Observing the Plot

Last week I promised to share my observations of the new allotment plot. As prompts, I used some of the notes and a handy checklist from the Forest Gardening Wales course. The idea of taking a really good look at the plot and its wider situation is to help with planning how I structure the site, what I grow, and how I maintain the plot and its fertility.

On a sunny but windy morning, I stood facing the plot and took a compass bearing on my phone. I then felt for the wind to judge where it was coming from. I looked down towards the wood ahead of me to observe which way the trees were blowing. You can see the beans leaning over to the right.

Adjacent wood, with beans leaning to show prevailing wind direction
Adjacent wood, with beans leaning to show prevailing wind direction

Sure enough, when I looked up the prevailing winds for the area, it blows from West to East. This bears out my experience that the wind blows down the valley, thus driving across from the back of the plot to the front. Looking to the back of the plot, there is an area of trees and wild thicket which will protect us from this prevailing wind. The thicket contains bramble and bindweed, and I’ve left a 60cm margin at the back of the plot to enable me to keep this from creeping into the raised beds.

Wild area and tree protection to provide wind shelter
Wild area and tree protection to provide wind shelter

I drew a simple sketch map to plot the compass bearing, the sun and light direction, the wind direction, and adjacent features.

Sketch map
Sketch map

Water is available for irrigation from a tap on the site, using a watering can. The canal is nearby, therefore good habitat for amphibians and insects. I already met a toad when we moved an old carpet that had been dumped on the plot. It did occur to me that frogs and toads might struggle to get up to my raised beds, and I toyed with the idea of making ramps and bridges for them – if there is room without making a trip hazard for humans.

Adjacent canal, facing the direction of the light
Adjacent canal, facing the direction of the light

The climate tends to be either wet and windy, or hot and dry for long spells. Plants need to be resilient and multi-talented, making native wild perennial plants a good choice. They also need less monitoring, which is appropriate given that we are not constantly walking past in the way that we are in the garden.

Existing plants on the site include borage, chamomile and buckwheat which hopefully will seed into the ground and make good insectary plants. There are also potential ‘living path’ plants like pineapple weed, plantain, clover and dock. I don’t intend to put any path material down, but simply tread down the pathways. I will allow vegetation to grow up the sides of the raised beds, providing cover for wildlife such as the toads.

Living path plants - clover, plantain, buckwheat, dandelion
Living path plants – clover, plantain, buckwheat, dandelion

Thinking about pollution, there is plenty of noise as the plot is directly opposite a primary school. There is noise and also rather pungent smells from the adjacent water and sewerage works. I’m thinking of growing sweet peas and honeysuckle to help with the smell. The noise is more of a problem.

Nearby are numerous fertility plants, including nettles, comfrey and dock. These can be chopped into buckets of water kept on site, or simply chopped and used as mulch. Doing the former would rather add to the smell problem, so the latter might be preferable. The adjacent wood will be good for fallen woody and leafy material for structures and leaf mould.

In my next post I’ll share how these observations translated into a loose plan for the plot.

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August abundance from a small forest garden

This picture was taken a week ago and shows how abundant a tiny front garden can be if you give it a chance.  This was once a small lawn.  We started creating a garden here in 2014, and gradually dug out all the lawn and replaced it with plants.  It is now a thriving forest garden, in a space about the size of two car parking places.

P1040118 Front compressed size.JPG

There are herbs, blackcurrants, a small cherry tree, strawberries and wild strawberries, perennial leafy vegetables including Daubenton’s kale, sea beet, wild chicory and welsh onion, wild flowers, herbaceous perennial flowers, and annual runner beans.  It buzzes with insects, and provides us with vegetables and herbs every day.

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

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.

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.

Autumn un-tidy

A few musings as promised on the lack of Autumn ‘tidying’ (following Anni’s post).  In theory, I should be chopping down all these seed heads …

A corner of my front border

A corner of my front border

But looking at these more closely, I observe tiny cave-like dwellings in the marjoram …

pot marjoram seed heads

pot marjoram seed heads

And lurking inside those untidy purple toadflax seedheads are nutritious black seeds, which could be a perfect snack for something on a cold day …

toadflax seeds

toadflax seeds

Where I deadheaded them earlier this year, there are hollow stems – whole tower blocks where insects could be curling up ready for the winter …

hollow toadflax stems

hollow toadflax stems

The ‘lambs lettuce’ path below is full of bits of grass, self sown cranesbill, and strawberry plants that walked out of their pots …

lambs lettuce path

lambs lettuce path

I once tried to tidy up under this hedge, pulling up the grass and intending to put bark mulch underneath.  I hadn’t got very far before I noticed a movement.  On closer inspection, I saw a tiny newt which had been taking full advantage of the warm cover that the ‘mess’ of dried grass provided.  I picked it up to check that I hadn’t injured it, feeling pretty rotten that I’d disturbed it.  It sat, blinking, on my hand. I gave up the idea of tidying, and tucked the little creature back under the hedge. 

One permaculture principle is to ‘use edges and value the marginal‘:

“don’t think you are on the right track just because its a well-beaten path” 

My untidy path is not a well-beaten one, but this edgy ‘mess’ will be a haven for wildlife through the winter.  I can still step on it to get at the lambs lettuce for winter salads.  I’ll just need to give any lurking residents a bit of warning first.

