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!

Saturday, 6 May 2017

Growing herbs in small spaces: tiny herb gardens across London

Herbs are surely the easiest (and most cheer-inducing) things you can grow in a small urban space. They are so much hardier than anything else in pots and you can keep harvesting them for ages. I remember having a small tomato plant back at university. I had bought it at a market where the woman on the stall assured me that yes, this plant would bush up and provide me with umpteen tomato. Needless to say the poor little vine withered away and died under my confused an utterly inept indoor care. A pot of basil, or one of rosemary would have been a much cleverer purchase. And ever since then, however small our house has been (and we've lived in some very, VERY small London flats), I've always had fresh herbs growing. I grew them on the balcony of our first flat where they doubled as ashtrays (poor things), in hanging pots I suspended from IKEA poles in the kitchen of our last London flat, I grew them in our useless side return before we had it turned into an extension, and now I grow them in wall planters covering a sunny fence.
Herbs on the balcony of our first flat
And they're so good for you! Not only do they taste amazing when picked fresh, they smell lovely and they are excellent for morale in how fast they grow. 
Herbs suspended from IKEA rails in the kitchen of our second flat

My little wall planters have simply exploded with life and little gives me more pleasure than popping outside with my herb scissors to harvest some greenery for whatever I'm cooking. 
Side return herb garden in this house a couple of years ago
If you want to grow anything in a small space, I'd say go for herbs. Cut and come again salad is all well and good but the heady woody fragrance of a rosemary plant, or the sweet tangy green waft of a basil plant as you brush by really can't be beaten. Wouldn't it be lovely if one day every kitchen has a vertical planter of herbs installed as standard? I now have sorrel, basil, flat parsley, curly parsley, rosemary, tarragon, oregano, black peppermint, morrocan mint and lemon verbena growing in the garden and I need so much more!
Before and after - what a difference a month makes!

Friday, 5 May 2017

Leek and parsnip gap filling

So having sowed some more carrots to spread the harvest a little and divided up the last of my shadier raised beds, it occurred to me that I should fill the gaps and plant the last of the square foot plots I've marked out. I have chosen two of my favourite winter vegetables, parsnips and leeks. My father, who changed career after decades of being a news editor and journalist to being the face of a popular tourism TV show about Portugal, once accidentally incited the rage of a small group of parsnip fanatics by claiming, on air, that the parsnip didn't exist in Portugal. They were apoplectic in anger and demanded that he immediately cease and desist in his assertions that their beloved parsnip (the subject, it turns out, of an entire annual food festival in a northern Portuguese village) was foreign to the Luso community. The Portuguese take their culinary heritage very seriously. However, I was as surprised as my father to hear that parsnips existed in Portugal, having spent most of my childhood thinking it was completely normal for my English mother to furtively traffic in parsnips from the UK every year to have with our Christmas lunch (much to the consternation of my Portuguese family who professed bemusement at our "white carrots"). It was worth risking a slap on the wrist from customs. The beauty of a perfectly roasted, crisp and still slightly sticky golden parsnip is hard to surpass, unless it's with the clean green flavours of a warming and comforting leek and potato soup, the aroma of which still reminds me of my mother. So this year I'll hopefully have a meagre but lovely harvest of some of my favourite things that GarlicBoy and I can collect together and use to recreate some of my favourite recipes. 
Leeks and parsnips will soon grow here (I hope)

Wednesday, 3 May 2017

Decorating the garden for Easter

The garden decked out in Easter colours ready for an egg hunt
This is obviously enormously after the fact, but I was thinking the other day about all of the ways in which our garden makes us as a family happy. And one of the ways has to be how we basically use it as an extra room. I've always encouraged GarlicBoy to be outside, and we go for our walks even when it's cold or raining and so it's a natural extension to have the garden doors open all of the time now. I grew up in Portugal where our house was made of stone to keep the heat out. This resulted in eleven months of perfectly pleasant temperatures and one month of freezing family members clustering around the open fire in the sitting room of the various (seriously dangerous and ancient) gas heaters we scattered about the house. The heaters were those old-fashioned things that you had too heave a massive canister of gas into and then puncture and which made no difference whatsoever to the overall temperature of the room but could make your skin start to crackle like that of a roast chicken if you sat directly in front of them. I can still hear my father saying scornfully that we should simply put another jumper on, that of course it wasn't that cold (snug in his chair directly opposite one of the rickety Heaters Of Doom) and so I jumped when I heard the same admonition come from my own mouth the other day. It turns out that determination to flood the house with fresh air is genetic, as is spending the winter months of one's childhood wearing so many woollen layers that it's impossible to lower your arms completely. Sorry GarlicBoy. Anyway, I digress. My point here is that it's been lovely having the garden to use as extra house space and never more than on Easter Sunday when the Easter bunny came to visit GarlicBoy and his little friends. Our garden may be tiny but it polished up quite well with a little bunting and some signs to guide them to the eggs. It was a lovely long lunch and the children really enjoyed finding the hidden eggs. Can you see any in the picture?
Getting ready for Easter lunch

Tuesday, 2 May 2017

Plums in potentia: Marjorie's seedling hopefully bearing fruit at last

Way back in the mists of time (2014), I planted up my then brand new raised beds for the first time with a wide variety of expensive plants, all of which were doomed to die and be replaced within two years. All, except my Marjorie's seedling plum tree. Since then I have loved it, I have espaliered it, I have plucked aphids off it by hand, I have gloried at blossoms and then mourned the fact that the builders were the only ones to see my first ever fruits grow and then subsequently rot on the branch because they were hidden behind a Hadrian's wall of cement mixers, beams and odd sacks of I-don't-know-what all of last summer. However this year, the tree's third year with me, will surely result in a crop of fruits. I certainly hope so because this is going to be the litmus test that decides whether or not I believe any more of those "pot-grown" fruit tree adverts. I am starting to suspect that the plant growers sellotape massive fruits onto their show trees and that it's actually impossible to grow fruit trees anywhere but open ground if you want a proper harvest. Remember my poor doomed potted fig tree? Cynical yes, but what other explanation can there be? So on these tiny budding fruits all my hopes rest: