We have entered the planning zone. The time when we find excuses not to tend our kitchen gardens because of the rather nasty weather and because – hey! – another 1000 catalogues have come through the post. We drool over our catalogues and dream of the year to come……oh! if only our veg would look like those in the pictures, if only our plots looked like those at the show grounds of Chelsea etc. We go to the library and browse the ‘natural history’ section and the ‘hobby’ section in the hope that we will find the Holy Grail of answers…..
Our seed packets arrive, our books arrive…….and then the confusion begins……what type of soil to grow in, what type of weather, what type of compost to use, what type of fertiliser…….aghhhh……..the list is endless. If you follow the books and the seed packets you’ll be stuffed! The only way to grow veggies is to stick some seeds in the ground and see what happens…..year after year…. We have to be optimists but we also have to be realists… Your seed packet may say ‘sow from Feb until June’…….what the heck (!) that’s a big time scale………only by experimenting in your kitchen garden will you know if February is better than June…….. and you have to be prepared for failure. Failure on a scale that will break your little heart. You will have a veggie that you try to grow but, no matter what you do, it fails. Miserably. Year after year. But. One day it will work.
We learn a lot from each other, from the ‘old hands’ on our sites, but we learn most when we are optimistic. We learn that though it may not have worked this year it just might next year. We learn to throw away the books and watch our own little patch and what it will give us…….we learn that the seed packets and their sowing times are aimed at people like us but also people far away from us….they are just a clue…..a little, maybe, insight into the mysterious world of growing your own food……
Read your books, watch your videos……they will all help…..but, above all, tune into your instincts, into your soil, into nature…………and go with the flow that your patch offers you.
I cannot wait for next year and more disasters……and more amazing moments! Happy planning.
“What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stop and stare…..”
…..the words have been going around in my mind and nagging me for weeks. I know that I should ‘stop and stare’ but somehow the to-do lists win more times than not. The autumn is always such a busy time in the kitchen garden….gathering harvests, digging, sowing, dismantling structures, cleaning, storing……and copious hours spent in the kitchen ‘processing’ all the bounty….all this combined with work, family etc ad infinitum and it can feel like I am forever chasing my own worn out tail.
…..but then a moment comes, unplanned, when I find myself sitting still for a second outside my shed…..doing nothing, staring, without a thought, out over my veggies. It is a wonderful feeling and as I become conscious of it I allow it to grow. I allow my senses to breathe and come back to life.
My eyes are the first to engage; with the colours all around me, with the changing light, in noticing the birds chancing their luck for worms in the freshly turned soil. As I watch and look my ears, too, tune in; there are squirrels chattering in the elderberry tree behind the shed, the gas is gently hissing on the stove…..somewhere, a little further away, someone is playing piano. I close my eyes and let my ears do the seeing….I can feel the weak autumn sun on my cheeks, the faintest of breezes catches a few whisps of hair that have escaped their grips….
….and then the smells come. Damp leaves, damp soil…rich, dark brown smells. A whiff of wood smoke and with it myriad memories of my grandparent’s place. I am transported and my to-do lists are a million miles away.
These moments on the plot are as precious to me as any of the veg I grow. I should make more time for them…..
Let us all put away our lists…..just for a moment……and stare.
The gate. It’s a big old thing; heavy, creaking, clunky……it swings open reluctantly and bangs shut with a dull thud. Fortified with a chain heavier than anything Jacob Marley could ever manage to shake and clank. The paint is peeling, the hinges are rusting…..it blends perfectly into its sprawling, decaying urban surroundings and hardly warrants a second glance.
But it is a magic gate. This gate has the power to transform those who pass through it and reward them with moments of pure bliss and joy. Every time I step through this gate I feel the scrunch in my shoulders loosen, my head is carried a little higher, my stride softens and slows, the frown on my brow disappears as surely as if it had been botoxed, I breathe……deeply. It is a Wizard of Oz moment…..stepping from black and white into blazing technicolour.
