Ponderings from the Polytunnel

I’ve lost count of the number of times we’ve lived in lockdown land with all its’ variations on a theme.  No matter how many times we get to visit, it doesn’t become any more enticing does it? We wouldn’t want to set up home here. It’s not what we’re made for. Thank goodness for the world outside our windows: bugs, beasties, plants, trees, hills, streams, seas – countless mini worlds that feed our imagination, bringing entertainment and comfort as they invite us to connect to something outside ourselves. Our lives have stopped and started over the last twelve months but their rhythm has remained steady as they respond to the beating drum of the changing seasons. Even ‘the girls’ have had to inhabit lockdown land because of the outbreak of avian flu. So, now we’re in March and the pace is picking up.

Brown Hares boxing in spring, GB – photograph by robertharding.com

Rabbits and hares have been working on their masterplan for world domination since January. We think of this month as being the time when we see ‘mad hares’ in boxing matches. The boys will box each other to win the girl or to establish a hierarchy but the girls are equally as scrappy.  The female (Jill) will box a male (Jack) if she’s not ready to mate. Females are larger than males, so Jill usually emerges the victor! Girls rule and Jack should know better! Matches can be seriously aggressive and fur may literally fly but they don’t only take place in March. They occur throughout the long mating season – from January to August. When a happy couple comes together, Jill makes a shallow hollow in the ground called a ‘form,’ to have her hare babies in. These leverets are born fully furred, able to see and pretty much independent from the moment they arrive. They’re ‘good to go’ and live out their hare lives within an hour after birth.

We’re starting to feel the air thicken with anticipation of our being ‘good to go’ – to fully live out our extraordinary, bittersweet human life as it should be lived, once more. However, a residual of lockdown loopy- ness is threatening our equilibrium. I’ve heard it a couple of times this week. Thankfully, Jack and Jill have been using the gift of verbal articulation to release their aggression and not their fists.  I want to encourage you; come on folks! We have endeavoured through remarkable times. But unlike the hare, we can choose to engage with more constructive means of releasing the March madness. Get outdoors, walk, run, garden, dig, paint, plant, create, and plan. We are not a hare!! We are fearfully and wonderfully made, so let’s not behave like Jill – even though we all know that Jack really does deserve it!   

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

Sowing seeds of hope

In my kitchen there is a table covered in seed packets and bits of paper with scribbled drawings of a so called ‘plan’ for the veggie patch.  And, joy of utter joys; there are two heated propagators that look like they’re levitating above it all, coaxing the first shy seeds of the year to come out of their shell. I am as excited as an excited thing -if not more so – because spring is definitely in the air. Just as we begin to question whether or not we’ll ever see the long days of summer or be warmed by natures’ central heating system again, the fair maid of February (the snowdrop), lifts her head and we begin to see the vibrant glimmer of the brave forsythia, the crocus and the daffodil. They’re reassuring us –  it’s going to be okay. Even the random chit chat of the sparrow and our faithful winter companion the robin, sound more hopeful.

You nurture something which is a responsibility that is good for you

As per usual I have over done it with the seed buying thing and no doubt will overdo it with the seed sowing thing too. Sowing seeds is addictive because it’s like casting hope, and I think you’ll agree, hope is a much needed commodity right now. There’s a promise of life and abundance to come in every seed plunged into the warming soil. It will grow, bloom and provide food for others. It will bring colour and cheer and a subconscious rhythm to our lives. Recently, I have spoken to some who, because of the ongoing responses to the COVID 19 outbreak, have lost their jobs; lost their income; lost relationships and are without a reason to get up every day. I know some of what they feel, having experienced those losses myself in different circumstances.

Without question, gardening is one of the things that has seen me through some very dark days. On a practical level, growing your own food is good for you physically – you get fresh air and exercise. It’s good for the environment as the food doesn’t have much of a carbon footprint, and you are improving biodiversity in your location. It helps economically, the food generally tastes much better, and is more nutritious. But most importantly, engaging in the activity promotes a period of time when you have to focus on something outside of yourself and your circumstances. It improves your mental well being. You get to marvel at creation and practice your own creativity. You get to nurture something which is a responsibility that in turn, improves your sense of purpose and esteem. Growing your own food gives you a reward for all your efforts as you make your contribution to the dinner table and pantry. What more can I say? You get to be as smug as a smug thing when you bring in your harvest – no matter how big or small.

It’s still too cold to sow outdoors but if you have a heated propagator or a heated greenhouse, you can start quite a number of veggie seeds, including tomato, peas, beans and cucumber, and you can ‘chit’ those seed potatoes! You can get a head start on dahlia tubers and other summer bedding plants such as petunia and busy lizzie. If you’ve never grown your own food before, maybe I can entice you into our world this year? After the one we’ve just left behind, we could all do with sowing ‘hope seeds’. Why not start with sowing cress to boost your confidence? Come on; come over to the bright side.

Blog – Your seed potatoes have got their eyes on you!

Or at least they should have! Potatoes are easy to grow, and every time you unearth one of these golden gems, you’re filled with motivation to dig for more. It’s addictive. They do equally as well in containers and raised beds as in the open ground and are fairly simple souls that don’t ask too much of us. They’re useful for breaking up ground that hasn’t been cultivated. It’s now time to purchase seed potatoes and ‘chit’ them. Just to note -I couldn’t get mine from my usual supplier this year. It seems I’m not the only one that’s going to be growing them!

An eye watering choice of ‘seeds’ usually appear in garden centres in February and March. The term ‘seed’ refers to a potato tuber that is grown specifically for planting so that it produces a new plant. The new plant will ultimately produce more potatoes. The potato plant stores its energy in the tuber so that it can regrow the following year. In spring, potato tubers will start to sprout new growth from growing points called eyes. Each potato has several eyes.

The visible and sometimes red indentations are the ‘eyes’ of your seed potato

Although the potatoes in your fridge will start to sprout if you keep them too long, it’s better not to plant them in the garden because they could be contaminated with blight spores and viral diseases.  It’s also not advised to let leftover potatoes (volunteers) to sprout in your vegetable garden for the same reason. The new seed potatoes you purchase every year are guaranteed to be free from viruses.

When you bring your babies home, they need to be allowed to form new shoots from the eyes. This is a process called ‘chitting’ and the shoots are referred to as ‘chits’. Chitting isn’t a vital process but it will give your plant a head start once planted in the ground.  Putting the seeds into a recycled egg box on a cool windowsill for several weeks will encourage the chits to grow.

Eyes front! These eyes are given room to sprout.

At least two or three of the eyes of the seed potato need to be free to grow upwards and outwards.

Once your potato tubers have grown shoots that are about an inch long, and providing that the long- term weather forecast is favourable, you can plant them in the ground / containers in March or April. They like a sunny, well drained site in ground that has had manure dug into it during the winter. They prefer slightly acidic soil (which is why they grow so well in compost heaps), but it’s not imperative. You can plant either in holes or trenches at least 6 inches deep. Plant each potato 15 inches apart and plant rows of potatoes with an 18 -inch gap between them.

Getting the spacing right is important because throughout the growing season you are going to do something called ‘earthing up’, and for that, you need plenty of room.

 As the tall stem (haulm) of the plant grows, you need to keep building up the soil around the base of the plant. This seems counter intuitive but the plant develops the potatoes under the soil. The more the haulm is buried the more it will grow. The more the haulm grows the greater the opportunity it has to develop potatoes. This process is known as ‘earthing up’ and is a way to maximise your yield.

Earthing up seems counter intuitive

Earthing-up can be achieved with materials other than compost/soil. The aim is to keep the spuds under cover because when they are exposed to light, they become green and inedible (seriously – don’t eat green potatoes!). You can use straw, shredded newspaper and grass clippings  that will all rot down and feed the plant. Grass clippings are ideal. Potatoes need nitrogen to grow their haulms and this is found in the grass clippings. The more clippings you add, the larger  the haulms should become which maximises your yield even more. Keep ‘earthing-up’ and ensure that any potatoes that might start to peep through the soil are quickly covered to reduce their exposure to light.

