Friday, 27 November 2015

Green for 2016!

Do you consider the impact your gardening habits have on the environment?

With World leaders going to Paris this December to try to reach an accord over Climate Change it might be time to consider our own habits.
Now living on a Croft, growing my own vegetables, being frugal in my habits may make me feel quite smug but one shouldn't get complacent.

Frugality comes with necessity, I don't have huge amounts of money and it seems counterproductive to grow for the table at a cost which would make the vegetables more expensive than they would be in the shops. But I do use peat, plastic pots, heat in the greenhouse, buy in seed and take my products to market.

Peat is something that we are all being asked to use less of. Peat is a carbon sink, all that plant matter locks in carbon from the air and then our extraction of it is fuel hungry and damages the peatlands with their fragile ecosystem. My use of peat is very targeted, I only use it for seed sowing and then I mix it with some John Innes Seed compost and silver sand. Why do I use peat? Because I know it to be sterile and an easy medium for seeds to germinate in. Most of the multi-purpose composts contain recycled green waste, which is good, but is chunky in its texture, contains a lot of wood and is not always sterile. Adding John Innes and silver sand helps to make the mixture more soil like, easier to wet and gives more nutrients, as well as reducing the peat I use. Also seed is not as cheap as it was and you don't want to lose money with a failed sowing. I have used coir as a peat substitute, it needs more preparation, isn't quite as homogeneous in its texture, but is a good alternative. Unfortunately it isn't as widely available, but as a by-product of the coconut industry it is eco-friendly and worth giving a try if you can get hold of it, and certainly I will use it when I can.

Plastic pots are a necessity these days, clay is beautiful and sustainable but costly and needs more cleaning. Consider also that plants grown in them have a higher requirement for water due to the porous nature of the pots, and in water scarce areas (not the Highlands!) that is a consideration in itself. I recycle my plastic pots, and I get given them from other gardeners for the Nursery. By recycle I mean reuse, there are no facilities to recycle them into other products here. They don't even need cleaning. It has been found that plants grow better in pots that contain traces of soil bacteria etc. from previous use. That is because the compost we use has mostly been sterilised, so soil bacteria and fungi etc. are pretty much absent, yet plants need them to help release nutrients from the soil. Any study that says no cleaning is good by me! Obviously if you have had a serious soil problem you would clean or discard the soil and pots, but I haven't had any problem in all the years I've been gardening.

Heating the greenhouse is something that I can't avoid if I want my plants ready for market in the spring. But I have reduced the amount of heat I use. Our winters have got milder over the last few years. I now don't contemplate any heat until around the beginning of January, when I start seed sowing. I gave up autumn sowing because I found that seedlings in spring quickly caught up, and overtook, autumn sown. With the extra cost of heating and caring for autumn seedlings it didn't make sense. I reduce the size of the greenhouse by insulating it with bubblewrap, now in its 9th year of reuse, and hanging the bubblewrap over a network of wires to lower the height and avoid heating the roof space. I restrict the heat to the propagating benches, using tubular heaters suspended beneath the top bench to provide top heat for the bench below and bottom heat for the one above. At night I use fleece to cover the benches making a cosy duvet for the seedlings. You need to check seedlings daily anyway so this little extra work doesn't impact on time and it's quite fun to peel back the fleece and see what has sprouted in the night! Polytunnels get no heat, but fleece is always to hand and if it is stored away during the summer it lasts for years.

Buying in seed is a yearly expense. I use a number of companies and favour the smaller ones with their minimum carbon footprint. Gardening is big business. Nurseries supplying garden centres and retail stores are using vast quantities of peat, heating enormous greenhouses and transporting plants hundreds of miles. Sadly too often the product is left to languish if over ordered, or sent when weather conditions are unfavourable for purchase, and eventually chucked out. What a waste! Buying from small local Nurseries means that the plants are usually grown hard (like mine!), are ready when the conditions are right, and haven't gone far in their short lives. Most of my plants are seed or cutting raised. The seed has less of a carbon footprint than plants, and I don't have much choice about whether to buy or not, but I do try to be canny about storage and sowing. Use an air tight tub and keep it in a cool place, use silica gel packets to absorb any moisture, and most seeds will last a few years. Work out how many seedlings you want and only sow that many seeds - perhaps a couple extra just in case. Date the sowing, then if there is a failure you will know quickly and be able to re-sow or buy a fresh packet. This year I sowed my French beans from seed that was a little too old, after two weeks when nothing was showing, though the runner beans were up, I bought a new packet and off they went. Looking at the old seed packet I saw that the seeds were 'Use by 2012' - so they had lasted about 3-4 years!

