It looks worse before it looks better

The plans for the orangery, as our builder has decided to call it, are agreed. Work will start in three weeks time and will involve the construction of a patio and a raised bed as well as the glass room itself. Before the builders arrive, however, we have to clear the area of all sorts of things: water butts, a bench, lots of pots (with and without plants), bags of compost… you know the sort of thing that accumulates around and inside a greenhouse.

And so, after a fairly lazy day yesterday, today we were out in the cool but very sunny garden. Weed-infested pots were transferred to chicken-ville to provide great entertainment for four happy hens; broken plant pots were thrown away and in tact plant pots moved into the shed or a big tea chest that acts as useful storage; water butts were disconnected; I collected old plant labels and picked up lots of bits of plastic that seem to have accumulated around the garden (more on that in a forthcoming post); Mr Snail dismantled the staging in the greenhouse and removed the  “ladder allotment” from the fence near where the building work will be happening and attached it to the fence in the waste of space area (he even used a spirit level to make sure it wasn’t wonky):

The general result looks like chaos, but I think that is always the way when major clearing work is in progress. We are left with a dilapidated greenhouse that needs the last of its contents removing, plus a whole pile of things that need a temporary home while the building work happens. I’m rather looking forward to it being all over… and the joy that will come with a robust indoor growing space.


Making plans for growing

Our greenhouse has finally come to the end of its life – strong winds over the winter have torn off the vent, whipped out some of the plastic panels and subtly twisted the frame. It was time to discuss replacing it. And you might be surprised to hear that the decision was that we wouldn’t… at least not with more of the same.

A coating of gloop

No more gloop

Because of the way our garden has evolved, the greenhouse ended up in a spot that regularly floods, meaning that the crops in it are very prone to various fungal infections. Despite regular fumigation, every year we have to deal with botrytis  and other forms of rot. The area in and around it gets coated with gloopy mud, making it unpleasant to walk about out there. We have thought about a raised base, but in this windy part of the country that was something we didn’t want really.

However, we do want some protected growing space – somewhere that’s pleasant to work and will allow us to produce crops over a longer season. Our little garden does not have the space for a polytunnel and I have kept returning to the idea of having a conservatory. Not one of those that’s a glass sitting room, but one designed for growing plants in. So, finally I bit the bullet and arranged for a builder to come round and discuss the options.

My greenhouse... hoping it will breed with next-door's

The current set-up… big changes to come

Not any old builder though, one we have used before, who is interested in gardening and growing things, likes chickens and tries to recycle and reuse building materials . So, today he arrived to have a chat. And what a joy it was – he understood straight away what I wanted – not a conservatory, but a permanent greenhouse  attached to the house. We discussed the light transmission of glass, maximising growing space, drains in the floor, ventilation, waterproof electrical sockets and appropriate door placement. Not only that, we talked about building new a raised bed outside, improving drainage in that part of the garden and how we could reuse the existing paving slabs and make use of the excavated hardcore. A conversation that I had thought might be quite difficult turned out to be very interesting and surprisingly stimulating.

Of course, it’s not going to be cheap and I await the quote knowing that this is going to represent a significant investment. However, it feels like a very positive thing to do at this time when our savings earn very little interest in the bank. In addition, a better drained garden will make the neighbours happy, as they are down-slope and are on the receiving end of the water that flows through our garden.

Exciting times… I’m not looking forward to building work disturbing my life, but it will be fantastic if the plans work out and we have new growing space in the next couple of months.

For every season

There are many reasons to eat local and seasonal – reducing food miles, accessing really fresh produce, the anticipation of a certain food becoming available, supporting local growers, growing your own…

Of course, growing your own food is likely to be associated with ups and downs: hungry gaps and gluts. This means that a gardener needs to be thoughtful about supplying food throughout the year and careful to store crops for later use. For example, I’ve previously mentioned that it’s been a good year for courgettes (we’ve harvested over 10kg from our small plot so far and there are more growing), so we have eaten them more often than if I hadn’t grown them; but knowing that we like to eat soup, I have converted many of them into soup for the freezer. Our glut will help to fill a hungry gap later in the year.

If you Google a phrase like ‘seasonal eating’, you will be presented with thousands of web sites, telling what to eat when. For example, if you are in the UK, you could look at ‘Eat the Seasons‘ and find that this week, the vegetables in season are:

artichoke, aubergine, beetroot, broccoli, butternut squash, carrots, celeriac, celery, chillies, courgettes, cucumber, fennel, french beans, garlic, kohlrabi, leeks, lettuce & salad leaves, mangetout, marrow, onions, pak choi, peppers, potatoes (maincrop), radishes, rocket, runner beans, spring onions, sweetcorn, tomatoes, turnips, watercress, wild mushrooms

a helpful list if you are off to your local shop. But beware – just because things are in season at the moment does not mean that the versions for sale are from a local source. I am appalled when I see apples from all over the world available in supermarkets in the UK in October… and apples rotting on the ground around trees because no one has bothered to pick them.

