This spring we turned a bramble infested piece of land that lies at the end of our tiny hamlet, into the beginnings of an ornamental garden. At first it was going to be an allotment, in memory of my Dad who always wanted one, but never got round to it – the house decorating, the job in London, the everyday excuses that stop many people from just getting on with a passion.
My neighbour in my old house decided to do the Good Life and turned the whole of her Edwardian pocket hankie sized garden into a vegetable jungle. She squeezed plants into every space and set pots on shelves and climbers up trellis that surrounded the whole plot. Fruits passed across the fence would be turned into jam by me and shared back.
My family in Essex had small holdings, with my Mums aunts and uncles managing ducks and chickens, rabbits and dangerously alcoholic home-made brews – cowslip, dandelion and nettle. Somehow when I was a child, we rarely visited and I only have a vague memory of being chased out of the garden by a huge aged chicken who would hide in the rhubarb to chase any unsuspecting visitor. I do not know the top speed of an angry chicken, but the dash to the little gate and safety seemed an eternity.
Growing your own food is magical. The very first potatoes you dig up, however tiny, are gold. Created from a single potato, sprouted in the dark and planted in soft brown earth in March, comes in July and August eight to twelve potatoes. They have the smell of the earth, their skins do not need peeling and they taste deliciously creamy. There is no discrimination – little ones, knobbly ones, far too large ones – all share the pot and we have spuds all through the winter to enjoy.
So we dug and sifted soil, added manure, and created raised beds. Raised beds offer a big advantage over open soil. No aching backs bending over, the beds can be accessed on all sides. Soil improvers can be added to specific beds to help specific crops in that year. Pests tend not to climb the planking and diseases do not spread across so easily from bed to bed. Watering is efficient, as there is little run-off onto bare soil and the beds retain water for far longer with the pressure of gravity unable to drain the water below the base of the beds. You can spend a fortune on cedar wood for these beds, but if you haven’t the money for that, do as we did, get some cheap pine planks and paint with preservative, then in about three to four years as they rot, you can always add another new layer outside or even add the cedar ones because your making a fortune from selling all those lovely toms!!!
Neighbours kept an eagle eye on progress. No-one in our little French hamlet has raised beds. This was a radical departure. Not only did we raise our beds and plant a variety of tomatoes, garlic, peppers and potatoes – but we added marigolds and ornamental woven canes and trusses, plaited plant stems from the shrubs cut down and added a metal arch that will one day have climbing roses.
Madam Routon was smiling. Not only her terrible view of overgrown weeds and brambles had been removed, but we had cut down old overgrown shrubs and a dead tree to open up the view to the fields beyond. That view hadn’t been seen for over 15 years. The garden was laid to gravel, a hot and noisy job in June to stop mud in winter, and fences built – white planks to contrast all the greens. We left a large bed under the trees for shady planting and made 2 raised beds two metres by four metres and a smaller two by two metres bed as the garden is an odd shape. Three days slogging in the hot sun again – around 85 degrees – painting everything, we finally finished and planted 26 tomato plants. For water, we installed two 1000 litre water tanks to collect rain water off the roof of the car parking. They will fill over winter and spring and be enough to carry us through the long summer months, May to September without recourse to turning on any mains taps. It will save us money and the plants will get more than enough water, meaning a good crop.
This week I read that for two people – four tomato plants are adequate. Well I planted far more and yes we paid the price. A glut of tomatoes. Our beef steak ones are huge, so big they toppled a few of the plants and after two months of sticking in more and more canes, the whole crop was looking precarious. Daily I would trim excess growth off the plants, trimming away leaves down to two sets from the stem.
