Making No-dig beds

Similar to the new lasagne beds I made a few months ago/blogposts ago for my tatties this year, creating a new No-Dig bed requires nothing more than a bit of underused space in the garden, some soil or compost, and  some cardboard; preferably large sheets. I called my local bike shop who were very glad to send me away with a few carloads of large bike box sheets.

Over the next few weeks I will hopefully be finished the massive green gym task of changing my veg plot over from raised beds with timber edges and grave paths to no-dig beds. As previously explained this is to try and get on top of the perennial, pernicious weeds (bind weed, mares-tail & couch grass), and to eradicate as much slug & snail habitat as possible.

In the meantime I finally emptied my garden composter, which was around a cubic meter of really delicious soil. I managed to empty four-fifths before disturbing a family of toads so I eft them be at the bottom in their dank, cool, damp, dark burrow. Wonderful slug eaters! I used some of the compost  to add around 5cm layer to each of the tattie beds.  Then, a few days ago on a friend called Jenny birthday, I decided to make a horseshoe shaped bed near the patio and decant the remaining strawberries and herbs from the veg patch: Jenny’s Horseshoe. In a few weeks I’ll add sunflower, nasturtium, borage and calendula seedlings and later this summer it should be a riot of colour.

The first step was laying out and cutting bits of cardboard to the shape I wanted. I will probably make them a bit wider once the large compost delivery arrives. Can you see in the slideshow below that my recently emptied kitchen composter is already over full and spilling over with ruderal plant material. This is because I have been using it for garden and kitchen waste the last month or so, whilst getting around to emptying my garden composter. Bees have moved into it already! Next year I will fully dismantle this composter, remove the water butt (which I use for making comfrey feed), and plant up with either another plum tree or perhaps a magnolia…

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Second step: After I was happy with the shape, I started barrowing, tipping and raking the soil from the garden composter into a 15cm mulch layer over the cardboard. If the weather had been super dry I would have soaked the cardboard first, but the forecast as for rain later in the day so I saved myself a wee step.

Third step: After the soil was moved, I planted up with strawberries and herbs as seen in the slide-show below.

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Final step: I gave it a really good soak with the watering can!

And yet my work was still not complete as I still had a good 3 wheel-barrows of soil left to find home for around the garden! I added the soil to another area of the garden new to this year which I blogged about previously,. This is a large area  previously covered in landscape fabric with a woodchip mulch on top. the woodchip mulch is now in the tattie beds and these new beds a mix of lasagne and no-dig beds.  As time goes on I will add perennial flowers, shrubs and bulbs. For now they have chives, strawberries, oregano, thyme, fennel, a patio apple and a patio pear tree and at the far end a new heather bed.  Not a bad amount of growing space developed out of a year’s worth of compost!

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Hardening off seedlings

Since Beltane, all my seedlings have exponentially shot up in their seed trays and pots. This is due to both the increase in temperature and the daily, incremental changes in the length of daylight. In some cases, this quite literally happens overnight!

A few blog posts ago we discussed ‘potting on’, which is the process of planting a seedling in a bigger pot, once at least one set of true leaves, rather than cotyledon (baby) leaves have developed.  Below is a pic of a pea seedling that we potted on a few days ago. Sown 7th April, it was a slow start this year for this first batch of  peas, and a poor germination rate also, with perhaps only 7 out of 40 germinating. The next batch look like they are faring slightly better. I’ve also ordered dried peas from the supermarket which Trellis recommended as a stand-in for horti variety peas! Within the last week, thankfully the peas have shot up, and started to develop the mighty root system required to anchor them in the ground whilst they reach for the sky.

As above, so below: pea seedling

We potted on peas, chard, kale, pak choi, which I’m growing for seed later in the year, and a few spinach. You can see the crowded seed tray and my glam assistant potting on in the slide show below. Most of the seedlings will  be made into bundles to distribute in a few weeks time around the therapy gardens, which are still in lockdown too; the rest will stay in our garden.

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We have only been able to grow as many seedlings as indoor space in the house has allowed, as I don’t have a greenhouse in the garden anymore. I’ve also used plastic storage boxes as DIY cold-frames (mini greenhouses) to extend capacity outside. Other constraints you might be facing during this time are access to compost, seeds or pots/seed trays. Fortunately I had a stash of all three before lock-down, belonging to myself rather than the project! It will be a lovely parting gift to the therapy gardens (my contract finishes early July) to provide a happy, healthy group of wee starter seedlings for the 2020 growing season.

The weather has been absolutely glorious and it can be so utterly tempting to plant out seedlings in the garden already. Every year it is the same…the seedlings are champing at the bit to get out the constraints of their trays or pots and into the soil, the high-maintenance routines of watering, protecting, turning seedlings inside is wearing thin, and it just seems like it’s time to get the wee darlings outside into the big beautiful world and settled into their forever home.

courgette seedlings rapidly outgrowing their ‘potted on’ pots. May need to repot up a pot size

However, the forecast last night was for a cold spell towards the weekend, with a risk of ‘wintry weather’. Seems to have changed again this morning, but it’s always good to be cautious with your precious little ones. Depending where you are in the world, the risk of last frosts is worth knowing. In UK this website gives the date range by place . For where we live it gives mid May. But I would prefer to err on the side of cautious and take this date with a pinch of salt. I’ve seen snow in June before!

so many seedlings!!!

I have two main batches of seedlings on the go at present, those sown in the second week of April, and those sown a few weeks later. Those sown early April are in the process of being hardened off.

Stage One:

These seedlings now spent their days outside in the sunshine,  in the storage boxes with the lids off. This is the first step into acclimatising them to the temperature outside of the controlled environment of warm house windowsills. I put them out around 10ish, or once there is a wee bit of heat in the air, and then I bring them back inside again in the early evening before it cools too much.  This is after a thorough check for any hitch hiking slugs and snails that may be lurking under the seed trays of course. They are such sly wee buggers; a baby slug escaped my beady eye the other day and  ate half a massive courgette leaf through the night a few days ago! I daresay my neighbours think I am ‘eccentric’, as they watch my morning and evening green gym ritual of moving hundreds of plants around; I will continue this horticultural hokey cokey for the next week or so and then , weather dependent, move onto stage two.

Stage two:

In this stage I will leave the seedlings outside in their storage boxes. For the first few nights I’ll leave them out overnight with the lid on, and then for the next few nights with the lids off.  Please note this is all very weather and seedling dependent, hardier seedlings such as brassicas and peas will harder off MUCH quicker and safer than the more tender watery stems of the courgettes. In the final stage I may leave them out for a few nights outside of the protection of the boxes, but probably not, as the slugs would have a field day. At this stage I would rather just get them planted out into their final positions and use slug castles to protect them. And have horti fleece at the ready to throw on top if the weather suddenly changes.

This is all with the exception of the 41 sunflower seedlings on the go at present as I simply do not have the space to keep them inside! During the day they sit in their boxes outside with the lids off (they are too tall for the lids now!  And in the evenings they overnight in my car, which I’ve repurposed as a DIY greenhouse during lockdown…

The second batch of seedlings on the go are far too young to do anything other than stay inside. They will however grow more quickly than the first batch and should be ready to begin hardening off the 3rd or 4th week in May. This will mean my storage boxes will be emptied of the first batch and ready for the next. Gardening is very much about forward planning and resources. Get it right and it is a smooth conveyer belt from seed packet to garden, get it wrong and Spring can be a stressful jumble of chaos!



Gardening & Well-Being

seeds stash

Happy Beltane! Already that is us equidistant between Spring Equinox & Summer Solstice. Anticipate rapid growth from here on in!

I cant remember what I used to do with my time before being entirely seduced by gardening. Or how I saw the world without the gardener goggles of weather, season, planning, joyful anticipation and sorrowful loss (#slugthuglife). When I was younger I was always outside, up hills, in wilderness, completely immersed in landscapes where human influence felt invisible or small. A lot of tree-planting, camping, outward bound wandering. I think I have always associated freedom with feeling connected to the natural world.

As the years roll by and the responsibilities rise, I have contented myself mostly with getting that everyday nature fix/freedom fix from that most  interstitial space of the garden; the betwixt and between where nature and culture meet. During this period of lockdown and enforced localisation, where all our worlds has shrunk to a few miles circumference to the house, it is an especial joy to have a garden to tend and to simply spend time in. After 10+ years of spending my days in oftentimes busy and noisy community & therapy gardens, it is a full circle back round to reclaiming silence & solitude in my own wee slice of heaven.

And during this lock-down the world need not shrink too small as long as there’s a garden to travel in; this morning, whilst waiting for the kettle to boil, through the kitchen window I watched a couple of blue tits take turns to bathe in the mini pond I set up a few days ago. The chunky wee wrens followed soon after. Sadly I also noticed a magpie stalking the area near the robin’s subterranean nest near the broken wildlife pond, and I fear that those eggs are now in it’s belly…I’ll be watching out for the robins today, but my heart is heavy for the future of that nest.

