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Tuesday, 31 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 10 - Growing Fruit

Over the past week, I have been giving my fruit plants some much needed attention.

The thing about fruit plants is that they are perennial and will grow and yield some fruit every year even if you badly neglect them. This is unlike vegetable plants, which are annual and you have to start off afresh every year.

So what tends to happen is that the vegetables grab my attention and I think, I'll just get these seeds sown and then I will sort out the fruit. And before I know what has happened, the vegetables are sown and the fruit is cropping and I run from sowing season into harvesting season without taking a breath. More to the point, I move on without weeding, pruning and training the fruit as I intended. This is all very silly, given how much I love picking fruit and turning it into delicious desserts and jam.

But now we are in lockdown and I have the time to properly sort out the fruit and still get all the vegetable seeds sown in a reasonable timeframe. Now is a great time to prune apple and pear trees, which is handy because mine were in need of that just to get some of the branches out of my face or from poking me in the bum!

The raspberry bed was in a real state too, having ended up with brambles growing in amongst them. Brambles are a real pain because it roots again wherever they touch the ground and the roots can quickly get quite deep. They are, of course, very spikey so pulling them out is very tricky without damaging yourself. It is, however, awful to be happily picking raspberries and to stick your handy onto sharp thorns so it was definitely a job that needed doing. 

Over the next few days, there is more work to be done in the other fruit beds. Weeding, more brambles to remove, pruning, removing old plants and so on but I am hopeful for a particulary good harvest this year with all this extra attention.

So, which fruit can you grow at home and is there time to start this year?

Strawberries - if you grow no other fruit, you should have a go at growing strawberries. They are small, low growing plants that don't take up much space and can even be grown in containers. They are quick to get established and will give some fruit in the first year and will be at their best in the second year. Every year they will send out runners, which are new plants so you can quickly expand your strawberry beds if you wish. There is still time to get strawberries started this year. Keep them weed-free and when the fruit develops it is a good idea to put them into plastic bottles with the base cut off - this will help to keep them clean from mud splash, keep the slugs off and stop birds from pecking at them.

Raspberries - these can be purchased as "canes", which you can plant straight into the ground. It is a good idea to grow them along a fence or put in some form of support to just keep them tidy but this is not essential. There is still time to buy these online and get them established this year and you may get a small yield of fruit.

Currants - these can be grown as bushes and come as blackcurrants, redcurrants and whitecurrants. You only really need one bush to provide you with more of that currant than you probably need! Once planted, they need very little attention and will crop happily year after year. There is still time to buy these online for April delivery.

Goosberries - these are another easy to grow bush. Most varieties are green but you can also buy them as red dessert varieties, which are slightly sweeter but lower yielding. They are all very spikey plants, making harvesting the fruit something of a painful chore. Also, a lot of people don't like to eat gooseberries. So, this is an important point for all fruit varieties, if you don't think you want to actually eat the fruit, don't grow it. There is still time to order these online for planting in April.

Blackberries - given that brambles grow so well in places that you don't even want them and that you can go for a wander to the nearest hedgerow to pick blackberries in autumn, you might question whether it is worth taking up space in your garden growing blackberries. However, cultivated types of blackberries yield bigger, more flavoursome fruit and are generally thornless. There are even varieties these days suitable for growing in containers and hanging baskets. These are also available for purchase for planting in April.

Hybrid Berries - in addition to the standard berries above, you can also buy a whole range of berries that are crosses between one or more of the standard berries. They include tayberries, loganberries, jostaberries, boysenberries and chuckleberries. These all make very nice jam, if you are in to that kind of thing like me, but other than that I can't particularly recommend growing any of these over growing any other kind of soft fruit.

Blueberries and Cranberries - both of these benefit from growing in ericaceous compost because the plants like an acid soil. So, if you don't naturally have an acid soil (most places don't) then you would need to grow these plants in pots. Blueberries are particularly attractive plants so look nice in the garden but I have yet to grow a yield of blueberries bigger than one batch of blueberry muffins. My only attempt at growing cranberries failed altogether but you may have better luck.

Tree fruit - common trees available to buy online are apples, pears, plums, cherries and gages. These are all still available to buy this year but don't expect more than a handful of fruit from a tree in its first planting year. You may also be tempted to try peach or apricot trees but these are particularly tricky unless you have a nice warm, south-facing wall you can grow it next to.

