An experiment in container gardening

Wildlife

Some of the wildlife we have spotted in the garden this summer, not including the fox that passed through, then scaled the neighbours’ kitchen roof and was away up the street along the ridgeline of the terrace.

Scarlet tiger moth with damaged wing

White-tailed bumblebee

Mint moth

Honey bee

Garden snail

These are all phone pictures, because it’s much easier to whip my phone out when I spot something interesting flying around than to go hunting for a better camera. The biggest pain using the phone for photos like this is the difficulty in focusing on exactly the right thing.

wildlife, bee, bumblebee, honey bee, moth, mint moth, tiger moth, scarlet tiger moth, snail

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The Situation of Symbolic Towers (Redux)

When this blog first started in 2011 I drew a sketchplan of the garden and have referred back to it in posts here a few times since. It only recently occurred to me that now I have a better phone than I did then, I could get the same effect by leaning out of the bathroom window. So here is what the garden currently looks like, more or less, in yesterday’s rainstorm. Please excuse the chopped-down brambles wilting on the roof of the shed.

A bird's eye view

plan, overview

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Takeover

When The Children went back to school part-time in the summer term, one of the things The Child Who Likes Fairies did was plant basil seeds in a pot. In fact, she enjoyed it so much she did two pots, and brought them home with her. We put them on the kitchen windowsill without much optimism, and were as surprised as anyone when a number of seedlings came up. We split apart the most viable ones, and now she has four small basil plants growing on the kitchen windowsill, taking up most of it.

Given the current weather, we knew first thing in the morning yesterday that after lunchtime the garden would be too hot and sunny for us to comfortably spend much time in, but, we thought, at least we can put those basil plants outside to get some sun and some fresh air. Given we knew we wouldn’t be outside, it gave me an idea to try something I’ve thought about doing, on and off, ever since I first bought a digital SLR. I set up the camera on its tripod pointing at the basil plants and the nasturtiums, and programmed it to take time lapse photos, two per minute. We all went inside (and watched The Railway Children), shut the doors, and left the camera to do its thing.

After the film had finished I headed back outside and found that the camera’s batteries had run down after not much more than a couple of hours, and I hadn’t really thought about how the sun would move around and start shading part of the area in the frame as the afternoon progressed. Moreover, after being sat in the middle of the garden on a sunny day for that amount of time, the black rubber handgrips on the camera were now almost too hot to hold, and I had to carry it back inside rather gingerly with its strap. Maybe that had some sort of an effect on the battery life as well. In the evening, I worked out how to stitch each frame together into a video, and upload it onto YouTube.

“I, for one, welcome our new Triffid overlords” said one friend. The nasturtiums might not be changing much over the course of a couple of hours, but The Child Who Likes Fairies’ basil plants are definitely making the most of being in the sunshine.

basil, Ocimum basilicum, nasturtium, Tropaeolum, timelapse, herbs

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Apparently what little boys are made of

There haven’t been any posts here in the past month, partly because I was waiting to see if the Zierkürbis seeds would germinate. As they haven’t, I suspect it is safe to say that they were too old to grow successfully.

Not much else has been very successful in the past month, largely because the local slug and snail population has woken up to the fact that there are fresh tender new seedlings all over my garden. So, seedling after seedling has sprung up only to have its baby leaves immediately nipped off. The whole line of pea plants seemed to be doing reasonably well, until over the course of a few days last week something sluglike went eating its way along the row, a couple of plants per night. So far only one is left – ironically, one that The Child Who Likes Fairies grew by accident in the bucket of stale compost she has been given to “play digging” in.

So now, a whole new round of seed-sowing has started, this time with the idea that everything will be germinated indoors, and kept indoors overnight until it is chunky enough to survive a brief slug attack. The next round of peas will be going into containers, on the grounds that previously, when growing peas in containers, they stayed remarkably slug-free. We’ve switched pea varieties too, because the peas we were using previously had less than a 50% success rate at germinating: not great if you want to try to get back on track quickly and only have limited space to do it in.

pea, slug, snail, zierkürbis

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Tourism

A few years ago, now, we spent a couple of weeks one September on a camping trip to the Mittelrhein region of Germany. We spent those weeks driving around various towns and cities: Koblenz, Köln, Mainz, Bonn, countless smaller towns with a town wall, four gates, gingerbread architecture and a castle overlooking it all. Towards the south of the area we visited every valley was covered in vineyards; but further north, where the land flattened out towards the spires of Köln cathedral, we drove along surrounded by pumpkins and squashes ready for harvest.

Up in the Eifel hills, west of Koblenz and Andernach, we visited the Benedictine abbey of Maria Laach, tucked away inside the crater of a beautiful, placid, dormant volcano. In the abbey’s shop we bought two souvenirs: a bottle of the roughest cider I’ve ever tasted outside Somerset, and a packet of ornamental squash seeds, a variety of Curcubita pepo called “Schwanenhals”, or “Swan-neck”. In our tent we drank the cider and grimaced; and when we got home, the packets of seeds went into the seed tin. No doubt to German gardeners they are just a regular brand of seeds from the local garden centre, but to us they were something of a holiday souvenir.

