A good use of space

Exactly year ago I wrote a post describing a small patch of ground at the end of our house that was completely unused and explained my plans to make it into a productive area. We had mixed fortunes with it because of the weather, but the containers that we planted up did yield good crops of both mange tout (grown up the fence) and lettuce, as well as some delicious potatoes and oca. We are hoping that we will have better growing weather this year and that this little area will provide us with lots of food again.

I've got a plan!

I’ve got a plan!

Over the past few weeks we have been planting up a variety of ‘containers’ for this spot: dumpy bags with four different sorts of potatoes in them, bags containing oca, pots of mange tout and what was previously a rather unsuccessful strawberry planter that has now been planted up with lettuce and basil. I started off with a design on paper, based on our successes last year. It’s not fully implemented yet and I have been making slight adjustments as I go, but I’m feeling very hopeful.

The potatoes are growing in a mixture of garden compost, grass clippings, shredded paper and cardboard all contained in the big bags that building materials are delivered in. As the grass breaks down it releases heat and so that should boost growth and help the plants along even if the weather is poor this summer. Rather than ‘earthing up’ we will be ‘grass and papering up’ as the season progresses.

Potatoes in dumpy bags and a strawberry planter seeded with lettuce and basil

Potatoes in dumpy bags and a strawberry planter seeded with lettuce and basil

One of the real joys here is that the only things that cost us anything were the seed potatoes (all blight resisters). In fact, the whole of this area is based around waste products, homemade items and things that we already had lying around the garden. So, fingers crossed this year for abundance in this tiny part of the garden!

Full of eastern promise

Ever year we manage to produce some crops over the winter. We extend the pepper season  by bringing some of the plants indoors (and hopefully keep them going over the winter to fruit again next summer); we grow kale and purple sprouting broccoli; we plant leeks (unless, like last year, a family disaster intervenes); and we grow oca, which is harvested as the days grow shorter and into the early winter. This year, however, I have decided to try to make more effort, so I have also sowed winter lettuce and miners lettuce (Claytonia) seeds to give us fresh salad leaves over the winter, plus we have salsify and root parsley coming along nicely.

A new book and some seeds

However, my big experiment this year is with oriental vegetables. I have recently bought a copy of Joy Larkcom’s Oriental Vegetables: the complete guide for the gardening cook. It’s my perfect book really, not only does it have information about cultivation, it’s also got history of the different vegetables plus recipes. As usual, I decided to buy my seeds from The Real Seed Catalogue, but in this case felt somewhat overwhelmed by the choice, so I plumped for their Oriental Explorer pack. I’m experimenting with different ways of growing these plants, both outdoors and in the greenhouse, and hope to report back as I reap the harvest (or not).

Blue pipe and net cloche

On Saturday (a glorious sunny day here in west Wales) I cleared the bed that had contained the potatoes and broad beans and planted six different oriental vegetables: Komatsuna Japanese Greens; Mispoona  oriental greens for salad or cooking; Tai Sai White Stem Leaf Pak Choi; Sobi Chinese salad cabbage; Yukina oriental leaf greens; and Hot Mustard Greens. I imagine that all of these would make tasty treats for chickens, so the bed is protected with a net cloche. This structure has hoops made from blue water pipe… a classic material in permaculture gardens, as it’s cheap, readily available and remarkably versatile. As well as keeping rampaging chickens out, the cloche should increase the temperature inside a little (it’s a degree or two warmer in our fruit cage in the winter, believe it or not). Of course, we can always convert this into a more traditional cloche by covering it with polythene, but I don’t think that’s going to be necessary.

My next task is to sow some seeds in trays in the greenhouse, so that we will have some completely protected crops too… oh and to settle down and read all of Joy Larkcom’s book (along with the dozens of others that surround me in my office).

Any volunteers?

