30 Mar 2020

Sowing seeds for a salad garden

The internet and social media are full of tales of people turning to gardening, and food growing in particular, during the lockdown.  Most crops take a while to be ready for picking but one of the fastest and easiest to grow is salad, especially baby leaves, herbs and cut and come again. This post is anecdotal but with, I hope, some practical advice on how I get my salad garden underway, starting with my balcony and raised beds.

flowering broad bean plants
Just beautiful! Autumn sown broad beans flowering in the veg patch this week.

This has been an extraordinary week, taking with one hand and giving with the other. We’re now confined to barracks (as my ex-military brother would say) but that loss of freedom has been tempered with a birthday (mine), a broken washing machine (alas, also mine), free plants, the start of the salad garden, a replacement washing machine and five days of good weather.  And that’s enough excitement for one week, thank you.

In a moment of super nerdy practicality, I’ve gathered up all my seeds and listed them in a spreadsheet on my iPad. I hope you’re impressed.  It makes me feel super organised as I can flip open my iPad rather than rummaging through my over stuffed seed box.

spreadsheet showing list of salad seeds

This has been a revelation as I can now place seeds in alphabetical order, both on ‘paper’ and in the box, and see any gaps at a glance. (So far, only aubergines and sweet corn seem to be missing - I’m better prepared than I thought!)  Once I’ve finished inputting all the ‘sow by’ dates, there will be no excuse for sowing too late. Theoretically.

Both my new Veg Trugs have now been built and filled. (Thank you to friends and my lovely son for help with that - the trugs can be built by one person but it’s easier and more fun with two.)  I used multi-purpose compost for these (the cheapest and nearest option as 420 litres were needed for each trug; that’s 9 x 50 litre bags or, put another way, a LOT.) Once filled, I had to soak the mix several times over to make sure it would hold some moisture for sowing. I've had better compost than this but, as they say, needs must.

Veg trugs in evening sunshine
And just in case all that newly laid compost proved too enticing for the local cat population, it was covered over with a layer of fleece.  This will stay in place to keep my seeds/seedlings warm once sown; very important as even in the mild London microclimate the nights are still chilly.

selection of seed packets for growing salads

So now for some fun! I want to grow a range of salad leaves in the trugs as they have the advantage of presenting a mountainous climb for adventuring molluscs.  I love that the V-shape of the trugs allows for deeper rooted plants in the middle.  I’m thinking carrots, coriander (the deep tap root is edible), tomatoes and basil (a good companion plant) in the centre with endive, lettuce, mustard frills, spinach and lambs lettuce on either side.  Perhaps also with some nasturtiums trailing prettily over the side. (Expect lots of photos as the weather gets warmer.)

Radishes can be sown, not too thickly, between the carrots as they’ll grow more quickly and can be pulled before the carrots mature. I’ve grown Amsterdam Sprint in the past as the early teeny-tiny carrots add a bit of fun to a plate of salad. Unless I’ve munched them on the walk home as they’re so delicious.

Lettuce, rocket, spinach, radish, carrots, spring onions, and lambs lettuce will all be sown outside this week; the less hardy plants - tomatoes, chillies, bell peppers - have been sown indoors into my new rubber module trays.  Filled with compost, watered well, two/three seeds to a cell, topped off with a little more compost, watered gently again, and then forgotten about until they germinate, when they’ll be moved to the windowsill until ready to pot on.

Am I late in doing this?  No.  The sun may have been shining but it's still early in the season with plenty of time to sow seeds and a very real chance of frosty nights to come.

Black rubber seed growing module trays

I’m slightly in love with these trays. I bought them from the UK-based Plastic Free Gardening website after seeing them on social media and liked that they’re made from sustainable rubber. Buying them supports Sri Lankan rubber plantations that would otherwise be turned over to the production of palm oil or beef production. (As we know, this is A Good Thing.) Charles Dowding has given them the thumbs up, (his testimonial is here, opens in new window); plus, they’re nice and squishy so it should be easy to remove the plug plants when they’re ready. And they’ll last far far longer than plastic module trays. In the past I’ve used both polystyrene and plastic trays and would carry on using them if they hadn’t already fallen apart so this feels like good timing to have found a better replacement. (And, no, I haven’t been paid to sing their praises.)

