The will to grow

Last year, I took some root cuttings from one of my comfrey plants. I dug a hole next to the plant, rummaged around until I found some decent-sized roots and snipped off a few large-ish chunks. I then put them into small pots of compost, arranged the pots neatly in a sheltered corner of the gravel next to the shed and put them to the back of my mind. Until now. Continue reading

Parental gardening support 101

My mother has big plans for her garden. And these plans, perhaps inevitably, involve a fair amount of digging, heavy lifting and general gorilla work. Which, perhaps even more inevitably, is where I come in. And so we found ourselves spending a tiring – but ultimately rather enjoyable – weekend tearing up a small portion of Somerset. Continue reading

Welcome to the microfarm

I’m always a little bit jealous of people who work full time as farmers, growers or gardeners. Sure, the pay is terrible and they can’t put things off just because it’s raining. But they get to devote themselves to what they love. They can do what needs to be done when it needs to be done, rather than putting it off for weeks at a time because other things get in the way.

I appreciate that I’m perhaps idealising the horticultural life a little too much here. I also recognise that such a career has more than its fair share of ups and downs. But in the last couple of weeks, I’ve tried to introduce some of this ethos – of working to the plants’ timescales, rather than to my own – into how I relate to my own little patch of earth. I’ve stopped thinking of it as a tatty greenhouse and a few raised beds, and started thinking of it as a micro-farm.

I started off by making a list of all the jobs that need to be done at the moment. And I mean everything that needs to be done, not just the things I want to do. Even things like emptying the slug traps and weeding around the shed. Needless to say, it was a fairly long list. And I’ll keep adding to it as successional batches of seeds need to be sown, seedlings need to be potted up and shrubs need to be pruned. (I’ve got my list on a little A4 whiteboard, so it’s easy to keep it up to date.)

My next step has been to devote an hour each morning, as soon as I’ve got back from walking the dog, to working through some of the tasks on my list. So far, this ‘little and often’ approach has been rather enlightening, giving me a real feeling of satisfaction as I storm through the huge number of tasks that have been bugging me for ages. It also leaves the weekends, which I’d usually use to try to catch up on absolutely everything I needed to do in the garden, for larger projects, like building a new cold frame.

I’ve now got all of my seeds planted, except for the ‘sow in mid-May’ ones, which are on the list for this week. Here are just a few of them.

Seedlings

The courgettes and squashes are just starting to sprout their first proper leaves, so they’ll be off out into one of the cold frames soon, to toughen them up prior to being planted out into the garden.

Courgette seedlings

In addition to my regular range of flowers, fruit and vegetables, I’m trying a few more exotic things. Below are dahlia seedlings, freshly pinched out to encourage them to be short and bushy rather than tall and lanky. (My garden, being long and narrow, has the characteristics of a wind tunnel.) I’ve read in James Wong’s book ‘Homegrown Revolution‘ that you can eat dahlia tubers, so I’m keen to try this out. At James’s suggestion, I’m growing cucamelons, electric daisies, inca berries, alpine strawberries, elephant garlic, quinoa, mooli and watercress, too.

Dahlia seedlings

I’m also trying to give my regular outdoor vegetables a bit more of a chance against the slugs by starting them off in little plugs, which I’ll plant out once they’re a decent size. And with the winter here lasting until about two weeks ago, planting out directly hasn’t really been an option. I can sow a second batch directly into the beds now, though, and can see how they compare with the plugs.

Vegetable seedlings

I have a slight tendency to focus on my vegetables at the expense of my other plants, so I’ve been careful to look after the non-edibles, too. For example, I’ve trimmed the dead leaves off my ferns and have potted up the little offshoots that have sprung up.

The ferns

I’ve also taken the significant step of pruning the older stems off my Euphorbia rigida, a rather messy job that I’d been putting off for several months. Needless to say, once I’d found my gloves and dug out the secateurs, the pruning itself only took ten minutes. The feeling of achievement that accompanied it, though, lasted significantly longer.

Euphorbia rigida

Ditto for having tidied up and potted on the various Euphorbia and Hebe cuttings that I’d accumulated at the bottom of the garden. I’d taken loads of cuttings about two years ago, potted them up and then left them to go feral on the gravel between the willow hedge and the shed. I’d felt really bad about neglecting them, but clearly not bad enough to actually do anything about it. Well, now it’s done. I had to ditch some of them but the rest are looking good, even if I do say so myself.

