Symbolic Forest Gardenblog

An experiment in container gardening

Archive for the ‘Practicalities’ Category

Growing up

Never trust anything you read, especially if it is on the back of a seed packet. “Self-supporting if sown in a block”, it says on the back of the packet of peas I’ve been sowing for the past couple of months. Self-supporting if sown in a block. Now, I admit, the pea stems aren’t exactly lying flat on the ground, but they have lurched rather drunkenly over to one side, the well-grown stems from the first batch completely swamping the later ones. I have, rather belatedly, added some string to prop everything up and get everything growing a bit more upright. I’m not too sure how these peas are doing: the first batch may have plenty of leaf and tendril, but there is no sign of any sort of flower yet.

Both batches of potatoes are well up now and have completed earthing up – the second batch with a few sprigs of leaves showing, the first batch with a good head of foliage. The leaves of this year’s variety are, initially, a beautiful deep maroon in colour.

Young potato leaves

I was hoping that the plants would retain the colour as they grow. As the leaves get larger, however, they fall back to a more conventional deep green, with only the midrib and some of the larger veins keeping the red pigment. There is no sign yet, touch wood, of the leafhoppers which plagued our potatoes last year.

More mature potato leaves

Two weeks ago, I sowed the main batch of courgette seeds, and was rather wary. We’ve not tried to grow them before, and I’ve heard stories of people having lots of trouble with them this year. However, in exactly 7 days every seed in the batch had germinated and was showing itself above the surface. I’ve killed off one as it was showing signs of rot, but the rest seem to be going well. They have started hardening up, and before they’re three weeks old should be ready for planting out.

One last thing for today: if you read Alys Fowler’s advice column in the Guardian Weekend magazine, you might have noticed last Saturday’s query about mossy containers. My mossy containers, that is: that was my letter! In particular, the container with our Swiss chard plants in, which developed a thick green carpet last autumn which didn’t seem to bother the plants at all. I shall stop worrying now that the moss might be bad for them.

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Rain

It rained all last weekend; and since planting up the runner beans on Tuesday the rain has been essentially continuous. So I’m getting somewhat behind with the gardening, and getting more and more depressed about the state of the place. Gardening has been limited to poking the camera lens through the kitchen door, which is an angle I don’t normally try. The curly parsley decided, when the weather was hot over Easter, that it was time to bolt into flower. So far its flowers have not yet come out: maybe the rain has made it regret its decision.

Parsley trying to flower, in the rain

From that angle, the garden looks rather lush. It doesn’t feel that way when you’re standing in the middle of it. Moreover, the wet weather has prompted the local slugs and snails to mount a full-on attack of chewing. The garlic and fennel are too strongly-flavoured, but the runner beans and lettuces have survived a major hit, some of the pea plants are just hanging on, and a tray of coriander seedlings was completely destroyed, not a leaf left. Last night I went out twice, armed with scissors, and killed about eight slugs and five snails, stabbing the snails thoroughly and snipping the slugs in half. Well, it’s better for the rest of the garden than poison, and it definitely kills them before they can eat any more.

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Potatoes everywhere

After being lazy for far too long, this week I have finally managed to get our second batch of potatoes into the ground. Another potato bin, the same as the first, was acquired from a certain Swedish-Dutch furniture giant; its base was thoroughly perforated; and I delved into the cupboard under the stairs to find the bag of Red Duke Of York seed potatoes we bought from the Riverside over a month ago now. Unfortunately, I discovered a bit of a problem.

Some authorities on potatoes, you may already know, suggest chitting your tubers before planting. Leave them in a suitable spot, undisturbed, to get to work growing shoots, to give them a bit of a head start when they get in the ground. Other authorities say they’ve found chitting more trouble than it’s worth, because the chitted shoots are rather too prone to damage and can easily break off, leaving a potato with no more eyes and no more chance of growth. All of these authorities say that: if you do chit, plant the tubers when the shoots are about a couple of inches long.

Well, with our second batch of potatoes for this year we didn’t get any choice in the matter. Going under the stairs to find them, I discovered that they had managed to thoroughly chit themselves, all around each other and through the sides of the bag they were in, to a good six or seven inch length. Getting plantable potatoes out of the bag, without breaking the shoots off was an incredibly delicate job; and I hate to think how much I damaged them when backfilling their planting holes and firming them in. Still, most of my earthing up has already effectively been done, I suppose. It remains to be seen if any potatoes will result.

