Widgets Blog - Emma the Gardener

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.

Garden transformation with power tools and elbow grease

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I think there’s a part of every gardener that harks back to ‘simpler’ times, when the world was a quieter and greener place. We enjoy doing things by hand, appreciate craftsmanship and work at Nature’s pace. Sort of. The truth is that we all live busy and hectic lives, and there’s never enough time to spend in the garden.

When Ryan and I moved into this house last autumn, the back garden looked like this:


The shrubs along the fence were taking up some prime real estate – one of the sunniest spots. They had to come out, and a couple of weeks ago I decided it was time to start removing them, before the local birds had any serious thoughts about nesting in them. A few hours of serious effort saw half of them cut down to the roots:

Shrub removal

Something hefty from the SGS Chainsaws range would have finished the job in a jiffy. As it was, we were left with a large pile of branches:

Piles of ex-shrub

Fast forward to Saturday, and Ryan’s dad came round to help, and brought along his electric shredder. He shredded, Ryan finished cutting down the shrubs, and I started weeding in the strip along the front of the garage block. I’m not planning on doing anything much with that piece of the garden this year, but it seemed like an ideal location to be mulched with the shreddings.

It has gone from this:

Extra strip

to this:

Mulching the strip

and left us with a much smaller pile of wood:

Log pile

We still need to dig out the shrub roots, but in the meantime Ryan has come up with a different garden plan that would allow us to start paving very soon. The garden looks much larger, and sunnier now that the shrubs are gone – when the sun comes out! In the almost unending gloom of February, it’s hard to imagine what it might look like in summer. On Sunday I had an overwhelming urge to plant something, and we went to the garden centre to look at plants. But the complexity of building a garden from scratch left me bamboozled – there’s very little I could plant now that wouldn’t have to be moved later – and so I came home with nothing.

Disclosure: this blog post was produced in association with SBS Chainsaws, but the words (and the garden ;) are my own.

Posted in Blog on Feb 27, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 25, 2015

Tags: general & planning.

Video: Rose of Jericho resurrection plant

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Resurrection plants can survive extreme dehydration, even over months or years. In scientific terms, they are called poikilohydric. This one, the Rose of Jericho (Anastatica hierochuntica), is native to the deserts of North Africa.

Not a plant you’re likely to find in a garden, but you may unleash a horde of zombie plants without realising it!

Posted in Blog on Feb 25, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 25, 2015

Tag: science

New vegetable varieties from Marshalls

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New varieties from Marshalls

Marshalls Seeds have sent me a wodge of their new vegetable seed varieties to try this year. None of them fitted into the plans for my garden this season, so I have passed them on to new homes*.

My dad has taken two squash (Sweetmax and Spaghetti) varieties, despite once telling me he thought spaghetti squash wasn’t worth eating. Hopefully he’ll feel different when they’re homegrown! He also picked out Brokali Endeavour, a sprouting broccoli, and the two tomatoes (Fenda and Corazon).

New varieties from Marshalls

That left the warty pumpkin Knucklehead (which I think looks like fun) and the savoy cabbage Serpentine, which I have dispatched to Carl and Debs in Wales (with the blight-resistant toms from Victoriana Nursery Gardens).

Hopefully they will all report back later in the year about how they grew!

*I am trying very hard to be realistic about the time and space I will have to garden this year, and not to put things in my seedbox, only for them to languish unsown until they’re past their best. This way is better for everyone :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 23, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 16, 2015

Tag: seeds

Time for a cuppa?

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Tea time

Being British, whenever anything out of the ordinary occurs, my first inclination is to put the kettle on and make a nice cup of tea. And we tend to mark the passing of the day with strategically-placed brews.

I know from my travels that I can, if need be, go for two weeks without a proper cup, but it’s rare for me to have tea-free days. And although I am slowly broadening my horizons and exploring the world of tea, most of my cups are Standard black “builder’s” tea, served with milk and a little bit of sugar.

Brits still prefer ‘proper’ tea, made from Camellia sinensis

According to a survey by Dementia UK, 73% of Brits do prefer builders’ tea, with only 13% picking a herbal tisane. 14% stick to ‘classic’ tea, although I’m not sure what that means – probably that they like blends such as Earl Grey or English Breakfast.

84% add milk, with only 3% choosing lemon. And sweetness has been ditched, with 69% adding neither sugar nor sweetener. It’s not a simple case of people being good, though, as 70% will supplement their tea with a biscuit, whilst 26% would snaffle a bit of cake.

And the Empire is well and truly dead – 68% of use a mug and only 11% remain civilised enough to drink out of a tea cup. The rest don’t care what their tea comes in, they’d happily drink out of a bucket :)

Dementia UK interviewed some notable celebrities about how they take their tea. I couldn’t care less about any of them, so I interviewed some gardening personalities instead:

  • Mark Diacono, of Otter Farm, has given up caffeine and likes a nice redbush tea, or lemon and ginger.

  • Alys Fowler was succinct about her requirements: “No milk, just black, hopefully from a teapot poured the colour of Amber. Repeat till the day ends”.

  • James Wong came over all Star Trek and went for black Earl Grey. Hot.

  • James Alexander-Sinclair is upfront about his love of biscuits, but when the chips are down he’s voting for Earl Grey with honey and a splash of milk, with fruit cake or a packet of Jaffa Cakes.

