Category Archives: Planting & Planning

Easy DIY organic fertilizer

Article and photographs by Jacqui Shannon.

Here in the United Kingdom as in Canada, along the rivers and in marsh lands, something nearly magical grows, Symphytum officinale. In may areas in the UK it is so prolific there are actual “harvesting days” where the nature reserves encourage gardeners to come and cut what they need.

First introduced to to North America in  1954, you may know it as Quaker’s Comfrey, Knitbone or even as a weed. Regardless of what you call it, it’s indispensable.  Any gardener who wants to fertilize their garden, especially fruiting plants or seeding crops, naturally and healthily should know about and utilize this amazing plant.

It’s a powerful ally of the organic gardener.

What makes this plant exceptional are the levels of nitrogen and potassium it releases upon decomposition.

Comfrey is what you call a “dynamic accumulator.” It has a large turnip shaped tap root that mines up nutrients and minerals from deep within the soil which it brings up into it’s leaves. Because it does this much deeper than most plant roots reach, the surrounding vegetation isn’t compromised and previously unreachable nutrients are made accessible . Harvesting and composting its leaves releases the nitrogen and potassium making them accessible to other plants and the rest of your garden. Quick growing, Comfrey can be harvested boosting the minerals available to your garden organically several times per year eliminating the need to purchase chemical based tomato or plant foods.

Harvesting is easy.  Just before the plant flowers is when you’ll get the most benefit, but around that time is also quite good. Sheer stems about 15cm above ground. Keep the leaves, flowers if you wish and discard the stem. Harvests can occur safely when the plant reaches approximately 60cm,  in spring until early autumn without risk to to the plant. In autumn it’s important to leave pant to grow and rejuvenate it’s stores for overwintering.

Once you have them it’s up to you how you use them. You can choose to make a tea, like the one in our nettle article which takes 4 to 5 weeks,  add them as a two inch mulch around fruiting plants and they will break down naturally or wilt them for two to three days and simply dig it in! Unlike other high nitrogen content sources Comfrey doesn’t rob nitrogen from the soil because it’s C:N ratio is lower than well rotted compost.

If you can’t find wild Comfrey, the cultivated sterile variety Bocking 14 is often available through seed suppliers. If you purchase your own, let it grow one full year before beginning to harvest to allow it a firmly establish. Never dig up and plant a non sterile, wild plant, it will take over your garden quickly. Bocking 14 will grow quite large and is best separated and shared with other gardeners after a few years growth.

 

 

Urban gardening

Just three weeks ago, my rooftop garden on narrow boat Miracle was starting to look like a winner. The garden I’d planned and planted was just beginning to show its potential and I was pleased.  In a proud moment on that sunny Saturday I snapped a photo and shared it with the world via my Instagram and Twitter accounts.

Nearly immediately after sending my “Boast Post” I saw a competition was happening on line by Saltyard Books asking people to post photos of their kitchen garden. The competition was in celebration of a new book by Mark Diacono of Otter Farm, about gardening and getting the most out of your urban kitchen garden.  I’ve never entered any competition before but, it seemed nearly serendipitous, so off went my tweet with their hashtag into the competition.

I’m exceedingly pleased to say, I won the competition and early this week my copy of The New Kitchen Garden arrived. I got to unwrap it just as a very rare UK thunderstorm began.  At just under 400 pages, I can’t pretend that I’ve read it all as yet, but so far, it’s impressive, encouraging and informative. It’s a book that I suspect, I’ll be keeping and referring to quite often. Thank you Mark for writing this!

A little video about the book and what inspired it.

 

More about the book here.

Getting the most out of small spaces

 

Early maturing snowball turnip paired with late maturing beetroot and spring onions all growing together maximizing the productivity of a small space
Early maturing snowball turnip paired with late maturing beetroot and spring onions all growing together maximizing the productivity of a small space

One of my favorite things about gardening is that I can choose what I want to grow each year. I subscribe to the school of thought that  you should plant what you like to eat, however planting the same vegetables every year does get a bit predictable. Experimenting with unusual varieties gives me a kick and expands my knowledge as well as my pallet.

This year, with a view to expand what I can produce in my 1.5m potted roof garden I chose to give planting of “early” and “late” maturing crops a go.  To do this I looked for an early maturing small turnip to pair with my old faithful beetroot. I found a lovely sounding turnip called “Japanese Snowball” which is described as a fast growing, egg shaped globe with a mild sweet juicy flavour. The globes should be harvest size by the end of this month, leaving sufficient space for the beetroot development. I’d never heard of this variety before I began looking and was surprised to find it’s been around in western world since at least 1885.

I sewed the seeds as directed both for greens (close) and 2.5cm apart in two rows in mid-late March. I’ve already harvested a crop of young greens from one row and eaten them raw in salad along with some chard,  last week used a few of the larger leaves as a cooked spinach substitute. Obviously, because my rows are small, my harvests are only handfuls however, I can’t believe how quick they are – they’re ready again! The spaced counterparts remain untouched and are sheltering the slower growing beetroot beneath their large foliage.

So far I am very pleased with this experiment. I am quite happy with the taste of the greens both raw and cooked and am awaiting the globes with much anticipation. It seems that I’ve doubled the output of my tiny space this year. Looking back, it now seems quite obvious, however I’d not considered this before my work experience on the Organic Lea farm.  I guess it just goes to show what we can learn if we’re open to it.

Seasonal eating & anticipation

Nothing is as exciting as the first tomato of the season
Nothing is as exciting as the first tomato of the season

There is nothing quite as exciting as the anticipation of your first tomato of the season.

I was away this weekend and came back to find the first tomato tucked in behind the protective leafy growth of my bush tomato.  I’m always excited when my garden begins to produce. Perhaps more than any other vegetables or fruit, when the weather begins to warm I begin to crave tomatoes. The first tomato of the season, always makes me smile.

Some people may look at the endless availability of produce on the supermarket shelf as a blessing,  a step forward in the evolution of our abilities to feed our ever growing population. Personally, I do not find comfort in being able to eat “fresh” tomatoes all year. I worry about food miles, both for their affect on our air quality but even  more about what it means to local small enterprising growers. The more aware of local small farms I have become, the more important I feel they are and the stronger my ambition is to support them.

I can not stand on a soap box and claim that my concern for the environment was the first reason I began to eat seasonally. I am first and foremost governed by taste. I like my food to taste good.

A tomato, grown in unnatural conditions, shipped from a grow house thousands of miles from my home to my local shop simply doesn’t taste of much. I remember first noticing this as a child, and in the decades since, not much has changed. Sometime in my early twenties I made a conscience decision not to buy tomatoes out of season to avoid the sheer disappointment. I’ve not regretted it.

I confess, I am also “tight” with my hard earned cash. My account balance has also played a major role in my choice to eat seasonally. I don’t eat many processed foods and I choose my vegetables based on what is available as locally as possible. It’s inevitably cheaper.

Seasonal eating has it’s drawbacks of course, I’m well and truly bored of root veg by the time the first greens are ready locally. Equally I will, by late August be bored of tomatoes, but August seems a long way off and my mouth is watering in anticipation.