Gardening Myths & Misconceptions – A Book Review

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I firmly believe that a lot of garden lore derives from job creation for the legions of under gardeners that used to exist.  I have a habit of doing gardening jobs as and when they occur to me and I tend to trust my instinct more than referring to books unless it is to remind me how to take cuttings.  I believe that this is how you learn through trial and error rather than mindlessly following an instruction from a book or fellow gardener without questioning it.  So I was very pleased to be offered a review copy of Charles Dowding’s new book Gardening Myths and Misconceptions

Like me Dowding has a questioning and challenging approach to life and in his introduction he explains that he has been trying and testing various myths for some 30 years.  Hardly surprising to hear from an influential vegetable grower who advocates a no-dig approach to growing; going against the long-held practice of double digging practised by many a veg grower.

In the introduction Dowding discusses the idea of myths and how we are brought up to believe various facts which it never occurs to us to question.  He gives a number of random examples such as Marie Antoinette did not say ‘let them eat cake’ which I was taught was an example of the aristocracy attitude to the poor and lead to the French Revolution instead this apparently was said 50 years earlier by Louis XIV’s wife.  Equally the claim that Mussolini made trains run on time is based on the fact that he banned the reporting of delays rather than the efficiency of the train system!  Once the ‘facts’ you were taught at school have been challenged your mind becomes open to the idea that other ‘facts’ may be untrue and so we go to horticultural practices.

The book focuses on the growing of edibles including watering, compost making, fertilising and soil.  I only grew edibles for a short time on an allotment, where fact and lore abounded and I found the whole experience quite daunting. I consulted books and the internet and my confusion grew as one fact contradicted another and to be honest some made little sense.

Dowding argues that when presented with these ‘facts’ you should ask the giver why this is true and challenge them to explain the reason behind their belief.  I tried out one of the myths on twitter the other evening.  Dowding argues that you don’t need to wash and sterilise seed trays and pots.  He states that he hasn’t done this for 30 years and rarely had a problem.  Some tweeters were aghast at this idea and when I challenged them, as per Dowding’s instruction, they all argued it was to remove pests and diseases and to prevent damping off.  However, Dowding argues that the only diseases he has encountered is from sowing too closely, which I know is a cause of botrytis, and humidity.  This makes complete sense to me and I know the other tweeters were celebrating that this tedious task was not that necessary. The RHS is also now agreeing with this view.

The crux of Dowding’s arguments come down to seeing the horticultural practice as a whole and understanding how one thing connects to another.  So green manure might provide some nutrients but you also have to take into account that the it can harbour slugs as well as beneficial creatures and the decomposition of the green manure can take weeks rather than days so may remove nutrients from the seeds or plants that have been planted, if planted too soon. As with many things it is a case of weighing up the pros and cons and making an informed choice that suits you rather than blindly and unquestioning following a prescribed view.

For anyone who grows edibles or for that matter gardens intensively I would recommend this book.  You might not agree with all of Dowding’s views and arguments but you will find yourself questioning what the ‘experts’ tell you and this in turn will lead you to be a more intelligent and successful gardener.

 

Saying goodbye to the allotment

Any one who has read this blog over the last couple of years will know I acquired an allotment in 2010.  A virgin site, basically part of a field which had previously been used for livestock.   As you can see from the above photograph the location of the site is lovely, surrounded by fields and there are  lots of birds, even quail.  I used to enjoy the peace early on a Sunday morning with just the horses in the neighbouring field for company.

However, as I said in a post back in August I have come to realise that deep down, despite trying very hard to be, I’m not a vegetable grower.  I can’t get excited about unusual vegetables, trying new vegetables and looking for ways to deal with the gluts.  It’s just not what floats my boat as they say.  I found myself resenting more and more the time the allotment was taking me away from my garden which in my mind is looking very neglected, although people are kind to say otherwise.  There are projects I want to undertake both in the garden and also in the house and these just haven’t been possible over the last two years due to the time needed to tend the allotment, especially given my limited free time due to a demanding job.

