Secret Garden Part 2: The Reckoning

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If you are in rented accommodation please do check in with your landlord before carrying out any work like this.

 
So the weather this spring was not entirely conducive to gardening. There were one or two days of sunshine where I dutifully weeded the bricked patio area only for the weeds to come back in full force when the rain came. Weeding is a true Sisyphean task and standing by the window listening to suitably sombre music while watching the rain pour down I began to feel like this garden project was never going to see a result.

 
However the forecast for this last long weekend was promising so last Friday evening after work Dave and I made our way out to B&Q courtesy of Dave’s Mum, thank you Angela, and picked up two rolls of weed control mesh and four bags of bark chip. The bark chip was on special offer so we got four bags for €25 and the mesh was €7.40 a roll.

 
I wasn’t exactly sure what my plan for the garden was but I had some vague ideas and one of these was to give up on the idea of pretending that the collection of weeds, buttercups and thistles could ever be tamed into anything resembling grass. Even when we have trimmed this right back the stalks are too tough to make sitting on a blanket comfortable. As I want the garden to be a comfy space my idea was to get rid of the weeds and replace it with bark chip. I love idea of creating a fake woodland area and bark chip is cheap which fits in with my very low budget.

VO25Garden1
I was afraid of seeking out too much advice in case wiser heads would tell me this was a bad idea but I did run it by my Mum and her thinking was that as long as we dug down deep when we were turning over the sod we should be ok. This is a temporary solution as we may not have this house next year but if I owned this garden I would definitely put more planning in to the project.

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Saturday morning dawned glorious so we were out early to start. We cleared out some rubbish from the garden, found the corpses of three old Christmas trees and again I cursed Dublin City Council for getting rid of the tree collection point that had been conveniently right around the corner from our house. I had a fork and Dave had the shovel so while I broke the surface and loosened things up he turned over the sods of earth and weeds. Let’s just say we were naïve about how much work this would take and by the time two thirds of the garden was turned over and evened out ready for the mesh and chips we were wrecked. Kneeling on the ground and spreading out the chips was almost too much for us.

 
When we were done for that day, collapsed too tired to move we each clutched a well- deserved beer ( thank all the gods for the ready availability for GF beer in my area) and surveyed our work.

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We still have one third of the garden to deal with and Dave is trying to persuade me to leave a little wilderness area between the trees / giant overgrown shrubs at the back so I am trying to figure out a way to make that work. The next step will be a wee bit of planting, possibly in planters rather than making beds in the garden. It feels good to have made a start as now we are committed to seeing it through rather than leaving it moulder for another year.

Define Self-Sufficiency

define self-sufficiency

We were recently followed by a blog called the Self-Sufficient Snail, and it got me thinking about self-sufficiency and what it means to me.

 

Like DeValera I consider self-sufficiency to be an admiral goal and something everyone should strive for. Now please do not misinterpret this statement. I am a happy and active member of the twenty-first century. I do not have survivalist tendencies; there is not a steel press in my kitchen ready for Armageddon with canned foods and long life expiry dates, I am not hoarding shot-guns to stave off a zombie attack and I am not secretly building a bunker that can withstand a nuclear attack. I more mean that I identify myself as a fiercely independent person, who relies on their own means and abilities and feels very controlled when others try to do for me what I am capable of doing for myself.

 

I think it is partly to do with the way I was raised. On the rare occasion that my Grandma or her sisters would read us a bedtime story, the plot usually developed an unusual subtext.

and the fairy princess met her prince, who was equal to her in every way; just as pretty and clever and ambitious. And after an appropriate amount of time dating, the two moved into a beautiful castle, which both their names were on the deeds of because no marriage vows were to be taken until they were sure they could live happily together (divorce not being an option in those days). And although the prince was fabulously wealthy and happy to provide for the princess, the fairy princess kept up her little job and had her own bank account and contributed equally to the household. Then one day the prince asked her to marry him and be his queen and having already established equality in the relationship she agreed and they lived happily ever after.

Most of it floated over the heads of me and my sisters as we drifted off to sleep thinking of all the pretty dresses the fairy princess must have, but these were not intended as fairy stories but cautionary tales from hard working women of the inner city who, although for the most part had very happy relationships themselves, had witnessed up close the devastating effect poisonous and abusive relationships could have on women who had no means to escape. They were not going to fall into the trap, and they were determined to do all they could to ensure the future generations of their line did not either.

