Sunday, September 23, 2012


The year's harvest is nearly completely in at this stage, and it's been pretty good. The allotment came along a little too late for much production, but it's going to be well set up for next year, and we did get some goods out of it anyway, as detailed below.

At the house, we planted peas, onions, carrots, some brassicas, squash and pumpkins, a couple of tomato plants, and we had the blueberries, strawberries (which had to be moved to a new bed), and other soft fruit from before, as well as the apple trees and the pear and plum.

The peas cropped very well indeed, and there were enough that some even reached the kitchen; this hasn't been the usual experience. And they were glorious. The onions produced a good crop - from sets, since the seeds last year didn't go - and the carrots did well too, even the ones planted directly in the native clay rather than imported topsoil. The brassicas, however, didn't even sprout. I'm unsure if the soil was just too heavy and wet for them, or if slugs were to blame. We'll try them next year on the allotment.

The squash, despite being planted in a cold frame on top of the entire compost heap, didn't get going until late, and had a dire germination rate - one plant from nine seeds. The pumpkins just didn't happen at all. I think the fact that the summer was pretty cool throughout was responsible for that, and then the lack of sunshine meant that there were no flowers until August, and no fruit setting until September. However, there are some decent squashes appearing now, and I'm hopeful of getting a few, even if small, by the end of October. I don't know how well they deal with frost, though, and being as we've already had a light one, that could affect things.

The tomatoes grew, and leafed, and were good, but produced very few fruit. Again, I think the lack of sunshine was to blame. The blueberries did fairly well. The strawberries didn't, partially due to being moved, and partially because they had a really bad case of slugs. Even repeated applications of Slug Death XL didn't see them off completely.

There were blackcurrants and gooseberries, although not many, but that's as expected - we should be up to seeing a decent crop from them next year. The apples and the pear flowered, and were on the way to producing a few fruit, and then an early summer storm blew everything away, quite literally.

The allotment came into our possession quite late in the year; too late to plant properly. Nevertheless, we got  in some potatoes, alongside the volunteers that sprang up everywhere, and also more peas, onions, and carrots. We put in strawberries, too, some more blackcurrants and another gooseberry, and there were some raspberry canes left by the previous owner. Our allotment co-owner put in some more strawberries, some blueberries, and some very experimental corn.

It's worth noting that the allotment soil is vastly better than that in the back garden. Things absolutely thrive there, and it's several orders of magnitude easier to dig.

The potatoes we planted did very well; the volunteers were pathetic. It's very clear, though, that planting in the raised beds suits them well, and deep planting with hilling as they grow also does well. However, we don't eat that many potatoes, and they're really not a good economic use of the land there, so we'll likely not plant many next year.

The onions absolutely boomed. They went in a good five weeks later than those in the back garden, and were, I think, about 20% bigger on average when we harvested them in late August and early September. The carrots also did very well, once they came up, which took long enough that we were starting to doubt they'd taken at all. And the peas there produced more, by a long way, although there more dried-up plants as well, which didn't happen at all on the back garden ones.

There was some produce from the raspberries, the blueberries, and the strawberries, though not a vast amount - that's fine for their first year, though. We'll expect more next year, and I intend to build a sort of cage for the strawberries to keep birds off.

The corn, surprisingly, did fairly well, considering the weather, and got as far as producing small cobs. I don't know if they've got as far as an eating size, but it's a positive sign for next year, when our co-owner intends to try a Three Sisters crop - corn, beans and squash in the same plot.

We'll be setting a few beds on the allotment aside for an experiment in medieval horticulture, as part of an Arts and Sciences project for the SCA. That'll be documented separately on Wattle Fence. Other plans aren't formed yet, but carrots, onions, and some salad crops will definitely feature, and I intend to try the brassicas there - possibly planting them indoors or in the mini-greenhouse first.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Review of 2011's Vegetable Gardening

A review of last year's crops is in order, I think. They went in on April 23rd, and were a bit late - not to mention the onion seeds didn't take at all. Well, that's not fair, one onion came up, much later in the year.

We had potatoes (Organic Sarpo Mira). They grew well, cropped well, and I was reasonably happy with the potatoes themselves. We don't use all that many potatoes, though, and they're rather intensive use of space for something that's cheap enough in the shops and available from local sources. So I'm not going to plant potatoes at all this year.

