Bags, beans and ebay

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A repair like a carrot!

I realise a whole week has gone by without a post… a combination of being busy and having a computer problem. The latter was related to an overheating power input, which was rectified with a new cable with replacement plug secured with Sugru – a cheap and simple solution, but one that took a little time because of the logistics of finding the replacement and then having to wait 24 hours for the Sugru to dry. The current obsession with excessively replacing electronic equipment is a real issue environmentally, and so I’m delighted with any solution that allows me to keep using my computer… I fully support the Restart Code, which you can check out here.

Away from the computer, the declutter continues, with five successful sales on ebay this week. I find the whole process of sorting out online auctions somewhat tedious, but it’s a good way to make sure unwanted items go to homes where they will get some use, so every now and then I grit my teeth and do a few listings. This time I sold five out of six items listed, which seems like quite a success to me.

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Drawstring bags for vegetables

Reducing clutter is also taking the form of turning some of the “I’m keeping this because it might be useful” things into things that really are useful.So, I spent a while cutting up an old sheet to make cleaning cloths (more on this in a later post when I’ve finished experimenting). In addition, I made four drawstring bags from off-cuts of very thin curtain fabric to use when we go shopping. We always take our own shopping bags, but rarely remember to take individual bags to put vegetables in. I used scrap fabric and some cotton tape that had been around some clothes I bought (rather than plastic packaging), so the resulting bags really are something for nothing. So far I’ve made two large ones and two small ones, but I’ll dig out some more fabric soon and make a few more. I’ve also been working on a crochet bag using yarn oddments… more on that when it’s finished.

And then there has been the garden. Two of our raised beds have been mulched over the winter, but the other day we took the mulch (Mypex) up from one of them, netted it and sent the chickens in to clear our any pests and weed seeds.

They spent a few hours in there on two days and then the bed was ready for planting… just a few roots of docks, dandelions and buttercups had to be dug out first. This afternoon I planted it up with broadbeans and potatoes… fingers crossed for a good harvest.

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Plants in – scarlet-flowered runner beans and potatoes

After the rain

There was not a single day in November when it didn’t rain here, there was only one in December and, so far, there has been some rain on every day in January. This has meant that it’s been very difficult to work on anything in the garden. I don’t like walking on sodden ground as it damages the soil structure, and our poor, clay soil is enough of a challenge without adding to the problems.

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Bye-bye weeds

Fortunately, however, the last week or so has been less wet and so the ground has dried just a little. Today there has been no rain so far, so I took the opportunity to mulch another of our raised beds. A while ago, whilst sorting through pots in the shed I came across an unopened pack of black plastic mulch that I’d forgotten I had bought. It was just the right size not to need and cutting and because it wasn’t windy today, I was able to get it in place without too much trouble. The bed had some old broccoli plants in it that needed to be removed first and a few brambles had to be pulled out, but otherwise all the weeds were covered with the mulch and should decompose under the plastic thus adding to the fertility of the soil. This is the second bed to be mulched this winter and I’m hoping it will make planting much easier in the spring.

Winter gardening jobs are often, like this one, not very exciting. Usually at this time of the year it’s all about preparation or tidying. My second job today was particularly tedious – the latest round in the battle against the brambles. We have an area alongside one fence that seems incapable of supporting any plants other than nettles and brambles… however much we cut them back and dig them up, they just keep coming back. I’ve tried all sorts of other plants in this patch, but nothing survives, so really now we just try to keep it under control and accept that it’s good for the wildlife. It would, however, without management, get totally out of control, so we attack it regularly with the secateurs.

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Hello potatoes!

And that was it in the garden – important jobs, but nowhere near as fun as planting. There is no germination yet in the propagator, but the left-over seed potatoes that I put in pots in November are growing, so we may have a small crop in the spring. They are currently outside, but they can come back into the limery if the temperature drops. So now, I’m just itching for spring to arrive and for gardening to start in earnest.

All tucked up

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Teeny-tiny leeks

There’s not much going on in the garden at the moment… some leeks that I planted out very late are growing and the weeds never seem to sleep, but generally it’s all quiet. At this time of the year it’s easy to leave the vegetable patch to get on with things and allow it to develop its own layer of vegetation that will need dealing with in the spring. This year, however, I have decided that I want to avoid as much weeding as possible prior to planting, so I have started to mulch.

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All secure for the winter

Despite some blustery weather yesterday, I got outside with a length of MyPex that had been hanging around the shed for a couple of years and covered one of the raised beds. Until a couple of weeks ago there had still been nasturtiums flowering in this area, but the first frost killed them off and it was all looking rather sad. I dug the edges in to secure it, but because I know how easy it is for a sheet of mulch to get blown about, I also weighed it down with planks and pots, stones and a couple of spare log rolls. The MyPex excludes the light, but allows water to penetrate, so the vegetation that was left underneath should rot down nicely over the winter and provide lovely organic matter for the plants that I put in when spring comes around.

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I’m regarding this as green manure

Unfortunately I only had enough MyPex for one bed, but I do have some black polythene mulch that I am going to use to cover a second bed. The wind got up whilst I was working yesterday and so I decided not to battle to get this done, especially since there are some rogue brambles to deal with first. For the time being the weeds can grow as a green manure… they will turn into great compost once the mulch is finally down The main drawback of this approach is that mulch provides a great habitat for slugs and snails. I will deal with this by feeding them to the chickens when the mulch is lifted in the spring – you can plant through it, but then in our wet climate, you lose all your plants to molluscs!

