Obsessing about the raised beds

As usual, I’m obsessing about the raised beds. Seen from above, they don’t look so bad:

RBs 2 & 4 10.17

Up close and personal, it’s a different story. Depleted soil; swarms of snails; tribes of woodlice; a late-summer plague of grasshoppers; reams of caterpillars; mealy bugs on aubergine/tomato plants…. Not to mention the truly spectacular failure, etched on my memory, of crops I tried to grow through spring and early summer 2017, from aubergines to squash, courgettes to tomatoes.

So has anything gone right? Well, the mint in RB4 is magnificent, although it’s not supposed to be there at all. I hauled armfuls of the herb out this morning as I got the bed ready for the coming growing season:

Mint fr RB4 10.17

Now this is quite a treat, so let me acknowledge the glorious, fresh smell that pervaded the kitchen. Known as na’ana’a baladi, or “local mint” in Egypt, it’s often added to glasses of sweet black tea, or whizzed up with lemon juice, sugar and ice-cold water to make a frothy and refreshing pick-me-up in hot weather.

Spearmint, known for some reason as sa’oudi, is less popular. We were given some by friends: I keep it by the back door, to be accessible for emergency purposes – an infusion is a brilliant (and rapid) digestive tonic.

Returning to my obsession: I began the growing season this autumn by getting the timing wrong. I’ve done this before – planted too early – and paid the price, and now I’ve repeated the same mistake. So my neat rows of cut and come again lettuce; early mizuna; dill; rocket; and oriental green leaves a) hardly germinated and b) where they did struggle to the surface, were decimated by pests.

On the other hand, seeds I didn’t sow have germinated with a vengeance, including flat-leaf parsley in RB4 around a similarly self-seeded basil (below left), while I also discovered an unknown Greek oregano hiding under the mint (right):

Rocket has appeared here, there and everywhere except where I sowed the seeds; but, not to be put off, after finishing preparing the bed and moving some young rocket plants into it from elsewhere, I sowed more seeds in the hope that the timing now might be better.

As for RB2, everything that germinated there was eaten to oblivion, in spite of the netting covering the whole bed. There’s just a tiny bit of mizuna left – though you may have difficulty spotting it in the photo:

RB2 mizuna struggling 10.17

Although I did some preliminary clearing of RB1, I’ve yet to get properly to grips with it or RB3. Seen from above, they look slightly better than at ground level.

RBs 1 & 3 10.17

RB3 is the major challenge, as it has not been properly dug for at least 2 years, and I have no doubt it will be full of tree roots. Plus, I will have run out of compost by the time I get to it, so I will have to buy some in if the soil is to be improved and it’s anyone’s guess whether the commercially available kompoost here is any good.

Maybe a green fertiliser would do the trick. However, my previous attempt, using clover (or berseem, much grown in the countryside in Egypt, where it is also used as animal fodder) was counter-productive: I couldn’t dig the stuff out of the bed!

So, having calmed down a bit as I worked steadily on RB4, I decided to take the kitchen garden one bed at a time, and stick to a conservative sowing schedule for the rest of the season. No adventures, no tricks – just steady digging and sowing, and a prayer for each row as I cover the seeds over.

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Making merry (and mischief)

The bugs have been having a ball in our garden this year. I guess gardening organically means that, for all the abundance of wildlife in the garden and therefore of natural predators, there’s also an overwhelming buildup of pests.

It didn’t help that I was away for nearly two months from mid-July. Or that I’m not particularly stringent about “hygiene” in the garden. If the idea is to let nature have her way –  with a bit of guidance – why obsess about collecting up leaves and “cleaning” the beds? It’s a word I hear constantly from the gardeners: The verb nadafa (to clean) is over-used, and needs to be, er, swept away.

There have been some unexpected encounters. In the spring, a praying mantis in the big basil (Ocimum basilicum) near the balcony; more recently the garden has been alive with crazy jumping grasshoppers/crickets (they love the piles of drying materials between the raised beds) and one magnificent locust:

 

Yesterday, as the gardeners began trimming our hedge of Ficus nitida (Indian laurel), dense with dead wood, infested leaves and dust, down came a stem with a truly beautiful caterpillar attached. Magnificent in the finest shades of green camouflage, he seemed to have meandered straight off the toadstool in “Alice in Wonderland”, leaving behind his sheesha:

Caterpillar 9.17

Astonished by his glorious colouring, I took some photos and then popped him in with the clippings to ride off with the waste – giving him a fighting chance. Perhaps I shouldn’t have done that: I would love to see him transformed into a full-fledged butterfly.