Onions (Bedfordshire Champion - from seed, not sets). These were a disaster, as noted above. I blame our dense clay soil, but that's not not a thing  I can change quickly. So this year's are from sets.

Peas (Lincoln, an heirloom variety) and Green Beans (Nomad) - the peas were glorious, the beans just didn't fruit. They were within centimetres of each other, in identical soil. I don't know what was driving that, but I'll take the hint. This year I've a good-sized bed of peas in, and no beans.

The rocket came up and was eaten. No alarms and no surprises; I'll probably plant some during the summer, but there's no need to do so this early. The Coriander (Calypso) just didn't make it. We'll be trying some herbs in the mini-greenhouse, though, so I anticipate some better results in the warm-weather herb area this year.

The courgette plants didn't do so well - one just disappeared, and the other produced some lacklustre fruit, which was so slow-growing that the slugs got most of it before it was mature. This is pretty much the opposite of last year's experience, so I'm a bit mystified.

The basil just plain died. We haven't been able to grow basil worth speaking of, or even keep imported plants alive at all. It's not soil - some of the imported plants are in pots - and it doesn't seem to have any consistent cause. I'll try some on the allotment this year, and some in the mini-greenhouse, because I do like me some basil.

The tomato plants went well, but could do with more consistent heat and sunshine than we had last year. This year is shaping up well for that, and I'll buy some established plants at the beginning of June. And finally, the lettuces boomed, were eaten, those that didn't go to seed, and generally performed very well. Twelve was too many for a cut-and-come-again style, though; six would have sufficed. If we're picking full heads, it's a different story.

Pak choi that were planted later on were thoroughly slug-eaten - if I do those again, they'll need to be in containers, or protected in some fairly sophisticated way.

Update & Allotment

Apologies for the long hiatus - you can blame my college course. However, the term is over, and I can now spend a few months focussing on home projects, of whatever shape.

In the early winter, I finished out most of the attic work, and the new space has been in use there since. There's still some finishing to do - edging and trimming of various kinds - but it's been a huge benefit already. Over the summer, I'll finish that, work in a new pantry under the stairs, and build myself a fitted desk.

I did some quick planting in the garden in March - onions and peas, along with some pumpkins, squashes, cabbages and brussels sprouts. The onions (from sets, this year) are doing beautifully, as are the peas. The pumpkins and squashes may or may not be doing well - something in that cold frame is, but I'm not yet sure if it's the things I planted, or something else entirely. I don't really recognise pumpkin leaves yet. The sprouts and cabbage simply didn't appear - the cold clay soil strikes again.

However, we've a solution to that now, at least in part - a shared allotment. I wasn't aware of any such anywhere near our place, but a friend who lives nearby found them, and proposed sharing one. It's coming into shape now, and I planted more onions and peas there yesterday, after we put in a pretty solid afternoon's work making paths and beds. I intend to start some more brassicas off in our mini-greenhouse, and get those in place on the allotment as soon as they're up to it. And I'll try both approaches on some lettuce, and see which works out better - I suspect, though, that sowing in small pots and then planting on is going to be the winning method, much though I dislike it.

More detail on all these projects in the weeks and months to come!

Monday, September 5, 2011

Seeing Other Plots

It's a peculiar thing that for all the images I see of people's gardens and so forth online, it's very rare for me to see comparable gardens in real life - areas that have limited size, and that are being grown by people who don't yet have a vast amount of experience. I've seen the veg plots in the Botanical Gardens in Dublin, and the absolutely stunning Victorian Gardens in the Phoenix Park, but both of those are full-on professional, and the Victorian Gardens in particular have about four dedicated people working full time on them.

However, at the weekend, I was able to see the student plots in Kew Gardens in London - more than a dozen small plots, each thoroughly jammed with vegetables planted by first-years horticulture students. They were pretty impressive in some ways, and oddly comforting in others. For instance, none of them had much in the way of carrots, a crop I've simply not been able to grow here.

