Flowers in December

A picture post today. These photos were taken on 5th December this year in the front garden.

Tree cabbage (I've only just taken these flower heads off to keep the plant producing leaves)
Tree cabbage (I’ve only just taken these flower heads off to keep the plant producing leaves)

Borage
Borage
Wild Strawberry
Wild Strawberry
Red Clover
Red Clover
Kaffir Lily
Kaffir Lily

And finally, some annual leeks that have ‘naturalised’ in the middle of the Golden Oregano.

Self sown leeks next to Calendula
Self sown leeks next to Calendula

Frost hardy chicory

In my last post I wrote about chicory.  This led to some discussion with SilverBells as to its winter hardiness in the UK.  Since then, we’ve had a hard frost followed by a day of sunshine.  I took these photos following that frost.

Red ribbed dandelion Chicory

This is red ribbed dandelion, a type of cultivated chicory.  These plants came from a bag of mixed Italian salad seeds.  I ate the other salads, but pricked out these seedlings and grew them on.

Wild Chicory in December

And this is one of the Wild Chicory plants, thriving despite the low temperatures. 

So far, these plants are looking pretty Winter hardy. 

By the way, you can eat dandelion leaves in the same way as chicory, just soaking in salt water and then boiling for a few minutes.  Good old dandelions.

Winter greens – Wild Chicory

Wild Chicory is a plant with leaves that look rather like dandelion, but that surprises you with beautiful spikes of blue flowers all through the Summer and into Autumn. Bees adore it.

Wild Chicory in July
Wild Chicory in July 2020

I obtained my seeds from Bee Happy Plants, courtesy of a gift voucher from my lovely sister-in-law.

Over the last weekend in November this year, I cut down some of the remaining flower spikes that still had plenty of leaves on. The great thing about this plant is that you can also eat it. It is bitter, but this can be alleviated. I added a teaspoon of salt to cold water in a trug, and popped the leaves in to soak for a few hours. This keeps them fresh until we are ready to use them, and the salt draws out some of the bitterness.

Then the cook of our household (not me; I’m the gardener) boiled them for a few minutes until they were tender and wilted. He then sautéed them in butter which also adds some sweetness to counteract the residual bitterness. I think they could also be dressed with olive oil and lemon, and we may try this next time. They have a slight bitter flavour which very quickly fades away.

As mineral accumulator, chicory is full of nutrients and therefore a valuable winter green when you are running out of other crops (as I am now, having harvested something green practically every day for the whole year).

But the best thing about all this was that deadheading became dinner. Waste not, want not.

Leaves aplenty

Last chance to collect leaves for next year’s leaf mould! This is the new leaf mould bin on the plot, made from some wire grids that were wombled and passed onto me by the previous boatman on the adjacent canal side mooring.

Leaf mould bin

The garlic leaves are well on their way up now, and the sea beet is finally growing leafy. It clearly appreciates the deeper soil that it gets here, compared with the shallow bed it was in at home in the garden.

Garlic and Sea Beet

The salad leaves are growing well underneath their simple protection of a fleecy blanket held down with stones. There is also chickweed growing in the gaps between the planks, which I love because it adds visual interest and it is also edible.

Horticultural fleece, and chickweed growing in edges

trust and the forest gardener — gardens of delight

To trust is to feel confident and able to depend on someone or something (my definition).  And control is a clear marker of the loss of trust.  Forest gardening hinges on the forest gardener learning to trust and giving up control.   “The forest garden needs to have the forest gardener’s trust.” To give some idea […]

trust and the forest gardener — gardens of delight

This post from Anni explains a principle of forest gardening that I am patiently trying to cultivate – trust. Don’t panic, but watch, wait, observe and learn.

First harvest from the plot

Yesterday I picked the first leafy harvest for our dinner. The lettuce seedlings, which were given to me by the neighbouring narrowboat resident when he left the mooring, had grown enough to take a few leaves for eating. They are crisp and firm, and likely to overwinter well I think. I also harvested several leaves of the wonderful, fast growing giant red mustard. Those are the red-veined leaves that you can see in the picture. They are also winter hardy.

It is good to come full circle, from building the plot to taking the first harvest.

Salad leaves

Mindfulness on the plot

At its heart, forest gardening is about creating an edible productive ecosystem which encourages wildlife*. This principle requires a change of mindset from traditional gardening. As Anni Kelsey puts it in The Garden of Equal Delights, a forest garden is a different type of garden, and it requires a different type of gardener. She describes how it requires patient watching and waiting to learn about the garden as an ecosystem, to see who and what arrives there, and to notice what parts each plant or creature are playing.  I am learning to pay attention, developing a mindful awareness of the space and a willingness to learn from it rather than quickly moving to control it.

