Snug As A Bug In A Bottle

Being a simple chap I’m a big fan of simple ideas, especially if they’re free / cheap. They don’t get much cheaper or simpler than the lacewing hotel [PDF file] I stumbled across yesterday. I managed to make two in a few minutes this afternoon with stuff that was readily to hand (the only thing I needed to buy was a bit of straw, but that’s only pennies from a local shop).

Lacewings are great little creatures. For something so delicate looking they’re pretty ferocious predators, particularly the larvae. Fortunately, they like to eat aphids and other bugs that annoy gardeners. So giving them a helping hand, especially when it’s this easy, is the punk rock thing to do.

New Kids On The Plot

One of the posters over at the Profane Existence forum was looking for some beginners tips as they set out to grow for the first time in a new plot this year. I came up with a few suggestions and, as an avid recycler, I’ll put ’em up here too.

Check out your garden’s micro-climate. What’s the garden’s aspect? Are there damp / dry / shady spots?  What plant hardiness zone are you in? Which way are the prevailing winds and how strong can they be?

What sort of soil have you got? Clay-like, sandy, loamy (the best sort)? It may be worth doing a pH and soil test using a kit similar to this.

Look at what your neighbours are growing, talk to them, and see if there are any community gardening groups operating. They’re a good source of plants / seeds (often free) and knowledge.

Start a compost pile. This will become black gold!

Allow some space for wildlife. Either grow a small ‘wild’ area, or incorporate wildlife-friendly plants. And put out bird food in safe places for the birds. The natural food chain created will help with any bug problems later in the year.

Put in a small pond with suitable plants. In no time at all, things will find their way to it. Introduce frogs suitable for your area if they don’t find their own way (a blob of spawn is a great way to do this) – frogs are great at eating slugs and other annoying things.

Start organic, then stay that way. If you’ve got an established major weed problem, a one-off hit with glyphosate may be worth considering if you’re comfortable with that sort of thing. If not, look at mulching (although be prepared to have the land out of action for quite some time for this to be really effective) and, in some cases, be prepared for digging out every piece of root you can find.

Look at no-dig gardening techniques for an easier life and a healthier garden. Let the worms, bugs and microbes do all the hard work.

Use the web to look for local / regional gardening-related websites.

Take it at your own pace, learn from what doesn’t work and go with what does and, most importantly, just enjoy it. Relaxing in the garden is an essential part of the whole thing.

That should do for starters. Now get out there and get dirty!

Seed The World

Right about now is one of my favourite times in the garden. It may not be at its ‘prettiest’ anymore in the eyes of some but I behold things with a slightly different focus. Not only is there plenty of food to be cropping but there are also plenty of seeds to collect. Free seed this year = free plants and food next year. Now that’s a punk rock result!

Pretty much all of the flowers and veg I grow in the garden produce viable seed. This is the big advantage when you choose to grow seeds from pure lines rather than hybrids. Saving seed from hybrid species is pretty pointless, especially if you don’t have much space, as none of the offspring will have stable genetics and you will end up with all manner of shapes, sizes, colours and/or flavours (good and bad) depending on what you’re growing. So stick to the non-hybrid varieties if you don’t want to have to keep buying the F1 seeds every year.

Also, it pays to remember that many varieties will also readily cross-pollinate with others of their kind. This isn’t anywhere near as problematic as F1s crossing, especially if they’re high quality pure lines getting jiggy with each other. But if you want to keep a particular variety of these types true to the parent plant, either stick to only growing that specific variety or keep the different varieties isolated from each other. How (or even whether it’s practical) to do this depends on how they are pollinated. Chillis, for example, are pollinated by insects moving from flower to flower. So, if you want to grow two types, a net cage moved from one type to the next on alternate days will allow insect pollination while preventing cross-pollination. Complete isolation is the only really guaranteed way of keeping things perfect but I don’t require or desire absolute perfection (most of the time!), so close enough is good enough for me.

That’s enough theory, time to get on with the fun bit.

Saving seed is easy, needs no special equipment, and requires just a bit of your time (and a nice cup of tea to help you along).

Firstly, you can (and should) choose the best plants as your seed source. When you sow them next year, you’ll be guaranteed to have great results.

Then you find out the best time and way to collect the seed. For flowers, it’s normally just a case of leaving the flowerheads to die and literally go to seed. These seedheads will then ripen, which usually means that the seeds fall freely from the plant if you give ’em a shake or gently rub the seedhead. That’s the perfect time to collect ’em. Make sure you do this around noon or early afternoon on a dry day, not just because it’s more pleasant for you but because it means the seed isn’t damp.

Collecting veg seeds is slightly different but, almost without exception, is best done when the vegetable itself has fully ripened and matured. There’s a good introduction to veg seed saving here and here. Google should help fill in the gaps.