The overgrown borders have turned into the usual haven for snails. Wherever the perennials are dense, usually under cover of frangipani (Plumeria acuminata), hibiscus (H. rosa sinensis) and the like, it’s damp enough for snails to make merry and multiply like there’s no tomorrow.

The explorer climbing up the rose (Rosa spp.) is behaving true to form: Snails are often found at a considerable height on anything from hibiscus to the walls of the house! The damage is limited in the borders but much more problematic in the raised beds, where they hide along the sides and in corners, and behind stones or bricks used to batten netting down.

Also hiding in the borders are vast tribes of woodlice, and even some small, dark cockroaches – all of them frantically burrowing into the soil the moment I raise the cover over their heads.

Among the truly spectacular casualties this summer was the chard in RB2, the culprits most likely a herd of rampant caterpillars:

Chard destroyed 9.17

The damage was so comprehensive, it made me laugh. I cut the skeletons down, and fed the roots with compost to encourage new growth, while taking care to cover the bed well with netting. We shall see…

As usual, however, it is the mealy bugs that are wreaking havoc in all directions, especially on the roses, plumbago (P. capensis), Indian laurel and some fruit trees.

One of the lime trees, the kumquat and the Italian lemon tree are all affected not only by mealy bugs but also by other pests that leave sticky webs around the stems, leaves and fruit, as here on the kumquat.

Kumquat 9.17

This could be scale, as it appears to be associated with the patches of white, containing insects, on the stem. Not so much of a problem previously, but quite obvious this year.

To combat the fruit flies, we stripped the guava tree of leaves and immature fruit early in the summer. It should flower again soon and produce fruit in the winter, when there are no flies – but, meanwhile, the pests moved on to the lemon tree nearby and did their best to break through the defences:

Lemons under attack 9.17

According to Eric Moore*, the Middle East is a “relatively pest- and disease-free environment.” for gardeners. Well – not in my experience! I can’t accept spraying with chemicals, so I will have to do a lot more to encourage the birds, lizards, beetles and spiders that might help to combat them. And be more conscientious about cleaning out the infected stuff…

* Gardening in the Middle East – Eric Moore – pub. Stacey International

 

Back to work II

A strategy for the raised beds:

If you have been following the Jasminegate for a while, you will know the growing season 2016-17 in the kitchen garden has not been particularly happy.

This is nothing new in gardening terms. Every gardener – every cultivator of the land – knows that some years, or seasons, are real “downers”.  Unhelpful weather conditions, a sudden spike (or drop) in temperature, howling winds, drought, natural or irrigation system floods, pests, even the neighbourhood cats: You name it, we contend with it.

This year, however, the failures have come one on top of the other. Near-useless tomato plants with thick stems and curling leaves – period. Courgette and squash that promised much (such beautiful flowers!) only to produce fruit that rapidly shrivelled and dropped from the mother plant. Beans – both French and broad – also promised much and the bees loved their flowers, but the crops were variable. One aubergine, and about three melons, all so bitter that I hesitated even to compost them. Not to mention the carrots, roots mostly visible only through a magnifying glass.  And on… and on…. and on.

All this was made more uncomfortable by a summer stay in England where I visited gardens professional (Newby Hall in North Yorkshire and Kew near London, both heavenly in their own way) and amateur (a friend’s, and my brother’s, also in Yorkshire). Beautifully planted and productive, they are all that a garden should be. Crowning my discomfort was a TV garden show in which Monty Don raved about his “Rose de Berne” tomatoes… picked some gorgeous samples (these should have been my fruit, I fumed, silently), cut one open and savoured its wonderful texture and flavour. I was almost there in the garden with him, but I’m sure the tomato would have given me indigestion!

