Not quite gardening, but the start of a new era

So, I started this blog about the garden, thinking I was going to bring you tales from the veg patch, cataloging both the successes and the failures. I thought I was smug and married, and about to stay that way for a good while to come. But other plans were afoot.

Married for 23 years, no way were we swinging from chandeliers or jumping off wardrobes (who is?), but I thought we had it good. We were a great team, fab parents to our kids, and always up for a new adventures and holidays. So yes,  I thought life held great promises, and this is how it would be into our twilight years. With the finances all in order, I honestly thought we were coming into ‘our time’, where we’d be off on some wild adventures; travelling the world and sampling new cultures.

Seems we had let things slip without us knowing. Seems other half wanted more, but couldn’t or wouldn’t tell me that. The person I thought was my best friend for as long as I can remember omitted to tell me that he felt invisible in his own home and that things between us had been ‘lacking for a while’.

I did not see that coming at all…

Crop a load of this harvest

The latest update from the garden comes from me peering out at a dank and dismal day, but on the up side, the weather for the carnival was splendid, and the patch is getting a good old drenching.

This week I’m delighted to announce that we’ve had our first real harvest from the vegetable plot. After the broccoli heads bolted and turned to flowers earlier in the season, I chopped off the non-edible stems, but left the plants in situ. It appears this was the right thing to do, as they are now throwing up small heads on a regular basis, and we’re picking these as cut and come again vegetables. With any luck we’ll be harvesting for a good time to come.

I’ve also done a bit of digging around in the history of the house, and it seems a farmhouse stood on the plot in the mid 1800s. This could explain the rich crumbly soil, (an absolute joy after 20-odd years of gardening on clay) and why after a somewhat slow start, once established, the plants appear to go a bit bonkers.

The runner beans – looking decidedly dodgy just a few weeks back have now flourished and sprinted up the canes. In no time at all, they bushed out, flowered profusely and are now giving us a steady supply of lovely succulent beans.

I’m also thrilled to report that the other slow starter – the courgette plant – has now picked up and is pushing out fruits left, right and centre.

My peas are also looking lush and healthy, and it won’t be long now until we’re picking stuff that’s ‘as sweet as the moment when the pod went pop’.

Whilst this is all excellent news, the star performers in the garden have to be the pumpkin plant and the French beans. The pumpkin has snaked its way towards the bottom of the garden, and is now fanning itself up the fence panel; with two decent-sized fruits forming already.

The French beans have foliage now so thick, and so dense that I have to do a fair bit of rootling around in there to uncover the beans. But what a treat when I do. They are so sweet, that many just get chomped raw in the garden, and don’t even make it to the dinner table! And if the amount of flowers on the plants is any indication of the potential harvest, we’ll surely be bi-lingual by the end of the season.

So, this weekend, after removing a couple of stray caterpillars, we enjoyed laughter-filled feast of beans, courgettes and broccoli to slap by the side of the Sunday roast*.

Although I’m biased, the flavours were out of this world.

*the ‘ahem’ company may have had a lot to do with that ;)

Harvest from the garden

Harvest from the garden

 

Project patio

Now that the greenhouse has gone to pastures new, the space I’d earmarked for it stood barren, neglected and bare.

A rootle around the garden soon produced an odd assortment of reddish-coloured slabs, so I thought, “Aha! I’ll build myself a patio”. It made perfect sense. The area gets the last bit of sun in the garden, and already I was imagining myself sitting upon it, floaty dress and floppy hat at the ready; trashy novel in one hand, chilled white wine in the other.

With that image in mind, I weeded the area, then levelled it off the best I could and chucked the slabs down in a rough diamond shape. “Sorted”. I thought, as I stood back to admire my handiwork. All it needs now is something to sit on, and Bob’s your uncle. I proudly shared my newly acquired slab laying skills to all my friends on Facebook, and one of them replied back, “Err… it’s a bit wonky”.

slabs chucked down on the ground

The wonky patio

“A bit wonky?”  I countered. “No, I think the word you’re looking for is ‘rustic’”

Standing firm, the reply came back “I’ll help you level it”. He continued, “I’ll have a think, and bring some stuff round at the weekend”.

The weekend came, and the stuff duly arrived, namely four thick planks of wood, weed suppressing membrane, an assortment of tools and numerous bags of pea shingle. He’d obviously had a think, and meant business.

The first task was to fetch up my wonky assortment of slabs, then level the area properly. We then sawed the planks into six foot lengths and I happily screwed them together with my woman-drill to form a square frame. After digging the same shape in the garden, the frame plopped in, and we performed a bit of last minute levelling off.

Patio frame

Patio frame

Next we lined the frame with the membrane and put a good layer of pea shingle inside. The slabs were then put on top, and spaced out so it looked like we’d actually planned it out like a dream. Another layer of pea shingle went over the top and I merrily set to work sweeping this into the gaps.