Once you’ve got your seed, you may have a couple of options of what to do with it depending on the species. Seed from many native plants in the UK (as well as non-natives from the same hardiness zones) can be sown as soon as they’re collected. In some species, they’ll germinate straight away. The plants then have enough time to put on a decent amount of growth before the approaching rigours of winter set in, and they’ll have a great head start come next spring. This is particularly useful for biennials like foxgloves, as they’ll produce flowers in the same year. Other species need a period of cold to break their dormancy (known as cold stratification) before they’ll spring to life, so sticking ’em in a pot, bed or seedtray in the garden now will ensure they get the chilling they need once the snows and frosts take hold (an alternative is to reproduce the same effect in your fridge before next spring – mix the seed with some damp vermiculite, seed compost or sand in a ziplock baggie, remove most of the air, seal and put in the salad drawer of your fridge for however long the species needs).

The rest of your seeds, including most of your veg, will need to be kept until next spring or beyond. That’s easy enough too. You need to make sure the seeds are properly dry. Seeds from ripe flowers will probably not need any further drying, seeds from veg will almost certainly need a bit of help. Just put them in a warm and dark place with decent air circulation and low humidity until they are. The seeds can then be stored in paper envelopes or bags in an airtight container in the fridge. Seeds will often remain viable for quite a few years like this, although germination rates will eventually decline over time. For even longer-term storage, many seeds will also survive quite happily in the freezer.

Chances are you’ll end up with more seed than you need. What a great problem to have, eh? Either swap or give them away (via friends, the web or by organising a community seed swap) or indulge in a spot of guerrilla gardening.

So that’s the basics. The specifics are down to you, your plants, your tea supply and Mr Google.

Fruity Towers

I love strawberries. But only fresh picked and in season, when they’re absolutely bursting with juice and flavour. Not only are they at their most pleasing on the mouth, they’re also the perfect additive to a fine vodka*.

The problem is, strawberries need space (albeit not much), and space is at a premium in my garden. I’ve tried growing a few plants in the gaps among the herbs, but they’ve not done brilliantly well. So I looked at getting a strawberry planter, a particular kind of pot for growing strawberries vertically. The problem is, anything half-decent (in size and appearance) is expensive. And I’d rather save the money for a good vodka to infuse with the strawberries.

Strawberry towerSo I had a quick think about it, hit Google, and found a pretty elegant solution that was along the same lines as what I was already contemplating. The best part is it cost me less than six quid. Simply get three terracotta pots of different sizes, fill with compost, and stack them up. Sink each smaller pot just under halfway into the soil in the larger pot and you’re good to go. I’ve used 33, 23 and 15cm pots, with 4 plants in the biggest, 2 in the middle and 1 on top. With a heavy-cropping variety, these will be all I need to indulge my taste buds and liver.

At the moment, I’m growing Elsanta. This has got a bad reputation as the bland and ubiquitous supermarket variety but, grown with some TLC, it produces large amounts of luscious medium-sized berries that are loaded with taste. Next year, I may well try a more unusual variety, or even add a few ‘perpetual’ types that produce small but continuous crops from mid-summer until the first frosts. Seasonal strawberries in November? Yes please! I can’t think of a better way of ignoring the impending winter months than stuffing my face with straight-off-the-bush summer fruit.

And once you’ve got a few plants established, you’ll never have to buy any more. Apart from giving you fruit for a good few seasons, strawberry plants send out runners every year with new baby plants on (you can see them hanging over the edge of the pot in the picture). These will self-root once they come into contact with soil, a process you can help by using a u-shaped loop of wire to pin the runners in place. Once the plantlets have rooted, you can cut the runner from the parent plant and pot the baby up elsewhere. Care for it properly and it will be ready to replace its parent next year.

*Fruit vodka: simply fill an empty vodka bottle about one-third full with ripe strawberries or other berry-like fruit, add 2-4 ounces of sugar depending on the natural sweetness of the fruit, top up with vodka, give a good shake and keep in a cool, dark place. Shake vigourously every day for a couple of weeks, then shake every week or two for as many months as you can bear, but at least three. When it’s ready, strain it through muslin or similar fine cloth and put into a clean bottle. If you can resist the temptation to drink at least some of it, place it back in the cool, dark place and try and forget about it. If you can wait until Christmas, you’ll be well-rewarded.

Particularly good fruits for this include blackberry, raspberry, any of the currants, and sloes. Sloes should be picked after the first frost if you’re in the northern hemisphere, as this is when they’re at their ripest. Sloes are very sour, so use plenty of sugar for the best flavour. And prick them with a fork first to allow the vodka to really bring out their fulsome twang.

