Thursday, 1 May 2014

Sunshine, pests and natural fertilizer

Busy time of year this is. It's coming to the end of spring and the spring showers are doing their magic. It's been a few weeks without rain and many of the plants have been showing their discomfort in the heat of the midday sun. Luckily nature has a remedy for such occasions. Mulch and cover crops. Despite over three weeks without rain, most of the undisturbed land remains lush with growth and just below the soil surface there is moisture. In contrast, the land that's been tilled mercilessly over the last two months has been kept bare and as a result has completely dried out in the sun. Very little to no signs of life can be seen there. But the dry spell has come to an end. Last night we were treated to a small shower and it has not really stopped raining since this morning.The majority of the plants in our garden have perked up with the much welcomed injection of heavenly growth. I have no doubt that it would be all systems go for the weed now. 
I've been having some problems down at the allotment. The garlics are all doing well, the potatoes are all up and looking healthy, and all of the comfrey root cutting I planted have taken. So what's the problem? There is a rodent terrorising the allotment. It's proven very difficult to grow anything from seed down at the allotment. I haven't been able to identify it yet but it looks like a mouse with very small ears and like burrowing. I thought it might be a type of shrew, but it does not have a pointed snout. It has eaten every one of the runner bean seeds I've planted and has been borrowing below the peas and damaging their root system in the process. So far the only real damage it's caused is eating the runner bean seeds. So I might be a little late on the runner bean front this season. We've also had some problems at the home garden. We have been visited regularly by a small wild rabbit. It likes dandelions and evening primrose and the occasion kale. It hasn't caused any major problems yet but I am considering setting some traps before it invites it's friends to the feast of fresh greens over the summer. 
Another pest that arrived in the home garden are aphids. There is an infestation on the mint which I planted in a large pot. The green aphids have infested the plant and have formed colonies on the new growth of the plant. I am planing to make up a natural remedy which I have used in the past and has been successful. First I remove as much as I can by hand, by simply rubbing the infected area with my thumb and forefinger, then I mix up a solution of 1lt of water, 2 or 3 crushed garlic and a dash of vinegar. I let that sit overnight and then add it to a spray bottle and treat the plant every week or so. It is important to note that it is best to stop treatment for at least two week before harvest. But only if you mind your herbs tasting of garlic. 
It hasn't been all dull and gloom though. As I mentioned before. The garlic, comfrey, and peas are all growing well at the allotment, some of the onions have made it through and seem to be winning the war against the slugs. Back in the home garden I have been sowing seeds regularly and I have just planted out the first set of tomatoes in the greenhouse and will be planting out more next week. This year I am trying tomatoes outdoors as well as in the greenhouse and I saved some scotch bonnet chilli seeds from some shop bought chilli and I'll be trying to keep at least one as a perennial plant. I am very excited about this possibility. I shall keep you updated on the progress.
The land has been generous enough to present us with lots of gifts and one gift that I have been happy to receive recently has been courtesy of the local moles. I have been collecting mole hills and using the soil in my potting mixes, and filling up the raised beds. There seems to be an endless supply of mole hills and the soil, I find, excellent for earthing up potatoes when mixed with a little compost.
Something else I am very excited about is making my own natural fertilizer.I am a big believer in feeding the organisms that live in the soil. I think that if I supply to the soil food web and keep the organisms healthy and thriving in turn they will feed the plants for me. And I am convince that they know how to look after plants better than I do since they've been doing it so well for so long. I read that plants prefer a slow release of nutrients over a long period rather than short bursts of high levels of nutrients. I know that some plants are great at storing high levels of nutrients in their leaves and so I have been gathering nettles, yarrow, comfrey and wild parsley from the area around where I live and adding them to a large container. I slightly crush the combination of leaves and then add rain water till all the leaves are submerged. I leave this to sit for about two weeks (stirring twice a day), then remove all the remaining leaf mass, leaving only liquid in the container (I sometimes pass the mixture through a Hessian sac to get more of the bits out). Then I get a old sock and fill it with fresh manure. I then tie the open end of the sock to a stick which I lie across the top of the container. This allows the manure filled sock to dangle down into the container without touching the bottom. I then fill the container all the way to the top with rain water and leave that to sit. The manure acts as a food source for beneficial bacteria allowing them to multiple and thrive in the liquid. The most important thing in order to get this right is to add oxygen/air to the mix as offer as possible. I have seen some people use a small electric pump, however I use a metal tube which I blow into every time I walk pass the container (which is very often, five time a day easy). Be warned, the mixture really stinks. I use the mixture by adding it to a watering can and watering the garden with it. The mix I use is 1 part fertilizer to 10 part water. I have been using this technique for three years and have not had any complains from my plants yet.
One last thing I wanted to share here is propagating herbs. I was given a sage plant recently and I wanted to create more plants from it. The technique I used in the past for propagating herbs was to take softwood cuttings. This worked fine but it required a lot of monitoring. The technique I am using with this new sage plant is a technique called layering. It's simply taking a piece of the 'mother' plant and burying it in a small pot of compost without separating it from the plant. This means that I don't have to worry to much about the pot drying out or not or getting too wet as the 'child' plant is still being kept alive by the 'mother'. I would leave this like this for a few weeks and see if it takes root then I'll report back to you.