Today there has been a mixture of sun and very heavy showers, so no gardening. We were lucky to have a rainbow though, which made me smile and grab my camera:

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Even on a grey day there can be brightness

Mulch magic?

I don’t often get requests, but last week my friend Perkin asked me to write about mulch. Perkin has acquired a pile of organic gardening magazines and has been struck by the number of references to mulch and the claims for its apparent magical properties. So, he got hold of some straw and mulched under his squashes. And, guess what? He created a fantastic habitat for slugs! He, therefore, asked me for my thoughts on mulch.

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

Mulching can work really well in some circumstances

I too was seduced by the charms of mulching when I first read about it many years ago. My first experience of it was a wild success. I moved into a semi-derelict cottage around the time I got my first job. I had to hack my way through the vegetation to get down the drive and to the front door, so you can imagine the state of the garden. Anyway, I had read that squashes love growing in rotted vegetation, so the first spring I was there, I covered an area of rough grass measuring about 4x4m with black polythene, anchoring it round the edges by simply pushing it into the soil with a spade. I grew courgettes and patty pan squashes from seed in pots on my window sills (it may have been falling down, but the house had really deep window sills because of the two-foot thick walls). When It came time to plant out, the vegetation under the plastic had rotted down, the soil had warmed up and that summer I harvested a bumper crop.

When I moved house a few years later, I tried the same approach (although the garden was not so wild) and the results were nowhere near as spectacular. Over subsequent years I have experimented with various types of mulch – carpet, permeable membranes, grass clippings, cardboard, gravel, cocoa shell – but have never had the same success as that first time. There have been two main problems –  first, like Perkin, the issue of providing ideal conditions for slugs and, second, the mulch not actually suppressing plant growth (e.g. the permeable membrane which seems to let light through as well as moisture).

Sometimes, I have worked the slug problem to my advantage. The first year we kept hens, I mulched two raised beds with cardboard over the winter. By the spring, there were only a few spindly plants surviving in gaps around the edge of the mulch, but turning the soggy cardboard over revealed dozens of slugs. At this point I drafted in the chickens. They ate the slugs, consumed the weeds (mainly creeping buttercup), shredded the card, cultivated the surface of the soil and added some of their own special fertilizer: great job, girls! In fact, our garden has a smaller slug population now as a result of the presence of hens, but I still don’t want to provide them with perfect conditions to thrive.

Squashes of all varieties are flourishing in the 'four sisters' bed

Those big squash leaves prevent the growth of all but the most determined weeds!

The second problem can be avoided by selecting the right mulch – don’t use something that will blow away if you live in a windy place; don’t bother with permeable membrane unless it’s just one component of a layered system and so on. Chose a mulch that will deliver what you want – weed suppression, increased fertility, surface stabilisation, warming the ground, or any combination of these. Sometimes it’s better to incorporate organic matter into the soil than to apply it to the surface, sometimes a weed suppressant isn’t necessary if you plant a crop with big leaves or a ‘green manure’… think carefully before indiscriminate application of a mulch!

My experience is that mulches have their place, but they do not represent a magic solution and they are certainly not suitable for all conditions. As with so many suggestions, it’s a case of using mulch thoughtfully, knowing your specific circumstances and doing some careful experimentation to find out what works for you on your patch.

I’d be very interested to hear other people’s experiences with mulch, so over to you…

Coed Hills

I went to visit Coed Hills today, a permaculture community near Cardiff. They have somewhere between 70 and 90 acres of land, so a great contrast to my own little plot. However I came away with lots of inspiration, plus some plants – Coed Hill tomatoes (seeds from open pollinated plants, so they may turn out to be anything!), a tree lupin, perennial onions and some strawberries.

Perhaps the most immediately useful observation was that strawberries create self-mulching ground cover. This leads me to the decision to plant more strawberries in the fruit cage as both a crop and weed suppressor. And with the gift of some plants, I can start straight away.

I also saw tomatoes planted in a polytunnel with a clover ground cover below them. Again there is a mulching effect, plus the clover plants fix nitrogen and boost soil fertility. This is an approach that I will suggest to Perkin for his big greenhouse.

We looked at their young woodland garden, which is bursting with fruit frees, soft fruit bushes and a wide range of ground cover – the trees are small as yet, but will grown into a beautiful habitat. One of the ground cover species was poached egg plant (Limnanthes douglasii). I used to have lots of this in my previous garden, but not in the current one: I must introduce it, as it is particularly attractive to those most beneficial of insects the hoverflies.

I was also reminded that I must reintroduce borage (Borago officinalis) into my garden (it was there but seems to have disappeared). It has beautiful blue flowers that bees love and that can be used in salads and, traditionally, are put in Pimms.

I also saw the most beautiful tree: a black lace elderberry (Sambucus nigra f. porphyrophylla) that I will certainly consider for future planting (and I may be able to persuade Perkin to have one in his garden… thus achieving at least vicarious ownership).

I could go on, but really what I wanted to highlight was that visits like this can be a real source of inspiration. Permaculture gardens are particularly valuable because they often reveal novel approaches to problems and inspiring uses of resources. I also find that permaculture people are very generous with their time, seeds, plants and ideas. So, thank you to the folks at Coed Hills for the hospitality and abundant cups of tea – I will see you again later in the summer.

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