 

Although much of their dating advice was largely ignored until we became teenagers, it instilled in us a determination to provide for ourselves, which was backed up by an expectation from our family that we would provide for ourselves. Although that is not to say we were cast adrift at 18. We were told when we got to college that we better get a job or else we wouldn’t have any money for new clothes or going out, and so we all got part time jobs. But in actual fact, I know I was bought coats and boots and jeans and slipped the odd £20 for a special night out, I was certainly not out there on my own as generations before me would have been at that age, but the principle remained strong; if I wanted something I went and got it myself.

 

It is that principle which I hope I still bring to my life today. Life is expensive and I have discovered I have costly tastes and aspirations, which I have to be creative to obtain. My wedding invitations are an example: is making the invitations yourself the cheapest way? No, sending out a Facebook invite or email from somewhere with free Wi-Fi is the cheapest way because it doesn’t cost you a penny, but I was certainly able to make much higher quality invites than I would have been able to purchase. So it’s not that I saved money, it’s that I brought my skills to the table and was therefore able to spend my money much more wisely.

 

The same stands for organic food, am I able to totter down to the supermarket and fill my basket to the brim with organic food? Well, yes, maybe, but I won’t be able to pay for them at the checkout. I am however able to get organic hens and feed them organically, I am able to plant seeds and wait for my crops to grow, and then I am able to take the money I save in these areas and buy better quality meats.

 

This for me is a form of self-sufficiency. Am I self-sufficient the way DeValera would have liked? No. If war came tomorrow could we survive on what food we make in the house? Absolutely not. But does that mean that I am not self-sufficient in the current context, in the environment of our present? I don’t believe that self-sufficiency necessarily means I must follow an isolationist policy. I know what I want, and I know how and where to get it. Yes, I strive to stand on my own two feet, but I also take advantage of all the tools at my disposal. It is not possible for me to interact with society in a normal and happy way if I try and run a farm in the middle of a suburban housing estate, but by doing the little bits that I can do (GIY, crafts and earning money) and taking advantage of all the tools at my disposal (a huge supermarket, quality butchers and craft suppliers), I can achieve roughly the same as what would have been the output of that farm, except I also get happy neighbours, less trouble with animal welfare and branded Kimberly biscuits, a reward in anyone’s book.

 

So GIYers and Home Crafters – what are your thoughts on self-sufficiency? Are you striving to grow and make all the food and clothing required by your family from your home as the Pioneer Women would have done before us? Or are do you feel your achievements are not compromised by nipping down to Tesco’s during the hungry patch?

Raised Ambitions

“Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful”
– William Morris

There is a patch of land beside my driveway. According to the plans of the house it is our front garden. In reality it is a moss-filled patch of scrubland that the neighbourhood uses as an unofficial litter tray and bin. We rarely tend to it. Having initially pumped a lot of money into it buying various pretty plants which inevitably died in the winter frost, it now consists of more hardly lavender bushes and heathers which can survive the changing seasons and stand their own against the encroaching weed population. It is neither useful nor beautiful.

But I have a plan for it; a kitchen garden in raised beds.

 

C38. Raised Ambitions

Why Raised Beds
One would obviously get more vegetables per acre without them, but they are a solution in three particular circumstances which are relevant to my garden.

