Hit The Gravel And Go!

This week we took delivery of two large/jumbo sacks of 20 mm gravel, for the purpose of covering our side border at the front of the house.

We had previously covered the front border quite successfully and wanted to continue along the side to complete the job. We didn’t do it all in one hit simply because the cost was prohibitive at the time. The timing here was vital as I’d already booked two weeks off work and this was one of the main jobs I had planned.

We ordered the materials from a local trade supplier a few days before and I had purchased a roll of heavy duty weed control membrane before winter, as the money was available and we had formulated a plan by then. Membrane doesn’t go off so it was worth getting it while the price was right and funds were available.

Putting down the membrane meant removing any pernicious weeds and old stumps first.

That itself was a challenge as the stump I had my eye on was from a still live Hawthorn, complete with deadly needle sharp thorns.

Now, sensible people would use heavy, thick gloves and long thick sleeves when doing this, but then I’m never one to make a job easy on myself,so several stabs and swear words later it was out and I could begin laying down the ground cover.

Once again, planning would have said put down your ground cover first then add plants afterwards but we have established shrubs already so I had to work around those. We could have dug them out, covered and replanted but as it has been one of the hottest, driest in a long time, with a prevailing drying wind, I didn’t want to risk losing any plants.

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Now, the problem I didn’t anticipate was the location of the sacks. Directly in front of my huge Hebe bush. Now, I LOVE my Hebes and so do the insects. Hoverflies,butterflies, bees and wasps. I don’t know which one took offence to a great big sweaty human standing and shovelling gravel right where they wanted to fly but I felt a sting and caught something tangled in my chest hair within twenty minutes of starting!

One application of anti bug spray (citronella) later and the job was on again.

Three bottles of water, two cans of lager and several rest breaks later it was …well, started at least. I managed to empty the first bag within the first day but knew I was wavering by about 3:30 pm and decided to give my back a break.

As I’ve said, and been reminded, I’ve got two weeks off. I don’t need to damage myself doing it all in one go, so, after a long soak in the bath, I’ve set my sights on finishing it this week, rather than immediately.

I mean , I’ve still got the greenhouse, allotment, polytunnel and a social life to handle as well!

Be Water wise..

Oh  it’s hot and dry at last.

 

But we’ll get the doom prophets and the naysayers who’ll bemoan the weather.

I’m going to ignore the subject of whether the weather is good or bad for us and just stick to the fact that it is warm, it has been a bit arid, and we need to adopt certain measures to deal with it.

As gardeners, growers of edibles and ornamentals, we are used to compromise. Pruning things to restrict growth, changing soil to suit and more are all par for this particular course we choose to play.

Water is a luxury we can be forgiven for taking for granted.  It’s always available. At home it’s at the end of a hose pipe, just the twist of a tap away.

At the plot, if you are lucky as I am, it’s from a trough, a cattle trough with a cistern. Mains water direct to your plants via a dipped watering can. At worst, it’s a water butt collecting rain water from a shed or greenhouse roof. I’ve read of plot holders who share a small number of taps with a large site, suffering low pressure and queues, those who transport large containers of water by car to their remote plots.

However you get your water, we will all at some point find there simply isn’t enough.

Let’s have a look at ways of conserving what we do have, using less and providing ways in which we can reduce the demand for it.

  1. Look at the ways you waste water. Change them. Stop leaving the tap or hose running, Put the plug in when you shower and then use the water collected for plants. Soaps and detergent s in general won’t do too much harm but if in doubt, dilute it further and don’t use for anything you grow to eat.
  2. Reduce the water you lose from the garden itself after or during watering. Evaporation is a big water loser. Mulch after watering, direct water to a point, at the stem or directly to the roots via pipe or empty pot sunk to root level. Avoid leaving a wet or damp surface as it will wick water away from the soil as it evaporates from the surface.
  3. Grow plants that are less thirsty or lose less through their leaves (transpiration). Grow plants to increase the deep roots, so avoid watering little and often or on the soil surface. This creates short, shallow roots which cannot source water easily from the soil and rely entirely on you. Giving a good drenching when planting, watering to the roots as described and watering less frequently. Make the plants delve deeper to find the water table.
  4. It may sound obvious but don’t water when it as at the hottest point of the day. Warm the water. It sounds daft but imagine spending the day on a hot, sunny beach then being soaked in ice cold water. Fill the watering can then leave it near to the plants you will be watering so it can acclimatise.
  5. Make a sponge out of your soil. Add lots of soil conditioners that hold water and release it slowly, deep down at the roots. Lots of what garden advisors and professionals call humus. Material that has broken down naturally and is fibrous and light when dry. Rotted stable or farm manure, composted kitchen and garden waste (compost) or leaf mould from rotted or decayed leaves. Try to avoid materials that dry out and are hard to re-wet, such as peat or coir.
  6. Before you water, check if the plants actually need it. Stick a finger deep into the soil and check if it is damp. If it is, don’t water. If the leaves are drooping and limp, wait until it is cooler later in the day and check again. Sometimes it is heat, not thirst that is the problem.
  7. Use shade to reduce the temperature and water loss. Try planting to provide natural shade, see if the plants will grow in partial shade. A surprising number of vegetables will.
  8. My pet hate, stop watering your lawn! An established lawn will have a complex root system designed to survive almost anything we throw at it, including prolonged drought. Stop cutting it too short and let it go brown, even yellow.
  9. Reuse household water. We get all our household water from one source. Mains water, treated and purified for drinking, is the same water used to flush toilets, wash clothes and cars, fill radiators and heating systems. We only need purified water for eating and drinking purposes. Try to reuse as much water as possible and let nothing go down the plug hole to join sewer water.
  10. Finally, if you’re a keen grower at home you will probably have at least a lawn, possibly borders too to the front of your home. Far beneath that will be natural water courses which carry water draining through the soil layers to reservoirs, rivers, lakes and other natural water points. Replacing your lawn or soil with tarmac or concrete means rain water will run off to gutters and soakaways, to go directly into sewers along with toilet waste, rainwater running off roofs and out of baths. When we see images of bone dry reservoirs and a few months later horrendous floods, this is why. If you must have a driveway, use a fast draining material that allows the rain water to drain through into the soil and away naturally.

 

Not all of these tips will apply to you and your world but share them, change the people and the environment around you.

Get water wise.

 

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Heavy mulch over moisture retentive soil.

Water pots and pipes, directing water to the roots and not the surface/

Cardboard, then grass clippings and compost to hold water deep at root level.

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Deep down beneath the mulch, the new potatoes were cool and damp and growing really happily, despite never having been watered, other than by rainfall.

It is time for a tale of Apples and Monks, Budgies and Bees and F1!

O.K., let’s not get too confused. I can explain everything, well, almost everything. The thing with the socks? I have no idea about that.

It all began long ago, no, recently but long ago is a better start, anyway, I was walking home from work, chomping on a nice juicy apple as I had missed my afternoon/second break at work and was finishing my snack on my way home. I like a nice juicy crisp apple, not too fluffy and not too dry. I like a lot of fruit but this story doesn’t work with bananas for reasons I won’t explore right now.

Just ask me later.

Anyway, apples. I noticed the core of said delicious fruit, (I don’t think it was a Delicious variety, just tasty), contained what appeared at first to be small specks of dust, rather than pips. Now, my reaction was initially that there had been a fault in the germination or growth of this particular specimen but then I thought again. A lack of viable seed means absolutely nothing for an apple grower. Had I wanted to save a seed from this wonderfully, enticing, (o.k. I’ll stop) this apple,to sow and possibly grow my own from, I would have been wasting my time.

Why?

Not because of the size of this seed, nor the quality but simply this.

Apples do not grow true from seed.

Let me explain. Plants grown from seed carry the genetic make up from their parents. As with anything grown via the process of parental crossing. Fertilization. The mixing of genes to produce an offspring.

When this happens, in food growing, we look for plants that will produce what the parent gave us. Size, flavour, colour, vigour and many other positive attributes.

It is the sharing of these attributes and the passing on from generation to generation that allows us to reliably produce useful crops, whether on a small scale at an allotment or in a window box to the vast plains of the american landscape.

I found out about this when I was a single man but on the very cusp of becoming a married one. I had been given two budgies as pets to keep me company while living in my flat until my soon to be wife could join me. Sentimental but fun. These two, originally named Jake and Earl, soon became Jake and Pearl after I decided to research a little about the birds and I discovered there is a subtle way of sexing the birds.

The fleshy bit above the beak, containing the holes for the nostrils, is called the Cere. This will differ in colour and flatness according to the sex and age of the bird.

There you go. You’ve learnt something.

However, I was not eating a budgie, but an apple. Budgie eating is frowned upon even after a hard day. Besides which, they aren’t anywhere near as juicy.

Sorry.

All this was discovered or at least expanded on to a greater degree by an Augustinian Monk, Johann Gregor Mendel. He crossed a few different pea plants, wrinkled seeded and round , yellow and green. He discovered that the ensuing plants gave varying results, differing in traits from their parents, even when like featured plants were bred. This tied in with my discovery of colours in budgies. Two blue feathered parents wouldn’t necessarily produce blue offspring. This is due to dominant and recessive genes. The same occurs in humans with things such as eye colour. A blue eyed person may have a dominant blue eye gene but a recessive green gene. If they breed with another blue dominant green recessive, they could find the green gene becomes more dominant. A blue dominant/brown recessive and a green dominant/brown recessive will probably have brown eyed children, because the brown gene is present in both parents.

Back to Peas. Mendel found that by careful selective crossing of plants, he could ‘fix’ a trait, such as wrinkled seed. This meant that this plant would always produce a particular feature from that batch of seed. A predictability of sorts. This is known as F1 seed. These seeds generally produce a uniform result, but without the guarantee of doing the same in the next generation. Plant A crossed with Plant B would always produce C, but Plant C would produce different offspring. Prolonged breeding fixed a reliable result for plants though and this led to the seeds we buy now.

If you purchase a Parsnip variety described as Long and Tender, for example, it will produce, under ideal conditions, long and tender roots. You shouldn’t get tough or stumpy roots. Seed suppliers can reliably produce many more years of the same seeds with this type of seed, but an F1 seed must be produced by carefully crossing the right parents each time, thus making them an expensive option.

So, why not the same with apples?

Apples are a little bit..well.. sexy.

Yes, sexy. Rampant for want of a better word. Most need at least two partners to pollinate them. Many small gardens contain crab apples, which may not themselves seem appetising but are very good pollinators for other varieties. Due to the vagaries of plant flowering times, sometimes the males and females of the same plant will miss each other and the third wheel acts as a go between. Regardless, this mix means it is rare if not impossible for a seed from an apple to contain much of the same D.N.A. as the fruit it came from. The amount of genes in an apple (about 57,000, thought to be the highest number in the plant world) means its difficult to get that mix right. Also, being a triploid, (3 parents) carries a few problems, not the least that some chromosome simply won’t divide.

Yes, breeders do cross plants and discover new varieties, but they then reproduce them by cloning, or grafting. Taking a slip of the original tree and joining it to a new root. This can then produce more material to be taken and added to more rootstocks. Grafting means that some part of every tree is from the first parent. Every Granny Smith is a part of the first ever Granny Smith tree.

Each Bramley Apple has a thin slice of the original dessert apple in it.

For a baker, it is the equivalent of sour dough starter. You take a portion, use it but feed the original so you can keep it alive to use again and again.

So, if you do try to grow that seed, that shiny pip from you lunch box fruit tomorrow, remember, if it grows into a nice big tree and you like the fruit (which will be entirely different), the only way to share it is by slicing a bit off.

But if you do want to experiment, try Sweet Peas, or grow Courgettes near other Cucurbits such as pumpkins or cucumbers. These are notoriously promiscuous but only need two parents. The results may not be edible always but they will be interesting.

Don’t forget, it is the fruits from the plants from the seeds of the first cross that will differ. If you grow Marrows and Butternut squash on the same plot, you will get Marrows and Butternut, but if you save the seeds from them and grow them, who knows?