In our world of rising fuel and food prices prices, practical life skills are becoming increasingly important. One of the best things we can do with our children is to show them how to grow their own food. Even at an early age it is both fun and empowering and they will never forget these important skills nor the time a parent has taken to pass them on.
Summer is a favourite time in the permaculture garden. The weather is usually a big factor though – in the height of summer I tend to garden in the early morning or evenings to avoid sunburn, particularly important with young children. So many vegetables planted in early spring start to grow and there is already much to start harvesting. My favourite early summer feasts consist of cut-and-come-again salads like rocket, corn salad, land cress, spinach, and gorgeous home grown potatoes.
A vital aspect of summer vegetable gardening is having adequate water. The most obvious strategy is to collect rainwater. Plants far prefer rainwater to chlorinated drinking water and so will your conscience. Over the years we have acquired a variety of water butts. Look out for second hand fruit juice barrels, butts and water tanks at your local recycling centre. It is now possible to buy tanks made out of recycled plastic. They are manufactured in thicker plastic and are more durable as well. Councils sometimes have butts on special offer – well worth applying for. We have four 200 litre butts attached to our downpipes with rainsavers that divert the water down the drain once the butts are full. We also have another one on our greenhouse. These are adequate in a normal year but the drought in early spring this year has left us short of water, so on the cards this year is a large rainwater collector attached to the new garden shed.
Rainwater harvesting isn’t the only way to conserve water. Covering the soil with mulch prevents evaporation. Mulch also suppresses weeds and can be used in between rows of veggie plants and also around larger plants like runner beans, courgettes and squash. Mulch prevents competition and therefore aids growth. Soft fruit bushes and young trees also benefit from being mulched.
I have used all sorts of mulches from commercial exclusion mulch for permanent cover under woodchip paths, hemp matting to mulch around bushes, cardboard, newspaper, carpet made from natural fibres (synthetics slowly rot and disperse plastic fragments), spoilt straw (cheaper than bedding straw), home-made compost covered by a layer of commercial and therefore guaranteed weed-free compost, even sheep’s wool (a great water retainer that doesn’t rot quickly)… Whatever you use make sure it is made of biodegradeable material and mulch the soil when it is damp. That way the mulch retains the moisture. Mulching when dry will form a barrier that the rain will find hard to penetrate.
In times of drought reusing greywater is a good idea. I often simply wash up in a bowl and then water the garden outside the kitchen with the remnants. It’s important to use biodegradable washing up liquid. If you have external piping from an upstairs bathroom, it is easy to fit a simple rainwater diverter and pipe the bathwater directly on to the vegetable patch (called a Water Two Greywater Diverter). Or you can feed it into a water butt and save it too. We recommend adding balls of tights, or plastic pan scourers, in a colander below the output to prevent the majority of the soap particles building up in the bottom of the barrel, making a smelly sludge.
Growing the ‘Right’ Plants
I do struggle to understand why gardeners plant heathers on chalk and add loads of peat to create the needed acidity. Peat is a non-renewable resource that, when extracted, releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere – grumble over! Tim and I garden on what once was chalk downland and grow wildflowers like devil’s bit scabious, corn marigolds, ox-eye daisies, lady’s slipper, goats beard, marjoram and knapweed. The flowers require no extra watering, minimal seasonal mowing and are a wonderful attractor of insects from butterflies, hoverflies (which incidentally eat aphids) to solitary and honey bees. Our fruit trees are selected for their preference for chalk where possible (Asian Pear pictured above is very successful) and our garage roof is very definitely drought resistant, being composed of sedums and alpine plants rather than tar and felt.
Whatever the soil, slugs are always challenging in an organic garden and it is important to protect tasty young plants from slugs which love damp mulch. Heritage seeds were often selected because they were relatively slug resistant, an excellent reason to plant them now. If you are having problems, however, the ideal slug and snail predators are ducks. We have kept both Khaki Campbells and beautiful ‘trout’ Indian Runner ducks. They need to be penned and allowed into the vegetable garden in the early morning and early evening while slugs are still foraging. You need to watch them though and protect newly sown beds from being flattened by their webbed feet.
Not everyone has the room for ducks but there are a variety of other techniques of controlling slugs. A small meadow area and wildlife pond without fish (as they eat spawn and young toads and frogs) creates habitat that encourages the amphibian population who predate on slugs. Slowworms love the heat of a compost heap (see right) and will lay their eggs there. They too eat slugs. But if you are in a small urban garden with limited space, nocturnal slug ‘picking’ with a torch is recommended (I also recommend it in all gardens when tender young crops are on the menu).
I prefer to germinate plants in the greenhouse and plant them out once they have become more robust. Even then a slug barrier such as a circle of grit or a copper ring is useful. Commercially made copper rings and tape are available but a cheaper option is to cut up an old water cylinder or adapt copper piping that can sometimes be found abandoned in skips. Slugs cannot cross copper – it holds an electrical charge and it is their equivalent to an electric fence! I also garden with raised beds surrounded by woodchip. This deters slugs and snails because they do not like crossing the paths. Human hair can also be used. We save our hair trimmings and place them around delicate, tasty seedlings plus the dust from the bottom of the charcoal bag and the spent coals as well from the bbq. Slugs do not like contaminating their skirts with charcoal.
And then there are beer traps too. They work well. Ask your local for slops from under the pumps.
Is it all worth it, you may ask? I know slug pellets are the norm but I love my garden birds and do not want to risk them eating a poisoned slug. Very young children too can be tempted by colourful pellets. The best way is to design a healthy biodiverse slug and snail resistant garden modelled on nature from the onset and incorporate as many strategies as you can. Then you can savour home grown organic vegetables and fruit, introduce your children to all the creatures that visit your garden and relax in a shady corner with a long, cool drink when the weather gets really hot.
What to Plant in Summer
Continue to sow French beans, peas and salad crops in the soil. Plant out Brussels sprouts, winter cabbages, tomatoes and leeks.
Continue to sow salad crops in the soil. Put your feet up and enjoy your abundant veggie garden!
Sow early carrots, winter lettuces and spring cabbages.