25 Colourful Crops for a Vibrant Vegetable Garden

In January I banished grey days by reading The Secret Lives of Colour by Kassia St Clair. It took me on a vivid journey through the history of colour, to explore the unknown corners of sepia, fallow, orchil, Isabelline and vantablack. As I read, I noticed how many of the terms are derived from plants like madder, amaranth, saffron, ginger, avocado and violet. Often these words referred to the dye the plants produced as with woad, or the colour of the plant’s blooms, like heliotrope. Colour is an integral part of our relationship with plants, we have used them over the centuries to produce dyes and paints, to bring colour into our homes with cut flowers and recently we’ve learnt more about the health benefits of many of the antioxidants that give plants their colour.

Now we are nearing the middle of February and my dining table is splashed with colour as I sort my seed packets. I usually avoid sowing anything except chillies until early March, so there’s still a couple of weeks to select a rainbow of colour for health and happiness later in the year. Here are my top picks for a vibrant vegetable patch in 2019:

Red

  • Suttons’ new lettuce ‘Outredgeous’ is the first plant to be grown from seed, harvested and eaten in space. It has vivid red leaves, a sweet crunch and can be grown in part-shade as well as full sun
  • Sprout ‘Red Rubine’ is an unusual brassica with red/purple sprouts. We particularly liked the red sprout tops which taste like sweet, crunchy mini-cabbages
  • One of my favourite salad onions ‘Apache’ produces glossy red spring onions that keep their colour when peeled. They are also ideal for container growing
  • The first oca I grew was ‘Helen’s All Red’ from Real Seeds. It produced heavy crops and is also one of the best flavoured of the 15 or so varieties I’ve grown. With edible leaves and ruby fruits in November when the rest of the garden has gone into hibernation, this is one colourful crop you won’t regret growing this year

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    Oca ‘Helen’s All Red’

Orange

  • Suttons’ Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ has dense round fruits which keep well and look superb hanging off the climbing plants in the autumn
  • Chilli ‘Apricot’ from Sea Spring Plants was a first for me last year. Its mild fruits matured late and tasted more like a sweet pepper than a chilli – a good choice if you want chilli plants for young children or chillies for stuffing
  • Tomato ‘Sungold’ is an orange winner time and time again in taste tests for the sweetest tomato. The cherry-sized fruits are irresistible to both kids and adults, especially when eaten warm straight out of the greenhouse

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    Squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’

Yellow

  • Visually, I prefer ‘Chioggia’ beetroot with its striking pink central rings, but the kids’ favourite is always ‘Burpees Golden’ for its mild, sweet taste
  • Tomato ‘Golden Sunrise’ is a beautiful contrast in a salad to darker varieties and ‘Striped Stuffer’ has scarlet skins striped with vivid yellow making the most beautiful hanging display
  • If you prefer your chillies hot then try ‘Lemon Drop’, a delicious Aji chilli that comes in at a spicy 30,000-50,000 SHU rating

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    A mix of yellow and orange tomatoes

Green

  • A poor relation in the garden, green is often dismissed as simply the colour of foliage, but it can be beautiful and vivid in its own right. Try Tomato ‘Green Zebra’ with its deep green stripes over a soft lime background
  • Or try the tinted white-green patty pan squash with their prolific scalloped fruits – a seed mix like ‘Summer Mix’ from Thompson and Morgan combines the paler squashes with dark green and yellow fruits
  • Cucamelons also celebrate the colour green with their beautiful speckles over the paler skin and Romanesco broccolli excudes lime green from every fractal millimetre

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    Cucamelon green

Blue

  • An unsual colour in the vegetable garden, many ‘blue’ crops tip over into tints of purple. You could try Tomato ‘Blue Bayou’ from Chiltern Seeds for its ‘richly coloured dark navy-blue to purple fruits’
  • Alternatively try Sweetcorn ‘Hopi Blue’, an American Indian heirloom variety from Jungle Seeds to find out if blue is for you in the vegetable garden

Indigo

  • We like the meaty, deep flavour of Tomato ‘Indigo Rose’ from Suttons. This almost black cultivar has a secret – lift up the calyx and underneath you’ll find remnants of the red coloration where the skin isn’t exposed to the light

Violet

  • I love deep purple vegetables – whether it’s ‘Purple Haze’ carrots, ‘Kolibri’ kohlrabi or the dwarf bean ‘Purple Queen’ There’s something deep and mysterious about them – especially when the colour magically disappears during cooking as with the beans or gives way to the traditional orange centre inside the carrots

Rainbow carrots and the orange inside

Rainbow

  • If your garden is too small to grow a wide range of crops or you fancy more colours for your money, rainbow collections are a fun way to liven it up. Chilli ‘Prairie Fire’ moves through the colours of the rainbow as the fruits mature
  • We love growing carrot ‘Rainbow Mix’ as the kids never know what colour carrot will appear when they gently pull out the roots
  • Beetroot naturally lend themselves to multicoloured seed mixes. ‘Rainbow Mix’ includes ‘Chioggia’, Burpees Golden’ and Albina Verduna’
  • Of course, the ultimate rainbow crop has to be Swiss Chard ‘Bright Lights’one of the first vegetables I ever grew. If the neon stems of ‘Bright Lights’ don’t convince you of the charms of colourful crops, nothing will!

