Hi, I’m Sarah, I’ve been a gardener all my life, firstly with ornamental plants, designing and building gardens in London, and writing a few garden books, and increasingly focussing on growing itself. Now I live back in the Braziers Park community and grow vegetables in our beautiful walled garden, with the help of some great volunteers.
I use the no dig method, to preserve the soil structure and retain soil carbon – and also to produce amazing vegetables, I’ve been astonished by the difference since I started it just two years ago. First of all we wanted to feed the community and our visitors, but that is not enough. We have a large garden and 55 acres of land and I believe that at this time, given the threats to our climate and ultimately our economic system, we should be growing much more food*. The next step, which I started this year in a small way, is to produce seasonal veg boxes – and after that? we shall see…
So here is the very brief story of 2022; there’s masses (boring, astonishingly long masses) of discussion that I didn’t put in, of precisely how and why, and should I have done this instead, etc; but this gives an idea of it, and now I’ll keep going for 2023.
The winter purslane in the greenhouse is amazing; it simply comes up, all by itself, and in fact it’s invading various of Will’s pots with exotic plants in them. We just cut great swathes of it, and all it needs is topping up with something interesting like rocket – loads in the polytunnel – or Red Frills oriental leaves, and you have a fresh winter salad. Lovely!
Will is going to be leaving us after seven years (sounds like a fairy tale): he has an exciting new job at Chelsea Physic Garden, where he’ll be surrounded by all the obscure species and genera he could wish for – look at our Greenhouse page for his great display of plant families.
I’ve said I’ll volunteer to take on the vegetable garden now Will has gone; I’m sorting through the shed now, with many messages to Will saying ‘what’s this?’. There are loads of pots below the potting bench, left over from when ‘Braziers had eight gardeners when Lady Moon was here’ as Bernie Faithfull used to tell us. I’ve slowly sorted them and heaved them up onto the side shelf above the old greenhouse stove; you can’t reach the back of it anyway so there’s plenty of space for them.
And so many bits of this and that – unknown rolls of plastic and mesh and strange sorts of netting; all neatly rolled and tied with string by helpful volunteers. I’ve thrown away an awful lot of the black soft netting. I hope I don’t regret it; it was fairly holey. Also some Mypex completely in bits. I sorted out a whole set of Gardena drip feed system, which had been stored in its boxes under that awful pile in the greenhouse where I keep the soil block maker.
12 February – Snowdrop Teas
Up fairly promptly and did a couple of essentials – got the potted snowdrops (I must make them more obvious today as not many bought them; someone asked me were there any, so they’re not visible enough, clearly) and labelled the garden gates. Then I went back to the house, rushed around washing up and clearing and tutting; wrote a House Tours notice etc. after which I realised I wasn’t meant to be ‘on’ till the afternoon and went back out into the garden. I found that I spoke to so many people, and they had so much help doing teas in the afternoon that I went back out again then.
There was a steady stream of people; it was such fun and seemed to be good to have someone there to answer questions. We had conversations about Braziers and how many people live here and do we eat communally etc; a woman whose father Glynn had picked up ‘every weekend’ to come and help with the sheep – and her family who hadn’t visited before.
15 February 2022
We had a visit from Green Health Thames Valley; we went round the veg garden in the rain; I was very glad of my hat which just lets the rain run off. They seemed to like it too despite the weather; there were lots of questions. I’ve suggested they come back later in the year!
9 March 2022
Emily did the last path that needs woodchip – she finished it in the afternoon which I really appreciate. First of all laying cardboard (in this case actually old leaflets that we found a box of) to help suppress long term weeds, and a good thick covering of woodchip on top. Although the woodchip has a lot of green in it which I suspect means it’ll rot down quickly. Dowding says that’s great as the vegetable roots can penetrate and take up more goodness but I’m quite keen on clear paths, myself.
I finished planting out the oriental salads – not sure I’ll bother with that planting in mushroom boxes again though they grew well enough. I think it’s just a useful idea if you’re short of space, which I’m not, so far. Did a bit of weeding in the polytunnel and found not only self-sown dill but also coriander which I dislike, but everyone else likes. Good. (And also that the water is not connected to the polytunnel. Bother).
