Monday, 30 November 2015

Party reminder and willow rooting solution

Next Sunday, 6th December, it's party time at the Empty Common Community Garden. 

Our Charlotte will be giving a much anticipated talk on Peak Soil & Permaculture at 12.30.

From 1.30 we have the Serendipity Sessions including 'Yarn Spinner' Mal Faloon sharing a tale or two and the fantastic works of Kate Swindlehurst, former Writer in Residence at Cambridge Botanic Gardens, Clare Crossman and Elaine Ewart.

We'll be having an Acoustic Open Air Mic, from about 3pm so if you play anything, or have something you would like to share, please feel welcome to do so and we'll make a session of it!

Last but not least, there will be a cosy fire and mulled (non alcoholic) apple juice.

Throughout the afternoon, you can admire some polytunnel art and a collage of the Garden's progression made by volunteer Mary!

This event is suitable for all ages. Wrap up warm and wear wellies/suitable footwear. We are looking forward to seeing you there!

Willow rooting solution -  a tonic for growing plants

It’s time to take some cuttings at Empty Common Community Garden and to make some of Charlotte’s home-made rooting solution.

What it does
The way that it works can be attributed to two substances that can be found within the Salix
(Willow) species, namely, indolebutyric acid (IBA) and Salicylic acid (SA). When you make willow
water, both salicylic acid and IBA leach into the water, and both have a beneficial effect when used
for the propagation of cuttings.

Indolebutyric acid (IBA) is a plant hormone that stimulates root growth. Salicylic acid (SA) - which is a chemical similar to the headache medicine Aspirin - is a plant hormone that also helps plants to fight off infection.

To make the rooting solution, just cut lengths of new willow growth from any type of willow, these should be about the diameter of a pencil. Pop them into a jar and pour over boiling water. Leave for 24-48 hours, then remove the willow. The solution can be kept in the fridge for a month or more.

When planting cuttings just dip the end in the water for several seconds or longer if it’s easy before
planting. You could also make a big batch in a bucket for watering in newly transplanted plants. We have lots of willow around our garden, other than our lovely coloured willow hedge, which is growing so well. Maybe we can try making some large batches in the spring next year, when we have lots of young plants to plant out.

Monday, 23 November 2015

Christmas wreath making and pictures from our volunteers

Foraging for Xmas crafts!

Artist Sheila Ghelani is leading an evening of mindful foraging around Cambridge, including our very own Empty Common Community Garden on Tuesday 1st December from 6pm. Under her guidance, you will be gathering twigs, feathers, berries and leaves to create your own Christmas wreath. The event, suitable for 14yrs+, is free but tickets need to be booked. Click here to book your ticket/s.

Last but not least, here's an overdue autumnal update from our volunteers, including pictures of happy, smiley people! Watch this space for more pictures of our glorious wintering garden as Sunday was a beautiful sunny day!

Getting rid of vicious nails from salvaged wood

A young volunteer

Gardening is fun for the whole family

Mary showing off a bouquet of nasturtiums
when still in their full glory

Friday, 13 November 2015

Contributions from our volunteers

Pot planting for polytunnel

Daffodil planting outside
In the past few months I have been receiving contributions for this blog from our volunteers, which is lovely for those members who have not been able to visit the Garden on a regular basis. Whether it's a health related reason, an overload of work/family commitments or a clash with other projects, we all like to keep up to date with what is going on in our community's oasis. Let's hope everybody can make the party on Sunday 6th December (see the previous blog post for information).

So without any further ado, here are some updates....

Peter emailed us that a sunny day allowed Jamie to recharge the mower's batteries. The weather has been mild so far for November, bar a few rainy spells. 

Mary, helped by Emily and John planted out flowers from the polytunnel, while John and Terence attacked some truly vicious nails to recycle some pallets earmarked for future projects. The area around the oak tree looked lovely after yet another attack against horsetail by Katharine and her sons.

In the polytunnel winter lettuces have been planted while outside areas have been cleared to make a start on winter preparations.

Monday, 2 November 2015

November update - shed art and December party!

Artist Rebecca Lindum Greene has contacted us to propose an art intervention to be held at the Empty Common Community Garden as part of the Pivotal - Cambridge Festival of Change. As nature slows down toward a winter's slumber this project is a fabulous idea to inject some zest into our wonderful open space.

