Raised beds review

…. Or, “The Good Life” revisited….

I have just been observing Earth Day rather along the lines of Earth Hour, with a candle-lit dinner undisturbed by radio, TV and the phone; and a silent period, again with candles, dedicated to Raja Yoga meditation.

It does no harm to remind ourselves that many everyday conveniences – electric power, computers, televisions and the like –  can be dispensed with easily enough every once in a while, for a brief period. Being without them for longer would mean rethinking how we live.

In the context of Earth Day, it’s worth taking a look at how far we are sustaining ourselves from our small piece of land in New Cairo, growing food organically and sustainably as far as possible. If the answer is moderately encouraging, the reality is we are half a million miles from “The Good Life” as portrayed in a classic 1970s sitcom on British television. Tom and Barbara? No way, I’m afraid!

The 2016-17 success story of the raised beds has been the leaf crops, as before. Mixed lettuce from Italy, heritage mizuna, rocket sourced locally, and some irrepressible Swiss chard from the UK that grew back after I thought I had uprooted it all: These have provided us with a steady stream of salad and cooking leaves for several months. Also in the mix, self-seeded watercress to add spice to our salads. Spinach was almost entirely eaten by our competitors (snails? slugs?) and we got almost none.

Now, right at the end of the season, I am experimenting with a new crop: Italian chicory “Zuccherina di Trieste”. Some are left uncovered for harvesting as green leaves; others are covered so the leaves are blanched and less bitter when used in salads.

Root crops have done better than expected this season. Beetroots Moneta are good, with small and sweet globes. Carrots Early Nantes 2 win no prizes for size, but they are deliciously sweet and crisp, better than anything available on the market whether the produce of organic farms or agribusiness. As the carrots are growing in drills of mostly sand with “targeted composting” at the deeper level, this encourages me to plant more next season.

Disbelief, however, on the legume front. It ought to be easy – this is the land of fuul herati or broad beans, after all – but I consider our record this year to be dismal. Again, the heritage “Charmette” peas were delicious and the locally sourced broad beans were tasty, but yield was tiny. Hardly worth the effort and expense! Total failure among the heritage “Cupidon” French beans, described as dwarf by the seller’s blurb, but in reality stunted and shrivelled in raised beds 1 and 4, with no crop to speak of.

Heritage courgettes “Verde di Italia” and squash have been transplanted into beds 1 and 2, but I would not say the plants look promising. It may be that the sudden spike in temperatures (40C today) is too much for them; a cover has been placed over the squash, but I worry that this will simply cook them in situ!

At the same time, “Rose de Berne” and “Chadwick Cherry” heritage tomatoes have been transplanted into beds 1, 2 and 4. These may thrive in the summer heat – fingers crossed. Meanwhile, aubergines “Black Beauty”, reputed to relish heat as they germinate, have not appeared at all – or at least, not yet.

As usual, we have had a good record with herbs. The rosemary marches on relentlessly – not for nothing is the mother plant named Boris – with offspring now filling in many other spots in the garden as well as providing food for the pollinators. Flat leaf parsley has done well in RB4 and self-seeded in every other bed, and our coriander seeds are now drying in the kitchen for use later on. We also had a good amount of dill. Sage, thyme, oregano, chives, are all thriving. The mint, once confined to a corner of RB1, is now out of the bed and growing throughout the grass paths around the whole area. As it is a staple of our herbal infusions and some of our salads, I bless the herb for its sheer exuberance.

But herbs brought as seed from the UK last year and sown in pots failed to germinate: Lemon balm, lemon grass, creeping thyme, lovage….

I think this is a common enough experience among gardeners, but it is sobering. “The Good Life?” I think not – we are taking baby steps. I have utmost respect for the wonderful gardeners and cultivators who do manage to achieve self-sufficiency: unsung heroes of Earth Day.

 

 

 

 

Acceptance: A marriage of minds

Is gardening all about planning a landscape and crafting it with loving attention to every detail to achieve the outcomes you want? Or is it more about acceptance of what nature brings, and going with the flow?

Maybe the answer is that it needs to be a happy marriage of the two approaches. Planning, and staying amenable to amending your goal(s) as you go along, means having an overall design, an end result, in your mind’s eye. But acceptance means keeping an open mind and welcoming the adaptations that climate, soil conditions, and gifts of the wind, the birds – and even the compost heap – may bring.

