Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

How to start your vegetable garden for less

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Veg plot
Beautiful bounty needn’t be expensive

At the moment I’m building a new garden from scratch, and as I’m putting in hard landscaping it’s taking some time (which is frustrating) and the project has a budget. This is in complete contrast to when I started my first garden, which started small, had no plan, and no budget to speak of.

When you start a new vegetable patch, it’s easy to be bamboozled by all of the gardening products on the market, and to end up spending far more on the garden than you ever would have on the resulting produce. Although saving money isn’t the only reason for growing your own, it’s nice to know that you can do so on a budget, if you have to, or that you can save your money and buy yourself a really nice greenhouse ;)

Sources of free gardening information

  • If you’re a novice and you need to learn how to grow your own vegetables, then a quick trip to the bookshop will show you that there are more books on the basics than any one person could ever read. A good one will be a handy reference for years to come, but to find out which one suits you best it pays to read a few – so start by heading to the library and borrowing one or two, or seeing if a friend has one to lend.

  • There’s no end of information available for free on the internet, and if you have a couple of pounds to spend you could also check out the local secondhand bookshop, as vegetable gardening advice hasn’t changed much in the last few years.

Tools on the cheap

  • There are very few tools that you need to start a garden. A hand trowel, a fork, a spade and maybe a rake. Secateurs a bit later. Buy them as you find you need them, rather than all at once at the start.

  • See if you can borrow from friends or relatives. Keep an eye out on Freecycle or at garage sales – people are always clearing out unwanted tools from the shed. You can also pick up tools at car boot sales for the same reason. Even if you buy new ones, they don’t have to be expensive, but they do need to be sturdy. A cheap fork or spade is generally a bad investment, as the handle will snap or bend when you first hit something hard.

Recycle what you can

  • You don’t need special trays for seeds or seedlings – you can grow them in recycled food containers. Flat trays, yoghurt pots, even tin cans can be re-purposed to hold compost (but do be careful there aren’t any rough edges you could cut yourself on).

  • Even the cardboard tubes from toilet rolls can be used to sow seeds in, and you can learn to make your own from newspaper with a little origami and some instructions from the internet.

  • Clear plastic bottles are useful as cloches to help protect seedlings from the weather and from slugs and snails.

  • Set up a compost bin or pile (it doesn’t need to be fancy) to recycle your garden and vegetable waste into compost to feed your plants and improve your soil.

Plants for free

  • If you have some plants, then you can make more of them for free by learning the basics of propagation (a book from the library will come in handy). Whether it’s by saving seeds, taking cuttings or dividing plants, most of the things in the garden can be multiplied for free.

  • And once you have a few spares you can discover one of the great joys of gardening – swapping with other gardeners! I’ve never met a bunch of people so keen to share what they have, whether it’s surplus seeds or seedlings, divisions of plants that have grown too large or cuttings from their favourite specimens.

  • Seed swaps are great fun, and a wonderful way to get your hands on lots of varieties of seed for very little money. Many don’t have an entry fee, and some even look kindly on gardeners who turn up empty handed. But if you’ve got a few seeds to swap then you’ll be laden down with fresh supplies by the time that you leave.

Beware of hidden costs

It’s easy to keep track of obvious expenses, where you’re shelling out cash for something and getting a receipt. But have you thought about the hidden costs, such as watering the garden if you have a water meter?

  • There’s plenty you can do to cut down on the need for watering, including growing more drought-tolerant plants, watering at the right time of day, and giving plants the right amount of water at the right point in their lifecycle.

  • Improving your soil, and mulching plants, are wise investments.

  • Ultimately, the best way to ensure your watering doesn’t cost you a penny is to set up a water butt. Your local water company or council may offer a subsidized model, or you may find one secondhand (some people even give them away). If not then you can reuse large plastic barrels, but make sure they were previously used for food rather than something noxious, and that you wash them well.

What are your favourite ways to cut the cost of gardening?

Disclosure: this post was written in association with Hartley Botanic.

