Mucky work

There has been a pungent smell in the air of late as I’ve been walking alongside fields of pasture.  The farmers are clearly telling me that it is time to get mucky.  It is time to actually use some of the compost and manure that I spent last year preparing.  It is also gorgeous weather for getting out in the garden.  Rather too gorgeous for the time of year.  Whilst I’m enjoying it, I am supressing a sense of unease.  Spreading compost is one way to alleviate this.  It is good for me, in that the exercise and fresh air that it entails is good for managing anxiety.  And it is good for the garden, because it improves soil structure by adding compost, and keeps the soil covered by mulching with manure.  These are two of the most important things that you can do to make your garden more resilient to climate change, according to Kim Stoddart’s article The Extreme Gardener in the Autumn/Winter 2018 Garden Organic magazine.

green compost bag shrunk

Home made compost stored in bag

The first thing that I saw when I unfolded the top of the green canvas bag in which my homemade compost is stored was a purple crocus protruding out of the compost, in full flower.  The first job, then, was to find a more suitable home for the enterprising little corm.  I hope it may be happier in the Spring border, although I have to say, it was doing splendidly in its compost bag.

Home made compost

Home made compost

I picked out some of the twiggier material from my compost and used it to mulch my path at the back.  Then I shovelled compost into a trug and trotted round the garden, patting handfuls in place around my perennial edibles.  I am prioritising the perennials, as they need the sustenance and protection, and are the best bet for a climate change resilient garden says Kim Stoddart.  She explains that these plants get their roots right down into the subsoil to find water and nutrients, and have evolved to last longer and therefore have greater resilience.

Perennial edibles mulched with compost and manure, protected against cats

Perennial edibles mulched with compost and manure

Next, I delved into Bob Bin.  The manure was lovely and buttery, soft and malleable and teeming with worm life.  There was no smell (unlike the farmers’ pastures) and it was frankly a pleasure to work with.

Manure composted in Bob bin

Manure composted in Bob bin

I used it to mulch over the compost that I’d just spread, patting it down firmly. Sadly, this won’t discourage the blackbirds who love to dig in it for the worms, chucking clumps of manure out onto the surrounding paths. It doesn’t discourage cats either. As you will notice from the photos, I’m working on that one.

It was also a good opportunity to take stock of the garden.  I moved some garlic chives which had been a little bit jammed in last year.  I mulched them in, and hopefully they will reward me with big juicy clumps of garlicky leaves to munch.  More pungent smells.

Garlic chives mulched with compost and manure

Garlic chives mulched with compost and manure

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Greenhouse – a year on

It was around this time last year that our new greenhouse arrived.  Now that we’ve come a full year’s cycle, I’ve been thinking about what’s worked and what hasn’t.  I wanted a greenhouse for two reasons: (i) to safely raise perennial and annual plants from seed (so I can be sure that no chemicals or pesticides have been used); and (ii) to provide an all year round productive space.

For the first half of the year, the greenhouse did a really good job of safely raising seedlings.  I managed to grow a good range of perennial plants, including sea beet, Caucasian spinach, good king henry, kale, garlic chives, wild rocket, and lovage.

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

Seedlings in greenhouse Summer 2018

I grew annuals including tomatoes, salad greens, kale, French marigolds, snapdragons, basil, parsley, and more.

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

Plants in greenhouse Summer 2018

I was determined to use peat-free compost.  Finding a good one isn’t easy, but I used Sylvagrow with added John Innes, and it performed well.  It isn’t available locally, so I had it delivered from an online supplier.  This obviously bumps up the cost quite a bit,  so I just used it for seed sowing and raising seedlings.  For my salad troughs, which require a lot more compost, I used veggie soil from a local supplier.  It is peat free and cheap, but isn’t actually a potting compost.

