Garden Diaries, part 1
Stepping out of the back door on a chilly morning in early January, it had to be said our small garden was in something of a sorry state. The abandoned raised beds containing remains of last year’s tomatoes hanging withered on their bamboo canes and a handful of tatty-looking leeks; half the garden covered in a thin layer of local newspapers and old compost in what was in retrospect a very poor attempt at the ‘no-dig method’; trees that had firmly rooted themselves permanently through their pots in positions (we had hoped) would be temporary; and in the middle of this chaos, absurdly, a formal path terminating in a bay tree.
What the neighbours must have thought?!? We clearly had a lot of work ahead of us.
Our aim throughout this year is to turn this tiny wilderness into a healthy, tidy and productive kitchen garden, with a mixture of raised beds, vegetable patches and pots, with a small herb garden and a space to sit and relax.
Since January, we have been keeping a garden diary: a simple weekly planner outlining what garden tasks we hoped to complete, and which ones actually got done; notes of things that went well, as well as the disasters! Now, with spring well and truly here, we thought it was a good opportunity to reflect on the progress so far.
We hope that this diary highlights just how easy and enjoyable gardening can be, as well as demonstrating what is possible with a small (8m x 5m) housing estate garden. Also, while we weren’t to know this when we started working on the garden back in January, we now think it’s more important than ever to be focusing on the garden. At a time when many of us are confined to our homes and gardens, and when food is becoming both more expensive and harder to source, what reason is there for not investing time and energy to create a space that is both enjoyable and productive: an area in which to relax and to grow your own food?
Looking at the garden now, three months into 2020, there is clearly a lot of work that still needs doing, but it is heartening to see what a difference a few hours a week have had on it.
We have been lucky to have had a mild winter, but the persistently heavy rainfall had turned the garden into a quagmire. The soggy newspaper poked through dark mud, looking less like promising bulbs than the hands of zombies bursting from fresh graves. The almost daily rain meant that the garden was far too waterlogged to work with. The ground had become a heavy, soggy mixture of clay and stones, meaning no new beds could be dug and there was no hope of moving our path.
However, towards the middle of the month, when the sight of our muddy patch was beginning to become too disheartening, we enjoyed a brief moment in a weekend with no rain (though still wet!) and managed to move the old rectangle raised beds. For reasons unbeknown to us, we had originally put them right in the middle of the garden, making the garden look even smaller than it was and rendering it entirely impractical. Now they are up against the patio, giving the impression of a larger space.
Right at the end of the month, a similar moment of sunshine gave us the opportunity to tackle another of the heavy tasks: moving the elder whose roots had burst through its pot into a more permanent location at the end of the garden. It was a tough, messy and frustrating job, but after a few hours, we had dug a hole around the pot, cut the roots or pulled them free, hauled the tree to the bottom of the garden and into its new home – this time a little better buried in the ground.
One of the smaller, more pleasant seasonal tasks we undertook was to “chit” the potatoes. Egg boxes were collected – lids unceremoniously detached and dispensed with – and lined-up along the windowsill in the spare-room. Into each little egg-spaces we dropped a small seed potato and left them to soak up the sun and “chit”, which we have learnt encourages the seed potatoes to sprout, or develop “eyes”.
One of the new discoveries of this year is the mysterious art of pruning. We had always assumed that – aside from regular watering, occasional feeding, and generally being kept free from pests – plants thrived best when left to grow naturally, without human interference. We had always wondered why, therefore, our fruits trees and bushes were pale, lanky in comparison to those of our neighbours. With a little research, we learnt that many plants were more attractive, more productive, and actually healthier after a light (or even something drastic) pruning.
It’s a complicated science and there’s a lot more for us to learn – The RHS Pruning and Training Manual runs to more than 300 pages – but we wielded our new-found knowledge against the gooseberry with more than a little trepidation. Looking back from early April, looks as though it has responded well, and is looking happier than it has in many years. We will have to wait and see if it has an effect on the gooseberry crop!
Both the plum and elder trees were also put to the secateurs in early February – probably a little later than we should have done – but we got to enjoy a few branches of beautiful blossom in the house, and both seem to be looking sturdier as a result.
The most rewarding task of month was sowing broad beans. With no beds prepared for growing, the broad beans were sown indoors in compostable pots. We are sure this is probably a cardinal gardening sin, but this is our first year: our hearts are in the right place, but we suffer from a crippling lack of gardening knowledge! But it was all worth it when – oh joy! – a few days later, 3 of the 4 pots had tiny shoots which have since slowly turned into sturdy little plants.
Not all gardening is meticulously planned: after a visit to the “Zero Waste Market”, a regular event organised by our workplace (Cambridge University Press), we were delighted to see one of the local farms that attends had a stall selling potted herbs. Unplanned, we purchased lemon balm, oregano, and mint.
In March, the mint developed mint-rust, a fungus that causes the stems to develop strange sucker-like lumps, which is turn causes the stems to coil and twist, as though tortured. Alas, this is not the first time this has happened to mint we have brought for the garden. Previously, we destroyed the infected mint, so we were disappointed to see that this has happened again. We have cut off the offending shoots, leaving a very small amount of healthy mint which is struggling to recover. It is with great embarrassment that have to document that we can’t keep mint – one of the most prolific herbs in the English garden – alive for more than a week!
On a more positive note, it was also finally dry enough in March to move the garden path. As mentioned, the original path had been a dignified, symmetrical affair better suited to the formal gardens at Burghley House than our tiny housing estate backyard. After a little heavy work, we now have a much more sensible path that curves through the garden like a question mark, giving us space on one side for our main vegetable patch, and then a smaller slice for the herbs.
The first of the potatoes went in this month. We had a slight disaster with the chitting: we were planning to stagger the chitting, and we stored the potatoes that were awaiting their turn in the dark and cool of the cupboard under the stairs. This turned-out to be an enormous mistake. When we pulled the bag out, the eyes were more like octopus tentacles: long, thin, pale and bursting through the net bag. Many of the eyes fell off as we tried to disentangle them from the bag. Nevertheless, we have planted them up (in patio potato grow-bags) and will await and see if anything happens to them, though we are not hopeful. Our error may have cost us our potato harvest.
We also planted courgette and summer squash seeds into small pots and rested them on the window sill in the kitchen. This is our fourth-year growing courgettes, and they have always been successful, but this year they have been off to a slow start. Of all the seeds we sowed of the summer squash, only one has germinated, and out of 15 courgette seeds it looks like we only have 2: perhaps we have an unlucky pack.
March is the month to start planting up herbs: chives were dug up, separated – a couple donated to family – and replanted to border the new curving path. Our rosemary, which we bought three years ago as a tiny plant from the herb stall as Suffolk’s Weird and Wonderful Wood festival, is now nearly a metre tall and has outgrown its pot, so we planted it up, along with our enormous sage plant.
Previously we have been growing lovage in one of the raised beds. We were under the impression that lovage died after two years, so we were in the process of digging-up its roots to remove it when we noticed a small hopeful shoot. With nothing to lose, we planted it up, and can happily announce that it is alive and well, and we are looking forward to another year of lovage: a personal favourite (yet hugely underappreciated) kitchen herb. The nettles we mentioned in our last post are now planted, to the doubtless astonishment and fury of our neighbours.
As the month draws to a close, we notice a few strawberry shoots growing up from the turned-out debris of last year’s patio planters. With an afternoon ahead of us with nothing else to do, we rescued four of the determined shoots, and have potted them up into small plastic pots. We are not convinced much will come from them, but if we get a couple of new strawberry plants for free, we will not be complaining...