Wednesday, 6 May 2020

My top tip for keeping cats, foxes and birds off your newly sown beds

Frequently I see people comment on social media about the difficulty of keeping cats, foxes and other creatures, off their newly sown beds. I thought I'd share my tip, which pretty much always works.

Right: Parsnip seed

These are newly sown rows of parsnip and beetroot.

Basically, you need some netting and something to hold the netting down. Ideally, go for finer netting, as this will also keep the birds off the seedlings. And sparrows, in particular, love the fresh germinated leaves of vegetables like beetroot, spinach, chard and lettuce.

Right: netting over young beetroot seedlings. The netting is
held down tightly so birds cannot get under it and get trapped.

When I prepare the netting, I make sure I allow not just enough to cover the space, but also enough space for the young seedlings to grow without squishing up, and then growing through, the netting. Otherwise, when you come to take the netting off, you'll pull out the seedlings. I fold under the extra netting and pin that down, then unfold it once I need to give the seedlings more room. In the picture above, you can see the netting on the bottom part of the picture has been folded over then pinned down.

Below is some netting over some salad seedlings. The glass cloche on the left is because I wanted that cultivar to grow quicker so I would a) have some new lettuce sooner, and b) by trying to get it grow quicker, I'm hoping I'll have time to harvest but also let it go to seed so I can save the seeds before the autumn frosts hit.

The lettuce seedlings (below) are now getting bigger and were just about to start growing through the netting. So I've unfolded the extra netting and have lifted it to give them more space to grow. At this point, they are still a bit young for removing the netting entirely. I've done it too soon in the past and come out the next day to see the seedlings dug up.

The seedlings are now well established and have taken over most of the space, so it's now safe to take the netting off. You can also see how the cloche made a difference, with the lettuce on the right being bigger than that on the left.

The parsnips and beetroot are slower growers, and still too young to take the netting off. It will probably be another month before they'll be established enough.

When it comes to what materials to use, as you can see, I have used plastic netting. I've had this same netting for years and it just last and lasts. Netting is also easy to water and rain through. Because these beds are permanent, I'm cutting the netting to suit each bed, and when I take it off, I'll pin a note to the netting before putting it away, noting which bed it fits for when I need to use it next time. Yes, I'm organised  :)

To hold it down, I use steel ground pegs (see right). Again, these last forever. You could obviously use other similar tools. Some people use old soft drink bottles as individual cloches that protect and encourage germination and growth. I've tried this but found I had to lift them to water the seedlings, and that was just annoying.

I have tried tricks like using hot chilli powder spread around young plants, putting in lots of sticks to keep cats off etc. These can work a bit, but you have to reapply the chilli every couple of days and after rain, and a determined cat can work around sticks. I know, my cat is quite determined!

In the end, I've found the netting and ground pegs keep all creatures off, as well as safe from being trapped under the netting, and my seedlings are protected until they have grown up enough to go net-free.

Looking from the kitchen garden back towards the house

Wednesday, 29 April 2020

Tulip fever

It's tulip flowering time and oh gosh, do I particularly have tulip fever this year. I only have a few cultivars in my front and back gardens, but they are looking fabulous and I'm feeling that maybe I need some more?

This is T. Ballerina, my favourite tulip in a planter next to the lounge room window. It looks like it's on fire.

I love how it changes in the light. This is it waiting in the wings in the shade.

And then, voila! It dances in the sun!

Wait a minute, isn't one of those tulips looking rather different? Yes, this is a rogue tulip that's ended up with my T. Ballerina bulbs. It's possibly a cross with some of my other tulips?

Anyway, I've pulled it out and will plant it elsewhere, as this doesn't go with my 'hot' colours theme in the front garden, so it's going to be replanted in the back garden.

T. Ballerina goes rather well with T. Havran, in the ground in another part of the front garden.

T. Havran is kind of a beetroot colour, and really quite shiny.

It has a nice white part in the middle of the inside too.

Also in the front garden is T. Abu Hassan, which is a rather fabulous tulip if you ask me. I mean, wow!

I don't have as many of these as I like, and I do like. They contrast nicely with the yellow of the cowslip and the various blues.

