Cold weather is not the only thing just around the corner. You never know when disaster will strike… from a devastating natural disaster to civil unrest and chaos.
So, just because cold weather is around the corner doesn’t mean you need to put away your rake, soil and seeds. For most gardeners, the late fall brings the last harvest of the season, but if you prepare your vegetable patch properly, you can continue to produce quality food for your stockpile through the frost and beyond. Here are some tips to help you reap the rewards of your survival garden this winter.
Grow your crops inside
If you don’t have the right type of outdoor soil for gardening or you simply don’t have the space, you can grow certain types of vegetables inside during the winter. In many cases, if you have the right amount of sunlight in your home, you can grow all of the winter crops in a container, including lettuce, herbs, peas, carrots and radishes. If you’re short on sunlight, you can invest in a halide lamp, which will offer your plants more light.
How stratification impacts your garden
If you’ve ever planted seeds for winter friendly items and yet you get no results, it could be that you ignored your seed’s stratification requirements. “Many plants that were originally grown in cold weather have evolved to develop a natural understanding to survive by requiring a six-month cold period before they will sprout,” says Tony Avent. “A stratification period is normally three or six months, depending on the plant.
You’ll sow the seed, and then it will require that many months of cold weather, typically below 40 degrees, before it will come up.” The stratification period varies from plant to plant, so you’ll want to investigate how many chilling hours your particular plant requires by investing in a good seed book that will delineate the stratification period of each seed, Avent advises.
Late autumn, early winter
The late autumn yield from your garden should still be rich with tomatoes, peppers and peas, especially if you picked the first round in late summer and quickly repaired and replanted in your beds. These canning and stockpile essentials can be kept hardy even through a light frost with a portable greenhouse or homemade covering.
Many nurseries and hardware stores, in addition to online seed companies, offer several inexpensive covers for winter seed and frost gardening cultivation. Make sure you scoop out the seeds from these fruits and vegetables, allowing them to dry for up to two weeks before storing. Your family table should be topped with squash, pumpkin and cucumber delights from your earlier harvest right now. It’s essential that you collect the seeds while preparing or dividing these vegetables and gourds for your pantry. Occasionally, gourd and squash seeds do not produce the same quality season after season, so it’s always a good idea to purchase new seeds just in case. Pumpkin seeds are also a wonderful cold day snack when toasted over a fire and sprinkled with salt; thus, they do the double duty of being both a future crop and treat.
Planting with frost in mind
Most greens used both in salads and for cooking will flourish in a cold climate, and they can be counted on in bleak times to bring a bounty of healthy food to your table and pantry. “Turnips, lettuce and collard greens will grow very well in winter,” says Tony Avent of Plant Delights Nursery in Raleigh, North Carolina. If you haven’t already, now is a good time to sow your leafy greens seeds. To ensure plentiful results, plant a variety of cold-loving greens. It’s a good idea to cover the soil with a light mulch to keep the dirt around the seeds warmer from frost. The greens will thrive in a colder climate, but a covering might prove helpful to increase the produce yield. With a watchful eye and careful touch, your survival garden will be full of lettuces all winter long.
Overwintering your garden
After you have harvested your fall crops, you can begin “overwintering” your garden. Overwintering means planting and preparing your beds for your early spring vegetables. After you adapt the recently harvested soil, root and bulb vegetables like carrots, turnips, beets, onions, garlic and rutabagas are all excellent products to sow in your space for overwintering. They will need to be in the growing process before you cover the soil with a layer of mulch and may look lackluster and dreary for a while. Broccoli and cauliflower as well as leafy greens like spinach, kale and chard can also be planted now.
Produce: winter, spring
When the days begin to get longer and winter is waning, your survival garden will begin to emerge again with many tasty veggies. As the temperatures begin to rise and only a light frost comes at night, it’s time to brush away the heavy dirt and let your plants grow. Your winter garden will produce an early spring harvest and a bounty for your disaster pantry. Because you never know what is just around the corner.
Expect the unexpected
You’ve planted your tomatoes and harvested the delicious results all summer, only to assume that you would have to rely on your canning and jarring to get you through the winter—but then you discover a fresh tomato on the vine—in November! Many gardeners experience this anomaly, often the result of a warm autumn or placing the tomatoes in a well-lit area. These harvests are safe to eat, although they may not taste as delicious as the summer crop.
Most of the strawberries we cultivate are summer-fruiting, though there are also perpetual or ‘everbearing’ strawberries which tend to be smaller than summer varieties and bear fruit from early summer right into early autumn.
Strawberries are started off as young plants (runners) and transplanted directly into the soil or into a container from March to mid July (or October for autumn planting). Cold stored runners (young plants which have been stored under carefully controlled cool conditions) will often flower in as little as 60 days from planting. However, for cropping in the same season, early planting is recommended.
Plating in soil
Though strawberry plants will tolerate most soils as long as they are well-draining, in autumn it’s a good idea to add well-rotted organic matter as this will help to create a humus-rich soil. Choose a sunny, sheltered spot, though avoid planting in soil where strawberries have been growing in the previous three years. Plants should be spaced at a distance of 38cm (15in) between each one and 76cm (30in) between rows. Take care not to bury the crown under the soil or let it protrude too much – just slightly above the surface of the soil is perfect. Water plants regularly, especially during dry spells, though avoid getting the crowns wet as this can cause them to rot. About every 10 days or so give the plants a high potash liquid feed, such as that you give tomato plants, as this will provide the nutrients that help the fruit to develop.However, it is important to prevent the fruit having direct contact with the soil as this will cause it to rot. Consequently, it is usual to mulch between rows and in and around the plants. This will also maintain moisture in the soil and help to suppress weeds. Straw is traditionally used, but there are other options too, including planting through black polythene, weed suppressant fabric or specifically designed mats that can be placed around the neck of each plant. Strawberry plants develop ‘runners’ (stolons) during the summer. These are shoots that develop plantlets and it is these, once separated from the parent plant, that become new plants in their own right. Cut off any runners during the flowering and fruiting period to avoid an overcrowded strawberry patch (unless you intend to propagate some new plants to replace the old) and also to focus all the nutrition on the fruit rather than new plants.
