The soft fruit in my garden have been on a bit of a journey. One that began in a place of unfamiliarity and good intentions and a bit of a learning curve. Now they are on the straight and narrow and are being cared for in a way that clearly pleases them as they are bearing much fruit and of course that pleases me.
As a gardener who likes order and structure in my garden – hence my carrots in straight-ish rows and specific beds for specific plants, I initially put all my fruit plants in the orchard because that’s where the fruit should be. Except the strawberries. They were in the veggie garden close to the house because I knew you had to pick them every day in the height of the season. But what I didn’t fully appreciate was most of the other soft fruit were also of a little and often nature.
I had managed to convince myself that I’d go to the orchard regularly to tend to them, but I was kidding myself, because the orchard is ‘down the far end.’ Not miles away by any stretch of the imagination, but far enough to make wading through long grass everyday a bit of a chore. It is all very well for the big trees as they are more of a once every so often kind of crop. Taking care of them is like a destination activity – you go there and get the job done and then it’s done, be it pruning or harvesting. We put the orchard ‘down the far end’ so we would have a reason to go to the far reaches of our vast three acres. So, to go there daily was little more than wishful thinking.
So my poor black and red currants, blueberries, gooseberries and raspberries suffered horrible neglect in their formative years, and I hardly got to taste more than a morsel. It was my own fault and once I realised this, I carefully dug them up and replanted them closer to home in the veggie garden. However this was still not the end of their traumatic existence. I planted them directly into our swamp soil on a strip of land I had stolen in a sneaky land grab. Hubby the Un-Gardener didn’t want me to extend the garden much further. Now the fruit are in the second row from the back, not on the outside edge like they once were. I really need a fence to contain myself.
What I didn’t realise was this land lay slightly lower than the rest of the garden, and so they stood in soggy soil more than once. To add insult to injury I didn’t have my wonderful sector system back then where weeding takes place on a weekly basis, and as they were at the back and didn’t do much for most of the year I may have forgotten to weed them from time to time. So I built them their own little raised beds and they looked so cute. But they were too small to manoeuvre the lawn mower around them and it just wouldn’t do. So I dug them up once more and built more sensible sized raised beds and they are finally happy and have gone on to thrive.
They are weeded regularly, their irrigation needs are met thanks to my wonderful new system. They even get feed routinely and in return they bear fruit. I had enough blackcurrants for the first time this season to make jam and cordial. There were loads of blueberries and I ate every single one as I toiled in my garden this summer. They were delicious. The raspberries haven’t faired as well, as they are in the new back row and their raised beds weren’t high enough and they drowned. But that’s a task for another day. The gooseberries – well you can’t tell for looking but they aren’t the original ones. I think these are the fourth version of themselves, but I really don’t won’t to count because they weren’t cheap.
So there they all are – my soft fruit. All happy and healthy and I’d like to keep them that way, so I’m going to chop them up a bit. Gosh that sounds harsh for something that has had such a hard life. But you have to be cruel to be kind. They are in for a pruning. The blueberries should escape the too much attention as unless there are dead or dying branches it is best to leave them be. The gooseberries are still too small to get a chop and I’d hate to do something to them that would result in version five.
So the main focus of my secateurs and loppers will be my currants. It turns out the red currants need to be treated differently from the black currants.
Black currants like to produce fruit on young wood so they need to be reduced by about a third every year. This means effectively every year the oldest stems up to a third of the plant need to be removed to just above a healthy bud down in the base of the plant. That should leave behind about 10 stems that are 1 – 2 years old so the plant stays youthful and vigorous forever! Well actually I’m not sure about forever as a black currant bush tends to live for about 10 – 15 years.
Red currants on the other hand like to produce their fruit on old wood, so all you really need to do with these is to remove any dead, diseased and weak branches, any growing in the wrong direction and maybe open up the centre a bit for air flow and that’s about it.
And all going well there will be a fabulous harvest come the summerif I can beat the birds to the lovely jewel like berries.
Come again soon – we are getting deeper into winter, but the garden still calls to me.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Today was one of those amazing blue sky days that winter graces us with from time to time. There was not a cloud to be seen and not even a puff of wind. Out of the shadow a warmth from the sun was discernible. It was magic. It was a day for gardening and gardening I did.
I started with the asparagus as the fronds were yellow and fading to brown, which is a sure sign the crown has sucked all the goodness out of it and stored it up for the new season. As I cut down the first frond I had an idea that my poor fingers now regret, but it was so worth it. Instead of hauling it off to the compost heap, I decided to use is as a mulch back on the bed so the plant could continue to reclaim some of the goodies it had pulled from the soil back in the spring and summer.