Life outside the gate is so often played in black and white – we all have it; the pressures of work and money, family life, juggling time, health issues, all the nitty-gritty, grind down stuff…….but on the other side of the gate the black and white, if only for a brief moment, disappears and we have roses in our cheeks again.
Sometimes, as I try to fall asleep after a particularly hard day, I picture myself opening the gate and walking through…. Your kitchen garden may not have a gate….a big, old, clunky gate like mine……but I’m sure whatever threshold you cross you, too, step into colour.
In my kitchen garden I am still the same old me……but a better me. In the kitchen garden I am me in glorious technicolour.
If you haven’t already done so there’s just enough time to get some garlic sown.
I have used cloves from my own crop harvested back in July; they’re a hard neck variety which means I’ll get a flower stalk in the spring (or ‘scrape’) which tastes great in a salad – bonus!
I plant them about 6 inches apart with about 10 inches between the rows and about an inch below the surface of the soil. Choose a sunny site with good drainage and keep it weed free. Once planted I cover the bed with some netting to deter the birds from tugging on the newly emerging shoots (do they think it’s a bed of worms?).
I rotate my crops on a four year plan with the aim of preventing any build up of disease.
There have been whisperings recently; on the allotment, in garden centres and nurseries, even on busses and trains….. “it’s the end of the season”. I’m overhearing snippets of conversations over garden fences as I trot along to my kitchen garden; “I hate the end of summer”, “it’s so sad when it’s all over”. It seems the whisperings and rumours may be true…..a Sunday visit to the allotment in high summer brings me to a crowded, happily noisy place full of activity and excitement…….but my most recent visits have brought me to a ghost town or, rather, a ghost garden.
Across the site the lawnmowers and strimmers have been silenced and are locked away, the shed doors are firmly shut, the garden furniture and bunting are packed away, bean poles, all around, are empty, falling down at crazy angles casting shadows on bare soil which are reminiscent of a Nash painting, the kids toys have been taken back to garages and homes to be forgotten for a few months……I hardly recognise the site until I get to my own little patch of it.
For me there is no such thing as the ‘end of the season’ only a change of season…..and it’s the busiest of all seasons for me. In the spring we dig and sow….in the autumn I dig and sow…..but I also harvest and harvest some more. There seem not enough hours in the day just for the harvesting, cooking, bottling, storing….never mind the digging and sowing. Hours and hours will be spent in the kitchen to make sure all my hard work will be preserved and stored to last through the months ahead.
There is no winding-down on my little patch at this time; there is no ‘end’….just a lot of ‘beginnings’. This is the perfect time of year to begin to redesign the space to make the most of every inch, to dig out those much-needed new beds, to build new structures…..this truly is the busy time. It should be called Spring! I don’t mind that the majority of those on my site disappear for 6 months at this time of year – it means I get the place to myself – I’m just a bit sad for them that they miss out on some of the fun and the food still to come.
Growing veggies rewinds me back to being a giddy 6 year old. I marvel at, and become overly excited by, the sight of plants producing big, fat veggies. That teeny, tiny seed I saved from last year and sowed this year has turned into a monster plant laden with…….and here’s the exciting bit….stuff that I can actually eat!
The most childishly joyful part of veg growing though is, surely, the unearthing of our root crops. We never know quite how well (or badly) they have done until we pull them or dig them out of their earthy beds. Carrots and parsnips invariably draw giggles as they come out of the ground in all their misshapen, sometimes naughtily so, glory….and there will always be the prize parsnip, longer than anything we’ve ever grown before, which cannot be eaten until at least half of our friends, family, facebook pals have had a chance to marvel at it’s size…..
