28 Aug 2015

Sow-now Know-how to improve your soil

~ Bees adore Phacelia! 

While you're thinking about your spring and winter garden (you were thinking about what to grow over winter, weren't you?), spare a thought for your poor, depleted soil. It's served you well all summer in providing food and flowers, now it's time to return the favour.

I'm currently re-reading Charles Dowding's book on growing winter vegetables so I suspect that I won't have much bare soil as autumn blends into winter. However, there are several (currently unused) areas in the larger community garden that defeat my planting because the soil is overused or poor and dry.

One such space is the north bed containing a few rose bushes.  These bushes have been there for at least a couple of decades. Whatever was planted on the other side of the border has long since gone and even weeds struggle to survive here.  (Surely a bonus!) If I want to make the best use of this space, I have to think about soil improvement.

I was reminded of this when I saw Phacelia tanacetifolia growing at the Skip Garden recently. It's a pretty plant with dainty purple flowers and ferny leaves. It has an extensive root system that puts nutrients back into the soil and helps to break it up thus benefitting the garden. Bees absolutely love the nectar laden flowers and it's gaining popularity as cut flower with a vase life of 5 days. Well known as a green manure, the leaves will bush up to crowd out weeds and provide ground cover shelter for beetles and other beneficials. (Possibly also slugs and snails, something to watch out for.)

Phacelia can be sown up to the end of August. The seeds should germinate within three weeks, then let the plants grow for two to three months. The decision then will be whether to dig the plants into the soil  in late November or let them overwinter for earlier flowers the following spring.  (If your soil is heavy, it will be hard work trying to chop and turn the plants into the soil in spring so best done in early winter.)

I'm going to assume that, like me, you'd want a green manure that wasn't going to make your garden or allotment look like a farmer's field or that the grass needed cutting. So, the other green manure that I would use is clover, either Crimson or Red, both of which can be sown up to the end of September. These are brilliant at drawing nitrogen from the air and dumping it in the soil via their roots. They also have a bulky growth that smothers weeds and pretty flowers in the spring.

As with all flowering green manures, if you don't want them taking over, it's best to dig the plants in before any flowers set seed. It may seem like hard work but just think of the benefits next year!

Seeds of both should be readily available from garden centres or online.

PS. If you're heading to the coast this weekend, seaweed also makes a great fertiliser. I collect washed up* seaweed from the beach after the tide has gone out, pop it into a bucket; back home, wash to remove the salt water, then chop it up and use to mulch around fruit trees and heavy feeders like brassicas.  If you don't want it on your beds, add some to your compost where it will add tons of micro-nutrients to the heap.
* NEVER take seaweed out of the water or from rocks. Once it's been washed up, mid-beach tideline, it's ethically okay to use this.

23 Aug 2015

The Garden of One Thousand Hands: The Skip Garden at King's Cross

I live about five minutes drive from Kings Cross in North London so when my car is due its MoT, I happily head down to a garage in that area knowing that I'll be able to visit the nearby Global Generation Skip Garden.

It's affectionately known as the Garden of One Thousand Hands due to the large numbers of helpers - volunteers, school children, students - who come to do what they can and learn. A true community garden where the produce is used in the kitchen café and for community suppers.

The philosophy behind Global Generation's work is 'I, We, Planet' and their aim is to provide opportunities for all, but especially young people, to increase awareness of themselves and the natural world with an emphasis on less consumerism and more sustainability. There's a lot to be learned from a garden like this one and I always find my visits exciting and inspirational.

Due to the redevelopment (regeneration?) of the Kings Cross area, the Skip Garden had to be moved slightly to the west of its previous site late last year. The opportunity to improve was keenly embraced, local corporate sponsorship was found, architect students were apprenticed and the new site is now crammed with good ideas for community involvement. I  know that hands-on school visits are keenly supported but there was also evidence of pottery and basket weaving, supper clubs, volunteer gardening evenings, as well as school gardening, and a kitchen that offers apprenticeships. Students from the nearby construction industry college get involved in making stuff out of wood and other materials.

In its previous incarnations, the Skip Garden was just that; food and flowers growing in old skips on unused industrial land with the ability to be picked up and moved when needed. When the plants outnumbered the skips, offcuts of construction wood were made into troughs and raised beds to expand the planting space. Steps were built to lead up into the skips, polythene and wood made into polytunnels and wire mesh used for skip trellis - the construction industry provided endless useful resources that would otherwise have been scrapped.

Top: packed earth wall;
Bottom (L to R):  Coffee sack cold store; construction waste table and benches; window greenhouse at rear.

