Make do and mend...
Gardening with footballs, recycled furniture and home-made potting mixtures
In the latest update from his permaculture garden Simon lets us in to some of his secrets, including educating local kids, recycling old furniture and his continuing research into the best potting mixes...
"I grow courgettes at my house," the boy proudly tells me as he clutches the football he has just retrieved from my front garden
He is one of a team of small children whose game of street football is the main event in the cul-de-sac today. It's the umpteenth time the ball has strayed onto my patch – not to mention bouncing off neighbours' front doors and cars. My requests for them to keep the ball out of the garden are, I realise, more a formality than a realistic attempt to change the laws of physics: with the best will in the world their game isn't one which is going to contain itself to 12 feet of street. They are, of course, lucky to live in a road where the absence of through traffic means they can play safely... though my colleagues in urban design say that cul-de-sacs are off the menu now that 'connectivity' is king.
But I digress. The point is, growing food in the front garden sounds great but as with anything positive you might try to achieve, it creates new issues, sets up new dynamics and vulnerabilities, and necessitates new forms of negotiation.
"What you planting anyway?" the boy asks cheerily, pointing to my seed packets.
"Oh, lots of things," I reply, "carrots, courgettes, lettuces, cabbages, beans. Everything." (polyculture being my big ongoing experiment - though I hold back from getting into those details, feeling this conversation isn't bound for technical territory).
"We grow stuff in the garden... but we ain't got one of those."
"One of what?"
"That!" he says, pointing to the raised sleeper beds. For a moment I hope I haven't inadvertently mystified growing your own food through constructing this chunky edifice, thus making it seem a more elaborate process than it really is – precisely the opposite effect to what I'm hoping to achieve. But then it sounds like he's already growing up with some know-how, so I don't need to worry on his account.
Eventually the football moves off down the street. Netting the tops of the beds with plastic mesh on its 3rd or 4th outing and putting some spent CDs up as bird scarers (an unexpectedly attractive expedient) I take a note of everything I've sown today for the records. I expect with the summer weather there'll be plenty of football danger to come for my more delicate crops, but that's a negotiation for another day. Meanwhile I've a surplus of seeds of all kinds so if the young team stay interested I might ask them if they want to pot a few tomatoes themselves...
Reuse and recycling in the garden
It's the back garden's turn for some attention and now that I've diverted the whole cubic metre of last year's compost to the front I need to build some new material to get things going in the back and fast. I'm moving the hippo sack compost heap to the bottom of the garden to make space for building a patio from recycled solid bricks (long story - suffice to say a friend drove into their very attractive and formerly sound garden wall...).
In fact, the whole garden is increasingly becoming an exercise in reuse and recycling. One of the sleepers for the raised beds was partly rotten but the unused part makes a good clean edge to contain the sack. An solid-but-unattractive 1980s pine cabinet left in the house by the previous owners becomes a store for pots and bought compost, whilst the odd metal framework at one end of it can host climbing beans which will help to screen it later in the year. A shabby long mirror becomes a light catcher to slightly lengthen the day at the bottom of this down-sloping, north facing garden. There is still plenty of brushwood from last year's clearance which can become the airy framework around which I'll build a good old garden waste pile. And lastly, there are a couple of glass bottles for conveying some Personal Liquid Compost Activator (aka my pee!) from the bathroom. Nature also provides a key ingredient in the form of mycelium-ridden chunks of brush that've been laying round for the last year. Time for dinner, fungi!
Back in the house, my first tranche of seeds are raising their heads after only a few days. I'm trialling different mixes of shop-bought organic peat-free compost, my own home made stuff, and the purchased stuff with added wood ash and spent coffee grounds. I'm also mixing some wood ash into the wormery to prevent it from getting too wet. NB. to be useable the ash must be free from toxins present in pressure treated timber, so best only use non-preserved wood in your burners – and of course, no paint! Turns out these extra components slow things down - at least at first - but I'll keep measuring growth rates and other outcomes once seeds have germinated in the different media.
For seed pots I'm using toilet roll tubes, cut four ways in the base and folded in. I've been in the habit of covering the top with a scrap of cling film or placing a number of them inside a clear plastic bag: it keeps the humidity just right for germination after adding a small amount of water to the bottom of the tray. I know we're not supposed to use throwaway plastic, so I'm on the lookout for compostable cling film. But then, if I have seeds germinating in the outdoors, why do I need to cover them at all inside...? One reason for propagating both indoors and outside is so that I can better recognise the seedlings in the gardens so take more accurate records; bringing them on more quickly in controlled conditions will help. That's the theory anyway. The other reason is to provide back-up for outdoor plants destroyed by pigeons, cats or footballs.