Most tree fruit varieties these days are available in dwarf/patio sized trees that can be grown in containers. These are handy in small spaces but will obviously give a lower yield than full sized trees grown in the ground. Once established, fruit trees are delightful, giving beautiful blossom in the spring, fruit in the summer and autumn colour so they are nice things to have in your garden if you have space.

Citrus fruit - these are especially tricky and we don't really have the climate for them so unless you have a heated greenhouse or a large, bright conservatory, I'd say don't bother. I have tried repeatedly without success and much disappointment and I have always said that when I win the lottery I will get myself an orangery and grow citrus fruit but until then I won't be trying again.

Rhubarb - not technically a fruit but grown and eaten as such, this is very easy to grow and is the first one to harvest in the spring. Again, if you don't enjoy eating it, don't grow it, but if you do then it is worth growing. You can still buy crowns online at the moment and get them planted this year. It would be ideal to leave it alone to grow this year to get established then start harvesting next year.

Sunday, 29 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 8 - Carrots and other roots

Another essential vegetable to have in the kitchen is the humble carrot so you may be considering growing some in your garden. If you take a completely dispassionate view of it, it probably isn't worthwhile growing carrots at home compared to buying them in the shops. Shop bought carrots are a good size, nice a straight, clean and cheap. In comparison, homegrown carrots a little tricky to grow, often are still small by the end of the season, can be all sorts of weird forked and knobbly shapes, come out of the ground covered in mud and probably cost more to grow than the same weight of shop bought ones.

Having said that, we grow carrots every year. But why? Well, they taste so much better than shop bought carrots (although my eldest daughter would disagree as she prefers the blandness of shop carrots). It is also possible to grow a whole variety of different shapes and colours to the usual ones you find in the supermarkets. And, probably most importantly, it is just satisfying to grow carrots.

Ideally carrots should be grown in light, free draining soil, where they can grow into nice, long, straight roots. In reality, you are unlikely to have this kind of soil in your garden. Certainly in MK, the soil is mostly heavy clay, with the occasionally flinty stone thrown in for good measure. If you try to grow carrots in soil like this, it will fork, twist and bend. In the summer, when the soil dries out, it will be too hard to pull the carrots out, and in the winter, when the soil is wet, it will be too muddy and sticky to harvest them.

So, what can be done? The simple answer is to grow carrots in containers. Being root vegetables, they need space for their roots to grow, although you can get round carrots or short root carrots that are particularly suitable for growing in containers. However, something the size of a bucket is perfectly fine for growing carrots, or even a window box type tub.  Fill your container with potting compost and you can mix in some sand too but this isn't essential. Scatter the seeds over the top and sprinkle a little more compost over that.

Slugs love carrots and sometimes you can think that carrots haven't germinated when in fact they germinated and then got munched by slugs before you even noticed. As such, I would recommend using slug pellets when you sow your carrots.

Another pest that likes to eat carrots is the carrot root fly. The adults can sniff out the smell of carrots and lay their eggs on the plants. Their maggoty grubs eat tracks through the surface of the carrot, pretty much ruining the whole thing. The only way to avoid damage like this is to use a very fine mesh to completely enclose the growing plants. However, this has the disadvantage of stopping you weeding them. Another way to avoid them is to grow them at a height over 2 feet tall because the female flies below this level.

Once carrots have germinated, you will need to "thin them out". The new seedlings will be growing too close together and if left they won't have space to develop into sensible sized roots, or they will grow in an twisted tangle, entwinned with each other. Good luck peeling those!

I recommend thinning them out in June when there will be tiny carrots worth eating as you go. Then repeat again a few weeks later. Eventually you will be left with decent sized carrots that you can harvest. They will sit in the ground all the way through the winter but by the following spring they will start to regrow and flower and will become inedible so you want to have harvested them all by then, regardless of their size.

When I sow carrots, I usually also sow a few parnsips in the same space. These have quite a slow and low germination rate so it is handy to grow them with the carrots so that any spaces in the patchy germination are filled with carrots and not empty space. Other than that, they grow pretty much like carrots, although they don't have issues with the carrot root fly and are fairly pest-free.

