Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

How to make every seed count

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Germination testing at the Millennium Seed Bank

Seeds can be one of the biggest expenses in a garden, and if you spend time tracking down heirloom or unusual varieties then they may also be very precious. Many gardeners sow seeds indoors, or in pots and trays, to ensure a higher rate of germination than you would expect in the open soil, but even doing this does not always ensure successful germination.

If you have had a germination failure already, or your seeds are just too precious to risk, how can you give your seeds the best possible chance at life? One possible answer is to pre-germinate (or pre-sprout) your seeds. Pre-germinated seeds are kept in very controlled conditions for the first stage of their life – away from pests and diseases and the uncertainties of the weather. Only once they have germinated are they planted out. This technique is commonly used by farmers, but it’s easily done by gardeners as well.

Some of the easiest seeds to pre-germinate are peas and beans – large seeds that are easy to handle. Simply pour your seeds into the bottom of a tumbler or jar and cover them in clean water. Leave them to soak overnight, then drain them in the morning. Each morning, rinse the seeds with fresh water and drain them again – exactly as if you were sprouting seeds for salads and sandwiches. Keep the seeds at the right temperature (for peas and beans, room temperature is usually fine) and after a few days you should see them start to sprout.

The first sign of germination is the emergence of the radicle, the first root. Once most of the seeds have started to germinate then you need to plant them out – but be very careful not to damage the radicle, because the seeds cannot re-grow it if it gets broken. Sow the seeds carefully, but otherwise exactly as you normally would. You’ve given your precious seeds a head start in life – away from the hungry mice and cold, damp soil that might cause them to rot before they can germinate.

For smaller seeds a different technique is needed. Sprinkle seeds onto damp tissue, cover them over and place the tissue inside a plastic bag to keep the moisture in, and then put the bag somewhere warm. The important thing now is not to forget about your seeds. You need to check on them every day, and plant them out once they start to germinate. This is a useful way to test the germination rate of seeds that may be suspect, as well as ensuring germination of precious seeds*.

Again, you need to be careful with the pre-germinated seeds. If they’re spaced out on the tissue then you can snip it up and plant each seed without removing the tissue. Or you could use the whole sheet of tissue as a seed mat, sow it in a tray of compost and transplant the resulting seedlings when they’re large enough.

A useful technique for sowing pre-germinated (or simply very small seeds) is fluid sowing. Here the seeds are suspended in a gel and then ‘piped’ out into their planting rows. It’s easier to get an even spacing this way, and very gentle on pre-germinated seeds. You can make a gel for fluid sowing at home by making up wallpaper paste – but make sure that you use one without added fungicides and chemicals. An icing bag or syringe makes an excellent fluid sowing device.

*If you have older seeds and are not sure whether they will germinate well or not, learn more about seed viability and germination testing in The Peat-Free Diet.

Posted in Blog on Mar 10, 2014 ·

Tag: Basics

Planning a spring garden

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The fashion world used to work so far in advance that if you wanted a new swimming costume for your summer holiday, you would have to buy it in the spring. By August, swimming costumes were nowhere to be seen, and it was time to buy your winter coat. Things have changed with the rise in long-haul holidays; it’s always summer somewhere in the world, and you can buy clothes of all types year-round.

That’s a real boon for those of us who have problems planning ahead (or, more charitably, like to be spontaneous :), but sadly it doesn’t work for gardening. Seeds need to be sown at the right time, plants need to be in the ground, or brought inside, as the seasons change, and you have to plan ahead to get the best out of your garden.

Spring can be a particularly difficult time to put on a good show. The weather is unpredictable, and the weeds will make a run for it whilst your prized plants are still sleeping. There are few plants hardy enough to flower in the cold weather, and the garden can look a little sad. In the vegetable patch there’s the Hungry Gap conundrum – there’s plenty of work to do, and plants will be growing, but there’s precious little for the gardener to harvest.


If you want flowers early in the spring then the best bet is to plant some spring bulbs. It’s quite late in the season to do that now, and you might be frustrated to find that your local garden centre is no longer stocking them. But you can order snowdrops, daffodils, tulips, hyacinths and crocuses from an online supplier. Plant them straight away (and as it’s a mild December, in most places that should still be possible) and some of them will flower next spring (and any that don’t will be a surprise in spring 2015!). Choose a range of different species and varieties, to give you flowers to brighten up the garden from January through to April. Snowdrops flower from January to March, crocuses from February to March and daffodils from February to May. Tulips take over in April and May.