Hebes

I’ve even made seed bombs.  Yes, seed bombs. I bought a book on making wildflower seed bombs (‘Seedbombs: Going Wild with Wildflowers’, by Josie Jeffery) some time ago, together with a bag of clay powder that has been sitting in the living room ever since. So one morning last week, I put on an old jumper and got my hands (and the jumper, the shed and the dog) dirty making seed bombs. (And yes, I was careful to use native, non-invasive flower seeds.) Here are some of my inaugural batch.

Seedbombs

And here’s my first test subject, nestling into the bark chip underneath one of the apple trees by the vegetable garden. I’ve also cautiously ‘planted’ a few on some of my regular dog walking routes around town, so that I can see how well they fare. Exciting stuff.

Seedbomb

So while I’m not a farmer and probably won’t ever be a farmer, I’m trying to bring a little of the farming ethos into my life. Nothing excessive, just a small amount of planning, a tiny bit of coordination and a little hard work every day. Welcome to the micro-farm.

Leaves, cuttings and a touch of colour

I’d been neglecting my houseplants a little recently, so at the weekend I lugged them all outside into the sunshine for a bit of a tidy up. And with the little fellas lined up on the lawn like a ragtag floral guerilla army, it was clear that some of the scruffier ones had to go.

But before I hurled them onto the compost heap, I took the opportunity to harvest a few cuttings from some of the Echeveria, which look great when they are young but then have a tendency to turn into bald rampaging stalks as they get older.

While I was at it, I thought I might as well take a few cuttings from some of the others, too. And then Natalie wandered over with some tiny Sempervivum, which we added to my growing collection in a large module tray.

Leaf cuttings

The result was somewhat more cuttings than I had anticipated, and I’m probably setting myself up for another houseplant crisis some time next year, but I have to admit that they do look rather cool, as you can see in these photos.

Leaf cuttings

They’re currently residing in one of the cold frames at the bottom of the garden, where they’ll stay as long as the warm weather lasts. Hopefully, I’ll be able to pot them up before the first frosts arrive, so that I can distribute them around the house. And then, my friends, I’ll be right back where I started…

When science meets art (sort of)

I had been looking forward to a quiet day last Tuesday, to get back into the swing of work after the bank holiday weekend, but instead I found myself with Natalie in a chemistry laboratory at the university, helping her to set up and take photos of plants for a project that she is working on.

Her plan is to identify various flora that have chemical properties, such as those used in pharmaceuticals or biofuels, and to combine photos of them with their chemical structures and a description of how they are used. We were essentially just mucking around at this stage, though, to see how things looked.

We must have taken a couple of hundred photos over an hour or so. We also got a fair few odd glances from other people working in the lab. It was, however, excellent fun. Here are a few of my favourite images from our rather odd photoshoot.*

Eucalyptus
ZebraGrass
Rosemary
EchinopsRoll
Echinops
RoseBeaker
RosePaper
* Natalie would no doubt want me to add that these are just some rough images to get a feel for how things look and to develop a ‘proof of concept’ for her project. The end result will no doubt look a lot better, if only because it’ll be someone with significantly more talent than me taking the photos…

Oh, and please excuse the watermarks on the photos. It’s not that I don’t trust you, but rather that Natalie wants to use the photos for her project so it seemed sensible to protect them. (Thanks, Jenny, for the suggestion.)

Grown-ups can have hide-outs, too

When you were young, did you have a favourite hide-out? Somewhere you could go to get away from daily life and grab a few minutes to yourself? Mine was at the top of a huge great beech tree in the back garden of our family home, where the branches formed a sort of crow’s nest from which I could see out over the neighbourhood.

My parents weren’t too keen on me climbing all the way up to the top of this massive tree, so tried to tempt me down with a treehouse (to the extent that a piece of plywood nailed across two branches can be called a treehouse) in the lower branches of the yew tree next to my hide-out. But I wasn’t having any of it, so I’d spend hours up at the top of ‘my’ tree, out of reach of the world.

At the age of thirty six, I suspect that my tree-climbing days are behind me. But I didn’t see why that should mean that I couldn’t still have a hide-out. So a little while ago, Natalie and I bought a flat-pack summerhouse to put in our garden.

