Friday, 30 May 2008

Drinking the sound of nature

This is the earliest I've posted my weekly blog. I've been awake for about two hours. Woke up due to hayfever again - felt like there were tiny hob nailed boots tap dancing in my sinuses again. Dragged myself out of bed to take my tablet, and sat by the window for a while.

When I was at school, I used to work with my dad at weekends, helping out on his milk round. This meant a very early start - before dawn, around 4 am. In my now distant clubbing days, I often found myself arriving home at a similar time.

There's something magical, almost forbidden, about being awake at this time. It's like you've stumbled upon a secret. The more solitary the experience, the better. And if it's rural, or sylvan, even more so.

Anyway, I sat by the window, waiting for the meds to kick in and provide some ease. I noticed a moth, and opened the window to encourage it out. I did so as the dawn chorus started. At first, a solitary blackbird sang from deep in the woods. A crow called from the more distant fields. Pretty soon, other blackbirds joined in, then robins, wrens, thrushes, goldfinches, dunnocks, chaffinches added layer upon layer to the mix. The sound gave the air an almost liquid quality, and built as the light crept in. Finally, as the sun rose, the geese on the lake joined in, and by full light, the birdsong dropped away, replaced by the sounds of modern suburban life - car alarms, trains, and the first planes approaching Heathrow of the morning.

I've heard the dawn chorus many times, but most times I was intent on getting somewhere. This time I was able to stop and concentrate on the even, from start to finish. If you get the chance, set your alarm for half an hour or so before sunrise, open a window and just listen.

This hasn't been a great week for gardening. After the downpours over the Bank Holiday weekend, my rainfall gauge filled to the brim - that's over two inches in two days. I emptied it and now it's getting on for half full again. Hopefully this is not going to be the pattern for the summer.

My main project for this weekend is to plant a herb garden in the raised bed we've made in the front garden. As the kitchen is at the front of the house, this corresponds with zone 1 in permaculture terms, as do my troughs of salad leaves, which are now edging the deck by the back door. I do plan to have a herb bed at the allotment, but there I'll concentrate on less delicate plants, which don't need immediate use after picking, plus some tea and medicinal herbs. If space allows, I may slot in a few dye plants to experiment with in time.

I must admit I'm dreading going over the allotment after the rain we've had. I have visions of all the mulch I laid on the beds having been washed away.

Anyway, the tasks set out in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for the first weekend of June include:

Sow outdoor cucumbers. Mine are already sown, and are start to emerge in the mini greenhouse. Hopefully, the frog and hedgehog population in the garden will make enough inroads into the slug and snail population to allow a couple of seedlings to survive long enough to be planted out.

Check over fruit trees for developing fruitlets. Fruit trees naturally shed some excess fruitlets at this time of year - hence the term "June drop" However, the ferocity of the rain last weekend may have pre-empted this, so I'll be checking to see if any fruit is left.

Also, net soft fruit to prevent bird damage. I confess to being a little lax with this. The one year I was diligent in netting my strawberries to prevent birds pecking at them, a family of voles burrowed in and gnawed the ripening areas, leaving me with green or rotten fruits. I removed the net and placed a small bowl of catfood next to the bed to encourage freelance pest control operatives (as Beth Chatto calls them)

Sow turnips. Although thought of as a winter vegetable, baby turnips are lovely with a summer roast or even barbecue, especially with butter and mustard.

Sow a row or two spinach. In the days of the WWG, spinach was just used as mature leaves, boiled, like most vegetables at the time, "into submission". These days, as much spinach is used as young leaves in salads and boiled. Even so, only a small amount needs to be planted, as at least one plant is bound to bolt and set seed, leaving you with limitless greenery for all time.

If you don't fancy the idea of spinach as a weed, or if the oxalic acid content makes it taste too metallic, try growing chard instead. Chard is a close relation of beetroot, so is best grown in the root part of the rotation. There are several varieties, some being selected for stalk colour, ranging from white, through yellows and orange right through to crimson red. It too can be picked young for salads, or allowed to mature for use as greens. The mature stalks can be served separately, and are particularly good braised and served with a cheese sauce.

But then for me, many things are improved by the addition of cheese.

Saturday, 24 May 2008

Good Neighbours

One of the frequently cited principles of garden design is to take advantage of the "borrowed" landscape - in other words, take advantage of good plants and structure in the neighbouring gardens.

We have a fine backdrop of mature trees at the end of our garden, and we more or less share some of the plants along next door's fence. At the moment that means we have a wonderful wisteria flowering halfway up the garden, giving off a glorious scent, especially in the evening. Earlier in the year, the bright yellow flowers of forsythia and kerria were a perfect foil to our dark blue shed, and through the summer we can look forward to sharing passion flower, clematis and jasmine.

Somehow this blurring of planting boundaries is indicative of the friendliness of this area. Because it's a cul de sac with kitchens looking out onto the street, it's safe for children to play together outside, including riding their bikes and playing football on the little green at the top of the street. Earlier today, I was talking to some of them about the plants that will be going in the herb garden planned for the front of the house, and they took a great interest in Southerwood, and its cola like scent. Another neighbour was walking the family's dog, who had retired to the country but was paying a visit and relishing the attention.

