Back to School… Almost

Leeks planted in the potager in August

Well here we are in mid August and it’s been a busy one for me. Just over a week ago I returned to work after maternity leave and have been getting back into the swing of working life, albeit in a very reduced capacity (next month’s pay cheque will be interesting,  as I readjust to getting by on less than half the hours I was on before. Childcare costs are just so prohibitive… life is expensive yada yada…). Mum has been recovering well after major surgery but still needs help around the house for simple but more labour-intensive tasks – and is still waiting to be able to drive again – and we’re currently in the throes of finally laying down the last of the flooring in the kitchen and utility room. It’s only been 11 years since I ripped up the old flooring and 2 years since we bought all the replacement flooring…

I think we will have to actually go out and buy some celebratory fizz once the last piece of flooring is in place. Seriously.

As predicted, I’ve lost my not-so-firm grip on all things horticultural and agricultural. We were subjected to a fortnight of deluge after deluge, and with all the aforementioned distractions, I’ve had to watch from the sidelines as the grass grows out of control, the hedges explode, the borders go over and the bindweed swamps and romps away.

But if motherhood as taught me anything, it’s the art of ‘f**k it, let’s just get on it now whilst we have the chance’. So one afternoon as E took her afternoon nap, I leapt into action.

My plot is small, but it’s enough to keep me busy for now. Out came the garlic, which was distributed on drying racks before it goes into storage. I mulched with a generous layer of organic compost before setting my new Musselburgh leeks into place. They’ll hopefully be big enough to harvest over the winter, when steaming bowls of homemade leek and potato soup will keep our bellies warm and full.

I worked quickly, and weeded and heavily mulched a small strip of the plot that had been unoccupied so far this year, and threw in a few seed potatoes that had been soaking up the sun on my kitchen windowsill since about January. I’ve been told on good authority that it’s still fine to get potatoes growing now… maybe we’ll have some fine freshly dug spuds ready for roasting at Christmas?

Lastly, I’ve managed to start thinning out my wonky rows of Autumn King carrots, which have been thriving alongside my nasturtiums, chives and shallots. And what a delight… the baby and I both enjoyed freshly cooked baby carrots for dinner that night. Already bursting with flavour, they’ll be ripe for pulling for the table from September.

I won’t lie; I’ve been having a really tough time recently, probably mostly self-perpetuated but nevertheless it’s left me feeling like I’m struggling to tread water. The garden has helped me get back on more of an even keel. I’m very much aware of still how much I need this in my life – the pottering, the planting, the harvesting. Perspective.

Thinning out Autumn King carrots

Bunch of carrots
For me, the Autumn King carrot is truly a regal offering from the veg plot. It’s always been a winner; a reliable grower with strong, straight roots with plenty of flavour.

Last night I began thinning my carrots out from a thriving patch of haphazardly sown seed. The carrots are approaching maturity and size ready for harvest – maybe they’ve got another 3-4 weeks to go before they’re really ready –  but even the thinned out baby carrots were a decent size.

And the scent as they were pulled from the earth! There’s nothing quite like it.

Little E loved the cooked carrots with her dinner, eating the whole lot along with some other fresh veggies and mashed potato. That’s always been part of my dream – to provide homegrown, fresh organically grown food for my family.

And if our little venture (see previous blog post) comes into fruition, I might be able to start making a little living off the land too.

What about… irrigation systems?

Lark Ascending rose

Apparently June 2017 was the equal fifth hottest June on record since 1910. From the middle of the month, temperatures soared here in East Anglia. The prolonged sunny, dry spell meant that in order to keep plants and vegetables growing healthily under the duress of the baking sun, watering had to be done sometimes twice a day in the early morning or late evening.

Of course, it’s worth the effort; thirsty, dehydrated plants will not only fail to thrive, but are more vulnerable to diseases and pest attacks. But as I don’t have any automatic watering systems in place, watering up to twice daily took a lot of time. Sure, it was sometimes a chance to take some quiet time for reflection after a busy day, but it was also another job to do on a long list at the end of the day.

The concerted effort to water morning and night has paid off (I’ve been enjoying a good, solid crop of beans, carrots, onions, shallots and garlic so far this summer), but it’s made me ponder just how integral the “simple” task of watering is to a successful yield. In years gone by, I’ve totally failed to keep up with watering during hot, dry spells, and I’ve seen the impact even one or two missed days have on overall plant vitality.

I’ve also worked in the gardens of a modest but beautiful manor house, where water is drawn from a cavernous underground well, and an irrigation system is integral to the upkeep of the gardens, polytunnels and kitchen garden. Their gardens flourish all year round, and watering is restricted to a few containers and pots around the property. They can also go away on holiday, safe in the knowledge that their automatic watering systems will take care of the extensive borders and kitchen gardens. I’m envious. At the moment, I don’t always have the luxury of spending time watering when it’s needed; and here in the sandy-soiled corner of Bedfordshire, a day without watering in high summer can do serious damage to plants.

It was actually quite astonishing to see how quickly my soil turned almost arid, and the plants suffered. Only the established strawberries and marigolds seemed to fair well in the high temperatures; everything else positively wilted and looked jaded after a sun-soaked afternoon.

Whilst mulching has helped to tackle the sandy soil situation, I need to think harder about the watering aspect. It seems that I live in an area that appears to be “boom or bust” when it comes to rainfall. We can have long, dry winters followed by patchy spring showers and crisp, hot summers, but we also experience significant downpours. Thankfully, it never floods. From a sustainability point of view, rainfall capture is important and helpful – that’s placing water butts near any hard surfaces where rain runoff can happen (eg house/shed/greenhouse roofs). But due to time constraints or chronic back problems, I sometimes can’t cart watering cans back and forth all day from around the house to the wider garden. So for me, a long-term solution could be an irrigation system – especially in the polytunnel that I’m hoping to construct by the end of the year.

Some quick, cursive research reveals that deep irrigation systems tend to be the most effective in terms of water use efficiency and plant health. Drip automatic watering systems are also an option, and more suited to milder climes where rapid evaporation isn’t such an issue. For container gardens, automatic kits can save time and water usage for between 20-30 separate containers. Then there are globe spikes for smaller pots that aren’t suited to being hooked up to a system, too. These can look decorative and can often hold a few days’ worth of water before needing to be replenished – great if you’re planning a long weekend away or need a break from daily watering duties!

Of course, I write this just days after a deluge of rain and thunderstorms. But that’s not to say that in a fortnight here in East Anglia we’ll be back to the dry, arid conditions that we experienced in June and the first part of July. In summer, the soil drains and dries so fast that it’s easy to underestimate just how much watering needs to be done if it doesn’t rain for a few consecutive days. You cannot take your eye off the ball, so to speak.

If you’re thinking about an automatic watering systems for your garden, this is a useful link for viable options:

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