Glorious June Produce, Humanure, and a Hedgehog At Last

June means finally starting to eat some delicious produce from the garden, beginning as usual with broad beans and strawberries at the start of the month.Bowl of Strawberries

Broad beans fried with onions

Here’s some less conventional wonderful garden produce – excellent compost from my compost toilet.

 

Compost Toilet Compost

This glorious compost toilet compost or ‘humanure’ as it’s sometimes called was just the ticket for digging into the planting holes of my squash plants and courgette plants when I put them out at the allotment in early June.   It baffles me that as a society we waste most of our clean drinking water flushing away matter that could be used, when properly composted, to fertilize our farms and gardens.

Thanks to my newly-built heated plant bench in the greenhouse, my cherry tomatoes in the polytunnel were ready three weeks earlier than usual.  I normally hope to get my first ripe cherry tomatoes on the first of July, but this year I was enjoying them early in June.

Sungold cherry tomatoes ripe in early June

Using urine as a plant fertilizer

The cherry tomato bed had been fertilized in the autumn with some of last year’s compost toilet compost, and all my tomatoes get watered with urine as a fertilizer.   Why not!?   There are actually far more plant nutrients in urine than in dung.    Urine is another resource which we should stop wasting, and stop using half our clean drinking water to flush it away to sewage treatment works.  That’s just madness!    Urine can (OK, does) get smelly if kept in a container for more than a day, but I find that if it is watered into the soil every day, then there is no smell.    I’d recommend it for flower and vegetable beds, but not for containers standing on paving or concrete, as the excess liquid leaking out of the bottom of the containers could cause an unpleasant smell where there is no soil to naturally process it.   I normally dilute the urine with water before giving it to the plants, but I’ve never seen ill effects from adding undiluted human urine to the soil, which I occasionally do.   Another great use for human urine, especially in winter, is to add it to the compost heap.  There really is no excuse for flushing it all away.

And finally… a very welcome hedgehog

It’s at least ten years since I’ve seen a hedgehog in Stroud – they are very rare around here.  I’m so glad to say that since June a hedgehog has started visiting (or maybe even living in) my garden.

A hedgehog among the hollyhocks and foxgloves

I have a large pile of decaying prunings and branches at the end of the garden, which I’ve hoped would make a great habitat for many creatures, including hedgehogs.   So the hedgehog might be living in there… but I really don’t know yet.  I see him or her snuffling around the garden at dusk.  Fingers crossed that he/she survives, finds a mate and raises some babies.  It would be so lovely if Stroud hedgehogs manage to increase in numbers – and beneficial for us gardeners, as they eat slugs and snails.  Perhaps the recent ban on poisonous slug pellets will give them more of a chance.

Stop Press  – 7th July 2022

Baby hedgehog seen with parent in the garden yesterday evening!!!

My Aubergine Jungle

After a long silence, here I am again.  I’ve not disappeared or stopped gardening, I just enjoy pottering in the garden so much more than I enjoy pottering at the computer, which is the only sane attitude to have, I think.  For starters this year, here is a photo of the aubergine jungle in my greenhouse.

A bench full of Aubergine Black Beauty plants, growing in my greenhouse in late May.
A bench full of Aubergine Black Beauty plants, growing in my greenhouse in late May.

I’m going all out for aubergines this year.  They’re tricky to grow because they need to be started very early in the season.   I started these Aubergine Black Beauty seeds in mid-February.  Three months later they are big bushy plants, with their first flower buds just about to open.  I don’t know how long it will be before I get the first fruits, but I’m hoping for July.

This year’s aubergine and tomato plants have been helped considerably by the electrically heated plant bench that I made in early Spring, which I’ll describe in another post.  In the picture above, you can just see the thermostatic temperature controller and electric plugs in the bottom right of the photo.  The soil heating cables are under the sand which the trays are standing on.  The bench is only heated on cold nights, with layers of fleece and bubble wrap over the plants to keep the heat in.   This is about ten times cheaper than heating the greenhouse.

Last year I grew some Aubergine Long Purple, which are supposed to be easier than normal aubergines to grow because their fruits are long and thin, like big purple courgettes.

Aubergine Long Purple in 2021
Aubergine Long Purple in 2021

I had a reasonable crop from them, starting in late August, and they made good eating, but this year I really wanted to grow fat aubergines rather than long thin ones.  I’m keeping all the plants in big pots in the greenhouse rather than planting them in the polytunnel border because last year’s plants sulked in the border, and only grew well in pots.  I don’t know why.  Different compost/soil, hotter in the pots?  Let’s see how things turn out this year.