And finally the day comes to sell my precious plants. Most of my customers are local. They come knowing that the plants are garden ready. When I go to the Market I only travel a few miles, the car is packed full, and the bags are reused too! It's not only a green conscience that keeps me local, my time is valuable and spending an hour to drive to the next Market doesn't appeal, and the local market usually takes all that I can grow. When I started the Nursery I was surprised by what the other Nurseries said they threw out each year. In my first year I too threw away lots of unsold plants. I realised quickly that it represented not only cost, compost and a sense of failure, but that it also represented a waste of my time, potting up, watering, caring for each plant. Now I restrict the number of plants that I grow, and fortunately, as most are perennials and grasses, they do grow bigger in the following year if not sold in their first year. But vegetable plants don't keep! I do restrict numbers, and I sow frequent small batches to keep plants at peak readiness rather than one large batch of seedlings that then become pot bound. What I don't sell or use gets recycled. The hens can have the top growth and the roots and compost goes into a separate bin for use in potato pots, as soil conditioner etc. Obviously I make tonnes of compost, but that's another story!

So when you consider your garden and plans next year think about how your habits might be adjusted to reduce your footprint on our Planet. If you have any tips, don't be shy to share!

Tuesday, 24 November 2015

Time to review!

This year has been non-stop. It started with a slow cool spring, moved into a damp cloudy summer, and finished with a lovely warm autumn.

The growing season has been mixed: fantastic runner beans in the polytunnel, abysmal onions in the veg patch. Potato blight on some varieties, others in the same patch unaffected.

Fortunately each year gives different results so it is not the time to be despondent. Instead it is the season to review, prepare and plan.

Review means making a note of what varieties you liked (and didn't like), what you need to grow more of and where and when, what you noticed others growing that you would like to try, etc.

For our patch one thing I will make a note of is that my idea that I wouldn't grow summer leeks outside again - because we don't eat leeks then, and they don't last through the winter outside - was valid. But I need to grow more in the polytunnel for the autumn/winter season, which is when we do like eating leeks.

Also though I do like spring cabbage when there are fewer vegetable varieties on offer, by summer I'm not interested in cabbage. But in late summer, autumn and winter I like red cabbage and savoy cabbage. Kale I will eat at any time of year, particularly 'Red Russian' or Black Tuscan kale. These varieties I will grow in the polytunnel and outdoors. All other varieties of kale I've dropped, if the supermarket want to sell curly green kale but none other that's fine by me, that's one of the reasons for growing your own vegetables!

Prepare means getting the vegetable patch ready for next year, cleaning and mending tools, ordering seeds (always one of the best winter tasks). Last winter was wet and my preparation of the vegetable bed was severely hampered. Consequently I was behind when it came to getting things planted (and that was also delayed because of the cool spring). I felt I was playing catch-up well into summer. This year the ground is already mostly snug under black plastic, dug, fertilised (where necessary) and I feel much better and ready to go. Black plastic doesn't look nice I admit, but it keeps the ground drier, stops the weeds, protects the soil fauna so they can concentrate on working the soil and muck, and I just pull it back in spring and plant straight into lovely clean soil.

Plan this means putting your review into effect by make a decision about quantities, varieties, timing. I don't like gluts, I have little time during a busy summer season to do anything other than freeze vegetables or fruit which I know I will use during the winter. If you know you won't eat 20 cabbages why grow them? Think about what you will eat and when and in what quantity and make your plans to that. If you buy vegetable plants you will find that many companies send out quite large quantities of each variety - consider sharing with a friend rather than have 16 broccoli plants all ripening in the same week. 

And finally if you find you have spare ground in your vegetable patch don't waste it. You can use a green manure, but it will be prettier and beneficial to insects and birds if you plant or sow a few annual flowers. Cosmos, cornflowers and sweet peas, all will brighten up your patch, provide cut flowers for the house and encourage beneficial insects in to predate on any troublesome pests.

Happy gardening for the next season!

Monday, 13 October 2014

Polytunnel update: First frost brings summer to an end.

Last night the first proper frost struck. It wasn't expected, the nights have been mild and the forecast didn't indicate that temperatures were going to plummet like they did. However sudden frosts are not uncommon here and we have been awaiting their arrival.

In the polytunnel the early sun was bringing temperatures up again but the damage was obvious. Courgettes, tomatoes and the last cucumbers were unmistakably done for. It has been a good run and the cropping has been good on all but the cucumbers, I think they have found the heat too much for them this year.