I’ve just made a batch of blueberry vodka (yeah, I know, imported produce is bad, but these were only shipped from Germany, are a rare treat and were on the discounted sell-by shelf in the supermarket for only 30p!). It’s already taken on a deep purple hue and should be stunning come the winter solstice. That’s just given me a thought – cranberries, like sloes, are also sour and cranberry drink makes a fine vodka mixer. I think a bottle of cranberry-infused vodka could very soon be on the cards.

Going Potty

My veg plotMy tiny-but-glorious veg plot: 1 – Chili; 2 – Spuds; 3 – Carrots; 4 – Garlic; 5 – Salad leaf; 6 – Raspberry; 7 – Comfrey; 8 – Tomato

The pot. A humble vessel for dirt and seed and the foundation for the glory that follows. But pots can cost money, and money is something best saved for punk rock music and cider wherever possible.

So what’s a thrifty punk with an eco-conscience to do? Call on his / her DIY ingenuity and put it to good use, that’s what. So here’s my list of favourite ideas for growing your own pots.

Yoghurt pots. An obvious one to start with, and probably something that most Brit schoolkids have used. Simply punch four holes in the bottom with something sharp and / or pointy (I used a screwdriver with the tip heated up in a flame for a few seconds). They can be used for both sowing seeds and for growing on young seedling transplants.Yoghurt and paper potsNewspaper pots. You can do this completely for free, or you can spend a few pounds on a paper potter, a simple tool that should last a lifetime and makes the process even easier. The free way involves getting an unsquashed toilet roll tube and some newspaper. You can then follow this brilliant walkthrough if you want to give it a go. The other way simply involves buying the potter tool, cutting up strips of newspaper to the right size and following the instructions. The bottoms of pots made this way are firmer and don’t use as much paper, so you can usually make at least four or five pots with each sheet of newspaper. Kids seem to love using it too (a handy source of free labour if you know how to play it right).

Cardboard egg boxes. Impossible to find in a vegan household, but most of us know some ovum eaters who will happily donate them. Egg boxes are very useful for chitting potatoes and, once they’ve done that, can then be turned into biodegradable seed pots. Simply add dirt and a seed or two to each segment and sprout as directed. Once the roots show through, cut or tear the segment off and plant out into its growing position. The card will break down quickly once its buried.

Plastic tubs. Use takeaway tubs, maragarine tubs, in fact anthing that’s flat on the bottom and open on the top. Like the yog pots, you’ll need to punch some holes in the bottom. Fill them and use them as seed trays, or use them as pot holders for your paper or card pots.

Tin potsTins. You need the sort with the ring-pull lids that your baked beans (or whatever) come in. Remove the ring-pull end and put in your recycling box. Then use a tin opener to remove the other end. Let this end fall down inside the can to act as a base – it’ll sit on the flange left behind from removing the ring-pull, and water will freely drain between the overlap. Fill with soil. These are great for beans and peas because of their depth. Use two or three seeds per tin. Once the seedling is around six inches tall, simply push the base back up into the tin to remove the bean and rootball.

Loo roll potsToilet roll tubes. These are also good for beans and peas. You could just put them into a plastic tray and fill them with compost but you may end up losing half of the soil from the open bottom when you come to transplant them. You could loosely stuff one end with newspaper before filling, which is better. Or you could take a few seconds more and do a proper job. First, make the cylinder square by squashing it flat down its length. Then cut a slot along each of the four creases, so that you now have four flaps. Simply fold these in like you would a cardboard box and you have a flat base. If you want to use toilet rolls for smaller seeds or seedlings, simply cut the tube in half first.

Tetrapak potsDrink cartons. The tetrapak. A very useful but also very annoying invention. Useful because it keeps my soya milk fresh, annoying because it’s very triple-R (reduce, reuse, recycle) unfriendly. I’m one of the lucky few to have a collection point for ’em fairly close by, but it still seems like a lot of work (and energy) involved in recycling ’em. So I’ve started to turn them into larger pots for young teenage plants (like these tomatoes) to allow them to grow into healthy young adults before planting them into their final tubs. Once the cartons are past their best, they get a rinse and a trip to the recycling bin.

Plastic sacks for spuds. OK, I’ve not actually done this myself yet, but friends have had good results. You can buy very expensive designer sacks, but we’re thrifty remember? So get a large thick plastic sack, such as an old compost bag or garden refuse sack – they need to keep the light completely out, so maybe double them up if they’re on the thin side. Use a garden fork or scissors to make some drainage holes around the bottom then roll the sides down. Put about 4 inches of compost in the sack, place 3 seed potatoes on the surface, then cover with another 4 inches. As the spuds grow, keep adding compost to bury the stems to leave just the top 3 or 4 inches of plant showing each time, rolling up the sides as you do, until you’ve added around 12-18 inches or so of dirt. Then leave ’em to finish doing their thang.

You can do a similar thing with any kind of large container. I bought a cheap large plastic garden tub (another fiver), punched a load of holes in the base, and use that. It works grand and should last for years.

