There may be no such thing as a free lunch, but sometimes gardening is so rewarding you have to question that old cliché. We’ve been growing potatoes in tyre stacks for a couple of years now – last year we didn’t do so well, mainly because the seed potatoes we used were no good. We cracked it this year though, and yesterday we harvested heaps of lovely yellow spuds from our stack. All you need is a square metre of ground, three tyres, some seed potatoes and a compost heap or other source of compost. Anyone with a tiny garden can do this, so here’s how to get an (almost) free crop with very little effort.
Growing potatoes in a tyre stack
- First, you’ll need some old tyres, about three is standard for this growing technique, but you could use more if you have vigorous plants. Most garages will be overjoyed if you ask them if they have any bald tyres they need to get rid of; these are such an annoyance to the trade that your request will get a very warm welcome and you’ll be offered as many as you can handle, so don’t be shy – you are doing someone a favour. And once you have them, they can be used year after year.
- Next, you’ll need your seed potatoes. Get them fresh from a reputable source, be sure that they are firm and healthy. If you have a friend with an allotment or kitchen garden they may well have bulk bought more seed potato than they can plant and will be happy to give you a handful. We had about five or six planted in our stack. You could probably use less.
- Lay just one tyre out to start with, upon well drained earth in a sunny or well lit spot. Our tyre stack is on concrete and works fine, but ideally earth is better for drainage. Fill it with mature compost from your compost heap (and if you don’t have one, you’ll have to make a trip to the garden centre for some compost. This is the bit that will cost you, you will need lots!) and plant the potatoes. Water well. Water daily. And wait…
- If all goes well the potatoes will sprout and grow quickly, so that eventually their leaves are well above the hight of the first tyre. This is when you place the next tyre on top of the stack. Heap compost up all over the growing plants, leaving just a bit of leaf showing. The plants will continue to grow, pushing through the new layer of earth. The parts of the plant that are buried are the parts that will produce potatoes, so basically the taller the stack, the more potatoes you will get. Keep the stack watered, let the plants grow through thoroughly before adding each new tyre and compost… and that’s it.
- The plants should be allowed a decent amount of growing time after you put the final tyre on the stack, so that all those leaves get the chance to convert the sun’s energy into potatoes. The plants should look green and vigorous. Eventually though, the leaves will become yellow and sickly looking. That’s when your potatoes are done!
- To harvest, simply knock over or dismantle the tyre stack and the potatoes will be very easy to find among the compost. One advantage of growing in a stack is that unlike growing in a trench, you will easily find every single one. Then shovel up the compost and put it on your flower beds.
We made a three tyre stack this year, but the plants were so strong we probably could have used an extra tyre and got even more potatoes. As it is we got two large bags of potatoes from the six we planted. We were given the tyres and the seed potatoes and made our own compost, so this crop was absolutely free – all we needed to do was add water.
We’ve always had urban foxes passing through and spending time in our garden, but there seems to be an excess of vulpine activity in these parts of late. Their fine sense of just how long it’s safe to stare at the stupid human before flowing silkily under or over the fence to safety displays a magnificent comic insolence. And now that their activities have taken on a destructive and faintly macabre air I feel like the slow witted butt of many a foxy joke. It’s almost like Wiley E Coyote is getting his own back in a small suburban English garden, and I am the one who’s playing the straight guy.
They’ve always dug the occasional hole in the grass, and they’ve always dumped bones in the flower beds. We have become blasé to their eerie nocturnal shrieking and if they eat an occasional bird… well, they are only making a living after all, and I bet they eat a good many rats, too. We rub along together pretty well. But last week I was astonished to find a whole sheep skull under the rosemary bush looking at me through empty eye sockets like a prop from a remake of Lord Of The Flies. And yesterday our neighbour in the flat downstairs (who is a strict vegan) found two large meaty bones abandoned on her back doorstep. Presumably someone is feeding them, or they are raiding illegally dumped food waste. I’d love to know where this stuff is coming from, but the foxes aren’t telling.
They’ve dug up our carrots and they’ve strewn Kentucky Fried Chicken boxes around like a bunch of truanting kids. They pulled up a tomato plant, just for fun. There is nothing they like better than gnawing at and playing football with our flowerpots, and they especially love my old workboots which I planted with geraniums; I never know where I’m going to find them from one morning to the next. They treat our garden the way rock stars treat hotel bedrooms. And I would love to see them doing it.
But oddly, the best sighting I’ve had all this year was of a wild country fox, hunting voles in a lush spring meadow. Country foxes are warier beasts all together, so I guessed all we’d get was a brief glimpse before it saw us and vanished into the long grass. But we were screened by a thick hedgerow and the wind was in our favour – the fox had no idea we were there at all.
