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.

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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.

The greenhouse arrives

The decision to build a greenhouse was not a straightforward one.  First, it involved completely destroying an area of the garden and all the habitat that it had offered:

Space cleared for greenhouse Feb 18

Second, it involved covering that area of garden in concrete.  Having ripped out the decking that used to be in that space, it seemed counter-intuitive to then cover perfectly good soil in concrete.  We had a thoughtful builder though, who noticed the good quality of the soil and bagged it up for us for future use.  Then he drowned the area in concrete:

greenhouse concrete mixer Feb 18

greenhouse base Feb 18

Once this had cured (no mean feat, given that it was laid just before we had our Siberian winter with temperatures of -5c), we were ready for the greenhouse.  The concrete is necessary to stablise the ground, and to provide a firm base upon which to fix the greenhouse so that it doesn’t blow over.  I didn’t want to grow crops in the ground.  My primary requirement is to grow plants from seed, so that I can avoid buying pesticide-laden plants from garden centres.  I want my plants to be safe for pollinators.

We obtained the greenhouse second-hand from our neighbour’s sister.  When we got it home, it looked like this:

greenhouse in bits Feb 18

We both had meccano sets when we were young, but this was a challenging prospect.  So we hired help:

greenhouse construction Feb 18

He arrived just as the Siberian snow was starting to fall, and heroically put the thing up anyway.  His fingers must have been frozen, despite several cups of tea.

By March, it looked like this:

greenhouse in place March 18

The shrubs in the border to the left were moved from the greenhouse area, and replace the boring hydrangeas.  Yesterday, our greenhouse looked like this:

greenhouse July 18

There are butterflies and bees, and the tomatoes are turning into tomatoes, so there is life going on in there.  The butterflies know exactly where to go, scarpering out through the windows when I go in.  I’ve found tiny caterpillars in there, which I threw out for the birds.  I let them be on my kale outside, but not in the greenhouse.  That is my ‘safe’ space for seedlings and salads.  In theory…

Going to seed

This year, one of the challenges that I set myself was to save seed from some of my edibles.  I don’t actually know what I’m doing here.  I’ve read stuff that says you have to have plenty plants and not mix them up, and they might not come true, etc. etc. I’m afraid I’m not a very patient or methodical person.  I learn by doing, not by meticulously following instructions.  It’s a slow and painful method, admitedly.  But nature sets seed and sows it all the time, and has got pretty good at it, so there must be some plants that aren’t complicated to save seed from.  Anyway, I got stuck in and although I’ve been winging it, here are some of my results so far.

seeds oct 17

Top: chard (pink and red).  This one took some patience.  Chard grows to an enormous height as it goes to seed, and then falls flat on its face, sending up forests of flower shoots.  I left it alone, praying that whatever was unlucky enough to be underneath would eventually recover again (ajuga reptans, and it did).  By late September, I was confident that it had actually set seed.  I cut it off at the base, rather than hoiking out the plant, to avoid disturbing the soil (and just out of curiosity to see whether the plant would regrow).  I carried the plants around to the back of the house, holding them upright like some sort of ceremonial flag.  There was a pattering sound as seeds cascaded all around me.  It will be interesting to see where chard appears next year.  I lay the plants down on the patio and painstakingly stripped off the seeds.  I ended up with several handsful in the two tubs at the top of this picture.  I don’t yet know whether they will germinate, but if they do, then I’m how self-sufficient in chard.  I’ve also been reading over on Skyent that perpetual spinach (leaf beet) self seeds happily, so am planning to give that a go next year.

The bottom tub is red orache.  I have also stripped seedheads and sprinkled them around the beds at the front.  This self-seeds very happily and I will probably be overrun with seedlings.  But just look …

red orache to seed Aug 17

Another easy plant to save seed from is sorrel.  This is schnavel, originally from the heritage seed library.  It has a lemony flavour and adds a zingy lime-green colour to the garden.  It looks rather like dock when it goes to seed, and when the seeds look dry and papery, they are ready.  I’ve sown some and they germinated and happily produced seedlings:

sorrel seedling oct 17

The utility room has been stuffed with paper bags full of various seed heads, but I finally got around to organising them into envelopes:

seeds in packets oct 17

Some plants self-seed so happily that I just left the seedheads on the ground:

lambs lettuce and land cress seedlings oct 17

Lambs lettuce and landcress.  Oh, and violets.

cosmos oct 17

And then there is cosmos.  These are from seed that I saved a few years ago.  They are … well, prolific.  They have grown huge and fallen over across pretty much everything .  I think if I’d grown these from commercial seed, they might not have been quite so large.  And they would have had white, pink and dark pink flowers rather than raspberry ripple.  So I’m starting to learn what you can and cannot get away with.

borage beans sweet peas Aug 17

Here are three really easy ones.  Sweet peas, runner beans and borage.  You will never need to save seed from borage.  Once you have it, it will be in your garden forever.  Sweet peas and runner beans just need time for their pods to get good and fat, and ideally dry, and then you can keep them and plant them on for next year.  I put sweet pea seeds in the same pot as a runner bean, as they are happy companions and a magnet for insects.  Nasturtium also set seed happily, but I left them alone to self seed last year and they took ages to get going.  This year I shall collect some, and see if I can get them started earlier.

It’s good to feel just a little bit less reliant on commercial seed companies, and a bit more self-sufficient.