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Young plants transferred to heated bench in the greenhouse

After a very cold and dull start to March, at last this weekend there was a whiff of Spring in the air, a little sunshine,  a hint of warmth, and I finally felt that the gardening year was about to properly start.

I’ve been raising my aubergine and sweet pepper seeds on my kitchen windowsill since early February, and I’ve finally potted these up into individual cells, and moved them to the heated bench in the greenhouse.   They’re joined there by my first few tomato plants, sown in the kitchen in late February.  You don’t need to sow tomatoes as early as that, but I like to get a few off to an early start, to be followed by the main sowings between now and mid-April.

Young plants on my heated greenhouse bench
Young plants on the heated bench in the greenhouse.

Once the seedlings are potted up into individual cells, there’s just not enough room for them in the kitchen, and I have to start the daily ritual of uncovering them in the greenhouse every morning, and covering them up again with plastic lids and layers of fleece or bubble wrap every evening.   They get more light in the greenhouse than they would on a windowsill, so they should start to grow faster now, aided by the lengthening hours of daylight as we pass the equinox.

While they were on the kitchen windowsill, I avoided the seedlings bending towards the light, or getting ‘leggy’, by putting aluminium foil behind them as a reflector, so that they were getting light from both sides.

Put aluminium foil behind your seedlings on a windowsill, so that they receive light from both sides, for sturdier, straighter seedlings.
Put aluminium foil behind your seedlings on a windowsill, so that they receive light from both sides, for sturdier, straighter seedlings.

I find that this works very well.  It’s a trick that I thought up myself, but I’m sure other people must have independently had similar ideas before, so I’d be very surprised if I was the first person to think of it.  Perhaps it’s still not a very well-known idea, though, because a couple of years ago, Amateur Gardening magazine contacted me to ask permission to use a previous photo of seedlings on a windowsill with reflective aluminium foil behind them, that I’d posted on this website years ago when originally recommending this tip!

Rounding off the year with saved seeds

Poppy seeds germinating while still in the seed head As we’re all aware, it’s been an incredibly wet autumn.  So wet that poppy seeds have started to germinate in the poppy seed heads, something I’ve never seen before!

But not all seeds are so wet, and I’ve been gathering the seeds that I’ll save for planting next year.   Coriander seed and basil seed have been drying on the stems in the greenhouse, and it’s now time to put them into carefully labelled jars or envelopes and bring them into the house for use next spring.

Basil seeds dried for saving
Basil seeds dried for saving

 

 

 

 

 

Dried coriander seeds
Dried coriander seeds ready for shaking off the stems and storing – but you can use them as a spice too of course.

Likewise I’ve been drying the seed heads of dwarf sunflowers.  I’m very fond of the small multi-headed sunflowers that you can grow in big pots – but the seeds are really expensive to buy.  Although these were an F1 hybrid (meaning a gamble if you try to save seeds from them), I saved mine last year, and they grew into nice dwarf multi-headed sunflowers this year.   Hopefully they will grow true again next year, and if so, I’ll have a useful variety to save every year in future.    F1 hybrid seeds are expensive, being produced fresh each season by crossing two separate varieties.  Generally it’s best to grow from normal or ‘open pollinated’ (i.e. non F1 hybrid) seeds if you want to save your own seed from your veg and flower plants.  Most seeds are ‘normal’.  You’ll know if you’ve bought F1 hybrids, because it will say so very clearly on the packet, and they will have been extremely expensive, e.g. £3 for just 10 or 20 seeds.

Dwarf sunflower heads dried for seed saving
Dwarf sunflower heads dried for seed saving.

 

Probably the best and easiest seeds to save are beans.   I’ve just planted the Aquadulce broad bean seeds that I saved from the end of this spring’s crop – something I do every year.  And I’m just about to cut down and bring indoors for final drying the pods of the now dead and dry climbing beans, which I’ll sow next May.

My saved broad bean seeds
Planting my saved broad bean seeds
Climbing bean seed pods ready for further drying
Climbing bean seed pods ready for further drying indoors

Before you store your bean seeds, they must be totally dry and hard.   If you can make a dent in them with your thumbnail, dry them for longer and test again.   Bean seeds grow true, are easy to dry and handle, and are probably the one type of seed that you should regularly save even if you don’t save any other seeds from your garden.

