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 decomposing kitchen waste

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


Worms further down the compost bin

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


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!





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 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?

New year, new goals

Ever since the Winter Solstice I’ve been looking longingly at seed packets and sighing at the months of winter still to get through before sowing can begin in earnest.  Although New Year’s Day heralds the arrival of a brand new year, we’ve got a while to go until the new growing season can truly begin.  So with the New Year upon us here are my New Year’s Resolutions.

1. Do not sow seeds until it is really time to do so – regardless of what it says on the seed packet

seed packets

Don’t sow seeds too early!

Last year’s long cold winter and spring meant that seeds sown at the ‘right’ time didn’t get enough sunlight or warmth to enable them to grow and thrive as well as they could have done. If your seedlings don’t get enough sunlight they will grow too tall and ‘leggy’.  The seedlings will grow taller and taller to reach the sunlight, but at the expense of developing new leaves. Sowing seeds later on when there is more daylight available will avoid this problem. So keep an eye on the weather forecast before you start sowing.

2. Clean tools every time

All the tools in the shed need a good clean. Hacking away dried on soil isn’t the best use of my time, but a quick scrub with a brush after using them takes seconds.

3 Learn the botanical name of a different plant every day

I’ve been meaning to learn botanical names for a while now but it’s one of those things I keep putting off.  By learning one a day I’ll quickly build up a reasonable knowledge bank.  I’m starting with plants (including weeds!) that I have grown or want to grow this year.

So far I know:

  • Groundsel – Senecio vulgaris
  • Dandelion – Taraxacum officinale
  • Sweet Pea – Lathyrus odoratus
  • Bramble – Rubus fruticosus
  • Italian Ryegrass – Lolium multiflorum

4 Move beyond the vegetable patch

Last year was all about fruit and vegetables. We had a few token flowers such as cornflowers, sunflowers, sweet peas and marigolds but the majority of our efforts were spent on establishing edible crops.  This year we’d like to begin a cut flower patch and sow Flanders poppies to commemorate the centenary of the start of the First World War. We’d also like to do our bit to turn Yorkshire yellow to celebrate the Grand Départ being held in Yorkshire. More information on these initiatives can be found at the links below if you’d like to get involved too.

What are your resolutions or goals for the new year?

Ice sculptures to brighten up a gloomy Winter day

At this time of year when neon Christmas lights surround our houses it can be easy to forget simpler ways of decorating our gardens and outdoor spaces.  Ice sculptures are an easy and cheap way of making outdoor decorations, allowing you to be as creative as you want. An added bonus is that you can keep them in the freezer until you need them. They could be just the thing to brighten up a bleak January or February day.

Last year we made tea light holders and used them as a table centrepiece for Christmas lunch. This year we are using them in a simpler way – as discs to hang in the trees or propped up against walls or pots.

How to make ice discs

You will need:
* a selection of shallow tubs
* a jug of water
* ribbon or twine
* natural materials such as leaves, berries, twigs, pine needles

A selection of natural materials

A selection of natural materials

Place a selection of your natural materials in the bottom of a shallow container.

choosing materials for ice sculptures

Layer the natural materials into the container

Pour on enough water to cover the foliage.

Pouring water onto natural materials

Pour water onto your natural materials and submerge under the water

Press down to submerge all the greenery then place in the freezer until completely frozen.

Once the disc is frozen, hold the container upside down and run warm water over the bottom of the container to loosen the ice disc. If you want to hang the disc, pour hot water over a small area to make a hole so you can thread your ribbon or twine through it. Prop up against a wall or tree or hang from a safe place.

A quick note on safety
* Do not let anyone eat any of the natural materials you have collected and make sure hands are washed afterwards.
* If you are hanging your discs make sure you do not hang them anywhere where they might hurt someone when they fall off the tree as they start to melt.

Ours are still nestled safely in the freezer and will be brought outside to brighten up a gloomy winter day. I’ll post pictures of them then.

Book of the Month – December

I believe that if a picture book can tug the heart strings of an adult then it’s worth reading, however old you or your child are. This month’s Book of the Month certainly does that – Jack Frost by Kazuno Kohara.

December Book of the Month - Jack Frost

December Book of the Month

What first attracted me to Jack Frost was the simplicity of the front cover especially the blue and white theme which continues throughout the book.  Jack Frost tells the story of a little boy who befriends Jack Frost and together they play through the winter.  But Jack has one rule…don’t mention anything to do with warmth.

As well as reading a seasonal story you could also use Jack Frost to explore issues around the passing of seasons and friendship.

Autumn sowing

Is anyone else getting itchy fingers? Are you looking longingly at seed catalogues and planning your spring sowing?

If you can’t wait that long there are a few things that can be sown during autumn.  Autumn sown seeds don’t have the advantageous weather conditions that spring sown seeds have, so you have to make sure that you choose seeds and sets that are suitable to sow in October and November.

One of the dangers of sowing seeds for overwintering is that the seeds may not germinate before the seed starts to rot.  Hungry animals such as squirrels and mice may dig up your beans and sets.  However, even if they don’t germinate successfully you will have a second chance to sow broad beans, onions and garlic in the spring.  An added benefit is that over wintered crops should be stronger than their spring-sown counterparts.

Broad Beans

We sowed Aquadulce Broad Beans in rows in a raised bed and also sowed some beans in modules.  If any do get eaten by hungry animals we should be able to fill the gaps with the module grown ones in spring.

Autumn sown broad beans

Sowing Aquadulce broad beans

Onions and Garlic

Onion and Shallot sets and Garlic cloves can be sown in Autumn, but again make sure you choose varieties suitable for autumn planting. As we still had spare onion sets after planting our raised bed, we have sown the left over beans in modules. These will be planted out in the spring, either in gaps in the onion bed or around our carrot patch to deter carrot root fly.

Autumn sown onions

Sowing onion sets in Autumn

Sowing onions in modules

Sowing onion sets in modules in Autumn

Autumn sowing isn’t for the impatient though. As the weather is so much cooler than in spring, germination will take longer.  This lonely garlic shoot has taken 4 weeks to emerge.

Autumn sown garlic

Garlic emerging through the autumn soil

Happy sowing (or happy seed catalogue browsing!)