How’s it Growing?

 

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

Last year there were three growing in this spot, now look at them!

 

For some, gardening is a science, backed up with generations of wisdom and bookshelves filled with horticultural tomes. For those serious gardeners, there is a secret stash of seeds and an encyclopedic knowledge of tried-and-tested-grown-in-proven-ways approaches to their planting. My skills and knowledge are nothing of this order and I am often intimidated when the serious gardener casually uses Latin names for plants.   For me, gardening is hard work and a complete mystery. Not the miraculous, awe-inspiring, divine-wonder type of mystery, more the, “What on earth did I do this year and why is this growing (or not) now?”

When it comes to our garden, Roger and I are experimental. Sure, we keep a little black book of when and what we’ve planted, largely because we can never remember year to year. We even do that thing called crop rotation, although I need to confirm the plant category in order to know which bed to position everything for the growing season. Despite our shortcomings, we enjoy the work, the worry and the payout of a fresh salad at dinner, strawberries for breakfast and most recently globe artichokes dipped in melted butter.

 

These potatoes grew overnight!

These potatoes grew overnight!

 

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife.  Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

The onions and rocket suffered several attacks from wildlife. Struggling a bit, but seem to be rallying.

 

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier.  Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

To protect the lettuces, we had to construct this crazy barrier. Happy to report the rabbits have moved elsewhere for their greens.

 

To watch us, one could be forgiven for thinking we possess wisdom and skill. I faithfully tend my compost piles, producing bags and bags of our rich, loamy product for our raised beds. We weed. We harvest. We enjoy the produce we grow. We smile with joy when something we planted grows and briefly frown when it doesn’t. We listen to Gardener’s Question Time on Radio 4 in hopes of inspiration and insight, but alas, they never address growing vegetables, flowers or anything in the middle of Dartmoor. Undaunted, we keep at it.

We have learned a good deal as we head into our fourth summer of gardening here at Crockern.   I may still dream of one day successfully growing sweet corn, but know we don’t stand the proverbial snow ball’s chance in hell of success, so we’ve move onto something else: aubergines (eggplants) in the greenhouse!

We began our gardening adventure by clearing areas and building raised beds for the vegetables. We repaired and created infrastructure along the stonewalls, fencing and gates.   We’ve learned a thing or two about keeping slugs, chickens and rabbits out of the beds, even if it does look like a fortress in places. We’ve built a greenhouse and have a bounty of strawberries and soon, tomatoes. And this year, by moving fallen stones and layering in tons of our homemade compost, we completed two flowerbeds and up-cycled an old bathtub.

 

The up-cycled bathtub.  We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

The up-cycled bathtub. We built the stone wall around it, filled it with drainage stones and then compost before planting it with these perennials.

 

One of the newly planted flower beds.

One of the newly planted flower beds.

 

When I went to the garden centre for a few pretty plants for these new beds, I had to consider our weather conditions: wet, windy, cloudy, cooler and vulnerable to rabbits, chickens, slugs, badgers and moles. Hmmm. Embracing my “give it a go” approach, I made my selection and planted the new flowerbeds.   So far, so good with a single rabbit attack, necessitating a barrier for the time being. The honeysuckle we positioned into one of the flowerbeds last year has flourished. And so it should, you can find these growing wild in and among the oaks at Wistman’s Wood.

 

The honeysuckle is well established.

The honeysuckle is well established.

 

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year's project.

Having rebuilt the walls, this will be next year’s project.

 

Nature is our guide. Outside our garden, seeming to grow without any effort, are the wild foxgloves, full of grace and elegance. Despite looking like pink periscopes coming out of the field to observe us, these bold architectural spires, with bell shaped flowers hanging from one side of the tall stem, mingle in and among the soft tufts of grass and reeds in the meadow.   They seem to grow anywhere that might be awkward: In the wet patch of bog or next to the dry rocks of a stonewall.   They are casual and informal, and also perfect.

What is it about this summer that has nearly ten times as many growing? Last year, my friend Jenny was visiting and commented that she loved seeing the foxgloves, unable to successfully grow them in her own garden. I must quickly point out, Jenny has a serious green thumb and is one of those gardeners who knows what she’s doing. Last year’s small show has become this year’s blockbuster bloom! It’s a Broadway and West End smash hit!

 

Wild foxgloves

 

When I look out to the foxgloves, I realize that our gardening technique of trial, error and humour might be a little haphazard, casual, and sometimes thwarted by mistakes and oversights, but it actually works. Our onions are struggling a bit and there was a giant rabbit hole in our asparagus bed back in March. The rabbits chewed through netting to feast on lettuce until we put chicken wire around the bed. But, if I don’t get too hung up on the why’s and how’s of what we are growing, and instead roll up my sleeves and get my hands dirty, I soon notice the tomatoes are in full flower, the potatoes have doubled in size over night, and we are soon to have a large number of blueberries, having wisely netted them before the birds could get to them. Maybe the thing about gardening, particularly our garden, is similar in concept to the surprise showing of this year’s foxgloves: we aren’t supposed to know what to expect and instead enjoy what we get.

