Home and Garden

This list is by no means exhaustive, but it aims to cover simple things that can be done to minimize waste of all types, and save money. One of the most worrying things is the amount and the varieties of plastic that reach our oceans. Another, is the need to save on those products produced from oils - oils have better uses than being made into plastic containers, especially when there are acceptable alternatives. NB Top Tips on this page are found in, or at the end of, each section.

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There are many thousands of books on Gardening and this site does not aim to duplicate them. I hope that the hints that follow will simply encourage those who have not tried growing their own vegetables, or even flowers, to have a go. Most of the tips below also assume that a spacious garden is not available, and that the growing will have to be done in containers of some sort. However, all these tips are also relevent for consideration by allotment gardeners.

This gardening section includes information on: planting position and requirements; growing tips; fertilizers; seed saving; fruit gathering and Top Tips that have appeared on the Home Page.

The first consideration concerns where to site your plants.

  • Plants need the warmth of the sun for their leaves and flowers, but cool dampness for their roots.
  • Coolness comes with depth and a grow bag is just about deep enough, so long as the surface does not get the full summer sun. Obviously if you want to grow carrots of any length, then you will need soil of at least 30cms (1 foot) in depth.
  • Plants wilt when the evaporation of water from their leaves is greater than the uptake of available water from their roots.
  • Plants die if their roots are water-logged. This happens because the root cells need to absorb oxygen from the air spaces in the soil and if all the spaces between the soil particles are filled up with water, then the roots do not get enough oxygen - except for those that have evolved to live on very low oxygen levels e.g.Bullrushes. Oxygen is the gas that powers all the cells in plants and animals, and by doing so enables the process known as Cellular Respiration that provides the energy for the cells to work.
  • Some plants need aerial support e.g. peas and beans and so their container needs to be sited so that you can erect a trellis of some sort beside them. It may be enough to erect a frame with 3 sticks and dangle strings from the cross bar which the plants will twine around and grow up; or tie sticks into a teepee shape, planting one or two plants/seeds at the base of each stick.
  • Shelter from the mid-day sun could be provided by the leaves of a nearby tree or shrub.

The next consideration concerns how to grow plants from seed. The instructions on the packet provide specific guidance for growing that variety of plant; however, the following guidance applies to all plants.

  • Soil air: Before sowing the seeds or 'planting on' the seedlings, ensure that the soil is firm but full of air. This is easily done by forking over the damp soil and then pressing down on the surface - hands or the back of a spade work fine.
  • Weed suppression: To ensure that the soil gets plenty of air - and therefore oxygen - it is inadvisable to cover the surface with the intention of conserving water or suppressing weeds, unless you leave a good air gap e.g. by using a cloche/polythene tunnel. The exception are strawberries, which if planted through a hole in black plastic sheet (or used poly bags opened out) will prevent the fruit from picking up fungal spores from the soil and help to keep slugs at bay - their trails are easily seen! Old hessian sacking was ideal,but difficult to get now, unless it is reincarnated in the move away from oil-based plastic. In general the leaves of your plants will prevent the growth of weeds underneath them, so you will only have to weed between the plants, a job that is of course more onerous when the plants are young.
  • Watering: If planting through a plastic ground cover, then water applied over the top will not reach the soil. If watering directly over the plant, water may collect in the crown and cause rotting. Therefore, it is best to poke the end of the hose pipe under the plastic at each site and allow a trickle to run over the soil around the plant. Always water around the base of the plant, never over the leaves. The process of photosynthesis relies on the evaporation of water from the underside of the leaves, which in turn draws water up through the plant from the roots. This process of evaporation from the leaves is slowed down and can be stopped completely, when the surrounding humidity is too high.
  • Sowing seeds and planting seedlings: There are a lot of seeds in each packet; and unless you are very unlucky, 97% of them can be expected to germinate and form a viable seedling - seeds from previous years will have a lower germination percentage. If one sows the seeds close together, then most of the seedlings will fail; either because of competition from their siblings; or because any diseases e.g. a 'Seedling Blight' that can readily spread along the line; or because you have to remove a whole cluster of seedlings so that there is enough space for one plant to root properly. The secret is to plant at the spacings that will be needed for the leaves of the mature plants' to just touch. Carrots can be planted closer, as every second plant can be thinned to produce a tasty first crop of little carrots, leaving space for the remainder to grow on.
  • Planting at wide spacings will make it difficult for the uninitiated to distinguish the good seedlings from the inevitable weed seedlings; so every time you put in a seed, accompany it with a sliver of wood e.g. from an ice cream stick and placed about 1cm away. This only has to last long enough for you to be able to identify your seedlings' leaves.
  • In order not to lose valuable space; and to confuse both soil and aerial pests that tend to eat only one species, it is a good idea to mix plants up in the row e.g. carrots and cabbages at 10cm spacings, as the carrots will be harvested earlier, leaving more space for the cabbages; and they are not attacked by the same pests. Onions and garlic are also useful to plant with carrots for the same reason; but if planting them between cabbages be aware that they need full sun on the bulbs in order to dry out properly - one can always carefully cut and eat the outer leaves off the growing cabbages to prevent them shading their neighbours. Onions also like the warmth of the sun on damp soil to swell to their full size, followed by dry soil to harden the skins.
  • For salad varieties try preparing two containers and staggering the planting in each. To avoid the development of diseases and pest build up in the soil, don't re-plant the same species in the same container until you have grown a second species in that container.