Now, you know that family doesn’t always get on and so potatoes should NOT be planted with tomatoes. They also don’t like to be near cucumbers, peas, strawberries, turnip or spinach. They get on well with members of the brassica family such as cabbages, cauliflowers and Brussel sprouts and also with beans and lettuce.

Keep your spuds well and evenly watered. It takes a lot of energy to grow these marvels. Give them a nitrogen rich feed while they are growing the haulms. Afterwards, feed them something rich in potassium to help the development of the tubers. When growing in pots, take careful note of watering. When it rains it’s easy to assume your pots will be well watered. These fellas are growing near the base of your pot and you need to ensure that water is reaching so far down. You may have a poor yield if not adequately watered.

First early varieties are less likely to be damaged by pests. If planted in March they should be ready to harvest in June. Harvest second earlies from the end of June to the start of August. Maincrop potatoes are probably the most recognisable varieties and they store well. Harvest maincrop potatoes from August. After the foliage has died back, you can harvest them but leave them on the surface of the soil for a couple of days for the sun to dry the skin, this helps them last longer in storage.

For information on how to further care for these marvels, click below for your free potato information card.

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

Are you planning or preparing?

Perhaps you’re doing both? Way back in the last millennium when I was but a youth, I used to join the throng in making my New Years’ resolutions. I quickly learned that I was not that resolute!! Any determination to get fitter or to get up earlier had left me standing still by the end of January. As it is my aim to live intentionally and purposefully, I now make plans for the year instead of resolutions. They can be as simple as painting the garden fence or planting a new border. I aim for a list of 6 which I write down. I somehow feel more accountable when I see those intentions in black and white. So, I have my plans for this year and now I need to make the necessary preparations to get them done.

Last year is still imposing on this one bringing its old ways with it. There has been no fresh start just more of the same. For so many, plans were thrown out of the window and we were not prepared for the rug being pulled out from under our feet. We were robbed! But now, at the beginning of this year, we can take back a little by planning to be prepared. One way to do this is to take some steps towards becoming more self -sufficient. I don’t believe in absolute self – sufficiency (I’m not convinced that really exists), so I’m not talking about living as a hermit in hair cloth on your own island! We are meant for community and interdependence. You have skills, talents and unwanted resources that I don’t have, and vice a versa, so let’s swap and share – I do love me a bit of bartering!

Planning ahead – last years garden in jars – keeping me fed today.

Growing some of your own food is a means of managing and controlling your resources. You may not have the room, time or physical health needed to stock your pantry for the year, but perhaps you could grow pots of micro-greens, herbs or sprouting seeds on a window ledge instead? It all counts and the enjoyment of eating something you’ve grown is surely matched by the psychological benefits of engaging in the activity. For those of us who are blessed with an outdoor area, now is the time to plan how we’re going to utilise it to our benefit. Many fruits and veggies can be grown in pots so we don’t even need to landscape the garden.

We can only hazard a guess at what lies ahead for us this year but we do know that the seasons won’t wait for us. We need to anticipate, prepare and work now to keep up with them. Prepare your soil for your planting plans; prepare your greenhouse for your veggie plant plans; prepare your kitchen for your preservation and storage plans. Think two seasons ahead: in winter prepare for summer and in summer prepare for winter. And, prepare where you can, for when those plans don’t work out the way you thought – because if there’s one thing certain in life, it’s that nothing is certain in life! Happy planning!

If you want to learn how to grow your own food but don’t know where to start – we have the right course for you. Visit our shop and learn how to grow Groceries from the Garden.