Nevertheless, the first batch of potatoes is doing well, with a good showing of richly-coloured dark maroon-green leaves coming up from at least two of the tubers. The coriander seeds I mentioned in the last post have germinated well, after about 10 days on the windowsill; and the runner beans I sowed at the same time are now all a good few inches in height. It will be tempting, if we get a warm Sunday in the next few weeks, to get my tripod out and try doing a time-lapse video of the runner bean vines coiling their way up their poles.

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Seed Swap

This afternoon: a seed swapping event at my favourite cinema, The Cube off King Square. I felt rather sheepish going along, because I felt I didn’t have any seeds to take. I do have seeds I’ve saved, but I have no idea at all if any of them are viable, so didn’t feel I could pass them on to the rest of the Bristol gardening community quite yet.

However, it wasn’t a wasted trip, because there was plenty to do besides swap seeds. There was a Compost Cam showing people just how entrancing worms can be to watch; there were taste tests inviting you to spot the home-grown food; and, being a cinema, there were documentary showings. I was particularly interested by one, a BBC documentary from two or three years ago, on the future of farming. In a nutshell: modern farming is doomed. Modern farming needs oil, lots of it, both for combustion engines and for chemical feedstock. As the oil industry declines, modern farming – and the entire modern food economy – will rapidly become unaffordable. All very depressing. The answer, according to the programme, is in seeing biodiversity as an essential part of food production rather than just something that gives us pretty wildlife; in designing agricultural systems which work with rather than against our natural environment; and in a move away from factory-scale agriculture towards smallholdings, because organic smallholdings, run by gardeners rather than farmers, can produce rather more food per acre than an industrial farm can. One thinks here of the Soviet Union, where despite the vast acreage of mechanised kolkhoz and sovkhoz farms, all of the quality food, and a big proportion of the staples, was cultivated on the smallholdings of kolkhoz employees in their spare time and sold in barely-tolerated private markets. Gardeners are better than farmers, it seems. Unfortunately, this is because gardeners devote much more time and attention to each square metre of land than a farmer can, and any sort of smallholding-based solution to the oncoming food supply problem will mean social change at an earth-shattering level.

The other question which comes up regularly in my mind, which the documentary reminded me of, is: just how sustainable, in the long term, is the sort of small-back-garden container gardening that I do? Because, on the face of it, it doesn’t seem to be the healthiest form of gardening. Sustainability is all about generating healthy, fertile soil, soil with its own ecosystem. The ecosystem is needed to replace everything that my plants take away, to replace everything that ends up in my dinner, and if nothing ever goes back into the soil to replace that the soil ends up dead. The general “conventional” guideline for container gardening seems to be: “use fresh compost; grow your plants; your compost is now exhausted”. That process isn’t going to build up any sort of long term sustainability.

I do have some thoughts and ideas about the above: how to make container gardening more sustainable, at the systemic level. The container garden equivalent of the medieval three-field system, maybe. This post is already well into TLDR territory, so those thoughts will come later. In other news, I just hope that the Cube do hold another event next year, when I can donate more to the proceedings myself.

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Seed storage

As I mentioned our seed tin in passing the other day, I thought I might tell you a bit more about it. I asked for it on my Christmas list last year, and it comes from Ripe, a little independent homeware supplier that used to have a shop on Perry Road, but now operate from a mail-order address in Totterdown. It is, technically, a lunch tin, with cartoon hedgehogs on the side.

The Mother phoned up, after getting the list. “This tin. You do realise it’s a child’s lunch tin?” Well, yes. “You could use any old tin to keep seeds in!” I’m not sure she really understood that just having a tin wasn’t entirely the point.

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The Yuletide Holiday

The intention, over the long Yuletide break, was to finish off tidying up the garden, clean out those remaining pots which had last year’s perennials in, and get straight on with finishing the digging of the back bed. The reality, however, was that the sofa and fireside proved too attractive.

Despite that, I have started to use one of the garden-related presents I received. From K’s sister: a garden-themed notebook.

Garden notebook

It came from Papermash, ultimately from a Korean stationery company, and inside is a normal ruled notebook; but I do love the watercolour cover. I’m going to use it as a garden diary notebook, so that I can write down what I’ve noticed when I notice it, and what I’ve done when I’ve done it, without having to come online and come here to make a note. So far it has but one entry, from last Wednesday, when I noticed the first garlic plant poking its shoot up above the surface of the soil. So far there is still only one shoot visible: I must have planted that clove rather shallower than the rest.

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Saving Seed

We missed harvesting the last green beans and runner beans this year, because we had a holiday planned. By the time we got home, they had gone past eating. Still, no point letting them go to waste, so we left the beans on the plant to develop and dry. That was the intention, at least: as the weather became wetter, it didn’t look like there was much chance of them drying successfully on the plant, so we picked them and popped them into a tub in the fridge – unsealed, but covered with kitchen roll. I gathered it would be a good drying-out spot for beans: cold, dark, and naturally drying. Now, a few weeks later, they are dry, hard, and ready to be popped into a storage tin. And they are beautiful: creamy-white green beans and rich, midnight blue and pink runner beans.