Fertilizers - why needed and what

  • When one removes plants to eat, then one is also removing all the nutrients that they have taken up from the soil. They need more than a supply of water, oxygen and carbon dioxide. Like humans and other animals, they need to make proteins, enzymes and hormones (plant); and the minerals/trace elements used in these are taken up by the roots, and then completely removed from the soil when the crop is harvested. These minerals need to be returned to the soil for the use of the next crop and the several ways of doing this are discussed in the next point. Plants need a source of nitrogen (N) for strong leaf growth, phosphates (P) for good root growth and potash (K) for good production of flowers and seeds - go light on this unless you actually want the plants to seed - plus a full range of trace elements e.g. magnesium, iron, zinc and copper to name but a few. These are all available in a good soil i.e. one that has developed over time due to erosion of the bed rock, flooding with nutrient rich river waters, plant growth and decay. However, if you are growing in peat, grow bags, compost or an artificial medium, then both trace elements and NPK are likely to be missing, or quickly depleted as the growing season progresses.
  • To replace these removed nutrients, a good balanced fertilizer is essential for the continued fertility of the soil. Over the millennia two main methods of doing this have developed. In the earliest, the manure from the animals fed on the crops has been spread over the fields and gardens, together with the 'night soil' from the human habitation, providing a good source of NPK for the soils. Composting was not common until recent times, for the simple reason that any waste vegetables/crops were fed to the livestock: cattle, pigs and poultry all getting their share; and garden prunings and weeds were burnt in a bonfire to prevent the spread of weed seeds and plant diseases to the following crops. Now-a-days, instead of burning to control disease, too many gardeners and farmers are forced to use a variety of industrially produced pesticides. These often contain chemicals that are not good for the health of those who come into contact with them, and frequently pollute our fresh waters, damaging the food webs that support our fisheries. Ash from a bonfire is rich in P and K, and as such is a valuable fertilizer in its own right. However, where soil is poor, or dries out too quickly becoming rock hard, then a well rotted/cooked compost provides an absorbent fibre-rich addition to the soil when forked in and effectively returns all the nutrients removed by the composted plants while they were growing. Compost is not difficult to produce; just make a pile of leaves, grass, weeds and finely chopped prunings, surround these with chicken wire or a wooden frame (to keep rats out) yet let the air in. I always add a sprinkling of lime (calcium carbonate) between loads or at least every 30cms this prevents the pH (acidity) from falling and becoming too acid for the benign bacteria, tiny soil insects and worms that decompose the compost material over the following 6 - 12 months. Since one constantly has stuff to add, it is a good idea to run two compost heaps side by side, fill the first for 6 months, and leave for 6 months whilst you fill the second; then spread and dig in the compost from the first, and fill it again before emptying the second. It will be most useful to have fresh compost available in spring and late autumn. Finally in the last century, modern man has mined rocks and made artificial fertilizers as a by product of our chemical industry. These fertilizers have made it possible to produce the high yields needed to feed our hugh population.
  • If growing indoors a liquid fertilizer is best as it will gradually reach the roots each time you water. But if growing out of doors, a granular fertilizer sprinkled over the surface will be gradually activated by the rain and dew, whereas a liquid one might very quickly be washed to the bottom of the container or soil profile and out of the reach of the roots. NB Farmyard manure that has matured for at least 6 months and is then spread over the surface, provides the slowest release of nutrients over the season and it does not have to be mined or transported long distances, plus it is cheaper! Beware that fresh manure will quickly contain lots of fly and beetle larvae, many of which will attack your seedlings, or potatoes thus destroying your crop. It can also be rather acidic e.g. poultry/pig manures; and the nutrients are not as readily available to plants as they are when it has matured.

