Thursday 30 April 2009

A Tomato Experiment

I am experimenting with my tomatoes. I have 52 plants so I figure I can be daring. Some of these 52 will be grown in hanging baskets and indoor pots so will not form part of the experiment. But three varieties will be grown in pots or grow bags. I have eight plants of each of these three varieties. I will grow four of each variety in grow bags, in the greenhouse and four of each variety in pots, outdoors. I am interested to see how much better the plants in the greenhouse will do.

I am also going to experiment with tomato feed. The year before last, we had a very successful harvest from our 6 tomato plants and I didn't feed them once. Yet everywhere I read, I am told to feed tomato plants for a higher quality fruit. I am dubious. So 2 of each variety in the greenhouse and 2 of each variety outdoors will be fed. The others will not.

If all the information I receive is correct the indoor plants getting fed will grow best and yield the best fruit, whilst the outdoor plants with no food will struggle and produce lower quality fruits.

Watch this space to see the results.

Wednesday 29 April 2009

A Dangerous Time

I have started to harden off some of the plants I began in the greenhouse that will, eventually, get planted out. I don't have cloches or cold frames. Garden Dad is going to look into ways he might be able to make me one but the plants are ready now and will soon outgrow their pots, so for the moment I am lifting them out of the greenhouse every morning and back into the greenhouse every evening.

We had the benefit of lovely weather last week so the plants have been quite kindly introduced to life outdoors but this week they have faced worsening weather conditions. This isn't the only danger they will face. After the first slug attacks on the cabbage and brussels sprout plants I have been vigilantly keeping an eye out for slugs and snails in the greenhouse and removing them, but it won't be so easy outdoors. I have lost another cabbage plant to the slugs though if I am honest it wasn't looking too healthy after being thrown out of its pot by Garden Girl. I think only two of the plants look like they survived this.

And this brings me onto the biggest danger of all. Garden Boy. The tomato plants and various squash, marrows and courgettes are bigger than the cabbage plants and as such, are all the more enticing for Garden Boy. If he could talk I swear his first words on stepping outdoors would be 'Let me at them'. I have lost one marrow plant to Garden Boy and I fear that more are to follow. He is getting faster on his feet and I don't always get there in time.

I hope some plants survive the hardening off.

Monday 27 April 2009

Hints and Tips; Potato Grow Bags

I have searched high and low for Grow Bags for the seed potatoes that would not fit in the raised beds and everywhere I go they are sold out. This confirms that I have left it a little late to plant these surplus seed potatoes, but a smaller yield is surely better than wasting them all together, so I am going to plant them anyway.

Without Grow Bags I have decided to use old compost bags, which Garden Dad insisted we open carefully incase we find a use for them at a later date and now I have. I will open them up, roll the top down a bit, add some compost and hey presto, I have grow bags for my potatoes.

Sunday 26 April 2009

Seeds and Mathematics

When I was at school I was relatively good at maths but over the years I haven't used the mathematical part of my brain too much. Without the exercise it has obviously deteriorated somewhat. I mean I can add up my shopping bills and figure out that even with 70% off in the sale I still can't afford to buy a Gucci handbag but my brain became a jumble when faced with working out how far apart two different vegetables should be interspaced. Not rocket science, but it flummoxed me all the same.

I will claim it was the hot sunshine or the tug of little hands on my trousers begging me to hurry up and get started that slowed my brain to snail pace. Luckily Garden Dad knows his numbers and had my interspacings planned in the blink of an eyelid and we were ready to start planting.

It was a relief to get the seed packets out again this weekend. I had a text message from my sister telling me that the beetroot and onions we had helped plant over Easter, (as well as her cauliflower and broccolli), had started to grow. Mine weren't even in the ground yet. It was time to get going.

This is what we planted;

Nantes Carrots 2 interspaced with White Lisbon Spring Onions
Autumn King Carrots interspaced with Sturon and Red Baron Onions
Hannibal Leeks, Musselburgh Leeks and Giant Winter Leeks
Boltardy Beetroot interspaced with Shallots
Pronto Beetroot interspaces with Sturon and Red Baron Onions

I interspaced the vegetables in this way as I had read somewhere that the onion smell confuses pests such as carrot fly and keeps them away from your carrots. I hope they are as confused as I was trying to figure out the interspacing.