Some other vegetable seeds have technicalities that should be observed for really successful saving.  Cabbage family seeds should really only be saved from plants which have had the chance to pollinate with a large number of others, 20 or 30 I think, but I’ve still had good results from my saved Red Russian Kale seeds from a group of only about eight plants.

Tomato seeds are easy and successful to save, but the technique is a bit strange.   As with flowers, bear in mind that some tomato varieties (e.g. Sungold) are F1 hybrids so won’t come true in the next generation, but you’ll probably still get a nice slightly similar tomato.  Non F1 varieties of tomato breed true, so I always save seeds from my favourites – Russian Black, Alicante, and Marmande.

To save tomato seeds you need to do something rather odd: squeeze out the juice and seeds into a jam jar or drinking glass, and let them mould and ferment on the kitchen windowsill for a few days before drying them.

Jars of tomato seeds on a windowsill so that they can ferment and mould for a few days!
Jars of tomato juice and seeds on a windowsill

After a few days, when there’s a nice layer of mould on top of the liquid, lift off the mould with a fork or a lollipop stick, and discard it into your compost bin.   Then tip the juice and seeds into a sieve, and strain and rinse the seeds.  Now you can dry them, widely spaced out on kitchen paper.  It doesn’t matter if they stick to the kitchen paper.  If they are stuck, just tear the paper into small bits with one seed on each, and leave the paper stuck to the seeds when you plant them – it will do no harm.

Tomato seeds drying on kitchen paper
Make sure you remember to label the seeds with the name of the variety!

You’ll find plenty of books and websites with advice on how to save different types of seeds.  Usually it’s obvious and very simple, but sometimes there are particular odd techniques, as with tomatoes above, or restrictions, as with the cabbage family plants.   Sadly, although squash, pumpkin and courgette seeds are tempting to save, it’s best not to try with any of this family, as they cross fertilize rampantly and your saved butternut squash or courgette seeds might produce something quite weird and inedible.

Stroud is very lucky to have an enthusiastic group of people who practise and promote seed saving – Stroud Community Seed Bank.  They run local events to encourage and educate about seed saving, and distribute their saved seeds for a donation in various places in Stroud in the Spring.

 

Hedgehog feeding and hedgehog houses.

Here is an update to the story of the hedgehog which began visiting my Uplands garden in June.

Following a bizarre incident with a camping stove, Mother Hedgehog (MH) started having supper every evening outside my back door about an hour after sunset.  Supper consisted, conventionally enough, of dried cat food and a bowl of water, but the bizarre incident consisted of MH knocking over a saucepan of (fortunately cold) sunflower oil and greedily licking up the oil… then coming back later to lick up more.  Who would have thought that hedgehogs would love sunflower oil?!?   In case you’re wondering, I had been deep frying falafels outside on a little gas stove, and had left the oil there to cool down before dealing with it.   Mother Hedgehog decided to deal with it instead.

By chance, I took a photograph of the falafels being fried on the patio, but unfortunately I don’t have a photo of Mother Hedgehog later knocking over the saucepan and licking up the oil!

So, having agreed with MH that in future I would provide dried cat food and a bowl of water instead of just sunflower oil, she started coming every evening to have supper on my patio.  Followed about a month later by a little hedgehog.

Mother Hedgehog and Little Hedgehog eating dried cat food
Mother Hedgehog and Little Hedgehog Number 1 eating supper

Followed about a week later by another little hedgehog!

Two little hedgehogs eating dried cat food for supper
Little Hedgehogs 1 and 2 eating supper

As things stand now (10th October) the two little hedgehogs have been coming to have supper on my patio every evening for about a month, but I’ve not seen Mother Hedgehog for a couple of weeks.   I think she’s left me to look after her teenage offspring.

There was a baby hedgehog in the garden one night in July, but I think that this pair of youngsters are probably from a second litter.

So, I’ve been busy.   I’ve made a feeding station so that the local cats don’t come and steal all the cat food.  My feeding station is just an old wire basket with a hedgehog sized hole (13cm by 13cm) cut in each end for access.   I’ve seen instructions online for how to make a feeding station out of a wooden or plastic box, but essentially you just make a hedgehog doorway 13cm by 13cm (5 x 5 inches) in any sort of box.  My wire basket feeding station gives improved visibility for photos, but a semi-transparent plastic box would also allow you to see the diners to some extent.