Guide to Saving Seed for the next year's crop

The following guidance applies to vegetables and fruit; however, it can equally be applied to all other garden and wild plants, even trees. Seeds form when a flower is fertilized by pollen which either blows onto it from the surrounding air, or is carried to the stigma of the flower by a foraging insect - even small flies can be useful pollinators. Luckily the stigma only 'accepts' pollen from the same species; so you can guarantee that your apple pip will only grow into an apple tree, even if pollen grains from pear trees or daffodils have landed on the same stigma. However, there is no guarantee that the partner's pollen is the same variety - winds can transport pollen for hundreds of miles!. The pip, from your Braeburn eating apple, could have been formed following fertilization by pollen from a crab apple in a neighbouring hedge row, or a Bramley cooker. Thus the apples produced by your seedling tree might be useless, interesting, useable, or a wonderful new variety! This applies to all species and varieties of plants, very few are reliably self pollinating.

  • Do not dry seeds in an oven. Even the lowest setting will cook the protein in the embryo, thus killing the seed.
  • Never use plastic/polythene bags, as seed heads and seeds respire, releasing water vapour. The presence of water droplets in the bag will allow any fungal spores or bacteria that blew onto the plant to grow. Some of these will be pathogens and your seeds will either become mouldy, or the seedlings that they produce will succumb to one of the several seedling diseases.
  • Find a string/netting bag in which paper bags can be stored. Hang this in a cool, dark, airy place where it cannot be reached by rodents or beetles and do not forget to check it regularly just in case some of the seed gets damp and mould appears. Should this happen, it is best to remove mouldy seeds or bags immediately and burn. The drier, cooler and more stable the temperature, the more likely it is that the seeds will retain their viability over the winter.
  • Seeds from pod bearing plants. If left on the plant, these will split open when ripe e.g. peas. When young and ready to eat, the pods are bright green and fleshy. The trick is to leave the pod on the plant until it appears to be dry and has lost its colour - if shaken the seeds inside will rattle. At this stage remove the pods, split them open and place the peas, out of the sun, on a tray lined with a piece of paper where they can be left for a week or so. When you are sure that they are dry, transfer them to a labelled paper bag and store this in the string bag.
  • Seeds from inside fleshy fruit/vegetables. Normally, in the absence of humans, these plants expect that, if tasty, their seeds will pass through the gut of an animal/bird and be deposited suitably softened with a large dollop of fertilizer (manure/dung), so giving them all the nutrients they need for fast germination and growth. If not tasty, the flesh is designed to protect the seed from being eaten by an animal, yet still provide it with soil enhanced by the nutrients from the rotted flesh. Naturally these may lie on the ground over winter, and so are likely to require the fridge/freezer treatment.
  • Naked Seeds or those in small bud-like cases like garlic and onions, will almost always shed onto the ground, unless the flower is confined. Ideally make a few small bags from muslin/old pillow case, and tie these in place, upside down over the flower - tie firmly at the bottom without damaging the stem. The idea is to let air through to the ripening seed head while collecting the ripened seeds. To remove the bag, first shake the stem and check that the seeds have fallen out. Next bend the stem over or break it off. The bag can now be opened without the seeds falling out. Finally dry and remove any remaining bits of the flower (glumes) by rubbing the seeds a handful at a time and blowing away the bits. The much heavier grain will stay in your hands or a shallow bowl - when done on a farm scale this is called 'winnowing' and now-a-days is just one of the processes performed by the combine. Store as for the other seeds.
  • Seed Treatments. As a rule, seeds produced early in the year will have naturally germinated by the autumn, whether they are from annuals, biennials (life cycle lasts 2 years) or perennials (life cycle repeats over several years). However, only rarely will they have enough time to grow and fruit before the winter. Most seed lies dormant during the frosts of winter, and only germinates with the warmth of spring, if it has not been eaten first. This means that many seeds will need to spend a month in the fridge or at 5 - 10°C or even a week in the freezer, before they can germinate. The habit of cooling for a period tells the seed that it has passed through the winter and it will now germinate when planted in a greenhouse/sunroom, thus allowing you to get an early crop. If such a seed is not vernalized (subjected to cold temperatures), it may germinate, but promptly bolt i.e. produce only a few leaves and then send up a seed head. This is also a normal reaction to stress i.e. the plant decides to put its energy into reproduction rather than the storage of food for the next year's growth. Tree seeds, cereals and many temperate species require this period of cooling before they will germinate. So if you want a second crop of wheat, collect seed from the first harvest, put it in the kitchen freezer for a week, then plant and hope that the summer weather continues for long enough to get a second crop - best done in the tropics.
  • Germination depends on the outside of the seed letting water penetrate to the embryo of the seed, so that sugars can be mobilized and growth can start. Deposited on the soil surface, the outside of the seed is naturally abraded by the soil particles, dust and stones, as they are moved around by wind and rain. However, when the seed has been collected from the plant, this abrasion has to be carried out by gently rubbing the seeds between 2 sheets of fine sand paper; or if a nut, by scratching the surface with a sharp knife. Peas and beans do not usually need such treatment; and if live, will start to swell if left for a couple of days between sheets of damp blotting paper. If soaking them in water, do not continue this for more than 24 hours or you will starve them of oxygen and they will be more likely to rot than to grow.

Hedge Fruit; here are a few environmentally friendly tips for getting the best of the end of season fruit:

  • Birds of the hedgerows and gardens love the small berries e.g. rowan, elder, hawthorn and Pyrocantha.
  • Soft fruit e.g. Blackberries and wild Raspberries are browsed by cattle, deer, goats, as well as phesants and mice (especially when they fall to the ground). They also provide food for birds and spiders by attracting a large number of flies, who come to lay their eggs in the ripening fruit. However, the birds don't actually eat the fruit, just the insects; so most of the fruit on the urban brambles just rots if not picked by humans for jams, jellies, pies and wine etc.
  • When picking for jams and wine only pick blackberries that: get full sun; are dry; are firm to the touch; look black and are shiny not dull.
  • As you pick them always check the stalk end. It should be firm and show a centre that is creamy to light green in colour. Discard any fruit where the central disc is squishy or coloured as these are likely to be hosting a maggot - harmless to all diners, but perhaps not a normal ingredient in your jam!
  • Never pick all the ripe berries in an area, so that there is always a mouthful for other passers by.

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Top Tips

Watering plants in hot weather

put up on 8 July 2013

Root hairs take up water from the soil; they are single-celled, microscopic, very delicate; and are killed if they dry out at the surface. If you water the surface of your soil, most will grow up to the surface and die, thus depriving the plants of water. To avoid this cut the bottoms off some 1 litre plastic bottles; dig a small hole (c. 10cms) to take and support the open top of each beside the plants to be watered. Now pour about a mug of water into each and repeat every evening when the sun has set. In this way the water goes to the roots where it is needed and does not all evaporate from the soil surface. NB some root hairs will always come to the surface to catch the dew. House plants should also be watered at the bottom, except for ferns - these need a sprinkling of water over the plant itself. Never water when the sun is on the ground!