Planting in containers
If you don’t have a lot of space, strawberries can be grown very well in pots, tubs, and recycled ontainers of various kinds. Strawberries have a natural habit of hanging down so growing in containers is a perfect match. Work on the principle of four plants to a 25cm (10in) pot. Use multipurpose compost and mix in some slow release fertiliser.
Avoid high nitrogen feeds as these will tend to produce lots of leafy growth at the expense of fruit. You will need to make sure these plants are watered more regularly than those that are planted directly into the ground and they will need feeding with liquid potash feed (tomato plant feed) about once a week once they are flowering and fruiting. The advantage of containers is that it’s easier to check for slugs and, as the strawberries themselves naturally hang from the sides of the container, they can be picked more easily.
Growing under cover
Strawberries can be ‘forced’ or made to fruit a little earlier by growing them under a cloche, in a polytunnel or a greenhouse where the extra warmth will be conducive to faster growth (by about 10 days). One thing to remember, however, is that once the flowers appear, they will need pollinating.
One option if they are being grown in containers is to take them outside and let the bees do their work. Alternatively, you will need to hand pollinate by using an artist’s brush so that the pollen on the stamens on the outer rim of the inner flower is transferred to the stigma in the centre of the flower.
Strawberries are ready to harvest when they have turned red (except for white varieties of course) and are picked by squeezing gently and pulling, taking the green hull (or calyx) with it as this prolongs its storage life. After you have harvested all your lovely strawberries, lift any straw and add it to the compost heap, remove netting to allow the birds to get to the insects and cut off and destroy any dead or damaged leaves.
At the end of August, cut the runners off from the parent plant and pot up – aiming for four or five from one plant. Leave your strawberry plants outside throughout the autumn and winter as they need a cold spell to stimulate flowering later on. When you have used the same plants for three years, dig them up and discard and bring in new plants to replace them.
Strawberries can suffer from various fungal diseases such as grey mould, powdery mildew and leaf spot. If you notice any infected leaves, remove them immediately and destroy them. Strawberries can also be at the mercy of seed beetles, red spider mites and vine weevils, but slugs and snails usually represent a bigger problem so you will need to use your preferred slug prevention methods. Of course, just as much as we like strawberries, so do birds, so once your plants start to bear fruit you will need to cover your strawberries with bird netting, otherwise your precious soft fruit will soon be gobbled up by winged trespassers.
For this, you can either buy a purpose-built frame, which you can buy online or from your local garden centre, or construct your own from bamboo canes and bird netting. Containing mice and squirrels is more of a challenge, so make it a point of practice to always pick as soon as you can, don’t leave the fruit hanging!
Biological pest control has, of course, been around for millions of years, so the concept is not new. Ladybirds have always fed on aphids, frogs have always eaten slugs and birds have always devoured juicy caterpillars – the list goes on. Sadly the proliferation of chemicals used in farms and gardens in the 20th century often upset the natural balance of the ecosystem, removing micro-organisms from the soil and disrupting the food chain.
Pesticides caused collateral damage to the friendly creatures as well as the ones targeted, which also adapted to become more resistant to everything that man could throw at them, clearly an unsustainable course. When discussing biological pest control we need to consider it in two ways. Firstly, what can we do to harness the natural predators in the garden to work for our benefit, and secondly, what can we introduce to control specific pests?
It starts with the soil
It all starts with the soil. Feeding your soil with compost and organic matter will encourage the development of a healthy population of micro-organisms and bacteria, processing nutrients for plants and forming the first link of the food chain. Strong, properly nourished plants are also more likely to recover from and survive pest attacks. Providing wild patches, a pond, habitats and nesting sites for predators will all help to sustain a balanced ecosystem, with nature keeping things in check. Ladybirds, hoverflies, lacewings, beetles, frogs and toads, hedgehogs and birds are all examples of creatures that will help police our precious plants. Some slugs will eat other slugs.
A modern solution
Biological pest controls for gardeners have developed over the last 25 or so years as research and technological advances have enabled the controlled breeding of predatory or parasitic organisms that are specific to control various pests. The great thing about these is that the solution never becomes the problem; they will do their job but won’t persist in the garden or become an infestation in their own right.
Nematodes are the most commonly used biological control these days to control a wide range of pests. They are threadlike microscopic worms that live in the moisture surrounding soil particles. When they come into contact with their target pest they will multiply inside it, causing it to stop feeding and die. They have a finite life of a few weeks, either because they have exhausted the supply of host pests or because they themselves have become prey for native species that exist in the soil. Nematodes arrive in a pack containing several million, which is added to water and applied using a watering can or sprayer, when the soil temperature is warm enough and when the pest is active. They are virtually invisible to the naked eye, safe on food crops and will not harm pets, children, wildlife or bees.
Nematodes for slugs
Proven and most effective against immature slugs under the soil surface, preventing them from reaching maturity to reproduce, their presence has also been shown to deter larger slugs. Each application is active for around six weeks, after which another may be needed depending on what you are growing. Usage should be able to be reduced over time as the slug population comes down to manageable levels.
Nematodes for vine weevils
This was the first nematode to be available for garden use and was a true breakthrough in controlling the very destructive larvae of this difficult pest that lives mainly in pots and containers. It can be applied in spring or autumn, stopping the larvae from eating away whole root systems and killing them before they develop into adults. Nematodes can also combat carrot root fly, cabbage root fly, leatherjackets, cutworms, onion fly, ants, sciarid fly, caterpillars, gooseberry sawfly, thrips and codling moth.