The tomatoes, though. They were mostly using Tigerella and Shirley varieties, with some Truegold here and there. They were massive, enormous plants, easily my height, weighed down with huge trusses of fruit. Each had been sown indoors around the end of February, and then planted out in the end of April. I'm planning similar varieties and schedules myself for next year. Now, London is always going to be a few degrees warmer than I can manage, it being further south and under the heat island effect of a large city. But I think that with some sensible use of glass, and some good composting, I ought to be able to do fairly well. Even half as successful would make me very happy indeed.

And basil, variety Sweetgreen, growing in small rows here and there, with an amazingly strong scent. I did note that it was in among vegetables, not in a dedicated herb bed, which I might try next year too - reserving the herb bed for the tougher perennials like mint and sage and thyme.

The squashes and cucumbers were beyond what I think is possible in my climatic conditions. That said, I haven't had a chance to look at my own squash since I got back, so it's now been about five days since I saw them. It's possible they've set fruit and got going in the meantime, although I'm not all that hopeful.

Vegetables were not planted in rows in most of the plots, but in rough patches - the intention here was to cut down on pest effects. I'm not completely convinced by this, because it seems to me that it would be a lot harder to thin plants in these conditions, and it'd make weeding tougher as well. But I'm willing to give it a try - perhaps some beds in rows next year, and some in patches, and see which does better in the end.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Garden Calendar

I've been reading up repeatedly about pruning for the various fruit trees and bushes we have, and then blanking on which one happens when. This really isn't terribly helpful, because it means I have to search out the information again, and I've been trying to think of some sort of useful mnemonic - but haven't come up with anything.

Eventually, I realised I had a useful tool for this already - my online calendar. I use Google Calendar for this, and it is, of course, very easy to choose a Saturday at the appropriate time of year for pruning each tree or bush. So that's what I've done, setting pruning dates out to mid-2012. If the actual dates don't suit closer to the time, I can move them, and once I've done the actual pruning, I can mark next year's calendar. Apart from anything else, this will give me a record of what I've planted when.

I'm reckoning on doing this with other garden tasks as well - particularly planting. That way, I'll have a record of planting dates without having to mess around with other spreadsheets or external gardening diaries, and can see over time what works well and what didn't.

Friday, July 29, 2011

My Ideal Workshop

There isn't room for a real workshop on our property. And indeed, even if there was room for it, it'd be a low priority, because I've half a dozen other hobbies and pursuits that come above the woodwork. But still, when I'm working on some piece of woodwork on a makeshift bench, or wishing for a fourth hand and an extra elbow, I do think about a Proper Workshop. When we get in a new shed, sometime later this year, I may even take some steps toward setting up a small one.

Now, I was brought up in a carpentry shop; my father is a master craftsman in a number of fields, and he's had various work areas. The only thing they've all had in common is copious space - these are not sheds and basements, they're full-on professional spaces where you can build a 10-metre stairs and rotate it without running into anything. I'm not thinking of anything that big, not least because I'd never have the use for it. The largest things I'm likely to handle are more on the 2.5 metre scale.

There are two key aspects, I think - working space and storage space. And the two cannot overlap. The default state of the place needs to be that the working space is empty, and the storage space is full, or nearly so.

The working space in my father's shops has always been big, heavy tables. These would have tops a good 4cm thick, maybe more. 2 metres by 3. Legs in 10cm square chunks of timber, often braced two ways. They weren't nailed or bolted to the floor, because sometimes they'd need to be moved, but they were incredibly immobile pieces of furniture. And then they'd have a full sheet of thick plywood attached on top, because the working surface would become pitted and battered, and need to be replaced after a while.

Now, I'll never need anything quite that massive, but I do reckon that something very solid is essential. If you need to really put pressure on something, if it's clamped down, the very last thing you want is the table moving. There's a heavy desk that was in the house when we got it, and is now in the garden shed, which might well be ideal for this job, except that it's far too low - any surface that's comfortable to sit at is not comfortable to stand at. So it might be best to build myself a bespoke worktable, at the proper height, and with the proper density. I think a 1 metre by 2 surface should be plenty. 1 by 1.5 might even suffice.

The worktable also needs space around it. A metre would be good, but I'd probably get away with 75cm. That would, on a 1.5 metre-long table, give me space enough for an object of up to 3 metres in the longest axis.