  • And nature writer Kate Bradbury likes her builder’s tea strong but milky, with organic milk but no sugar.

All of this silliness and statistics is for a good cause. From 1st – 8th March 2015, Dementia UK are asking us if we’ve got time for a cuppa, and to host a fundraising tea party to help find Admiral Nurses, specialists in dementia care. 2014’s campaign allowed 1000 more families to receive care and support.

If you can host a tea party, you can send off for a free tea party organiser’s pack, which includes invites and posters and well as ideas for games and activities. And there are recipes for cakes and biscuits on the Dementia UK website, or you could always try my Snickerdoodles.

Have you got time for a cuppa? How do you take your tea?

Posted in Blog on Feb 19, 2015 ·

Tag: tea

Sowing cool chillies

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Chillies without the heat

My early sowings of pansies and cardamom (old seeds) have come to nothing, so today I turfed the plugs out into the garlic tub and sowed some chillies instead. Although the trend in recent years has been to go as hot as possible, I’ve gone the other way – I’d like the flavour without the heat.

And so I’ve chosen two fire-free chillies from Victoriana Nursery Gardens – Jalapeño Fooled You and Cayenne Sweet Chilli.

I’ve also sown some Padron sweet peppers, the traditional Spanish tapas pepper, and Numex Garnet, which is perfect for drying and turning into paprika.

Blight-resistant tomatoes from Victoriana Nursery Gardens.

When I placed my order, Victoriana were kind enough to enclose packets of their blight-resistant tomatoes. I’m not intending to grow tomatoes this year, so I have sent them off to a new home – Carl & Debs Legge will put them through their paces on their smallholding in sunny Wales :)

Posted in Blog on Feb 16, 2015 ·

Tags: seeds & spices.

Aphrodisiacs and botanical livelihoods in Morocco

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As it’s Valentine’s Day, I thought I would share this TEDx Marrakesh video, in which ethnobotanist Gary Martin discusses some of the plants harvested in Morocco that are used in herbal aphrodisiacs. Martin raises the theory that the main aim of the British Empire, and of plants hunters in the 19th and early 20th centuries, was to find new ingredients that could be used in love potions! He includes mandrake, pellitory (the infamous ‘vegetable Viagra’) and giant fennel. There’s some lovely images of root samples from the Economic Botany collection at the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew.

Via giant fennel’s extinct relative Silphium, Martin introduces the important concept of conservation, and the sustainable harvesting and use of these plants. He also hints that there might be more to the Mediterranean diet that meets the eye, and that we’re missing out on these secret ingredients :)

Happy Valentine’s Day everyone!

Posted in Blog on Feb 14, 2015 ·

Last modified on Feb 6, 2015

Tags: aphrodisiac & ethnobotany.

Blight-resistant Crimson Crush tomatoes

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The tomato forest
Healthy tomato plants in my greenhouse

I know I’m going to have rotten tomatoes aimed at my head for saying this, but I never had blight in my garden.

It wasn’t that I was doing anything special to avoid it, but rather a lucky combination of circumstances. I’m not the biggest fan of tomatoes, so I don’t grow many.

The ones I choose tend to be cherry tomatoes, ripening early in the season and avoiding the dreaded ‘Smith Periods’ of summer, when blight is rampant.

When I did grow maincrop tomatoes, they were safely tucked away in my greenhouse. And, since none of my neighbours grew tomatoes, blight spores just weren’t flying in my direction.

Allotment potatoes affected by late blight

I didn’t grow tomatoes on my allotment, but I did grow potatoes. I deliberately chose blight-resistant Sárpo potatoes, and had the sense not to look too smug when my neighbour’s crops were cut down by blight but mine weren’t.

If your garden tomatoes have fallen to blight in the past, then the only real solution is to grow blight-resistant varieties.

The only problem is that blight (more properly known as late blight, and caused by an organism called Phytophthora infestans that used to be considered a fungus, but which is now classed as an oomycete) evolves.

The strains that are attacking our tomatoes and potatoes now aren’t the same ones from a century or two ago. So plant varieties that used to have some resistance to blight can quickly lose it – and the first you’ll know is when they start to show those tell-tale splotches.

Blight-resistant Crimson Crush, from Suttons
Blight-resistant Crimson Crush (left), from Suttons

But this year, outdoor tomato growers stand a fighting chance of harvesting a healthy crop, thanks to some serious science and breeding work.

A collaboration between the Sarvari Research Trust (home of Sárpo potatoes), Bangor University and independent tomato breeder, Simon Crawford has led to the development of Crimson Crush.

This new variety of tomato has two blight-resistant genes, which gives it excellent resistance to the strains of blight we have to deal with now.

Healthy fruits on Crimson Crush
Healthy fruits on Crimson Crush

Crimson Crush is available exclusively from Suttons, as plug plants.

It’s an indeterminate (cordon) variety, which will need support and you’ll need to pinch out the side-shoots as they appear. It has been bred for outdoor growing, and provides “exceptionally fine tasting, large, round tomatoes (each weighing up to 200g)”.

Order Crimson Crush plug plants now, at £7.99 for 3, with delivery set for April 2015.

If you’ve struggled with blighted tomatoes in recent years, why not give Crimson Crush a try this summer?

Disclosure: This post was written in collaboration with Suttons, who provided the images of Crimson Crush. The words are my own.

Posted in Blog on Feb 11, 2015 ·

Tags: veg & fruit.

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