We never actually planted them, though, but the other week when working out what we could grow within our new set of gardening tenets, and as I was going through my seed tin working out what might be salvageable and workable within those guidelines, I came across the Zierkürbis packet. The seeds are obviously well past their recommended sowing date, but the longer they were left on the shelf the less viable they would always be in any case. So today, all 9 seeds in the packet went into fibre pots on the windowsill; the hope being that, should any sprout, they will be large enough to be transferred outside right at the ideal time of year.

Zierkürbis seeds

It will, of course, be slightly disappointing if nothing comes up; but better than never knowing at all.

squash, zierkürbis

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Planting out

Seven of the pea seedlings that we all sowed together a fortnight or so ago were looking healthy, upright, and if anything a bit constricted; so this afternoon with the childrens’ help I planted them out in the back bed. Now, I’m just paranoid that slugs are going to descend on them en masse overnight and chomp them off at the ground. I’ve already been outside twice tonight with a lantern to try to detect the oncoming horde, but haven’t spotted any at all so far.

The seed peas had been sown in “expensive” fibre pots from the garden centre. However, I’m not sure they worked as well as they could have: unlike when I have done that in previous years, the pots seemed to stay very solid and the seedlings found it hard to push roots through their walls. So, the next batch of seed peas have been sown in cheap fibre pots from the pound shop. I’m not sure that “under 50%” was the greatest germination success rate, so hopefully the next batch will be better.

germination, pea

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Bare soil

This afternoon, I finished weeding the rosebay willowherb, until more shoots spring up at least. Weeded every shoot I could see, dug up every rhizome I could find, levelled out the soil and spread a layer of compost across the top.

The sowing plan for the bed starts with: peas at the back, against the trellis. Now, I’ve had issues with pea support in the past, and I suspected that the laths of the trellis are a bit big for a pea plant to wrap a tendril around, so the trellis has been covered in green plastic pea netting. It’s not the prettiest solution but it’s not too obtrusive; and I’m sure the vines of the back neighbour’s honeysuckle will love clinging onto it too.

In the front of the bed, we have scattered various seeds, mostly flowers, in the hope that the will grow up in front of the pea plants without eclipsing them entirely. We’ve scattered handfuls of:

  • Cornflower, Centaurea cyanoides “Blue Diadem”
  • Night scented stocks, Matthiola bicornis
  • Corn marigold, Chrysanthemum segetum
  • Poppy, Papaver rhoeas “Flanders”
  • Swiss chard, Beta vulgaris vulgaris Cicla-Group “Five Colour Silverbeet”, because Gretchen has spotted it elsewhere and liked the different colours of the leaves.
  • Tree spinach, Chenopodium giganticum “Magenta Spreen”, scattered from a packet I bought a couple of years ago and intended to sow but never did. The aim of the tree spinach is much as it was when I bought the packet: it has been sowed in the left-hand end of the bed, a dark and fairly damp corner where not much grows apart from dandelions. Tree spinach might prefer sun, but will hopefully cope with the shade there; and there won’t be any peas at that end that it might crowd out.

There are also nasturtiums, Tropaeolum majus “Empress of India”, apparently “a classic Victorian variety” according to the Internet, sowed in a couple of spots, their seeds like tiny miniature brains. The key to all of this, of course, is the idea that the peas are going to clamber up high enough and quick enough that none of the stuff around them will cause any problems. The other key, which you might have realised, is that nearly all of the ornamental (or semi-ornamental) stuff is self-seeding. Hopefully, once everything is set up, everything will keep on going year after year, or at least until we move house.

This is all very experimental and no doubt a Proper Gardener would tell us we were trying to cram far too many plants into a tiny space. However, we will wait and see. I won’t be surprised if not everything develops, or at least, doesn’t grow exactly how I originally envisaged things. It might need a bit of tweaking next year, or it might all come up again, irregular but satisfactory.

I’ve given up on the calendula seeds mentioned previously, and bought a new packet. Into pots, we sowed:

  • More calendula, obviously.
  • And more Tropaeolum majus.
  • Mixed rocket leaves
  • A different dwarf sunflower, Helianthus annuus “Choco Sun”, allegedly one of the smallest sunflower varieties available. Short enough for a toddler to sniff, I hope.

And with a general tidy-up, the garden is looking reasonable again. The back bed may be bare soil now, but hopefully within a month or two it will be full of greenery, and mostly the greenery we intended, too. In the tidy-up a lot of the wooden containers were thrown away, their wood rotted too far to save them, but that leaves us a good terracotta core. The plants we bought and potted up 2½ weeks ago are settling in nicely: the fennel looking lively, the thymes putting on new growth, and the marjoram already starting to fill up its pot. I’m rather pleased with how quickly things have been turned around. Even if things aren’t perfect yet, there’s not too much more tidying up left to do.

calendula, chard, corn marigold, cornflower, creeping thyme, fennel, french marjoram, green fennel, lemon thyme, marigold, marjoram, nasturtium, pea, poppy, rosebay willowherb, sowing, sowing plan, sunflower, swiss chard, thyme, tree spinach, weeding

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Fireweeding

The first few pea shoots started to break the surface a couple of days ago, making it five days after sowing. Rather fast, I thought; only a few have come up so far, which makes me worry I’ve kept them too damp or something.

