Saturday, 29 April 2017

Driving them up the wall: Garlic chives and rocket in wall planters

Wall planters before
I know that I bang on and on about having to use every last bit of space in my little garden and the truth of the matter is that it all really comes down to my desire for GarlicBoy to have some space to play. That manicured handkerchief sized bit of lawn takes away a lot of growing space so wall space is ever more important. Back before we embarked on our insanely intense house renovation and extension programme (the one that stole most of 2016 from us), I had planted some white mustard in a few wall planters. Various events stopped me from ever getting around to harvesting it, and so although I do want to grow mustard, I'm prioritising garlic chives and rocket in those same pots this year. The further the year progresses, the more I realise that I don't have nearly enough planters and that I'm going to have to buy some more to fill the fence between the playhouse and the back fence if I'm to have any semblance of a practical harvest. But in the interim, I've refilled them with soil and sowed garlic chive and rocket seeds. Because reaching the things means balancing unsteadily on the edge of my raised beds, arms occasionally pinwheeling in panic as seeds scatter and my husband tries not to snort with laughter in the background, this in one planting project that GarlicBoy sadly can't get involved with but he'll enjoy the harvest!

Wall planters with seeds ready to germinate. Not much difference is there?

Dividing the raised beds: square foot gardening

Carrots have an inherent flaw in their space requirements. Yes, you can plant teeny "Paris market" spherical carrots, but if you want normal long rooted carrots the planting directions generally require about 30cm between the rows. So if, like me, you have a tiny urban garden with a paltry four raised beds, what are you going to do? A simplified version of square foot gardening. I started doing this when my toddler GarlicBoy and I planted our first sowing of carrots and beetroots. I planted 16 carrots per square foot of raised bed. And this made me think, I should divide the rest of the beds. They look slightly ludicrous with bits of string marking off the growing areas but I now have various successive carrot crops sown and so hope to have a decent harvest in the winter. I need to find a better way of dividing them up though. Any ideas?

Wednesday, 26 April 2017

How to plant out seedlings with a toddler

Planting out seedlings, as long as they’re relatively robust, is something that even young children can get involved in. At two years old GarlicBoy already loves raking the soil smooth and watering it with his little watering can before using a dibbler to make holes and gently lower the seedlings inside and coving them with soil. That’s not to say it always goes smoothly, when we planted out the beetroot seedlings he took a dislike to one of them (hard to say why) and decided to bury rather than transplant it. “Here you go!” he trilled happily as he vigourously used the dibbler to mash it deep into the hole it had been planted into. But he’s always really interested in the process and it’s a great way to get little children familiar with different parts of plants. Beetroots are particularly good for this if you have a rainbow selection of plants because the roots of each plug will be a slightly different colour. So here, without further ado, is a “how to” guide to doing some easy and cheating gardening with children. I’ve based this one around beetroots in particular so please do read the planting directions for your own particular plant

You will need:
  •       A raised bed / section of earth / large deep pot
  •       Seedlings (we used 24 rainbow mix beetroot seedling plugs that I cheated and bought rather than growing from seed)
  •       A dibbler, or something to make holes in the earth
  •       A watering can with a fine nozzle, or a hose with the same
  •       Gardening gloves
  •       A small rake
  • [BOTH] Lightly water the seedlings a few hours before planting. You don’t want them so sodden the surrounding earth falls off but they shouldn’t be bone dry for the same reason. Ideally you’d plant these seedlings just as the sun goes off the soil you want to plant into so that the leaves don’t get scorched by all of the water left on them during the watering.
  •  [CHILD] Smooth out the earth with the rake, ensuring there are no lumps of earth left. We had great fun raking patterns into the soil!
  •  [BOTH] Use the dibbler to make holes at regular intervals (for beetroots you’d usually want a 20cm space between rows but I openly admit I’m planting them together as I intend to harvest them young)
  • [BOTH] admire the root structure, the colours of the tendrils and the way the earth clings to the root ball
  • [BOTH] Gently lift the seedlings from their tray home and pop them one by one into their new homes. Gently firm the soil around them (saying, should you care to, “Goodnight, you’re all tucked in nice and tight” or similar) and, once they’re all in, water them very carefully so that you don’t knock them over with the force of the stream of water. Ours were absolutely flattened by the first enthusiastic deluge so this is a good opportunity to talk about distances needed when watering.