Have you ever grown potatoes? Or Jerusalem artichokes? Or oca? If so, it’s likely that you still are! Unless you are VERY thorough in harvesting, there are always a few tubers left behind that manage to grow again next year. At this rate, I think we will probably have potatoes and oca growing in every bed of our garden in the next few years… we don’t like Jerusalem artichokes*, so they are absent.

Calendula seed themselves every year in our garden

Such unplanned plants are often referred to as ‘volunteers’ and they can be a real bonus. Of course, in a meticulously planned garden you might not want to have a squash plant rampaging across your flower beds or garlic interfering with bean production (apparently legumes do not grow so well in the presence of members of the onion family), but they can also be an unexpected treat. I always allow the self-sown pot marigolds (Calendula) to establish as they attract beneficial insects, particularly hoverflies. When clearing beds  after one crop we regularly come across potatoes and if we don’t find them the chickens often dig them up… providing us with an unplanned meal or two. Potatoes also appear from the compost heap – frequently at unexpected times of the year because of the warm conditions. These must originate from peelings and are always welcome. One year we even got volunteer carrots between the paving stones… I have no idea how this happened as I NEVER grow carrots!

A volunteer sunflower from the bird seed

Perhaps my favourite volunteer this year is a sunflower derived from the bird seed. I have never grown sunflowers in our current garden, so its appearance has been an unexpected pleasure and it is currently attracting lots of insects – particularly bees. A second one has also appeared. Both are in the squash bed and have been joined by several brassicas… not sure what, but we’re eating the leaves like kale (they’re always edible that way).

New sunflower and a brassica in the squash bed

Often, volunteers are vigorous plants; after all, they are growing in a place that must be suitable for them otherwise they wouldn’t have survived there. If you find such plants at an early stage and you really don’t want them where they are growing, you can always transplant them – tomatoes and squashes really don’t seem to mind too much being moved and you can minimise disturbance by taking a good root ball with you. But my inclination is, where possible, to leave them… it adds to the diversity of beds and prevents the garden becoming too regimented. I love the idea of plants thriving in the right place for them, like in a natural ecosystem, even though I know that I really do have to exert some control!

-oOo-

* It may interest you to know that Jerusalem artichokes are being used as a biofuel crop because they are so easy to propagate, grow on land unsuitable for many other crops and produce so much biomass (the average fresh tuber biomass is estimated to be 45-90 tonnes per hectare – thanks to the Molecular Ecology Group at Lanzhou University, China for this information). Mr Snail-of-happiness is delighted about this alternative use, as he hates the taste of them with a passion!

Fifty shades of green

Apparently a woman of my age should be enthralled by the book ‘Fifty shades of grey’… erotica unburdened by plot or believable characters if my niece is to be trusted. She tells me that she can’t believe that she wasted hours of her life on the whole trilogy. She’s more than twenty years younger than me, but I have always found her to be thoughtful and reliable, so on her recommendation I am going to spend my time on a colour other than grey.

Lettuce, oriental greens and rocket in my polyculture bed. Alas the dwarf french beans rotted in the wet.

Of course, my colour of choice has to be green. The transformation of the British summer from washout to glorious sunshine has revealed that not everything in the garden is beyond hope. There may be no red tomatoes or golden squashes, there may be precious few runner bean flowers or vibrant black and yellow hoverflies, but there are lettuces in a variety of shades of green… from ‘Flashy butter oak’, which is green mottled with a deep burgundy, to ‘Emerald Oak’ with its crinkled vibrant green leaves. All hues seem to be there in the salad crops, whether lettuces or oriental leaves.

The photograph does not adequately show the contrast between the dark green of the potato leaves and the downy grey-green apple mint.

But other crops are showing their true colours in the sunshine too – potato leaves, contrasting with the grey-green downy foliage of apple mint. Even some of the corn and squashes are finally starting to flourish, though it seems rather too late for the production of mature winter squashes that will store well or bursting-with-sweetness corn, straight off the plant and into the pan of boiling water (in the style of Bob Flowerdew). In the greenhouse (how appropriate) greens abound – deep shiny green lipstick peppers, sickly yellow-green Amy sweet wax pepper, plus another brighter green-shading-to-red Hungarian wax pepper. And quite a few green tomatoes… which I hope will not remain so for too much longer.