Anything you can salvage and scavenge. Be creative. You might strike lucky and find some decent pots, like the big green plastic ones I’ve got the garlic and carrots in, on Freecycle. You might find ready-made stuff in a skip, which is how I got my seedtrays and many of my small plastic pots. Or you might spot some piece of ‘rubbish’ (like a big can or old teapot) that would look great with something growing in it.

Cheapy shop bargains. OK, so it’s not free, but it’s not far off. Just this week I was passing my local bargain shop and saw a wicker laundry basket for a fiver. I was looking for something to grow a mint collection in (I love mint, but it can be pretty invasive in an open bed), and I immediately saw an opportunity that was a lot cheaper than buying a decent planter from the garden centre. I lined it with an old plastic rubble sack (speared several times for drainage with my garden fork), filled it with compost, trimmed the sack to just above the soil line and planted four mints into it (spear, pepper, orange and ginger). Give it 3 months and the edges will be overgrown with mint and it’ll look lush. It’ll also make a good present for a friend (which is what I’m planning to do).Mint basketLabels. Once everything’s planted, you want to make sure you don’t forget what’s what. So make your own plant labels by cutting any suitable non-transparent plastic – margarine tubs, washing up liquid bottles etc. – into strips, and use a marker pen (Sharpies are my weapon of choice) to write on them. You can see them in full effect in some of the above pictures.

And finally, buy terracotta pots for anything else you want to both grow and show off at the same time. They’ll last forever with a bit of TLC, are eco-friendly, look better as they get older, and display your plants perfectly. Shop around and you can find all sizes and quite a few shapes for not much money at all. Even if you break a few (and you will), the broken bits can be used as drainage crocks if needed. Don’t forget to line the inside of your terracotta pots with a plastic bag or similar before filling them, to prevent water loss.

Anyone got any other ideas?

Punks With Gardens

I’ve been a keen gardener pretty much for as long as I can remember. When I was a kid, I spent happy summer days on the allotment with an old retired couple who were neighbours in our block of flats, as well as loads of time in my gran and grandad’s tiny cottage garden (even though it was in a massive council estate). And when I say cottage garden, I don’t mean the picture-postcard sort on chocolate boxes. I mean the proper practical sort that look fantastic and provide food and flowers throughout the year.

Once we’d moved into a house, my mum had a garden of her own to play with. She encouraged me and my brothers to grow our own stuff too – carrots, lettuce and spring onions were popular with us, as were sunflowers, snapdragons and hollyhocks.

So when I finally left home, I had a reasonable working knowledge of growing stuff. Since then, I’ve grown things pretty much everywhere I’ve lived although, until more recently, I’ve never had the chance to really get intimate with land – it’s usually just been a few pots of herbs on the windowsill and a few tubs in the garden to play with. Temporary accommodation doesn’t lend itself well to the longer time span you need to really develop a garden.

But over the last 8 years, I’ve lived in the same place. And that means I’ve been able to get totally stuck in to being a gardener. So I’ve decided to write the occasional bit about my garden, partly to pass on some of what I’ve learned, partly to try and encourage a few of you to give it a go if you don’t already, and partly just to show off the end results of mine and Mother Nature’s efforts to a wider world. Also, punks with gardens are as important to the revolution as punks with guns.

I’ll post up some specifics about what I’ve done in my space later but, to start the ball rolling, I want to tell you about the most important thing you should do before anything else – start a compost heap. It’s the closest thing to alchemy that you’re ever likely to experience. Put a load of waste in the top and, a few months later, black gold comes out of the bottom.

Compost is the bedrock of any successful garden, whatever you grow. It has almost magical properties that feed, nurture and protect the plant as it develops. With good compost, things will almost grow themselves (leaving you with more time to sit back with a cuppa and simply enjoy the life happening all around you).

There are people who’ve already done the hard work of explaining how to go about the whole process, which means I don’t have to. UK folk can also find discounted ready-made compost bins through this site.

One thing that this site doesn’t tell you is how to make good use of the ‘bad’ perennial ‘weeds’ that you might find (in the UK, that includes things like bindweed, dandelion, couch grass etc.) There are a couple of solutions (literally, in one case) that I’ve successfully used.

Method one simply involves putting all of these types of plant in a heavy duty black plastic sack, loosely tying the top and leaving it in a warm spot in the garden for a few months. This will kill the weeds and they can then be safely added to your main heap.

The second option is smellier but quicker – make weed tea (no, not that kind of weed, that would be foolish and expensive). Give it a few weeks and you’ll have a foul-stinking brew that is surprisingly good for your garden. You use the liquid as a fertiliser, and the leftover dead weeds can then be put on the heap.

Feel free to share composting hints n’ tips in the comments, or ask me any questions if you’re unsure of something or having problems.