Saturday, 29 March 2014

Spring Garden

The allotment Pond
It's nearly April and the weather has most definitely turned. It's been misty but mild, wet but sunny. Spring is really here. Most of the bulbs we planted around the pond are showing signs of flowering and it feels like the last of the frost is finally on its' way. 
Runner bean supports
So far we have planted out all our potatoes, and I have recently sown some runner beans. A bit of a gamble but I am fairly confident that the mulch will help them cope with the cool weather and they won't show themselves until the last frost has pasted. We also transplanted out our onions which we started from seed in late winter. The second set of broad beans have began to poke out of the mulch and the peas we planted back in the winter are still alive and doing ok. 
Bumble bee enjoying
some willow pollen
We used willow as the pond borders and a short while after construction blossoms began to appear. Soon after the bumble bees showed up. It was lovely to see the bees taking an interest in the allotment. I hope that between the mulch, flowering plants and the pond many varieties of beneficial creatures would become regular features down by the allotment.
The garden bed showing
heavily harvested greens 
Back in the home garden we have been feasting on spring greens.  Fast growing greens that we planted back in winter are really going for it now that the days are longer and warmer. We've been enjoying mizuna, mustard greens, black kale, coriander, spring onions, perpetual spinach, and in the greenhouse, rainbow chard, pak choi, corn salad and cabbage leaves. We've started leaving two days between harvests but the plants, in the greenhouse especially, seem to be growing faster than we can eat them (no complains) which means that we get to eat them everyday which is great. If you haven't planted out your spicy salads yet, I'll recommend doing it soon. 
Rainbow Chard and
Pak Choi. Inter-planted
with beetroot.
Cabbage heads nearly ready for picking
Mulching the bed 
I read somewhere that prolonged exposure to UV rays may cause the soil organisms to become irradiated, rendering them incapable of processing the nutrients in the soil and in some cases killing them all together. I guess this is why nature doesn't allow soil to be left uncovered for too long. With this knowledge we decided to cover our garden bed with a layer of bulky course grade compost (home-made of course).
We've also got a few seedlings on the go. More kale, chard, onions, beetroot and peas are well on the way and would be ready for planting out soon. As always we try to stagger the sowing so that we would be able to harvest over a longer period as oppose to harvesting all at once. We've been planting in two to three weeks intervals and fingers crossed it'll pay off later on down the line. 
Lastly, I visited the May Project Gardens in London last weekend and it was amazing. It's always a treat visiting the gardens and reconnecting with all the lovely people there. Over the weekend we sowed seeds, pruned fruit trees, trained a mature grape vine, transplanted seedlings, prepared the polytunnel for growing salads, tomatoes, peppers, and other heat loving crops, and finished off with a feast cooked and enjoyed around an open fire. If you're ever in London and you're looking for an inspiring place to visit I highly recommend the May Project Gardens in Morden, South London.