Blog

Ah, January, the ‘month of the snows’ where only the hardiest of Perennials are thinking about going into the garden. However, the saying that you shouldn’t work the soil when it is waterlogged should be heeded. You will only compact it if you do, stamping out oxygen and life. There are some jobs you can do; we’ll take a look at those later. January feels like a mean and narrow month with short, restrictive days. The garden may not be looking it’s glorious best but it can still be enjoyed. Where you’ve left old seed heads in situ; there is form, structure and interest as well as shelter and food for a multitude of beasties. Bulbs that have been lulled by a mild December have thrown up their green spears, only to return to suspended animation when the temperatures drop. Clever little things! The long yellow male catkins of the hazelnut stand out against the grey sky, and old faithful – the robin, provides us with a dash of colour as he presides over our activities.

Old faithful
Hazel catkin

So what is the point of January? Well, in our Northern hemisphere, it’s primarily for planning. You don’t have to re – landscape the garden but if that is your intention, then this month is a good time to think it through. Planning might comprise of considering how to improve and condition your soil, preparing to make the garden more bio-diverse or more attractive to pollinators and wildlife (this is covered in detail in our Cultivators module). It may include the addition of fruit trees which can be planted now while they are dormant or the strengthening of support structures. Now is the time to devise your sowing and planting plan for the year.

Recondition your soil

There are some jobs you can do to feed your gardening habit – prune well established apple and pear trees, add well rotted manure to the empty areas of the veggie patch /beds, clean pots and seed trays, check on your stored vegetables and hopefully continue to harvest your winter vegetables; cabbages, kale, cauliflower, sprouts, leeks and sprouting broccoli. If you have growing space indoors you can start garlic, onions and leeks in modules; sow peas, broad beans, winter salad leaves, radishes, early summer cauliflower and spinach in pots filled with multi-purpose compost, and buy and chit your seed potatoes.

But the biggest joy to January is that you get to sit in front of the fire, with a cuppa, some left over Christmas naughty and a seed catalogue! You get to plot and scheme your way through each page -“I’ll grow that and that and that…..” If you’re anything like me, you then have to go back through your wish list and cross at least half of it off. My enthusiasm vastly outweighs the practicalities of finance, time and actual growing space! January is a month for the gardener to take stock, plan and engage in hope filled activities that bring a hint of more generous and much broader days to come.

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

Seasonal nostalgia

My small Christmas tree is suitably festooned and this year I have NOT had to lash it to the table! “Explain yourself”, I hear you cry! I have the pleasure of being owned by a cat who is part feral and calls herself Holly – very seasonal – she chose the name. At only two months old, I became her third ‘owner’ after she had been abandoned to a rescue centre for ‘attacking children’. She did a lot of damage to the furniture but hey – it’s only furniture. She literally climbed the walls and had unpredictable outbursts of aggression towards the hand that loved her. For years, there seemed to be a part of her that I just couldn’t reach but we understand each other a lot better now. As I say, for the first time in our 10 years of cohabitation, I have not had to protect my poor tree from her feral outbursts of tree hatred. As I watch her gazing curiously at the sparkly adornments, wondering why at certain times of the year, I choose to treat her so cruelly with these temptations, it got me thinking. Wait for it….

Those of us who are blessed to experience the seasons in all their glory, also get to experience a nostalgia and sentimentality that is attached to each one. The natural world is just going through its’ cyclical thing; winter is just another sparse time for the plants and critters to endure. But for us – every time the natural world enters a different season, memories and feelings are evoked and traditions revised; building the foundation blocks for our lives; contributing to who we are and how we interact with life. I’m sure the shivering robin and the burrowed badger don’t attach such sentimentalities to their survival.

This Christmas, the building blocks of experiences are going to be hard ones to lay down for so many. I wonder if creation has a sense of what we’re going through? Even my chickens, aka ‘the girls’, are now living in lockdown land because of the bird flu (I’m having a heck of a job putting their face coverings on- tee hee!)

However you are able to mark this Christmas, it’s my sincere hope that you experience the Reason for the Season in a very real way. We have all been created for purpose and promise. When you can only see clouds in the sky, it’s hard to believe the sun is still shining. But as surely as spring follows winter, we will know the warmth and joy of coming out of this difficult time. What was once a destructive force of nature, appearing to be untameable, is now my faithful companion, with a fantastic sense of fun. Holly and I send you all seasons’ blessings in this year that has ended in TIERS!