Meanwhile, on my tiny balcony, I’ve been sowing micro-leaves. This is just a fancy name for growing all sorts of leafy veg to pick as baby shoots; at that stage the leaves pack a punch, flavour wise. I have wooden seed trays that I bought years ago but any pot will do. I’ve used scavenged fruit boxes from the greengrocer and polystyrene fish boxes (with holes punched in the sides) before now or used washed plastic trays (the ones with drainage holes) from my recycling as they’re a perfect size for a kitchen windowsill.

Plastic trays don't need to be lined but, as my wooden trays have gaps at the bottom, to stop soil falling through I line my trays with a couple of sheets of newspaper before I add compost (seed or multi-purpose). Then I water  well and then let the compost drain through, gently sprinkle the seeds on top so they’re slightly spaced out (geographically not mentally), top with another light sprinkling of compost, and gently firm the soil. Within the week, shoots will show; in another fortnight or so, I’ll be picking tiny leaves to top my salad, add to couscous or other grains, or in a sandwich or omelette. Or nibbling the pickings as I step out onto the balcony to water my plants in the morning.

Perfect seeds for micro leaves are peas, salad leaves, rocket, mustard, pak choi, radish, basil, coriander, mizuna, kale ... I’m still experimenting but most seeds prove to be tasty. And in true Blue Peter style, here’s one I did earlier (two weeks ago). They're just beginning to sprout true leaves so with another week of mild, sunnyish weather, I'll be able to start picking.

Micro seed leaves in yellow tray of soil
This tray is from Elho and has a protective cover.  Very useful.

Until next time friends, stay well!

Caro x

25 Mar 2020

Chuffed as a weed #1

Green fresh leaves of sweet woodruff growing out of an old wall
Sweet Woodruff or Galium odoratum.
A useful and vigorous ground cover with scrambling stems that will root where they touch the soil
(or even push their way through the mortar of a brick wall) 

This time last year I was studying planting design on a course based in the Royal Botanic Gardens at Kew. There, I had the enormous pleasure of meeting Tony Kirkham, Kew’s Head of Arboretum, Gardens and Horticulture. Basically, he’s the tree man and his knowledge of, and boundless enthusiasm for, trees has earned him a worldwide reputation, the VMH and, earlier this year, a well-deserved MBE.  You might be more familiar with the name if you watched 'My Passion for Trees', Judi Dench's 2012 tv series where Tony introduced Judi to his favourite tree, a 1500 year old yew tree in a Surrey churchyard. (You Tube clip here.) To my mind, I will always think of him as one of the nicest, funniest and friendliest people I’ve met.

But I digress. This post is about weeds, not trees, and I mention Tony here because he used a phrase that has stuck with me ever since. Describing his reaction to a bit of luck that came his way on a tree buying trip, he said “Eeh, I was chuffed as a weed.”  Tony is Lancashire born; is this a saying used up North?  I’d never heard it before but, oh my goodness, it makes so much sense when you think about it.

I was brought up on ‘Bill and Ben, the Flowerpot Men’ with their pal, Little Weeeeed, so it puts a big smile on my face to think of a tiny plant seed finding a nice crack in the pavement and thinking, “ooh yes, now this looks like the perfect spot to settle in. I'm well chuffed.” Of course, they don’t.  (I’m not that silly!) But weeds are plants that have developed the resilience to thrive in some fairly inhospitable environments -  or, more usually, in the soil among your prize petunias where they’ll take more than their fair share of available nutrients.  Survival of the fittest, horticulture style.

Now I'm not suggesting that we leave all our weeds to flourish but some deserve to be left alone. And as we’re all concentrating on surviving the virus raging across the world (and that’s the only reference I’ll be making to it), I thought I’d cheer up future Wednesdays with a mid-week look at some of the plants that have brought a moment of wonder and beauty into my world.  Chuffed as a weed, indeed!

