Tag Archive: manure

Winter Jasmine looking good

Winter Jasmine looking good

I wish all my blog followers and casual readers a very Happy 2020!!

Though a little hampered by arthritis, and lots of other stuff going on, I can look back to last year with some pleasure at what I’ve achieved…both in Old School Garden (like my new shed!) and in supporting others in their endeavours, most notably the Papillon Project, creating allotments at High Schools across Norfolk.

I’ve said before, you might think that January is a month when there’s not much to do in the garden; well there are some useful things you can get stuck into. So here are my top ten tips (with a ‘grow your own food’ angle and with thanks to various websites):

Chitting potatoes- probably only worth doing for first or second earlies. Place tubers with blunter ends upwards (the ones with most ‘eyes’) and place in trays in a cool but well- lit place towards the end of the month.

chitting pots

1. The answer is in the soil.

Remove all plant debris, to reduce the spread of disease and pests. If you need to, continue preparing ground and digging beds ready for next season, but only if the ground is still workable (don’t dig if the soils is wet or heavily frosted).

2. Don’t let the rot set in.

Check your stored fruit and vegetables carefully, for rot will pass easily one to another. Empty sacks of potatoes, checking them for rot and any slugs that might have been over-wintering unnoticed. Your nose is a good indicator, often you will smell rot even if it is not immediately apparent to the eye! Also check strung onions- rot usually starts from the underside of the onion.

 3. Enjoy your winter veg.

Continue harvesting Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, cabbages, celeriac, celery, chard, endive, kale, leeks, parsnips, turnips, winter lettuce, winter spinach, turnips. As you harvest brassicas, dig up the stems and turn the ground over. Because the compost heap will be cold and slow at this time of year, you can always bury these in the bottom of a trench along with some kitchen waste to prepare for the runner beans later in the year.

Red cabbage- lovely sliced and steamed with apple and onion in a little water, wine vinegar and sugar…

Red cabbage- lovely sliced and steamed with apple and onion in a little water, wine vinegar and sugar...

 4. Get ahead of the game.

Continue to sow winter salad leaves indoors/ under glass/ cloches- make your stir fries and salads more interesting with easy-to-grow sprouting seeds. If not already done and the weather is mild, plant garlic, onion sets and sow broad beans (e.g. Aquadulce ‘Claudia’) for early crops. Order or buy seed potatoes and start chitting (sprout) seed potatoes. Herbs are easy to grow on your windowsill and provide fresh greens all year round.

5. Not mushroom?

It’s surprisingly easy to grow your own mushrooms – try growing a mushroom log in your garden or alternatively grow some indoors using mushroom kits.


Mushroom logs can make you a fun guy…!

6. Rhubarb, Rhubarb.

Consider dividing well established plants, and at the first signs of growth, cover to exclude light if you want ‘forced’ rhubarb over the next couple of months (growing the variety ‘Timperley Early’ may mean you get rhubarb in February anyway).

 7. The hardest cut.

Continue pruning out dead or diseased shoots on apple and pear trees, prune newly planted cane fruit, vines and established bush fruit if not already done. Continue planting new fruit trees and bushes if the soil conditions allow. If the ground is too waterlogged or frozen, keep bare rooted plants in a frost free cool place ensuring the roots don’t dry out.

8. Clean up.

If not already done, make sure your greenhouse is thoroughly cleaned inside and out and that any seed trays and pots you plan to use are also cleaned and inspected for pests- e.g. slugs and snails.

9. Fail to plan and you plan to fail.

Plan out what you are going to grow in the coming season and order seed catalogues.

pback1_1380165c 10. Put your back into it.

If you must dig, look after your back- remember to warm up and limber up before you do anything strenuous and try to bend your knees to ensure your legs take the strain – and not your back!

Old School Gardener


‘Carry, & spread dung & compost.’

John Evelyn 1686 (published 1932)

Old School Gardener

rhs compostMulch- a layer of natural material spread thickly over the soil cuts down the need for watering, reduces weeding and protects and improves the soil. Mulch matting is also available from most nurseries and garden centres and can be an effective way to conserve moisture and prevent weeds.

