Category Archives: Grow your own

French beans – timing is critical

We tried to get off to a good start this year by deciding when to sow seeds linked to the date they would need to be planted out. Dwarf French and climbing French bean were sown in small pots on April 23 thinking that we would plant out around the first/second week of June. All went well except the weather was a lot warmer than usual and the plants matured quicker than expected.

This week it was obvious that the plants needed to be in the beds as they were growing well and risked becoming pot bound. They had been slowly hardened off so yesterday, May 30th they went into the beds.

Climbing French bean – pot bound roots – Roots teased out before planting

Looking at the roots it was clear that it was the right decision especially for the climbers. They looked good and we were thinking we had got it about right.

Climbing French bean – damaged tip Climbing French bean – good tip

Another thing to check is the growing tip. If it has been broken off then ditch the plant.

The climbing beans were tied onto the canes to stop them being blown about. Please note: they were loosely tied, the twine was not tightened as that would cause damage to the stem.

The bed of Dwarf French beans

Later we checked the Met Office forecast for the coming week. On Thursday and Friday  June 4 & 5 the night-time low is 3C. That is a slight frost! We can cover the dwarf beans with a solar pod but not the climbers. Wrapping in fleece might work but who knows, we could lose the lot. And, of course, the potato tops will need covering. Nice as it is to live in the Peak District hills a move a few miles further south would greatly improve the gardening!

Next year the seeds will be  sown a couple of weeks later so they are ready for planting out in mid/late June.

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Making fertiliser – comfrey & nettle juice

Our aim is to make a productive fruit and vegetable garden with zero external inputs or outputs. That means that everything comes from within the garden including fertiliser. Being organic gardeners, we do not use chemical fertiliser mainly because of huge amounts of energy  used to make it and the mining of mineral like phosphates is not sustainable. So, we make our own from Comfrey, or Symphytum, and nettles both of which are grown in the garden.

The Comfrey patch. When buying Comfrey plants make sure you use the Bocking 14 variety as it will not spread! We have used Dalmore Croft for many years – no connection just happy customers.

In the previous garden we made comfrey juice by filling barrels with the leaves and stems and then pressing the contents with broken paving slabs. It worked very well, there are details here. In the new garden we will do exactly the same but in 60Ltr, barrels.

There is also a simple way of extracting the juice using a piece of pipe and a bottle weight. Details here

Lawrence Hills, the founder of HDRA analysed comfrey juice and found that the nutrient content was very similar to Tomorite. We are also making nettle liquid which is high in phosphorous. Combined with comfrey juice this will make a balanced fertiliser.

Please note: we make concentrated juices and NOT comfrey teas. The juice is pressed out of the plant without adding water.

This is how we added the drain and made a stand for the barrels.

(Hover over the image to see the caption, click to enlarge.)

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Strawberries

It is strawberry time!  The quintessential British (and Japanese) fruit –  red, ripe, sweet and juicy fresh strawberries. That rules out the tasteless varieties sold in supermarkets, so it means having a strawberry patch in the garden! If you want to taste real strawberries then grow your own, pick them and eat them straight away.

You need to find a variety that works for you. That is more difficult in the Derbyshire hills. Strawberries like sunshine and warmth, we tend to get that in small doses and can easily have frosts in May and September which makes the season short. But, it is possible to grow these delicious fruits.

Commercial growers use polytunnels or hoop houses as they are called in the US. Unfortunately the Peak Park District National Park have a total ban on them because they don’t look very nice. Shame. One alternative is to grow in containers which is exactly what we are doing this year.

Using containers makes it easy to move the plants into the greenhouse over winter which might just extend the season. These are two old containers made several years ago. There is about 4-5cms of gravel in the bottom and a row of holes is drilled round the sides just above the top of the gravel to prevent flooding and water logging. The troughs were then filled with peat free compost.

This year we managed to get a selection pack of six plants of five different varieties. They were just about acceptable and looked if they had been kept in small pots for too long due the closure of garden centres. They have all taken well and are producing fruits. There are two Elsanta and one each of Vibrant, Flamenco, Honeyoe and Symphony. It will be interesting to see how they do.

