I am writing this blog in a tiny thatched cottage in Oxfordshire, where I am staying for a few days, during eight days of working away in England. On Monday I attended Press Day at Chelsea Flower Show (read about that in another blog soon) and I am heading back there on Thursday to speak on the Blue Peter Garden.
It is difficult leaving a garden for over a week at this time of year, when there’s so much to do: sowing, planting, weeding, tending … harvesting too. My son Ruairi lives with me in Wales and is making sure everything is being watered, but I can’t really expect him to plant things, or go out checking for slugs. I am sure that the slugs know when I am going away, wave me off and slither out to munch on my veg once my car has left the driveway!
Back garden no dig beds
This area was weedy grass until I started making the no dig beds in March 2021, and has been cropping all winter. The beds are now filling up with spring planted veg including peas, beetroot, radish, parsnip, potatoes, sweetcorn, turnips, carrots, chard (there’s also some of last year’s bolting, I love the twisting stems), coriander, dill, parsley, cabbages and other brassicas, bulging onions, spring onions, shallots and lots of flowers.
I’ve been very busy getting as much as possible planted before I left, having to hope for the best that anything I didn’t have time to plant will hand on in the pots and modules until my return. This wasn’t helped by me putting my back out earlier in the week and having to spend three very frustrating days mostly resting and allowing It to heal. This happens from time to time, I always know it will recover with care, but it is still annoying when it occurs (thankfully not very often).
These broad beans are a mixture of overwintered (white flowered) and spring planted (crimson flowered). The beans are on their way! I’ve noticed that the bean crop is a bit later than I had in Somerset, due to my location up a hill in Wales. I haven’t removed the broad bean tops yet. These are also a tasty harvest, delicious raw and steamed. You can eat the beans when they are tiny like this, whole like you would a French bean, but I am looking forward to the fat broad bean harvest.
Getting all of the summer crops that were ready to plant into the polytunnel was a priority. It is always sad to remove overwintered plants which have given me so many harvests, and which were looking gorgeous with their frothy flowers, but it is the end of their lifecycle and I need the space for my tomatoes, aubergines, chillies and other summery fruit, herbs and veg.
Bees and other insects love the flowers. I leave the polytunnel doors open every day so they can fly in and out. Fortunately there are loads of other flowers in the garden including more bolting brassicas outside.
I grow everything in my garden in a cheerful mixture of different plants and flowers: it looks a bit jumbled but everything is (mostly!) planned. Growing in a polyculture like this increases biodiversity, is great for the soil life, reduces pests and looks good too.
In a comment on a post about clearing the polytunnel on my Instagram account, I was asked why I didn’t just plant the tomatoes etc amongst the existing brassicas and other plants.
These brassicas are coming to the end of their lifecycle. Soon the flowers would be replaced with seed pods, then the seeds dry and fall, and the plants die back. Some had already completed this lifecycle and were starting to fall over, squashing some of the overwintering garlic in here and attracting slugs. Slugs are important nutrient recyclers and are just doing their job, but I don’t want a sluggy environment where I am going to be planting cucumbers, melons etc – they’ll just get munched. A lot of slugs were relocated during the plant removal in here.
Also, the new plants are small and these brassicas are tall. The summer crops want plenty of sunshine and although we have been having some lovely weather, Wales isn’t exactly famous for it’s sunny climate! We need all of the sunshine we can get here. Over shadowing sun loving plants isn’t a good idea here in the UK.
And, I need the space. I’ve got loads of plants to put in and so keeping plants that are no longer productive food crops in this valuable undercover environment is not a good idea in my situation. I want to grow as much food as possible, even more important now that prices for food, fuel and just about everything else are increasing almost daily.
(It is possible to “perennialise” some brassicas, but a polytunnel is a precious undercover space here, so it makes more sense prioritising summer crops, whose yields are increased by growing under cover.)
Clearing the plants
First of all. I harvested any leaves that could be used in the kitchen, and even found a few spring onions under some of the brassicas.
I removed most of the plants by twisting them out, or cutting off at ground level. This meant that the roots remained in the soil, keeping the structure of the soil as intact as possible and also providing nutrients for the soil life as the roots gradually decompose.
All of the plant material will be composted. Nothing is wasted in a garden!
There’s still a lot of over wintered garlic in here. I also grow it outside too, but find that polytunnel grown garlic is a bit earlier, bigger and less likely to get rust. The elephant and hard neck garlic are starting to produce scapes, a delicious May treat. Tasting of garlic, you can eat these in many ways: raw as you would chives, steamed, stir fried, pickled. I grow hard neck garlic just for this seasonal delight (soft neck garlic doesn’t produce scapes).
I left some dill, kale and a few other plants that are still cropping too. The tunnel looked rather bare afterwards, even so.