Six types of loose mulch

  1. Bark chippings- attractive, but expensive (unless you have a supply from your own felled timber or know a friendly tree surgeon who will give you a load for free). Large chunks will last a long time and don’t blow around, though deep wood chips won’t rot quickly. Use chippings that are at least a year old as the early rotting process will ‘rob’ the soil of nitrogen.

  2. Cocoa shells- pricey but has more nutrients than most mulches. They bond together when wet so they won’t blow away.

  3. Garden compost, manure and leaf mould- free, but soon rots away. Can spread weeds unless well broken down. Compost and well-rotted manure add goodness to the soil as well as improving and protecting it, leaf mould acts as a protective layer and improves soil texture, but is less nutritious.

  4. Grass clippings- free, but turns yellow and can introduce weeds. In wet weather, they can become slimy.

  5. Composted bark- attractive, but can blow around and may support wind-borne weed seeds. Does not last as long as chipped bark.

  6. Gravel- attractive, and long -lasting, but does not add organic matter to the soil. Various grades available.

Oh, and straw can also be used around vegetables and of course strawberries (to conserve moisture and protect ground laying fruit), and if you can get hold of it, shredded paper also works!

Shredded paper mulch around dahlias

Shredded paper mulch around dahlias

No-Dig gardening, Sheet Mulching and Hugelkultur

Sheet mulching, No-dig gardens and Hugelkultur have a fair bit in common; basically using organic matter in large quantities to provide a rich growing medium without the need for digging. It depends what school of gardening you’re from as to what your preference is, coupled with your conditions.

No dig gardens rely on adding copious layers of organic material over the soil without digging it, allowing the mulch to break down and form a rich top soil, into which vegetables and fruit can be directly planted. You need lots of organic material.

Sheet mulching

Sheet mulching

Sheet mulching (or ‘lasgane gardening’) has a similar premise to no-dig. Smother the undesirable plants, mulch heavily, make a ‘lasagne’ of carbon and compost, and plant lots. A good initial burst of energy brings minimal labour further down the line!



Hugelkultur (‘hill culture’) are no-dig raised beds with a difference. They hold moisture, build fertility, maximise surface volume and are great spaces for growing fruit, vegetables and herbs.

Effective mulching

Apply at the right time- mulches need to be in place by mid spring when the soil is at its wettest but is no longer cold. There is no point applying a mulch in dry summer conditions because it will stop moisture from getting to the plants and they will require even more watering than usual. Applying compost or well-rotted manure to fruit bushes and trees in the autumn and early spring will give them a boost, and applying leaf mould to bare soil in Autumn can be an effective protective layer to reduce the leaching away of nutrients in the soil during wet winters.

Apply the right thickness- to ensure effective weed control, apply a minimum thickness of loose organic material or gravel of 5cm (ideally 7cm) straight onto the soil surface.

Feed and water plants- add fertiliser before applying a mulch in spring time. Lay a seep hose under mulch matting so that you can supply water easily if needed.

Mulch in rows- when planting vegetables or bedding plants in rows, lays strips of mulch matting along the bed between the plants rather than planting them through the matting.

Problems with Mulches

  • Some mulches can be unsightly or troublesome when scattered by foraging birds

  • All mulches provide refuge for slugs and some types are a refuge for snails

  • If mulches are laid in direct contact with tree stems they can cause it to soften, making it vulnerable to disease

  • A build up of mulch can produce a hard layer, which is difficult for water to penetrate. Avoid this by only replacing mulch when it has rotted away or fork the remaining mulch into the soil

The outcome of piling mulch up around tree stems- 'volcanoes'

The outcome of piling mulch up around tree stems- ‘volcanoes’

Sources and further information:

‘Short Cuts to Great Gardens’- Reader’s Digest 1999

RHS- Mulches and mulching

RHS- Fruit Trees- feeding and mulching

Milkwood blog– S is for Sheet mulching

Permaculture – Hugelkultur

Proper mulching- no mulch volcanoes

Old School Gardener

WP_20150122_12_03_53_ProMy latest session as a volunteer gardener with the National Trust at Blickling Hall involved working in another area of the gardens- the Winter Garden, which I think was planted up a few years ago as an area to feature colourful stems, fragrance and flowers at this quiet time of the year in the garden.

