Friday, June 6, 2014

Planting the kitchen garden

When I returned from London, the kitchen garden had been completely cleared of ivy and other invasive plants, although there were still wild geranium and rhubarb surviving on the outer edges.  I began to plan out the planting, but it is rather a puzzle - like trying to match up classes, classrooms and teachers in a complicated timetabling exercise.

Alistair placed some paving slabs to make paths, as one of the permaculture rules is to try not to walk on the earth you are planting.  He made a cross in the kitchen garden, thus dividing it into four unequal quarters, one of which has the laburnum tree in it, which I am treating as a pea.

An added problem is that permaculture lists tend to assume you will be starting from scratch and eradicating anything which doesn't either provide food, attract the right insects or provide fertilization.  They don't seem to realize that most people in England will have an existing garden and may feel sentimental about plants which aren't in the permaculture lists.  The garden had been opened up quite a bit by the loss of one trunk of the laburnum tree, but I didn't want to take down the other side unless it was absolutely necessary.

Different permaculture sites have different lists for companion or antagonistic plants, which doesn't help.  I had to do quite a lot of searching before I decided to divide up the kitchen garden and put leeks, carrots and lettuce in one quarter; marrow, corn, tomatoes and nasturtiums in a second quarter; lavender, rosemary, strawberries and spinach in the third quarter; and a spillover corn, tomatoes and carrots in the fourth.

I have pots with strawberry, lavender and spinach, closer to the house, hanging baskets with strawberries, a couple of large planters with herbs in, and a couple of redcurrant bushes I planted in the middle of the first quarter.

I've now removed the ivy from the walls, and made sure to dispose of the material in the green bin for proper recycling, rather than putting it in the compost bin - not a good idea with anything invasive the Royal Horticultural Society says.

The planting is not as sparse as it was in this picture - I've added more tomatoes, strawberries and corn, lettuce and beetroot to the planting shown here.  The weather has been rather bad since I planted - which has had the advantage that I have only had to water a couple of times.

Beating the ivy

I'd been away in the south for a visit to see my Dad in hospital and so hadn't spent much time in the garden.  I decided that I needed to clear away the ivy in the kitchen garden to have any hope of growing anything there.  It seemed to centre on the laburnum tree, which was covered in ivy and seemed to be struggling.

I'm not sure what permaculturists have to say about ivy.  It's a very invasive and destructive plant, but I assume it must have some role to play in nature, adding something to the environment - or maybe breaking it down to allow for other plants to follow on.  In my garden the ivy had been left to run riot, and was climbing up the new back wall, up the old side wall, all over the poor laburnum and spreading across the ground in the kitchen garden.

I think ivy on a new wall is not such a worry, because there shouldn't be many footholds for it to work itself in.  Ivy on an old wall is much more of a concern, as it may exploit any cracks or weaknesses in the wall.  The tree seemed to be suffering badly, with some branches having died altogether.

Having bought a climbing rose on impulse at the local garden centre in Mill Lane in Middle Rasen, I needed to clear some of the wild geranium, which is spreading everywhere, too, and is particularly thickly spread over that corner of the kitchen garden.

I discovered that it pulled up quite easily, but the rhizome that it grows from would generally stay in the ground, so I started to loosen up the soil with a fork and pull up the rhizomes.  I had a second problem that the soil level in the kitchen garden is extremely variable and needs fixing, but I didn't have time before I needed to go south again, and so I simply cleared and area, took it down in height, and planted the rose, which looks very healthy.

Meanwhile, Kim had carried on the job of removing the ivy on the laburnum tree.  Ali began to help and soom managed to get most of the ivy off the trunk we had been working on. 

The following day, they carried on, and managed to get some of the very thick vines off the main trunk.  It seemed that the ivy had worked itself into the trunk though.  About thirty minutes later, the trunk split all the way down and the left trunk began to collapse.

The following day, I started to cut out the ivy in an attempt to save that part of the tree, but soon realized it wasn't feasible.  John helped me to cut it down, and Kim did a sterling job of lopping off branches and cutting them down to fit in our green refuse bags.  I am giving the trunks to a friend for seasoning, as he makes things with wood.

While I was away in the south, John and Kim cleared the Kitchen garden of ivy completely.  They managed to save one trunk of the tree, and remove all the ivy from it.