A good watering over the top cleaned it off nicely, and brought out the colours of the shingle beautifully. Standing back to admire our afternoon’s work , I had to say that it did look remarkably good. And I grudgingly had to admit to myself that, yes, it did look more inviting than my assortment of ‘slabs chucked on soil’ arrangement.

I’ve since planted an assortment of cottage garden plants around the back, including delphiniums, lupins and poppies, which should add a bit of height and look great when they all fill out.

So, for little cost, a bit of effort and a lot of sweat and toil in the blazing sun, I have myself a lovely little area to soak up the last rays and enjoy a glass of something yummy.

The finished patio

The finished patio

Cabbage whites – the brassica massacre

Gazing out to the garden the other week I spotted the first Cabbage Whites of the year. These innocent-looking little butterfies gently fluttered in and around the vegetable plot, but I know from past experience how much utter carnage they can create in the blink of an eye.

As I clocked them, I made a mental note to be totally ahead of the game this year. Instead of watching my cabbage patch get munched by very hungry caterpillars, I decided to be one step in front, and destroy the eggs before they even had a chance to hatch. Cabbage Whites lay clusters of tiny yellow eggs, normally on the undersides of brassica leaves. Whizzing off down the garden to execute my plan, I eagerly began systematically turning each leaf over in my search.

Imagine my dismay to find that I’d been out-scuppered by the little blighters. They’d evidently sneaked in to the patch without me noticing, and the eggs I was looking for were now miniscule caterpillars. In their droves. All over the plants. And I had not got a chance of finding them all. I then decided that the next logical course of action would be to spray the brassica plants to kill the bugs. I’m not normally a fan of insecticide, knowing I’ll be eating the end produce at some point, but in this case I had little option. But before I’d even had a chance to nip out and get some, I noticed something else was amiss. A closer look at the broccoli plants revealed not only munch-holes in the leaves, but something else was going very wrong with the actual heads that were forming. I can only assume this has something to do with the freakishly hot weather we’ve been having, but the heads that had started to form beautifully were now looking decidedly sick and wizened. And certainly not fit for the table.

Brassica slug damage

Err… I don’t fancy that for my tea

There was nothing for it, so dejectedly I cut off the manky heads and the worst affected leaves, which became free food for the chicken run – complete with extra protein. In the joins between the leaves and the stem it looks like more little heads are forming, so I’ll leave them alone for now and see if they grow into anything half-edible.

It’s not all doom and gloom though. On the up side, the runner beans have caught up marvellously, and I have the first tiny beans beginning to form. The French beans have their first flowers, and the pumpkin plant I bought earlier in the year has begun snaking its way towards the bottom of the garden. A friend gave me some pea plants a week or so back, and these too are looking fine and dandy. So if nothing else, we should have plenty of beans and peas to eat.

Goodbye greenhouse

This week I’ve made a groundbreaking discovery. I don’t actually need a greenhouse. Yes – true… after a couple of years of pottering around and potting up in my old one, my new house doesn’t actually need one at all!

When I first moved to the new pad, a greenhouse was definitely on the must-have list, so I bought a second hand one which my brother in law very kindly helped me to dismantle and bring home. This has sat in bits in the garden since, although I did spend a frustrating and head-scratching afternoon assembling all the side panels.

Then a visit with my friend to some open gardens last weekend changed all of that. The gardens were part of the National Gardens Scheme (NGS) where villagers open up their pride and joys, all in the name of charity. Off we trotted to the Cotswolds, hoping to be inspired and delighted. And inspired I most definitely was. Within these gardens were riots of colour, sweeping lawns, grand water features, rambling climbers… and hardly any of them contained a greenhouse.

So I decided that that’s the way my garden would go. Old, rambly, cottagey… you get the picture. The main priority is to fill the garden with lots and lots of flowers, and the vegetables can be put in alongside them. I think it will look marvellous.

The greenhouse is now sold on to its lucky new owner, and I’m itching to dig up some big borders. I have to say at this point that when I mentioned the demise of the greenhouse to said brother in law, he fixed me with a steely gaze that could have actually burned the retinas off my eyeballs. He clearly remembered with fondness the long sweaty afternoon getting the thing down. I did a bit of emergency grovelling, and I think he’s over it now…

Meanwhile on the plot, the two surviving runner beans (out of 12) are SPRINTING up the canes, and I’ve already spotted the first red flowers beginning to form. I may plant some bean seeds at the bases of the empty canes to try their luck for a late harvest. Nothing ventured, nothing gained.

However, I’m delighted to say that the French beans all appear to have avoided any slug damage, and they are looking thick, healthy and lush. An added bonus, as I’ve never had any luck with Frenchies in the past. The rows of broccoli are also doing well, as are the leeks.

