Friday, 28 October 2011

Mulch, Lasagne and Miss McGee

Autumn Raspberry

Autumn is tipping the nod to winter and it’s time to put the garden to bed for a long and cosy slumber.   

Plants are calling for a nice warm duvet as temperatures dip and of course I’m more than willing to oblige.  In fact it’s probably one of my favourite garden tasks as the unruly autumn often leaves me wanting to tidy up.  I’ve gone the extra mile this year by using an approach that I haven’t used before.  In line with the no-dig method pioneered by Charles Dowding, Lasagne (Lasagna) Gardening consists of adding layers of card or newspaper (the pasta) between layers of green and brown materials (the filling).  Overtime, and with the help of a few worms and other organisms, this helps to create a beautiful, hummus rich, fluffy soil that is perfect for growing fruit and vegetables in.  On the allotment plot in particular, I thought that this approach would save on maintenance whilst also being highly effective in improving the water retentive clay soil.  The idea is to lavish the allotment beds with a layer of cardboard topped with well-rotted horse manure, home made compost, comfrey leaves and whatever else I can find.  This will then be added to year on year and help improve the soil.  I had planned to use up a rotting bale of haylage, as an extra green layer, but it was moved before I could get to it.  I’m sure another will turn up soon though and I have plenty of Comfrey to harvest yet from my newly acquired allotment plot which appears to be home to 24ft of mature comfrey plants.  You can read more about Lasagne Gardening here.

Cardboard mulch around a young Blackcurrant with Manure in foreground

The soft-fruit alley is the first area to be treated with such luxury.  As an area prone to heavy weed growth, and with less than ideal soil, the double whammy of cardboard and bulky organic matter is likely to suppress weeds and improve the soil over time. The manure I’m using is around two years old and like black gold - well rotted, light and scent free.  I’m bringing the manure back from the stables in stages as I don’t have a trailer but as I visit the stables everyday anyway and end up back at the allotment to see to the chickens it makes perfect sense and is fairly economical.  I’m quite mean when it comes to feeding my plants and I find that if I feed and improve the soil plants flourish, grow strongly but are more unlikely to succumb to pests and diseases without compromising yield.  By next year my horse should have produced enough manure to mulch the whole of my plot and I love the idea that my pets all have a role in my garden and helping to produce food for the home.  All that’s needed now is a small holding!

Next thing to do is mulch the two large raised beds with cardboard and top in a similar style and then comes the real challenge … the new plot.  The new plot is quite large, patyly shaded and is pernicious weed heaven.  I’ve removed an extremely large buddleia that was around 12ft tall, which must have had 40 stems, dug out the majority of docks and cut back the brambles.   The Buddleia branches will be used to extend a dead hedge that surrounds the chicken run and the rear boundary of one of the lower and original plot (Plot number 4).  It’s likely that the new plot will receive deeper lasagne gardening treatment as I’m hoping this will help to kill most of the weeds at the plot, improve the soil, which actually doesn’t seem at all bad, or at least give me a running start on next year.  I’ll keep you updated on how I get on.  Many will be shouting at me to go with the glyphosate or black plastic treatment but I actually quite enjoy a little bit of work and I have time to play with before planting next spring.  Plus, I’m sure under all the weeds there are useful plants too.

So, on reflection this autumn will be spent, mulching, weeding and pruning with a little bit of bulb planting and planning for the year to come.  I love this time of year!

In other news, the chickens are in full moult and we’re down to one measly egg a day.  Of course, it’s McGee that’s doing all the laying.  For a chicken that lays very small eggs, that I must add were supposed to be blue not pink, she definitely makes up for her meagre offerings with consistency.  To give the girls a bit of a boost I’ll be supplementing their diet with some poultry spice and worming them again just for good measure.

The Grow Your Own Book Competition still rolls on and you can read more about how to enter here.

Sunday, 16 October 2011

Grow Your Own: Four Books to Get You Growing

We’ll soon be at that point in time where gardens sleep, days are short and the best thing to do is snuggle up in front of a wood burning stove with a nice cuppa and a good book.  I always find that this time of year is perfect for planning the gardening year ahead and in this instance a good bit of reading always helps to add to and inform such plans.  I’ve recently read four books that all focus on a similar theme and if you have an allotment or are growing your own produce then they might be just what you’re after.

Personally, I'm taking heed from parts in each of these books as I go about reclaiming another weed infested, Budddleia and dock riddled allotment plot.  From reusing materials, reclaiming useful plants and using some patience when designing the future plot, each of these books can and will help anyone in a similar position and anyone else embarking on growing their own.

First up is ‘Grow Your Food for Free (Well, Almost)’ by Dave Hamilton.  As the title suggests this book is both about growing your own produce and saving yourself money in the process.  Taking a step back from garden trends and consumerism, Dave discusses ways in which gardens can be created from what we have around us, what we can salvage and what we can save.  The book aims to change the way we think about “rubbish” and goes a long way to influence resourceful gardening.

