How to ripen your Hallowe’en pumpkins

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Trick or treat!

Only a few weeks till Hallowe’en and if you’ve been growing pumpkins, this is your time to shine. Carving your own home-grown pumpkin into a Jack’o’Lantern for the doorstep is mighty satisfying, and one of those rites of passage for a veg grower: it puts a full stop on the autumn harvest and readies you for the crisp, bright days and rich, earthy flavours of winter.

Your choice of pumpkin is crucial if you’re to produce a lantern that’s just the right size and shape for carving. Don’t be tempted to grow real mammoths like ‘Atlantic Giant’: they’re fun, but produce behemoth fruits that easily lose their shape and are often big enough to block the doorway! Continue reading…

Dreaming of winter

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Winter salads on the way…

In the garden, it’s August: the pumpkins are swelling, the beans are coming thick and fast, and I’m feasting on courgettes, tomatoes and cucumbers.

But in my head, it’s October, or maybe November, and I’m thinking about my winter salad supply.

As the lovely students on my course, Self-Sufficient Veg Gardening will tell you, I’m big on planning. Stay one step ahead of the season and you’ll give yourself the best chance of a veg plot that’s pumping out the produce month after month, all year round.

So right now, though the summer harvest is in full swing, I’m pulling out the seed trays and taking to the potting bench again to get my winter greens under way. At this time of year seeds germinate quickly, and there’s time for them to grow to picking size by November, when the cold weather hits. Continue reading…

Sowing seed nature’s way

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Another month, another stack of seed trays to prick out.

The greenhouse shelves are already full of overcrowded seedlings to pot on, and the cold frame is full to bursting as everything needs hardening off at once – that week to 10 days of delay while you get them gradually used to outdoor conditions.

It’s all a bit of a faff, really. Of course I could sow seeds direct, especially now the weather has properly warmed up: it’s quicker, and easier, and uses fewer resources like potting compost and plastic pots, too. But once I’ve sown the seed I still have to water every day, and fend off the slugs, and thin out the seedlings to regulation 5cm spacings…

Don’t get me wrong: all this is part and parcel of the daily routine of being a gardener, and I love it really. But recently I’ve been concentrating my efforts, and my precious hour of post-work gardening time, only on those seeds which really, really need my attention. The rest I leave to nature. Continue reading…

Going peat-free: The myths – busted

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Are you making the switch and going peat-free this April?

You may have come across the #PeatFreeApril campaign on social media last year. Well: now it’s back, bigger and better, and more determined than ever to get us all growing in peat-free compost.

Every gardener I know cares deeply about the natural world, and most are increasingly uneasy about the environmental impact of growing in peat. If you garden in peat-based potting composts, you’re contributing to the destruction of a rare and valuable ecosystem, home to gems like carnivorous sundews, marsh saxifrages, wild cranberries and bog orchids.

Even worse, when peat bogs are dried out and dug up so that you can pot up your petunias or sow your spinach, they release carbon dioxide straight into the air, so you’re also contributing directly to climate change. In fact peat harvesting in the UK alone emits as much greenhouse gas in a year as three coal-fired power stations.

Most gardeners also want to grow the best plants they can, though. And they know that the potting compost you choose can be the difference between a garden bursting with lush, healthy veg; and a frustrating battle to get anything to grow at all. It often seems easier to stick with what you know works well, rather than risking your seedlings on something new.

But many complaints you’ll hear about peat-free composts are based on out-of-date information, or the result of simple mistakes which are easy to avoid. So if you’ve always grown in peat-based compost and you’re hesitating to take the plunge, read on to sort the truth from the tittle-tattle. Continue reading…

How to feed your plants a healthy diet

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Just like people, plants need food.

Also like people, a good diet is the foundation for health and happiness: and that means lush, leafy growth and a satisfyingly generous harvest for you to pick at the end of the season.

Making sure your plants have ready access to all the nutrients they need isn’t always as complicated as you might think. Some gardeners will come up with mind-bendingly detailed feeding routines to follow like a military campaign through the year, drawing from an armoury of chemicals in the garden shed. I prefer simpler, more planet-friendly ways to keep my veg happy. Continue reading….

