The Portable Garden

I’m in for a bit of a busy week. I’m going abroad, briefly, and then on home to the Midlands for a bit. It’s a lot to pack in to a couple of days. Before that, however, I’ve got to move quite a bit of my garden, for exciting reasons. A TV programme’s being filmed right outside my house, and the channel’s location manager has asked me if I’d be willing to have my plants moved just for a couple of days, because the look they are going for is gritty and grimy, not flowery and pretty. The production team will be moving a lot of the plants themselves, but there’s quite a few bits and bobs that I’d prefer to do – the cucumbers, melon and honeysuckle were all attached to the railings, for example, so I’d rather be the one to untangle them.

It’s resulted in my house looking a bit like a jungle.

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And outside feels a bit bare.

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I don’t mind doing it though – in fairness, they offered to do everything themselves, but I thought it was a good time to have a bit of a clearout. I got rid entirely of the bolted radishes and the sweet peas. I felt a bit sad about the latter, even though part of them remains:

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I saved some seeds too. But it’s good to have the space, especially as I have an ambitious project in mind for over the winter, which will require the troughs and the support that the washing line could provide (I admittedly lose out on space to hang my clothes out to dry, but I’m thinking that realistically, in winter in Northumberland, there aren’t going to be many suitable days anyway).

Anyway, I hope I’ve moved enough and I don’t get panicked calls from the production people while I’m at work. I have paranoid visions of them shouting at me for having too many plants. There are a lot, but hopefully they’re all relatively portable now, so it’ll just be a case of people carefully moving them off my balcony. I went and complicated things by buying a really tall, really beautiful plant from the Alnwick garden shop:

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It’s a Black Knight larkspur, and nearly as tall as me. I’m worried the stalk will snap in the wind, but it seems pretty sturdy.

Finally, I harvested a few more cucumbers before I moved the cucumber plants indoors (an extremely delicate operation, which I hope they’ll survive). One of them’s curly, look!
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I think curly cucumbers should be more widely accepted in society, to be fair. They’re twice as quick to cut.

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The Balcony Garden: an Inventory

I quickly popped out to the balcony today after my driving lesson, the terror of which I’m trying to repress (I can trust myself with tiny delicate seedlings, but a tonne of terrifying metal? No chance). Noticed that three of the aubergines needed repotting, so thought I might as well do that straightaway.

Then I decided, for ‘fun’ (we often have to make our own entertainment in Northumberland), to count the number of aubergine plants I actually have up on the balcony. I knew it was a lot, because I’m so soft that I can’t bear to do the ‘two seedlings to a pot, only the strongest is allowed to grow on’ method of growing. I feel bad for the weaker one and want to give it a chance. Although I suppose this is between me and my therapist.

I found out I have 25 aubergine plants, from those just beginning to produce fruit, to smaller seedlings in the mini greenhouse. This was considerably more than I’d expected, especially as I’ve previously given around 4 away.

Rather than calling the aforementioned (and currently fictional) therapist, I decided to make a list of everything I’ve got on the balcony at the moment. This will help me either a) Realise that things have gone a bit far and encourage me to get a new hobby or b) Plan out what I can do next season.

The Inventory

Aubergines x 25, 24 of which ‘Ivory‘ variety, 1 of which ‘Black Beauty‘ variety. Mostly in individual pots, some in growbags. A few in the greenhouse.

Tomatoes x 10, all kinds of varieties, although generally cherry, and nothing too novel. 6 in two growbags, 4 in a hanging planter.

Loganberry x 1, bought from Morrisons but seems to be thriving currently. Thought I spotted some of its relatives growing wild nearby. Interested to note that a place close to where I grew up was a large producer of loganberries for the British navy.

Blueberry x 2,  two different varieties to try and get cross-pollination, although I couldn’t say which varieties. One’s produced a bit of edible fruit recently.

Raspberry x 1, not doing much right now, but nor would I expect it to.

Strawberry x 12, some in hanging planters, others in a kind of tower. The ones in hanging planters are doing much better and produce occasional fruit. Mixed varieties, including ‘wild’ strawberries (because it reminds me of happy holidays in Sweden).

