Gardening Thoughts: On Patience

Gardening requires plenty of patience. Some seeds take weeks to come up. Take strawberry as an example. It is often four weeks before an excited gardener see the first sprout. Another few weeks for the seedlings to reach the size of your fingertip. Those seedlings will then take another whole year to reach maturity and bear fruit. It seems like a prolonged process in an age when all types of fruit are available throughout the year on supermarket shelves.

Strawberries: 5cm high, 3month old

In the world of trees, strawberries are nowhere near the top of the patience-requiring league. The common apple tree, for example, takes a few years to establish and start giving a decent crop. That is only if you provide adequate care and if the weather is kind.

Our boy ran in the garden for the first time

We bought our first house last October. I found myself having a garden for the first time when autumn had set in. The weather was so spirit-dampening that I didn’t go out much. Not to gather fallen leaves and make leaf mould. Not to put down tulips – the spring bulbs I have somehow missed out for years. I stayed inside and waited.

In the beginning, it was easy because we were busy with the new house and the holidays. Also, nothing seemed to grow for months on end.

Spring

When spring came, I started to get the itch. I wanted to turn up the soil and throw down some seeds. Holding me back was the curiosity about mysterious plants awaiting me beneath spring soil. As March continued ticking by, I decided to sow seeds in containers yet one more year while doing an inventory of the garden I inherited.

My investigation assistant

Each time a flower came out, I checked its name using a plant-identifying app. I took note of its colour, its timing and its usefulness to the bees and us. Through the course of the growing season, I decide if it is to be kept in the ground, moved into a pot or even the compost bin in the coming winter.

Sometimes I got impatient. Unrecognisable shaggy branches called out at me and my knife. I had to remind myself of the wise words of a veteran gardener: You should wait for a year before making any changes in a new garden. I dropped the secateurs and continued to wait.

Summer

Lockdown came. Then lockdown was relaxed.

Summer is almost at its full swing, and still, I am waiting.

Gardening with a baby

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This is me, in my balcony garden, having a contraction. My baby was born nine hours after this photo was taken. Those tomato seedlings were then left mostly on their own until they grew big, flowered and fruited a modest amount.

I obviously went over my head that year.

When the growing season started again this spring, I stayed realistic. My then 9-month-old didn’t go to daycare and preferred being awake and playful to napping. I thought I would have no time for my gardening hobby.

Before April came, I reluctantly threw some wildflower seeds into some pots. They don’t need much care, and they are great for the bees.

By the time the weather was warm enough for my boy to be outside most days, things took a sudden turn.

He learned to walk and became strong and dexterous enough to hold a watering can. I have found myself having a diligent gardener.

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As he started to eat some leafy green, I began to expand my crop. From spring onion to cucumber, from Thai basil to green bean, from mint to sage, I seem to have it all. I love the feeling of cutting some fresh vegetables and herbs to put into my boy’s food. Though those homegrown greens don’t come close to breastfeeding, they will most likely last longer into his childhood.

 

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March in the garden: Gear up for a new growing season

March is here. Even though Europe suffered some freezing days the last week of February and the first week of March, there is hope in the air that winter is on its way out.

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Last day of February: Snow in my garden 

Canals, rivers, and lakes were partly or entirely frozen all over the Netherlands. My garden didn’t escape the ice either. Out there, most of my plants look dead. Perhaps they will be able to revive when spring comes. Or maybe not. Ian consoled me that the frost can benefit the soil. It kills harmful bacteria. So I hold my head high, tend diligently to my indoor plants and make plans to start it all over again this March.

So here is what I will do in this month:

Move some pots outdoors as soon as it is warm enough

I have basil, coriander, potato, and a lot of chill plants. I am keeping them indoors at the moment, and it is getting a bit crowded. So as soon as the temperature stays above 5 degrees during the night, I will take them out and leave them there.

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Thai basil pots ready to go

Sow the seeds

I have a list of seeds to sow in March. For flowers, I will start again with lavender, sunflower, pansy, and poppy. There are also seeds of chard, tatsoi, and Asia salad red giant that I can put into the soil outside soon.

Tomato is something that I will grow again this year. March is still too cold for direct sowing in the ground. Thus I will start indoors at the sunniest spots.

Empty used pots

I have pots lying around, in which plants have no sight of life. When it is warm enough to stay outside for a decent amount of time, I should really empty those pots so that I can reuse them for new crops.

 

 

How to design my beloved balcony garden in a permaculture style

The other day I came across an episode of Stuff You Should Know about Permaculture. I knew about the concept since the days I worked with a social startup in sustainable agriculture, but those guys on SYSK did a fantastic job of jogging my memory and colouring it rainbows.

They talked about how to design farms with hedges, livestock, ponds and so on. I don’t have the capacity and space for any of those, but I couldn’t help wondering what permaculture designing principles I can apply to my balcony garden. So I set out to do some research, but first, let’ talk about permaculture.

What is Permaculture?

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”Bill Mollison

In a nutshell, it is a culture that takes farming holistically and sustainably, so that we people can grow enough food to eat and don’t exhaust the natural resources, poison the water and future generations. It is not just about avoiding chemical fertiliser but about observing and discovering the best ways to work with nature.

It all goes down to designing ecosystems that use (and waste) the least of land, energy and other resources (including labour) and grow enough food for everyone.

Of course, there’s always the question of “How much is enough?” Depending on how you look at things, greediness or efficiency begs another question: “Is that “enough” more or less than what is made in other food production systems (like monoculture)?

I am not here to answer big questions, though. I am here to extract joy out of my tiny space in the city and add more fresh produce to my kitchen table. After some research, I’ve found a few tips that might help this year’s growing more productive, fun and of a permaculture style.

Choose the plants for the place

The first principle they mentioned on SYSK is to watch the space. Spend a year to observe your land: its sunspots, windy corners and areas where wild animals frequent. Once you map out your space, you can pick the most suitable spots for each plant that you want to grow.

For example, tomatoes love the sun and water, so you want to place them at a sunny spot closed to the water source or highly visible so you will never forget to water them. If your tomatoes don’t get enough water, they split, then become less juicy and sweet.

For most balcony garden, you won’t just have sunny spots. You have shady areas or hidden corners that the sun can’t reach. It is wise to mix in plants that also thrive in the shade, under other taller and leafier plants.

If you don’t have much room, don’t fret about not having large containers. Some plants can thrive in small-sized pots. You just need to know which ones.

Observe the sun, feel the wind and learn as much about ideal growing conditions for plants that are native to your region.

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Wild animals are probably a no-no with most urban farmers. No deer can climb up to my balcony garden, but I do have bees and ladybirds visiting last year. I also spotted birds who came to eat my sunflower seeds. A city garden can attract its share of visitors if you pick the right plants.

Maximise the space in harmony

Vertical gardens

If you can’t expand on the ground, then you have to go up. I haven’t tried growing vertically, but I’ve seen this principle playing out my whole childhood in Vietnam. We have the narrowest of the narrow houses adding one floor after another as the family inside has more members.

If you want to grow vertically, you can set up ladders, build trellises or use hanging baskets. Grow vines and fruit trees on sun-baked brick walls and save the semi-shade spots on the ground for herbs or strawberries.

Variety in the height of each plant

Pick plants with different heights so you can create a garden with more layers. In the permaculture concept, there are seven layers in a food forest. First comes canopy (large fruits and nut trees), then low tree (dwarf fruit trees), shrub (currants & berries), herb zone, rhizosphere (root vegetables), soil surface (like strawberry), and finally, the vertical layers where climbers and vines start.

I think I would make it a challenge this year to create these seven layers in one corner of my garden and see how many plants I can squeeze in.

Make use of natural helpers

Let’s get back to sunflowers. They are magnificent. Their height and massive flower heads are a statement in any garden. And they are also a natural helper. The flowers attract ladybirds, which eat aphid, mealybugs and other harmful insect pests. The seeds attract birds they might carry seeds of other plants to your garden. And of course, the bees love sunflowers.

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Marigold is another example. Last year, I grew marigold in the same pot with tomatoes as the garden tales say its pungent scent discourages a variety of pests such tomato hornworms and whiteflies.

If you have room for composting, get a worm farm. I saw a few while doing my bee-keeping course and they would be the first thing I buy once I have a bigger garden space.

The worms can make liquid organic fertiliser by from your kitchen waste. They also leave in worm castings which are full of micro-organisms, and nutrients. The idea of hundred worms might sound a bit off-putting for some city dwellers, but standing outside a worm farm container, you will hardly notice an odd smell or seeing anything usual but some healthy plants.

So that was that. Should we all go permaculture this year? Personally, I will.