A week ago, we passed the midpoint of the calendar year; a week or two before that, the midpoint of the solar year. A good place, I thought, to put together a little bit of a summary on how things are growing so far. With the weather, of course, it’s not going too well. There are bright spots, though. Here’s a summary, at least of the plants that are worth talking about.
- Potatoes: they’re not quite ready yet. Of the two batches of potatoes I planted, the first seem to be doing quite well. The second, though, are having problems. When I planted them, they were already far too leggy, and they stayed far too leggy as they grew. Because of that, they haven’t coped with the weather at all: they have flopped all over the place. For some reason, floppy potato plants are far more attractive to slugs and snails than tidy, well-behaved ones are.
- Green beans: the first batch were planted far too early, but happily sat in their pot for a month or two until the weather was warm enough. They’ve just reached the top of their poles, buds are starting to come, and the second batch I germinated are now ready to pot on.
- Runner beans: these went in a bit later than the green beans, and are already in full flower. They seem to be a little reluctant to set fruit, though; only one or two tiny embryo beans have been spotted so far. The standard advice for persuading beans to set seems to be “spray the flowers with water”, but given the weather I don’t really think that would help. Most of the salad leaves I planted around the base of the beans completely bolted before the weather turned wet, but some of the lettuce has been harvested and eaten.
- Garlic: also looking a bit windblown, and also not quite ready yet. They have, in the past couple of days, very quickly put forth a scape on each plant: the scapes are now safely in the fridge for eating.
- Peas: if you ever hear anyone say to you “semi-leafless peas are self-supporting when sown in a block”, put your hands over your ears. And tape their mouth shut. And shoot them. This may be true in theory, but in reality I found that the growing peas could not cope at all with the weight of their pods. The first batch has already been harvested; and when I took them down, I could see just how twisted and serpentine the later batches have become. A final extra-big batch has been sown and planted on, spaced slightly further apart and with a lot more support provided by horizontal strings: I suspect the tight planting of the first couple of batches was the cause of the large number of pods with just two or three peas inside.
- Courgettes: the first of these were planted on about a month ago now, and seem to be doing fairly well. The first few flowers have bloomed: the problem is that with only a handful of plants, and the flowers only lasting a few days, it is difficult to get male and female flowers in bloom at the same time.
- Lemon balm: I picked these seeds up at the Bristol Seed Swap at the Cube Cinema back in February. Back in May, I put them in a pot, and waited for them to grow. Nothing happened, and I assumed something had gone wrong: all died, all rotted, all eaten by evil weevils. However, just this morning, I spotted one tiny seedling starting to emerge. Maybe it will turn out to be a lemon balm plant. So there’s a bright spot.
Writing out a list like this makes me aware of just how many different plants there are in the garden at the moment: I haven’t even had space to mention the mint; the basil mint; the peppermint; camomile; chervil; borage; French marigolds; English marigolds; cornflowers; thyme; lemon thyme; sage; rosemary; lavender; sweet peas; flat parsley; curly parsley; the fennel; or the chard. Probably best not to mention the chard at all, in fact, because I’m sure it’s a bad sign when your chard and your beans are the same height. Time to plant some more there, I think.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Carefully peeling off the papery skin revealed a tight-packed spiral of fat cloves
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.
This morning, I came across an interesting article in The Observer: for many plants and animals, spring seems to have come the wrong side of winter. Animals that should be hibernating are waking up again, and plants are still growing strongly and flowering, possibly because the weather has been unusually mild for the season. It prompted me to go outside into the garden, and have a look at the green bean plants, which we had left on their poles, just stems and pods and a few raggedy leaves, so that the beans we had left on the plant could develop and dry naturally ready for next year. Indeed, what did I find on the green beans? Lots of new buds, some of them just coming into flower. Here’s a photo I took this afternoon.
No doubt these flowers are not going to get much further; and they’re definitely not going to set fruit because we’ve not had any bees in the garden for a few weeks now. This weather doesn’t seem quite right, though.
There are a few things I did in the garden this week, largely while K was baking the Christmas cake. See, “just coming into flower” and “baking the Christmas cake” aren’t phrases that go well together at all if you’re north of the Equator. This is what got done:
- Pulling up the last of the radishes.
- Pruning some of the perennial herbs – the thymes, lavender, feverfew, and mint.
- Saving seed that is ready, or almost ready: runner beans, green beans, and coriander.
No doubt I am doing all this at entirely the wrong time of year, but – as far as the pruning was concerned, anyway – it felt like the right time to do it. The beans are for sowing next year; the coriander seeds are probably for the spice cupboard, and the pruned thyme branches were saved for the oven too.
Since the last “week in the garden” post, we have:
- Harvested the first green beans
And, because we went away for a long weekend, that was about it. The garden didn’t take too kindly to us going away, either. Or, rather, it didn’t take too kindly to the weather: the combination of dry, hot days without us there for watering, followed by heavy rain, has not had good results. The spring onions have suffered in particular, and the runner beans have also had problems.
Back in the mists of time – well, August – before this blog had properly started, we sowed a few boxes of quick-growing things to give us some more produce into the autumn. As I mentioned then, I tried an experiment. All of the seeds were sowed into previously-used compost; and for each seed, I sowed one box into compost that had been used to grow peas, and one box into compost that hadn’t. It’s three-and-a-half weeks later now, and the results are pretty clear, at least for the radishes.
The pea compost is, I’m fairly sure, the one on the right. Science!
This week, we have:
- Continued harvesting runner beans, and also the first of the green beans
- Harvested a box of radishes, leaving the two we planted a couple of weeks ago still developing.
- We’ve still not quite got the hang of radishes. We thinned out the still-growing boxes, rather more than previously, in the hope of getting a nice bulb on every plant.
- Harvested the last of the carrots.
- Harvested pretty much all of the mature Swiss chard – the baby leaves are still untouched
- Thinned out the smallest beetroot plants.
Before long, I suspect, we’ll have to look at chopping back some of our perennials for the winter. The camomile plant is definitely looking a bit too straggly and overgrown; the sage needs harvesting for its own health; and so, I suspect, do the chives, having taken a bit of a battering in the recent weather. We’re also not entirely sure when would be best to start harvesting our spring onions. They feel as if they’ve been in the ground an awfully long time, some of them, but their stems don’t seem to have reached a good width yet. Well, this always was intended to be a Learning Year.
Not very much has been happening in the garden in the past couple of weeks. Although everything is still productive, now the peas have gone it feels as if things have started winding down for the winter already. Having said that, the beans are still going strong; we’re picking a good handful of runner beans every few days, with plenty more blossom coming, and the first green beans are nearly ready to pick. The sweet peas planted under the green beans are going well, too, some of them almost as high as the beans themselves.
Maybe part of the winding-down feel comes from the weather: lots of rain, with some very heavy downpours, which have broken a few stems. It’s also delayed our ongoing project to dig out the back bed, which we really wanted to have finished by now.