Physalis

Short version:

A yellow berry that grows inside an attractive case. It has seeds like a tomato and tastes sweet when ripe with a pineapple like tang. The plant grows up to 5 feet tall, prefers full sun but is not particularly fussy about soil types. It can be perennial when protected in winter and self-seeds in an unpredictable (I’ll explain what I mean) but not overly aggressive way.

I’m calling it physalis through this page but I’m are specifically talking about Physalis Peruviana. Also called cape gooseberry, Inca berry or ground cherry. There are other physalis – like Chinese lanterns – which, though beautiful, are not particularly edible.

Physalis is a fruit that is occasionally found in supermarkets or sitting proudly on top of your dessert in a posh restaurant. They look lovely and taste great.

I planted seeds in 2014, in a pot, in our last home which was a paved over yard. The extra heat from all the concrete provided a great environment for the ripening of the fruit. I haven’t had to sow seeds again since. It is usually annual when grown outdoors in the UK. With winter protection and/or mild winters it can be a perennial.

Sowing seeds

You can start them indoors in pots around a month and a half before the last frosts are expected. They need to be sown fairly shallow (just place on the surface and sprinkle a little bit of compost over the top), then kept warm and moist. I would suggest one seed per pot as it can become quite a monster, unless you’re happy to plant a few together and then only let the strongest one live. I find it really hard to not feel guilty killing healthy plants. Can you imagine taking that attitude towards pets or children?

Planting out

Once all danger of frost has passed and the plant has a few leaves you can plant in a sunny spot. It doesn’t seem to be too bothered with soil types and does fine in a large pot. It is advisable to harden them off by placing the plants outside during the day and bringing them back in for the night for a few days. The stems can grow tall but will fall over and sprawl if not supported.

This monster is one single plant in a border in my front garden. It has reached over 5ft. At the front and to the right you can see the stems have fallen over in a bid to take over.

Taste

Okay… so I did these first two steps in 2014. I wasn’t sure what to expect so I planted about 8 seeds. I ended up with far too many plants. If you have too many plants in a pot, they won’t grow particularly large (around 2 ft) but you will still get fruit. They were a bit of an unruly, bushy mass which was a welcome sight in my paved yard.

The berries grow inside green cases which turn yellow and papery. That’s when you know that they’re ripe and edible. They make me think of bananas. Not because of the taste, but because these lovely cases keep the fruit clean so even when the fruit has dropped it can be removed from their protective husk and eaten straight away. My little one loves foraging for ripe berries as we leave for school or come home. She sometimes stuffs them in her pocket for a snack later. The fruit tastes only very slightly like pineapples, with that tart pineapple tang. When very ripe they are lovely and sweet. I don’t really think that I have anything to compare them to. There are hard little seeds similar in size to tomatoes that I like to chew, but some people don’t appreciate them so much. There can be a bit of a bitter residue on the outside of the berry that comes from the papery case, reminiscent of earwax (I don’t eat earwax – but who didn’t taste their own as a child? Er…Only me? OK). If you wash the whole thing with the cases on, this taste becomes more prominent so – dehusk and wash the berries separately. I’ve read the residue comes off more easily with a bit of vinegar (so… really… quite earwax like no?) but they never make it as far as the kitchen in this house. We’ve found that the berries ripen gradually over about 1-2 months, depending on the weather so we pick them as they ripen and eat them straight away. Towards the end of the season you will probably experience a glut.   

Self-seeding

So… as I’ve said, I planted it once. The next year I wasn’t going to grow them as we only had this tiny yard and a finite number of pots. I was going to try something else but in 2015 they came up through cracks in the pavement. One was in front of the bike shed so I rescued that and put it in a pot. The rest I just let them get on with it. They grew fine and we had some bonus unplanned fruit. This is how I knew it was resilient and would grow just about anywhere. These plants were only in part sun and still did OK.

In 2016 I had the baby to deal with and so neglected the garden a bit more. There were no new seedlings that year, but the one in the pot from the previous year grew back. It must have been in a particularly warm and sheltered spot as there were no other plants.

In 2017 we moved house and took a self-seeded one in a pot with us. It was probably too small a pot, didn’t like the move, the lack of water or in fact the complete neglect as it only gave us about 5 berries.

In 2018 there was nothing. I didn’t expect anything with so little fruit the previous year and therefore no chance of a stray berry self-seeding itself.

In the spring of 2019 in one of the pots a physalis plant turned up. I was very excited. Around 25 pots of various sizes came with us in the move. Most of the plants were in pots in preparation to be planted into the new garden. One or two plants have remained in their pots and the compost in the pots have generally been moved around and/or added to the compost bin every now and then. I guess there was a seed that hadn’t germinated that had received its ideal conditions this year. The spring was warm, and the seed must have made it close to the surface of the soil. I put it straight into the front garden where it received plenty of sun and the concrete slabs and adjacent brick wall would retain and reflect the heat.

I then found a single physalis seedling hiding in the asparagus patch in June. The asparagus is at the very end of the garden, nowhere near the pots. It was a bit of a puzzler, but I realised that that particular asparagus crown was planted in a very, very (asparagus doesn’t tend to do so well in pots) big pot in the previous garden when the physalis were triffid-like. I don’t know how many years that seed was dormant. It could be anything from 3-5 years. It won’t mature in time to product fruit this year so I’ve put it in a pot and intend overwinter it in the house and see how it goes next year.

Therefore, I think it’s a wonderful resilient plant that self-seeds, but not too rampantly and can be perennial if kept warm enough and frost free.    

Pollination

The flowers are hermaphrodite and easily pollinated by insects. I have never had to do anything to help it along. They are evidently self-fertile as I only have the one mature plant this year and it’s fruiting wonderfully. The plant has been merrily self-seeding and I haven’t noticed a change in the fruit. Therefore the seeds are true to the parent plant so this is a berry that you can save seeds from.

Diseases and pests

So far in my experiences with physalis – one year I had problems with two tone spider mites. The leaves developed a mottled yellow and brown appearance. If you do have these spider mites – when you look underneath the leaves with a microscope you’ll see these tiny mites with these two spots on their backs about the size of a fine grain of sand. They are very hard to get rid of. You’ll need to remove and destroy any leaves that are affected. We tried a spray with a few drops of rosemary oil in it. I think in the end we kept them at bay by removing leaves and spraying twice a couple of weeks apart. To be honest I can’t be certain how much the rosemary oil helped. It may have been the removal of about half of the leaves and dampening the plant that did it, as they thrive in hot, dry conditions.

Otherwise the plants haven’t had any issues. They seems very easy to care for.

Therefore this plant with the soft velvety leaves is a winner in my opinion. I’ll overwinter the random asparagus invader and maybe keep it in a pot to take in again next winter to see how long it’ll survive for. I’ll also keep seeds from a berry in case I want to grow them again and the unpredictability of the self seeding doesn’t go in my favour one year. I suspect it will remain a firm favourite with my little one and I won’t have to pay through the teeth to buy them in the supermarket.

They take so little care that if you’ve eaten the fruit before and are a fan, and you have a garden of any sorts, please please do give these a go… or… a grow! Tee hee.

Blueberries (Vaccinium)

Short version:

Home grown blueberries can taste so much better than most of the shop bought ones. They are also perennial and easy to grow in a pot with ericaceous compost. They need little maintenance and are very rewarding.

Grow for amazing tasting berries

For shipping and storing purposes, store bought fruit is picked when it’s less than ripe. When things ripen off the bush they just aren’t as sweet or flavourful. When you grow your own blueberries you can literally pick them off the bush when they’re perfectly ripe and just eat them. We don’t really use fertilisers or pesticides in our growing so I’m happy for our 3 year old to help herself as she pleases. At the beginning it was quite a struggle to teach her when they’re ripe, but the instant consequence of an unripe sour blueberry helped. The important thing is that she always checks with me when she sees anything outside of our own garden that she thinks might be edible.  

Varieties

Not absolutely all blueberries that you grow yourself are guaranteed to grow well and/or taste amazing. If you’re going to give up time, effort and space to grow your own blueberries it’s worth picking a good variety.

I scoured the internet to see which ones were recommended for taste, hardiness, vigour, disease resistance, etc and went with:

GOLDTRAUBE

Vigorous and tall. Harvest July-August. Very sweet, juicy berries that are full of flavour. Foliage is attractive in autumn with lots of red.

PINK SAPPHIRE

A pink blueberries that surprises everyone. I find they’re sweeter than Goldtraube but not quite as flavourful. Harvest July-August. This grows as tall as the Goldtraube.

BLUECROP

Vigorous and low growing. I was surprised at how low this grows, especially compared to the others. Sweet and juicy. It’s a mid-late season one. Harvest in August-September. Just begins to ripen as the other two are depleted.

Perennial

Year after year they will provide food. They do seem to follow the adage of first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap. The first couple of years they may be a bit slow, but generally, if happy, by the 3rd year they’ll have picked up the pace and provide punnetfuls. So there’s a bit of work in the planting in the beginning. Patience is then required for a year or so afterwards but then it’s really easy.

Growing conditions

You can buy them in the late spring or summer as a pot plant. Or you can buy them as bare rooted bushes in the winter, which is the cheaper option.

SUNNY

Ours are in one of the sunnier parts of the garden, though not the sunniest and we still get very tasty, sweet berries.

ERICACIOUS SOIL

This means acidic. This is London and the soil here is pretty much alkaline clay. You can amend the soil but honestly, I don’t have the time or patience. They therefore make good container plants. These bushes started in pots with shop bought ericaceous compost.

For lazy old me though, pots dry out too quickly. So, winter just gone, I built a raised bed. I put about 3 months of kitchen scraps (vegetable – no meat, oil or sauces) at the bottom, covered it with cardboard and let that decompose for a few months before I put the plants in. It was topped up with shop bought ericaceous compost. The composted kitchen waste provides plenty of nutrients and also decreases the amount of paid for, shop bought compost.

The roots have access to the soil underneath, which is of course is the alkaline clay but at least it means the plant is much less likely to dry out. Also, I put them here because the roof of this building drains water along this whole edge into this raised bed. This is important especially in summer because you don’t want to water these with tap water if you can avoid it. Tap water tends to be alkaline, where as rain water is generally neutral or slightly acidic because of its contact in the sky with carbon dioxide. A rain barrel is a good way to get rainwater. Rain barrels are also good for conserving water.

SPACING

I’ve read that blueberry bushes should really be about a metre apart but with a small garden I do tend to grow things far too close. In the first couple of years it’s fine anyway. Maybe in a few years I’ll find I have to remove the middle one but for now I’m really pleased with the food that these bushes have been providing.

PRUNING

My ones are only 3 years old so this is what I’ve read: First few years just remove any dead, damaged or diseased parts. After around 4 years the wood doesn’t produce much anymore so they’re best pruned away. You can prune away wood in the spring that has only leaf buds, which are thinner and pointier than the flower buds.  

Pollination

Blueberries are generally self pollinating but they do better with a pollinating partner – basically another blueberry of a different variety that has flowers open at the same time. Without pollination you get no fruit. This is also a good reason to attract pollinators like bees and avoid pesticides. If you live in a city like London there are generally lots of bees about due to the large year round variety of flowers and if you’re lucky a nearby neighbour might also be growing blueberries.

So… you may now have realised that my edible garden evangelism, is in part selfish. It’s all part of my evil plan to convince those around me to grow edibles – then I get pollination partners and people to seed/plant swap with. There is also, of course, the hope that by growing more of our own we damage the environment a little less and … hey… I rather like living on this planet.

As usual…Feel free to subscribe or comment, especially you have a variety that you love.

Nasturtiums

Short version:

With large attractive blooms in warm colours, these rampant self-seeders can be bushy or trailing/climbing depending on the variety. The flowers, leaves and seed pods are edible and when raw have a peppery taste similar to raw watercress. Its pungency is dampened by cooking.  

Eating the flowers

I’m surprised that people still visit me when I often chase guests with things I’ve just pulled from my garden, demanding that they eat it. Proffered nasturtiums meet the most resistance. People often don’t believe that something that pretty and boldly coloured is edible. They range from red, through shades of orange and yellow, to a pale peachy colour (which I sadly don’t have). The trumpet shaped blooms are around the size of a ping pong ball and the petals are soft and velvety.

I often warn people that they do taste rather peppery. Children are attracted to the appearance, but often put off by the taste. It doesn’t sound like I’m selling it well but around the peppery taste there is this unusual sweetness. We sometimes eat a couple in the garden as an interesting snack. Though, I’m afraid, we find it unpalatable to eat a large quantity of raw flowers, so they are often consigned to being a garnish or torn and sprinkled liberally in salads.

I’ve discovered that my 4 year old is a sly one and rather than eat the flowers she goes straight for the nectar.

This ‘cone’ at the back of the flower is where the nectar is stored and if you nip off this tiny bit to eat then it is very sweet with only that slight hint of pepper.

Bee friendly flowers

This brings me to the next plus point. On top of being attractive and edible, they’re great for bees and other pollinators. Nasturtiums are a good source of pollen and nectar. The shape of the flower also provides a little landing pad for the bees too. They also have a decently long flowering season – from May to September. Even with my little monkey pinching out the nectar from as many flowers as she can, there is always plenty for the bees.

Vertical gardening

It’s also fortuitous that I grow the trailing/climbing variety in my garden. Munchkin can only really reach the lower third of the plants. The bushy varieties make a stunning display in a plant border but in my small enclosed garden the climbing ones have a small footprint whilst providing a large amount of eating. Where they haven’t climbed up the supports, they trail along the ground and make good ground cover to crowd out the weeds around the base of the perennials.

They self-seed

I sowed nasturtiums in 2017. They can be sown indoors, in individual pots, just before the last frost. Individual toilet roll pots are best because the stems are easily snapped. For ease sow in situ in from April onwards. I planted the variety ‘Gleam’ as they are a climbing variety and an ‘African Jewel’ mix, another climbing variety which also has variegated leaves for something cool to look at. Since then they’ve come back every year without any intervention from me. One of the great things about edible self-seeders like these is that any unwanted seedlings can just be pulled and eaten.

Great for kids

The seeds are nice and large, so they’re easy for kids to handle. They germinate quickly so little ones don’t have to wait so long. The leaves are also hydrophobic, as in, they repel water. They make a fascinating plant to play with and then of course they’re pretty to look at and edible later.

If you grow nasturtiums then try this game: Put a large drop of water on the leaf, try and throw the drop in the air and catch it again in the leaf.

Eating the leaves

So, both flowers and leaves are edible, raw. They can be added to salads, but at our table I wouldn’t dare to add much beyond a few shredded leaves. Both the husband and the infant would have a tantrum. It’s the same with raw watercress. Blanched watercress, however, pleases the husband but not the child.  

A light stir frying of the nasturtium leaves takes away much of the pepperiness and leaves a pleasant taste that I’ve not found anywhere else. Again, the husband will accept this but not the child. She will, however, eat nasturtium leaf crisps. You can make them like kale crisps. Spray lightly with oil and oven bake in single layers for a few minutes on a medium heat. Alternatively, a hot, non-stick frying pan with oil will crisp up leaves very quickly but the leaves must be done a few at a time in a single layer. You can imagine I don’t do this often as it’s a bit too much work for someone who wants to eat out of the garden lazily and easily. Also, I suspect all the oil and heat makes it all much less nutritious and healthy.

Easy to grow

In addition to the happy self-seeding, nasturtiums grow well in poor soil. This means that they will grow readily in soil that is not fertile enough to grow vegetables. This doesn’t mean that you need to deliberately seek out rubbish soil. If the soil is fertile you will just get more leaves, which isn’t a problem as you can eat them.

As a companion

They are very attractive to aphids and cabbage white. This may sound like a bad thing as you don’t want to attract either to your garden really, but what they do is they ‘trap’ the pests and they feed on the nasturtiums rather than on your other crop buds or brassicas. The best thing is that nasturtium is so prolific that the plant doesn’t seem to be affected much by the aphids. The caterpillars can eat a good chunk of plant but it’s really easy just to pick all the leaves affected by pests and bin them all. If you’re not too squeamish you can take the leaves with the aphids and soak them in very salty water (literally a large bowl filled with water and about 2 tablespoons of salt) for 10 mins. It’s quite satisfying to see the water crowded with aphids. These are now pests no longer in your garden and you can still rinse the leaves and eat them. I’m afraid I’m a bit too squeamish to do this with the caterpillars.

Seed pods

Lastly the seed pods are, apparently, a substitute for capers. I’m afraid I’ve never done anything with them. Maybe one day when I’m feeling more adventurous. I let you know when I get there!

As a parting image – this is a photo taken 27th August. Seedlings are still appearing and the current plants are still going strong. This is really with no effort at all on my part. I don’t sow or transplant. All I do is play with the leaves, snack on the flowers, allow my little one to steal all the nectar, harvest leaves and pick off leaves with aphids as I’m harvesting (wash the aphids down the sink and eat the leaves) and experiment with different ways of cooking/preparing them.

Passiflora Caerulea

Short version:

I chose this passion flower because it was frost hardy perennial climber that grew in some shade, was evergreen and provided edible fruit. It has done brilliantly in my garden and has amazing flowers followed by orange, egg shaped fruit. 

Passiflora / passion flowers are gorgeous as both a plant and a flower. The whole structure with its many dangling vines can transform a bare surface, whilst the individual flowers look incredibly exotic. There are many passion flowers of varying colours – but you may have noticed, I’m only interested if a plant is edible. I’m therefore, only talking about passiflora caerulea because it ticks all of my boxes.

Flowers

I really think they are stunning. It has a long flowering season. It can begin flowering (here in London) in late May and can continue till September. This will depend on the weather from year to year. The bees love them, and I often see them buzzing around the vines. This is of course also important for pollination so that the flowers will set fruit.

Fruit

Of course, it would be wonderful to grow passiflora edulis as these are the passion fruit that we recognise from the shops. Unfortunately, these wouldn’t survive the winter outdoors (I have neither the space nor the patience for greenhouse growing) and it certainly wouldn’t be warm enough in the UK alfresco for the fruits to fully develop. The caerulea is a decent substitution. The fruits are a gorgeous orange colour with a size and shape similar to a hen’s egg. These are edible – WHEN RIPE. When not ripe enough the fruit can cause tummy troubles. The fruit does need a good summer to ripen. A word of warning though – only the pulpy seeds are edible. The rest of the fruit should be discarded and the rest if the plant is also toxic. If this sounds worrying then to put your mind at ease – or maybe give food for thought – potato leaves are also toxic. Potatoes, along with tomatoes and aubergines are part of the nightshade family and none of the leaves of those plants should be eaten either. With any unusual edibles it’s a good idea to do your own research and read websites that you trust for information. I think that the Royal Horticultural Society is a good resource.

Taste is also important. I won’t lie. They don’t taste much like the passion fruit we’re used to – but it tastes OK. Nothing amazing, but pleasant enough.

Vertical gardening

It uses tendrils to climb up anything that will support it. In my garden it climbs the blackberries and the grape vine. It’s woven itself though the blackberry bushes and has resurfaced again about 4m away from the original plant. 

The tendrils are great because this is not a plant that will damage brickwork, unlike ivy – which tunnels roots into mortar and is impossible to remove. I did mistakenly allow ivy to climb up a house once because I thought it was beautiful. When we came to move, I spent about 10 hours trying to remove the ivy. I yanked, scraped, scrubbed and brushed, but you could still see the debris of tiny roots entrenched in all available pores.

The climbing also means that it takes up a small footprint, which is a bonus for small gardens. You could have it scramble over a bike shed or to add colour and interest to a fence or wall.

Hardy perennial in British weather

The different varieties of passiflora vary in how hardy they are. Caerulea will survive outdoors fine and ours didn’t seem to be bothered by frost. In our garden in London it can be evergreen. It is deciduous to evergreen depending on how warm the local area is. Being evergreen means that it has made a great living screen by our fence. It has hopefully given our neighbours some protection from my child’s mooning (yes, that’s not a typo – but she is only 3 – and getting naked on private property seems to be her thing) and screaming (something else I think is also connected to being 3).  

It also seems to do fine in shade. Its roots and the first 4 feet of the plant spends most of the time in shade. If you’re looking for edible fruit though, you’ll want it to grow in decent amounts of sun.

It returns year after year, despite freezing conditions. It does follow the adage: first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap – or it did for me anyway. First year it was a sorry looking thing with a few scraggly vines. The second year it provided a bit of privacy and one orange fruit.

This being the third year it covers a good 2 square metres or so. It has wonderfully flexible vines so I could weave it in and out of the frame however I liked. It also has about 20 or so fruit which are now all turning orange. With our current blackberry canes going mental and a grape vine in the middle, it is a little difficult to see where one plant ends and the other begins.

Doesn’t need looking after

In South Africa it counts as an invasive species that takes over indigenous plant life. I haven’t read anything that makes this plant a cause for concern in the UK. It doesn’t propagate particularly easily here, and I have never seen it anywhere in the wild. This does mean that it grows brilliantly, even with plenty of neglect. I’ve read that it in fact does best when allowed to get a little unruly and not kept too neat. They do grow to be quite large plants, though some patience is required in early years. When the plant is in its first couple of years and doesn’t look like much, don’t be tempted to fill in the space (like I did – doh!) with other perennials. If you want something vertical you could grow some peas, beans or maybe a cucamelon or another annual to fill in the gaps because this passiflora really will fill out.

This is an arch in Vézénobres in France. In July the fruit was already ripe and it looked stunning. It seemed quite a popular plant in the local area.

It’s vigorous enough to cover a surface – but not so overly aggressive, like ivy, that you’ll continuously need to hack half of it down just to keep it in check. It’s easy enough to remove whole vines if you do need to keep it small. Pinching out the growing tips of the vines can help it to branch more.  

If you’re looking to grow something that tastes amazing, I’m afraid this probably isn’t it. I’ve decided that there are still plenty of other reasons to grow these and I’ll continue to do so until I decide I need the real estate for something else. That something else is going to have to have all the bonuses of climbing, being hardy, being evergreen, be able to thrive on neglect, be bee friendly, be beautiful and then taste pretty wicked in order to trump passiflora caerulea.

Blackberries

Short version:

The husband proved me wrong, but I couldn’t be more pleased. Thornless blackberries are a good shade tolerant, easy to grow, easily propagated, prolific berry that can be trained to grow vertically to reach the sun better or provide an evergreen screen, taking up a small footprint.

In 2007 we moved into a one bed house. Yes, actual house with kitchen/living room on the ground floor and a spiral staircase in the corner. The garden was about 3x3m and very shaded. Despite being in the shadow of the house most of the day, we were glad to have a garden at all in London. One day the husband returned home (having gone out for paint and sandpaper) and presented me with a thornless blackberry cane. I was rather disparaging and completely ungrateful. We were fairly broke having just moved in. We were 15 mins walk from the edge of Wandsworth common. Why on earth would we pay £10 to buy a blackberry and then give it real estate in our tiny inhospitable garden?

He’d paid for it already, so I planted it next to the fence in a corner. It was of course in the shade. In the first year it did very little and we maybe had 5 or 6 blackberries. In the second year it did a bit more and we had a bowlful of blackberries. In the third year it had a large number of canes that went up over the fence into the sun and we suddenly had an explosion of fruit. We had so many we didn’t actually know what to do with them. We mostly just ate them off the bush. They were the most delicious and chubby blackberries we’d had. This completely followed the adage first year sleep, second year creep, third year leap! The second year there was lots of green but not much in the way of berries.

So here’s some helpful terminology:

PRIMOCANE – a cane that is a year old, when it has lots of leafy growth.

FLORICANE – a cane that is 2 years old and will now fruit.

So that explains why the first year there was so little fruit because of the single cane that was already in existence. The young root system would only support growth of a small primocane or two. The second year there would have been fruit on those small 2 year old canes (now called floricanes) and there would be plenty of growth of new primocanes. In the third year there would have been plenty of floricanes to provide lots of blackberries. Also, the long canes were now reaching over the fence and making it into the sun.

When we moved I couldn’t bear to leave this amazing plant behind so I took cuttings, stuck them in soil and hoped they’d root. Only 1 did due to my lack of knowledge, lack of time and the stress of moving. It then lived in a pot on a shaded balcony for 4 years as the new place had no bare soil. I think we had about 10 blackberries in those 4 years. It moved with us to our current house and this is what we have just 2 years later:

Blackberry Hedge

I knew that it was evergreen, was fine with shade and was still lovely and thornless. We have a short fence which I’m grateful to my neighbour for as it allows our garden more sun. We get on really well with the neighbours and in order to keep it that way I’ve made our blackberries into a living screen that gives them some protection from the bare bottom of our child (why do toddlers like being naked so much?), her tantrums and the general cacophony of our household.

I started this hedge by putting this green wire frame up all round 2 sides of the garden to support vertical growing.

I only started with the one blackberry plant (unfortunately I don’t know the variety) so I bought another variety of thornless blackberry (Oregon thornless). The first year, being the incredibly impatient person that I am, I propagated with some serpentine layering. The next year I had 5 blackberry plants. I wove the newly grown 10 ft long green canes in and out of the wire frame. Over winter they lost a few leaves but mostly remained intact and a couple went a lovely red. This year we have a what looks to be a bumper crop.

Reasons to Grow Thornless Blackberries

So… despite my initial reaction at being bought a thornless blackberry I would whole heartedly recommend them because:

  • They use a small footprint if you train it up, which only requires tying it up a couple of times in the summer when it’s turning into a triffid.
  • They make a great living screen all year round if your winter isn’t too harsh.
  • They do fine in the shade. The berries are bigger and sweeter if they can reach some sun though.
  • Despite the ease of blackberry foraging, often when picking blackberries you have to pick at height to ensure no animals have weed on them (including the drunken animals who couldn’t wait till they got home!) Also, I’ve found that sometimes even the yummiest looking wild blackberries can taste very tart or bland. You must find a good patch and hope that some other forager who knows about it hasn’t beaten you to it.
  • The thornless-ness makes them a pleasure to pick and train. This is not something you can often grow from seed. Even if you take a berry from a thornless bush it may have be pollinated by a prickly variety as there are brambles hiding in the corners of most gardens I’ve seen.
  • They do fine with a large amount of neglect and don’t need special conditions like the ericaceous soil (acidic conditions) required for blueberries and raspberries.
  • Out of the fruits I’ve grown, blackberries provide the largest crop in the shortest time from propagation.

Propagation

They are easily propagated.

I would however not recommend going crazy with the propagation. I think I’m going to have to dig a plant or two up as they are really prolific. If you can find someone who blackberries already, I’m almost certain they wouldn’t mind you having a cutting. After the second year they won’t be short of canes. You can then also check that they’re tasty before growing it.

Mid to late summer is usually best for propagating. 

Tip layering

This is the easiest way. In fact, if you don’t keep the canes off the ground they can naturally root where tips touch the soil. 

  1. Find a healthy primocane.
  2. Where the tip easily touches the ground, dig a hole (either straight into the ground or in a large pot) and bury the tip about 10cm deep.
  3. Keep it watered (a larger pot is easier to keep moist).
  4. In about 2-3 months (depending on conditions) roots should have grown (just dig up where the cane goes into the ground to see) and you can sever the new plant from the old cane which will still go on to grow blackberries on it.

Serpentine layering

This isn’t quite as easy as tip layering, but it is useful for propagating lots of plants in one go. 

5. In about 2-3 months (depending on conditions) roots should have grown and you can sever the connections between the new plants. It would be advisable to move them further away from the parent plant. 

Cuttings

The reason my first attempt at cuttinsg weren’t hugely successful is because I literally cut off stems and stuck them in soil.

  1. Choose a healthy primocane. Summer is best but cuttings taken the rest of the time may just be less successful. Cut the top few inches using a clean knife or secateurs. I haven’t a magic number of inches but somewhere between 4-8 would probably do it. Cut it about 2cm below a leaf bud. This will be where the roots will grow from.
  2. You can also take a cane and cut it into sections. Each section could grow you a new plant.
  3. Remove most of the leaves of each cutting. Leave the leaf buds.
  4. Stick into any type of damp compost. There are arguments for using soil less growth medium thingys as there will be less chance of it going mouldy – but honestly I don’t have the all the fancy bits and bobs professionals do and I certainly don’t have the space to store all of it. You can dip it into rooting hormone if you like but I’ve found that blackberries do fine without.
  5. Leave in a shady spot for a few months. 
  6. It’s ready to plant out once roots have grown.

Cuttings tend to be less successful than layering as the cutting does not have any nutritional support from the parent plant.

Pruning

After the canes have fruited and been harvested the floricanes should be cut down at the base of the plant and removed to make space for the primocanes to fruit the following year.

You may spot the very large design flaw to this blackberry hedge. All the growth was woven into the frame when they were the primocanes last year. They’re now fruiting and will need pruning in the autumn. When I do that the whole wire support will be bare. In addition, because I’ve woven the canes through this wire support to make this blackberry hedge, they’re going to a huge pain in the seating area to remove. The wire support is currently too full to take this year’s primocanes. This year’s primocanes are therefore just kinda blowing in the breeze above the lawn, trying their hardest to make it to the ground.

In fact, the whole thing collapsed in this very windy and rainy summer.

The plants are far too close and there is no way our family needs 5 blackberry bushes.

My new plan is to wait till after all the berries have been harvested and prune all the floricanes. Once that’s done there should be nothing to attach the plants to this fence. I’ll then dig up 2 plants and plant them across the lawn and provide a strong vertical support. Hopefully then I can tie the canes from the opposite plants together to make an arch that goes across the narrowest bit of the lawn. Each new year the new primocanes can be tied together. Then every year the tied together canes should be the same age and can bear fruit together and be pruned together. With the plants that haven’t moved, half of the primocanes will go back into the hedge, then there should always be space to add primocanes where floricanes have been removed. The hedge shouldn’t get too heavy and it shouldn’t fall again.

Well, there are all my mistakes (so far). I’m afraid I didn’t know enough about primocanes or floricanes but, hopefully, dear reader you know all about then now. Of course, learning is all part of the fun and I don’t mind rejigging the garden. The damage to the roots might put me back a year, but then after that, hopefully there’s going to be some good structure that we can enjoy for years to come.

One last odd thing – apparently you can eat the shoots and young leaves as a spring veg. I tried this and I didn’t like it. They didn’t taste amazing and were very astringent. I may have been doing it wrong and may not have eaten them early enough. If I do discover the secret to making them tasty I shall let you know!

I hope you give these a go and if anyone can identify my blackberry then I’d be interested to know. I’m afraid 2007 ignorant me didn’t even consider varieties back then. I can imagine in 2030 I’ll be sitting there thinking how naïve I was back in 2019!

Or… feel free to suggest any varieties in the comments.

Tromboncino

Short version:

A great summer squash to grow upwards if you don’t want to give up too much space for courgettes on the ground but have lots of vertical space.

In my constant hunt for ways to fit as many vegetables into my garden as possible I came across tromboncinos. A neighbour told me that the word means little trombone in Italian. I could see why it would be called that.

I’m giving this a separate page to pumpkins and other squashes as I like to think of courgettes as every day vegetables that everyone has eaten, if not cooked. I’ve seen it be one of the go tos for mums who want to squeeze as much vegetable as possible into their little ones – hidden in the pasta sauce, hidden in the cake (yes, I said cake – like carrot cake, but courgette cake instead), in the ratatouille, boiled, baked or roasted. Technically it is a fruit as it develops from the ovary and contains the seeds.

Just growing tromboncino is fun for it’s uniqueness, but there are also practical reasons:

  • The leaves of a courgette plant will radiate from its centre as does the fruit. It will take up around a metre or so squared and grow to maybe 60cm high. Tromboncinos take up the same footprint, but with long vines they can grow many more fruit than a ground-based courgette.
  • All squashes need good sun. Courgettes will need it at the ground level where the plant grows. Tromboncino’s rambling vines can be trained up behind other plants to reach more sun.
  • The tromboncino also grows much bigger fruit than the courgette. When courgettes get big, they become tasteless, watery marrows. The tromboncino can grow a couple of feet long and still retain its taste. If you leave a tromboncino ‘too’ long the skin will become hard and yellow and it will need peeling. If left long enough the flesh will become yellow and like a butternut squash.

It is in fact the same species as the butternut squash – Cucurbita moschata, and so the two squashes can pollinate each other. Courgettes, as well as pumpkins and a variety of summer squashes, like spaghetti squash, are of the species – Cucurbita pepo. Members of the pepo cannot pollinate the moschata. This is important because without pollination and fertilisation there will be no fruit.

Those in the Cucurbita family produce separate male and female flowers. This is where they get quite tricky. The plant will often not produce male and female flowers at the same time. You can read why in ‘Pollination, Fertilisation and Variety’. This means that to get a better chance of pollination you need more than one plant. You can, however, grow butternut squash with tromboncino as a pollination partner. You may also have to do some pollinating yourself.

How to grow

Sow March to May indoors in separate pots.

Plant out June. The plants will need fertile soil and lots of water. Try not to grow them in ground that has had squashes of some sorts in them the previous couple of years to help avoid diseases. They can be planted in pots, but they really do need very, very large pots (mine is currently in my largest pallet planter) if you’d like them to provide food. The vines can grow very long (one of mine is currently over 12 feet) and you may get some branching. They have little tendrils for attaching to support and these will curl around anything they can. Wooden trellises will provide a strong support, but the tendrils will not be able to curl around anything thicker than a bamboo cane. You will need to tie up the vines in most cases. Even with bamboo canes some intervention is often needed.  

If left to their own devices I have still generally gotten about 5 fruits per vine. There are generally about 3-4 times as many female flowers as that. If you want more fruit from your squashes then you can help by hand pollinating.

Alternatively, if you’re worried that the flowers aren’t pollinating successfully, you can also eat the flowers. Personally I find this a waste. I don’t really want to eat a flower with a small swelling when I could wait a month and have a huge squash that is enough to provide the vegetables for 3 family meals. What I do instead is wait to see if a fruit is developing well. If it looks unpollinated I will cut the small fruit to be eaten.  

I have found that they don’t tend to be too bothered by much in the way of diseases. The aphids don’t seem particularly interested. Because they’re off the ground and have quite prickly stems they tend to be left alone by slugs and snails. I have experienced powdery mildew with them. This is a problem I often face with brassicas too. I assume it’s because I try to pack too many things into my small garden so air doesn’t circulate as well around the leaves. Keep an eye out for it. I love wandering around the garden to see what’s growing so this isn’t a chore. As soon as I spot powdery mildew I remove all the leaves that are affected and then spray the rest of the plant with a solution containing half a teaspoon of bicarbonate soda, half a teaspoon of oil and a few drops of washing up liquid.     

Harvest July to September. They can be harvested as soon as you like. You can experiment to see how large you want to grow them before you eat them.

They can be cooked in any way a courgette is cooked. They don’t tend to be bitter like courgettes can be. I put it into pasta sauces or cook it with garlic, cumin and tomatoes. My favourite way, mostly because it’s easy and I’m lazy, is to just slice into little discs about 1cm thick and fry in a little oil. A pinch of salt and a tiny sprinkle of sugar is all it needs.

If anyone has had any experience with the ‘little trombones’ please do comment and let us know what you think, if you know of any diseases to watch out for or we’d love to hear if you have any great recipes. These definitely lead to giggly growing.

Before anyone says anything rude… this was my vegetable elephant with leafy ears. The poor elephant was roasted with garlic and a pinch of chicken stock, beetroot leaves and all!

Pollination, Fertilisation and Variation

Short version:

Flowers allow for variation in plant offspring. This is to increase the chance of the DNA of the plant surviving in a variety of environments and against diseases. Flowers often have mechanisms that encourage movement of its pollen to flowers of other varieties. When the pollen lands, the egg cell in the ovary of the flower is fertilised. The ovary then will develop into tasty fruit so that an animal or bird can then disperse the seed. Without fertilisation the fruit will not develop. Therefore pollinators, such are bees, need to be cared for and not poisoned with pesticides. This cross pollination is the reason why seeds do not always grow plants that give fruit that is the same as the fruit that the seeds came from.  

Plant Reproduction

There are 2 types of reproduction in plants asexual and sexual.

Asexual

Asexual includes tubers, runners, when we take cuttings – basically anything that doesn’t involve a flower. A plant that has reproduced in this way (or plants that we have reproduced in this way) are clones of the parent plant. This is generally considered a good thing in growing food as we want to create new plants from plants with desirable characteristics. This could be a bad thing in terms of diseases. A disease that would kill the parent plant would kill all the clone offspring plants.

Sexual
The flower allows for sexual reproduction.

For growth and repair in organisms, cells divide into 2 exact copies with exactly the same DNA in each copy. This is called mitosis and happens throughout living things.

Another type of cell division, called meiosis, only happens in the sexual organs. In humans this will be in testicles and in ovaries. In plants this will only be in flowers – in anther sacs of the stamen and in the ovule of the carpel. In meiosis the resulting cells only have half the amount of DNA as the parent cell. One of these cells (with half the DNA) from each parent join to make a new individual with a complete set of DNA. This is how variation occurs.

Variation

The entirety of a cell’s DNA (all its genetic material) is split between the chromosomes which occur in pairs. Humans have 46 chromosomes, so that’s 23 pairs. The number of chromosomes depends on the species. In Wikipedia I’ve read that pineapples have 50 chromosomes, artichokes have 34, tomatoes have 24 and spinach only has 12. 12 can still provide a lot of variation.

Let’s look at just 4 chromosomes so that’s 2 pairs in each parent. In this example each parent has 2 red and 2 blue chromosomes. They are called A, B, C and D just to show that they are different.

That’s just with 4 chromosomes! With 23 pairs in humans, there would be 232= 529 combinations for half of the DNA and then 529×529=279,841 possible offspring. In addition to all these possibilities, to add to the mayhem, chromosomes in meiosis may swap bits of their DNA. When the red A and B pair split A might have a bit of its DNA swapped with B. This then adds to the variation.

Pollination and the importance of bees

When the pollen is ready, and the anther sacs are ripe they burst open. The pollen must then be transferred from the male part to the female part. This can be done by the wind (in the case of grass and some trees) or by insects. When the pollen lands on the sticky stigma it sends out a pollen tube, down the style, into the ovary, so that the sperm cell (containing half the DNA) can travel to the egg cell (containing the other half of the DNA) to fertilise it (creating a new individual). Once the egg cell is fertilised, the ovule develops into a seed and the ovary develops into a fruit. Fruit is a method of seed dispersal so any vegetable that has seeds in it is technically a fruit. The fruit is tasty when the seeds are fully developed so that animals or birds will want to eat them and will possibly carry the seeds further away from the parent plant.

Most of our edible crops are insect pollinated. Bees are the biggest pollinator which is why they are so important. If the flower isn’t pollinated, you won’t get fruit. We are facing a worrisome decline in the population of bees. There are many contributing factors like environmental change, the use of pesticides (even bee friendly ones) or acres of single crop fields. Cities are apparently where bees are thriving, due to the all year round variety of flowers that are grown in the tightly packed gardens. Beekeeping is a difficult and expensive hobby to start in the city and with the population density the possible bee allergies of neighbours could be a concern. However, you can help bees and therefore help your own edible garden by growing bee friendly plants. I’m loathe to grow plants I can’t eat, but here you can …er…have your plant and eat it! There are some edibles that bees love like borage, rosemary, lavender, cornflowers, sunflowers, alliums (I have Chinese chives and three cornered leeks, also Egyptian walking onions but these don’t really flower much), clovers and daisies (I’m trying to grow these in the lawn and next year I’ll find out how edible they are), fennel, beans, mint and nasturtiums. All your other fruiting trees and plants may not be bee favourites, but they do also provide food for them. Other things you can do is to not use pesticides and/or provide homes for solitary bees, which can be something as simple as a log with lots of holes drilled in it.      

Self-fertile and pollination partners

These are terms you will often hear about fruit trees.

It is in the best interest of the plant to cross pollinate (pollen moves from one plant to another of the same species) as opposed to self-pollinate (pollen moves within the flower or to other flowers on the same plant). It avoids recessive diseases and the more variation a species of plant has, the more likely that at least some of the individuals would survive if a disease or an environmental factor was to wipe out most of its population. This is why some plants have mechanisms that encourage cross pollination. Curcubits (squashes, cucumbers, melons, pumpkins) have separate male and female flowers. There will be times when they don’t open at the same time.

Some plants are ‘OK’ with self-pollination. This is when fruit trees are called self-fertile. This, at least, means that the plant is more likely to be able to reproduce. Some flowers will have mechanisms that will induce self-pollination if during the day an insect has not cross pollinated it.

Self-fertile trees make life much easier for those of us with small gardens. It means that we don’t have to have a pollination partner – a second tree of the same species but of a different variety that flowers at the same time. With gardens packed together there is a chance that a neighbour might have a pollination partner. This is a good reason to encourage everyone you know to grow food. Often self-fertile plants will perform better with a pollination partner though. Just so you know, two granny smith apple trees will not pollinate each other. All trees of the same variety of an apple are clones. Someone somewhere will have discovered or bred a tasty apple and then called it a variety. Anyone who wants that variety will then have to take a branch of that tree (or a tree that is a clone of the original) and graft it onto healthy and vigorous root to get a tree. Therefore, all named fruit trees are grafted. If you grow a tree from a seed, as discussed above, half of its DNA will be from the original mother tree but half of it will be from another source.

Even self-pollination gives a little variety. People are not genetically identical to their siblings even though the source of DNA was the same. This is why in ‘Sowing seeds’ I suggest to choose your seeds wisely.

Purslanes

This feels like a good one to write about now. I’ve just found a patch of bare earth and created another by yanking out a never eaten sage plant. I want to put something in those spaces but there’s very little that will grow this late other than radishes and lettuces. No one in the family will eat radishes, except me. Lettuces get ravaged by slug and snails and tend to bolt this time of year. Chard or kales could be planted to be eaten next spring but they were grown in one of the spots last year so in a small effort to crop rotate they were vetoed. I figured purslanes would be perfect!

Short version:

Common purslane is an annual with succulent leaves and stems that have a tangy taste. Siberian purslane is a hardy perennial that I think tastes too bitter to be useful. Winter purslane is a prolific self-seeding annual that tastes great!

This was a gift I gave to my mum. It’s a mulberry tree with a few greens planted into the bottom as the mulberry wasn’t expected to do anything for a year or so. My mum is pointing at the winter purslane. You can see buds where the flowers are starting. The big leaves to the left are Thai basil. Just above the hand you can see a summer purslane growing.

When I began to populate my garden, I was looking for things that I could neglect and still get food from year after year. I also originally had to find lots of things that would do well in the shade as one long strip of my garden would spend most of the day, most of the year, in the shade of the fence. On the internet I discovered winter purslane. I made a mistake when buying seeds and purchased purslane. Without winter as a prefix, the purslane you get is the distantly related summer/common purslane. This was no bad thing as when researching it I found that summer purslane is considered a weed by many as it can be hard to get rid of, but it is also edible and actually very nutritious. In a book on perennials I found Siberian purslane. It was reported to provide good ground cover in deep shade. This is what I found:

Summer/common purslane – portulaca oleracea

This does indeed grow well. When well-spaced you can get very juicy big leaves. It has succulent red stems and succulent obovate (oval-ish but fatter towards the tip) leaves. Both parts taste tangy but not as sour as sorrel. It can self-seed, but I assumed with its weed like reputation it would come back the year after. It sadly did not. You can save seeds from the plant for the following year. Named summer purslane, it does indeed grow well in the summer. It can be sown March to September directly outdoors, but it needs a sunny spot.  

Winter purslane / miner’s lettuce – claytonia perfoliate

This starts with cordate (sort of upside-down heart shaped-ish) leaves that are succulent, but not quite as thick as the summer purslane. The stems are just as juicy though. As the plant matures it begins to send up round leaves that have a tiny white flower in the centre. All these are edible too. Winter purslane tastes more lettuce like, so it provides a nice, easy to grow salad leaf. It thrives in the shade (does great in part sun, will flower and go to seed quite quickly in full sun) and can be sown July-September. The best things about this plant is that it provides salad leaves through the winter, hence the name. The first year we grew these, we made a lovely salad on Christmas Day – just because we could! This one really does self-seed like crazy and we found them in pavement cracks and pots that had been nearby. It was quite nice harvesting whilst weeding the paving stones. I’ve not sown these again since the first time and it comes up itself in two flushes yearly. They first appear in April and grow quickly, flowering and dying back in June. Then they appear again around August and grow more slowly over the colder months, before flowering and dying as spring comes. My little one absolutely loves these and will graze on them in the garden. Occasionally she will go and ‘pick a salad’ which consists mostly of winter purslane, dill and mint.   

When they self seed they an do so in thick clumps. I’d advise thinning and eating the thinnings to get plants that have bigger juicer leaves

Siberian purslane – claytonia sibirica

This one took me a while to track down as it seems really hard to find seeds for it. I was determined to get this shade loving perennial with cute pink flowers. I figured that they’d be as wonderful as the winter purslane. I found that they didn’t germinate very readily, unlike the other two. I was really excited when it finally grew and I put it in the shadiest spot in the garden. It didn’t grow particularly lush and over the past 4 months it hasn’t done much. I then tasted it and it was bitter and yucky. I’m afraid I’m not convinced. Maybe my seeds came from some cross breeding and weren’t very good. I’ll have to see what happens over winter. Maybe it will perk up and taste better.

I’ll continue to grow the summer purslane and just let the winter purslane continue to go crazy whenever and wherever it feels the desire to germinate. It’s an easy way to get food out of the garden for very little effort and it’s a bonus way to get greens into the little one.

Fertilisers

Short version:

Inorganic fertilisers have changed the world but maybe now we need to consider the impact of their use and production. Organic fertilisers may be slower to work but they don’t consume as much energy in their production and can be less harmful. Consider composting and practises that help with soil health.

Why are fertilisers required?

Plants need 13 minerals in order to thrive. Of these nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium are needed in large quantities and sulphur, magnesium and calcium are need in lesser quantities. The other 7 are needed in very small amounts.

With intensive farming methods that include single crop fields, growing multiple crops per year and mechanised agriculture there is a very large output of cheap food produced per acre of land. These techniques strip the soil of nutrients. Once a plant has taken up nutrients out of the soil and then that plant is removed from the area during harvesting, those nutrients need to be replaced for the next crops to be grown. This means that there is a heavy reliance on fertilisers.

It was in the early twentieth century that the Haber process was developed. This is an industrial process that converts nitrogen from the air into ammonia (NH3), which can then be converted into a form that can be utilised by plants (nitrates NO3). The nitrogen cycle can explain how plants get their nitrogen in nature.

The Haber process allowed production of cheap inorganic fertilisers, heavy in nitrogen, which is the most required nutrient. This meant that it was now possible for food production to keep up with, and support rapidly increasing populations.

Basically, we’re now kinda scuppered! In order to keep producing enough food at prices that people can afford, and allow farms to continue to run, farmers have no choice but to keep using inorganic fertilisers and to keep using methods that aren’t particularly good for the soil.

However, in a domestic setting we have choices. I hope that you choose to limit your use of inorganic fertilisers. Why? Let’s start with how they’re made.

What is the Haber process?

At around 450­oC and 200atm (high pressure), with an iron catalyst (which helps to speed up the reaction), hydrogen and nitrogen are combined to form ammonia.

Now, there a couple of things to consider. The hydrogen comes from reacting methane with steam at around 1000oC. The methane will primarily come from natural gas, so we have the same environmental issues that we have from the extraction of fossil fuels. To get nitrogen, air (which is made up of approx. 78% nitrogen) is cooled to around -200oC to condense all the different gases in the air and then allowed to warm to the boiling point of nitrogen. The nitrogen gas is then collected and recondensed for storage and transport.  

I write around 450oC and 1000oC because it can differ depending on the manufacturer. These high pressures and temperatures, as well as -200oC require a large amount of energy to achieve. If any of the energy is derived from fossil fuels, then that energy requirement has led to the release of pollutants and greenhouse gases. Hydrogen can be made from the electrolysis of water (splitting water using electricity). This also requires a lot of energy. As we move towards using a higher percentage of renewable energy sources these issues become less. The problem is that hydrogen still and will (until technology moves on significantly) mostly come from methane.

Ammonia can be oxidised to nitric acid, which can then be converted to nitrates. Ammonia can also be reacted with acids to give ammonium salts. Both nitrates and ammonium salts are used as fertilisers. If ammonia and nitric acid are reacted, you get ammonium nitrate, a popular fertiliser. Other widely used fertilisers are potassium nitrate or ammonium phosphate, both of which require ammonia.

Another issue is that the uptake of inorganic fertilisers by plants is too slow to avoid fertilisers being washed away into bodies of water. Here is the info on why that is a problem in ‘Eutrophication.

The one undeniable bonus of inorganic fertilisers is that they do allow for quick treatment of any nutrient deficiencies.

Organic fertilisers

There are fertilisers made using by products like blood and bone meal from slaughterhouses, or poultry manure or fish bone and blood. This might be an issue if you’re vegan so maybe seaweed, comfrey or nettle feeds might be more up your street. Organic fertilisers tend to be more expensive, but they take some breaking down and so are less soluble and don’t get washed away as much. With organic fertilisers you should check the labels for sterilisation but reputable providers should be fine. 

An organic fertiliser that is high in nitrogen and free is urine. My granny used to use it quite a bit back in the day to grow fantastic greens. You do need to dilute it, something like 9 parts water to 1 part urine, or it will cause fertiliser burn (taking a tinkle straight into your garden is going to cause more harm than good). You might also want to water the roots and avoid getting it on the leaves of plants that you eat, especially salads. You might also want to wash your vegetables thoroughly when you pick. You also should probably avoid using it when you’re ill or taking medication. You may also just want to avoid it all together if you just think it’s too icky. I’m a little OCD so I find it hard to put urine into my watering can to dilute it. What I did do instead was wash the potty out into the garden during potty training. Post wee, I would fill the potty to the top with water and pour it into the garden. I’d then fill it again to rinse and pour that out into the garden too. Sometimes maybe I’d give a second rinse too, just because I have issues.

Composting and practices for better soil health

I still try and limit my use of fertilisers at all. Mostly because of the above reasons and partly because they cost money and need to be stored. Fertilisers can also cause burn if overapplied or applied to wet leaves and I’m not particularly good at following exact directions.

Instead I like to compost all my vegetable kitchen scraps from both garden grown and shop bought fruit and vegetables. Things like banana skins are high in potassium and it is said that a lot of the nutrients in fruit and veg is in the peel. So if you don’t like eating the peels of things (here we don’t tend to eat potato, carrot, avocado, banana, pomegranate skins to name but a few) you can use this to replace the nutrients that are coming out of the garden. Compost also helps to improve the soil and help its structure, especially as my soil is heavy clay. Compost is good for soil health and feeds the microorganisms and worms in the soil. It also helps with both water retention and drainage. It’s also free and is good for the environment as it means less waste going into landfill or needs to be collected and transported for processing.

Other things that make a difference is to grow lots of perennials. Because it is not the whole plant that is being removed yearly, there is less being taken out of the soil. With the decomposition of dead roots and leaves, nutrients are returned to the soil. With perennials you don’t dig into the soil so much so the little ecosystems around the plant get to thrive. The roots will also help against soil erosion.    

If anyone has any other ideas that can help fertilise the garden in a cheap, eco-friendly way, your comments would be appreciated. 

Eutrophication

Short version:

Fertilisers lead to pond death.

I like the sound of the word – YOU-TRO-FIH-KAY-SHON, though it’s a pretty hideous thing.

Large scale farming requires large scale amounts of inorganic fertilisers. Inorganic in Chemistry means not containing carbon, which basically means not derived from living matter. Inorganic fertilisers are cheap and easy to transport. You can see how inorganic fertilisers are made in ‘Fertilisers’ and why their production is worrisome. Of course, fertilisers are required now for most of our farming methods – to provide cheap accessible food. The ions (atoms or molecules with a charge) in the fertilisers are water soluble (dissolve easily in water) which is great as it means the plants are able to take them up through their roots. However, water soluble also means they can be washed away (leached) from the soils. This means that the ions go into the waterways and end up in lakes, rivers and ponds. This increase of nutrients in water is called eutrophication.

Hey, that doesn’t sound so bad right? Fertilisers in water means more plant growth, which means more food in the food chain, right? Afraid not:

The most soluble ions are the nitrates (NO3). Fertilisers are high in nitrates as these are required by the plants to make plant proteins and needed to make chlorophyll (required for photosynthesis). Nitrates encourage large amounts of leafy growth. In ponds this includes surface algae. If you see a pond that looks green on top, this would be the algal bloom. The algae covering the surface stops light from reaching the plants below the surface. These plants can no longer photosynthesise and will therefore die. No photosynthesis means that oxygen is no longer being produced. The decomposing bacteria then break down the dead plants and reproduce rapidly. The decomposition of the plants gives off more nitrates, compounding the problem. The respiration of any organisms in the water, along with the increasing number of bacteria uses up the oxygen. As oxygen is used up, life in the water dies. Fish and everything else go belly up. The algae will also eventually die.

This tends to happen to ponds. Moving water will constantly be diluted so the effects of the nitrates are less damaging. As water moves it gets aerated and therefore oxygen levels increase (basically things like waterfalls, fountains, rushing water, etc allows for more oxygen to dissolve in the water).

In hot weather all the metabolic processes are sped up and water can evaporate (which increases the concentration) so everything happens quicker.

Organic fertilisers (like manure) has nitrogen containing compounds that are less soluble so leach more slowly.