Looking at the area in front of the greenhouse has sparked an idea – a new strawberry bed 3m x 0.75m! The best time to plant bare rooted plants is around October/November. In the previous garden we had two large beds and one was planted with Vibrant. It seemed to do OK on an equally cold and windswept site. Just an idea!

And now just to get the gastric juices going here is a film about strawberry mania in Japan –  click on the image below. It shows that they take strawberries very seriously with each variety grown to give a different experience.

Click to watch the video

And then there is Japanese “strawberry short cake” near the end of the film. You can find a recipe here. Can’t wait to try it!

Click for recipe

Bountiful green ‘playgrounds’

Another interesting article from The Straits Times Note: the circuit breaker is the Singapore version of lock down.

Having just sown a lot of radish seeds this caught my eye “….. no vegetable goes to waste. Radish roots are used to make fried radish cake, while the radish tops go into soups and stir-fried dishes.”

Singapore has long been a leader in growing food in cities. Chengi Hospital has a roof top farm which produces fresh vegetables for the kitchens, no cook-chill there! There has to be innovation cities where space is at a premium. There are also important lessons here about local food as Tim Lang says:

“Food may come to consumers locally – in your shop or home – but is actually the result of international , national and regional dynamics”
[From: “Why UK Food Security Matters” Page 66 · Location 1538 Kindle edition. Accessed 18/05/2020 0653]

Much more could be done in the UK if there was the will to do it. That means accepting that our food supply is at best precarious and that we need to produce more locally. The current politics is set on abandoning UK farming and trusting ‘the market’.

Progress in the garden

This is our fruit and veg  garden on 16 May 2020. We started work on the plot just over a year ago. There was a lot to do and it’s been hard work but worth it. We are looking forward to harvesting some tasty, pesticide free veg soon.

The weather made it a difficult year but gardeners always say that! The first few months were cold and wet and the top part of the garden was flooded a few of times due to poor drainage. That should now be fixed.

Spring has been cool and mostly dry here and again we are verging on a drought. There were frosts up until last week. That has caused some damage especially to the fruit bushes in the new bed to the left of the path, the top corner is just visible in front of the chairs.

We have done a lot recently thanks to lock down but there is still more to do to achieve our aim of an sustainable, zero waste fruit and veg garden.

New projects
We are lucky to have a corner of a large garden to grow food. Many people have only have a small gardens or just a balcony so we want to share some ideas. First will be an update to the lettuce table  made about 20 years ago. The plan is to make one using as much reclaimed timber as possible and use reclaimed butyl rubber pond liner for the waterproofing.

Next is the use of self-watering containers. We have used them before with good results. We will have peas, beetroot, tomatoes, courgettes and strawberries in various sizes of container. More to come on this soon.

We are also about to start making comfrey liquid fertilizer from the plants started in 2019. This is part of the closed loop, self-contained. zero waste garden we are working towards. It will not be on the same scale as our previous project.

We desperately need an extension to the compost bins as we are already getting short of space. So far we have a cubic metre of compost maturing in one of the bins. The second bin has active compost in it which leaves just one free for the next batch. The plan is to try a very simple way of locking boards together to build metre square bins that can be used when required and then broken down over winter.

As winter approaches we want to try some new ways of extending the season with the aim of having keeping some crops going through winter. That will mean some new cloches and cold frames to go with the solar pods stacked against the wall on the top right of the photo above.

That should be enough to keep us busy for a few weeks, we will post news with videos of progress here.

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The usual shop bought lettuce

Ever wondered where those bags of bright green lettuce come from? The answer is from massive fields harvested by big machines.

Notice how perfect they are. How is that done? The answer is simple by repeated application of pesticides including insecticides and fungicides plus lots of artificial fertiliser to make then look very green.

Modern pesticides are systemic which means they get into every cell of the plant. They are designed to poison any insect that bites the plant. Systemic pesticides cannot be removed, no amount of washing will get them out.

