Thursday, 15 June 2017

Herb management

Overgrown herbs
Scarily shorn herbs
I've found it so rewarding having a large herb garden outside and have started to plan our weekly menus (because that's the kind of geek I am) around what might be ready to use in the garden. The herbs have also acted as a lovely lure for all kinds of wildlife. I was hoping for a couple of bees but the massive variety of butterflies and bees that have made our garden a regular stop has really delighted me. The herbs have been a big part of that. I was initially frustrated when my thyme kept flowering regardless of how much I took away but it appears to be the hip new neighbourhood eatery for a wide variety of butterflies, moths and bees so I let it keep going rather than replacing it. I did have to give the rest of the herbs a drastic shearing though as the flat parsley, curly parsley and coriander had shot up out of control and were starting to tear the cat netting at the top of the fence. They also flowered at a rate of knots so I compromised with the insects - they could keep the thyme flowers and I'd cut everything else back to within an inch of its life to ensure some fresh tasting new growth. It looks a bit severe but new sprouts are already shooting, thank goodness. 
A day flying moth or (maybe?) a chequered skipper

Monday, 12 June 2017

Monday harvest

It astounds me that even my tiny little garden is providing quite this much produce. I harvest at least one "thing" a day, whether it's a small handful of strawberries or a bunch of herbs. In fact, it's only because I hadn't realised how much was ready to eat that I haven't been working out a menu around it. All that changes here. But in the last week we've had strawberries almost every day, herbs and lovely salads filled with pretty nasturtium flowers. How lovely it is to eat food that tastes that fresh and that I actually grew. Watch this space for much more than the below next Monday!

June 5th - Strawberries (£1.80)
June 7th - Strawberries (£1.20)
June 8th - Bunch chives and nasturnium flowers (85p and £1.43 respectively)
June 11th - Strawberries (£0.60) and chives (£0.85)

Sunday, 11 June 2017

How to grow more in a small garden: Building a mobile growing rack

This is a DIY that not only doesn't take long, it doesn't involve any tools at all and so is something I'm really pleased with. I'm always looking for new spaces to grow things in my garden but short of tine hover boards being invented in the next couple of weeks, I've always despaired at the lack of vertical space on which to hang things. I have a whopping 44 wall planters and hanging baskets and to be frank, I've run out of space to hang them (having been reduced to hanging them from sticks). I don't want to fill the small patio we have with heavy pots because my toddler GarlicBoy needs somewhere to play and we need somewhere to sit. So I started thinking. What if I put some pots on skateboards and just wheeled them about into the house whenever I needed the patio? The idea wasn't entirely ludicrous but it clearly wouldn't be worth the effort for just one pot. And that's when it hit me. A hanging rail! A heavy duty one would provide me with a considerable amount of growing space in the form of four hanging baskets, two large herb planters and a large trough planter and best of all, I could wheel it out of the way in seconds when I needed to use the patio. I think there's space on the market for a proper one of these (I call it "The Germinator", patent pending of course...) as they'd be very useful on balconies as well I should think. \

You will need:
1 heavy-duty hanging rail (check the weight limits) Mine is 3ft long

Heavy duty chains and some steel rope
Various hanging baskets
Two large wall planter bags
One balcony trough planter (designed to sit on a rail)

How to:
1. Put the hanging rail together and, using the steel rope, tie the hanging baskets to the top back to back
2. Slide the chains in between the bags and over the rail so that they hang down and hook the hanging basket hooks through both sides of the chain
3. Put the trough on the base and secure it well (I used electrical tape) to the rail so it doesn't slip off
4. Fill the bags, trough and baskets with whatever you want to grow
Herb bags secured to top of hanging rail

Hanging basket hook threaded through two chain links
I chose to use three of the baskets for hanging tomatoes (something I can never get enough of) and the trough has a couple of dwarf bush cucumbers in it. One of the baskets has a bunch of sacrifice French Marigolds (and another sneaky cucumber) in it and the two huge herb bags have basil and various types of mint respectively. I love growing herbs (hence my vertical garden for them) but I didn't want to use a whole raised bed for mint or basil. This means I get a large enough supply of both without losing a bed I could use for things like squash. 