Blackberry x 1, a thornless variety I brought back with me on the train after visiting my family. Train journey took around 7 hours, but I make sure the plant was safe on the seat next to me.

The herb sack, containing rocket, mint, parsley, and mizuna.

Leeks x 3, proving really tricky to grow under balcony conditions and rather wilty.

Spring onions, many seedlings, not sure if any will survive.

Radishes x 10, bought from the Roots and Shoots Garden, of which I’m a big fan. They’ve flowered, which means they’ve ‘bolted‘ and probably won’t be edible, but I’m not too upset because the flowers are lovely and attract bees.

The sweet peas, impossible to say how many individual plants, as it’s all kind of grown together in a lovely tangle.

Unidentified blue flowers I rescued from Morrisons, just one survivor, but looking very pretty.

Snapdragon x 12, some of which snap, others a different variety that cannot snap, all yellow.

Heather x 1, bought from a supplier at the local market. The heather’s really not well, I have to admit. I’ve had it over a year and I think it’s either already dead or unlikely to survive. I don’t know how I’ve managed to kill heather. It’s sad, because I’ve always loved heather despite not really being a ‘flower person’.

Melon x 1, another purchase from the Roots and Shoots Garden, slowly growing up the railings of my balcony. I really doubt I’ll get anything edible from it, but it can’t hurt to try.

Cucumber x 6, two bought as young plants from Homebase, now grown really quickly and producing edible cucumbers. The rest are still seedlings which will be staying in the greenhouse. I’ve really enjoyed growing cucumbers.

Squash x 4, butterbush variety. After a shaky start, three of these are doing really well. The remaining one has quite stunted growth, don’t have the heart to ‘recycle’ it.

Rose x 1, a rescue from Wilkos for 50p – showed some signs of rallying in spring, but I’m not optimistic for it now.

Olive bush x 1, one of my sillier purchases because I live in Northumberland rather than Greece, but it was only 50p from Wilkos and I couldn’t resist. It doesn’t look unhappy at the moment. Will do my best for it.

Chilli x 1, from a rescue of 6 plug plants from Wilkos, 10p for the lot. None of the others survived, but this one’s thriving in the greenhouse. It’s flowered so chillies will hopefully soon follow.

Hebe x 1, unsure which variety, but with purple flowers. Bought from Sainsburys on a lunch break when I was having a bad day. I was worried about this plant – the leaves appeared burnt, but I moved it to a less windy spot and it’s a much happier plant now.

Assorted mystery seeds, ones that can’t be any of the plants mentioned above. My fault because I get lazy when it comes to labelling plants. Mostly live in the greenhouse. Will have to wait and see what they turn into!

The ground floor

Carlingford potatoes, x 10 tubers, happily growing in their bags, or so I hope. It’s a fantastic novelty that I can move them out from under the balcony if it’s raining, so I don’t need to set up my spike bottle system.

 

I think that’s how things stand at the moment. I will bore you with my Grand Plan for my Balcony Garden of the Future at a later date. But WHAT, I hear you cry, do I get out of all these plants?

Well:

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I made this salad at the weekend, and I’m not going to lie – most of it was not homegrown. The cucumber and the herbs were, but that was about it. I did a little ‘harvest’ on the Saturday, and what I picked was hardly enough to fill a cereal bowl. BUT STILL. The salad was delicious, even if I did not grow it all, because I grew some of it. And even if I’m only growing enough food for the odd snack here and there, I’m reaping the rewards in terms of well-being. OK, it COULD be argued (and is) that I’m a bit too enthusiastic, but the sense of happiness and achievement when you’ve tasted the first strawberry you’ve grown this year is fantastic.

Farewell to Carlingford

The best thing about gardening is experimentation, as I reassured myself while pouring Guinness all over my compost heap today. I had some left over after I made rarebit last week (I couldn’t drink the leftovers because I hate beer). It turned out very well – I imagine that if my little sisters Niamh and Cerys conform to the national stereotypes their respective names would suggest when they grow up, then rarebit with Guinness would be the perfect thing to feed them when they come over for their tea.

