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Gardening jargon buster: biological control

28 Jan

Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

“Biological control” is one of those gardening phrases that sounds really off-putting and overly-scientific for something that’s actually nice and cuddly and environmentally friendly and green and, frankly, just the kind of thing I am all about when it comes to gardening.

(It’s also, quite arguably, a lazy way of gardening, which gets my vote every time.)

For, biological control simply means that rather than using chemicals to kill any pests in your garden (eg bug sprays, slug pellets or any other sort of poison that can be employed to wipe out little critters that are harming your plants) you arrange for the pests to fall foul to a predator instead.

In one of the simplest examples of biological control, rather than killing slugs with slug pellets (that poison the slugs along with any other animals who might happen to eat them), you can just encourage birds and frogs into your garden so they eat the slugs instead.

Everyone’s a winner, right?!

Well, except the slugs, who are being taken out either way.

Frog | Wolves in London

Ribbit, ribbit, I’m just about to hop off and eat hundreds of slugs…

Encouraging natural predators is the most straightforward version of biological control (and the one I like the best).

You can use it to control pests such as slugs (which are eaten by frogs, hedgehogs or birds) or caterpillars (eaten by birds).

Controlling pests with biological control

Basically, create an environment that is pleasing to your chosen predator (a pond for frogs, for example) and wait for them to move in and start munching on their favourite foods.

A similar principle applies for other pests such as aphids, which are a tasty treat for ladybirds. It’s slightly harder to encourage ladybirds to arrive (despite those lovely wooden ladybird houses you see for sale) – so in this instance, you could actually buy some ladybirds and bring them into your garden. I kid you not, pet ladybirds are available to buy. Even better, you can buy them online.

Websites like GreenGardener (my personal fave) sell ladybirds and ladybird larvae. You order them online, wait for them to arrive by post and then release them onto the plants in the evening time, so that they don’t fly away but make a home for the night and then, with a bit of luck, have a good breakfast in the morning once they’ve got over their jet lag.

Apart from the normal kinds of predators, that you might expect to see in your garden anyway, you can also find a huge range of weird and wonderful things that are all ready to wipe out your pest problem. I have to confess, at this end of the scale, biological control is, perhaps, as odd and scientific as the name implies.

One of the more popular are nematodes, micro-organisms that live in the soil. Different types of these eat different things. Though, I use the word “eat” rather loosely, since what they really do is enter the body of the prey and destroy it from the inside out. Charming.

You can get nematodes to control a range of pests, from slugs to vine weevils. For all of them, it’s important to apply them to the soil in the right conditions (which includes both water levels and temperature) in order for them to be effective.

Then there are parasitic wasps that feed on whitefly, predatory mites for the red-spotted spider mite, midges and lacewing larvae for aphids (along with ladybirds)… …plus various others, I’m sure, that I’ve not heard of yet.

Does it work?

Does this all sound too good to be true? Well, in all honesty, that’s because it is.

The problem with biological control is that it’s not as effective as a pesticide at destroying the problem for you. Where a bug spray will probably kill every single last bug on your plant (and likely lots of bugs around your plant and other perfectly nice bugs that weren’t causing problems on your plant in the first place and perhaps a few passing honeybees too), biological controls will most likely only help to keep the problem in check. The poor old ladybird can’t eat all the aphids. And, in fact, if the predators did eat every single last one of the pests, well, they would then die out themselves as they’d have nothing to feed on. This is particularly true for pests in greenhouses.

But, my lovely gardening friends, my mantra for this (if not always in life) is moderation in all things.

Yes, there may be some pests left in your garden and, yes, you might sacrifice a few plants to them, or nibbled edges of leaves, or maybe even, shock, the odd vegetable or two. But surely, surely, it’s worth it to grow in a nice biodiverse environment, where the food chain works as it should and you know you’re not responsible for killing the lovely honeymaking bees?

And so, in summary, biological control: not the best way of eradicating pests, but definitely the nicest. And besides, who wouldn’t want a bunch of ladybirds being posted through their letterbox?

Have you tried any of these yourself? I’d love to know how you’ve got on with them, do leave me a comment and share any tips or hints.

Myself, I have a pond with some frogs that don’t seem terribly keen on eating slugs, but perhaps eat a few. I tried releasing ladybird larvae last year, and found that the ones in the greenhouse were very happy and stayed a long time, plus another little colony that set up on one of my rose bushes, but there were some plants they obviously left straight away, where the aphids remained. And I used nematodes for slugs a few years back and they certainly worked, but I am slightly unsure whether I’m okay with the side effects of lots of snails dying too…

This is the third in my garden jargon buster series. Every fortnight I work my way through the alphabet chatting about a gardening expression. Come back in two weeks to hear all about calcifuges, or check out the rest of the series here: Gardening jargon buster.

PS, I have to just point out, I didn’t take that lovely photo of the robin up at the top of the post. It’s from a free stock photo website, free images, here: robin in snow.

