A Handy Water-Saving Tip: Invest in a Bucket

Despite the recent spate of wet and gloomy weather, some parts of the UK are still in a state of drought (due to something technical to do with the water-tables, no doubt) and even in the comparatively damp North West of the country, it doesn’t hurt to think about implementing water conservation measures now that the weather has finally taken a turn for the Mediterranean.

The Gardener's best friend in times of droughtWe have two large water-butts and two small on our backyard plot, but when we hit a prolonged dry spell that’s still probably only about enough for a week or so’s watering. And when supplies do start to get low, we reach for the gardener’s best friend in times of drought: the humble bucket.

We probably manage to fill our builder’s bucket (as per the one in the picture, available from every hardware store around and I think I saw them going for a few quid in our local Sainsbury’s last week) at least twice during the course of the day, just from the water that would otherwise go straight down the drain. That’s two large watering cans’ worth, which isn’t an insignificant amount when there’s no rain to be had, and here’s how we accumulate it:

1. The Shower – We have one of those boilers that only warms water on demand, which means that there’s always an initial run-off of cold water while it heats up to showering temperature. Bucket under the shower-head and between the two of us, that’s usually one filled up before breakfast.

Empty that into a watering can and then bring it back inside into…

2. The Kitchen – I work from home most days, so I use the kitchen a few times per day – tea breaks, lunch, the usual – and that means I end up using a surprising amount of H2O just by doing simple things like rinsing mugs before I re-use them, washing my hands and so forth; it all adds up. So: into the bucket with the odd splash or two and before you know it, that can be another one filled. Especially if I’ve done a non-greasy washing-up batch at lunchtime: the grey water from that is perfectly fine for watering flowers and shrubs, especially as we use Ecover washing-up liquid, which is biodegradable.

Even if you’re not watering every evening – this year we’re aiming to follow the advice of the experts in Grow Your Own magazine and try to water plants heavily once a week rather than sprinkling them every other day – the grey water from the sink can still go into a water-butt until you need it, although you’ll need to keep an eye out for any accumulation of muck at the bottom once it’s settled a bit. And any diluted detergent that’s in there should stop mosquitoes from laying their eggs on the surface of the water as well (apparently the detergent breaks the surface tension so the eggs sink instead of floating and the larvae can’t hatch).

What about everyone else? What are your top water-saving tips? Let us know in the comments, below:

Crab Apple (Malus John Downie) Harvest

Not bad for the second harvest of this tree, a John Downie variety. I planted the tree nearly two years ago, when it was just a shade shorter than me, and now it’s put on a good few feet of growth. 4 1/2 pounds of them – very happy indeed. And these Crab Apples? Destined for wine, methinks…

How big a backyard would you need to live off the land?

Well, this neat infographic tells you. Click to see all the details.

(Via 1BOG.)

Apple Wine

The Blenheim 2011, brewed between 2010 and 2011 in my house.

It’s apple wine, made from the Blenheim Orange variety. Picked in October 2010 from a tree in Oxfordshire, the apples were chopped, briefly boiled, put into a fermenting bin with yeast, fed ritualistically, filtered, fermented, racked, fermented, racked, aged and finally drunk. All according to instructions from an old book, Recipes for Prizewinning Wines, by Bryan Acton. Here’s the earlier shot of when it looked like sludge.

Serve chilled.

On the nose: grapefruits, apples, sauvignon blanc, a distant earthy note. In the mouth: surprisingly delicious actually. The same notes as the smell again – tropical fruit notes, very sauvignon blanc – perhaps a little stronger. One of the dangers of home-brew is that you don’t always know how strong this actually is…

Very happy with the results. It’s incredible how it’s turned out after all these months; we’re going to leave one demijohn for another few months to see how it matures, before we begin again with this year’s batch.


Home Composting – What I’ve Learned So Far

I’ve been recycling vegetable-based kitchen waste and shredding copious amounts of unwanted paper for the past few years, all in the name of making my own compost. It’s a great way to help prevent adding unnecessary volume to landfill sites, as well as save a few quid on shop-bought compost; all the while improving your soil and helping boost your own GYO crops.

Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about the composting process, which I thought I’d share in case it’s useful.