Posted in Blog on Mar 27, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 25, 2015

Tag: gardens

Garden visit: Hestercombe

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The view towards the restored mill

Earlier in the month, Ryan and I took a short break in Somerset, spending two nights in Taunton. The weather wasn’t wonderful, but one of the days was dry (though overcast) and we decided to explore Hestercombe, a large garden that has been (and is being) restored. It boasted lakes, a restored mill, formal gardens, a restaurant, a plant shop and a secondhand book shop, so we were sold.

We were feeling adventurous, so we took the long route around the gardens, which involves tramping around several lakes (all linked together, and forming the mill stream) on numerous levels. The views are spectacular, especially early in the morning when there aren’t many other visitors.

The spring flowers were out in force, and I had a new camera to play with:


Sweet violets

Hellebore 2

Primroses 2

Thatched cabin
Thatched cabin overlooking a waterfall

One of the nice things about the gardens is that they’re dotted with follies and garden buildings, and you never know what you’re going to see when you turn the next corner.

Nearer the house there are formal gardens, complete with water features:

Formal garden

And you can walk through the restored mill. It looks as though they do demonstrations of water-powered mill equipment (such as lathes), although they weren’t working on the day we visited. On the pond nearest the Mill there’s a swan. Either buy some bird food on your way into the gardens, or steer clear of him, because he’s grumpy! He pecked Ryan!

Ryan being pecked by a swan
Ryan being pecked by a swan

We weren’t 100% happy with our lunch, but it was passable. They do plant sales, but of the ornamental things growing in the garden, so nothing I wanted to bring home. But I bought a book in the secondhand bookshop, and a couple of packets of seeds in the gift shop, so I was content.

All in all we enjoyed our (long) walk around Hestercombe and will no doubt visit again next time we’re in that neck of the woods. Have you been?

Disclosure: this post was brought to you in association with, but I can assure you it was my legs doing all the walking!

Posted in Blog on Mar 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 21, 2015

Tag: gardens

Tough love: hardening off

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Assembled plastic cold frame
My new plastic cold frame

You can tell it’s March, because the windowsills are full. We moved offices at work, and I had to bring some of my plants home, and now the tender, over-wintered perennials are fighting young seedlings for space. It’s time for some of the hardier specimens to brave the great outdoors, but after a winter indoors they’re a little soft. They need hardening off before they can make it on their own, and there’s still a distinct nip in the air (and a risk of frost for several more weeks).

Sometimes gardening is all about having the right tools for the job, and it seemed like a good time to erect the plastic coldframe that has been languishing in its box in the shed. I bought it, reduced, in August 2013, and haven’t had an opportunity to use it before.

The instructions were a bit minimalistic, but the frame was easy enough to assemble. I picked a spot where there’s some sunshine, covered the grass in weed control fabric, and pegged the frame to the floor. There were no instructions on how to put the cover over the top, but that was reasonably straight forward. Except… it didn’t seem to fit very well, and it was a struggle pulling it to the floor. I think some of the joints in the frame might be a bit loose. I’m not feeling very well this week, and haven’t got as much oomph as normal – I’ll get Ryan to see if he can tighten it up.

Plants braving the 'outdoors'
Hardy plants, braving the ‘great outdoors’

Once the cover was on, I could unzip the big ‘windows’ and start bringing out the plants. On the left is a new wasabi that I bought in Somerset – rapidly getting soft and sappy in the warm house, it should do better outside. The shaggy thing next to it is a pot of chives, just bursting into new life on the kitchen windowsill and in need of a bit of a trim to get rid of dead leaves. The pound shop blackcurrant hadn’t entirely appreciated being brought home and plonked straight outside, so it should appreciate the respite. And there’s some new herbs (also from Somerset) that were getting a bit ahead of themselves inside.

Watering in

Three patio raspberries that have survived outside in the winter in those tiny pots and I thought I should be a bit nicer to them now. They’re on the list for potting on. A windowsill salad that was romping away too fast and getting straggly. My new catmint. And… a secret project in the round pot. Watch this space.

Air vents open

That’s all for now, although there’s plenty more space inside. It was time to zip down the ‘windows’ and tie open the air vents and let the plants fend for themselves.