As the year went on, I started to encounter problems.  The first was the number of plastic compost bags which I ended up accruing.  I don’t throw them away as I prefer to reuse things rather than ‘landfill’ them (especially plastic).  But there is a limit to how many empty compost bags I can actually use.  So I need to find a growing medium that doesn’t proliferate plastic bags.  The only way that I can think of to do this is by making my own.

The second problem was that a load of compost fly arrived with the veggie soil.  Compost fly are not a nuisance for mature plants, but unfortunately their little grubs feast on seedling roots.  Once the compost fly arrived, the seedlings stopped growing.

A third problem, which is related to the relatively dark situation of the greenhouse as well as my ineptitude in keeping things too damp, was the arrival of powdery mildew.  This particularly liked the chard and kale baby leaves.

For this year, then, my objectives are to learn: (i) how to make my own greenhouse growing medium; (ii) how to manage pests in the greenhouse – specifically compost fly and powdery mildew.  The eagle-eyed amongst you will have spotted a problem here.  If I’m putting the compost fly and mildew back into the compost (erm – yes, I am), then my home-made compost will not be a pest free growing medium for the greenhouse.  I’ve already had a go at making potting medium from home made compost, leaf mould, sand, blood fish and bone, and garden soil.  I can see from the arrival of enthusiastic volunteer seedlings that I don’t kill the seeds in my compost.  I also found a slug under a pot.  That explains the vanishing remains of seedlings that were already struggling.

In summary, the problems that I face if I use my own growing medium include slugs, seeds, compost fly, and powdery mildew.

Things that I intend to try to address these problems are:-

  1. Turn my compost every month to heat it up and kill the seeds.  This is a pity, because I actually delight in ‘volunteers’ in the garden.  An alternative is to create the compost and pot it up, let the seedlings grow, and ‘hoe’ them off before sowing the stuff I actually intended to grow.    
  2. Check under pots for slugs regularly.  Put down something they might love to hide under, and check that regularly.  Put ‘bait’ in there, such as a large cabbage leaf.
  3. Grow the things that aren’t susceptible to powdery mildew, such as oriental greens.
  4. Don’t overwater in winter, don’t underwater in summer, and don’t water foliage.
  5. Clean greenhouse and pots thoroughly to remove mould spores.
  6. Try biological control for compost fly, including carnivorous plants.
  7. Try sowing seed into leaf mould (do compost fly lay eggs in leaf mould?)

I’m learning the hard way that a greenhouse is a micro-environment which is more susceptible to pests and diseases, as it is a closed system rather than an open eco-system.  There are  fewer natural predators, and the air and sun can’t get at the plants freely.  Trying to manage without commercial potting compost, and particularly without peat-free compost, makes a difficult task even more tricky.  But that is no reason not to try.

Groundings 3 – Bob Bin

This year I bought a third black dalek compost bin.  You see, a girl can’t have too many compost bins.  This one I have christened Bob, because he’s for horse manure.  I’ve been making my own compost for years, but things don’t grow spectacularly and I think it is because I need to improve soil fertility.  So earlier this year we stuck a notice on Facebook asking for well rotted manure.  An obliging horse owner replied and said he had bags of the stuff.  Fifteen bags.  I had a lovely afternoon spreading manure on the beds to celebrate passing my PhD viva.  Only it was still a little bit – well, smelly.  I’m sure the plants didn’t mind too much (I can’t say the same for the neighbours) but ideally it would be a bit better rotted.  So I looked up how to compost horse manure, and found this detailed article.  In essence (lots of essence) you layer up horse manure with carbon rich material such as leaves and paper.

I was getting behind on my admin, so this gave me a reason to get lots of shredding done.  I was destroying old financial papers.  Making compost with them is a satisfying redefinition of ‘value’.  My neighbours gave me sacks of shredded leaves.  Mr Horse Owner donated ten more bags of the brown stuff.  Everyone was delighted to be giving me what is otherwise a ‘problem’ for them to dispose of.  And then Bob the Bin arrived.  My stage was set.