Forever food

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Just imagine a veg patch which goes on giving, year after year – no need to resow or plant up each spring, and nothing to clear away in autumn.

All that’s needed is a bit of weeding, maybe some mulch and a little protection from pests – and in return you get armfuls of produce not just this year, but next year too and for many years to come.

Perennial food plants come back again and again, usually getting a little better every year. You’re probably already familiar with some – asparagus, for example, rhubarb and artichokes (both globe and Jerusalem). Fruit trees and bushes are perennial, of course, as well as many herbs including rosemary, thyme and sage.

The big, dahlia-like tubers of frost-tender yacon are sweet enough to eat raw: dig them up to overwinter somewhere frost-free and you’ll have them for years

But there’s also a wide range of lesser-known edible perennial plants which grow perfectly happily in UK gardens and provide you with a permanent supply of day-to-day greens, roots and florets to eat – no resowing required.

Grow perennial veg and you’ll never be short of something to pick. You’ll be doing your bit for the environment, too, as you use much less compost, plastic pots, water and fertiliser when you sow once and grow for years. You’re also leaving your garden soil undisturbed, which is great for locking up carbon; it also allows the complex web of interconnected life underground to thrive, so your soil is healthier and so are your plants. continue reading….

The October veg garden

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Life in the veg garden is taking on a definitely autumnal feel… it’s all fuzzy edges, like a woolly jumper


Harvesting this month:
French beans, carrots, the last of the courgettes and patty pan summer squash, Musquee de Provence winter squash, potatoes (maincrops to store), raspberries, curled-leaf and flat-leaf parsley, baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.

Sowing this month: Broad beans for overwintering, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.

This month I will be:

  • Clearing out the greenhouses
  • Pricking out greenhouse salad seedlings
  • Turning the compost
  • Mulching empty beds
  • Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
  • Juicing the last of the apples (mine and other people’s!)
  • Repairing fences

Mouse update

Remember my poor mouse-beheaded beetroot seedlings from last month?

The obvious solution was to trap the mice – and that’s certainly what I would have done before I became aware of the need for sustainability in the garden.

I don’t like killing things at the best of times: and with mice in particular they’re a really important food source for larger predators like owls, so every mouse that you trap is one removed from the wider ecosystem.

Also mouse traps are, usually, plastic, and I have vowed not to buy any new plastic for my garden (even if it’s not strictly for gardening).

The wildlife photographer Simon King once said to me that we humans are really, really clever animals: so if we can’t figure out a way to keep other animals away from our food without killing them, we’re not thinking hard enough.

Quite right: so I put my humanoid thinking cap on, and this is what I came up with.

I bought myself a big roll of 8mm gauge mesh from B&Q for about £20 and made myself a mesh cloche (the roll was big enough to make two or three, but one step at a time).

It took a while to get right: I had to staple the bottom edges to wooden battens, burying these in the ground to hold the whole thing stable and prevent mice from burrowing underneath, and the ends are squares of mesh tied in with wire, again buried a few inches beneath the ground.

But I resowed my beetroot seeds at the beginning of the month and they are already much bigger than they ever reached last month before the mice got them. It’s tricky to get in and weed, but I sow into mulch so the few weeds that have come up aren’t too troublesome. Once the seedlings have developed into sturdy young plants, of less interest to mice, I will remove the whole cloche and stash it to use elsewhere. It should last me several years of mouse-free sowing.

The big greenhouse clearout

That’s it: time to admit defeat. I had a good pick over of the last tomatoes to cook down and freeze, and now the plants are undeniably finished. They’ll go onto the compost heap (I had a spot of blight during the season where the rain got inside the greenhouse – but even blighted foliage can be composted as the disease doesn’t survive once the foliage breaks down).

Once the toms are out I’ll give the glass a good wash, then weed out the borders and refresh with a good thick (5cm/2″) mulch of garden compost before replanting with greenhouse salads (see below). My only dilemma is that I can’t bear to pull up those lovely French marigolds just yet; I sowed them back in February and they’ve been flowering their socks off all summer, no deadheading required. I guess the salads will just have to go in behind them till they’re done.