Planting the polytunnel
Time to plant. There are a lot of tomatoes here, around 60 varieties, which is a little bonkers. I am trying this many because I have not grown in a polytunnel in Wales before and so don’t know which varieties will grow best here. (I have been growing in polytunnels professionally and at home for around 14 years, but in Somerset.)
Placing the tomatoes, sweet peppers, chillies and aubergines in their posts first before planting helped me to work out where everything is going to go. Leaving space for melons, cucumbers and other plants that are still too small to go in, once I was happy with the arrangement in everything went. This makes the planting part much easier.
I’m growing gem corn in here too (other varieties outside), some early courgettes, a few bush beans, and yard long bush beans, which prefer a warmer home to grow in than the garden.
Pots are planted with a trowel, module grown plants with a dibber. It took ages!
Melons, cucumbers and other plants too small to plant out have been potted on into small pots, and will hopefully be big enough to put in the ground when I get home. There are three potato bags with first early potatoes in, and also some in the ground, which will be ready to harvest next week too – so I’ll have that space for melons etc. It’s going to be tight fitting everything in, because quite frankly I have grown too many varieties of everything!!
There’ll be no waste. We eat a lot of veggies, and I preserve a lot too: ferments, freezing, canning, chutneys, etc.
Making more potato beds
Outside, I’ve been planting more first early, second early and main crop potatoes in the back garden and orchard beds. There’s just first earliest in the back garden, so that that area will be cleared soon and I can plant the module sown leeks there. In the orchard, I’ve planted a lot of different varieties in the existing beds and also made some new beds. Some of the potatoes are being grown in the usual way that I grow my spuds: planting in a hole to the depth of a trowel and then earthing up with compost as necessary.
I’m growing some under polythene, to clear the area of weeds, save on compost and obtain a harvest. See how I did this on my You Tube channel.
In another part of the orchard, I made a new asparagus bed – see how here on my You Tube channel – and then a few weeks later a new potato bed, using different compost mulches to see how they compare. These beds have temporary wooden sides made from logs that we have in the orchard, from some trees being cut down by the electricity company a few years before we moved here.
All of these composts are peat free: some were bought locally, others sent by brands for me to try out. This bed used a lot more compost than the polythene one, but of course once the potatoes are harvested will be used to grow veg for years to come. There’ll be a video about making this bed on my You Tube channel too, but I’ve not had time to edit that yet, due to working away quite a bit recently 🙂
Compost made in “dalek” composters was ready, so I used that to earth up some potatoes in the already established orchard beds (made spring 2021) which are growing beautifully. This earthed up 1 1/2 rows, so I am experimenting with grass clippings as a mulch on the rest of the spuds here.
I’ve not used grass clippings as a mulch for some years because in my previous garden I didn’t have a lawn. I know it can work well – Liz Zorab for example uses grass clipping mulches with great success – but there are potential hazards – if the summer is damp, then this can be a great habitat for slugs. I am also experimenting with sheep dags (the soiled fleece of sheep when they are sheared), wood chips and other plant matter as mulches this year.
We love potatoes. They are such a useful vegetable, storing so very easily too, which is why I grow so many. Here’s a list of this year’s potato selection:
I’m growing lots of blue ones because I like the colour!
New wildlife habitats
Recently Ruairi (my son) dug a wildlife pond in the orchard behind the polytunnel. It’s about 2m wide and 1m deep in the middle. There are tiers and a “beach” to create different levels for growing in, and also safe escape for wild creatures. I’m hoping for toads, frogs and other creatures to visit here, which will help get the balance of predator and prey in our garden!
It’s already looking lovely and filling up with all kinds of insect life, as well as the plants that we have put in. It’s a lovely spot to sit already. I’ll post how we made this in a different blog post (and there’ll be a video too!)
Out and about
May is a busy time of year in the garden and also the start of gardening shows and events season. In early May I was delighted to be invited to RHS Bridgewater in Manchester to speak about no dig gardening as part of their National Gardening Week events. Becky Searle (@sowmuchmore) joined me, explaining the science behind why no dig gardening works – find out more in her You Tube video.
My next talks are at RHS Chelsea Flower Show on Friday 27th and Saturday 28th May, where I’ll be hosting Q&A sessions about no dig gardening and soil health on the Blue Peter Garden, designed by Juliet Sargeant.
If you’re attending Chelsea on either day, do come along. If you are not attending, you can follow regular updates from Chelsea via my Twitter and Instagram accounts. And I’ll share photos and news about Chelsea here after the event when I’ve got home – and done some weeding, laundry and all of the other jobs that you have to do after working away 🙂
Information about these talks, and some of the other talks and workshops I am giving this summer are on my Events Page. There are some more in the pipeline which will be put up soon.