Sunday, May 25, 2014

Changes begin

I have been looking after the garden since we moved in, trying to keep it tidy, weeding out things I thought I should, looking after the lawn and borders.  I've been keeping watch to see what grows in the borders.

Things were beginning to look rather different by April.  A lot of plants had sprouted, and it was clear there were a lot of bulbs - daffodils, grape hyacinth, hyacinth, tulips - in the borders around the lawn in the back garden.

The front garden also had some bulbs, but the major change was that wild geranium was sprouting at an alarming rate.  There are some shrubs like cotoneaster, gorse, a few roses were beginning to sprout, and an awful lot of stuff I didn't recognize.

I began to realise the changes that had been made to the gardens.  The retaining edging tiles had mostly been removed from the borders in the front garden, and had been used to shore up the borders in the back garden.  They were laid horizontally instead of vertically, two or three deep next to the terracotta tiles in the back border.  When I started moving them, I found that a lot of soil had spilled over and was thick with earthworms and woodlice.

The removal of the edging tiles in the front garden meant that soil was spilling over there too.  I have an immense amount of edging, flooring and paving material in the garden, as well as rocks and bricks, and broken versions of all of those.  I certainly have enough to replace the edging, but I think the reason they were removed in the first place is that over the years the organic matter added to the borders had made the eath level higher than any of the retaining tiles.

I'd started researching the idea of permaculture, and was feeling rather lost.  I don't want to rip the whole garden up, I like it!  I just want to make a gradual change to permaculture principles, working with nature, planting things that work well together, and bringing more food crops into the garden.

I decided that the first step was to observe what was growing in the garden and what insects and creatures we have too.  Things that are flourishing include vinca, ivy, couch grass, dandelions, daisies, lilacs. 

Mind you, show me a garden in England that couldn't make a success of that list of plants!  They all like poor soil... and maybe that was a clue. 

I have a lot of birds in the garden, especially a pair of robins, a pair of wood pigeons, and a group of sparrows. 

We have a lot of insect life.  The compost bin is alive with insects and there are a lot of earthworms everywhere. There is a hedgehog living in the garden too - and his work in ridding me of snails and slugs is greatly appreciated.  There are frogs in the garden too, although they keep away from the pond and mostly sit in the cool of the stones lining the kitchen garden.

My first step was to try to get rid of some of the vinca, and Kim and Ali worked hard to remove it.  I planted some alpines in it's place, although it has grown back strongly on the other side.

About my house

Before I start explaining what I am doing with permaculture, I should explain the history of my house.  It was built around 1850 as the gas works manager's house in Market Rasen.  The Market Rasen Lighting and Gas company had opened their gas works in 1837 and brought street lighting to Market Rasen, then a flourishing market town about 16 miles from Lincoln.  They built the Gas works house next to the gas works to house the manager and his family, and right through the changes of name and ownership for the gas companies (and into nationalization in 1948) the house was the gas works manager's house.
Gas Works House (as was)
In the late 1960s the house was sold into private ownership for the first time, and that couple lived in the house for many years.  The family I bought it from were only the second private owners of the house.

The house has a rather odd layout because it used to be linked to the gas works, which is no longer next door.  There is a small front garden with a wall and railings, two overgrown holly trees.  I don't think I will be able to grow food crops in the front garden, as it is close to the road, which is small but very busy - everyone uses it as a cut through.

After the wall there is a side gate and path leading down one side of the house, and then a gate to the back garden.  However, the side gate at the front is more or less redundant due to the fact that the wall which runs alongside the house is about 18 inches tall and nearly everyone simply steps over it.

Archway to loo on left, office on right

At the back the garden is more or less the width of the house, with a high wall all around it.  There are a number of outbuildings.  There is what is known as the office, which is in poor repair, with the ceiling come down and the walls crumbling inside, which is reputedly where the gas works manager used to pay his staff.  Next to that is a small archway, which is where we keep the wheelie bins, leading off to a lavatory - apparently he used to object to allowing the staff to go into the house and so had two loos built in the garden.  Only one of these is functional, the other loo has been removed and the little room used for storage - of that later.

The functional loo with heath robinson tap

On the other side of the garden there is what we know as the stable, which is simply a cupboard with a stable door.  Next to that is the coal house, which is full of a lot of junk at present.