This time around, although the number of skips has been reduced to accommodate new structures on site, the upcycling theme has been continued on a grander scale. Architect students have very cleverly built a huge teaching greenhouse out of scaffolding boards and unwanted windows; coffee sacks filled with damp soil provide the walls for a cold store, also used as a teaching space. There are wildflowers and herbs growing through the sacks so it's also a living wall fed by rain and waste water draining down from the office platform above. Adjacent to this, recycled railway sleepers have been stacked up to create a double cubicle compost toilet. The new polytunnel space, which doubles as an area for supper club and school visit eating, has a packed earth wall on one side; it's a technique used in the Great Wall of China and is thermal - the wall stores heat built up during the day and slowly releases it at night - brilliant for both diners and plants!  The other side of the tunnel is lined with boxes growing herbs and salads and the view is over the skips themselves and further out to the natural swimming pond and workmen building new flats and offices.

And there are fresh eggs and beehives.  I didn't realise this building (Peckingham Palace) was a chicken coop until I heard a soft clucking as I walked around.  The structure's design is inspired by Lord Snowdon's aviary at London Zoo and built around a recycled silver birch tree trunk. There's plenty of space inside and the chickens are kept safe from urban foxes. Isn't it fab!  The three chickens that live there are allowed to roam freely around the site.

Utility furniture (tables, benches, kitchen surfaces, plant holders), as with everything here, has been built using construction waste. Even the flower filled jars and decorated tins are recycled.

Fruit isn't overlooked here either. Apples are espaliered onto construction mesh bent over the skips and the trees are underplanted with herbs, veg and edible flowers. Comfrey is grown in waste wood troughs and polystyrene boxes are used as planters - note the holes that have been made in the sides for drainage.

I took loads of photos and I think the digger driver on the other side of the fence thought I was a bit bonkers but I was having too good a time to care.  The thing that I love most of all about this garden space, apart from its excellent community ethos, is that there were so many moments of coming across a tiny vision of beauty in this very industrial (and noisy!) landscape.

This view to the tunnel from inside the greenhouse:

This tiny window (greenhouse, again) that reminded me of my grandad's house:

This pottery shape nestled among the herbs:

These unfinished wicker planters and more pottery by the greenhouse entrance:

The shadows created by the sun shining on this (admittedly rather dead looking) posy:

And bees, everywhere:

The Skip Garden (and kitchen cafe)  is open Tuesday to Saturday and is a 5 minute walk from Kings Cross station. I went on a Monday and was allowed in for a gloriously solitary nose around so thanks go to the lady in the office for that.  It fair made my day.

16 Aug 2015

Planting bulbs and alliums

Bulb catalogues are thumping through the letterbox so I'm thinking ahead to next year's garden with alliums on my mind.

I've been stopped dead in my tracks twice this year by the sight of alliums - once by a front garden where hundreds of hollandicum globes grew up through purple bearded iris and geraniums; and once more at the Hampton Court flower show where bulb suppliers, Jacques Armand, had a large and stunning display of alliums from huge to small to pendulous. It was a breath-taking moment that had me reaching for my purse.

While I enthused with the rep on that display about the beauty of these flowers, a chance comment gleaned me an excellent tip about how to grow them.  I'd divulged that the owner of the above-mentioned front garden (being a neighbour of my niece) had given me a dozen of his bulbs, freshly dug from the ground. Not yet knowing quite where to place them, I'd planted them at the bottom of a large container. That's perfect, the rep declared.

And here's the tip:  alliums like a long time to get established before temperatures drop. They're easy to grow but for the best flowers next year, plant your alliums as soon as you can (certainly by September) and bury them deep - 30 centimetres (12 inches) is ideal for the bigger bulbs. (The usual rule of thumb for bulbs applies: bury bulbs at a depth of roughly three times their size.)

They like a fertile but chalky or sandy soil so add sand or grit to the planting hole if your soil is on the heavy side. And plant where they'll get sun. (The irony of that phrase always makes me chuckle, given the vagaries of the British summer!)  They're perennials, spreading fairly quickly, so plant them a good 12 inches apart; the old gentleman who kindly gave me some of his bulbs told me that he'd started his display with one bulb five years ago and his garden was now full of them.

A very good reason to grow alliums is that they follow on from tulips.  My tulips light up the garden in spring and it's a sad day when they start to fade. By planting alliums, I'm anticipating that the garden will transition into early colour in May/June right through to July/August when other perennials will have taken over.  The first to show should be the Nectaroscordum siculum (Sicilian honey garlic) which flowers at the same time as tulips and irises and 'Summer Drummer' is a new bulb that should flower through to August. (Top right in photo below.)