Stay safe, everyone x

16 Mar 2020

Bursting into life

Bumblebee foraging on purple pansy
Good things in small packages - sitting in the sun this morning, watching this bumblebee forage.

This past week the garden has been a welcome relief from all the doom and gloom of the coronavirus outbreak (currently 22 cases in my home borough of Camden). It’s been really heartening to see plants bursting into life, a good distraction from the scary turmoil in the outside world.

The gardens that I look after here have always provided a place of peace, calm and sanctuary for me - yes, even with slugs, aphids, and foxes - and I’m grateful that I’m able to work outside in the fresh air, listen to birdsong, watch plants grow and think about the seasons ahead. (Especially important as I live in a second floor flat and am otherwise surrounded by bricks, mortar and concrete. Urban living!)

It also feels very relevant to have a space to grow food in these uncertain times and the weather feels warm enough to start sowing.  I’ve started several more trays of micro leaves - lettuce, herbs, salad leaves - on my balcony and this week will sow tomatoes and chillies indoors plus peas, carrots, spinach and more broad beans outside.

Broad beans starting to show white flowers

Speaking of broad beans, the plants that I sowed into modules last November and planted out in December are now flowering! Having never overwintered broad beans before, I don’t know if this is unusual or early thanks to a mild winter, but it’s pretty thrilling. Such are the simple things that please me.

Looking down onto the sprouting centre of purple sprouting broccoli
Ridiculously excited at the sight of those purple buds

A neighbour kindly gave me a couple of brassicas last summer. Unsure of exactly what they were, I thought they would look pretty among the perennials in the car park garden. Turns out that they’re Purple Sprouting Broccoli - quite small as they were probably in modules for too long, but they’re definitely sprouting.

Early white blossom on plum tree
The plum trees are the first to blossom, but the pears are not far behind

As is the blossom on the plum tree.  I noticed this fragile flower as I wandered the garden in a fairly forceful wind; I don’t reckon its chances much but at least there will be more blossom to follow, this time I hope in sunshine. The weather this week looks very promising. (And bumblebees are foraging, see top photo taken this morning. That bee eventually buzzed off towards the plum blossom.)

Paved cul-de-sac after being tidied
It doesn't look much now but watch this space!
And, finally, some good/bad/good news.  Last weekend I cleaned up an unused south facing paved space thinking it would be perfect for growing sun loving veg. The next day I spotted several empty but used Veg Trugs outside a closed down day care centre and was given permission by the owners to take them for my new space.  Hurrah! I thought. But the following day someone had stolen the best ones, leaving only those that had seen much better days. I won’t repeat what I said at the time, suffice to say that my faith in human nature plummeted.

But, undeterred, as is my nature, I contacted Veg Trug. They had already very kindly offered to donate new liners for the abandoned trugs - I explained what had happened and asked whether they would let me have a discount on buying a couple of new Veg Trugs? (I babysit to fund the gardens here.) Within the hour, the answer was yes. And, sometime today, two beautiful new Veg Trugs will be delivered for my new community space.

But that’s not all.  Friends went to collect the remaining old Veg Trugs and their carpenter son has said he’ll replace and rebuild the trugs for me. This is why I love living where I do, the community here can be so supportive and kind. Two very important traits in today’s world.

I hope that story has left you all with some optimism for the times we live in. Safe to say that during this virus pandemic, I am concerned about my family and friends, particularly as they're so far away. So I'm wishing you all good health, staying safe and virus free; remember to wash your hands, take vitamin C, think of the people around you and grow some greens, even if that's just pea shoots in a pot on your doorstep or balcony.

Caro xx

4 Mar 2020

Rhubarb, rhubarb, Let's talk

A neighbour’s rhubarb plant in mid February.  It’s going to get a lot bigger...

Growing rhubarb is easy, you say? A few years ago, I would have agreed, having grown an enormous Glaskins Perpetual from seed.  That plant has now gone, dug up with misplaced confidence that the other two Champagne rhubarb plants would more than suffice - umm, once they got going.