Thursday 23 April 2009

Walking the Plank

We have made great headway in the garden this week with the lovely weather, but no where near as much as we made at the weekend, when Garden Dad's parents came to help out. Prior to the weekend we had all our central raised beds installed but nothing around the edges, so Garden Dad and Grandad, helped at intervals by Garden Girl, built the remaining raised beds.
There was a lot of digging to do in order to level out the ground. Then out came the drill and saw and the garden started to look like a carpenters workshop. Garden Girl and Garden Boy, who were supposed to be helping me plant out the potatoes and lettuce, decided to spend a good part of the day entertaining themselves with the planks of wood. Garden Girl walked the plank over and over again while Garden Boy crawled after her with a big grin. It wasn't long before Garden Dad's Mum was forced to walk the plank too. They then discovered that the long planks of wood were resting on a little hummock, which made it bounce at the ends. Garden Girl tried to pretend that it was a see saw until she decided it wasn't bouncing high enough, so it was back to walking the plank. While my little helpers were so happily engaged I managed to fill the allotted section of the raised beds with potatoes and lettuce. I ran out of room for all of the potatoes so will have to get hold of some potato sacks for the remaining seed potatoes. I don't want to waste them and we tried three seed potatoes in sacks last year, courtesy of Auntie C, and they did OK, despite being the target of a slug attack.
Garden Girl and Garden Boy had a birthday party to attend in the afternoon, so the three of us were excused from the hard work of digging over the next section of the raised beds and spent a lovely afternoon running around Garden Friends garden. When we returned Garden Girl started to help build the raised beds and was put in charge of the decking screws. She counted out the right number and passed them to Grandad when he needed them. Later, after observing Grandad at work she started to put them in the right holes. So proud was she of her new role she did not want to relinquish the screws when it was time to head indoors.

By the end of the day the left hand raised bed was completed. The back bed was built, but not yet installed, as the ground still needs levelling. This is the last bed to complete so hopefully we will finish this soon, but the headway we made at the weekend means we can get planting as soon as the soil has been dug over. We were outside again tonight till it became too dark to see, so I am hopeful that by this weekend the seed packets will once again be out of the cupboard.

Wednesday 22 April 2009

Sunflowers and Sabotage

These blog posts are coming thick and fast tonight. I apologise about the bad spacing but the weather has been beautiful and we have been out in the garden enjoying it. Yesterday Garden Girl's friend came to play in the garden and while he was here they each chose their own plant pot for growing a sunflower. They are going to see which will grow tallest. Garden Girl planted one for herself and Garden Boy, while Garden Friend planted one for himself and his little sister.

Now Garden Dad can be very competitive and what I thought would be a pleasant activity for toddlers has revealed to me that his spirit of 'I will win at all costs' has been inherited by our two little helpers. Garden Girl was vocally adamant that her sunflower would grow to be the tallest. When we watered them today she repeated her mantra to me a few times 'Mine will be the tallest. Taller then Grandad. Mine will be the tallest'. Grandad, in case you were wondering, is over 6ft. Nothing wrong with a little self belief you might think but Garden Boy revealed his competitive genes in a rather more worrying manner.


While Garden Girl and Garden Friend were carefully filling their pots with compost, Garden Boy was stealthily emptying out Garden Friends pot almost faster than the poor boy could fill it up. He even managed to lift out the seeds at one point (though I did replace these for Garden Friend later).

I think war has been declared.

First Harvest

Last night we enjoyed our first harvest. The Medania spinach we planted a few weeks back had grown into a beautiful, healthy looking plant so while the leaves were still young I thought I would harvest them for a salad.

We had potato rosti and fried egg on a bed of homegrown young spinach leaves, drizzled with a balsamic vinegar and red pepper dressing and fried mushrooms on the side. Delicious and satisfying, as it was our first meal to contain homegrown ingredients. We are looking forward to many more.

Exercise and Enthusiasm

Apple crumble is warming in the oven and I'm enjoying a hot cup of coffee, feeling very chuffed with our hard work. There is still a lot to do but after Garden Girl and Garden Boy went to bed I continued the mammoth task of digging over the raised beds and adding mulch to improve the poor soil. There is something very rewarding about working hard outdoors until the light has faded. My arms ache; they aren't yet used to the exercise, but I take that as a sign I have been working hard. I must admit I was flagging a bit sooner than I had hoped. For someone who used to lug full wheelbarrows, mattock and shovel earth with speed and precision on archaeological excavations, I am certainly showing a lack of fitness. But, if I keep at those raised beds my arm muscles will certainly start to improve.

