Polytunnel plans – a longer growing season

Seedlings

It’s become abundantly clear that I am in desperate need of maximum growing space, in particular a polytunnel, if I am to realise all my growing goals for 2019. This year, I’ve managed to achieve more than I’ve done collectively in about five years, with preparing new plots, clearing, sowing, planting and restricting. Of course, it’s all great work and I love being proactive yada yada yada… but I fear I’ve outdone myself already. I’m really stuck for growing space.

About three weeks ago I sat one evening, pen in hand, and scribbled out some rough drawings of my veg patches, filling in the rectangular plots with all the fruit, vegetables and herbs I plan to grow this year. I’d already bought and sown umpteen packets of seeds, and I was keen to figure out what was going where, so I had my crop rotation, companion plants and It soon became apparent that the seedlings currently occupying every corner of my greenhouse, conservatory and windowsills – safe undercover as we wait out the risk of a few last frosts in the coming month – don’t all have a home to go to as yet.

I’ve already grown more than I have space for, even with my brand new no-dig bed. The only solution is that I’m going to have to pull my finger out and get a polytunnel up before early summer.

Polytunnels and Peppers

I have an allocated space for the polytunnel; it’s an overgrown patch that needs levelling before I can put something in situ, just enough to take a tunnel about 10×8. That’s enough space to grow some tender, heat and humidity-loving plants like tomatoes, basil, cucumbers and salad leaves. But crucially, it may also give me a shot at growing and harvesting the romano peppers that are currently germinating in the warmth of my conservatory.

Pepper

This will be my 12th season of growing my own fruit and vegetables, and in those dozen years, I could count on one hand the number of peppers and chillies (capsicums) I’ve managed to harvest. Peppers are notoriously slow germinators, and need sustained warmth and a long growing season to thrive and fruit. I’ve read that they need anywhere between 21-29˚C at a constant.

So my lack of success with peppers is likely down to conditions – capsicums need a long growing season and our climate here in the UK doesn’t offer the longevity. It then goes that the only real solution is to start by sowing as early as possible under protection, to prolong the growing season as much as possible, and then only “planting out” – effectively by “planting under” the protection of a glass/greenhouse or polytunnel.

Cayenne Peppers

Growing Sweet Potatoes in a Polytunnel

I’ve also always fancied growing sweet potatoes. They’re pretty much a mainstay in vegan cooking, full of fibre and nutrients, and also delicious. Which is the main point, really. Sweet potato slips are readily available to buy in the UK, but conversely, the UK climate is not exactly what we would term “optimum growing conditions” for this heat and humidity-loving plant. They need near enough constant temperatures between 21-26˚C to thrive, so are best suited to growing in a polytunnel, training the sprawling stems upwards to save on space. 

sweet potato vines

You can also cover the soil in permeable black liner or weed suppressant matting to help warm the soil even quicker, and retain moisture levels. Sweet potatoes pretty much grow and harvest like a good old ‘spud’ potato, needing lots of fertile, well-draining soil to thrive underground, where the tubers swell and multiply. It’s only the potato vines that need extra space, and training them in a circular fashion or up a trellis helps to minimise their growing space, especially in a polytunnel. 

But before I even think about getting carried away and ordering more slips, seeds or plants, I’ve got a huge polytunnel patch to prepare. I’m planning a ‘polytunnel prep party’, where I basically invite people round to help me clear, level and prep the site in exchange for food, drink and good company. Even with help, I think that’s enough to keep me more than busy this month!

This post was written in collaboration with Premier Polytunnels.

Spring is early – and the growing season is on

crocus in bloom

Tonight I stayed out until around 5:30pm, spoiled by gorgeous blue skies and warm sunshine on a February afternoon. I spent the late afternoon clearing and edging, getting my fruit border in order, with some progress around the greenhouse. We’re now almost ready for a proper spring clean in there, and maybe even in a position to get some replacement glass panes finally!

It’s all go here at the Smallest Smallholding, and it feels good to be back in the mix, working with the soil and seeing everything steadily springing to life after winter. The tiny narcissi are out, and purple crocuses are basking in the unseasonably warm weather. Thank goodness they’re here because the bees are out already, and nectar is in pretty short supply around here!

