Grow Your Own Smug

The raised beds that we built towards the end of last year, constructed from sleepers, sat empty overwinter. Finally, in late spring, after ordering four tons of topsoil and creating the new herbaceous bed at the front of the garden, there was soil to spare. (I can’t say that wasn’t a surprise. Calculations, be damned.) Enough soil, as it turned out, to half fill each of the raised beds designated for veg growing. These were duly heaped up, and topped up with a liberal, stinky dose of farmyard manure. I dug it all in, and cleared any lumps and bumps. Then I set about planting up some veg plugs. At last! A real chance for me to live the self-sufficiency dream, and attempt to grow all of my own vegetables in the back garden. It’s the modern, organic vegan’s idyll. Stick that in your capitalist, free-market pipes, supermarkets. I don’t need your produce any more! Well, I probably will, actually, at least for some time to come.

The smaller 1m x 2m raised bed was designated the ‘Salad Bed’. Salad Bed, meet Cut n Come Again lettuce, Lollo Rosso, Butterhead, Spinach and Pak Choi. I was super excited about the Pak Choi – I love to make vegan Thai Green Curry, and this is a fundamental and relatively expensive component in the curry. The thought of skipping down to the bottom of my garden and cutting off perfectly fresh, organic pak choi leaves to use in a lovely curry bubbling away on the hob gave me a singularly smug grin, I’m not ashamed to admit.

Well, smug dreams come true; I’ve since used up all of the first batch of pak choi (over, and over, and over again – may even admit to being very slightly bored of cooking Thai Green Curry now). I was half expecting a come-down from my organic dream – some disappointing payback for being an idealistic fool – but instead, the pak choi leaves were fresh, and crisp, and juicy, and perfect. Still grinning here, smugly.

The loose salad leaves were equally rewarding to grow. As we all know, the first step towards self-sufficiency is growing your own salad. Ok, it probably isn’t the first step at all and, ok, it can’t be compared to installing your own wind turbine, solar array, or reed filtration bed system, but it’s a step in the right direction. No more last-minute jump in the car and head to the local shop for a gassy and over-priced bag of salad. Oh no! Step outside into your own tranquil oasis, stroll down to the veg patch, and pull a few leaves off a plant. How simple is that? No fuel needed, takes a minute rather than ten, and there’s the satisfaction element. Yes, there’s that smug grin again.

The spinach leaves are best used up while young and fresh. Sadly, too many of mine shot up and started to go to seed. I understand that the hotter and drier both pak choi and spinach get, the more likely they are to run to seed. Next time, I’ll attempt to keep the salad bed far more moist; but a very hot and dry period fell quite soon after these had started to develop, and I think this caused them to run to seed early. I pulled out most of these, to allow the other leaves to develop.

I have given quite a few lettuce heads to family, as no matter how much you think you’ll use, you never use that much. Don’t over-estimate how much veg. a small family needs to grow. You actually don’t need a lot of space at all, if you sow and bring on your veg month by month, as and when you use it.

I’ve since done this with the pak choi – used it all up, and sown more in the cleared space – and these have germinated quickly and are starting to develop into small, healthy plants. I’ve tried to keep the watering well up with this second batch. I’ve sown red leaf and green leaf varieties. The red leaf variety of Pak Choi intrigues me – how much difference will there be in taste between red and green? Red leaves in salads are often much more bitter. I’ll find out in around a week, and report back.

In the 2m x 2m bed, I planted golden courgettes, mange tout, petit pois, runner bean ‘Streamline’ and leeks ‘Musselburgh’. As I’ve mentioned, the weather has been far too hot and far too dry. The only downside to having raised beds in the middle of a 200 foot south facing garden is that it is miles away from a hosepipe or water butt! This needs to be rectified. As a result, this bed has dried out quite a bit so far this year, on and off, and the legumes have suffered a little. The courgettes are… well, courgettes. You can’t go wrong with courgettes, can you? Plant them, watch them grow (and grow), and eat courgettes until they’re coming out of your ears. Job done. I can’t recommend growing your own courgettes highly enough. Great for beginner veg growers, and I feel I speak as one.

I’m really excited about the leeks; but I know I’ve planted them too close together this year so they won’t do as well as they could have. It’s a learning experience. Next time I’ll give them more space between plants. I love cooking with leeks so it will be great to have our own home-growns to cook with. The Streamline runner beans are finally rewarding me with fabulous, juicy long beans. Again, runners are a fave veg, so we are well pleased to be able to pick and cook these now.

We still have one remaining raised bed to finish. The gravel is down. There is also the greenhouse to install in this section, and guttering and water butts. This has had to be put on hold while other work in the garden is completed (now done). In that bed I’ll grow more brassicas, I think, and next year I plan to grow Jerusalem artichokes and salad potatoes, too.

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Almost a year old.

The garden is almost a year old. The right-hand ‘cool blues’ border was planted up almost a year ago. These plants have rooted well over winter and are now showing vigorous, healthy growth. It looks like a proper herbaceous border! Almost. A few gaps at the front, but not many. These can be filled in time with low-growing plants that suit the colour scheme of whites and blues. Amazingly, I didn’t lose a single plant over winter, of those planted in this border.

Cool Blues border.
Cool Blues border.

The clump of Dianthus in the background turned out to be pink, not white, so that is ear-marked for a move to the ‘hot’ side!