Thursday, 13 March 2014

Planting Potatoes

This year we're trying two different varieties of potato, mainly because we weren't able to find the variety we normally grow. we've had much success growing 'Romano' but after searching all of south-east Norfolk we've had to settle for something new this season.
We've gone for two varieties which are said to be both reliable and resilient. The first is an early variety called 'Rocket'. It is said to be one of the earlies to crop and produces high yields. The second is 'Desiree', which is a re skinned potato with yellow flesh and is harvested later in the season as a main crop. So if all goes to plan we should be harvesting and eating potatoes from as early as May and then again in September. The hope here is that we'll have potatoes all through the summer and enough to see us through winter.
Chitted seed potatoes ready for planting
Growing potatoes is quite simple. I've only had problems once and that was due to my own ignorance. I had the idea that leaving potatoes in the ground would be a better form of storage. Not a good idea, the slugs got them all. In my experience, potatoes can be used to break up heavy soils and save you having to do the hard work of digging over your plot. They all seem to do better in soils that have been heavily manured. They also grow a lot quicker once they have been chitted. What you're trying to achieve with chitting is short compacted deep purple coloured shoots as oppose to the long translucent shoots you'll get if the 'seeds' are left in the dark for too long. However I tend to leave them in the dark for a while, until their shoots grow to about 1/2 inch, before placing them in a sunny frost free spot for further chitting. I also like to wait for the seed potatoes to go a bit soft before planting. I've had better results applying these techniques.
Mulched bed
Once chitted, it's time to plant out. Some growers tend to plant potatoes deep in the soil or in soil mounts which works fine. But I like growing in mulch. When I prepare the site I add a very generous layer of straw mulch mixed with some compost onto the soil surface and let it sit for a month or two before planting out. I like my mulch deep. Straw compresses after a while. After compression a mulch approximately fist deep is good. In my opinion, the deeper the better. 
The first step is to make holes in the mulch. I makes hole up to the soil surface and then just enough into the soil to completely bury the 'seeds'. Growing in mulch is amazing. It allows for easy harvesting, helps retain moisture and nutrients, creates habitats for predators like spiders and slow worms and harvesting is a breeze. When growing in mulch there is no need to big up potatoes at harvest time. Simply push apart the mulch and pick. This way you can just harvest what you need at the time and let the plat go on producing. This is especially attractive when growing early varieties.
Seed potato wrapped
with comfrey
Step two is to place the 'seeds' into the holes. Potatoes do better in nutrient rich soils. The more nutrients available the better the crop will be.One techniques I've picked up over the years is using comfrey leaves. Wrap each 'seed' in a comfrey leaf and place into the hole, shoots pointing up. Comfrey leaves are high in silica, nitrogen, potassium, magnesium, calcium, and iron and are often used as fertilizer. As the leaves break down they make all these nutrients available to the potato plants throughout its' growth. Comfrey is one of my favourite herbs mainly because of it's many uses and benefits in the garden. I like to grow as much comfrey as I can get away with in my garden. The plants is large and beautiful and attracts many beneficial insects. It can also be used to make medicinal ointments, and of course it provides a constant supply of natural fertilizer.
Next is to fill the holes. One option is to simply refill the holes with mulch but adding compost would mean more nutrients for your future plants. I like using home made compost. I believe that store bought compost, thought eventually works well, lacks the soil microbes that are abundant in backyard compost. It is these microbes that enables plants to access the nutrients in soils, and making and using my own compost is one of my favourite things about gardening. I tend to overfill the holes because the next step causes the compost to sink a bit. 
Once all the holes are filled, I give each one a good drink of water and recover with mulch. Over the next few months I will keep adding mulch as and when the plants begin to emerge. This forces the plant to make more tubers under the mulch as it is deprived of sunlight. It is important that the tubers underground (under-mulch in this case) are not exposed to sunlight as this tends to make them go green and become poisonous.