In the back garden I don't have many tulips yet, but I did inherit these ones when we moved in.

Now see, they don't go with the cooler purples/pinks tones for the back garden, but well, they are so cheery. So they get to stay until I have more appropriate colours to plant in their place. Then I'll move these to the front.

The tulips in both gardens have been giving me so much pleasure. There is just one problem. Sadly, I don't have enough of them.

So, I see tulip bulbs in my future. Lots more.

Thursday, 12 March 2020

Crop rotations: the basics for urban growers

My kitchen garden and forest garden border now. The raised beds currently have garlic,
broad beans and corn salad. Now it's warming up, I can start more seed sowing
and really get the season going.
When I published my post on my crop rotation plans for this year in January, I got a lot of interest, particularly from people on Mastodon, who asked me a number of questions. So I thought I'd write a post covering the basics as my contribution to Solarpunk Action Week. The focus is on urban growers, as that's from where my experience comes.

Why rotate your crops?
Or, do you have to rotate your crops, even in a small garden? Yes, yes, you do.

The key principle of crop rotation is that you rotate plants of the same botanical family, which are prone to the same soil-living pests and diseases, and should not be grown in the same spot every year. The aim is to prevent the build-up of soil borne problems, such as club root, white rot, and eelworms, which often have no means of control (1).

If you continue to grow the same few crops in your garden or allotment, you risk a build up of diseases in the soil that might take years to get back under control. Particular diseases include potato cyst eelworms which affects potatoes and tomatoes, and club root which affects brassicas. Of course, in smaller gardens, disease can spread to other soil areas. Best practice is to do what you can to reduce the chance of this happening.

The other key reasons to rotation your crops is for nutrient availability/soil fertility. Vegetables have different nutrient requirements, so moving them around the growing area helps to avoid nutrient depletion in the soil (and remember, you'll be adding compost and manure/green manure each year to also improve soil fertility). Furthermore, rotating crops with alternating deep- and shallow-rooting vegetables, improves soil structure.(2)
A wooden raised bed sitting on top of acid soil.
The raised bed is filled with compost, giving it an alkaline-neutral pH. 

Does soil type (pH) matter?
The pH in soil matters because crop rotations are needed for annual vegetables, which won't grow in acid soil. A pH of 7.0 is considered neutral. An acid soil has a pH value below 7.0 and above 7.0 the soil is alkaline.

When it comes to perennial vegetables, few will have much of a problem with a slightly acid soil (pH 6-7) and some will be ok in pH 5-6. Below pH 5, you can only grow acid loving fruit and vegetables, such as most fruit, including blueberries and strawberries, or acid tolerating perennials such as sorrel.

If you have heavy acid soil (pH 5 and below), as I do, then building raised beds is the way to get around this to grow annual vegetables. My raised beds are 40cms high or more, allowing me enough depth to grow any type of annual vegetable.

Basic crop rotations
Crop rotations are usually practiced on a 3- or 4-year plan. If you have the space, plant your crops on a 4-year plan. For smaller spaces, go for a 3-year plan as a minimum.

For a simple 3-year crop rotation, divide your space into 3 sections or beds, then plant:
  1. Root crops (including potatoes, carrots, beetroot, garlic, onions and parsnips). You could include tomatoes in this group to keep the solanum family (potatoes and tomatoes), together.
  2. Brassicas (including cauliflower, broccoli, kale, radish, kohl rabi and cabbage).
  3. Legumes (peas, broad beans and beans). You could add the cucubits (pumpkin and squash) and vegetables that don't really have a group, such as corn and lettuce, here.
For a simple 4 year rotation, you would use the above, but separate out potatoes and tomatoes into their own group.

The garlic grew in this raised bed last year. This year I have created sections within this, and it
will contain a mix of broad beans, climbing French beans, squash and courgette, parsnip and beetroot.

However, even a basic crop rotation doesn't stay quite this simple, because plants have different seasons in which they grow. You plant garlic and broad beans in autumn and they'll be in their spaces from November to the following July-August. For example, one bed might have the following 4 year rotation:

Year 1: Broad beans Spring and Summer, then winter salads and green manures in Autumn and Winter.
Year 2: Peas, courgette and squash (the peas grow up, the courgette and squash underneath) for Spring, Summer and into mid-Autumn. Then plant garlic from mid-October, which will be  that will be there from October to the following July.
Year 3: Garlic up until mid-Summer, then salads and green manures for Autumn and Winter.
Year 4: Potatoes from Spring until Autumn.