I have no idea what the Guinness is going to do to my compost heap, but said heap was very dry, so I can’t see that it will do much harm. The compost heap is actually two heaps, and in fact, it’s not two heaps at all, it’s just the potato bags left after I harvested the Arran Pilots last month, filled with all kinds of stuff. My plan for next month is to plant Carlingford tubers with a view to having them ready by Christmas. I have visions of proudly presenting my mother with enough potatoes to feed the entire extended family on Christmas day, although it’s important to be realistic here – the family are legion.

 

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Some of the greenery on the balcony has been doing well! The cucumbers are growing at a slightly alarming rate – far past the little stick pyramid supports I constructed for them. I find that I’m increasingly relying on the railings to support them. The hessian sack that I intended to be a herb planter is also doing reasonably well, although it’s mostly mint with a bit of rocket that’s survived. I inherited the mint plant, bought from a local supermarket, from my good friend Alastair, and after a shaky start, it’s thrived. It’s really hard to grow anything from seed in the lower pockets of the sack, of course, because it’s so dark. My plan is to buy adult herb plants at some point and plant them too, just so the mint doesn’t have too much of a monopoly.

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I’m going to have to repot the squash plants, I think, which might entail removing them from the hi-tech ‘string round the pot tied to the railings’ system I’ve got going. Space is occasionally an issue. I had to buy six snapdragon plants yesterday, for two reasons. Firstly, they were reduced from £7.99 to £1.99, which is clearly a bargain. Secondly, you can make snapdragon flowers ‘talk’ by pinching the sides. I live alone. I think that settles the matter.

Anyway, my colleagues reminded me that my balcony isn’t necessarily a tardis. It’s not technically a tardis, it’s true. Finding space is becoming an issue, especially since I went on a walk last Saturday and came back with a melon plant and some kind of bean plant (I bought them, I haven’t been terrorising anyone’s garden). There are ways and means of creating space, though, especially with the railings. I have a plan whereby I make plant holders out of wire – fairly cheap from Wilkos – and attach them to the railings, thus creating more ‘floorspace’ for the larger plants, like the raspberry canes and olive trees and whatever else I have.

IMG_20140725_202202Here’s the set-up at the moment. It’s organised chaos, I promise. It’s highly organised, actually, although I realised I’m a numpty who planted an aubergine seedling in with the tomato plants in the blue container (foreground, to the right – a prize if you can spot it!). This photo doesn’t even show the cucumbers or the compost heaps (which aren’t heaps). You can see the melon plant though – it’s the tall yellowish one to the left, in the foreground.

I’m quite enjoying composting overall – I can keep my inner German happy by dividing my rubbish into even more groups. I found a handy and simple guide to what you can compost on Pinterest. I’ve put everything on my compost heaps from eggshells to coffee grounds to the ashes of the free Sun newspaper I had delivered, which I was compelled to burn immediately.

No real news on the actual allotment yet. I’m starting to feel a bit silly for celebrating prematurely, although I was assured things would be ready to start a month ago. I know I’ll not be able to grow anything there this year – I just want to get to work and do some digging. The silver lining, though, is that I should hopefully be helping out with the local youth centre’s allotment soon enough, so I’ll be able to do at least some digging.

What lies beneath

I’ve still not had any allotment news, which is a bit of shame. I’m sure things will start to happen soon, I’m just impatiently waiting to DIG every evening. I’m becoming a believer in the principle of making the best of things, though, and I’m hopefully going to have a talk with some people at a youth centre tomorrow about getting involved with their allotment too. I live close by the centre, and the people working there noticed the balcony garden (it’s becoming increasingly hard to miss, what with all the foliage), and we got chatting about it the other week. I just hope they don’t think I actually know stuff about plants. I mean, I’m learning more and more each day, but I’m still a fairly new gardener. A sapling, if you will. I can still clumsily wield a spade, though, so I’m not entirely useless, and I’m certainly willing to help out.