French beans

French beans

On the down side, the cabbages, cauliflowers and turnips are looking decidedly sorry for themselves. Although I’ve managed to cut down the slug population a little, the ones I have left are definitely sneaking out for a midnight snack still. There lies my slight dilemma. Do I cut my losses and have all the ropey-looking stuff out, or do I leave them in to act as sacrificial veggies?

Because if the slugs are eating them, they’re staying away from my good stuff for now.

Tom Tatos

Not having a greenhouse at present, I’m growing my tomatoes in a sunny spot, in growbags outside. There are three varieties – Tigerella which should be stripy (clue’s in the name), cherry tomatoes for salads, and the one I’m most interested to see the results of – sons of Beefy. Well, OK, that’s not the Latin name, but these plants were grown from the seeds I saved from my biggest, beefiest beef tomato last year. I’m hoping for some whoppers!

So far, so good. They are all appear healthy and strong and I’ve already spotted my first tomato hanging provocatively from one of the branches. I’ve been diligently nipping out the bits that grow in the ‘V’  between the stem and the leaves, so the plants funnel all their energy into producing fruits and the air circulates more freely around them. It’ll soon be time to begin their feeding regime too. Exciting stuff.

Recently having a drink with a friend, the conversation inevitably turned to gardening, and he asked me, “What do you reckon to those Tom Tato thingies?”

If you haven’t come across these yet, they’re a relatively new type of plant where you get potatoes from the soil and tomatoes from the foiliage – all from the SAME plant. Although I haven’t tried them for myself, it’s my opinion that you can muck about with stuff a little too much in the name of scientific research. The involuntary frown and curl of my lip must have given my thoughts away.

“I don’t get them”, I replied. “Yes, I understand that potatoes and tomatoes come from the same family of plants, but it just seems a bit wrong to mix them up together. Isn’t it a bit like marrying your cousin?”

I then continued with, “Plants that grow up produce things that you chop off and eat – ie beans, brassicas and salad. Plants that grow down produce things that you dig up and eat – ie carrots, spuds and parsnips. Not many vegetables can multitask well with the up AND down approach. Except maybe beetroot – you can add their leaves to a bowl of salad.”

“Think about it. You’re merrily watering your Tom Tato plant. What’s to stop all the spuds greedily sucking out all the goodness in the soil and leaving none left to travel up to the tomatoey bit? You could end up with mahoosive potatoes and spindly little tomatoes. How does it get the balance right?” I concluded with, “To get any sort of decent harvest from both ends, I’d imagine you’d have to feed the neck out of the damn things”.

Now readers may well have had sterling results with their Tom Tatoes – and I really do hope that you have, but like I said earlier, I haven’t tried growing one. And I don’t actually think I ever will. Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t fully trust the idea

Planters from pallets

Just outside my back door there’s a tiny paved courtyard, leading down to the rest of the garden. This area looked a bit bare but being a little sun trap had the potential to be a lovely place to sit, so I decided give it a makeover, starting with making some vertical planters out of pallets.

Not actually having any pallets, I put a shout out on Facebook in case any of my friends had any knocking about. Sure enough, an old work colleague came up trumps with a couple, so we arranged collection, lugged them into the garden, and set to work.

Before I could start on the pallets, the fence behind needed a lick of paint. This was brightened up no end with a coat of sage green, and the pallets were painted up to match. Next up, I stapled strips of old builders’ bags into the gaps to make planting areas, trimmed off the excess, and poked some holes in the bottom for drainage. I then wielded my newly acquired woman-drill, and attached the pallets to the fence with angle brackets. I’d actually underestimated how heavy they’d be – even without soil and plants, so was glad of the existing little wall to rest them on.

The planters looked great, but were a bit redundant without actual plants, so off I went to the garden centre, and returned with a collection of herbs, lettuce plugs, strawberries and some flowers for the patio pots. As this is a project on a budget, myself and the youngest were canny in picking the strawberry plants: only ones with runners were allowed into the trolley. Back at the ranch, we then filled the planting areas with compost and happily planted up our purchases. The strawberry runners were planted alongside the strawberries – giving us twice as many plants for our money.

A row of lettuce went into the bottom and herbs were popped in above. I was tempted to paint the names of the plants onto the wood, but with my track record, was reluctant to create anything too permanent in case they died or got eaten by something.

I have to admit the planters look great, and the patio area is coming along marvellously: little bistro set I found in town has finished off the look perfectly.

I’m delighted with the end result, and it will look better and better as the plants fill out and begin to trail over the sides of the pallets. A lovely place to sit and plan the next assault on the garden, with fresh salad, fruit and herbs for the picking.

Right outside my back door… what could be nicer?