Best of all, last week our next door neighbour gave me samples of the soap they had just started making. I'm going to be making some goats milk soap tonight, and giving them a sample in return.

This weekend is crucial in predicting the weather for the rest of the summer. The Enfield Classic Car Show is taking place from now until Monday. If the weather is bad for the show, we should expect a hot dry Summer. Last year, the show passed off without incident or trauma. In 2006 there was torrential rain, the show was cancelled halfway through and most of the exhibits had to be sucked out of the mud by tractor. Storms are predicted from tonight onwards, so I have high hopes for getting a crop from my okra seedlings this year.

Two tasks are highlighted in the Wartime Weekend Gardener for this weekend - sow maincrop peas (Onward, Hurst Green Shaft or similar) and start lifting early carrots.

If I find any carrots with roots on, I may just do that.

Friday, 16 May 2008

I’m Still Here (in London)

Circumstances prevent me from being able to go to my favourite event of the year, which starts tomorrow. The Smallholders and Garden Festival at the Royal Welsh Showground near Builth Wells is the most comprehensive and friendliest event of its kind. It's been going for a good twenty years or so, and I've been to the past three. The more times I go, the more people I get to know. And the more people I know to stop and talk to, I get to see less of the show. Mind you, I do spend most of my free time there wandering through the goat showing area, as the goat kids are just old enough to be allowed out, and it's so easy to lose a few hours playing with the little sweethearts - especially the Golden Guernsey kids.

As with most other years, further attractions include a dog show, green building / living exhibition and talks on smallholding related topics. Sadly, Wonderwool, the show for all forms of wool craft, has grown too big and has its own date at the showground. I wouldn't have minded seeing the butter making competition planned for this Sunday. Never mind, there's always next year. And there are a few good shows closer to home over the next few months.

Next week also sees the Chelsea Flower Show. I hope this year good sense prevails, and the judges award medals to gardens with plants in, not glorified patios and barbecue areas. I doubt it will, but it would be good if the Daylesford Organics garden won best in show.

Haven't been the the Chelsea show for a couple of years now. Aside of the obvious downsides - crowds, no plants on sale, high catering prices and getting shoved around to allow for TV filming, coming immediately after the Smallholders show, I was able to compare and contrast the two events. Despite living in London, only having an allotment and not yet able to speak Welsh, I felt far more at home in Builth.

Last weekend, we took advantage of the good weather and put a small area of decking up in the back garden. A bit too urban and not at all frugal you may think, but the area we decked had little topsoil (just builders waste) and sloped down in two directions. It is also and area that gets direct sun only until around 9am at the best of times - little use for growing plants. The deck itself was almost entirely reclaimed from skips - even the breeze blocks used to level the worst of the slope were second hand. The only new items involved were part of a roll of weed blocking membrane and the screw and nails to fasten the planks - all this amounted to about 75p in cost.

We put the deck to use during the hot weather, eating breakfast and dinner there from Sunday until Wednesday. I put some plants in containers in front of the table, including strawberries and Lemon Balm (made tea from the leaves Sunday afternoon). Hopefully we'll have some more warm weather soon and we can sit out there again.

Hopefully the rains toward the end of this week will have penetrated the soil enough for some more serious allotment work to take place this weekend. I hope to put the old shed in place at the new allotment soon, but getting plants in the ground has to take prioriry.

The instructions for this weekend in The Wartime Weekend Gardener signal that Summer is just around the corner - it's time to sow the Runner Beans. I usually sow two varieties - old stalwarts Scarlet Emperor and Czar, and white flowered and seeded variety. When dried, seeds from Czar beans are a fair substitute for butter beans.

Other tasks include sowing another batch of Savoy Cabbage, and another sowing of lettuce (& other salad leaves) and radishes.

Next week is another Bank Holiday, and a local event which often serves as a pointer to the rest of the Summer. But more of that later.

Friday, 9 May 2008

The Sizzling of Hot Summer Prawns

The continuing hot sunny weather has brought most of the street out of doors - gardening during the day and barbecues at night. Being a cul de sac, you can stop and talk without fear of being run down, and children can play outside. I often think that the slope down from the green at the top of the street makes it an ideal training ground for goalkeepers - you soon learn to catch a ball if the other option is chasing it down a hill, and I've seen that happen a fair few times this past week.

I've spoken to more neighbours since moving here than I did the whole time at the old place. There, the people who stopped to talk were either pensioners or pet owners - here everyone speaks to each other - even the "quiet" family say hello to us now - mostly down to seeing us working on the front garden.

We've yet to drag the barbecue out, mainly because the cat that has adopted us would probably run off with the food before we had a chance. Every time she smalls barbecue smoke, she sits on top of the fence, surveying the area. A few nights ago, she sneaked into a neighbour's garden, and got away with a chicken wing!