Here’s what’s been happening in the balcony garden:

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(mini cucumbers, soon-to-be aubergines, and raspberry canes on the top row, loganberry and strawberries on the second, radish and butterbushes on the third)

Loganberries are a bit of a novelty to me. I don’t think I’ve actually eaten one before, so I’m hoping this plant survives and I get to try one. I have an interest in obscure plants that kind of runs parallel to my love of obscure languages (if I start talking about Low German, for example, I sometimes have to be gently reminded, after a while, that not everyone finds it as interesting as I do). If/when I do get this allotment, I’ve been thinking of planting a strawberry tree. They don’t grow actual strawberries, but they do grow an interesting kind of fruit you can use in jams. I’ve also considered growing sea kale. I’m roughly three miles from the coast, so I think it should do fine either on my balcony or in my allotment. Finally, I’m really tempted to one day try and grow the TomTato. I have no idea what it’d be like, or how the resulting tomatoes and potatoes would taste, but it’d be a lot of fun to try.

The strawberries I have in hanging growbags have been looking much happier since I changed my watering method:

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No, I’m not feeding the plants that delightful Danish drink, Faxe Kondi. It’s the spikes that are the important ‘point’ here*. I got them from Oxfam, and they fit lots of different bottles, so it’s just a case of filling the bottle with water, screwing on the spike, and sticking it into the soil. It’s been working especially well for the hanging plants, as it used to be difficult to get the water to drain the whole way down the growbag.

Last Sunday evening I decided to do nothing in the garden. I’ve hardly ever just sat there and appreciated it before – I’m always pacing around, wondering which plants I should move where, and whether I could fit in just a couple more. But on Sunday, I made a conscious effort to actually relax for an hour or so.

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There’s no space for furniture on the balcony because of my habit of putting plants everywhere, but I sat on an old jumper of mine, curled up with a book, and ate crisps. It was glorious. Overall, I’d say summer’s my least favourite season, but a happy upshot of the fact that the sun sets so late at the moment is that I can spend multiple evenings on the balcony.

*this marks my very first gardening pun on this blog, for which I can only apologise.

Evening on the balcony garden

I’m currently scoffing the rest of my growbag potatoes. I didn’t do anything too fancy with them this time round, I just roasted them and am eating them with a Yorkshire pud and some veg. Still delicious though. It was worth investing in all that soil and spending all that time fretting that the potatoes would never grow.

I went to take a look at the allotment on Sunday and was a bit sad, because they hadn’t done as much with it as I’d expected in the two weeks I was away. The nettles had been trimmed but other than that, not much else had happened, and I was thinking I’d have to turn it down if it was offered to me like that, because I’m only one small person, and I can only dedicate a couple of hours an evening to an allotment during the week, oh woe, etc. But then I rationalised slightly and thought that in fact, they’re probably just running behind schedule, especially as they’ve not been in touch to actually offer it to me yet. I’ll take another look this weekend and try not to obsess too much. It’d be silly to turn it down at this point anyway, and even if it does turn out to be in a state, I can get assistance.

So, more rational, I’ve been spending some evenings on t’balcony. The sweet peas are smelling lovely:

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They’re completely insane, though, bless them. When they were growing, I constructed some kind of random weak trellis out of sticks and bits for them, and then they were all like ‘Yes! We’ll grow on that, no problem!’ And they don’t ever seem to stop growing. Or have any roots. There’s no order to them. I like them.

The tomatoes in my vertical planter are doing pretty well:

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The planter itself is something similar to this, actually designed for peppers, but works well enough for tomatoes. I’ve suspended it from the balcony railings using an old belt, which is also useful for easily repositioning the planter/taking it down to add more plants, etc. The only drawback is that it’s a right pain trying to get new plants through those holes in the planter without breaking the stalks, especially for younger plants. Maybe it’s just that I’m clumsy, but I’m lucky that tomato plants are pretty resilient. I sometimes hang the planter the other side of the railings so the plants get a bit more sun throughout the day, but I became paranoid that it’d fall down while I was on holiday, and the plants wouldn’t enjoy that.

My aubergine population is becoming, quite frankly, a bit threatening, and I might have to look into giving a few more of them away to long-suffering colleagues. At least they’d be young plants rather than seedlings (the aubergine plants, I mean, not my colleagues), so I feel more confident in not accidentally confusing them with other plants, and less bad if I give away something that later dies. I need to examine the link between gardening and guilt in greater detail.

