Monday, 27 June 2011

Welcoming Summer

Yesterday felt like the hottest day of the year so far and today is not that far off either. We had a very dry beginning to the spring and the plants were sighing a little, but then the rains came and boy did they come. We had a solid three days of rain and everything just went mad with growth. 
We have been harvesting salad from our salad beds, rocket, lettuce, spinach, herbs: chives, thyme, and coriander. We have pulled up the spinach and have now planted the second wave of salad leaves.
  Second wave of salads

Thyme, parsley, rhubarb and sage

In the main crop spaces we have harvested the broad beans and are now preparing the bed for either broccoli or cabbage foe the winter. We have still got potatoes, garlics, onions, carrots, french beans, squashes and corn in the ground.

Main crop beds in June 2011.

The forest garden / mini orchard is also putting on a show. All the fruit trees and bushes have taken and have still not shown any signs of disease or pestilence. Some of the annual vegetables we planted as ground cover for the forest garden space while the trees mature, have began to show some growth and others have not done so well thanks to slugs, snails, foxes and cats.  

Food forest garden

The strawberry patch on the edge of the food forest has been very productive once again. This year it has produced very sweet, plump and juicy fruits and has even spread in our neighbours' flower garden, viva la revolution!!! . 

Freshly picked strawberries

The wild zone has been thriving since spring began and both the pond and mini wild flower meadow have been getting very frequent visits from a vast variety of insects.
 Wild flower meadow

May Pond in June 2011

Hottest day of the year so far. Things have started to dry up once again in anticipation of the rain. We are looking forward to summer and both the challenges and rewards it brings. Preparations for the seasons harvest will soon begin and until the rain returns, I am off to fetch the watering can.

Friday, 17 June 2011

Composting - The basics

One of the best things you can do as an organic gardener is to make compost. Compost is simply recycled organic waste. We have tried a few different composting techniques on site and have learnt alot about making your own compost. Compost can be made by simply adding organic material to a heap but it may take a long time and if the mix is unbalanced, the end product may not be very pleasant.
We built a large heap of garden waste and just let it sit. This heap consisted of mainly weeds, branches, grass cuttings and hedge clippings with some soil and organic fabrics. This system of composting is called Cool Heap Composting and usually takes a very long time to compost. We built our heap in 2009, and have just collected our first usable compost. 
 Cool compost heap

Once we removed the majority of un-decomposed larger material we were left with about ten inches of compost, enough to fill two wheel borrows. It was lovely compost, very rich in organic matter, dark in colour, crumbly and sweet smelling. The larger organic material which were not able to be fully decomposed would be shredded and added to another composting system. 

  Ready to use home-made sieved compost

Another method of composting we have tried is the hot bed/heap composting system. This involved digging out a hole in the ground and filling it with lots of alternating layers of brown material and green material (explained later). We first added a small layer of wood/paper ash and then added all the organic material. We made an effort to chop up all the material to allow the micro-organisms, which would be doing the composting, more surface areas to work on. For this we used a simple garden spade. 
Layering and chopping the material

For the hot bed method we added a layer of fresh horse manure (high in both brown and green material) and a bit of Netfrey tea fertilizer, just to help get things moving along.
  Home-made fertilizer (not much needed)

The finished bed was then covered and would not be disturbed for at least one (1) month, at which time the heap will be turned/mixed and then left to mature. This system would normally take anywhere from six (6) months up to a year, and the results are always amazing.  
The completed heap

It is important to note that if you are going to be using this method of composting that there is a hole in the ground and it could be very dangerous, especially at night, therefore it is advisable to cover the heap with a hard surface, we used a strong wooden pallet which also makes a very good work surface, and helps reduse the amount of rain getting into the heap.
  Willow cuttings on hot compost bed

This system can also be done using a conventional compost bin. So instead of using a dug out hole, you would build up the layers in a compost bin and let mature for a few months. If the hot composting system is used in a bin it can take less time till the compost is ready for use, if managed properly. We have collected some compost from the last hot bed we made in late October and it was very good compost. 
Eight (8) months of composting (turned twice)

Green & Brown
When it comes to composting it is important to get the mix of brown and green material right. Brown materials are those high in carbon:

  • Corn cobs and stalks.
  • Eggs shells.
  • Feathers.
  • Cardboard Cereal and egg boxes.
  • Corrugated cardboard packing.
  • Newspapers (not glossy magazines).
  • Toilet and kitchen roll tubes.
  • Tissues, paper towelling and napkins (make sure they are not contaminated with meat, fats, oils or disease).
  • Natural fibre string.
  • Shredded plain paper.
  • Young wood garden prunings.
  • Dry leaves, small twigs and most hedge cuttings.
  • Hay and Straw.
  • Ash from wood or paper fires.
  • Sawdust.
  • Pine needles and cones.
Too much of brown material would greatly slow down the composting process and will give you an end product very high in carbon and lacking other minerals, but too much green material will result in bad smelling soggy compost. Green materials are those high in nitrogen:

