Growing up North: Digging for Sanity
I don’t think I’ve ever been so grateful to have a garden. Since lockdown I’ve spent almost every day working outside. As the crisis has developed, gardening programmes have switched from their usual format to advocating growing your own vegetables and ‘digging for victory’, although digging for sanity might be closer to the mark. During this terrible time, my garden has kept me sane and given me something completely absorbing to focus on.
Like most gardeners, I planned what I would grow this year around early February. Normally I add in a few edible crops but this year I had prepared for a pollinator’s paradise full of nectar rich flowers. By March, I’d already purchased all the flower seeds I thought I needed and, thankfully, all the bushes and shrubs I wanted had also been bought early. As we know, everything changed later that month when I suddenly realised I’d made an error with my seed choices.
I looked online but all my usual gardening websites were either closed, not taking further orders or were so busy there was at least a two-week wait. In desperation I searched through the old Quality Street tin I used to keep all my seeds in – bingo. I found several half-used seed packets for veggies including cabbages, peas, sugar snaps, cauliflowers, tomatoes, courgettes and basil. I even found an envelope full of sweet pea seeds I’d saved which felt like a lottery win. Loads of the packets had been given to me by various people and, even though they were several years out of date, I had hung on to them. Realising that such old seeds would be difficult to germinate, I soaked the pea, courgette and sugar snap pea seeds in warm water on a sunny windowsill for about 24 hours.
On top of the old veggie seeds I discovered a collection I’m afraid to say I pinched last autumn from the beautiful Howick Hall gardens in Northumberland. I know it’s naughty to nick seeds but, in my defence, a gardener laughed when he saw me furtively flitting around collecting seed heads and shoving them into a Tesco bag, so I took this as a sign he didn’t mind. At the time I had careful dried my ill-gotten seeds inside paper lady’s sanitary disposal bags from the place we stayed (classy I know). Unfortunately, by March I had completely forgotten what they all were and so planned to pop them in trays all mixed and wait to see what came up. A kind of floral potluck if you will.
My next problem was compost. Where the hell was I going to get that? I looked on various sites to order some and everywhere was either out of stock or there was a queue just to get onto the site. I had decided to go peat free this year, but that began to feel a bit like an impossible dream until I spotted Dalefoot Compost on Twitter. Based in the Lake District, they make peat free compost largely from sheep’s wool and bracken. I ordered four bags including two of their gold composts which is supposed to be clay busting. I used this as a mulch in some of my worst clay beds and I must report that it has noticeably improved my dreadful soil. The other two bags were wool compost for potting, and I used this for my seedlings.
Now I had to work out what I was going to use to plant the now double amount of seeds. I only had a few seed trays which I wash and reuse every year but, luckily, I’d saved plastic chocolate mousse pots all last year so I drilled drainage holes in the bottom and used some of those. It still wasn’t enough. However, my neighbours’ skip came to the rescue again. Steve next door is a plumber who regularly receives boiler parts from his company in plastic boxes with individual compartments. He had a pile of them and was going to chuck them in the skip, but I asked if I could have them as seed trays. He ripped off the lids for me and I drilled drainage holes into each section and, voila, homemade seed trays plus a great re-use of essentially single-use plastic.
Keeping everything crossed I planted my incredibly old and pilfered seeds and hoped for the best. My main problem was where to put my now extremely large collection of seeds trays and pots. To begin with I converted our box room into a temporary greenhouse. Unfortunately it wasn’t warm enough, so I had to split them between the cold frames at the front of the house and our south-facing windowsill. The living room now smells a bit like a greenhouse but needs must. To my amazement, lots of seeds came up quickly with the cabbage and sugar snap peas particularly vigorous. But most astounding of all were the alderman peas which I purchased more than 10 years ago.
Other seeds like the courgettes and tomatoes didn’t come up at all. Undeterred on the tomato front, I took a couple of fresh seeds from some cherry tomatoes and planted them in a pot. I kept the soil moist and in full sun. Six days later I already have two seedlings.
My Howick Hall seeds started to spring up too, so I pricked the largest out and re-potted them. Having grown some before I recognised these first seedlings as Cosmos. There were about 85 plants in total which was far more than I had room for, so I gave about 50 away to neighbours (at a safe distance, obviously). Other seedlings have since sprouted in these potluck trays and the task now is to try and identify them.
In the next wave of seedlings my basil plants started to grow and, gradually, the cauliflowers sprouted, again astonishing from such old seeds. Having so much on the go and doing well, I started to wonder where the heck it was all going to fit. Needless to say, I’m going to have some truly mixed borders this year. I then started to consider where I could grow other edible crops. In previous years, before I had a garden, I grew all sorts in pots from lettuce to raspberries, so I searched out something big enough to grow spuds in. It won’t surprise any of my regular readers to learn that I found a large oblong wicker basket down at the tip last year. In the back of my mind I’d always planned to grow potatoes in it. My major problem was now getting enough compost to fill it. Thankfully, my neighbours on the other side came to the rescue with some compost at a local shop and kindly secured two large bags.
I found a sunny spot at the top of the drive and filled the basket with some pond lining left over from earlier this year. I weighted the lining down into the corners with old bits of paving stone, punctured holes in the bottom and scattered an inch of gravel to aid drainage. I then filled the basket with a mixture of sharp sand and compost to create a lighter consistency which will be easier for the spuds to grow in. Planting the potatoes eye-side up to the depth of about four inches, I left a five-inch gap at the top of the basket to top up with more compost once the first shoots appear. This will hopefully encourage the plants to give a better crop. The potatoes were from our kitchen and had sprouted in the potato sack and gone soft. You can get most potatoes to sprout (or chit) by leaving them somewhere cool and out of direct sunlight. With any luck, we will have a few pounds of home-grown spuds to enjoy in a few months as well as perhaps some peas, tomatoes, caulis and cabbages.
Even if my harvest this year is small, and things don’t go to plan, it doesn’t matter because the pleasure of growing has given me solace at one of the most challenging times in living memory. Gardening is extremely cathartic and, while I’ve kept myself occupied with seeds and plants, it felt like a massive positive in a sea of dreadful. You don’t have to be an expert or have a garden to grow a few edible crops, the key is to keep it simple. Maybe try sugar snap peas before you give globe artichokes or asparagus a go? Even if you’re convinced you don’t possess green fingers give it a try. I guarantee it will bring unexpected joy and calm at this difficult and disorienting time.
By Claire Fleetneedle, Gardening Correspondent
April/ May top tips and tasks:
Late April to early May is the ideal time of year to prune plum trees. Thinning out some of the branches aids air flow and will prevent fruit rotting on the bough.
If you have grown bulbs such as daffodils or tulips, do not remove them as soon as they have finished flowering. Allow the leaves to continue absorbing the nutrients they need to flower again next year.
- Please leave dandelions and buttercups to flower. They are important early nectar providers for bees and other pollinators.
- Remember to leave water out for the birds and bees (preferably rainwater) creating a stony platform in the water so that bees and other insects can drink safely.
- If you’ve got the space, create little piles of wood in quiet corners of your garden to provide crucial shelter for various insects all year round.
I’m happy to report the bee hotel featured in last month’s article now has some solitary bee lodgers, as well as spiders, woodlice and assorted beetles.
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