After a check to make sure there were no pests or disease, I grabbed my handy secateurs and proceeded to chop all of the fronds into short lengths and popped them into my trolley for the time being. It didn’t look like much but after over and hour of snipping and chopping the fronds from the first asparagus bed I filled a filled my trolley to overflowing. Then I weeded the bed, enriched the soil with a thick layer of compost, some blood and bone and some sheep pellets. The fronds were returned to the bed in a satisfying mulch layer.
The process was repeated with the second asparagus bed and by the end of the morning the garden was once again transformed. An area of height was reduced and the outlook is completely different. The other thing that resulted from a morning of an extend period of snipping and chopping was three rather large blisters on my hands, but it was worth it.
The next task at hand was a bit of a doddle. It was a couple of weeks early if you go by the old wives tale but the packet assured me now was a good time to plant my garlic. The early garlic is racing ahead and looks promising. Hopefully it will get big enough before the rust strikes, although it would be nice to avoid that this year.
I couldn’t remember if I’d enriched the entire bed when I planted the first lot of garlic or just the half I planted out, so I chucked in a few extra bits and bobs just to be sure. I planted 30 Presto and 30 Takahue cloves so now we have 120 possible garlic bulbs to harvest in the summer and last us all year. This is the plan and I intend to stick to it – the environmental conditions will just have to conform to the plan too. To reduce the risk of fungal spore splash back from the soil I put a lovely layer of pea straw mulch over the bed. The new shoots should have no trouble growing up through when they decide to emerge. All of the bending over did however, make my poor old back a bit stiff.
Finally with the afternoon beginning to wane, I tackled one last bed – my in ground mixed bed. It was an overgrown weedy mess. The soil was still damp-ish and to work my way across it would have been nothing short of a nightmare and would take forever. So I took the easy way out. I grabbed some of the big boxes from the replacement fridge and freezer for the ones that died in the flooding. I was almost more excited to have such great quantities of cardboard than I was the shiny new appliances. I’m sure the delivery guys thought I was a tad weird when I did a happy dance when they said I could keep it.
I didn’t even chop the weeds back or pull any of the nasty ones out. I just laid the cardboard over the top, weighted it all down and all I have to do now is wait. I’ve got plenty of time before I need the bed in the spring, so if there are stubborn weeds I can repeat the process. It should take about six weeks to clear the bed and the worms love the cardboard. The rotting weeds will add organic material and the bed will be amazing.
As I stood back to admire my handiwork, I noticed the sinking sun was leaving a chill in its wake and the damp knees in my pants made my kneecaps stiff with the cold, so I packed up my tools and hobbled away from the garden feeling rather pleased with myself. With a bit of luck the gorgeous day will repeat itself tomorrow and I can do it all over again. Maybe with some less strenuous tasks.
Come again soon – this winter is turning out to be the nicest season so far.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Winter made a dramatic entrance today, but was all puff and no substance. It was all fog, but not really cold – not in the standard winter scheme of things. Once the fog lifted it was a lovely sunny, mild day. The kind of day you would expect from a gentle autumn. I hope this is an indication of how things will continue for the next three months, but it probably won’t be.
Not trying to moan too much about the last season, but we encountered a bit of a problem. The chickens really didn’t give us many eggs at all. Time has whizzed by so quickly that it never really dawned on us the chickens were getting a bit elderly at 8 and 9 years old. That is about the equivalent of 80 – 90 year olds so no wonder they didn’t want to enter into a breeding program for us to refresh our flock. Old Chicken the Rooster is probably firing blanks anyway.
So instead of being accused of being freeloading good for nothings – they have been allowed to take it easy and enjoy a life of leisure with no expectations placed upon on them. If they want to lay an egg then all good and well but if not that’s ok too. The coop became a retirement village.
This didn’t help with our egg situation and we had to resort to purchasing eggs. They just weren’t the same. The yoke wasn’t as nice and rich but we didn’t need to crack it into a bowl first to avoid a potential nasty surprize that is always a risk when you have a rooster and the kids collect the eggs.
Buying eggs was a bit of an eye opener after not buying eggs for the better part of a decade. There are different varieties depending on your social consciousness. There are organic, free range, eco, colony, barn, uncaged, caged and one that doesn’t say for those who don’t want to know. Of course, the prices also varied greatly. Organic were the most expensive and the poor caged eggs have very little value.