A few years ago I led a project with Asylum Seeker women in Glasgow to develop a therapeutic market garden on a vacant, derelict and contaminated  site. Building a garden together whilst sharing our knowledges of plant lore was like travelling through Somalia, Eritrea, Sudan, Congo, Libya, Iraq on the wings of many a seedling. So many stories, so much laughter, so many vegetables, and so much good food!

saheliya garden
Kenyan gardener gathering pumpkin leaves to use like spinach

On an exceptionally rainy day maybe 5 years ago, in another secret garden in Paisley, with young people rescued from the horrors of human traffickers and slavery, we decided to keep dry inside and do some painting instead. Perhaps it was unsurprising that everyone’s paintings included their home, and also a garden? Are we not always rooted to some kind of greenspace in our collective psyche?

In all sorts of gardening projects over the years, with children, young people, with at risk adults and everyone in between, the experience has always been an adventure shared together, where everyone always has a story and skill to share. No matter how urbanised or cosmopolitan the dominant culture becomes, there is still yet a cultural memory of plants that is passed down, and no matter what people’s abilities are, there is always space in a garden to grow, thrive and shine. Not just the plants!

saheliya garden 2
companion planting: some brassicas getting a hefty nitrogen fix from the clover

The diversity of gardens is so easily inclusive of human diversity of all kinds, especially for  community members otherwise far too easily overlooked, bypassed and ignored within the dominant culture. In Scotland we are lucky to have Trellis. which is the umbrella support organisation for Social and Therapeutic Horticulture in Scotland which, each week, supports a wide range of projects in Scotland. As the public spaces shrink or are intermittently enclosed by commerce (George Square and Princess St Gardens  are especially notorious for this at certain times of the year!), community greenspaces place provide an increasingly important role for enabling communities come together freely.

trellis pie chart
Trellis breakdown of projects. From:

And yet, sadly nature deficit disorder and plant blindness is also however a real thing, especially growing in younger people. A few years ago there was an outcry when it was discovered that, from 2007,  the Oxford Junior Dictionary had stripped out nature words and replaced with technological words; surely we need both?! Nature and culture? Without one, can we even have the other?

Robert MacFarlane wrote;
“Under pressure, Oxford University Press revealed a list of the entries it no longer felt to be relevant to a modern-day childhood. The deletions included acorn, adder, ash, beech, bluebell, buttercup, catkin, conker, cowslip, cygnet, dandelion, fern, hazel, heather, heron, ivy, kingfisher, lark, mistletoe, nectar, newt, otter, pasture and willow. The words taking their places in the new edition included attachment, block-graph, blog, broadband, bullet-point, celebrity, chatroom, committee, cut-and-paste, MP3 player and voice-mail.”

Gardening and Well-Being is a big old complex but ultimately simple thing: we get out what we put in. For some, that may mean spending quiet time in a tranquil, contemplative, beautiful but low-maintenance space; where anything more demanding could be detrimental to an already ragged burnt out mental health. For others a busy, high-maintenance bustling allotment style garden might be exactly what the doctor order, providing green gym exercise, chats with fellow plotties, opportunities for learning and freshly picked produce to take home. And everything in-between, beyond and through.

The best thing about gardening for well-being is that, with sensitive design and soft-touch management, we can accommodate any space to help support the shifting, changing, growing needs of  plants, wild-life and people. If gardens are the cradle of civilisation, then they are surely worth investing in? Nature and culture together?

pear blossom

Pond on pause

Following on from yesterday, what does Ground Force have to do with me putting fixing the pond on hold?

In early Spring, I noticed the absence of the marsh marigolds, one of the first marginal pond plants to pop back up again with it’s cheery yellow flowers. The pond is in a rather messy and overgrown corner of the garden, which, as we now know, provides the conditions encouraging wildlife to move in. The pond lies under an aspen tree (which was a wind-blown arrival that took root after the pond was installed, but is already three times the height of myself.

Nearby are herbaceous evergreen shrubs, which provide a dense ground-cover hibernacular. In the bed-space in front of the shrubs are perennial geraniums, flower bulbs and wild flowers which pop up year after year. I’m currently growing blue-bells, fox-gloves, echinacea, rudbeckia & lupin to add to this area.  I don’t really need to do much to it in terms of maintenance to this corner of the garden and just generally give it a wide berth and let it do it’s thing.

a crowd of Bistort hiding the pond

Anyone who knows me, knows I’m a bit obsessed with ponds, and will squeeze as many into any community or therapeutic garden project I’m involved in given half a chance.
This particular pond is actually two little ones side by side. One is a submerged plastic tub about 75cm by 50cm with some bricks and stones to make different heights, and home to a few different grasses and iris. The other is a bit larger and deeper , maybe about a meter squared (but not shaped!).

Rather than a liner, it used to be a turtle shaped sandpit which my nephews played in when they were little. After they outgrew it, I dug a turtle shaped hole and plonked it into the ground. It has a shallow layer of stone and soils under the water, and  lots of different marginal plants such as the marsh marigolds, grasses, iris, bistort, aquatic forget-me-not and water cresses around the edges (which over time have also crept inside the pond). Inside the water are/were some floating oxygenators, which help keep the water sweet for our amphibian friends. In and around the marginal plants are big stones and a few old tree trunks providing hidey hibernacular spaces for the amphibians.

