Tuesday, 22 July 2014

The potager's back in business

Not really like coffins at all
It’s just possible that some visitors to this corner of cyberspace may wonder what has happened to the potager – the unkempt wedge of a carpark flower bed that gave me my Schleswig-Holstein moment a couple of years ago.

Well, there were plans, but last autumn, with its soul-destroying grey dampness, rather put paid to them.

But although it was two seasons later than intended, the central scheme has now been realised.
The potager as it existed had a number of problems.

After the housing association had accepted a tender for gardening services from a different company, the flowerbed areas at the back of our small block of flats had been allowed to get into a mess.

In one, weeds had run riot, while a bush that had been growing around a small tree was dying, and rusting bikes, left by long-gone residents, had been left chained to the trellis that formed one border of the patch.

Initially, mine had been a small land grab – enough to put some beans in.

But these things are addictive and, the following year, I increased the size and even managed to produce some very small carrots.

As it was at the start, in 2012
Neighbours then took up the cause and helped clear the entire patch, apart from the tree and one deep, old root from the bush.

And last year, there were a few more very small carrots, one or two miniature turnips, a couple of gigantic courgettes, a few salad leaves and chard that eventually threatened to reach record heights.

But the ground was uneven because of that tree, with roots breaking the surface in a number of places.

The soil is fairly shallow soil, with sand beneath, and that soil is, typically for cities apparently, also very, very clayey – that means it’s very rich, but also very difficult to work and not much cop on the drainage front.

There are now, though, three large raised beds in place, built to fit the space perfectly.

Ian, a local craftsman who has done a number of jobs for us, built them just as I wanted – and then went down to nearby Hackney City Farm and returned with enough well-matured manure to provide a substantial layer at the bottom of each new bed, which was then topped up with soil.

There is, apparently, a whopping two tons of the latter there now – a frankly amazing figure that would never have entered my head when I was planning the little development.

In effect, though, while the area is technically the same, the actual planting space is greater – simply because he has built around and then over roots and unevenness, to create evenness above.

And of course, drainage will be considerably improved.

So we’re back in business.

The first weekend back, I started off by making two trips to Colombia Road flower market – the first with The Other Half to provide extra carrying capacity – coming home with vast amounts of herbs, plus flowers.

Otto exploring slightly later developments
One planter now has those herbs arranged around the outside, with a splash of summer colour in the middle.

Our neighbours seem particularly impressed – even though one of them did apparently suggest to Ian that he could start a new career as a coffin maker.

There’s common thyme and lemon thyme, rosemary, flat leaf parsley, chives, French tarragon, chervil, lovage, common sage and bloody dock sorrel.

We still have oregano on the patio, plus the bay tree, and I’m going to get a really large pot to go there for mint.

But that seems to me like a great herb collection, and the sorrel and sage are already growing at an incredible rate.

And the inclusion of the likes of lovage and chervil are exactly the sort of thing that inspires me to continue this adventure – there is no shop that I know that ever sells such things.

One of the tarragon plants has some leaves that are not happy, but by and large it’s doing okay – and tarragon is notoriously delicate – while the chervil looks to be thriving.

On the herb front, everything else seems to be fine too, although, in spite of regular watering, some of the flowers didn’t take too kindly to the sunshine in the days that followed their being planted out.

This last weekend, I took enjoyed my first harvesting – just a few chives, snipped for a garnish, but bang full of flavour.

And of course, it won’t take long before such things have more than paid for themselves.

If I have to buy chives, for instance, then I have to pay for a bag of (less tasteful) ones at 80p or more, with the chances being that most won’t get used.

This way, I get to just harvest my half dozen chives when I need them, and waste nothing.
And for the winter, I may explore freezing some winter.

The flowers include French marigolds, which apparently help to keep pests away: I’m still trying for the most natural way of gardening possible.

I timed it well – which was a fortunate accident, really – because July seems to be the final month for sowing seeds outside for autumn and winter food crops.

So in the coming days, leeks, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and fennel will all be sown in the next planter.

Now, this isn’t guaranteed to be a rip-roaring success, but there’s really only one way to find out.

And there’s a great deal of pleasure in doing just that.

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