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    Beetroot ‘Rainbow Mix’

What colourful crops are on your seed list this year? Do you have any favourites that you grow time and time again?

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7 Green Gift Ideas for Gardeners

Is Christmas a time for delight or dread? A combination of both if you’re anything like me. There will be more opportunities to talk, go for walks, play games and share meals than at any other time, but the endless stuff, the commercialism and the waste accepted by society makes me uncomfortable at Christmas.

David Attenborough’s words at the UN Climate Change Summit play on my mind as I write my Christmas lists, test my daughter on the words for her Christmas show and put up the decorations. The immense challenges facing us concerning the climate, plastics, pollinators and many other issues arising from our past and current treatment of the natural world can’t be solved by small changes at Christmas, but I believe it is part of a changing mindset and complements more direct activities such as writing to MPs and supporting environmental charities and campaign groups. If you are buying gifts for Christmas, here are a few sustainable options for the gardeners in your life…

1. Grow Your Own

Plug plants are ideal for busy gardeners who like to grow their own or those who would like to begin. They normally come in plastic modules that can’t be recycled, but this selection from Pippa Greenwood arrive wrapped in paper and are grown in Lincolnshire. 

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Grow Your Own with Pippa Greenwood (Image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

The selection includes your choice of 15 different vegetables and the recipient gets a weekly email from Pippa tailored specially to the plants in the pack with advice right through from soil preparation to feeding, watering, staking/supporting, pinching out, and pests and disease.

Top Tip – Avoid wrapping paper at Christmas and for birthdays, as it is usually only suitable for landfill. It often contains plastic, glitter, dyes and is covered in sticky tape. DEFRA estimates in the UK we buy enough of this single-use material each year to gift wrap the whole of Guernsey!

2. The Gift of Time

Time is a valuable gift – far more than money or stuff in so many ways. Give a friend or family member a voucher for help with the allotment in the New Year or help create a new growing space for children. Meals for the freezer made with ingredients from the garden are also a way to pass on a little love without costing the earth.

Gifts involving experiences are a favourite in our house. For a keen gardener there are fabulous courses like those at the Cambridge Botanic Garden (I’m particularly looking forward to the ‘Rewild Your Garden’ this year) and for new gardeners there are often short courses and sessions at local community gardens. As a new mum, I joined a course on fruit pruning at my local community garden many years ago and it gave me the confidence to start formal horticultural qualifications.

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Tending the apple cordons at my local community garden where I learnt to prune in my first horticultural session

Top Tip – Instead of wrapping paper use fabric bags or scrap material and ribbons which can be used for many years. The Japanese art of furoshiki is centuries old and is enjoying a resurgence in Japan now that the issues with plastic bags and wrapping are becoming clear.

3. Festive Fungi

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The oyster mushrooms we grew a couple of years ago

The Espresso Mushroom Kitchen Garden from The Espresso Mushroom Company is an edible gift grown on the biodegradable, recycled coffee grounds of one hundred espressos. Made by a family firm in Brighton, these sustainable oyster mushrooms are a fun way to get growing in the New Year. 

4. Share Seeds

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Yin Yang beans are objects of beauty

Reusing materials is the most sustainable way to create a gift and seeds are so easy to share. Choose favourite seeds – this year, for me, it would be the French Dwarf bean seeds ‘Yin Yang’. I’m passing some onto friends to grow next year and even a handful for a fellow gardener who makes beautiful jewellery so that she can create a necklace.

Top Tip – Ditch the sellotape and buy 100% recycled paper tape with a natural latex adhesive backing. 

5. Donate

Charity gifts allow someone less fortunate to benefit at Christmas. I like the gifts from Send A Cow where you can donate to a Mandala Garden, a Keyhole Garden or even an Allotment in a rural African community. I saw a keyhole garden at Gardeners’ World LIVE a few years ago and was impressed by the design which allows a family to grow enough food for three meals a day – even in the face of an extreme climate and poor soil.

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Little Havens Hospice garden (Credit: Greenfingers)

 Alternatively you could gift a donation to gardening charities like Greenfingers or the Gardening for Disabled Trust. Greenfingers creates beautiful gardens in children’s hospices across the UK. This is the interactive garden at Little Havens Hospice in Essex, designed by Matthew Eden and completed in 2014.

 

Gardening for Disabled

Gardening for Disabled Trust Logo

The Gardening for Disabled Trust provides small grants for people with all kinds of chronic disabilities – mental and physical – to help get them gardening again, from money for a ramp so that a gardener with MS can access her garden again, to grants to set up gardening clubs in care homes. This work is vital to enable all members of society to benefit from the therapeutic effects of gardening and interacting with the natural world.