Another root vegetable well worth growing is beetroot. We grow these very successfully every year and they are a useful kitchen vegetable. We enjoy them in salads, roasted as a warm vegetable, grated raw in coleslaw and even pickled. They really don't seem to have any pest or problems, and as with carrots, they just need to be thinned out to give them space to grow. They can be harvested small in June and will sit happily in the soil all through the winter until about March time. We grow traditional purple ones, stripy pink ones and yellow ones too.

Saturday, 28 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 7 - Home Composting

Today came the announcement that the coming week will be the last week that the green bins will be collected in Milton Keynes for the foreseeable future.

I have to say that I didn't see that one coming and it just goes to show that a lot of the things that we do to "help save the planet" can only be done from a position of stability and relative privilege. Interesting too, as an aside, that Tesco deliveries will now come fully bagged, rather than bagless.

Anyway, it is understandable and we should be grateful that they will continue to collect the black bin bag rubbish and the recycling for the time being. In addition, the tidy tips are closed and we have already been asked not to put out extra rubbish whilst we all undertake spring cleaning and extra tidying during our additional time at home so potentially dealing with rubbish has become a little trickier than we are used to.

So, what does this mean? It means that the food waste and the garden waste should now either be composted at home or put in the black sacks. Returning to dumping these things in landfill definitely feels like a backwards step but it will be necessary for some things. However, because we already have compost bins, for me it will thankfully be a relatively small amount that will have to be put in the black bag.

As such, I want explain how home composting works so that you can consider starting your own compost bin rather than putting that waste into black bags. If you have never done it before then it can be a little daunting but it is straightforward.

The first thing you will need is some kind of compost "bin" or heap. It can simply be a corner of your garden and doesn't need to have a physical structure but, for the sake of neatness, it is nice to have it contained. A three sided cube shaped structure works quite well, and you could construct something like this out of three old pallets or bits of old garden fence or shed, or anything else you have to hand. You can also buy purpose made compost bins, which tend to look a bit like a Dalek.

It is also handy to have some kind of collection lidded bucket or caddy in the kitchen or by the back door. You want something that is easy to access whilst you are preparing food. Use this to collect your food scraps. Fruit and vegetable peelings, teabags, used kitchen towel, coffee grounds and egg shells can all go into this caddy and when it is full you can take it to your garden compost bin.

With having used green bins for food waste collection, you will be familar with putting all food waste into that bin but not all food waste is suitable for the home compost bin. Do not put any meat, fish or bones into your home compost. Do not put in any cooked goods such as pasta, cereal, cakes and bread. All these sorts of things will attract rats if put in your home compost bin. Unfortunately, these types of food items will have to go into your black bin bags for the time being and be aware that even if inside your black bag, the smell of them can attract cats and foxes, who might rip the bags open and spill rubbish everywhere! So don't put your sacks outside until you absolutely have to in time for collection.

A lot of your gardening waste can go onto your compost heap too so you don't need to put that into black bags.  This includes weeds you pulled up whilst weeding, grass cuttings and hedge clippings. When adding them to your compost bin, try to build it up in layers of mixed materials as a thick wodge of grass cuttings won't rot down as quickly as it might if mixed up with different types of vegetative matter.

It is not a good idea to put anything woody on your compost heap as this takes a lot longer to rot down than green waste. We have a separate pile for woody stuff, which we just leave to do its thing at a slower rate. If you have a chipping machine then that speeds up the process and you could even use the chippings as a covering on your pathways or flowerbeds. If not, then just leave you woody pile alone for the time being and it will either slowly break down or you can think about taking it to the tidy tip or putting in the green bins when these facilities become available again.

Over time, the contents of your compost bin will rot down, with the help of worms, slugs, woodlice and other minibeasts. You don't have to worry about finding these and adding them to the bin, they just find their own way there. As it rots, the pile gets smaller so you are able to keep adding more stuff to the same bin over and over. As the weather warms up, this happens quicker. And after about a year, the stuff at the bottom has broken down into a dark brown crumbly substance that you can use to add nutrients to your flower beds. It really is a wonderful process and it is so much better for your garden to directly benefit from your own waste than for it to go to landfill.

In addition to this, remember not to put any diseased vegetation into your compost bin. Home compost bins aren't really big enough to get hot enough to destroy disease causing pathogens so the diseases could potentially build up in your compost, making it unusable at a later date. I would also advise against adding potatoes or dandelion roots to the compost bin as these seem to survive the process and can spring up again as weeds if you use your homemade compost.