Stable door and coal house door

There is a concrete patio type area outside the back door, with an alarming slope into the middle with a drain.  There are terracotta steps up into the garden here.  There is a very small lawn ranged around quite a tall cherry tree for the space.  Looking at these pictures, I am astonished by how much the cherry tree has grown in six months.

There are borders either side of the steps and some quite big plants within those - a lilac tree on one side of the garden, and a large forsythia on the other, which arches across the path on the left side of the Garden. 

Forsythia on left, looking down the path to the house

There are paths on both sides of the lawn area going up the side of the garden, and a path across from one side to the other behind the lawn and before the pond.  On the left hand side, there is a small patio lined with breeze blocky things, and I have constructed a bench for plants which like a lot of shade (I have box cuttings there among other things) which hadn't happened when I took these pictures. 

Small patio area

The pond is very overgrown, and has a crack somewhere - it gradually drains when we have a few fair days and then fills again when there is rain.  It also has leeches in it, according to the previous owner.

Pond and leeches

Next to the pond is a rock garden, which is pretty much overgrown with vinca - creeping myrtle.  Directly behind the pond is a hedged area.  The garden then splits... on one side there is a paved patio area and a garage behind, which is accessed from the back road. 

At the side of the garage is a border with established shrubs, and a terracotta pathway to another gate. 

On the other side the path continues through a redundant doorway to a composting bin at the back of the garden.  There are overgrown lilacs and a lot of overcrowded planting along the borders.  Between the two is a kitchen garden, which was covered in ivy. There were thick vines encircling the laburnum tree which was struggling to survive in the middle of the kitchen garden, next to an overgrown buddleia.  All the foliage on the tree is ivy.

Ivy strangling laburnum

The photographs I am showing were taken some months ago, and show the garden as it was a few weeks after we moved in.

Saturday, May 24, 2014

A frustrating beginning

I learned about the ideas of permaculture from a Second Life friend, who is planning to retire to a life of permaculture in the next few months.  I'd been vaguely aware of it as a word, but I assumed it was something about being green and sustainable without ever finding out about the specifics.  He told me that the ideas of permaculture were to work with nature and not against it, trying to make use of the things which nature does automatically to bring balance to any system.

The idea is that you try to plant companion plants which will assist each other, and do in a short time what nature will eventually do, to bring fertility to the soil.  It means observing what grows well in your soil and growing conditions and trying to work with that.

Mod sent me some links, and told me about Masonobu Fukuoka's philosophy, and my journey started there.  I watched some interesting documentaries on youtube, read articles about the general principles, and was convinced that there was a great deal in the idea of working with nature and not against it.

In December last year I moved north to Lincolnshire, and bought a house with an established (and small) garden. 
The garden is lovely, but had been neglected for some time as the previous owners had been in poor health, and so despite its smallness, there is a lot to do.  For example, the laburnum tree in the back garden was full of ivy, which was gradually strangling the tree.  By the thick vines which were plaited around the trunks of the tree, it had been allowed to go wild for some years.

I've searched for books and online websites which will help me to do what I want to do, which is to convert an established garden into a permaculture garden, retaining the things which are flourishing and working for me, and replacing those things that aren't.  I want to retain a garden that I enjoy and want to like its appearance as well as working with nature.  However, a lot of the books and online websites seem to assume that you will be starting from scratch, have acres of land or be living in California!  I can find little guidance for what someone in my situation, in Lincolnshire, should do.

I can see that a lot of people in England are impressed by the ideas of permaculture and are also struggling to work out how to do it, and so I decided to document what I am doing, in case it should be helpful to someone else.

I have an additional difficulty:  having only been in this house for a few months, I have *no* idea what is in my borders and around the garden.  I'm not a novice gardener, but I find it difficult to identify plants and shrubs if they don't have flowers on them.  People tell me that the garden has some beautiful lilies which have graced the front garden for at least 60 years, but I haven't seen those yet.  I don't want to inadvertently rip up something beautiful, especially in the front garden.  As my front garden is very close to a busy road, I don't feel I can grow crops to eat there - I'm going to keep to beneficial plants which can be used for natural fertilisers etc.

 So this is the beginning of permaculture at Sycamore House.