June 2013: Thinking of laying down a patio over your town garden - think again

Heat Reflection is important. White, concrete or shiny surfaces reflect heat back into the atmosphere. Therefore, when you are sitting out on the patio, you are liable to get hotter than you are comfortable with, as are your plants; and you will be returning more heat to the atmosphere. Agricultural research on yards for livestock, in the tropics (1970s), found that Bos taurus cattle e.g. Friesians on concrete, tend to develop skin and udder cancers, whereas their more heat tolerant Bos indicus relatives do not. But both do best on a baked brown earth - nature's solution to the problem.

For anyone interested in a large garden/small holding (1 or 5ac.), think seriously about purchasing a copy of Self Sufficiency by John Seymour (1976 & 1996). It is full of all the information that you will need for your garden and home - only renewable energy systems are developing so fast that this book can not keep up!

The main garden pruning season has arrived Woody prunings could be either disposed of in Landfill, or burnt in biomass boiler, or composted.

The first option will eventually give bacteria a source of organic food in our increasingly separated waste.

The second option can provide kindling/firing for an open fire or log burning stove. Remember that all wood will require to be dried or seasoned i.e. left in a pile for 6 - 12 months before burning. If this is not done the high sap content - even in winter trimmings - will be enough to leave a sticky tarry deposit in your chimneys.

The third option requires the prunings to be cut into short lengths of approximately 3inches (7cms) or less and then sandwiched in a good layer of autumn leaves or grass cuttings. Before covering, a sprinkle of Lime (CaCO3) should be placed over the single layer of sticks. This encourages a suitably alkaline pH to encourage the bacteria to break the material down into a good compost.

