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Sustainable gardening in the veggie patch

There is nothing nicer than harvesting your own freshly grown vegetables for your food. Having known them from seeds, nurtured them from seedlings, helped them to grow, finally it is time to harvest and savour the flavours that can only be present in freshly picked herbs, salads and vegetables.

This year sadly, many gardeners are finding that slugs and snails are more likely to be enjoying the fruits of their labour than the gardeners themselves. The damp conditions, erratic weather patterns and the cold, windy weather is not ideal for many vegetables to thrive in. Some people have already thrown in the towel for this year due to seedlings ravaged overnight, crops that have been sown simply not growing and, even when they have managed a successful harvest of potatoes, finding that they have not been able to get them to soften up in the cooking process.

Having spent many years gardening halfway up a mountain in Southern Ireland, all of this was pretty much normal for me. I still shiver when I think of the size of the slugs that managed to come up through the kitchen sink plug hole in a morning. Even more bizarre was that in our part of the world, some of the slugs were protected!

Outside our Mother Culture shed, where we work with our worm team to create the Precious Earth probiotic mother cultures, we have created an Upcycled Garden. As we only have concrete in this patch, we have made planters from rescued JCB equipment boxes (as we have the first electric 403 JCB in the country for work in the Mother Culture shed, we have foraging rights) and from pallets. (Some of team Gaia have made fantastic deck chairs from the pallets as well, which are great for a tea break if it coincides with sunshine.)

Filled with a mixture of Precious Earth and organic bark mulch compost, the results have been incredible.

The colours of the oakleaf lettuces with the dark green of the Black Tuscan kale, the bright greens of the heritage tomatoes and the coriander and other herbs and bee friendly flowers in the planters are simply stunning. Even on a grey day, they are so bright and vivid that it makes me pause and pat myself on the back for having created something that is so good for these plants to grow in! Every lunchtime, there are handfuls of fresh herbs and salads to pick and use (even more so as some of the team won't touch the oak leaf lettuces as they are "the wrong colour"!). No slugs or snails have made it across the forecourt and it's all doing brilliantly.

So, in true Celtic fashion, when offered an allotment plot in the local community garden at the end of June, for a bargain price of £10; one that had been left to grow wild since last year, I decided that I would take it on as a challenge for the weekends. What a bargain!

The lovely community garden is just one field away from the edge of the coast path, buffeted by winds from the Irish sea and was an offering of 8 foot high docks (already gone to seed), nettles and brambles, bindweed and more.

Apparently no one has had any success with peas this year. I had already ordered 2 packets of organic peas from Chiltern Seeds, so this is also going to add to the challenge. Here is my patch:

The first bed was cleared at the beginning of July; I pulled up the bindweed and grasses as much as I could, knowing that even a little bit of root of "Devilweed" would grow, I decided to layer it over with cardboard to try to help the seeds get a head start. As I didn't have compost with me (it was a weekend) but did have some boxes of Precious Earth, I decided to try an experiment. This experiment is to see if I can grow my vegetables in 1 cm of Precious Earth mother culture, over a layer of cardboard. Madness, sheer madness.

A few gardens ago, I successfully grew delicious beetroots, carrots, red onions and garlic in a 1 inch layer of compost mixed with my magic what was to become the Precious Earth recipe. These root crops slowly grew down through the cardboard layer into the soil below that was enriched with the worms and microbiology from my mix. However, I am quailing at what I am attempting now!

My challenge with only using the Precious Earth is that I have to make sure that the cardboard layer is kept watered. So far, Mother Nature has been kindly giving a helping hand on that score, and after one week since sowing, I am happy to announce that the radishes are growing, bless them!

As this first bed is a box inside a box (the allotments are timber framed), in between the 2 planks of wood, way down below the creeping buttercups, is, I can only imagine a heavenly duplex for slugs and snails to live in. Thankfully as there are still some good hedges on the sea side of the gardens, there are enough blackbirds and thrushes to keep down the snails. When I next went to visit, they had left me some empty shells as evidence on my newly cleared patch. As their songs are some of the sweetest in a dawn chorus, I am happy to donate as many slugs and snails as needed for their ongoing happiness. We also have a good number of starlings around here who also enjoy a snack of slugs and snails. Gardening with nature works so much better than trying to fight her. Creating a pond in a garden is fantastic to encourage toads and frogs to eat the slugs as well. I had previously thought that as it's an allotment, this would not be possible, but even a shallow tub can host all sorts of life, and provide drinking water for hedgehogs and other creatures.

On the no dig patch, I have sown spring (!) onions and chives around the edges ( a valiant attempt at companion planting to deter root fly on the carrots and have a little barrier before the seedlings emerge (hopefully). Inside, I have sown the aforementioned radishes (huzzah), beetroots, onions and some red orache as they can still be sown at this time of the year.

Where I have cleared more of the patch, I have sown peas: one row in Precious Earth and a second in the untreated soil. I have also mixed Precious Earth into another patch I managed to clear last weekend and have sown fennel seeds into this. Around the sides of the peas, I have sown the left over wildflower seeds and at the back of the patch, to replace the docks, I have sown borage. These beautiful blue " starflowers" are fantastic for bees and look lovely in salads and summer drinks. So fingers crossed it grows, there's sun and the birds keep feasting on the slugs and snails.

It's been terrible weather for bees and butterflies and other essential pollinators too. The Big Butterfly Count begins on the 12th July until the 4th August

Many people are saying how few they have seen around the country. If you are lucky enough to have some, please avoid using any chemicals that still seem to be on the shelves of most garden stores.

I had a lovely Tortoiseshell butterfly join me on the allotment last weekend. She stayed around for a long time as my spirits were flagging. A reminder that what we all do in our gardens and allotments is important, not just for our well being, but for the natural world.

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