Planters fro

Planters fro

Results in from Op slug patrol

Results just in in from Operation Slug Patrol

  1. Slugs caught in beer traps – One*
  2. Slugs stopped in tracks by blue pellets – 10
  3. Slugs killed in the salty bucket of doom – 27
  4. Effect of coffee grounds – unproven but seems to be working

*Suspect he may have fallen in by accident

 

You’ll see that the slug eradication is a slow but sure process, but I’m determined they’re not going to get the better of me. The beer traps aren’t proving a huge success, but I rather suspect my slugs have a finer palate than I gave them credit for, and I may have to replace the super-cheap beer in them for something a tad more ale-like.

This week I decided to extend the veg plot, so out I went again with the rotavator, and another big chunk of the lawn came up. The area then had a good old rake over, and I removed any twitchy bits. A trip to the garden centre (I’m sure I must qualify for a loyalty card by now)  produced trays of French beans, leeks, broccoli and cabbage. The beans went in around a wigwam of 4’ canes which I’m hoping that will be tall enough for them, as I honestly have no idea how big they’ll grow.

The leeks, broccoli and cabbage were popped in next, in neat little rows. Bonus point to self: I actually read the instructions and didn’t skimp on the planting distance. After a good water in, I scattered the obligatory slug pellets and coffee grounds around all their bases. Not wanting to speak too soon, but the damage so far has been minimal, and I’m hopeful they’ll survive and thrive.

The extra planting area is great, but since turning over all my new soil, I’ve come across another slight problem. The local cats now think my garden is their public toilet. They blatantly stroll in, dig a hole, do their business and saunter off again. Having had a yappy terrier in my old life, cats have never been an issue – in fact, I’ve never seen a cat actually in the garden. With no dog at the new pad, It would seem I’ll have to try other methods to dissuade them.

My friend gifted me a curry plant, which she hinted would be a great deterrent due to its strong aroma. Into a quiet corner of the garden it went and I felt a little smug to have stopped their little game. I kid you not, the very next day I spotted a cat crouching right beside it, brazenly squeezing one out, before casually flicking some soil over and strutting off home. Curry evidently is not the answer.

Building on the smell theory, I’ve since been sprinkling even more coffee grounds around any patches of newly dug soil, and touch wood, this actually seems to be working at the moment.

The veg garden smells like a branch of Costa (other coffee shops are available), but that’s massively preferable to the alternative aroma.

Operation slug patrol

I realise it’s been a bit quiet on the old gardening front, but I have had a good excuse. I’ve recently moved house, and have a brand new garden to tackle. This one is in stark contrast to the old: a good deal smaller, with no raised veg beds or established borders. Instead I have lawn, path and well… a bit more lawn really.

Although grass does set a garden off nicely, having an entire garden of it makes me slightly uneasy. So the first job was to whip out the rotavator and turn over the bottom end, ready for my greenhouse (currently still in bits) and vegetable plot. Feeling happier seeing bare soil, I shot off to the garden centre to buy some runner beans. The extent of my ‘growing from seeds’ effort this year has been a couple of pots of Brussels and courgettes on the windowsill, which would, quite frankly, struggle to keep us in our 5 a day.

Happy with my purchase, I constructed a bamboo cane wigwam and popped the bean plants around the base. Next in went the courgettes and a couple of rows of Brussels. Standing back to admire my handiwork, I felt quite excited about the prospect of a new patch. The plants looked healthy and strong, and I’d be harvesting stuff before I knew it.

The next morning I whizzed off down the garden to check on the plants, and could not believe the carnage I saw before me. Although my garden is pretty bare at the moment, the one thing it seems to have in absolute abundance is slugs. The beans looked decidedly sorry for themselves, and seemed to be hanging in there with their last breath, and the courgettes were nowhere to be seen.

With not a moment to lose, I embarked on ‘Operation Slug Patrol’. Blue pellets were instantly scattered around the plants. For good measure, I also sunk some old bean cans full of beer into the ground, to hopefully entice them in. Feeling sure I’d nipped their antics in the bud, I relaxed and got on with some other jobs.

How wrong could I be? The following day revealed slimy trails everywhere, with even more holes in the runner bean leaves. This obviously called for drastic action. That night as darkness fell, I crept around the garden with my torch, and caught them with my bare hands. Feeling slightly smug as I dropped them into my bucket of water to drown, I felt positive that this would be the last of them. Day three told a different story. Peering into my bucket, expecting to see a sluggy sea burial, I was mortified to find that the little blighters had legged it during the night. Obviously water is no match for them. I’ve decided to venture out into the dark regularly to catch them, but will add salt to the mix.

I read somewhere once that coffee grounds can deter them, so in desperation, I contacted a friend who runs a café and has oodles of them. She duly bought me a bag round, and I determinedly scattered those around the plants too.

So with pellets, beer traps, coffee grounds and a bit of late-night hunting, If I don’t tackle my slug population, there’s something very wrong around here.