Grow, forage, cook: the smallholding dream, in books

21 Jan

The start of a new year never fails to prompt my (already fairly impressive) desire to dream endlessly about new ways to live my life.

The current frontrunner in future plans, sitting pretty in pole position for a good few years now, is the dream of having a little smallholding somewhere in the countryside.

We’d have a kitchen garden, some chickens, a herd of alpacas, goats, woodland, a few pigs, ideally a little stream somewhere on the land with a watermill. We’d aim for self-sufficiency (but not beat ourselves up too much when we head off to a grocers because the veg ran out…)

It’s grow, forage, cook writ large, if you will.

Goat

Goats and fields: this my friends, is the dream…

I’m not the first, I know, to feel increasingly disillusioned with the whole capitalist / consumerist urban lifestyle we live. A quaint farm and entirely homegrown vegetables seems a pleasing antidote to the rat race. (Whether the reality would live up to my expectation is yet to be seen…)

At any rate, I’ve been reading up a lot on smallholding and self-sufficiency recently and thought I might recommend any books I’ve found particularly interesting.

I was originally planning on putting lots into this one post, but I’ve written so much about my first book (because I flipping love it!) that I’ll be back in a week or two with some more. So, first up:

How to be free by Tom Hodgkinson

I’m not one for hyperbole (wry understatement being more my modus operandi) but I can’t help but proclaim: this book changed my life!

Encompassing far more than mere dreams of self-sufficiency or smallholdings, this book discusses how to escape the omnipresent anxiety caused my modern day living, or, as the author quotes William Blake, the “mind forg’d manacles” of existence.

In essence: ways to get off the consumerist rat race and live for yourself again. (The answers, incidentally, are all pretty pleasing: cycle more, drink with friends, laugh, stop buying so much shit and don’t work in tedious boring jobs.)

The author’s politics are certainly more extreme than mine, but I am completely won over by this book, thanks largely to the intelligence and wit with which Hodgkinson (editor of the The Idler www.idler.co.uk) puts forward his (sometimes rather radical) ideas.

But it’s the philosophy at the heart of the book that really spoke out to me: don’t get stuck on an endless hamster wheel of trying to achieve what seems important (progressing up the career ladder, rushing to fit hundreds of things into your day, working all hours to feed your beast of a mortgage…) Instead, reassess what you need and what you want in your life and simply step away from all the other nonsense and focus on the small, important things instead (family, friends, being creative, drinking and eating well…)

Don’t start a revolution; just live in a more community-minded way, with some land to tend and a ukulele to play.

Honestly, as a way of life, I can’t think of a much more appealing proposition.

Alkalinity to acidity and everything in between

14 Jan

…or, why soil pH is so important

Alkaline or acid soils: a quick guide to understanding soil pH levels

Before I really started to get into gardening, I have to admit, I thought the whole soil pH thing was a bit of a nonsense.

Sure, I was aware that such things as soil tests existed and that every intro to every gardening book I looked at recommended you go and test your soil but, honestly, I thought, what’s the point? It seemed a little bit earnest and overly-diligent to head out there, digging up a sample, and checking to see if the liquid turned red or green. (This much I could remember from chemistry lessons at school red = acid, green = alkaline.)

I had the soil I had, there was not much I could do about it, and I just went ahead and planted whatever plants I wanted in whatever spot in the garden I thought would look nice. Of course, with this approach, quite a few of them died really rather quickly indeed.

I also thought (very vaguely, if I thought about it at all, which wasn’t really much) that acid soil would surely be bad for plants (who wants acid, right?) and alkaline probably better and neutral best of all.

Well, needless to say, everything I had assumed turned out to be wrong when I was forced to actually pay attention to soil pH in one of my horticulture classes last year.

The pH scale

As I – very vaguely – remembered from Chemistry GCSE, the pH scale goes from 1-14. 1 is the most acidic and 14 the most alkaline. Neutral is right there in the middle at 7.

Most soils, though, tend to be slightly on the acidic side, around 6.5 in pH if you’re interested in the numbers. And, in fact, a broader range of plants prefer to be in slightly acidic soil.

When it comes to plants, the pH scale to look at is between (approximately) 4.5 and 7.5, very few plants able to survive outside those two extremes. The majority of plant species tend to thrive in soils between 6 and 7.

Interestingly, soil also tends to get more acidic over time. (Due to a number of reasons, but broadly because the alkaline nutrients are leached from the soil and because rainfall itself is slightly acidic…)

So, if you’re gardening a plot for a long time, you’ll probably want to re-check the soil pH after a few years and see if it’s altered at all.

Different plants for different places

But the most important thing I learnt was that some plants really do need to be in the right acidity / alkalinity of soil in order to survive.

Certain plants really dislike being planted in soil that’s too alkaline as it means they’re unable to take up the nutrients they need to survive. These are called calcifuges (which translates as lime haters. Lime = alkaline soil.) The most common examples are rhododendrons. If they’re planted in soil conditions that aren’t right, they will grow more slowly, perhaps become stunted, may not flower well, and often will have yellowing leaves, and ultimately will just give up the ghost and die.