Other than that, running a compost bin at home is straightforward and it will benefit your garden, which is a whole heap better than sending unnecessary rubbish to landfill.

Friday, 27 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 6 - Tomatoes & Peppers

Tomatoes are a very popular plant for people to grow at home, and rightly so, they are reliable and useful in the kitchen. I sowed my tomtoes and pepper seeds about a fortnight ago but it isn't too late to get some growing if you fancy these lovely fresh ingredients in your garden this year.

Tomatoes, peppers, aubergines and potatoes are all part of the same family, the Solanaceae. It strikes me as odd in some ways that we ever got round to eating any of these vegetables, given that Deadly Nightshade is also a member of the family and that some bits of the otherwise edible plants are dangerous to eat. Indeed, when tomatoes were first brought over to England people did not want to eat them and it was hundreds of years later that they became popular. But now, of course, it would seem like a sad, depleted kitchen to be without any of the members of this family.

All of these plants come originally from South America and that is, of course, their preferred climate. For this reasons, some varietys of tomatoes, peppers and aubergine are only suitable for growing in a greenhouse and don't cope well with the British climate. However, over the years, gardeners have bred varieties of all of these that can be grown outside. This is good news if you don't have a greenhouse to grow things in - just make sure you look out for this when you are choosing your seeds.

They can all be grown from seed, although many of the seed catalogue firms also sell them as starter plants. It is cheaper to grow them from seed and there is a wider range of varieties available if grown from seed but if you are a little behind then buying plants can help you catch up.

With such a vast range of varieties to choose from, how do you choose which to grow? Well, that is a personal choice depending on your circumstances and your eating preferences. As I have said, the first thing to check is whether they are an indoor or outdoor variety. Then you might like to look at the colour. People generally think of tomatoes and peppers as red and aubergines as deep purple but tomatoes can also be yellow, stripy, purple and black, and peppers can be yellow or brown, and aubergines can be pink, green or stripy. So you may want to grow something that you can't buy in the shops or you may want to stick with something more conventional.

The next thing to consider is how you will be growing your plants. All of these plants can be grown very successfully in containers and/or growbags but ideally look out for varieties that mention suitability for containers. Tomatoes come in two main types based on their growing habits - cordon and trailing. Cordon tomatoes need to have their sideshoots removed at least weekly during the height of growing season so that they grow as single stem, tall plants, tied to a cane for support. Trailing varieties can just romp about all over the place without attention. Cordons will give you the heighest yields and trailing are particularly suitable for containers and hanging baskets. These rules don't apply to peppers and aubergines.

The final consideration is how you like to eat your tomatoes. If you like sweet cherry tomatoes in a salad then buy a small fruit variety. If you like to make homemade tomatoey sauces or chutney then a flavoursome plum tomatoes are your fruit of choice. If you like a chunky slice of tomato in your burger then beefsteak tomatoes are the ones for you. Similarly, if you like sweet bell peppers then go for capisum varieties, and if you like heat, go from chilli peppers. 

Because of their South American origins, it can be a little tricky to get these plants off to a good start during a typical British springtime. As such, you must have a warm place that you can put your seeds whilst they germinate. This might be a heated greenhouse but is can also be a warm window sill. Now is absolutely the best time to start tomatoes off so don't delay. It is actually a little late for peppers and aubergines because they are slower to grow and need time to flower and develop fruit before the cold of the autumn. However, it is probably still worth giving it a go, just don't wait! Of the three, aubergines are the slowest and hardest to grow and I have yet to successfully grow any of any note (hence no photographs).

Seeds can be sown into small containers - yoghurt pots, egg boxes, small seed trays, module trays. They then need to be kept moist and warm until they germinate, which usually takes 10-14 days. Once they have germinated they will quickly become leggy if they are not given enough light so put them somewhere as bright as possible. Once they have developed their first true leaves, they can be carefully pricked out and planted into bigger pots. It may be necessary to do this several times as they grow. You can't plant them out in the garden until the beginning of June, when all risk of frost has past so keep potting them on until then.

In June, you can plant them out to their final position and it is a good idea to insert a cane next to them straight away. As they grow, you can tie the main stem to the cane and remove any sideshoots. Eventually they will flower and then go onto form fruit, which in time will ripen and can be picked. Try to keep them watered evenly - if they dry out and then get watered then the fruit may split and then mould will get in.