Now, there's the question of a vice. A good vice is essentially an immovable object, so common sense dictates that it be attached to the worktable. But it can get in the way, and having taken so much trouble to ensure that the worktable can remain clear, deliberately putting a heavy chunk of metal where it can interfere seems counter-productive. There are two possibilities, I think - you either ensure that the vice sits slightly below the surface of the table, or you put it on a second bench. In constrained spaces, I think the former is probably more likely.

Then, storage space. There are two kinds of storage spaces needed - tools, and materials. Tools need to be visible, accessible, and safe. Wall-mounted racks of one kind or another are ideal for this. Boxes are definitely not; they encourage rummaging, and rummaging in a box of sharp things is trouble. There is also, of course, something very pleasing about a wall covered in tools. Tool storage like this isn't even all that intrusive; it doesn't use up much space in reality.

Material storage is another matter. Materials for projects under way, bits of scrap that are "too good" to throw out (and I've been really glad to have these, already), and then the things like sandpaper, glue, screws and nails, varnish, and so on. That can take up a lot of space. In some workshops I've seen, there's an entire room, sometimes a second building, given over to this storage. Again, that's not practical for me, so I think that stacking by a wall for timber, and a cupboard for the sandpaper and screws end of things will be needed. Maybe some semi-loft-like storage, if the structure allows for it.

Is that everything? Not hardly. There are three other things to consider: permanently placed tools, lighting, and ventilation.

Permanently placed tools are the things like table saws, pull-down drills, sanding belts, and so on. At present, of course, I've none of these. A pull-down drill would be convenient, but isn't essential. Some sort of mounted saw would be very good, though - not necessarily a table-saw, but one of the pull-down style as well, perhaps. And maybe a small lathe. And, considering how much of my reference material is online, I'd need space for some sort of laptop or old desktop computer. These things need their own space, usually along by a wall. Some of them need a solid bench, again, for a mounting. They do need a workspace, but they can share that around the main work table, and if they're on benches, then I might have drawers or other storage underneath.

Lighting is a thing that my father's shops never did well, but I'm not sure that lighting was done well anywhere in the 80s and early 90s. What's needed is one or two powerful pendant lights over the main work table, high enough that they won't be hit by ordinary movements. And then you want spot lighting for the permanent tools and storage spaces. There's no need for these lights to be on all the time, and indeed, if they're off, you can get the pleasing effect of a pool of light in the working space, and nothing elsewhere to distract.

And finally, ventilation. My mild allergy to wood dust seems to have decreased massively in the last couple of years, but it's still better not to be breathing it too much. Not to mention varnish, paint, and glue. A flow of air is often enough - so a door and a window will do. I'd like to have some sort of air suction, as well, for clearing away dust from places where it'll otherwise build up, under saws and drills - it's entirely possible that an old vacuum cleaner will suffice for this.

Ideally, then, I'd be looking at a space of about 2 metres by 4. It would, of course, fulfil many of the functions of our existing sheds - storage of garden tools, outdoor furniture, and so on, and I'm sure the lawnmower can find a space in there someplace. Inevitably, some compromise will be needed - but it's nice to have an idea in mind.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Native Irish Plants for Winter

I've been listening to the BBC Gardeners' Question Time podcast of late, and also looking at gardens while I commute. The harsh winter of 2010-2011 seems to have ravaged gardens up and down the British Isles, and this is clear in two ways.

First, nigh-on every every episode of GQT has a question like "My beloved such-and-such plant died over the winter; can you suggest a replacement?". Second, gardens all over Ireland have dead shrubs standing out - sometimes it's just one set of bare branches, but there's one garden near us that has a hedge, three large shrubs, and several lower and smaller ones, all stone dead. There's a honeysuckle growing over one of the big dead shrubs, which gives the garden some semblance of life, but otherwise it looks like some sort of depressing art installation.

The GQT folks have a barrage of suggestions, but they come down to one fundamental - use native plants. We may think that winters like the last two are unusual, but the plant life of the British Isles disagrees, and can handle the -15°C fairly well. The exotics, on the other hand, keel over - there are dead palm trees hither and yon all over the South-west of Ireland, for just one example. Now, there are exotics I have every intention of growing, but they're either tolerant of our climate - pak choi, for instance, which is so happy in cold damp conditions that the crop I planted this year reckoned it was too dry, and bolted - or kept in greenhouses, like the jalapeƱo peppers we're hoping to have a crop from this autumn.