Dried beans

It is, really, the whole point of sustainable gardening. We are never going to be self-sufficient, with our little city plot, but equally we don’t want to be restocking our containers with freshly-grown garden centre seedlings each spring when we can raise our own instead. I don’t expect all of these seeds to be viable, but we don’t need many to be viable: this pot could fill our entire garden with beans if we wanted. This isn’t sophisticated breeding: the runner beans are from some spare plants a friend gave us, and the green beans are from some free seeds the BBC was giving out the other year, part of their Dig In project. Being beans, they might not even breed true, but hopefully next year’s bean supply is now in place.

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Water shortage

In the news the other day: the ongoing drought is, well, ongoing; it will take an awful lot of rain just to get our aquifiers back to where they normally are by the end of winter.

Over in Bristol things aren’t as bad as they are further east: we have more rainfall over here than the rest of the country, or at least it always feels that way. Still, it makes me feel guilty about container gardening. It does need more water: containers are always drying out, and don’t catch as much rain as you might expect, especially in a sheltered garden with walls and fences on all sides. Our back bed, when we get it into use, will assuredly be always slightly too damp: it already tends to have a green scum quickly appearing on the surface of the soil, as if it were still in the Proterozoic eon.

What we should be doing, of course, is getting a butt set up. Indeed, if you scroll down or look back at the layout of our garden, you’ll see that we have a couple of potential butt-sites mapped out. One, by the door, would take up quite a bit of our main container-planting space. The other, in a corner between the shed and the house, would be a useful way to occupy an awkward spot; but the problem is getting the water to it. The former site is right by the downpipe, but the more useful site is a long way from the water supply. A pipe would have to be run across the back of the house – right across where the kitchen window is. The gutters are too low, really, to run a pipe across the top of the window, and a pipe underneath it would mean a rather short water butt.

The whole thing is a bit of a tricky problem. I know, conscientiously, we should be saving at least a portion of our rainwater, but finding the place to save it in is going to be a problem. Maybe we’re going to have to think of another way to do it, and work out a more radical answer.

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Winter planting

Today, we cut down the remaining wizened bean plants, having made sure we had saved all the potentially viable beans for sowing next spring. With the beans and their canes missing, the garden has lost all its height, and looks very empty all of a sudden. Very bare, compared to June or July.

However, the cycle goes around. In the post, the other day, a garlic bulb arrived.

Solent Wight garlic bulb

Carefully peeling off the papery skin revealed a tight-packed spiral of fat cloves

Solent Wight garlic bulb

This is a softneck variety, Solent Wight, chosen because it’s meant to be a particularly easy variety to grow in southern England, as you might expect from the name. The cloves were planted up in a couple of our largest containers, moved to the sunniest side of the garden along the wall of the house; in spring a thin sprinkling of annual flower seeds might go in between the garlic stems if there looks to be enough space for them. In 8 or 9 months, if all goes well, this bulb will have turned into ten or more ready for drying and eating.

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Not As Bad As It Might Have Been

As I think I mentioned a while ago, shortly after we moved into Symbolic Towers we noticed a vinelike plant spreading itself rapidly over the garden trellis. None there at all when we moved in, but within a couple of months the trellis was covered. Bindweed. It seems to be endemic in this part of Bristol: you can’t go anywhere this time of year without seeing its foliage and its white trumpets clogging up fences and doing their best to strangle other plants, particularly in semi-wild areas like the edges of railway lines. We’ve spent a lot of time tracing every stalk, and digging up every little bit of bindweek rhizome we could find; carefully, like archaeologists, to make sure we didn’t break the rhizomes up or leave fragments behind. It has mostly worked: a few stems have come back, but only a few, none of them very strong. On those, we tried a method we heard on Gardeners’ Question Time: singing and blackening the leaves. It worked, too, sort of, although (of course) not as effectively as physical removal.

I was aware, of course, that things could have been far, far worse. Moreover, I was reminded by a news story K came across, about Japanese knotweed. It reminded me of the advice I read in (I think) an Alys Fowler book: if you have knotweed, move house. There are knotweed-infested places in Bristol – Arno’s Vale cemetary, for one, and some parts of the riverbank in St Philips – and, if we visit any, we are always extremely careful not to go near the stuff. Over-careful, maybe, but it’s not something we could exactly risk.

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