There are several ways of getting warm. We tried three. The first was to make a small fire.
The second was to eat cake.
And the third was to go into the shed and lick a chilli seed or two and learn a lot more. For our second Grow A Gardener workshop this year, we ran a session on basic seed-sowing followed by a master class by the knowledgeable, interesting and resourceful Raul Couselo. He grows chillies indoors but it is also possible to grow outdoor varieties in London (bring them in in the winter). Chillies are often difficult to germinate. They need a long period of warmth with a soil temperature of at least 18 degrees C. Raul has designed a fail-safe seed propagator using a bit of folded cardboard in which you put your seeds, wrap it in a plastic bag and put on somewhere warm. He gets 100% germination (as opposed to my rate which is about 30%).
Once the seeds have germinated, transplant them to pots and place them on damp cardboard in a mini greenhouse made from a croissant box placed on an electric blanket.
Raul gave us some brilliant tips.
Once they have grown and produced flowers, to get more even, bigger and better crops of fruits, hand pollinate with a paintbrush. It’s much easier than it sounds. Just move pollen from the stamen to the stigma. Use different brushes for different plants to avoid cross-pollination.
Soak cardboard beneath pots to keep plants moist.
Add good quality soil to water so that you are watering your plants with nutrients. Comfrey is too strong!
Prune chillies. They are perennials and benefit from the stress.
Save seeds from shop bought chillies as well as your own.They may not come true but you can experiment. You must!
Our small community garden is maintained entirely by volunteers. We run it with enthusiasm (mostly) and a belief in the power of gardening to bring people together – as well as improving the environment of course. We have learnt that amongst our gardeners we have a variety of skills – composting, seed-sowing, planning, raising veg, PR, samosa-making, taking photos, organising things – but most people have other things to do – other lives – and sometimes we need a boost to help get things done.
Our first big volunteer day in February 2011 was to build two big beds. Local people and students from the London College of Fashion turned out on a bright (but cold) day to shovel, carry, dig and construct. We found that getting together to drink tea at the beginning, middle or end of the volunteer day was as important – maybe more – as getting the job done – especially if we try to make tea on the camping stove. The waiting makes it taste so much better.
Our biggest ongoing project so far is what we call the Slow Shed. We’ve built it almost entirely from reclaimed materials and voluntary labour. With a general lack of building skills amongst us it is a slow business with lots of set-backs but it has brought lots of people together and provided everyone with an enormous sense of achievement. The Slow Shed – like a Herculean task – is never finished so we always have jobs to do on it.
We got a big boost when a corporate group came for a day last summer. They helped weave the front with willow, painted some lockers we’d found in the street and put up some shelves.
It’s usually not usually money we need — the garden is cheap to run and we raise money through cake and plant sales and subs cover most of our day-to-day expenses. Occasionally we need financial help with a specific project (like the willow-weaving where we needed to buy materials). More important to us is energy and enthusiasm – and a keenness to drink tea together.
For such a small organisation like ours, it’s wonderful to get an injection of vigour and good will from people who really don’t need to help but do anyway. We’re looking forward to seeing more groups from our neighbours in the business world and beyond.
We’re getting quite good at our open days and sales but this weekend’s Country Show took us to a new level. We squeezed every ounce of goodwill from the gardeners to produce rain cover (the forecast was bad), fantastic raffle prizes, music, children’s craft and face-painting, shed decorating and amazing cakes. Not to mention the competition entries – vegetables, cakes and preserves and our more creative category which included a self-portrait with vegetables and the vegetable most like a mayor. Our three judges, Scarlett Cannon, Eloise Dey and Gavin Jenkins took their task very seriously and assiduously. The icing on the cake (though I doubt he’d like to be described as any kind of cake decoration) was Joe Swift who was generous with his time, gracious, charming… and, of course, down-to-earth.
We had a great day yesterday. Not just because it was probably the last hot day of a blazing summer but because we had volunteers from the international insurance and risk management company, Lockton, to help us with the shed. Their London base is in the City so they are neighbours geographically, though quite distant in many other ways. Five of their employees turned up ready to get to work (and we had a fairly long list of things we needed done) and after obligatory cake and tea they got started and didn’t really stop till one of them had to go for a meeting and the rest of us ground to a halt through exhaustion and overheating. Weaving a shed it more tiring than you’d think.
Martin and George did some magnificent carpentry in the shed – mostly remedial work for my wobbly bench but putting up shelves, too.
Steve spent all day painting a locker we’d found on the street. It looks as good as new now.
Benedicte made us some beautiful labels.
and then got down to some serious weaving with willow from World of Willow (at a very nice discount). Sarah, too – leader of the team – was great company and certainly left her mark with her unique brick-style weave.
For a small organisation like ours, where volunteering enthusiasm easily wanes, it’s wonderful to get an injection of vigour and good will from people who really don’t need to help but do anyway. So a big thanks to Lockton, who have given us a great boost.
To protect and decorate the pallet shed, we’re planning to weave willow through it. Pearl from Story Storey tracked down a source – right on our doorstep on Hackney Marshes. The huge site is, incidentally, home to the biggest number of football pitches in the world – or at least that’s what the man at the cafe said.
Len the Lop (that’s what we call him) from Hackney Council lent us some loppers from their depot, which is also home to a wonderful array of parks department gadgets, large and small: sit-on mowers, benches, recycling bins, piles of gravel, tractors, an ambulance – and loppers.
Len the Lop let us out of the back gate and we walked down to the River Lea – and into a peaceful, quiet world (apart from the steady hum of the A12 and the echo-y thudding of the Yahoo Wireless festival at the QE Park over the road.) So while we were ambling down an almost rural woodland path by a gentle river, Justin Timberlake was warming up for adulation.
Willow (salix alba) is a wonderful tree. Not only does it attract and support a variety of wildlife, but it is, of course the original source of aspirin. It is also, because of its anticoagulant properties, a natural alternative to rooting hormone. Just cut several 10cm lengths and soak them overnight in the fridge and use the water to root cuttings.
The willow trees along the Lea are ancient and giant. Normally for weaving, we’d use coppiced willow, but we hope the branches have the same bendy properties. We we tugged on their leafy extremities to get at the thicker branches. Snip snip with the loppers and we soon had a large pile of leafy twigs and branches.
They may be too thin for our weaving but we will see… The wonderful Paul from the council is going to deliver them to us tomorrow. Watch this space.
We’ve been making some progress with the pallet shed. It has/will have an underfloor heating system using only the heat from our elusive sun. We have built a pit which we will line with clay and cover with glass. This will heat the air inside the pit which is connected to a trench which runs under the building. Today we finished lining the trench with polystyrene insulation. The idea is that the heated air will travel under the shed and warm it up. I’m not sure, but it is an ancient sort of technology and it’s just occurred to me that we could use the glass-covered pit and adapt the hotbed technique of fresh manure or compost which, as it breaks down, produces heat. Hmm. If anyone has any thoughts I’d be grateful to hear them. This is what it looks like so far.