So, for example, last autumn I started off with a little notebook of rough-drawn diagrams of raised beds 1 to 4, and gradually filled in each space, usually running lengthwise half the length of each bed, as I sowed seeds. Labelling each row and adding the date of sowing, this meant I could keep a tally of what was going where – and generally manage the disposition of rows in each bed quite precisely.

Unusually for me, I managed to keep the records quite conscientiously.

That was then. Now, however, my rows have gone haywire!

In RB2 colourful nasturtiums have popped up and are happily flowering right beside the broad beans; I presume they came in with the compost. In another section, the (sown) mizuna is overwhelming everything with its bright yellow flowers. Self-seeded dill and rocket are well through the netting and have joined the flower-children nearby.

It’s also the case that the carrots in RB2 are the only plants I actually sowed in that particular part of the bed: flat leaf parsley and dill have appeared according to their own sweet way (below left). Meanwhile, in RB4, the Emerald Oak lettuces are overhung with flowering and seeding coriander sprawling way beyond its allocated space (below right), and surrounded by watercress which seeds itself in the bed every year unaided by human hand – and then tries to take over:

The prize, however, must go to RB3. It has been left a little uncared-for this season, largely because I never got round to completing the hugelkultur rehabilitation treatment, having run out of both dried materials to fill the trench and energy. Now, it has gone …. WILD!

RB3 in full bloom 3.17As far as I recall with the aid of my notes, the only thing actually placed here by human hand last autumn is the dill (foreground). All the other flowers, from borage to rocket via nasturtium and the odd salad plant is self-seeded or maybe from a little package donated by wind or birds. Still, there’s likely to be one glorious consequence:

Honey 3.17

via Daily Prompt: Acceptance

On not losing the plot…

January isn’t a good month for gardening in Egypt – and February usually begins in much the same vein. So it seemed a good opportunity to fly off and join some yogi friends in Bahrain to discuss, at a conference, how to face up to, and make the most of, these unstable and changing times.

At a previous yoga gathering, gardening had been one of the activities recommended for us to “make a difference”. Environmental campaigner Satish Kumar advised us: Don’t sit back and sigh and wish the world would change, but actively engage in shaping it as you would wish it to be.

Every time I go out in the garden to gather salad leaves or herbs, or a handful of broad beans in their pods for a quick, mood-lifting snack; or whenever I spot the hawks flying over the garden or a hoopoe digging for insects in the lawn, or the warblers bobbing in and out of our hedge: Then I remember his wise words, and I feel glad to have heard him speak.

Since returning from Manama I’ve been galvanised by a series of warm and sunny days and the sight of the first tentative leaf buds on the citrus trees, especially the satsuma which is in the sunniest spot; maybe also by the need to transplant seedlings into the raised beds or wherever else they are going to go. These are the few that actually germinated in pots on the upstairs balcony: sage, lavender, Thai basil and chamomile. The rest didn’t germinate at all, which means I’ve failed again with lemon balm, lemon grass etc.

I’ve spent the past few days cleaning the beds round the fruit trees and then spreading manure at the outer edge. Working at the rate of three trees per day, I’ve finished all but one citrus, our two pear trees and one plum. The satsuma (above left) was pruned earlier by removing some of the interior, crossing branches. The lemon (above right) was left to the gardener: he cut away a lot of the lower branches to give the orange scion light and air (i.e. a chance to grow!)  but I wish he’d been a bit more careful with the rest of the tree – I am deeply grateful for all the lemons it so generously gave us last year, and I note he has hacked away at the branches, leaving rough and torn edges, without clearing the interior properly – ugh!

I’m also clearing out the bed along the back hedge behind the raised beds with a view to adding Thai basil*, and maybe calendula along the front edge. The young rosemary plants previously placed there have established themselves. All were grown from cuttings taken from our irrepressible mother plant ‘Boris’. But I need flowering plants in front to give the border depth, colour and interest as well as to provide extra food for the beloved pollinators.

Also over the past few days, I have transplanted into RB4 young lettuce that were suffocating in a pot, close to a clutch of seedlings transplanted a few weeks ago. Others were squeezed into an empty patch in RB2, though there’s not much space as the heritage  mizuna is taking over:

Chamomile seedlings have been popped in with others sown directly into a corner of RB2 in the autumn – I haven’t had much luck with this herb but we have a few small plants, and hopefully there will be enough for some infusions later in the year.