This cocktail of various nematode species, sold as Nemasys Natural Fruit and Veg Protection, is designed to target pests when they are active, particularly useful early in the season when plants are most vulnerable. Used as a programme of two-weekly treatments after planting out, the gardener does not have to worry about application times or thorough investigations as to what the pests actually are. Alternatively, use to treat at specific times for particular pests. Caterpillars on leaves need to be directly contacted by spray for control.
Nematodes to deter ants
If ants are a problem then this nematode species will repel them from the treated area. It does not kill them but will encourage them to seek an alternative nest site.
Other biological controls
Ladybirds to control aphids
Both larvae and adult ladybirds can be introduced into the garden and will get straight to work feeding on greenfly, blackfly and whitefly. If there is enough food they will stick around, but you can further encourage them by providing a ladybird shelter to give them a place to rest and multiply, and a ladybird feeder to see them through any lean times. An established colony will continue to be of benefit for many years.
Encarsia for controlling greenhouse whitefly
A tiny parasitic wasp which lays its eggs in young whitefly scales, destroying them in the process. It should be introduced on low-medium infestations, and will give protection over a long period. Supplied as pupae from which the wasps will hatch when hung in the greenhouse. The best coverage is achieved using a programme of three applications 14 days apart.
Phytoseiulus for controlling red spider mite
A tiny predatory mite which feeds on the red spider mite, used mainly in greenhouses. It breeds faster than the pest, so will outnumber it relatively quickly depending on the level of infestation. When there are no red spider mites left to eat, the predators will also die out.
Aphidius for control of aphids under cover
A slender black insect about 2mm long that lays single eggs into immature aphids killing them as the young aphidius develops. One female can lay 100 eggs in her lifetime, so population numbers will grow rapidly until full control is achieved
This phoretic mite (sold as Mighty Mite) has a voracious appetite and a rapid reproduction rate at temperatures above 10ºC (50ºF). Primarily a soil-dwelling predator, it feeds on the larvae of dipteran flies, fungus gnats, sciarid flies, eggs and young maggots of the housefly, blowfly, stable fly and flesh flies. It also feeds on vine weevil larvae, cutworms, woodlice and springtails. It can be applied to pots and containers or direct onto the soil and is also effective added to mature compost heaps. When the compost is used, it will contain a population of mites ready to go to work against soil dwelling pests. 1000 mites will treat up to 4sq m.
Hypoaspis for control of sciarid flies (fungus flies)
Sciarid flies are 3-4mm long black flies that jump or hover over the soil surface in the greenhouse and around houseplants where compost is warm and moist. The small white larvae live in the top few millimetres of compost, attacking rooted cuttings and seedlings. Both adults and larvae of hypoaspis feed on these larvae. One treatment remains active for four to five months.
Cryptolaemus for control of mealybugs
These ladybird beetles love eating mealybugs on ornamentals. With a life cycle of several months one treatment is sufficient for an average greenhouse or conservatory although severe infestations may need more.
Gooseberries are often overshadowed by their more colourful soft fruit compatriots, such as raspberries, blueberries and blackcurrants. But their distinctive flavour is something not to be missed whether cooked or eaten fresh.
The gooseberry, Ribes uvacrispa, has its origins in Europe and parts of Africa and Asia, and has been cultivated in Britain from at least the late 13th century. In the 19th century gooseberries even developed into something of a craze with over 170 gooseberry clubs and fiercely contested gooseberry competitions. Today, gooseberries may not be the first fruit we think of growing, but they can certainly bring something distinctive to the kitchen table. Eaten raw they can have a tart taste but become sweeter the riper they are.
In the kitchen they are as versatile as any other soft fruit. Bare root bushes should be planted between early autumn and late winter, and prefer a moist, loamy soil and a sunny but sheltered site. Make sure you fork in some well-rotted organic matter and some general fertiliser pellets to the planting hole, spread the roots out and then cover with soil, heeling in to make sure the bush is secure. Water in and then spread a thick mulch (such as compost or bark) around the bush to help retain moisture in the soil. Because of their spreading habit, bushes should be planted approximately 1.2-1.5m (4-5ft) apart. If you wish to grow them as cordons (one main stem) then plant 30-38cm (12-15in) apart with accompanying bamboo canes 1.7m (5 1 ⁄ 2 ft) high connected by horizontal wires.
As with other soft fruit, birds love gooseberries so you will need to give your fruit some protection in the form of netting or a fruit cage. And not just in the summer – bullfinches are particularly partial to the young buds as they emerge in early spring. Gooseberry bushes need to be pruned in the winter, cutting back on old wood (four to five years old), as this will not produce any more fruit, and branches that cross or are low level as these can make the bush more susceptible to mildew.
It is also important to prune the centre of the bush if necessary, but don’t overdo it. This allows air to circulate in and around the plant and thereby make an attack of fungal disease less likely. Prune back young growth in June on bushes and cordons to five leaves; this helps to remove any mildewed growth and pests and encourages fruiting on the main stem. Gooseberries also make good container plants but these will need more watering than those planted in the soil.
You can harvest gooseberries at two points in the year. One is in late May-to early June when the under-ripe fruit can be picked, removing every other berry, for cooking purposes. Then by July the remaining berries will be much bigger and sweeter and can be picked for eating raw or for cooking.
This familiar crop has been the main ingredient of salads for centuries. But over the years the humble lettuce has changed, offering gardeners a wider choice of colours and textures, creating the perfect salad accompaniment to any meal.
When to sow
Early sowings can be made from February to April for summer lettuce; these are sown into pots and pricked out into trays and grown on under glass until large enough for transplanting out on the plot after being hardened off in a cold frame. From April to August sowings can be made either direct into the plot or sown in pots and then transplanted to the plot. From early September through to mid October winter lettuces can be sown direct under cloches or raised in modules and transplanted out. These will grow outside all winter and will mature from March-May the following year depending on the harshness of the winter. Gardeners with a cold greenhouse or polytunnel can grow lettuces throughout the winter.These are sown from September to November and will mature from January-April depending on how cool the greenhouse gets. When growing this type of lettuce try to keep the temperature under glass just above freezing for the best results. It is also important to give the greenhouse some ventilation on warmer dry days of winter to help avoid any grey mould problems.