Asides from enjoying the presence of water, I love creating wild-life ponds as it encourages frogs and toads into the garden, which can help keep the slug numbers down. It’s possible also to design a wildlife pond to specifically create habitat for damsel-flies and dragon-flies, and who doesn’t enjoy seeing them flirting around like magical faeries from another dimension?

Sadly over winter the submerged turtle has sprung a leak and the pond has dried up, except for the murky mess of leaves, soils and stones on the bottom. Which is why my bog loving marsh marigold, which usually stands with it’s feet in the water, is no more!

Last Sunday I had a  tidy up around the pond area for a good couple of hours; I raked the leaves from last autumn and winter from below the aspen tree and put them in the composter, I transplanted a few clumps of crane-footed geranium from nearby to other areas of the garden. I investigated the pond, and had a good old hunt for any signs of life from the roots of the marsh marigold…sadly dead as a dodo.

I observed the bistort growing much smaller (because the area has dried out and they like wet feet) and that the iris were much the same. I observed that the small pond also needs a good clear out and grasses thinned out, and that sadly no frog-spawn was to be seen (usually span in the bigger pond). I observed that the yellow flowering comfrey could do with a thin, and that I might transplant a clump of it too. I cut back some rogue raspberries running amock,  I cut back a bush near the aspen that has a habit of taking over, I pruned a laurel at ground level that I’m training to be a tree with a trunk rather than a bush at ground level, and I had a bloody, scratchy, fight with invading snaking brambles….

All the while I had an inner dialogue mantra of  “I should have fixed the pond this months ago” running through my head’, to the soundtrack of the nearby robins and wrens singing their absolute hearts out. Has anyone else noticed how loud the birds are this year? The road behind the garden is usually so noisy that it practically drowns out e bird-song. This period of lock-down and traffic cessation has been a gift, both to hearing the birds and the sweetening of the air.

Just as I was finishing up the tidy up, and mentally planning how to replace the old turtle sand-pit with a liner, I lifted up a log around the pond edges and was so happy to see a sleepy little toad. I’ve yet to see Mr Toad this year, whose been in the garden for years, but I have smelled him. Seems he’s been a busy old lad. I then lifted up a second log and was astonished to see a bird’s nest with a full clutch of small bluey white eggs! I gently lowered the stump and backed away! I should have known….the sound of the birds was excessively loud….but I was so caught up in my head about tidying up to make the area look nicer whilst being excited about redesigning and enlarging the wild-life that I had ignored all the rules and ignored the pleas of the robin screaming at me to go away….

Fortunately the robins have not abandoned the disturbed nest, despite enduring the equivalent of a giantess lumbering around close to their babies in the making. Over the last few days I have spend a happy time observing the comings and goings. No wonder a few weeks back the robins were so intent on eating all the pear blossom, the mamma robin was fuelling her egg laying!

wildlife pond area: can you see the old tree stump which has the robin’s nest underneath 

Assuming no cats, foxes, rats or magpies find the nest, it takes around 2 weeks for the eggs to hatch (she had a full brood, after laying one egg a day) so I am anticipating a lot of hungry mouths to feed around the 7th of May. Then there will be around a two week period between birthing and the baby robin’s fledging hopefully around 21st of May. Do incredibly exciting!

In the meantime I’ve made a temporary mini pond/birdbath close-by so that she can stay hydrated and clean, and I’ll put extra bird-feed out over the coming weeks.

mini pond/bird bath with a few home-grown iris pots. different levels of stones for visiting birds & insects to safely drink

And this is the tale of why the pond is on hold and why I need to listen more closely to nature rather than getting stuck in my head and sucked into ‘tidy garden’ sterility…





Why fixing my wild-life pond is on hold…

The thing about consciously gardening for wild-life is…well, wild-life. Like the quote from Field of Dreams. ‘If you build it they will come’… As soon as we create space for wild-life to thrive, it will arrive without invitation and make it’s home in that niche. It will bring it’s friends, it will bring it’s enemies, it will have it’s babies and it will adapt that niche to perfection. Before you know it you will have welcomed a whole interconnected web of local ecology into your garden…such riches!

But equally so, it’s also true that ‘If you don’t build it they will come’…it’s about creating space, not filling space; nature really does abhor a vacuum, and will rush into any space and fill it with life without us humans doing anything, building anything, buying anything…. Sometimes, oftentimes it’s our not-doing which provides nature the opportunity to move in best.