  • The first is that this land is of poor soil which has been drained of nutrition by weeds over a number of long years. I include grass in this weed classification; weeds being an unproductive plant that is growing where you would rather it not, draining the soil of nutrients. These weeds will also represent a challenge for resources to my fledgling seedlings. With raised beds I have the opportunity to increase the quality of the soil where I need it most, while creating a barrier to reduce the threat of these weeds. I will line the base of the bed with cardboard and paper; this will create a physical barrier for the weeds beneath. I will then add nutrient rich grass-cuttings on top and then compost from my composer to fill the bed. This will give the seedlings the best chance to grow strong, and hopefully result ultimately in strong healthy vegetables.
  • The second problem is the neighbourhood. Despite how rude it is, some parents do not think it is an issue if their child is running amok in your garden searching for a ball that landed next door and some dog owners do not think it is an issue if their dog soils on your grass. I say this as both a parent and dog owner; some of us suck. However both offenders recognise that it is a problem if their dog/child is wandering all around your rockery. I am hoping that a raised bed will receive the same respect as a rockery, and more respect than the patch of green masquerading as grass.
  • The third issue is curb-side appeal. No matter how people try, it is hard to deny that an allotment outside of bloom is simply an unattractive brown field. While any gardener can see the potential brimming just beneath the surface, they would be still hard pushed to claim the field was visually attractive. I am hoping that well-maintained painted raised beds and a few strategically placed potted plants will help this. I also think that once the growing season is finished I can unroll grass sod over the top of the beds for the winter. As this will be outside growing season, so I am hoping that the grass will not need to be mowed over the winter, and, as the roll comes with netted backing, I am hoping that the grass will be easy to roll up and remove after winter in time for next year’s growing season.

Layout of beds
The garden is a quadrangle roughly 12m squared. I believe I could fit 3 raised beds with a walkway between each. The raised beds I will construct from timbers screwed to a stake (see image above) whereas the walkway I will build a frame upon which to screw threads (see image above). Blackout material beneath the walkway should prevent weeds creeping up. In the space not required for the beds and walkway, I will place decorative pebbles on blackout material to fill it.

While raised beds can be as long as required, if accessible from both sides, it is important that they are only just wider than your arm-span. This means that the centre of the bed is in easy reach from both sides and you will not hurt your back leaning across a bed which is too wide.

The height of the beds is also an important consideration. In order to fulfil my requirements above, the height of the beds has to be sufficient enough to establish them in the rockery category (rather than being some sort of landscaped garden) while not so tall as to require tonnes of compost to fill them or for them to become a convenient bench. I have decided about half a meter tall should be sufficient.

Order of events
This project will have a number of elements

  • 1. Removal of the lavender trees to allow the painting of the perimeter fence (white).
  • 2. Planting of seeds to have seedlings ready for transplantation.
  • 3. Construction and painting of raised beds and walkways (yellow and white).
  • 4. Laying of raised beds, walkways, blackout material and pebbles (white and sand).
  • 5. Transplantation of seedlings.

When to start
If I am honest, I would start this project today and begin to move the lavender trees around to the back-garden to begin painting the fence, but in reality I will have to wait for rainy April to pass before I do. I will probably also have to wait for fairer weather to initiate the construction element of the project (and by ‘initiate’ I mean the coercion/blackmail/bribery of my husband/ Dad / brother-in-law to help me, as at 7 months pregnant I am not in an ideal position to be lifting timbers). However, ideally I will start this process by the end of April, with the framework of the garden being ready to receive seedlings in May at the latest.

In the meantime I have begun to sow the seeds for the plants I hope to eventually transplant to the raised beds. I will propagate these in our porch until they are big and strong enough to be moved outdoors. I use the porch because I haven’t got space for a greenhouse, and it’s a space I can lock the inquisitive and accidently destructive dog out of. This provides an area which, because it is out of the wind, is warmer than outside but only by a degree or two (unlike the house which is heated), so there is no temperature shock for the seeds as they move outside for transplanting. It is also an area with a lot of light because of all the glass, which aides photosynthesis. Once the seeds are seedlings, I will probably place these in large pots to move outdoors until the raised beds are ready. Generally I propagate seeds indoors or under cover for about a month before I transplant them directly into the ground.

For more information on the planting of seeds, please see our article on the topic. Or go to GIY  – which is just a font of information on all things organic.

Conclusion
So that is the plan – turn the useless ugly scrubland of a garden into a pretty productive kitchen garden. It always looks so simple from the planning stage.

You can keep up with the ideas for the Front Garden at http://www.pinterest.com/cyclopeswife/front-garden-ideas/

Planting Seeds (Not Planting Your Seed, that’s different)

C37. Planting SeedsSpring is here. I don’t know whether it is the stretch in the evenings or the rise in temperature that gets my green fingers itching, but either which way, no sooner is Paddy’s day over then I have an over whelming desire to get back to my garden and get growing.