Our black metal shed is being revamped with eye-catching linear drawing inspired by the garden around it and colourful abstract shapes, a nod to Kingfisher Way and the cycle of nature. Below are a few more pictures of the work in progress. The artwork will be unveiled at a special event held at the Empty Common Garden in December. Click here to find out more.

Tuesday, 20 October 2015

Recollecting British butterflies

With the nights drawing in noticeably and our volunteers stuck into autumn chores around the garden, summer is starting to seem a distant memory. Yet there still might be a butterfly or two visible in the garden… Speaking of butterflies, the UK organisation, Butterfly Conservation, has recently released the results of its 2015 Big Butterfly Count. Similar to the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch, the Big Butterfly Count is an annual survey that gets members of the public involved in tracking the numbers of 20 different butterfly and moth species in a variety of habitats. Started in 2010, the Big Butterfly Count is now the world’s biggest survey of butterflies, and over 52,000 people took part in the count this year.

Gatekeeper by I, Anevrisme, Wikipedia 
On a sunny afternoon in the first part of August, I was one of these butterfly counters, completing the 15-minute survey from a central vantage point in the Empty Common Community Garden. It is actually harder than it sounds to sit in one place and try to count and identify (but not double-count!) each butterfly that flutters past, but it’s still a very pleasant way to spend a quarter of an hour. To the best of my rather amateur butterfly identification knowledge, the Empty Common Community Garden count totalled 22 or 6 Large White, 5 Small White, 3 Green-veined White, 3 Brimstone, 1 Gatekeeper, 1 Peacock, 1 Common Blue, and 2 Small Copper. These results can be viewed along with the counts for other locations, organised by habitat type and postcode, on the Big Butterfly Count’s searchable map.

Peacock butterfly by Charlesjsharp, Wikipedia

The UK-wide results for 2015 showed an increase over last year’s numbers for eleven of the target species, while the numbers for seven of the target species decreased. At the same time, the average number of total butterflies logged per count decreased from 15 to 13 this year, a drop that Butterfly Conservation attributes to the poor weather conditions during certain parts of the summer.

Returning to the present, there are still things that gardeners can do to help butterflies at this time of year. Most butterfly species in Britain spend the winter in egg, caterpillar, or chrysalis form, but some – including the Brimstone, Peacock, and Small Tortoiseshell – do hibernate as adult butterflies (though in recent winters, these and other species have been visible on the wing on very mild days). These butterflies are now stocking up on food in preparation for hibernation and so can really benefit from some late-blooming perennials. Butterfly Conservation recommends planting sedums, such as Iceplant or Butterfly Stonecrop (Sedum spectabile). Sedums come in a variety of colours and are a good nectar source not only for butterflies but for moths and bees as well.

And if, over the winter months, you happen to come upon a butterfly in your home that is active because of the central heating, it is best if you can move the butterfly to a better location for the duration of winter. Catch the butterfly and put it in a cardboard box. Hopefully, the butterfly will have a chance to calm down, and you can then try to relocate it onto the wall or ceiling of a shed, garage, porch, or other unheated space. Just make certain the butterfly can escape when spring really does arrive again!

Thank you Emily for this wonderful contribution! Thank you to all those who sent words and photos, there are more in the pipeline...

Monday, 5 October 2015

Autumn is here...

A pictorial review of our gardening year
We are still harvesting our crops, but as things are slowing down there are some exciting plans afoot on how to utilise the polytunnel during the winter months. Watch this space!

The Hugelkultur mound was weeded and sowed with phacelia seeds as a winter green manure. We are planning to sow broad beans (Aquadulce Claudia) and onions. Each broad bean needs to be planted inside a one-litre plastic bottle cloche, held in place with a cane as a pheasant ate the tops off them last year. Click here to see a picture of our colourful intruder.

It's also the time of year to do some maintenance. The iron shed needs to be sanded and painted, and the battle of the weeds is still raging on, especially in the forest garden and in the wild garlic patch.

Fungal eruptions

Volunteers planted daffodils by the big tree near our entrance to brighten the area next spring and some new members are going to share their knowledge on how to grow Chinese vegetables. Would you like to see the garden for yourself? Read our very first post and get in touch. We welcome volunteers of all ages and abilities!