Manure compost bin

Manure compost bin

I lay sheets of thick cardboard at ground level, then alternated layers of manure, leaves, and shredded paper.  The above article says to turn the heap often, so I’m due to get out there this week, give it all a good mix up, and see how its doing.  The idea is to keep it hot.  When it stops getting hot, it is done.  So there’s a job to keep me warm this winter.

Groundings 2 – Leaf mould

I’ve been trying to make leaf mould for years.  I used to shove the leaves into black plastic sacks and punch holes in the bags.   A year or two later, I opened the bag hopefully, and found … leaves.  Only one of my leaf bags actually turned into leaf mould.  This was disappointing, because the one thing that we have literally bags of is leaves.

Leafy lawn

Leafy lawn

Our garden sits beneath a retaining wall, and on top of that are mature trees:

Mature beech trees above back garden

Mature beech trees above back garden

So we have a plentiful soil improvement resource right on our back doorstep.  Where the leaves fall on the beds, I let them be.  Perfect mulch, nature’s own way.  Where they fall on the ‘path’ at the back, they are also allowed to stay.  They break down slowly, providing a walking surface over the winter, just like a woodland path.  The leaves on the lawn and on the paving get swept into piles and then sucked and munched with the leaf vacuum.  Sweeping first means the vacuuming takes no time, and uses less electricity.  Munched leaves break down much more easily, especially as our leaves are mostly beech which breaks down very slowly.

The leaf mould breakthrough came when we made a proper bin (in the middle-front of the top picture).  It is ridiculously simple – just some wire mesh in a circle, held up by garden canes and fastened with wire.  We built this bin a year or two ago, and this year we dug out three good-sized compost bags of lovely crumbly leaf mould.  (I never throw away a compost bag.  You would not believe how many compost bags I have.)   Having emptied the bin, I started filling it again.

Leaf mould makes a great peat substitute for homemade compost, which I’ve been making for the first time this year.  I’ll write about this some other time.  I’ll also write about my other use for leaves in my third (yes, third) black dalek compost bin.  My brilliant neighbours also deposit bags of their leaves over the fence for me, and I am taking it as a personal challenge to use all the leaves from both gardens.  Leaf no waste.

Groundings 1 – growing the soil

This year I have been going to ground.  I have been paying attention to soil.  I ask for a lot from my garden, and I can’t keep taking, taking, taking.  I have to give back.  So this year’s focus has been compost.  Over the year, I’ve developed a closed system – using everything in the immediate vicinity that I can use to bulk up and nourish the soil.  This requires space.  Below is my composting area, near the back of the house in a North-facing space where there is little light.  It is not a productive growing area.  It’s handy to access because it is right in front of the back door where we exit from the kitchen.

Compost area

Compost area

I have two ‘dalek’ bins from the council.  We use the one nearest to the back door as our current bin to empty kitchen scraps and to collect garden ‘waste’.  The second bin (by the fence) is my ‘turning’ bin.  This is where the compost breaks down.  Every couple of months, I empty the contents of the turning bin into one of the big green bags on the floor.  The bin is then empty, ready for me to turn the compost into from our current bin.  Wearing a big pair of red rubber workmans’ gloves, I lift the whole bin off the heap out of the way and scoop the pile of contents with my hands into the turning bin.  This is more gentle on the worms than using a spade or fork.  I can break up clumps and crush eggshells with my hands.  It is messy and slimy, wiggly and wonderful.  If it gets a bit too wet, I add shredded paper.  If it is too dry, I add a layer of grass clippings.  I can’t get enough of grass clippings.  The black bin liner which is shoved through the fence is for my neighbours.  They happily donate their grass clippings, which I find dumped over our fence in the bin liner.  I empty it and give them the liner back.  They love this, because it saves them a trip to the tip.  I love it, because it gives me nutritious biomass and compost activator for my heaps.  The soil loves it too.  Everybody is happy.