 

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

It is still hard for me to believe that these are growing so well here on Dartmoor.

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I Heart Compost

In the cooler months, steam visibly rises off the heap.  Each day, the pile on the right grows with new additions, while the pile on the left seems to transform into a dark, rich, and crumbly material.  There’s no smell.  There are, however, bugs swarming about, the sight of which even in the cold depths of winter, provides an anticipation on a par with hearing the coffee grinder on an early Sunday morning, knowing that I do not need to get out of bed to walk Sam – Roger’s already done it.  This week’s clear blue skies, warm, soft breezes, and the determination of the snowdrops, crocuses and daffodils all announcing spring, my low level of anticipation is ramping up into something approaching giddiness.  Yes, it’s happened again and I am completely obsessed with our compost, my steaming pile of pride and joy.

I’m clearly not alone in this world with my affection for this decayed organic material as books could easily line several shelves on the topic:  Easy Composting; The Humanure Handbook; Compost This Book; and, Let It Rot! are among the many.  I am curious about the Diary of a Compost Hotline Worker, but haven’t had the local bookshop order it for me.

When we moved to Crockern two years ago, we set about clearing an area of nettles and stones, building up some wind breaks and constructing seven raised beds.  We built our compost bins, erected a greenhouse and armed ourselves with determination to grow in an exposed, windy, cold, and wet environment.   Over the seasons, we have had successes and failures leading to a more focused list of what we intend to grow this summer.  Our winter beds are miraculously still providing lettuces, chard and spinach.  We are feeling proud and I affectionately know our lovely compost has something to do with it.

I suppose, making compost is considered to be complex and may cause a level of anxiety among some, but all you need to do is provide the right ingredients and let nature get busy.  Simply dump some green waste and then brown waste in equal amounts, give it air, moisture and time and voila, rich loamy stuff for the garden!

Where we live we don’t need to worry about adding water to our compost lasagna, but we do need to consider air.  Twice a month, I stir with a pitchfork the layers of mass, giving them a good mix then cover the pile with some old carpet and a tarp.  After a few months, the compost is beautifully decayed and I transfer it into bags to continue its transformation for a few more months.  All in all, I can create around half a ton of compost every six months.

I don’t know how my love affair began.  Unquestionably, composting is an act of frugality, which has some obvious appeal.   There is also the environmental feel-good factor of using organic material that would otherwise be entombed in a bio-indestructible plastic rubbish bag perched somewhere in a landfill.  Around 40 percent of the average dustbin contents are suitable for home composting.   But like all love affairs, there is something magical and enchanting at play.  To observe in a matter of months a pile of melon rinds, apple cores and other leftovers from our kitchen and garden, along with cardboard or waste from the chicken coop become a super rich decomposed material containing lots of humus, carbon and nitrogen is pure delight.  I’m busy making black gold and I love it!

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

Two of our hens are assisting with the composting efforts.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

While one pecks bugs and adds poop, the other is off to assess the progress and quality of the black gold in the left bin.

There are little areas of chaos that characterize the circus we call our vegetable garden.  The chickens enjoy their role as supervisors, determining the right balance of worms in the bed.  “Cluck, too many, this one must be eaten!”  The rabbits visit but so far remain deterred by the netting over the beds.  The slugs and snails nibble.  And the rain hammers down on our plants, stripping the beds of vital nutrients and adding to the challenge we like to call “satisfying fun”.   At the base of it all, is our home grown compost.

Early spring is always a mad scramble with the garden.  This past week, I’ve turned our future fertilizer, bagged some of the well-rotted stuff for further decaying, and emptied tons of the fresh and ready material onto the garden beds awaiting our spring plantings.  We have started to chit out seed potatoes for planting mid to late April.  Tomato seedlings are now started.   I am excited to see the budding on the blueberry bushes and am anxiously awaiting the asparagus spears to show themselves.  The rhubarb is already about 4 inches above ground!

Despite the trouncing this watery-winter gave us, we know warmer days are around the corner.  Some mornings, as I pad out to my compost pile with the plastic kitchen pail chuck-full of potato peels, apple cores, and coffee grounds, I think about the bounty our veg garden will provide.    We are enjoying the longer days and the reverie of birdcall aware the return of our summer migrants like Swallows and House Martins is near.  As I tip the contents of the pail onto the heap, my heart swells knowing a rind is a terrible thing to waste.

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