Because tomatoes and potatoes are the same family, they can suffer from the same diseases so tomatoes are also vulnerable to blight. If they get blight then the leaves and stem will go dark brown/black and the fruit will go hard, blistery and brown. There isn't much you can do at this point, other than very quickly make green tomato chutney out of any unaffected unripe fruit. Other than that, remove the plants and dispose of them (not in your compost bin). 

Tomatoes, peppers and aubergine are all damaged by cold weather so when the first frosts arrive in late September/early October, the plants will die. Around that time of year, keep an eye on the weather forecast and make sure you have picked any remaining fruit before the frosts damage it. Tomatoes and peppers can be picked green and ripened on the vine at home so all is not lost.

Tomatoes are wonderful versitile vegetables and can be used in salads, chutneys, sauces and cooking so they are well worth growing. They can even be frozen for later use in cooking, although I find it best to remove their skins and sieve them to turn them into passata to freeze as this takes up less space. Chilli peppers will just naturally dry out once harvested so if left long enough you will have a supply of dried chilli to see you through the winter. What's not to love!

Thursday, 26 March 2020

Diary from the Panademic Day 6 - Potatoes

My husband has been planting potatoes all week. We grow a lot of potatoes!

If you have plenty of space then I would definitely recommend growing lots of potatoes. They are easy to grow, they store well and they are so versitile in the kitchen. If you are looking for something you can grow that will feed your family then potatoes are it!

If you don't have much space then you might want to grow a few potatoes for the fun of it. A good way to do that is in a container - an old dustbin or a specially designed potato growbag.

Whatever you do, you will need to buy some seed potatoes, although for a container you may only need 3 or so potatoes, depending on the size of the container.

There are hundreds of potato varieties so it can be difficult to know which ones to choose to grow. However, potatatoes can be divided into different groups depending on how you use them in the kitchen and also by how they grow.

If you enjoy boiled potatoes and/or salad potatoes then look for "waxy" varieties. These make lovely new potatoes. If you prefer roast, baked or chipped potatoes then you want to look for "good all rounders" or "floury" varieties. You can also choose unusual varieties such as red skinned, patchy coloured or purple potatoes.

Potatoes can also be divided into groups such as "first early", "second early" and "main group". This is to do with the way the potatoes grow and when they should be planted and harvested. First early potatoes should be planted in March and can be harvested in June. They make fantastic new potatoes and are usually harvested when still quite small. They don't store well so will need to be eaten within a few weeks.

Second early potatoes should be planted by the end of March or early April and they can be harvested from July. They are usually a bit bigger than new potatoes. Main crop potatoes should be planted by mid-April and can be harvested from August onwards. They will provide a variety of different sized potatoes but some can be big enough to make a decent baked potato. They are the best types of potatoes for storing over winter.

If you have lots of space, I would recommend getting some different varieties of potatoes that give a good mix of uses in the kitchen and can also be harvested throughout the summer.

If you only have a small space or you are growing in a container then I would suggest you go for a first early variety and aim to grow a few new potatoes, and enjoy their deliciousness!

Some people say, grow potatoes to clear the ground. It kind of implies that if you have a rough, weedy patch of ground then by growing potatoes in it, the soil will end up in better condition, free from weeds. This is certainly true, but it isn't the potatoes that magically clears the ground, it's you!

Firstly, you need to dig out the worse of the weeds and dig a trench to plant the potatoes in. Put in the potatoes, about 30-45 cm apart then cover back with soil. Once the plant starts to appear above the soil as it grows, it is recommened that you "earth them up" - that's to say, pile the soil up into mounds that almost completely buries the plants. You may need to do this more than once as the potatoes grow. It helps to increase the yield but if you don't manage it, it isn't a big deal.

Eventually the plants will flower - they can look very attractive, and then the flowers will finish. If they are first early potatoes, this is the time when you can consider digging them up to harvest them. If they are second earlies or main crop then leave them to grow on until eventually all the foliage dies back completely. This is perfectly natural and a good sign because it means your potatoes are ready to harvest.

To harvest potatoes, use a garden fork and start digging a little further away than where you think the potatoes might be. It is very easy to stab the fork right through the potatoes and it will inevitably be straight into the biggest and most perfect potato that you have grown! So, go carefully and gently lift up the potatoes and soil with the fork, then use your hands to pick them out. This is a fun activity to do with children and it is like finding edible treasure! If you are growing them in a container, then just tip it up and see what you have.

