Wednesday, 25 February 2009

Early sowings

As we plant the first plantings of the year: broad beans in succession - carrots, parsnips, little gem lettuces in plug planters - tomatoes - globe artichokes - I'm reminded of all the things that are possible in a small courtyard space.

I haven't cropped this photo (so you can see it really is the view from my kitchen with the reflection of the window). I like to keep things real with kitchen gardening, as you know.

Took the photograph last year in summer I think - the Clematis Montana creeping up the wall there had finished flowering.

You can see my pots of rosemary and bayleaf. Although I planted these out on the allotment as they were getting too big.

There's lavender on the staging too, and lots of little gem lettuces in containers. You can also see my blue builders buckets for larger items.

We even made space for a sand pit table for my daughter (in the middle). When she wasn't playing with it I put the plug planters on top.

This year we've rationalised production quite a bit. We have three greenhouses on the right hand side of the yard now. There's nothing much to see yet - but both the first early potatoes (Lady Christl) and the maincrop potatoes (Golden Wonder) are chitting (sprouting) in these as it's a good frost free place that's not too warm.

I've also started calabrese early in pots.

There's a bit of mould creeping in on the coir pot there. Must nip it off and make sure the greenhouses are well ventilated. My growing system and my work routine seems to be working really well now, touch wood. Seems a lot less work than it was last year.

I raise the plug plants at home, starting them off with a small heated propagator and use a warm windowsill for the plug planters. As soon as the seedlings begin to show I move them out into the mini-greenhouses to carry on growing and start the next batch inside the house.

When the weather warms up I don't need to grow seeds in the house anymore I can just put the plug planters straight into in the greenhouses. It's all done in a pretty small space, but because I keep moving things on in a shift system - it seems to work. Hope you can make use of these ideas.

When the plug plants or seedlings are big enough and the weather is suitable I cycle down to the allotment and plant them out. There are some who say you shouldn't do this with parsnips and carrots, but mine seem to be okay so maybe no-one explained that to them!

I've got a few other nifty ideas that save space. Instead of buying huge bags of compost, I buy dried, compressed, coir bricks with nutrients. You can get these from good garden centres or the Organic Gardening Catalogue. When I need potting compost I just re-hydrate a brick in a bucket of water and off I go.

This year, I've also successfully managed to overwinter some things for an early start. I did wonder whether it was worth the effort but here's a picture of my winter gem and winter density lettuces. I'll be having lettuce with my salad in just a week or two. That's not bad going as it's not even March yet and I don't have a heated greenhouse.

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Colony Collapse Disorder

Work, family and weather have kept me away from my veg plots this week. I've used the time to reflect on last week's bee meeting and what's bothering bees across the globe. Amongst other things Colony Collapse Disorder. Read reports on this from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and watch a video about this here. (Apologies to blog readers about the links problem this week, it should be okay now).

Anyone who watches 'The Return of the Honey Bee' (the new documentary we saw at the Co-op meeting last week) will learn that at least one third of our food production depends on bees. Let me say that again. One third of our food production depends on bees. That basically means that if their lives are not protected, we stand a good chance of dying out too.

The day after I watched the documentary I made some big decisions. I realised I just didn't know enough about our furry-legged friends. (If I'm going call myself an organic gardener I need to wise up). So I chased up some of the contacts I'd made at the meeting and fished out my wildlife books.

At the Co-op meeting we had the privilege of hearing a representative of Cheshire Beekeepers speak. They have lots of practical advice for newbies (get it - new bees...) - er, I mean people who would like to start bee-keeping.

We've several budding bee keepers on our allotment site who are getting to grips with a hive launch, possibly this year. At the meeting we found other bee keepers from different sites in our city and so were able to exchange information about issues like insurance and allotment policy.
Unfortunately the co-op don't have any plans to show the documentary again to a wider audience, so it's up to us organic gardeners to keep discussion going at the 'grass roots'.

In the picture you can see a bee log. Makes a good gift. Read more about bee logs, which flowers are good to grow and colony collapse disorder in my Helium articles: Why bees are useful in the garden and The dangers of declining bee populations

Wednesday, 11 February 2009

Time for Plan Bee

Bees. They help new flowers to grow. Carry pollen from one flower to the next.

They're dying out. Fast. No one knows exactly why, but we organic gardeners know they don't like pesticides much. What are we going to do?

Well, I'm off to a film showing this evening with the treasurer of my Allotment Association. We're invited by the Co-op. They've become the first UK retailer to 'prohibit the use of a group of eight pesticides as part of a radical new ten point plan designed to help reverse the decline in the British honeybee population'.

The ban is a temporary one though. (I'm going to ask them why). Here's their ten point plan: - (all you co-op shoppers - look out for film showings in your area, and contact the co-op for more details):
  1. The Co-operative Food will temporarily prohibit the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides on own-brand fresh produce. These are Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Fipronil, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam.
  2. £150,000 will be made available to support research into the demise of the honeybee, with a particular focus on UK farming, pesticides and gene-diversity. The largest ever private contribution to bee research in the UK
  3. Over three years, the Co-operative Farms will trial a new wildflower seed mix that will be planted alongside crops on its farms across the UK. The Co-operative Farms is the UK's largest farmer with more than 25,000 hectares of land under management.
  4. Co-operative farms will invite beekeepers to establish hives on all Co-operative Farms in the UK
  5. The Co-operative will engage its three million members in a campaign to protect and nurture the bee population in the U.K. with advice and tips featured on its website.
  6. Members will be invited to forty screenings of a special preview from a forthcoming film that addresses the decline of the bee population and the significance of the bee in food production. In addition, The Co-operative has also commissioned a new bespoke documentary on the decline of the bee population in the UK.
  7. The Cooperative will partner with RSPB's Homes for Wildlife Team and empower members to garden in ways that are honeybee-friendly
  8. An initial 20,000 packets of wildflower seed mix will be made available to members free of charge.
  9. Bee boxes are being sourced and made available to Co-operative members at discounted prices.
  10. The Co-operative will support its members and colleagues to find out more about amateur beekeeping and will encourage links between local beekeepers and members.

