I Guess the View from our Imaginary Bedroom Won’t be All that Bad

The sea was lovely and blue today. Calm skies. Not too cold. It’s exactly the sort of day that makes me appreciate this wonderful spot we have.

I even discovered that the supermarket is giving out little seed pads and peat pots with your groceries this week. I stopped on my way home and got basil, celery and kale. I’ve never had much success with celery (way, way too thirsty) but I haven’t tried growing the now ubiquitous kale before. I know it’s meant to be the new superfood, but I’m not much for following the fashion trends in veggies. However, many years ago, when I was living on-and-off with my Dutch boyfriend, his mother used to grow and serve boerenkool all the time. It was actually bloody nice… Did I just do the “I ate kale before it was cool” thing? Yes, yes I did.

After our adventures underground last week, today was going to be all about moving some more permanent residents of the veggie garden. I had strawberries and boysenberries and rhubarb on my list, as well as a few herbs.

Now the boysenberries are migrants from our last house, and they have struggled in the spot where I’ve had them. It’s too shady and too windy, plus the soil is far too clayey. I’m hoping that the new spot I’ve picked for them (along a fence, running roughly north-south) isn’t windy at least. I’ve added more compost to the soil, but they’ll still lose out on the afternoon sun so I may have to move them to a more exposed spot later, when the veggie garden has more structure.

The rhubarb is also a migrant that has struggled at our current house, and when I dug it out I could see why: the rhizome has split open. I don’t know if it’s salvageable, but I’ll try it in this new, warmer, sunnier garden and see what happens. If it fails, I can always ask my mother for another chunk of the parent plant… which has been going strong since my great grandmother’s time, and which produces stems nearly as big as your wrist.

Then to the strawberries. Ah, strawberries… I used to have a very extensive strawberry patch at our old house in Hamilton. It was purely by accident – we had some open steps coming off the front of the deck and you couldn’t mow the grass underneath them. So I decided that I’d rip out all the grass and grow a creeping plant under the steps to fill in the space. I picked strawberries because they’re fast-growing and I figured we might get some fruit. And boy did we ever! From November-April, we were getting a basket this big every couple of days:

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It’s very hard to get sick of strawberries, but I was making strawberry sauce, strawberry jam, strawberry salad… It turned out that I’d accidentally stumbled on the secret to growing tons of strawberries.

To be clear, the plants actually under the steps struggled. They fruited, but not extensively. It was the parts of the plant that extended out either side of the steps, where they had full sun – they were the bits that went crazy.

Now the soil at that house was very peaty. I mean, it was dense, and black, and through the winter it had the consistency of a fruit cake batter. It was very hard to dig, simply because it was so darn heavy! Peat is acidic, and full of organic matter, and retains water like crazy. It doesn’t suit every plant – I planted a grapefruit tree and its roots rotted in the ground. But berry fruits happen to love peat. I should have been tipped off by the number of berry farms around our local area.

But on farms the strawberries are grown in raised rows, over black plastic. I wasn’t going to do that. I had a sunny, north-facing spot, and was growing them straight on the level ground. When I planted them, I gave them heaps of sheep pellets, and covered their bed with a thick layer of pea straw (they are strawberries, after all). They thanked me by going berserk in a way that the farmed fruits never did. I let them go berserk too, because I was looking for ground cover.

So that was the secret: lots of sunshine, very rich and acidic soil, lots of water, heaps of fertilizer, and straw. Plus, let them sucker so that they keep providing you with new, younger plants. A good strawberry plant will only give you about 3 years of high production, so the fact that they keep producing new plants to replace themselves is a good thing. But they are hungry, hungry monsters, and they don’t like competition. Oh, and snails. They don’t like snails either.

However, I fully recognise that I have got a difficult task in bringing those conditions to our new section. What we have there is clay – impenetrable, infertile clay. It’s pretty much as far from peat as you can get. The section also faces south, so sunshine must be rationed accordingly.

What I’ve done is pick a spot that’s already proving difficult, and trying to see if strawberries will once again be my answer. There is a part of the shell path that cuts straight across the hillside. It’s sunny, but is also a spot where the clay is right on the surface, with no topsoil or even weeds to cover it, so I’ve found that where we’ve dug into the clay above it is washing down into the path. This is filling our shell path with dirt, so I want to put in a stepped garden above it in order to catch the water. This is what it started out looking like in July, and what I’ve done today:

 

You can see where the dirt has washed into the path, but above this (and behind the timber) I’ve cut down into the clay and then flattened out and stomped down a trench. This will mean that the rain that washes down the hillside will hopefully hit this flat, clayey surface and stop. I’ve filled the deep trench with a rich garden mix, and added both sheep pellets and coffee (to make it more acidic). Then I’ve planted my strawberries with lots of pea straw for extra cover and extra nitrogen.

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We shall see how happy they are. I’m already guessing that my biggest problem will be getting enough water to them, but hopefully my attempt at a mini-catchment will help. Time will tell.

The tulips are still being stubborn too – with swelling buds but no stems or blooms as yet. Perhaps this is a sign from my past. Perhaps I should not attempt the kale until I’ve mastered the tulips…

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