Friday, 30 May 2014

Going up!

Mmm, strawberries.  The supermarkets have them on the shelves, Pinterest is full of recipes for them and no doubt the BBC will start showing trailers for Wimbledon soon.

In my experience the best way to taste a strawberry is to pick it on a sunny day and pop it straight in your mouth. That gentle warmth brings out all the glory of the flavour, and every last bit of the sweetness is there because it was picked mere seconds ago.

This is not how I generally experience strawberries.  In fact, before now I've been lucky to get more than about 10 fruit what with predation by birds, escaped hens, slugs and woodlice.  This is an unsatisfactory state of affairs.  Indeed, as Miss B complained to me a few months back when choosing which jam jar to open, "Why do you make every jam and jelly except my favourite? Why won't you make strawberry jam?"

Never one to shirk a challenge, I had a good think. What were the impediments to having a decent strawberry crop?
  1. Not having a large patch with space for loads of plants
  2. The ground being too wet so they get mouldy
  3. Insects eating them
  4. Birds eating them
I remembered visiting Canal Gardens many years ago and seeing a tall pillar of impatiens.  They were planted in holes drilled around a massive pipe stood on its end.  That could solve all my problems, I thought. Growing vertically means less square footage, makes them less accessible to slugs and woodlice, means fruit aren't sitting on soggy straw. If we secure the pipe to the fence to keep it stable we could drape netting across to keep the birds off and chickens out.

That's so crazy it just might work.

So off to the plumbing supply shop Mark toddled, with a list.  Mark loves a building project.  This is very fortunate, as I love having new things built.  I generally avoid power tools myself; since I sliced the end of my finger off in woodshop in Grade 9, I regard all power tools with great suspicion.  Hell, it took 3 years for the feeling to come back. 

Here we are. getting ready to make 4 towers - two 3m lengths of soil pipe, some plastic overflow pipe and some compost. We also needed 4 2l pop bottles, twine, weed blanket/garden membrane and strawberry plantlets. And Duct tape. Duct tape is very important to Mark.

First, Mark cut off the end bit of the soil pipes - the bit that's like a wider cuff.  I kept them for using with grow bags in the polytunnel later on. Next he sawed the 3m lengths into 1.5m pieces.  Then, using a 2 inch drill bit, he and I took turns drilling holes in the side of the pipe.
(Yes, I did use a power tool despite what I just said! I was determined to take part properly because it had been my idea. I was scared at first but it was kind of cool.)
We drilled 5 holes at regular intervals, leaving 20cm at the top and bottom to allow for the reservoir and room for the plants to trail down.

Then we rotated the pipe about 100 degrees and drilled a second lot of 5 holes, offset from the first.

This allowed us 10 plants per tower.  We'd be fastening them to the fence on the east side of the garden, and of course we want the plants to get as much sunlight as possible so drilled the holes allowing us to plant to the south and west faces of the tower.  If we'd had a north wall, we'd have drilled 3 sets of holes for east, west and south.

Next, the irrigation system.  Watering from the top would make it likely the lower plants would dry out, so I wanted a way to get water all the way down. We used overflow pipe (because it was the cheapest) cut slightly shorter than the soil pipe. That would allow space at the top for the funnel/resevoir to be fitted.  I drilled little holes right through the irrigation pipe from one side, then rotated it 90 degrees and drilled through again.
See the first line of holes? I'm drilling the second line here
To stop the water just running into the soil underneath the towers and skipping the plants entirely,  we blocked off the bottom end of the irrigation pipe. Use whatever you have - we had some fat plastic screws from an old play house we duct taped into place, but we could have done the same with a wine screwcap or similar.  Duct tape was inevitable.

Now, it is quite important that the end you block off is the end you sawed down to size. The other end is slightly beveled, which will be useful later
Don't block off this beveled end
With one end closed, the beveled end free and holes criss-crossing the pipe, the irrigation system is nearly ready. To stop soil or compost clogging those watering holes, I wrapped the irrigation [pipe in a strip of weed blanket and secured it with garden twine wound around it. I didn't want it getting dislodged while I filled the planter with dirt.
Cut a thin strip of the membrane to go around the pipe
A length of overflow pipe is about the same width as the mouth of a pop bottle. To make filling the pipe easy once in situ, cut the top off a 2l pop bottle to make a funnel and attach it to the irrigation pipe. Dip the bottle top in a mug of hot water to soften it if it's stiff going onto the pipe. Remember that slight bevel to the edge? This is why it's useful.   The beveled edge is much easier to jam the funnel onto than the cut edge. 
As is practically The Law in DIY projects, secure it with a bit of duct tape.

Here is one of the towers secured to the fence with the irrigation/funnel only partially in place:
If you want a large reservoir, make your funnel deeper. I didn't because a) I'm not that tall and the whole contraption was about as high up as I can lift a watering can b) I wanted to be about to plant quite high up the tower, which isn't possible if that space is filled with reservoir and not compost and c) I didn't want the naff pop bottle plastic showing above the top of the tower.  Because black plastic plumbing pipe is this season's look, doncha know! 
4 towers against the fence, wires in front to support netting

Here comes the tricky bit. I wish I'd done it differently...
Filling the tower. Oops.

My first plan had been for the irrigation tube to go down the back go the tower, so filling would have been pretty easy. But Mark's idea for the funnel/reservoir meant the irrigation tube went pretty much down the middle and I needed to fill in around it. Quite a hassle.  What with air pockets, not finding it easy to tamp the compost down and then overfilling so I could barely get the plants in, here's what I would do if starting again.
(Remember way back in the in August '13 when I mentioned this blog would include ways I fail so you don't have to? This is one of those times.)

First, I'd make a tamping tool. Maybe several layers of cardboard cut into a C shape that would fit inside the tower (so about 9cm diameter and able to slot around the irrigation tube. I'd tape two bamboo canes to it so I could reach it right down into the tower.

Second, I'd tip some compost in the tower and tamp it down, and repeat until I was at the level of the first planting hole. I'd slot the irrigation pipe in the centre of the tower - it will stick up about 6 to 12 inches at the top for continuing to fill the tower.  Slot the first plant in the planting hole and continue
to fill it the tower, tamping down and planting as the compost gets level to a planting hole.
Once the last plant it is in, I'd go back to what I actually did.

This is the point I stood on a chair and shoved the irrigation tube REALLY hard to get it as far down the tower as possible. Then Mark whacked it with a sledgehammer (with a block of wood to protect the funnel) until it was level.

The Way Not To Do It - 
I don't recommend tipping as much dirt in the towers as you can around the irrigation tube, paffing it down with a broom handle as best you can, tipping more in, paff paff paff with that broom handle until you're up to the top, whack the reservoir in place and then planting through the side holes.
This is a ridiculous way of doing it, I assure you.
For a start, a broom handle isn't broad enough to do satisfactory tamping. there are loads of air holes left that you need to get rid of if you want the plants to survive, and trying to add more soil by shoving it through the side holes with your fingers is a pretty inefficient way of doing it.

I'm sure none of us know anyone daft enough to do it that way, obviously.

Anyway, once the little strawberry runner were planted into the towers, the fruit netting tacked in place at the top of the fence and pegged down at the bottom to keep blackbirds and naughty chickens away, it was completed.

I give you...   STRAWBOPOLIS!  High rise des res accommodation for strawberry plants.

Strawbpolis after 2 weeks

Strawbopolis this week - Look, flowers and tiny fruits! Woohoo!

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