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: https://www.easywatering.co.uk/best-systems-garden

This is a sponsored post.

What is Polyculture?

polyculture potager

Over the past few years of growing my own fruit, veg and herbs, I’ve learned a lot. I started with books (and still reference them frequently), garnered bits and pieces of information from my mum and other growers, and gleaned snippets of knowledge from gardening programmes. I haven’t seen much about polyculture in the mainstream media though, and it seems a shame.

In Britain, I suspect many of us green-fingered types tend to think of a “good garden” or “successful allotment” as a tidy space, where neatness and order abounds. But that just isn’t me. What I love about nature are the blurred lines between order and chaos. I’ve always felt that my garden should be a glorious collision between art and science. That means looking to the natural world for inspiration and guidance, especially when it comes to my planting schemes. That’s where polyculture comes in.

When you try to inflict absolute order over the underlying chaos, I feel like it becomes a fight with nature. I cannot stand reading posts on allotment or gardening forums about the various ways to kill this pest or spray that weed. I feel that many gardeners are at war with their plots. Really, gardening should be more about balancing and nurturing.

polyculture - gyo

That’s why I’m increasingly moving my thinking over to polyculture and permaculture. Polyculture, in essence, means “the simultaneous cultivation or exploitation of several crops and animals“. In gardening, allotmenteering and in agriculture, we often see planting done in large blocks (monoculture). There is a lot of uniformity, and this can lead to creating an ecosystem that is vulnerable to quick and widespread attack from pests and disease. This means the blocks of crops or animals can require a lot of support with fertilisation/feeding/antibiotics. In agriculture, soil can become arid and depleted because of the continued drain on its minerals.

But in nature, even the smallest patch of wild land is a mish-mash of plants of different varieties, heights and distances. Each plant has a function, growing pattern or yield time that often benefits other plants, such as companion plants or intercropping. Sowing the same crop in different places at different times can extend the harvest period, and keeps groups of plants safer if one group falls foul to a pest or disease.

And polyculture can also extend the growing capacity of one plot throughout the year, keeping both plants and soil healthy and thriving whilst helping to reduce the need for weeding. Yes, less weeding!

Together with a no-dig approach, polyculture has helped me to reduce the time required on the plot maintaining the soil from weeds and trying to tackle hungry pests, like aphids. Essentially, in between a little weeding here and there, my veg plots look happier and much fuller. OK, they might not look particularly orderly or neat, but they are thriving.

The nasturtiums were planted next to my beans, and have proved a total success. Whilst some of my flowers in the borders and the elder was ravaged by blackfly, the little suckers have been attracted to the leaves of the nasturtium and left my peas and beans well alone. The marigolds have not only produced a burst of colour on the plots, but I also think their strong scent has served well as a deterrent against munch-happy bugs too.

There is so much more I can do this year, with plenty of time to sow and plant into my plots. I’m excited to learn more.

 

 

Top Ten Attractive Companion Plants

I’ve been battling with the aphids in the last couple of weeks. Well, I say “battling” – I’m a vegan and I find it very hard to do any direct kind of pest control, preferring to leave nature to take care of the job… more of a permaculture holistic approach. But in the absence of predatory ladybirds, the aphids have been mounting attacks on my flowers, fruit and veg and I’ve had to take some sort of action. Companion planting.

English lavender

In the large vegetable plot, I’ve already planted nasturtiums and french marigolds around the beans and sweet peas to ward off aphid attacks – the idea is that the strong scented plants confuse or attract the “pests” away from crops and blooms. But I need to extend my companion planting to other areas too. The aphids are relentless at this time of year!

I’ve also come to learn that although companion plants may be functional, but they can also add a touch of cottage garden elegance and charm to veg plots and garden borders. So after some research, here are my top ten companion plants for the allotment, potager and kitchen garden:

marigold

  1. Marigold/Calendula
    Another popular addition in many kitchen gardens is the marigold. Whether it’s a frilly french marigold (Tagetes patula) or the simpler, but delicate and pretty english pot marigold (Calendula officinalis), these bright blooms are a welcome addition to any successful growing plot. The strong scent confuses and deters many pests, with french marigolds in particular useful in warding off whitefly. The open single blooms of english marigolds also attract pollinators, which in turn pollinate flowers that yield crops.
  2. Nasturtiums
    A mainstay of any potager, the humble nasturtium is easy to grow from seed, or cheap to buy as a pot-grown specimen. Copious orange blooms and a strong scent lure aphids and pests away from tender crops like beans, whilst nasturtium leaves serve as an attractive site for cabbage whites to lay their eggs – so a great ‘sacrificial crop’ for brassicas too.
  3. Thyme
    When in flower, this perennial herb is attractive to beneficial insects. It’s also a great deterrent for whitefly that are attracted to brassicas like cabbages – just distill some fresh sprigs in water for 24hours to make a “tea” and spray your brassicas to leave a scent that could send the aphids on their way.
  4. Sage
    Like most herbs, the strong scent of sage confuses pests and aphids. Sage is a great companion plant for brassicas like cabbages, brussels sprouts and broccoli, but also works well with carrots and strawberries too.
  5. Garlic chives
    This striking member of the allium family produces long spikes topped with star-like clusters of small flowers. The strong scent is great at deterring and confusing carrot fly, and can also serve as a pest deterrent when planted near or under roses.
  6. Lavender
    This popular flowering herb is a veritable pollinator magnet, so will help to increase pollination rates and yields. Its strong, pleasant scent also confuses pests, and is particularly well-placed near carrot crops, leeks and tender vegetables.
  7. Sweet Alyssum
    A charming, low-growing ground covering plant that can not only help to suppress weed growth, but also helps to protect potatoes from pests by attracting natural predators.
  8. Rosemary
    Chillies and pumpkins are two grow-your-own favourites that would benefit from rosemary companion plants. Blue flowers in spring help to attract pollinators, and the
  9. Zinnia
    Bright and bold, these blooms are a brilliant addition to any edible garden. Opt for single flower strains, and mix and match taller and shorter varieties to attract aphids away from crops and capture the interest of butterflies, who tend to cruise higher above the ground.
  10. Mint… or Catmint! 
    OK, so it’s not the prettiest plant around, but mint certainly has an attractive aroma, especially the likes of spearmint, applemint and even pineapple mint! But good old ordinary mint, when restricted and planted in a pot (even in open ground), can be really useful in confusing pests and potential plant munchers with its strong scent. Plant near brassicas, tomatoes, carrots and alliums like leeks, onions and shallots as a deterrent to the likes of aphids and ants.
    If you’re not keen on introducing the thuggish mint into your veg plots or borders, try the similarly named (but unrelated) cat mint instead. Cat mint – or nepeta – produces pretty spires of blue flowers that pollinators love, and its scented leaves repel the likes of flea beetle, aphids, ants, squash bugs and even rats and mice. Plant near squashes, pumpkins, beetroot and even roses to keep pests at bay.