6. Plastic-Free Pots

The majority of the 500 million pots we buy in the UK each year are incinerated or sent to landfill. Part of the solution to this astounding amount of plastic needs to be to reduce the amount of plants we produce and buy, alongside using more sustainable containers. Garden Ninja presents an interesting discussion of the issues with and alternatives to plastic containers on his blog this week. 

In addition to Garden Ninja’s recommendations, these attractive biodegradable containers available from Pippa Greenwood are made from sustainable bamboo and rice. They are sturdy enough to last several years and when they finally need to be replaced, they can be added to the compost heap where they will biodegrade in 6-12 months. They are available in 5in and 6in, and come in packs of 5.

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No plastic here (Credit: Pippa Greenwood)

Top Tip – Use newspaper to wrap presents – iron it first to set the ink, or buy a roll of recyclable brown paper and jazz up with stencilled designs or ribbons. Include a note explaining that the wrap is recyclable.

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My daughter has used brown paper with stencilled snowmen (biscuit cutters for stencils), a recycled tag from last year’s cards and reusable ribbon on this present for her brother.

7. Perennial Power

Perennials are a gift that by their very nature just keep on giving. I love growing perennial vegetables like rhubarb, sorrel, Daubenton’s kale, perennial onions, garlic chives and Jerusalem artichokes. My first port of call when I’m after a new perennial for the garden is Alison Tindale at The Backyard Larder. She grows an interesting range of perennial vegetables in peat-free compost from seeds and cuttings. The plants arrive in recycled shoe boxes using as near to 100% recycled or fully biodegradable materials as possible and she is always on hand to give advice.

 

Marsh mallow and red-veined sorrel – some of the perennial vegetables I’ve grown in the garden and allotment over the years

Please do pass on your top tips for wrapping and presents in the comments below – there’s still time to make changes before Christmas and I’m keen to learn as much as possible about how to make this festive season the most sustainable yet. 

This is not a sponsored post – all the products are ones I have either bought myself and been impressed with or have come recommended. The only product I’ve tried but didn’t initially buy myself are the oyster mushrooms which I was sent to trial a couple of years ago. They were such fun to grow and so delicious to eat that I’d definitely grow them again and have bought them for others since.

(Featured image credit: Pippa Greenwood)

In Praise of the Humble Pea: The Seedlip Garden

In 2013, in a North Lincolnshire kitchen, pea farmer Ben Branson began experimenting with a copper still after reading about the non-alcoholic remedies distilled by apothecaries in the 1600s. Ben’s family have been farming for 300 years and their peas are picked by hand by Ben and his team. His kitchen experimentation led to the world’s first non-alcoholic spirit, the Seedlip drink, which was launched in 2015. This is the second Seedlip Chelsea Garden and it views the humble pea from an unusual angle as every plant in the garden, designed by Dr Catherine MacDonald, is a member of the pea family, Fabaceae.

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Ben serving his non-alcoholic cocktails at the show

Bringing together diverse plants in the same family on one garden highlights their similarities – many have papilionaceous flowers (shaped like a butterfly) with a central standard or banner petal raised above the smaller pair of wing petals, with the two keel petals forming a boat shape below. The most obvious example of this in the garden are the lupins which draw the eye across the planting as they blend from the soft yellow of Lupinus ‘Desert Sun’ to the bright purple Lupinus ‘Masterpiece’.

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Lupin ‘Desert Sun’

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Caesalpinia gilliesii (Credit: By Krzysztof Golik [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D, from Wikimedia Commons)

The plants in the garden are fascinating because of the vast diversity in the family, from the ground cover clovers like Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ (one of my favourite plants) and the other nine clover species in the garden, to the larger specimens like the Japanese pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum), Laburnum anagyroides ‘Sunspire’ and the striking crimson threadflower (Caesalpinia gilliesii) which was attracting much admiration when I looked round the garden on Monday. A large evergreen shrub from northwest Argentina and Uruguay, the crimson threadflower is unfortunately only hardy down to about -5, so only an option in colder areas of the UK if winter protection is available as it can be grown in a large pot.

 

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Trifolium repens ‘Dragon’s Blood’ may be small but it has big impact with red-veined patches on the leaves

The garden is filled with circular structures, from the pea panels underfoot acting as grills over split pea shingle to the pools which are filled with deep blue-green water, coloured with a pea-dye.

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Circles are everywhere in this garden

Even the peavilion at the back of the garden is a shrine housing a collection of articles relevant to the pea, topped with a pea-shoot green roof.

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Lupins floating in the foreground and the Peavilion behind

The Seedlip Garden celebrates the work of three pea pioneers: Gregor Mendel (1822-1884) who discovered the basic principles of heredity through his work with peas, Dr Calvin Lamborn (1933-2017), the breeder of the first sugar snap pea, and Seedlip creator, Ben Branson. Many of the edible peas (Pisum sativum) in the garden are varieties bred by Dr Lamborn and there are also two of his new varieties released for the first time on the garden.

