The battles of the raised beds
The big task ahead, over the next month or so, is to plant up the raised beds. Some are still under cultivation from last season: sweet basil (Ocimum basilicum), English parsley (Petroselinum crispum), rocket (Eruca vesicaria) and sweet peppers (Capsicum annuum) are continuing, mostly under cover of the frames and nets installed in two of the beds over the summer. There’s something else there too, possibly celery, yet to be identified for sure.
Building the raised beds back in 2011 was something of a triumph. The Engineer was initially sceptical. My reasoning – that they would make gardening a lot easier when I am in my dotage (I hesitated to mention the possibility of a wheelchair, not wishing to frighten the poor man) – did not convince him. But I persisted, we discussed the plans at length and measured up the space, and he set to work to build something approaching what I had in mind.
He constructed four large beds each about 45 cm deep, with a smaller diamond shape in the centre for herbs. Perhaps the diamond was a little whimsical. I think I may have had a French parterre with box hedging in mind. In the event, there is nothing remotely Renaissance about ours, though what the beds lack in style they hopefully make up for in efficacy.
Construction was far from straightforward. By late 2011, we had five brick and mortar structures dominating the back garden. They were built on a wild, wet November day – conditions that “would bring good luck” according to one of the bricklayers, who really had no idea what he was constructing or why. The walls were then covered in cement:
The first battle royal erupted over the lining. I argued there should be none, foreseeing drainage as well as heat problems. The Engineer dug in his heels and insisted we should have a plastic lining. It would, of course, protect the bricks and cement from degrading with the humidity.
In went metres of black plastic sheeting. I shudder whenever I catch sight of it, try to hide it, and occasionally sabotage it by cutting it down. But plastic goes on – and on – as we all know in this Age of Petroleum.
As for filling the beds, one lone workman heroically carried endless sacks of sand to fill them to a depth of about 30 cm. These were followed by even heavier loads of black soil to add a further 12 cm or so. Ethically, I found this disturbing – where exactly were we sourcing the stuff from?
The answer came in spring 2012, when any number of corn plants unexpectedly germinated and grew some 2 m tall. They looked a little odd in a raised bed. In between, we managed a good crop of courgettes/zucchini (Cucurbita pepo), lettuce (Lactuca sativa), rocket, French beans (Phaseolus vulgaris), spinach (Spinacea oleracea) and onions (Allium cepa). Left to their own devices, the herbs took off enthusiastically and they remain the star kids on the block.
The second season, this past summer, was very poor. Soil exhaustion? Overwatering? For the second battle of the raised beds has been over the irrigation arrangements. The Engineer recommended hand watering only; for the sake of efficiency, I argued for an automatic system with low level pipes to drip the water in. Fine in theory, but once installed it didn’t work: we had a spectacular flood in one bed and only patchy watering in the others. Again, the herbs sailed on, oblivious to the drama all around.
So now, this season, soil improvement is a top priority. Drainage pipes have been fitted, to cope with unexpected spikes in watering, and the irrigation system disconnected in two beds. We are using manure on the non-salad sections, so the melokhiya (Corchorus olitorius) is well cared-for. All the others planted so far – rocket, parsley, dill (Anethum graveolens), spinach – have to make do with gradual additions of compost as and when it becomes available. It’s going to be a long haul.
The melokhiya is an experiment: a highly nutritious leafy veg, it is made into a soup and usually eaten with either chicken or rabbit. Sometimes described as the national dish of Egypt – although I think koshari, made with rice, pasta and lentils, may take the honours in that respect – it is an acquired taste to my way of thinking. But worth a try in the raised beds.