It isn’t warm enough to sow summer crops such as courgettes and tomatoes. But I’m trying to get round this by filling pots with sand and soil and positioning them under plastic on the top balcony. After they have warmed up, and it only takes a day or two to create a tropical micro-climate, I can hopefully safely sow the seeds: Early courgette “Verde di Italia”, vine tomato “Chadwick Cherry” and vine salad tomato “Rose de Berne”. These, and the squash and aubergine seeds, are all heritage varieties from the Real Seed Catalogue.

So there is much more to come…

 

*A propos basil (rihaan in the Middle East, tulsi in India) staying among an Indian yogi community in Bahrain I came across all sorts of different tulsi teas, including one flavoured with rose and another with bergamot – “Tulsi Earl Grey”!  My favourite was an infusion made with tulsi and lemon grass from the garden with other flavourings: Mint, I think, and maybe cinnamon, and sweetened with honey.

A little diversion (or two!)

I haven’t been avoiding the garden, and I haven’t given up on blogging. But over the past three weeks I have been totally diverted – by the arrival of two beautiful grandsons. This means the plants were told to manage for themselves for a while, and pruning the bountiful lemon tree was left to the tender mercy of the garden assistant while I flew off to London to meet the newest, and most delightful, members of the family.

As I have written before, I don’t think plants mind being left to their own devices. In fact, I may have heard a (discreet) sigh of relief when I told them I was going away. The number 1 gardener had cleared out a lot of the herbaceous border, cleaned up around the fruit trees and cut rather more than I intended off the younger lime tree. We had spread some compost – but not fertiliser as that isn’t done until this month, February.

I was also beginning to harvest a great mix of salad leaves, but perhaps this was a bit ahead of the game given the tenderness of the young plants. Meanwhile, the herbs needed a rest: winter is not their favourite time of year. Back in early January, the number one performers looked like the broad beans and when I came back at the end of the month they had lived up to their promise:

broad-beans-2-17

It has been a pleasure to get down to work and do some “tillering”, pinching out the growing points of the main stems to let the laterals flourish. And, following advice in one of our gardening books, I put the shoots to good use by lightly stir-frying them with shredded Swiss chard from raised bed 1 and a touch of garlic, sprinkling with salt and a twist of black pepper, and adding the mix to a piping hot mushroom risotto: a heavenly dish!

Despite the cold winter nights other plants have surged ahead, and they are now flowering exuberantly. Number one in this respect is a very early borage:

early-borage-2-17

This is a herb that has acclimatised very well to our garden in Egypt: Descended from plants grown from seed bought in the UK, it now self-seeds all over the place. I can’t say we use it very much, though the leaves can be added to salads, but it is a great favourite with the bees and is therefore of high value. The specimen above has grown so vigorously that it is right through the netting over the bed, so I have removed the net to give the plant her freedom.

rocket-2-17Also making a break for it is the rocket; both self-seeded among the veg and planted in rows in raised beds 1 and 4 last autumn, it is now zooming upwards and blooming.

The flowers may look rather nondescript, but they go on for ages and, again, the bees love them. At this time of year, plants that provide food for our bees are too precious to remove. Nearby, the watercress is taking over.

Finally, over in the herbaceous border a welcome surprise: I must have missed a stem of my favourite rose when cutting the bushes back last month. On my return, there was one solitary, sweetly perfumed flower – so beautiful!

winter-rose-2-17

 

Of heritage seeds and hugelkultur

Autumn sowing in the raised beds began in September, with locally sourced rocket, flat leaf parsley and coriander in RB4. This followed hugelkultur treatment of the soil. RBs 1 and 2 were planted up from late October.

Now seems like a good time to take stock and report on progress. It’s also useful to consider how the trials of heritage seeds brought from the UK have done.

I’m pleased on both counts, although I’m unclear about the wisdom of leaving sowings until the end of October. Comparing the health of the September sowings with the later ones, I think earlier is better. Note to self: do not be tardy with the task once the summer heat breaks in 2017.

There were clear benefits from the hugelkultur treatment. Most of the soil was dug out, the trenches filled with dead wood from our Indian laurel (Ficus nitida) trees, dried clippings from shrubs and herbs, leaves and even kitchen waste not yet composted. The soil was then replaced, mixing sand and earth as much as possible, and a top dressing of home-made compost plus horse manure applied.

