Wednesday, 24 March 2010

Organic veg growing in a very small garden

After this week, I promise: no more gardening for a while – on to some other topics!

Following on from the recent post, about Ben and Wendy’s garden in Clitheroe, I thought I’d post something about my own ventures into ‘growing my own’. I can imagine some of you reading that earlier post and thinking, ‘well, it’s ok for them, with ¾ acre to play with’. So, here is an example of what can be done in a very small space.

My back garden is just a little over 1/100th of an acre! 50 sq metres, to be more precise, 5m wide and 10m long, facing west. The ground slopes away from the house, and backs onto a patch of allotments, so is open to the west. There are fences on the north and south sides.

My house, one of a row of terraced houses, was built in the early 1960s, near the site of an old brick works – which tells you all you need to know about the soil: heavy red clay that you could make pots out of (or, indeed, bricks)! The builders put a few inches of rather poor quality topsoil on top, and the previous owners had done nothing to improve the situation. When I moved in, the garden was laid to lawn (poor quality) with narrow borders all the way round. For many years it had never occurred to me to grow vegetables, but I happened upon a nicely illustrated article in a gardening magazine about the ‘square foot’ method.  I bought a copy of Mel Bartholomew’s book, Square Foot Gardening and haven’t looked back!

I had been gradually reducing the lawn area, in any case – a small grass area, shaded and on poor soil was not thriving – and had put terraced steps in place of the slope. I started with two raised vegetable beds of 1 sq m each, and soon added two more each of 0.5 sq m.



(There are many ways of making raised beds – I use the ‘Linkabord’ system, which suits me and my garden.)

Later I added the smallest available of the pyramid grow-houses,

plus a tiny lean-to against the house wall (the patio doors use up most of the wall space, so there’s no room for anything bigger),

and very recently another 0.5 sq m bed at the far end of the garden. I use window-sills indoors for germinating and the grow-houses outdoors as cold-frames for hardening-off small plants before they go into the ground.

Two linked ‘slimline’ water-butts tuck neatly into a small corner,

and a tiny ‘sentry-box’ shed occupies the cold/shaded north-east corner,

but the roof of course gets much more light than the ground just there. The removable frame on top of the roof, lined with plastic, channels rain water runoff into a small gutter, and thence via a hose into the main water butts. Within the frame are five troughs, with drainage holes drilled in their drip trays at the lower end. The growing medium is mixed with Perlite to reduce the weight, and they’re planted up with autumn-sown garlic and onions.

The south-facing boundary was previously a laurel hedge, put in by previous owners who had no understanding of how big and thuggish it would get – seriously inappropriate for a garden this size. So, after years of trying to keep it cut back, I had it taken out and a fence put in, which now supports a row of cordon fruit trees. They’re called ‘duo minarette’ trees –  they’re on very dwarfing rootstock, and each tree has two grafted varieties, one above the other, chosen so that they pollinate each other.

They can be planted as close as 2ft apart so they’re a wonderful resource for a very small garden – a whole orchard of 8 apple varieties, 4 pear varieties and 4 plum/gage varieties in a very small space. As well as getting the pollination sorted out, the range of these trees available also provides a mixture of early and late fruiting varieties, and eaters/cookers/keepers.

If all you have is a patio, these trees can be planted in big tubs, providing you keep them well watered and fed.

Here is an overview of the whole garden (taken from the bedroom window) in the spring.

In the very far end bed are spring onions and Babbington leeks (the latter obtained via the Heritage Seed Library seed-swap scheme run by Garden Organic). Just the other side of the pyramid are over-wintered plants of chard (silver and rainbow). In sacks are early potatoes. At the far end, out of sight in this picture, are a cultivated blackberry, autmn raspberry and two young nut trees, a cobnut and a red filbert. Closer to the house, just out of sight, are lettuces in troughs and pots. On the left (behind the flowering broom bush) are two redcurrant bushes which thrive in the partial shade of the fence.

redcurrant bushes netted against the birds

redcurrant harvest

Elsewhere are blueberries and herbs in pots, alpine strawberries all over the place; plus, in the central bed (filled with ericaceous compost), among the heathers, are lingonberries and creeping cranberries. At appropriate times of year I also grow tomatoes, courgettes, French beans, radish, carrots, broccoli, cabbage, beetroot, baby turnips and peas. And utilising the compost heap in the far corner, I grow each year a winter squash plant that rambles all over the gate and fence.