When feeding dried cat food to hedgehogs, you must provide a bowl of water – it’s amazing how much they will drink every night.  As well as eating the cat food, the hedgehogs go off to snuffle-hunt around the garden, looking for snails, worms, woodlice and other delicous snacks.  But the regular supply of cat food will hopefully ensure that my two hedgehog youngsters reach the required survival weight before hibernation time.

Two small hedgehogs eating dried cat food in a hedgehog feeding station made from an old wire basket.
Little Hedgehogs One and Two enjoying supper in the hedgehog cafe.

You might want to place a brick on top of the feeding station to stop other animals being able to knock it over, and you might need to place a brick outside the box, 6 inches from the entrance, to prevent a big animal from lying down and hooking out the food or feeding dish with their paw!

I’ve also been making hedgehog houses, of course.  In varying degrees of sophistication.   You can use an old wooden or plastic box, or other improvised materials – the key thing is to have a tunnel for the entrance, so that larger predators can’t attack the hedgehogs inside the box.  The tunnel needs to be 13cm x 13cm (inside dimensions) and 30cm long, or 5 x 5 inches and 12 inches long in old money.

Hedgehog house 1 was adapted from an old window that was already leaning, shelter-like, against the garden wall by the side of my garage.  I’d seen Mother Hedgehog previously wandering past it, so I thought that turning a familar landmark into a more secure and comfortable house might be attractive for her.

Hedgehog house improvised from an old window

Hedgehog house 2 was made from an old small plastic water tank which had been cluttering up the garden for years:

Hedgehog house made from an old plastic box

It looked better once it was covered with some twigs and small branches!

Hedgehog house covered with twigs and small branchesHedgehog house number 3  is a wooden one that I made using plans provided by the  Hedgehog Preservation Society:

Hedgehog house made of plywood

I put some hay inside the houses to give the residents the beginnings of a nest, but they will bring in dried leaves etc to make it comfortable and warm for themselves.

Within a few days, houses 2 and 3 were already being lived in by my two young hedgehogs!  Hooray!!   You can check whether anyone is visiting the box by leaning a small twig diagonally inside the entrance tunnel – if the twig has been pushed over, the box has been visited.  I do this every morning and night to keep track of when the boxes are being used, and I actually saw a small hedgehog emerging from Box 2 one evening, the first time it explored it.

If anyone would like to buy a hedgehog box from me like Box 3 above, I’m happy to make one for you, and it will cost you £45 including delivery in Stroud (and siting advice/help if required).    The best time to put out new boxes is March or October, and the best time to clean them out is March.   As well as using them for hibernation in winter, hedgehogs will use them as daytime sleeping nests and places to rear their young during the spring, summer, and autumn.

Finally, don’t forget to make sure that hedgehogs can get in and out of your garden, by making a ‘hedgehog highway’ hole at the bottom of the fence.  The hole needs to be 13cm x 13cm, or 5 x 5 inches.  You can buy smart signs to nail above the hole, so that future residents of your house will know why it is there and won’t close it up.

A "hedgehog highway" hole at the bottom of a garden fence.

And – finally finally – if you have a pond, for hedgehog safety’s sake, do make sure that there is a ramp which hedgehogs can use to climb out if they fall in!

Useful hedgehog links:

If you find an injured hedgehog or one you think needs helping or rescuing in Stroud or Gloucestershire, here are two hedgehog rescues near Stroud:

wildhogshedgehogrescue.org.uk   

helpahedgehog.org

To find a hedgehog rescue/hospital elsewhere, you can use this UK directory of animal rescues:

directory.helpwildlife.co.uk

Advice and information about hedgehog welfare:

British Hedgehog Preservation Society

 

Autumnal apple harvest

Storing away apples for the winter is one of the most satisfying autumn jobs, and today I completed my apple harvest.   Everyone’s apples round here are ready earlier than usual this year, due to the very hot sunny summer – thank heavens the trees survived the drought.  I watered my trees a couple of times, with wastewater carried from the kitchen – it wouldn’t have felt right using a hosepipe and scarce tap water in such a drought, and my 3000 litres of stored rainwater had been used up before the end of July!