And – picked my first purple sprouting broccoli – lovely! But I wonder why it’s always Early Purple Sprouting? I’d quite like some Late Purple Sprouting.
30 March 2022 – the Fruit Frame
We had spent an enjoyable community day fetching the most enormous fruit frame, complete with netting.
Today Joy, with Emily mainly, erected about a third of the frame over the best currant bushes. I didn’t have to do any of it, which was great.
Greta put two loads more compost on the top bed where she then planted the lettuce. I planted all the beetroot and I’m going to sow more.
20 April 2022
I’ve done lots and lots of seed sowing and they’re all sitting neatly in the greenhouse – why haven’t I got any lovely pictures? ! I’ll remember next year.
7 May 2022
I planted out these nice little Greyhound cabbages. They’ll fatten up well now. The seedlings always come best in the early summer – I find my spring seedlings bound forward eagerly; have to learn how to get good autumn ones.
But I have to fleece them up! It takes all the good looks out of it.
Brassicas – everything wants to get them. Hey ho.
2 May 2022: May Day
I got up and brought the last things over to the stall, the vegs and the irises, and cut some rhubarb and got string for it. I finished setting it up, with prices and labelling for the vegs and rhubarb; arranged it all, put an honesty jar there. It looked very nice once it was full. There weren’t many people though, so I went and uncovered the fleece in the veg garden, right at the top near the wall, where I plant lettuce in spring because that’s the warmest part of the garden. These Regina di Ghiacci (basically fancy Iceberg) lettuces look really good. I think watering them helped. I’m always surprised by how well those beds do; I don’t really expect much of them; they’re bone dry later in the season but they work for early crops.
Then I went and sowed more peppers and squash and courgettes. (Later on, in the evening, I did the Dowding course on courgettes and I learned that they are a summer squash, and that Trombolino and patty pan are also summer squashes; I’ve been mixing them all together but at least I’ve labelled them all, so I can sort them out. The summer ones need eating more promptly, while their skins are soft.)
By now it was lunchtime so I went back in and after lunch I thought, I’d better sit on the stall because someone said there were people interested in the plants and I thought oh dear and they won’t have bought any. When I actually looked, I realised there were lots of notes in the honesty jar! – and lots of gaps on the table. So I hastily replenished it and reorganised; that was a very nice surprise. People did indeed come and talk and bought more plants; the broccoli for instance two people bought; they hadn’t known what to do with it. A French couple were interested and they bought the big horse radish plant, disappointing at least two other people who had their eye on it – I’ll pot up more next year.
In the afternoon I potted on some broccoli; weeded the rocket and radish rows and watered them; surely I must have done something else? I nipped leaves off the lettuce and put them outside; I’m faffing so much about things needing to plant out, it probably just means I should be planting them. instead of worrying about if it’s too dry. What do I have to plant? Broccoli – no space; leeks later; chard not quite ready might be by Wednesday? Parsley tiny; basil small, pot on. Lettuce definitely. Rouge Tete cabbage. Beetroot to come up again. Cucurbits are going in and out into the sunshine, they’ll be fine.
14 June 2022 Compost Lesson
I had a lot of volunteers and decided to do a compost lesson – after all, its the basis for a good garden. First of all, the result: up we went to the old compost heap. I got Pino to stick the pitchfork in and lift the grass off – and then suddenly there was this rich brown crumbly stuff and we all gasped – it was such a good moment!
After that we went down to the new heap and I explained about layers of green – nitrogen-rich and brown – carbon. If there’s too much green (weeds, kitchen vegetables, grass clippings etc) the heap tends to go slimy; it needs brown – (cardboard, paper, woodchip, straw). But too much brown and it all slows down, which is why leaf mold piles take much longer to break down.
After that people dug woodchip and loaded layers of that – the brown – in between green layers using the pile of grass and weeds they’d built up last week. It’s a great compost heap and we’ll be able to layer it properly, using large amounts, so that it has a better chance of heating up rapidly. Usually we have to add incremental kitchen and garden waste and then some cardboard, which makes good but weedy compost.
22 June 2022
I need to work out places outside the walled garden to work as it’ll be so hot there; a south-facing slope protected by walls is wonderful mid-winter, and workable in the morning, but desperately hot even by 11 am.