Garden Dad would have been helping out as well, had he not had to fix the greenhouse. On Monday it was the cabbages that suffered from Garden Girl's enthusiasm; today it was a panel of polycarbonate which was partially pushed out of its frame in her eagerness to get at her trowel. She didn't mean to do it and was worried for the future of the greenhouse, so I don't think she will be leaning against the walls again soon. Garden Boy on the other hand rather liked the noise the panel now made when he bashed it repeatedly, so any further work in the greenhouse had to be delayed until he was taking an afternoon nap, which never materialised.

By the end of the day though we had at least managed to replant 12 tomato plants into grow bags. 12 down, 40 to go! Garden Girl loved moving the plants carefully into their new home and watering them afterwards. She is certainly looking forward to eating the fruit. Yesterday she was showing her Garden Friend all the plants in the greenhouse, explaining all about them, when, with big grins, they suddenly started to pretend to eat them. I think the tomato plants will be well cared for this year!

I have been really pleased with Garden Girl's genuine enthusiasm for helping in the garden but it does occasionally have its down side. There were lots of tears tonight when Garden Girl had to put the watering can away and come back inside for a bath. She was eventually calmed by the prospect of pretending the shower was a watering can. She would be the tomato plant and Garden Boy the spinach. They watered each other. I also had to promise we would re-pot more tomato plants tomorrow. Well at least there are plenty to keep that promise going for a few more days yet!

Monday 20 April 2009

Cabbage Catastrophe

For weeks now, Garden Boy has been trying to destroy our cabbage plants. They look rather enticing with 2 litre fizzy pop bottles cut in half, acting as mini cloches. The sunlight glints on them and Garden Boy makes a swift beeline to them as soon as we enter the garden. Every day I chase after him, over and over again, getting more exercise than a marathon runner in training. And I have succeeded in keeping them safe until now. But, little did I know, it would be his older sister who would eventually cause the cabbage catastrophe.

Garden Girl got a bit excited at the prospect of watering the cabbage plants today, ran right into them and knocked them over domino effect. All but one toppled over and completely fell out of its pot. It wasn't only the poor cabbages that found themselves suddenly uprooted. My one surviving Brussels Sprout plant was caught in the landslide. Will we have to go sproutless on Christmas Day when just a little over a month ago we were facing the prospect of having far too many?

My advice; never count your sprouts (or cabbages) too early. You will only face disappointment.

I did try to rescue the fallen seedlings but they look a little droopy. Maybe with extra care and attention they will survive and its not too late to plant them straight in the ground so there is hope still.

Friday 17 April 2009

Scary Strawberries

We went to the garden centre again. This time to buy strawberry plants. I can barely contain the excitement. We bought four varieties; Cambridge, Pegasus, Elsanta and some wild strawberries. Later, over dinner, when we were telling Garden Dad about our day, Garden Girl got a little worried about the idea of having 'wild' strawberries in the garden. She said 'I like strawberries but I don't like wild ones'. I'm not sure, but I think she was worried they would be 'too roary', a term she uses to describe scary wild beasts like lions or meat eating dinosaurs.

I explained that wild strawberries were sweeter and tastier than the ones she is used to eating and she responded by nodding her head and saying 'mmm yummy', so hopefully her fears were alleviated. Garden Boy needed no explanation to tempt him; he was already trying to tuck into the strawberry plant leaves before we even left the shop.

Sunday 12 April 2009

A ducks nest

We were very lucky a couple of days ago when we went for a walk along the banks of the River Ribble in Ribchester to see a duck nesting in the river bank. Garden Girl was thrilled to see a duck warming its eggs so I thought I would share it with all the other little garden helpers out there.

Helping hands

We were told it would rain but it has been beautiful weather, so we have been enjoying ourselves outdoors. Not in our own garden, as we have been visiting family, but enjoying the sunshine nonetheless. Despite being on holiday our little garden helpers have not been sitting back relaxing, but instead have been passing on their expertise and helping out with a variety of tasks. This morning Garden Girl helped weed Grandma's plant pots and worked hard with Grandad, digging a large hole for a bush.