Sowing the seed
Many gardeners sow their lettuces direct into the vegetable plot in shallow drills approximately 1cm (½in) deep.Then once they have germinated and the seedlings are large enough to handle they are thinned out or even transplanted into other rows. I find this method okay for early spring sowings, but as soon as the weather gets warmer the results can often be quite poor. Over the past 20 years I have rarely sown any lettuce direct outdoors, changing instead to sowing little and often all through the year in pots, often only growing 12 plants per variety. Sow a few seeds every two weeks under glass into flowerpots filled with moist seed-sowing compost, and then lightly cover the seeds with vermiculite.
Lettuces germinate better when sown cooler, so there is no need for a heated propagator, the pots can be stood on the greenhouse staging where the temperature will be between 10-15ºC (50-59ºF) and they will start germinating after seven to 10 days. When sowing lettuce during the summer and with the days getting hotter, gardeners often find it difficult to get lettuces to germinate, especially if there are several days where the temperature exceeds 21ºC (70ºF), as high temperatures will inhibit germination. To overcome this problem place the seed packets in the fridge the night before they are to be sown. This overnight pre-chilling seems to be enough to help the seeds cool down and then, once sown, they will germinate very well during these hot spells.
Once the seedlings have germinated in the pots, prick them out (transplant) into cell trays (modules) and grow them on until they are ready for planting out. Before planting out, however, early sowings should be moved into a cold frame for a couple of weeks to gradually harden off. Lettuces will grow in any good soil that has been winter dug and enriched with organic matter. Before sowing or planting, give the soil a dressing of growmore fertiliser added at a rate of 60g per sqare metre (2oz per square yard), lightly raked into the surface of the soil. Seedlings sown direct should be thinned before the plants become too large to 15-30cm (6-12in) apart, depending on the size of the variety being grown. The best time to thin out and transplant seedlings is in the evening when the temperature is cooler. After thinning, plants should be watered along the row straight away to help settle them back into their positions and recover overnight.
If using the thinnings as transplants to get another slightly later maturing row, this is best done straight away, removing a few plants at a time, planting before they wilt and thoroughly watering them afterwards so the roots are cool and wet. This will help them to recover quickly. Over the next week, water these transplants as necessary each evening to keep them turgid. Plants raised under glass and transplanted from modules get away a lot quicker with no root disturbance and producing a far superior lettuce. Plant out each lettuce with a trowel at the required distance, water them in straightaway and you will see them grow away almost immediately.Throughout the growing season, fill up vacant spaces with later sown modular raised plants to keep the plot full and productive.
Early in the year, if the weather is changeable or very wet, windy and there is a risk of hail, cover the plants with a cloche made from Enviromesh or fleece for added protection. As plants grow, keep the weeds down by hoeing at regular intervals. Two weeks after transplanting the plants are usually well established and watering can be stopped unless the weather is very hot and they begin to wilt; watering larger plants too much can encourage botrytis (grey mould) and mildew diseases.
Pests and Diseases
Occasionally, young seedlings or freshly planted out modules can be attacked by birds pecking the leaves; these can easily be deterred by covering the rows with some netting. Lettuces also make a tasty meal for slugs and snails, so it is best to protect these with whichever slug control you prefer to use to help combat this troublesome pest. Lettuce root aphid and leaf aphid (greenfly) can be controlled by using a suitable insecticide, but always check the label before spraying to see how long after treatment you can safely harvest the crop.
Alternatively, grow one of the lettuce aphid resistant varieties. Occasionally, downy mildew disease can be a problem, but these days this is less so since the introduction of mildew resistant varieties. Grey mould is normally only a problem during very cool, damp weather conditions or on lettuces that are grown under glass through the winter with insufficient air circulation. If this is seen, plants should be destroyed to avoid the disease spreading to other plants.
Always try to cut lettuces one to two hours before you need them, wash immediately and place the leaves in the fridge to crisp up for that perfect salad. When preparing, either tear away the leaves from the stem or cut using a plastic knife to help stop the leaves browning at the base while in the fridge for a few days. When choosing a lettuce that produces a firm heart, always feel along the row and cut the one that feels the fullest; this way you will always be using the most mature lettuce first and helping to avoid wastage and stopping older lettuces running to seed. When selecting a loose leaf variety, this is easier because you can either cut the whole lettuce or pick the required amount of leaves from the plant needed to garnish your meal.
Being self-reliant in the wake of a disaster—whether it’s natural or manmade—doesn’t just mean you have to find shelter. You’ll need sustenance to keep your mental and physical strength, and you probably can’t rely on any grocery store to provide it for you. Consider these six essentials when preparing your survival pantry.
Ready your soil in advance
If your contingency plan is to grab a cucumber from the refrigerator after a disaster and plant the seeds in your yard, you’ll be hungry for quite a while, experts say. Instead, know what type of soil you have, and prepare it for a garden well in advance of a disaster. “A family should first begin with the richest quality soil possible by developing it,” advises Lisa Bedford, author of “The Survival Mom” and editor of the blog at www.thesurvivalmom.com. “This is an enormous factor in successful gardening. Begin a compost bucket, or if space allows, a larger compost area outdoors.”
Determine what to plant
Do you love avocados? Don’t start planting the pits right away. Instead, visit farmer’s markets to find out what grows best in your area, rather than trusting the home improvement store nurseries or seed catalogs, Bedford advises. “Get to know your growing season and region,” she says. “Your county extension office can provide a wealth of information for your area.” You should also track what produce you already buy and use most. “Don’t plant celery, for example, if you rarely use it and no one likes to eat it,” she says. If they grow well in your region, you should consider planting ingredients commonly used in soup and stew recipes, such as onions, carrots, tomatoes and green beans, because those can go far for large groups.
