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.

 

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‘Edible Perennial Gardening’ Book Review

Edible Perennial Gardening: Growing successful polycultures in small spaces.  By Anni Kelsey, published 2014 by Permanent Publications.

annisbookcover.phpThis book sets out with a clear vision: “Looking towards a sustainable future when a polyculture of perennial vegetables is as familiar a feature of our gardening landscape as the conventional vegetable patch.”  The book clearly traces the author’s own experimental journey towards this vision, and shares the information that she’s learned along the way.  Continue reading

Slugs – three strategies for acceptance

I walked out the other day to find this:endives munched late Aug 17

Endives seedlings munched to bare soil, despite being carefully tucked up in a pot with copper tape around the edge.  I chose endives, rather than lettuce, because I thought it would be tougher and less attractive to molluscs.  Not so.  I spent the rest of the morning feeling frustrated and helpless, as no matter how hard I try to find edible plants that can survive slug damage, no matter how many precautions I take to try and protect plants, this still happens.  My dream of lime green livening up the winter garden started to dissolve.  I’m a rubbish gardener, I thought.

But.  I’m stubborn.  I have set out to garden without (knowingly) killing any wildlife, and whilst still providing food for our table.  And I will do it.  But I need to learn how to manage these feelings of sorrow and frustration when things like this happen.  So here are three strategies I use to feel better when the critters crunch my lunch.

  1. Learn about your enemy – they might turn out to be a friend.  The organic gardener and writer John Walker writes of molluscs: “These amazing, tenacious creatures are part of the dynamic,interconnected ecosystem of my garden. They beguile me, challenge me and teach me plenty …” They are detritus recyclers, clearing up debris and improving the soil, as nature writer Marlene Condon explains: “As snails and slugs become active, they will be delighted to find their favorite food (decaying plant and animal matter) waiting for them to feed upon. When these unusual organisms are provided with such a fine smorgasbord, they don’t bother your growing plants. Instead, they help to fertilize them—which is exactly what their function in your garden is supposed to be.”  They are also lunch for other garden wildlife, including frogs, thrushes, blackbirds and hedgehogs.
  2. Look at what is working.   Earlier this year, I dropped seedheads of lambs lettuce and land cress directly onto one of the beds.  From experience, these don’t tend to get eaten.  Low effort, low maintenance, and great contrasts of colours and flavours for winter salads.  These are now coming up and so far, only tiny signs of munching:lambs lettuce and land cress seedlings late Aug 17
  3. See the bigger picture – is there enough left over for you to enjoy?  And the answer, of course, is yes – plenty! Whilst the endives are munched, I still managed to harvest all this for our salad:salad late Aug 17 And the garden is not exactly full of gaps: front garden late Aug 17

So in the meantime, I’ve put the endives up on a table with its legs in water, and will let the remaining plants grow on.  When they are bigger and tougher, I will see how they fare in the ground.  If they don’t survive, then they aren’t the right choice of plant.  There are many others that are, and probably several more that I haven’t yet discovered.  But meanwhile, I feel a bit better.  Perhaps I’m not a rubbish gardener after all.

Taking stock of the polyculture

borage bees beans Aug 17

What’s working?

Lambs lettuce is starting to show up all over the place.  This happy self-seeder creates splashes of lime-green colour and soft mild leaves for winter salads, perfectly offsetting the dark green landcress and counteracting its strong flavour.  The landcress seedheads have now split, and I’ve chopped them down and laid the trimmings directly onto the bed, seeds and all.

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My saved seeds from the sorrel (shchnavel) have started to come up, so hopefully I will have small plug plants to add to the beds later for winter salads.   There are also red mustard seedlings which germinated in about 24 hours flat, which will add colour to the winter beds.  These are strongly-flavoured, but apparently are milder once cooked, so should be a good source of winter greens.

red orache to seed Aug 17

Red orache is producing well, and grew from saved seed.  However, I keep forgetting to pinch out the top to encourage more bushy leaf production, so I now have tall plants that are starting to flower.  This, of course, means more seed which is fine by me.

welsh onion Aug 17

Welsh onion is romping away, and is a useful source of oniony greens for potato salad or mash.  It has self-seeded, some of which I’ve collected, leaving the rest to sow itself.

Borage is everywhere, popping up out of the compost.  Luckily we have learned how to eat the leaves – cut out the centre stalks and sweat them in olive oil and garlic until they look like spinach (don’t add water or they will be too wet).