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!

Tuesday, 25 April 2017

Carrots: the second sowing

Setting everything out before we starts ensures the two year old is interested
I always feel so brutal when I have to thin out seedlings and I really have to force myself to do it. I spur myself on with memories of the Great Garlic Failure of 2015 and try to remind myself that life is a competition and rather than slaughtering the puny seedlings, I’m merely ensuring that the strong have the space and resources to thrive. This year is the first year I’ve ever grown root vegetables. 
In the past I’ve focused on soft fruits (raspberries uber alles!) but I’m changing tack somewhat so that my toddler GarlicBoy will get to experience harvesting and eating as many home-grown edibles as possible. So I’m learning as I go. I’m trying a slightly altered version of Square Foot Gardening for my carrots and beetroots (no peat in my beds!) and am so used to having bushy, leafy things covering my beds that the teeny tiny seedlings currently scattered about the place look pretty sad and lonely. I’m persevering, however, and had my first great thinning of the seedlings not long ago. I rather naively got my two year old involved and he thought this was a great game and proceeded to pluck his patch almost bare before I could intervene so now I thin alone. The growth, however puny, of the seedlings made me think that I should probably sow a second lot of seeds to ensure that the harvest season isn’t too bunched together. (Hah! Bunched! Get it?). So GarlicBoy and I set out to rake the remaining empty bed smooth ready for the rest of the seeds. 
We sowed two more varieties of carrot, another resistafly and some cute little Paris Market spherical ones that I think will please GarlicBoy no end, and also some leeks and parsnips. I’m hoping that we can have some of the latter with our Christmas lunch. I’ve come to realise that roots really aren’t great for tiny city gardens. They’re relatively cheaply available in the shops, take an awfully long time to mature ready for harvest and occupy a lot of space but I like the idea of variety and want to plan now so that we have things to eat in the winter hunger gap. So now I have two large empty-looking beds with the occasional centimetre high sprout waving feebly at the cats who eye this welcoming patch of earth with malicious intent. I have had to squirt them with a water a couple of times to discourage them from using the bed as a litter tray and destroying my work at a single stroke of their paws. Oh, the guilt. I shall think of the garlicky vichyssoise that I shall whizz up with the leeks, of the golden and crispy parsnips gleaming on a platter on Christmas day, and of the marvellous carrots we can munch on later in the summer and try to convince myself that it’s worth the lack of space.

Saturday, 22 April 2017

How to crystallise edible flowers with a toddler

Edible flowers are such beautiful and versatile food decorations. Begone, enormous nauseating piles of buttercream icing in weird colours. Never darken my doorstep again, boring shredded leaves. Shoo, silver balls, it is edible flowers from here on in. They're also a really fun garnish to prepare. I make a traditional Simnel cake every year on Easter Sunday and like to dress the usual eleven marzipan balls with a pretty primrose to make the cake look light, bright and spring-like. This year I thought that it might be fun to get my two year old son GarlicBoy to help crystallise our flowers. I had to buy some organic edible primroses from a local farm because my Primrose seedlings didn't grow fast enough this year. I'll have to plant them earlier, and inside next year! I got a box of 70 which seemed excessive at the time but actually was a good thing once we'd been through the "practice" ones!