Trimming, suckers keeping growth
Little suckers, growth between the main stem and a shoot were also pinched out – but the plants grew and grew. Pinching out the suckers can be done once the plant reaches about three feet. Prior to this let the bush branch out. Tomatoes do not really grow much above five foot, unless you train them up tall supports and really hack them back. I prefer to have bushy plants, with about twenty inches clear at base of vegetation to avoid diseases being picked up from the soil and to allow air circulation. Once up-to three foot, I pinch out the suckers and this stops the plant expanding. Chop the tops of the tomatoes off to stop them growing too tall, and allow the rest to branch and fruit. I fed them, watered them, but did not strip all the leaves off as my neighbours were doing. They clucked and said our tomatoes would die, they will never ripen, too much growth. In the heat our neighbours plants shrivelled and the tomatoes looked tired. Ours were a revelation. Or was that beginners luck.
With the lack of pollinators here – farm land does hammer the natural wildflowers and thus the insects, I resorted to lightly tapping with a brush the tiny flowers to cross pollinate the plants.
We did have one mishap. The rains set in early August and it became very chilled. We even put on jumpers and hats again. The big tomatoes suffered and the stems went brown and transferred the blight to the fruit. After handing out red ripe toms to all the neighbours and freezing many, we had to pick all the fruit, cut out the brown and bottle and freeze as green tomatoes. Lesson learned – we didn’t spray with copper sulphate – a blue wash fungicide to keep mould and blights at bay!
Changes next year
But next year the canes will be better secured. We will likely cover with plastic and control watering, as the heavy downpours in summer here are harsh. The leafy growth will be trimmed more at the base to allow cooling air up into the body of the plants, but leaving a leafy canopy at the top to protect the growing fruit from UV. A retired farmer in the village nearby showed us his tomatoes, all under cover and as huge as ours. He too had decided to try a different approach this year and his outdoor plants, stripped to a single stem were suffering. I have also now chickens, so some straw mulch and chicken poo should give the tomatoes a good growing environment.
When the crop was finally over, we composted everything and prepared the bed for over-wintering. Weeding done – back breaking even though I have raised beds – as sometime over the last few years, maybe from the hard physical work here renovating and gardening, I have damaged my lower back – anything where I am not upright is excruciating and has prompted us to really think hard about the layout of the veggie garden and how we plant – lots of access to get rid of weeds, water and trim without me relying on codeine all the time. In spring I will lightly dig over and water with my home made fern fertilizer [ a post on this will be forthcoming].
No digging and compost and worms
Next adding compost, made by yours truly and once you get into home-made composting, nothing else will do – it’s a revelation. Easy to make, nature does most of the work, and in about 6-8 months you have a rich crumbly soil improver that the worms will readily take into the ground and work their magic. Balance your browns[woody fibrous plant matter and leaf mulch with greens, like grass and foliage] and kitchen waste, all those pealing’s etc help to encourage the microscopic bugs to do their work. No digging required. Another curiosity for the neighbours – why I wasn’t digging over the beds and merely laying over my compost and mulching. Below our soil is a rich dark brown, crumbly and full of texture. I noticed many French allotments, grey soiled and smooth from compaction. Every five years though you may have to do a deep dig to avoid compact and re-air the soil. But only if you see the veg patch isn’t providing the level of growth as prior years. If your soil a little wormless or your mole has a big appetite it is worth creating a wormery and getting these wonderful chaps into the soil. You can buy worms online, they are sent in the post- couldn’t be simpler.
In early Spring, once my books are unearthed, I will hopefully find my allotment ones, especially the guide to “no-dig” gardening. It’s the way forward and makes total sense to me. Preserving top soil and all its nutriments makes sense. The potatoes only produced tubers down to a specific level, so little point digging manure below to be washed further into the clay strata. The layers of compost on ground level keep away weeds and deter many pests like slugs who find it hard to slime their way over such jagged and rough obstacle courses. The soil is kept warm and the odd stray weed blown in is easily plucked out, its roots barely touching ground level. But like all things – the test is next years crop – so watch this space.
In the meantime does anyone have a recipe idea for tomatoes as we are going to be eating them for a very, very long time?
The photo below is a simple way to deal with a glut. Roast with olive oil, salt and black pepper. Place in sterilized jars as soon as cooking complete and spoon over pizza, pasta or a lovely addition to a cheese board with home-made pickles and cold meats. Delicious!