It combed the meadow, listening intently for a sound that might betray a rodent or bird. It was a lesson to see how it went about it’s business, calm and patient yet utterly focussed, and it wasn’t long before we saw it pounce and eat some small unlucky thing.
It came closer and closer as it quartered the field, I still can’t quite believe it came so close that I could get these pictures with my humble point-and-shoot camera. I’ve hesitated to photograph wild animals before, out of respect and and a desire to not spoil a moment with the clattering of the shutter, but watching this creature go about it’s daily business did not feel intrusive. A lesson in methodical patience, it went about the chore of feeding itself with a relaxed unhurried alertness and I tried to do the same as I recorded it.
We must have watched it hunting in the sunshine and long grass for ten minutes or more and I would have gladly stayed longer, but we were only half way through our walk and needed to keep going if we were to make it home before dark.
As we continued to walk along the field edge the fox continued hunting, its beauty glowing bright in the sun. If I ever felt the slightest irritation with it’s city living cousins those feelings got melted utterly as I looked over my shoulder and watched it, still stalking the long grass, till it was out of sight.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
Something was different today as I opened the back door to check the bird feeders and fill up our makeshift bird table – all along the back fence sat a row of little birds. They were waiting! Almost overnight it seems they have taken to using the bird feeders, almost emptying the seed feeder in the space of 24 hours. Robins, wrens and blackbirds fidgeted impatiently, and whizzing through the air blue and coal tits cheeped and twittered. I’m sure I saw a song thrush too, but it was extremely shy and flew behind the fence when I appeared. Not so the robins, who could barely wait and had already stormed the table before I’d reached the fire escape.
Robins are highly territorial birds and they are extremely bad at sharing – the fact that these two were able to tolerate each others presence shows just how desperately hungry they were. Eventually the bird on the right muttered “get lost” (which to human ears sounds like an incredibly sweet and lovely song) and the bird on the left, losing it’s nerve, flew into a rose bush to wait it’s turn.
I’ve only recently begun to feed the birds and it’s suddenly feeling like quite a responsibility, having all these small lives dependant (to some extent at least) on me. But it’s also an honour, the thought that I can actually help. Seeing that little fidgeting group of birds waiting in the thickly falling snow brought home to me their plight, and how easy and simple it is to do something about it.
…And don’t forget your fellow humans
As I have just written about the responsibility of saving lives I feel it would be a crime if I signed off from this post without mentioning the terrible earthquake in Haiti. If you don’t feel moved to feed the birds, please do not forget your fellow humans in their hour of need. If just one person who reads this feels moved to donate, that could mean a human life saved.
To read more Nature Notes, why not visit Rambling Woods – in fact, why not write a Nature Notes post of your own?
When running in my local park just before the big snowfall I marvelled at how so many birds seemed to be in full and frantic song, as if it were summer almost. The unseasonal display was quite disconcerting. Are they singing so early to establish territory in harsh weather? Birdsong is more than a pretty sound, it’s a territorial display, and birds would not waste their breath unless something pretty important was at stake. In winter, food and water and a safe place to roost are all that matters.
According to the RSPB this exceptionally harsh winter may be “the single greatest wildlife killer of the new millennium”. Food is hard to find under a blanket of ice and snow, and the extremely low night time temperatures mean that birds and other animals face death if they have not eaten enough to give them the energy to stay warm. Good quality food with a high energy content is vital, as is clean fresh water; many birds and animals suffer when ponds, puddles and lakes freeze. Urban and suburban gardens will be seeing unusual avian visitors as birds are forced to search further afield for food. On my frosty run last week I saw a beautiful flock of goldfinches gleaning frost twisted thistle heads beside the pond. And during the worst of the snow I could hear greenfinches twittering and whirring throught the back gardens; I’d be surprised if they’d found much to make it worth their while that day. I’ve mentioned my reluctance to feed the birds in our cat infested garden before, but seeing these hungry refugees inspired me to buy nut and seed feeders in the hope of helping them out.
Of course you don’t need to spend huge amounts of money on feeding the birds – as you can see, an upturned bucket or bin works well as a low level feeder, and I sprinkled this one with porridge oats and a bit of muesli. It was gone in a flash, and while the neighbours cats remain safely tucked up indoors I’m going to continue using this as a temporary bird table. Next time I will be brushing the snow and any debris off first!
The peanut feeder has been a more modest success – from what I can see, only one solitary nut has been pecked. However I believe it can take some time before birds can bring themselves to try a new feeder, just in case it’s a trap. Once the local birds know that it’s not, they will be eating happily, so I have to be patient. It doesn’t help that due to the design of our flat there is no window looking out onto the garden so watching the birds eat involves opening the back door – which disturbs the birds and freezes me. I did get to see one unusual little visitor quite close up though – a female grey wagtail, soaking wet (from having a bath? I guess so…) appeared like a conjuring trick in our kitchen window box while we were eating breakfast.
