The blog is back | renovating the kitchen garden

After several years of dormancy, the blog is back up and running.

I have reluctantly dragged myself into the twentieth century – no further, please – and embraced video. As an introvert geek, video is far out of my comfort zone. Indeed, my comfort zone has packed up and left for another galaxy.

I now have a YouTube channel – Jonny’s Kitchen Garden – and have just uploaded the first video: a tour of the garden as it looks now.

Like many, I suppose, we found ourselves stuck at home during the recent lockdowns – in fact, we have hardly left our house since early March last year – and used the time to get on with some household projects, foremost amongst which was a renovation of the kitchen garden.

Much of the original woodwork was in need of repair. Beds edged with gravel boards have a limited life. We have now replaced them with more substantial material and given them a lick of paint too; whether it makes much difference in the long run remains to be seen.

More substantial was the replacement of the old fence. Originally of four inch softwood posts and wire mesh, many of the posts were in a bad way. Even though they were constructed from treated timber and we applied further treatment to the section in the ground, they had decayed quite badly at soil level. A more permanent solution was provided by concrete fence posts and concrete gravel boards. Where we had originally buried wire below ground, we now used two twelve inch gravel boards, one above ground and one below.

Our fencing was originally intended to keep deer and rabbits out of the garden, then later electrified to prevent foxes from either climbing over or digging through when we kept chickens. For years we have battled some tenacious weeds along the boundary fence, particularly where it ran alongside a bramble hedge riddled with nettle and bracken. Roots would drive through the mesh and branches of the brambles would push through and root into the garden. Copious drifts of seed from annual weeds running wild in the ground beyond would blow straight through the fence to pitch on the welcoming surface of our cultivated beds. The fruit cage, located at the far end of the garden, was one of our favourite assets, but was in the very worst location for weeds and keeping them out of our growing space when they were ranging free beyond was a never ending battle.

The new fence – now constructed from concrete posts and two 12″ concrete gravel boards

We decided to make some quite substantial changes and cut the garden more or less in half. The area previously occupied by the chicken enclosure, fruit cage, and polytunnel was excluded from the new layout, the land cleared by digger – months to build but only one day to destroy – and returned to, well, not lawn exactly, but a rough field of weeds of various sorts, but critically one that can be tackled fairly painlessly with the mower. The bramble hedge was cut back and everything tidied up. The new fence now encloses an area that is, hopefully, much easier to maintain and because of the construction of the fence we should get far less weed encroaching on our plot.

Though we lost some growing area, much of the ground in question was taken up by the chicken enclosure. We haven’t had chickens for a few years now – our first ladies gradually succumbed to old age and when we were down to just one we rehomed her with some friends who had a small flock so she wouldn’t be on her own. If we keep chickens again, which we may well do, I would want to construct a large fully enclosed area for them. They had a large run for just a few birds, but when the temporary bird flu restrictions came in a few years ago – just as they have more recently – they had to be isolated from the native bird population and were locked into the much smaller run beneath their coop. Whilst strictly speaking it was large enough for the welfare of the few birds we had left at the time, I did not like to curtail their freedom.

The polytunnel was in need of a new cover and the frame did not really fit sensibly within the new garden layout, being either too wide or too narrow for the existing beds. There was only one area of ground free for a new fruit cage and we decided to repurpose the polytunnel frame to form the basis of the cage. The area in question was previously a dumping ground for stones removed from the vegetable beds and general rubbish and was partly covered in concrete slabs. The slabs were cut down and removed to make space for the old tunnel and much effort put into turning the rather compact and poor soil into something we might be able to grow in. We have started the process of replanting with raspberries and sweet cherries and have other fruit coming in the next month or two.

The old polytunnel frame repurposed as the new fruit cage. The central bed has already been planted with raspberries and sweet cherries added to the right hand border.

Even though we have cut the enclosed area down by perhaps as much as half, we have not really lost any space that we are going to miss. It is still a good size for a kitchen garden and should be able to produce more or less as much as before. The new fruit cage is smaller but we are not unduly attached to the plants that we can no longer accommodate, such as various hybrid berries. Our favourite crops – raspberries, currants, and Japanese wineberries – can all fit into the new site. It will take several years to develop into a productive fruit cage but if all goes well it should be a profitable space in what was once a small piece of wasteland.

Though we lost the east perennial border and the west border where we often grew winter squash and other larger plants that did not fit so well in the narrow vegetable beds, we have gained a new north border. We tend to refer to the north, south, east and west aspects, but the plot is actually facing a little to the south east. I do not think it matters too much for most purposes, except that the north facing border will not be as shady as we first thought. Some plants, such as lettuces, that do not enjoy the heat of summer would be quite happy in a somewhat shady spot and many of the leafy vegetables, such as cabbages and kales, might grow reasonably in a north border, but as this actually faces a little west of north it captures a fair bit of afternoon sun so I am hopeful that it might be quite a useful space. It will be interesting to see in the summer just how much sun it does get and find out which crops will thrive in that area.

The north border is taken from what was the start of the old chicken enclosure so the soil has never been cultivated before. It has been fertilised by the chickens over the years and we have spread a thick layer of horse compost over the top. The soil is still heavy and rather stony so we will avoid certain crops such as carrots and parsnips in this space but will try with crops such as brassicas and leeks. The chicken enclosure did have some rather nasty clumps of bramble and nettle which we cut back from time to time. They were amongst the few plants that the chickens did not eat. We have dug out as much root as we could reasonably manage, but I would not be surprised to find that more returns in the coming year or two. I really must be quite aggressive with it and dig it out thoroughly as soon as it appears; it would be a great shame to allow the brambles and nettles to gain a foothold inside the garden when we have gone to so much trouble to prevent them from encroaching from the outside.

A view of the new ‘north’ border, covered with weed fabric but ready to go in the spring

The video above gives a tour of the renovated garden. I hope to be uploading a variety of videos to the new channel, following our sowing, growing, and harvesting throughout the year, as well as once again adding articles to the blog.

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