Although it’s not the end of the calendar year yet, it feels like an appropriate moment to stop and reflect a little on how things have gone in the garden so far and to start sketching out a few plans and ideas for the new season. Once again, I have totally failed to keep up with any kind of planting diary so thank goodness I can look back through my blog posts to remind me of events throughout the year. I also thought it might be useful to gather everything together under a few headings in the hope of perhaps helping, informing and encouraging others to give it a go. I’m no expert: I’ve been gardening one way or another for many years but my approach has changed over time and I’m always excited about learning from others, implementing new approaches and revising my own practices accordingly. One of the things I enjoy most about blogging is sharing ideas and information with others and it has led to much lively and inspiring discussion and some enduring and valued friendships. Everything I share is built on experience and for me, that’s the best scenario; there is a wealth of helpful advice and tips out there from experts in every field which is wonderful to tap into, but I still believe the best way to learn about gardening is to get out there and do it.
In many ways, this garden project feels like a culmination of everything Roger and I have learned from gardening together over several decades and of all the gardens we have created, it is perhaps the one that allows us the most freedom to play; we’re not trying to feed a growing family while holding down jobs or adjust to an unfamiliar climate or manage challenging slopes. We have a vision of what we would like to achieve but nothing is set in stone and our plans change, grow or fade away as we go along. We haven’t deliberately set out to develop a ‘food forest’ but once the trees, shrubs, hedging and perennials we have planted mature, then that is certainly what it will feel like. Our aim is to create a garden that is productive, beautiful (it’s about feeding the soul as well as the body), interesting, sustainable, regenerative and resilient, a space bursting with ecosystems and biodiversity that provides us with many of our daily needs and enhances and enriches the local environment. Lofty ideals? Maybe, but definitely ones I am happy to stand by. Any good recipe hinges on decent ingredients, so now follows my list of what I consider to be the essentials. Feel free to disagree ~ as I said, I’m no expert. 😉
To say I’ve become a bit obsessed with soil is probably an understatement but I love the fact that there is so much new and completely fascinating research and information about soil biology to consider. I’ve never had a downer on soil, that whole ‘dirt’ thing that so many people subscribe to, because as a gardener I’ve always recognised how key soil health is to the success of cultivation and the survival of our species; I also love getting my hands dirty! However, the growth in understanding of the extent to which soil is a living, vibrant entity appeals to me greatly and I am very excited to embrace it. For anyone raised in the conventional dig-hoe-weed-clean-control mindset, the idea of ‘leave well alone’ can be a bit scary or maybe even seem a totally ridiculous notion, but if we are willing to accept that nature knows a thing or two about building healthy soil and are prepared to give it a go, then the results can be quite astonishing. I love words, so the relevant language such as mycelium, hyphae, actinomycetes, comminution and mycorrhiza is for me a source of fascination in itself, but suffice to say it’s really all about what I call ‘woodland thinking’. In a wood, organic matter falls to the floor in layers and is continually recycled by a wealth of organisms into a rich, fluffy soil; the ground is never bare and there is minimal waste of any kind. To mimic this in the garden, it’s important to protect the soil structure (and hence the all-important life it contains) by not digging, leaving roots in the ground and keeping the surface covered in organic matter, either growing or as a mulch. It goes without saying that the addition of synthetic fertilisers and soil improvers or toxic herbicides, pesticides and fungicides is a complete no-no. Like a good wine or cheese, it takes time for soil to mature in this way so a little patience and a lot of sitting on hands (step away from the spade, folks!) are needed . . . not always easy, I admit, but well worth it in the end. I know we still have a long way to go here, the garden is very much in its infancy, but the improvement in the soil this year has been tangible and reflected in the health, resilience and yield of the plants growing in it.
When we adopt this woodland thinking (or perhaps it’s also compost thinking?), then any spare biomass that comes to hand offers a golden opportunity to feed the soil but as with so much in life, it’s important to maintain a balance and apply a bit of common sense along with the organic matter. For us, that means spreading or sprinkling a wide range of materials, both green (nitrogen-rich) and brown (carbon-rich) in moderation at an appropriate time; I will confess there’s no plan to any of this, we tend to just ‘feel’ our way but again, if we’re happy to be led by nature then it usually works. This year, we have added grass clippings, chopped dead leaves, chopped spent plants, annual weeds, seasoned sawdust, old hay, leaves and liquid feed of comfrey and nettles, coffee grounds and ‘liquid gold’ aka dilute urine, as well as home-produced compost and well-rotted horse manure, the only imported element which actually turned out to be donkey dung, but hey, it’s all good stuff. We’ve used a policy of close planting, no problem as I’m a crammer by nature anyway, and sown green manure and annual flowers as ground cover in uncultivated spaces. Everything has been mulched to within an inch of its life so that bare earth just doesn’t happen. I realise for anyone who likes to see their plants growing in clean, bare earth this is total anathema but I think we seriously need to distance ourselves from the idea of a ‘tidy’ garden because who does that honestly serve? Nature’s messy: let’s roll with that!