Immature Boston squash in September... it's never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

Immature Boston squash in September… it’s never going to get the chance to develop a hard skin for storage

However, if you have a garden you can, to a certain extent, beat the seasons. Be a little bit daring with your planting times, or make use of a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame, or even your kitchen windowsill, and you can extend seasons, or even crop completely out of season. Big commercial growers can’t afford to take risks – they need an income – but you can. Try planting at a different time, or bringing plants indoors and you may get an out-of-season crop that provides a real treat. With home growing, it doesn’t really matter if you don’t get the size or quantity of produce that you might at other times of the year and it can add much sought-after variety. In some cases, a plant starts producing at an unfortunate time; this often happens with pumpkins and winter squashes, when fruit sets late in the season so there will not be time for it to mature. In this case it’s possible to be creative – just harvest them and use them immature like you would a summer squash or courgette.

September strawberries in the greenhouse... I think we'll have Eton mess

September strawberries in the greenhouse… I think we’ll have Eton mess when these are ripe

Sometimes, an out-of-season crop can be a fortuitous accident… take my strawberries for example. I have two hanging baskets of strawberries (the idea was to keep them away from slugs and chickens). They produced quite well in their season (around June), but then I moved them to a location where slugs found their way to them and the leaves started to get severely eaten. Not wanting to lose all the plants, I hung the baskets in a convenient location to keep an eye on them… inside the greenhouse. Once there, they perked up and started flowering again. This is why we are now enjoying a second small strawberry crop… and most delicious they are too!

Fire and brimstone

In case I haven’t mentioned it before, I should tell you that west Wales is, in general, quite a damp place. The average rainfall in our driest month, May, is 55mm and in October, our wettest month, it’s 110mm; throughout the year it rains, on average, about 20 days in every month. Compare that, if you will, to Hertfordshire where my sister lives: May is also their driest month, but they only average 18mm of rain and in December, their wettest month, they only get 36mm, with it raining, on average, about 9 days in every month.

Mosses grow very well in west Wales

Mosses grow very well in west Wales

All this moisture means that many things grow really well here, lower plants in particular: mosses, liverworts and lichens. Plus fungi… which is great when you want to go out and pick field mushrooms, but less good in the greenhouse. You see, fungi cause all sorts of problems: our tomatoes and pepper plants in the greenhouse always, for example, get Botrytis (grey mould) later in the summer. Since there are no fungicides registered for use in the UK that will treat Botrytis (and anyway I wouldn’t like to use them if they were), the only answer is to try to keep humidity down in the greenhouse and to deal with the spores before any plants go in.

So, every year at the start of the growing season I fumigate my greenhouse. Or at least I attempt to fumigate my greenhouse. And every year I do battle with a sulphur candle.

If you have never encountered a sulphur candle, let me explain: it’s a tin of sulphur granules with a paper wick. You take the lid off, light the wick, close the greenhouse door on your way out and leave for 12 hours. During that time the sulphur burns, producing lots of smoke which penetrates all the nooks and crannies in your greenhouse, ridding it of all sorts of pests. The result: a nice pest and spore-free greenhouse that will be safe to put your precious seedlings in. It’s just about the only ‘chemical’ I use in the garden, but my goodness is it a bother.

You see, whoever designed sulphur candles has clearly never tried to light one. I have never got one to burn successfully on my first attempt. Because the operation is smelly, I usually do it overnight so as not to upset our neighbours. So, at 9pm on Saturday I was outside with the sulphur candle and a lighter. I carefully followed the instructions, pulling the wick up 10mm out of the sulphur granules, lighting it and then beating a hasty retreat (you really don’t want a lungful of sulphur fumes).

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. So, I pulled some more wick up and relit it.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. There was not enough wick left to relight. So, I soaked some kitchen paper in some old cooking oil, pushed this into the tin and tried again.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out. I repeated the process with a small piece of candle inserted too.

Twenty minutes later I went back to check. It had gone out… and the wax had solidified on the surface. I got an old metal baking tin, put oil soaked paper on the bottom, broke the sulphur up again, sprinkled it over the paper, added a candle end and relit it. Then I went to bed.

In the morning I went back to check. The paper was singed round the edges, the candle had melted and formed a clump and most of the sulphur remained as it was. So, I sprinkled the whole thing with lighter fluid, lit it and left it to get on.

An hour later I went back to check. It looked exactly the same as last time. So, I build a fire: paper, paper sticks, small sticks, larger sticks, some of the sulphur sprinkled over plus a dash of lighter fluid for good measure. I lit it and came in for coffee.

An hour later I looked out and the greenhouse was finally full of sulphur smoke.