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Split pea shingle

After admiring the plant diversity on the garden I was persuaded to try the non-alcoholic Seedlip Garden 108 drink (the average number of days it takes to sow, grow & hand-pick the peas), mixed by Ben himself. It’s a floral blend of hand-picked peas, homegrown hay, spearmint, rosemary and thyme, with no sugar or additives. I liked the absence of saccharine sweetness; it has a minty refreshing taste with a slightly sour tang in the background, reminiscent of gin. Well, it would have been rude to say no – and it is gluten-free too!

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My Seedlip cocktail

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Secret Seed Club: Agretti

It’s a rare treat when the postman brings a letter these days; it’s even more unusual when the envelope is sealed with red wax in the impression of a tree and the contents include an information sheet about agretti and a pack of seeds. The Secret Seed Club for Ethnobotanical Explorers was launched last month by Emma Cooper, The Unconventional Gardener, to cater for those of us who enjoy trying new things and learning more about the background of the crops we’re growing. I’ve been reading Emma’s blog for a couple of years now, and it always introduces me to interesting scientific facts and new botanical information. With a background in ethnobotany and several gardening books to her name, Emma’s enthusiasm for unusual edible plants is infectious and her articles are both informed and engaging.

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An interesting beginning…

When Emma kindly sent me the first of her Seedier Explorer Mailings, I was excited to see a pack of agretti seeds as it’s a plant I’ve neither grown nor heard much about before. Agretti (Salsola soda) is in vogue at the moment as a gourmet vegetable but Emma also traces its history in the soap and glass industries, alongside its potential as an edible crop which can be grown in salty soils. Exploring the historical, etymological and scientific stories behind edible plants is a fascinating approach to growing and I’m currently spending much of my time researching the background of plants which have local significance for my book on engaging with the wild in our local landscapes, so I really enjoyed this aspect of the Seedier Explorers Mailing.

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Fascinating facts about Agretti

Agretti is a ‘cut-and-come-again’ crop that apparently tastes like a cross between salty asparagus and spinach. I love seafood: chowders, mussels and fish pie are some of my favourite dishes, so I can’t wait to get sowing in the next few weeks. I’m told I’ll need patience as it can be ‘a most infuriating seed to germinate’, but I’m up for the challenge and its unpredictable germination patterns will make it all the more satisfying when I sit down to my first agretti salad later in the year.

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For all your seedier exploration needs…

If you are interested in joining Emma’s secret seed club, details can be found on her Patreon website. Oh, and let me know if you sow agretti and it germinates – I’m keeping all my fingers crossed…

Seedy Saturday: Rainbows, Crocodiles and Pearls

With chilli sowing season already upon us, it’s time to unearth my special seedy shoeboxes to plan for the growing year ahead. One particular box contains an exciting collection of seeds – those I’m trialling for Suttons in my role as a guest blogger for 2018. I’m really looking forward to trying out some of the new seed ranges – in particular their children’s ‘Fun To Grow’ seeds and the rainbow-coloured ‘Developed by James Wong’ collection. I’ll also be experimenting with crops and varieties I’ve not sown before, like edamame beans and chilli pepper ‘Pearls’.

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Chilli sowing signals the real beginning of the new year for me

I began buying seeds from Suttons years ago whilst searching for more unusual tomato and chilli varieties. Over the past few years I’ve grown a range of interesting Suttons crops such as cucamelons, achocha, inca berries, tomatillos, trombonchinos, Chilean guavas, and Kaffir limes. Some have been more successful than others, but the exploration of more unusual crops has been fascinating and has introduced some new staples into our family garden and kitchen. Suttons continue to expand their range and now offer everything from electric daisies (on the list for next year) to liquorice (a hardy member of the pea family which I’d also love to grow).

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Dogwooddays as a guest blog in Suttons 2018 catalogue

The kids are particularly excited by the ‘Fun To Grow’ range as it combines edible crops such as Crocodile Cucumber (‘Bush Champion’) and Bowling Carrots (‘Rondo’), with the more unusual Strawberry Sticks (Chenopodium – a leaf vegetable in the summer with strawberry-like fruits in the autumn) and interesting ornamentals like the Dancing Plant (Mimosa pudica) and the Caterpillar Plant (Scorpius muricatus).

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Suttons ‘Fun To Grow’ range

I like the way these varieties offer children different shapes (round carrots), easy-to-grow dwarf varieties which will work as well in pots as in the ground (Tabletop Tomato – ‘Sweet ‘n’ Neat Cherry Red’) and interactive plants like the touch sensitive Mimosa. Anything which engages children by making them think differently about plants (and where their food comes from) is a step towards a more widespread acknowledgement, not only of the complexity and beauty of the plant world, but also of the way we rely on plants for our food, medicines, many materials and the life-support systems of the planet. I think we’ll learn interesting things together and have a lot of fun with this range and I’ll be updating the blog with the progress of my little ones and their plants throughout the growing season.

