I don’t really have a favourite time of the year. Because every one of the seasons is special to me in its own way. Summer is about spending quality time in the outdoors. Autumn is about enjoying the changing colours of the trees and getting ready for winter. Winter itself is about hunkering down and staying indoors with a good book and a nice cup of tea. Continue reading
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
This time of year is known traditionally as the ‘hungry gap’, when the winter vegetables have finished and the summer ones have yet to make an appearance. Which is why I’m deriving huge (and perhaps unwarranted) amounts of pleasure from the fact that yesterday, for the first time this year, we were able to tuck in to some of our produce from the garden.
I mustn’t get carried away here, because it wasn’t a whole meal or anything. But it’s a start. And having spend the last couple of months preparing the soil, planting seeds and caring for the growing plants, it’s nice to get a return on my investment. Especially because I know that from now until the depths of winter, my hard (but incredibly enjoyable work) will result in fresh, healthy food for our plates.
First up was a delicious home-grown mixed salad to go with our main course, bringing together the baby salad leaves that I have grown in the greenhouse, together with some tender pea tips and a couple of leaves of succulent wild garlic. It was just a small selection of leaves with a bit of olive oil and some balsamic vinegar, but the perfect start to the year’s harvest.
In case this doesn’t seem as impressive to you as it did to me, let me move on to dessert, for which we rustled up my all-time favourite: rhubarb crumble and custard. We have a big rhubarb plant at the bottom of the garden that is getting more rampant each year, and this season’s stems had finally got large and numerous enough that we thought we’d harvest some. And, boy, were they delicious.
Definitely a most excellent start to the year. And with a whole host of other fruits and vegetables either growing away or waiting to be sown, there’s much more to come.
When I read through books and magazine, or talk to people when I’m out and about, I’m constantly coming across new ideas or new ways of doing things. As someone who is on an ongoing quest to ‘do well, be nice and have a life… all at the same time’, I get very excited about these things but invariably never get around to doing anything about them.
So rather than consign them to my little black book of ‘things to do when I’ve got a spare month on my hands’, I thought I’d share them with you here on my blog. I’m not saying that these are necessarily good ideas, or that they’ll make you the next Richard Branson, but they’re all things that sound fun to me.
If you want to give any of them a try, then please feel free. And do let me know how it goes. I might even try one or two myself, at some point, if I ever get around to it.
1. The veggie van. Get a van, preferably an electric one or one of those really old Renault things, and set up a mobile shop selling local fruit, vegetables, bread and preserves. Collect produce from local suppliers in the morning and spend the afternoon and evening driving to wherever your customers need you to be, such as outside offices or by the railway station. We all love farmers markets, after all, but they’re usually either only once a month or during the week, when everyone’s at work.
2. The mobile coffee cart. Get a little motorised coffee cart and set up a regular round in your local area, selling tea, coffee and home-made pastries. Smile at everybody, ask how they are and become a local icon. Not necessarily the biggest money-spinner, but a great way to get out, meet people and generate a sense of community.
3. The market garden. There’s a field on the edge of our town that was bought by the Council a couple of years ago. They’re currently deciding whether to turn it into a football pitch or a children’s playground. What it would make, though, is an excellent market garden, growing fresh, organic fruit and vegetables for the local population and bringing people closer to the food they eat. So find a small plot of land and get growing.
4. The guerilla gardening campaign. I’m a big fan of guerilla gardening (see http://www.guerrillagardening.org/ if you don’t know what that is) and think that it’s a brilliant way to make boring, overgrown or derelict parts of town more beautiful and more inspiring. I’ve never really got around to doing much about it, though. But what’s to stop you (or me, for that matter) from sowing a handful of sunflower seeds on a roundabout or growing a few radishes in the planter by the bus stop?
5. The virtual orchard. I’d really love an apple orchard, but like most people have limited space. So for the moment, at least, I’ll have to be satisfied with the couple of little trees at the bottom of the garden. But why not a ‘virtual’ orchard? Go around your community and map out where the different apple trees are and who owns them. Then, at harvest time, recruit volunteers to pick the apples, turn them into juice or cider or anything apple-y, and share them with the ‘owners’ of the orchard and everyone else in your community.
6. The heritage trail. The town I live in has a fantastic history dating back through the centuries, but nobody really seems to know very much about where they live and how it has developed. My (currently very vague) plan is to develop a guided walking tour of the town, highlighting the key elements of its social, cultural and industrial heritage. This would be accompanied by a guidebook, an audio download, a colourful map and perhaps even some display boards. Why not do something similar for where you live?
7. The guerilla art campaign. I’m a big fan of art, especially things that challenge me or make me think about things in a new way. In a wood near where my mum lives, someone has made tiny little front doors that they have stuck to the trunks of some of the trees. Inspired. Or check out some of Slinkachu’s little people. I like drawing and I like making things, so why can’t I find the time (or the talent) to do something like this? It’s fun, it’s cool and it makes people smile. There really ought to be state funding available…
8. The community bookshop / coffee shop / bakery. I like books, I like coffee, I like baking and I like bringing people together. So my wife’s suggestion that I find a group of local people and open a not-for-profit community bookshop, coffee shop and bakery probably isn’t too far off the mark. A group of similarly-minded folk have opened a community bookshop in the next town and it seems to be going great guns. After all, who doesn’t like coming in for a coffee, a good read and a bit of a chat?
I love this time of year because it’s when everything starts to grow. The blossom is making its appearance on the two apple trees at the bottom of the garden, the rhubarb is sprouting crunchy new stems every day and I have a row of tiny chilli plants growing in a propagator on the window ledge in my office.
This time marks the turning point, when the dark evenings and frosty mornings of winter come to an end and spring dawns with its sense of purpose and hope. And it’s the time when I can get out into the garden and start planting the seeds of everything that I want to grow. The tomatoes, pumpkins and courgettes are already in seed trays and pots in the greenhouse, as are the mina lobata (the beautiful climbing ‘spanish flag’) and the tagetes (excellent companion plants for the tomatoes).
And that’s just the start. I have a big box of seeds still to plant, from carrots and fennel to calendula and greater quaking grass (one of my personal favourites). I’ll spend my evenings and weekends sowing, potting up and planting out until the garden is a riot of shapes, textures and colours, some edible and some just great to look at. As I said, I love this time of year.