 

Since I made the decision in August to give up the allotment I have felt a huge weight come off me.  The daily worrying about when I can get to the plot, managing the crops, pests etc hasn’t been missed at all.  My head actually feels clearer and I have started to re-engage with the garden, taken up some new creative hobbies and am planning some much-needed interior redecoration.  I genuinely believe  that the majority of gardeners are either ornamental or vegetable gardeners.  I  have met many head gardeners who have pulled a face when you ask them about vegetables  just as there are many veg/edible growers who although they grow flowers on their plots aren’t as obsessive as I, and many of my gardener friends, are about ornamentals.  Each to his own I say and there is room for us all but I know now where my true passion lies.

I haven’t handed in my notice at the plot yet as I have been waiting to move some of the fruit bushes to  my garden.  I have also been unwell with a bad back and if I am really honest I haven’t wanted to go to the plot at all.  I’m not sure why.  There is part of me that has felt guilty at having got my family to help me and then giving up; there is part of me that  has felt a bit of a failure at not sticking to it; and there is part of me that has so disengaged with the plot that I have more or less forgotten about it.

Anyway, my Mum has used my lack of interest as an excuse to do some additional weeding when her own half plot is completely weeded.  She is one of those people who enjoys weeding and she loves being at the site, its her escape from difficult times and this alone is enough for me to know that I shouldn’t feel guilty or a failure as Mum discovering the allotment was worth it all.  She is keeping her half plot for the time being and has made lots of friends at the site, one of them leaves her love letters although my Dad knows about this so I don’t think I need to worry at all!

This weekend I decided that it was now or never and as my eldest  son was free to dismantle the raised bed and fruit bush supports it was an opportunity  not to miss.  Mum and Dad  came down to see which raspberry plants Mum could have and ended up moving them there and then. The four of us (my three helpers above) had a great hour or so.  I dug up the Japanese wineberry, a gooseberry, a blackberry and a rhubarb; collected up the assorted tools  and bits and pieces I wanted to keep.  It took four barrow loads to get everything up to the car and despite my conviction it wouldn’t all fit in the back of my car, my son proved me wrong – again.

I shan’t miss the muddy car interior that’s for sure.

All that’s left  to do now is to meet with my other son’s girlfriend’s parents who are going to take the rest of the fruit bushes and anything else they want and then I will lift the pathing material which I can reuse in the garden and hand in my notice.

Its been good – a fantastic learning curve, an escape in difficult times, a bonding exercise with my parents, a great journey if I must use that overused cliché.  However,  now I will move on and put all my efforts into my first love the garden remembering of course that Mum will always be quite happy for a bit of help  and a home for her surplus veg should I  need them.

 

Dear John….The Sequel

site of the new veg bed

Site of the new veg bed

The other day I wrote a post while trying to work through some thoughts about my allotment and it seems to have struck a chord with many.  I talked about how I was struggling with the allotment mainly due to the pressure of time and also the distance of the plot from home.  I was really pleased to receive so many supportive comments.

Many of you were right in that by the time I had got to the end of the post I was 90% sure that the allotment and I should part company.  I have been to the plot a couple of times since writing the post and there has been no feeling of guilt or regret.  In fact as if the allotment wanted to help me make the decision I discovered that the whole bed of 12 tomato plants had been hit  by blight and there were only four possibly salvageable tomatoes. This is on top of potato blight, garlic rust, and slugs a plenty.  Oh  and the salads bolted and had to be discarded.

Anna commented that she enjoyed the social side of her plot and this had kept her going when times were tough.  However, I don’t enjoy the social side.  I spend all week with people talking at me at work and so crave peace and quiet in my non-work time.  This is probably why I go to the plot so early in the morning.  I don’t like all the politics there is enough of that at work.

So within 24 hours of writing the post I had told my parents.  Ridiculous I know at my age but they had helped me so much in setting it up that I wanted to explain to them.  They were absolutely fine and said they thought I was trying to do too much.  A weight has lifted and I feel so relieved.

Attention has now turned to the garden.  I have identified an area which has always lacked an identity – its call the corner bed which says it all and my son and I have been measuring up.  I have explored the ideas of square foot gardening and although I’m not sure I want to grow veg in this way I do really think that a 4′ x 4′ raised bed will do me for a while.  I can grow salads in it, maybe a small row of mangetout, a few carvelo nero and nice things like florence fennel and pak choi which would benefit from closure monitoring than I can give them at the plot.

