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.

 

Austrian Scythes

Grass too long in your orchard?   I finally got a chance to try out an Austrian Scythe recently, having heard about them for several years.   They’ve become popular as they are lighter than the traditional English scythe.  I was impressed, much easier to use than I expected, even for a beginner, and far more effective than the petrol strimmer would have been!

Scything an orchard with an Austrian Scythe

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are several places to buy them online in the UK, including these nice people: Scythe Cymru

Plants For Sale

It’s the time of year for planting out courgettes, squashes and tomatoes, and once again I have plants for sale.  The current list is

Tomatoes: Sungold, Alicante, Gardeners Delight, Japanese Black, Red Alert, and saved seed from orange and red cherry tomotoes

Squashes: Butternut, Crown Prince

Courgette: Gold Rush, Nero Di Milano

Herbs: Basil

All grown using organic methods in peat free compost.

 

Potato Day and Stroud Community Seed Bank

There’s very little gardening to be done in January other than pruning fruit trees, but one very important task is thinking about the seeds that will be needed in the coming season.   So I’m getting out my box of left-over and saved seeds, and checking what I have, and what seeds I’ll need to buy or swap to be ready for the growing year ahead.

There’s a great event coming up in Stroud that will help with this.  The annual Stroud Potato Day (Saturday 3 Feb, 10 till 2.30, Merrywalks Shopping Centre)  is an un-missable opportunity to buy seed potatoes.  They have a huge selection, and you can buy large or small quantities, even just one or two of each type if that’s what you want to do – great for testing potato varieties you’ve not grown before.

Stroud Potato Day 2018 and Stroud Community Seed Bank

This year, Stroud Community Seed Bank will also be at the Potato Day, offering members of the public the chance to have a share of the seeds lovingly grown, saved, and packaged by the volunteer members of this pioneering local group.  You can get old favourites,  heritage varieties, rarities, and local varieties.  For example,  Cherokee Trail of Tears beans, Jane’s Flat White Beans, Oskar peas, Purple Ukrainian, Tangerella, and Hawkwood Cherry Tomatoes, Thrupp Parsnip and no end of flowers.   All available for a donation of 50p or £1 per packet.   More info about the Seed Bank on their website, and their Facebook page, and you can download the full Stroud Community Seedbank Catalogue here.

Packet of Stroud Community Seed Bank BeansThere are also Seed Swap events coming up in Stroud: at the Stroud Valleys Project shop in Threadneedle Street on Saturday 24th Feb 10.30 – 1pm, and at a Stroud Community Seed Bank filmnight at Lansdown Hall 7pm, Friday 2nd March.    The Seed Bank’s seeds will also be available at both events, and at the Down To Earth stall at Stroud Farmers Market on Saturday 27th January.

And if you’re itching to get sowing, what seeds can you plant at this time of year?  It’s still very early, but I’ll be sowing some onions seeds in trays in a cold greenhouse next week, and starting a few early tomatoes on a widowsill in early Feb, when you can also make outdoor sowings of broad beans.  Apart from that, almost all seed sowing takes place in March and April onwards, so there’s still plenty of time to think about what seeds to sow this Spring, and get out to a seedy local event.

 

(Blight) resistance is not useless!

It’s been a pretty dreadful summer for blight on outdoor tomatoes – there was such a lot of rain all through August, and blight thrives in damp conditions.  So it was good timing for my trial of a new blight resistant tomato – Mountain Magic.   They did really well – when other outdoor tomato plants have long-since died a horrible death, the Mountain Magic plants are still thriving and perfectly healthy!    Their tomatoes have a pretty good flavour too, so I’ll definitely be growing more Mountain Magic plants in future years, for customers who can only grow their tomato plants outside.

An outdoor-grown Mountain Magic tomato plant, September 2017 – thriving, with no sign of blight long after other outdoor tomato plants have died of it.
A very sad looking outdoor-grown Sungold tomato plant, September 2017.  Plant and fruit destroyed by blight.

In a dryish summer, ‘normal’ tomato plants can fruit well outside in a warm sheltered spot such as against a south-facing wall.  But on the basis of this year’s experiment, I think it’s well worth growing a mix of Mountain Magic and other tomato varieties, in case the blight strikes early as it did this year.   Fifty percent Mountain Magic would probably be my recommendation.

If you grow your tomatoes in a greenhouse or polytunnel, of course you don’t need to worry about blight, as indoor tomatoes are rarely affected (their leaves stay dry, so the blight spores don’t multiply on them).

Here’s looking forward to the introduction of other blight resistant outdoor tomato varieties –  a cherry tomato would be nice, as Mountain Magic produce small-ish full sized fruits, later to ripen than cherry-sized fruits would be.    If you’re wondering about blight resistant potatoes, the family of Sarpo potatoes, such as Sarpo Mira, are pretty good in my experience – mine are still healthy and flourishing in mid-September after a very wet summer… and they’ve grown some really massive potatoes thanks to all the rain!