Start a small garden
Once you’ve developed rich soil, you should plant a few seeds to see whether they’re successful. But don’t fall into the common trap of sowing thousands of seeds right off the bat, because you could end up wasting precious time and money if they don’t sprout. “Start with a small 4×4 plot or raised bed, or even just a pot or two,” Bedford says.
Keep a garden journal
You should maintain a written record of what you plant and where, Bedford advises. “Trust me, you’ll forget which varieties of tomatoes died off and which thrived,” she says. “As the growing season progresses, take note of successes and failures as well as your own actions, such as watering schedules. You’ll likely figure out why some plants didn’t thrive while others went on to be productive.”
Food preservation methods
Once you’ve grown a thriving garden, you’ll want to preserve your surplus in case you’ll have to subsist on it for long periods. Contrary to popular belief, preserved foods aren’t limited solely to jerky and pickles. “Just about every food can be preserved at home,” Bedford says. “For example, spaghetti sauce and cooked risotto can both be dehydrated. Meat and chicken can be safely home-canned, as can homemade soups and stews.” The easiest way to preserve food is to buy a food dehydrator (or build one using online instructions). You can dehydrate your own garden’s bounty or prepare for the future by buying vegetables now. “When you come across bags of frozen produce on sale, buy multiple bags,” Bedford advises. “The produce can be placed on the dehydrator trays without being thawed. It has already been washed and cut into small pieces, so it’s ready to go!” Likewise, fresh produce gleaned in bulk from farmer’s markets can be dehydrated, as can canned fruit. If you’d like to can your own fruit and vegetables, keep in mind that the process requires more supplies and takes a bit of training. “However, having wholesome food without any unwanted additives makes it worthwhile,” Bedford says. “The key is to
Once you’ve got your fruit and vegetable plan underway, consider stocking some of your favorite menu items. “Any time a family must rely on their stored food will be a time of stress, so familiar comfort foods should be included,” Bedford says. “Make a list of several breakfast, lunch and dinner meals your family enjoys, and begin looking for ways to store those ingredients.” If young kids are still at home, be sure to store some foods that will be essential to their health, such as instant milk, peanut butter, fruits, vegetables and various grains. “Food storage companies, such as Shelf Reliance, now offer enormous varieties of products that include organic foods, gluten-free products and non-GMO produce. Food storage doesn’t have to be limited to buckets of wheat, rice and beans!” Bedford adds.
Making soap from scratch is a complicated process. However, if you start with a natural 100% pure soap base and add herbal ingredients it becomes fun and easy. By including healing herbs, you’ll increase the soaps’ soothing, moisturising and cleansing properties.
What to make homemade soaps with herbs and plants
You can make a range of soaps from solid soap bars to exfoliating scrubs for cleaning hands and greasy stovetops. To make a solid bar, no water is added to the melted soap. For a scrub, water is used to make a softer consistency. Both solid bars and softer scrubs can have a variety of ingredients added to enhance them, including ground-up pumice stone, herbs and herb-infused and essential oils.
What you’ll need to make homemade soaps with herbs and plants
Soap base. I use Farmhouse soap, from The Soap Barn, made from coconut oil and clay. One hundred percent natural, it’s easy to melt and infuse with herbal oils to make a variety of soaps from facial scrubs to shampoo bars (ideal for travelling). Glycerine soap is clear and good for making hand soaps.
Double boiler or a glass bowl set over a pot of gently simmering water.
Herb-infused or essential oils. Olive or coconut oil are good choices.
Fresh herbs or other ingredients, optional.
Plastic soap moulds, silicone sweet moulds or you can use oiled bread tins and cut your soap into squares afterwards.
Notebook to keep track of recipes and ingredients.
How to do it
Cut the soap into chunks and place in the top of the double boiler then set it over gently simmering water to melt.
Add herb-infused oil, essential oils and any other ingredients, stir through to mix and remove from heat.
For solid soaps: Pour into the moulds, tapping gently to remove bubbles. Leave to set. To remove, run a sharp knife around the edges, turn over and give a sharp tap. For a scrub: Add water, stirring while you add, until it reaches the desired consistency. (It will solidify further as it cools.) Decant into wide-mouthed containers and seal. To make herb-infused oil: Place one part fresh or dried herbs and one part oil in a double boiler over gently simmering water for three hours. Strain. Use 1 teaspoon oil per 200g of soap.
What plants can be used to make soap?
Its Latin name is derived from lavare which means to wash. The flowers have antiseptic, antifungal and antibacterial properties. Growing tips: A hardy perennial, it likes full sun and is drought tolerant. Plant it in well-drained soil with good air circulation. It dislikes damp, wet conditions. Prune in early spring. Cut flowers regularly to keep it producing.
The petals have soothing and healing qualities ideal for face soap. Growing tips: Grow from seed in full sun in well-drained soil. It flowers from late autumn, throughout winter into early summer. Deadhead flowers to encourage further flowering.
This soothing and anti-inflammatory plant is good for dry skins. Its leaves contain high levels of saponins, which foam when mixed with water. Growing tips: It’s a perennial that prefers full sun but will grow in semi-shade. Plant in well-drained, poor soil, as it can become invasive in rich soil. Don’t grow near a fishpond as the saponins can harm fish.
An antiseptic and anti-inflammatory, rosemary is good for skin blemishes and ideal for facial soaps. It also encourages hair growth and leaves hair shiny. Growing tips: Its preferred climate is hot and dry, but it does well in more temperate areas. Choose its spot carefully as it’s a large perennial that can live up to 20 years. Cut it back in late spring. In frost areas, don’t cut it back in autumn.