It wasn’t until later in the day that the fatal flaw (and there always is one!) with this cold frame design became apparent. There’s no way of tying the cover to the frame (no ties, nor eyelets)*, so once wind got up there was a distinct risk of it inflating like a balloon and just flying away. Ryan, being an engineer, solved the problem in the traditional way, by the application of duct tape.

The following morning, the cold frame was still intact. The plants, although looking a little sullen at their ejection from cosiness, have not thrown any tantrums, and I suspect they will adjust nicely in time.

[*Typing that, it sounded utterly ridiculous, so I went outside and had another look, and in fact there’s Velcro ties. So that’s sorted.]

Are your windowsills full of chitting potatoes? Or tomato seedlings? Or something more exciting?

Disclosure: This post was brought to you in association with the Anglia Tool Centre, but I was the one doing all of the struggling with poles and plastic joints :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 20, 2015

Tag: gardens

Edible Garden Show 2015

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Months ago I booked tickets to this year’s Edible Garden Show, which is happening this weekend at Alexandra Palace in London. (I bought them when there was an offer on, and two tickets cost me about £30.) I took yesterday off to go – but as I haven’t been very well this week I wasn’t sure I would make it. Although I went to the first three shows at Stoneleigh Park in Warwickshire, I didn’t go last year (when I was between gardens) and felt miffed that I’d missed out on meeting the liquorice people, so I decided to make the effort.

I hadn’t appreciated how much of an effort it would take. We had to drive to the station and pay for a day’s parking (£6.20) and get two off-peak tickets into London (£50). We then used our Oyster cards to travel to Wood Green, via King’s Cross. I think it’s the longest tube journey I’ve ever had to make.

The website for Alexandra Palace says that Wood Green is the nearest Tube station, so I naively thought it would be close – it isn’t. It’s a 30 minute hike uphill to the venue. There is a shuttle bus, and we waited for a while by its bus stop, but when it didn’t come we decided to move on, as the wind was bitingly cold.

Of course, once we started walking the sun came out and by the time we arrived at Ally Pally we were boiling. Having left the house at 10am, we arrived at 12:45, missing the only talk I really wanted to hear (from James Wong).

We did a circuit of the hall, spotting the Lubera stand, which was attracting quite a lot of attention. (Lubera have been breeding new fruit varieties for cool climates (and edible dahlia roots with a range of flavours). I’m working on a reader discount for you, so watch this space for more about that.)

Lubera's fruit stand
Lubera’s new fruit varieties were popular

Once we finished out circuit we stopped, and tried to work out what we were missing. Because the show was tiny. At Stoneleigh it took up more than one hall, there was an outdoor section on the way in, and there was a smallholder marquee with lots of animals. This year there was one hall, with a small city farm outside.

There were a few stalls with seeds and plants, but mostly it was gardening kit. There were a handful of foodie stalls, and not much on offer in the way of actual food.

There were lots of visiting school children, but no buzz.

I was disappointed.

We sat and ate ‘gourmet’ sausage rolls at the edge of the hall, and then tried another circuit. I bought some herbs, from Urban Herbs, who are based in the Midlands. They had a lovely selection, but unfortunately don’t do mail order, so you have to catch them at a market or at a show. I bought Indian Mint (Satureja douglasii), Blackcurrant sage, Pineapple sage and an Aztec sweet herb (Lippia dulcis). Since it was 5 for £10 I offered Ryan the final choice and he picked out Lemon verbena.

Urban Herbs stand
A good selection of herb plants from Urban Herbs

Discussing how this show was much smaller than the last one we’d been to, and how much more fun that one had been, Ryan remembered we’d seen Joy from Sea Spring Seeds in 2013. Having seen her tweet about coming to the show, we made a special effort to find her stand (we were not given a show programme, and the one on the web was woeful). Eventually we did, and as usual she was deep in conversation with chilli addicts:

Joy at the Sea Spring Seeds stand
Joy Michaud from Sea Spring Seeds

And so we left, and started the long slog home. According to Ryan’s FitBit we walked 9.6 km and climbed the equivalent of 46 flights of stairs during the day. As the day weighed in at about £100, it was an expensive way to get some exercise.