There’s a whole lot to say about calcifuges, actually, so I’m going to be coming back to them in their own article in a few weeks, once we get to letter C.

Other plants may grow okay in alkaline soil but become more likely to get diseases, such as potatoes which tend to get potato scab if the soil they’re in isn’t acidic enough.

At the other end of the scale, some plants fare badly if the soil is too acidic. Plants such as saxifrages are a great example. Clematis and viburnums are other commonly-grown plants that prefer alkaline soils.

And then there are certain veg that are more prone to get diseases in heavily acid soils. Brassicas (that’s your cabbages, Brussel sprouts and so on) tend to get a disease called club root if they’re in soil that’s too acidic.

 What to do

So, bearing all this in mind, what can you do?

Firstly, go out and do a soil test. Honestly. I finally did one and found that my soil is basically slightly on the acidic side, which is great.

Once you know what your soil type is (and do check in different places as it might vary across your garden) then you can assess plants before you buy them to see if they’re likely to flourish.

The RHS plant finder online is a great resource for finding out info on plants and I always check here before buying anything.

There is such a huge variety of plants out there, that you should be able to find ones that you love which will thrive in the soil conditions you have. And this, by far, is the easiest way to go about things, rather than spending lots of money and time trying to alter the soil that you’ve got…

Altering soil pH

That said, what if your soil is really at an extreme end of the scale and you long for a greater choice of plants? Or you’re growing veg and you don’t want your cabbages to succumb to club root and your potatoes to scab.

Fret not! It is possible to alter soil pH, but is something of a faff. (That’s the technical gardening term for it, of course…)

My first option would be to grow plants in containers if I wanted a plant that needed a different soil type. For veg, you could add top soil into raised beds, or grow fruit bushes in pots to cater to their diverse but exacting needs.

Blueberries are a classic example of a plant that needs specific soil (very acidic in this case), and therefore grows perfectly well in pots if your soil isn’t suitable.

Just buy the right compost, fill up the containers and grow in your new (perfect!) conditions.

If you desperately want to change whole flowerbeds, though, or your soil is so very acidic / alkaline that it’s not feasible to grow many plants in it, you can change the pH by adding either lime or sulphur to make it more alkaline / acidic respectively.

This takes time, so you’ll need to work on the soil over a period of months, adding whichever you’re using at the rate recommended on the packet, and then keep on carrying out a soil test until you get the desired result.

But, even then, it’s not possible to sit back and enjoy it forever – soil will naturally try and return to the state it wants to be in: its make up determined by the bedrock underneath it, which will continue to break down and deposit the same minerals back into the soil. So if you live above a huge section of chalk, any attempt to make your soil more acidic will be an ongoing one.

So, an overall recap on soil pH would be: life is so very much easier if you learn to love what you’ve got. Perfect advice for almost everything really.

Phew, this post ended up far longer than I expected and I feel as if I’ve only scratched the surface of everything I could say on soil pH! If you’ve any questions, do drop me a comment below and I’ll do what I can to answer it.

Otherwise, do come back again in a fortnight when I’ll be wittering at length talking intelligently about biological control (and why ladybirds are so awesome)…

Related articles:

  • This is the first post in my new fortnightly series, a gardening jargon buster, where I’ll be going through an A to Z of gardening terms.

Gardening jargon buster

13 Jan

Gardening jargon buster | Wolves in LondonI’m a fairly recent convert to gardening. In my teens and early 20s, I had no appreciation of the joys to be found digging and watering, planting bulbs and pulling weeds and generally pootling around with a cup of tea in hand, looking at what’s going on in your little patch of land.

When I bought my first flat with a garden, about a decade ago, a little spark of interest was born. I bought a few plants online chosen for their attractive-looking flowers (almost certainly completely unsuitable for where I lived) and stuck them in the ground and forgot about them. Then wondered why almost everything died and anything that was alive didn’t flower as it was supposed to.

From then on, I started to pay proper attention and slowly, slowly, bit by bit, have started to understand how and why things grow.

In the early finding-things-out-myself days, it seemed as if there was some special code language attached to gardening; odd-sounding jargon abounding whenever I had a problem to solve or read a gardening book or magazine.

In all honesty, it wasn’t until I took a course in horticulture a few years ago, that I really started to understand what some of these phrases were all about.

As I’m just starting out on another course in 2015 (this time in garden design, about which I am supersupersuper excited) I thought it might be a nice time to run a little series on the blog.

Now, I wouldn’t in the slightest like you to think that I think I’m any sort of gardening expert. (Nor would I like you to see my actual garden, right now, which is a pretty ugly mess of half-planted beds, grass that needed a decent mow back in the summertime, and the world’s biggest and ugliest greenhouse…)

However, as I’m learning new things every week, I thought it might be quite fun to share a gardening jargon buster. Once a fortnight throughout the year, I’ll be working my way through the alphabet, sharing a few thoughts and tips on various gardening terms.