In the meantime I’ve been clearing out the back bed, into which the peas are going to be transplanted once large enough. A few years ago, I spent weeks clearing bindweed out of it, going through the soil archaeologically to excavate the tiniest pieces of bindweed rhizome. Now, after a couple of years of baby-rearing abandonment, it’s been colonised by rosebay willowherb. So I’m going through the soil almost archaeologically again, pulling out chunky pieces of rosebay willowherb rhizome this time. Hopefully I have got as much as possible: if I’ve missed any, once there are other plants in there the archaeological approach isn’t likely to work very well. I will have to resort to pulling up each shoot again and again until the rhizomes are exhausted.

There is still no signs of the calendula seeds we sowed twelve days ago germinating. To be honest I have no idea how long they normally take to germinate, but as I usually tend towards the impatient side, and I was always a bit skeptical that the packet would still contain viable seeds, I am suspecting that nothing is going to appear. Pushing on ahead, today we planted a pot of borage seeds (Borage officinalis) and another of poached eggs, which is hardly the nicest plant name I’ve ever come across, so I think I’ll just refer to it as Limnanthes douglasii from now on. Both pots will only really be large enough for one plant of each; a rather small plant in the borage’s case; but that will suffice. There may be just enough room for one borage plant in the back bed too, in front of the peas, but I doubt it with everything else I’d like to squeeze in there.

We did also buy a few plants from the greenhouse at St Werburghs City Farm, which sells plants as part of its horticulture training scheme for adults with special needs. A couple of chervil (Anthriscus cerefolium) and a dwarf variety of sunflower, which hopefully should grow to about the same height as the children. They were repotted this afternoon, despite a cold shower of rain, and with the children “helping” moving the compost about.

borage, calendula, chervil, germination, limnanthes douglasii, pea, rosebay willowherb, sowing, sunflower, weeding

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A bowlful of mud

We had the children planting peas yesterday. Never mind cress: in theory they are surely an ideal children’s plant? They germinate fairly quickly and easily, grow fairly fast, have interesting shapes as they climb, and produce something you can eat. Moreover, we’ve always had a reasonable amount of success with peas in the past, despite my moans of despair at them falling over rather than climbing (see the archives on here for various moans of woe).

Some would think that sitting two toddlers down at the kitchen table with a bowlful of “soil” (actually seed compost) would be a Bad Idea, but I was impressed just how well it worked. Give each child a small fibre pot and a spoon, and they quickly work out what to do. When it’s about half-full, hand them a pea, let them drop it in, and when they look away make sure it’s nicely aligned in the middle of the pot. Watch them spoon more compost in, tamping it down occasionally, and there you are.

So now we have eighteen pea seeds in pots on the windowsill, waiting to see if they come up, and waiting to see if, if and when they do, the children remember that they planted them. When they do come up, we are planning to try them in the back bed this time, which does make me worry if they will survive without being savaged by slugs also. Fingers crossed, I suppose.

pea, sowing

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Seeds

The gardening was certainly a hit with the children: the first thing they wanted to tell the child-minder the next time they went to see her. Indeed, most days since then they have asked, at some point, to help in the garden. They now have a small watering can. The watering can may have been a mistake. They like watering, maybe a bit too much. For The Child Who Likes Animals, their watering can just isn’t enough: he has to grab hold of the big watering can and take charge of that. The Child Who Likes Fairies is happy with the small one, but every time it’s empty there is a cry of “More water!”

We have acquired and re-potted another new plant from the garden centre: a lavender, Lavandula x intermedia “Vera”. A small one-litre plant at the moment, we’ve put it into a wide plastic thing in the hope that it will grow into it and never need repotting ever again.

Now, I’ve heard the theory that planting a small plant into a big pot that it doesn’t really need doesn’t do very much for the health of the plant; it just gives it chance to get a bit “pot-drunk” and doesn’t really translate into long-term healthiness. It sounds like a strange idea, though. I wouldn’t be surprised if maybe the plant doesn’t grow quite as fast above-ground, because it will put more work into extending its roots. However, even in a container, good roots are surely rather more important if you want to ensure the plant will live any length of time. I don’t mind if this plant doesn’t grow quite as fast or quite as large, straight away, as if I’d only put it into a three-litre pot initially, if that means it won’t need repotting again in a year’s time. Time will tell, I suppose.

At the same time – this was on Saturday – I planted some seeds with The Child Who Likes Fairies. Calendulas, from a packet that is three-years date expired. On the other hand they were very reliable seeds when I last tried them a few years ago. We have plenty more new ones to try in the coming weeks; I just rather like these calendulas. The interesting part is going to be seeing, if and when they germinate, if TCWLF realises they are the seeds she planted. We do have a packet of dwarf sunflowers in hand to plant, but they have a 3-week germination time. Even I have trouble remembering what I’ve planted where three weeks later.

calendula, dutch lavender, lavender, lavendula

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