It’s such a shame, because I really enjoyed the event when it was at Stoneleigh, and felt it had something different to offer than the run-of-the-mill garden shows that I avoid. I won’t be going again, I will save my money next year and spend it on plants instead.

What do you think – is a trip to the Edible Garden Show worth the money?

Posted in Blog on Mar 21, 2015 ·

Tag: events

Lighting up time

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A brightly-lit pagoda

At the beginning of the year, Ryan and I went to Longleat for the Chinese Lantern Festival. It starts at dusk, and you can spend several hours wandering the grounds, appreciating the elaborate constructions of fabric and light bulbs, with the ever-present whir of generators in the background.

When you’re tired of the cold, or the mud, you can retire to the house for a while, or have a cup of coffee. There’s also a little Chinese market.

It’s a lovely way to entice visitors to the park at a time of year when most people would rather stay at home in the warm. I believe they’re intending to make it an annual event.

Laughing shrooms
Fungi loom large in Chinese culture

Gardeners will breathe a sigh of relief when the clocks go forward at the end of the month, as it will mean more light in the evening, and the opportunity to pop out and do a little gardening when they get home from work. It will still be too chilly to linger when the sun sets, for a few weeks yet.

Happy Hibiscus
No need to worry about dead heading these hibiscus!

I’ve never really given much though to outdoor lighting before, but it can obviously make the garden a much more inviting and entertaining place after dark, and we’d really like the garden to become an extension of the house.

Whilst I wouldn’t want to attempt anything on Longleat’s scale (I don’t have the space, for one thing!), it would be nice to light the place up a bit. We have a rather useless outside light (still better than those awful security floodlights that flash on whenever a cat wanders past, though), and Ryan has rigged up a strand of solar powered fairy lights, which come on at dusk if the day has been sunny enough. They’re threaded through some of my trees at the moment; I think there’s plans for them to illuminate the arbor when it’s rebuilt. They can even twinkle, if we’re so inclined.

I shall have to give some thought to what other sort of lighting the garden might benefit from (bearing in mind that artificial lighting can harm plants and needs to be used sensitively. It can also make the neighbours cranky.

Do you have lights in your garden?

There were whole herds of brightly-lit animals down by the lake

Disclosure: this post was brought to you in association with Scotlight Direct, who have a nice range of outdoor lights but can’t help you build an illuminated rhino :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 20, 2015 ·

Tag: general

Coping with pests: two-legged rats

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What happened to my allotment is a reminder that it’s not just animal and insect pests we have to worry about in our gardens – humans can be a problem as well. Bob Flowerdew refers to such anti-social individuals as ‘two-legged rats’.

Despite a lock on the gate, my former allotment site was bothered by its fair share of vandalism and theft. I was lucky, in a way, that I didn’t have a shed. My back garden is surrounded by a high fence, and is protected by a gate with a lock. The front garden, of course, is more open.

Coastal mist, lavender and sea grass
My new planters, now painted in Coastal mist, Lavender and Sea Grass

My newly painted planters are destined to live in front of the house – but not until they’re filled with topsoil and too heavy for a casual thief to list. They’ll be planted with edible goodies, but far enough from the path to be safe, I hope.

Mulching the strip
My other front garden

The other strip of garden at the front is more of a concern. It runs along the path, separated by a low picket fence. I can imagine that anything too tempting (any ‘low hanging fruit’, for example) will quickly disappear, even after it becomes more obvious that this strip of land is being loved and cared for. When I was weeding in there last month I uncovered a bag full of poo, tossed in my some thoughtful dog owner. They were only yards from my wheelie bin, which is easily accessible from the path. I’ve read about gardeners coping with cigarette ends and other trash, and flowers and even entire plants going missing.

I haven’t firmed up my plans for that strip, but they do revolve around perennials, as it’s furthest from the house. I do walk past it on my way to and from work, so it’s not out of sight. I could put some fruit trees in there, or some more undercover edibles, or a collection of ferociously spiky plants to ward off thieves. Whilst I don’t want to worry unduly about antisocial behaviour (and it’s a nice neighbourhood), nor do I want my hard work to go to waste.