I’m picking the ones I hadn’t heard of before, or ones that always confused me, or, sometimes, just things I find especially interesting. (It’s possible I am the only person in the country who is so utterly fascinated by the concept of dehiscent seeds.)

So, if you’re interested in that sort of thing, then please do check in here on the second and fourth Wednesdays of the month and I will (hopefully!) get all the way from A to Z by the time 2016 swings around.

I’m kicking off the alphabet tomorrow with an A for alkalinity and acidity (aka soil pH). Something that is actually quite weirdly fascinating once you dig into it a little (‘arf ‘arf, pun intended…)

I’ll keep this page as a contents page, adding links to each article as I publish them, so do bookmark this if you just want to come back in a few months and see a bunch of articles all at once.

So, then, til tomorrow!

The jargon buster index:

A: Alkalinity to acidity; understanding soil pH levels

B: Biological control: why birds beat bug sprays

Grow, forage, cook: November round up and a winter break

1 Dec

And so it’s December.

The latter half of this year has truly flown by for me. (But time has a habit of doing that these days, doesn’t it?) It seems but a week ago that we were out in the garden playing in the paddling pool in the July sunshine.

Still, the Autumn has been a marvelous one, not least because I’ve thoroughly enjoyed writing these Grow, forage, cook posts, along with the lovely Laura, and seeing all the magnificent seasonal cooking going on out there.

For the next few months, we’ll be putting #growforagecook into hibernation for the winter. We’ll still be adding the odd post, but not our regular fortnightly slots, and we won’t be featuring the monthly round-ups.

Fret not, though, for we’ll be back again in the Springtime ready for asparagus and new potato season.

Before then, though, a round-up of some of our favourite snaps from the past month.

Grow, forage, cook November round-up | Wolves in London

November’s grow, forage, cook

From left to right, top to bottom:

@circleofpines: Laura and I don’t normally include our own photos in the round up, but this mince pie shot of Laura’s was so deliciously beautiful and made my mouth water so much, I couldn’t resist including it. (Plus, look at the serious apple peeling skills on show here!)

@nimblefingered: Annie has been busy foraging (/stealing?!) flowers over in Washington DC. This little jar was one of my favourites

@tomodachiwendymac: onions fresh from Australia… …and don’t you just love the weathered white backdrop?

@hannahseedsandstitches: I love this shot of Hannah from the wonderful Seeds and Stitches blog peering out through some rosehips. Check out a new series on the blog too, all about foraging from Fore/Adventure, who Laura chatted to last month…

@katgoldin: Is it edible, is it not? Whichever way, of course Kat Goldin’s photo is truly stunning.

@amelie_and_richard: Amelie and Richard always share loads of amazing #growforagecook pictures: if you’ve not investigated their feed already do go and take a look now. This was my favourite, though, for the understated simplicity.

@thelinencloud: Lovely Bee at the Linen Cloud joined in with us this month with a post on her blog with some weird and wonderful mushrooms. Go see: fungi.

@foreadventure: And here is the wonderful looking nettle pesto from Fore/Adventure.

@aquietcorner: Leek and potato soup is one of my absolute favourites for winter. Freshly picked from the garden, it can only taste incredible.

And a huge thanks to everyone else who has joined in these past few months. It’s been great seeing what you’re up to. Please come and join us again in 2015!

Grow, forage, cook: a Christmas hamper

19 Nov

If there’s a better present in the world than a hamper at Christmas, I’ve yet to come across it.

Oh, wait, I do know of a better one: a homemade hamper, stuffed to bursting with delicious goodies made over the previous 12 months. (Note to readers: please do feel free to read this as a hint, if you’ve been umming and ahhing about what to get me for Christmas, ha ha…)

This year, as you may have seen, I’ve been busy with a new series, Grow, forage, cook, with my lovely friend Laura (of Circle of Pine Trees). We’ve been sharing recipes, ideas and inspiration for homegrown, foraged and seasonal food.

So, for the middle of November, it seemed like a pretty good idea to put together a Christmas hamper using some of our favourite makes.

Homemade Christmas hamper from Wolves in London

The perfect Christmas present? A homemade hamper, stuffed with homegrown goodness…

Come, take a look and see what’s inside…

Well, marmalade is a staple for any hamper, in my opinion. Laura and I, both being bloggers, are naturally Seville Orange marmalade makers (yes, they actually make you sign a contract when you get a blog: you have to promise to make some marmalade and some elderflower cordial before you’re allowed to publish your first post…)

I usually follow a recipe in my ancient Good Housekeeping cookbook. Laura goes by the Riverford recipe to make her equally delicious looking batches.

