An experiment in container gardening

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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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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 The Child Who Likes Fairies 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 The Child Who Likes Fairies 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. The Child Who Likes Animals, 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,” TCWLF said. Next time, we might even let them plant some seeds.

back from the dead, creeping thyme, fennel, french marjoram, green fennel, herbs, lemon thyme, marjoram, purple sage, sage, summary, thyme

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Foraging

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.

Brambles

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.

blackberry, bramble, foraging, Rubus fruitcosus

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The week in the garden

This week, it really feels as if the garden is properly getting itself going. More and more insects are out and about, and more things are starting to come alive. The lettuce and calendulas sown three weeks ago have just made their first appearance above ground, and the pea seedlings which have been growing on the kitchen windowsill are getting larger and larger, stretching their tendrils like the most grotesque of scarecrows. Today I started hardening them off ready for planting out; I probably should have done it earlier.

Pea seedlings on their first day out in the garden

More peas will start germinating soon. The first batch of this year’s potato crop went into the ground today too – well, into their container. This year we picked Red Duke Of York, as something we are unlikely to see in the greengrocers, and I’ve tried to squeeze four tubers into the container rather than last year’s three. The second batch will be planted in about a month’s time.

To get the potatoes, we popped over to the Riverside in Southville. Naturally, we were rather tempted by their selection of herb plants. Possibly too tempted: intending go there purely to get potatoes, we also came home with a black peppermint, some sweet peas, and two fennel plants. The fennel is instead of the dill we grew last year; I will explain more about that later.

black peppermint, calendula, fennel, lettuce, marigold, mint, pea, peppermint, potato, spring, sweet pea

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Microclimates

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.

borage, calendula, clover, forget-me-not, white clover

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Bays and harbours

There is one benefit, of course, to leaving the garden to go to seed for a year. It means that the wildlife can get along with things all on their own, without me coming along to pull up their homes and generally keep disturbing things. Whilst clearing the garden up in the past few weeks, we’ve seen lots of shieldbugs, crab spiders, caterpillars, various different insects and suchlike going about their own business and making the most of the place.

A couple of years ago, we bought a bee house, and nailed it up on the wall of the shed. It saw little use, to be honest, apart from by spiders and a couple of holes filled by a mason bee last year. This summer, though, leafcutter bees have found it, and made good use of it.

Bee house with leafcutter bees inside

As you can see from the picture, leafcutter bees are quite picky about the sizes of the holes they will lay eggs in. You can also see one of the holes which a mason bee presumably crawled out of earlier in the year. Hopefully, at some point in the spring, a family of newly-mature leafcutter bees will emerge again.

In other news, we have sowed a few flowers ready for next summer: calendula, forget-me-not and borage. Slowly we’re drifting away from the original idea of making the garden as edible as we could, but that was never a strictly hard-and-fast rule to start with. They are, at least, all flowers which should please the leafcutters and bumblebees at various times next spring and summer. On the herb front, we’ve acquired a few stems of bay, and planted them in one of the wastebins used in previous seasons for growing potatoes. Growing potatoes is difficult to justify in a garden the size of ours; hopefully the bay will make a bush to last for a few years to come.

bay, bee, bee house, borage, calendula, forget-me-not, leafcutter

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Renaissance

Regular readers of this site – all one of you – might have noticed that things have been rather quiet for a while here. There is, of course, a good reason for that. The reason is: the state of the garden, in the second half of last year, was such a disaster that I really didn’t feel like writing about it. I really didn’t feel like going into the garden. And so, nothing was put away for the winter, everything was left to fend for itself. A surprising amount of plants survived the winter, but the ones that did were mostly killed off by the heat earlier this summer. So now, effectively, we are starting again. The only produce we’ve had from the garden in 2013 is a small bowl from an interloper, something very tasty that we didn’t really ask for.

Blackberries

For some reason, gardening tasks always seem to end up involving brambles. I can dimly remember, aged about 5, my grandfather giving my parents a bramble shoot with the advice to keep it in a bucket lest it take over the whole garden. Naturally, by the time I had reached my teens, it had taken over, well, half the garden (the rest was lawn), and I spent what seems in memory to be most of a summer cutting it down, piece by piece, first with secateurs then with hacksaw, until my parents’ only option was to hire a wood chipper to deal with the pile of chunks. At the previous place we lived in Bristol, there was virtually no garden, and the only gardening task I ever did was regularly chop back a bramble which had managed to root itself under the decking. They really are amazing plants, in their ability to cover an area, take it over, turn everything underneath into a barren desert, and like bindweed they are endemic in this part of Bristol. So when I saw bramble runners sprouting forth over our back fence and dropping down seeking earth, I knew it had to go. After we’d eaten its fruit, of course.

The origin of the bramble is quickly explained, if we skip back to the garden plan posted a couple of years back:

Garden plan

That area at top-right marked “Jungle of weeds” was all dug up about a year ago. They now have a shed, backing on to our boundary, and a high wooden fence extending off to the right. However, the cleared land on their side of said fence has been left to revert back to weediness. With their new fence, there is now double the Ominous Gap marked on the plan, and it’s this gap which has been colonised by bramble. I can reach down and chop off anything threatening to poke its way over into our space, but I have no hope at all of digging up the roots. In other words, my life is once again doomed to regularly cutting back brambles.

Apart from the bramble-hacking, what are we going to do now that we’ve admitted we’re going to restart from scratch? Try to plant things that don’t take as much nursing, for one thing, so that the garden will survive if we want a summer holiday; and things that don’t necessarily look appetising to every slug and snail in town. Lots of herbs, lots of insect-attracting flowers, and maybe the odd item of produce that we can’t easily buy here. For now, we’ve cut down the weeds that were colonising the back bed and sowed white clover for the winter, to refresh its nitrates and try to give the weeds no space to come back. Before the winter, we’ll start growing a bulb’s worth of garlic, and sow our spring flowers: of all last year’s produce, the garlic was the best harvest, and was barely touched by pests. Then, next year, hopefully things will be green again.

blackberry, bramble, clover, garlic, weeds, white clover

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Potato harvest

The first batch of potatoes, Red Duke Of Yorks, is now up and out of the ground. By “ground” I mean “bin”, of course.

Potato harvest

And when I say “first batch”, I mean “second batch”. The second batch of potatoes, the ones that were hugely leggy because their shoots were already six inches in length when I planted them, died off well before the plants from the first batch, one of which is still in full greenery. Presumably this is a result of the shoots being far too long; which, in turn, led to them having much more trouble with the bad weather.

harvest, potato

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