An aromatic herb, it’s a refreshing antiseptic and toner. Growing tips: Peppermint spreads quickly and is best contained in pots. It likes full sun and plenty of water. If it dies back in winter, it will pop up again in spring.
A graceful tree with peeling white paper bark that grows up to 7m tall. The leaves of this powerful all-purpose healing plant make a good addition to soap for problem skins. Growing tips: Although it prefers moist soil, it will grow in most well-drained soils. It’s hardy and likes sun. Keep well watered throughout summer. Trim it to keep it smaller.
Popular in English and Mediterranean gardens gravel makes a hard-wearing groundcover and an attractive alternative to grass. It can be used for pathways, outdoor sitting areas and under trees where grass and other plants won’t grow. If you choose the right colour and size, gravel can also enhance the look of your garden.
Good reasons to use gravel
It creates a neat-looking groundcover.
It reduces water evaporation.
As it crunches underfoot, it alerts you to anyone approaching.
It minimises soil erosion.
Weeds are suppressed.
As gravel allows water to penetrate the soil, it’s more eco-friendly than paving which promotes run-off.
Choosing the right type
Gravel comes in different sizes and colours. Keep in mind that the finer the gravel the more comfortable it is to walk on. From the wide range of colours choose one that complements the colour of your house and other hard landscaping and is in keeping with the style of your garden. For instance, black stones are more suited to contemporary styles while a cream crush is ideal for a French-style garden.
How to lay gravel
According to Cobus Behrens of Down2Earth Garden Creations, whether it’s a pathway, garden or sitting area, levelling and compacting the area first is crucial.
Plant borders and beds surrounding gravelled areas before spreading the gravel so that you don’t end up with soil on top of it as this promotes the growth of weeds. If you have to replace plants in beds later on, cover the gravel with plastic first to prevent soil build-up in the gravel.
Place a weed-suppressing fabric like Coolaroo Weedmat on top of the soil to stop weeds growing through. This fabric comes in strips or rolls, usually 90cm wide, so overlap the pieces by at least 3–5cm when covering the area. If weeds grow through, don’t use chemical weed killers as they leach into the soil, killing surrounding plants and wildlife.
“Laying gravel is simple. Spread an 8–10cm layer of gravel directly on top of the weed cloth. Four facto five 20kg bags will cover 1m²; 1m³ of gravel will cover approximately 10m²,” says Cobus.
If the gravelled area adjoins a lawn, install an edging to prevent the stones working their way into the grass and damaging the lawnmower.
Gravel can also be used as the starting point for a number of garden styles.
Gravel is perfect for this romantic style. Use it for a patio under a pergola or for pathways. Plant partners: Lavender, gaura, rosemary, cotton lavender, lowgrowing landscape roses and bergenia.
Think wide borders with a profusion of mound-forming plants cascading over gravel paths. Plant partners: Catmint, lavender, gaura, gaillardia, lamb’s ears, irises, agapanthus and dierama.
Traditionally grown in raised beds, Alpine gardens consist of tough, drought-resistant, high-altitude plants. Use very fine gravel in a cement or stone container on legs. Plant partners: Miniature dianthus species, gazania, Cape daisy, vygies, Armeria maritima, Irish moss, echeveria and crassula species.
For a low-maintenance, water-wise option, remove the lawn and replace it with gravel and succulents. Once you’ve decided where the plants will go, cut small crosses in the weed cloth and insert the plants. Push the weed cloth back over the soil, up against the stem of each plant. Then cover the area with gravel. Plant partners: Small aloe species, agave, sempervivum, cotyledon, senecio and vygies.
IT WASN’T LONG BEFORE word got out and the eggs for sale on our porch disappeared as quickly as we could replace them. They were being snapped up by friendly dog-walkers who use the footpath by our house and had heard about their rich, orange yolks and thick whites. We value them just as highly; boil or poach one of these freshly laid beauties to enjoy with buttered toast for breakfast and it will leave you feeling thoroughly spoilt – after that, even the best shop-bought kind simply won’t do.
Hens were the first among our livestock to arrive – they’re generally considered to be entry-level animals for smallholders. For us, it all started in 2006, a year after moving to Walnuts Farm, with half a dozen standard brown birds that had, until recently, been free-ranging in the garden of a pub that was closing down. We then bought a second-hand coop, which we saw advertised in the window of a local pet shop, scrubbed it thoroughly with disinfectant, gave it a coat of non-toxic paint, staked out 150 square metres of our front meadow with some electric green poultry netting to keep out predators and introduced the girls to their new home. Soon, we found out just how easy it is to raise a few chickens and it fuelled our enthusiasm to increase the flock.
We’ve learned that hens produce the best-tasting eggs when they’ve access to plenty of grass, which they peck and scratch at to find insects – an activity that is, for some reason, deeply soothing to watch. We move them around the front meadow so they aren’t kept in the same area, which – due to chickens’ methodical grazing – soon becomes bare. Of course, not having a fixed run has its disadvantages in that the hens are more vulnerable to predation by foxes during daylight hours due to the fact the fence isn’t dug beneath the soil, allowing foxes to burrow under. It is also lower, so easily leapt over. Luckily, though, such raids are rare because the scent and continuous outdoor presence of our lurcher Bunny and whippet Blink tend to ward them off, but happen usually if we are away for a few days between Christmas and Easter when other food is scarce. Or perhaps a covering of snow can earth the electric fence, meaning a few hungry hunters are able to bite through, jump over or even crawl under the net to take their prey. At dusk, however, a daylight-sensitive automatic door-closing mechanism means that, even if we are not around or forget, as soon as light fades – when chickens naturally head in to roost – they’re safe. Overall, we feel the flock’s quality of life outweighs the risks, plus being free to roam an expanse of fresh pasture seems to keep them in good health, as the hens are less prone to pests and diseases.