Homemade jams in a Christmas hamper | Wolves in London

I only have small jars of marmalade to give away, because I’ve already scoffed the rest…

But preserving doesn’t stop there in a hamper, for me. Oh no! I think I am possibly a little addicted to making jams and chutneys, so I’ll be putting in a jar of each of the following:

Spicy plum chutney

Apple and sage jelly (this is my favourite, favourite ever preserve…)

Pumpkin chutney

Blackberry and apple jam

Homemade apple and sage jelly in a Christmas hamper | Wolves in London

Apple and sage jelly: the king of all preserves.

Then you’ll need something to eat with all those chutneys and jams. A few homemade biscuits is a good start. I’ve included some absolutely amazing ginger biscuits, following Laura’s recipe for ginger snaps.

These were unbelievably tasty, and I had a hard time keeping these six biscuits out of ravening maws for long enough to photograph them…

Homemade ginger biscuits in a Christmas hamper | Wolves in London

A little parcel of delicious biccies

Homemade ginger biscuits

A few seconds later, there was just a little pile of crumbs…

If ginger’s not your thing, you could also try the even more festive white chocolate and cranberry cookies.

And then on to the cabbage:

Pickled red cabbage

Cabbage haters, look away now

Now, I know what you’re going to say about my inclusion of pickled cabbage. Cabbage? For a present? For Christmas? My sole rejoinder: if you’re friends with someone who wouldn’t, secretly, love to consume a jar of pickled red cabbage on a winter’s evening, then you should probably stop being friends with them.

I haven’t actually posted a recipe for this on the blog (yet!) but I shall get on the case forthwith. ‘Til then, you can find plenty of different versions with a quick Google.

Homemade cherry vodka in a Christmas hamper

I never get over how much I love the colour of this stuff

Then for the booze. I’ve made some morello cherry vodka, this year, which will certainly be going in, along with some of last year’s blackberry and apple vodka.

Sadly, my haul of damsons from my Dad’s garden was left in the footwell of a hot car, but had they survived I would definitely be adding a bottle of Laura’s amazing damson gin.

Food and drink complete, a few little festive touches to adorn the hamper. I’ve followed Laura’s tutorials for some pinecone firelighters and this lovely orange peel garland to adorn the wicker basket.

Pine cone firelighters in a Christmas hamper

I dried these out in the oven and they smelt amazing…

Homemade orange peel star garland in a Christmas hamper

String this across the lid, or just along the front of the hamper for a suitably festive added extra…

Oh; a word on presentation. It is absolutely key in my opinion when giving homemade presents.

I spent a ridiculously long time once making some chocolate truffles, only to give them away in a Tupperware box. In fact, an old Indian takeaway box at that. I don’t think the recipient can have had any idea that I had lovingly concocted them over the course of a few days.

Homemade looks caring and loving if it’s dressed up prettily. Otherwise, it can just look a bit slapdash and unthinking. (“Oh, shucks, I forgot I was seeing so-and-so today and I haven’t got them a present. Let’s just bung them a jar of this year’s marmalade from the larder, still sticky on the sides and with a scrawl of identification on a peeling old label…”)

The labels I’ve used here are downloaded from the World Label website (free, fillable templates designed by Cathe Holden are available here: Apothecary labels). For the text, I’ve used a free font called Jane Austen. (Available from Da Font here: Jane Austen font.) And I’ve got to say, I’m pretty happy with the way it all looks!

Actually, I should have really covered all those mismatched lids with a nice circle of pretty fabric but, hey, hindsight is a wonderful thing…

So there you have it! A very first Grow, forage, cook Christmas hamper, full of delectable treats (in my humble opinion).

Will you be making any foodie presents this year? Is there anything I’ve missed out that really deserves a place in its wicker belly? Do leave me a comment and let me know: I’m always on the hunt for lovely new recipes and lovely new ideas!

And, finally, don’t forget to keep tagging your makes with #growforagecook on instagram and twitter. This month will be the last round-up we’re sharing until the Spring time, as Grow, forage, cook goes into hibernation for the winter months, so please do share anything before then! We’ve loved the little glimpse we’ve had so far into your winter / Christmas preparations…

Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden (part two)

22 Oct

More musings on things to plan now for the kitchen garden of your dreams next year. If you missed the first part, check it out here: Planning a kitchen garden, part one.

Planning a kitchen garden | Wolves in London

Veg and scaffolding planks: two fine ingredients for a kitchen garden…

Positioning your plot

If you’re in the enviable position of having a selection as to where you grow your veg, fruit and herbs, I’m pretty jealous!

In my garden, there is one suitable space only, a bed at the back, on the south side, which used to be full of rhododendrons, but is now empty. My kitchen garden will go there. End of story.

But if you’ve got a choice, either because you’re re-planning your whole garden, or you’ve got a selection of different places you could give over to food, then there are a few things to think about first.