Apple blossom

Fruit blossom puts on an entirely different spring show, delicate flowers appearing in sequence with the different species of fruit. Apples, pears, cherries, peaches and nectarines, all have beautiful blooms that brighten up the spring and later bear fruit. Of course, not everyone has the space for an entire orchard, but they say there’s a fruit tree to fit any space. They can be dwarf varieties, small enough to fit in a pot, or kept neatly trained against a wall (or even, in the case of stepover apples, be used to edge the beds). Winter is the ideal time to plant bare root fruit trees (which are cheaper, and available in a large selection of varieties), but container-grown trees can be planted year round, as long as you keep them watered while they settle in.

Snow on broad bean

In the kitchen garden you can sow broad beans now or in February, for a harvest in June and July. If you have very wet soil, or problems with rodents, then they’re best sown in pots or modules for planting out in the spring.

For an earlier spring harvest you need to plan in advance. A lot of the very early veg are perennial – asparagus and rhubarb need to be planted out in spring and take a few years to really hit their productive stride. A healthy rhubarb plant can be forced (technically, blanched) by covering it with a bucket – you’ll get an earlier, and paler, first harvest. But the plant needs to then be given plenty of time to recover.

Snow on broccoli

The winter-hardy brassicas, such as spring cabbages, kale and sprouting broccoli, are sown as seeds in spring, and give their harvest the following spring. They’re not ideal for small gardens, as they take up a lot of space for a long time.

If you have a greenhouse, polytunnel or cold frame then you can sow Oriental vegetables into the autumn for late winter and early spring harvests – they just need a bit of protection from the worst of the weather. The same is true for some traditional favourites –winter lettuce, leaf beet and chard, and parsley. Very early sowings of carrots and beetroot can produce some baby roots, weeks ahead of the main harvest.

If you’ve missed the boat for this spring, then now is a good time to start planning for the next one. Mulch any bare soil, to stop weeds before they start putting on new growth, install a water butt ready for dry summer days, and get the compost heap going again so you’ve got compost to feed your plants and dispose of your garden waste next year.

And you can always sprout seeds indoors, and keep pots of herbs on the kitchen windowsill, in the meantime.

How do you get your garden ready for spring?

Posted in Blog on Dec 16, 2013 ·

Last modified on Aug 9, 2015

Tag: Basics

Plant Protection: Cloches

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Tromba bed

A cloche protecting a squash plant.
Those are environmentally-friendly slug pellets, by the way!

It has been a difficult spring for gardeners, and their plants, here in the UK. If you’re lucky enough to have the space (and funds) for a greenhouse or a polytunnel then that goes a long way to protecting plants from the vagaries of the weather, but for everyone else cloches are a good solution to the problems it brings.

There has been some expansion in what is called a cloche, but to my mind it is simply a small structure designed to protect a single outdoor plant (or a group of young plants) from the weather or from pests. Planting outside early in the spring can be a bit of a risky business, with plants eager to grow but at risk from frost and chilling winds; a cloche can be the halfway house that allows the weather to improve, or the plants to harden off, before they are fully exposed. A cloche can also protect seedlings from slugs, snails and aphids – all of which will enjoy their succulent stems and behead them before they get much of a chance at life.

Through the summer, a woven cloche (wicker, perhaps) keeps larger critters out and offers a little sun protection to plants like lettuce, whilst allowing air and water to flow.

And as the days start to shorten a cloche extends the autumn, protecting plants from frost as you’re reaping your late-season harvests. You can even use cloches throughout the winter, to protect hardy plants from the worst of the weather. Although they’ll survive on their own, you can harvest cleaner and more tender leaves from plants that have been given a little bit of protection.

Originally, cloches were bell-shaped structures; most people would recognise Victorian glass cloches, which make an attractive addition to a garden – they’re still available, although they might not fit your budget. Some people have concerns about glass in the garden, particularly if they have children or pets. Plastic versions might not be quite as visually appealing, but they are safer and normally come with vents that allow you to control (to a certain extent) the environment inside. Plastic cloches come in various sizes, but remember that they’ll need pegging down to stop them blowing away on windy days.

Barn cloches are contraptions made from sheets of glass and specially-made wires. You assemble them by snapping the glass panels into place so that you have end up with a glass tunnel. Sheets are propped up for ends, and then removed when more ventilation is required. Barn cloches are easy-to-store and reusable year after year, but there’s a knack to putting them together and I can’t help but think you need nerves of steel to manhandle glass in that way. Fortunately, plastic versions are now available.

These days you can also get lots of pop-up covers for raised beds, and crop protection tunnels. As far as I’m concerned, these go beyond cloches and in to larger crop protection structures, so I will cover those in another post :)

Cloche hints and tips

  • It’s important to note that you can’t simply pop a cloche over a plant and leave it to its own devices. If the sun comes out suddenly, or you’ve trapped a slug inside, then you’ve sentenced your plants to a very quick death. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and remember to open the vents (or prop your cloche up) to allow air flow if the temperatures are warm. Doing so prevents your plants from over-heating, but good air flow also discourages fungal diseases from taking hold.

  • Depending on the design of your cloche, it may direct rainfall down to the roots of the plant, or it may deflect it elsewhere – so check regularly whether you need to water.

  • Give your cloches a good wash in hot, soapy water before you put them away, so that they’re ready to use when you need them again. A clean surface is free from pests and diseases that might bother your plants, and allows the maximum amount of light to shine through.

Posted in Blog on Jun 24, 2013 ·

Last modified on Aug 9, 2015

Tag: Basics

Can you use banana peels as free fertilizer?

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A few days ago I received an email, asking me the following question:

“It recently occured to me that the high potassium and phosphorus content of bananas/peels would make them an ideal candidate as an organic fertiliser of peppers, tomatos, tomatillo, cougette, achocha etc. My question is do you have any experience or insight reguarding this ? if so any advice on how best to employ the nanas.”

Now I have heard about using banana peels to fertilize roses, but it’s not something I have tried myself – ours just go on the compost. And although it’s a well-repeated idea on the internet, I have yet to find any scientific evidence that suggests it would work or well-respected gardeners who suggest it.

And there are different opinions on the best way to use banana peel as fertilizer. Green (Living) Review suggests baking them first; My Little Garden in Japan turns them into a plant smoothie with eggshells, and Real Simple simply buries them under the rose bush.

What do you think? Do you use your banana skins as fertilizers, and if so, how? Have you read something more erudite on the subject that would shed some light? Are you now wishing you’d brought along a banana for lunch?

While I was going bananas this morning, I came across a lovely blog post on Benvironment about the perils of leaving ‘biodegradable’ banana waste behind when you’re having some time off. But you don’t do that, do you? :)

If you enjoyed this post, checkout The Peat-Free Diet, my book all about compost and growing plants in a sustainable way :)

Posted in Blog on Apr 12, 2012 ·

Last modified on May 14, 2014

Tags: Basics & compost.

How to chit potatoes

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You will no doubt have noticed that potatoes left in the fridge, or in the bottom of a sack, tend to grow long white sprouts after a while. Discarded tubers can do the same in the compost heap, and it’s the way that seed potatoes start to grow when they’re planted out in the garden. Those long, white shoots are fragile and easily broken, and they can carry on growing to gargantuan proportions.

Seed potatoes are sold in garden centres and mail order catalogues weeks and even months in advance of a suitable planting date – they can’t go in the ground too soon, or any new growth will be killed by frost. If you buy your seed potatoes early (and it pays to, if you want a specific variety, as they can sell out quickly) then you’ll have to store them until planting time. If you do it properly then you can encourage the potatoes to grow short, green sprouts that give them a head start once they’re planted out.

Highland burgundy

The difference between snaking white shoots and sturdy green sprouts is simple – light. ‘Chitting’ is the process of encouraging these green sprouts, and simply involves putting your seed potatoes somewhere light and cool until you want to plant them. A windowsill in an unheated room is usually ideal. Standing tubers in egg boxes keeps them all upright and separate and helps to stop any rotting (and to stop the rot from spreading if one of your tubers is duff).

Sprouts appear from ‘eyes’ in the potato, and most will appear from one end – which is the ‘top’. When you plant them, plant them with the top upwards. If you’re short on seed potatoes then you can cut them up at planting time, making sure that each cut section has at least one sprout (or eye, if they aren’t sprouting), although I have never tried it.

There is a lot of debate amongst gardeners and experts as to whether chitting improves or damages yields. With salad potatoes and ‘earlies’, which are not in the ground for long, chitting may give them a head start. For maincrop potatoes, the situation may be less clear cut. So if you buy your seed potatoes as planting time, then don’t worry about chitting them before you plant them; but if you buy them early and have to store them, chitting them is preferable to letting them grow those long, white sprouts in the bag.

Seed potatoes are grown in conditions that guarantee them to be virus-free (here in the UK they tend to be grown in Scotland, where the cooler weather means far fewer aphids to spread viruses). Saving your own potatoes from one year to replant the following year is not recommended, but there are potato enthusiasts who do that to conserve heritage varieties.

The potatoes shown in the photo above are Highland Burgundy, and I bought them in the supermarket last November (as eating potatoes). They may contain viruses that will reduce the yield, but if maximum yield isn’t your only consideration then you may find this the easiest way to get hold of some heritage varieties (I got the idea from Daughter of the Soil, and she knows a thing or two about growing potatoes!).

Increasingly, heritage potato varieties are sold as mini-tubers or micro-plants, and these have been specially grown a lab from virus-free samples to make sure they are healthy and will grow well. Once they are planted they are treated as normal potato plants, but yields can be low in the first year.

My chitted seed potatoes are now waiting to be planted out in the Malvern garden, probably next month. Apart from this one, which is auditioning for the part of an alien in Dr Who ;)

Highland burgundy

Posted in Blog on Mar 23, 2012 ·

Last modified on Mar 24, 2012

Tags: veg & Basics.

How to Develop a Lasting Relationship... With Your Tools

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As its Valentine’s Day today, and the whole world is in the mood for love, I thought I would talk about one of the most enduring and productive relationships a gardener can have. Although plants (and even gardens) may come and go, if you invest in good tools and look after them properly they will be with you throughout your gardening life.

In some families tools are handed down as heirlooms, and have been lovingly used and preserved by many hands. These are tools that were ‘built to last’ and are as useful now as when they were first made. But if you’re not lucky enough to have a green-fingered heritage, or you’re a completely different size to your ancestors, then you may need to invest in new tools.

It’s easy to be seduced by the cheap tools on offer in garden centres and gardening catalogues, as their descriptions make them sound perfect and they are within everyone’s budget. But their performance can be disappointing, and their lives short-lived. Plastic handles can fade and become brittle over time, and I know from experience that cheap trowels can be easily bent. I have developed a keen hatred for what he calls ‘garden tat’ – cheap, usually plastic or aluminium, tools and sundries that are not fit for purpose and rarely make it through even one growing season. My personal horror stories include an aluminium cold frame that literally kept unscrewing itself, and those plastic ‘garden pegs’ that bend when pushed into the soil. (Do yourself a favour and buy metal tent pegs from the outdoor shop instead – they’re cheaper and longer lasting.)

If you want to have a lasting relationship with your tools then it pays to save up and buy high quality ones, where you can replace handles if necessary and where proper tool maintenance will keep them sharp and useful for many years to come. (If you’re buying secondhand then do be wary at car boot sales, where sadly some of the tools on offer may have been stolen from allotments.) New gardeners don’t need too many tools – a spade and fork if you’re digging, a good trowel and maybe a rake and a hoe. Tools with specialised uses come later, when you’ve mastered the basics.

Ideally you should choose your tools in person, as the choice of weight, grip and handle length are all very personal. Hoes and secateurs need to be kept sharp, so investigate the different sharpening options when you’re buying your tools.

And once you have your tool, treat it like one of the family. Don’t leave it outside in all weathers, clean it and put it back in the shed when you’re finished with it. (Good hygiene is not only better for your tools, it’s better for the plants too as it helps prevent the spread of disease.) If you down tools for the winter then make sure they’re left clean, and oil handles and moving parts. Store them somewhere dry; hand tools can be left pushed into a bucket of oiled sand, which keeps them clean, dry and handy.

A holster is invaluable for good secateurs – it helps prevent you from putting them down and losing them in the garden for days on end. I should get one myself, as I have lost count of the times I have found my secateurs in the compost bin after a particularly strenuous weeding session!

If you’ve found lasting love with a particular gardening tool, then do tell me all about it in the comments :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2012 ·

Last modified on Apr 14, 2014

Tag: Basics

How to grow Jerusalem artichokes

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Some gardeners breathe a sigh of relief when the first frosts of winter arrive – the hard work of the season is over and they can tidy the garden up and leave it dormant until spring. There’s plenty to do inside, studying the seed catalogues and planning, in the dry and the warm.