At a domestic garden scale there are so many products you can buy to encourage wildlife into the garden; bug hotels, bee boxes, slow worm huts, hedgehog houses, bird boxes, bat boxes, owl boxes, bird baths etc etc. Some you can buy as little kits to construct. We have whole industries set up to service the basic building blocks of habitat restoration from the perspective of human intervention. Many are products sold by wild-life charities which help fund their conservation activities, which is great. These can be lovely projects, especially for children and they are especially useful in highly built up areas where they can and do play a critical role in re-creating habitat.

To be clear, I’m not dissing them out of hand!  But….and it is a big but,  when looking in horror at the loudly coloured cheap plastic tat and highly glued, varnished and painted wood products that somehow pass for bird and bee boxes on supermarket shelves in springtime, ringing the changes on the ‘seasonal shelves’, I do wonder if this commercialisation and commodification of habitat teaches children a very mixed message about nature and our place within it. That it is just another cultural expression of a world view where we see ourselves as separate,  somehow outside of the web?

Are we teaching children that nature is passive rather than dynamic; that our interventions are like adding a puzzle piece to a 2d jigsaw puzzle rather than an alive and interactive 3d web?  Analogue to digital? That we have to ‘do something’ to encourage wild-life into the garden and neighbourhood? I’m concerned that this approach could easily feed into the  illusion that humans control nature, and therefore are responsible for choosing where and when it can flourish.  If we are learning anything during lock-down, whilst we witness goats move into Welsh towns, deer into East London housing estates, and llegedly dolphins moving into the Venetian Grand Canal, is that when us humans stop with our human doing, then nature starts to recover!

Because often it’s about ‘doing nothing’; about leaving that pile of autumnal leaves blown into the corner (which hibernating insects have already made a village in) rather than ‘tidying the garden’; about leaving that broken upturned pot which now is home to a sheltering toad, about leaving that old bit of wood rotting, bow home to the wood-lice, and so on and so forth.

Since the late 90’s, when Ground Force, the original garden make-over show, started in the UK, our gardens have become rebranded as ‘outdoor rooms’ and extension to our living spaces. They have endured changing trends in much the same way as living rooms with changing wall-paper, curtains and sofas….. Think decking & pergolas,  Chelsea Flower Show inspired plant fashions, ripped out and replaced each year akin to fast fashion…Think bamboo, BBQs, jacuzzies & the tyranny of ornamental features! On one hand it is absolutely fantastic that these tv programmes have broadened the national obsession with gardens out of the privy of the elite’s walled gardens and into the everyday lives of anyone luck enough to have any scrap of outdoor space in UK to call their own. But on the other hand,  this rebranding of gardens as ‘outdoor rooms’ has led to so many ecologically rich spaces with habitats build up slowly and gradually through the years  ripped out, flattened, smoothened, scrubbed and replaced with a low maintenance, low ecological value simulacra.

And yet, no matter how much we lay astro-turf (shudder) or mono-block and smother the land, a garden is not just an outdoor room: it is a living, breathing space that will continually try and grow, expand, evolve and welcome new life. Why fight for control, when instead we can learn to be lazy gardeners, observe more, do less to  achieve more, and go with the flow of what is unfolding naturally everywhere all the time.

So what’s all this got to do with  the wild-life pond in the corner of my garden?! The sun is out and the garden is calling, I think I’ll continue that story tomorrow!


Sunflower joy

“If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” Cicero

I thought it might be nice for new gardeners to marvel with me at the rapid and astonishing transformation from seed to seeding for this years sunflowers.

Recap: We sowed 50 old sunflower seeds on 7th of April. We were expecting patchy to poor germination, 41 out of 50 seedlings germinated!

5 days later, On Easter Sunday the first signs of life started to appear..

Day 5

A few days later they pushed up with such force they disturbed the soil, little mini eruptions of green.

Day 6

By the 14th they had all popped up, some slower to cast off the seed husk than others

Day 9

By the 21st they started to outgrow their nursery seed tray

Day 14

And by the 22nd we potted them on into individual pots

Day 15

Today they are over 20cm tall

IMG_20200427_173713285_HDR (1)
Day 20

Such extraordinary transformation for 20 days…No wonder sunflower seeds are so nutritious…

Choosing plants…

Aptly named Red Robin

It’s a strange, slow spring. In March, our lives abruptly stalled, hit a seemingly solid wall of time,  punctuated to the beat of a slow, confusing, fickle drum. The days seems slow, but where did March & April go? And the natural world has felt delayed too. A slow, cold start and then this sudden acceleration into a hot, dry spell and the transformative blossoming and blooming of new life.

Staying connected to the daily unfolding of life in the garden, rather than life on the Breaking News tv screen, is helping to keep me sane, calm, relaxed and grounded. I’m not sure how I would be without it’s daily dose of green therapy.

