Symbolic Forest Gardenblog

An experiment in container gardening

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 Gretchen 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.

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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.



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.



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.

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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.

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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.




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 Ezra, their watering can just isn’t enough: he has to grab hold of the big watering can and take charge of that. Gretchen 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 Gretchen. 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 Gretchen 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.

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New Start

Spring has come around, and the brambles are slowly being hacked back. At least once a week, if the weather has been dry enough, I have been going outside, gloves on, and cutting my way into them. There aren’t many garden jobs I will wear gloves for, but demolishing brambles is one of them.

This has to be the year I get on top of the garden and get interested in it again, because the children – now aged two and a quarter – have started to take an interest in it themselves, partly because of me going out to hack the brambles down. “Daddy me help garden!” says Gretchen each time I look as if I’m about to go out there. Her “help” consists mostly of moving mud from place to place, of course; we gave her an old spoon in the hope she wouldn’t use her hands, but of course she does use her hands.

Given that the garden has been abandoned for two and a half years, more or less, not much is salvageable. One thing I have learned about keeping a largely container-based garden is that it does indeed require a lot of maintenance, because you don’t really end up creating a self-seeding ecosystem other than one based around dandelions. The bay bush that stands in an IKEA dustbin is doing just fine; the last potato crop in the other IKEA dustbin seems to have turned perennial, the foliage looking steadily less healthy each year. There is a pot of lavender which looks lively; a pot of rosemary which looks OK; and another rosemary and a purple sage which look as if they might survive, if we apply the defibrillator. Apart from that, there are a lot of pots filled with weeds or bare compost, and a goodly number of wooden containers in varied states of decay.

So, what to do? Back to basics, that’s what. Back to what we did five years ago when we decided we wanted to do something with our garden: go down to the garden centre, buy some plants, and see what we can make with them. The very first pots we bought are still in great condition, probably because they’re not just plain terracotta, so into them the plants go. Let’s see what happens.

There are a couple of tenets we’re trying to stick to this time. Firstly, we have children now, so it’s their garden too. The garden has to be safe for them to play in, have room for them to play in, and they need to be able to get involved in it. Secondly, we have much less time than we used to, so it has to be simple to maintain. We might only have a tiny garden, but we no longer have time to care for it on a square-millimetre basis. The other tenets are the same as always: organic principles as far as possible, things to be ideally productive, in some broad sense, as well as attractive, and the deliberate avoidance of neat rows and unnaturally bare soil. So the plants that have gone into pots today are:

  • Lemon thyme, Thymus x citriodorus.
  • Purple sage, Salvia officinalis purpurascens. Yes, even though we have one already just hanging on, and we’ve never had much success with sage previously. I am blaming our previous failures on small pots and over-watering.
  • Green fennel, Foeniculum vulgare.
  • French marjoram, Origanum onites.
  • Creeping thyme, Thymus praecox “coccineus”. No, you can’t eat this one.

As Gretchen has already shown herself highly skilled at moving soil from one place (usually pots) to another (usually the decking), we let her and her brother help repot them all. She quickly picked up the idea of moving compost from bag to pot. Her brother, on the other hand, preferred to run around the garden as fast as he could, but he definitely seemed to be enjoying it too. Even when the rain started, they didn’t want to stop. “Me like rain,” Gretchen said. Next time, we might even let them plant some seeds.

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The last time I posted here, it turns out, was over a year ago. I had plans. The garden might have been dormant and overgrown for a while, but I had definite plans. Now the children had reached the grand age of four months, I would have the time to get myself outside, finally finish off sorting out the back bed, plant things properly, spend time in the garden, spend time tending to and living in the garden.

Yes. So, of course, that didn’t happen. And the bramble bush that had rooted itself in one corner of the back bed grew, grew and grew, trying to colonise the sunny side of our tiny plot.

My parents last moved house when I was four years old. In the two or three months between my parents moving house, and my grandfather dying suddenly, I remember him giving my parents a bramble bush – or rather, a bramble cutting, rooted in a blue plastic bucket he had clearly cadged from the builders’ yard round the corner from his house: it was the sort of thin plastic bucket you get ready-mixed plaster and suchlike in. I don’t remember his exact words, but I remember the sentiment. Keep it in the bucket, he said. Plant the bucket, make sure it stays in the bucket, and you’ll be fine.