What’s not working?

borage beans sweet peas Aug 17

Whilst borage-blue sings out with the sweet pea hot pink and runner bean cadmium-red … whilst the bees are in seventh heaven … the actual beans are looking a bit floppy.  And no wonder.  Runners are thirsty plants at the best of times, and borage is no shrinking violet when it comes to taking up water.  So I have taken out every other couple of borage plants to give the beans a fighting chance.

cosmos thug Aug 17

Well … who knew that cosmos would be such a thug?  I thought their feathery foliage would be perfect for the polyculture, leaving room and light for leafy veg to grow.  But no.  No, no, no.  The question now is whether to cut it back before it has even flowered, or put it down to experience and try something else next year.  With hindsight, perhaps I shouldn’t have included it in the watering with nettle tea (nitrogen).  This might have encouraged leaf production, which is the general idea for leafy veg but not for flowers.

There are few flowers in the back garden, so I might try moving some of the cosmos into a pot for back, creating more room for the kale and chard at the front.  Some of the chard is so desperate that it is running to seed, but it isn’t too late to start again.  Thinking to the future, I might try some herbs in and amongst the leafy veg, such as chamomile and dill.  These dainty little herbs may be less thuggish and more useful.  I’m sure cosmos has its place in the … er … cosmos, but that place is almost certainly in a pot.

Sweet Cicely

Imagine a delicate fern that will grow happily in damp shade, providing a patterned backdrop – that sweetens fruit with a delicate aniseed flavour – and that comes back again, year after year.  Sweet cicely, a perennial and wild plant, does all of these things.

sweet cicely July

Sweet Cicely July

Myrrhis odorata (from the Greek myrrhis ‘aromatic oil’, and Latin odorata ‘scented’) is also known as sweet chervil.  The nature writer Richard Mabey wrote in Food for Free that it was probably introduced to the UK by the Romans, and that the 16th Century herbalist John Gerard rated the seeds highly, “eaten as a sallad whilst they are yet greene, with oyle, vinegar and pepper“.  The practical herbalist tells us that the plant was popular in Victorian gardens – known as ‘Grandma’s Candy’ it used to be nibbled by children, and is also good for digestion.  It is related to fennel and a member of the celery family, apparently.

A couple of weeks ago, I harvested my first crop of seeds after checking with Anni that they were indeed ripe.  (Anni has some seeds available just now.)

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If you are growing sweet cicely from seed, you do need patience.  It needs a cold season to germinate (some sources suggest putting it in the fridge for a couple of months).  In my experience, it can take up to a couple of years to germinate.  I just leave the seeds in a pot outside and forget about them.  Eventually, after a year or two, it puts up a couple of unfeasibly long baby-leaves.  Once these appear, the first feathery true leaves soon put in an appearance.  Although it takes its time germinating, once it turns up it seems to be remarkable hardy, resisting the advances of slugs despite its tempting flavour.  In the winter it can disappear completely, before astonishing me by turning up out of bare soil in mid-late Spring.  Anni, in her book Edible Perennial Gardening, has warned that it can overtake things somewhat if grown in the vegetable beds.  She grows it with kale and fruit bushes, which I guess can stand up for themselves.

Obtain a yield

Our tiny front garden had a bird cherry tree growing in the middle of the lawn when we bought the house:

bird cherry June 2017

An ‘interesting’ choice of tree for a small garden.  We left it there because it gives character to the street and because the birds like it.  I’d much rather it was a smaller and more productive tree – a dwarf cherry or apple.  However, uprooting it seems like a very disruptive intervention.  So I’ve been trying to think about our tree in terms of what it is good at doing.  As you can see, it was in need of a haircut, and I recently read that bird cherry used to be popular for coppicing.  That wouldn’t be practical in our garden, but it did give me an idea …

bird cherry prunings June 2017

All those leafy prunings are pretty good at making leaves for compost, and also …

bird cherry sticks June 2017

… sticks for the garden.  I’m always looking for sticks to support things, or to disuade cats from digging.  So I spent a boiling hot afternoon sitting in the shade stripping leaves off sticks.  The other thing I’ve noticed about the bird cherry is that the ants farm aphids on it.  I found quite a few ladybird larvae on the leaves (they got dropped into the garden to finish turning into ladybirds).  And no doubt the blue tits have also been having a feast on the aphids.  The tree also provides some shade, and a steady release of water to the wild strawberries beneath it after rain.  So it might not be as productive as a fruit tree that we can guzzle on, but if we think of our family as the wider ecological community, it does provide a generous yield.