I’m starting a new batch of compost. And I’m going to do it right this time, layering my greens and browns, chopping up the plant waste nice and small, keeping the teabags, egg shells and hard to break-down bits to a minimum.
I’ve been using a wheelie bin with a makeshift door cut into the bottom for my compost. It’s not ideal as there’s no drainage in the bottom, but I don’t have an area of ground suitable for an open bottom bin or a heap, so it’s the best solution currently.
About two-thirds of the contents of the compost bin was ready for use (though the lowest parts were very heavy on the egg shells and tea bags), so I’ve transferred that into the largest of my raised beds (which needed a soil top up). I mixed the compost with fresh veg peelings and cuttings, and covered it all with layers of cardboard for the plentiful worms to work their magic on over the next couple of months.
I’ve lined the empty compost bin with cardboard for extra insulation during the cold months ahead, and laid a base brown layer of shredded cardboard and autumn leaves taken from my leaf mould stash.
On top of that, I added some soil from last season’s grow pots, then a well-chopped up fruit and veg waste green layer, another brown layer, soil and more fresh material bringing the bin up to half way full.
I was less conscientious last year which led to unpleasant smelling and slow-to-break-down compost which wasn’t properly layered or aerated.
My favoured seed suppliers, the Organic Centre in Leitrim, sent out their seed catalogue the other day, and I dutifully went through my seed box to see what I have and what I’d like and placed my first order of 2019.
Already the anticipation of the new year’s growing is upon me!
Including the seeds above, the list for this year’s growing includes:
Black and red currants
Kale (as a sacrificial feast for the insects)
New mints varieties*
I’ve covered our three raised beds with vegetable peelings and other organic detritus and a couple of layers of cardboard (one for eating, one for cover), converting them into wormy paradises for the winter time. I’ll add peelings and lighter vegetation every now and then so the worms have something fresh to munch on. Hopefully this will lead to both rich soil and healthy worms for the spring planting.
And I plan to make excessive amounts of nettle tea over the coming weeks (just need the nettles to grow first) to use as feed throughout the growing season. I’ll need to invest in a face mask to avoid the stench. It is truly foul.
What a year 2018 was. We had such weather extremes – multiple violent storms, the heavy snow in March, the rainless, intensely hot summer, the grey dampness of November and December, and now the unseasonable mildness that precedes a promised cold snap (or as it is better known, winter).
Climate change is here. For the last few years it was happening ‘over there’. And it wouldn’t be with us for years and years. But this year she flashed her ankles in earnest and put us in Western Europe in a bit of a daze. God knows how we’ll cope when her knees come out.
But rather than slip into helpless, horrified anxiety about the imminent end of civilisation as we know it… I’m going to distract myself with some of last year’s growing and gardening highlights.
January & February
These were months of heavy lifting as my beloved and I tried to transform our messy little corner of the urban hinterland into something more habitable. We shifted tonnes of earth around the garden into new raised beds and a rockery (dumping the rest around the sides and back of the freshly painted shed), and we lay paving stones where before a tangle of earth and weeds had been. And when that was all done I got sowing – garlic and shallots went into the ground, seed trays were filled, and potato chitting commenced.
March opened very dramatically with many inches of snow falling in this part of the world. Everything ground to a halt (including bread deliveries, which sent the country into a frenzy of baked-goods hoarding). When I wasn’t sitting in our front window judging the people outside needlessly battling the drifts (they were out of bread presumably), I was at the back window fretting about my garlic and shallots, trapped under the icy snow. They survived, though the earth around them was heavily sodden for weeks after.
Spring sprang back later in March, and I was all about planting potatoes. It was my first time to grow them. And I found it very, very exciting.
April & May
Our garden improvements continued apace, and in April and May we put up bamboo fencing to improve the look of the place, and assembled a lean-to glasshouse against the only available bit of actual wall in the garden, which thankfully also happens to be the sunniest spot. With our raised beds and our glasshouse, we were taking this home-growing business to a new level!
And all the while, I was diligently keeping my spud leaves insect free by hand, and earthing them up, and possibly singing to them.
And then it was time to start eating! June yielded strawberries, shallots, beetroot, lettuces, kale… And our first potatoes!
Tonight’s dinner featured eleven ingredients from the garden tonight!
Shallots drying on an elevated rack made of chicken wire. Unfortunately the weather hasn’t been good enough over the last week to leave them drying outside
Storm Hector in June knocked the shit out of the bigger plants, including my beloved potatoes, but they all lived to see another day.
The beans, peas, courgettes and tomatoes started to take off.
In July, the long heat wave began, and I watered as carefully and conservatively as I could. And thankfully the plants thrived throughout (well apart from some carrots and parsnips in too dry soil, and some potatoes scabbed through dehydration).
Plants that thrived to the point of becoming sinister were the hoikkaido squashes, whose ever-searching tendrils took over a substantial portion of the garden. Bean and pea pods swelled, little courgettes appeared, all my tomato plants started fruiting…
I planted four hokkaido squash plants (probably should have just planted one) – they’ve taken over the bed and are spreading their tendrils around the garden. I’m not sure where this is going to lead. Hopefully to a bumper harvest of squash!
Two of our three courgettes
The ‘progress’ pea pods are coming along nicely.
We’ve six thriving tomato plants (five in the glasshouse, one outside – a mixture of Douglas F1s and ‘Gardeners Delight’), all starting to show fruit.