A. hollandicum 'Purple Sensation' (top left) © Crocus,
A.'Summer Drummer (top right) © Jacques Armand
A.'Spider' (bottom left) © Sarah Raven/Jonathan Buckley,
Nectaroscordum siculum (bottom right) ©Unwin seeds
Images not my own. 

So, what will be planted in the garden? All in the above photo. I've a feeling that won't be the end of it though as I'll need more tulips so that the alliums don't clash with the existing ones.

If your soil tends to be a bit claggy, you can also grow alliums in a pot; they'd look lovely growing with Agapanthus or make a little prairie garden by planting with Verbena rigida and a grass such as Stipa tenuissima. I'm told they're fairly windproof too.

9 Aug 2015

Pause for thought

I don't like jam.

I had that thought yesterday morning while trying to sort out some Morello cherry jam that hadn't set properly. All the jam I made tasted overwhelmingly sweet (even with sticking religiously to the recipe) and I want to taste the fruit, not the sugar.  So, I asked myself, why am I growing sour cherries? Why not sweet cherries? And then I started to rethink the garden, as you do.

I thought about what I really enjoy in the garden. More apples and plums would be good, some more everyday herbs, room to grow in the ground and less in pots - and more flowers, lots more flowers. Every year it's the flowers that excite me (as much as the veg!) and with that in mind, I'm getting my seed box out today to sow some biennials for next year. Meanwhile, having separated the jam fruit from the oversweet syrup, I added it to recently picked raspberries and redcurrants; yesterday's experiment is now a nice compote of fruit, sweetened with elderflower cordial and sugar to taste.

That still leaves me with the sour cherry trees to sort. Sour cherries are my best fruit crop and I dislike wasting anything I've grown. A plan is needed, one to gradually replace one of the Morello trees with a sweet cherry. And perhaps I could find someone locally who would want the crop next year. This year my two trees produced nearly 3 kg of fruit. Not much, but definitely too much to waste.

A rethink was also on my mind last week as I tidied the garden with the help of my gardening neighbour, Karen, in readiness for the Camden in Bloom judges. I kept asking myself why on earth I'd entered the competition; surely this little patch wasn't up to the mark for judging.  Moreover, how could I make it better?  However, Karen kept me on track and plants were repotted, pots were mulched, pavements were weeded, paths swept, trees and shrubs pruned lightly, flowers deadheaded, strawberries tidied, bare patches weeded or replanted and, just as it was getting dark and despite both being doggone tired, all was topped off with a good long watering to ensure the garden looked fresh and perky on the day.

A couple of jobs were left for the following morning. A 9 a.m. start was planned as I'd been told the judges would arrive at 11. Just after 9 a.m., Karen buzzed my door and whispered, "They're here!". Blimey! The judging appointment had been rescheduled.  They'd met Karen on the way to the garden with her tool bag and assumed she was me.  It was only after some minutes of chatting about the garden that she realised their mistake and hurried back to get me.  Karen tells me that the judges reaction on seeing the garden was really good, words like 'wow', 'amazing' were apparently used. Of course, I'm chuffed to bits about that.  Hopefully my green oasis made its mark.  And never mind if there was still work to be done - a garden is never finished and it showed that this garden is a real work in progress.  Chris Collins, who used to be the Blue Peter gardener, was a judge; it was really nice to chat to him as I value his opinion, given that he's properly experienced in these things. And the photographer clicked away for almost an hour (worse than me!).  I won't now hear how I got on until end of August or early September and life has settled down once more.

The garden has been on my mind though.  My shady border at the north end of the garden had just had all the foxgloves cut down so is looking a bit sparse with just a couple of heucheras, some sweet woodruff and some ferns. Some winter planting is needed together with a nearby water butt so that I can lessen the impact of dry shade.  A new water butt (aka green wheelie bin) was kindly donated by the recycling centre the next day and will be filled when the hosepipes come out next time.

The veg garden will have to be rethought again.  A couple of the original raised beds have rotted away from their posts and will be removed when the veg is cleared.  A new system for containing the soil will have to be found - some untreated railway sleepers would be nice but I suspect I'll be begging some scaffolding planks instead.  It will be a good time to rethink the layout and perhaps move a few of the herbs as I've learned that parsley prefers to grow in light shade.

And I want more flowers.  I always want more flowers at this time of year - not for picking but just for looking at. Wonderful autumn perennials are elsewhere coming into their own now - salvias, grasses, heleniums, eryngiums - and I long for that burst of colour here.  Thinking cap on.  Seed catalogues out. Onwards, ever onwards.

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