Yesterday we visited my sister who has a garden, about which I can only say I am truly envious. It is a third of an acre in size, therefore small enough to manage but big enough to get stuck into. They have fruit trees and bushes, raised beds, greenhouse, shed the size of a house, large expanse of lawn and stunning views. We set to work planting vegetables direct into the raised beds. Garden Girl discovered the joys of using a dibber and did a sterling job, making holes for the onion sets. We then dropped them in and covered them up with soil. Neat, regimental rows they weren't, but luckily Auntie C said she liked the hapazard effect.

Garden Boy meanwhile carried out a taste test on northern soil and it seemed to meet his approval as he tucked right in. He then discovered the football and decided to forgo the pleasures of gardening in favour of honing his football skills. He isn't bad for someone who has only been walking for two weeks; he can kick the ball which is more than can be said for his mother.
After watering the beetroot and lettuce Garden Girl had also had enough of gardening and she started an in promptu rhyme time at the bottom of the garden. Not even a campfire and guitar could have made for a merrier scene! The best thing about gardening with children is that every now and then they make you down tools and enjoy playing in the garden.

So now we have practised planting out in Auntie C's garden we are ready to get going on our own next weekend. Lets hope the rain we were promised for this weekend isn't just running late!

Friday 10 April 2009

Our Garden; A History (Part 2)

Creating a Herb Patch
This was one of the first things we did in the garden as it was a quick transformation to carry out. The flower bed closest to the house separates the patio area from the lawn. Accessing it doesn't involve getting muddy shoes and it is big enough to grow a good selection of culinary herbs.

It was the summer of 2007 when we made a start. After digging out the overgrown shrubs and weeds that had taken root since we moved in, we widened the bed to allow for two rows of herbs. We then chose a selection of herbs, based mainly on how much we would use them in the kitchen and a little bit on how pretty they would look in the garden.

Then we planned the location of each herb within the bed, based on how well they grow together and how large they would ultimately grow. The larger ones we placed at the back in the middle, gradually getting smaller as we worked outwards and forward. The finished bed has some sort of symmetry and looks pretty good.

We bought a lot of our plants from the garden centre but did acquire some from Garden Dad's parents and in hindsight we should have made more effort to acquire cuttings. In the future we will either take cuttings from our own selection or ask around.

So what did we plant?

Lavender; (English and French) I chose these because they add a bit of colour, look pretty and attract bees and butterflies. I am also looking forward to using the leaves for making perfume with Garden Girl. I did have to persuade Garden Dad that they counted as culinary herbs, but I managed to fish out a lavender biscuit recipe which I promised to make and he was convinced. If he reads this he will no doubt remind me of this promise, as I have yet to make good on it, but my Little Garden Helpers will both enjoy making the biscuits so I really should fish it out again.

Rosemary; Easy to grow and used frequently in our kitchen. We were given a lovely large cutting from Garden Dad's parents which has flourished.

Mint; Two varieties. We planted these on the edge of the herb bed, as I had read somewhere that they repel ants, which have always been a problem in our garden. We thought if they were beside the path it might help keep them away from the patio. They did stay away from the mint but not from the garden. Unfortuantely though, both the mint plants were devastated last year with a pest we failed to recognise so this year we have dug up the twiggy remains and binned them. We will have to start again with these.

Oregano, Marjarom and Thyme; We had large cuttings of these from Garden Dad's parents which have all done very well. We use these in the kitchen a lot and we will be taking our own cuttings of the oregano and marjoram to enable us to grow more.

Sage; a few varieties as they look nice (paricularly the varigated varieties) and have lovely flavour. They have grown a lot though and are now starting to suffocate some of the other herbs so we will have to cut these back this year.

Lemon Balm and Tarragon; We only planted these last year and we don't use them frequently in the kitchen but they do make a nice change every now and then and have different plant shapes to the other herbs so also adds variety to the herb patch.

In terms of companion planting we made sure to put the Rosemary and Thyme together, as well as the Lavender, Marjarom and Oregano. This year we will also try to interplant some of the herbs with the vegetables as they make great companion plants.