Wading and weeding

It’s not often that a gardening job involves something totally new to me, but recently I’ve been working in a large garden that is surrounded on all sides by water.   So on a couple of the recent hot days, I’ve been in waders in the river, weeding it, as the owner has a legal duty to keep the water course free of vegetation.   Luckily, the owner knows a lot about water plants, as I don’t!  I’d heard of water mint and water cress, but not water parsnip or water forget-me-not!

Before weeding
weeding a river - after the weeding
After weeding

In my own garden and allotment, I’m doing much more conventional tasks for this time of year.  The biggest job is picking the soft fruit – I aim to get as many berries as possible into the freezer, to have with my morning muesli throughout the winter.

Redcurrant bush heavily laden with fruit
It’s a bumper year for redcurrants and blackcurrants.

Other than that, all the food plants are planted, and the work in the kitchen gardens has eased off, which gives me time to admire the newly extended border in my back garden, which is pleasingly crammed with flowers, including lots of nicotianas, clarkia, rudbeckias, penstemons and cornflowers grown from seed to fill up the new space.  Gardens are such heaven in June and July!

 

 

Time to plant out tomatoes, courgettes and squashes – plants now for sale, and the story of my cedar greenhouse.

From the start of June it’s safe to plant out courgettes, squashes and tomatoes outdoors. The garden centres would have you believe that these things can go outside from March when they start selling them… but of course they only care about selling them, not whether they survive!

As usual I have lots of tomatoes, courgettes, and squash plants for sale, lovingly and ecologically grown in my back-garden polytunnel and newly restored greenhouse. See my Plant Sales page for an updated list of what I have available.  Send me an email (peter@stroudgardener.co.uk)  or give me a call (07729 103263) to buy plants.

Restoring the greenhouse has been a major project this spring – finished about a month ago, just in time to be useful.   It’s a ‘vintage’ cedar wood greenhouse, which I was lucky to acquire for free a couple of years ago from a friend in our local permaculture group.   I’d wanted a cedar greenhouse for as long as I can remember!

My cedar greenhouse after restoration.

When I received the greenhouse, the wood around the bottom was in a very sorry state with lots of rot – it had either been used or stored in damp conditions without enough air circulation around the frame.  The amount of work involved put me off starting the repairs for quite a while, and I also built a rather lovely compost toilet when I should have been fixing the greenhouse (that’s another story).   However, having found suitable cedar timber for the repairs, this spring I machined it to the correct profile, cut out the old wood and fixed in the new – luckily, woodworking is something I enjoy, and over the years I have built up a well-equipped workshop.

My cedar greenhouse during the repairs

With luck, after all this attention, the greenhouse will be good for another 20 or 30 years.  In theory it could last forever, as the nice thing about wooden structures is that they are always repairable.  Cedarwood doesn’t rot outdoors in the correct conditions (well drained, well aired), but this old greenhouse proved that cedarwood can rot if left shady and damp for too long.  Of course, the nice thing about aluminium greenhouses is that they never rot… but on the other hand they just don’t look so good in the garden!  I’m glad to say that the cedar greenhouse now mostly blocks out the view of my polytunnel, which is far from a thing of beauty, for all its usefulness.

Red Russian Kale, and tips for planting onion sets and reusing old plant labels

One of the best things about March, apart from the clocks going forward of course, is Red Russian Kale.   It grows generously this month, producing wonderful tender leaves and delicious flower shoots that are better than purple sprouting.  If you could only grow one vegetable, this is the one I’d recommend!  You won’t find the seed in many shops, but it’s easily available by mail order, e.g. from the excellent Tamar Organics.

Red Russian Kale - by far the best of the brassicas?
Red Russian Kale – by far the best of the brassicas?

If you’re going to grow onions from onion sets, this is also the time of year to be planting them.  Onion sets are so simple to plant, but I disagree with the traditional advice which is to leave the tip of the little onion poking out just above the soil surface.  If you do this, curious birds come along and pull them out, and you either have to keep putting them back into their holes, or cover the whole lot with netting.   Here’s a really simple solution: plant them deep enough so that the tips are just buried.   “But won’t that be bad for them?” you ask.  They really don’t mind.  I learned this from a commercial veg grower, who plants onion sets using a machine which not only puts them under the soil, but doesn’t even bother to get them all the right way up… and they grow just fine!

There's no need to follow the traditional advice to plant onion sets with their tips showing. Cover them right up - unless you want to provide entertainment for the birds who will enjoy pulling them up!
There’s no need to follow the traditional advice to plant onion sets with their tips showing. Cover them right up – unless you want to provide entertainment for the birds who will enjoy pulling them up!

Finally, as I start the spring sowing of seeds, I find that I have dozens (probably hundreds) of previously-used plant labels.  I wouldn’t dream of throwing away plastic plant labels just because they have been used once or twice – and here’s the best way I’ve found of quickly cleaning them up to use again:  give them a rub (about 5 seconds) with good old-fashioned wire wool.   Much more effective than washing them or using a pencil eraser, and it leaves the plastic nice and clean with a slightly matt surface which is ideal for writing on with a pencil.

Clean up old plastic plant labels quickly by giving them a rub with wire wool.
Clean up old plastic plant labels quickly by giving them a rub with wire wool.