My new approach is to not grow large  quantities  of veg and fruit that dictate what we eat but to grow small  amounts of home-grown treats.  Things that I will really look forward to and savour.  They might be over quickly but I will have enjoyed them rather than beginning to wish for the crop to stop and being weary of finding ways to cook courgettes.  I want to enjoy growing edibles as part of the overall garden rather than compartmentalized.  I want to pop out in the garden in the morning and pick some salad leaves for my pack  lunch or a few strawberries for my breakfast.  I am also going to grow more in pots.  I have had huge success this year with cucumbers and courgettes in pots and I have some chinese cabbage seedlings which were destined for the plot which I shall pot up to see how they do.

And what of the plot?  I haven’t walked away yet as I want to move some of the fruit bushes back to the garden so need to wait until the autumn.  I think I have found homes for nearly everything on the plot and we can reuse much of the timber and weed suppressing membrane in the new vegetable area.  So the financial investment isn’t lost.

I don’t regret at all the last 2 years at the plot.  I have learnt loads.  I have learnt that I can grow veg and fruit but that they are definitely not my first love.  I have learnt that whilst I enjoy cooking it’s not to the extent of enjoying the challenge of preserving and finding interesting ways to cook the same veg day in and day out.  The plot has been cathartic  it has helped me work through difficult times, work off lots of anger digging weeds but I now find myself feeling better, calmer and more myself.  So thank you plot 38 its been great but its time to move on.

So here I  am excited at the new plans for the garden which will also mean that we can finally finish off the steps going up the garden which my son and I have been dithering about for a year  or two now.  Plus I can exactly enjoy a slow start to my Sunday, read my gardening magazine and not feel guilty about not being at the plot.

Thank you all for your support and positive  comments.

Dear John…..

Yesterday I read a lovely post on WellyWoman’s blog which was a Love Letter to her allotment written especially for National Allotment Week. WW’s plot is exactly the same size as mine and like  me she  has  had it  for 18 months, there isn’t even that much difference in the amount of rent we pay.  WW obviously loves her plot and it has made a real difference to her life.  This got me thinking about  writing a similar sort of post about my plot.

However, and there is always a however, I think mine would be more of a Dear John letter.  Our relationship is definitely not at its best and thoughts of giving the allotment up have  drifted into my mind a number of times over the last six months.

Now this isn’t a moan about the weather and slugs making it hard to grow anything it is more a case that we are just not compatible, mis-matched so to speak.

Don’t get me wrong I am proud of what I have achieved and as regular long-term readers will know getting an allotment had a knock on effect of involving my parents which then led to my Mum getting half a plot.  This has been such a wonderful thing and has had such a positive effect on her dealing with her grief over losing my sister that no matter what I decide to do I won’t regret the effort we put in.  I also wonder if in some way the allotment has  helped me with the grief.  It was very difficult last year especially when my parents were helping me and we had some fraught times and disagreements but we have worked through them and are stronger and closer for it.  Looking back I find myself wondering whether the allotment acted as a catalyst for us resolving these issues.  It is amazing how much you can resolve and how difficult a subject you can discuss when you  are both head down, bum in the air, digging up couch grass!

I like being at the plot when I am there but that is the problem getting there both time and distance.  The site is surrounded by fields and first thing on a Sunday morning when you are the only one there, listening to the bird singing, watching the rabbits frolics (opps they aren’t meant to be ) and admiring the horses in the neighbouring field it is wonderful. But, I work full-time  generally a 40 hr week which leaves little time for other things.  My weekends are precious  and I am spending Sunday mornings at the plot, coming home and wishing I had more time to spend in my garden which is weedy and neglected.  The plot  is eating up the time I would spend tending the garden.  I told myself last year that the first year would be tough as it was a virgin plot but no matter what anyone tells you even when you have cleared the plot you still need to spend the same amount of time there.  I’m not afraid of hard work but it’s the logistics.  The plot is 15 min drive each  way so I have to organise having the time to go there when really what I would rather do is potter outside in the garden when it suits me.  I have tried to go on the way home from work.  This doesn’t work when the weather is warm as it is just too hot at that time of day to be weeding etc, and I am generally really tired and hungry so clock watching.

Then there are the quantities – it’s all or nothing.  I seem to be forever giving crops away or even, heaven forbid, putting them on the compost bin.  I find myself questioning the whole thing.  I put all this time and physical effort in, as well as some finances, to grow some veg which may or may not result in a harvest only for me to ditch a load of it.  I have a constant battle between only growing enough for my needs and filling up the space.  I was amused when my neighbouring plot holder told me he was thinking of taking up his paths to maximise the growing space when I was considering covering up more ground.  When my youngest is away at University it is only really me that eats the crops and a 20m x 6m plot is a lot for one person!