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‘Developed by James Wong’ rainbow range

The second range includes fruit and vegetables in a variety of different colours – focusing particularly on varieties which are rich in lycopene, the bright red phytonutrient found naturally in many fruits and vegetables. Medical studies suggest that lycopene may be a factor in improving heart health and reducing cancer risk, and work is ongoing to find out more about its health benefits. This is a topic the ethnobotanist, James Wong, covers in detail in his book ‘How To Eat Better’ which I reviewed when it came out last year. I’ve always loved growing different coloured crops – it’s fun for children and makes them look at food in a different light when they’ve grown a yellow raspberry or purple carrot. It also fills me with pleasure when I harvest a colourful basket, especially in the darker months (oca is particularly good for this), so it’s great to know that lycopene, along with a range of other colourful antioxidants in our fruit and vegetables, is also great for our health. So here goes with purple carrot ‘Night Bird’, striped tomato ‘Red Zebra’, orange squash ‘Uchiki Kuri’ and beetroot ‘Red River’.

You can’t get much better than a rainbow of vegetables – for the eyes or the stomach

Last year, the cutting patch in the allotment was one of the most pleasurable and successful elements of our growing, so I’m planning to continue growing flowers for cutting in 2018. I’ve chosen a couple of zinnias – ‘Queen Red Lime’ and ‘Molotov Mix’ as our zinnias were stunning last year and Rudbeckia ‘Irish Eyes’ as the rudbeckias lasted for ages in vases last year and really brightened up my study windowsill for much of the summer. I’ve also chosen Tithonia ‘Red Torch’ which is a vibrant orange – a colour I unexpectedly fell in love with last year.

Zinnias and rudbeckias in 2017

Finally to the new experiments for the year – I’m growing edamame beans for the first time alongside a dwarf french bean called ‘Yin Yang‘ which might look too beautiful to eat at harvest time. There’s also a new chilli variety called ‘Pearls‘, to add to my chilli collection, which has bright red ‘beaked’ fruits and a mild, fruity taste – ideal for a family meal.

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Too beautiful to eat?

If you would like to follow the blog – do sow and grow along with me and compare notes throughout the year. Let me know in the comments what you’re growing this year and what crops you’re most looking forward to trying at harvest time…

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A growing season of fun for all the family

Suttons kindly supplied me with the seeds for these trials.

This post is not sponsored and I only ever trial seeds and other materials from companies which I believe in and already use. In the case of Suttons, I have been a customer for many years. I hope you find the post useful 🙂

4 Tastiest Crops Of 2017

It’s been a busy year of writing, studying, volunteering and looking after a young family, but the hard work is all worth it when projects and crops come to fruition. Not all our growing endeavours have been successful – we failed to get even one pear, most of our greengage fruitlets were blasted by a late frost and the outdoor tomatoes quickly succumbed to blight and needed swift processing into green tomato pasta sauce. Last year, around this time, I wrote about our least successful crops, so this year I thought I’d focus on those fruits and vegetables which have grown well and given us plentiful and delicious harvests…

1. Quince ‘Meeches Prolific’

Two years ago we added a quince tree to the newly planted side garden which we share with our neighbours. We’d always wanted our own quinces (and medlars – still a wistful dream) and finally had a place to add another fruit tree. Last spring the quince tree was covered in delicate goblets of pink blossom, which I brought inside to work on in watercolour and which, eventually, resulted in ten pale downy fruits. I couldn’t bring myself to thin or remove these precious quinces and wondered if the young root system might suffer as a result.

Quinces are worth growing just for the soft pink open blossoms

But this spring brought another flush of blossom and a whole basketful of delicious fruit. Some of these had started to split, as had the quinces in my parents’ garden – possibly because wet weather in mid-summer meant the fruits swelled faster than the tight skins could cope with. But we picked the split quinces and stewed them with apple and still had plenty of undamaged fruit which is currently filling the kitchen with its aromatic, spicy scent. We’ll also be making quince jelly (great with crackers and cheese) and cinnamon poached quinces (a special dessert for dark winter evenings).

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Quinces and apples from the garden

2. Potato ‘Nicola’

We grew a lot of potatoes this year – too many! But they are keeping well in the ground and still feeding us each week. We preferred the taste of ‘Nicola’ to the other varieties (‘Jazzy’ and ‘Swift’) and not only because of its superior name (!), but also its delicious taste. ‘Nicola’ is a smooth-skinned second early which has cropped well and produced delicious salad potatoes. The yellow flesh retains its colour throughout cooking and so it looks great on the plate. My ‘Nicola’ potatoes were kindly supplied by Kings Seeds and their seed potatoes are on sale from January 2018.

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Half of our potato crop…

3. Chilli ‘Ubatuba’

All the chillies have done well this year and are still cropping enthusiastically in the greenhouse. Of particular note was the perennially successful ‘Hungarian Hot Wax’ – always good for stuffing and the chilli I’d grow if there was only room for one plant (unbearable thought!) Also a heavy cropper, ‘Joe’s Super Long’ is a spicier proposition for chilli jam and curries, but ‘Ubatuba’ has been my favourite new chilli. It produces delightfully squat fruits which are large and mild, with a slightly sharp tang. Another good stuffer, this is one variety I will be attempting to overwinter and definitely including in the reduced (honest!) chilli collection next year.