Work in the Walled Garden has been continuing, however, and with a few frosty nights it has been possible to move and spread the rest of the farmyard manure over the beds. As you can see below, this has helped to give definition to these planting areas…

Muck spreading in the Walled Garden- get to work worms! Picture: Michael Owers

Muck spreading in the Walled Garden- get to work worms! Picture: Michael Owers

For gardener Rebecca, me and the other ‘Thursday volunteers’, this week involved raking off a thick quilt of Sweet Chestnut and other leaves, tidying up spent stems and foliage and sprucing up the Hellebores…. as well as uncovering the first snowdrops. When I say ‘quilt’ I’m not joking – I just hope the plants underneath haven’t been as shocked as I have been, recently, emerging from under my own quilt in the frosty mornings!

So, for me the day that was spent almost entirely raking and loading leaves into trailers to be carried away for turning into leaf mould. Definitely one that required a ‘Radox Bath’ on my return home!

Even though it was repetitive work, it was also very satisfying, showing off this lovely garden with its over-arching trees and understory of shrubs and winter perennials- and hopefully giving some of the plants a good chance to ‘pick up’ as the seasons move on.

Further information:

Blickling Hall website

Blickling Hall Facebook page

A 360 degree tour of Blickling Hall

Old School Gardener


Volunteers tidying the kitchen garden beds at Blickling Hall

Volunteers tidying the kitchen garden beds at Blickling Hall

My second day as a volunteer gardener with the National Trust at Blickling Hall involved cleaning up the recently used kitchen garden, and along the way meeting some of the other garden volunteers… oh, and uncovering some plant mysteries…

You may recall that last week I helped Project Manager Mike and gardener Rebecca to make a start in preparing the ground in the main walled garden. With lots of rain since then there had been little chance of doing much more- in fact there were sections that were reminiscent of a World War I trench system, complete with mud and puddles!

‘Ooh, there’s a row of something…’

So, today we turned our attention to the long bed along the south-facing wall, an area that in recent years had been cultivated as a kitchen garden and nursery bed. There were clearly areas of bare soil, some  a bit weedy, whilst other areas still had the remains of last season’s plantings, including Chard, Penstemons, Dahlias and some less obvious herbaceous perennials.

At the start it looked like I might need to weed and then use a spade to dig over the soil, but it turned out that the soil is quite workable and so a border fork proved up to the job. I was soon joined by a platoon of other garden volunteers who turned their attention to other sections of the bed; uncovering rows of planting here and there (and trying to identify and label these as we went), tidying away spent stems and foliage and generally giving the soil its first ‘breath’ of the new year.

I think the plan is to use this bed in due course as a place for demonstrating different approaches to vegetable growing, but for this year Mike is focusing on a holding operation, working around existing groups of plants that can be left and no doubt seeing what other surprises might appear along the way; for example I think I uncovered an area of Rhubarb crowns towards the end of my stint.

Part of the team, proud of the day's work

Part of the team, proud of the day’s work

It was a satisfying day. There’s something ‘optimistic’ about seeing a newly dug border, the dark, rich soil contrasting with the brighter colours of surrounding plants, and looking forward to creating a progressively finer tilth as the days lengthen and temperatures.

My reward at the end of the day- sunset over mid Norfolk

My reward at the end of the day- sunset over mid Norfolk

Further information:

Blickling Hall website

Blickling Hall Facebook page

A 360 degree tour of Blickling Hall

Old School Gardener


SONY DSCI’ve mentioned recently that I’m commencing a stint as a volunteer gardener with the National Trust at Blickling Hall, a wonderful Jacobean House and estate just outside Aylsham, about 8 miles from home.