Fortunately, we have had the opportunity to increase our flock with a youthful vigour, and in doing so saving 6 poor wee souls from a life in cages. Our new chickens have been adopted from a group of 1600 chickens that were rescued from a caged chicken farm. Having seen these poor bedraggled birds, it upsets me that they have spent the first eighteen months of their lives living in such an unnatural way.
But they are with us now and things are about to get a whole lot better for them. I’ve set them up for now in the lamb’s quarters with their own roost, nesting boxes and outside area. It is right next to the actual coop separated by a fence so they get used to their soon to be geriatric roomies.
It has been interesting to watch them explore their new world. At first, they were reluctant to come outside, but Chicken the Rooster, sensing they were there, called gently to them and they came over to the fence and they cooed back and forth. He is such a sweet natured rooster and we love him for it. Although the bravest of the 6 did stand up for the group to start with and in an act of dominance tried to take him on. He is too old for all of that and quickly defused the situation. But I am pleased there is a fence between them. He hovered there all day trying to connect with them, and the old ladies wandered over from time to time to say hi and see what all the fuss what about.
The new girls were kind of funny. Walking on the earth was strange to them and they kept lifting their feet in a way that looked like they were going ‘ewwwh…. Something is making my feet ikky.’ Two of them preferred to avoid the experience all together and pretty much stayed indoors. One girl with barely any feathers discovered the joy of lying in the sun and popped herself in a sunny corner and pretty much stayed there all day. They all laid an egg, however due to the worming treatment they received upon rescue we can’t eat them so I left them in the nesting boxes for now so they know where to lay next time.
There is something mesmerising about watching them discover life at our place. We’ll probably leave them in the lamb’s quarters for as long as they need to, so they can join the flock with little fuss, all going well. But for now, they are just featherless, bewildered nervous wrecks and are being spoilt rotten by us.
Come again soon – winter is here and I am going to make the most of the quiet time.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Not only did the last frost cause the demise of my peppers, but the luffas took a hit as well. They are a little slow to get started but once they get going they really get going. All of their bed companions have long since been composted. They are left hanging on a season weary trellis, daring the frost to come and finish them off.
And so it was – the final summer crop was removed from the garden, its stalks and stems composted and its fruit harvested. It is always a fun crop to grow, not to eat – although you can eat the young luffas, but it has a surprising use.
Most people think the luffa sponges that find their way into bathrooms everywhere come from the sea. Or little thought is given to their origin as they are scraped up and down dried skin to restore a soft smoothness. However, it isn’t anything as fancy as an exotic sea creature, but a humble vine that can be grown easily in most gardens.
Exposing the wonderful exfoliating fibre from the plant is a simple process:
Told you it was easy. If you haven’t grown luffas before then give it a go – they are such fun and will make wonderful gifts – if you don’t keep them all for yourself, because they are really cool.
Come again soon – its winter tomorrow.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Arbor Day is a long held tradition in this country. People have been planting trees to mark the occasion since 1890! There was even a time when people were given the day off school and work to go off and plant trees. These days it often slips by unnoticed except by a few intrepid gardeners determined to restore habitats and biodiversity. Arbor Day on June 5th is a thing and we should all embrace it. Plants and trees are the lungs of our planet and hold things together in more ways than one. We need the trees so we should plant them. It is quite simple.
As a child my favourite place to be was in a tree and we had many in our sprawling backyard. Some I enjoyed for the lofty heights it offered me. I could see forever and felt like the king of the castle. Other trees where bushy and full of leaves where I could sit and hide and get away from the pressures and stresses my eight year old life held. Sometimes now I long to find a good tree to just sit in. It is such a tranquil thing to do.
But my favourite trees were the fruit trees. We had so many of all different kinds and all summer long they were filled with the chatter of greedy children gobbling down as many sweet ripe fruit and some not so ripe before we were called in for dinner. Just the taste of a juice, red delicious plum can pull back the years and take me to a carefree place where the summers lasted forever.
Kids don’t seem to climb trees these days. But they should. Falling from a tree was just what kids used to do, and almost an essential part of obtaining the biggest, ripest fruit in the highest branches. In order for kids these days to climb trees, they need to have trees to climb. There is an old wise saying “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The second best time is now.” – Chinese Proverb, and with Abor day approaching now is certainly a good time.
Arbor day isn’t at this time of year by accident. Late autumn, early winter is the perfect time to plant tree as many trees aren’t actively growing and the deciduous ones are dormant. It also allows the roots to establish before the leaves place their demands on the young plant.