Path Maintenance

This was a quick 45 minute job.  I picked a section of path  at the back to work on.  First I weeded it, which was really easy as they just lifted out of the mulch:

Path weeded shrunk

Then I moved aside the woody top layer, and dug out a trug full of the lovely dark brown crumbly wood mulch:

Mulch dug out boards put down shrunk

This left a bit of a hole, which I filled in with some rotten planks of wood that had  previously made a small raised bed.  I trampled it all down until it felt level (and safe!).  Meanwhile, the raspberries needed a haircut:

Overgrown raspberries shrunk

So I trimmed them back and tucked them into their wires, and put the woody cuttings down across the boards in the path.  They will die back and go brown over time:

Raspberries cut back onto path shrunk

Path maintenance.  Simple!

Paths that offer a yield

OK, so I’m a bit thrifty.  I don’t like shelling out hard-won cash on paving slabs, and I’m not keen on the environmental cost of them.  So I have evolved a rather unorthodox approach to ‘paths’.  Clearly, I do need to be able to access the raised beds.  My feet have to go somewhere.  So I had to come up with some sort of path covering solution.

There are two permaculture principles that I apply regularly to help me solve problems.  The first is ‘the problem is the solution’.  The second is to ‘keep everything in the system’.  I hate waste.  So when we had some trees cut back at the boundary of our property, we asked if we could keep the wood chips – keeping them in the system.  The tree surgeons left them in a pile, and we bagged them up and tipped them out onto our ‘path’ area in the back garden.  So far, so tidy.

path at back - good - shrunk

As time went by, of course, we found ourselves wading through our ‘paths’ in wellies in the wet winters.  The wood chips had turned into a beautiful growing medium.  And underneath the surface was a wonderful woody mulch which we can excavate and use on borders.  In the summer months when we need to access the beds, this mulch dries out and becomes perfectly useable as a path.  It also grows a few edible greens on the side.

path at back growing chard landcress sorrel - shrunk

I maintain the path by throwing down any of our woody cuttings – bits of trees,  shrubs, and even woody cabbage stalks.  These are things that don’t compost easily, but they do eventually break down on the path, after doing their job as a walking surface.  The problem – hard-to-compost ‘waste’ – becomes the solution.

back path - good - shrunk

The front path alongside the boundary hedge is something else again.  We started by putting down some leylandii trimmings from our friendly tree surgeon.  These came from a neighbour’s property, and the tree surgeons wheeled them to our property in our wheelie bin.  It is not a good idea to leave them in the bin too long, as they actually start to steam as they heat up.  We hurriedly laid the ‘path’.  This did its job as a path for a while.  After a surprisingly short space of time, things changed.  In the bed beside this path I had lambs lettuce.  This self-seeded prolifically into the leylandii trimmings, and seemed to rather like it there.  Before long, we had a bed of winter salad.  And in winter, of course, we don’t really need to use the path for access.

By spring and early summer, the lambs lettuce flowered, and we had a beautiful wildlife space …

front path overgrown 2 - shrunk

then it set seed …

Lambs lettuce seeding on front path

Lambs lettuce seeding on front path

Soon it had dried to a nice, walkable mulch.  All summer I had access down the side of the garden.

Lambs lettuce dried mulch

Lambs lettuce dried mulch

When the rains came again in early Autumn, the winter salads started to reappear, ready-mulched by last year’s growth.

Lambs lettuce seedlings

Lambs lettuce seedlings

A third permaculture principle is to ‘obtain a yield’.  These two path systems yield:

  • a walking surface for the time of the year when I need one;
  • a long-term compost system for woody, hard-to-compost trimmings;
  • a mulch that can be excavated when required, simply by removing the top layer;
  • a growing medium for additional edible greens, which can be weeded and eaten to reclaim the path.

Magic.  Just magic.

Permaculture Magazine

The 25th Anniversary issue of Permaculture Magazine just arrived …

PM94 cover

… with my article on designing and planting an edible perennial polyculture:

PM article

The article explains how, inspired by Anni Kelsey’s book Edible Perennial Gardening, I started to garden in a slightly different way.  This blog has been recording my development of the garden since April this year when I wrote that article.

Permaculture Magazine looks at practical solutions for more sustainable ways of living, creating productive systems that respect ecology and people (who are, after all, part of an ecology).  This latest (and beautifully redesigned) issue also contains articles about market gardening, natural skincare, compassionate dairy farming, Universal Basic Income, Food Forests, solar power, vegan cheese-making, and using natural spaces for healing.

You can subscribe from the Permaculture Magazine website, which also has useful blog articles.  They sell some good books too!

Harvest, harvest, while you still can

As I sit to type this there is a chill in the air, the sun is lower, and Autumn is signalling its presence.  Mists float through the valley, and the trees are tinged with orange.  Plants are increasingly frantic to seed, and insects and larvae have not much longer to feed.  The perennial tree cabbage is clearly being enjoyed:

tree cabbage aug 17 eaten

The borage has nearly finished flowering, but the bees tell me off when I try to remove it, even if there is just one flower left:

bee on borage aug 17

We want to invite the bugs to stay with us over winter, so they are nice and handy for the re-emergence of the garden in Spring.  Rick has built a couple of houses, which we will have fun furnishing this weekend (no trip to IK*A required).  Here’s one:

bug house unfurnished aug 17

I’m still harvesting salad:

salad early sept 17

The tomatoes are ripening now (they’re outside against our front wall which holds the heat from the sun).  I’m also harvesting red orache, nasturtium, garlic chives, chives, welsh onion, wild rocket, runner beans, sorrel, baby chard, golden oregano, lambs lettuce, mint, more runner beans … in fact, there  is more out there than I can usually remember to harvest.   (And by the way, all of those things listed do not get eaten by slugs).

So for now there is still plenty for everyone to eat.  But we’d better make the most of it while we can.