bottom end of the trellis and working up..

adding the lowest horizontal cane

Next I tied the lowest horizontal can to each vertical cane, as above. I then moved up to the top of the 'trellis' and tied in the top horizontal cane, below. I did this to help make the overall framework a bit more steady, to make it easier to add in all the middle horizontal canes.

adding the top horizontal cane

I used string to tied all the horizontals to the verticals and then added a bit of super glue to each knot. The glue was because I don't think I had the strongest string on the planet and I wanted to make sure the knots held!

voila! the completed trellis

Moving the planter and new trellis upright, I attached a couple of canes on each side to nails coming out of the wall. This is because this area is quite windy and I wanted to make sure it was steady and the whole thing won't come crashing down.

planting up**

Next was the planting up! Along with the honeysuckle, I added in some spare daffodil bulbs I had drying out from Spring, and some early flowering crocuses, Crocus tommasinianus 'Whitewell Purple', one of my favourites. Then to add some further interest for later in the year (since the daffs and crocuses will be for early Spring), I planted up a couple of Pennisetum Red Buttons, a grass seed I picked up from the Knoll Gardens stand when I was at Chelsea this year and have successfully grown into lovely new plants.

ta da!

And here is the completed planting with my DIY trellis. At a later stage we will add a couple of rows of wire across the top and over the door so that I can train the honeysuckle along the rest of the front of the Lemony. I should add that I wanted a fragrant evergreen in this place for two reasons. One, a kitchen window looks out directly onto this space, so I wanted something green all year round. Adding the bulbs was to help lighten the spirits with their colour, when it is desperately needed, at the end of each winter. Two, Kevin and I go in and out of the Lemony door all the time, as it is the end when we place our bicycles, so when it flowers next year and in future, we will be able to regularly enjoy the fragrance. This is also next to the entrance to our back door and garden, so visitors will also get to enjoy the fragrance since we use the back door, rather than the front, as our main entrance to the house.

I admit the trellis is no great work of art. But I made it from home-grown resources and it does the job, and I feel rather pleased with it. Hopefully as the honeysuckle grows up the trellis, it will take on some 'rustic charm', the string will be hidden and the fragrance will delight all who passes by.

*This was Kevin's choice and he even paid for it. He now owns a total of 2 plants in our garden!
**That's my other neighbour, Richard's garden behind me. He's not a gardener...