Grass and chickweed with kale seedlings
Grass and chickweed with kale seedlings

This week I’ve been sitting beside the boxes, patiently weeding out grass. As Jake says on his forest gardening course, grass will take over everything if you let it. The soil that we filled the boxes with clearly had a lot of grass seed in it. While the plot is in its infancy, I need to intervene and remove the grass to protect the edible plants while they get established. Once they are big enough, I can protect bare soil with mulch. But for now, I’m sitting there pulling out tiny grass seedlings. It is a pleasant task, with the robin twittering at me.  A fellow plot holder passed by and said that it looked like I was practising mindfulness. And indeed he had a point. It is a quiet, absorbing, mindful activity which is strangely soothing.

Weeded
Weeded

The badgers are still visiting regularly, evidenced by the digging that is visible on the paths. I’ve been thinking of these creatures, wondering if they will dig in the raised beds, apprehensive of how destructive they might be. Mindfulness, as I understand it, is about paying attention, noticing things without judging them, and learning to accept things just as they are for now.  Noticing my thoughts, I realise I’m fighting the badgers.  Yet I want to welcome and accept them, just as they are.

In the rainy days that have followed my bout of weeding, my thoughts have been morphing.  My plans have been changing.  I have come to a decision, which is simply not to grow things that badgers like to eat.  Since I made that decision, I’ve realised that it frees me up to grow more of the things that we like to eat, the leafy greens that I never seem to have enough of.  It might be boring to grow spinach and its perennial substitutes, but we eat a lot of it.  And, as far as I know, badgers don’t go wild for spinach.  They probably won’t raid the boxes simply for worms – unless they are very hungry.  The boxes will take energy to climb or jump.  This would be worth their while if they can smell sweet roots, but not if it’s just more boring old leaves. 

By growing leafy vegetables at the plot, I can free up space in my home garden to grow some roots.  This would increase diversity in my garden.  The plans have now fallen nicely into place, and I am no longer badgered by doubts.

* For more information, see Forest Garden Wales

Sowing the seeds

This week I’ve been making my final sowings of the year. I’ve sown two rows of broad beans in each of these two beds below. The furthest bed will be for harvesting, and I will sow more rows in the Spring for successional crops. The nearer bed will probably be cut down before harvest as a green manure. I didn’t have field beans which are traditionally used for cover crops, but I do have plenty broad beans. I can get a small harvest from the plants before I chop them down by nipping off the growing shoots and stir frying them.

The ‘cloches’ were inherited from the adjacent canal boat mooring, and are shop fittings rescued from a skip by the boat owner. They make a handy cloche ‘nursery’ to protect the bean seeds until they have emerged. Otherwise they may be dug up and eaten, as unlike my garden, the plot is not visited every day by humans. This makes it easy pickings for wildlife.

Beds with cloches, new planting tub

You can also see in this photo a large tub planter which I’ve moved from my garden to the end of the plot. It should be deep enough to grow one oca and some sweet peas, and I can still get around the sides to access the back of the beds. In the foreground, one of the sea beet plants is looking encouragingly leafy, so I have some hope that the plants may produce more leaves from these deep beds.

I have also sown some bulbils of Babington’s Leek to keep the Skirret (wild carrot) company when they arrive.

So for now, everything is sown and planted. The next job is to painstakingly weed out the hundreds of little grass seedlings. I’ve been hoeing, but of course they just root back into the soil. But to protect the plants that I want, I must remove them as grass is a hungry and invasive crop. I want to grow vegetables, not graze sheep. Wish me plenty of patience.

Protecting the plot – or not

As you’ll know if you’ve been reading this blog, I’ve been following Forest Garden Wales’ course on designing a backyard forest garden. The latest section that I’ve been working through looks at protection – for example, from wind, cold, and predators. Jake, who takes an ecosystems view, points out that this includes protecting the wildlife that are interdependent with the garden. A simple log pile and a bee house are now on my wish list.

Our plot is already well sheltered from wind by natural hedgerows and trees. During a recent cold snap, I protected the beds using the simple expedient of draping horticultural fleece loosely over the top. I’m delighted that underneath this blanket, seedlings have germinated and are now standing proudly in their rows.

Seedlings (various mustard and cress)

Thinking about protection from predators, I had already spotted a squirrel digging in someone else’s raised beds, and I took the precaution of protecting the young pignut plant with a couple of pieces of firm mesh (not netting, as wildlife get tangled up in it).

Pignut protected by wire mesh

Then last week, when we went to visit the plot, we saw this:

Somebody has been digging

Pretty substantial digging.