Do you have an exposed garden? Have you had any problems with two-legged rats?

Disclosure: This post was produced in association with Barrier Components, but the musings are my own.

Posted in Blog on Mar 13, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 9, 2015

Tags: planning & pests.

Review: Urban Orchard cider

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Urban Orchard cider
Urban Orchard cider, made with apples from urban fruit trees

On Friday evening we nipped out to buy some paint for the garden. When we got home we found we had no water – a burst water main in the village was the source of the problem. Fortunately I’d planned a meal that involved very little water, and we settled down to a chicken curry with onion flatbreads. It seemed like the perfect moment to open the two bottles of cider I’d been sent to review!

Food waste is high profile at the moment, and there’s nothing worse than watching heavy crops of fruit from urban trees go to waste – but for their owners the glut can be more of a problem than an opportunity. London-based drinks maker Hawkes has developed an innovative solution to the issue; Urban Orchard is a craft cider made from a mixture of culinary apples and apples sourced from urban orchards and apple donors, and champagne yeast.

The end result is a “beautiful medium dry cider, smooth and harmonious in body, complex and rich in texture with a crisp wine-like finish”. Each batch will be unique, depending on the source of its urban apples. The apple varieties they’re currently using are Bramley, Braeburn, Cox, Jonagold, Ida Red, Gala, Golden Delicious and those ‘various unknown varieties’, and Hawkes are hoping to increase the percentage of urban apples in the mix, year on year.

Apple donors get a personalised bottle; community groups can receive apple trees to plant, in exchange for their crop. Hawkes also aim to donate 10% of their profits to community groups and projects. The company is rooted in the Victorian London tradition of ‘costermongers’, or greengrocers, who hawked their wares from carts around the city. The word comes from ‘costard’, which is a now-extinct Medieval variety of large, ribbed (!) apple, and ‘monger’, or seller. This is their first cider; they already sell an alcoholic ginger beer.

I found Urban Orchard to be a nice, smooth and highly drinkable cider. My first thought was that it’s similar to Aspalls. It doesn’t have even the slightest hint of the ‘smokey’ flavour that I know some cider aficionados love (but I really don’t like). I’ll be keeping an eye out for it when its distribution widens later in the year – at the moment it’s only available from independent pubs and bars in London.

With an RRP of £4.50 for a 330 ml bottle, Urban Orchard weighs in at 4.5% per volume, and is suitable for vegans and coeliacs. You can find out more (and sign up to be an apple donor) via the Hawkes website. They’re also on Twitter as @wearehawkes, and are using the hashtag #urbanorchardcider to talk about their brew.

Posted in Blog on Mar 10, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 9, 2015

Tags: reviews & food.

The light at the end of the tunnel

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A polytunnel in the schools’ garden at Cambridge Botanic Garden, in 2009

It’s at this time of year, I think, that a polytunnel or greenhouse really comes in handy in the garden. Over the summer it may just be a tangle of tomato vines – productive, but a space that you really only go in to keep up with the watering chore, or to harvest ripe tomatoes. You know you’re going to come out with green stains on your clothes and hands that smell funny – tomatoes are like that. Those tomatoes will hang on longer into the autumn than you thought they would, and by the time you’ve cleared out the polytunnel the season will be so far advanced that it will be cold and dark and your crop of overwintering salads will barely be growing – just marking time until the days are long enough for them to actually grow.

So… the time to have fun in your polytunnel is in the spring. It lets you sow seeds, away from the predations of mice, and the vagaries of the weather. You can pop out into the garden and do some serious gardening – without the need to actually experience spring weather. Which, as we know, can leave a lot to be desired. Whilst the sun might be shining, and any great exertion will result in the removal of a jumper, standing still with wet hands is just asking for frostbite.

In the old garden, I had a huge greenhouse – a geodesic Grow Dome, 15 ft in diameter. Although I tried, I never really got the best use out of it, and in the summer it tended to be a desert. There’s space in my new garden for a small greenhouse. I’ve ummed and ahhed about whether I actually need one, given that I don’t intend to heat it over the winter and so it won’t be of any use for overwintering anything tender. Also, I’m not a big fan of tomatoes (could you tell?) and so I won’t be filling it with those. I do like peppers, though. Peppers are good.

Tomatoes and peppers
A polytunnel filled with tomatoes and peppers, at Victoriana Nursery Gardens

Rather than practicing fantasy gardening, it might be worth taking a few minutes to think about the benefits of having a greenhouse or a polytunnel in the garden – they are large structures, and a considerable investment. They are the top level of crop protection, the idea being that they allow us to control the environment inside for the benefit of the plants. They keep out wind (which can be physically damaging to plants, via wind rock, but which also means they need more water, as they lose more to transpiration. Some air movement is beneficial, however. Plants grown in completely still air grow weak and spindly. And ventilation is crucial for another reason – making sure plants have access to the carbon dioxide they need. In a nice, light, warm greenhouse, carbon dioxide can easily become the limiting factor in plant growth, unless there’s adequate ventilation.

Greenhouses and polytunnels keep the rain off – great for the gardener, and also nice for plants that don’t like being wet all the time. It does mean you have to water inside at regular intervals, however, unless you install one of those fancy automatic watering systems.

And they trap heat inside (it’s literally called the Greenhouse Effect, although they could also call it the Car on a Sunny Day effect), which means if there’s any sun at all then it’s warmer inside than outside.

So those seeds on the staging benefit from being nice and warm, and protected from the weather, and the rodents. They can grow on in peace until they’re big enough to be hardened off and moved outside, or transplanted into grow bags to live out their fruitful lives inside.

A variety of plants growing in a large polytunnel at the Centre for Alternative Energy

The result is a longer growing season. We can start seeds, and nurture plants, of species that need a longer growing season than we can count on in the UK. Tomatoes are a good example – marginal in a poor summer, they have a better chance with some protection (which can also be the difference between them suffering from blight, and not). Exotic crops such as aubergines, peppers, melons, okra and sweet potatoes are all from hotter climates than ours, and tend to be more successful inside, unless you have a very sunny and sheltered patio. A greenhouse or a polytunnel allows you to fool plants into thinking we live in a Mediterranean climate – but only for the summer!

So we have a larger range of plants we can choose from. We can also grow some of the hardier things more easily and for longer. Hardy salads will start into growth earlier in the year in the greenhouse, and last longer into the autumn. Even those that are fully winter hardy will be more tender (and cleaner!) when they’re not subjected to the worst of the weather. And often it’s not the cold that kills plants in winter, but being waterlogged or even short of water (if the ground has frozen solid), and indoor cropping allows us to make sure that doesn’t happen.

Birds don’t tend to be a problem indoors, and weeds are easier to control. Some pests and diseases are less of a problem, but others (such as red spider mite and aphids) can be more so.

Hugelmound and polytunnel
A polytunnel edged with a hugelmound. Permaculture in action!

Greenhouses and polytunnels certainly do bring a new dimension to a garden, and it’s nice to be able to potter about with plants and compost, even when it’s raining. I think my ambivalence at the moment is because my garden doesn’t exist yet, not even on paper really. I can’t decide what to grow, and I can’t really imagine what it will be like to be working in the garden, or the greenhouse, and just messing around with my plants. It has been so long since I had the opportunity to do that, that I’ve almost forgotten what it feels like – I just know that I miss it.

How about you – what do you grow in your greenhouse/ polytunnel. And, if you don’t have one, what do you think you would grow if you did?

Disclosure: this post was produced in association with Premier Polytunnels, but the meandering thoughts are my own :)

Posted in Blog on Mar 6, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 4, 2015

Tags: Greenhouse & planning.

Bye bye allotment

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I had a few days off last week, and part of the plan was to pay my final visit to the allotment. I hadn’t been since November, and wasn’t sure what I would find. Would someone have helped themselves to any of my stuff in the meantime, figuring that the place had been abandoned? No, everything was still there. What I wasn’t expecting was this:

Bushwhacked allotment

Without informing me, someone had been on to the plot and cut the whole thing down to ground level. With absolutely no care or finesse, and quite a lot of violence.