An oddity about aubergine Long Purple is that more than one seed company persists in  putting entirely the wrong picture on their packets, showing conventional fat aubergines instead of these long thin courgette-shaped ones.  If you’ve grown Aubergine Long Purple and they turn out like the picture above, don’t worry, that’s how they are supposed to look!

Autumn Harvest

Although I have some home-grown food all year round, this month is when things really come to a climax, and I could survive quite well on just my own produce.  I’d miss having oats in my muesli though, and I’d need some nuts and lentils for protein.

I’m currently picking onions, potatoes, beetroot, chard, climbing beans, squash, courgettes, raspberries, apples, plums, sweetcorn, cucumber, lettuce, tomatoes, sweet peppers, coriander, basil, and aubergines!

Ingredients for a typical home-grown meal this month.

I feel very lucky to have so much home-grown food, and also very lucky not to have to depend on it to survive, as many subsistence growers do in poorer parts of the world.  My mistakes or bad luck don’t matter very much, but theirs can have fatal consequencies.   I give to Traidcraft and Oxfam to help their work with subsistence farmers.

Early morning blackcurrant harvesting

This week’s 30C heatwave has made it too hot to be gardening during the day, and I’ve had to cancel or postpone work.  One thing I couldn’t postpone any longer though was picking the blackcurrants in my garden, so I’ve been doing some early-morning harvesting.

Harvesting blackcurrants - pruned branch lying on a table for the berries to be picked off in comfort

 

Crouching down with branches in my face became uncomfortable, so with the bigger bushes I’ve been pruning and harvesting at the same time, cutting off the stems so that I can pick the berries off them in comfort at a table.    Blackcurrants like to be pruned hard – I wouldn’t recommend this technique with redcurrants.

I like to get a good few kilos of blackcurrants into the freezer every summer, so that I can have home-grown berries in my morning muesli all winter.

There is simply no better place to be…

…than in an English garden, early on a June morning.

An english garden in the early morning, with roses, gladioli and ox-eye daisies
This is the most flowery border in my garden this month. Nothing elaborate, uncommon, or expensive.   Roses (in foreground – Penelope), ox-eye daisies, sage in flower, and gladioli.

Every morning at the moment, when I walk out into the garden before breakfast, I think “This spot here, at this moment, is the best place in the world”.

May: full speed ahead in the greenhouse!

May is a such busy and exciting time in the greenhouse and polytunnel.  Plants are in all stages of creation, from sweetcorn seeds in the heated propagator, to young tomato plants planted in the borders.

Working on seed sowing, pricking out, and potting on, especially when it’s raining outside, is pure joy.  After no rain all through April, this last week of regular rain is very welcome, as is the change to frost-free nights.    Of course there might still be frosts until June, so it’s not yet time to put away the horticultural fleece and bubble wrap that covers the greenhouse plants on cold nights.

A selection of young plants on a bench in the polytunnel
Nicotiana, sunflowers, cosmos, mitzuna, cornflowers, and lettuce. Although the cornflowers, mizuna and lettuce are frost hardy, I keep them in the greenhouse until they’ve grown into big enough plants to survive attack by slugs and snails!

Another radio moment – explaining the importance of peat free compost

Considering the record temperatures we’ve had this week (32.5C), I’d been meaning to finally write a post about the two water-saving automatic drip watering systems that I use, and the bulk rainwater storage in my garden… I must do that.   Then yesterday we had record rainfall – about 2 inches in half an hour I think.  O tempora, o mores!

One thing that would help control climate change and reduce extreme weather events like we’ve experienced in the last few days is if the gardening industry would stop taking peat from peat bogs.  There is more carbon locked up in peat bogs than in forests in the northern hemisphere, and yet uncaring companies continue to dig up UK peat bogs to put the peat into plastic bags to flog to gardeners as ‘compost’.   Even though they signed a voluntary agreement to stop doing this by 2020!  Once dug up, the peat-based compost reacts with oxygen, degrades into useless dust, and releases its stored carbon.  Never buy compost unless it clearly states on the bag that it is Peat Free.

Yesterday I was asked by presenter Kate Clark to talk about peat free compost on BBC Radio Gloucestershire.

Listen at BBC Sounds (1 hour 12 minutes into the programme) or when that expires, which sadly it will do in 30 days because of the music in the show, you can use this backup audio file.

We also talked about Bisley Community Composting Scheme, which I’ve been a voluntary director of for the last couple of years.  At Bisley we produce over seventy tons a year of excellent peat free compost, just from the garden waste of Bisley village.   You can come and buy it in bags (4 x 30 litre bags of sieved compost for £10) or collect bulk unsieved compost in exchange for a donation.  See website link above for details of how and when to visit.