I have also realised that whilst I like food I’m not a foodie.  I have no real interest in growing unusual  stuff and spending large amounts of time preserving etc.  I’m not that big a potato fan preferring rice and pasta.  I enjoy growing salads, rhubarb, black kale, gooseberries, strawberries, tomatoes, cucumbers and courgettes but these  alone would only fill a third of the plot.   I want to be able to wander up the garden when I get home from work and pick a courgette or two, maybe some salad leaves. Not as is the case now fit in a trip to the plot  on the way home on a day when I don’t have to rush back to do dinner because I or one of the boys has to get somewhere else.

I  think the fact that the photo at the top of this post is my favourite from the photos I took at the allotment this evening says it all.  I simply am not an veg/fruit grower,  it doesn’t float my boat as they used to say.  I don’t get depressed when I lose a whole  crop to some bug and I thought this was because I had low expectations in the first place but now I think it’s just because I don’t really care that much – how awful is that.  When I raised it a few months ago with Mum she said I should  plant more fruit bushes, more perennial veg, maybe lay  some turf!  But that all still  needs maintaining and still  takes me away from my first much neglected love – my garden.

So I am pondering what to do.  I want to grow some veg and fruit, the things I have listed above but I don’t think I can sustain my relationship to the plot for another year.  I don’t think  counselling or an intermediary would work or even a trial separation.  My eldest and I have discussed a couple of times putting in some raised beds in the garden where I could grow some veg.  I want something ornamental, beautiful, on the doorstep and I think we have a plan which he says is achievable.  I just need to measure up and see whether the area would work in terms of growing space.  It would be something along the square metre idea of growing veg . I’m  not rushing into the decision as I  don’t have to pay the rent again for a few months and it would be good to time it so I could re-locate some of the fruit  bushes in the autumn if I decide to give it up – so we shall see.

 

 

 

Courgettes are Go!

Its July down the allotment and despite the rain and low temperatures we have been having it’s not doing too bad.  As you can see the courgettes have started to fruit.  The one above is Courgette Floridor and I have already had 4 fruits off it.  I also have Courgette Clarion and picked the first fruit today.  Both plants are very healthy but the same cannot be said for my dark green Courgettes – I can’t remember the variety. They went in about a month later and have really suffered with slug damage.  I think the others had got well established before the real damp weather unleashed slugs galore.

But as you can see they are valiantly struggling on so I don’t have the heart to pull them up yet.

Elsewhere on the allotment things are generally doing OK especially the buttercups and thistles but then I have hardly  been to the allotment for two weeks due to a heavy workload, rain and our  holiday in Barcelona.  I am on leave this week so am determined to try to get on top of things, if the weather will let me.  The borage looks wonderful and has definitely drawn the small amount of black fly from the tomatoes.  The tomatoes are looking OK so far and there are even some small fruits.  I just need it to warm up and hopefully there will be a tomato crop.

The kale and purple sprouting broccoli is also looking good and I am really pleased with the netting and bamboo hoops combo which has deterred the pigeons.  Having lost  my entire cauliflower crop to pigeons I am a little twitchy when it comes to brassicas.  I am also wary of using netting since last summer we killed a grass snake in some netting which was very distressing.  This time I have pulled the netting taut and weighted the sides down with stone so hopefully we wont have a repeat performance.

I finally weeded the celeriac and celery bed and I am quite chuffed with progress so far.  I haven’t grown either of these crops before so I need to do some research on what to do next.  I am protecting the plants from the various low flying pests with some whizzy fencing I bought and I think it has also helped protect the plants from the winds we have had.

Now before you get irritated with my tidy allotment I have to confess I have only shown you the goodish bits.  At the fruit end of the plot it is not so good.  The weeds are taking over and all the salads in the raised bed had bolted.  So I decided enough was enough and pulled the lot up and have started again with a new sowing of mixed leaves and also salad onions.  I have never really got on top of this area it is always the lowest priority but I am determined to get it  sorted and get some paths down by this winter!

