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…
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…
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!)
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
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.
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.
It’s a simple idea: you take your spares along to your local village hall, or wherever the swap is taking place, and offload them to someone who can make better use of them than you can.
Then you browse around what everyone else has brought and take your pick. Everyone’s a winner.
Seed swaps started in Brighton, where the biggest, Seedy Sunday, still takes place: this year’s is on 5th February so if you’re in the area, do pop in.
But the idea has caught on, and now seed swaps are held all over the country. You’ll have to Google your local venue – there used to be a listings page on the Seedy Sunday website but it doesn’t seem to be active these days – but they’re not difficult to find.
Or, of course, you can just stay right here. Because I have been clearing out my seed boxes in a fit of efficiency and have set aside an exceptionally large pile of seeds which I know I’m not going to get around to sowing this year.
Last time I did this we had a few Royal Mail related issues with the SAE system, so I’ve changed the way things work a little. Most importantly, I’ve decided that instead of asking everyone to pay postage, I will instead ask you to donate the money to the Greenfingers charity, which in case you haven’t heard of it plants gardens for children and their families spending time in hospices all around the country.
So as long as I get the email with your address you should get your seeds in the post asap with no hitches!
Please follow the instructions carefully:
Choose your seeds from the list below: maximum 10 packets per person please.
Post in the comments section so I know who wants what and can update the list so everyone else knows what is left. This is first come first served, so read earlier comments to make sure your seeds haven’t been bagged already.
Email me your address with your full name (so I can match you with your JustGiving donation) and what you’ve ordered to sally(dot)nex(at)btinternet(dot)com so I can send you your seeds!
Here’s the list:
(seeds are no more than 2 years old; *=opened packet, but still with a good quantity of seeds in it; **=home-saved seeds so can’t guarantee germination, though all seeds have been kept in cool dry conditions)
Seedlings coming along nicely! Here’s the tray of mixed salad seedlings I put in at the beginning of February. Alongside them are beetroot, turnips, kohl rabi and early peas (Meteor).
Generally speaking it’s a bit early to be sowing just yet – even in a greenhouse (there’s been the occasional frost on the ground in the mornings this week: I’d almost forgotten what it looked like).
But this year I’ve been trying a new regime and it’s worked a treat.
I set the propagator – my beloved Vitopod – to 12 degrees, optimum for germinating hardy seeds. Then the moment they emerged, I shifted them out of the propagator onto the shelving in the open greenhouse. This is kept a tad above freezing, so regularly (especially lately) falls to about 2-3 degrees.
That means the seedlings grow ‘hard’ – developing protection against the harsher, colder conditions so they become sturdier, shorter and stronger. They’re perhaps a tiny tad more spindly than seedlings started later in spring, but nothing like they have been in previous years when I’ve probably cossetted them a bit too much.
Back in the propagator and the heat has been turned up to 18 degrees: it’s now the turn of tomatoes, half-hardy annuals and a whole slew of exotica including mashua, yacon and oca. Plus Chinese gooseberries and gherkins. I do love this time of year!
The imminent arrival of my little package of heritage seeds from the HSL has prompted me to have my annual clear-out.
I do this every year: the routine goes 1) throw out any seed packets more than two years old 2) throw out carrot and parsnip seed regardless (I buy these in fresh each year – better germination rates) 3) put aside seeds to give or swap with other gardeners.
And then of course 4) go get loads more seed!
Since I’ve now reached stage 3, and it’s coming up to Christmas which seems a nice time to start giving people stuff, I thought it was about time I revived the annual CG Big Seed Giveaway (last held in 2013 when I was still sane and my schedule hadn’t been hijacked by 48,000 words and a book publisher).
So first come, first served: get your free seeds here!
comment below giving the names of the seeds you want
then send an email to sally dot nex at btinternet dot com confirming your request and giving me an address to send your seeds to. I will reply giving you an address to which you’ll need to send a stamped, self-addressed envelope
I’ll update this post regularly giving details of what’s gone and what’s left
the giveaway will last for two weeks, until Monday 21 December: follow me on Twitter (@sallynex) for updates. Any seed not taken at the end of the two weeks will be… well, not sure yet, but I’ll find a use for them!
if you enjoy growing your seeds, please blog about them later in the year if you can!
no more than 5 packets of seed per person.
first to place their order in the comments below gets the seed (no orders via Twitter accepted – you can only order in the comments below so everyone can see your seed has been taken)
if I don’t receive your SAE within a week your seeds will be re-offered
sorry but the offer is only open to UK respondents
Variety is the spice of life: potatoes at the 2015 Chelsea Flower Show
Now here’s an exciting early Christmas present. Just chosen my six varieties from the Heritage Seed Library’s catalogue, which plopped into my email inbox on the first day of this month – about the most eagerly anticipated bit of virtual mail I’ve had for a long time.
The HSL is a fine institution, dedicated to preserving some of our oldest (and more recently most unusual) vegetables.
Heritage veg are increasingly finding their way into catalogues, and all sorts of things are making something of a comeback, from red-flowered broad beans to Telephone peas, baby ‘finger’ carrots and Lazy Housewife beans.
But the HSL deals with the extreme end of heritage: those varieties which have been passed on from father to son and mother to daughter, kept in packets in the back of sheds, collected again at the end of the season and resown the next.
Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’
True heirlooms, in other words, often passed on only to neighbours in a scruffy brown envelope without a second thought, the owner barely aware of what a little nugget of unique history they have in their guardianship. Many of these hand-me-down varieties are balanced precariously on the knife-edge of existence, the only ones left of their kind.
It’s these rarities which the HSL preserves in the interest of maintaining the diversity – genetic and general – of the vegetables we grow. Without them we’d all be condemned to circling around an ever-dwindling handful of veg approved by the supermarkets for uniformity, ease of mechanical picking and reliability. And where’s the fun in that?
The HSL is not allowed to sell its seed: they don’t conform to EU rules because their inherent variability means they can’t pass the tests on distinctiveness, uniformity and stability. That means they can’t be listed on the National List of approved vegetable cultivars: so they can’t be sold.
The get-around for this has been simply to make HSL a charity, and give away six packets of seed to each member in return for the membership fee. Heritage varieties preserved; interesting varieties spread around more gardens; members happy. Simples!
So here are the six varieties I’m going to be growing next year. None of them I’ve ever grown before: all are hug-yourself exciting for different reasons. Can’t wait!
Asparagus kale: I’ve grown this one before, actually, but it never quite made it to the asparagus stage so I’m having another go. The plant grows just like kale, then in spring – just in time for the hungry gap – sends up delicious flower spikes which you eat just like broccoli. So it’s a dual-purpose veg really: my favourite kind.
Lablab bean ‘Vasu’s 30 Day Dwarf Papri’: Last time I grew lablab it was gorgeous but never made it to podding stage (flowers were lovely though). My conclusion was it needs more heat and light then we can give it here in the UK: but this one is said to get to flowering stage in 30 days, so I’m giving it another try.
Lettuce ‘Soulie’: I’m always up for a new variety of lettuce, and this has many things going for it. It’s French: tick. A cos variety; tick. Slow to bolt: tick. And it even has a red tinge to the leaves so the slugs should leave it alone. Sounds great.
Pea ‘Magnum Bonum’: I first saw this tall pea in a polytunnel at Knightshayes in Devon and have wanted to grow it ever since. It’s got the huge yields of all tall peas and the pods are said to stay well on the plant too.
Shark Fin Melon ‘Joe Dalgleish’: oooh shark fin melons… no idea what they taste like, no idea what to do with them, but anything that produces a triffid-like plant of stems 2m plus and massive watermelon-sized fruits has to be worth a go.
Squash ‘Sucrette’: good job I’ve got quite a big garden as this one’s a monster too. Huge yellow squashes with warty skins, weighing in at about 1kg each. And it’s French, so should have a good flavour too.
I do love it when you figure something out all by yourself.
I’ve always been slightly mystified by the instructions for drying shelling beans. You are supposed to dry them on the plant if at all possible: but of course this being Britain that’s a bit of a pipe dream as it always, always rains from August to about, well, June. And the September to October bit is just when your shelling beans – in this case, the sumptuously beautiful borlotti bean ‘Lingua di Fuoco’, or Firetongue – are mature and ready to dry.
So failing unending sunshine – and we really do fail quite well here – you’re supposed to take the entire plant and hang it indoors, upside-down so the beans can carry on drying.
Anyone who has grown climbing beans knows they are monster plants, wound and twisted around their supports in a Gordian knot only the bravest would try to untangle in order to pull up said plant. It stumped me totally.Well: I had a bit of a brainwave this year. It suddenly occurred to me that you didn’t need to take the plants off the supports: keep ’em on. And since at around 8ft high they were never really going to go literally upside down (the highest ceiling in our cottage is only about 7ft – we are not allowed to have tall friends, and bean plants are out of the question) – how about horizontal?
So I hung them off their handily sturdy cane, horizontally from the roof of the greenhouse. Took about five minutes: job done.
Trouble is I now have a further problem: I live in one of the damper corners of the world and it has been extremely damp in the last few weeks. So even the greenhouse hasn’t been the driest of places.
To harvest good quality shelling beans the pod should be crisp brown and rattle when you shake it. Unfortunately a couple of weeks later when I returned to my borlottis, too many of the pods had turned grey and mouldy instead. I wonder if I’d kept a closer eye on them and picked them as they dried whether I could have avoided this.
The beans inside were quite badly affected, too. I got enough unblemished beans which should keep well enough to sow again next year. But it wasn’t quite the generous winter’s supply I’d hoped for.
Ah well: onward and upward. The search is now on for a properly dry place, large enough to take a hefty cane with attached beanstalks plus pods. Any ideas?
They’re a little bit odd. I’ve grown yellow patty pans before: and they were like miniature flying saucers, about 8-10″ across and beautifully scalloped at the edges.
These are not.
They reach this size – about 4″ across – make a half-hearted attempt at the scallop thing and then go rotten.
I shouldn’t complain really: they’re very prolific as you can see, so make up for lack of size with quantity. They’re nice and firm (before they go soft) and tasty: I cut them up skins and all and use them just like courgettes.
But yellow patty pans they aren’t. I now think I got a duff batch of seed.
This happens more often than you’d think. One year I bought three plug plants which were meant to be melons: two of them were, the third turned out to be a pumpkin. You can’t actually tell the difference just by looking at the seedlings: it was when the flowers appeared that the truth was out, but by then it was a massive behemoth bidding for a greenhouse takeover.
I planted three hydrangeas this spring in a client’s garden which were meant to be ‘Mariesii Perfecta’ – a seductive smokey-grey-blue lacecap so beautiful you can’t quite believe it’s real.
What has flowered is a horrid candy-pink half-mophead, half-lacecap which looks like a reject from a failed hydrangea breeding experiment. It’s dreadful and rather embarrassing since I had talked the owner into getting ‘Mariesii Perfecta’ instead of the ‘Annabelle’ she had originally suggested.
The list goes on: limp ‘Lollo Rossa’ lettuces in a washed-out half-green instead of the crisply ruffled burgundy purple they’re meant to be; winter super-hardy supposedly January King cabbages which are not properly savoyed and worse, mature and over by September; ‘Electric’ onions more pink than red.
I don’t know whether seed companies are getting complacent: perhaps they’re assuming we don’t know enough about our varieties (or care, perhaps) to be able to tell the difference.
Or maybe it’s us: I haven’t yet complained about the hydrangeas, though I know I should have my money back or perhaps three Annabelles to replace them. And if I did complain at least the plant producers would know I actually noticed and cared.
Something is undeniably a little amiss with the supply chain here, and it worries me: if you don’t get the right thing in your seed packet (or plug plant tray) and you don’t know, then you’ll always have a skewed idea of what home-grown vegetables (or plants in general) should be like. It matters for future breeding, as muddied gene pools are not good for predictable results. And it matters just because when I buy a certain type of lettuce I have chosen it for the properties it’s supposed to have – not some diluted hybrid mishmash.
I got a lovely little parcel in the post the other day.
I do love a good seed swap. This is the second year I’ve been taking part in this one: it’s run by the lovely Carl Legge, who lives in an obscure bit of Wales I’d only happened to have heard of because a breed of sheep is named after it (obscure bits of Wales are always heartbreakingly beautiful so that’s a good thing).
The idea of Seedy Penpals is pretty straightforward: you put your name down, you’re paired with another equally seed-obsessed gardener, and then given a (different) swapee – someone to send your own spare seeds to.
And this is the result. I don’t know what it is with beautiful packaging this year but everyone’s into it. I got the most beautiful packet of sweetpea seeds earlier this year from the wonderful Ursula over at Easton Walled Gardens. Well, I say packet: it was actually a very stylish flat tin, of the matt silver cigar sort, and inside the packets of sweetpeas were laid lovingly in a beautifully-folded piece of brown paper. It all looked so perfect I could hardly bear to break the seal and sow the seeds (though I got over that and they’re now in the altogether more prosaic surroundings of a load of old loo rolls full of compost in the greenhouse, soon, I hope, to germinate).
And my wonderful Seedy Penpal, Cally of Countrygate Gardens in Wiltshire (and a lady after my own heart: she has done a lot of what I one day dream of doing) clearly has an eye for a good ribbon, too. She’s taken such trouble to bind up my seeds so beautifully: it gives a pile of seed packets the delicious anticipation of a birthday present.
I particularly loved the bee mix seedballs – you can buy them from Cally (hunt down her phone number on the above website). Full of foxgoves, viper’s bugloss, wild marjoram, red clover and birdsfoot trefoil they might have been designed for my chalky soil. And they came wrapped in an artless square of hessian tied in string: it’s the little touches that make all the difference, you see.
Inside were – quite literally – seedballs. I’m very intrigued to find out if these work: the seeds inside are apparently mixed with clay, compost and chilli powder (to deter pests) and made into a little pellet about the size of an aniseed ball. I think you’re meant to sow the whole thing. It says to scatter them on the ground, but each pellet contains thousands of seeds… well. It’s not gardening as I know it: but I’m willing to give it a try. I shall report back.
And what were the other goodies in my little bundle of fun? Well: ‘Cosmic Purple’ carrot, which I’ve wanted to grow for ages (it’s one of the original heirloom purple carrots, though I think the ‘Cosmic’ bit probably came later); white and blue love-in-a-mist; some scallop summer squash (yay!), cleome, calendula, molucella and gypsophila; orange-scented thyme to add to my collection; some melons; and – get this – mushrooms! And it says all you need is horse manure. I’ve got loads, and loads, and loads of that thanks to my two little ponies, so I’m away. It sounds like a bit of a faff to get it started, but if home-grown chestnut mushrooms are the result, I’m game.
Thank you, Cally: you’ve sown the seeds (pun intended) for a wonderful season to come. And thanks also to Carl, for putting in the considerable work involved in setting up the swap in the first place. See you next year!