Detail of holes made by something digging

What immediately sprang to mind was

Badgers warning sign

If it is indeed badgers who did the digging, do they like root crops? Of course they do, says Google. I did a bit more research, and read about chain link fences sunk several feet into the ground, before I remembered that there is no point getting into a fight. I love wildlife, and if we have badgers, then that is a privilege and the plot needs to be designed with them in mind. As Anni Kelsey says in her beautiful book The Garden of Equal Delights, it is time that we learned to welcome the wild into our gardens. If we give up persecuting, fighting and controlling them, they become welcome participants in our forest garden system, playing useful roles that we might not immediately recognise. So instead of fighting them, I’m going to learn as much as I can about them.

An immediate piece of useful advice came from an allotment forum, where one grower suggested planting onions with root crops to mask the smell. So a very simple change that I can make to my plans is to grow the onion crops around the edges, and put the roots in the centre. I’ll give this a go, and if we end up with badgers rootling through our boxes, then I’ll just grow greens on the plot and roots in the garden. Either way, the badgers are welcome. They are doing a pretty good job of digging up the bindweed and couch grass roots for a start. This may help me to establish more diverse vegetation in my meadow-paths. So, on the whole, I’m rooting for them.

Plants for the plot

As soon as I knew I may be having an allotment plot, I started to dream about what I would grow there. Initially, prompted by fears of food shortages during the COVID19 lockdown, I planned to grow potatoes and onions. I looked up growing instructions and spacing requirements, and found that with six one metre raised beds, I couldn’t grow many of them. Maybe enough for a week’s worth of meals. So I started to think differently, and instead decided to use the plot to continue my experimentation with growing perennial food crops which are also good for wildlife. Jake’s Forest Gardening course and the allotment both entered my life in the same week, which was a clear shove in that direction. Jake sums up the forest garden design philosophy as ‘growing edible crops with nature’, which is certainly singing my song.

Cricket

With that in mind, here is my wish list of plants. A key question that I’ve considered in selecting these is ‘what does the plot give me that my garden doesn’t’? Another is ‘what is their role in the local ecosystem?’

Broad beans – because I like them, and don’t have room for them in my garden. They are good for the soil, as they fix nitrogen in their roots, and the tops will add biomass when they have finished cropping. The flowers are good for nectar, and smell good too (remember those sewerage works). I’ve chosen ‘The Sutton’ dwarf variety as it is smaller and more suitable for the boxes.

Oca – this is something of an experiment, given that it isn’t frost hardy. I don’t yet know how sheltered the plot will be in winter. I want to try it because it provides a blight free carbohydrate, it is something new to eat and can’t be bought in the shops. It also provides ground cover. It is my alternative to growing potatoes. It will need protection from frost.

Skirret – or wild carrot. This will provide flowers for insects, and carbohydrate from the sugary root. It is a native wild plant. It will benefit from the deep beds of loose, friable soil, and from the aspect in full sun.

Bunching onion – a companion for the skirret. I plan to grow it as a perennial, harvesting only the tops. It will provide us with a spring onion replacement.

Scorzonera – another root to try, and definitely an experiment.

Blackcurrant, strawberries, calendula

Blackcurrant – I want to see if this will grow better in a deep bed in full sun. I have one in my garden which doesn’t thrive, but it is in shallow soil and part-shade. I love big juicy blackcurrants! Insects seem to like the flowers too.

Strawberries – to provide ground cover for the blackcurrant, and another plant that doesn’t do well in my garden.

Pignut, Welsh Onion, Sea Beet and garlic (just planted)

Pignut – a native wildplant which may provide tubers for us (if I can find them) and flowers for insects. You can also eat the foliage, and it provides ground cover.

Welsh Onion – flowers are good for insects, companion for Pignut, there wasn’t room for them in my garden where I have multiple clumps, and I want to try harvesting the bulbs.

Sea beet – this doesn’t grow leafy in my garden, so I’d like to see if it grows better in the plot. It grows tall and will cast shade so I’ve put it at the back of the bed.

Garlic – which I will grow for the greens, rather than the bulbs. Another experiment.

Other roots on my list are chervil root, hamberg parsley, and plain old parsnip. These would be grown annually.

Wildflowers: Horseradish, Redshank, Chamomile, Borage

I also have a wish list for companion plants for wildlife, to be grown in pots or encouraged into the ground. I already have (I think) polygonum persicaria (Redshank), horse radish, chamomile and borage. I’ll add more chamomile and borage to encourage them to proliferate (as if they need encouragement). Other plants to grow include calendula, nasturtium (which can tumble down the sides of the boxes), sweet peas (which can grow up them), wild thyme (which can scramble around their feet), and foxglove.

That concludes my wish list. This may need some refinement, given the evidence that I’ve seen recently of a wild visitor to the plot who may uproot my plans. All will be revealed in my next post.