Garden Girl was hugely interested in the herbs in 2007 and this has continued. She loved to pick the leaves and sniff all the different smells. Last year, when she was that much older, she loved to be in charge of collecting the herbs for our dinner. I would send her outside with a bowl and she would proudly come back in with her own selection, rinse them in a bowl of water and present them to me for chopping. Garden Boy has already started to enjoy picking the herbs this spring, though he prefers to go straight for the tasting, rather than savouring the smells! As the herb bed is slightly raised from the patio it is also a great height for my Little Garden Helpers to help with the weeding which Garden Girl loves to do and I won't be discouraging her any time soon!

Thursday 9 April 2009


Last week we finally got around to sprouting.

Sometimes, when it will save them some work, men are able to have very good ideas. Thus, Garden Dad, in an effort to save himself some drilling, came up with the great idea of using muslin tops for the sprouting jars. As luck would have it, we did have some muslin in the cupboard, left over from mulled wine making at christmas, so we were all set.

First off, I divided the seeds and beans into different jars depending on how long they needed to soak. Some needed 5 hours, some 12 hours and the chickpeas needed 18. These are the collections we had;

Jar One; Aduki beans, Red Clover and Mustard

Jar Two; Green Lentils, Alfalfa, Broccolli

Jar Three; Chickpeas

Ultimately this didn't work very well. A lot of the smaller seeds failed to sprout, presumably because they were suffocated by the larger ones. Also the 'cress like' sprouts got tangled up and probably would have done much better in a tray. I think we also put too many seeds in each jar but, never having done this before, we had no idea how big we were expecting each to grow.

We will know better next time and keep it simple, with one variety per jar and fewer seeds in each. We will also find a suitable tray for the 'cress like' sprouts. The basic process for sprouting however, is consistent for all types, is very simple and great for children to do. And this how to do it:

STEP ONE: Put a few seeds/beans in a jar or sprouting tray. Cover with water and soak for the required length of time.
STEP TWO: Tie muslin 'lids' to the top of the jars. This allows you tip the jars upside down in order to drain the water without losing the seeds/beans. It also keeps the flies out without sealing the jars (You need to allow oxygen in).

STEP THREE: Drain the water and refill. Swirl the water around a bit to rinse the seeds/beans and then drain again.
STEP FOUR: Leave to sprout. Some require more light than others but in general a light position, without direct sunlight, should be fine. We just put all ours on the kitchen counter and left them to it. Check out the packets though and follow the instructions for light.
STEP FIVE: Rinse twice a day. This takes a couple of minutes at most, but do make sure you drain them properly otherwise they will start to rot.

STEP SIX: Two to five days later they should be ready to eat so tuck in!
Now I say 'tuck in', as if it were very simple, however we came a bit unstuck at this point because we had no idea what we could and couldn't eat. The sprout, when grown, has the seed bit, the root bit and the sprouted bit. We decided that, lacking any information, we had better stick with the sprouted bits. So, Garden Girl spent a happy hour discarding the roots and seeds, while Garden Boy spent a happy hour trying to eat them and scattering them around the house. Could we have eaten all of it? If anyone knows please let us know. The results of my internet searching found lots of sites detailing how to go about the sprouting but they all failed to tell me how to harvest them.

Although our first attempt wasn't totally successful, we did enjoy the process of sprouting. For Garden Girl there was visible growth everyday and she was able to assist with the whole process. This gave her active involvement and therefore much pride in her acheivement. She even gobbled up the stir fry Garden Dad made with the results of her hard work, though whether this was because she had grown dinner herself or because dessert was ice cream we will never know!

Wednesday 8 April 2009

We thought they were mosquitos...

...but it turns out they are baby daddy long legs.

For a few weeks now some miniature flying bugs have been bombarding our patio area and we assumed they were mosquitos, attracted by our water butt. However, today there were hundreds of them flying around, very clumsy and slow. The only things I know that fly like this are daddy long legs and on closer inspection I realised that this is what they are.

They are very small though, so are either babies or a new dwarf species I've never seen before. Although they are harmless and actually quite humourous to watch, the sheer quantity is a little disturbing. When we thought they were mosquitos we were simply going to move the water butt next to the greenhouse instead of the house, but what will be attracting the daddy long legs? Will they be attracted by the water butt too? I assume they have a nest, (if thats what you call their home?) near by, so I am hoping that once they grow up they will fly away to discover the world at large.