I will happily admit that in a former life, the intention of creating a new garden bed would have seen me stripping turf, banishing weeds, digging deeply, forking over, raking down . . . all set for a great first season as the newly-oxygenated soil kickstarted an abundance of activity from those precious soil microbes. It was a short-lived celebration, though, and a short-sighted approach to boot. These days, I sheet mulch without question: down goes a layer of cardboard straight onto grass, followed by alternate layers of green and brown materials, lovingly layered like a beautiful lasagne. Plants go straight into that ~ a generous pocket of compost beneath them ~ and the building of layers continues. I must be honest, I harboured severe doubts about how successful this would be, especially as the extreme heat and drought this year left some of our lasagne beds horrendously dry. The brown layers of twiggy sticks, dead leaves, sawdust and shredded cardboard, added to keep things light and airy and prevent undue slime from wet green materials, just sat there being (weirdly!) light and airy and stopped the whole lot breaking down into something close to soil. No worries though, everything planted in them seemed to thrive regardless but certainly the autumn rains have now helped it all move in a more expected direction. The mandala bed ~ my pet project ~ produced an abundance of growth and food that far outweighed any expectations but if I needed any proof that sheet mulching really works, I only need to look at the asparagus bed. I broke every rule in the book with that one (no clearing of weeds, no digging of trenches, no piling in copious quantities of compost and manure, no buying of male-only crowns . . . ) and yet the plants have romped away like there’s no tomorrow, still sending up spears this late in the year and refusing to die back so I can chop and drop the ferns.
Hügelkultur was a whole new idea for us, too, and again I was a tad dubious about just how successful growing things on a hill basically constructed from bits of tree could ever be. Let me tell you, I am in awe and a complete convert in every way. Our first mound, created from an ornamental conifer that just had to go, has seen a second season of growing the most incredible harvest of squash imaginable. Seemingly impervious to the severe drought, the plants tumbled down the slopes producing a ridiculous amount of fruits as they went; meanwhile, a bonus crop of enormous field mushrooms bloomed beneath the foliage. We made another Hügel bed this year which was also planted with squash and which we’re now in the process of extending for next year. The idea is a simple one: build a hill, starting with bigger bits of trunk or logs at the base, then add branches, twiggy bits and greenery, pack with any other organic matter to hand (we piled on grass clippings and the like) and if you want to plant straight away, cover in upturned turfs or topsoil. I spent last winter collecting the spoil from molehills and throwing it on top which seemed to do the job. Like the lasagne beds, I planted into deep pockets of compost but once they were established, the plants needed very little in the way of watering and no fertiliser whatsoever . . . which is the idea, after all, and it should stay that way for many years to come.
From January 2024, all French households must be able to recycle food waste at home by law and local authorities are responsible for providing composting bins to that end. This won’t bother us at all since composting is already a way of life for us and a hugely important element in our garden system. I would say, though, that in terms of consumable food, we never have any ‘waste’ as we use everything that we have and any leftovers are turned into another meal. What we do compost from the kitchen are fruit and vegetable peelings, crushed egg shells, tea leaves, coffee grounds, spent herbs from infusions along with shredded cardboard and paper, floor sweepings and anything else biodegradable. These are collected in a bucket under the sink and delivered to the compost heap at least once a day ~ one of my favourite jobs. The ‘heap’ is actually a square stack which we layer with green and brown materials as we go along, plus a few comfrey, borage and yarrow leaves and more of that liquid gold to accelerate the process. We have a three-bay system and turn the heaps regularly to keep the composting process going; once a bay is done, we store it in large bins until needed. Turning piles of organic matter into a dark, rich, friable compost perfect for planting in, mulching and enriching the soil is a magical process; it has taken nearly two years to get there but our system is now in full swing and the stuff it is producing is wonderful.
