Tag Archives: jacqui shannon

Three ways to deal with slugs

Article and photo by Jacqui Shannon
It’s the time of year when our gardens are starting to really come into their own. Our delicate seedling are full of vigor and the promise of harvest is within sight, we know it and so do the slugs.

Slugs. Grotesque, slimy, and capable of completely devastating your plot. It’s enough to dishearten even the most dedicated and have them reaching for a spray bottle.  There are multiple reasons I won’t use chemicals, but I don’t want to get political.

As an organic gardener, I am always looking for ways to improve my soil. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers may offer a short period gain but ultimately leave our soil poorer.   But how do we “win” against slugs without turning to chemicals?

Pick them off. For those with small plots of vegetables and time, a daily commitment to checking each plant is an ideal solution. Taking time for a daily inspection and removal and disposal will keep slugs in check, but this may not be practical if you’re short of time or if your garden is larger than a few meters.

Mulch. A slug is a delicate creature. It has a soft underbelly and will avoid crossing any mulch that is rough and irritating. I ring of mulch of moderately abrasive material such as diatomaceous earth. I suggest 10 cm wide and at least 1cm thick as an effective barrier, or rough bark mulch. You’ll need to ensure you keep it topped up of course, but weekly inspections should suffice. Mulch should not come in contact with the plant, try to leave a good few centimeters circle empty around each stem. I like this method because along with creating a barrier it also helps keep moisture in the soil.

Provide shelter. Slugs do most of their damage at night. During the day a slug will look for refuge. By placing an piece of untreated board at both ends of your garden row, and one in the middle if the row is long, you’ll encourage the slugs to use this as a daytime refuge. This doesn’t stop them from eating your plants, but it does make collection an  disposal quite easy and quickly puts a dent in the number of slugs feasting on your patch . Simply lift the board each morning and remove the slugs below. A upside down empty grapefruit skin in the same positions also works.

Many a gardener has heard about the effective use of copper in deterring slugs. Every year I hear people talking about copper and pennies. Copper tape, if thick enough may certainly do the trick. My experience is adhering it and ensuring it doesn’t get accidentally covered over by soil, (and thus ineffective), can be laborious, it’s also quite expensive.  Pennies unfortunately, have not contained enough copper to work as cheap substitute for a very long time. My advice is to forget about copper and do two or even all three of the above for success.

Photo from http://www.allaboutslugs.com

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.

Natural pest management

Article and photograph by Jacqui Shannon.

One of the biggest questions new organic gardeners ask is about pest management.  We all seem to understand the concepts of  open pollination and making fertilizers from plants but when it comes to keeping the pests away, many of us draw a blank. We work so hard to raise our plants that contemplating their decimation is frankly, terrifying. So what can we do?

I am a firm believer that healthy plants and healthy soil do much for our garden when it comes to pests. A strong, healthy plant can tolerate some pests without too much loss. Nonetheless, I also believe in giving the garden a helping hand.  One of the principles I learned at Organic Lea was to try and balance the predator / prey ratio. At first, to me at least, this was a bit of a shock. How many aphids should be in the garden? My natural response was “NONE!” But that, it turns out, is also unnatural.

The beans grown in glasshouse,  were awash with Black Aphid larvae the first week of April. It seemed a dire situation but no one else seemed concerned. When I asked the head gardener about this, he explained that the crop was nearing it’s last winter harvest and was going to be allowed to flower and go to seed. For now we’d simply run our index finger and thumbs up the most infested stocks to squish the aphid larvae, overrun bean tips were to be removed and put into the compost. Although affective for the larvae stage, this is laborious.  Later the same day, our class went out into the nettles to hunt and capture Ladybugs.

Because nettles are one of the first greens of spring, overwintered Ladybugs seek them out as a first source of food. Over two hours we caught twenty. Ladybugs, it turns out are the organic gardeners natural ally against the Aphid. We then released them into the Aphid infested bean plot. Two weeks later, I noticed many tiny cocoons along the wooden skirt boards to the bean plot, Ladybug larvae.

Pupa larvae, 7-spot ladybug
Since an adequate food supply was available in the glasshouse, the Ladybugs stay their whole life cycle. This provides the gardener with a natural defense against Aphid.

By introducing the Ladybugs to the Glasshouse, we are able to aid in the balance of predator / prey relationship. If we had killed all of the Aphid larvae the food source for the Ladybug wouldn’t have been available and they would not have stayed. By providing a suitable environment for the Ladybug, including food, suitable pupation and hibernation areas,  she will then in turn and aid us in the long term pest management. There are many such relationships the organic gardener can cultivate with predator insects, all of which will improve your crops survival.

An important part of organic gardening is being able to identify which insects are the “good guys” and which are the ones you want to try and limit. Most children and adults can identify a 7-Spot Ladybug, I find the link below quite useful for identifying the larvae of others.

http://www.ladybird-survey.org/downloads/ladybird_larvae.pdf

An adult 7-Spot ladybug, and a ladybug larvae helping to control the Black Aphid on a bean plant.
An adult 7-Spot ladybug, and a ladybug larvae helping to control the Black Aphid on a bean plant.

Fashion in gardening

Article and photograph by Jacqui Shannon.

Fashion trends are inescapable. Ever present in our clothing choices and in our culinary exploits,  perhaps it was naive of me, but I for one did not anticipate that the humble garden  was also subject.

