of caterpillars and comedians

My allotment is pretty well sorted out for its winter rest after I planted some garlic today. There are winter brassicas, leeks, spinach and Japanese salads still to come and the  top dressing of the empty beds is progressing well. As I am feeling virtuous about the state of cultivations, I have been catching up with friends and garden visiting since last week-in the real world. I am still waaaaaay behind  thanking the generous kindness of the blog world-please accept this as a thank you for your continuing visits and comments-all of which are enjoyed as much as a lovely slice of chocolate cake.

I spent Monday morning at The Courts,  admiring the still bountiful perennial borders, and especially noticing the contrast in leaf texture, shape and colour and  the incredible burnt toffee scent of a  Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum). The air was motionless  after a cold night and the perfume was hanging heavily in the air. Delicious.The lawn border  looks good, with the topiary newly clipped.

The cooler nights are beginning to lead to leaf colour changes , and we were disappointed to find the dahlia beds at Avebury Manor on Sunday had been blackened by frost. My garden has escaped so far, but it felt cold earlier this evening and I cut a last bunch of dahlias for the house, complete with attendant insect friends; the ubiquitous earwigs-why do they love dahlias so?-a couple of ladybirds and this fellow..

…it is a caterpillar of a tiger moth of some sort, pound coin for scale. The caterpillar is conveniently placed on the programme for Bath University Gardening Club, venue for an excellent talk last night by James Alexander Sinclair about planting English country gardens that has had me thinking about focal points all day. It was the funniest talk I have heard for ages. (Ever  since I was privileged to hear Hugh Dennis at a Data Centre awards dinner….I just wish I could repeat some of the jokes-but I expect they are copyright and anyway, far too rude for this genteel (ahem) blog.) It was a joyous evening, complete with the excellent company of fellow bloggers. Isn’t the internet a wonderful thing?

no dig beds

A bit of an update today on the no-dig gardening experiment I originally wrote about here and updated at the end of May, when the photograph above was taken.To recap quickly, No-dig gardening, as propounded by Charles Dowding*, involves the application of organic matter to the surface of the soil to a depth to suppress weed growth, and then planting into and through that layer, without digging.

My garden vegetable beds measure 8 x 4 feet and I never need to walk on them to reach the plants. In the spring I spread a thick layer of garden compost and very well composted farmyard manure and concentrated on growing salad crops, tomatoes -on  hand for a quick trip out from the kitchen-and those needing a bit of extra water-a courgette, a pepper, some green beans.

Let’s start with the downside. The 3 beds are west facing, meaning they miss the morning sun. Not good for the tomatoes growing in one bed. They have grown very well and sprawled (lack of support-my laziness) but the fruit is not ripening particularly quickly. There are masses of green tomatoes, but the aspect is wrong. And they have overwhelmed the pepper plant. Plus I planted a courgette and a squash in front of the tomatoes and they have romped away too, adding further to the jungle. Mental note for next year-forget the competition for the tomatoes.

Another bed has French beans at the back and that too has not enjoyed the lack of sunshine, but has cropped. I suspect it is a variety thing too-not a prolific bearer. And perhaps I just haven’t watered it enough. The flower set was initially poor and only improved when I sprayed the flowers with water through the hottest part of the summer.

None of this is attributable to the no-dig method, just choice of plants for the location, although the strong growth of the tomatoes suggests they are liking the soil fertility, and it is not just leafy top growth. What has been very successful are the salad crops. There has been lettuce all summer, baby leaf, cos, oak leaf, lollo rossa and bionda, spinach, radish, beetroot, baby carrots. I have managed to keep up successional sowings and haven’t had to buy salad leaves all summer. There will be an autumn variety-Chartwell- going in soon and chicory if I can track down seed or plants.

Not only have the lettuces kept on growing, but there has been almost NO pests on them, and almost no weed growing through the mulch. The plants have had an occasional liquid seaweed based feed (Maxicrop) and each time I have replanted an area I have added more manure. I have let two of the red leaved ones go to seed-they were a good variety and I am trying to save the seed. I don’t remember what it was.

This autumn the salad beds will be left empty as the last pickings are made  and I intend to start planting overwintering salads where the tomatoes are, to rotate things. I recall Charles Dowding saying that lettuces can be grown in the same area year on year, but it seems a good idea to mix things up a bit.

As a trial, the results are pleasing. Would I extend the area? Yes, without a doubt and I intend to use the system on the allotment as well. I have removed almost all the perennial weeds there now and it seems the perfect time to try this on a slightly bigger scale.

*Charles Dowding’s no-dig website is here