As if to thwart me, those two have never flourished. A handful of tantalising petite red stems appear in February ... and then, every year, it’s game over.  The stems wilt before they get big enough to make a decent compote ... or fruit fool ... or crumble. Or the crowns run to seed with, I have to admit, rather magnificent flower stalks.

I think I know what the problem is.

I trusted the advice that I’d read in some random internet space that rhubarb plants are happy to grow in light shade and so, foolishly, planted the Champagne crowns in the spaces next to my apple and cherry trees. With hindsight, the source of their struggles should have been obvious. They have to compete with the trees for water (I have mentioned the lack of a tap in this area, haven’t I?) and, I dare say, the trees are hogging any goodness that may linger in the soil. Plus, shade.

Time for a change.

At least one of these plants will be moved into the light.  A nice sunny spot in the veg patch with rich earth awaits. Or will do once I can get into the garden, weather permitting.

Meanwhile, I have permission to pick from a neighbour’s plant - the gorgeous beast in the top photo. Every year it produces a wealth of vibrantly red delicious stems, a few of which find their way into my kitchen.  I had the first poached stems of many a couple of weeks ago; they were yummy.

Pink rhubarb stems with their leaves on a bench

So, here’s little tip for poaching rhubarb.  Instead of using sugar to sweeten the stems, use a sweet jelly such as redcurrant (or other fruit).  I used some of the quince jelly I made last autumn and finished the compote with some pieces of stem ginger and some of the liquid from the jar.  It was very very good - not least for being my first harvest this year. Isn’t gardening just wonderful!

2 Mar 2020

A visit from the Marmalade Cat

I'm not a keeper of cats although they do seem to show up regularly in my life. Many of the local households in this small corner of Camden Borough are home to a number of cats, many of whom patrol the grounds of the flats where I live.  I like to think of them as Top Cat and The Gang. (Remember them? Sixties cartoon hilarity from Hanna-Barbera.)

And the Top Cat in this little gang is definitely the marmalade cat in the above photo.  But there’s also a black/white Piebald (there used to be two, one of which was aptly named 'Bubbles'), one Calico cat (black, white, ginger), a tabby and two black cats with white socks and chest - shall we call them Tuxedo cats?   But it was Lady Marmalade who availed herself of a patch of sheltered sunshine in the garden. (Cats, like people, love to soak up the warmth of a sunny spot.)

I happened to glance out of my second floor window as she sat, eyes closed and face lifted towards the warm sunshine; I have a sneaking regard for this very aloof cat, she reminds me of my grandmother's beloved elderly ginger tom; he was a cat who spent most of his days sleeping, often on the chair outside her kitchen door. And, because my siblings and I were still very young, the temptation to stroke him was ever present. This, of course, was forbidden as much for our sakes as his - he was a cat who did not like to be fussed over. Except by Gran, of course.

Meanwhile, back in the garden, I watched Lady Marmalade move towards the spring border with intent. She slid gracefully around the silver birch and carefully hoofed it through the hellebores. But then a lifted paw started to explore the soil; she'd found the very (freshly dug) spot where I'd recently transplanted a dormant peony. To make matters worse, this area in the spring border is full of snowdrops and awaiting the imminent arrival of crocuses. Aarrgh!

I raced downstairs hoping to head off a potential disaster but, thankfully, all was well - sort of. The area had already been claimed by foxes (need I say more?), no further damage was done, and my feline friend sauntered slowly off the spot to sit facing away from me next to the watering can before slipping out through a gap under the privet hedge.

So now I know where to reinforce the fence, although I’m becoming accustomed to the idea that the local Top Cat gang are enjoying their visits to the garden.  I’m planning on growing Cat Grass and Nepeta, aka Catnip, this summer - I’m hoping it will keep them out of the flower borders where their presents of buried treasure are somewhat less than welcome!

By the way .... I actively discourage cats from exploring the veg patch garden by using a makeshift netting fence to barricade the plot. I arrived at this solution after years of frustration at finding cat poo hidden close to my root veg. That was seriously unpleasant and I learned that all gardeners need to be aware of the health risks cat poo can pose to children and other vulnerable people. Best to shift it as soon as possible; I carry a poo bag in my gardening tool bag.

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