Whingeing over. I now have to develop a new strategy for the raised beds – or at least adapt the old one – to move me beyond regretting the lost rows of what-might-have-beens. The situation at the end of the summer is sobering:

 

RBs 1, 2 and 4 (above) produced reasonably good crops of salad leaves, rocket, coriander, dill and flat-leaf parsley. Chard also did well, although I didn’t plant much, and chamomile produced more flowers than in previous trials although it rapidly faded when the summer heat kicked in. RB4 also has good, if small, green peppers (spring 2016 planting) and one cherry tomato (Chadwick) that has produced a few good fruit:

The aubergine probably should not be discussed.

But even if the hugelkultur treatment of these three beds made a difference, and I think it did, I wonder if it was worth the huge effort of digging out almost all the sand and soil, chucking in heaps of dried branches, stems, leaves and unrotted compost and then re-filling with well mixed sand and soil. So much blood, sweat and tears…. So uncertain a result.

So this coming season, my plan is to add as much compost and horse manure as I can and dig it in to a depth of about 15 cm. This should provide a satisfactory medium in which to grow salad and other leaves (spinach, chard) as well as herbs. For root crops, I’ll repeat the attempt at “targeted composting”, digging in the rich mixture to a greater depth in the trench or drill in which the seeds are sown. I still haven’t quite made the cultural leap to a no-dig approach. I think it’s brilliant… but I am not there yet.

I have mostly ditched the heritage seeds, for now. I stocked up in London on packets from Unwins, Thompson & Morgan and Suffolk Herbs, all mainstream suppliers. But I will also use last year’s supply from the Real Seed Company, especially of “Early Mizuna”, oakleaf lettuce “Emerald Oak” and salad mustard greens “Golden Frill”. No need to throw the heritage towel in completely.

RB3 is a bit trickier. I didn’t complete the hugelkultur treatment, and I never excavated the tree roots from our Indian laurel hedge (Ficus nitida – a bad choice) which must, by now, be all over the bed. I think I’ll put it on the back burner for a while and rehabilitate it later on; after all, I will need to transplant the lettuce seedlings at a later stage, so I’ll keep RB3 in reserve. Also in need of an overhaul is RB5, the “Cinderella bed”: Much neglected, this diamond-shaped bed in the middle of the set has produced an endless supply of herbs over the years, but is now in quite bad shape. Trouble is, I am not quite sure whether our two huge thyme plants are drying, dying or just resting!

I’m going to be busy – extremely busy – over the next several weeks….

Magical mulch

I’ve never been one for mulching. This year, however, and quite by accident, I have discovered its virtues. I think I’m a convert.

It was all to do with the neighbourhood cats. They were making free in the raised beds as the crops were removed or died back, using the friable and somewhat dry soil as a local, er, convenience. I decided something had to be done.

First step was to cover RB2 with netting. But this had to be at a low level, with gaps to give the tomato plants some freedom.

RB2 with netting 6.17

It didn’t work: A cat got in and panicked under the netting as my husband approached. Not a good experience for either of them.

So, as we were going away for a long weekend, I needed to improvise fast. I chucked onto two beds a lot of the clippings and trimmings I had piled between the beds to dry prior to composting.

This made an untidy sort of thatch over the soil, to some extent battened down with pieces of wood or pruned tree branches. But it had the merit of being quite airy and letting in a fair amount of light, while acting as a cat deterrent.

Now, a week or so later, I’m discovering that mulch has other advantages. I guess all good gardeners know this, but I have rarely given it much thought apart from one experiment with straw many years ago, which didn’t work.

For starters, it is an antidote to cats. It also plays a role in drying out “brown” stuff for the compost. But both of these matters are perhaps beside the point. Mulch certainly helps the soil retain moisture: Even at the end of a fearsomely hot summer’s day, I find some dampness there . It also protects plants, especially seedlings, from the harsh sun and from having their young roots broiled as the water near the surface evaporates.

RB4 mulch and seedlings

So, with some “lift” – i.e. air and light between the stems and leaves – it is both protective and nurturing. It may also protect and nurture snails and slugs, of course, but I keep a sharp eye open for such hooligans sheltering in the raised beds, and this is usually enough.

Reading up about mulches in “Grow Organic“*, it seems I have some way to go to perfect the art. I don’t have enough compost or semi-rotted leaf mould; these are ideal materials because they will add to the organic matter in the soil by safe, natural decomposition. The clippings are probably quite useful since some elements – especially the drying leaves – will eventually be incorporated in the earth below. At the same time, I am not digging in the woody parts so they will not rob the soil of nitrogen as they break down.