Kale – Pentland Brigg

Despite the current unseasonably mild weather in the UK, we have had our first frosts.  And that means it is time to harvest the kale.  This year, I’ve tried Pentland Brigg which is a short-lived perennial kale.  I got the seed from Pennard Plants, and germination was excellent.  I grew seedlings to a good size in the new greenhouse before planting out.  They were generally trouble-free.

pentland brigg seedling good shrunk

Pentland Brigg kale seedling

The plants grew well, and have become quite substantial specimens.  They are attractive, with curly edges to the leaves once they get going.

Pentland Brigg kale

Pentland Brigg kale

Mine definitely prefer good light.  The picture above is from the front garden, where they’ve done well.  They are somewhat smaller at the back, where light is more limited.  They are managing to grow though, so are an option for a shadier space.

I’ve found that the younger leaves are more tender and tasty (no surprises there) and the plants soon put on new growth.  And yes, it is absolutely true that kale is sweeter after the first frosts.  This is a lovely tasting kale, delicious stir-fried with garlic.  I hope it isn’t too short-lived a perennial, as it is certainly earning its place in my garden.

Hablitzia Tamnoides – Caucasian Spinach

I first heard of Hablitzia Tamnoides (or Caucasian Spinach) when I was searching for perennial salads.  These perennial climbers produce leaves that can be used young in salads, or the larger older leaves can be cooked like spinach.  I ordered seed from Incredible Vegetables, and they arrived with a comprehensive guide explaining how to grow them.  Mandy from Incredible Vegetables was also very helpful.  I followed her guidance, sowed some seed, and put it outside in the Autumn of 2017, as the seed needs a cold period to germinate.  However, it seemed that my seed couldn’t wait to get started, as it made an eager appearance soon after sowing.  This left me with the challenge of how to support the young seedlings through the winter, given that I didn’t have a greenhouse at the time.  I covered them with horticultural fleece and kept them close by, and they survived even the Siberian winter storm that we had in early 2018.  Eager, hardy little souls they were.  I was delighted with them.  Once I got my greenhouse early this year, I sowed some more, and this time they got the fridge stratification treatment.  I sowed them into pots, put them in the fridge for a few days, and then put them in the greenhouse.  Once again, they germinated promptly.  Here they are as young seedlings:

Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

Hablitzia Tamnoides seedlings

I planted out the ones that had managed to overwinter, along with some Claytonia miner’s lettuce that appeared out of nowhere (I had once grown it, so I guess there were seeds around):

Hablitzia Tamnoides young plants

Hablitzia Tamnoides young plants

These grew up happily, encouraged to climb a trellis against the back wall.  This is underneath a canopy of mature trees behind us, so is in a very shady position.  Hablitzia does seem to be happiest in shade in my garden:

Hablitzia Tamnoides growing on trellis

Hablitzia Tamnoides growing on trellis

It does have an interesting colour variation, in that it grows much paler when it is in sunlight.  The plants below have been grown up a wigwam of canes, and the front plants are in the sun whilst shading the plants behind them.  You can see that the front plants are a zesty lime-green, whilst the plants behind are darker.  The lime green makes a wonderful contrast with the verbena bonariensis next to it:

Hablitzia Tamnoides on wigwam

Hablitzia Tamnoides on wigwam

I’ve not taken much from the plants in this, their first year, but I have had a few of the smaller leaves in salads, and I harvested some of the larger leaves for cooking:

Hablitzia Tamnoides leaf harvested

Hablitzia Tamnoides leaf harvested

The leaves were wilted for 2-3 minutes in boiling water.  The texture is not as ‘limp’ as spinach, but has more ‘mouthfeel’ which is rather pleasant.  I mixed them with red veined sorrel for additional flavour, but I’d be quite happy just eating the Hablitzia on their own.  They have a spinach-like flavour, a more chewy texture, and don’t wilt down as much.  On the whole, I’m really happy with this addition to my edible perennial vegetables, and they seem to grow very happily indeed in West Yorkshire.  Happy days.