Damaged container

Several of my plastic planters had borne the brunt, and won’t be reusable. Fortunately, it seems as though only one plant was hacked to death – I can’t even identify the remains.

My allotment has been bushwhacked.

I wasn’t chuffed. If I hadn’t been planning on giving it up this year, I would have been very upset. But we salvaged what we could – the final plants, and the tools and toolbox. It took 3 trips in the car to bring everything back to the house.

I left the compost bins in place, including the Green Cone composter, which is not rodent-proof. When Ryan lifted the lid to check the volume inside, he found it to be inhabited by mouse. Sleek, glossy and cute, well-fed mice, who had gnawed their way in through the plastic basket. They can keep their 5-star accommodation – there’s no place for it in the garden.

I will send the gate key back, and then my second foray into keeping an allotment will come to an end. About as successfully as the first.

Posted in Blog on Mar 3, 2015 ·

Last modified on Mar 2, 2015

Tag: allotment

Glutbusters: March 2015

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Snowdrops, the first flowers of the year

It doesn’t feel like it, but we’re apparently having the sunniest winter since 1929, although it has also been on the wet side. Everyone I know is glad that there are signs that spring is on its way, and that it might finally be possible to get outside and do some gardening!

The garden centres are filling up with lots of lovely goodies to plant and sow, although it’s still a little early for most things. Keen gardeners are loading themselves up with seed potatoes, and looking forward to Good Friday, which is the traditional day for planting potatoes in the UK (almost certainly because it was the first day off most people got in spring!).

Potatoes aren’t an obvious choice for a GlutBuster’s garden, as they are quite large plants. As well as taking up quite a bit of space, they’re in the ground for a long time and, well… they’re not the most attractive plants in the world, particularly later in the season when they start to look a little tired. If you’re pushed for space then there are plenty of other things that will give you more bang for your buck, but it has to be said that little can beat the excitement of digging up your first potatoes, and homegrown do taste much better! But unless you have a large garden or an allotment, and somewhere cool and dry for storage, you’ll have to give up the dream of growing enough potatoes to feed yourself for the year.

Potato Marquee
A ‘Potato Day’ event in full swing

GlutBuster potato advice

  • The nice thing about potatoes is that you can grow them in containers, or in the corner of a bed. Even one or two plants will give you the excitement of unearthing homegrown potatoes later in the year, and feed you for a couple of meals.

  • If your garden is affected by late blight disease, then you’ll need to grow blight-resistant varieties. Check out the Sárpo range, developed by the Savari Research Trust, for some super spuds that will stay healthy whilst blight is cutting down all the others.

  • Earlier varieties are good for small gardens and containers, and will give you a good harvest of ‘new’ or salad potatoes that you can eat fresh – no storage worries!

  • It’s not recommended to use potatoes you have bought for eating as seed potatoes – they may be harbouring plant diseases. Seed potatoes are grown (often in Scotland) where there are fewer insects to spread disease, and are certified virus-free.

  • If you want to try more than one variety then think about heading out to a Potato Event, where you can find a large range of potatoes on offer, and can buy just one or two seed potatoes of each one.

  • It’s also possible to replant fancy potatoes you buy in the supermarket – so if you want to try growing a red or blue variety, keep an eye out for bags of gourmet spuds.

  • Of course, if you buy a big bag of seed potatoes at the garden centre, you can always share or swap with friends and neighbours :)

  • It’s too early to plant potatoes out (their foliage is killed by frost), so chit them on the windowsill. Being in the light encourages them to grow short green sprouts rather than spindly white tentacles.

  • When you’re ready to plant your chitted potatoes, it is possible to cut the tuber into pieces – each one with a healthy sprout will grow into a new plant. So you can make one seed potato go a long way.

  • You can also buy some special and heritage varieties as microplants, rather than seed tubers, as they have been specially propagated in clean conditions. You won’t get a great harvest in the first year, but you should grow enough potatoes to use for seed next year.