A selection of our chillies and the ‘Ubatuba’

4. Garlic ‘Persian Star’

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White bulbs with streaked purple cloves inside

Earlier in the year, Julieanne Porter (a lovely gardener and blogger with a self-confessed garlic obsession) kindly sent me some bulbs to plant in containers (and I sent her some of our quinces). She grows many different varieties and was interested in how they would crop elsewhere in the country. ‘Susan Delacour’ wasn’t too successful as some of the bulbs rotted off in late summer, but ‘Persian Star’ created large bulbs, as did my own ‘Red Czech’ and Elephant garlic. The beautiful purple striped cloves of ‘Persian Star’ have a rich taste, but not as strong as some other purple striped varieties. Overall this was a fabulous garlic to grow and cook with – I’ve already got a large bulb stored in the cupboard to plant again in the next few weeks – and the rest of the bulbs will last me through the winter months.

What would you rate as your tastiest crops of the year? Do you have any recommendations for delicious potato, chilli or garlic varieties I can add to my 2018 list? Thank you and Happy Gardening 🙂

My first attempt at depicting the striking goblets of quince blossom

If you’d like to follow my blog, I’ll be writing about my seed choices for next year over the next couple of weeks…

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Tattie Troubles And Other Allotment Affairs

One potato, two potato, three potato, four, five potato, six potato, seven potato, more…

Looking out at the allotment this afternoon, the childhood ditty running through my head takes on a wry mocking tone and I wonder what possessed me to plant over half the beds with potatoes in the spring. I know the answer – the exhilaration brought on by having access to more growing space mixed with a fear of empty beds; two issues that need to be addressed if we’re to have a more balanced diet next summer.

Filling Space

Until last year, our growing spaces had been modest – a range of pots and three fairly small raised beds. I’ve planted potatoes in the ground and in containers over the years, but found that in the ground they took up nearly half the available space, even for a few plants and when I moved to containers, the yield, more often than not, was rather disappointing. So I swapped to growing salad leaves, cut flowers, soft fruit and chillies in the garden, alongside more unusual fruit and vegetables, and was rewarded with greater variety and better cropping. Potatoes – it seemed – were a crop better bought than grown.

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Potato paradise or monocultural monotony?

But I never quite forgot the joy of growing the versatile, humble potato. This year’s empty spring allotment beds offered the opportunity to grow potatoes on a larger scale, maybe even to  try more than one variety at a time (oh, the vegetable excitement!), so I began with my namesake ‘Nicola’, kindly supplied by Kings Seeds, and then added ‘Swift’ and ‘Jazzy’ in an impulsive seed potato buying frenzy that transformed the spare room into a chitting plant.

One advantage of an excess of potatoes is their ability to suppress an excess of weeds, and we have used the potato’s ground cover potential to its maximum this year. In one bed, potatoes helped to subdue overly-enthusiastic Jerusalem artichokes, whilst elsewhere they tamed annual weeds with ease. Only one bed, heavily entangled with bindweed roots, was outside the potato’s capable powers. Once we’d dug this area as best we could, we laid black polythene and planted potatoes through holes in the membrane. In any other year, I think this would have yielded good results, but unfortunately the scorching weather earlier in the growing season proved too much for the potato foliage, which was quickly scorched from beneath. The plants have still provided us with potatoes, but certainly in smaller quantities than if the foliage had had longer to develop, although this could be seen as a blessing under the circumstances…

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Potatoes through membrane – before they were sun-fried

The other beds have been more productive and last month we started harvesting, sharing our mammoth crop with family and friends. But my ambitious plans to harvest early and add late crops like courgettes and beans have been less successful. Submerged beneath design projects and writing work, I harvested later than planned and realised there are only so many potatoes a family can consume over a matter of a few weeks. Digging up the crop and storing seemed counter-productive as I find first and second early potatoes store better in the ground. So there they stayed and the late crops had to be squeezed into hasty gaps.

In early April, the flourishing potato foliage filled the allotment with its satisfying presence, but by early August this had become a stifling monocultural insipidity.

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Turns out you can have too much of a good thing…

Growing Resolutions

Unfilled ground: unfulfilled potential – looking at the empty beds in early spring, ten times as much space as we’d ever had before, I had an overriding desire to fill it all, urgently, in case the opportunity was lost. As potatoes fill large areas relatively quickly, early in the season, they seemed an ideal choice. In retrospect, it would have been better to have left more empty ground, employed my usual methods of crop rotation and waited until later crops were ready – perhaps sowing quick to mature vegetables like salad leaves and radishes in the interim. So my resolutions for the new growing year are as follows:

  • to temper my potato impulses with a dash of common sense
  • to plan realistically – taking account of work load/time pressures and their impact on my time on the allotment in the summer season
  • to co-exist calmly with empty ground, or at least plan to use green manures and quick crops to avoid panic leading to an unintentional monocultural regime

In Other News…

The cutting patch is now producing an abundance of floral delights for the house and for drawing and watercolouring – dahlias, gladioli, rudbeckia, cosmos, salvia, cerinthe, didiscus and more. After an extremely prolific spring season with daffodils and tulips in every room for a few magical weeks, the success of the summer flowers means the cutting patch has earned a permanent place in the allotment.