Strawberry/raspberry bed ready for mulching

Strawberry/raspberry bed ready for mulching

The strawberry/raspberry beds have been dutifully cleared and edged (thanks Mum), the no-dig long plot and big plot are almost ready for mega mulching and early sowing, and I’ve scoped out where my new veg patches will go too.

I currently only have four beds (and a space for the polytunnel… that’s another story for another day… ), one of which is non-rotatable as it’s home to my Cambridge Strawberry plants and my summer Valentina raspberries. So that makes crop rotation a bit of an issue, hence the need for more veg plots!

Kitchen Garden Field

Kitchen Garden Field

After visiting my mum’s friend’s kitchen garden last year, I was pretty awe-struck and came away with lots of ideas and a wish list. I’m starting to get Rich on side about “giving up” some lawn space to more plots, as we have plenty of space on the ornamental side with the long border for my daughter to rocket up and down when she feels the need. Anyhow – as much as she loves running about, she’s a total explorer too and I feel she will really enjoy “assisting” me out with sowing, watering and harvesting this year. She loves to help! So I’m sure more veg plots will be a winner all round. 

Freshly laid turf – 2012

At lunchtime today, Rich and I headed down to the back border, a square patch that was turfed years ago, and has since done nothing of merit or interest. We’ve decided to create a curved grass path, cutting great swathes of the turf out to make way for a “hot” herb border… in my mind, the south-facing fenced side will play host to the likes of lavender, rosemary, nepeta, perovskia, and maybe some cardoons and artichokes too. Lots of height, lots of colour, lots of food for pollinators. The soil is poor and well-draining, so any Mediterranean sun-loving plants should do well there.

Cosmos and Lavender

Cosmos and Lavender – winning combo!

I have so much in my head that I want to achieve this year. Getting the hot border planted up is a pretty monumental task outside of life as Mummy and holding down a job AND everything else in between, but I feel re-ignited. We have already pushed further ahead this year than I imagined, and with my daughter happy to potter and play as I squirrel away at various horticultural tasks… well, it feels like this year is on the right path.

In my unheated greenhouse (you know, the one with panes missing and a door permanently wedged open), I’ve only got nasturtiums on the go as yet, not quite trusting that Mother Nature is done with sending arctic blasts and beasts from the east to our shores. A bit late to the party, I’ve optimistically shoved some garlic cloves into pots (whether they divide is another question), and the shallots are nestled in too, ready to shoot and root before planting outside.

Inside, my Picasso potatoes are chitting away happily on a kitchen windowsill, and this weekend I have a few packets of veg and flower seeds ready to sow. I also lost my mind a bit and went on a rampant spending spree in Wilko, picking up packets of dahlia tubers and ranunculus corms amongst a selection of other bold beauties. So those will go in soon, and then I will patiently wait for nature to do her thing. 

cardoons and artichokes

Cardoons and artichokes from the weekly market

And lastly, testament to my growing obsession with buying seeds and plants (seriously, I couldn’t sleep thinking about it the other night), I raided the plant stall at our local market today, coming home with 2 types of globe artichoke, one cardoon, and a substantially sized Mrs Jessop’s Upright rosemary plant – all for a tenner. No doubt I’ll be back for more bargains, but if I’ve learned anything from the past few years, it’s that I must get my plant purchases in the ground before I part with any more hard-earned cash. And maybe pay some bills first.

So busy, busy, busy in the kitchen garden. And I feel all the better for it!

Two books you should read in 2019

Greetings.

robin in winter

Well, we made it. Tomorrow is the last day of 2018 (also: my birthday, blah, whatever etc) and here I sit, slightly battered but still functioning. This year has been a funny one. It’s been very money and work-centric, with many “oh shit!” moments thrown in for good measure. That’s what’s eaten up most of my brainspace  – work, juggling finances, and then basically worrying my way through the seasons, increasingly crippled by more and more hours in front of a laptop and it felt, at times, somewhat disconnected from the outside world. My anxiety has been pretty much a constant, manifesting itself as one perceived health crisis after another. I’ve muddled my way through the last two months in particular, barely taking a deep breath or moment to relax. I’m crawling my way to the very end of the year, hopeful that I’ve at least laid a lot of groundwork for good things to come.