But the best, the absolute best, is doing a ‘pirate’…..(fancy dress is not obligatory but does help)……when we go digging for buried treasure. Except the treasure isn’t gold but, rather, potatoes. I will never ever cease to be made a bit giddy by this act. Where to place the fork? Too near and you may spear them…….too far and you may miss them….. The act is best performed after a few dry days….but, heck, never mind waiting there’s treasure to be found. All potato digging should be done with a pirate accent. Arrrrrrrr.
Weeks later, the now idle potato bed is ready to be dug over and sown with winter green manure……..but wait……..the treasure still comes….clearing the beds for autumn/winter sowing and revealing yet more of these little treasures I can’t help but let out little squeals of piratic joy.
Being on the plot makes me a kid……being on the plot makes me a pirate. Let the squeals of childish joy ring out.
The days are getting a little shorter….but the to-do list is getting longer:
Remove/compost plants which have stopped producing.
Dig over the empty spaces, weeding as I go (esp. perennial weeds!)
Prepare empty beds for sowing of green manures.
Sow green manures.
Sow overwintering broad beans.
Continue to harvest (leave enough time to cook/bottle/store).
Prepare spaces for storing/get bottling equipment ready.
Check winter crops for disease/pest damage etc and remove/burn diseased plants if any.
Dead head flowers to prolong/start gathering seed from those gone over.
Clean bean poles/other supports ready for storing.
This year I have been trying to cut down on my consumption of plastic. One of the first places I looked to do this was my ‘under-the-sink’ cupboard…..it wasn’t overly full of bottles and products but was definitely an area I could improve on in my little green battle…..it wasn’t just about the plastic (though that was the primary concern) but also the amount of ingredients in all those bottles……I have a science degree but didn’t understand half of what the labels were saying.
Making my own fabric conditioner could not have been easier (or cheaper!). It’s too simple for words……just a bottle of distilled vinegar (the white/clear stuff) plus 50ish drops of essential oils (I used 25 of bergamot and 25 of lavender). I liked the idea that I could have my own ‘product’ with, basically, a couple of ingredients and very little waste. The bottle is the original bottle the vinegar came in (label soaked off and my own label pasted on) and the essential oils come in glass bottles which I can recycle. The vinegar is great for keeping your washing machine tubes/parts in good order as it cuts through all the soap scum and helps keep that ‘funky’ smell at bay. My clothes come out squeaky clean and fresh…….and, no, they don’t smell like a chip shop! Give it a good shake before you pour it into your normal conditioner dispenser drawer. Trust me, it works…..and costs about 60p!
I am a summer girl. No two ways about it – I love the summer; the heat, the light, the explosion in the kitchen garden, the buzz of the insects, the long drawn out nights.
A summer girl I may be…..but I love all the seasons for their differences. I was walking through my kitchen garden today and marvelling at the colours. The colours never mind the vegetables and I thought of Keats and his ‘mellow fruitfulness’……I was assailed by yellows from the fading sunflowers (the seeds will be shared between me and the birds), the fading oranges of the nasturtiums, the pale ‘nudes’ of the squash just desperate to be harvested and turned into gorgeous orange soup, the insipid green/yellow of the beans drying on the plants…all around me was a variation of yellow/orange/red.
In the spring time we have the acid colours; the tips of green, the flowers of yellow……I love to see them because they are a reminder of what is to come. By summertime the colours have become the primary palette that children know; bright dark green, pops of cherry red, pimples of raspberry pink, flashes of bumblebee bottom yellow…..with splashes of jewels in-between (corn flower blue makes me weak at the knees)…..and then we fade in to this autumn hue of….well…..burnt out, done in, fading yellow glory. It is sublime. But the best is yet to come.
Most folk tuck-up their kitchen gardens for winter and think of Christmas and all the hulla-balloo…….and leave the soil behind for a few months. But the wise amongst us know that the winter beds will feed us still and repay us with the beautiful colours of winter: red cabbages, touched with frost….the darkest of green, crinkle edged Savoys, the almost blue/black of the Cavolo Nero, the purple veins that beat the hearts of our brassicas….