I’m planning to re-paint the fence a more natural pale colour (Harvest Gold) to match the new fence on the other side. This will set the colour of the border off far better than the horrible dark stain on the panels now (apologies to anyone who likes that colour for their fences). The Nordman fir is not a part of the plan, and is in a pot at the back until I’ve decided where (if) to plant it.

Hosta ‘Big Daddy’ is huge in the background, but not at its full size yet for the year. It is just starting to flower. Campanula persicifolia has formed a nice clump in its allotted space. It has around ten flower spikes on it, with many more to come. The bells are huge, and perfectly blue. The Cornus alternifolia ‘Argentea’ is picking up pace and putting on some nice, new growth. Bit worried about the eventual size of these, but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it. Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’ has just formed some nice buds, and one flower escaped today (not shown).

Tradescantia 'Sweet Kate'
Tradescantia ‘Sweet Kate’

This is a dwarf  (low-growing) Tradescantia with amazing acid green foliage and bright blue flowers. The contrast is fantastic, and it works well in the blue border.

The hardy geraniums are all looking amazing, and I seem to have quite a collection. Geranium magnificum ‘Rosemoor’ has been a huge surprise (literally). It’s a big one, as the name suggests, and here it is.

Geranium magnificum 'Rosemoor'.
Geranium magnificum ‘Rosemoor’.

And here’s a selection of the other hardy geraniums in both borders, so far.

Hardy Geraniums
Hardy Geraniums

 

Phase 3: Raised beds

Time to have a quick breather, and enjoy the fruits of our labour. After mowing the lawns, the garden is looking good and starting to come together. Here is a view from not-quite-the-top of the garden, looking down towards the house. Ornamental and fruit trees can be seen, with a cut away section after this where the raised beds are being constructed. Beyond that is Flame’s lawn, and beyond the lawn is the rose arch and planted herbaceous beds. It’s looking good.

Garden view from the top
The long view of the garden.

Here’s a closer view of the raised beds area. (Yes, that is an unusually large Photinia x fraseri ‘Red Robin’ tree in the foreground.)

Raised beds.
Current view of the raised beds section.
Rose beds under construction.
Rose bed under construction – 2013.

With the first section almost complete – aside from the planned reclaimed brick path – it’s necessary to focus on the raised vegetable beds. It’s now May, and I need to start growing vegetables and salads, before it’s too late! As can be seen, there are three raised beds already constructed. A fourth is planned for the central area, but hasn’t been built yet. To the left of the picture, a raised bed can be seen planted with roses. This is the rose bed, and it was filled and planted towards the end of 2013, soon after I moved into the house.  The roses suffered a little over winter, and seemed to be plagued with black spot and die-back earlier in the year. I pruned them mid-March, and they have definitely benefited from this, and a liberal spray of Rose Clear. They’re now showing plenty of healthy new leaf, and most have flower buds forming. I’m really, really, REALLY (can’t stress enough) looking forward to seeing these roses flower.

A note about roses

I find roses a little fussy for my liking, as they’re often randomly developing fungal infections and diseases that seem beyond my control. They need regular spraying with anti-fungal and insecticide treatments, and they like a lot of water. They’re high maintenance, which is not my preference in a plant at all. Contrary to popular opinion (maybe), I have found that roses do best in a hot spot, South facing, with oodles of water to keep the soil moisture levels high. In this environment, they seem to really flourish. I have grown them like this in terracotta pots, and they thrived.

David Austin roses can be very temperamental; the first year or two of growth can be incredibly soft and leggy. Persevere, and the more resilient cultivars can be the most amazingly rewarding roses. I highly recommend  The Lady of Shallot, for incredible resistance to disease and black spot, very vigorous growth, and extended growing throughout the year (they are pretty much evergreen in the UK). The Lady of Shallot can be grown as a climber or shrub rose. Another vigorous David Austin rose is Wollerton Old Hall, and I recommend it.

I have visited David Austin roses on a number of occasions, initially as part of my job as a horticulturist at a large and well known garden centre in Derby. We were able to visit and observe the inner workings of the rose factory that is David Austin roses. There are now countless varieties of David Austin roses, two or three new cultivars appearing every year. Many of these won’t stand the test of time, for varying reasons. Despite coming through annual rose trials to be selected for colour, vigour, resistance, scent, and popularity, a cultivar may prove to be less vigorous or less scented, and won’t sell well. There are many David Austin groupies, and we see them a lot in garden centres. Many people will want to try to grow every new variety.

The grounds of David Austin Roses is well worth a visit, and anyone can do so. Best time to visit being June to August, for maximum appreciation of the summer flowering roses, and the formal herbaceous gardens. David Austin roses spray all of the roses grown on their grounds fortnightly, which is worth noting (if they do it, it might be a consideration to spray our roses more often at home?). Many of the David Austin roses are grown on site in large pots, including climbers and standards. Again, worth noting.

Roses can be grown in containers very successfully. However, a deep, well-drained raised bed is a better option, and I’m lucky enough to have the option to build a raised bed purely for roses. Heaven! Here are some of my current rose cultivars growing in the raised bed:

  • David Austin – ‘Munstead Wood’
  • David Austin – ‘Darcey Bussell’
  • Rose – ‘Sexy Rexy’
  • David Austin – ‘Princess Anne’
  • David Austin – ‘Boscobel’
  • David Austin – ‘Boule de Neige’
  • David Austin – ‘Wollerton Old Hall’
  • Rose – ‘Blue Moon’
  • David Austin – ‘The Lady of Shallot’
  • David Austin – ‘Indian Summer’
  • David Austin – ‘Shine On’