You will need:
- Primroses (or another edible flower)
- A small paintbrush
- One large egg white (and a whisk and small bowl / cup)
- Caster sugar (a light, rather than coarse sugar)
- Greaseproof / baking parchment 
- A 24 hour period for the flowers to dry before you put them onto the cake

1. (ADULT) Crack the egg and separate the white into the bowl. (CHILD) Have your small person whisk the egg white lightly until it it a little bit bubbly. At two years old GarlicBoy had a marvellous time splashing the whisk about and watching the little bubbles rise. (ADULT) Take over and make sure the egg white is frothy.
2. (TOGETHER) Check the flowers over for tiny travellers. We found quite a few little insects on our flowers and GarlicBoy enjoyed the hunt. 
3. Sprinkle a light covering of sugar over the greaseproof paper (lie it on a plate or similar)
4. (ADULT) Demonstrate gently painting the petals with the egg white, doing the front first and then the back of the petals before you sprinkle them lightly with sugar and put them down on the greaseproof paper. (CHILD) Have a blast painting the flowers!

5. Once they're done, the (ADULT) can go over the flowers again quickly to ensure that the petals were all thoroughly painted and sugared (as this is what preserves the flower). 

6. Leave the flowers on their paper somewhere relatively cool (I used the kitchen island) and pick them up off of the paper a couple of times over the next 24 hours to stop them sticking. Then you can put them on the cake that you've prepared. I used a bit more egg white to stick them on as I was grilling the marzipan top of the Simnel cake but you could use a little warmed apricot jam or similar. 
- GarlicBoy really enjoyed this, and then nibbled on an extra flower when we were done. But make sure that you check a reputable source for information on whatever flower you're crystallising because some can be toxic in large doses. 
- The UK Food Standards Agency recommends that any vegetation should be washed before being consumed. I found that this really damaged the flowers and so only washed some. But you need to make your own decision on this. 

Thursday, 20 April 2017

To grass or not to grass: The case against artificial turf

I was rather surprised to see what looked like an outdoor hoover when visiting the house of a friend recently. "It is a hoover" she laughed when I asked what it was "to clean debris off the grass". You see, she'd had that dreadful fake astroturf stuff installed and as it's fake, things like leaves can't simply rot down into it so it has to be hoovered, like a carpet. 
Overgrown tiny patch of grass
Weapon of choice: Strimmer
The longer I live in town, the more I despair at the overly sanitised way of life that seems to be taking over. Decking and patios sprawl over what little green is left, this carpet stuff is being poured over real green spaces (with none of the benefits of normal lawns that the RSPB highlight) and few gardens have real grass any more. That might, admittedly, be one of the reasons why we seem inundated with enormous terrifying spiders with big bottoms. Presumably ours is one of the few gardens in the area with any actual grass and so they've all decamped to our place. We used to have a patio, but it was very uncomfortable to sit on and I noticed that GarlicBoy used to be reluctant to crawl off our picnic blanket in the park and so wanted him to have some grass to play on so that he got used to it. But here's the rub. My lawn area is tiny, so much so, that a lawnmower wouldn't really fit on it, or be easy to store, but it is still way too large to cut with scissors alone. Given that the grass grows at an astounding rate (naively it never occurred to me that I would have to cut it every ten days), a solution had to be found. My solution? A strimmer. Yes, I still have to store it, but it's quite compact and fits nicely into the playhouse, plus it doesn't have any blades that inquisitive little hands could get hurt on. It doesn't work around the edges so much to my country husband's enduring amusement I still have to crawl around the perimeter cutting the grass there with scissors but that doesn't take too long. Having to rake up the grass with a hand rake isn't too bad either and it means I spend more time outside wrapped in that heavenly cut-grass smell. 

I suppose what I'm trying to say is that whilst I can see why some people might think that grass in their garden means mud in their house, isn't that a small price to pay for a garden that helps local wildlife, and that reminds us all what something natural underneath our feet feels like? If you have a tiny garden, and you're thinking of paving it over, please think again. A strimmer could be the answer to all of your worries!
Strimmed tiny patch of grass - it can be done!