Wednesday, 22 February 2012

Snow going in February 2012

February is a month of hope for some. For me it’s just about the breaking point.

The days are cold, short and gloomy. I plod about my house confined by the everlasting night time, the idiot box on spieling out bad news and mindless “entertainment” whilst the useful hours of the day consumed by hours of work and commuting. February is as close as I get to being unhappy. But as close as I get sometimes, it’s not in my nature to get a bee in my bonnet, so I just keep my head down and stiff it out.

The weekend’s outdoor work is all about clearing away the death of the previous year’s growth which becomes boring. A guy somebody knows who has an orchard made the comment that "Leaves can drive you mad you know". No truer statement can be made of the February cleanup when you have a garden larger than you can chew.

My compost pile has grown to levels I never though possible and the clean up is only half way done. It’s full of browns so will need mixing in with nitrogen rich grass clippings during the season to break it down into something useful. I think there will be several tonnes ready for next year.

I need help, loads to do and not enough time in the day to do it!

Progress slowed to a standstill for a couple of weeks during the early part of February.

Several inches of snow will do that to an outdoor project. Still the garden looked lovely in its white blanket and the trees didn’t look quite so bare.

The sheep out back didn’t appear too fussed as they huddled closer together throughout the week and just got on with it. They seemed happy enough with the supplementary feeds. I went out and regularly chipped the sheeted ice from their troth so that they had water too.

The boy’s usual enthusiasm for snow lasted a day or so, and then they too were content in seeing it out from the inside rather than out.

The wood burners came into their own during the cold snap, heating the farm house in a way that only natural fire does. The smell of burning logs releasing happiness into an otherwise shit month.

Cosy was the word, frustrated and confined were two others.

Still, just before the onset of the snowfall I had help from Trevor, a friend to remove the remaining beech hedges from the vegetable plot.

Then by the second weekend and no thaw in sight we braved it into the garden and got to work winter pruning the apple and pear trees. This hadn't been done for a couple of years and most likely would not have got done again this year had I been able to continue the in the vegetable patch. So not a complete loss! Steve, Ellie and I cut dragged and burned what we could. I am happy with the openness of the trees we managed to do and considerable height has been removed from the youngest of them which should keep it in good shape for a while to come.

The following few days after that brought milder weather and light rains. With it so did the snow quickly disappear.

Problem was that the garden looked a right old mess. I had been putting off de-wintering the borders for so long and the look a mess. There are a few plants and bulbs attempting to put on their first signs of life. So Last Saturday I cleared out four of the beds creating a ridiculously large pile for the compost before getting into the vegetable patch for the last hour.

With the beech hedges gone I decided it was probably a good idea to get the rhubarb back in as it had been hanging about since I lifted it in November. The two old clumps were divided into several clumps. Each had a nice sized hole dug, a spade of sand, and another of pea shingle and some compost. It didn’t take long to do.

I then cut all the autumn fruiting raspberries down to the ground. Dug up and replanted all the strawberry plants, ever so slightly pruned the gooseberry but left the blackcurrant bushes.
Everything was then weeded and mulched with a few inches of compost. I was really chuffed to see that one of the gooseberries had layered in two locations. Layering is where the plant stems touch the ground and take root. I have two free accidental but welcome plants.

The Sheep were transported for lambing yesterday, they wont be back for a while which gives the meadows a chance to recover. There’s a tonne of sheep crap to collect for the compost mountain. Not my favourite job in the world but Ill takes picking up sheep crap for the compost pile to watching Eastenders or Hollyoaks any day of the week.

Wednesday, 1 February 2012

Redesigning the vetetable garden from scratch

Im a big fan of raised beds, you can bring in the ideal soil/aggregate conditions to grow the full range of vegetables which might be very difficult to do if you are relying on the soil that you inherit. The other benefits include not compacting the soil by not walking over them. You should make the width of your raised beds such a distance so that you can reach the centre comfortably from either side without having to climb into them to do so. Industrious people have suggested a width of four feet is ideal. They can also save a huge amount of effort by addopting the no dig approach. If you add clean topsoil, compost and possibly vermiculite then the properties of your soild be be a rich, water retentive, stone free medium. You may have to do the odd bit of weeding from the odd weed seed that is present in the upper layers of the medium. But once you have dealt with those you should keep well on top of infestations that can occur everytime you dig your soil over on a traditional level soil approach. Raised beds also have the added advantage of warming your medium faster which means that you can often steal a few extra weeks at the beginning and end of each season. The final biggy is that you can do away with rows and follow an instensive planting approach such as square foot gardening which I will cover in more detail another time.

