Grow Your Own Food Box – Update 1

Well the garden nemesis has struck – slugs!

slug attacked veg box

Slugs have been attacking the veg box

The small one first spotted two fat, juicy slugs on his lettuce plants a few days ago and they had nibbled quite a lot. But today he found this…

Lettuce eaten by slugs

First lettuce almost completely eaten by slugs

Lettuce destroyed by slugs

Second lettuce completely destroyed by slugs

 

Pretty much irretrievable.  Luckily we have some spare lettuce plants so he can try again.

Whenever things go wrong in gardening it is an ideal opportunity to ask questions which develop scientific thinking, especially “what if…” questions. My first question was: “What could we do to stop the slugs eating the new lettuce plants?”  His first response was to cover them with netting but then he quickly said that the slugs would be able to “squidge through the holes.” Idea number two was to build a wall using bricks.  He also ruled out this idea when I reminded him that snails can climb up walls, so slugs might be able to climb too. We thought about where he chose to site his veg box (next to a small tree on the grass) and after talking about slugs and snails liking damp places he excitedly shouted out “The path is dry – we could put the box on the path!”

So the veg box will be planted up with two more lettuce plants and moved to a drier location. I’ll also remind him to check there are no slimy lettuce eaters hiding in or under the box before we move it.

On a more positive note, the strawberries are coming along quite well. There are also quite a lot of tiny seedlings in the compost.  They’re not quite big enough to work out what they are yet.

strawberry

Strawberries developing

I’m hoping that now one set of lettuces have been destroyed he’ll be more vigilant about slug hunting!

The first harvest of the year

Whilst watering the greenhouse this afternoon we had a quick inspection of the vegetable beds and discovered broad beans! Although we’ve picked a couple of bunches of sweet peas and eaten a few lettuce leaves from plants that we bought a month or so ago, this was the first proper harvest of the year.

broad beans ready to harvest

Broad beans ready to be harvested

They were a bit on the small side but as there were a lot of slugs around I wasn’t sure what would be left for us if we didn’t take some today.  The Small One excitedly described them as ‘green pearls’ and I think I have to agree.  He’d remembered about the pods being fluffy inside and was looking forward to podding them to see and touch inside. Broad beans are great for children to explore.  Their seeds are a good size for little fingers to handle, they grow quite quickly and the pods, both inside and out, are tactile.

broad bean harvest may 2014

The first crop of this year’s broad beans

Inside a broad bean pod

What is inside a broad bean pod?

 

After podding, the beans were rinsed and simmered for around 5 minutes.  I normally double pod broad beans but these were so small and tender they didn’t need it. Once cooked, they were mixed with some crumbled feta and a sprinkling of fresh coriander. Simple but extremely delicious. Can’t wait for the rest to grow – slug patrol starts today!

 

Fruit and flowers

May is the month of blossoms and the promise of summer fruits.  I photographed the garden a few weeks ago and then again last week to compare the difference between the fruit crops.

Apples

Apple buds start out as a dark pink and then open up to a delicate pinky white. Once the blossom has fallen you can begin to see the developing apples.

Apple blossom

Apple blossom in full bloom

apples after flowering

Apples once the blossom has fallen

Blackcurrants

The blackcurrants are hard and green at the moment but they’ll soon begin to start changing colour.  I’ll be keeping a close eye on the blackcurrants this year to see whether they will last another year or not.  More on this in a later post.

blackcurrant flowers

Blackcurrant flowers

 

blackcurrant fruit

Blackcurrants have set fruit

Strawberries

Some of our strawberries flowered early this year and were then hit by frost.  If this happens, the centre of the strawberry flower turns black.  The flower won’t fruit so remove the flower. This means the plant can concentrate on producing flowers and fruit elsewhere. If a frost is predicted, cover any strawberry flowers with horticultural fleece.

Strawberry black eye

These strawberry flowers have been frost damaged

strawberry flower

A perfect strawberry flower…so far!

 

Raspberries

The bees are buzzing around the raspberry flowers at the moment.  Of all the fruits we grow raspberries are my favourites.  They are so versatile, produce lots of fruit and, if you grow summer and autumn fruiting raspberries, have a long season too. We’re all looking forward to the raspberry harvest and planning lots of ways to use them.

raspberry flowers

Raspberry flowers

Broad beans

Broad bean flowers are very pretty and are one of the first plants to flower so they give a splash of monochrome to the garden when everything else is still green. The bees enjoy the broad bean flowers too.  A few of the flowers have set fruit and have tiny broad bean pods waiting to grow and fill out.  Broad beans are one of the earlier plants to crop.  These ones are Aquadulce which were sown in the autumn. Whenever I see the little pods my mind immediately turns to mint and feta as well!

Broad bean flowers

A bee enjoying the broad bean flowers

 

What crop do you enjoy seeing develop before your eyes?

 

Grow your own food box

As well as helping in the garden this year, the small one has been given a box of his very own to nurture. The rules are that he has to look after the box on his own and in return he will get to eat the harvest on his own! This way he has responsibility for a little bit of the garden and any damage due to over-enthusiasm or neglect is constrained only to his box.