Drainage has improved no end and the soil is amazingly workable. I know this because I no longer have to hammer in stakes or netting supports; they glide in so smoothly that I do a double-take, wondering if I’m working on the same beds.

emerald-oak-ciccoria-and-watercress

 

Germination has been good overall, but patchy. September’s sowing in RB4, with self-seeded watercress added to the mix, is really flying and we harvest rocket from this bed almost every day to form the basis of our salads. In addition, October’s planting of heritage “Emerald Oak” oakleaf lettuce; and of ciccoria “Zucherina di Trieste” from Italy, are coming along well, and we are taking leaves from them.

In RB1, a bed that previously suffered from overwatering and underfeeding resulting in poor performance, we now have promising growth from heritage early dwarf peas “Charmette” and green beans “Cupidon”. But I think they were sown a few weeks late and, although I am covering the beans against the cold, I doubt they will crop as well as they perhaps should.

Heritage winter purslane “Claytonia” (below) has germinated oddly – in bunches – suggesting that gardener’s shaky hand syndrome was at play here. It doesn’t seem to have much taste but adds fresh greenery to our salad bowl, so I welcome its presence anyway. Nearby, the remains of a packet of beetroot “Moneta” from Thompson and Morgan, have appeared and are doing well in patches.

winter-purslane

RB2 is the most recently overhauled and the last to be planted up. Here we have robust broad beans (fuul herratti or medames, part of Egypt’s national diet), sourced from a shop in Heliopolis. Side shoots, or ’tillers’, are beginning to appear, so I’ll let the plants grow to the height of the netting covering the bed, then pinch out the main growing points to encourage denser growth.

Close by, heritage early mizuna, and mixed lettuce from Italy, are thriving; carrots, Thompson and Morgan’s “Early Nantes” germinated nicely and then appeared to freeze, as if shocked to discover they had popped up at quite the wrong time of year. It looks as if I have yet another carrot-mishap on my hands: Truly, I have form when it comes to this root.

Finally, some seeds I never manage to persuade to germinate well, chamomile, and a tiny scattering in RB2: I’m grateful for every infusion I ever manage to get from my own produce – each cup is a minor triumph!

chamomile

 

Autumn days

November is usually a beautiful month in Egypt. Bright and sunny by day, with temperatures in the low 20s C (around 70F); chilly but pleasant by night. Mists and fog roll up out of the countryside and heavy dew settles on the grass in the mornings. It’s my favourite season of the year.

Right now, the raised beds are in better shape after the hard work of the past few weeks:

raised-beds-overview-11-16

Today, I finished planting up RB 1 with the addition of a final row of rocket (Rucola selvatica, seeds from Italy) and mustard greens “Golden Frill” from the UK’s Real Seed Co. I’m planting more of these crops this year with a view to boost the immune system and protect against some types of cancer. Besides, we enjoy them!

Heritage seeds sown in RB1 in October are doing well: I’ve installed plastic netting for the “Charmette” peas, and put an extra protective cover over the “Cupidon” green beans as advised by a friend who farms organic fruit and veg in Sinai. Rocket and spinach are up – though the latter isn’t doing  well. The beetroot are struggling to germinate: This may not have been a good time to sow them.

I’ve almost finished the hugelkultur treatment of RB2, but the final leg is a slow process as I’m obsessively sifting soil and sand to make a fine ground for sowing all sorts of seeds in a mini nursery in one corner. This may be a futile activity, but I’m really into it!

I’ve started one small section by planting wild chamomile (Matricaria recutita) from Suffolk Herbs, and have already spotted a few tiny seedlings.

Heritage “Early mizuna” and mixed lettuce from Italy have germinated, as have Thompson & Morgan “Early Nantes” carrots. The carrots are appearing in all sorts of places around the drill, so either my hands were shaking like mad or the seeds have wandered. However, in my experience, outlier plants – rather like people – can be of exceptional quality, so I will watch them with interest…

The broad beans, sourced from the bizarre household supplies shop I wrote about in             Rearranging the borders are looking robust. May they live up to their early promise!

To answer readers who have queried our water usage – and the sustainability of the model we follow – I’m watering the raised beds on a rotational basis, using kitchen waste water (e.g. from washing veg) whenever possible. This isn’t enough, so the drip irrigation system is operated once a week; the hose pipe is needed occasionally.

I’m also covering the beds using lengths of irrigation piping, secured in the soil by wooden or wire stakes, to support plastic netting brought from the UK. (Netting may be available in Egypt, but I haven’t found any). It provides protection from cats and greatly reduces the impact from insects, slugs and snails. Above all, we avoid using any form of poison.

self-seedlings-rb3-11-16

Mixed and self-seeded plants in RB3

RB3 is only half rehabilitated. The untreated half has a serendipitous mix of self-seeded mizuna, borage, nasturtiums and dill.