A side note: the hanging rail is obviously carting quite a lot of weight so do be careful around pets and little people. When our garden is open, my rail is securely wedged in next to the playhouse where my toddler and/or cats can't get to it to pull it over on themselves. 

Saturday, 10 June 2017

Hanging baskets when you have nowhere left to hang them from

Poles holding a basket
Unsurprisingly, the biggest challenge to the frustrated gardener when regarding their tiny urban garden with critical eyes is a lack of space. I've covered my fences and walls with wall planters, vertical garden planting bags and hung hanging baskets from every single supporting fence post and still I don't think I have enough space. So what to do? Every inch in my raised beds is filled with plants fiercely competing for what is probably too little space already and I don't want to take over our patio or grass patch because I want our toddler to have space to play outside. So they only thing I can do is to wait for someone to invent hovercraft pots that will suspend themselves mid-air. Or, I could be wandering around the garden centre one day and suddenly realise that heavy duty tree supports might just be the answer. 

I planted some hanging baskets up with basil and tumbling tomatoes and hung them from the little hooks on the poles and shoved the poles down into the raised beds in the tiny gaps between plant surrounds. 

"Success!" I thought. Oh, how overconfidence comes before a fallen basket. The puny hooks on the posts were too feeble to hold the weight of a basket of soil in the rain so my mark two version consisted of strapping the hooks back against the poles with heavy duty electrical tape. The poles are leaning slightly but they're still up and the baskets are growing in mid air, taking advantage of growing space that I don't strictly have. Necessity is the mother of invention! (And lust for fresh produce will drive you further than you can imagine).


Friday, 9 June 2017

Better beetroots - how to thin beetroot seedlings

Shamefully puny beetroots
Last week I thought that I'd be enormously smug and plan a lovely afternoon of cooking with my toddler son. He's always so happy when he's perched on his tiny stepladder with his little apron on, cracking eggs or stirring things and tasting everything within reach. What could complete this middle class John Lewis advert of an afternoon? Why, to have him pull up one of our enormous beetroots from one of our raised beds and to cook beetroot chocolate brownies of course! So when we went to pull up the beetroots that were busy waving their ginormous leaves in the wind, it was a bit of a shock to find that they were tiny puny undeveloped roots! It turns out that the plugs I'd sown had multiple beetroots in each of them so none of them had space to grow. So we bought (to my shame) some backup beetroots to stick into the brownies and whilst they were cooking I went out to try to thin the beetroots. 
The beetroot bed, looking deceptively full of fat roots. It isn't!
My initial attempts to pull up the unwanted puny beetroots simply resulted in the whole plug coming out so a quick google suggested that instead I could simply cut the leaves of the ones I didn't want right back to the level of the earth. So that's what I did. The beetroot bed looks a lot thinner now, but hopefully we'll end up with some actual beets rather than a bed full of tiny weedy looking roots. As per usual the thinning left me feeling pretty guilty, but I think that long term it'll be worth it. 

One of the beetroots that survived the thinning

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Harvest time again

I've had quite a fruitful few weeks from the garden (if you'll pardon the pun). Life has been quite busy but I find that I'm starting to weave gardening into my everyday life. I do a tiny bit of weeding every morning whilst I'm cooking breakfast, and then in the evenings I do any tying in etc before I water the garden once GarlicBoy has gone to bed. And then a couple of times a week whilst he has his lunchtime nap I do the slightly heavier tasks, cutting the grass and planting things out etc. It's really lovely and I think I've been a much happier person since I started gardening again. I absolutely love having GarlicBoy help me harvest things too, he's such a happy little chap and gets so excited whenever there's a new ripe strawberry or similar to take in with him. I'm now cooking at least a couple of meals a week with garden produce that I've grown myself and that's very satisfying. I've updated my garden produce harvest records and I'm really pleased with how I'm doing. I've had about a punnet of strawberries so far (albeit one at a time) and huge amounts of spinach, parsley, mint and rosemary. We've also started regularly eating the nasturtiums and rocket. Once we start to get crops of things like courgettes and tomatoes I expect that we'll be saving a bit more money but for now I'm just so thrilled at what we do have. The taste of fruit and vegetables taken fresh from the garden literally minutes before eating is beyond compare. I've actually always disliked rocket and found it overly bitter but the taste of the rocket from the garden was so amazingly fresh and fragrant that I find myself wishing that we had much more space for me to grow leaves in!