After year 4, you return to year 1 and start again.

This photo shows an overview of a previous garden in mid-summer, 2015, which ran on a 4-year schedule. You can see how much you can fit into a small urban garden. The raised beds have been divided into roughly a metre squared sections, with different annual vegetables growing in each. The same view looked different next year as the crops are rotated.

Below are the plans I have, using a 3-year crop rotation cycle. Visit my post on crop rotations for my garden to see more detail.

Detailed crop rotations
Here's an example of crop rotations for a larger amount of beds, from a previous garden. This also includes a larger amount of crops, including brassicas and solanums. The beds were a mix of 3 smaller beds (1-3), and two long beds (4-8 and 9-13). The long beds were broken up into sections in order to make it easier to plan for crop rotations. This meant I could go with a 4 year rotation plan.

This is another photo from 2015, more clearly showing the different vegetables growing in different sections. In this space is: garlic, potatoes, climbing French beans, broad beans, parsnips, and carrots under white netting.

Final thoughts
You don't even need to start of with making big crop rotation plans as I do (I'm a bit of a nerd in that area). As long as you keep a record of what you plant, and where, each year, you'll be fine. Crop rotations can be flexible, just keep botanical families together. You can mix botanical families, but move them around the beds/rotations, together.

* * * * *
My thanks to Alison from Backyard Larder for information regarding growing perennials in acid soil.

1. Growing fruit and vegetables on a bed system the organic way, Pauline Pears, 2004, p25.
2.  Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, editor Pauline Pears, 2001, p301.

Friday, 28 February 2020

Florespondence: Helle-not-so-boring

Hellebores, they aren't so boring. I'm sure that's been said a lot, but look at them - such beauty! The yellow ones are in the front garden, and the pinks and purples in the back garden.

Helleborus x hybridus Harvington yellow

A slightly chewed Helleborus x hybridus Harvington double yellow.

Helleborus 'Painted Bunting'

Helleborus x hybridus 'Double Ellen Red'

Helleborus x hybridus Harvington dusky, the second with the sunlight behind it.

Monday, 27 January 2020

Planning the crop rotations for the kitchen garden

The raised beds that form the kitchen garden.

The new growing season is fast approaching. As of this year I have my full complement of raised beds for growing edibles in, so I thought I better work out a crop rotation plan.

This is the layout, where I have numbered each section or bed, to make it easy to plan in order to know what crop is where.

As I have a smaller garden, I've decided to go for a 3 year rotation plan instead of a 4 year plan. I'll be going into detail about this in a future post(1). Here are my 3 year rotation plans.(2)

For my garlic, the plan is to only grow a larger number which I can then share, every 3 years. I may also grow some extra food in pots as well, depending on energy levels etc.

I have allowed for sowing green manure at different points in the year, and I'll continue to add some well-rotted manure and compost to the beds, as needed.

I'm not growing anything from the Solanum family (potatoes and tomatoes), and the only thing from the Brassica family (i.e. cabbages, cauliflower, broccoli) will be Kohl Rabi. In general, the Solanum and Brassica families require a lot more work than I have the spoons to manage. I've grown Kohl Rabi in the past and found it wasn't overly impacted by the white cabbage moth, so hoping that will continue, given they aren't easily available in the shops.

The asparagus, being a perennial, isn't part of the crop rotations as since it will stay in that bed for the next 20 years or so.
Looking at the kitchen garden beds from a different angle.

I suspect I may end up amending my plans as I go along, depend on my health. But having the crop rotations worked out in general, makes it easier manage what to sow where. Now, I'm just waiting for Spring!

* * * * *
  1. I'm putting together a post sumarising crop rotations (the reasons for, etc) for Solarpunk Action Week  (8th - 14th March). If there is an issue you'd like to see included, leave your request in the comments below.
  2. If you would like to see these in more detail, I've uploaded them to Scribd.