Tuesday, 25 February 2014


It's the last days of February and it's starting to feel like spring is in the air. We've been sowing seeds over the past few weeks and many have already germinated. I am still not convinced that the cold weather has completely passed and so as a percussion we're sowing most of the seeds in pots in the greenhouse, we have planted onions (from seed), kale, cos lettuce, tomatoes, chillies, chicory and chard. We had also planted some chard and cabbage back in November in the ground in the greenhouse, and we have now started harvesting those. We also bought a very nice looking thyme plant and have taken several cuttings and all but one have taken root and putting on new growth. This is a really good way of getting your moneys' worth. Perennial herbs like rosemary and thyme are a great addition to the vegetable garden. There are great for adding flavour to food but they also attract beneficial insects to the garden helping with pest control and they also look and smell amazing.  
Lemon thyme and cuttings 
Seedlings (Onions and kales germinated)
Purple sprouting broccoli
We've started planning what we are going to be planting in our small home garden. It's going to be mostly tender, fast growing crops like salad leaves, radishes, and cucumbers. We'll also be growing beetroot, kale, spring onions, tomatoes and carrots. Most of these will be planted once we're confident the last frost has passed. But it's been full steam ahead down at the allotment. Having this additional space is amazing. We've completely reshaped this space and it now looks like the business. We've got peas, broad beans, garlic and purple sprouting broccoli already growing and both early and main crop potatoes are chitting and will be planted in the next two weeks. I've also been attempting to stagger the seed sowing in order to avoid harvesting all at once and become overwhelmed with produce. We've got quite alot of space dedicated to growing food this season and we're hoping to grow enough food to last us the whole year. The main crops we'll be growing at the allotment would be potatoes, peas and beans, and pumpkins,  crops that store well. We'll also be growing garlic, chard, tomatoes, and anything else we have space for. All in all we'll be growing as much as we can for as long as we can. We've also created a beautiful pond and contemplating growing watercress.
Multifunctional structure
One of the problems we encountered when we first got the allotment was leaky mains taps. We found out that last season there were leaks all along the mains pipping feeding the allotment and because of this allotment holders were served with a huge water bill. The lines were cut off and now the site has no water. This is a problem, but in Permaculture we are thought that problems are opportunities to be creative. We set about working out how to create a water supply on site. We decided to catch and use rainwater. It's abundant and free. We built a structure using mostly wooden pallets and built a roof using estate agents' for sale signs. The resulting structure severs multiple functions. It's a composting bin, a dry seating area, and rainwater harvesting system.
So it feels like spring is very nearly here. The sun has been out in force over the last week and lots of blossoms and buds have shown up. Fingers cross this season will be a good one for the small scale polyculture growers.

Sunday, 2 February 2014

Cider time

Chilling in my pallet chair
sipping on home-made apple cider. 

The sweet life. 
So it's that time of year when we rack off our cider. For me, cider is like bottled sunshine. In a previous post on this blog I mentioned how there was no shortage of apple in Norfolk last year. It's been an amazing year for top fruits (namely apple and pears). We've collected a large quantity of apples and made apple juice and lots of apple cider. Last week we sampled our cider and decided that it was time to rack off. It was me best cider yet. Slightly tangy but not bitter and goes down smooth. It's amazingly simple to make cider and well worth it if you find yourself with a large surplus of apples (or pears). I'll take you through the process I used to make our apple cider this time round.
Cleaning and pressing apples
First step is to collect some apples. I think the more varieties you can get hold of the better. It's said that to make good cider you need at least three different varieties of apples. A mixture of cookers, deserts and crab apples is used. Cookers for the acid, deserts apples for the sugar and crabs for the tannin. Using too many desert apples will give a bland taste. According to the experts the best blend is probably 65% cooking apples and 35% dessert apples and if possible 10% crab apples as well. The proportions we used was more like 70% deserts, 20% cookers and 10% crabs. The proportions you use would more than likely be determined by the variety of apples available to you. I honestly think that proportions are not too important if you're making simply for your and family and friends' consumption. as long as you have a few different varieties you should be fine. So we collected all the apples we would need and left them to sit on the ground for at least a week to macerate. Maceration is simply softening of the fruit. By leaving apples to sit off the tree will cause them to macerate. It is important that the apples are fully ripe to ensure the sugar levels are at their highest and soft as it is very hard work to mill and crush hard apples.
Ready for racking (re-bottling).
Fermented apple juice and syphon pump.
Once we collected enough apples and they were well macerated we got an apple press in and after crushing the apples began pressing. We used a traditional 12lt basket fruit press, and the juice went straight into demijohns for the fermentation process. The secret here is to use clean containers for the fermentation process, and if it's practical for you pass the juice through a sieve or muslin to remove any bits from the crushing. We cleaned our containers by washing them with soap very hot water. In the past I have used campden tablet to sterilize my containers but If I can avoid it I rather not use any synthetic chemicals. Washing the containers well seems to work fine. It is my understanding that the during fermentation it is important that air does not enter the container, but the gases created during fermentation should be allowed to escape. For this to happen we used an airlock on each contained. I have seen versions without the use of airlocks where you simply vent the container every few days by loosen the cork slightly then tightening again. The danger here is that if you forget to vent the container might explode undoing all your hard work. There are many ways of excluding air from fermentation but we used simple cider airlocks.
Syphon cider (L), sediment (R).
After about 4 months the fermentation stops. and it's time to rack off the cider. During fermentation the gases released causes the water in the airlock to bubble. Once this stops the fermentation process is over. The next stage is to get the liquid in the containers separated from the sediment at the bottom. The longer you wait to separate the more likely the sediment will taint the flavour of your cider. The sediment is dead yeast and all the bits of fruit that were not sieved out. The remove the liquid from the settled sediment we used a manual syphon pump. You can use a simple tube long enough to get into the container and whose outlet is lower than the inlet. The trick here is to syphon from the centre of the container trying not to disturb the sediment at the bottom. I leave about an inch or two of liquid above the sediment to ensure that I get as little disturbance as possible. I don't waste this inch of cider. I just don't bottle it.
Bottled for immediate
Once the cider has been re-bottled (racked) we cleaned and replaced the airlocks and stored the cider until we're ready to drink. I like to keep the airlocks in place just in-case fermentation starts up again. This year we managed to rack off 30lt with another 25lt to go. The cider is great and gets me nice and tipsy but not too drunk, and the best part is that you don't wake up with a hangover. I highly recommend everyone have a go at making cider. It's a great way to store and some of your summer produce. I've kept cider for two season and it still tasted as good as the day it was racked. Goon, have a go. It's simple, cheap and very rewarding.          
Bottled for storage.