Monday, 21 September 2015

Birthday marrow, excess produce and a goodbye

Andrew sent us this picture of a birthday stuffed marrow, which looks delicious and no doubt it's full of natural goodness as it grew in our community garden. Andrew cooked the marrow as a surprise for a friend - a tasty alternative to the ubiquitous sponge cake.

Our veggie crop has been plentiful. Veggies were placed in our sharing box by the path and Terence took excess produce to St Paul's church, which provides community meals. 

We would also like express our thanks to Anne, who is leaving Cambridge. She has left us her gardening stuff, including a Complete Gardener's Manual. She emailed to the group: "To all the gardeners I have had the chance to meet, it's been a delight gardening in your company and sharing this adventure with you. I remember when Charlotte had only just drawn up the initial plan and it's fantastic to see the result now. The garden is looking amazing. Long live the Empty Common Community Garden!" We wish her all the best.

Tuesday, 8 September 2015

Seed collecting and saving

Seed bonanza

Mary, one of our volunteers, emailed this lovely picture in August. She wrote: "I have begun seed saving from our Empty Common Garden and from things I have found in the trash such as this bonus of nigella/ love in a mist that I found yesterday. So far we have a nice collection: nigella, poppy, calendula, foxglove and columbine."

You can find useful information on saving seed online. "Seed can be saved from many trees, shrubs, perennials, aquatic plants, alpines, annuals, biennials, bulbous plants, ornamental grasses vegetables and herbs," states the RHS, which has an informative guide on seed collecting and storing. Click here to read more. 

Monday, 17 August 2015

Happy Holidays - and food swaps

As our volunteers keep up the watering rota, harvest delicious crops - some of which turned up at a local fresh produce swap - the blog will take a break until September. 

If you want to find out about food swaps in Cambridge, subscribe for the newsletter at

Mary, one of our volunteers, sent this update to the group: "There is much to harvest at Empty Commons: beans, zucchini, chard, some tomatoes, some corn, cucumbers and herbs. The corn is ready when the silks turn brown... we usually husk, put corn into rolling boiling water for five minutes and then eat in the traditional American way 'corn on the cob'. For best results cook and eat right after harvest for the sweetest flavor. Blackberries seem to be everywhere!"

Enjoy the rest of the summer! If you want to join us, please read the first blog post, which has a map showing the garden's location and contact details for the group.

Monday, 10 August 2015

Here comes the harvest....

Peter potato planter

Peter potato picker
There is always something to be done at the Community Garden. Watering rotas need organising, bindweed has invaded the wild garlic patch, the shed door's has become stiff... but on the upside, harvesting has started!

There are beans, courgettes, cucumbers and more... Spare produce is placed in the sharing box by the Hobson's conduit, which is busy with walkers, cyclists... It will be a welcome surprise for those passing by in the next few days.

There is a sudden glut of cucumbers, which are right for pickling, has anybody got a favourite recipe for gherkins to share?

We have lots of potatoes. We store them in the wooden shed in a bucket covered with a compost bag to keep them in the dark. The potatoes were planted by Peter and Terence (not pictured), both regular members of the group. No pesticides were used.

Join us to share in our bounty!

Monday, 27 July 2015

Great weather for thinning and planting out, and eating currant muffins

Sunday was a very wet day, yet nine volunteers braved the elements to add bedding plants around our big oak tree. Having decided they couldn't get much wetter, they carried on with other jobs, bedraggled but happy. As Charlotte wrote in her weekly email: "This is great weather for thinning and planting out, baking and eating muffins, slugs and snails and ducks."

Currant muffins

Mary baked these delicious muffins using blackcurrants from the community garden and some redcurrants she was given by a friend. She says: "The redcurrants are quite tart compared to the black ones, but they were a wonderful treat on a rainy afternoon with tea after we dried off from our 'soaking Sunday' gardening session!" 

If you'd like to try to bake your own muffins, here's Mary's recipe:

Currant muffins (Makes 6)
1 cup self-rising flour (or add 2 tsp baking powder to 1 cup regular flour)
1/4 cup granulated sugar
1/4 tsp salt
Mix dry ingredients above together and add until just mixed:
1 beaten egg
1/2 cup milk
2 tbsp vegetable oil
1/2 to 3/4 cup of fresh currants
Bake at 180C for 15 to 18 minutes

Sunday, 19 July 2015

The garden in July

This is how the Empty Common Garden looks right now. This picture was taken from the shed's roof. The school holidays are looming so we hope the garden will be enjoyed by families more.

Aside watering and weeding, jobs for July include keeping an eye on pests and keeping plants looking good by deadheading. It is a time to enjoy salad crops and keep fingers crossed that tomatoes will yield their bounty and escape the dreaded blight.

If you would like to join us, read the first post and get in touch...

Monday, 6 July 2015

Retrieve, reinvent, reuse‏ - the three Rs of recycling

Adrian, the River Cam's warden with his 'catch of the day'

The Empty Common Community Garden is doing well. This week's blog post is about creative recycling and an unusual partnership that has developed. Adrian, the River Cam's warden is saving tennis balls and five-litre plastic bottles that he finds in the river for our community garden. 

This is a great way to reuse litter. Rubbish is retrieved from the river and reused, given a new lease of life (i.e. the reinvention bit). The picture above shows Adrian with some waste fished out from the river. You can find out more about him and all the river Cam's conservation activities by visiting or just follow @CamConservancy.

Plastic bottles as cloches in the garden

Tennis balls are used on top of spikes to prevent tears in
the polytunnel. We featured a similar picture before, but see
how much taller our tomato plants are!

Thursday, 2 July 2015

We are having a heatwave...

The weather has hotted up nicely so a watering rota has been running in the past weeks. Thank you to all those who have volunteered so far.

It is so hot even bugs get sleepy. Here is one nested in a hard piece of soil. We think it's in mid metamorphosis. 

It was found by our volunteer Lisa, who was really pleased! She is an archaeologist and was very happy to dig up live treasure rather than ancient artefacts! 

If you'd like to join us and find your own treasure, please refer to the first post, which has a map and contact details.

Monday, 22 June 2015

Empty Common Garden in June

Yesterday I joined the volunteers for some weeding with my daughter in tow and took my camera with me to take pictures of what the Empty Common Garden looks like on the first weekend of Summer. We didn't have a great start to the Summer season as Saturday was quite rainy, but the garden enjoyed it as it has been a bit dry of late.

As you can see everything has grown quite well, with not too much snail damage. Unfortunately the weeds are growing too but volunteers have been coming during the week to keep them under control and the garden looked lovely. You might not see it in the pictures, but it was a sunny Sunday, with just a few clouds for the sun to play hide and seek.

All is well in the polytunnel, with tomato plants shooting up and in flower. All supporting stakes have been topped with an old tennis ball to prevent their sharp ends tearing the polytunnel's plastic cover.

It's quite warm inside it, as warm as in a greenhouse. The alpine strawberries outside are a bit late but they are coming along.

Aside the veggies, we have some pretty flowers in the raised beds, including sunflowers. Last year they achieved an impressive height and it would be nice to see these giants raise their big yellow heads above the rest again.

If you want to join us, read the first post, the one with the map and the contact email.

Monday, 15 June 2015

Our first 'homegrown' salad social!

The Sunday before last, all volunteers gathered to eat the first communal salad of the year. In the salad bowl they mixed homegrown lettuce, nasturtium leaves, land cress, radish and parsley. 

It was a lovely, sunny day, unlike yesterday and our very wet Saturday, which can be disappointing for us people craving summer sunshine, but it is good for the garden!

Many of us are thinking about making elderflower cordial, which is a widely available plant here in Cambridge, growing in many gardens and public spaces.

Elderflower heads, picture from Wikipedia

If you spot some blooms near where you live and want to have a go, I recommend this easy Elderflower cordial recipe, courtesy of BBC Good Food. Feel free to leave links to your own favourite recipe or share a family one...

Saturday, 6 June 2015

Happy composting in June: hints & tips

Composting in action & BBQ whatever the weather!
In a big open space, you run out of composting bins pretty soon, so here is how we are doing our composting this year. First we use straw, scrunched-up newspaper, bubble-wrap bits and plastic bottles pushed into the gaps in the pallet, which makes up the sides of our container. 

These help to insulate the heap and keep it warm, but they are loosely packed in order to let the air in. We then start making our biomass 'lasagne' with alternate layers of straw, pulled-up weeds, cut comfrey and nettles all watered in with really smelly drowning fluid and sludge from the drowned horsetail and bindweed bins. 

The whole heap is covered with two old sleeping mats to keep it warm and to keep the rain out. This is a great use of materials that are usually discarded - it gives them an extra lease of life.

To finish off, we cover the front of our heap with some twinwall roofing to insulate it and add another pallet to hold it in. 

Now we are waiting for it to cook. The weather is getting much warmer...

Monday, 25 May 2015

The Community Garden in pictures

Preparing the beds outside

Last week I went to the garden with my camera and took some photos - it's all grow grow grow outside and in the polytunnel. We have several new members from all nationalities - US, UK and other European countries. We work in harmony only waging war to garden pests and horsetail, which has reared its 'ugly head' in beds and in the wooded area. We had to start another drowning bin to throw it into.

As we worked, we drank in the peaceful silence, only interrupted by birdsong and the buzzing of the mower.

Our staging in the polytunnel

Our very own climbable tree
and a volunteer's dog

Invasive horsetail

On watering duty

Sunday, 17 May 2015

May jobs in the garden

There's a saying here among UK gardeners that it's safe to plant outside after the Chelsea Flower Show, occurring this year on 19-23 May, which is when the threat of sudden frosts has gone. It's true, a friend planted her squashes in the ground two weeks ago and they were not only savaged by snails but also suffered cold damage.

The weather has been alternating between sunny warm days and chilly windy ones. However, spring has arrived to stay and summer is not far away. May jobs in the garden include:

  • controlling weeds, the rain we had in April and early May has given them a big boost. Keep a dandelion watch - you can eat leaves in salads if you don't mind their bitter taste
  • remove excess pond weeds 
  • keep an eye for pests and diseases - spray your roses now
  • mow the lawn often
  • water newly planted trees and shrubs
  • if you are weeding out areas with nettles, keep young leaves for omelettes/soups and throw the rest in the compost bin as they aid composting. There is a variety of nettles that does not sting, which is a nice addition to salads. This variety has white flowers in bunches among the leaves.

Monday, 11 May 2015

Planting is go, go!

Planting potatoes outdoors

Preparing seedlings for the polytunnel

There are now lots of little plants in the polytunnel that need watering, and seeds and seedlings in the outside beds too, so Charlotte has started a watering rota.

We are also planning to plant beans before they get pot bound. There is a mystery batch in the polytunnel and the 'uncheerful' but delicious Trails of tearsWe are going  to stake the beans with hazel poles, which have been saved for this very job. Mangetout peas will be sown in the polytunnel as they are super delicious to pigeons, slugs and pheasants.

A crop rotation plan has been created, so we know what goes where and when. There are other less 'exciting jobs' than growing such as tidying up bricks, slates and paving slaves that we acquired for future projects and of course weeding - the weeds are growing fast and thick now that it's warmer.

We are recycling plastic bottles to make plant shelters (bells) and yogurt pots to cut into plant labels. We welcome donations of these.

Sunday, 3 May 2015

Welcome to the Merry Month of May

Happy May Sunday!

Right now it is raining cats and dogs here in Cambridge, which is bad if you planned a barbecue for the Bank Holiday Weekend but good news for the garden. A volunteer prepared a lovely portrait/update of the Community Garden, which also appeals for more volunteers. We have a trusty core group already but it's a big space and kid friendly too, so join us to share some exciting times now the weather is improving (not today particularly but it's getting warmer). Please click on the image below to enlarge it.

Did you know that yesterday was the first World Naked Garden Day? The movement has a website too, click here. As we gather on Sundays, we have missed this opportunity to be 'au naturel'. Still it's not something we'd recommend in a wild garden, aside being illegal and offending somebody's sensitivity (the garden is overlooked by a busy cycling/walking path) there are hazards to it: think nettles, thorny branches and biting ants (yes, we have some in Cambridge).

Monday, 27 April 2015

Spring, lovely spring - the garden in April

This year we didn't get too many April showers and with the polytunnel up and running, volunteers have been asked to do a spot of watering.... Click on photos to enlarge them or see a slideshow.

Preparing beds outside

Polytunnel growing

Making a human scarecrow?

Building a herb spiral

Here are a few photos taken this month. As you can see we now have some little gardeners and they love playing with the sticky weed!