The theory behind our approach to soil building is that eventually we should reach a point where there is no need for additional fertiliser to maintain plant health as a continually improved soil should offer balanced and sufficient nutrition. That said, I think there will probably still be occasions when a boost is needed and certainly while we are in the relatively early stages, then a little extra help is a good plan. As well as applying mulches of comfrey and nettle leaves around the base of plant stems, I’ve been brewing them up into a useful liquid feed by cramming plastic containers with chopped leaves, covering with rain water and leaving to stew for a couple of weeks; a lid on the container is essential as the potions stink to high heaven and act like a fly magnet! I then strain off the liquid and store it in plastic screw-top bottles to dilute and use when necessary; the sludge goes onto the compost heap or soil and I start the process once again. Dilute urine is another excellent fertiliser, being high in nitrogen, and keeping a ‘pee bucket’ in the Love Shack makes collection straightforward. A trip to the coppice lets me collect some woodland soil which is a hugely beneficial organic material: just a single trowelful stirred into rainwater and sprinkled round plants makes both a wonderful fertiliser and soil improver. Next year, I’m going to experiment with making JADAM fertilisers, too.
It’s very easy to be drawn into a ‘monoculture = bad, polyculture = good’ view of the world, but it isn’t quite as clear cut as that; despite many claims to the contrary, monocultures can occur in nature and aren’t always necessarily a bad thing. Also, polyculture doesn’t automatically mean plants have to be dotted about individually, there are still good reasons for planting in rows or blocks, just perhaps in ways that differ from the conventional garden pattern. For instance, I still sow carrots in rows, but several short ones in different places alongside other kinds of plants instead of one long row or area of the same. One of the biggest drawbacks of monoculture, apart from the obvious lack of diversity, is that it offers any predators the chance to home in, fill their boots and destroy an entire crop in one fell swoop. We currently have brassicas growing amongst a range of other plants in six different locations, the theory being that even if some of them are rumbled and scoffed, the others will escape and make it to our plates. For me, polyculture is all about diversity, both in the kinds of food on offer and the life the garden can support: why settle for one kind of salad leaf or tomato or butterfly when we can enjoy something so much more exciting? It’s also about hedging our bets so that if one species or cultivar fails, we have plenty of others to fall back on. I don’t set out to arrange things deliberately in plant ‘guilds’ but tend to stick things together that seem to make sense. Carrots with onions and garlic to confuse the dreaded root fly, lettuce under tall plants to provide a living mulch and enjoy some shade, peas and beans where other plants can benefit from their nitrogen-fixing habit. Perhaps there’s an element of laziness, too; I love to wade into a mass of diverse, abundant growth and pick an entire meal virtually from one spot. Also, I think that it just looks so much better, all that variety of plant life jostling for elbow room; life is too short for bland and boring!
In many ways, this follows on from the discussion about polyculture because it’s based on the idea of maximising yields from a given space through planned diversity. I might be rubbish at keeping a diary, but I do make a sketch of all our growing areas each year to help me remember what was planted where, mainly to avoid putting the same types of crops in the same place too often which could lead to a build-up of pests and diseases. Ha! By the end of the year my sketch is usually totally illegible, even to me, as so many spots have been planted twice or even three times with different crops in the name of keeping the ground covered and squeezing every last food-production opportunity out of the season. For instance, where garlic was harvested in early summer there are now carrots, black radish and radicchio to enjoy, and the leeks and chard which cropped right into late spring were replaced with purple sprouting broccoli and red kale. Enthusiastic self-setters like lettuce, rocket, landcress, coriander and dill have popped up under and between other things and I’m happy to let them fill in the gaps in this way. I wrote in an earlier post about how this approach actually does away with some of the conventional worries about crop rotation as long as we are looking after the soil and to me, it makes a lot of sense. I do need to find a way of making less messy sketches, though!
In permaculture and other sustainable / regenerative approaches to producing food, perennial planting gets a big thumbs-up and I understand all the reasons for that; it makes sense to plant a wide range of things that can stay put for many years, producing crop after crop without any need to disturb the soil or ecosystem in which they’re growing. However, at the risk of sticking my head above the parapet, I would argue that it’s a much easier approach to apply successfully in some latitudes rather than others. Let’s be honest, if we were relying wholly on perennial crops in our cool temperate climate here then we would have a very restricted diet! I love artichokes, asparagus and rhubarb and they play an important part in our garden system but even coupled with as many berries, nuts, stems, leaves and tubers as we can muster, they quite simply aren’t enough. It’s all about balance and there is still a need for us to grow annual crops if we are to enjoy a varied and interesting diet; I don’t consider this to be a problem or failing, especially if it’s done within the sort of holistic model I’m describing. That said, I’m trying to increase the number and variety of perennial food-bearing plants in our system ~ this year it’s been mostly new fruit varieties ~ because they tick a lot of useful boxes.