Monday, 13 January 2014

Waste as Resources

I have been spending a lot of time over the past couple of months working on getting a few workshops together. My aims for this year is to team up with other self reliance enthusiasts in the area and begin delivering workshops and courses. So far I have managed to create two one day courses, and putting together a couple of half day workshops. This has been a lot more work than I was hoping. But it's been a good experience. It's been some time since I was last in London and, judging from reports, things seem to been going well there. 
Here in Norfolk it's been wet, wet, wet. We've had a few frosty nights but generally it's been quite mild (for January). When I am not on the computer typing up workshops and courses I have bee focussing on getting the second half of our allotment prepared for the growing season. I decided on a slightly different approach when preparing this half of the site. Because of the wet weather I thought it would be ill advised to dig the plot. I remember reading that digging clay soils when wet may cause heavy compaction in the long run. So I decided to sheet mulch the site. 
Pile of rotting wood chippings
During my time exploring the surrounding villages I came across a pile of wood chippings which was ideal for mulching. The first layer of mulch I laid down was a few layers of newspaper. Normally I would use cardboard as the first layer but I was slightly concerned with compacting the soil, that's also the reason why I decided not to remove the vegetation before mulching. I am hoping that the voids created by the weeds would prevent further compaction. As always I identified the plants present on the site and there were no troublesome perennials that won't be taken care of by mulching. I also noticed that worms like wet newspaper, so I am hoping that the layer of newspaper will encourage the worms to come up to the surface and help break down the mulch layer. 
Mycelium on wood chippings 
Once the newspaper was down I added a small layer of wood chippings. I was careful to only add the more decomposed of the wood chippings. I also made sure to add some of the mycelium that was growing within the wood chip heap busily breaking down the organic matter. It's well known that too much wood chipping in the soil will actually take nutrients away from plants growing in the surrounding. I am hoping to avoid this by using well rotted wood chipping jammed packed with fungi and letting it sit for at least a month before planting. The next step was to pile on as much organic matter as I could bear.
Heap of bulky organic material
Our allotment is situated in the village churchyard. Much of the grass clippings, fallen leaves and tree and hedge purnnings from within the church grounds are collected up and dumped at the bottom of the grounds, out of site. I collected some bulky material consisting of small twigs, fibrous stem, and decaying roots and added a layer on top of the layer wood chippings. The thinking behind this layer is to help with aeration and prevent compaction on the soil underneath.
Pile of fine fluffy organic material
On top of that I added a layer of fine fluffy material consisting of grass clippings, fallen leaves and shredded plants all of with have been decaying in a heap for years. Some of the material closer to the bottom of the pile was already well composted humus. That's four layers of mulch so far.    
Roadside straw pile
The final layer I added was a generous layer of soiled straw. I found a heap of the stuff just sitting on the side of the road. As I mentioned in previous posts, we live in horse country and residence have a hard time getting rid of their spoilt straw. Some sell the manure but no one wants spoilt straw so they dump it wherever they can. The heap I found was ideal because it was dumped and was left sitting for some time and therefore had already started to decompose. It just goes to show, if you have imagination, think positively and keep your eyes open you can find and use anything to your advantage. One mans' waste is another mans' resource.
So we've now got three new growing beds at the allotment. I've also begun digging a small pond and building a storage bin for compost and manure. I've also begun laying the paths using cardboard and wood chippings. It's all coming together quite nicely and I am very excited to starting adding plants to the site. We've already sown peas in pots in the green house, have planted out garlic and later on this month I'll be sowing some onions seeds and seeing how they do with the early start.

The allotment so far