Ideally, mulch should be up to 10 or 15 cm deep. I haven’t added this amount, but as I am keen to let seedlings germinate and thrive, this is probably just as well. If you want to use mulch to stop weeds from growing as well as retain moisture in the soil, then you need this kind of depth, perhaps with an under-layer of cardboard or several pages of newspaper.

What I need to do now is to extend the practice, especially to the fruit trees. I keep a circular bed, diameter approx. 60cm, around each one free of weeds. This is good, as far as it goes. But the advice is to mulch well, leaving clear a circle of about 15 cm diameter immediately around the trunk.

So, by sheer chance, my wish to maximise re-using everything we produce in the garden is getting a step closer. Clippings, trimmings, discarded plants – always assuming they are free of disease etc – will from now on have another use in the Jasmine Garden before they get to the compost bin. Wonderful!

Aubergine 6.17* Grow Organic – from Garden Organic, pub. Dorling Kindersley – see http://www.gardenorganic.co.uk

A sweet surprise

There’s a footnote to add to my recent posts on the raised beds… Not so long ago, I bemoaned the fact that we don’t have any sweet basil. This is an oversight on my part of unimaginable consequence: For us, as a family, to have to eat our pasta senza basilico is a most terrible deprivation. It feels like an absolute howler to offer anyone spaghetti, penne or fusilli without the addition of that most aromatic and beautiful of summer herbs straight from the beds outside.

Then: “Ecco!” As I removed some bedraggled chicory (Italian, as it happens!) there emerged a small, jewel-like plant, slightly nibbled by snails but nonetheless -incontrovertibly – a baby sweet basil, Ocimum basilicum.

Sweet basil 6.17I pressed a leaf gently between finger and thumb just to be sure – but the look of those lovely, slightly glossy and distinctively fresh, green leaves gave it away before I had smelled the oils.

I breathed a profound sigh of relief: We may yet be able to rescue our pasta dishes this summer.

What has happened with our basil plants is an interesting exercise in nature taking over. It’s not as if we don’t have the plants in the garden, most of them propagated from cuttings from one or two plants I bought at local nurseries. These are not O. basilicum in its sweet form, although they may be varieties of the species that I can’t identify. Some may be different species, possibly O. tenuiflorum, or holy basil, although I have my doubts about that.

In the raised beds, the basil should be the direct descendants of plants grown from seeds of sweet basil brought from the UK. But evidently all the plants – except for this one – have cross-bred. As a result, this year’s seedlings have lost the sweetness and emerged in much more pungent form, with a touch of anise. Not what we want on our pasta!

A similar thing has happened with our oregano (Origanum vulgare). It appears to have hybridised with locally-sourced  O. majorana, so the delicately flavoured herb I once had in RB4 has become O. x majoricum with a more strident taste.

All this variety in herbs makes for fascinating experimentation in the field, unscientific as it is (i.e. uncontrolled). It goes like this, kind of:

flowers + bees = new plant varieties, every season.

Meanwhile, my tastebuds are revelling in tulsi tea, made from the leaves of yet more basil plants. Very popular in India, where O. tenuiflorum/sanctum is called holy tulsi, this tea comes not from the raised beds but from the Pukka company, and is obtainable in London. As if to underline the astonishing variety in the basil world, the tea comprises Green Rama and purple Krishna tulsi, with a splash of lemon Vana tulsi, thereby also showing the illustrious nature of the herb in the Indian tradition. It’s a real tonic to the health.

For more on holy basil, see also:  Basil’s hidden secrets

The heritage conundrum

The results of my experiment with heritage, or heirloom, vegetables this year have not been encouraging.

We had superb Early mizuna, a useful crop of Claytonia” winter purslane and passable “Emerald Oak” lettuce – good in flavour and texture, but small in size. With these exceptions, all other attempts to sow and grow heritage varieties – from aubergines to green beans, and from courgettes to tomatoes – have disappointed. Some have been a complete failure: The aubergines never germinated.

I garden on the principle of “win some, lose some”.  I know there’s nothing easy about nature, whatever the apparent nonchalance with which weeds grow and the hedge overwhelms all neighbouring plants. But this year, the veg have been a terrible disappointment.