Ponderings from the polytunnel

A prickly affair!

What creature rolls itself up into a ball when it feels threatened – apart from me?! Well, a number of creatures do; the armadillo, pangolin, centipede and woodlouse to name a few. But I am; as I’m sure you have guessed, talking about the hedgehog – the European brown variety to be precise, as this is the one we will see in our UK gardens. They fall into a scientific category with an unpronounceable name, which means ‘truly fat and blind’ (bit rude!) They’re covered in an average of 5-7 thousand spines made from the same substance as our hair, are known collectively as either an array or a prickle, are largely immune to snake venom, call their babies ‘hoglets’, and have an average heart rate of 300 beats per minute. All that going on in our gardens and in the undergrowth!

Talking of which; during the months of national lockdown, the newspapers reported folks across the UK hearing ‘goings on’ in the nations’ hedgerows – noisy, amorous hedgehog couples, working on their solution to their ever declining numbers. Their valiant efforts are expected to have boosted the population in what has been dubbed, the hedgehog ‘summer of love’.

Now it’s our turn to help our prickly foragers in their illustrious mission. One way we can do this is by keeping parts of the garden wild. Don’t tidy it up and let the natural world do its thing! Hedgehogs like areas with lots of hiding places that will not only offer protection but will be teeming with goodies for them to feast on. Check bonfires before lighting; Mrs Tiggy Winkle may be hibernating in there! Check piles of grass cuttings, leaves and compost heaps before disturbing them. Don’t use any chemicals in your garden. If you have a pond, make sure our friend can climb out if she falls in. You can do this by ensuring the pond has at least one sloping side into it. And I know you know this – but just a reminder – never give them bread and milk as they can’t digest it. You can leave meaty cat and dog food (no fish flavours), sunflower seeds, nuts and kitten biscuits for them to munch on. Let’s cheer this beloved fellow on. I’ll leave you with one last factoid – they may look cumbersome but can run surprisingly fast, covering 100 times their body length in a minute. To you and me, that’s the equivalent of 10ft per second. See if you can outrun one. Go on, I dare you!

If you enjoy the Ponderings, why not signup for free to have them delivered directly into your inbox? You can unsubscribe anytime.

Ponderings from the poly tunnel

And so to bed!

I heard them long before I saw them. Rusty sounds like an antiquated car horn. In the sky was the unmistakeable ‘v’ shaped arrow. The geese have packed their bags and are heading out of here! Off to warmer climes; traversing valleys, oceans, and mountain tops. How on earth do they know when, and how do they know how? Their internal body clock and compass always get it right. At this time of year there are over 4000 species of bird on the move, that’s 40 % of the world avian population. I’d hate to be in air traffic control!  Those that choose to stay rather than migrate, are going through a transformation; losing summer plumage in favour of soft downy feathers that trap the air close to their skin to help them keep warm. Some will come out of their wardrobe change looking very different.

Autumn is my favourite season. It’s a busy time but it’s a bit like getting ready for bed. For many of us who are blessed; our home is secured, the bed is made and we tumble in with full bellies and appropriate night attire. Sleep takes over and does its’ restorative thing. The birds and animals are doing the same, securing their winter residence; be it a tiny hole in the wall or a burrow under- ground; changing their attire into something more appropriate and fattening themselves up to see them through their protracted slumber.

There are many parallels that can be drawn from the natural world. The migrating geese remind me of community. On their long flight, they take it in turns to be the leader so that each is supported to play their role at the right time. Penguins tightly huddle together against the bitter Antarctic storms, and rotate the outside members of the vast group, so each one has some respite. Be it instinct, intuition or some kind of genuine fellow feeling; each one makes their contribution and others are cared for. If community is important to those fellas, then how much more it is to us. When they need it, we can offer the person at the front our place at the back, or the one on the outside our place in the warm. A more restful season will soon be upon us all. We may find that when we come out of this one, our community will look a little different – as with the creatures around us donning a new coat. By our each playing our vital part and looking out for each other, it will still be our community non the same.