If, like me, your green fingers get itchy and want to keep on gardening then your vegetable plot may already be filled with wintry crops – Brussels sprouts for Christmas, winter cabbage and kale, leeks and over-wintering onions. They’ve all been in the ground for a while now, though, and you may be casting around for something else to plant. Planted the garlic? Sown the broad beans? Then it’s time to think about Jerusalem artichokes.

What are they?
Jerusalem artichokes

Jerusalem artichokes (Helianthus tuberosus, also known as sunchokes) are one of those vegetables that only vegetable fans know about. They’re not easy to find in shops – I first encountered the knobbly tubers in an organic vegetable box.

They’re a pretty common crop on allotments (community gardens), because they’re fabulously easy to grow – they are rampant beasts that thrive in tough conditions. In fact, if you let them loose in your garden you may never be rid of them again.

Growing Your Own
To grow your own you simply plant a tuber in the ground. They’re not very fussy, but aim for around 6 inches deep and 50 cm apart. I’ve seen various spacings mentioned, so it can’t matter too much. Plants with plenty of space will probably give bigger tubers.

Jerusalem artichokes

These are tall plants, so put them where they won’t cast shade on other crops. They make a nice wind break during the summer (they die back in winter) and are sometimes used as screens as they grow quickly. A happy stand of plants may flower, with small yellow heads that look like sunflowers but are nowhere near as impressive.

You can start to harvest your tubers after the first frosts have killed off the top growth. Dig them up as and when you want them – they store best in the soil.

The problem lies (as with all tubers) in the fact that any left in the soil will re-grow next year, so unless you manage to dig them all up your artichoke patch may start to spread beyond its original boundaries. However, there are no disease issues to worry about, so it’s merely a question of keeping them under control.

You can replant some of your own tubers to keep the crop going, or pass them on to neighbours and friends who want to start a patch. Keep the smoothest ones for replanting – you don’t want to encourage too many knobbles, as it makes peeling a chore!

Growing Jerusalem artichokes in containers
If you don’t have a vegetable plot, or don’t want them to run riot, you can plant Jerusalem artichokes in a tub on the patio for a very low-maintenance crop.

Jerusalem artichoke containers

I planted four tubers from my vegetable box (you can plant tubers intended for eating with no problems) in January 2006 into 12” tubs of compost and they sat on my patio throughout a long, hot summer. I watered them sometimes, when they were wilting. I also staked them when they got tall, as in pots they never grow thick enough to become the windbreak they’re famed for being. But mostly I just left them there – they’re that easy to grow.

Jerusalem artichoke harvest

In January 2007 I tipped out one of the pots and each little tuber had turned into half a dozen large tubers, enough to make Jerusalem artichoke and sweet potato soup. They weren’t even that knobbly, and eaten fresh there was very little waste. It might not have been the largest yield ever, but considering the lack of care and attention they got, it was very energy efficient.

I chose the smallest of the tubers and replanted it in the same pot, with fresh compost. I watered it in and gave it a mulch of bark chips and put it back on the patio for next year.

Jerusalem artichokes

I have continued growing Jerusalem artichokes in containers, without ever buying another tuber. The only problem I had was in 2009, when a long dry autumn caught me out and nearly killed off the plants – they just about survived, but there was no harvest that year. They’re drought tolerant, and nearly unkillable, but I just about found their limits!

If you order Jerusalem artichokes from a seed catalogue they may well be ‘Fuseau’, which is generally thought to be the least knobbly variety. They arrive for planting in February/ March, but if you have some earlier than that you can still plant them out – they’re very hardy and as long as they don’t get waterlogged they should be fine.

Eating them
Jerusalem artichokes contain inulin – an indigestible starch that a) makes you fart, b) makes them very low calorie and c) is considered to be a ‘pre-biotic’, helping to feed colonies of good bacteria in the gut.

Jerusalem artichokes can be eaten raw in salads, but are generally used in much the same way as potatoes. They can be mashed or made into chips. They’re excellent in soup, giving a creamy texture and a slightly smoky taste.

Vegetable soup in our house is a bit haphazard, made of whichever vegetables are handy. Artichokes go very well with carrots and, we discovered after another vegetable box delivery, sweet potatoes. The soup reheats well, but doesn’t keep for too long – if you want to keep it for more than a couple of days then freeze portions rather than leaving them in the fridge.