Acer & Fatsia japonica

I look around my garden and notice that, as the daffodils fade, the vibrant brightness of early spring yellow flowers is superseded by a rather dominant red colour palette (asides from the abundance of dandelions of course!).

Although this was more by accident than design, it is now a palette I am consciously working on complementing, through my subsequent choices of trees, shrubs, perennials, bulbs and annuals.

cooking apple blossom buds

But where on earth to begin in choosing which plants to bring into our daily lives? Our  choices can be informed by many different considerations, some which are fixed, others which are more malleable and subject to change.

Fixed considerations are site based  (location, soil texture, climate, aspect). More malleable are soil structure, our personal aesthetics, the amount of time we wish to spend tending our wee slice of Eden, our motivation (eg for food production, conservation, habitat creation, planting for wild-life, for climate change carbon storage, for specialist interest, for education…or all of these!)  and resources (money, plants, tools, time).

new berries in the making

Notwithstanding this current quiet time, our garden backs onto a busy road, with a thin shelter belt of mostly deciduous trees between road and fence.  I’ve spent a few years planting up the back fence wall with chunky ever-greens to function primarily as a sound barrier to the endless noise of cars; which despite much visualisation I have  failed to re-imagine as  ocean waves. Last year I added a second layer of shrubs; azalea, berry-bearers and lavenders. This year I am all about the native flowers.

viburnam tinus (I think!)

So far I’ve sown  borage, forget-me-nots, foxgloves, lupins, creeping thyme and bluebells (from Eigg!) for short, medium and longer term investment in the colour range for spring into summer. All have been chosen for the benefits to wildlife & pollinators; if we choose to cultivate a garden of primarily native plants, then these tend to benefit our native ecosystem best because the flowers open in time for the bees and pollinating insects to feed upon and thrive.

delicate plum blossom

Re-weaving the web in our own backyards enriches our lives beyond any human measure and helps build resilience back  into both our own lives and the natural world of which we are part. I notice I find it hard to stick to writing about any one subject in this blog, as one topic naturally leads to the other in the interconnections of ecological webs.

I often think that Rabbie Burns was probably a gardener too, with his keen eye to see beyond the human falderal. Seems quite pertinent for this time we are living through, with it’s endless noise & posturings from the dying patriarchs:

A Man’s a Man for a’ That       by Rabbie Burns

Is there for honest Poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that;
The coward-slave, we pass him by,
We dare be poor for a’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that.
Our toils obscure an’ a’ that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The Man’s the gowd for a’ that.

What though on hamely fare we dine,
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a that;
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine;
A Man’s a Man for a’ that:
For a’ that, and a’ that,
Their tinsel show, an’ a’ that;
The honest man, tho’ e’er sae poor,
Is king o’ men for a’ that.

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord,
Wha struts, an’ stares, an’ a’ that,
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word,
He’s but a coof for a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
His ribband, star, an’ a’ that,
The man o’ independent mind,
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that.

A Prince can mak a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, an’ a’ that!
But an honest man’s aboon his might –
Guid faith, he mauna fa’ that!
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
Their dignities, an’ a’ that,
The pith o’ Sense an’ pride o’ Worth
Are higher rank than a’ that.

Then let us pray that come it may,
As come it will for a’ that,
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that.
For a’ that, an’ a’ that,
It’s comin yet for a’ that,
That Man to Man the warld o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that.

English Translation:

Is there for honest poverty
That hangs his head, and all that?
The coward slave, we pass him by –
We dare be poor for all that!
For all that, and all that,
Our toils obscure, and all that,
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp,
The man’s the gold for all that.
What though on homely fare we dine,
Wear rough grey tweed, and all that?

Give fools their silks, and knaves their wine –
A man is a man for all that.
For all that, and all that,
Their tinsel show, and all that,
The honest man, though ever so poor,
Is king of men for all that.
You see that fellow called ‘a lord’,
Who struts, and stares, and all that?
Though hundreds worship at his word,
He is but a dolt for all that.
For all that, and all that,
His ribboned, star, and all that,
The man of independent mind,
He looks and laughs at all that.

A prince can make a belted knight,
A marquis, duke, and all that!
But an honest man is above his might –
Good faith, he must not fault that
For all that, and all that,
Their dignities, and all that,
The pith of sense and pride of worth
Are higher rank than all that.
Then let us pray that come it may
(As come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth over all the earth
Shall take the prize and all that!
For all that, and all that,
It is coming yet for all that,
That man to man the world over
Shall brothers be for all that.