Last fall I was part of a team that pruned a long standing allotment. Over the years, various stewards of the space had planted and grown many bushes, fruits and flowers  and we were there to trim the growth back into a manageable and healthy state. It was that afternoon that I was introduced to the Worcesterberry tree. Being February, the squat little bushy tree was remarkably undistinguished. Whist pruning I found its thorns, but aside from making my task slightly more tricky, I didn’t give it much notice. Afterwards, curious about a tree I’d never encountered before, I asked around. Eventually, a vague description of “like a gooseberry crossed with a blackberry” became the consensus. I decided to plant one of the clippings to see for myself.

A year on and after much research, it seems Worcesterberry is considered it’s own species. Once prized as a valuable “guardian of the plot” owning to it’s dense thorny growth, it has fallen out of favour with the advent of easier to harvest thorn-less varieties.  While I do understand the logic, I also feel it’s a shame. To date I have only found one woman who still grew Worcesterberry in her garden and she admitted they had been her mothers doing over 40 years previous.

This year my little Worcesterberry  pruning has flowered for the first time. It’s quite remarkable and beautiful. I do not want it to be lost and forgotten because people found it “difficult”.

Losing any species be it plant or animal isn’t a good thing. Our world’s species, even the thorny ones, need guardians. I challenge you, go out find a forgotten out of favour species and become it’s champion. There are lots out there.

Perhaps, when my lovely Worcesterberry is too big for my roof I will cruise out of London and plant it in the wild.

Worcesterberry in flower
The Worcesterberry was once a valuable member of the allotment. It’s naturally dense growth and spiky thorn acted as a deterrent shielding crops from predators, but it’s nearly forgotten now as gardeners seek out and favour new thorn-less breeds which are easier to harvest.

Potting on Tomatoes

Article and photograph by Jacqui Shannon, expat Canadian in the UK.

A month ago myself and several volunteers helped plant hundreds of Tumbling Tom and Golden Queen tomato seeds at Organic Lea. They will be both for the summer production on site and for the annual plant sales. For anyone who has ever eaten a perfectly ripe home grown tomato, it will come as no surprise that tomatoes are by far the most popular plants for home gardens in the UK.

These seedlings have a slightly blueish tinge, indicating that they've begun to lack nutrient.
These seedlings have a slightly blueish tinge, indicating that they’ve begun to lack nutrient.

The month old seedlings have really thrived in the three week warm spell we’ve been having and it was evident by the blueish tinge on their leaves that the nutrient in the seed compost was exhausted. It’s too early to put them in the ground, so potting on, into more nutrient rich potting compost was the only option. In order to avoid “leggy plants” each seedling is planted into the soil up to the first pair of leaves.

There’s really no excuse not to grow at least one tomato plant. Perhaps more than any other, tomatoes have a wealth of varieties to suit your available space, even a height restricted roof garden like mine has more than one option.

For three years now, I’ve planted heritage dwarf variety Tiny Tim (which grows to 30cm) and had exceptional results. They’ve got some lovely attributes aside from their stature. Firstly, for a tomato they’re remarkably un- fussy. These hardy plants do well in both sun and shade which works well since I am on the move. Secondly, despite their small size they really pack a huge sweet tomato flavour punch, meaning four or five picked and thrown into any dish makes an impact.

This year, just to try something different I’m planting Tumbling Toms from the plant sales.

Regardless of which variety you choose, your plant’s fruit will have flavours that far surpass their store bought brethren. With tomatoes we’re spoilt for choice and justly rewarded.

 

What’s not to love about nettles?

Photos and article by Jacqui Shannon.

Urtica Dioica, or Stinging Nettle in the first flush of spring. This foul looking stuff on the right hand side of the photo is nettle tea, a nutrient rich organic fertilizer for the garden.
Urtica Dioica, or Stinging Nettle in the first flush of spring. This foul looking stuff on the right hand side of the photo is nettle tea, a nutrient rich organic fertilizer for the garden.

Stinging Nettles are terrible, brush up against them and you instantly know. Itchy red bumps that stay irritating for what seems like forever. We’ve all been there. Stings aside however, you might be surprised to hear that this hardy nuisance is a bit of a celebrity in the world of organic gardening.

Nettles offer the organic gardener a triple benefit.

One of the first greens to shoot up in the early spring, young tops are a much welcomed first green for our beneficial insect predators such as the Ladybug. .

Blanched quickly they’re fantastic in risotto, and steeped, they make a rejuvenating tea.

The third reason organic gardeners allow the nettle to remain is to make organic fertilizer. Nettles have a root structure that allows them to pull mineral nutrients up from much deeper depths of soil than many plants. The nutrients are then in the plants stem and leaves. Left to their own when the plant dies back in winter the nutrients are then available in the compost. Fortunately, we don’t have to rely on the natural cycle of things!

The benefits of Nettle tea is available the whole of the growing season and it’s really simple to make. There are two methods you can use a quick one that gives a bit of benefit, or a longer process that really packs a nutrient punch (and a pretty pungent smell!) Use which ever suits you, be sure to wear protective clothing to avoid the “sting.”

Quick Method: Pick the nettles and boil the leaves and stems for 30min. Let cool, strain, and you’re ready to use. The liquid should be the colour of weak black tea.

The Long Method: Pick the nettles, bruise the leaves and stems and pack in your container. Weigh the greens down with a brick or some rock and cover with water. Let it sit submerged for up to 3 weeks, it will really start to smell. The longer the better. Then use in a 1:10 ratio on your plant soil.