We built a little patio to stand it on, put some root barrier around the bamboo plants so that they didn’t overwhelm it and then spent a happy day putting the thing together. And with a lick of paint, a quick trim of the hedge and a little re-arrangement of the outdoor pot plants, my (or, rather, our) hide-out was ready. He’re it is…

Our new summerhouse

(In case you’re wondering, the huge building behind the summerhouse is my next door neighbour’s pigeon shed, not some sneaky extension to our hide-out…)

For the inside, we got some outdoor chairs and a matching table from the local DIY store. We also bought a cheap rug from IKEA to put on the floor and found some seaside-themed pictures to hang on the back wall. It won’t be making its way onto the pages of Ideal Home any time soon, but it’s my (sorry, our) hide-out and I’m happy with it. Here’s a view of the inside…

Our new summerhouse

With the weather over the past couple of weeks having been reasonably sunny, we’ve spent quite a lot of time in our new hide-out, reading the paper and generally chatting and chilling out. It’s been really nice to just get away from everyday things (even though we’re only a matter of feet from the house) and relax. And Molly thinks it’s great, too, as she gets to sit with us in the sunshine. This is her ‘I approve of this hide-out’ face…

Molly in the sunshine

And this is Molly and Natalie sharing a brief snack-related ‘moment’ in the sunshine…

Natalie and Molly enjoying a 'moment'

In the evenings, when it’s not too cold or windy, we’ve taken to heading out to our hide-out after dinner, putting some little candles on the patio and nattering away until it gets dark. We’re usually rushing around doing our separate things during the daytime, so I really enjoy this time that we spend together. It’s the perfect way to just catch up with what’s going on in our lives and to wind down before going to bed. And it’s a lot less hassle than climbing up to the top of a tree.

I appear to have overdone it with the plants (again)

I’ve done it again. I’ve got a little bit carried away with my seed-sowing and I have far more plants than I know what to do with. I do the same thing every year and each year I promise myself (and Natalie) that next year it will be different. And now I have a greenhouse, three cold frames and part of a garden full of little pots of plants that are looking for a loving home.

Tagetes seedlings

They didn’t seem much of a problem when they were this small

I could claim that it’s not my fault. I plant a few extra seeds in case they don’t all germinate and, when they inevitably all do germinate, I can’t bear to discard any of the tiny seedlings (I mean, they’ve kept their part of the bargain, so surely I have to keep mine) and pot them all up. What kind of heartless gardener would throw away perfectly good seedlings? A sensible one, probably, so we’ll move swiftly on.

Regardless of fault, the upshot is that I now have more plants than you can shake a stick at. I’ve got six varieties of tomatoes, two sorts of mint, loads of tagetes, four varieties of chilli, four or five sorts of courgette, ipomoea, mina lobata and more. Oh, and squash. Lots of squash.

Over the last few weeks, I’ve been doing my best to rehome them. I’ve had a stall at my local country market, I’ve given some to my neighbours and I spent last Saturday morning selling some of them off at a plant sale in the town centre (total takings: £19). My wife has also got on the case, securing orders from several of her work colleagues (who benefit from a very generous 100% discount).

Plants for Stuart

A tray of plants for my neighbour

I’ve manage to find homes for about two thirds of my surplus stock so far, and will be off to market again tomorrow morning with the rest. On the basis of experience so far, I suspect that I may be bringing a fair few of them back home with me afterwards, so I will have to think of a further plan for any stragglers.

Plants for market

Ready for the market tomorrow

But anyway, there’s gradually a bit more space appearing in the greenhouse and the cold frames, which will give me room to pot up and grow on the other seedlings that I have yet to plant out. I know, I know – I’m doing it again. But the little fellas have done their bit and now it’s my turn. I shouldn’t have planted so many. I’ll do better next year.

Twelve little plants went to market

I made my first foray into the nursery trade last Friday, when I packed up a dozen of my home grown plants and headed down to my local Country Market. And I even made my first sale – one of my shuttlecock ferns was snapped up within minutes. Sadly, nothing else happened for the remaining hour and a quarter, but even Bill Gates and Steve Jobs had to start small.

In case you’re not familiar with Country Markets, and I suspect that you are not, let me tell you a little more. They were founded by the Women’s Institute as a way of helping people to offload their surplus home produce and to make a little money in the process. There are markets in most towns and villages, selling a range of food, crafts and plants. Everything you will find there is locally produced, assessed against stringent quality standards (and I know, because I have, in fact, read the manual) and home-cooked, home-made or home-grown.

The plant stall

The plant stall, with my own contribution in the foreground.

I would be surprised that the markets are not more popular, but the one I went to is held for just over an hour on a Friday morning, in a church hall just outside the town centre, with very little in the way of fanfare or advertising. So, to be honest, I’m quite surprised that anybody manages to find it at all.

