Saturday, 3 September 2016

The Neglectful Gardener

I have a small, underdeveloped vegetable patch at the bottom of my garden, which came with the cottage. It came complete with rhubarb plant that gives me enough rhubarb for a few crumbles in the late spring and a couple dozen autumn fruiting raspberry canes that are prolific, even when I forget to cut them down in winter.

My bijoux, semi-tended patch

There's also an orchard stuffed with apples, pears, damson and plum trees which are more or less self-sustaining. I just need to carry out regulatory pruning once a year.

It's the annual vegetable planting that catches me out every time.

I forget to start seedlings under glass. I miss the opportunity to direct sow in the ground by at least a month. I start to prepare seedbeds and, before a third of the veg patch is tilled, I've wandered off to deal with livestock. My gardening professor told me "Never let a weed see Sunday", Surely it's easy enough to find time to hoe between rows once a week?

If only I could eat the weeds we would have a bumper crop. In that spirit, I tried making soup from the nettles that invade my garden. It tasted like weed soup, even with a half pint of cream stirred into it.

I'm surrounded by fields of crops, which I treat as "wild food" to be gathered. This only adds to my gardening laziness, These crops are grown for animal fodder but, if picked before harvest, are sweet and delicious (and don't get sprayed by chemicals). This year's bounty included peas, broad beans, and new potatoes. Technically it's stealing, except the farmers are OK with it. That's three crops I didn't have to plant.

Bill the retired shepherd has a magnificent garden. His veg beds are cleaner and better kept than my living room. I barter with Margaret - Bill's wife and chief neighbourhood cake maker - our extra chicken eggs for runner beans and courgettes (zucchini) to round out our vegetable harvest.

That's five crops I didn't have to plant.

raspberry canes - look at the nettles encroaching!

Bill gave me some of his extra runner bean plants, which I planted in my veg patch. Luckily they were big enough to outgrow the weeds and they are starting to crop now.

I especially love yellow squash and pumpkins - "no brainer" crops for sure, but not easy to buy in the UK grocery stores. I have planted some of each and tend them haphazardly: a bit of water, fertiliser, hoeing. I put a fence around them, which keeps the chickens off but seems to be exactly the right size for rabbits to walk through. I'm waiting for the rabbits to grow a bit bigger, and I'm going to harvest them as well.

"fenced"-in Connecticut field pumpkins & Runner beans 

I'm less of a gardener, and more of an opportunistic forager.

Our fruit trees are our main crop. It's looking like an average fruiting year, but there will be enough to share with friends and neighbours. The gentleman who owned this estate many years ago made sure that every estate cottage had an orchard with early and late fruiting trees, so no employee would ever go without fruit - as long as they were thrifty enough to preserve or dry store the harvest. His forethought and generosity is still paying off today. The first early season cooking apples are ready now and, as it's raining, I'll spend today canning chutney, and making hedgerow jam with wild blackberries I picked yesterday while dog walking.

The dogs love the fruit too, picking their own blackberries and cleaning up windfalls in the orchard at breakfast time. They all adore pears, and will pick any they can reach straight from the trees. I watch the retrievers eat at least 5 raw pears each, every day.

I spent a few years studying horticulture, garden design, and food production. I try and apply principles I learned to my own gardening work, but I've never bettered nature. One morning as I opened the gate to the goat paddock, I looked at the fence line and saw this profusion of "weeds" and wild flowers -

Mallow, grasses, & bindweed

It was better integrated and more aesthetic than I could have designed with my big human brain.

I am going to expand my vegetable garden and have decided on the No-Dig approach. I am layering the soil with horse manure that I collect from Kitty's paddock every few weeks. I'm making compost from horse manure, used straw (from the dogs' beds), and grass clippings. I've covered over weedy areas with plywood sheets and tarps to kill off the weeds. I like the idea of layering waste, composting, and - of course - not digging the heavy clay-rich soil every year.

I've also scrounged inherited a hoop house, which I plan to put up next to my neglected veg patch, to grow the most precious of commodities: tomatoes. A poly tunnel is one more gardening task I can forget to do next year. 


Anonymous said...

I am suprised you can grow squash and pumpkins in the UK.
Is it not too cool a climate ?
Can Bill grow a few extra starts for you next spring?

Cottontail Farm said...

Wonderful post! I didn't realize that winter squash were not a common grocery store item in the UK. With the increased awareness of heirloom crops in the US it is easier to find odd squashes now. They're my favorite crop to grow and cook.

Jennifer Montero said...

Anon - Squash absolutely thrive here! It's not too cool; our biggest problem is limited sunshine in the summer to ripen the pumpkins. We haven't got enough days' sunshine to grow sweet corn well either. And it is too cool to grow tomatoes or cucumbers very well without shelter. I might ask Bill if he'll work his green-fingered magic on a few squash plants - good idea!

CF - There are a few heirloom winter squash showing up at Farmer's markets, and I snag them when I see them (thankfully they store so well!). There's just no excuse for me not to grow them.