So today's job was to clear out the tomatoes, only 4 small punnets of ripening fruit left, so that is good. They can go into the greenhouse to fully ripen. The strawberry plants under the tomatoes are also lifted and repotted ready for their new positions in the spring. I have weeded the bed  and added some well-rotted horse manure and replanted it with spring cabbage plants. The ground is very dry because I haven't been watering the tomatoes to encourage them to ripen the fruit, so it is very important to get the hose on the bed and make sure it gets a thorough watering.

The courgettes are in containers so they need only to have the top growth removed and then the containers are stacked and the compost will be reused for the early potatoes grown in pots in the polytunnel in the spring. Saves work and money. Just ensure any reused compost gets some fertiliser added to it and that it doesn't harbour any nasty pests or troublesome weeds.

Now the polytunnel is pretty much ready for the winter. The beds are full of winter lettuce, mizuna and rocket. Winter onions, raised in modules in late August, have been planted out, and the leeks are growing strongly. Kale, spring cabbage and the King of all winter vegetables - purple-sprouting broccoli are growing well. The broccoli plants are nearly as tall as me and promise a bumper crop in early spring. The asparagus is beginning to turn yellow and the fronds will be cut down and the crowns mulched but that is probably the last job I will have to do, apart from some watering.

It remains important to monitor the temperature and soil moisture levels as on sunny days temperatures can rise swiftly and the soil can dry out, even when plants are quite small. Remember that the soil will lose moisture directly to the air so if you can leave a surface mulch of dry soil over damp soil that will help minimise water loss. The best way to achieve this is by watering thoroughly and intermittently. Then water penetrates deeply and over the days when you don't water a surface layer of dry soil will form. Check how wet the soil is by scraping back this dry layer and checking what the soil underneath looks like. As winter progresses you should find that your need to water reduces significantly. Try to water on warm days and avoid opening the tunnel on frosty mornings until the temperature rises. If you have to go to work early, try asking a neighbour to help and reward them with some lovely fresh winter vegetables and salads!

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Abysmal carrots!

Carrots are usually a staple for the summer and into the winter but not this year.

The early sowing was almost a complete failure, there were so few germinating that I pulled them out in the end and sowed again in a different spot.

The second sowing in the polytunnel had a better germination rate but the seedlings have been slow to develop. Later sowings outside germinated reasonably well but, despite a mesh to stop carrot root fly, they are riddled with the worms and I will have to remove the carrots to try and prevent the worms pupating and causing more problems next year.

Why the failures? I had heard that other growers were struggling with germination during early spring, and this was put down to dry weather and it being unusually warm. Certainly with the second sowing in the polytunnel I ensured that I watered more frequently and watered the drill before I sowed the seed. Germination was better but it was a hot summer in the polytunnel and this has not been to the carrots' liking. By now we are usually eating plenty but I pulled one a couple of days ago and the carrot (well-flavoured) was too small to have more than a bite or two.

Why did the outdoor ones get carrot root fly? Unfortunately it can be difficult to judge when the carrot fly is on the wing, and it is a very small fly. Possibly it either got through the mesh or hatched from overwintering pupae underneath, although I think that was unlikely as the carrots were sown in a very different spot from the previous year's carrots. Certainly I have plenty of potential host plants around the croft and carrot root fly has become more of a problem, though never as bad as this.

Next year I plan to grow the carrots in tubs and avoid the vegetable patch to try and break the cycle. Even with removing the carrots and, hopefully eradicating the fly larvae, I would expect a few to slip through. If they are in deep tubs, new growing medium and in the other polytunnel I expect to get a clean crop. I'll let you know!

Monday, 11 August 2014

Be careful what you wish for!

We have been enjoying a wonderful summer, which has kept me busy outside in the vegetable garden, and watering copiously in the polytunnel.

Little rain has fallen since the potatoes went in and unfortunately the carrots have not appreciated the hot dry days. Onions have thrived with bulbs the size of tennis balls, and all from seed sown in January!

For days now I have watched the forecast in the hope that the showers indicated would help the potatoes, which are beginning to look in desperate need as the soil is dust dry. Nothing has arrived of any note; drizzle which made the foliage damp. I did resort to an earlier watering with the hose but the foliage is so thick that the hose needed to be put underneath it and consequently the watering was patchy. To get decent sized potatoes the plants need a reasonable quantity of water as they start to flower and boy did they get it last night!

The tail end of Hurricane Bertha arrived during the night with squally winds and heavy showers. The potatoes got the soaking they wanted and managed to withstand the wind, but my sunflowers at the end of the brassica patch are prostrate. The rain is unlikely to make much of a difference to the carrots, I should have watered more frequently during June/July, but a prolonged holiday didn't help with that plan.