Setting Up Your Composting System

Firstly: it’s all very well if you’ve got a couple of acres to play with and can set aside a big section of your plot for a multi-bin composting system, like Gardeners World’s own Monty Don, or this lucky fella, but if not, then you’ll probably need to rely on black or green plastic, dalek-style compost converters.

Handy Hint #1: Check with your local authority to see if they run a home-composting discount scheme. For instance, if you live in Greater Manchester, go via www.greatermanchester.getcomposting.com and you can get a 330l Blackwall Compost Converter from www.evengreener.com for £18.00, instead of the usual £34.95.

Handy Hint #2: Get two of them. Two converters allows you to fill one for a few months, then leave it to do it’s thing for a few months more while you start filling the second one. Then you can empty and use the first before you start filling that one again, leaving the second to do its thing, and so forth…

Otherwise the constant addition of new compostable material to the top of the converter, coupled with the necessary mixing, turning and churning, means it’s very difficult to get anything useful and usable out of the bottom. Not without having a load of unusable, un-composted material mixed in, which you’ll have to sieve or pick back out again.

Trust me on this, the extra £18 is well worth the saved hassle. And yes, you could get one bin this year and a second next year, but then again, you might as well get the second one now and save on the delivery costs. You could always use the second one to make up a batch of leaf mold while it’s not being used for waste-composting.

What Does and, More Importantly, Doesn’t Compost Well

Depending on the advice you read (here’s some from our local authority) it seems that pretty much anything organic and vegetable-based can and should go into a composting system. That’s the advice I took when I first started filling bin #1. So emptying bin #1 has been something of a revelation; turns out there’s all sorts of theoretically-compostable stuff that doesn’t actually compost very well (hence the sieve):

Home Composting - FAIL!

The main culprits seem to be:

  1. “Compostable” plastic bags – All that supermarket plastic packaging – usually wrapped around organic spuds and the like – that claims to be compostable? Only half-true. The stuff breaks down eventually, but what you usually end up with is clumps of stringy, half-shredded plastic that’s not much good for anything.
  2. Stones & skins – Fruit stones and pits (apricots, nectarines, avocados etc) seem to take a really long time to even think about breaking down, if at all. Likewise tougher skins / shells, such as avocado and chestnut. Oh, and don’t put pistachio shells in there, whatever you do. You’ll be picking them back out forever.
  3. Bark, twigs, branches – Hard woody stems are often recommended as being an excellent source of ‘brown’ material, but again, they can take a long time to break down, so they might be better off on a separate heap, if you have room for one. And especially, don’t put dead, dry brambles in there; you’ll regret it first time you grab a handful of compost to spread on the veg patch and end up with a fistful of thorns.
  4. Teabags – Bit of a surprise, this one. You’d expect tea-bags – tea leaves, wrapped in paper, right? – to be ideal for the composter. But it turns out that some teabag manufacturers mix artificial fibres into the weave of the bag to strengthen them. Net composting result: mountains of lattice-like mess that won’t break down and has to be sieved or picked out. Empirical evidence based on what I’ve been picking out of bin #1 recently suggests that round teabags are definitely the worst offenders; squares and pyramids seem okay.
  5. Eggshells – Again, the advice sheets often say that eggshells are a good source of calcium for the composter, but they do tend to hang around. They can be crushed up fairly small, so aren’t a massive problem, but if you’re averse to seeing egg-shell splinters scattered across your veg patch then don’t include them in the mix.

Apart from the above, the rest of the general advice does seem pretty sound; any and all veg peelings, soft fruit, shredded paper, cardboard (as long as it’s not gloss-printed and there’s no packing tape attached) and garden cuttings (as long as no perennial weeds are involved) work extremely well.

Handy Hint #3 – I don’t have a photo, but if you’re lucky you might get an ant colony building a mound inside your compost converter. Ants are good, or they seem to be. The little guys really work hard to break everything down and mix it around – they might even help to control fruit flies by eating the insect larvae, but I’m not 100% sure on that point – so if I do find an ant-hill I’ll usually leave it to do its thing for a while.

Eventually you’ll need to break it up and disperse the ants – ideally a couple of days before you want to use the compost to give them time to clear out – to avoid spreading them everywhere, but I don’t think there’s any harm in letting them dig around in there for a while.