  • For Vegetable Growers and Farmers: in times when radioactive particles may travel around the world from a nuclear accident, the danger is that radioactive caesium-137 will be taken up by plant roots. As chemists will know, this is an element from Group I of the Periodic Table and in the absence of sufficient potassium in the soil, it will be taken up by plant roots. If, however, the soil has excess potassium provided as potash in a compound fertilizer, then the roots will take up the potassium in preference to the larger caesium atom. Wood ash is also rich in potassium and is equally effective at blocking the uptake of casium. So anyone growing salad crops, vegetables or any other food crops should ensure that their soil has adequate potassium this spring. Similarly, if the radioactive element released is strontium - a Group II element - then one needs to ensure that the soil has a good supply of calcium in the form of lime. In locations close to the accident where radioactive iodine-131 (half-life 8 days) is falling, then the only remedy is a prophylatic dose of ordinary iodine-126.9.
  • Potatoes should be in the ground or tubs now or in the very near future. It is worth remembering that the sooner the leaves appear and get working, the greater the yield can be; so initially place only a couple of inches of soil over the seed potato. After the first leaves appear carefully add more soil, keeping the leaves only just in sight! Continue adding soil until you have a nice pile of soil over the line of your potatoes, or reach the top of your tub. As you bury the stem, more potato producing side shoots will be initiated. However, late frosts can damage early leaves, so timely covering of the tubs with bubble wrap will protect the leaves on a cold night. Fertilizer, or farmyard manure should always be placed beneath a thin covering of soil underneath the seed potato; as it is the roots from the bases of the buds on the seed potato that take up the nutrients - NPK (nitrates, phosphates and potash).
  • A quick tip for potato growers. Once potatoes start flowering they will have initiated tuber growth. Therefore, from this time on the size of the tubers will depend on the plant getting enough water. Soak the soil surface well each evening. If in pots do not let the plant stand in water. In both cases; do not water the leaves, and do not water in the morning.
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  • Bars of soap are getting hard to buy. Instead one is enticed to buy the same sort of ingredients, with a lot of extra water, sold in a neat plastic bottle with a dispenser at the top and designed to be thrown away when emptied. It would be possible to use a plain plastic bottle of recyclable plastic. But better still why pay such a high price for water; buy a bar of soap instead, and add the water as required.
  • When buying products in plastic bottles ensure that they are recyclable and urge the local district council to allow all such bottles to be collected and sent for recycling.
  • Plastic biros have become a fashion statement for children - quick turn-over and high profit - one can no-longer buy Refills. Why not campaign for a plain range of biros to be sold in conjunction with refills. Then one is not forced to throw away a perfectly useable outer just because the ink containing bit has run out.
  • Consider use of a fountain pen with an ink filler mechanism and a bottle of ink rather than buying endless ink cartridges. When using a bottle of ink, note that the bottle is glass and definitely recyclable. The bit of ink in the bottom can be tipped into the next bottle and so on i.e. there is no waste and one can continue to use the same favourite pen.
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  • Use of disinfectants: consider letting the bugs, which live in your waste water pipes, survive for at least a week before you dose them with a proprietary disinfectant, killer of all life. This would not only save on the bills and plastic, but would benefit the treatment of sewage and would not endanger your health. The breakdown of sewage in the sewerage works relies on simple life forms e.g. bacteria and protozoans (tiny single-celled life forms); and they are not helped by the arrival of masses of home bug-killing products used on kitchen and bathroom surfaces.
  • Our overly fastidious habits in dealing with dust and bugs have been blamed for the fact that many of our children now suffer from so many small ailments and asthma. This conclusion is not ridiculous, as many children's immune systems are weakened by not having the sort of continuous, harmlessly low levels of challenge that they would have got several decades ago.
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  • Use energy saving light bulbs; unless you feel that the small amount of mercury that they contain, means that they cause more damage to the environment than the extra energy used by the plain filament type of bulb. It is also worth bearing in mind that over the life of 1 energy saving bulb, you would have to buy 3+ filiament bulbs, meaning that 3+ times as much energy is used in manufacture - though that assumes that both types of bulb can be manufactured for the same energy input. The jury is still out as to which is worse for the environment. However, as LED lighting improves, LED bulbs may take over and make the argument academic.
  • Save electricity by switching off all filament bulbs as one leaves the room. The Energy Saving bulbs should be left on, unless one is not going to use the room for more than half an hour. This is because the start-up energy used by the energy saving bulb is roughly the same as half an hour of running the filiament bulb. Like all florescent lighting, energy saving bulbs use more energy in the start-up/warming up stage than they do per min. thereafter.
  • Heat the rooms you are using, but turn the heating off in those rooms not currently in use. Most modern radiators can be adjusted, so set those that you don't need to the frost setting
  • Instead of leaving the heating on constant, Turn the heating on for an hour when you need it, and then turn it off. If you turn it off when the burner is going, then you will also turn off the pump. This means that the hot water that has just reached your radiator is not promptly pumped off around the circuit to cool in the unlagged lengths of piping in the walls, and your radiator will continue to radiate heat for at least a further half hour!
  • Persuade your family and friends that jerseys, and fleeces are fashion items that can be used in the house - shirt sleeves and shorts are not normal house wear unless it is summer!
  • Refer to the Section on Energy Saving and remember that a healthy house needs to have air circulation. If the circulation is not sufficient, then oxygen levels fall, carbon dioxide levels rise and damp becomes a problem. So when the heating is off, open the windows and freshen the air in the room by letting in some air from the outside.
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  • Minimize electrical use for cooking by adding a Steamer(s) over the boiling potatoes in order to cook the vegetables.
  • Use a Pressure cooker for stews and jams etc. as this means that the cooking takes less time.
  • Use a Microwave for cooking and heating anything that does not require the oven, or grill. NB there are things like Rice and Pasta that taste much better when cooked on the hob and for which the cooking time is virtually the same.
  • Boil only the amount of water that you need at a time; or put the remaining water in a vacuum flask ready for the next hot drink! Not all drinks need boiling water that then has to cool before you can drink it.

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