Caterpillars ate my kale

The past week has been dominated by apples… some are frozen, some are bottled, some are in cake, many are still in boxes and even more remain on the tree. It’s very time-consuming but also very satisfying.

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

And abundance of small tortoiseshell butterflies (Mara Morris; Denmark Farm Conservation Centre)

This is a funny time of year in the garden – we are always given to believe that autumn is always about harvests and the end of growing crops for the year, but this simply isn’t true. This summer was a fabulous year for butterflies in the UK, as you can see from the picture on the right taken at Denmark Farm just a couple of weeks ago. Not all butterflies are quite as welcome as these small tortoiseshells, however, and it has been an equally good year for both large and small whites… those are the ones that eat your cabbages.

Skeletonised kale leaf

Skeletonised kale leaf

And so it was in my garden… an infestation of caterpillars on my broccoli and kale reduced all the leaves to mere skeletons. But I was not fooled. This defoliation does not kill strong healthy plants, so I left them in the ground and the caterpillars have now gone away to pupate, leaving my plants to magically regenerate. Later on in the year we will be harvesting fresh greens from the kale, then in 2014 there will be white and purple sprouting broccoli to enjoy. When plants get damaged like that, it’s very tempting to just get rid of them, but sometimes it’s worth thinking twice.

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Brand new growth on the broccoli

Other plants are also thriving in the garden – I’ve recently planted red onion sets, and the oriental greens (and reds) are establishing well. In addition, the autumn raspberries are flowering and starting to set fruit. It just goes to show, the growing season can last a very long time if you plant the right crops.

Gardening without a garden

We are very lucky here to have a bit of land around our house that allows us to garden. Over the years, the lawn has completely disappeared as we have built raised beds, constructed a fruit cage, built a greenhouse and (the final straw) started keeping chickens. We have expanded into spaces originally considered unsuitable for growing and now have designs on the small patch out the front.

As I write, I am, however, conscious of people who do not have any land. People who live in flats and apartments that may just have a balcony or even only a window sill, perhaps not even that.  For a while Mr Snail-of-happiness worked in Reading, where we rented a flat for him to live in. The only room that had a useable window sill was in the kitchen, but it was tiled and got quite a lot of sun, so I took him several sweet pepper plants and chillies, and they grew happily there for a couple of years, providing him with some fresh produce, even if only a little. In addition, he had some herbs in pots… a lovely way to add fresh flavours to your cooking.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

Two trays of oriental leaves.

However, things like peppers can be a little bit daunting for a complete beginner and, if you want to grow them from seed, it’s best to start them off at the beginning of the year, so they start to get long days as the plants mature. What if you want to start growing something right now? In that case (whenever you may be reading this, and whichever hemisphere you are in) I can suggest nothing better than oriental leaves. Buy yourself a selection of seeds (you can even get mixed packs), fill a seed tray with compost, sow your seeds, cover with a little more compost, place them on a tray to catch any water, water them and put them on a window sill or table in a light place. Keep the compost moist and wait for your crop. First, you will get heart-shaped seed leaves, then the plants will start to grow proper leaves which you can harvest once each plant has a few of them. Snip the leaves off and more will grow.

Baby leaves like theses are not strongly flavoured and are ideal for salads, but can also be used in stir fries, or wilted into a risotto a minute or two before cooking is finished. Next time you go to the supermarket, look how expensive bags of baby salad leaves are and this should convince you that the activity is worthwhile!

Seed compost isn’t full of nutrients, so the leaves might be a bit yellow after a time and, if so, a bit of plant food is in order. Eventually your plants will become ‘worn out’, so after a couple of weeks, plant another tray to get going whilst you are using one… this way you can have a succession of fresh leaves throughout the year even without a garden.

Life finds a way

Soil has been on my mind quite a lot recently… mainly because there’s a bare bed in the garden since Mr Snail of Happiness harvested kilos and kilos of potatoes on Saturday afternoon. The potatoes are safely in boxes in the loft now and the bed is awaiting some pleasant weather so I can get out there and plant something in it. I quite like the look of bare soil, but it’s not an ideal system… it’s available for all sorts of seeds to colonise, it can get washed or blown away, and in my small growing space it seems like a waste of a resource.

If I leave this soil, it won't stay bare for long

If I leave this soil, it won’t stay bare for long

In fact, the only reason my soil is bare is because it poured with rain yesterday, so I was not encouraged to go and plant it up. I could seed it with a green manure, but I have other plans for it. I have some red onion sets (variety Electra) waiting to go in one end of it, plus several varieties of oriental vegetables to go in the other end. Earlier in the year I tried inter-planting onions and oriental greens, but the latter were too successful and swamped the onions… I will not make the same mistake again.

Given the presence of all this bare soil, I was interested to read this post on Australian almond orchards (I’ve only recently discovered the blog, and I really like it), in which the soil below the trees is kept completely bare, thus supporting no pollinators so that the farmers have to bring in bee hives to ensure pollination. The energy required to maintain this system must be huge, and makes no sense in terms of sustainable production.

The idea that keeping soil bare artificially over a long period of time is a good thing, seems very strange to me. Whilst in nature you do see bare soil, it is always only temporary, and something always comes along to colonise it pretty quickly. Even when a site is severely contaminated, some species can survive. My first job as an ecologist involved surveying old metal mines in mid-Wales. Many of the spoil heaps appeared quite bare from a distance but, close up, even the most toxic spoil (contaminated with lead, cadmium, arsenic, copper and other heavy metals) had a flora of lichens and even grasses (such as sheep’s fescue). And more than 20 years on, I return to some of the sites and they are supporting heathland, grassland and even trees.

The spoil heaps at Cwm Rheidol in 1982

The spoil heaps at Cwm Rheidol in 1982

The same spoil heaps 20 years later

The same spoil heaps 20 years later

Since, as Ian Malcolm says in Jurassic Park, “…life will not be contained. Life breaks free, it expands to new territories” I think I want to control what’s growing in my raised beds, so I’m off to plant those vegetables now!

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