Hybrids – a type developed commercially to offer improved egg yields – such as our first batch of hens, are friendly and reliable in the laying department, and we continue to include some from Wendy Turner at nearby Wish End Farm (thecosycoop.co.uk) in our flock. However, once we’d begun keeping hens, we also became tempted by all the different pure breeds available such as the chestnut-feathered Welsummer, the large, fluffy Orpingtons and the Silver-laced Wyandotte with its elegant black-and-white plumage. And it’s not only the appearance of the bird itself that counts, but the colour of the eggshells they produce – Cotswold Legbars are prized for their beautiful eau-de-nilor pale-blue shade, while the Marans’ are a dark brown. Poultry-club auctions and sales have proved to be an inexpensive way to acquire these special birds, but we also enjoy raising our own chicks. You can buy fertile eggs by post and, either with an incubator or a reliably broody hen, hatch them out.
Our Cuckoo Marans tend to become broody twice a year and make very good mothers. A tell-tale sign is when they start sitting in the nestbox all day and return to it as soon as you’ve thrown them out. Then you know it’s time to transfer them to a separate house, where they can warm and turn a clutch of up to a dozen fertile eggs in peace. In fact, they’ll even raise other types of fowl as long as the eggs aren’t too large or small – very sweetly, ducklings follow their hen ‘mother’ around, even when they’re old enough to tower over her. All our birds graze together in a mixed flock and new ones are always introduced at night when the others are asleep. We also keep guinea fowl, quail, Aylesbury ducks, geese and a lone turkey who joins any group that will have him and roosts on the tin roof of the chicken coop – every evening we hear it clatter under his feet. It’s one ritual that marks the end of our smallholding day, but still nothing quite beats collecting warm eggs from the nesting box.
Getting started in henkeeping
Before selecting your birds, buy or build your coop. There are some simple plans available (such as in the Haynes Chicken Manual) if you have the time and skills to make one. Secondhand houses are advertised on websites such as ebay.com, preloved.co.uk and uk.freecycle.org – but make sure you clean them thoroughly with a product such as Battles Poultry House Disinfectant and let them air before introducing your birds at dusk.
If buying a ready-made henhouse, consider designs with an easily removable roof or high-enough one to allow you to enter and clean with ease. It’s wise to begin with a small flock – just ensure your housing is generous and has space for a few more birds should you wish to expand the operation (use your judgment, as manufacturers’ guidelines can be inadequate). When adding new birds in the future, try to introduce an equal number or at least pairs of hens to reduce the chances of bullying and, for the same reason, do it at dusk; by morning they have usually accepted them.
There is a wide range of different birds to choose from. Pure breeds include the fancier, more eye-catching varieties of fowl displayed at agricultural shows around the country. These events (asao.org.uk) offer a good opportunity to meet breeders. Alternatively, the Poultry Club of Great Britain lists contacts (poultryclub.org/poultry/breed-clubs). Their egg yields are lower and many will stop laying between September or October and mid-February, but these birds are productive far longer than hybrids. Many breeds are also available in a bantam version, which are around half the size of their standard counterpart, tend to produce fewer, smaller eggs and are more flighty.
Hybrids are the result of crossing a cockerel and hen of different breeds. In their first year or two, they lay prolifically – up to 300 eggs a year. Many beginners choose to keep hybrids initially – a type developed for commercial laying – due to their docile nature and high egg yield. Mixed breeds are the offspring of hybrid parents. As such, they tend to be one-offs that combine several different characteristics, with no two siblings the same. Buying hens at point-of-lay (often abbreviated to POL) – when they are 16-21 weeks – means the young pullets have been sexed as hens and they are ready to produce eggs.
The price per bird varies according to whether you are selecting hybrids (from around £10) or pure-breeds (up to £40). It’s worth checking the deeds of your property or tenancy agreement (especially in urban areas) to ensure there aren’t covenants prohibiting hen-keeping. You needn’t register with Defra (gov.uk/poultry- registration) unless you plan to keep 50 birds or more.
What to look for when buying a chicken
Bright eyes, glossy feathers, smooth legs, a clean vent and a red wattle and comb are all indicators of good hen health. Visit a local breeder (look through the classified ads of your area’s newspaper or ask at an agricultural store) and go into the sheds with them to select your young birds or chicks to check they are being kept in clean and comfortable conditions. If you are taking on ex-commercial laying hens, they may appear to be out of condition and have bare patches of plumage. However, their appearance will improve after a few weeks of free-ranging. In order to ensure you are re-homing genuine formerly caged birds, source them through The British Hen Welfare Trust (bhwt.org.uk), which has collection points across the country and asks for a small donation to fund its work.
Caring for your flock
Although chickens aren’t time-consuming to look after, you will need to check them every morning and evening. It takes just 20-30 minutes each day. In the morning, ideally when it’s light, open up the pop-hole to let them out, refresh their drinkers and top up feed, while checking they all look healthy and are moving about happily. As well as layers’ pellets and mixed corn, you should supply your hens with oyster shell and grit (with which they grind solid food). Supplement your hens’ diet with vegetables or fruits from the garden (check a chicken-keeping guide as some, including rhubarb, are poisonous) – except those with a strong flavour such as onion as it can taint the eggs – and feed them mixed corn in the afternoon for a treat (once they’ve had a good portion of their more nutritious layers’ pellets). As soon after dusk as possible, shut up the pop-hole and put their food away securely so it doesn’t attract rodents, and collect eggs from the nesting box. There are other jobs that will require more commitment on a weekly, monthly or quarterly basis.
Worming your hens will ensure a healthy digestive system – you can buy feed ready mixed with conventional treatment Flubenvet (marriagesmillers.co.uk). Alternatively, regular use of a herb-based kind, such as widely available Verm-X for Poultry, Ducks & Fowl in solid or liquid form, is effective in treating internal parasites. In spring and summer, the pest red mite can take up residence in poultry housing. There are a number of products that reduce or eliminate it, however. Diatom is an all-natural kind made from ground-up fossils and, dusted over the surfaces inside, will eradicate the parasite, while Barrier Red Mite Powder contains plant oils and is suitable for use on the birds as well. Scaly leg is also caused by a mite that burrows under the scales of a chicken’s leg and raises them so it has a rough surface.