I guess barbecue smoke has one bonus - it keeps the mosquitos away. Once again, I have not so much been bitten but chewed. Forget fake tan orange, the colour de jour round these parts is Calamine lotion pink. Well, my lavender and Southernwood plants are beginning to bush up for the year, hopefully soon they'll be big enough for me to brush past them and the scent will keep the mozzies and other biting beasties away.

Another interesting thing about here. In this and the adjoining small street, I have met three other households with allotments, all of which are couples or families around our age. Maybe it's another facet of the positive feeling that you get round here. I spotted a few houses have work done, and skips outside, so I asked at all of them if I could reuse anything in the skips at the allotment - I got an enthusiastic yes each time. Have to keep a note of those addresses for later so I can drop a bag of beans or courgettes on their doorstep.

With any luck, we'll have another busy weekend at the allotment, hopefully getting there early enough to get a decent amount of work done before heatstroke beckons. We moved the shelter last week so it's now close to the shade of the trees, next to the point in the fence where there's a gap that wildlife use as an entry point. Discovering that gap has meant that my fruit / forest garden plans will have to be re-drawn, but it's a small sacrifice and I can find the space elsewhere.

It was a great weekend for watching wildlife - especially butterflies. Peacocks and Tortoiseshells have been flying for a while, but over the Bank Holiday I saw the first Orange Tips of the year, and a butterfly I later provisionally identified as a Glanville Fritillary, which is usually only found on the Isle of Wight!

The only instruction for this weekend in the Wartime Weekend Gardener is to plant out Autumn and the remaining Summer brassicas, such as cabbage and Brussels Sprouts. I'm not sure if our brassicas bed will be ready yet, but I found a couple of unused bags of spent mushroom compost on our final visit to the old allotment, so I can use them to help things along.

Saturday, 3 May 2008

Get on with it!

Well - that was a let down. Got home last night to the news that Boris Johnson had beaten Ken Livingstone to be London Mayor. Now, many of Ken's policies and alliances were questionable, but quite frankly the imperfect politician is far better than an untrustworthy buffoon. Let's just hope the one gaffe too far happens early and he's forced to resign.

So from here on in it's heads down get on with ensuring some economy free stability - growing stuff down the allotment, preserving that produce, making cheese and baking. And getting the back garden laid out in such a way that we can start keeping a few hens. The shade bed at the bottom of the garden is filling out and looking gorgeous - I really must try to post some photos. The Wood Anemome corms I planted in pots last year have grown well, but so far have only yielded one flower. At least they're the right plant. Annoyingly, the extra English Bluebell bulbs I bought last year have come up Spanish and will have to go.

Apologies for the late arrival of the blog this week. Spent yesterday preparing for a busy Bank Holiday weekend, and most of today starting the tasks we had planned. All this in spite of the scourge of Spring - hayfever. Being surrounded by beautiful mature trees is great, but for the weeks when they shed their pollen. I tried to fight the exploding sinus syndrome using natural remedies, but nothing seemed to do the job adequately, so I'm back of prescription meds. It's only a couple of weeks anyway.

In a matter of a few days I have seen the first ducklings on the lake, the first elder flowers and today I heard Swifts overhead. It had bothered me that I hadn't seen Swallows or House Martins, but now I know that this area is predominately Swift habitat I understand why. Last year's weather wasn't good for Swifts, which explains why I don't recall seeing any when we moved in.

As I said, Spring gathers apace and there are plenty of tasks to be getting on with in the garden. Even though May Day is a recent Bank Holiday, the Wartime Weekend Gardener's agenda for the first weekend on May could easily take three days:

Plant out Maincrop Potatoes. As mentioned previously, I'm way behind this year, but Desiree, Golden Wonder and Pink Fir Apple, should be in the ground very soon.

Sow Maincrop Peas. Well, I plan to sow another batch of peas this week, and I'll be going with Hurst Green Shaft, more an Early Maincrop variety, but that should be enough to provide us with peas for the freezer.

Plant out Mint and sow other herbs. The mint I planted in a pot to keep outside the front door didn't die back in the Winter, so I had a few tough leaves to use while I was waiting for fresh new growth. I'll probably divide that plant and transfer some to the herb bed at the allotment, but it will stay in a pot, sunk in the soil, or else the herb bed will become a mint bed. Time to sow more tender herbs, such as Basil, as well.

Sow more French Beans. Yes - the weather is mild enough now to sow some of my precious Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, plus a few more varieties to provide fresh and dried beans - Borlotto, some yellow beans and some pencil thin green beans for hot salads.

Sow Beetroot. Cheese and Beetroot sarnies - so bad they're good. I also like whole (unpickled) baby beetroot in casseroles. I've already got a couple of varieties - Boltardy and the wonderfuly stripey Barbietola di Chioggia - on the go, but an extra row every few weeks is a good idea.

Sow marrows in pots. Add to that courgettes, pumpkins and squashes. And sweetcorn. I've been using the Three Sisters planting scheme - beans, sweetcorn and squashes - as part of my rotation system for a few years now. I couldn't tell you if the plants do better grown together, but it uses the allocated space well, takes the right amount of time for these crops and it looks good.

There's something very inspiring about a well planted wig wam.