The book itself is packed with useful information, personal accounts and quirky illustrations by Dave’s partner Ellie Mains.  Divided into seasons, the book takes you right through the growing year, but unlike other gardening books this one is different and feels refreshingly new.  Modern topics, holistic approaches and practical advice are all combined with the more traditional way of growing crops to provide a healthy tome for the new gardener and snippets of useful information for the seasoned pro.  I particularly loved the way Dave encourages the reader to evaluate and plan any new site, to see what’s already there and to work around what’s useful.  Dave’s origami bags are something to envy, I need to master this art as I’m forever looking for a bucket or pockets in which to carry eggs and vegetables, but I think I’ll leave the humanure to the pro’s.

This book is a great read with serious issues at its heart and I would thoroughly recommend it to anyone who is interested in growing their own food or gardening with sustainability in mind.  You can follow Dave on Twitter here.

Next up we have ‘The Allotment Pocket Bible’ by Emma Cooper.  Coming from The Pocket Bible Series of Books this offering has a traditional feel and layout.  This is the type of book that you would take with you to the plot and go to for practical advice when needed.  It’s small enough to carry along to the plot in your hand or back pocket and is full of useful and up to date information for the novice and experienced gardener alike.

Emma takes the reader through the history of allotments, picking a site, plot maintenance and then moves on to growing and using crops.  There’s an extensive list of crop profiles in the book and the growing calendar in the back of the book is quite a useful quick reference.  Emma also incorporates a few recipes to help you use up your harvest and personally I’d like to see more of this.  Maybe in the next book Emma?

If you’re starting an allotment or thinking of getting one then this book is a great start and Emma's writing style and knowledgable offerings are always a joy to read.  You might also be interested in reading a past interview with Emma from back in 2009 when she published ‘The Alternative Kitchen Garden an A-Z’ or visiting her website here.  The Allotment Pocket Bible by Emma Cooper (£9.99, Pocket Bibles) is available from and all good book shops.

On a different track, we move on to ‘Minding my Peas and Cucumbers’ by Kay Sexton.   This book, also focussing on allotment growing, is written in a very different style to the others mentioned here and takes on a novel-like form.  Kay takes us through the struggles she had in finally becoming a plot holder, after volunteering for many years, and she outlines the gritty politics and humour of allotment life.  She brings a reality to vegetable gardening that is rarely seen by utilising her own experiences and other stories from the plot.  Her tales are intriguing but transferable to allotment sites all across the country and I was touched by some of her stories, whilst also managing to giggle at others.  Akin to a female ‘One Man and His Dig’ by Valentine Low, this book is most certainly not just aimed at women and hits upon many topics.  I found that I could associate with most of the stories, its characters and on reflection I also learned a few things.  Kay’s writing style is conversational but this doesn’t compromise its content as she incorporates much practical advice, with recipes thrown in for good measure too.

If you are looking for some insight in to allotment life, if you hanker for some handy tips or even if you simply want to delve in to a world completely alien to your own then this may be just what you need.

And finally, we take a look at ‘Food from your Garden and Allotment’ from Reader’s Digest.  This weighty book is much more encyclopaedic than the others discussed and is beautifully presented with a wealth of photographs and illustrations.  First published in 1977, this new edition brings everything right up to date.

The strap line on the front of the book reads: ‘All you need to know to grow, cook and preserve your own fruit and vegetables’, and it sets out to do just this.  The 320 page book is divided in to five colour coded sections taking the reader right through a basic guide to the kitchen garden, growing and cooking, the food-growers calendar, identifying pests and diseases, and home preserving.  Each section is easy to read and packed full of useful information that would guide even the newest gardener to food growing success.

This book is great for anyone who’s interested in growing their own and is sure to be a hit with the novice, amateur and seasoned allotmenteer alike, as many subjects and techniques are discussed.  The book has depth and the layout works really well making it a great read and resource.  The chapter on preserving really stood out and took this book to another level as not only does it guide you through growing your own produce but it also informs you on how to get the most out of your produce.

If any of these books have taken your fancy or if you want to read more please click here.  Also, for your chance to win a copy of 'Grow Your Own Food for Free: Well Almost' and 'The Allotment Pocket Bible' simply email: with your full name and contact details.

Terms and conditions: This competition closes at 23.59 on 13.11.11. Any entries received after this time will not be counted. Entrants must be UK residents aged 18 years or older to enter.  By entering this competition you agree and consent to your name being published and by taking part in the competition, entrants are deemed to have read,understood and accepted all of the Terms and Conditions and agreed to be bound by them. The winner will be selected at random and will be announced here on the blog.  Only one entry per email address will be allowed.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Ryan's Garden Loves: Beer Bottle Tea Lights

Garden lighting can often be quite dull and boring but I absolutely love these gorgeous little recycled tea light holders which add a sense of fun and youth to the garden.