Integrated pest management
One of the biggest changes in my attitude to gardening is that I no longer tend to think in terms of ‘weeds’ or ‘pests’ so the heading for this section is a borrowed one. For years, I’ve always thought of us as ‘custodians’ in our gardens, a small part of the land’s history, sharing the space with other life, leaving our mark and passing on. I feel that’s a bit arrogant now and that the reality is that we are most definitely not in charge or perched at the top of the pyramid; we are a simply a tiny part of a beautifully intricate and complex web of life on which we are totally dependent. Just considering population figures for the soil life is mind-blowing! I won’t deny that slugs and aphids struggle to ooze the same cute factor as red squirrels and hedgehogs but they play a vital role in our ecosystem and it would be wrong of me to vilify these creatures, yet alone try to annihilate them. However, I’m not naïve and since food production is a lot of what we’re about, it’s important to find ways of working with the other ‘hungry ones’ to ensure a good harvest . . . and this is where IPM comes in. Basically, we draw on a range of strategies to minimise the damage to crops caused by beasties without resorting to anything toxic or upsetting the ecological balance; it can involve a little more effort (and wiliness) than throwing or spraying poisons around but that’s a small price to pay and in the grand scheme of things, it’s not exactly hard labour. When a hare decided to prune the young sweetcorn plants earlier this year, we built a temporary netting fence around them and later enjoyed a fantastic crop. Likewise, when flea beetles tried to wipe out my purple sprouting broccoli nursery bed, I tucked a protective blanket of horticultural fleece around them: those plants now stand over a metre high.
Even better is the idea of letting others do the work for us. Habitat and wildlife corridor creation is a key part of our garden project, encouraging predators like hedgehogs, frogs and toads, grass snakes, bats and a whole host of birds to take up residence and tuck in; others such as foxes, weasels, owls and birds of prey pass through on a regular basis and help out, particularly with the Vole Patrol. Wherever there are vegetables, we plant flowers, too, not only to attract useful pollinators but also helpful predators and the more seasons we have here, the more I can base the choices of species on observation. For example, I’ve noticed that yarrow is hugely popular with ladybirds so I’m happy to spread it around the garden, especially under plants like globe artichokes which are prone to blackfly. Dill is a favourite of mine and I’m thrilled that along with borage, calendula and phacelia, it has already reached a level of self-setting which means I’ll never have to plant it again. Apart from being a great culinary and medicinal herb, the flowers attract allies like hoverflies and parasitic wasps whilst at the same time their smell repels white butterflies, so it’s a good one to have growing near brassicas. Nasturtiums left to trail through the cabbage patch provide a good sacrificial crop for caterpillars should the dill not have seen off enough butterflies, as well as acting like a living mulch under the plants and attracting pollinators with their sunny flowers. I know some gardeners are wary of mulches creating hiding places for slugs and snails but we haven’t found it to be that way (perhaps it’s more of an issue in raised beds?); in fact, it provides cover for top predators such as spiders and ground beetles.
We’re always going to lose some plants to the wildlife but I think it’s important to keep a sense of perspective about what is really happening in any one season. I don’t think I have ever seen such an invasion of aphids as we had last spring, they were all over everything and many plants ~ especially the young ones ~ suffered very badly. At one point, I thought we would lose all the brassicas and rainbow chard (which were more aphid than leaf!) but in fact, the damage was negligible. I found myself becoming increasingly frustrated when wireworms kept destroying small lettuce plants in the mandala bed and it felt like I was constantly having to replace them but then it occurred to me that it would make more sense to pot the seedlings on and plant them out as bigger and more robust plants. Ta dah! No more wireworm issues and more lettuce than we could shake a stick at. Some of the black radish we have started pulling in the last couple of weeks have seen a bit of wireworm action but they are so huge that the impact is small, whilst in the tunnel, slugs are bashing the mizuna but there are so many alternative salad leaves, both planted and self-set, that we have more than enough for our needs. It’s also important to remember that the most disappointing crops of the year (things like potatoes and swedes) were actually casualties of the weather, so perhaps we need to look at an Integrated Climate Management system, too.