The downside to raised beds are that the medium can dry out a lot faster because the drainage is much better than traditional method's. However watering efforts can still be managable by applying a decent mulch whilst sufficient moisture is trapped in the medium and you add water retaining houmous/compost and or vermiculite each season to assist in reducing the amount that you would need to water your beds.

The other is the initial cost of the project. I had gone down to the local wood merchents and nearly gave up on the whole idea of raised bed gardening altogether when I was quoted several hundred pounds for the timbers, then there was the paving which would have cost another twelve hundred and the local garden centres charge about seven pounds for a hundred litres of compost which would had set me back a small fortune considering I estimated That I would need in the region of twenty two tonnes of compost/topsoil to do the job properly.

So I tried other means and couldnt beleive my luck when I won all the paving I needed for just sixty pounds on ebay. I also found a local salvage firm who sold me over six hundred feet of only slightly used scaffolding for just two hundred pounds. Finally after contacting a company that made their own compost in Bedford they kindly put me in touch with our local commercial composting initiative who we able to offer topsoil/compost mixed to any cocktail and gradient for fifteen pounds a tonne. I also had to buy a few tonnes of builders sand to lay the paving on. All in all I have spent less than seven hundred pounds to get hold of all the materials for this project which

There was a lot of "dead space" that was taken up with pea shingled paths that I thought to myself I really didn't need. The paths here are one and a half feet (forty five centimetres). Enough to get a barrow down and comfortable single file up and down.

The raised beds are four and a half feet wide by fifty two feet. Thats a lot of ground to plant up.

Hoping to grub out the remaining beech hedges and get the rhubarb in before the ground freezes up. I dont usually feel the cold but boy its brass monkeys out side for the moment and it looks like we are due a three week snap.

Monday, 16 January 2012

The Business End

As you can see from above, when we moved into our new home it had a vegetable patch of sorts. I did grow a few things in the year that we moved in but unfortunately the tree got struck by lightening and it broke in two falling right into the near right bed flattening my potatoes. I hated having to do it but the tree was never going to recover so it would have to come out.

There were several things which were not ideal for a plot, the main one being shade. I was going to relocate the entire patch to a better suited corner of my garden but when the tree came down we decided to keep it. The beech hedges to the left were carefully dug out and replanted into the hedgerows where there were gaps. This not only increased my growing area considerably, it also reduced the likelihood of the patch sitting in a frost pocket as air would freely flow into the garden, and it cast far fewer shadows into the growing area.

I transplanted about thirty of the best raspberry canes from one of the raised beds and gave the rest to a neighbor. My wife helped me plant about twenty or so strawberry plants, a couple of black currants and goose berries into the left hand area where the beech hedge had been.

We inherited a couple of amazing clumps of rhubarb which were in the near left raised bed. These have been dug out and will get replanted where the remaining beech hedge at the rear is currently growing.

There is a small bay leaf which will be re homed into the herb patch and the Lovage has been moved into the back of some flower borders in the garden.

The plum tree in the near bed had no place in my plans. We already have a wonderful Victoria plum in the orchard, so it went along with the rose bush which was out of place. Both got the chop, were torched on bonfire night, and added to the compost pile.

The real menace was (and most likely still is) a large clump of horse radish. The area is was growing in had to be dug down half way to China and carefully sifted through to remove as much of the root as possible. I'm sure it will come back again next year so removing that will be an ongoing struggle for some time.

Another problem with the old design was the wasted space and compaction. I had four beds that measured ten feet by seven feet. I was having to step into them to seed rows or to hand weed and hoe. Something had to be done about that.

We got to work relocating most of the gravel onto our driveway, removing the old raised beds and clearing the ground to start from scratch.

Out with the Cazaux, In with the Bulmer

Several years back I took up a new hobby in the form of vegetable gardening. I was lucky enough to have been drawn into the grow your own renaissance that hit the mainstream and came into the media's and public eye a season before it hit fever pitch.

This meant that when I contacted my local authority and asked for an allotment on the council managed plots, it was only a matter of a few weeks before I got my call. They were able to offer me a whopping great half plot to contemplate taking on.

The allotment was in no great shapes being uncultivated for decades. There ensued a year of epic grunt work and enlightenment, digging the bramble and 'brick a brack' tip of a plot back into cultivation. I read over a dozen books on the subject of growing produce, making composts and natural teas and subscribed to every seed catalogue I could find. I was hooked!

It was hard going, my soft office hands grew blisters then hard skin healed in their place as I dug out hundreds of bramble root balls, hacked away at clumps of couch grass and worked the heavy clay solid into a worktables' media. It was also expensive buying a shed, tools, timber and compost. Then countless plug plants and seeds. But no more expensive than other hobbies like golf or going following a football club.