The fruits keep well, and last year, the final one kept right through to April, wrapped in newspaper in a cool place.

After several years of learning what works, I am now self-sufficient, year-round, in green leaves (both salad and cooking greens) with the help of covers over the winter.

In a good year I harvest enough beans and courgettes to eat well in season and freeze plenty for the winter. I’m not self-sufficient in root vegetables, and I don’t even know if I could be, in such limited space. I eat what roots I grow, as they are ready, but never have enough to store, nor do I have space to store them.

The raised beds allow me to create a really good soil, and by choosing small varieties of carrot (eg: Parmex or Paris Market) the roots grow completely within the compost mixture, and so don’t have to contend with the clay soil – similarly with beetroot, radish, turnips, etc. Last year, for the first time, I grew potatoes in sacks - it works really well for early and salad potatoes.

I practise crop rotation around the beds, as well as planting quick-growing salad plants between rows of slower-growing vegetables. From June to October I’m pretty much self-sufficient in vegetables and salads. In the fruit-harvesting season I can pick enough to eat, but my garden is too small to give me enough fruit to store for the rest of the year.

I actually have more space than Bartholomew says is needed to feed one person – but I go out to work and don’t have as much time for the garden as I might. So I’m not cropping the beds as intensively as he says is possible. As it is, I’m constantly amazed at how much food I get out of this very small space – and it could be even more. One of the things I really love in the harvesting season is to come home from work, walk out into the garden and see what’s ready to eat – and that’s what I’ll have for my evening meal. It sometimes makes for some slightly odd combinations, but that’s more than made up for by the freshness (plot to plate in about 15 minutes) and no food miles.

One day's harvest in July

I run two compost bins. The small rotary bin close to the house takes vegetable peelings, dead-headed flowers, shredded paper to help get the mix right, and anything else that will compost quickly.

I’ve been putting material into it over the winter, and as soon as the weather warms up I’ll stop adding new stuff, and turn it daily. I add an organic compost accelerator, and the compost will be ready for use by September for autumn mulching. It also produces a ‘compost tea’ that collects in the base section – this is a concentrated fertiliser and can be drained off and diluted for use anywhere in the garden. While I’m turning this bin, kitchen waste will go into the other bin, along with coarser and slower material from the garden. I grow a patch of comfrey which I harvest two or three times in a season to provide extra material for this compost bin (comfrey can also be used directly to make a liquid fertiliser – but it smells disgusting, and in such a small garden I choose not to make the stink!). All this will be turned and left over the winter and will be ready for use sometime next year. With a small garden, I’m always running a cool compost heap, not a hot one – you need a much bigger heap (and lots more material all at once) to create a hot heap.

Herbs grow in various places around the garden. Rosemary, fennel (for seed) chives and thyme grow in the east-facing front garden, which gets unshaded sun from sunrise to the middle of the day. Oregano, basil, mint, lemon verbena, pineapple sage, and coriander (leaf) grow in pots on the back patio.

New last year was an insect ‘palace’ to encourage overwintering beneficial pollinating insects.

And I’m now in the process of raising the beds by another layer, to give me deeper soil and less bending.

The mesh guard all round is to keep my cats out! And the strips of copper tape are to deter slugs and snails.

And finally, along the hedgerow between the back path entry to my garden and the adjacent allotments, there are a few metres of wild damson trees. No-one else seems to want them, so I harvest them each autumn, stew them lightly with honey, and freeze them to eat all winter.

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If you'd like to pursue gardening topics further, there's a course at Woodbrooke from 20-22 August this year, Introduction to Permaculture.

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1 comment:

  1. You might be interested to see a new TV series, starting next Wednesday (7 April) at 8pm on BBC2 (and on subsequent Wednesdays). Alys Fowler (from Gardeners' World) is presenting a new series on 'The Edible Garden', featuring her own quite small urban garden, and her style of growing edibles in the borders, in among the ornamentals.

    She follows permaculture principles, and the first programme also features a visit to Tim and Maddy Harland (the founders of Permaculture Magazine and Permanent Publications) last summer; the whole crew were bowled over by their mature forest garden full of food and wildlife.

    The garden was greatly inspired by the books _Plants For A Future_ and _How To Make A Forest Garden_.