By Gareth Miles
The recent Covid19 pandemic has seen many of us lucky enough to have a garden spending much more time outside and has provided a greater opportunity to invest time and energy into our green spaces than is often afforded to us. However, gardening can be an expensive hobby when it comes to procuring seeds, seedlings, plants, compost, topsoil and the like. I like many, I enjoy a peruse in garden centres and often come away with new seeds and plants to introduce to our garden and have been known to probably overspend on the garden every now and again. As such the 2020 lockdown posed new challenges but also opportunities for the amateur gardener, what to do for example when all the garden centres closed, and it was unclear about how long such a shut down would be in place?
The answer was to look more carefully at what garden resources we already had and to think creatively about how to both procure more and utilise items we may not have considered using before. All seed packets have an expiration date marked on them, however like best before dates on food, this doesn’t mean the seeds are no good after this date has passed. We had many seeds that were several years ‘out of date’ but with no immediate access to new seeds (and sowing windows beginning to pass) we did some germination tests. To test ‘out of date’ seeds, to do this simply put them on to a saucer (or if you have some, some folded up kitchen towel) sprinkle on a few seeds and wrap loosely in a bag, put them somewhere warm like an airing cupboard and check a few days later; if you see signs of germination then you know they are fine to sow. It might be surprising to know but the lifespan of a properly dried seed, especially those for fruits and vegetables can be very long. Plants from the onion family may last up to three years, beans 3-5 years, brassicas 3-7 years, tomatoes up to 8 years and cucumbers and melons may last as long as a decade. This of course depends on how seeds are stored. Many people keep seeds outside in garden sheds which can see significant annual temperature fluctuations, and the shed may be prone to damp. The general advice is instead to store in a cool dark place which sees little temperature variation, so for us the small cupboard under the stairs had been perfect.
So, faced with no open garden centres we sowed seeds with varying expiration dates and had significant success; our greenhouse that was bought for my mother for her 21st birthday is now bursting with life. A further way to get seeds from your garden at little to no cost which also minimises waste is through the thriving practice of seed and seedling swapping. Indeed, we swapped lots of cabbage, tomato and chard seeds for things we never had before like beetroot, chickpea and strawberry plants. In the absence of readily available yeast we also traded sourdough starter for cuttings of flowers, and it was a wonderful way to engage with our local community on foot around our village. We even turned our hand to drying our own seeds from melons, squash and pumpkins with their being ample advice online about how to do this effectively.
Other ways to be green in the garden are of course through composting waste from your kitchen rather than buying compost from garden centres. We have had a modestly sized compost heap for several years and must have had hundreds of litres of compost from it and the cat very much enjoys sitting on it when it is covered over the winter. There may be many people that feel their garden is not big enough for a compost heap, but a smaller garden requires less compost, so no matter the size of the garden a compost heap is a worthwhile investment, just scale according to the size of your garden. There is no need to buy one either, four pallets tied together in a square, or 2 pallets cut down to size and reassembled is a free alternative using items that would otherwise be burned or thrown to landfill.
As new parents we drink a lot of coffee and have deployed the grounds in the garden, coffee grounds can contain phosphorus, potassium and other micronutrients beneficial to plants, though do be careful before applying them too liberally. If you have small pets such as rabbits, guinea pigs or hamsters the waste from their cages can also be composted (so long as it is also mixed with green waste). Until recently we had two rabbits who contributed beautifully to our compost heap and after they died, I turned their homemade rabbit cage into a potting table without using a single new screw (lockdown was still in full force). We have scouted for extra discarded materials from local industrial estates and even fashioned our compost heap from old wooden pallets and external doors. Gardens can of course be very thirsty and despite the torrential rain we seemed to have for months last year I have heard whisperings of hosepipe bans so it is worthwhile investing now in water butts to catch and reuse rainfall. If you are lucky, you can pick up such water butts second hand on Facebook or other sharing sites. If you don’t have one, then you can keep out a child’s paddling pool and scoop water from there or save water from your shower or babies baths which tend to not contain any soaps or perfumes which may adversely affect your plants.
There are so many ways you can go about being green in the garden, these are just some we have enjoyed of late. I’d love to hear from you about some of your tips, what has worked and what hasn’t?
You can find me @chronicles_of_dr_daddy.