It was worth it though! I truly loved the allotment far more than my own small garden, the half plot became the full plot as the neighbours gave up before they had even lifted a fork. Realising that it wasn't going to be a case of turning up, planting some seeds and coming back a few days later to harvest world beating marrows they ran a mile. so I became a cropper tenant of ten full rods which in old money is about two thousand seven hundred square feet, or not far of a twenty five by ten metre public swimming pool.

My core strength improved. giving me more energy alllowing me to dig more each time I set to work, and vitamin D aplenty from natural sunlight. My immune system is now supercharged. I have not had a cold in over five years. I hold a better understanding and respect for nature, the changing of each of the seasons brings forth anticipation and a time to reflect on the last. And I can grow a respectable cauliflower.

In negative ways I have perma-dirt under the skin of my palms and fingernails, I have a bordering compulsive obsession whereby I cant "easily" walk pass a garden centre, or skip for that matter without having a look inside for something useful. I also get something in the region of two hundred emails a week from free cycle which I daren't turn off in case something useful pops up.

My children and I share many a happy memories spending quality time together. Without the distractions of electronic devices. Most weekends we would spend time doing a bit of weeding, they would climb trees and I would inevitably climb trees to rescue them and the odd stray child. They would collect water from the troths to throw mainly at each other, but every now and again some would land on the vegetables beds too.

My eldest son had his own raised bed where anything and everything went in. Then when they went home for lunch I would quietly correct the planting spaces and thin out the thousand carrots they had sown in one very short drill and cover with fleece. They were very proud of their little bed and began eating spinach, salads and vegetables that they would roll their little eyes up at before hand.

'And of course the side effects of the hobby, It produced mountains of super fresh (often odd looking) vegetables starting with my very first ever crop, which was a French breakfast radish by the way, pulled straight from the soil.

It was wiped clean on my t-shirt, anticipating a taste sensation I was a little disappointed to discover that a French breakfast radish taste quite the same whether you pull them from the ground and eat within seconds or pop open a plastic bag from a supermarket. This quickly followed on through with spinach and salads which actually had textures and flavours.

Then came the mother load! The courgette plants (defender) of which I had a ridiculous nine plants went into overdrive pumping out three per plant right up until the end of September when I pulled them out and vowed to only grow three or four in the future. Drum head Cabbages and Cauliflowers as big as medicine balls. Sacks and sacks of potatoes from the twelve different tuber varieties I bought from the East Anglia Potato day. Broad beans, peas, runner beans and French beans for half the population. Whole trugs of the most amazing juicy strawberries most of which were either consumed in mass straight from the plant.

Dealing with gluts wasn't something I wasn't initially prepared for so whatever wasn't used would be handed out to my victims. Birthday and fathers day gifts became easy as quality reading material, copper pots and Kilner jars helped turn fresh fruits and vegetables into jams, chutneys, pickles, juices and preserves. The freezer was overflowing, so too was the fridge and the pantry. everyday more would be picked, then prepared for the weekly meat and ten vegetable feast.

You learn so much in your first year. Who would have though about different vegetables preferring different soil type. For example carrots grown in hard stony clay produce the oddest looking unworkable green shouldered carrots whilst growing cauliflower in deep friable light soils will produce pin heads. germination rates and reliability differ from seed to seed. There are heritage and F1 varieties of most vegetables. and so much more including rotation plans, classifications, early/main crops. Disease resistance, bolting, wire worms, aphids, transplant shock....This could go on and on....and it does.

I have now completed my fifth growing season, whilst I can honestly say that I am only a budding amateur, I am on the next page to most and it only takes me the slightest of encouragement to explain in great detail how I manage to grow the staples.

I guess what attracts me to vegetable gardening is that there are the obvious material benefits to it, fresh air and exercise, the constant anticipation of the next crop to harvest. Silly little things like looking forward to rain in the dry parts of the southeast we live in or waking up especially early to enjoy the tranquillity of a summers morning before the other plot holders arrived en mass. I think mainly its the vast knowledge you gain and have to master for each type of vegetable. Then putting your new found knowledge into practical use by providing your seedling with the best possible start, nurturing them sometimes against the odds of invasive insects or symptoms.

Everyone should have a passion, I'll admit that this is a hobby, and not out of a need to provide basic subsistence for my family.

The spring equinox is by far my favourite day of the year. But Every stolen moment digging, planting, weeding or reading is a blessing and makes me feel truly happy.

We have now moved to the Suffolk Borders where I will continue to keep a diary.