I’m particularly interested in helping with a project to regenerate a two acre walled garden that once supplied the household with an array of vegetables and fruit. Like many walled gardens of its time this was domestic food growing on a huge scale- almost like operating a mini farm.

I was reminded of this near agricultural scale of operation on my first day as the whole space has been deep ploughed (using an implement called a ‘sub soiler’ pulled behind a conventional tractor) to try to break up the compacted soil.

One of my first jobs involved marking out the main pathway structure using canes, so that plentiful supplies of farmyard manure can be tipped and spread on the growing areas and not wasted on areas which will soon be hard-surfaced. Fortunately the Project Manager, Mike Owers, had already set out some marker pegs around  the periphery of the garden from which we could run lines and so get our bearings over the rough terrain. Other members of the gardening team then trailered in what seemed like a never-ending stream of manure  (it was still being delivered as I left at dusk). Mike, Rebecca (one of the gardeners) and I then started the task of spreading this lovely stuff over the ground so that the worms can get to work incorporating it into the newly turned soil- a Rotatator may be used in due course to fully integrate this material.

My other main job on my first day was to work out the materials needed to restore the walled fruit support system around three walls (the fourth side of the garden is hedged). Many old espalier trained fruit bushes remain, though over the years, as the garden was not in commission, these have not been regularly pruned, so some careful renovation is called for. In some cases, the bushes may be beyond recovery, but a good basic structure exists on two out of three walls. Mike had been researching different ways of supporting these bushes and come up with a system used at another of the Trust’s properties, Scotney Castle in Kent. Here oak battens provide vertical supports for stretched wires which run along a series of vine eyes (and incorporate straining bolts at the ends of each run to ensure the wires are kept taut).

This avoids screwing the vine eyes themselves into the ancient walls, which I must say, as you’d expect, look a little fragile in places. The battens will be placed at roughly 4 metre intervals, which more or less corresponds to the spaces between the existing bushes. I did a quick sketch diagram of each wall showing the rough placement of the battens, straining bolts etc. and finished off with some basic calculations of the materials required- interestingly my estimate on the wire (which will be in 7 rows spaced around each 5 brick courses) at 1324 metres was close to Mike’s early estimate, so hopefully the figure is more or less on target!

I’m due back at the Gardens this week and will post a brief update as this work unfolds. The next few months are promising to be especially interesting as the basic structure of the garden- paths, irrigation, greenhouses etc – are put in place and the garden is readied for its first season of growth for many years.

Further information:

Blickling Hall website

Blickling Hall Facebook page

Old School Gardener


Copy of John with manureHere’s another extract from a book I bought in a charity shop in the summer…..

Taint’s Law:

The compost bin guaranteed to quickly rot waste will:

1. Rot or disintegrate before the compost is mature.

2. Overflow on the first day of use.

3. Harbour the largest hornets’ nest in Christendom.

Law of Chance is a Fine Thing:

It is possible to leave a plant or shrub unwatered and unfed with no effect on its growth or flavour or flowers whatsoever. No gardener will believe you.

Dung Roamin’:

Some people think manure makes plants grow. It does. The plants are trying to escape the smell.


From : ‘Mrs. Murphy’s Laws of Gardening’ – Faith Hines (Temple House books, 1992)

Old School Gardener


compost bin‘Of composts shall the Muse descend to sing,

Nor soil her heavenly plumes? The sacred Muse

Nought sordid deems, but what is base; nought fair

Unless true Virtue stamp it with her seal.

Then, planter, wouldst thou double thine estate;

Never, ah never, be asham’d to tread

Thy dung heaps, where the refuse of thy mills,

With all the ashes, all thy coppers yield,

With weeds, mould, dung, and stale, a compost form,

Of force to fertilise the poorest soil.’

James Grainger 1721-66

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Bob Flowerdew- Compost King

Think of compost as a must have rather than a waste product. This was the key message in organic grower and gardening celebrity, Bob Flowerdew’s talk to Norfolk Master Composters last night.

In a lively session peppered with amusing anecdotes and startling ‘factoids’, Bob enthused the audience with his knowledge of how plants respond to home-made compost and all the other DIY concoctions he uses in his own garden in South Norfolk. Including improving the flavour of home grown food, he said.