If you want to try this idea too, try to be as hands off as possible at the planting and sowing stage. In our box, the peas were sown far too close together but if they all germinate I can then discuss spacings and overcrowding with him. Hopefully he’ll then be able to apply his first hand knowledge to future sowings. I’ll be keeping a watchful eye on his box and offering timely advice if I think he needs it.

sowing peas

Sowing peas in the food box

He planted cut-and-come-again lettuces and strawberries grown from last summer’s strawberry runners. Added to these four plants he chose his favourite veg- carrot, pea and basil seeds. The box was an old veg box that a local greengrocer was throwing away, lined with a black bag with holes poked in for drainage.

watering the food box

Watering the food box

I’ll be updating the progress of the box each month together with his reaction to the project.

Making compost

As we were in danger of not being able to fit anything else in, the time had finally come to sort out the compost bin.

full compost bin

The contents of the full compost bin

If you haven’t got a compost bin it’s definitely something to consider. Composting has two main advantages.

  • You can recycle lots of your household waste.
  • You get free compost!

Which compost bin to choose?
There are lots of different types of compost bins ranging from a ‘dalek’ type to wormeries. You can even build your own using reclaimed wood. Check your local council’s website to see if there are any special offers available to you. Leeds residents can find out about the Leeds City Council offer here.

What can go into a compost bin?

You need to make sure you have a balance of ‘green’ and ‘brown’ materials so your compost bin has the right conditions.  If your compost bin is too dry or too wet the materials won’t rot.  Greens include fruit and vegetable peelings, tea bags and coffee grounds, grass cuttings and plant debris.  Don’t add cooked food, dairy products or cat and dog faeces to your compost bin.  Browns include cardboard egg boxes, cardboard tubes, egg shells and shredded paper.  Chop or tear larger items before placing in the bin as this will speed up the time it takes to rot down.

Looking after your compost bin 

Try to turn your compost occasionally.  This will let air in, mix up the greens and browns and allow you to check whether the compost is too dry or too wet.  If it looks too dry, add more greens, if it looks too wet add more browns.

Emptying your compost bin

The easiest way to empty a dalek type bin is to lift the bin off the contents and place the bin in a different part of the garden.  Then any compost that isn’t ready can be put straight back into the bin. Unfortunately there isn’t enough room in my garden for the compost bin to go in a different position. Instead I placed the still decomposing materials into bags and buckets whilst I sieved the compost.  At the end of the process all the materials which hadn’t turned into compost were placed back in the compost bin, ready for fresh materials to be added.

compost bin ready to use

Now we can start adding kitchen waste again

At the beginning it’s easy to tell what hasn’t rotted down, but as you work your way down the bin usable compost is mixed in with still rotting materials.  This is where you need to use a garden sieve to separate the two. Don’t use too small a grade on the sieve otherwise it will take a very long time!  You can always sieve again if the finished compost isn’t fine enough for what you need.

When you empty your bin you’ll also get to see the rich variety of life that lives in your compost bin.  It was really interesting to see which creatures lived in each layer of the compost.  Firstly, hundreds of woodlice were devouring the recently added materials.

woodlice

Woodlice decomposing kitchen waste

The next layer down contained materials that had started to rot down and this was where the worms were busy.

Worms

Worms further down the compost bin

Finally, in the almost finished layer centipedes were scurrying around.

centipedes

Centipedes didn’t like being disturbed and quickly ran away

Using your compost

You can use your compost as a mulch around plants, to top up containers, or mix with garden soil and leafmould to make your own potting compost.  Find out how to make leafmould here.

Compost does take time to make but it’s a really good way of recycling what would otherwise be thrown away. I’ve included some websites below if you want to find out more about composting. Happy composting!

www.recyclenow.com/reduce/home-composting

www.getcomposting.com

 

 

 

 

Winter Review

Apart from a few cold and gloomy days, we seem to be in Spring in Leeds. Although other parts of the country were blasted with terrible winds and rain, here in Leeds we made it through the winter relatively unscathed. This year’s mild winter in Leeds has been in stark contrast to the cold and prolonged winter of early 2013. As a result of last year’s tough winter the greenhouse was packed with plants that would need a degree of protection, with hardier vegetables planted outside. We crossed our fingers that some would crop at some point in the winter.

Well, you can never rely on the weather to do what you think it will.  Winter lettuces flourished with Marvel of the Four Seasons and Winter Density providing the tastiest crops.

winter lettuce

Overwintered lettuce

Cavolo Nero (Tuscan Kale) and Leeks cropped all the way through winter with Purple Sprouting Broccoli making an appearance at the end of March. Autumn sown onions, garlic, shallots and broad beans survived with only a few losses and are now developing well.

purple sprouting broccoli

Purple Sprouting Broccoli about to make an appearance

But… the mild winter resulted in some unexpected developments.  Many salad crops such as Mizuna  and Lambs Lettuce bolted and set seed by the beginning of March. An overwintering Osteospermum started flowering and one variety of Strawberry began to flower at the start of April.

osteospermum in february

Overwintered Osteospermum trying to flower at the start of February

Bolting means the plant starts to focus on flowering and producing seed rather than leafy crops. Mizuna flower buds were regularly removed but were quickly replaced with others. Flowers and fruit which develop earlier are susceptible to late frosts so need a degree of protection until all risk of frost has passed.