And, breathe. I made it. Seriously… breathe Lucy, breathe!

I’m getting to the main topic of this rambling post, but first, let me offer a little background. Sometimes I feel a bit buried, and I often turn to the garden to help me collect myself, rebalance and reboot. Books can often have the same effect, and the right story or passage can lift me up and relight a little fire in my belly. Gardens and books are like medicine. And two books in particular have sparked my imagination this year, helping me to find my way out of the fog. 

The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury

The first book that I insist you must read is The Bumblebee Flies Anyway by Kate Bradbury. I read it in under 48 hours (and bear in mind, I have a very energetic mini teenager in the guise of a two year old to contend with too, so this is quite the feat), and I feel like it’s brought me back to where I needed to be, right on the cusp of this new year. Kate’s story of bringing life back to a bleak, unloved garden space made my heart sing. At times, I felt as if she had lifted webs of thought from my brain and laid them out on the page. It’s not a how-to guide or journal. It’s a real story, weaved with light and dark, tragedy and triumph. It’s a memoir, and an utter inspiration. The protagonist is nature, and the book is a bittersweet but ultimately optimistic account of its perseverance against the odds, in this little corner of Brighton. The overarching story of how Kate invited nature back into such a dead and devoid space is a microcosm for what we all could do on a grand scale, if we all just did a little bit more. 

I loved how she wondered about the history of certain spaces and locations; just like me, trying to see through history of what was before, and how we can breathe life back from under layers of brick, tarmac and decking. Through despair, she also offers hope of what could be, and how we will be rewarded if we redeem ourselves and give nature a way in.

I honestly felt like punching the air at times and shouting “me too! me too!” when she wrote of her love for the sparrows, the dawn chorus, the fascination with the smallest of creatures… how we are never really alone, when nature is alongside us. I nodded when she wrote, with great sadness, about our walling off of gardens and green spaces (I’ve made several holes in our fence to allow hedgehogs a right of passage through our little patch, and love the fact that she may have inspired others to do the same). I have made notes as she described her evolving planting schemes, from the sad, winter-bare sticks of roses that grew to thrive and flourish, to the wildlflowers and nectar-rich plants that offer a lifeline to so many pollinators. I realised that my nettle patch and my lawn littered with “weeds” and wildflowers are both so, so valuable.  I even ordered a field guide to bees after finishing her book, because I really want to learn more about the different bee species that frequent the Smallest Smallholding, and pass this information onto my daughter. 

In short, she’s helped me to fall in love again with the slice of land that I am so fortunate to be a steward of. She’s informed, inspired and motivated me to get back to my mission statement – be the change that I want to see in the world. 

Buy this book, borrow this book, get your hands on this book somehow. Just read it!

The Almanac: A seasonal guide to 2019 by Lia Leendertz

My second must-read is a beautiful find that I will carry with me throughout the next year. It’s essentially a guide to the seasons, an ode to each month and the natural rhythms and events that mark out each month from the next. Meteor showers, lunar planting schedules, recipes, songs, moon phases, flower of the month, hints and tips on what to do in the flower garden and vegetable patch. It does what it says on the tin – as a seasonal guide – but it’s so much more than that. If a book could be a comfort food, the Almanac would be the biggest, warmest hearty bowl of seasonal soup served with slice after slice of rustic, homemade bread.

It’s the little details that really make it – the utterly beautiful illustrations by former blogger at Purple Podded Peas’ Celia Hart, the little guide to native tree buds, the naming of each month, the tables of sunrise and set, and even moonrise and set… this book will gently guide you by the hand back to nature. It will urge you to stop and take not;, to look up, look down, look all around. It’ll help you reconnect and re-calibrate, enjoy the small shifts and big events in each calendar month. It’s a valuable resource that will help you to live life a little more in rhythm with the world around you. 

Just like medicine.