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Gentle posy from the cutting patch

The perennial bed is also thriving. Yacon, Daubenton’s kale, marsh mallow and sea kale have been added to the rhubarb, raspberries, currants, gooseberries and oca (not strictly perennial, but living happily alongside its hardier neighbours). In the garden I’ve planted Causasian spinach, hardy ginger, earth chestnut, perennial onions and spring onions to observe them and decide where they’ll thrive in the allotment in later years.

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Iridescent marsh mallow flowers

If flowers, fruit and perennial vegetables seem like an afterthought, lagging far behind potatoes in my allotment tales, it’s because this year they were. It’s an inequality I didn’t plan and don’t intend to repeat. Next year’s plans will include potatoes – for homemade chips, boiling with mint, thickening chowders, frying with spices and adding to Spanish tortilla, but I’ll be curbing any impetuous impulses and filling the allotment with timely crops, manifold crops, rotated crops – celebrating the return to biodiversity and learning when to fill and when to leave space.

I’d love to hear about how you go about planning your allotment/garden planting and how you use space to maximum effect. Do leave me a comment below – any suggestions and advice gratefully received 🙂

If you’d like to follow the blog and read more my allotment and garden, including more detail in upcoming posts on flowers for cutting and more unusual vegetables, you can subscribe below – thanks very much and happy gardening…

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Do My Cucamelons Look Big In This?

This will be my fifth year growing cucamelons and the first year I’ve successfully overwintered them. Heralded as an exciting addition to cocktails by James Wong in 2012, I’ve spoken to many people who have grown cucamelons only to be disappointed with either the taste or harvest of these diminutive fruits. I am prepared to accept that for some (misguided!) individuals the fresh, citrusy sweetness of a ripe cucamelon isn’t an instant hit. Perhaps they aren’t big fans of cucumbers, limes or watermelons either, as the cucamelon combines snatches of all these favours within its own zingy freshness. What I won’t accept, is that cucamelons are dry, chewy, bland or sour. All these complaints suggest one thing – that the offending fruit has been harvested too late.

Cucamelons need careful watching – miss the couple of days in which the fruits attain their optimum flavour and texture, and you’ll always believe they aren’t worth the hype. In the bustle of modern life this window can easily be missed and cucamelons don’t help with their trailing habit, as the tiny fruits are often hidden behind the leaves of other plants, only to be discovered several days later well on their way to winning the ‘grow a giant cucamelon competition’ at the expense of their taste. The ideal size is about equal to a grape and the colour should be green with dark stripes. If the fruits grow any bigger and turn a paler green then the skins become tough and the juice rather insipid. I generally advise first-time cucamelon growers to try tasting a fruit when it is pea-sized. Then, when fruits are harvested a few days later, if they don’t taste as sweet and delicious as the first tiny fruit, they should be harvested earlier next time.

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I found this one hiding at the back…

The other issue with cucamelons can be their tendency to have years when fruiting is reduced. I’ve had some bumper years where the vines fruit continuously throughout the summer and some where fruiting has been rather disappointing. I grow four pots in the greenhouse trained on wires around the top edge, although there are always side-shoots escaping to make friends with the tomatoes, chillies, lemongrass and other greenhouse residents. I’ve also tried them outside with some success (they grow well up supports but tend to fruit a little less than in the greenhouse). This year I fed and watered the greenhouse crops more and also made sure the door was left open to encourage pollinators in as flowers aren’t self-fertile and the crop was good. I suspect hand pollination might also increase yields, but I’ve not felt the need to attempt this yet.

I’ve also tried over-wintering cucamelons several times without success. A few years ago I attended a talk by James Wong at the Edible Garden Show where he mentioned that they could be over-wintered. Cucamelons produce long, tuberous roots which can supposedly be stored, like dahlia tubers, in a cool dry place over-winter. When I asked him at the end of the talk, James said he hadn’t tried it but this was the recommended way to store them. So the next winter I tried, but the tubers rotted in storage. The following year I left them in pots of compost in the greenhouse along with my dahlias. This was also unsuccessful (although the dahlias were fine.) I even found a tuber one spring in the vegetable bed which looked dormant but healthy. I potted it up, but it spent the whole summer in the pot without ever awakening.

This winter I thought I’d give it one last try before giving up on over-wintering altogether. Keeping the plants on the dry side in their pots in a cool spot indoors seems to have done the trick. I cut the vines back to about 10cm before bringing them in. One died back completely and the other has retained its vine but not grown further. Now both are showing some new growth and I do believe I’ve cracked it! Hopefully the over-wintered plants will crop earlier and more heavily than my seed sown plants – I’ll let you know how it goes.

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It’s alive!!

