Monthly Archive August 2013


Polyculture gardening

I’ve spent some time thinking about what style of gardening I do. This has been precipitated by doubt spread by an allotment neighbour as to the actual sustainability of my gardening. It comes down to this: recycling stalks, peelings, weeds and grass cuttings is only partially recycling the nutrients on my plot because I am taking the edible parts away with me and not returning those nutrients.

That is true. It is worth mentioning though that plants gain quite a lot from the air, passing urinating animals, and sunlight as well as the nutrients in the soil. Also, microbes in the soil are fixing nitrogen from the air as well, regardless of whether or not my plants are nitrogen fixing. But the point was well made, I believe there is a shortfall and I’m damned if I’m going to go to B&Q to buy products to make up for it. Read More



I’ve been digging more of my new half plot. For those who didn’t know, it is about 400 square feet and substantially covered with brambles, bindweed and couch grass. It couldn’t actually be a worse combination for digging out. I’ve had it for nearly a year and apart from digging out the worst of the brambles I haven’t actually done much with it. The smaller brambles have taken advantage of the increased space and shot up, the bindweed following close behind.

So, I have two choices: nuke the place from orbit, spray with glyphosate or dig the lot by hand, removing every last scrap of weed roots that I find. Peer pressure and my own ethics have stopped me, so far, from using the old weedkiller, but I can see a time when I might have no choice. So digging it is. I have dug parts of the new plot, but the going was so slow. Each spade full was packed tightly (it is heavy clay, just to make things easier) with weed roots and it was taking me about an hour to do a square metre. I pretty much gave up, for the time being, and concentrated on getting a yield from the old plot.

Some parts of the new plot that I had dug brambles up from (but not other weeds) I had sheet mulched with cardboard covered with a few inches of leaf mould. This did not stop the bindweed which simply went straight up through the mulch, but has definitely suppressed the couch grass. Now that I have dug these areas I can definitely recommend as my top tip of the month to mulch for a year and then dig. It is so much easier.


Closed loop fertility possible or doubtful?

I had a chat with one of my allotment neighbours two days ago, a guy who with his partner has a very pretty allotment, packed with really good looking veg, lots of it and in wooden sided raised beds. He seems quite a progressive kind of guy so I started talking about sustainability and how his quinoa stalks and corn stalks, when composted, would add fertility to his plot. Of course, he replied, both those plants don’t add anything to the soil.

And he may be right.

Because I am an argumentative, political, kind of bloke I rely on my gob to keep flapping to win arguments. But I was a bit stumped.  I came up with some guff about all organic matter feeding microbes that multiply, die off and add more plant food than you had before, but the way I trailed off suggested even I didn’t believe it, and I was the one talking. Plus his family farm acres in America and they have compost heaps the size of my allotment plot. They know that external inputs create fertility (manure and fertiliser) and the proof was in front of me, in front of my own eyes, in this guy’s allotment.

Have I been sold a pup?  I need to audit what I’m doing.

I don’t necessarily believe (from the doubt that has crept in) that recycled organic matter does the business. Therefore, my 100 sq feet of broad beans (fava) will not add any further fertility to the soil than was already there. The plant is nitrogen fixing but all of that nitrogen, apparently, goes into making the beans and not into the compost heap. John Jeavons says that it is the carbon we are after to fill up our compost heap, thus allowing us to enjoy our beans, but I think it is the nitrogen, because the plant uses clever biology to add it from the air – a new resource that wasn’t in the soil in the first place. This means, if I am right, that I have to cut down the broad beans before they make beans. I can’t have my cake (fertiliser) and eat it (food).

So what am I doing, on the plot, that I know actually raises and maintains the fertility in the soil?

1) I have two young hedges of nitrogen fixing trees that I will trim to provide nitrogen for the compost heap and, because they are trees, draw up nutrients from deep in the soil. There are other benefits, hedges control soil erosion, provide habitats for wildlife and provide hiding places for cats to ambush pigeons when they try to scoff my brassicas.

2) Interplanting my crops with nitrogen fixing clovers and vetches during the growing season

3) Growing nitrogen fixing green manures (again clovers and vetches) during the autumn and winter on my growing beds.

4) Several large clumps of comfrey. Yes, I know it doesn’t add anything to the soil that wasn’t already there, but myself and others have had good results from it, and it doesn’t seem to run out of nutrients.

5) Growing perennial nitrogen fixing clumps of sweet peas (the everlasting kind) and composting the greenery in the autumn.

Not too bad, though I don’t think I am going to be able to stop using inputs next year, I should be able to halve them. That being said, the compost heaps are starting to look good and big, and may provide a substantial part of the 48 buckets of compost I need according to the biointensive system. Sadly, though, I’m not sure I believe in the value of my own compost anymore. Anyway only one way to find out and that is by experimenting, growing veg and eating it. If I get any at all that is.


More bumble bee love and more squashes

IMAG0811 copy

IMAG0813 copyMore bumble bee nonsense. I may be *am* anthropomorphising my garden bumble bees, because now they are starting to give me cuddles. This may be the bee I saved from the “existential horror factory” otherwise known as my spider population. To be honest, the spider looked at the size of  the bee struggling in his web, stroked his chin and muttered that he was going to need something extra special to handle this big a job. I’d like to think the bee came and rewarded me with a little waggerly dance on my t-shirt but I might be thinking total bollox. I may know that animals even insects are more clever and more feeling than we give them credit for, but this sudden affection for bees is entering tree hugging territory and the hard nosed inner rationalist is not happy.

Besides, as my wife says – bees are the messengers of the Goddess Aphrodite and who can ignore the gods?.

Or my wife.

IMAG0805I have inserted another photo of me stroking another bumble bee. Does anyone in interwebland know how I am getting away with this without being stung?