He isn’t one for feeding his open ground plants with anything much more than his home made compost, but swears by a combination of ‘teas’ to keep his container grown specimens in top condition – diluted liquid feeds of Comfrey, Borage, Stinging Nettles and compost all feature in a cycle of feeding during the growing season. And he reckons that apart from benefitting the overall strength and productivity of his pot plantings, they help to prevent diseases and pests by coating the leaves.

How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference - Basil seedlings
How compost tea as a plant feed makes a difference – Basil seedlings

Bob’s basic thesis is that all plants expect compost- left to nature animal droppings and decaying organic material would provide them with all that they need to survive (along with sun, water and CO2 of course). By making our own compost and adding this to the ‘designed’ planting that is a garden, we are mimicking nature. And apart from the nutrients this rich mix can give, it also contains millions of micro organisms that are constantly in search of food and will themselves help to keep bacterial and fungal infections down- naturally.

Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity
Lovely stuff- and it makes such a difference to plant strength, health and productivity

And encouraging wildlife into our gardens not only for the role many can play in removing harmful pests, but in the droppings they leave on the ground (and maybe less usefully, our cars) is also a way of boosting the natural ingredients that plants need to thrive as well as survive. He is also a big fan of snails (but not slugs). Grazing in the main on algae, these critters get an overly negative press, he reckons. Their droppings are another fantastic addition to soils (like worm casts), and maybe we should even ‘farm’ them in a mini ‘Snailcatraz’ just to provide this material!

Bob also estimates that a Blue Tit can deposit 6lbs of droppings in a season- just one of his mind-boggling figures.

Snail Farming?
Snail Farming?

He is a great advocate of putting pretty much anything organic into his own compost heap (which he visits and cossets every day)- old clothing (cotton,wool and other natural fibres only of course), citrus peel (despite recommendations from some authorities to keep this out), wood and even ferrous metals- all will rot down in time he says, and add a wealth of nutrients back to your soil.

His zeal for the home-made stuff is matched by his dislike of pretty much any commercially manufactured composts. Most seed composts are not much good he says and likewise potting composts lack the oomph that can be had from your own material. And some commercial composts that use municipal – processed organic waste should be carefully inspected, he says, as he’s worried about what can get through the filtering processes. He cites an example of a lump of concrete in a bag he’d bought and is worried about small batteries that might leak mercury. Based on trials of his own versus the commercial compost rivals, his own seems to win every time.

I was particularly struck by his tip about how he sows and grows in pots using a layering of his own compost in the bottom 75% of a pot, topping off with a seed compost, in which he sows his seed- the plant, once germinated, is then able to seek out the richer mix of nutrients lower down. Commercial seed composts are generally low in nutrients as if they were richer this might prevent the germination of smaller seeds. Home-made (but sieved) compost can be used to sow and grow the larger, more robust seeds like melons, cucumbers and so on.

Bob is a self-confessed ‘compostaholic’, seeking out anything that can be added to his heap.

Along with human and animal hair and fur- and the contents of the vacuum cleaner bag – he sings the praises of bird feathers as a powerful source of nitrogen and therefore a wonderful activator in a compost heap (along with his own urine of course). And after several experiments he’s found that it’s OK to add bones to the heap as these too will rot down- but only if they’re ‘green’ and not cooked. The latter tend to splinter and will not easily rot down.

He also now looks on weeding as an exercise in gathering compost material – certainly a positive spin to what many see as an onerous task!

Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap
Pretty much any food scraps can be added to a compost heap

Again, perhaps controversially, he says putting food scraps, including meat and fish, on the heap is OK. These are often advised against because of the risk of attracting rats.

‘It’s likely that there is a rat somewhere within 15 feet of where we are sitting now’

he said last night, indicating that they are already around in the nooks and crannies of buildings as well as in the open. So, we don’t need to attract them , he says, as they are already there! But he does urge putting out poisoned bait alongside compost heaps that contain such material as a precaution.