The government sets the maximum amount of residual pesticide for each pesticide in common use. But there will a cocktail of different pesticides in every plant. There is no limit to the number pesticides used. There is little research as to of effects on human health of regularly consuming  pesticide cocktails, even if the residues for each individual chemical stays within the limits. Nobody knows how they might react with each other. Things are changing as concern grows about the food we eat, see this report.

Lettuce are fed a lot of artificial fertiliser to ensure that they grow quickly and look very green. That produces more problems. First, not all the fertiliser is used, the surplus is washed into ditches, then rivers and then the sea. Excess nitrogen in water is a big problem yet is virtually ignored.

The other concern is that the soil used on farms has become depleted. It does not hold together well so get washed off in heavy rain or blows about when it is dry because it contains very little organic matter. Soil loss from erosion is a massive issue for the UK and the world with a prediction that we only have about 40 years of topsoil left. What then?

When the lettuce will be ready to harvest they are picked by hand and packed into plastic bags ready to be shipped to the retailer. Supermarkets will control the whole process from telling the farmer what variety to grow, how to manage the crop and how many bagged lettuce they want on a certain date. The field becomes an extension of the shop floor, part of a mass production process geared to make the maximum profit for the retailer.

All this because consumers have been led to believe that the cheapest, mass produced factory food is best. Bur cheap food comes with hidden costs –  read about mineral deficiencies in modern food.

People often ask why bother to pay the extra for organic produce. The answer is simple, choose food that is grown in rich fertile soils without the use of pesticides that produces more nutrient dense food that is much more sustainable or stick with factory farming. It’s you choice!

Our first lettuce of the season, grown in soil with absolutely no chemical pesticides!

This is a link to a lettuce table we made a few years back where you can grow your own even without a garden. We are about to make another so stay tuned – video to follow.

Can’t find it – grow it!

It’s the same the world over. If people cannot find the produce they want in supermarkets they are growing it. This article is about a woman in Singapore who could not find Okra in her local supermarket so started gardening again. “We rely on other (countries) for our food, if they don’t sell to us we have nothing to eat…”

Things like lettuce and other salad greens are easy to grow and can mature in as little as 5-6 weeks. And you don’t always need a garden. We are about to start a trial of a very simple system made from recycled parts that can be used to grow salad crops. More coming soon.

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Keeping pests away

Organic gardeners do not use sprays to control pests, instead they get very sneaky and use plants as a deterrent. The best known of these is French Marigolds, Tagetes minuta
which have a very strong and distinctive smell.

We are just about to sow seed in the greenhouse. The plants will be used around brassicas and in the greenhouse around the tomatoes.

This is sometimes called companion planting but it is also older gardening knowledge that has been handed down though generations. It seem to work but we have not done any specific trials.

There is some more information here from the Thompson and Morgan web site.

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Where do lawn pesticides end up?

What happens to the pesticides used on your lawn? First they soak into the ground then move into streams and rivers and finally the sea. They do NOT just disappear or get neutralised by the soil – that’s just PR hype to make you feel better about using them. The same is true for chemical fertilizers – they get washed out of the soil very easily and pollute rivers on the way to the sea where they are responsible for large algae blooms.

See this PDF for more information. Also see Our lawns are killing us

What we should have learned from the last few weeks is that the food supply in the UK is at best precarious and that it does not take long for a food scare to empty supermarkets shelves. With news about shortages of wheat in the UK due to the very wet winter and with an uncontrolled BREXIT on the horizon, it has never been a better or more urgent time to dig up the lawn and grow food – without the use of pesticides!

If you don’t have a lawn you can still grow food in even very small spaces – ask us, we’ve done it.

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Drainage and digging

We have been making a new raised bed on the lawn for soft fruit bushes. The lawn been there for many decades so is very compacted. During the heavy rain earlier the year the area flooded and we did not want fruit bushes sitting in water.

The first stage was to remove the turf followed by a gentle forking over of the soil. I know we are no-dig gardeners but looking at the soil under the grass convinced us it needed loosening.

The videos below show a simple drainage test. The first is on the compacted soil just after the turf was removed. The water puddles and takes a few seconds to drain away. The second video shows the improved drainage after forking, the water disappears almost immediately the flow is stopped.