Potting on: sunflower seedlings

Notice the significant difference in height in the seedlings after only 16 days. Each seedling is competing for light & space above ground and water & nutrients below ground

Sixteen days ago, my glamorous assistant (my wee mum!) and I sowed 50 ancient old sunflower seeds in  close drills in a single seed tray, assuming a really low germination rate due to the age of the seeds. Lo and behold, 41 out of 50 popped their little heads up! Despite the dizziness of my vertigo this last few days, I’ve been aware that the rapidly growing seedlings really needed potting on ASAP; else they will become irrevocably stunted before reaching the next stage of their development. The equivalent of falling at the first hurdle!

cotyledon leaves and first true leaves in a sunflower seedling

As seen from the above photograph, each seedling has put on a fairly huge whack of roots under the surface, alongside a good 10-15cm upwards growth. Most seedlings* we would expect to see growing in a garden or allotment  start the same way; they push up two ‘baby leaves’, called cotyledon (Latin trans: ‘seed leaves’). These leaves tend to have a large surface area comparative to the size of the seedling,  mopping up as much sunlight, and therefore energy, for the seedling as possible vis-à-vis photosynthesis. They function like solar panels. When I started out, I remembered cotyledon as ‘cot lead on’ and thought of the baby leaves as like a baby’s first teeth. It helped me both remember the term and relate to it! Next come the ‘true leaves’, which are the first leaves of the new plant. Please note the significant distinction in the colour, size, texture and shape between the cotyledon and true leaves of the sunflower seedling in the above photograph.

Potting on is a really important step for tender and fast growing seedlings. In general I prefer to wait until at least 2 sets of true leaves have appeared on the new seedling before potting on. Usually I would plant sunflower seeds in their own pot, rather than a shallower seed tray, which would delay potting  on into May. But needs must, and so yesterday we potted on all 41 of the sun-worshippers.

Potting on is one of two vulnerable steps in our seed’s journey from it’s germination in a relatively controlled growing environment (in this case, in seed trays in a south-facing window); to the big, wide outdoor world full of predators (slugs, snails, hungry insects, birds & mice!) and climate (wind, rain, fluctuating temperatures!). It is a vulnerable step as it’s when our seedling’s stems are at their most tender, and thus most susceptible to damage. Given that the stem is essentially an extremely efficient and sophisticated transport system moving water and nutrients up and down the plant,  if it’s damaged at this stage, the odds are that sadly the seedling will not survive, or will be stunted. The second most vulnerable step on the journey is ‘hardening off‘, which I’ll explain in a subsequent blog post when we get to that stage.

Therefore, the number one rule for potting on is to never, ever,  hold seedlings by their stem. Best is to hold them by the scoop of compost at their roots, or, at a push, by their leaves. During this coronavirus lockdown we are limited in the garden resources we can find and this extends to compost. For potting on I would always prefer a decent non-peat based specialist compost for seedlings. This ensures that the growing medium is neither too rich or too poor, has a texture open enough for seedlings to continue to strengthen their roots, whilst also firm enough to hold them in place. Think Goldilocks. It is about providing the optimal growing conditions at the right time for the plant’s development. But, again, needs must and, this year  my potting on compost is  a general multipurpose compost mixed in with some of my fantastic kitchen compost. My neighbour kindly gave me nine 50 litre bags of compost the other day.

This green bin with a lid stores around 100 litres of compost. I find it easier to fill from a bin than from a bag. Less mess.

In the photograph above, my glam assistant is half filling the pots with the compost mix. I  then popped a seedling in each half filled pot (e.g bottom left)  and then filled up the pot, taking care not to damage the stem (e.g bottom right). I decided to partially bury the stems  at this stage to give them a bit more stability in the pot. In a week or so I will add little support sticks for them too. With particularly leggy seedlings you can pot them on submerged up to the cotyledon leaves. I generally do this with seedlings such as brussel sprouts, purple sprouting broccoli, cabbages, pumpkins, cucumbers; and any other large plants which will bear a lot of weight come maturity. It helps them develop a strong base from the get go.


using a little potting station keeps mess at bay. A basin or cardboard box would do too.

We potted them up in a mixture of sized pots, some 7cm wide and deep, others 12 cm wide and deep (what was available). After giving them a really good soaking, with the rose on the watering can turned up (which gives a gentler water pressure than with the rose turned down), I placed them inside temporary cold-frames (mini-greenhouses). Normally storage boxes, these boxes are brilliant for temporary cold-frames as they are stackable and moveable. I first saw them used on canal boats and thought them a fantastic idea.

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sunflower seedlings in the boxes and tray with 6 pots. In the foreground are potted on courgettes and to the left are potted on pak choi I’m growing for seed.