Seeds are incredible things, so small and unassuming yet without them, our species would be doomed, and the miracle of germination is one that continues to captivate me, no matter how many times I witness it. We’ve always saved seeds from the garden but living in an increasingly uncertain world and climate, I think it’s a more important activity than ever these days. It’s an interesting pastime and gives us the opportunity to select for strong plants that are well-suited to our growing conditions. We can have fun with open-pollinated varieties and develop our very own types of some plants, whilst championing heirloom varieties and helping to maintain and increase seed diversity which has seen such a lamentable decline over the last century. Seeds are a valuable currency for gardeners, and swapping or giving them away is a satisfying gesture in spreading the love! The gift of a single precious ‘Hungarian Blue’ squash seed some years ago has blessed us with several generations of offspring which have crossed with other varieties yet maintained the strong genetic imprint of blue skin, firm orange flesh and wonderful flavour. More than anything, I see saving seeds as a kind of insurance policy and a basket brimming with little packets of carefully-selected and dried treasures brings the same joy and reassurance as a well-stocked freezer or cupboards full of preserves. I still buy some seeds from commercial producers because I like to increase our pool of varieties but we are not dependent on them and that helps build the sort of resilience that I believe is essential for the future.
By this I’m not suggesting that you don a white lab coat and zip about the garden brandishing test tubes and a Bunsen burner ~ although if that’s what floats your boat, then why not? It’s more a plea to try different things and push the boundaries a bit; it’s all too easy to get hung up on doing things properly, striving for perfection or worrying about what others think but those sort of anxieties only serve to hamper discovery and shackle innovation. I think we need to be brave enough to pursue the ‘what ifs?’ not only because it makes life interesting but because I believe that, as with seed saving, it might lead to new ideas and skills that we can exploit in the face of change and adversity. Even if it’s as simple as planting seeds of something different or needy, then it’s worth a punt because who knows what might happen? Of my three ‘wild cards’ this year, the melons sprinted home to take gold, the cauliflowers deserved a pat on the back for trying and the swedes, which barely got over the start line, sloped off with the wooden spoon; all good learning experiences that I can build on next year. When I stopped to think about it, much of what we are doing here is experimental and I think that helps to keep us focused and challenged. When I decided to make the mandala bed last year, something completely different to anything I’d done before, I was well aware that I could easily fall flat on my face. Was it really possible to create a circular no-dig bed of some 28 square metres in area from materials already on site (extra cardboard was the only import) and using only spare plants or seed I already had, to investigate the yield from such a system while also setting out to prove that a vegetable patch can look beautiful in a flower garden? The answer is a resounding yes! Despite many ‘wobbly’ moments like those lettuce-munching wireworms, I think I can safely say the project so far has been a huge success and one that has far exceeded my hopes and expectations; okay, my carefully laid paths disappeared under the jungle of growth and the whole thing looked a bit sad and burned up in the heat of August, but it has produced oodles of food and flowers, supported a huge diversity of wildlife and looked very lush and attractive for most of the growing season ~ it still does, in fact. I have several new ideas up my sleeve for next year, one of which is to grow a patch of no-dig potatoes on cardboard covered in a deep layer of hay; it will go one of two ways, I’m sure, but if I don’t try it, I’ll never know.
There are, of course, plenty of other ‘ingredients’ that help to make a good garden; apart from the obvious necessities of sunlight, warmth and water, I think time, space, money, energy, enthusiasm, patience, optimism, a good sense of humour and a strong back (ha ha!😂 ) are all useful additions. Not all essential, though. It’s just as possible to apply the ideas and approaches I’ve discussed to a windowbox as to a large garden, it’s simply a matter of scale. I think that when nature is given more freedom it actually leaves us with far fewer garden tasks to do so the time element is greatly reduced. It’s also possible to grow in abundance on a tiny budget; the mandala bed cost nothing more than the price of a few seeds and yet we have harvested kilo after kilo of food from it for many months. Joking about my hobbled state aside, one of the redeeming factors has been seeing just how well the garden has coped without me for the best part of five months now; Roger has kept on top of the essential jobs such as watering during the worst of the drought and planting out winter cabbages, but otherwise it has all ticked over brilliantly without any input from me. Perhaps I should be upset about that, but when soil is building itself, ‘weeds’ are smothered in mulch or more tolerated as part of the ecosystem, the wildlife is maintaining its own balance and minimising crop damage, self-set volunteers are welcomed and left to thrive where they choose to grow . . . well, what more do I need to do, anyway? Which is why my heading for this final paragraph might seem an indulgent or arbitrary choice but I believe it is so important to have seats in favourite spots, and what’s more, to use them. Often! As gardeners, we are part of a wonderful, thriving ecosystem and it’s crucial that our needs are met as well as those of all the life we share the space with. If we can see our time outdoors as being an integral part of our life rather than a set of chores, then I think we’ve cracked it . . . so, place a seat (or hammock or whatever) somewhere appropriate and plant yourself there; breathe in the air, acknowledge the life around you, watch your carrots grow. Above all, relax and smile: the garden is taking care of itself! 😊