Before you even go tree shopping you need to decide what you would like to grow and where you would like to grow it. Find out as much as you can first. How tall does it grow? how wide will the roots grow? People often make the mistake of planting a tiny sapling too close to a house or a fence only to find it begins to damage foundations or blocks views or the sun entering windows. Tree roots are often the cause of blocked pipes and planting away from your amenities is a good idea. You really want to view your tree as a thing of beauty and wonder, not a pain in the backyard.
Once you have found the right place for the right tree, it is a good idea to dig the hole first. These days the thinking is to make the planting hole square as the tree will often be found in a round pot. If the tree has been in the pot for a while then the roots will tend to grow in a circular direction and can continue to do so in the ground and become root bound. In a square hole the roots will find themselves confronted by the sides of the hole instead of running alongside it they will grow into it.
If you do find the roots are a little root bound when you take it out of the pot, you can tease them apart and even prune off damaged or overly bound roots. Pruning roots can have the same effect as pruning branches – it will encourage more root growth.
Other advice for planting trees to make sure the hole is twice as wide as the root ball, but importantly – to the same depth. You can adjust this once you have your plant beside your hole, but by digging it first your poor plant isn’t hanging about above ground longer than necessary. If you plant it too deep you could rot the trunk and too shallow will not make a suitable anchor to support the tree and the exposed roots will dry out and die.
The advice to fill the hole with all sorts of goodies to feed the tree isn’t thought of as such a good idea these days as it can encourage the plant roots to stay in the hole instead of reaching out in the ground around so it is better to fill the hole with the same soil that came out of it. Too much of a good thing can also harm the roots. Also as the tree is dormant at this time of year, it doesn’t actually need a lot of extra nutrients.
So set the tree in the hole at the right height and gently backfill, tamping down the soil to exclude air pockets until it is at the right height, but not so firm that it would be difficult for the tree roots to penetrate.
Hammer a stake into the ground beside the tree, taking care not to go through the root ball, secure to the tree with a soft tree tie. Don’t tie it too tight as the tree needs to be able to sway in the breeze to form a strong trunk. But not so loose that the root ball is continually rocking in the wind.
Water well for the next few weeks while the roots establish. A mulch can help retain moisture but don’t mulch up around the trunk as this can cause the tree to rot.
And it is that easy. So now you know how – this Arbor Day, plant a tree so in the not too distant future a kid can climb up into its branches and feel the pleasure of indulging in fruit still warm from the sun, listening to the breeze in the leaves and looking out over their neighbourhood and feeling on top of the world.
Come again soon – winter is just around the corner.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
I feel like I’ve been flogging a dead horse for the last few months and this morning’s heavy frost was the final straw. We are 10 days out from winter so I’m just kidding myself. The peppers weren’t going to give me my bumper harvest anytime soon. They needed to come out.
Due to the dreadful summer we had the peppers never did very well and so I had been limping them along. Every time the mere suggestion of a frost was mentioned I was out there popping on the frost cloth in the hopes of receiving something worthy of a plant whose seed was sown 10 months ago. Then whipping back out in the morning to remove the cover so they could bask in the weak sun.
But I came to the sad decision to pull them out. Let’s face it, they are hardly going to grow to the expected enormous proportions and develop a rose red glow in the weakening winter sun. If left there they will more than likely grind to a halt in a state of suspended animation and slowly rot in the damp, cold conditions offered up by winter.
It wasn’t a decision made lightly. To ensure I followed through I didn’t go out last night and put the frost cloth on for one last time, in spite of alarming headlines in the news about a dreadful polar blast racing up the country directly from the Antarctic. The boffins were suggesting 3°C which of course you always take with a grain of salt and prepare for -3°C. I allowed the plants to be hit by the stiffest frost we’ve had so far so I would be spurred into action first thing in the morning to remove all of the fruit languishing there.
Once there was no fruit there was no point keeping the plants as nothing new would come from them and the thought of protecting empty plants from frost throughout winter didn’t seem exciting at all. Besides they do perfectly well when started from seed each year – provided the summer doesn’t suck!
It did feel monumentally sad. The peppers are the first of the season to be sown and done so with great care and fanfare. The poor old cucumbers later in the season just get plonked unceremoniously into seed raising mix as there is so much going on by the time they need to get started there isn’t a moment spare to acknowledge just how cool the cucumber is. The peppers are special though. They are with us for so long. They don’t really get going until midsummer – in ideal conditions and then generally continue until the frost with a bumper harvest. Ordinarily the first frost brings relief from an overabundance of peppers stored up in the freezer for use until the new crops kick in.