The first step for this is having something to grow – and for that I need some seedlings. You can buy seedlings in any garden shop, but it is much cheaper (and more rewarding) to buy a packet of seeds and start them off yourself. Particularly if you are starting early in March. Planting seeds is incredibly easy and it is completed indoors where you can look out on the bright sunny day, without having to be out in it and realise that it is actually still cold.

C37. Named Seeds

Materials
You will require

  • Seed trays
  • Sheets of newspaper to absorb water below
  • Seed compost (this is a fine grainy compost that is easy for delicate seedlings to grow through)
  • Seeds

There is as much an environmental debate over plastic seed trays as there is over plastic Christmas trees. If I am honest I have been too busy gardening to research the debate fully. In my opinion plastic seed trays are useful as you can invest in them once and, if you look after them use them, for the next five or ten years. They also use less compost to germinate the seeds. There are two types; a tray without segments which are great for starting off crops that grow in drills (example, watercress) or segmented trays which are perfect for crops which require each seed to have some space (example, cucumber).
On the flip side newspaper pots are free (if you obtained the newspaper for free), but they use more compost because they are bigger, although the round examples use less than the square. These are ideal for plants which don’t like their roots pinched or disturbed (example, melon). There are some great tutorials on YouTube on how to make these round or square. Important things to remember if you are using paper pots is that they are not watered from above, instead they sit in a plastic container that the bottom part is filled with water, and, when planted out, it is important that all the newspaper is covered with soil or else it provides a funnel through which water is evaporated away from the plants.

C37. 4ET. Named Seeds

How to

  1. Half fill each segment of the seed tray loosely with the compost (or if a flat non-segmented seed tray, half fill entire tray).
  2. Pour water over the top to wet, but do not flood. Lift trays to allow excess water drain away.
  3. Place trays on newspaper, this will absorb any extra water.
  4. Place one or two seeds (depending on size and type) in each segment. Seed packets give all sorts of instructions regarding the depth at which to plant the seed, but if I am honest, I normally plant them all about half way down and hope for the best. I am praying my plants will be alive not perfect.
  5. Fill remainder of segment loosely with compost.
  6. Label seed tray with what seeds are in it. This will be very important when you are transplanting, as different plants require different spaces between them, and not all plants should be placed side by side. Even after a number of years, I still find it very difficult to tell what a plant is just by looking at the seedling.
  7. Leave seeds for several weeks, remembering to water about twice a week, ensuring that excess water runs through and the segments are not flooded (just remember everyone likes a drink, but nobody likes cold wet feet).

C37. 4DT. Named Seeds

Which seeds to pick
For their size, seeds are relatively expensive, ranging from €3-€5 a packet, and for that reason it is important to be choosy about which you purchase. For the most part I like to grow only vegetables that

  1. I like to eat,
  2. That are not readily or cheaply available in the supermarkets at a comparable standard to that which I can grow at home,
  3. I am interested in seeing in their natural state.

Cucumber is a good example of this. I love cucumbers, but until I grew it at home, I had no idea that in their natural state cucumbers are spiky on the outside, and that home grown versions have a much stronger flavour than those in the supermarkets.
Potatoes are an example of something I generally don’t bother with as I am limited with space. There is a large variety available in most supermarkets at competitive prices, and I do not feel that the quality of potato that I get at home is any superior to that in the supermarkets.

C37. 4CuT. Named Seeds

When to sow
I have to admit I do not adhere strictly to the growing guidelines on the back of packages. In general, I find the end of March a good time of year to start sowing, and because if gives me strong seedlings for April/May. I also try not to sow in a glut; I try to have two or three sowing sessions, two or three weeks apart. This gives me a steady flow of vegetables in the garden, with some plants being ready to harvest before others.

What I planted today in March
As well as a few new seed packets, very controversially (or foolishly) I will be growing out of date seeds. This was not intentional, but while doing a spring clean of my seed bin, I noticed a lot of my seeds actually expired in 2012. Whoops! Rather than throwing them out I have decided to sow them, in the hopes that maybe not all of them are dead, you never know. Plus the worst that can happen is that I waste two weeks on dead seeds, and then afterwards recycle the seed compost and try again on fresh seeds. I am hoping a few survived, because I seem to remember using these seeds last year in 2013 and there being no issues, but maybe another year is a year too far?

Today I planted tomatoes (full and cherry), sweet peppers (red and yellow), cucumber, broccoli, asparagus, beetroot, celery, radish, brussel sprouts, climbing beans, parsnip, pumpkin, lemon balm, rocket, turnip and watercress.

The seeds I planted today should have seedlings appear over the next week or so. Not all seeds sown will propagate (especially those from 2012!), which is why I place two or three seeds per segment. Although on the flip side, some segments will now have two or three seedlings. If you notice things getting a little crowded in any segment, just carefully knock out segment, and very gently pull apart the seedlings and replant in a new segment.

I will check in with you in a few weeks and let you know how the seeds and seedlings are getting on.

The Gardeners Perfect Project

garden party

Have you ever wished for a project which relied on the human tendency to get carried away with enthusiasm at the start but then rapidly lose interest? A project which takes a small bit of work to set up put pays huge dividends? A project which saves you money week-to-week, but then has an additional large saving at the end? Then I have the perfect project for you – start a compost bin (and there you were beginning to worry that I was about to pitch you a sub-prime loan investments with guaranteed rates of return).

Now bear with me, I know compost bins don’t sound glamorous but if you are going to look after your garden over a long period of time they are a real necessity – they provide a place to ditch all the green cut-offs and mowed grass, all your organic house hold waste (both of which mean you don’t need to add these to your domestic waste bins which saves money week to week) and after about 2 years (the length of time in which you will have lost interest and then returned to it) it provides  nutrient-rich compost which you no longer need to buy at e8 a 50l bag. Plus it has the added bonus of being good to the environment.

Now there are a few myths about compost bins I would like to dispel from the start:

  • 1. Compost bins smell – they don’t. If you use the right mix of ingredients there is no noticeable odour
  • 2. Compost bins attract rats – wrong again. Rats don’t eat vegetation and as there is no meat waste in these compost bins there is nothing to attract any type of creature.
  • 3. Compost bins are big and ugly – not the way I do them!

To start you need to decide how much commitment you are going to give this bin. Early on I decided very little, so little in fact that I didn’t bother to build it (which you can do very easily with some 4x4s or some old pallets) instead I went down to B&Q during a sale and picked one up. I choose a basic plastic model that was little more than 4 sides and a lid that set me back about e40-e50. (The actual one I choose is no longer available – but this is very similar except circular http://www.woodiesdiy.com/Product/ProPlus-Large-Compost-Bin-220-Litre/18407/4.4.6. I chose plastic over timber because the timber one was about e200).

You can get complicated two-bay or three-bay models which allows the different bays to be at different stages of readiness, and there is advice about accelerants and turning with a pitch fork – but to be honest, as a novice this all sounded a bit too much like hard work so I thought I’d master one-bay, let nature take its course and move up from there.

Next step is to pick a good spot in your garden. To work compost bins have to sit on soil – they rely on worms coming up through the ground to eat the rotting waste (lovely image). Once you have chosen a spot, it is a huge amount of work to move it (I say this from experience) so don’t rush and choose wisely – preferably a place that is not in the direct line of sight from a window, or right beside a seating area, but easy to reach from the back door (you will be making frequent trips with rubbish).

Next step, make pretty! Ok, so this step is not required but it is preferable if you can get the bin to blend into the scenery of the garden to stop it being an eye sore. Pop it under an arch with some hanging baskets, plant a few little trees or bushes around it (these can also be a good litmus test on how nutrient rich your compost is – if they flourish it is strong, but if they wilt there is something wrong), or like everything else that comes into my house – paint it! I did ours a colourful yellow on red with ‘Cathy Loves John’ on one side, and ‘John Loves Icecream’ on the other side.

Next step start filling it. I started ours off with the cuttings of the mowed grass and some soil from plant pots that I was empting and some tree leaves I raked up – a good mix to encourage the little wormies.

There is a very elaborate science around the composition of good compost. Some compost makers are like 5 star chefs – they use only the best ingredients, follow a strict process and could sell the stuff to the highest bidder. My compost is more like something you would make in Home Eco class – the ingredients were whatever you could find in the house that morning, the process is something you follow as often as you can remember the guidelines while chatting to mates, and the result is something you could only share with family and close friends.  There are experts that will roll their eyes at the rules below, but this is what I do, and it works ok for me.

  • Rule One: You need a mix. It can’t be all green cuttings, or all leaves, or all household waste – you need a mix to keep the pH balanced. Add layers of soil if possible, so pots that you are empting at the end of the growing season, any beds that you are clearing. This helps to speed up the rotting process.
  • Rule Two: Most but not all household waste can go in. As a general rule – no meat cooked or raw, no table scraps with sauces left on them (I scrape everything into the sink, give it a rinse, what’s left goes in the compost), no dog waste or cat litter. Apart from that everything else that will rot can be fired in – ripped up cardboard, paper, hair, etc. If in doubt I always chuck it in – the very worst thing that happens is that it does not rot and you pick it out of your compost in two years’ time and throw it in the recycling bin then – no problem.
  • Controversial Rule Three: Weeds. I throw them in because I am lazy. To some people this would be a death sentence for your compost because these particularly strong plants can survive almost anything and will poison your compost, spreading their seeds wherever you use it. I see their point, but to be honest, something rotting for two years would want to be very strong to survive, and there are weeds in my garden anyway, an extra few won’t hurt it. I might be more sensitive to avoiding adding weeds if I were using the compost in an area that had very few weeds, and I never use this when germinating seeds, but I have used my compost in pots and noticed no weeds growing there, so I think it’s alright to chuck them in.

That’s it – project completed. Continue to fill the bin for the next two years, building it in to your household routine if possible. I bought a small bin for my kitchen that people usually use for bathrooms, because you don’t want this waste building up in your home, and when we wash the dishes the last thing to be done is to bring the little compost bin out to the big compost bin and give the little bin a rinse with water (but no detergents) to keep clean. Once the habit is established, like smoking, it will be hard to quit.

Then comes payday – some early summer or late spring day when you are doing a spot of planting, you go over to your compost bin, open the little door and there is some lovely free rich compost. That is unfortunately quite compacted. And will probably take a shovel to dig out, which is probably too big for the little door, so you end up losing your temper tipping the whole compost bin back a bit to make room for the shovelling, which then takes three grown adults to but back in place. But after that, the feeling is sweet.

compost bin

Profit/Loss of the Project

Accounts
Initial Input (€ 50)
e50 for 600l compost bin
Costs (€ 50)
Savings over 2 years
Brown Bin Collection € 234
 – €4.50 per collection bi-weekly for two years
Compost Purchasing Not taking place € 32
 – Average two bags per season @ €8 per 50l
Savings € 266
Value of Compost Created € 600
An average of all multi-purpose composts available shows that compost is roughly €1 per litre, and we have the potential to make 600l
Potential Profits € 816

Victoria’s Secret Garden

V1. Garden collage

Six years ago I moved in to a house in Dublin 7, I barely looked at the place as I was in such a rush to get out of where I was living. As long as it had all the necessary walls and ceilings I was good to go. I even chose to ignore the delightful urchins who threw chips at me as I walked up the road to view the house. The one thing that did catch my eye was the fact that there was a really good sized back garden, it had a washing line and this appealed to my frugal soul.

Most city center gardens are cramped spaces with damp mottled walls and no grass. This garden consists of a bricked patio area and a good sized patch of weeds that when strimmed back can pass for grass. There is a giant holly tree that been raided every Christmas and ten foot walls edged with broken glass for added security.

As we weren’t planning on staying too long in this house we didn’t do much in terms of garden improvement. A basketball hoop was haphazardly attached to one wall and the garden was generally used for messing around with footballs and frisbees and the occasional BBQ.

A few years and one extreme frisbee incident later and sports were banned. At the same time the drain became blocked flooding the bricked area, and construction started on a vacant lot behind our house causing an invasion of disgruntled, newly homeless rats, so the door was firmly closed to the garden.

Last year the sun came out, the drain was cleared and we tentatively ventured back outside to find it rat-less. This year I am determined to make the garden a nice space to be in.

I am always filled with garden envy when I go home to Cork to visit family, my parents have spent years turning their garden in to a really relaxing space that is great for entertaining. That is what I want to create in my backyard, however as this isn’t my own home I don’t want to invest money in this project so I am going to see what I can manage with hard graft, imagination and as much help as I can get!

These are the before pictures and hopefully I will be able to share the progress of this project here. Any tips will be gratefully appreciated!

V1. Garden collage