The Verde di Italia” courgette plants produced the odd, very poor courgette before shrivelling in the heat. There is one left, still soldiering bravely on in RB1 (below left) even as it melts in the midday sun. Nearby, I have two Summer crookneck squash plants in a pot (below right), but goodness knows what they are intending to do; all I can say for sure is that their will to survive against the odds is admirable – but where are the squash?

My record with the cucurbit family is dreadful. We had some excellent courgettes the first year (2012-13) but I have no doubt they were GM varieties as they were enormous and tasteless – so only “excellent” in theory.  Then another brush with GM horror as our Engineer planted them last year. After this year’s attempt with strictly vetted heritage seeds, I’m not sure if I’ll try again. I just don’t “get” what the family wants!

The legumes did marginally better, but I wouldn’t win any prizes for my produce. I harvested a few – maybe a score – pods of peas and a handful of French beans, but although Charmette” dwarf peas and “Cupidon” dwarf French beans looked fine and tasted good, the yield was useless. Once the days warmed up, and well before the heat really kicked in, neither could cope with the conditions.

Over the aubergines, I will pass a discreet veil. They are notoriously slow to germinate. Enough said.

But the tomatoes are a mystery:

The two above are doing passably. I think they are both “Chadwick cherry” though by now I have rather forgotten about the one in the pot, which it shares with a non-heritage melon plant.

But others are struggling and producing few, if any fruit. This is the case in RB4, where in 2016 we had two “Gardeners Delight” cherry tomato plants that cropped wonderfully well. On the balcony, two plants in pots started well but are now suffering badly from blight:

One answer is to spray with a fungicide but, as this is an organic enterprise, that’s a no-no. I will let the plants go.

The answer to all this mishap and mayhem in the garden is: well, not to worry too much. We don’t depend on what I grow in order to eat – thank heavens! – and we do have supermarkets where organic veg are available. It may be sobering, but it isn’t the end of the world.

And for the next growing season, starting in the autumn, I think I will revert to standard commercial varieties. To be accurate about the nature of this experiment, I sourced all the seeds from the UK, and I accept that, while the selected varieties may be well adapted to conditions in northern Europe, they may not thrive in the very different conditions of cultivation in Egypt.

But courgettes and squash? Oh no, that’s a cucurbit too far!!

Crisp? More like incinerated…

The heatwave this week has taken its toll.

Last week, in pretty hot weather, I was interested to see the chamomile taking shelter beneath leaves of chard in Raised Bed 2, which seemed to offer the herb some hope of protection – and me some hope of a few more flowers for my night-time infusions.

This week, the chard (above left) has flaked out entirely owing to a full frontal assault from a brutal midday sun, so the poor herb plants stand exposed as the temperature climbs to 42 C (107 F). Yesterday our car thermometer measured 45 C in the early afternoon; I nearly expired along with my herbs.

As for the squash, quite simply incinerated in the same bed (also above left), and the courgette (above right), we’ve had no crop at all this year – and it doesn’t look as if that’s going to change.

With humidity at 10-13% and a bit of wind, going anywhere is like walking into a fan oven. I guess we might be thankful that the humidity is far less than we used to experience in the Arabian/Persian Gulf, but that’s small compensation for internet weather sites that read: “42 C – hot with plenty of sunshine” and then (Monday’s forecast): “35 C – very warm”.

My plants have a different view about “very warm”:

It’s hard to know how to protect them. Covering them can help, but the temperature in the beds beneath the covers becomes fearsome, as far as I can tell. Some do a bit better where they have shelter from the hedge, like the chicory and the remnants of flat leaf parsley in RB 2:

Chicory RB2 8.6This is a marginal advantage – it doesn’t prevent the plants from finding themselves rooted in a sea of boiling sand (if it’s damp) or a bed of fine grains almost hot enough to make glass (if it’s dry).

I think the only solution is to follow the time-honoured Egyptian practice of planting according to the seasons, unless one has access to covered beds and cooling systems (surely not energy-efficient). This means planting summer crops of corn and okra, karkaday and melons; and finding part-shaded corners where other plants can brave the midday heat and survive to produce fruit (tomatoes, cucumbers).

Once out the other side of this week’s heatwave, I’ll re-assess the damage – and report back on this year’s very surprising fruit crop.

 

<a href=”https://dailypost.wordpress.com/prompts/crisp/”>Crisp</a&gt;