Oca… plus a Calendula flower that just opened today

Elsewhere in the garden, the yellow-podded mangetout are starting to flower, purple against their subdued green foliage. Field beans (planted very late because of the bad weather) have abundant flowers amongst their grey-green leaves and oca (masquerading as shamrock) has soft green trefoils nodding in the wind. The glaucous leaves of breadseed poppy are surmounted by both purple flowers and newly formed seed pods (which should not open when they are ripe, thus preserving all the seed for me to harvest).

Squash and corn… flourishing in a compost-filled dumpy bag.

I could go on… salsify, leeks and bunching onions are just starting to show signs of resuming growth, ginger mint and lemon balm look and smell delicious as I walk through them in the fruit cage to collect raspberries off the old and slightly tatty canes in the midst of new fresh green canes that will bear fruit next year (or later this year for the Autumn variety). But, it’s time to stop now and go and enjoy picking and eating some of this bounty. So, when asked to choose a colour, I say ‘no thank you, grey… give me shades of green any day’.

-oOOo-

Of course, there’s no such thing as an original idea… Diggitydigg beat me to it!

Variety is the spice of life

Perhaps it’s a bit late in the year to be thinking about what edibles to plant, but as the seedlings and shoots start to emerge I have been thinking about what I am growing, as well as what I don’t grow and what I’d like to grow…

I suppose that my starting point always has to be what we like to eat or, more importantly don’t like to eat… for example, Mr Snail-of-happiness can’t stand cucumber so I don’t bother to grow it. We did get given a plant a couple of years ago, which I couldn’t bear just to compost and I did discover that the chickens LOVE cucumber, but even so I don’t think that it’s worth the trouble (after all, there are lots of other things they LOVE… apple cores, lettuce leaves, scrapings from the porridge pot, slugs…).

Another question is what is expensive to buy or is associated with lots of food miles? I like to grow chillies and peppers because, when locally produced, these are quite expensive. I also like early potatoes (the first ones of the season are always costly), which can be planted in the greenhouse in containers to get a head start on the season. I don’t have room to grow lots of potatoes and anyway blight is endemic in this area so maincrop are not worth the effort, but the joy of new potatoes straight out of the ground cannot be overemphasised!

On this note, I think about what is good straight out of the garden. A crop of salad leaves is always worthwhile. I grow ‘cut-and-come-again’ varieties, so that we only need to pick as much as we  are going to eat immediately – perhaps just a few leaves for a sandwich. Other straight from the garden hits are purple sprouting broccoli, kale (so good to have fresh greens through the winter) and mangetout.

As well as things for immediate consumption, I like to grow some things that store well… pumpkins and squashes are popular because they require no processing prior to storage and they taste great even after months in the loft.

Then, there are things that I simply can’t find in the shops… salsify, oca, different varieties of chilli. This year I am planting root parsley on the recommendation of someone else who grows it very successfully locally. Vegetables that are unusual are less likely to have a large native ‘predator’ population and there may be fewer diseases locally to which they are susceptible, which is an additional benefit. Sourcing the more unusual seed or tubers (like you need for oca) may be tricky, but we are very lucky to be near the home of The Real Seed Catalogue… a valuable resource and quite inspirational. I bought my oca tubers from them last year and have been able to plant saved tubers this year, so avoiding additional expense. In fact, the Real Seed folks encourage seed saving, so are trying to put themselves out of business in the long run! Another great seed resource is Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library… become a member and you have access to some very interesting varieties and are supporting the preservation of varieties that would otherwise be lost.

So, what do you grow and where do you get your seeds from? I’m always looking for inspiration.

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