One of the pleasures of gardening is that sense of righteous gratification in having grown your own. It somehow feels intrinsically right to have sown, raised, harvested, cooked and then eaten your own food. And in the same way when we complete a job, especially a well filled crop, or a new bed of beautifully growing transplants, we get pleasure from the achievement itself. Generally the more we grow and make for ourselves then the better.
Some like me have tried being self sufficient eating mostly what we grow. But looking back on my attempts I still relied an awful lot on necessary imports- the power, light etc, and on products such as old fishing nets, plastic bottles for my cloches, plastic sheet for a tunnel and holding it all together; plastic baler twine. I swear half the garden and farm tools in the country are held together with orange, blue or rarely some other colour baler twine. If a disease broke out that ate twine everything could fall to bits!
I digress, plastic twine has it’s drawbacks whether it’s recycled baler or new. Gardeners are very reliant on string and other ties. In past times strips of leather or fabric were employed where now a plastic tree tie could be perfect. Though in practice too often a bit of plastic string, or even worse, a piece of wire is actually used. Old hands always had a knife and soft string in their pockets for all those little jobs- and if they forgot to cut the string later it would rot before it did any damage. Now we see strangled branches, limbs and even trunks too often. Another problem with plastic string is we re-use it over and over again allowing it’s multitude of hidden crevices to become the perfect source for multiple re-infections and re-infestations. Far better is to use a natural fibre we can cut down and compost with the crop.
Raffia, cotton, sisal and hemp have all been popular and can still be found but why not use your own. There cannot be many who have not tried to tie a posy, or a seedling to a cane, with a length of some long thin stem. Many creepers and climbers have almost suitable stems, jasmines are a good example, but most of these will neither take much strain nor tie in such a tight compass as to make a good knot. You can plait three or more stems together to give a stronger tie but it is then ungainly. I find you can tie up a sack of potatoes or support tomatoes with such cords -but not easily or at all elegantly.
Certain plants do however lend themselves to making better string, or if plaited further very strong cords for garden use. Probably the most immediately usable is the New Zealand Flax- so called because it was an important commercial fibre. A huge plant with sword shaped leaves these can be pulled into fibrous lengths and used straight away. Or the cord like fibres can be separated cleaned and woven into excellent cord and string. They also make good wide bands as ties for training stems and branches of fruit trees. Cordyline, New Zealand palms, have a shorter leaf that is nearly as good. Either’s leaves can also be easily woven into durable mats and trays for collecting or drying, covering transplants or protecting against winds and frosts and many other uses.
Of our natives the stinging nettle is considered the traditional source of fibres- a mature stem can indeed be used as a rough, and rather risky, tie. However these were commonly retted and cleaned first. Retting is steeping the, usually bruised, stems under water for a few days or weeks to rot off the soft tissue. The fibres are then easier cleaned and sorted, and woven up into whatever size and length required.
A surprising source of useful ties is horseradish. Easily grown from any bit of the root the leaves have tough central ribs. After retting these are naturally bleached blonde like thick hair, long and strong. The fibres can be subdivided over and over again or left thick thread sized. Individual ‘threads’ can tie seedlings to light canes, bundles of ‘threads’ tie bigger stems or can be plaited for a cord for supporting tomatoes or tying bigger stems. Just one leaf rib gives an almost unbreakable tie a foot or so long after plaiting up. Perfect for so many jobs.
To go with string we often need canes, not twiggy pea-sticks but rods. There are several good substitutes- many shrubs headed hard back will make strong straight shoots. Amongst the best I’ve found to be Cytisus battanderii which gives very hard strong rods. Ash, hazel or beech are more likely to be to hand though. But why not grow bamboo? The varieties that make really big canes are a tad slow and maybe difficult, the smaller ones are often more prolific. And we often need a lot more small light canes than big ones so they have the advantage. Small canes re-used to support small plants are another pest and disease refuge so ought to be disposable. Bamboo, and other woods, are best cut, de-leafed and dried under warm airy cover for several months to harden well. Used when cut they rot quickly and are not as stiff but that does not matter much if they are to be expendable.
Another item that is more useful than you imagine until you try it, or rather lots of them, are small mulching mats. Especially for thirsty plants in pots. These have been made of all sorts of materials from shredded paper, cardboard, plastic and even human hair. Well these, and bigger ones for mulching outdoor plants, and thicker mats for lining hanging baskets can all be made from blanket weed. This green mass of fine threads fills ponds in summer and is usually dragged out and composted if treated at all. However I’ve found if you lift out sheets of blanket weed on a bamboo cane then you can lay these overlapping on top of one another, press and then dry them, to make a very tough cloth as thick and large as you want it. I found this worked easily built up on an old nylon net curtain laid on the ground and once partially dried finished by hanging under cover. Pieces can then be cut to fit any requirement. You can line a hanging basket very easily- put it upside down on the ground, lay several sheets of blanket weed over it overlapping each other, press them firmly on and dry. Now peel this cover off, push it inside and fold the surplus in round the rim and fill. It will last all season.
Duckweed, the floating pond weed, can also be made into a long lasting mulching sheet. This works best towards the end of the season when the roots are longest. It is lifted out of the pond on anything between a spring tined rake and a tennis racket and again laid up in sheets. It does not bind as well as blanket weed so is best made in more overlapping layers and or interleaved between sheets of newspaper. Once pressed and dried duckweed makes a cardboard like mulch which lasts a remarkably long time even when wet though it is not strong enough to use as a basket liner.
A mixture of blanket and duck weed works best well. I even made a hat out of this felt like material, it was fine though dusty and smelt suspiciously marine after any rain.
Growing your own soap is not out of the question. Bouncing Bett is a quaint cottage garden flower related to pinks, the name is the clue, Saponaria officinalis, if you mash the stems up in water you get a soapy solution. Though this must be used with great caution as some may react allergically to it. The roots of Soap-root, Gypsophylla struthium, were likewise once used in Spain, as have other seed pods, and even bulbs. For more safety though you could make your own soft soap. Boil vegetable oil (ideally your own fresh squeezed; sunflower or nut oil for example) or animal fat, with lye; the caustic (dangerously so) extract you get from washing out wood ashes (apple wood ashes were said to make the best) and a soap results. This is a buttery like soft soap not a hard one that sets solid but good enough for many purposes. If you balance the lye well with just a tiny surplus of oil and boil further adding salt you can make this separate into dirty water and a cleaner hard soap that floats on top. If the ingredients were good then a real bar type soap has been made that now requires perfume. This can be skimmed off, steeped with lavender or rosemary for example, then set in moulds and ripened until matured. Although simple enough in theory soap making is rather like cake making and requires some practice especially as the caustic lye makes the process a little risky.
You could even grow your own candles, and not just from beeswax- many plants exude waxes to protect themselves. Few give enough to make it worth collecting. The Candle-berry, Myrica cerifera, widely found in North America apparently gave a pound of scented wax for every four or five pounds of berries. These were boiled and then cooled and the wax skimmed off the top of the water. The similar Myrica gale is found in bogs of the north and west of the British Isles and gives similar but smaller amounts. So if you are cursed with a sodden plot only suited for blueberries now you know what to put with them.