Maybe I need to take a course in Pest Management. That way we can defend against the rats, ants, slugs, daddy long legs and other bugs, that will surely soon be attracted by our tasty veg, with professional swiftness.

Sunday 5 April 2009

Rat Run

The rats have definitely moved out of our garden but they were only tricking me into believing they were gone for good. They must have moved further down the road and now use our garden as a rat run. This is obviously better than having them squat at the bottom of our garden, but if they are still travelling through they will eventually discover our sweetcorn, squash and other delicious veggies growing above the ground. I don't want to share.

We briefly considered getting a cat but there are lots in the neighbourhood and they are clearly not scaring the rats away. So now I'm considering a pet owl; Is that possible in the middle of suburbia?

Saturday 4 April 2009

A busy day

Phew. What a busy day. Garden Dad started to dig over the raised beds to break up the awful soil and add some mulch. There is still loads of work to do and, being very aware that we should already have started early sowings direct into the ground, we have opted for Garden Dad's suggestion of gradual soil improvement over the next few years. After all, stumpy, bent carrots will be tastier than no carrots.

While Garden Dad was busy with the heavy labour (his choice - I offered) I supervised the sowing of various seeds;

A few varieties of squash, marrow and courgette
Dwarf French Beans
Runner Beans
Creeping Thyme

Garden Girl thought we were growing oranges when she saw the shrivelled sweetcorns but wasn't disappointed when she learned we were growing our own sweetcorn. There is something about very small vegetables that Garden Girl and Boy both love; peas, beans, sweetcorn - maybe they think they are sweets! I hope they grow well.

We also planted some more Sweet Pepper seeds after every single one failed last time. My second attempt very nearly came to an untimely end though when Garden Boy upended the seed modules. Luckily we managed to salvage all but one seed so here's hoping some of them will take.

We discovered an ants nest in the greenhouse, underneath the piles of compost bags. Garden Girl and Boy both enjoyed watching the busy little creatures but having carefully considered them she concluded 'I like ants outside but I don't like them inside on my shoes.' I agree.

We ran out of room on the potting tables so Garden Dad took a break from digging and built a new shelf for us. When I say potting table I really mean an old wardrobe on its side and an old coffee table, but they do the job. We were given a potting table by a friend this morning, which we had intended to move into the greenhouse, but it was great having a table outside to work on today so we decided to keep it outdoors.

When she got fed up sowing seeds Garden Girl went to assist Garden Dad removing big stones from the raised beds. She has always had a great interest in collecting stones so she had the credentials to be very skilled at this job. Had we kept all the smaller stones she has collected over the last two years we would have been able to make a very lovely gravel driveway by now, but hindsight is always too late!

Garden Girl was enjoying herself with the stones until we realised she was simply moving them from one raised bed to the next. She didn't want to put them in a bucket and I think we spoiled the fun pointing out her error so she returned to help me sow seeds.

Garden Boy was once again quite contented emptying out handfuls of soil and sneaking some into his mouth when he thought I wasn't looking. He also spent a lot of time trying to practice walking. He has very recently taken his first solo steps, a feat he is very proud of. He grins and claps as soon as he stands up and walks faster and faster as the excitement builds and he gets closer and closer to his destination. The trouble is, his skill doesn't extend to a sloping garden and he frequently found himself face down in the grass unsure why his legs weren't working right. Still, all that effort and fresh air means he will sleep well tonight, as will the rest of us.

Hints and Tips; DIY Pots

I had just collapsed exhausted on the living room floor yesterday after pretending to be various circus performers with Garden Girl. The reason for this was Boogie Beebies, a tv programme that makes young children exercize and their parents feel very unfit. But while I was working up the energy to get back up and switch the TV off CBeebies surprised me with a great gardening tip which I thought I should pass on.

If you run out of small plant pots for starting off your seeds, just use the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls. Fill them up with compost, stand them in a tray and hey presto you have a pot. And if you need to keep your little helpers occupied for a while give them some to decorate before you fill them up with compost.

And the best thing is, I have loads of them sitting around from our failed attempt at making crackers this christmas. I knew I was holding onto them for a reason.