Apples on a branch It’s actually been a surprisingly good year for apples – perhaps the outcome would have been very different if we’d not had quite a wet September after the appallingly hot and dry July and August.

Apples being harvested and stored in wooden crates

I’ve been doing a bit of woodwork, making a couple more apple crates to match my old ones.   These crates look very rustic and attractive I think (old on the left, new on the right) but I don’t recommend using triangular wood as the corner blocks, it really makes the crates very difficult to assemble.  Any more I make will just have square corner blocks.

In my garden I have one old apple tree (3+ crates of apples), three trees that are about 9 years old (still only producing one crate per tree), and two young espaliers that are so new that it’ll be three years at least before they have any fruit.   Plus two big old plum trees, and an espaliered pear tree, 9 years old and very productive.   Not a bad orchard, for a suburban semi… it’s one of those old council houses from the days when some council houses had very generous gardens.     That and the allotment give me a fair amount of food security, and a great deal of pleasure.  Photo of my autumnal looking allotment below 🙂

Autumnal allotment at sunset

Aubergines Update

So much has been happening in the garden since June, here’s one of several updates that I now have time to post.

The aubergine jungle in my greenhouse has been very productive.   I was eating massive, delicious aubergines before the end of July, and they’ve kept on coming.  I had twelve aubergine plants, which was far too many, I’d only intended to have six, and the other six were grown for a relative who was then too ill to look after them in their own greenhouse.

The first interesting aubergine drama was a plague of greenfly which threatened to overwhelm the aubergine plants.  Really horrible amounts of greenfly which I dealt with by squashing as many as I could, and sometimes taking all the plants out onto the lawn so that I could get to all sides of them.

Aubergine plants temporarily moved from greenhouse to lawn for a thorough greenfly squishing session.
An aubergine avenue! Aubergine plants temporarily moved from greenhouse to lawn for a thorough greenfly squishing session.

I had a feeling that eventually, if I was patient, nature would provide her own solution, and after about three weeks that’s exactly what happened.  Ladybird larvae to the rescue!

A ladybird larva on an Aubergine flower
A ladybird larva on an Aubergine flower © Stroud Gardener
A ladybird larva hunting for aphids on an Aubergine leaf
A ladybird larva hunting for aphids on an Aubergine leaf © Stroud Gardener

Dozens of ladybird larvae hatched on the aubergine plants, and the wonderful ladybird larvae romped all over the plants munching all the greenfly.  In a couple of weeks, I’d run out of greenfly and I was considering taking the remaining ladybird larvae to any other plants in my garden where I could find some food for them!

A ladybird hatching from a ladybird larva on an Aubergine leaf
A ladybird hatching from a ladybird larva on an Aubergine leaf © Stroud Gardener

Over a period of three or four weeks, ladybird larvae grow by shedding their skins a few times, then finally the ladybirds emerge.  It’s quite a wonderful process, and I managed to get some photos.

So the greenfly plague was solved – the next problem was the extreme heat that we suffered in August.  It didn’t occur to me until too late that I should have done something about greenhouse shading.   Red pepper fruit that were too close to the greenhouse glass on the south side were getting burnt, and something odd happened to the aubergine plants – they grew in a different colour, golden yellow instead of dark red.

The aubergines which grew when the weather was extremely hot (35C outside, much higher inside the greenhouse) were golden yellow instead of dark red.
The aubergines which grew when the weather was extremely hot (35C outside, and much much hotter inside the greenhouse) were golden yellow instead of dark red.

The photo above is from September, after the extreme heat had passed, and the newer aubergines were growing in the correct colour again.    I’ve found one or two references to this phenomenon online, but it doesn’t seem to be a very well documented problem.    The yellow aubergines were OK to cook and eat.   The flesh of the yellow aubergines was a bit firmer than normal before it was cooked, but when cooked their texture was normal and they tasted normal.

Next year  if (or when) the weather gets so extremely hot, I will apply some shading to the greenhouse and hopefully avoid this odd problem with the aubergines.  And hopefully avoid having to water them three times a day!

 

 

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”.