Pricking out salads

From this….
…to this: give them another few weeks and they’ll be the perfect size for planting into the greenhouse borders after the summer crops are cleared

All the salad plants I sowed last month are now big sturdy seedlings and ready to move on into their own individual newspaper pots (the above are Winter Density lettuce (left) and mizuna (right)).

I’m a big fan of newspaper pots: zero plastic and pretty much zero carbon (as you’re reusing waste newspaper to make them) and the seedlings do so much better as their roots grow through the sides and don’t circle as they would in plastic. I get much better results from them every year – well worth the extra 15 minutes it takes me to fill a seed tray with paper pots.

Juice!

The last of the windfalls: I have a lovely little Devonshire Quarrenden apple tree, very early eater with a lovely sweet, strawberry-like flavour. But my only slight problem is that it crops so early in the year – over by about mid-September most years – that I miss all the Apple Days and my windfalls are already long gone before I can juice them.

This year, what with the coronavirus an’ all, Apple Days aren’t really happening – or at least not the ones with the big community juicing events. Luckily, though, I’ve found a friend with access to a scratter, to chop up the windfalls into rough pieces, and a press, to make the juice.

I am taking along my own few remaining windfalls, and scavenging apples from everyone I can think of with a surplus. It’s one of the best ways I know of storing the abundance our apple trees provide: tip the juice into saved plastic litre bottles and freeze, then savour the rich, sweet flavour all through winter. Yum.

The September veg garden

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Harvesting this month: French beans, courgettes, patty pan summer squash, sweetcorn, potatoes (the last of the second earlies to eat, plus maincrops to store), apples and raspberries, plus cucumbers and tomatoes from the greenhouse, and baby-leaf salads from pots outside the back door.

Sowing this month: Autumn-sown (Japanese) onions and lots of salads, for outside (under cloches) and in pots to refill the greenhouse borders once the toms are out, including winter lettuce, mizuna, mibuna, American land cress, corn salad, chard, beetroot (for leaves), turnips (for leaves), spring onions, and round-rooted carrots.

This month I will be:

  • Clearing summer brassicas
  • Planting autumn-sown onion sets
  • Mulching empty beds
  • Saving seeds
  • Taking cuttings of herbs and borderline-tender plants like salvias and pelargoniums
  • Planting herbs and perennial vegetables
  • Cooking apples (and tomatoes) to freeze for winter

New perennial crops for this year

Perennial vegetables are so much more sustainable than annual as you don’t have to continually disturb the soil (so no carbon release) and they require much less input in the way of resources compared to raising seeds and using lots of water, warmth, feed and compost.

There aren’t many of them, though, and some are very unfamiliar. So one of my projects this season has been to start a perennial vegetable garden. No soil disturbance, a fraction of the inputs (feed, water, fertiliser, compost) of annual vegetables, and you lock up more carbon with permanent planting too. And a fraction of the effort of regular vegetable gardening. But the trick is to find perennial vegetables you actually want to eat: here’s what I’ve started with.

Daubenton’s (perennial) kale is growing well: it’s under a little tent of mesh to keep the butterflies off but I’ll remove that once they go away at the end of the season.

The skirret was a total failure: sowed direct in May as instructed, absolutely no seedlings. No idea if the slugs got them or if it was too dry or if they just didn’t fancy it this year. It may have been the seeds themselves so will order from a different supplier next year just in case. And I will be sowing them into pots where I can keep an eye on them.

Salsify were more successful: several good leafy rosettes now from direct sowing in May. I am leaving them to establish for a year or two before I try to pull a few roots.

American ground nut (Apios americana): I planted these odd little tubers (they are actually beans but are more like small, floury potatoes to eat) at the foot of canes by the low wall. Not all survived, but enough did for me to think this will be an interesting taste test next year!

Chinese artichokes: Easy as anything to grow – they’re related to deadnettle. I’ve got them in an old sink in the back garden: I will wait until they die back before harvesting some of the knobbly roots to try (probably next month: watch this space).

And a new addition: Turkish rocket (Bunias orientalis). It’s not the most spectacular plant, being a clump of fuzzy-felt leaves and not much else. But it is bone hardy and a useful spicy salad ingredient. And when I say spicy, I mean spicy: I had a little taste and like most things Turkish it’s ten times stronger than anything you’ve ever tasted before. I am not sure if I like it yet, but I will persevere.