For the next few weeks,  I’ll carry them outside in the morning, to let them soak up the sun, and in the evening I’ll bring them inside, stacking them next to the window. You can either put the pots on the lid on the floor, and so put the box on and off like a cloche, or just put them inside the box. I’ve opted for the latter whils’t I’m moving them in and out the house. Once I move to the second vulnerable stage, of ‘hardening off’ the seedlings, I will probably move the seedlings to sit on the lid and use the box as a cloche….but that is for a few weeks hence!

Below is a picture of the boxes stacked at the window taken from the outside looking in.

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* The classification of plants which give rise to two cotyledon leaves are called eudicots (eudicotyledonous), or dicots (dicotyledonous). Seedlings with singular seed leaves are called monocots (monocotyledonous). Dicots cover most, but not all of the seedlings typically seem in garden grown fruit & veg. I’ll explore botanical classifications in more detail in another blogpost.

Slow observations


Over the weekend I developed vertigo due to some crazy inner ear dramarama called vestibular neuritis. The first thing I knew was when I woke up and the world started spinning really fast. Quite literally out of the blue. Thankfully it is a temporary virus that will clear up on it’s own. But it has slowed me down;  I have to move my head slowly or the roller-coaster starts again. Medical advice is to keep moving, so that the inner ear recalibrates itself. Silver linings: a glorious excuse for a long, slow social distancing walk up the country lanes on a beautiful sunny lunchtime.


Slowing down gives the brain more time to experience it’s surroundings and today I wanted to check out the grass verges on the edges of the fields and lanes to see how the diversity of the ‘edge’ is developing. If you remember, a fair few blog posts ago I was discussing a permaculture observation where edge states are where a lot of magic happens; in a garden setting where edge of a garden path and garden bed can host the most diversity (or weeds!),  and the edge of a grass verge meeting road similarly biodiverse.


Fortunately there is no grim strimming going on along the lanes, the diversity is fantastic and in the coming weeks and months will be a brilliant outdoor classroom for learning and relearning our native wild-flowers. Fingers crossed that during the lock-down  the verges in all the town and cities get a break from strimming and spraying and the dormant seeds get a chance to actually turn into plants.


It was so wonderful to visit this hollow trunk from an old tree that is slowly being canniblised by the plants and wildlife around it, I wonder if it is home to the owl I hear twit-twooing at night?








Mystery of the pear tree

robin on fork
Can you see the robin perched on the fork?
scene of the crime
Scene of the crime

About seven years ago, maybe slightly longer, I planted 3 patio pear trees (on dwarf root-stock, which means they wont ever grow taller than myself or thereabouts) alongside some cherry, apple and plum. I chose dwarf and semi dwarf root-stock for the cherry and pears so that they wouldn’t grow so tall that it would be a challenge to harvest the fruit, especially for the children in the family.  The apples I planted  as espalier (strung up to grow along wire lines to maximise fruit and minimise spread) although they broke free of their restraints a few years back.

All the fruit trees are heavy fruiters and produce enough fruit to eat, give and freeze for both our house and my sister’s house. Except the pears… I know that pears can be notoriously slow to fruit, and each year I patiently wait to see how they will do. They started fruiting maybe 2 years ago but only a few, and all a bit ‘interesting’ looking.

Fruit trees are a brilliant investment in any garden, no matter the size. The dwarf and semi-dwarf varieties (also called patio or step-over) are a good choice in small spaces, or if you would like to grow more fruit varieties of the same fruit. They are a wonderful opportunity to root children into gardening; all the kids in my life helped me to plant the fruit trees which has given them a sense of ownership and responsibility for ‘their tree’. With the exception of most plums and some apple trees it’s a good idea to plant at least two of each tree, unless there are lots of fruit trees in your neighbourhood, to ensure cross-pollination between different fruit trees.

The mystery of the pear tree has finally been solved. During this time of lockdown I have mercifully had more time to be in my own garden. This increased connection and time to simply observe has had me puzzling over the last few weeks the unusual sight of two and even 3 robins visiting the garden at the same time.  This is highly unusual as (male) robins are incredibly territorial. At first I thought it may be a direct result of less traffic on the busy stretch of road behind the garden. But as the weeks have passed, and the pear buds have gotten bigger….and then vanished…it has become clear that the robins have been snacking on the fruit buds!

Perhaps less people are feeding the birds at present than usual, perhaps the robins are especially hungry in what is still early spring, or perhaps they have been regularly snacking each year and I have simply not been there long enough to notice….Mystery solved!

I have a couple of choices; I could net the tree (but I am scared that a bird could get trapped), I could hang some shiny things in the tree (like old cds) which may scare them off, or I could learn from this year’s observations and be more prepared for next year.

Now, where’s those cds….I couldn’t find any but hopefully cut up plastic shiny bits of packaging will do just as well to protect some of the remaining buds!…