There were two palm trees in our place when we moved in; one at the front, and one at the back. They were terminated with extreme prejudice. Everything else shrub-like or hedging in there is native, or hardy - hazel, holly, blackthorn, hawthorn, ash, and so on. The only thing in the whole place that didn't make it through the winter intact was the rosemary in the herb bed.

So it's pretty clear that native plants have a massive advantage in this regard over the exotics. Now if only the weather could kill off bindweed.

Wednesday, July 27, 2011


Two years ago, I planted asparagus crowns. I noted earlier this year that they seemed to have died; this turns out to be incorrect. There is, once more, one solitary frond of very narrow asparagus hanging out where the three crowns went in. This, to be honest, almost more frustrating than the things having died off completely.

Now, having concluded they were dead, that area hasn't been weeded, so that's probably not doing it any favours. It's halfway covered in vetch, for a start. But even if I weed it thoroughly and carefully, I'm not sure what to do to actually encourage the plant. More compost? Dig it up and move it somewhere else?

Some initial research seems to indicate that compost is indeed the way to go, but also argues for a well-drained sandy loam, rather than our cold clay. So I'm reckoning that if I want to keep this one, I'll look at clearing it up carefully, leaving the fern there over the winter, and providing it with a good dollop of compost in the autumn. But it does seem like a small raised bed elsewhere with some more suitable soil brought in might be a better solution - it'll warm sooner in the spring, drain better, and be somewhat easier to keep weed free. I do have a bunch of beams left from the attic, so I could build a nice high bed.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Crops, July 2011

Some pictures of the crops growing in the garden this summer.

The lettuces are starting to go to seed a little - we've more coming up, so it's not a problem, and they've done very well as cut-and-come-again crops. Also, they're gorgeously geometric when they run to seed, so I'm willing to let them be for a bit on that stake as well.

The apples are getting sizable enough. There are six on this tree, and two on the other; after the whipping around in wind they got in late April, I'm not unhappy with that, and they're young trees yet.

The peas have come into their own in the last couple of weeks; there are fattening pods all over. We've had some, and they were very good, and I look forward to more soon. Oddly, the ones in newer, unimproved ground did well (or maybe it was something to do with the rogue potatoes alongside them), while those in better ground are much slower to get going.

And then the green beans, which were extremely poor at the germination stage. But all three plants that actually sprouted have done very well, and are now being trained up the cones. They're just short of flowering, so with any luck, we'll have a crop from them as well.

Next year, I reckon I'll be doing a lot more planting in trays and then planting out; much better control over conditions starting out, and a lot less bother with thinning. And they'll look neater too.

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Second-hand Greenhouse (Miniature)

Friends who are moving out of the country said we could have their miniature greenhouse. Having assembled a makeshift one from old windows and attic beams, I wasn't about to say no. It needed some dis-assembly to get in it as far as the car, and then we realised that the size of the back panel - composed of solid pine beams and tongue-and-groove boards - meant it just wasn't going to go in, and that was it. So out came a hammer, and I took it apart, plank by plank, until it fitted.

Re-assembly therefore meant starting with remaking the back panel, and that started with taking out the rusty staples it had been put together with. Between a hammer to knock them flat in places, and a pliers to get them out where possible, I eventually got them all dealt with. And then on to the assembly. There's something very pleasing about working outdoors with wood on a sunny day.

Here's the final result:

That's now sitting at the back of the house, holding two tomato plants (one starting to groan with green tomatoes, the other only starting to produce a few; both have lots more flowers), a jalapeno pepper (flowers, no fruit yet, but I'm hopeful), and a small grape-vine, which we thought was dead, but has started to produce some small leaves again. Ideally, I think, it should actually be in soil, with a wall to climb on, but it's very small right now, and I think a year's coddling before we expose it to the outside world might be good for it.

One thing I would like to get would be a couple of small thermometers, which I'd mount where they can be seen in this and in the makeshift one. I reckon this will be hotter than the recycled one, so that gives three stages of heat - outside, recycled greenhouse, and good greenhouse, in increasing heat.