A lousy picture which makes her look more like a pipit or thrush, but I wasn’t willing to move the curtain and risk disturbing our guest. At first she barely moved, then set about fluffing up and preening the water from her feathers, flashing a beautiful long tail as she did so. Apart from this being an unexpected intimacy with a lovely little bird I’ve never seen in these parts before, her appearance inspired me to try my luck with a window mounted feeder. I haven’t bought one yet, but I’ll let you know how it goes when I do.
There are a few things to bear in mind when feeding the birds, such as keeping them safe from predators, what they can and can’t eat, but really it’s not rocket science. For lots of really helpful information on feeding the birds in the UK, check out the RSPB bird feeding advice. Another great resource for USA specific species is from Cornell’s project feeder watch. But to be honest, wherever you are in the world there are just a few basic rules you will need to know. Here’s my short rundown of helpful do’s and don’ts:-
Bird Feeding Do’s and Dont’s
Do…Leave out clean fresh water for the birds as well as food. Even in winter birds must bathe to keep their plumage in the best possible condition, and drinking water provided in gardens is vital when all other water has frozen.
Don’t… Give birds milk or foods soaked in milk – they cannot digest it and it will make them ill. They can’t eat dried, dessicated coconut either, as it will swell up inside them. Fresh coconut is fine.
Do… Be aware of predators – feed birds in a clear area away from overhanging bushes or anything that could hide a cat.
Don’t… worry if you buy a bird feeder but the birds haven’t started using it yet. It can take them a little while to get used to new feeders, a couple of weeks sometimes. If the feeder is in a safe space and stocked with food which that particular feeder is made to hold, they will come.
Do… remember to carefully clean bird feeders and tables every so often with a mild disinfectant, and rinse carefully. This will help prevent the spread of infectious diseases between birds and ensure that harmful mould does not grow.
Don’t… feed the birds mouldy food – certain kinds of mould can make birds seriously ill and even kill them.
Do… remember to save your apple cores or bruised bits of banana for the bird table. If you know where the blackbirds forage in your garden, an apple core is a tasty treat for them to find! Want more ideas of things to feed the birds? Check the RSPB’s advice on what birds like to eat here!
Whether you feed the birds on an upturned dustbin, a well established bird table or feeding station, a window feeder, or even from the palm of your hand I’d love to know your tips, too, so why not leave them in a comment here?
PS:- The wonderful Michelle of Rambling Woods has a website stuffed with bird feeding tips and has offered to help answer any questions you may have on the subject over at her blog. Although she claims to “not be an expert,” I can highly recommend a visit to this helpful, resource rich and informative site.
Yesterday we were told to expect two feet of snow to fall overnight, and sure enough, around about midnight it began. A fine, crisp powdery snow falling thickly – as I watched from the top of the fire escape it obliterated the grass below. I went to bed thrilled skinny that even in London you get the good snow sometimes!
The morning dawned quiet and still, a strange thing in the city. But the snow was not the thick blanket I had hoped for and the flakes that were still tumbling out of the sky were wet and melting as they fell. I trudged down the slush covered fire escape with the new bird feeder in one hand and a stepladder in the the other, trying to figure out where the most squirrel proofed place in the garden might be. That’s when I spotted the dainty tracks criss crossing the snow. There were two sets of tracks, one old and hard to read and filling up rapidly with falling snow. The tracks you see to the left however were crisp and fresh as a daisy. A fox! Looks like foxy was running to leap the fence when she heard me open the door – I just missed seeing her. I know that foxes hunt the mice and other rodents that hang around the compost bins and nearby garden sheds and wonder if this weather makes hunting easier or harder. I realised that my delight in the wintry weather largely comes from having plenty to eat and not having to hunt for my food under a freezing blanket of snow. This is harsh weather for wildlife and set to stay for a week at the very least, which is why I’m breaking my rule about never feeding the birds.
Feeding the birds in my neighbourhood is a bad idea; it’s pretty much inviting them to commit suicide. Our eccentric cat loving neighbour feeds all the local cats which means that his – and our – garden is constantly full of them. Come the snow, the cats go home and I feel a little better about doing it, but there are still the squirrels to contend with – I doubt they’d actually kill a bird, but they can certainly drive them all away and eat their food. I like squirrels, but in the garden they are cunning gluttons. And then of course there is fantastic Ms fox. But I wouldn’t mind a bit if I saw a fox take a bird from our garden - it’s what they do, it’s what they’ve always done, just making a living after all. If I feed the birds and a fox benefits from that one day… well, good luck to it.
So I hung up the feeder and retreated indoors, assuming that the big snow we were promised was all just talk. A couple of hours later the sky was dizzy with whirling snowflakes, the clouds an eerie ultraviolet. Let’s see how it looks tomorrow.