However, redcurrants need picking. And watering is worrying me.
It’s dry, there’s no prospect of decent rain.
10th July 2022
The heat just goes on – I got a shock to see the vegetables lying quite flat and rushed to shade them, though its noticeable that they do recover after the sun goes. I’m glad I didn’t throw out those odd green lengths of bright green mesh – they were shade covers! We put them on the lettuce and they’ve thrived it – and given the even higher temperatures, we have now scraped together anything vaguely shade-like – (amazing how much we have) – and I’ve covered the chard and the brassicas as well.
The yellow courgettes absolutely love the heat, though they flop for a bit. They are so prolific! I’m picking them every day.
We have a wonderful volunteer – Liz – whose favourite pastime is fruit picking!
She was absolutely marvellous; she picked and she picked and she even froze – she’s so helpful! She had a new way with currants; picked the redcurrants just by pulling or sort of combing the berries off with her fingers, so there are no stems on hers, unlike mine which I had to slowly pick over with a fork.
26 July 2022
A bumper crop of volunteers, thanks to the Braziers Volunteers Reunion, which brings all sorts of great people who haven’t been for ages – all eager to work! We had Elsebeth and Stefan wheeling compost and woodchip; Lola weeding and watering and later Penny appeared and weeded the main leek bed; Pino, Regina and Greta weeded the kalette bed.
I’ve never grown Florence Fennel before: I planted it out just after the hottest weather and it grew away happily, never flopped at all. I think its the fine leaves – there’s no surface for water to evaporate from.
Strangely enough the Regina di Ghiacci – Queen of the Ice !! – is looking remarkably pleased with itself as well. In a mad fit I potted over a hundred of them (it was old seed and I was sure it wouldn’t germinate) so now they’re popped in any available space.
1 September 2022
But we still have Harvest mites! (Trombicula autumnalis). We’re all getting bitten. I’ve looked up harvest mites and sure enough they are more active in hot dry weather; we had good rain last night and the night before so they should be fewer, though it says ‘July to November’. Summer and early autumn.
4 September 2022
Yesterday I planted the spinach, which I’m pleased about. The only space that made sense, given I’m still trying to keep space for kale, was by the parsnips, which is a long way away for watering. Never mind; did two rows and put them in. I raked off that old rotted woodchip mulch and the soil was good below, but a bit dry. The mulch has been a godsend in this hot dry summer; the soil underneath stays damp much longer. But to plant, I still need to water thoroughly; I made a couple of rows of holes with the dibber, then filled the holes with water and let it soak in before planting.
14 September 2022
And now it’s full on harvest time – apples and more apples in this bumper year; cutting them up and freezing them, making apple rings, apple and anything else jam, apple vinegar, and bottles and bottles of apple juice.
We have Garden Day every Wednesday, when outside volunteers come to help; at the moment what we need help with is apples, of course, so we had an extra day yesterday. I did a bit of milling around to get ready for apple pressing; Heather was great, and Marion pitched in, I ran around fetching chopping board, knife, jugs, buckets, etc. They got going; Dave arrived and started up the noisy converted shredder which crunched up the apples quite fast. Andrea and Hunter completed the crew.
As soon as we had 12 bottles I started up the pasteuriser and learned how to do it again; we made 44 bottles of apple juice of varying sizes. They’ll all store in the cellar – it hasn’t seen that many bottles in years! We’ll use them in the house and for guest weekends – I’ve handwritten labels ‘Braziers Windfall Apple Juice’ and sold them for £5 each which is a lot but not nearly what they cost! We don’t really mind if we sell them or not as we’ll use them all ourselves.
15 September 2022
I took the rest of the net off the red cabbage and cleared out any yellowing leaves and weeds below, they always look so much better when I’ve done it! as well as having less likelihood of slugs if there are no dead leaves on the ground.
Then I mixed Bacillus Thuringiensis (a naturally occurring soil bacteria recommended by Charles Dowding for treating cabbage white caterpillars ) and sprayed before putting the net back on; I did in fact use all the half litre I mixed, and could have used more but other brassica don’t seem affected. I did do the big broccoli where I’d seen small caterpillars as well. And I’ll keep an eye out for any more. It definitely works.
Then I went outside again briefly before lunch – watered Nonny’s greenhouse which gets full sun all day. I’ve got quite a good amount of seedlings coming along in there – the big greenhouse is too overshadowed for seedlings now – there’s far less light and they get leggy from stretching up to find the light source.
I spent some time in the polytunnel hard pruning the tomatoes to get them to ripen; Dowding link says stop watering but I’m going to find that quite hard to do. Maybe I should water half of them? I cut a melon that a mouse had started on – we ate it later and it was wonderful. Must grow more next year. I also sowed the last Red Frills mustard leaves, and more Naba di Grelos, the Portuguese seeds which Elsa sent me. They’re rapi, I think – basically turnip greens without the turnip.
19 September 2022
I investigated that big old compost heap outside the cottage; we used most of it in the spring for the main beds but I didn’t think it was quite empty, so I cleared away some of the nettles and bryony (carefully hanging its lovely red berries outside the fence, so they wouldn’t seed into the compost). There’s lots left; I can use it for the polytunnel; good.
Dug out a wheelbarrow full and put it on top of that dust that is the central bed now it has no tree spinach in it, then I raked it and roughly raked and levelled it and made little trenches where I’ll dib holes for the seedlings. I watered it, and then I watered it again. Then I went off for lunch. After lunch I made dibber holes and filled them with water and planted the mibuna and the Red Frills salads – and watered again. Funny how those red leaves ‘disappear’ – they’re so dark I can’t see the row of them I planted, until they suddenly bush out later. The lovely compost holds the water, but I’m pretty sure it’s still dust dry below; I’ll have to keep an eye on it.
20 September 2022
The volunteers enlarged the old semi-circular bed; Max and Fonzo cut some of the turf and used it to widen the path next to the rhubarb. We fetched out all the cardboard that I’d saved up, to lay on top of the surface and suppress weeds; the no dig system uses this to cut light out and suppress weeds, spreading compost on top to plant through. It looks so much but there’s never quite enough! Most of it had any plastic tape already taken off but there were a few we had to peel and scrape. We weighted it down with compost – then I wasn’t sure how far that compost would go, so we covered it either with a thin layer of compost or leaves, some lawn clippings and some of Max’s scything. I’ll let it settle for a bit – at least the cardboard won’t dry up and blow away – and see how it is in November; I can rake off very unrotted stuff then and put more compost on; I’m aiming to plant broad beans there in December; I’ll sow them in November into module trays and plant them out when they’ve popped up. That way I hope to get an earlier, sturdier crop, though several friends have told me it makes no difference. Mm. we shall see. Then we put a big broad woodchip path down the middle; there will be more paths but that’s the main one.
Yesterday we picked vegetables for Esther’s veg box, and another for Charlotte bookkeeper who has asked for one! Its an experiment so far, but I’m planning to do more next year. I told her I’d paid £16 into Braziers account for Esther’s and she wants one too. There were beetroots, peppers, squash, aubergines, later I got chard, potatoes, broccoli shoots, a few tomatoes and basil.
23 September 2022
I have planted most of the mixed red lettuces and the spinach in the polytunnel. The first mibuna and Red Frills have come along really well, just about ready to pick. I was worried because the seedlings weren’t that good; I have realised that I hadn’t pushed the soil down enough in the modules; they’ve formed roots but the soil drops off them as I take them out. So with the ones left, I’ve done an experiment of pushing the soil down quite hard – the lettuces I’ve re-potted into the empty bit of the spinach tray, so I now have a tray half with lettuce, half spinach, pushed down hard. Lets see how that works; it might be too late in the season. But anyway I’ve now realised my mistake. I don’t use bought compost; I used to buy it, mainly because it meant you didn’t get weeds coming up, but apart from that I didn’t think it was much better. But I reckon what I’m using now might be too sandy. I’m not very scientific about it. Really haven’t seen much difference in different composts though ours is very variable. Though weedy…
25 September 2022
Elodie joined me; it was a lovely afternoon. She pruned the loganberries on the west wall, cutting out the old fruiting shoots and then we went over them again and took out a load more, mainly thin ones or bent ones or just ones which didn’t tie in neatly. After that we spread them out on the different wires and Elodie tied them in with string. It looks so good, I do like seeing things prepared for the next season.