New mentoring service

Well actually it’s not entirely new: I’ve been mentoring several students recently and have found it works so well I am offering it more widely.

The idea is that you have me “on tap” for advice and help about organic and sustainable methods of food growing, over email (no complicated technology to master!) and when you need it. Arrange an hour whenever it suits you and I can answer questions, give you loads of ideas and inspiration, guide you in starting up a new veg garden or help you develop an existing one. It’s entirely up to you what we talk about and it’s completely tailored to you and your garden. Book a one-off session, or a regular time each week. It’s up to you!

A lovely comment from one regular student recently: “I’m SO glad you’re there!”

For more details contact me at sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com.

This year’s tomatoes: the verdict

I haven’t a lot of room in the garden to grow dozens of different types of tomatoes but I do like to try one or two new ones each year (there are about 7,500 varieties to choose from so there’s always one you haven’t grown before)

It has not been a vintage year. I’ve had lots of tomatoes: but only one of the three I grew came up to scratch.

Ailsa Craig Good old Ailsa. What would we do without her? There are relatively few straightforward medium-sized salad toms around nowadays – we all seem to be growing fancy cherries, black tomatoes and beefsteaks instead. But sometimes all you need is a straightforward slicing tom and this one is fantastic: reliable, prolific and great flavour too.

Coeur de Bue To be honest this is my own fault as I was being a cheapskate. I grew Coeur de Boeuf a year or two ago and loved it: all the flavour and size of a beefsteak without the difficulty (or low yields). This one came as a freebie and I thought, Bue? Boeuf? Not much in it… how wrong can you be. Insipid taste, pinkish red (so hard to tell when it’s ripe) and a sort of dry texture: a pale shadow of the original. Won’t be growing again.

Reisentomate Another freebie I should have turned down. It’s an interesting idea: a tomato that grows in segments, so you can pick off a segment at a time to eat rather than having the whole tomato. But beyond the novelty value, you’ve got to ask yourself….. why? Flavour insipid, texture dry, fruits small. Just no.

Mouse attack!

Mice got into the greenhouse and ate my low-hanging tomatoes…
… and then they nobbled my newly-emerged beetroot seedlings. The giveaway that this is not slug damage is that nipped-off leaf: a slug would have eaten them down to the ground.

I have been battling the mice. You may think this would be something of an unequal fight, being as I’m several gazillion times their size but they are obviously far cleverer than me.

It started with them taking munchies out of my low-hanging tomatoes: I have never had this happen before in all my 25+ years of growing veg but it was definitely mice as they climbed on top of one fruit and left a lot of poo as a calling card. Yum #not.

Now they’re after my beetroot seedlings. I sowed them direct and they came up within days. Yet along came my whiskery friends and… no more beetroot seedlings.

I do have a feral cat but she is getting old nowadays and spends most of her time on the boiler. I am also starting to think a cat brings too much in the way of collateral damage: don’t mind the baby rabbits so much, but the robins are heartbreaking. So Sooty is to be my last cat and I will have to think of other ways to keep the little blighters off my food in future.

I could trap them, but I always prefer a live and let live policy so for now I am trying an alternative approach. Come back next month for news of its success (or not).

Plant yourself a coronavirus veg garden

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So here we all are, stuck at home with time on our hands, chaos in the supermarkets, trying not to think about an uncertain future.

What better time to start growing your own food!

This is the first installment of a series taking you setting up your first veg garden week by week – starting with getting your plot ready, plus a few seeds you can be sowing now for ridiculously quick harvests! https://www.learningwithexperts.com/gardening/blog/starting-a-veg-garden-during-quarantine

So… what’s new?

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I’m trying the weird new ‘Reisentomate’ (Suttons.co.uk) this year – it grows like a bunch of grapes

Just from time to time, I put down the hand fork, brush the mud off my jeans, look up and take notice of what everyone else in the gardening world is up to. Here’s my look at this year’s new developments and innovations for veg gardeners everywhere: https://www.learningwithexperts.com/gardening/blog/so-what-s-new