Monday, 22 May 2017

Harvest Monday

This past week has actually been very fruitful. I'm still mainly getting herbs and leaves (spinach and rosemary and parsley) and although I'm really looking forward to getting some actual fruits and vegetables, I'm still really enjoying being able to wander out to the garden and harvest these greens whenever I like. Once again I forgot to photograph the rosemary, but I hope you'll believe me...! The rosemary was just enough for a roasted leg of lamb for a lunch party, but both the parsley and spinach hauls were pretty large so I'm going to say £1.40 for the parsley, £0.85 for the rosemary and £1.50 for the spinach. So this week we've saved £3.75. It won't be much of a boost for the pension, but frankly I couldn't be happier. I feel like I'm being paid to indulge in my hobby!

Sunday, 21 May 2017

How to release ladybirds with a toddler

Ladybird in situ
The day the aphids came back was a dark one. There they were, hordes of them swarming and pulsating all over my innocent strawberries and mint. I was beside myself in rage and frustration at their sheer numbers (previously I've always pulled aphids off by hand before their populations reach critical levels) as it was clearly too late for me to get rid of them alone. And then lo, out of the house wandered my husband, a king amongst men, who announced that he'd bough me a present of ladybirds. That's right, 100 live ladybirds were winging their way (hah!) towards me, along with a couple of ladybirds houses that I could apparently try to bride them to stay with. Two year old GarlicBoy was thrilled at the idea of a couple of boxes of insect "pets" and chattered happily all the way home from the post office about them. This is one project that I can heartily recommend that you do with a toddler or small child. It benefits your garden, teaches your child about insects and the food chain and encourages wildlife to flourish in your immediate area. And children find them charming!

Ladybird house positioned near at-risk plants
You will need:

Learning about ladybirds
- A book about wildlife / access to the web (the RSPB has quite a nice fact sheet on ladybirds)
- Some ladybirds (as it's May, we bought ours online as fully grown adults and they arrived in the post which was both cool and surreal)
- A fridge
- Plants, ideally covered in greenfly, blackly or aphids
- A water source outside where you're going to release them

As always I’ve used the directions [ADULT] and [CHILD] based on what I did with my son. However you know your child best so please think about their own capabilities before embarking on any of our projects. Never leave a child unsupervised. And please do tag us on social media if you post photos of your projects, we’d love to see how you get on!


[Before they arrive]: Make a point of reading about ladybirds and looking at pictures so your child knows what they are
1. When your ladybirds arrive handle the box very carefully. They'll look dead but will soon perk up once released. [ADULT] Place them in the fridge in a padded envelope for about half an hour to calm them down after their journey. 
2. It was pouring with rain when we released ours so we didn't need to worry about water but if it's dry, they'll be parched so [BOTH] put some water on the leaves of the plant you're releasing them onto so they have something to drink. 
3. Early evening / dusk is the best time to release them so that they have time to bond to your garden and decide it's a good place to stay rather than buzzing off to find more food in the morning. 
4. [ADULT] Open the box and gently pour the ladybirds on to the plant that you've chosen for them. You'll find that they perk up quite quickly and start wandering about hoovering up horrible bugs. Older children might be able to do this if they can be gentle. 
5. [ADULT] Retain one small ladybird and encourage it to walk onto your finger (by placing your finger in front of it as a ramp - they're fragile so don't try to pick them up with your fingers as you will damage their wings). Allow your child to look at them up close and have them walk on their fingers if they like, reiterating that they mustn't stroke or touch the little creatures. 
Looking for ladybirds
6. [BOTH] Help your child to release the ladybird onto the plant and watch it scurry about. You can then look for ladybirds for the next few days (99 of ours appear to have left us, the ingrates, but we have one solitary remainder!) and talk about what they're doing and how they're providing pest control. 