Raw cucamelons add a tangy note of sharpness to salads without being sour. I think this is by far the best way to appreciate their flavour. My kids love them and they are a superb fruit for small fingers to harvest. One year we also pickled our cucamelons. They were good on sandwiches and burgers, but lost the sweet/sharp combination which is their defining feature. I haven’t tried them in cocktails, but they’re good in Pimms with strawberries and mint. Go on, you know it makes sense  🙂

So if you want to experience the delight of a fresh, juicy cucamelon it’s important to ensure good pollination. Then, once you have your harvested crop in your hand, ask yourself this question: ‘Do my cucamelons look big in this?’ If the answer is ‘yes’, then you’ve left it too late…

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One or two of my crop here are on the large size. The smaller ones are an ideal size.

If you’d like to try growing these tiny taste bombs this year they are easy to raise from seed and are now available as plug plants. When I started growing cucamelons, seed wasn’t that readily available, but now it can be sourced from the following suppliers and many more…

Suttons Seeds (where I bought my first seeds, available as seeds or plug plants), Pennard Plants (also offers a great range of other unusual fruit/veg seeds and edible perennials), Chiltern Seeds (with a wide range of heritage and heirloom vegetables too) and Jungle Seeds (who also sell other interesting cucurbits such as gherkin cucumber and horned melon).

Sow seeds indoors from the end of February until April and they will be ready to plant out in the greenhouse or the garden/allotment at the end of May. If you are planting them outside, consider slug protection as one small munch at the base of the vine can undo weeks of careful growing.

Maybe you disagree completely with my cucamelon favouritism? Have you experienced different problems from the ones I’ve discussed or do you find the taste too sour even in small fruits? Or perhaps cucamelons crop well for you and you’ve got alternative ways of using them in recipes? If so, I’d love to hear from you, so please do leave me a comment…

If you’d like to read about other more unusual crops, you could try:

You can also follow the progress of my overwintered cucamelons on the blog by subscribing below…

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Allotment Soup Challenge: Celeriac and Blue Cheese

When we inherited our allotment last March, the only crop which had overwintered was a collection of celeriac – clearly beloved of the previous occupants if the quantity, amount and size of the plants was anything to go by. I’ve long been a fan of the nobbly, bald vegetable after having it in soups in Austria years ago and being regularly faced with it in veggie boxes since.

Last year I followed in the previous allotment holder’s footsteps and grew celeriac from seed. I suspect I didn’t lavish as much attention on it as the previous year’s incumbents had. We got a crop –  the celeriac were not as rotund as those I pulled up last March – but we managed to grow enough to harvest several for winter meals. Celeriac has a milder taste than celery and is lovely grated raw in salads or boiled and mashed. But as I’m endeavouring to produce as many soups as possible from the allotment this year, here’s one I experimented with recently which was particularly tasty…

Celeriac and Blue Cheese Soup

Ingredients

1 medium celeriac (or you could use a head of celery)

75g blue cheese, eg. Saint Agur

700 ml stock

50g butter

1 large potato or 2 smaller ones

300ml milk or cream

Black pepper

Few pieces of leftover chopped up cooked ham, fried chorizo or croutons

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The main ingredients

 

Method

Peel and chop the celeriac and potato. Melt the butter in a pan and add the celeriac and potato. Soften in the butter for a few minutes, then add the stock.

Boil in stock for 20 minutes or until the vegetables are soft. Blend the vegetables and stock. Add the cheese, milk and black pepper to taste. Reheat the soup to melt the cheese.

Serve the soup sprinkled with black pepper and chopped ham to add a salty twist, accompanied with crusty bread and butter.

This soup is warming, rich and delicious, especially if you’ve spent the morning digging, weeding or planting out in the cold at the allotment!! ☺

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If you are after more warming soups, try my Roasted Jerusalem Artichoke and Sweet Chestnut Soup. You can check out more recipes here or follow the blog to get new recipe ideas as I add them to the blog…

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Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: A Christmas Harvest

We’ve been having festive fungal fun all through December in our house, thanks to the Oyster Mushroom Kit sent by the nice people at the Espresso Mushroom Company. This week it’s been the highlight of the process – harvest, cooking and scoffing them in waves of warm garlicky goodness. On Day 16 they were ready for harvesting and all 4 clusters of mushrooms came out smoothly. Here’s a short clip of how to harvest your mushrooms (I mention that it is a two-handed job and it is – my other hand is holding the container steady.)

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An explosion of Oyster Mushrooms ready for the picking…

We decided to have the first batch as creamy garlic mushrooms on toast with a poached egg. Delicious comfort food. Not a complicated recipe to cook – ready for the table in 10 minutes…

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After Christmas lunch it’s always good to have a light tea and what could be better than a comforting plate of garlic mushrooms on toast? If you haven’t grown your own this December, you can buy oyster mushrooms in good greengrocers, markets and supermarkets. Or you can wait until mid-January and grow your own – far more fun and your fresh mushrooms will be ready in around 16 days…

If you missed my post on growing your own mushrooms, you can see the beginning of the process here – Oyster Mushroom Advent Calendar: Part One.

I’d like to thank all of my readers for your support, comments and ideas during the first year of my blog and wish you all a very happy Christmas and a peaceful and prosperous New Year.  🙂 🙂 🙂

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