So, all fairly straightforward really. Potatoes absolutely want to grow and will put up with all kinds of poor gardening and rubbish soil. Obviously the better the conditions, the more fertile it is and the more consistently they are watered, the bigger and better your potato harvest will be.

However, slugs will damage potatoes and these are the tiny ones that live under the soil so you may not even realise anything untoward is happening until you harvest your potatoes. The best way to limit this damage is to plant varieties that say they are slug resistant. And the other major problem with potatoes is blight. This usually strikes during a warm, wet August so isn't a problem for first early potatoes or even second early. If it hits your main crop then the leaves and stems will turn black and sad looking and at this point it is best to remove the affected foliage and dispose of it somewhere other than your compost bin. Dig up the potatoes as soon as possible afterwards.

Wednesday, 25 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic Day 5 - Leeks and other alliums

I made leek and potato soup for lunch today.

Having made chicken stock yesterday by boiling up the leftover chicken carcass from Sunday's roast dinner, it was just a matter of adding 150g of leeks, 100g of shallots, 300g of potatoes and 1 garlic clove. Once tender, they were blended into a thick and creamy soup and dished up with some freshly made bread.

I can't really describe how immensely satisfying it is to make something so tasty and wholesome from food waste (chicken carcass) and some tatty end of season stuff off the allotment (leeks, shallots and potatoes). In such uncertain times, it is particularly pleasing to make something out of nothing, or at least, that's how it feels.

Leeks are part of the allium family, along with onions, shallots, garlic, chives and spring onions. All of these are pretty easy to grow, don't suffer badly from pests and problems and keep very well for long periods. They are also essential in the kitchen for adding flavour so I would recommend growing some or all of them.

Ideally, onions should be grown from "sets" and planted in the autumn or early new year to overwinter. Sets are just small bulbs and they give a bit of a head start over starting from seed.  Fortunately, you can still get some onion sets in the ground now and they will be just fine. Or you could sow some onion seeds and just be happy with fairly small onions come the summer.

Onion sets can be sown easily by just pushing them into the surface of the soil. They should start to grow away pretty quickly, showing fresh green shoots. Sometimes birds pull them out of the ground, which can be annoying but they can be pushed back in. Once they are growing, they need very little attention other than to be kept free from weeds, and they should be ready to harvest by mid-July.

Should you have a bulb of garlic at home and wonder whether you can grow that, then the answer is yes with two conditions: 1) you put it into the fridge for a few days so that it gets the cold that it would normally have from winter that stimulates new growth, and 2) you divide it into its individual cloves and plant each one separately. Each clove will then go on to form a whole new bulb by the summer.

Similarly, single shallots when planted go on to grow into a new plant that will form 4 to 6 new shallots by mid summer.

Leeks and spring onions, in contrast, are always sown from seed and they are really slow growing. I usually like to sow some seeds by the middle of February, but this year I didn't manage that and only managed to sow some about a week ago but I think there will still be time to get a crop this year. They need to grow in containers until they have grown thick enough to cope with being planted out - this is usually about June/July time.

Once out in the garden, leeks just need a bit of weeding and they will keep on growing slowly right through into the winter. That, of course, is one of the wonderful things about leeks, they are a lovely winter vegetable. They can be harvested anytime from about November until the following March, so are useful to have in the garden when there isn't much else, which is why, of course, I was able to enjoy them for lunch today.

One final point about leeks, around this time of year they start to put out flower stalks. This means that it is important to harvest your leeks now before they flower otherwise they become inedible. However, should you not get round to it, they will go on to produce beautiful big purple pom pom flower heads that the bees go absolutely nuts about. Once the flowers have finished, the head will form seeds and the wind will distribute the seeds around your garden, leading to a whole new crop of leeks in the following year that you didn't even have to plant! Nature, sadly doesn't do a perfect job and the new leek crop will be planted too close together so will grow small, or will be in annoying or inappropriate places, even in cracks in your paving!

Anyway, for a reliable supply of useful kitchen ingredients by the summer and throughout the winter, I recommend planting some alliums now.

Tuesday, 24 March 2020

Diary from the Pandemic day 4 - the trug of trash

All things being equal, in October I am booked to give a talk at the Bletchley Gardening Club entitled "Saving the Planet One Plant at a Time." The idea behind the talk is to appreciate all the wonderful benefits of gardening to the planet.