Veg and fruit (generally) requires a lot of sunlight to ripen fully. So pick a sunny spot. This is especially true for fruits like grapes, which need sunlight to produce the sugars that make them taste so nice in the first place. You also want to avoid winds, which could damage the young plants, put off pollinating insects or blow the fruits right off the plants. Frost pockets (areas that are colder than the rest of your garden, for example because they’re in a small dip where cold air settles) should also be avoided. But that’s pretty obvious.

Speaking of pollinating insects, these are pretty essential for anything that produces fruits (this includes beans, peas and so on), which makes sunny sheltered spots the best.

Finally, think about the amenities you’ll need. One of the reasons my watering schedule was so crappy this past year was that the builders pulled out our water pipes that fed the tap at the bottom of the garden. (I only realised this once they’d left and it was a bit late to sort out…) This means I need to fill up the watering can from the tap at the other end of the garden and schlep it down to all the veg. Okay, this is literally a journey of 20ft or so, but it makes a surprisingly huge difference. This year, a water butt is going in to collect rainwater off the greenhouse roof and provide me with a much easier tap to use.

Of course, you don’t have to actually put aside a dedicated bed if you don’t have the space or inclination. Lots of plants can just be grown in regular flower beds, along with your other blooms, and many can look pretty attractive too. Purple kale or rainbow chard makes a good border plant; asparagus tips can pop up in a border before the rest of the plants really get started and a close proximity of flowers and veg helps all those lovely bees come and pollinate for you.

Making a planting plan

Oooh, this is the bit I just love! The expectation, the hopes, the dreams. Yes, I think I’ll put some lovely borlotti beans in there, oooh, let’s have some low growing strawberries there etc etc, as you drool from the mouth in anticipation of the next year’s bounty and imagine how you’ll need to phone your veg box delivery company and cancel the box because you just have so much food to eat…

I tend to draw up a rough plan on the back of envelope before I order my seeds, working out what will go there and how much I can realistically fit in. This (theoretically) prevents you massively over-ordering on the seeds, though I still manage it every year.

Put the tallest plants in the middle of the beds (or the side furthest from the sun) so they don’t overshadow the others. Check the distances needed between the plants (all seed packet info should have this) so you can figure out how many plants per row and how many rows you can fit in.

Think about planting certain things in succession – lettuce can be replanted throughout the year so you always have fresh crops, radishes can be planted in between slower growing crops like cabbage. Maximise your space, but don’t over-ram it. On the whole, plants spaced closer together will grow smaller but potentially more uniformly. This can actually be desirable, if you’re after tiny little baby carrots, for example, but try and make it intentional, rather than a by product of over-planting. (Ha! She says optimistically. I am a terrible one for overplanting because I just want one more little delicious plant in there please…)

Buying seeds

Sure, you could pop down to your local DIY shop and pick up any number of veg seeds these days, but the real specialities tend to be online or in garden centres. I tend to buy a lot from the James Wong selection at Suttons seeds, because I just can’t resist the allure of weird things like cucamelons; a fair bit from Sarah Raven because I just can’t resist the allure of such delightfully styled aspirational gardening and then some heritage seeds from Crocus, which is the online gardening shop I tend to buy most of my plants from. (It’s definitely not the cheapest, but I have never had a duff plant from them and they have some amazing free planting plans for inspiration too…)

There are lots more specialist providers of weird and wonderful things as well, or of course you can use seed you’ve saved yourself (I wrote more about that a few weeks ago: saving seeds) or have blagged from friends.

So, I think that pretty much concludes most of my pearls of wisdom on Autumn planning for a kitchen garden: choose a plot, prep your soil, pore over the seed catalogues, order some things and then feet up until the start of next year when you can begin to stick them in the ground / pots.

I’ve really been enjoying writing some of these gardening posts for the Grow, forage, cook series with Laura. I do hope you’ve been enjoying reading them too! I’d love it if you felt like leaving me a comment and letting me know what you think. It’s a bit of a departure from my usual craft / general life waffle…

Next week, Laura will be rounding up our favourite pics / recipes / blog posts that have been tagged #growforagecook on Twitter or instagram, so do keep on sharing your bakes, makes, preserves, or anything else you’re up to. As the colder weather settles in, my thoughts are turning towards pickling and preserving. But more on that, perhaps, another time…

Grow, forage, cook: planning a kitchen garden

20 Oct

When I took my first horticulture course last year, one of the modules I was looking forward to the least was called “Growing fruit and veg”…

Don’t get me wrong, it’s not that I’m not interested in doing just that. It’s that I was already doing just that. Really, I thought, what more could I need to know?

Of course, the answer turned out to be, a helluva lot.

I’d always thought of myself as a “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” kind of a gardener. Fertilise the plants? Pfft, what pansies. Plants don’t get fertilised in nature! Water them in a dry spell? C’mon, what nonsense, just use your roots and wait for the next rain!

These ideas can cut it, of course, in a dry garden or low-maintenance garden, planted especially for such principles. But not, it turns out, in a veg patch.

A veg patch, or kitchen garden, even on the smallest scale, is essentially intensive planting. You want every single one of those tomato plants to produce tomatoes, you want each runner bean to grow to the top of the pole and put out a great array of beans. So, you need to give your plants a little help…

(Incidentally, “help” – in the form of watering, fertilising, weeding and pest control – was exactly what I didn’t have any time for this year and is the reason I had such a very disappointing harvest…)

So, for next year, I’m planning myself a mini kitchen garden of my dreams, and I’m planning to do everything by the book (eg, actually try to remember to water my plants this time and save them from the rascal slugs…)

I’ve designated an old flower bed to become a metre squared veg bed and I’m busy drawing diagrams and working out how it will all fit together. As Autumn is the perfect time for advance preparation, I thought I might share some tips and things I’ve learnt in case they’re handy for you too!

Planning a kitchen garden

Cuppa tea and a leek. That’s about all you need for some garden planning…

Planning a veg or kitchen garden:

Raised beds

Raised beds are a great way of growing veg. You can plant closer together as you don’t need to leave space between the plants for weeding or walking. They drain easily, avoiding veg getting water-logged. Heck, if you’ve got rubbish soil in your garden you can even import something completely different to put in raised beds.

The ideal size for a bed is 1m x 4m (or smaller) – that way you can reach into the middle for picking crops or weeding, without trampling on the soil.

Just bear in mind that raised beds will need more watering than a normal ground-level bed, as they do drain more easily. Other than that, there’s not really a good reason not to use them!

You can buy (rather expensive) kits that slot together, or just make some yourself from any timber you can find. Scaffolding planks are ideal as they’re almost the perfect height and you can pick them up pretty cheap…

Preparing the soil

It’s worth planning ahead (eg now!) for what you hope to grow next year. Even though you’re unlikely to plant much until February or so, certain crops need the soil prepared in certain ways. Carrots, for example don’t grow well in freshly manured soil (they’ll split if they hit fresh organic matter) so you’d want to dig that in now, to give it a chance to break down.

Check what conditions your chosen crops like now and you’ve got a good start on getting the plot ready for them: digging out stones, adding manure, perhaps grit if you’ve got heavy soils etc. You could then plant some green manure for the winter, which you’d just dig in to the ground before you sow your seeds next spring.

Choosing what to grow

So, how do you choose what you want to grow? This is especially important if, like me, you’ve only got a small growing area. The best piece of advice I was given was to only grow things you like to eat. It sounds so bleeding obvious, but it was a bit of a lightbulb moment for me… I think there is often a temptation in gardening to feel as if you should be growing the things other people are growing. Oh yes, any gardener worth their salt grows courgettes, so you slave away on a courgette plant, completely forgetting that you’re not massively keen on the taste of them.

This year, I’m going to focus on growing things that are either expensive to buy in shops, or difficult to buy in shops. So asparagus, artichokes, raspberries, blueberries along with some interesting varieties of potatoes and tomatoes.

It’s also wise, at this planning point, to take a look at your soil. Some plants grow less well in certain soils. Cabbages and all brassicas, for example, are prone to a disease called club root in acidic soils. Though you can lime the soil to remove the acidity, this is quite frankly (in my opinion) a massive waste of time and energy. Instead, why not grow things that thrive in an acidic soil, like blueberries. (Okay, if you’ve got your heart set on making your own sauerkraut, blueberries ain’t gonna cut it, so this would probably be a time when a raised veg bed and imported top soil is the way to go…)

Right, good lord, I’ve written a complete tome already, so I’ll break this up into two parts. Check back on Wednesday for more (Edit: Read the second part here about Positioning your plot, Making a planting plan and buying seeds: part two). To be continued…

In the garden: October

10 Oct

Surrounded by cobwebs, the last of the flowers are just clinging on out in the garden at the moment.

Garden cobweb | Wolves in London

A teeny tiny feather caught in a cobweb

Elated by the sunshine, I took a trip out this morning to photograph the few remaining splashes of colour, to try and hold onto them for as long as possible before the garden takes on its winter coat of unbroken green.

Actually, I love all the different shades of green you can find in a verdant garden, but I would like to add a little more colour as well.

I’m currently agonising over whether to cut down a rather large, browning, overgrown conifer that’s moping about next to our pond and planting some dogwood in its place: Cornus sanguinea ‘Midwinter Fire’ (you can see some in my post about trees / shrubs with winter colour from the start of the year). The idea is, the bright red stems in the winter would reflect in the pond and bring a bit of cheer (and contrast) to the otherwise green vistas. (Ha! I’m not sure you can actually use the word “vista” if the total distance you can see is probably about 20ft…)

I had just started to write a lengthy essay explaining to you the pros and cons of the decision, but have deleted the six paragraphs on the grounds that it’s not wildly exciting reading.

Anyway, back to what’s actually there at the moment…

The two pink rose bushes continue to bloom: they deserve an award for outstanding longevity as I think they’ve both been in flower for around six months now.