The dry weather (and dried-out soil) stunted the growth of my first crop of carrots. The ones on the left are from a pot, the ones on the right for a too stoney bed, hence the forking.
Tennis ball-sized globe beetroot, and his ping pong cousins.
The growth of the tomato fruit has slowed down (though there’s already lots of it across our six plants, and lots more flowers yet). We pruned them a couple of weeks ago, and there’s been lots of foliage regrowth but the fruit seems static. I’ll give them extra feed and water and see if the situation changes.
The runner bean glut is upon us. Going to leave maybe half on the plants to grow full beans for drying, and eat the rest in pods over the coming weeks.
August & September
August was all about colour. Our wildflowers came up in abundance, helping us do our bit for the bees. The tomatoes started to ripen from shades of orange into deep, delicious reds. And the courgette glut commenced.
We’re growing two varieties of tomato: Gardeners’ Delight (a cherry variety) and Douglas F1 (medium fruits). We’ve started eating the cherries (deliciously sweet), haven’t had a fully ripened Douglas as yet.
One of our many bee visitors investigating the oregano flowers.
Our little wildflower wilderness is doing well, and the borage in particular is very popular with the bees.
I’ve counted nine squashes growing, and many more little fruits showing on our ever extending plants. We harvested one last week, but far too early. It was not a pleasant eating experience!
The courgette glut continues apace. We’ve had massive fruits from our two main plants, and looks like plenty more to come. Still working on perfecting the courgette fritter (with mint, feta, garlic, egg and flour).
The crystal cucumbers were also ready to eat. Sadly, I was their only fan.
September ticked along nicely giving us a plentiful supply of tomatoes, courgettes, and loads of spring onions.
October, November & December
When the excitement of the glut died down, so did my gardening and blogging enthusiasm.
I didn’t have much in the ground for winter – my pot-based carrots weren’t doing well into October, November. Ditto the bed-based beetroots. The sprouts, thankfully, had made it through storms and rain to Christmas time, providing the traditional excessive festive flatulence. And my kale plants, of course, are looking fresher and lovelier by the day. And are, as usual, going largely uneaten (I just can’t warm to the stuff).
There are still plenty of little sproutlets to be harvested, the last tomatoes are changing colour in a ‘sunny’ spot on the kitchen counter, and my flat leaf parsley seems to just love the current grey and largely damp weather conditions.
Tomatoes in early January 2019
Flat leaf parsley in early January 2019
Nero kale in early January 2019
One of the main learnings from the year that was is that squash takes over the garden, and I’m not all that keen on eating it. So that’s off the list. Another is that runner beans need to be eaten whole when they’re young and tender – and there’s only so many you can eat so don’t bother growing so many. So they’re probably off the list too.
My peas didn’t do well this year, and I think I heard that this was a common issue among growers in 2018, so I’ll try again next year and just up the number planted.
For a second year my shallots didn’t keep past a few weeks, so I think I’ll admit defeat on that front and pour my onion energy into leeks, spring onions and chives instead. I’m still working through the summer’s garlic haul so they’re a keeper.
Also, in a small garden and given how long they take to grow and the amount of water input required I’m not going to bother with broccoli in 2019 either.
New on the menu will be aubergines in the glasshouse (and tomatoes and chillies if there’s room), the aforementioned leeks, french beans and maybe mange tout. Plus all the usual suspects, including excessive amounts of potatoes. Roosters this time I think.
In the meantime there is much work to be done on the garden. The bamboo fencing got blown to bits in the various storms, our brick shed is a damp and dingy place that needs to be demolished, and everything generally looks like crap.
Having inadvertently killed I don’t know how many unfortunate worms in my prefabricated wormery, I decided to throw it out and look for alternative nutrition sources for next year.
To that end, I’ve been to my nearest park today to bag up some autumn leaves to make my first batch of leaf mould, which I’ll spread around the base of next year’s plants as they grow. I think I’ll also make nettle tea in the Spring to supplement the nutrient rich liquid worm castings of the past. (I’ve made it successfully before, so will just up the quantity for 2019).
The wormery had gotten off to a successful start in the shed, but when I moved it outside I soon learned that the design let a lot of rain in – drowning the worm inhabitants. I bought replacement worms and covered the wormery, though continued to leave it outside. I can’t be sure what happened to the next batch, but they all died too. This type of wormery definitely belongs indoors or at least well sheltered.
Leaf mould should be relatively risk free and low maintenance.
I’ve filled four bin-liners with dry leaves (they are currently open in the garden to allow the rain in, they need to be wetted to start the moulding process). Once the leaves are wet I’ll close up the bags, give them a good shake to distributed the water, pierce them around the sides and bottom, put them in a shady place and leave them through the winter, probably five to six months.
If you let the leaves rot for longer (around 18 months) you’ll get a good soil conditioner.
Larger gardens than mine may have a big leaf pile or leaf mould cage on the go to generate a generous quantity of leaf mould for the year(s) ahead. I may gather more leaves over the next couple of weeks to make sure I’ve a useful quantity as I imagine my four bags will yield relatively little when they’ve broken down.
According to one website I looked at, most leaves can be turned into leaf mould, but some take longer to compost than others. Oak, alder and hornbeam will soon rot down, while sycamore, beech, horse chestnut and sweet chestnut take a little longer. Leaves from conifers and evergreen plants will take between two and three years to compost and are best added in small quantities only, shredding them first to help speed up composting.