One of the problems this winter was that the crops were not harvested often enough and we had too many of some plants. (Like the Mizuna!) So next winter I will try winter lettuces, Cavolo Nero and Leeks again but I’ll give the Mizuna a miss. I’ll also think very carefully about how many plants I plant out and give any extra away to other growers.

What worked for you this winter?

 

April Book of the Month – Grandpa’s Garden

The Book of the Month for April is “Grandpa’s Garden” written by Stella Fry and illustrated by Sheila Moxley This picture book tells the story of Grandpa’s garden from late winter to autumn and covers the whole range of fruit and vegetable growing.  Grandpa shows Billy how to look after the soil, make compost, sow seeds and explains the importance of beneficial insects. Once the crops are ready, Grandpa and Billy eat the crops then save seeds for the next season.

grandpas garden

 

At the end of the story there is a plan of Grandpa’s garden which is divided into 4 plots and information is given on crop rotation.  The author then describes what happens in each season and suggests jobs to do. This cleverly combines the story of Grandpa’s garden with information texts and widens the audience of the book appealing to both younger children and independent readers.

My favourite part of this book is when Billy thinks everything in the wintry garden is dead, but Grandpa explains, “with summer in his eyes” that the garden is only sleeping.  Have you got summer in your eyes?  What will you grow in your garden this year?

Signs of Spring

This time of year is full of promise.  The mornings and evenings are getting lighter each day with birdsong cutting across the usual sounds of traffic on the roads.  Tiny buds are beginning to unfurl and make bare branches glisten with emerald spots.

Lilac buds

Lilac buds growing bigger each day

Narcissus and Crocus are in flower and Tulips and Allium shoots are emerging from their winter sleep. Winter bedding such as Primula and Viola do their best to cheer up gloomy days.

Viola

Viola brightens up a grey day

In the fruit and veg patch, rhubarb crowns seem to put forward new growth each day, and fruit bushes and canes are all producing new buds. Autumn sown onions, broad beans and garlic have managed to make it through the winter and will soon be leaping into action.

rhubarb crown

Rhubarb forcing its way out of the cold ground

Blueberry buds

Blueberry buds cheerfully contrast with red branches

I always worry during a mild winter that a late cold snap will harm these signs of Spring. Keep an eye on the weather and take steps to protect your special plants by bringing them under cover if in containers (or covering with horticultural fleece if the plants are in the ground) if a hard frost is predicted.

Unfortunately, I’ve also spotted other signs of Spring in the garden – slugs!  Time to get slug defences prepared before tender new plants go into the ground.

Spot the difference

This is what happens when it’s not light enough and you sow seeds too early!

Leggy Seedling

These are Sweet Pea seedlings, both sown at the same time and grown in the same conditions.  The difference is that one emerged before the other and has grown leggy or etiolated.  Seeds need moisture and the correct temperature to germinate.  Once they have germinated and are peeking out from below the soil you need to make sure they have plenty of light.  All plants crave light as without it they cannot photosynthesise. Seedlings grow towards the light (phototropism) and you need to turn the pots or seed trays regularly so they grow straight up rather than at an angle.

So why did one of the seedlings become leggy?  Quite simply because it germinated first and was kept in conditions that were too warm with not enough access to sunshine.  The seed tray was removed from the propagator as soon as the second seedling emerged. The seed tray was then placed in a sunny spot and left uncovered.

It’s difficult to avoid this happening if you sow seeds indoors at this time of year, especially as seeds don’t all germinate at the same time. So if you are tempted to start sowing seeds now, make sure you’ve got a bright spot ready for the seedlings.  Alternatively…wait a few more weeks… it will soon be Spring!

February Book of the Month

February is often a bleak month and although 2014 hasn’t brought the snowy conditions of previous years, it has certainly made up for it with rain and wind.

You might be planning your garden at the moment or reliving past summer glories. It’s certainly a good time to reflect on what went well and how you could make your growing season even better this year.

February’s Book of the Month, Isabella’s Garden by Glenda Millard and Rebecca Cool, uses the changing seasons to show life cycles within the garden. The book tells the story of a handful of seeds that

“sleep in the soil all dark and deep, in Isabella’s garden”

isabellas garden

The colourful and exuberant illustrations show how Isabella’s garden changes with the seasons and highlights the connections between wildlife and plants.  You can use this book to explore and discuss life cycles within the garden and how the weather changes with the seasons.

Written with repetitive phrases, children will easily be able to join in with the retelling of the story.  Why not try writing your own version of Isabella’s Garden with your children?