I recently sowed some spinach, mizuna and rocket outside, and have been watering daily so now I can take a break from that for a few days. Even the polytunnel plants will benefit as water will flow through the ground under the tunnel and get to the deep roots which they are encouraged to develop. (The raised beds are only a few inches above the ground level, and I water well but not frequently, a good soak once a week or so when the plants are beyond seedling stage ensures they seek for water at deeper levels rather than relying on regular light waterings.)

I'll stop wishing for rain now as I have yet to assess the impact that the wind has had on the fruit trees, and if wishing for rain brings hurricanes, even if they are at the end of their strength, then I'll put up with watering by hand.

Wednesday, 2 April 2014


Northern Scotland probably isn't the best place to grow asparagus but I've always promised my husband that I would try it.

My first experiment involved expensive crowns planted in late spring and carefully nurtured through the year, some reappeared the following spring but they were weak and failed shortly after.

I then heard about growing from seed and treating like a biennial. It was considerably cheaper to buy the seed and it germinated well. I potted up the seedlings regularly all last year and eventually planted 10 out in the narrow bed in the polytunnel after harvesting the sweetcorn. Now they are emerging and at least 9 have started with good thick shoots. Not quite as thick as my finger but they would out compete a pencil. I haven't harvested yet (it would be cruel not to wait for my husband to come back from working away!) and the shoots need to be at least a few inches tall, but it is looking very promising and these are only a year old.

The remaining seedlings have been left in their pots and have only sent up thin shoots. I am considering planting these into a separate bed and letting them grow on for next year.

Interestingly I also tried some in a large tub trug in the polytunnel and these started earlier than the ones in the ground, I think that was because the tub trug was warming up in the sun. They also have grown well and reasonably thick but not enough spears to make much of a dinner! I'll let them continue there and see how they do next spring. During the summer they can be put outside which means they won't take up valuable space, and that might be a suitable option for people who can't afford a permanent asparagus bed.

The only problem was some early slug damage with the first emerging shoots. I had to resort to slug pellets in the end but now they don't seem to be affected.

Looks like my promise has been kept in the end!

Wednesday, 8 January 2014

Well-rotted horse manure

One of my New Year tasks was to collect a large quantity of two year old well-rotted horse manure from a neighbour.

This stuff is full of baby worms and the dark rich colour of black coffee. It probably has the same kick-start effect on the garden as coffee has on people. It is concentrated goodness which will be used sparingly. Because it is from the stable and well-rotted it has few weed seeds, perfect for the polytunnel borders.

Adding manures and compost to the polytunnel beds is always slightly problematic. Fresh stuff from my poultry is too hot and not sterile enough. The compost from my compost heaps can be good but rarely weed seed free. I tend to concentrate this in trenches where the weed seeds won't get light and germinate, or in the base of large containers for beans and courgettes. But concentrating compost in trenches doesn't spread the goodness and if you are cropping the polytunnel year round then you will soon exhaust the soil. Although I do use pelleted poultry fertiliser  to feed the plants, I noticed that the soil was beginning to lose it's colour. The outside vegetable patch was a deep brown but in the polytunnel the soil was beginning to look more grey. The organic matter in the soil was being taken up by the plants and soil life, and wasn't being replaced fast enough.

We have cattle ourselves, but they are not housed, so collecting and rotting their dung wasn't going to be easy. You can buy (and previously I have) well rotted farmyard manure in bags from the garden centre, but it is costly if you need a good quantity. Resting one of the beds after giving it a good helping of compost from the heap wasn't an attractive option, when space is a premium, and weed seeds could come through for years to come (dock seeds can persist in the soil for up to 50 years). I have got the polytunnel to a position where the weeds are not difficult to keep under control and keeping it like that is a priority. So the offer of well-rotted horse manure from the stable was too good to refuse.

How to use? The easiest way is to add to the surface around the plants if they are big enough, like my presently growing purple sprouting broccoli and kale. The worms will take it down and as you water it will also be washed into the soil. The feeding roots of most plants are close to the surface and they will take in the goodness quite easily from a surface mulch. Another way is to dig in when preparing the ground for a crop, or add to a trench or planting hole. I will avoid adding it to the bed which will have the next crop of carrots but once they are growing strongly I will add a small amount to a watering can and water it on the soil near the plants. This suits carrots, beetroot, turnips, onions etc. Gradually the organic material in the soil will build up again and this benefits everything. The soil structure retains water and nutrients better if it has a good quantity of organic matter. The soil life has more organic material available to break down and they release the nutrients making them available to the plants. Healthy plants mean a better crop and arguably a more nutritious crop.