It did not, of course, stay in the bucket; my parents evidently were not watchful enough to look out for runners coming sideways over its flimsy plastic edge. By the time I was ready to leave primary school, most of the garden – a quite large garden, I should add, much larger than ours now – was taken over by one large bramble bush, taller than me, taller than my parents, tough, thorny, and impenetrable. Every summer my mother would pick the brambles from it, and make jam. I have a very clear memory of the last summer this happened – at a rough guess, I would have been about 12 or so. We spent a long, hot afternoon picking every ripe bramble we could reach, eating the odd one or two, before dumping the whole lot in the kitchen sink to be washed. My mother filled the bowl full of brambles with water to soak them, and three or four tiny maggoty wormy things crawled out of the centre of each fruit.

Having spent a few hours eating what turned out to be maggot-infested brambles, my mother decided at that point that the bramble bush had had its day lording it over the otherwise barren wasteland that was their back garden. Somehow she persuaded me that I ought to chop the thing down, so I spent a couple of days of my summer holiday gnawing away at it with secateurs and, for the thicker stems, a junior hacksaw. After more stuck thorns than I could count – we didn’t have anything resembling gardening gloves in the house – the enormous bush, taller than any of us, had been replaced by a slightly more compact pile of canes and stems and branches, still taller than any of us. My dad hired in a wood-chipper, and we spent a fun evening feeding the remains of the bramble bush into it, until nothing likely to root itself was left. The roots were left in the ground (I had sawn all the stems off just above ground level, and my dad certainly wasn’t going to go out there and dig them up), and after a few years’ recuperation they did find the energy to send up the odd stem here and there once more again, but the bramble bush’s days of dominating the garden were over and gone.

So, when I realised our garden was becoming at risk of being overrun, I was in two minds. On the one hand: happy memories of picking and eating them. On the other, I was always aware in the back of my mind that there’s a very real risk here. If I don’t do anything about it, in a year or two, we will barely be able to leave the back door.

We don’t really want that to happen: for one thing, we want the children to be able to run around in the garden and use some energy up. So, after the fruits have been gathered in, it is going to get the chop, although I’m not going to go to the extreme of hiring a wood-chipper to give it the final coup de grace. And tonight we collected our first bowlful.


Do they count as foraged if they’re wild things in your own garden? The last time I ate foraged brambles, they were from a wet and misty island in the Bristol Channel, and they tasted of almost entirely nothing at all, soggy cotton wool with a vague hint of fruit to them. These, on the other hand, are the exact opposite, little balls of dense, concentrated tartness, nothing at all like a bramble from the shops. Far too tart to give to the children raw, despite how much they love the shop-bought ones. Hopefully we’ll be able to turn them into a compote of some kind. Hopefully, too, there aren’t many maggots inside.

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It hasn’t been a cold winter, but it feels like it’s been a long, wet winter, a winter for slugs and snails. Moreover, the last time I wrote something on this blog, we had zero children in the family. Today, we have two children in the family; things have been a little busy in the past few months.

Spring has sprung, though, and the summer flowers I mentioned previously are starting to bloom. The borage plants have sprung up thick, hairy stems, looking ridiculously large in the box they are growing out of, hanging clusters of buds starting to open. Here’s a picture from a couple of weeks ago, just before they did:

Borage buds

One calendula plant has blossomed; the rest have fat buds nestling in their hearts. One box of the forget-me-nots is a green carpet with one or two small, gemlike lilac flowers starting to appear.

Strangely, though, not all of the flowers are doing as well as the others. We planted five boxes, in a line on top of the garden wall, borage in the middle, calendula either side, forget-me-nots at either end. The two boxes on the shadier side of the borage are doing very well; on the other side, the calendula has a couple of slightly sick-looking plants in it, and the forget-me-not box has a couple of small seedlings, hardly anything compared to the thick growth at the other end of the wall. If anything, I would have thought things would have gone the opposite way around, and the sunnier boxes would be those doing best.

The white clover we planted as a green manure had also flowered, beautiful tiny white flowers. It was probably supposed to be dug in before that happened; never mind. Today, I turned it all over, and also tried to get up the taproots of a couple of dandelions that had settled in there over the winter. No doubt I didn’t quite manage to dig all over the clover up; I’m not really bothered if I didn’t. If we ever have a garden large enough for a lawn, I’d much rather fill the space with camomile, clover, and other similar low-growing plants. Next week, after the clover has started to rot down, I will try to make sure I sow something else.

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