The meeting also heard from David Hawkyard, County Coordinator of Master Composter, about the continued funding of the Norfolk Master Composter scheme for at least another year and plans to raise its profile to encourage more Norfolk households to compost at home. A wonderful ‘Compost Bin’ Cake – complete with very realistic apple cores and smiling worms – rounded off an enjoyable and thought- provoking evening.

NOTE TO SELF- get out and turn the compost heap!

Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award
Norfolk Master Composters won a Green Apple Award

Useful links:

Norfolk Master Composter Facebook Page

Garden Organic composting advice

Old School Gardener

bare_root_bundlesAs we roll on towards Christmas, you might be lucky to receive a present of some bare rooted shrubs like George Wellbeloved from the Scottish highlands:

‘I’ve been given a birthday present of some shrubs but the ground is frozen in the garden and I’m not sure what to do with them. Can you advise me?’

A belated Happy Birthday George, what a great idea for a present! Most shrubs and climbers, and especially deciduous ones sent out by mail order, are despatched with bare roots, not in containers. If they dry out they will die, so when they arrive, and there is not soil at all on the roots, stand them in a bucket fo water for a day or two in a cool, frost-free place until the soil is in a fit sate to plant them. Alternatively, store them for longer periods with their roots in damp compost – this can be ‘spent’ (old) rather than new if you have some (from emptying out summer flowering hanging baskets or other containers, for example).

If the plants arrive with some soil, on the roots, probably wrapped in netting, these are best watered carefully with a can fitted with a fine rose and then stored in moist compost. As soon as possible after arrival, dig  a trench in a vacant bed of soil, lay in their roots, and replace the earth. ‘Healed in’ like this the shrubs will stay in good condition for many weeks until the planting site is frost-free, fully prepared and in good condition.

When planting shrubs there are two schools of thought. The traditional method is to mix a good supply of well-rotted manure with loosened soil from the bottom of the planting hole, but if you can’t get hold of this, try using your own compost, or spent growing bags (you might be able to get hold of these from commercial tomato growers). Spent mushroom compost is also a possibility, as it usually contains some manure, but as it also contains chalk it should not be used for lime hating plants. Lastly, you can use shop-bought composts or bulky organic materials, though the latter can be pricey. Add a few handfuls of bone meal to the material you use to encourage root development.

The alternative method is to raise the fertility level of the soil around the planting site so that the plant’s roots are encouraged to spread out and so lead to more vigourous growth as the roots are encouraged to seek out nutrients more than if all the goodness is concentrated in the planting hole. Of course for ‘belt and braces’ job you can do both, or use your judgement about whether and how much  fertility needs to be added to the site of the planting. Increasing fertility in the space surrounding the planting hole may be impractical where there are already plants in this area or where you’re planting into a lawn. Here’s a useful guide to planting bare rooted trees.

You can also consider adding Mycorrhizal fungi in the planting hole. These are now widely available in Garden Centres and online. As the RHS says:

‘Mycorrhizas are beneficial fungi growing in association with plant roots, and exist by taking sugars from plants ‘in exchange’ for moisture and nutrients gathered from the soil by the fungal strands. The mycorrhizas greatly increase the absorptive area of a plant, acting as extensions to the root system.

Phosphorus is often in very short supply in natural soils. When phosphorus is present in insoluble forms it would require a vast root system for a plant to meet its phosphorus requirements unaided. It is therefore thought that mycorrhizas are crucial in gathering this element in uncultivated soils. Phosphorus-rich fertilisers are widely used in cultivated ground and not only reduce the need for this activity but are thought to actually suppress the mycorrhizas. For this reason it is best not to use phosphorous rich fertilisers in conjunction with mycorrhizal fungi.

Neither fungi nor plants could survive in many uncultivated situations without this mutually beneficial arrangement. Mycorrhizas also seem to confer protection against root diseases.’

Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)
Root tips showing mycorrhizal fungi (the white coating)

Further information:

A Guide to planting bare root trees, shrubs and perennials- Toby Buckland

Mycorrhiza- Wikipedia

Old School Gardener

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