Tomatoes in the balcony garden

I’m back from Sweden! But fear not, I didn’t abandon the world of gardening to have a holiday. Quite the opposite. My hosts/carers/unfortunates on whom I foist myself own an allotment. It is beautiful. Look at it.

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Digging potatoes was my favourite thing to do, perhaps because of my ‘special and maybe a bit unhealthy relationship with potatoes’. Here’s my feet merrily swinging by some potatoes.

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I did other stuff in Sweden too. I didn’t only toil, I ate lots of cake. We also went off to a Viking museum – Vikings being another of my very specific interests – and lo and behold, they had Viking allotments!

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Or Norse allotments, I suppose I should say, since the farmers back then weren’t strictly Vikings. Vikings were just the ones who went on raids. It’d be cool if I could make similar borders around my raised beds.

In terms of my own, still-potential allotment, I’ve still not officially signed anything because the council were clearing the overgrown area while I was away. I’m going to swing by and take an unofficial look tomorrow just to get an idea of what it’s like (I’ll have an ‘official’ viewing with the man from the council too, but I’m overcautious and want to make sure the soil looks diggable before I commit to anything). I hope it is diggable, because this blog might become quiet if I have to turn the allotment down.

Or will it? I left my balcony garden in the hands of some kind friends, who did an excellent job of looking after it. Everything’s grown so much in two weeks! I started off today by harvesting the potatoes in my two remaining growbags.

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You’ll perceive, of course, that I now have a stylish new allotment cup. I’ve been on the hunt for a coffee cup that wouldn’t shatter if I dropped it, making it suitable for the rough and tumble world of gardening. Being a woman of great style, I had to go all the way over to Malmö to get one.

The potato harvest will be enough for a few meals at least (there’s more than is pictured above). Some things I’ve learned: I was a bit overenthusiastic in planting so many seed potatoes in each growbag (6-7 per bag, layered), and also in harvesting one of the bags so early (roughly three weeks ago, having planted the chitted seed potatoes in…late February? I think?). A lot of the potatoes I harvested then were TEENY. However, it worked well to cut back the plants and leave the potatoes in the ground for a couple of weeks, as it made the skins noticeably tougher.

I’m hoping to plant some winter potatoes in September to have them by Christmas. I’ve really enjoyed growing potatoes in bags. They took up a fair amount of space on the balcony, it’s true, but they were easy to grow, happily ate up the fertiliser I gave them (mostly coffee grounds), AND today my evening meal looked like this:

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I’ve changed things around quite a bit in terms of the rest of the balcony. Two of the potato growbags are still sitting there filled with soil, and I’ll be adding compost until I can think of a better use for them. I’ve put the other one away, and with the extra space, I’ve put out two tomato growbags.

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(in the foreground, to the right)

The tomatoes are a bit of a ragtag bunch of varieties I’ve grown from seed or rescued as ‘wilty’ stock from Wilkos. I’ve got some more in a hanging planter, and they’re a bit older. I’m hoping to have actual edible tomatoes from them soon:

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The largest cauliflower, too, has developed an interesting addition!

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I think that’s what cauliflowers are meant to do! I’ve gathered up the leaves and tied them to protect the head from the sun, as the books recommend, although there’s not a huge amount of sun to protect it from. I’ve added a lot of fresh soil to this particular growbag, which I hope will make the plant perk up a bit.

A lot of the aubergine plants (I fear I have more than 15) and some squash plants (3 or 4) are still growing strong. I also accidentally bought a small olive bush and a blueberry bush from Wilkos today, reduced down to £1.50 each from about £6 because they were ‘wilting’, but I’m sure I can nurse them back to health. If not, it’s not the end of the world.

I’m feeling a bit nervous about peeking at the allotment tomorrow. I’ll be disappointed if it’s still overgrown or hasn’t been tilled, even though I’ve been told it will have been so I’m getting nervous over quite a small issue. Ah well. Even if it’s no good, I still have the balcony! It’s taken from September 2013, but I’m finally growing stuff on it that I can actually eat! It’s a nice feeling.