Bisley Community Composting Scheme
Bisley Community Composting Scheme

 

My moment on Radio 4’s Gardeners’ Question Time (promoting the virtues of compost toilets)

Yesterday’s edition of Gardeners’ Question Time -Sunday 19th January 2020 – satisfied one of my lifetime ambitions – I was on the programme, asking a question!   The show was recorded in Nailsworth in December, and once I wrote my question on the piece of paper handed to me at the door, I had a good feeling that it would be chosen.  The question was:

“I have a compost toilet in my garden.  It saves tens of thousands of litres of water a year, and makes wonderful compost.  Do the panel members have compost toilets in their gardens, and if not, why not?”

The producer chose it as the first question of the show.   You can hear it here (at 4 mintues 47 seconds into the show)  https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m000d7k2

The panel members didn’t really know much about compost toilets, but at least they were positive about the idea.  Hopefully this bit of exposure for compost toilets on Radio 4 will set more people thinking about them, and lead to more people making their own.

My compost toilet sits at the end of my garden.  I built it in the autumn of 2016, and after 3 years of use I couldn’t be keener on it – I love it and I think that everyone who has the space should have one.  One of these days I’ll write a detailed step by step article about how I made it and how it works.

My compost toilet, exterior view

My compost toilet, interior view

This was my second attempt at getting onto Gardeners’ Question Time.  I went to a recording of the show at the Royal Agricultural College in Cirencester about 3 years ago, but didn’t have my question selected that time (“Why is Glyphosate/Roundup weedkiller not banned in gardens?”  Too controversial I expect).

Here’s  a photo from the Nailsworth recording in December 2019

Recording of Gardeners' Question Time, Nailsworth 17th December 2019, broadcast 19th January 2020.

They actually recorded two shows in Nailsworth that evening – the second is to be broadcast on 2nd February (I guess they needed to cover the Christmas and New Year gap).    Each time I’ve been to a recording of GQT, I’ve been really impressed with the incredible skill of the chairman in linking everything together so smoothly and coordinating the panel and questioners’ contributions in such a good natured way.  This time it was Peter Gibbs, last time it was Eric Robson.  Both of them such excellent broadcasters.  The panelists were good too of course.  It was a shame that Bob Flowerdew wasn’t on the panel for the compost toilet question – I’m sure he would have had plenty of informed comment on the subject.  Pippa Greenwood asked (probably not seriously) if I would design a compost toilet for her garden… if you’re reading this, Pippa, just get in touch 🙂

One surprising thing about the show is that they don’t record any extra questions that don’t get broadcast.  They choose just the right number of questions, and the show goes out on air pretty much as it was live, no doubt with a few very subtle edits to keep within the overall time limit.

My Gardeners' Question Time question as submitted on the night.
My Gardeners’ Question Time question.

Now my dream would be for Radio 4 to get in touch with me to present a 30 minute programme all about compost toilets 🙂  There are quite a few around in Stroud, and promoting them is a real passion with me…

Start of the growing season

Like the garden, I’ve been fairly dormant since late autumn.  I think I’m very lucky that I don’t have to rely on gardening for my living all year round – I have other types of work which don’t involve braving the winter weather.

Anyway, things are well and truly bursting into life outside now, I’ve resumed gardening work again this week, and I’ve sown my first batch of seeds in my greenhouse – mostly annual flowers, plus a few edibles.   Such a lovely time of year, having the whole of the spring and summer still ahead of us!

Invasion of the Ivy Bees

ivy bees on tomatoes in polytunnel in UK
A bee or not a bee, that is the question

When about a thousand bee/wasp creatures came to live in my garden polytunnel a couple of weeks ago, I emailed our local permaculture group members for help identifying them.  The bees/wasps were feeding on the split tomatoes by day, and at night were going to sleep in clumps on the floor.  The polytunnel doors were wide open, but they showed no signs of planning to leave.

The mystery of what they were was soon solved.  Someone else had recently had the same thing happen in their polytunnel, and the insects had been identified as Ivy Bees.  These are a fairly new species to us, first seen in the UK in 2001.  They hatch out in the autumn and feed on the ivy which is flowering at that time.   When I looked closely at the ivy in my garden, lo and behold, more such stripey bees were indeed buzzing round the ivy flowers.

I was told that the Ivy Bees were docile, only stinging under very extreme provocation, which seems to be correct as despite having hundreds buzzing round me when picking tomatoes, I haven’t been stung.  They are fairly short-lived, and sadly most of mine have now died (in heaps on the polytunnel floor!).   Apparently they lay their eggs in burrows in the ground, with many females making burrows close to each other.

I wonder if they have made their burrows inside the polytunnel?  Perhaps I will see their descendants this time next year.  I can’t help thinking that they’d be better off living outside, taking nectar from the Ivy flowers.  After all, they aren’t called Polytunnel or Split Tomato Bees.