Right; what else did I do? First of all I went round and dug up all the Scotch thistles (Onopordum acanthium – very sculptural but painful and hugely spreading!) then I went to pick a few grapes for the guests and ended up pruning the vine on the other wall. I’m thinking it would be so nice to have a pergola there! Especially if the summer is hot again. Would we use it? I’ll bear it in mind anyway. Then I cut the grass and weeds by the old herbaceous bed so I have a mowing strip there. I suddenly felt really sleepy, but just as we were both going in, the visitors who had been on a yoga course in the house appeared, so I showed them round.
27 September 2022
I had a lovely working morning, lovely.
I took all the volunteers round the garden looking at the various jobs; there was apple picking, sorting existing boxes of apples, and clearing the climbing beans ready for garlic planting. Fonzo did the path levelling and Nisha helped after apple picking; Max got going on the bean clearing and Heather helped.
Andrea, Fonzo, Nisha went off to pick grapes (Nisha picked the whole lower layer from the wall!), Max finished off the bean bed; it’s now ready for garlic; I’m very pleased.
29 September 2022
We picked over the squash; I was really set on finding how much fruit each one had, and cut off leaves and non-fruiting long shoots in an effort to find out, but gave up eventually and settled for counting the whole crop. Not that many I don’t think. I’ve forgotten how many. I’m still going to put winter squash in any available bed next year, any of the ones at the top that we’re not using. We’ll continue with carpet mulching – either plastic or old carpet, literally – but you really have to watch if you’re using an artificial fibre carpet. This is often disapproved of ‘you must only use wool or natural fibres!’ (chance would be a fine thing – we need anything we can get). I just have to lift it every year – there’s nothing worse than a half-disintegrated carpet, full of bits of rubber or nylon, a couple of inches below the soil surface.
The Butternut squash in the polytunnel have been amazing and fruited prolifically. I’ve taken very little notice of them, I didn’t even bother watering them half the time, they just got what was left over from the tomatoes. Jayden had put them in as they’d heard butternut is good around the base of tomatoes; it certainly is and I’ll use it next year as well.
The polytunnel is more or less planted up for winter already. Still one last basil plant which I can’t bear to pull up – I’m hastily picking off all the leaves before they drop in the cooler weather; they’re still so good! And chard, spinach, more of the endless Regina di Ghiacci I so enthusiasically potted on.
I’m also trying some of the rapi – the Portuguese seeds that Elsa sent; they’ll provide useful greens in winter.
We have lots of Mibuna and lovely Red Frills salad leaves, we’re already eating them.
Still some chillies left to pick!
I shan’t grow cucamelons any more – though they are so beautiful and fruited prolifically. They just don’t taste very nice; rather dull. Pity.
16 November 2022
The red cabbage is small but quite perky, we’ve had some good heads. And the rapi in front – the Naba di Grelos – is looking really well. I wonder if it’ll do better than the one in the polytunnel? there’s not as much out here. Next to them the turnip isn’t as healthy-looking.
15 December 2022
– and oh, the cold! It was minus 11 degrees here on Monday. I’d been away when it all snowed and froze; went out to have a look. The snow isn’t really deep enough to protect the vegetables; I wonder how they’ll be once it thaws.
The Kalette look well enough, rather beautiful with their red leaves half-covered.
And the red cabbage too, although the small heads haven’t fared as well; similarly the Savoy although that’s more of a mixed picture, with some having completely curved stems, which have split in the cold; others are standing up fine.
But the broccoli has all flopped except for one sentinel at the corner, looking extremely cheerful and becoming a target for pigeons.
It looks as if the chard will survive as well, although we’ll have nothing off them until they shoot again in the spring.
20 December 2022
Having a look and picking what I can; some Savoy which needed to be used very rapidly, although there are other heads which I think will be fine.
And indeed, just the one cheerful broccoli – I wonder why it did ok?
But the little turnips, which seemed so much more frail than their Portuguese cousins, are happily poking up and shining pink and healthy.