I came across this product when contacted on twitter by the websites owner asking me to do a review of a victorian garden but I couldn't resist posting about these tea light holders too as I think they're great.  The holder itself is made from a recycled beer bottle that has served its original purpose and I quite like the idea of turning waste in to quite a funky little garden accessory.  In fact, I think that I'm slowly becoming a recycled beer bottle collector as I also have the matching Corona wine glasses, which I picked up at the Eden Project after the Amy Winehouse debacle, but that’s a conversation for another day.
The tea lights are really simple to use and after adjoining the bottle to the metal ground spike and inserting the tea light holder they’re ready for their position in the garden.  I think that they'd be at their best plunged in to summer and autumn borders or on the entrance to the garden but they would also be great to use to line a path or in to containers, either in the garden or at entrances to the home.

If you like the look of these tea light holders then you should check out the main website where you can also find other lighting products, garden lamp posts and beautiful gazebos.

Sunday, 2 October 2011

Magic Mushrooms: A Fungal Foray

Yesterday I made my first venture into the highly complex, cult-like world of mycology. Well, sort of.  Joining a mixed group of die-hard mushroom enthusiasts, photographers and fellow novices we set out on a guided foray through the grounds of Dyffryn Gardens, all led by our guide for the morning Teifion Davies.  

Joined by a friend, who later turned out to be the female mushroom hunting equivalent of  a Lamotto Romagnolo,  we made our way to the venue on one of the hottest days of the year.  This unexpected autumn heat didn’t bode well for finding delicate fungi, this coupled with my inability to find the “other” walking shoe before leaving the house (why is this always the case?) led to a rather uninspiring and frustrated start.
In my infinite naivety and with my mind on a fungal feast, I had premature and preconceived ideas of how the day would play out.  I imagined the group setting out with empty trugs only to return with a bounty of edible delights that would be cooked up for lunch or later taken home to enjoy.  But with my stomach ruling my mind, and having taken influence from a blog post by Zoe Lynch, I later discovered that my ideas were slightly askew and this led to many a rumble as we meandered through the gardens.  I hadn’t considered the possibility that people would be interested in mushrooms that were neither edible nor attractive, but interested they were.  Squeals of excitement came from Fungi-crazed ladies in cargo shorts - “I’ve found a Mushroomus superduperius!”.  If it wasn’t edible I wasn’t interested and this is where I learned one the most important lessons in mycology – know your enemy!

The UK has an amazing range of fungi and to the untrained eye it’s incredibly difficult to differentiate between those that are tasty and those that would kill you.  Gills, pores, spores and stipes all give clues to what fungi you’re looking at but giving a positive I.D. requires serious dedication to mycology and nerves of steel.  It appears that the balance of edible versus inedible species is stacked against us and I would be rather reluctant to go picking alone with my lack of knowledge.  Then again my friend the mushroom hunter did say that you should leave some of the offending mushroom in the kitchen when you’re cooking it – I guess the ambulance crew appreciates this.
Dyffryn was a great setting for the day and we managed to find so many different species.  We walked through the arboretum where we learned about common associations between fungi and particular tree species.  We found many Milkcaps, some of which smelled of coconut, Tricholomas, Deceivers, Belitus and Agaricus.  We found and positively identified one edible species in this part of the gardens that had a wondrous floury smell and is commonly known as “The Miller” (Citopilus prunulus).  Unfortunately, this mushroom was solitary and rather small.  My hopes of a nice omelette were dwindling.

It was interesting to see decompostion in action in the gardens.  A Sorbus had died recently and was  absolutely surrounded by a species of fungi called a Sulphur Tuft.  This species looked ripe for the picking but once told that this one was also toxic, I kept my distance.  This species is a saprophyte and lives on dead plant material, tree trunks, roots and bark – a sure sign that if you see it in the garden your beloved, leafless tree has moved to the big arboretum in the sky.  Other sightings here included some small bracket fungus and cramp balls.
Moving through the garden we stumbled upon heavily laden apple trees and at this point my stomach, having given up any hope of a mushroom feast, cried out for a fresh windfall.  With my apple in hand we moved on to the Theatre Garden where I found my first group of mushrooms in the unmown turf (not to be outdone by  my friend the mushroom magnet).  I found a couple of wax cap species  – The Parrot Waxcap (Hygrocybe psiitacina), which was a gorgeous shade of orange, and The Meadow Waxcap (Hygrocybe pratensis).
As we passed the big house at the end of our foray (which I’m almost certain was featured in the latest series of Dr Who) we made a quick stop at the fernery where we found the last of our species – The Inky Mushroom (Agaricus moelleri).

After a few hours of foraging we'd stumbled upon many different species and many others which I didn't manage to get the names of.  In this short space of time I learned a great deal about foraging and grown a new appreciation for just how complex identification can be.  This was a steep learning curve but one that only fuelled my interest further.  I may not have got a meal out of it but I almost certainly gained a new hobby.
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