2018 highlights: Gardening while Rome burns


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.

Broccoli, lettuce, coriander and parsley seedlings starting on the windowsill
Chitting potatoes


Snow in March 2018
The dogs enjoying the early March snow

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.

Potatoes sown in raised beds, bags and pots. Late March 2018.


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.



Potatoes flourishing, mid-May 2018

May was also the month I discovered the mild narcotic effects of lemon balm. Good times.

June & July

And then it was time to start eating! June yielded strawberries, shallots, beetroot, lettuces, kale… And our first potatoes!

Storm Hector in June knocked the shit out of the bigger plants, including my beloved potatoes, but they all lived to see another day.

Windswept potatoes after Storm Hector, June 2018

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).

I harvested the remaining potatoes in the bed as they were coming under attack from insects (there were small holes in the majority of the bed crop, I wanted them out before too much damage was done. The skin on several of the potatoes shows scabbing – a symptom of not having enough water.

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…

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.

The crystal cucumbers were also ready to eat. Sadly, I was their only fan.

Lemon crystal cucumbers. Delicious served cold from the fridge with a little rice wine vinegar/soy sauce/sesame seed combo. A delicate lemon flavour and crisp flesh.

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.

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.

Let the fun begin…


Making leaf mould


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.

A fair weather garden blogger

My blogging quiet of the last two months is a reflection of two things: work busyness, and the annual downturn of gardening enthusiasm, which slows as the garden’s productiveness does.

Looking back to last year, I similarly fell silent for the month of September.

Throughout that month, however, the garden continued to give us plenty of its three best growers of the year: tomatoes, spring onions and courgettes. So they’re definitely back on the list for 2019.

I’ve learned a lot this year about soil and yields, conditions and care, and what we will and won’t actually use from the garden. Next year the focus will be on potatoes, tomatoes, courgette, trying aubergines, more chilies, different bean varieties and peas, and of course the compulsory beetroots and carrots. Other things tried this year, will not make the list for 2019. And maybe a couple of experiments will creep in too, particularly lettuces, and different herbs.

Great yields from our five tomato plants (which still have more fruit to give before they’re done). I made my first tomato chutneys and some delicious pasta sauces.
We enjoyed a glut of massive courgettes from two plants, and lots of interesting recipes resulted.
While the squashes were technically a success, the plants grow so huge (and my enthusiasm for using the actual squashes is relatively so small) that I don’t think I’ll bother again.
Think we had six heads of broccoli in total. After a huge amount of time, and water, it seems inefficient to grow broccoli in the garden. I tried a couple of varieties of purple sprouting last year, which bolted very quickly. So I think my broccoli growing days may be over for now.
Spring onions have grown well, and are still looking good, ditto runner beans (though I’ll try different varieties next year, and more peas), the chilis were small but have a good kick, and the beetroot was reliable, if a little on the small side.

Squash and cucumber harvest time

Hoikkaido squashes. The squash plants were a first-time experiment for me, and they quickly took over the garden. 
Lemon crystal cucumbers (and Patch). Delicious served cold from the fridge with a little rice wine vinegar/soy sauce/sesame seed combo. A delicate lemon flavour and crisp flesh.
Mystery potatoes. These are the children of some spontaneous potato plants that grew from our not-fully-broken-down compost.

August 2018 update

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).
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.
Our two crystal lemon cucumber plants are starting to fruit. They’re not ideally positioned (outside the greenhouse, in a slightly shady spot) so we’ll see how they turn out.
The sprouts are growing slowly but steadily.
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!
Our runner beans have run amok. Many are now harbouring full size beans that I’ll leave on the vine and harvest later in the year for drying. The younger beans coming through are very tender and pleasant when steamed and served with a little oil or butter, sea salt and black pepper.
Late-sown spinach is doing well, with regular monitoring for eggs and leaf miners.
Lamb’s lettuce, strong chervil and rocket courtesy of LIDL’s seed pots!
Another LIDL seed pot experiment – outdoor aubergine. Their success will depend on the hot weather keeping up. No sign of any fruit yet.
The root vegetable patch (where first potatoes, beetroot, carrots and parsnips were grown) is now home to an odd assortment of veg including broccoli, courgette, compost-borne potato plants and more beetroot. Potted carrots doing well too.
Our little wildflower wilderness is doing well, and the borage in particular is very popular with the bees.
Time to deadhead some of Madge’s roses (so named as they were planted by the garden’s former owner). These old roses have a beautiful sherbet scent.
Coriander flowers. I’ve planted lots coriander but have had very little to use as the plants bolt so quickly.
One of our many bee visitors investigating the oregano flowers.
Radish flowers and seed pods.
Patch and Pip supervising garden activity.
Pip’s tennis balls keep disappearing into the squash leaf jungle.