Lasagne and Watercress

Veg: Part 4 – vegetable growing diary

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It’s not every day you hear someone say that they’re pleased to have a surplus of cardboard boxes. Well we are. For now anyway.

This week Tom and I tried Lasagne gardening at our new allotment in Hazelwell Park. It’s an increasingly well-known method of no-dig gardening that originated in the USA, and is apparently great for reducing weeds. As the name suggests you lay down sheets of cardboard (the pasta) with layers of mulch in between (we’ve got dry grass, homemade compost and leaf mould) and water well. The idea is that instead of digging up all our couch grass and breaking our backs in the process we’ll suppress them and – fingers crossed – kill them, and at the same time add compost and nutrients as the layers rot down.

Lasagne Gardening
Loaf’s cardboard box surplus in it’s new home on our allotment

This way we can also avoid further compacting our clay heavy Stirchley soil, and breaking up the natural soil structure by digging into the subsoil. This could inhibit movement of water, air, minerals and biological activity, and we need all the help we can get to grow our veggies. According to Alys Fowler at Urban Veg more water is lost through evaporation than drainage so our mulching will definitely help with conserving water when we plant too.

Genius. Less work, and happier soil. And hopefully happier veggies too.

We’ve also discovered a patch of comfrey – great for making natural fertilizer, so we’re looking for a water drum to make a liquid solution in (1 part comfrey to 10 parts water). I’ve got my eye on nettles too and am hoping to learn to build a wormery. This is one area in which we have let our veggies down in previous years. Watering but rarely feeding. I’m told that new compost contains only has 6 – 8 weeks worth of food, so that’s why our vegetables have rarely grown big and strong in the past. They were hungry. Seems obvious now.

Weeding the water-cress bed
This weeks’s soup is watercress

At the weekend we exchanged garden labour for great home-cooked food and veggie growing tips at Tom’s uncle and aunty’s house in Hampshire. They have a gorgeous old saddler’s cottage which they have rented for over 50 years. It comes with an amazing riverside garden with watercress bed, wooded area and huge veggie garden to die for. However, in even the most cared for garden, diseased soil (honey fungus) has started to kill a treasured old tree. That’s where we came in – to battle with and fell the old tree. We also came home with armfuls of watercress (today’s soup) after clearing their bed of encroaching reeds. A joy to weed on a sunny afternoon. Heaven.

Weeding the water-cress bed
…thanks to our weed clearing skills

Whilst we’ve done nothing in our back garden this week, we’ve had a lot of fresh air in exchange for food growing knowledge and trial and error no-dig gardening. Last week at Urban Veg to come.

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Veg Growing Part 3

Veg: Part 3 – vegetable growing diary

Read previous veg blog

Tom and I spent the Easter weekend down south at my parents. They are enviously ahead of us with the growing season with their dusting of snow now long gone. Whilst ours is still lingering, we started preparing the garden anticipating warmer days.

Last weeks ideas have come to fruition and we have moved the chooks to new ground, pruned our side of the hedge (it’s not ours to remove), created a second compost heap, and used the hedge clippings and dry beech leaves to start a ‘dead hedge’ for insects, and an extra leaf mould compost bin. Very rewarding. Thanks to the chickens the fertile patch we moved them from has become an extra veggie patch – lucky veggies.

Our new leaf mould bin and dead hedge
Our new leaf mould bin and dead hedge

Our garden feels like it’s getting closer to becoming more of closed little ecosystem, with the intention of bringing as little in from outside our garden as possible. Making our own compost, collecting water, relying on chicken manure and building welcoming habitats for helpful insects and wildlife is a good start. We’re yet to test our soil for pH so that we can understand how to give our plants the best start, but it’s up there on the to do list.

Week four at Urban Veg and we’re one step closer to growing outdoors, understanding techniques for sowing seeds in the gorgeous warmth of the poly-tunnel. Being honest I often fall at this first hurdle so i’ve picked up some new tips. Fingers crossed.

Transplanting seedlings
At Urban Veg – transplanting seedlings by supporting the roots, and holding the first leaves.

Here’s some reasons why my seedlings may not have made it in the past:

  • Over-watering once germinated – poor things may have drowned, lacked enough oxygen or developed ‘damp off’ from bacteria growth.
  • Surface watering – the roots don’t grow deep enough and became susceptible to temperature change.
  • Damaging on transplanting – handling the fragile parts of the seeding (stem and secondary true leaves) instead of the first leaves that grow (cotyledons). Not supporting the roots on transplanting.
  • Not enough light – causing seedlings to become ‘leggy’ (searching for more light). I’m re-potting them up to their necks in compost to encourage the stem to become a root.
  • Too much light – scorched! I’m currently searching for the right windowsill for the job.
  • There’s plenty more reasons… and the experts like Alys could tell you more.

I’m also starting to mix my compost with garden soil as i’ve discovered seeds don’t need such rich food to start, saved for later when transplanting hungry seedlings. It always baffled me why you could buy various different types of compost. Now I know why.

And as disgusting as it is (I hate this bit), i’ve come to terms with the fact that culling slugs has to be done or my veggies will have no chance. After last year, I have less sympathy for them so boiling water and burying it is.

Warming the soil
Warming the soil before growing with old compost bags in our little back garden

Maintaining consistent warmth for our seedlings is still an issue for us as we’re growing on windowsills with sporadic central heating, dependent on when we’re at home. Must be confusing for a seedling. Oh to have a poly-tunnel or greenhouse. We can only dream of a bigger garden (and more time). Given the cold weather, i’m giving the first seedlings a helping hand by warming the veg patch a few weeks ahead of planting outdoors. It’s a hotch-potch of old plastic bags, but should keep some of the anticipated Midlands rain from adding to the snow melt too.

And we’ve even seen a glimpse of some sun. Maybe there will be a rainbow next week.

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Veg: A Snow Day

Veg: Part 2 – vegetable growing diary

Read previous veg blog

Week 3 and the weather has got the better of us, cutting the Urban Veg workshop short for a week – to be continued in full post snow. But who wants to be out in the freezing cold anyway? Vegetables certainly don’t want to germinate yet, and if our poorly (but on the mend) chicken at home is anything to go by we’re all better off in the warm for now.

Watching the snow swirl across the garden from the second floor of the beautiful Winterbourne House, instead we put pen to paper to glean as much knowledge from gardening expert Alys Fowler as possible. This time we learnt about planning our organic vegetable plots, what to grow and where, and how to arrange the rest of the garden for composting, wildlife ponds and rainwater collection.

Back home now, I’ve decided I’m going to have a reshuffle in our back garden. We’re moving the chickens to a new piece of ground to make way for the veggies on the manure rich soil. The beech hedge that overhangs it is of little edible use to us, and has always caused a lot of shade restricting our veggie growing. So I’m thinking of doing something radical and either giving it huge hair cut, or replacing it with fruit bushes (let’s hope our neighbour and Tom agree). We can then make a ‘dead hedge’ pile with the cuttings to attract some useful wildlife to eat our pests. Cunning.

Tom and June the chicken
Once upon a time we had beautiful grass, now we have manure rich soil thanks to our chickens.

As our water butt is already full, the hoarder in me has already started collecting snow melt-water as it drips off our roof.  I’m also hoping to add guttering to our shed and the shelter over our winter forlorn earth oven (remember the good old bread making days of Loaf at home, anyone?). My challenge is then to keep collected water from spoiling. Apparently young seedlings can suffer from ‘damping off‘ and wilt if too much bad bacteria grows in the water, so this water may be better used directly on the garden in warmer weather.

Snowy wood-fired oven at the original home of Loaf
Adding guttering to collect rainwater from the roof of Loaf’s original wood-fired oven.

Indoors, my seedlings are struggling a bit already. Whilst my salad leaves on the kitchen window-sill seem to be ok, my chillies never came up (airtight seed storage next time). I’m told it’s too late to replant chilli seeds now, so I’ll have to try again with plugs. Next week we’ll be in the Urban Veg poly-tunnel, so I’m saving up loads of seedling questions until then.

In the meantime, I’ve succumbed to a rare purchase and going on Alys’ recommendation I’ve bought Joy Larcom’s Grow your own vegetables (2002), apparently a ‘go to’ book for veggie gardeners. Fingers crossed it works on me.


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Joy Larcom - Grow Your Own Vegetables
Joy Larcom – Grow Your Own Vegetables

Edible City

Thursday 11 April is turning out to be a busy night.

CANeat vegetarian has been rescheduled from March, starting 7.30pm. For more info and bookings visit our events page. Same menu, time and venue – at Loaf.

CANeat rescheduled

Also on the Thursday 11 April, the Just film Co-op have a rescheduled screening of Edible City: Grow the Revolution, a feature length documentary about transforming local communities through food. Worth checking out, we think (if you don’t make it to CANeat!).

6.30pm doors at The Birmingham & Midland Institute, 9 Margaret St, Birmingham, B3 3BS (city centre).

Edible City screening - Just film coop
Edible City screening – Thursday 11 April at Birmingham & Midland’s Institute

Urban Veg

Veg: Part 1 – vegetable growing diary

Whilst I spend most of my time promoting interesting social stories and sustainable projects as the Marketing Manager at both Loaf and Northfield Ecocentre, and as a freelance photographer, it’s rare that I roll up my sleeves in the kitchen or garden and get my hands really dirty. Being Tom’s wife, most people think I share his bread knowledge and skill. But leaving the baking mastery to him, it’s growing veggies and looking after our chickens that I love.

Veggie Love

So, my little bit of extra-curricular self-indulgence has been to enrol myself on a six-week gardening course at Urban Veg at Winterbourne House and Garden. Led by Guardian gardening columnist Alys Fowler, I’m learning “How to get more from your urban veg patch”, which in my case is our little back garden and an allotment shared with our Loaf baker Dom and his wife Vic.

Tom at Allotment
Tom at our first ever allotment back in 2009

I’m a novice at gardening. I dabble, planting seeds, growing on window-sills, and talking to my plants – much to Tom’s amusement.  Sometimes the results are amazing and at other times – well – let’s just say a lot of it comes down to luck.

Week one and two at Urban Veg grounded us in soil science and the art of composting, without which everything, as i’ve discovered is mostly down to chance. Knowing my soil type, understanding native and invading pests (watch out for the Spanish Stealth Slug), and feeding my soil with as much as I can from my home and garden (chicken poo, veggie peelings, friendly weeds – and even old receipts and human hair) is key. Aly’s infectious love for the environment and organic principles seems to make sense when it comes to growing.

The next four weeks of the course are a mystery, but if they’re anything like the last two my garden to-do list will continue to grow, as I experiment. I’m looking out for pallets to build a second compost heap, cardboard for lasagne gardening, saving hedge clippings for a bug hotel and leaves for leaf mould compost, and vow never to store my seeds over winter in the shed again (Sorry, Alys).

Nancy, our wonderful administrator at Loaf has signed up for an Urban Veg course too, and Dom wishes he could! I sense a little bit of gardening jealousy – and maybe even a veggie growing competition on the horizon!


Shed 2.0

This is not really a food related post, but I’m a man who’s proud of his new shed, so I couldn’t resist telling you why. In a bid to get organised for the growing season ahead in the garden, we decided to sort out our dilapidated shed that has had a leeky roof for two years (oops!). It was a toss-up between knocking it down and buying a new shed, or repairing this old one and giving it a refurb. Under the guidance of our friend and all round wood-man Fraser Lewis, we decided to choose the eco option and pimp our shed. First of all we emptied it of all the junk, and turned it round ninety degrees, which was not easy. Then we called in Fraser and helped him take off the current leaky roof:


Next Fraser put in a new ridge pole to give the apex of the roof a lot more strength:


We asked Fraser to turn our shed into a saltbox shed, so that we could store logs on one side of it, so he put in some rafters which extended an extra 2ft on one side of the shed:


We adapted some pallets to keep the logs off the floor and allow the air to circulate around them:


We then put on the roof which consisted of a layer of under felt stretched over the rafters, then a sheet of plywood, then top felt tacked onto that.  The log store saltbox was covered with featheredge board:


The following day I built some shelves inside the shed to help us keep it more organised. I spent £9 on the wood for the frame, and used odds and ends of wood lying around for the shelves – bargain.



Then of course, we filled it back up with stuff!


Hopefully now we’ll have a clean, tidy, and dry shed, which will help us to have an organised season of gardening ahead. We’ve saved a bit of cash too by refurbing our current shed, as new sheds aren’t cheap. We also used lots of reclaimed wood, so the timber costs were pretty low  – quids in!

We’ve Started Growing!

After an inspirational visit to a relative’s garden in Hampshire at the weekend, the vegetable growing season has started with a vengeance here at Loaf HQ (a.k.a. my back garden). We’ve built some raised beds and moved the chickens:

raised beds

We’ve planted some seeds including four types of tomatoes, fennel, beetroot, turnips and lettuce:



We watered them with a specially adapted water bottle (in the absence of one of those funky mini watering cans):


We’ve popped them in propagators on a sunny windowsill, and now we just have to keep our fingers crossed and water them. These will be thinned out to individual pots in a few weeks probably. In the meantime we have some donated seedlings to care for :