  • Potatoes grown in containers will need extra care – they are hungry and thirsty beasts, and you need to make sure that water reaches the bottom of your container, particularly if you have a potato ‘tower’.

  • When early varieties start to flower, you can start scrabbling around at the base of the plant to see whether there are any potatoes worth harvesting. If there are, then you can lift the plant with a fork – but be careful not to spear your spuds!

GlutBuster alternatives

Sweet Potato Vines
Sweet potato ‘slips’ growing on

Sweet potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are very much en vogue at the moment, touted as a superfood replacement for the humble spud. And, of course, they are very tasty. They aren’t the easiest things to grow in the UK climate, but if you can give them a bit of protection, or a very sunny spot, then they are worth trying. Sweet potatoes aren’t growing from seed potatoes, but from ‘slips’, which are basically rooted cuttings. You can try growing your own slips by letting a sweet potato start to sprout, but given our climate uncertainty you’ll have better luck if you buy slips of a named variety. If we end up having a rotten summer then don’t despair – sweet potato foliage can be eaten like spinach :)

(But don’t eat the leaves or ‘fruit’ of regular potatoes, Solanum tuberosum, as they are poisonous.)

The TomTato/ pomato is a possibility for small spaces, although more of a novelty than a guaranteed harvest. It’s a grafted plant that has potato roots and tomato tops and so – theoretically – gives you a harvest for both. If you try one, you’ll need to make sure you keep it well fed and watered, as it’s working doubly hard to produce a harvest for you!

Other tubers that you might like to try include oca, Jerusalem artichokes, mashua and Chinese artichokes.

GlutBuster buys

Seed potatoes chitting

Thompson & Morgan are selling three varieties of sweet potato this year, as ‘deep root premium plugs’, which means they just need planting out when they’re despatched in May. They’ve got ‘Carolina Ruby’ and ‘Duo’, which both have orange flesh, and the white-fleshed ‘Beauregurd Improved’ (which, if you ask me, sounds like something from Willy Wonka!). You can get free P&P on everything until midnight tonight (1 March 2015) if you use the discount code TWEB81YZ when you place your order!

And T&M are recommending Potato ‘Jazzy’ for containers, this year, because your yield could be 80 tubers in one 8 litre bag in just 11 weeks! Jazzy is a white, second early variety, suitable for boiling, mashing, steaming and roasting.

GlutBuster star

Rhubarb forcers
Traditional rhubarb forcers are very ornamental

I hope you’re still madly sowing peas for peashoots, as February’s Star is good all year round! This month we’re looking at rhubarb. Again, it’s not an obvious choice for a smaller garden, but there’s at least one variety (‘Fulton’s Strawberry Surprise’) that’s recommended for patios and containers, and can be planted in spring.

Rhubarb isn’t a star because of it’s longevity – the harvesting period is quite short. And although its big leaves make it an architectural plant, I’m not recommending it for its ornamental qualities, either. Rhubarb’s value lies in the early spring harvests it provides, during the ‘hungry gap’ when there’s not much else ready to eat in the garden. And whilst everyone knows you can use rhubarb in sweet dishes like crumble (yum!), there’s no need to worry about a glut filling your freezer and causing an expanding waistline. Rhubarb can also be used in savoury dishes – try rhubarb ketchup or a rhubarb curry to get you started.

Rhubarb is certainly a plant I’ll be welcoming into my garden as soon as a space has been cleared for it!

GlutBuster Top Tip for March
Although most plants will catch up from seeds sown a little late, March is really your last opportunity to sow seeds of fruiting vegetables (tomatoes, aubergines, peppers) that need a long growing season. If you miss the boat, don’t forget that it’s now easy to find plants at the garden centre, and that gardening friends may have spare seedlings to share :)

That’s the end of our GlutBusters newsletter for March 2015. What have you sown so far this year? What’s already growing in your garden? eave me a comment, or share your thoughts with us on Twitter and in the GlutBusters Facebook group.

Posted in Blog on Mar 1, 2015 ·

Tags: GlutBusters & veg.

Unless stated, © copyright Emma Cooper, 2005-2014.