Locally bought dill and coriander, scattered across the other half of the bed, have germinated and are progressing reasonably well. Here and there, rocket descended from previous years’ sowings is also appearing, while a basil plant towers over them all.

RB4 is likewise a mixed bag of recent sowings intermingled with self-seeded borage, rocket, and watercress that is now spreading like topsy all over the place.

It’s such an attractive aspect of gardening naturally: All sorts of plants, and their descendants, put in an appearance when you least expect them – even after major work has been done to overhaul a bed. I wonder at the capacity of nature to regenerate, and I just go  with the flow.

Among the seeds sown, September’s rocket, coriander and flat leaf parsley have done well, and we are harvesting them regularly. The heritage Oakleaf lettuce has struggled, whereas Italian Cicoria “Zuccherina di Trieste” is looking good. It looks as if the Anaheim chili peppers are coming up now, but Kew’s dwarf beans “Bellini” are a failure – again.

We have been a lot more adventurous this autumn: so far, it’s looking good.

Half full of beans

For the past week I’ve been working on raised bed 2. That is, digging out most of the soil and sand and doing the hugelkultur treatment myself.

This is partly because our gardening assistant disappeared, as they so often do. But I also wanted to check the condition of the bed, and take equal care with how the treatment was done.

Into the trenches went dead wood cut from the hedge, a vast quantity of stems, branches and leaves pruned from the basil bushes in late summer, plus dried clippings from honeysuckle, jasmine and plumbago. For good measure, I added chopped up squash and pomegranate peel – which may take a while to rot down in a conventional compost heap – and some banana skins, covering them with more twigs and leaves before I combined soil and sand to return it into the bed.

I’m no spring chicken , and the only way I could manage the task was by dividing the bed into four sections of roughly 1m x 1.2m, and doing them one at a time. My observations as I worked were not encouraging some four years after constructing the beds:

  • There was almost no visible life – not a single earthworm; just the occasional wood louse and snail.
  • The watering hasn’t worked. Most of the bed was too wet, even to a depth of more than 30cm, while a few patches were bone dry.
  • Perhaps as a result, the soil was in layers, a bit like a sponge cake: Sand below and thick, gluey soil above. Some roots were set hard in cement-like lumps of soil which had to be broken up by spade.
  • There has been a nightmarish invasion of roots from the Indian laurel hedge, and one other tree with different roots (likely the “decorative orange” nearby, which flowers profusely in spring but never produces any fruit).

Clearly the irrigation methods have been at fault. Compost and fertiliser were added each year, crops have been grown consistently, and the soil should be in reasonable condition. But our gardeners – whether qualified agricultural engineers or labourers – have repeatedly used basin irrigation, which means flooding the bed in preparation for planting, and then (over)watering occasionally as the seedlings grow. This has presumably washed organic matter down, incidentally to the level of the tree roots as they enter the bed, taking the fine particles of sand as well.

The practice may well have existed in Egypt since ancient times, running in parallel with the annual Nile flood which replenished the land with a fresh layer of fertile alluvium, but it makes no sense in today’s environment. I despair.

I guess that using the “no-dig” method could manage the situation by adding a thick layer of compost on top and growing the crops in that. But we can’t produce enough compost to do that, and I’m not persuaded that the stuff available commercially in Egypt is of a high enough quality.

So I’ve worked out a compromise: What might be termed “targeted composting”. Bed 2 was due to be planted with mizuna and salad leaves; carrots; and broad beans to provide food for us, and food for the earth by means of their nitrogen-fixing mechanism. I applied a top dressing of compost for the leaves; mixed it down to a level of 10cm in the drill prepared for carrots; and deeper in the holes prepared for individual broad bean seeds.

On top, I plan to spread the dried horse manure we have in stock, and hope for the best. In his guide to organic gardening the no-dig way, Charles Dowding* warns against this if it is mixed with sawdust (which it is): you have to be very careful to leave it on the surface and not mix it in, or the wood will actually drain nutrients away from the plants as it breaks down. Better to prepare the beds well in advance, weather the manure on the surface, and then sow.

There are so many challenges to gardening the natural way; it’s a wonder that anything ever grows in nature, let alone produces nourishing food.

  • Organic Gardening the natural no-dig way, Charles Dowding, green books