But I can’t linger over what’s old in the garden. I need to focus on what’s new. The next crop to go into this bed is the cucumbers and I want to make it lovely and rich for them and replace the goodness the peppers used up. Sow I’ve sown a cover crop of lupin in the bed and before long the gorgeous foliage will fill the bed and make the winter garden seem less dreary. It is almost a shame to have to dig it in before it flowers as lupin blooms are so pretty.
And just like that the time marches on in the garden in an orderly fashion. Peppers just aren’t a winter crop.
Come again soon – I’ve got luffas to loof.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Things have been so slow in the garden this week. Mostly because it has been raining. I am determined not to complain or bleat about this state of weather so I have gone out into the garden today and found some bright side stuff so I can feel good about my gardenless week.
I’m sure next week will be better. I have an exciting project to get my teeth into – more on that later, a tree to plant and general potting about the place. I’m not even going to check the weather because the forecast is always changing so I am believing for sunny days.
Come again soon – any day in a garden is a good day.
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Cyclone Donna. There are no words….
It started raining spits and spots at lunch time yesterday – about 20 hours ago. It isn’t expected to stop until 6pm tonight – so about 8 more hours to go.
It could be worse… sigh.
Come again soon – I was looking forward to this winter, now I need to dig deep to find the joy of gardening again…
Sarah the Gardener : o)
Normally at the this time of year there is a reluctance to except the winters arrival. With every drop in temperature I moan and complain. As the nights draw in, long gone are the leisurely evening antics in the garden – weeding and watering in the lingering heat of the day. Now gardening tends to wind up in the late afternoon, usually extended by torch light as I nip out to get something for dinner.
But this season there is something different going on. I am excited for winter as it brings me closer to the new season – one full of hope and expectation. Surely we can’t get two horribly horrendous growing seasons in a row. I’ve pretty much written off in my head any expectation to cling on to the dying remains of last summer. Except the peppers, they hardly had a chance to get going so I’m pampering them a bit in hope of some kind of harvest.
With this forward thinking for winter, rather than a reluctance, I am able to see it in a new light. This isn’t a season to be endured but one to be cherished. It is a time for projects, planning and dreaming. The chaos of the growing season can be meticulously planned so it becomes organised chaos with better results. Lessons learn over the last 12 months can be applied and new things that can help make gardening better can be constructed. I never thought I’d say it but I’m looking forward to the winter.
Thanks to a garden visit earlier this week by an enthusiastic garden group, I was forced to pull myself out of my floody blues and whip the garden back into a shape that would be respectable enough for a public showing. In spite of the grass being halfway to knee deep and the beds full of the dead and dying, there was the bones of something good. My section system for the care of my garden, implemented throughout the summer and autumn in spite of the weather had left me with a garden that was easy to restore order. There was no backbreaking digging and weeding, just a gentle tickle here and bit of a pull there. The thing that made it a big job was the size of it all. I’m seriously considering putting in a fence to contain my enthusiasm for new gardens!
So now I’ve come up with an easy plan to manage the garden over the winter. I remember how I normally enter the cold season with an eye roll and the presumption that it will last for EVER! But I also remember how it is normally over in a flash and leaves me on the hop with half completed projects that need immediate attention before they get lost in the craziness of the growing season.
I also remember well how wet it gets here in September and it is something I have learned to live with. But I’ve not been very good at living with it. I normally slowly plod towards the spring thinking I have all the time in the world to get the beds ready and then boom – it rains for weeks and I end up not ready and catching my tail with plants languishing too long in pots. Well not this year. The beds are in a good place now – weed free and mostly empty of crops, or nearly empty and some are even still working hard for me.
So as these beds come free I’ll begin the process of enriching and preparing. This is best done ahead of time and not in the hours before planting as it allows time for the organic materials to incorporate into the structure of the soil, so the tender roots aren’t burnt by fresh nutrients. The microorganisms can change things to the way plants like them. The frost can break up the clods of soil. Cover crops sown now (albeit a tad late) will have plenty of time to break down, enriching the soil before it is needed. Thick layers of compost and well rotted manure can be absorbed into the soil on there own with little effort on my part. My aim is to have the beds ready before the September soggy.
To add to the winter workload, I have three construction projects I aim to achieve – one each month, but more on that later, but they will make such a great difference to my spring and I’m looking forward to creating them.
And on the days it is raining – because it will, I shall make grand plans for the new inhabitants of the garden this spring. There will be old favourites, but places for something new and as complex as working out the seating plan at a wedding, I shall enjoy taking the time to decide the perfect place for everyone so we have a fabulous growing season ahead.
So for the first time ever I am anticipating the winter with great excitement. I can hardly wait.
Come again soon – there is something good to be found in the garden every day of the year.
Sarah the Gardener : o)