Monday, 9 February 2009

Using an urban hay box

I first saw a 'hay box' at least twenty five years ago at the Centre for Alternative Technologies in Machynlleth (in Wales). It was made of wood and polystyrene, I seem to remember. It didn't seem particularly practical.

But I have one now and have been using it regularly with success for the last two winters. As you can see it consists of two parts - both of which look a little bit like beanbags. We live in a city, and there is a distinct shortage of hay, so I guess this is the urban equivalent.

I bought this one from someone in New Zealand (it was very light to send through the post). They've stopped making them now, but if you are a dab hand with a sewing machine, you could construct one yourself and re-use the polystyrene beads that sometimes come with mail order items to fill the bags. It is basically two small bean bags.

There weren't any instructions with mine, and no recipes, so it was trial and error for me. I found it works very well with the lentil recipe featured in my last post. Anyone who has ever made a soup or stew will know that long, slow cooking is the order of the day. So using one saves a considerable amount of fuel (and carbon emissions).

Here's how:

1. Make up the recipe and heat it up really well. It works best with a large, heavy pan.

2. Place pan in hay box bean bag and put the top on. For additional insulation I put the whole hay box plus pan in a cardboard box - I also place a clean table cloth around the pan, so that if there is a spillage I can wash this instead of putting the whole bean bag hay box in the machine.

3. Leave it for three hours (or use it like an electric slow cooker and put it on in the morning for an evening meal) until the lentils are cooked. I don't cook meat dishes in my hay box, although I understand you can.

This is what the whole thing looks like with the top on:
And here's a link to the Centre for Alternative Technologies Shop. You can buy a leaflet for 50p which explains another way of making your own.

I'm really pleased that this blog now has readers from places as far afield as California, India, Poland and Australia. Welcome everyone! I'm sure that readers in these countries have different ways of using hay boxes. During the war here, people sometimes buried cooking vessels in the ground for cooking. Why not write in (use the comments box) and tell us all what your hay box looks like?

Wednesday, 4 February 2009

Lentil soup

I'm cold. Going to make an easy, steaming lentil soup. I buy the organic ingredients in bulk so they're cheaper and use a breadmaker for home grown garlic bread. It really is a doddle and even with organic ingredients and home made bread works out at around 30p a bowl.

That's crisp courtyard-container-grown gorgeous Giant Winter Spinach thrown (artfully) on the top with a swirl of natural yoghurt (this helps if, like me you sometimes go overboard on the curry powder).

Here's how you make it:

1. Organic curry powder (more or less depending on how you like it - if there are children in the house you might want to leave it out, or add cardomon pods instead.
2. One packet of organic red lentils (washed well in a sieve)
3. A few onions if you've got them
4. Two cans organic chopped tomatoes
5. Marigold organic (reduced salt) stock powder
(magic stuff - I have been known to make a stock from scratch, but I don't do it often)
6. Pepper (I don't put salt in at all)
7. Some water
8. Home grown garlic (we like lots)

1.Fry onions lightly
2.Put curry powder in with lentils and fry lightly too
3.Add chopped tomatoes, water, stock powder, pepper, garlic. Heat up well.
4.Turn down and simmer for about an hour and a half. (This isn't as much work as it sounds - buy a simple kitchen timer with a cord to hang around your neck - set it and go away and enjoy yourself)

OR, put the huge pan of soup in a HAY BOX and forget about it for three hours until it is ready. What's that? You may ask? Subscribe to this blog using the box on the right and you won't miss finding out...

Tuesday, 3 February 2009

Spring will soon be here!

Spring will soon be here. Bring it on. I'm ready! Today I had a chance to look back at the last three years - (the hard work of converting a derelict allotment plot-and-a-half) and to look forward to the fruits of our labour.

On the left there's a helper of mine harvesting leeks. We did well last year and planted enough to last until mid February.The garlic and onions we put in last autumn are sprouting nicely.

You'll notice I use a variety of materials to mulch the soil:
- Cocoa shells for the asparagus bed (on the far right of the next picture) and the ground beneath the peach tree. (It's expensive, so I keep it for the 'luxury' items.)

- You can see rabbit manure on some beds. I don't dig it in, as there are so many worms in the soil now, they do the work for me.
- I buy lots of things by mail order so I recycle large cardboard boxes to make the paths. They're weighed down with bark chippings that are free on our site.

Walkways like this only last for one season, but I reckon since we're only in our third year we might change our minds about the lay out and move things round a little bit, so that's fine.

I'm very proud to say there's not a weed out of place in this picture. And all that mulching gives us a head start in Spring as they won't come up so quickly. The clay soil is beautiful now too - much lighter than when we started due to all the organic matter we've added to it.

There aren't many leaves showing yet, obviously as it's only February and still very cold but you CAN see how the plot is structured and the empty beds which are ready to be filled with plug plants from the mini greenhouses in my courtyard at home. Very soon we'll be enjoying the fruits of all that planning. Hope yours is going well. Do write and tell me about it, or ask questions if you like. Here's another picture of the half-plot: