Sunday, 20 May 2012

Sowing Perennials Indoors

Progress was slow over the last few weeks; I lost a lot of work time looking after a friend's hungry hair-generating quadruped for them while they were away (I'm getting a bit tired of the number of animals people feed with agricultural produce when this society won't even distribute it to all humans, can you tell?), but I have learned some more about what works in this region in the meantime.
Most of the fruit trees have started blooming, this damson tree was the earliest.

I got hold of some tree seeds to see if I can grow Siberian Pea Tree as a productive tree-legume, and a few other useful trees and shrubs such as Sugar Maple, Scots Pine, Strawberry Tree, Black Mulberry, Broom, Oleaster and most importantly, Monkey Puzzle. Monkey-Puzzle trees are a lifelong investment as they produce prolific amounts of large nuts in a temperate climate, but only after about 30-40 years of growth from seed, although Ken Fern of PFAF has reported some of his trees in Cornwall producing cones around 20 years old. A few of the large monkey-puzzle nuts each got their own pots after nearly two days of soaking in water.
Pre-soaking tree seeds to cold-stratify.
Most of those seeds need to be cold-stratified to simulate over-wintering before they will germinate in what the seed thinks is springtime, so I soaked a bunch of each in water for just over a day in small jars, then drained the water out, labelled them for their recommended chilling times and put them at the back of a refrigerator. For some of the couple of leguminous seeds, pea tree and broom, which should be able to germinate without chilling, I spotted a fererro-rocher tray from a previous winter's gift that made an excellent propagator tray for germinating the seeds in. With a teaspoonful of wet potting mix in each slot, after piercing the inner tray for drainage, I planted a dozen pea-tree seeds, three broom seeds and a few of the others that looked like they might germinate easily just after their soak, then covered the tray over.
That's not chocolate in that pretentious yet thankfully re-usable acrylic packaging.
One month after putting those seeds in soil, none of them have yet germinated, and a couple of the prized monkey-puzzle seeds appeared to have flecks of mould growing on the upper sides of them every time that I watered them in the last couple of weeks, which makes me worry whether they will germinate at all. I've scraped it off each time it appears, but it keeps coming back whenever there is some moisture in the pot.
Fluffy white (and in some places, green) mould growing around damp monkey-puzzle seeds. Is this a penicillum mould? Any tips would be appreciated.
There are several perennial herbs that I want to try and grow in some of the sunniest spots on the hillside, most of which are usually more suited to a mediterranean climate. I want them both for delicious food and because they make great companions for nightshade plants, some of which (tomato, aubergine) are already very difficult to grow in the local climate without pest infestations. I sowed seeds for a few herbs (oregano, marjoram, rosemary, thyme, along with chamomile, fennel and a couple of artichoke and squash seeds) in an old seedling tray I found, and kept them indoors for a few weeks so that they could germinate in some shelter while there was still a bit of frost, which those herbs can be sentitive to when young, while giving me time to prepare a patch for them to grow on.
The rosemary seems to have been the most stubborn to germinate out of the whole bunch, showing no sign of greenery after a full month (although I wonder whether the peaty potting mix I sowed them on was too acidic), while the chamomile seemed to spring up within a couple of days and the rest of the herbs did ok within a couple of weeks.
Seedling identification: Counting left-to-right from the top row (starting at blue marker) down, I sowed Rosemary in 1, 2 and 19, Oregano in 7 and 13, Thyme in 8, 14 and 20, 'Cinnamon' Basil in 3, 9, 15 and 21, Globe Artichoke in 4 and 24, Chamomile in 10 and 16, Luffa Gourds in 5 and 6, Spaghetti Squash in 11 and 12, Marjoram in 22 and 23, and Fennel in 17 and 18. All were sown at the same time and pictured here after 2 weeks.
At the same time I dedicated some old margarine tubs to germinating seeds of a couple of my favourite edible temperate perennial shrubs, asparagus and rhubarb.
Rhubarb seedlings, 2 weeks from sowing. A three-leaved mutant seedling on the right of this picture didn't survive.
I have seen rhubarb growing very well in large clumps here in all sorts of locations, from full-sun exposure on a south facing hill, to shaded spots around the side of buildings and even growing between a couple of rocks on a roadside.
A healthy old local rhubarb patch, those leaves can get huge, as in 2-3 feet long not counting the stalk, so that you could fan yourself or a loved one with it on a hot day.

Rhubarb makes a lovely spring/summer pie or jam, but asparagus, which can put lots of nutrition in some lovely savoury dishes, I have yet to spot growing anywhere nearby. The asparagus seeds that I potted took a few weeks to germinate, but then all sprung up at roughly the same time, making a nice surprise. The first thing to germinate in one of the pots was a mystery weed, which left me confused until the tiny asparagus heads appeared a few days later and I now think it might be a thistle, but I didn't pull it up since an asparagus shoot growing directly next to it ended up doing very well, so I guess it isn't doing much harm.
One of two asparagus trays, 25 days after sowing.
To save a bit more time in creating vegetable and herb beds between the windbreak, and since I ran out of spare stuff to cover the ground with, I'm doing a little of something that I really want to minimise, which is tilling the topsoil. I've found that my attempt to smother some of the grass by a month of covering it with various opaque sheets followed by spreading compost on the top, has been a semi-success/failure depending on how you look at it.
Grass and other well-established weeds busting through a thin layer of mulch.
The grass is shooting up through the compost in a few locations, and one particularly lively clump simply lifted the compost on it right up after a few weeks of regrowth. Initially I thought this was a bigger problem than it actually is, since I mistook some of the chives and onions growing there for tufts of grass, until I plucked one up; it seems I missed the initial seedling stage that I mainly found pictures of online, where the black seed shells have been pushed above the surface. Disregard that, I just thoroughly inspected the area and practically all of them really are very slender grass shoots, so my onion and chive seeds don't seem to have germinated for unknown reasons, though the packet instructions said they could be sown straight outdoors.
There are some other seedlings growing in the compost that I laid down, but their progress is slow, the 'green manure' plants haven't established much at all in the way of ground cover, and some of the things I sowed straight outside quite early, such as broccoli and artichokes, don't even appear to have germinated, although there are still a few seedlings or possible weeds that I haven't been able to identify, I'm thinking of dedicating a blog post to them since there are so many. I'm quite worried that the nasturtium seeds I planted out early in the year might have rotted before they could germinate, so I might have to plant some more.
Carrot fiddleneck seedling in the centre having already developed a couple of branches (updated). I think these probably do really well because they're unpalatable - see my next post for more about the slug problem.

When a nearby ash tree needed to have a branch cut back that was getting in the way, I was able to take several cuttings that might root into new trees, so I used those to extend the treeline for windbreak around the north-east a bit, since some quite strong and very cold winds had been coming in unblocked from north europe/asia in previous weeks. Hopefully this layout can approach an ideal model that Mollison recommended for a temperate-zone windbreak in his permaculture designer's manual, which is roughly a horseshoe shape, where the thick bend of the horseshoe faces the nearest pole.
Here I put some of the cuttings into rows of holes made with a garden fork. Almost none of the buds had opened on the branch that I took cuttings from, while they had across most of the rest of the tree, so clearly it didn't need the extra bit that just made it more susceptible to wind.

The areas where I wanted to lay out some more vegetable patches had too much rock at a shallow level for me to invert cubes of sod with a spade, not that I wanted to break up and expose soil at that depth anyway; ploughing soil up a foot deep often leaves a lot of earthworms out as a smörgåsbord for the birds (as I saw a couple of years ago in the documentary A Farm for the Future by Rebecca Hosking), which doesn't exactly help with soil fertility in the following years.
To try and suppress the grass roots even faster here without ruining the soil too much, I first raked away as much of the dead grass as possible, which from the patch I started making around the plum tree was enough to loosely half-fill a compost bin that I had recently re-assembled after moving it from a previous home (that went to the top of the hill in the hope that nutrients would flow downhill from its base). Next I would try and push a garden fork as close to horizontal as possible under a patch of moss and grass roots, but trying to keep high up on top of the mud and rocks, before levering the fork up and flipping over the shallow sods that resulted.
Example of the thickness of a sod in my improvised 'rake and flip' method, which only requires you and a garden fork. See how rocky the soil is there without going an inch past the main root mass.
Some of the grass roots that I pulled up by hand were amazingly thick, showing the age of this well-established grass that was drawing up nutrients from deep into the rocks.
This grass root was so thick that I would forgive anyone for mistaking it for a parsnip, which is even what it smelled like when torn apart.
After emptying a few small compost heaps from around my friend's house, I put the partially decomposed food peelings etc. into the large reconstructed compost bin with the grass-hay, then spreading the small amount of good quality compost from the bottom over the turned patch of soil. The whole process from raking to spreading compost took a few hours of work to produce a patch about 10ft long by 4ft wide; a lot more toil than mulching the grass but a lot less waiting.
A long flipped-grass vegetable bed leading up to the plum tree, almost finished.
Near-disaster struck when my friend's pet knocked my tray of various seedlings off a window-sill, the very same day that I wanted to plant some of them out after waiting a month for some of them to establish, and I managed to rescue most of them, though I don't know how many will survive once they are planted outside. A couple of the rhubarb trays were merely knocked on their sides, and the soil was quite glued together at the time, so they kept growing fine, though one or two had injuries to leaves that were hanging over the tray edge.
I stuck the artichokes out at the windward (WSW, front of picture) end of the large patch above as soon as it was ready, with some bird seed directly behind for tall grain plants like sunflower, chamomile around the edge since it can grow amongst grass like daisy, cauliflower and cabbage (hopefully sheltered) in the middle, followed by rows of squashes, lettuce, radishes and turnips towards the plum tree, with a few chives directly around it.
One of the artichoke seedlings, just left of centre, with a bunch of chamomile to the top-right.
Further around on the south face of the hill I made a much smaller patch by the same method, sticking out the various herbs around the south edge along with some more seeds of the same generally all over the patch as companions for some tomatoes in the middle, with beans and squashes behind them that I intend to grow up some sticks like a trellis, if they will actually grow.
Tasty herbs, whether they can survive here only time will tell; I have seen oregano doing reasonably well in a raised-bed near here though.
I divided up a tray of asparagus and planted it in two blocks by the west end of the patch backed by some more sunflowers and stuck a few marigold seeds around the edge as general companions for the rest.
Half of an Asparagus seedling tray stuck out along with mystery weed. Maybe I should have thinned them out further, but any that survive shall inherit the earth.

Since rhubarb seemed to do so well in slightly raised mounds that it could spread its large leaves out over, I figured it would make a great element to place on the large back wall at the widest part of the water-harvesting swale that I dug out, since its shelter might lower evaporation of any collected water when the sun is lower in spring & autumn, so that's where I stuck a tray of seedlings out.
Several rhubarb seedlings from the larger tray planted out on the swale/pond wall. Some more peas were planted behind and anywhere else that I hadn't put any on the wall yet.
While doing some backround reading I re-discovered, having forgotten, that fennel, much like walnut, is quite toxic to almost all plants around it, save perhaps dill (which I don't like very much anyway), so I stuck seedlings of that in one small bit of turned soil right next to the compost bin, on the slim chance that it might discourage plants from growing in the heap, and because by a compost bin should be a fine position for any plant, since it supplies all different nutrients to the roots while attracting a variety of insects.
Barely visible are 3 fennel seedlings from left to right across the middle of this picture. I might chuck some more seeds straight on the patch to see if they take, I'm not terribly worried about this plant.

Tragically, the very next day after finishing that batch of working the soil and sowing seeds in sunny weather, an unexpected storm blew through that brought very harsh westerly winds for most of last weekend. While all the trees survived with minimal damage having rooted well now, most of the seedlings that I had just planted out were devastated.
The skies fell, rivers ran with blood... well, not quite, but there was enough rainfall in less than 24 hours to half-fill the swale that I dug, from really not a huge area to run-off from. Taking this picture in what I thought would be a decent lull in the weather resulted in me getting soaked when the rain came back.
The rhubarb was hit quite hard since the wind would have accellerated slightly over the swale wall with no plant life there yet to slow it.
The asparagus seedlings had their top third simply snapped right over.
This post could almost be re-named "How to do gardening wrong by experimentation and learn from it", but I've already learned in tactics to always keep something in reserve, while I realise that I have a better chance of something succeeding well if I try a little bit of everything, as goes the creative process. To that end I only planted out half of the rhubarb and asparagus seedlings that I grew, the other half I will try to very carefully split out into individual pots, to see if I can grow several single strong plants of each to then plant outside.
Reserve asparagus and rhubarb seedlings; if I can grow several strong plants from them, then I might even be able to give a few to friends.
It wasn't until after planting out blackberry bramble cuttings earlier in the year that I read that the opposite to what I found with willow tree cuttings was true, that thicker chunks of bramble cane are better for vegetative propagation, and so on examining the ones that I stuck out, I found only this one alive and well.
This spiky stick of awesome might one day grow into a hedge covered with delicious fruit.

Also, with blueberry seedlings that similar online instructions said should be quite easy to germinate once they have been cold-stratified for a few weeks, I could only get one to germinate here by surface-sowing stratified seeds onto ericaceous potting mix.
At first I wasn't sure if this was a weed or not, since it looked like others I had seen before and it doesn't help when a cannabis breeder names their unique strain 'blueberry', which then ends up being most of what shows up when I search for images online with the terms 'blueberry seedling'. I'm sure that cannabis strain is probably delicious, but could people please stop naming one curious plant after another? We have enough confusion with that already, what with 'strawberry trees', 'cinnamon basil', 'chocolate mint', etc. Rant aside, that's a grass shoot in the background, which was swiftly destroyed once I realised that.

1 comment:

  1. I ran across a gardening tip today that looked like your style:

    Cool blog...I can't wait to see how you approach DIY power generation.