Ponderings from the poly tunnel

Lockdown Land

There are worse things than being in lockdown land. As a gardener, being in lockdown land in high gales and pouring rain is a frustration. The last handful of apples that had been courageously clinging on to the tree tops, finally succumbed to last nights’ onslaught. Underfoot, what was once a vibrant green, has been transformed into a carpet of russets, yellows, oranges, browns and reds. The fruit trees are stripped bare and starting to shiver! As usual, it’s all come too quickly and taken me by surprise.

My ‘girls’ are in their hen pen, happily rummaging through the leaves, as they pick out their favourite snacks. Four of them arrived back in May, on a sunny Saturday afternoon. They were unrecognisable!! What a busy and upsetting day they must have had, starting with human contact. Two car rides later and they were finally deposited into a strange and unfamiliar environment. They didn’t even know how to walk properly, such had been their restricted and cooped up existence – until now! Quite frankly – and I don’t mean to offend anyone’s sensibilities here but there’s no other way to put this- they looked like they’d been prepared for the oven!

‘Deep litter’ hens live in the middle of a large flock (can be up to or over 1000), in a barn, and are unlikely to have seen much daylight. These lovely girls are good little layers but after their first 72 weeks their production rate slows down, laying around 5 fewer eggs each a year. They become too costly for the farmer to keep.  My rescue girls have learned to navigate their way around their new home with the freedom to roam and scratch about. At first they didn’t even know how to respond to the sunshine and hid in a hedge but they soon relearned their chicken ways. They were scared of me but a couple of sessions of ‘chicken whispering’ cured that. They run up to greet me when they see me now. It took a week of patience and kindness, mixed with only a modicum of bribery and corruption in the shape of mixed corn! The newbies also had to contend with the territorial instincts of my older chickens. The occasional riot still breaks out in the hen pen.

I don’t know about you but I can relate to how my rescue girls might have been feeling. Having been in lockdown land, restricted and cooped up, we must also learn how to step our way through this new environment we find ourselves in.  We’re still finding our feet and are relearning our chicken ways; social distancing, social bubbles and different working practices. We, like my girls, have been through a lot so, let’s be patient.  It really has been hard and it still is. Give yourself some grace. Be kind to yourself (and others), and yes, by all means, treat yourself to whatever makes you smile.  If that means a daily handful of mixed corn then – hey- who am I to judge?

Ponderings from the Polytunnel

When is a weed not a weed?

 Ah, the Perennial question. Yes, the pun was absolutely intended! Now, I could get all ‘science-y‘ here or I could give you a dictionary definition of a weed but I’d rather dazzle you with my thoughts instead. I hope you’re sitting down for this. To me, a weed is simply something that I didn’t plant, growing in a place where I don’t want it to grow. What brought on this deeply philosophical musing I hear you ask?

I run a project on a garden that I’d been unable to access for 5 months due to a certain national lockdown. The natural world had decided it didn’t like the discipline me and my team had been enforcing upon it, and had been very creative in our absence. There were two ways we could have responded to this; 1/ hide under a duvet until spring OR 2/ work with what we’ve got – it was simply stuff growing where we didn’t plant it- and some of it was rather interesting.

bee bumblebee insect macro

Save the bees – don’t pull up the weeds!

We all have to deal with ‘weeds’ in our lives, things we didn’t plant that try to take root. A global pandemic is one such weed. We would not have chosen this experience. We continue to learn how best to manage and uproot this invasive nasty but in the meantime we live with its company. Some parts of this weed are actually quite attractive. They can stay; neighbourliness, gratitude, choosing to smile, reimagined education with more time to play, innovation, the strengthening of relationships, the realignment of priorities and the exponential boom in creativity.

As with the garden, we try and work with what we’ve got while holding on to the pretty stuff.  When winter comes, the weeds will die back and the prospect of spring will make us smile. The flowers will grow again and the bees will buzz – finding something that will help them thrive, even if it is just a simple, humble weed.

%d bloggers like this: