Friday, 11 September 2015

Ripening tomatoes are like life


...a race between maturity and decay.

I'm hoping that in my greenhouse and in my life the maturing process will edge ahead temporarily. 

Sunday, 12 July 2015

Doing the bees' work on cucumbers


Bees are in short supply round the gardens of West London, as my neighbour was remarking yesterday. 'Do you think I need to pollinate my marrows?' she asked.

I really didn't know, but it made me scurry off to the internet to see whether I should be pollinating my cucumbers. Even if we had swarms of bees, the cucumbers are in the greenhouse, so they'd be out of reach.

The cucumbers have been doing well - indeed I pride myself in spotting their early promise. Now they're almost taking over the greenhouse, especially since I gave them a piece of string along the roof to climb along.

But amid the profusion of leaves and flowers, there's not much sign of a cucumber.

So I was grateful to someone called Gary Pilarchik for his helpful YouTube video on how to 'hand-pollinate' cucumbers.

According to Gary, you just swivel a paint brush inside the male flowers, collecting pollen, and then do the same inside the females.

I had a go, and found the same problem Gary had in his video - a lack of females. You're supposed to identify females by their being single flowers, while males grow in clusters. And females will have cucumbers growing between them and the stem. (Although doesn't that mean there's no point in trying to pollinate them any more?)

Male cluster

Female flower with growing cucumber

In the end, I just swivelled willy-nilly - thinking it didn't matter if I couldn't tell whether I was collecting or distributing pollen.

Some of the advice talks about it being a messy job. I found it unusually clinical for something in the garden, but it's true that I've been left with a stubborn stickiness on my wrists and arms from the pollen.

Oh well, I've done what I can.


Sunday, 14 June 2015

Cutting those geraniums down to size

Many of the plants that I inherited from my mother are geraniums. But they were lanky - with long featureless stems leading to the odd flower or leaf at the top. They looked like creatures from a planet with low gravity.

Fortunately, my mother-in-law knows about this kind of thing, and so when she came to lunch I persuaded her to get to work with the secateurs while I filled some spare pots with my nutritious compost.

We soon had a collection of new pots with the cut stems she had designated as new plants, and a much more respectable collection of the original plants with their dead leaves and flowers removed.

My mother-in-law told me to water the pots thoroughly but then to leave them, rather than constantly rewatering them while the new plants get established. I don't know why, but perhaps it encourages the new roots to grow because they have to dig deeper in search of water?

Good work - except I now have twice as many geraniums to look after.

Saturday, 30 May 2015

The mysterious allure of gardening


I wouldn't say I'm obsessed with my greenhouse - although others might. But I have to admit that in the week of the Chelsea Flower Show, a review of its TV coverage did ring a bell:

Like many newly keen gardeners, I thought gardening was stupid until I got a garden of my own. This happened to coincide with me growing old and boring, or older and more boring, as my wife will tell you. It may be that piddling about in the garden has replaced participatory sport, parties and indeed speaking to other human beings because it's the only leisure activity that allows you to hide. 

That was Benji Wilson writing in the Telegraph. 

I've actually enjoyed gardening for a long time - beginning at my prep school. Several times a day, we were thrown out into the school grounds, whatever the weather. If, like me, you weren't sporty, there wasn't much to do except wander round and wait for time to pass. But you were allowed to join the Gardening Club. This centred on some small allotments in an old walled kitchen garden. The chief attraction was not the gardening, but access to an old shed where the gardening implements were kept. It was a vital few degrees warmer than the fresh air in winter.

In fact, I found the gardening itself quite absorbing. When I joined, I remember being shown my little plot by Eddie Hayward, the head of the Club. "But what is there to do all the time?" I asked him. "Oh, there's always something that needs tidying up, or the soil needs digging, even in winter," he assured me.

And he was right. From the outside gardening looks like a series of tasks to be completed - seeds to germinate, flowers or vegetables to grow - but it's actually a process. It's the doing that counts, not the results.

Supposing you had all the time in the world and all the help you needed to make the best garden you could. How long would it take? And how would you know you had finished? You wouldn't, because perfection leads to decline. Even on a single plant there are leaves, fruits and flowers at different stages of development: there's no perfect moment when it's finished.

So, to me, it's not just "piddling about" as Benji Wilson puts it. It's a kind of physical metaphor for our lives. Just as drama resonates because it evokes feelings and relationships we recognise, so gardening makes sense to us because it contains patterns we know, perhaps unconsciously, are worth tuning in to.

The older I get, the more those elusive patterns mean to me. Like the mysterious attraction of a particular shape to the Richard Dreyfuss character in Close Encounters, so older people are drawn to gardening without having to understand why.

Every evening when I get back from work, I feel compelled go out and have a look at my greenhouse, to make a few adjustments and see how things are getting on. Some plants are flourishing; others are in decline. I can guide and encourage, but in the end, as in life, the forces of nature are more powerful than anything I can do. I'm really just there to witness what's happening - for my own sake, not really for the plants.


Monday, 25 May 2015

At last - this is what a greenhouse should be doing


I can't help feeling my greenhouse has been underperforming during its first few weeks. So I was delighted to visit it today and see the sun was pouring in through its toughened glass and that its automatic window (£27 from the Greenhouse People) had decided to ease itself open to cool things down inside.

Further inspection revealed that conditions were positively tropical.

The plants looked contented, and I could actually hear them growing - a subtle background buzz of gentle organic stretching.

Being in the greenhouse was like being part of one of those natural history time-lapse sequences, in real time. But can it last?


Saturday, 16 May 2015

Where's that greenhouse effect?


I know that conditions in a greenhouse in South West London in early May aren't exactly like the tropical rainforest. But I thought my new greenhouse might at least grow things as well as they grow on the window-sill in the kitchen. Not so far.

Here is my first crop, started on the window-sill and about to graduate to the greenhouse.

They're a collection of seeds that came in a gift pack, called - a little too cutely - "Psychedelic Salad": unusual coloured beetroot, cucumbers etc.

And here they are in the greenhouse, ten days later:

Spring onions


The lettuces have all been eaten by something, the spring onions look anorexic, and the beetroot and radishes are all over the place.

I have high hopes for the cucumber, which actually look quite healthy:

But going back to the window-sill question, more recently I planted some tomato and sweetcorn seeds on both the window-sill and in the greenhouse. So far, only the window-sill ones are doing well:



There's no sign of the rest of these packets, which I planted in the greenhouse. I've always believed in the greenhouse effect, but in my garden, it seems a bit of a myth.


Saturday, 9 May 2015

Constructive decomposition: never buy fertiliser again


In line with my make-do-and-mend policy, I was hoping to make use of the compost heap I've been accumulating at the end of the garden over the past few years. Wouldn't it be satisfactory if that could provide new plants in my greenhouse with all they needed to grow in?

But when I looked the compost heap, it didn't look promising. I probably hadn't left it long enough to decompose and I'd been too optimistic about the process - adding too many small branches that might disintegrate before the next ice age, eventually turning into coal I suppose, but wouldn't be compost for several centuries after I myself had returned to my constituent elements.

At least, that's how it looked.

But when I started digging, I found a layer of damp, dark, crumbly stuff underneath. In fact, it bore a striking resemblance to real compost.

And when it has been sieved, it looked even better:

What's more, there was an awful lot of it. A bit like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, I found I was able to fill up all my pots, and still had a whole wheelbarrow of unsieved stuff left over. I had enough compost to feed five thousand seedlings - well, almost.  

Sunday, 3 May 2015

A quest for shelf-improvement


So far, buying the greenhouse has been a bit of an extravagance. As well as the greenhouse itself, there was the cost of building a concrete base, and paying someone to assemble it.

But from now on it's going to be re-use and recycle - in other words, a return to my usual cheapskate style.

So instead of buying shelves from the Greenhouse People, from whom I bought the greenhouse (although I must admit they look rather good), I made some myself from leftovers.

They may be a little narrower than you might wish, limited by the width of the plank I sliced up to make them, but I reckoned there wasn't going to a lot of jostling and horseplay in the greenhouse, and not much wind either, so that if they were sturdy enough, they'd probably do the job.

Now I'm starting to get an idea of how much I'm going to be able to fit into the greenhouse. My son says he wants to see every cubic centimetre filled with biomass. I'd rather aim for a kind of scenic grotto with enough room for a human being to visit comfortably, or maybe even to sit and read in pleasant surroundings.


Sunday, 26 April 2015

The comfort of plants


My greenhouse is now populated, or what's the right word - herborated?

There is a sad story behind the sudden arrival of these plants. They came from my mother's conservatory, and they came because she died two weeks ago.

I'd ordered the greenhouse many weeks earlier, when my dear mum was in reasonable health. As we narrowed down the date for the base to be built, the greenhouse to be delivered and the man to come and build it, it turned out that the job would be completed last Friday.

And that was the first day I had a chance to go to my mother's house and rescue the now almost terminally dehydrated plants. When I got home, the greenhouse had been finished for about an hour, ready to receive plants that meant a lot to my mother.

To me, it seems more than a coincidence. I am so pleased to have a home for the plants. They will always have a strong and poignant association, but a happy one.

Saturday, 25 April 2015

And here it is


The man came yesterday afternoon and put it together. By the time I got home, it was done.

I suppose I could have done it myself, but there are stories online about it being a mind-boggling puzzle. Even the greenhouse company said it would take me two days. They have a list of recommended people who build them, and the man charged £160. It took him about four hours. It did mean drilling into the concrete, so it's not quite the same as an Ikea bookcase.

And I must say I think it looks really good. It fits in nicely and is big enough inside without dominating the garden.

The only problem is that one piece of glass was missing. The man told the company and they say they'll deliver it next week. So we have a small hole in the roof for the moment.

It cost £600 including delivery and a self-opening window (for when it gets too hot inside). That was on a special offer, but here are the product details. The people from the company, the Greenhouse People, who I spoke to on the phone were friendly and knowledgeable and willing to discuss all the details about the concrete base and other things I wanted to check on. Even the man who delivered it (and five other greenhouses on his round trip to London from Stoke-on-Trent) was very pleasant.


Saturday, 18 April 2015

A greenhouse in the making


I don't have a greenhouse yet. But I'm getting one, and the process started this week. An old fence was replaced with a new one, and a concrete base for the greenhouse was built alongside it by three chaps who spent a day on the fence and the greenhouse base.

When they'd finished the fence, they put a frame where the greenhouse will be and filled it with concrete. I'd had to sacrifice a Ceanothus and a few other things to make way for the greenhouse, but I was already feeling it was worth it: the new structure looked pretty neat in its space.

I'd had an idea about the base: that it should have trenches that go right through to the soil below. That way the roots of whatever grows in them can be deeper than they would be in pots, and the plants won't be so dependant on being watered. And I won't be worrying about them when we're on holiday.

So here they are:

They weren't as big as I'd imagined, and the builder had made some executive decisions in my absence, but I still think they'll be useful.

All that was a few days ago. Today the greenhouse itself was delivered. I'd been expecting some massive collection of girders and glass. What arrived was compact to the point of being unimpressive (to our cat, certainly). We'll find out tomorrow how good it looks when it's up.