Saturday, 20 May 2017

I've lost the losetto

Suspiciously similar seedlings
In hindsight, I should have known that putting two types of tomato seedling (the tumbling "Losetto"and the climbing "Magic Mountain" in case you're interested) together in a large pot separated only by a seedling tray was a mistake. It was perhaps inevitable that a cat would jolt the pot onto the floor causing them to get mixed up but the heavens opened and I fled inside, abandoning the seedlings to their fate. So now I have a bunch of seedlings that all look alike that I've had to apportion, almost at random, into hanging baskets and raised beds. I suppose I'll only know if I got it right once they start to grow, but what a shame to have replaced my (ragged, hole-ridden, snail-mangled) basil if I've gotten the raised bed ones wrong!
Hanging tomato basket. Is it a tumbler? Who knows?

Friday, 19 May 2017

Come on courgettes!

By far, the biggest lesson I've learned this year whilst starting to grow as much edible food as possible, is that growing from seed is best. It's cheaper, more reliable and more satisfying than growing from plugs. I know I keep on banging on about this but I've been so very disappointed by the quality of the seedlings I've bought. They've all come by post and many of them haven't been sent by courier so a lot of the time, what actually arrives here is an anaemic, wimpy looking seedling with slightly shredded leaves. The difference between these pale and hunched over seedlings and the ones that I grew myself from seed is really obvious. I recently planted three courgette seedlings. They're "Patio star" courgettes, a variety I've had success from before when growing from seed, but they look absolutely puny. I don't have a huge amount of hope for these but as it's late May already I think it's too late to start from seed if I want a decent crop. It just goes to show, laziness doesn't pay! I'll do the best I can with these seedlings this year but next year it's seeds all the way.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

Argh! Aphids!

Vile pulsating aphids - look how many there were!
The other day I was busily getting ready to plant out a few tumbling cherry tomatoes when a greenfly landed on my hand. I absent-mindedly swiped it off and suddenly focused. A greenfly! Where had it come from? A quick glance around the garden revealed two culprits - my hanging bag of strawberries and pineberries and my David Austin rose. Both of them were absolutely heaving with repulsive pulsating fat greenfly and aphids. Usually I remove aphids by hand when I first find them to try to maintain their population at a reasonable level but I'd missed the boat here. Every single stem and shoot was absolutely carpeted. So I panicked. I have always tried to garden organically and I'm ashamed of myself for what I did next. I ran to the garden centre and bought some bug spray. I tried to get a natural version but still, it was a spray. My strawberries are no longer organic. 
Blackfly. Boo!
I am genuinely so sad. I've removed the few aphids that had spread to other plants and the infestation appears to have been beaten but I think I've got to plan ahead. This calamity did make me grateful for my husband though. The wonderful man wandered outside when I was busy bustling about with and said he'd bought me a present. He'd bought me some ladybirds and a couple of little houses to encourage them to hang about and eat the aphids in my garden rather than wandering off to help other people. I am a very lucky woman. Until they arrive though, I'm going to have to really pay attention to my plants, I found a load of blackly underneath my pumpkin leaves the other day. Horrible things. Hurry Mr Postman, please bring my ladybirds!

Wednesday, 17 May 2017

Leave the spinach be

Like millions of people my age, I remember the magical boost that spinach gave Popeye. Although we've since learned that it's not quite the powerhouse that the illustrators would have us believe, it's still extremely good for us and is something I regularly add to our everyday meals. 
It's such an easy thing to stir into almost anything you cook / prepare (we love the baby leaves in salads) so I was really pleased when my spinach wall planters sprang into life with bushels of massive glorious leaves. As it happens, they went from teeny seedling to large leaves in the two and a bit weeks that I spent in the US on holiday and so I missed harvesting the glorious little leaves. However, I've now taken off the whole crop to use in a soup and am hoping that when it grows back that I can start to harvest the small and delicate leaves. I think I was too hasty in planting it out, even though spinach is supposed to be available in the UK as of March though, take a look at how ragged and patchy the leaves are! I know that snails are responsible for some of the holes but I think the rest might be leaf miners. 
Leaf my spinach alone leaf miners!
Gardening is starting to feel a bit like a defensive pastime, I never imagined I'd have to consider netting my cool weather leaf crops! I've never minded a couple of snail holes or misshapen harvest items but leaf miners aren't fun, I'm going to keep a weather eye on the next crop! I'm going to order some Neem oil so I can have it ready and waiting...

Tuesday, 16 May 2017

How about a Jalapeño?