I am continuing to harvest squashes – I have to say “Crown Prince” is very productive – and adding them to the pile in the living room. There is a fair amount of food – and posh food at that – that will store through most of the winter. I say that though: my friend Stu refuses to cut his winter squashes until the plant has finished in autumn. He may be right, I have a nagging suspicion that early cut ones might not store that long, but I have done it to a) give me a boost of enthusiasm seeing produce in the house and b) to allow the plant to divert energies to the other smaller fruit on the plant. That’s the theory anyway.

My courgettes are now getting powdery mildew, an eventual harbinger of death for cucurbits, but they haven’t stopped producing. The courgettes, unlike the winter squashes, are in large pots. I am fastidious in their feeding and watering, because plants in pots fail very quickly in my experience. I am feeding them with nettle tea, comfrey tea and some freshly finished compost, all nice and juicy, which I am mulching things with.




Stroking Bees and Counting Pumpkins

Pyramid of skulls...uh...pumpkinsMy current pile of squashes (not counting courgettes – which are scoffed straight away) are sat on the table in our living room where I can admire them and remind myself just why I am growing vegetables. They have hard skins and some sound hollow. I’m hoping they will last well into winter – here’s hoping.

IMAG0801And there’s more to come. Some frenzied feeding, watering and cosseting that I’ve been doing (because I can feel the onset of autumn and I’m panicking) seem to have had an effect and all the squash plants have started growing more fruit. That is except for one. I have read him the riot act and he knows his days are numbered unless he bucks his ideas up.

I can’t say I’ve had a glut but veggies are definitely trickling into the house and it has made everything worth it. My knowledge is increasing as I do it, so I know it should be even better year after year.I’ve dug up my potato onions which a kind man who specialises in breeding these veggies (you know who you are) sent to me. I have 12, losing 5 to slugs and English weather but the photo to the left shows the results. Some of them are small but I got the seed late in the year and I am very pleased. They show a high variety of characteristics: flask shaped, torpedo shaped, round, white and yellow, even with a touch of red.

If you have never heard of potato onions, you may have heard of multiplier onions, they are just like shallots in that they reproduce by dividing and not by seed. That is they don’t normally set seed: very, very rarely they do and my potato onions are the product of this. The onions shown will be my seed onions for next year, which I will cosset under glass until I am sure of the security of my stock.

Potato onions from seedI have now stroked the backs of two bumble bees in the garden, a summer hobby taught to me by the missus who has been doing such bonkers things for some time. Are these potentially painful friends actually drunk on nectar as she suggests. Does anyone know?

Bumble bee drunk on nectar, unable to escape my strokingTalking of ecosystems, as you know I have been controlling slugs and snails not by chemicals but by the force of my size 12 boots. Well the smeared corpses of my gastropodic enemies led to an explosion of blue bottle flies which for three weeks were everywhere and very annoying. We’re talking scores of them.

Well, yesterday I noticed a reduction in the number of bluebottles as well as an explosion in spider webs and spiders. Over the next few hours I watched the spiders eat the bluebottles with a growing sense of horror until today the bluebottles have gone and the spiders have packed up their webs and gone elsewhere.

Not only is this the sort of pest control that organic gardeners have been pointing out works in nature, it is also the sort of existential horror story that I have heard about but never experienced first hand. Not just that I created the feeding frenzy by providing the food for the bluebottle breeding frenzy in the first place. This ghastly story played out thanks to my actions.


Annuals vs Perennials

Perennial vegetable growing is a bit of a buzzword for permaculture types and very often the question is asked – why are annual veggies grown when perennial ones are just so much easier and sustainable?. Take rhubarb and asparagus, frinstance, very traditional perennial veg that everyone knows about – big yields and very popular on allotments everywhere. Why have we not replaced all our annuals with such fine perennial equivalents? Read More


Herbs or “condiments”?

I don’t want this to get like twitter, but…. I made an omelette tonight with onions, shallots, elephant garlic, basil and chilli peppers. Except for the eggs, oil and salt, all of it was home grown. How posh is that? I’ve realised that, with my potato and squash harvest, I have all the ingredients to make full meals and that makes me all misted up. My gardening now feels a little bit sustainable. Read More


More failures, this time leeks

It’s all a learning experience, I just wish the process would be quicker. My usual fancy permaculture-y techniques for propagating leeks seem to be failing. For the last two years I have been propagating leeks by pips (see above post), but those pips just haven’t turned up. Not one. Pips are mini leeks that appear on leek flowers and can be transplanted. They came last year in July but it is now two thirds the way through August and there is no sign of them. I do have a dozen or so flowers so hopefully several hundred seeds. I haven’t kept seeds from leeks before so I am going to make a virtue from a necessity and do it that way this year. Keeping your own seed is of course totally sustainable, just fiddly, annoying and prone to failure. Read More


Getting Ready for Next Year

Yes I know, we waited an eternity for winter to end and now the summer has rushed by and we are preparing for next year. I am now sowing hardy salad leaves – spinach, chervil, parsley and oriental mustards. I sow them in little pots of compost, wait for them to germinate, grow past the seedling stage and them plant them up in either big pots or the ground. It is now the second half of august – so now is the last chance to get ready for autumn. Read More


Egyptian Onions / Tree Onions / Walking Onions – Harvesting

Egyptian topsetting onionsThis interesting onion has many names but all the variety names pretty much behave the same way. I’ll call it the Egyptian Onion from now on (or EO). It propagates by dividing like a shallot as well as by bulbils (or what most of us call incorrectly sets) which grow at the top of flower stalks in a clump. You may get flowers as well but what interests those of us that bother to hunt down this plant is that the bulbils grow where the flower should be. It is attractive in the garden, a talking point to visitors and edible. Read More

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