  • Vegetable peelings.
  • Salad waste.
  • Fruit waste i.e. apple cores, skins etc. - includes citrus fruit.
  • Used tea bags/leaves.
  • Used coffee grounds and filter paper.
  • Dead flowers and house plants.
  • Grass cuttings.
  • Old flowers.
  • Old bedding plants.
  • Nettle.
  • Rhubarb leaves.
  • Comfrey leaves.
  • Young annual weeds.
  • Pond weed.
  • Seaweed - watch out for oil contamination etc.
I would suggest getting a balanced heap of around 1:1 of green and brown material. 

It is important to protect your composting systems from the elements but it is also as equally important to keep it aerated. The flow of air helps keep the heaps from producing bad smells. You should also try to minimise the amount of larger bits of material added to your system. The compost makers (microbes, worms, bacteria, woodlice, etc.) will work better and faster when they have more surface area to work on. The smaller the bits of organic matter added to a composting system the more surface area is available to the compost workers. However some larger bits are required to help aid air flow through the heap. 
Our newly built compost bin.

I believe that you get the best result from composting when you fill up your composting system in one go and leave it to mature, turning once in a while. I believe that once the heap is built nothing else should be added to it and all other composting material should be stored in separate bins. At May Project Gardens we now have a large bin for the storing of brown material, smaller bins for collecting green material, a bin where the actual composting heap will be built, and we also have a small wormery which is very productive. Composting is a fantastic way of recycling organic waste and is not only useful to gardeners but fun too. Making your own compost saves you money and helps the environment and there is no better feel than producing your very own healthy organic soil from 'waste'.

Tuesday, 7 June 2011

Polytunnel News

Room with a view-Land Matters, South Devon
One month......That's how long I haven't posted anything on this blog. It's been a very busy couple of weeks, we have been  preparing for the London Green Fair and are now getting ready for the open square weekend taking place this coming weekend. Our sign is almost ready and we have been trying our hand at making elder flower juices and wines. For the pass week I have been staying at a self sustaining community in south Devon called Land Matters. I had an amazing time living off grid, bathing in the stream, fresh goats' milk every morning, and I learnt alot about community life. We spent a week down in Devon and are now back in busy London trying to get the May Project site ready for our open garden square visitors.
The polytunnel has  finally been repaired, well the tears have been covered up and this has really helped with the number of snails and slugs we have had. It is now fully planted up and looking amazing, it has been so dry the pass few weeks that we have had to be watering it almost everyday. Thanks heavens as I am writing this blog the rain is falling has been falling for almost 24 hours straight. Its a good thing too cause while I was away it only rained enough to just wet the surface of the ground so when I returned the plants were looking a bit droopy. We have planted some very thirsty plants inside the polytunnel and will have to keep a very close eye on them if the dry sunny days return. We have planted the usual heat loving plants inside the polytunnel this season. We have got an  entire bed devoted to sweet and hot peppers and so far they are all doing very well.
Hot and sweet peppers three (3) month old.

Last year we had only two large beds running down the sides in the polytunnel and got a good enough yield for the space used but this design left a large bit of unused space down the centre. So this season we put in two L-shaped beds running down the sides and a straight bed running down the centre. We are playing with the idea of using the vertical space we have inside the polytunnel, we may attempt hanging baskets or suspended grow beds using grow-bags. We have built bamboo trellises to try and train the squashes, gherkins and our last surviving melon to grow vertically.
 Gherkins(back), Butternut Squash(middle) and Melon(foreground).

Squash Festivals.

The two most famous plants planted under a polytunnel in London, I think, are tomatoes and aubergines and we have got them both in abundance. Last season we had a good crop of tomatoes but our aubergines did not do as well as expected. We were able to get two from three plants and so this season we have planted quite a bit more, with this and our improved soil we are hoping to get a better yield this time around.
 Two varieties of tomatoes.

Lots and lots of aubergines. 

Our lemon balm just keeps on coming. This is its second season and no matter how much we harvest off of it it keeps on coming back for more. Its a fantastic plant and gives the polytunnel a nice citrus aroma, very much appreciated especially after feeding the soil with our home-made 'Netfrey Tea' plant fertilizer.
Lemon Balm a few days after cutting

As always, there are seedlings coming up in the nursery. We have got chives, leeks, some sweet and hot peppers and we are trying to grow some hibiscus which have not yet taken. That's all that happening under the polytunnel so far and it all looks very promising. We should have a very very good harvest this year, fingers crossed.