Over at Green Change they say that Jerusalem artichoke leaves and tubers are suitable for feeding to chickens, but it’s something I haven’t tried yet – my container-grown harvest is too precious ;)

And Radix has been experimenting with eating blanched Jerusalem artichoke shoots – he calls the result artichicons :)

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Posted in Blog on Nov 21, 2010 ·

Last modified on May 19, 2014

Tags: Basics & unusual.

How to Grow Your Own Peashoots

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In the first episode of The Edible Garden yesterday, Alys Fowler was talking about peas and beans and one of the things she grew was peashoots.

Peashoots are an oriental delicacy, regularly grown in gardens across China, but rarely seen for sale here in the UK because they’re very expensive for their weight. But they’re cheap and easy to grow, which makes them an ideal candidate for growing in a kitchen garden because you’ll be getting a lot of value for your money and your space – even if all you have is a windowsill or a small container garden.

I talked about peas and peashoots in episode 21 of the Alternative Kitchen Garden show (way back in 2007!), but I’ll cover the basics here as it’s so easy.

All you will need is a growing medium (potting compost or vermiculite), a suitable container and some pea seeds. Suitable containers are shallow – you can use a standard seed tray, or reuse some of the plastic containers supermarket produce comes in. You can use any pea seeds (Alys used a packet of cheap dried peas from the supermarket) that you have handy – this is a great way of using up any leftover pea seeds.

You can sow peas for peashoots at any time of year indoors, or from spring onwards outside (although you’ll have to be on the lookout for beasties such as slugs and snails that will graze away green seedlings and mice that may dig up seeds before they germinate).

Fill your container with a layer of compost or vermiculite a couple of centimetres deep. Add a layer of pea seeds on top – you don’t have to give them much space at all as they’re not going to grow big, so cram them in. Cover them with another centimetre of soil, water gently, and pop them somewhere where you can keep an eye on them. If you can cover them with a clear plastic lid (or put the container in a clear plastic bag) then that helps to keep the seeds moist while they’re germinating, but take it off once you can see signs of life.

Water your seedlings regularly so that they don’t wilt. Once they’re about 15 centimetres tall you’ll be able to see several pairs of leaves and they’ll start to grow thin climbing tendrils – this is the stage at which you harvest your peashoots. Simply snip or nip out the top of the plants. These ultra-fresh greens add a lovely mild pea flavour to salads or sandwiches, or you can lightly stir-fry them.

You’ll get two or three harvests from the same container before they start being past their best. But if you sow another small container every time you start to harvest one then you can easily have a continuous supply. Once a container has finished cropping, simply add the remaining bits and pieces to the compost heap, wash it out and start again!

There’s no reason that you can’t harvest tender peashoots from the tops of pea plants that are growing in the garden – except that if you overdo it you may affect the size of your pea crop.

Posted in Blog on Apr 8, 2010 ·

Last modified on Aug 10, 2015

Tags: veg & Basics.

How to Make Leaf Mold

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Fallen leaves

Enjoy the fall

When the leaves on the trees start to change color it’s beautiful, but it’s also a warning that winter is on the way. Any day now, those leaves will fall, and when they do they can cause problems. If they’re left on paths and sidewalks they can create a slippery mess. On lawns they cause bleached patches on the grass, and if they fall in the water they can clog up ponds. It’s time to reach for the rake or the leaf blower, but once you’ve collected those leaves, what do you do with them? If you’re dumping them out with the trash then you’re wasting a valuable resource for your garden.

Use your leaves

If you have a bare patch of soil in the your garden, and it’s too late to sow a green manure cover crop for the winter, then consider using your collected leaves as a mulch. They’ll protect the soil structure during the bad weather, and in spring when you want to plant the soil you can simply rake the leaves up again. And if you have plant crowns that need some protection from the worst of the weather, then a pile of leaves can make a real difference.

If you don’t need the leaves in the garden then try turning them into black gold – leaf mold. Leaf mold is just compost that’s made only with leaves, but because leaves can take a long time to break down it needs to be made separately from your regular compost. If you put leaves in your compost pile then they’ll still be there, intact, when it’s time to dig the compost out. But leaf mold is easy to make, and takes very little effort once you’ve collected the leaves.