I somehow feel that as new events take over at an astonishing rate, it is easy to forget how we all stared in horror at the forest fires in Australia earlier this year. It seemed to really bring the plight of our planet and the effects of global warming to the front of our minds and to spur us on to find yet another little things we could change in our lives that might in some way make even just a tiny difference.

Now, as the planet breathes a sigh of relief as air pollution all over the world improves and the canals of Venice run clean for the first time in decades, it is even more obvious that humans have an massive impact on the health of the planet. And, fortunately, we can help the planet even further by doing one of the few things that we are still permitted to do - gardening. The benefits of gardening to the planet are too numerous to go into here but one things we can do whilst gardening is find new uses for some of our household rubbish items.

As usual, since January, I have been saving bits and bobs from our household rubbish that I know will come in handy on the allotment over the next few months. There are three main reasons why I choose to save rubbish in this way. Firstly, if rubbish can be repurposed for something else then it saves it going directly into landfill or for recycling. Secondly, if I can use a piece of rubbish to do a job then I don't have to go out and buy something else to do that job and that saves resources. Thirdly, it saves me money. In these weird times when we shouldn't be going out, saving these items also means that we can use things that we have to hand and we don't have to try to go shopping for them.

So, which pieces of household rubbish should you be saving and what can you do with them?

1) Mushroom/vegetable containers - we always have a big stack of these under our sink as they are very handy for all sort of things. Every day we use one on the kitchen worksurface whilst making dinner to collect our vegetable scraps and then we can tip the scraps easily into our compost bucket, which in turn will be emptied into our compost bin when we are next on the allotment.

They are also useful for putting under flower pots so that water doesn't run out when you water the plant. Or, you can stab drainage holes in the bottom with a skewer and use them as seed trays for sowing a few seeds in.  If the vegetable tray is transparent and has a lid it can be used as a mini greenhouse so is ideal for seed sowing. Profiterole containers make lovely little domed greenhouses! Come harvest time, they are handy little containers for collecting your crops.

2) Clear plastic bottles - these are useful for protecting small plants when you first plant them out. Carefully cut the bottom off with a sharp knife and then place them over the plant as a cloche. This shelters the plant from the worst of the weather, particularly the cold, and also offers a bit of protection from slugs. Make sure you only use colourless, clear bottles so that light can get through to the plants. If you have opaque ones (yoghurt drinks), translucent ones (milk bottles) or green ones, then these can be used to put over the ends of canes to stop people hurting themselves on them.

3) Yoghurt pots - these can be used as flower pots for sowing seeds into or, bigger ones, can be used to pot on plants as they grow. They can also be cut into strips and used as plant labels, using a permanent pen, such as a Sharpie.

4) Food tubs - things such as gravy containers, cornflour, cocoa and Pringles tubes can all be used as flower pots. You will need to pierce the bottom to allow water to drain out of it. Long Pringles tubes can be cut down to a more useful size and you can use the bottom end and the top end if you put the lid back on. I particularly like making use of this type of container because the combination of cardboard lined with foil make them unsuitable for recycling so it is nice to find something else to do with them before they end up in landfill.

5) Egg boxes - these are useful if you are growing seed potatoes. It is best to "chit" the potatoes for a few weeks to grow nice strong green shoots before you plant them out and egg boxes are the perfect containers to hold the potatoes in. You can also sow seeds into egg boxes and they can be torn up and added to the compost bin too.

6) Toilet rolls - the cardboard inner tubes of toilet rolls can also be used as planting containers. To do this, stand the tubes inside a seed tray or mushroom container and fill each tube up with potting compost. One seed can then be planted into each tube and allowed to grow into a seedling. Whilst the plant is growing, mould will grow on the cardboard. When the plant is big enough to plant out, the whole tube can be planted into the ground, where it will rot down. This method is particularly suitable for sweetcorn, which hates having its roots disturbed during the planting out process.

7) Juice cartons - these can be used to protect worksurfaces from water draining out of the bottom of small flower pots. To do this, rinse them out well then carefully cut one side off it. Small flower pots can now be placed inside.

8) Lolly sticks - these are useful as plant labels and can be easily written on in pencil or permanent pen.

9) Butter and margarine tubs - these can be used as beer slug traps - details to follow in a later post.