Pink rose | Wolves in London

This rose must surely be one of the last?

Rose | Wolves in London

I prefer these, less formal, roses…

Meanwhile, my new Rosa rugosa hedge has been making the most glorious red hips.

Rosehip | Wolves in London

Peekaboo

In an equally impressive display, my perennial sweetpea is still (still!) putting out flowers. For the last month or so, I’ve been thinking every bloom I see is the last, only for another to appear a few days later…

Sweet pea | Wolves in London

Incidentally, if anyone knows by looking what type of sweet pea this is, do let me know. I no longer remember what I sowed…

In the back garden, there are lots of bright Hesperantha coccinea by the pond. (More usual name? Not a clue, I’m afraid…) I’ve mentioned before that I’m not a huge fan of red flowers in the garden, but somehow, once the main summer has passed and we’re into autumn, my opinion changes completely and I am delighted to see such rich colours.

Hesperantha coccinea | Wolves in London

So cheerful

Behind them, my Japanese maple is still looking a little unhealthy, but has managed to put out lots of lovely purpley/red seed pods. What glorious colours!

Acer | Wolves in London

Ignore the brown, curling leaves and just look at the seeds…

And my lovely pink daisies have just put out a second bloom…

Erigeron | Wolves in London

I thought these were over, but some more just appeared

Finally, I just can’t resist sharing this photo of my little photographic assistant. He’s been given use of Daddy’s old camera and has spent much of the past few weeks in poses fairly similar to this one.

I asked him, “Are you taking a photo of Mummy?” and he looked at me quizzically, as if that would be a very odd thing to do, and said, “No! Taking photo of dis plant…” The apples don’t fall far from the tree, eh…

Toddler photographing | Wolves in London

Gardener, cleaner, photographer extraordinaire…

Grow, forage, cook: September round-up

30 Sep
Grow, forage, cook September roundup

Grow, forage, cook September round-up. Click on photo to see in greater size, and see below for details of photographers (plus links to some truly delicious-sounding recipes…)

Ah, September, always one of my favourite months of the year.

I say this not just because it is the auspicious month of my birth. (Actually, my birthday was a rather muted affair this year; the sproglet choosing the day to give me two full-on hour-long tantrums and my birthday cake not lovingly made by the hubby, but purchased from the Dulwich Picture Gallery. Not that I’m complaining, as my Mum came up for the day and was the one who bought me the cake, but the hub could do well to take a leaf from Laura’s book, who made this fantastically toothsome looking creation for her husband D’s birthday*: Ginger and pear cake.)

But, birthday ramblings aside, September is usually a month of the most wonderful weather and this year has been no exception. The Autumn light creeps in, the leaves turn, the conkers appear and I thoroughly enjoy sticking on my wellies for a walk to the park.

Of course, this is also the month with the best harvest and I have been so enjoying following our #growforagecook hashtag over on Twitter and Instagram and seeing what everyone has been up to.

My recipe book is heaving with ideas, my “to plant” list for fruit and veg next year is growing daily as I garden vicariously and I am on an ever-more-desperate search for sloes and damsons as I watch others’ gins and jams. (Anyone have any tips for places to search in South East London? Please, please leave a comment below if you know of any good spots…)

Grow, forage, cook: September round-up

See below for photographer’s details

Here is a selection of some of our favourites from this month.

Top selection:

Top row, left to right: Anne Wheaton: The edible hedge in September and @slamseys on instagram; Gemma Garner: making rosehip syrup and @gemmagarner; Amelie and Richard: @amelie_and_richard

Middle row, left to right: Fiona Annal: @fionaannal; Hannah Frances Boulton: @hannahfrancesboulton; For Adventure @foreadventure

Bottom row, left to right: Kat Goldin: @katgoldin; Margot Barbara: @margotbarbara; Growing Spaces: Make your own sloe gin

Bottom selection:

Top row, left to right: Be Nourishd: Sloe gin (I know, two sloe gins, but I just love the stuff, and both of the photos!); Really Pretty Useful: Spiced stone fruit compote and @reallyprettyuseful; Fore Adventure: @foreadventure

Middle row, left to right: Hello Mister Magpie: @hellomistermagpie; Fiona Annal: @fionaannal; Little Green Shed: @littlegreenshed

Bottom row, left to right: Carie May @cariemay; The Linen Cloud: Plum jam and @thelinencloud; Capture by Lucy: @capturebylucy.

All wonderful, aren’t they? And enough to make you reach immediately for the spade, secateurs or mixing bowl!

Thanks so much to everyone for joining in, please do keep on using the #growforagecook hashtag on Twitter or Instagram (and tag either @wolvesinlondon and @circleofpines); or, if you’re not on either of those, do just leave us a comment linking up to posts you’ve published…

And so October approaches, I feel drawn towards winter veg and endless pickling, along with my feet up on the sofa, poring through seed catalogues to plan the veg garden of my dreams for next year… What will you be up to in the coming month?

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