In the evening I ventured in… most of the sulphur had burnt, so I considered the greenhouse fumigated and left the window  open for it to ventilate before those seedlings go in.

And the moral of this story? Someone needs to invent a better sulphur candle before next year… please!

Station Road Permaculture Garden

I spent the last weekend teaching an introductory course on permaculture. This is going to provide me with subject matter for a number of posts, but I thought that I would start by describing a project that we visited.

An abundance of vegetables in front of the house

In a tiny village in the Shropshire hills is a row of four former council houses and one of these was our destination on  Saturday afternoon. Station Road Permaculture Garden demonstrates what you can do when you only have a normal-sized house and garden (80 ft x 40 ft) but want to produce as much food as possible. The garden provides fruit and vegetables as well as eggs from chickens and ducks. It’s hard to describe the amazing range of produce that comes out of the garden, but it includes currants and apples, raspberries and strawberries, asparagus and artichokes, carrots and potatoes, tomatoes and beans… at total of about 20 types of vegetable and 23 types of fruit!

During our visit we were treated to home produced apple juice – pasteurised so that it will last for at least a couple of years – and scones with home-made jams. We were also invited to sample the soft fruits as we walked around the garden. My favourite was the red dessert gooseberry – I’m not usually a gooseberry fan, but these were so sweet and juicy that I’m certainly going to find a place for some in my garden.

Shower cubicle cloche

The garden is separated into different areas by means of fences and hedges, including a low damson hedge and a fence with raspberries towering over it. The tiny orchard area is where the chickens and ducks live; it contains a small pond and two compost bins (with squashes growing in them). In total there are three greenhouses – two conventional ones and one containing a peach tree and constructed out of three old doors. An interesting curved glass cloche turns out to be a salvaged corner shower cubicle and the old septic tank has been converted very simply into rainwater storage. The site shows the best of creative use of waste materials along with inspirational plants.

A lemon tree – outside for the summer

And, as well as all the productive areas, there is a lawn for the two young children to play on and where they have their swing and keep their guinea pigs. This isn’t simply a demonstration site: this is a family home. It has been created by someone who goes out to work and is not able to dedicate all his time to tending his garden. To me, this represents the reality of life for many people. It certainly inspired the participants on the course, proving that vast tracts of land and unlimited resources are not necessary to improve your quality of life, to manage to produce a significant amount of your own food and to make a real difference to your environment.


Station Road Permaculture Garden is a Land Centre, one of a network of permaculture demonstration sites around the UK that you can arrange to visit to see permaculture work in action.


I had always understood that the place to go for a bit of peace and quiet was the shed… where, in 1970s sitcoms, a man might escape from a nagging wife (marriage being obligatory and involving two genders in those days) and enjoy… well, I’m not sure what exactly, on account of being (1) female and (2) aged three at the beginning of the 1970s. Anyway, it was always the shed: sometimes as far away as an allotment, but often in the garden.

We don’t have a very big garden and consequently, we don’t have a very big shed. So, once the plant pots, shredder, potatoes, spades, fork, spare netting, canes, and lawn mower** are in there, there is standing room only. In addition, when we bought our shed, we chose to have one without windows (the weak point in the old shed), so once the door is closed it’s both claustrophobic and dark. Call me picky, but I don’t find that combination particularly relaxing.

My greenhouse... hoping it will breed with next-door's

In the theory of 1970s sitcoms, I guess that I should be the one in the house doing the nagging and Mr Snail-of-happiness should be seeking refuge in some garden structure. However, he has his studio/workshop (formerly the spare bedroom) and I seek my respite (from scientific editing, not from Mr S-o-h) in the garden. It would be lovely simply to sit out on the bench and chat to the chickens (they always come over to see what’s going on), but this is west Wales and we are considering buying a dinghy and trading the chickens in for some ducks, so shelter is often required. And so, I often find myself spending a happy ten minutes pottering in the greenhouse, examining what has germinated, watering and generally enjoying being with growing plants. This seems to me, so much better than a shed – it’s light, there may be things to eat and when there is a little sunshine it’s lovely and warm in there. My long-term plan is to make sure that there is always something growing in my greenhouse, whatever the time of year. In this respect I have been inspired by the home-made geodesic dome up at Blaeneinion, where there seem to be salad leaves, at least, always available.

My trip out there earlier today revealed lots of bean germination – both runner and pea-beans (featured in the Guardian last weekend). None had made a bid for freedom today, but my ‘jumping bean’has not germinated, so I suspect a mouse was responsible for the earlier migration and that it might have consumed the embryo… resowing probably required. Nevertheless, the greenhouse has restorative properties for me… I think I need to put a chair out there… and possibly some gin and tonic.

Germinating beans

** A complete white elephant, since we no longer have a lawn… the chickens ate it!

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