So far this year I've had a couple of horticultural failures, one of which was a cucumber plug. I'd already decided not to use plugs again but rather to grow from seed. I've been so disappointed with the quality of the seedlings. I've bought them from three of the biggest suppliers in the UK yet almost all of them have been pretty rubbish. They're been anaemic-looking, ragged around the edges and weak. Frustratingly, one of my cucumber seedlings has keeled over completely. 
Missing cucumber from right hand collar
What a waste of money. However, at least I've now got space for my chilli pepper Jalapeño plant. But then again it was also grown by a "by post" producer and is weak with floppy leaves and an anaemic stem. So it hasn't really grown, and it's just sitting there, in the rain Collar Of Doom, looking feeble. I hope it'll pick up, chillis are something that I love and use a lot of and they're brilliant to grow in small spaces. 

Sunday, 14 May 2017

Wall, I have good news and bad news

Some time ago I planted up some vertical garden planting bags with mint and strawberries with the intention of fastening the bags to the only empty wall space in the garden. However it turns out that the bags, once planted, are far too heavy to hang on the wall properly, and the bags rip when put up. 

The result? I have a lovely big sack of strawberries and pineberries hanging (more or less) on one of the sunniest walls in the garden. But the downside is that I also have a hanging bag of mint that's frankly far too heavy to put on the wall but as it's exploding with herbs I don't want to throw it out. So at the moment it's just sitting on a chair outside, not hanging but just taking up space, and I have three more that I'd planned to plant exotic salad in. But given that I now know they rip under their own weight, I think I'm going to have to order some more smaller, rigid wall planters and put those up in the spaces I planned to hang the big bags. I'll have less growing space than I was hoping, but it'll be stable. In the meantime I'm going to try to work out something so that I don't have to waste my bag of mint and the other bags I wanted to plant. Maybe a mobile rail or something? We shall see. But in the meantime, wall strawbs! Hurrah!

Thursday, 11 May 2017

Counting (on) strawberries and pineberries

I've toyed with gardening for years but lately I find myself obsessed with my garden. I wander the patio, chatting with the seedlings and glorying in every extra centimetre that my plants grow. Extra leaves are cause for jubilation and I drag my poor husband into the garden and demand that he admire every emerging fruit. One of the few good things about having a tiny garden is that I get to know every plant and so I can tell when something has grown. So far, so enthusiastic hobbyist. But recently I find myself looking for quantifiable successes. I was getting ready to hang some of my wall planters filled with strawberry and pineberry plants and I suddenly realised that I had a lot more tiny green berries that I'd originally thought. 74 that I could find to count and I suddenly realised that I'd turned a corner and far from being a hobby that helps me relax, I am suddenly looking for an outlet for my competitive urges. 74 berries starting to ripen! Surely the odds are that some will be decent looking? Perhaps I could find a country show with a fruit class to enter? Maybe I could enter various categories? And next year perhaps I should plan my growing around fruits and vegetables that can be polished...? The sky is the limit. Bring it on berry plants, I've got plans for your produce.
74 potential strawberries (or wineberries, who knows) in the making

Tuesday, 9 May 2017

The grass really isn't greener....

So there I was feeling all smug about having a real patch of actual grass that worms could tunnel underneath, that GarlicBoy could feel between his toes, that I could feel good about. 
And then I cut the grass a couple of times and came to the conclusion that I couldn't ignore it any more. I had bald patches. It didn't look too bad when the grass was a bit overgrown but the bare patches of earth got really swampy and muddy when it rained and it looked very sad when it was trimmed. So I called the builders back, pointed out the the turf hadn't taken and they promised to re-seed the garden whilst I was on holiday. What I came home to has turned out to be a salutary lesson in being careful what you wish for. My poor poor patch of grass is gone, hopefully to return in a month once the seeds have germinated. 
Sad sad patches of nothing
In the meantime I'm suddenly stuck with a load of raised beds filled with seedlings that need my care and protection from the weeds making their way through from next door and no way to get to them without killing the new grass. What should I do? I'm currently investigating the possiblities of using a ladder as a bridge but I have to admit it makes me very nervous. Oh, the price we pay for our smugness. Thank you for this lesson in humility karma, I get the point, please stop now!
Look! Beetroot seedlings being bullied by weeds! Argh!