And here’s a top leaf mold tip – you can collect leaves using the lawnmower. Just raise the blades so they’re not cutting the grass, and collect the chopped up leaves in the hopper. Not only is this an easy way to collect the leaves, but they’ll rot down quicker for being chopped up.

Leaf mold methods

If you have collected your leaves in plastic sacks then you can make leaf mold simply by tying the tops of the sacks shut and making a few holes in the bag with a garden fork. The leaves will rot down more quickly if they’re wet when you bag them, or if you add a little water before you close the sacks. Just leave the bags out of sight and forget about them, and your leaf mold will magically make itself! An alternative is to use an old cloth sack, which will breathe and allow the rain in to the leaves.

You can make a simple leaf mold bin using 4 wooden stakes and some wire mesh. Just empty the leaves in and leave them to their own devices. The winter weather will start the rotting process for you. Or you can use an old planter, a big heap, or any kind of container that allows the leaves to breathe and allows some moisture in.

Be patient

Making leaf mold is not quick composting, but it is low maintenance. Once you’ve collected your leaves together and set up your leaf mold composter then you don’t have to do anything to it for a whole year. This time next year, if you want to, you can use your leaf mold as a low fertility soil improver that you dig into your garden beds, or as a great mulch. It will look like half composted leaves – which is exactly what it is.

If you can leave your leaf mold to mature for two years then you’ll have a much finer compost, which is a great basis for making your own potting mix. You can add soil or grit or higher fertility materials to your own specifications, and what you’ll have is a homemade, weed free potting compost. And all because you didn’t put those leaves out with the trash!

Posted in Blog on Nov 3, 2009 ·

Tags: Basics & compost.

How to Grow Your Own Fertilizer

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Comfrey is a perennial plant that is very easy to grow. Fast-growing, it sends down deep roots and is known as a dynamic accumulator because it can find nutrients in deep soil, bring them up and store them in its leaves. Its natural habitat is along riverbanks, and the wild plant has white flowers and spreads very easily by seed.

Many varieties of comfrey can quickly become weeds in a garden because they spread by seed, but there is a sterile cultivar, called Bocking 14, that is ideal for gardens as it does not set seeds – it is propagated from root cuttings or division of a mature plant. Bocking 14 has beautiful, purple flowers that attract bees.

Comfrey flowers

Comfrey establishes easily, and if you have bought a root cutting or been given a section of a plant by a friend then all you need to do is plant it and keep it watered until it has started to grow. Root cuttings are generally available from May to August, and should be planted as soon as they are bought. If a permanent site is not available then you can pot them up in the meantime.

Comfrey will grow on any type of soil, but its leaves will be more nutritious (and plentiful) if it is grown on good soil. A good place to grow comfrey is around the base of a compost heap, where it can “mop up” any plant nutrients that are washed out of the compost.

A well-established comfrey plant will grow a lush set of leaves that can be cut several times during the growing season. The first cut is often used to line the planting holes for potatoes. Comfrey leaves break down very rapidly, which means that they can also be used as a mulch that will provide a supply of nutrients to growing crops as well as suppressing weeds and preventing water loss through evaporation.

Comfrey also works as a compost activator, and if added to a compost heap it will help speed up the composting process as well as adding its nutrients to the compost.

Comfrey leaves are high in potash, a valuable plant food that is ideal for potatoes and fruiting plants like tomatoes and peppers. It is easy to make comfrey into a liquid feed that is easily applied to vegetables and rapidly absorbed by plants.

Bokashi bucket with comfrey

One way to make comfrey into a liquid feed is to soak the leaves in a bucket of water for several weeks, until they begin to decompose. The smell this creates is amazing – you will think that the local water company has opened a new sewage treatment plant at the bottom of your garden! You will need to dilute the liquid before you use it.

A less odorous way to achieve the same end is to put the comfrey leaves in a lidded container (squash them in well and weigh them down with a stone) and let them break down on their own over the course of several weeks. If your container has a tap then it will be easy to draw off the resulting dark brown liquid when it is ready.

Comfrey fertilizer

The remains of the leaves can be added to the compost heap. This type of comfrey liquid will store well in a bottle until you are ready to use it. You need to dilute it well before applying it to plants: try a 1:10 ratio for established plants, and don’t forget to water them first – liquid feeds should never be applied to dry soil.

Posted in Blog on Sep 27, 2007 ·

Last modified on May 26, 2015

Tags: Basics & compost.

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.