The End Result is Well Worth the Effort

If you get the balance right – between green material and brown material, mixing and moistening – then at the end of the process you should end up with a bin that’s about two-thirds full of rich, crumbly, odourless, nutrient-bearing compost that’s perfect for improving your soil:

Home Composting - success!

See what I mean about the egg-shells and the scraps of “compostable’” plastic in the above pic? Melon seeds everywhere, too. But generally, not too shabby at all.

Please do feel free to leave a comment if you have any composting tips, or corrections to the above.

On Tour

My brother and his wife have a one-year-old daughter. They said to me that they liked my veg patch, and would I like to come over to their garden to create one for my niece, since they like to give her nice organic vegetables to eat. I could hardly refuse this offer, so with my girlfriend I headed forth into their suburban garden to create a corner-Utopia.

However, we weren’t prepared for the poor ‘soil’ we had to work with. We first spent three hours sifting out huge chunks of stone (a good few bags full – you can see the largest in the bottom left corner of the image) as well as the odd bit of masonry (attention to detail was not something these 80s house builders were blessed with). Add to that the horrible sticky clay soil we had to break down, it was not a short day’s work. But eventually we decided to raise a middle section (under which some of the worst building rubble remains) with some more top soil, in order to give things a fighting chance. We dug a few bags of organic manure into the whole patch, along with some more top soil, salvaged a few bits of stone to divide up the area into neat zones, and – lo! – a veg patch was born.

We even planted some bits to get them going – carrots, beetroot, peas, onions and garlic – as well as a raspberry plant from my garden (there’s a south-facing wall that looked a prime spot). Now I can’t feel my hamstrings or my shoulders, such is the emotional game a one-year-old niece can play…

Garden Updates, Tidying, Inspecting the Troops

Things are starting to happen.

The rhubarb is storming away; the amount of growth is staggering. Herbs have cropped up in the warm weather, the beans are flourishing, the fruit bushes are showing a good amount of foliage (the gooseberry bush especially so). And I’m delighted that the Tayberry has decided to join in on the fun. The crab apple tree is starting to blossom, the strawberry planter is filling out nicely and the garlic continues to grow. The only disappointments so far have been the onions, which have stalled over winter and I think aren’t going to get any better. So I’ve ordered some new sets (with some potatoes, too) and I’ll see how I get on with those.

Indoors, things are not going so smoothly. My tomato seedlings have given up on me, and a few of the squash have faded – the rest aren’t looking to be in the best of health either. So a second wave of seeds might be in order (I think I’ll give the tomatoes their own pots this time around).

Today I mowed the lawn, hacked away at a few weeds, and then had an ‘incident’ with a tin of yellow paint in the lean-to. I knocked it over trying to get the lawnmower out (a lesson to clean the damn lean-to really) and yellow paint went everywhere. Luckily with lots of water I managed to wash it all away, but my heart stopped for a moment.

After that scare, I planted some tarragon which I found on sale at the local market (a surprise given there’s not many plants on sale there). I moved the planter into the sun (not an easy job) and then did lots of necessary cleaning and tidying to get everything looking decent. I noticed my other half has bought some half-hanging baskets while I wasn’t looking; but I reckon I can attempt to grow the bush tomatoes in these and see if I can trail them down.

All in all, a perfect day to get back into the swing of things and it’s nice to notice that all the hard work last year is paying off this year, too. There seems to be much less to do than I thought.

Seed Trays

Finally, I found the time to get the ball rolling on this year’s crop. I dug out the seed compost bag from the shed and dusted off the seed trays, which we bought in the clearance sales last year.

I planted seeds for several varieties of squash – two mystery species taken from exotic specimens that my parents brought over last year; Yellow Scallops, Black Beauty, Lebanese, Patty Pan and so on. This might seem a little over-the-top but (a) I’m not sure how many will survive, (b) I plan to plant the bizarre-looking ones out front, since no passers-by will have a clue what they are, and (c) I’m hoping to give some to my brother to help kick-start his vegetable gardening efforts.

I also planted some interesting Yellow Centiflor Tomatoes as well as some Leeks, so now my kitchen window is chock full of expectation. I’m thinking about planting stuff outdoors, soon, but it seems a little too cold and murky (I’m bothered about me, not the plants).