Sunday, 27 January 2013

Planning for growth

Ready for an afternoon's serious planning.

‘Take time to plan properly’ must have been one of the most important lessons that my teachers ever managed to drum into my head.

It was, of course, meant most particularly of exams, but its application is hardly limited.

That doesn’t mean I’m always very good at doing it, but today, it was thoroughly applied to the garden.

Early on a blustery afternoon, after a morning’s housework and with blue visible overhead once again, I set out to properly measure and map my little Schleswig-Holstein.

There’s much I managed to do on the patio last year – and much I have planned for this – but the expansion area, in the biggest of the three beds in the gated communal car park, represents the biggest challenge for the coming months. Even just for the planning stage.

There’s a tree in this space that I have commandeered, and which one of my neighbours did an extraordinary job of helping clear. The rest of the space is going to be for communal decking so that we can sit out together on summery evenings (if these materialise), nursing the odd bottle or glass.

My space amounts to 13’ by about six and a half foot – give or take the odd bit of an inch – with one corner off that rectangle, plus the aforementioned tree, which has its lowest branches starting at around three feet on one side.

There’s also a couple of roots that I can’t really do much about except plant around, and a stump left over from some bushes, which I hope to get rid of.

With a long tape measure, a notebook and pen, I made a reasonably detailed diagram, which was then turned into a better version that was approximately to scale.

The only place in the house where I could lay out everything I needed is the kitchen, but then again, I’m becoming increasingly fond of taking my computer in there to write while I cook.

As time passes, it becomes less and less simply a place for a few mechanical tasks.

The books in question were the Royal Horticultural Society’s Vegetables in a Small Garden, The RHS Encyclopedia of Gardening (thanks to m’friend George) and volume one of Nigel Slater’s Tender, thanks to my parents, who looked decidedly bemused by the size, the subjects and the approach.

First up was to go through my seed tin and list what I wanted to use and when it could be sown.

Next, using the RHS books, expanding that list to set down the space needed for planning a row of what I want to grow.

Then the Slater book to look at recommended varieties and finally, seed catalogues.

The first plan.
After all the lists were made, it was onto filling out detail on my map of the car park plot.

Because I’d done the measurements and made out the lists, that didn’t feel too onerous – and indeed, I seem to have more space than I realised just standing gazing at it earlier.

Now it might all sound very early to be thinking of such things – after all, the snow has hardly departed and, who knows, it may yet come back, but I only really got started very late last year and, as such, didn’t have much opportunity to come up with a proper scheme – and practice the successional sowings that would have ensured I gained much more produce from the available space.

Quite a bit of what I’m intending for the plot can start to be sown outside within the coming month, so if I want to start being able to harvest as early as possible, I have to plan and order now.

I also learned more about companion planting. Not only are nasturtiums good – and they give you salad ingredients, plus seed pods to pickle as well as vivid (edible) colour – but apparently French marigolds are worth planting too.

The smell that they give off is so strong as to mask that of vegetables, apparently, helping to keep pests away. And it’ll also add colour.

Of course, all this is wonderful, but the most dramatic change will come on the patio, where I’m planning a small greenhouse.

Just 110cm high, with three adjustable/removeable shelves, an opening slanted lid, double doors at the front and all fully glazed, it’ll  just fit – and it’ll give me a vast amount more scope.

First, because I’ll be able to grow from seed a lot more. That’s not just cheaper, it also increases options of what variety you want to try.

Second, I’ll also be able to start things off before it’s best to plant them out. That’ll mean, for instance, that I’ll be able to get chili and tomato and strawberry plants going instead of waiting to find something that appeals and is partly grown on the market.

And third, I’ll be able to grow things like mini cucumbers, which will be easier in such an environment, and possibly even winter lettuces too.

Mind, once the shopping list was complete, I suddenly realised that there was little wonder that it was so short when I hadn’t actually been through what seeds I would need to start off life with a little greenhouse.

Last year was, as plenty of seasoned commentators pointed out, a dismal one for gardeners in the UK.

In those circumstances, even though the victories may have been few, they felt momentous – and it was all about taste: the taste of the little turnips, my first strawberries, my first tomatoes; the chilis too.

The discovery of sorrel; the realisation that fresh chives are a joy; the glorious snap of runner beans cooked within minutes of picking.

I’m hooked. And this afternoon’s planning makes me more excited than ever about the gardening year ahead.

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