Anyway, I picked out the most aesthetically pleasing of my current crop of young plants (four each of shuttlecock fern, moroccan mint, hebe pinguifolia and garden mint) and took them along. My first thought was that I was clearly not in the market’s core demographic. For one thing, I was (and still am, for that matter) a bloke. And for another thing, I’m (quite a lot) under 65. But the market controller introduced me to the other producers and everyone made me feel welcome right from the start.

Jane and Heather

Jane (left) and Heather, my fellow plant-sellers.

There were two other people there with plants to sell, Jane and Heather, both of whom have been involved with the market for some time and were, consequently, able to guide me through the various requirements in terms of labelling, filling in my record sheet (to make sure I get paid) and presenting my plants to best effect. Apparently, trekking a load of mud into the hall and then leaving your plants to dribble water all over the stall while you wander off in search of a cup of tea is not how things are done.

Because the market is a cooperative, everyone works together to set everything up (the real reason people were so happy to see me, I suspect, given the number of tables and chairs that needed lugging around), engage with customers, sell things and tidy up afterwards. There are communal tills for the different sections (food, craft and plants), which explains the need for detailed records of who has brought what and how much they are left with at the end, with producers receiving their takings (less a 10% commission) once a month.

As the new kid on the block, my role was restricted to helping to set up the stall, engaging in a little light banter with customers, answering questions about the plants (though promoting one’s own plants is discouraged – you have to treat all producers equally), drinking tea and generally getting in the way. I may at some stage be allowed to operate the cash box, but baby steps. Though I was allowed on one occasion to double-check a total. (It’s all mental arithmetic here.)

And with my one solitary plant sold, I have made a grand total of £2. Less commission, which brings it down to £1.80. Clearly, this is unlikely to become a major earner any time soon. But it will hopefully be a useful way to get rid of some of my surplus plants (which I just can’t stop growing) and to introduce people around here to something other than petunias. It was also, to my surprise, excellent fun. I may even be slightly addicted. I’ll definitely be there again this week.

A micro-farmer’s dilemma

I’m starting to detect a slight problem with my food-growing exploits. Nothing to do with the plants themselves, fortunately, which are growing well and looking good. In fact, I’ve started to refer to our garden as ‘the micro-farm’, in anticipation of this becoming a recognised (though haphazard) model of agriculture at some point in the near future. No, the problem is definitely me, rather than my future foodstuffs.

It started on Sunday evening, when I packed my bag and headed off to London, in preparation for a seminar that I was delivering on Monday morning. In itself, of course, no big issue (provided we brush over the fact that I was going to work at the weekend). But before I left, I was compelled to leave Natalie with a detailed list of care requirements for my various seeds, seedlings and young plants.

Keep the seed trays slightly damp, so that they don’t dry out – but don’t let them get soggy. Water the pea plants well and check that they haven’t got tangled up with each other again. Check the chilli plants and water any that are particularly dry, but only first thing in the morning as they don’t like to go to bed with damp feet. Untangle the hop from its preferred home tangled around the bench and try to convince it to stay on its support this time. Open the cold frames once the sun is up, and close them just before dusk – or if it gets windy. Oh, and feel free to eat some salad, but not the micro-leaves as they need a couple more days. The list went on. (Though was, I suspect, mostly ignored.)

I’ve spent the last few years learning about how best to grow the various fruits, vegetables and flowers that I enjoy, and try to make sure that I look after them well. I’m used to doing the rounds first thing in the morning and in the early evening, watering the crops and checking for bugs, as well as generally keeping an eye on things during the day if I’m around. So the thought of leaving them alone, with (let’s be honest) essentially a substitute teacher in charge, was harrowing in the extreme.

The same thing happened last month, when we went over to Germany for a few days. Admittedly, I didn’t have so many young plants at that stage, so things were a little easier. But even then, I spent the days before our departure desperately hoping my chilli and mint plants were hardened off sufficiently, so that I could leave them in the greenhouse for the neighbours to water in my absence. What if something comes up when everything needs planting out? I’ll be a nervous wreck…

I guess this is the problem when you have living things of any form, whether plants or livestock, that require daily attention. You get into a routine of caring for them and then need quickly to come up with a Plan B when other things demand your attention, such as the job that actually pays for you to own the garden and the plants and everything else. And then you end up in London first thing on a Monday morning, trying to deliver a seminar to a roomful of serious people, when all you can think about is whether or not your wife has remembered to water the courgettes.