Looking at the weather forecast I might get some more time on Friday morning this week so hopefully it might start to look a bit more loved.  Saying that despite feeling full  of despair while I am weeding away, wondering if I will ever get on top of the situation, walking back to the car I notice that few of the plots are immaculate and many  are struggling with weeds like me so maybe I should be kinder to myself.

 

 

More jam from the plot

It’s funny how the smallest achievement can give you a huge sense of satisfaction and bring a smile to your face.  Making four jars of strawberry jams was one of those achievements.

This is the second lot of jam this year from the plot – the first lot being rhubarb and ginger.  I like the idea of making jam since it will give me a reminder of summer in the winter and it just tastes so much nicer when you have made it yourself.  I think, and I maybe prejudiced here, but I think your own jam even tastes better than someone else home-made jam.  I last made strawberry jam about 20 years ago when the boys were very little and I was trying to be a good housewife – then my marriage ended, obviously the jam was not enough, and my finances were non-existence so no more jam making.

I still have the copper preserving pan, funnel and thermometer from back then so I really have no excuse apart from a lack of confidence.  I did try making jam last autumn but it was damson and the recipe was rubbish and I had glue.  The rhubarb and ginger jam though is quite simply divine and has boosted my confidence.

As we are going away later this week I wanted to pick as many strawberries as possible from the plot.  The crop has been ridiculously bountiful, I have never seen so many.  However sadly only a third are harvestable and the rest had to be thrown.  I don’t know if its rain damage or some disease but many of the fruit are mouldy.  I had put a load of straw under the plants a while ago to protect the fruit but with all the rain we have had I suspect it may have done more harm than good.  So today I set too and cleared all the rotten fruit, disposing of them off site in case it is a disease, but I still managed to pick just over a kilo.  We have had numerous bowls of strawberries so I thought I would give the boys the evening off strawberry eating duty and make jam instead.

After my doldrums about the damson jam it was recommended that I buy the River Cottage Preserves Book  you can’t beat Pam Corbin for preserves.  I have to say the  recipe was incredibly simple and quick – much simpler than I remember.   I get very stressed about the setting point so ended up checking three different ways: temperature, saucer and wooden spoon tests.  Then I had four  jars of sparkling jam.  From the leftovers I scooped out of the pan, oh and off the spoons it is very good jam but the proof will be when I re-open the first jar to see how solid it is. But in the meantime I shall admire the jars of gooey ruby treasure on my increasingly full preserves shelf.

Note: I haven’t reproduced the recipe here as I can’t find it on the internet and therefore I don’t want to infringe any copyrights so if you would like the recipe I would recommend buying the book.

June Veg Patch

I picked my first  2 strawberries today – well I say 2 but one of them isn’t really fully ripe.  The trouble is I also removed 5 half eaten strawberries from the plants which I am presuming the birds have had a go at so I decided they weren’t getting the big fat nearly ripe one too.  I had hoped not to have to resort to netting the plants but it appears my hopes were in vain.  I haven’t cosseted the plants, feeding and watering them, as much as I have just to feed the local feathered fiends.  So it will a trip to the garden centre on the way home  for me tomorrow to get some netting and supports.

Now onions are another matter I have been harvesting them for a couple of weeks as I need them.  Also harvested the first mangetout today.

The fruit end of the plot has grown a raised salad bed and the weeds are still very much in evidence but only really where the extra path is going to go when I have the time and funds available.

You can admire the delightful rust on my garlic to the right of the photo.  The potatoes are a little sporadic which is disappointing but the earlier planted ones further down the plot are doing much better.  This week I have planted sweetcorn (just out of shot) and Carvelo Nero (black kale) which is being protected under netting. A tough lesson learnt having lost all my cauliflowers to pigeons a month ago.

The first sowing of parsnips and carrots had poor germination, I suspect because the temperatures dropped just after I sowed.  However the second sowings a couple of weeks ago have been much more successful.  The white rectangle you can see is protecting my celery and celeriac seedlings from well everything and anything – so far so good.  The brown patch is my neighbours plot, they are new and I think decided that digging the weeds by hand was too labour intensive so have applied weed killer. Luckily it doesn’t seem to have affected my plot.

I though the biggest  challenge with an allotment would be battling the weeds but it turns out that it is actually more challenging battling the various creatures that see my patch as a smorgasbord of delights – but I won’t be defeated!