One of my favourite times of the year is here. I wait for the first buds to appear on my Elder Flower tree, outside my kitchen window. I set the date, it’s going to be me, radio 3, a nice cup of coffee, a bag of compost and a large pile of seed packets I bought cheap at the end of last season, what more excitement could a man ask for. Big city living! I almost always choose a Sunday for alliterative reasons, (Seedling Sunday) it looks great in my diary, I lay out the packets so I can see all of them at once and I consider my tactics for the year.
In this episode I am not going to give you endless expert advice on seedlings, largely because I am no expert on seedlings, but I will explain what has worked well for an amateur gardener like me and pass on some of the most simple things that have brought me the most joy and hopefully it will do the same for you. You don’t have to be an expert to get growing, nature will help you out, or as my senior citizen Italian friend Raphael used to say, (Bad Italian accent) ‘You put it into the ground, it comes out of the ground.’ You may be thinking this has very little to do with sheds or craft, but I think it has everything to do with it. Firstly let us not forget the humble allotment shed, the spiritual home of the Seedling Sunday, and as you will see later, my own shed is very much a part of the garden or rather the garden is very much a part of my shed.
Also, growing your own food very much fits into the philosophy of working with your hands in a meaningful way, it has all the same properties of craft. You are of course using your hands, there is an unlimited learning process which will last a life time, and there is a sort of humbling mind-set that arises from the act of creating and nurturing something with love which brings you closer to the end result, in this case food
ALLOTMENT ROOFED SHED Let me show you my own shed. For years I wanted to have an allotment. But when I moved to London I found that waiting lists for an allotment were unexpectedly long. I didn’t really have the room in my garden for crop growing since I needed to build a shed in it for a work space. So I though rather than putting a shed on an allotment, I would put an allotment on a shed.
I spend quite a bit of time up here and in a big city like London it really is like having a mini countryside in my garden, sometimes I wonder why I have a house at all. I have a little stove up there and it’s great to pick some tomatoes and make a nice hot tomato sandwich, I mean my kitchen is only about 10 meters away but it’s not quite the same, I even have a tin bath up there and on good weather days I will have a soak surrounded by my fruit and veg before doing the dash past my neighbours to dry off.
Over the years I have learned what works well on my shed roof. Actually I am continually surprised at how successful it has been, the raised beds hold more than enough moisture and I think the fact that it is on the roof means the plants actually get access to more sunlight than they often would on the ground.
Let me take you through my favourites for my shed roof.
PERENNIALS: My perennials which aren’t part of the seedlings selection consist of Asparagus, Rhubarb, Strawberries and blueberries. These are a great start to any garden, I pick strawberries and blueberries for my porridge and have rhubarb crumble in the summer. Asparagus is my favourite to eat but it takes a few years to get going.
HERBS: I have a selection of herbs towards the highest part of the roof, this area tends to dry out first and the herbs seem to be able to cope, more than that, they seem to thrive. Rosemary, Thyme, Sage, Tarragon, Oregano all seem pretty hardy to me and last through the winter. But then I will always add some more varieties, just for the summer.
POTATOES & TOMATOES: First on my growing list is always potatoes and tomatoes, in my mind it is sensible to choose a crop that you like to eat and it also helps if your produce tastes better than they do in the supermarket, this is definitely true of the tomato! I find potatoes to be sort of incredible. You can put a half eaten, mouldy runt of a potato into soil and sure enough it will try and more often than not succeed in throwing up some leaves and re-producing itself.
ROOTS & ONIONS: For root vegetables I just grow beetroot, when I started I liked that it was really easy to spot the purple leaves which you can pick for a salad and I like beetroot with my scouse stew. I always have onions & leeks, I find them really easy to grow and I eat a lot of them.
BRASSICAS: I don’t know if these are strictly brassicas, but last year I grew Kale and rainbow chard, the kale is a bit of a super food and I use it in smoothies sometimes and I was impressed by the rainbow chard, it just kept coming right through the summer and deep into autumn.
CUCURBITS: I don’t grow legumes (peas and beans), I seem to struggle with aphids, so instead I always grow courgettes and the odd squash. Courgettes can be expensive in the shops and I do really well with them. I pick them when they are quite small and they seem to keep producing.
ROTATION: It is worth at this point to briefly explain my layman’s rotation system. Rotation is a traditional way of reducing disease and increasing yield by way of moving crops around to help soil nutrition. My system consists of rotating these categories, the potatoes & tomatoes, the roots and onions, and the brassicas, then in any of the gaps, I plant the cucurbits, it’s pretty basic, but it works well for me.
WILD FLOWERS: Finally I always spread some wild seeds at the end of the roof garden which backs onto the surrounding allotments in an effort to drag in some of the bees and butterflies of the area. It is of course lovely to see both the wild flowers and the wildlife they bring in, but don’t forget they are also helping to pollinate your crops and reduce your workload. I still have a wild flower mix from my friends at kew gardens, you can get some native wild flower seeds for free here http://www.growwilduk.com
SUCCESSES & FAILURES are a normal part of growing and each year I adjust my plan slightly. Last year, the rainbow chard was my great success; my failure I would say was the sweetcorn, the failure was not so much growing the sweetcorn as protecting it from my long term battle with the local squirrel gangsters. Another problem I should talk about is what I call my seedling loyalty, some of you will understand what I mean, some will not. I have a certain affection for the seedlings I grow and this is a good thing, some of the little fella’s need a little tlc, but this affection makes it hard to throw away the plants that just aren’t going to cut it, even though I know they will take valuable space away from the stronger seedlings and result in a smaller yield. There’s something of the left wing sociopolitical conscience about it, like I’m hoping the ones with less resources are going to come good eventually with a little help and they deserve the right to have a smash at life anyway! As far as I know seedlings aren’t aware of the injustices of class systems, although I’ve heard they have some comprehension of the glass ceiling.
At the start of the year I also try to add at least one ‘unknown’ crop. To see how it fares, continuing my knowledge little by little. This year’s experiments will be the chilli & some khol rabi. I know nothing about the kohl rabbi except it sounds exotic and I’ve heard chillies can be a little sensitive in their younger days, but can’t we all.
By putting a small amount of time and effort into your seedlings now, they will repay you right through the year. It is a great feeling popping up on to the roof to pick some vegetables or herbs to supplement the evening meal. I mean it is no weekly shop, but it does help a little financially, more importantly the produce is often nicer than that in the supermarkets and probably healthier.
There is also more to the act of growing than just the creation of food. I work as an artist as well as a shed builder, I believe that being around nature especially plants makes me a better artist, it subconsciously gives me better composition. I think it was Matisse who had an allotment, and every morning he would go and sit with the artichokes, he would use them as a kind of meditation to give him inspiration. I don’t care who you are or what you do, everyone benefits from sitting quietly in nature.
I am always aware when I am around these crops, of natures incredible work ethic, its relentless steady production is an inspiration and it reminds me I am a part of nature, and that the act of working makes us who we are. For me, there is still something incredible about the simplicity of putting a seed into the ground that holds all the information to create a plant, and watching this little miracle emerge before you. Humans work well in this environment, nurturing a seedling into a plant brings me joy, because you quite literally see the fruits of your labour. And the joy you feel from this process is important, because it feels as though it is nature’s way of letting us know that what we are doing is good and the right way to be. (Cosmic carpenter alert!) Ultimately the act of growing, like craft is about being connected to the world you experience around you and subsequently connects you to life and the universe.
So why not get out there and have a go, get some grow bags outside the back door and throw some potatoes in, what’s the worst that can happen.
Love what you do, do what you love, Joel