A year in the garden: abundance, learning and little victories

September 23, 2014 § 1 Comment

There’s a chill in the air, dusk is falling earlier by the day and autumn has definitely arrived in the garden. As I’ve harvested many of our crops, pots and beds are looking emptier than usual. There’s still work to be done (reinvigorating the soil, sowing a final few winter crops and laying the groundwork for next year) but it’s a good time to reflect on what a joy my little urban garden has been this year, celebrate the successes, learn from the less productive spaces and admire nature’s amazing processes.

Bs & Cs

I have had particular success with edible Bs and Cs this year.

Basil – This Mediterranean herb is temperamental! It doesn’t like it too hot or too cold, too wet or too dry. For years I have tried to grow it without much success. My seedlings tended to stay spindly and then rot. This year, however, the combination of happy seed, satisfactory soil, a gently warm location, pinching out and regular harvesting came together. As a result we’ve had a bumper crop of basil and a lot of luscious pesto!

Beetroots – These roots aren’t everybody’s cup of tea but Mr M and I love them – especially in borscht or with salmon or sill and soured cream. Fortunately, they also seem to love our conditions. We’ve been enjoying earthy red roots since late spring; had a minor glut in August allowing me to preserve some for the hungry gap; and still have plenty to see us through till early winter.

Beans – This was the year I cracked the art of growing beans. I suspect the super performance of runner and French beans (both climbing and dwarf ones) was down to a combination of position, soil turbocharged with our compost and the weather. At the height of summer we were picking beans every other day.

Grow your own beans

Relief and delight when the first beanlets appear

And before long you have a regular supply of beans

And before long we had a regular supply

Carrots – Last year I successfully grew a few carrots in deep pots so this season I quadrupled production by diligently sowing Chantenay and Amsterdam Forcing in succession. I still use pots, typically eight to twelve inches in diameter and a good foot deep, as it is easier to ensure the right soil conditions. Also, by placing the pots on shelves around the garden, I can use marginal spaces as well as reduce the risk of carrot fly.

Cucumbers – With space limited I decided to grow only one plant so I ruthlessly selected the healthiest looking seedling and nurtured it. Growing fruiting plants in this climate requires patience and a little hope that the sun will come out but both were definitely rewarded. We had a steady crop of knobbly cucumbers, more gherkin than the watery specimens found in shops. Combined with our garlic and mint, a tub of Greek yoghurt and a squeeze of lemon each cucumber made the most moreish tzatziki!

Chard and brassica – Just as in previous years, rainbow chard, spring cabbage and kales of most description continued to thrive in our productive backyard.

Some disappointments and continuous learning

Not all crops did so well, of course, but even the disappointments offered useful lessons.

Potatoes – This year’s crop was very tasty but not plentiful. The largest yields came from the second earlies that I had grown in the Vital Earth’s punchy peat-free compost. The other tubs contained a much inferior but more readily available peat-free mix that I had bought out of time constraints. And I paid the price for it! When it comes to gardening, the soil really is the key ingredient so I’ll have to be more organised next year. I also learnt of another way to maximise potato yields in small spaces. Apparently it’s possible to grow a second batch of first earlies in late summer to ensure a modest crop of potatoes at Christmas, something I shall definitely try next year.

Tomatoes – I was very relieved not to have a reoccurrence of blight but I’ve realised that I should stick to bush tomatoes. With limited space and a north easterly aspect, I just don’t get enough sun to ripen up my cordons of Ailsa Craig and Black Russian. Better to select various bush or tumbling varieties that produce an abundance of cherry tomatoes in quick succession!

Grow your own vegetables

Abundance everywhere but the tomatoes refuse to ripen

And the less obvious yields

Compost – As I said, good soil truly is an essential ingredient for a productive garden. Well rotted compost is the key! We’ll always have to import some but I have squeezed in two compost bins to make as much as I can in our tiny space. This year, much to my delight I harvested rich, crumbly compost from the Dalek shaped one. Throughout the months of feeding the vat, turning the contents and waiting, you have to trust that the mix will do its thing, and then one day you open the bin to find dark brown, fresh smelling soil. When harvesting this precious material, it’s hard not to feel a connection with ancient civilisations. After all, without compost there would have been no agriculture and without agriculture no civilisations!

Leafmould – I was incredibly excited last week: I harvested my first batch of leafmould ever. This medium is the ultimate no-hassle garden crop. All you need is leaves, space and patience. I can muster the last but in a patio garden the first two are more problematic. I managed to find a corner in the darkest part of the patio for a homemade wire bin. The sycamore in the neighbour’s garden provides some leaves each year but most came from me sweeping up leaves in little parks nearby (i.e. by me importing waste). The result is a crumbly dry medium that I can combine with our compost and a little perlite to make peat-free potting mix.

Home-made leafmould

Imported waste & patience turned into a useful growing medium

Wildlife – Wildlife, like good soil, is essential for a bountiful garden. When we moved in five years ago, our garden was as barren as the surrounding ones but over the years my efforts have brought creepers, crawlers and flutterers to our backyard. The hoverflies, ladybirds and bees are particularly delightful. This year, we’ve not only admired boisterous bumblebees and contented solitary bees but we also spotted mason bees in abundance. And the variety of birds has also taken off. My heart lept when I saw sparrows in the garden. I know, these little birds may not look remarkable but as they are in decline in urban Britain, discovering them is a joy. And when I discovered song thrushes rioting over the legions of snails I felt I was winning… not a major victory in the global scheme but a victory nonetheless!

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