When the hens are docile after dusk, immerse their legs in surgical spirit, then seal them with petroleum jelly. All these complaints can be kept to a minimum by good husbandry and, where possible, giving chickens access to fresh ground. Don’t be alarmed if your hens begin to lose their feathers and go off lay – it is likely that they are starting their annual moult, during which their entire plumage is replaced. It usually takes three to four weeks and requires a large amount of energy, so there is often a decline in general appearance. As well as keeping on top of pest control, check the perimeter fence on a regular basis for holes through which predators could enter. Keep housing well-maintained, as draughts and leaks can be detrimental to health, but ensure there is good ventilation in the house at roof level to prevent respiratory ailments.
There’s nothing shy and retiring about the rhododendron family – the colours are vibrant, the flowerheads large and voluptuous – and the delicious fragrance of Rhododendron luteum (commonly known as the yellow azalea) drifting in the air will stop you in your tracks. To see them in their full glory, visit the woodland garden at Bowood House in Wiltshire during May and early June, when the mature glades of rhododendrons are in full and magnificent bloom. Immense undulating drifts, some reaching ten metres high, blend brilliant- and subtle-hued shades along pathways that wind through the 70 acres, where carpets of bluebells fringe the paths.
Successive generations of the resident Lansdowne family have been planting this hillside with rhododendrons since 1854. The third Marquis established the original planting, while the fifth expanded the garden and added many more varieties. The current Lord Lansdowne (and ninth Marquis) continues this tradition in a very hands-on manner. He loves nothing more than escaping his other duties and disappearing across the parkland in his battered four-wheel drive for a bit of woodland management: it may be clearing land with the help of a specially adapted digger, pruning or planting. Tucked well away, there’s a shed where he can get on with repairing tools and machinery, and a modest greenhouse for propagating seed he has gathered and growing-on cuttings with the help of a misting unit. Rhododendrons root readily from layering (making a shallow cut in a low-growing branch and pinning it to the ground), so he also uses this technique on selected specimens to increase the collection.
Fortunately, there’s no shortage of things to keep the Marquis happily occupied for the foreseeable future and even in such an established setting there are opportunities for planting new areas. Most recent is the four-acre Jubilee Garden, which was begun in 2006 in a small valley with a stream at its centre. Compared with the rest of the woodland garden, it is still in its infancy, but it has allowed Lord Lansdowne to make his own mark as he has planted it with favourite varieties and extended the season of interest by adding other shrubs, including hydrangeas, magnolias, cornus and eucryphia. Few of us have the acreage or the legacy of planting that exists at Bowood, but for anyone who has more modest inclinations to grow rhododendrons, a visit here will provide colourful inspiration.
Where to grow Rhododendron
As a general guide, the smaller the leaf of the rhododendron, the more sun-tolerant it will be. Large-leafed specimens are woodland plants and, to grow well, they need the shade and shelter provided by a canopy of mature deciduous trees. Compact and dwarf varieties and evergreen and deciduous azaleas are all suitable for container- growing in ericaceous compost. They must not be allowed to dry out (or become waterlogged) and should be watered with rainwater.
The menace of the wild rhododendron
There’s no doubt that the sight of a hillside covered in the wild purple Rhododendron ponticum in full bloom is very attractive, but it comes at a great cost to the native flora and fauna. Since it was planted as cover for pheasants in Victorian times, it has thrived in the damp conditions in the north and west of Britain and taken over great tracts of countryside, squeezing out other plant species and proving very unwelcoming (and poisonous) to wildlife. It is also incredibly difficult to eradicate.
A single large bush is able to produce up to one million seeds in a single year, so even if the parent plant is removed, it still requires several years of controlling the seedlings. If all of this was not worrying enough, in recent years it has also been established that it is host to the plant disease phytophthora, which threatens to kill many of our favourite native shrubs and garden trees. However, two things can be done to help – firstly, buy rhododendron cultivars (never R. ponticum) from reputable specialist growers and, secondly, work as a conservation volunteer assisting organisations including the National Trust and the Woodland Trust with clearance programmes
Planting tips for Rhododendrons
Acid soil is essential for most varieties and it is important that it has moisture-retentive qualities. The evergreen foliage provides structure in the garden throughout the year, but can be dull once the blooms have finished. To extend the flowering season, mix rhododendrons with other acid-loving shrubs, such as Japanese maples, magnolias, cornus and pieris. The dense canopy and shallow roots of mature rhododendrons prevent other plants establishing nearby.
Choose varieties carefully to fit the scale of your garden: left to their own devices, some become very large. There are many lovely pastel-hued cultivars if vibrant combinations are not to your taste. Buy plants when they are in flower so you can be sure you like the colour of the blooms. To plant, prepare a large hole and incorporate plenty of leaf mould and well-rotted compost into it. Rhododendrons are shallow rooters, so ensure the rootball is level with the surrounding soil. Water well and mulch with leaf mould, composted bark or pine needles (not nutrient- rich animal manure or lime-rich spent mushroom compost), but keep the stem free of mulch.
Types of rhododendrons
R. augustinii Striking violet-blue funnel-shaped flowers on a small-leaved shrub; 1.4m-1.6m high.
R. ‘Loder’s White’ Upright clusters of mauve-pink buds opening to trusses of slightly fragrant trumpet-shaped white flowers up to 10cm across; 1.5m-2.5m high.
R. luteum (yellow azalea) Scented blooms on a deciduous shrub with vivid-hued autumn foliage; 2.5m-4m high.
R. campanulatum x pictum Natural hybrid bearing pale lilac-pink flowers with speckled throats; attractive large glossy leaves; reaches 1.5m in ten years.