Tom Tatos

Not having a greenhouse at present, I’m growing my tomatoes in a sunny spot, in growbags outside. There are three varieties – Tigerella which should be stripy (clue’s in the name), cherry tomatoes for salads, and the one I’m most interested to see the results of – sons of Beefy. Well, OK, that’s not the Latin name, but these plants were grown from the seeds I saved from my biggest, beefiest beef tomato last year. I’m hoping for some whoppers!

So far, so good. They are all appear healthy and strong and I’ve already spotted my first tomato hanging provocatively from one of the branches. I’ve been diligently nipping out the bits that grow in the ‘V’  between the stem and the leaves, so the plants funnel all their energy into producing fruits and the air circulates more freely around them. It’ll soon be time to begin their feeding regime too. Exciting stuff.

Recently having a drink with a friend, the conversation inevitably turned to gardening, and he asked me, “What do you reckon to those Tom Tato thingies?”

If you haven’t come across these yet, they’re a relatively new type of plant where you get potatoes from the soil and tomatoes from the foiliage – all from the SAME plant. Although I haven’t tried them for myself, it’s my opinion that you can muck about with stuff a little too much in the name of scientific research. The involuntary frown and curl of my lip must have given my thoughts away.

“I don’t get them”, I replied. “Yes, I understand that potatoes and tomatoes come from the same family of plants, but it just seems a bit wrong to mix them up together. Isn’t it a bit like marrying your cousin?”

I then continued with, “Plants that grow up produce things that you chop off and eat – ie beans, brassicas and salad. Plants that grow down produce things that you dig up and eat – ie carrots, spuds and parsnips. Not many vegetables can multitask well with the up AND down approach. Except maybe beetroot – you can add their leaves to a bowl of salad.”

“Think about it. You’re merrily watering your Tom Tato plant. What’s to stop all the spuds greedily sucking out all the goodness in the soil and leaving none left to travel up to the tomatoey bit? You could end up with mahoosive potatoes and spindly little tomatoes. How does it get the balance right?” I concluded with, “To get any sort of decent harvest from both ends, I’d imagine you’d have to feed the neck out of the damn things”.

Now readers may well have had sterling results with their Tom Tatoes – and I really do hope that you have, but like I said earlier, I haven’t tried growing one. And I don’t actually think I ever will. Call me old fashioned, but I just can’t fully trust the idea


Harvesting the spuds

Wandering around the garden at the weekend, I decided to give the leek bed a bit of well-deserved TLC. I’m delighted to report that the leeks are looking pretty amazing at the moment. The plants are looking lush and strong, and it’s almost hard to imagine the scrawny seedlings they were at the beginning of the season.

Every last onion is now out of that bed, which has left a nice supply of soil to earth up the leeks with.  Pulling earth up around the plants stops the light from getting in, resulting in longer, whiter stems so I set to work covering as much of the patch as I could with soil: oh yes, it’s all rock ‘n’ roll here, I can tell you…

Earthed up leeks

Earthed up leeks

Leeks are really hardy, so they should now sit there quite happily until we are ready to dig them up.

Turning my attention then to the potato beds, I noticed that the foliage on the last two rows was dying back. Apparently that means they’re done, so I decided to whip them out well before any chance of frost and store them for the colder months.

Rummaging around in the soil, it soon became apparent that we were in for a mighty crop. Not wanting to damage any with my fork, I donned my gloves and furiously furtled around in the soil by hand. The more I rummaged, the more spuds I found, and we soon had a more than impressive haul: some were absolute whoppers!

Harvesting the spuds - with a bit of help from the chickens

Harvesting the spuds – with a bit of help from the chickens

When I’d harvested all I could see, I had a good dig over the bed to turn up any lurking deeper in the soil, and promptly discovered a load more. It’s worth the extra effort to get all the potatoes out of the ground, so they don’t sprout and grow rogue plants next year.

The other half had bought me a hessian sack earlier in the week (who said romance is dead?) to store the spuds in, and all I can say is that I’m so glad he’d ordered the largest size. As I was merrily pulling them out left, right and centre, he was on quality control duties. Any perfect ones went in the sack; any with slight blemishes or damage went up to the house to use first; and any really tiny ones that weren’t worth getting the peeler out went in the bin.

Sorting the spuds

Sorting the spuds

It’s important to sort them, as any damaged ones in storage may start to rot, and the rot can easily spread to the other potatoes. Our sack of spuds is now in the shed, where it’s cool and dry. When the long winter nights draw in, I’m predicting an endless supply of leek and potato soup.

With the beds becoming emptier by the week, it’s also now safe to let the chickens out during the day, and they’re having a fine old time scratching around for worms and grubs – I’m hoping they may sniff out the last of our slugs too.

Chickens free ranging

Chickens free ranging

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 26 September 2013

Vegetable show tomorrow

Well, after a full on grow your own summer, the village show is upon us. It’s tomorrow, folks, and I’ve entered and got my stickers for six categories. My uncles used to show leeks in the North East, but it’s only the second one I’ve entered… and I have to say I’m a tad excited about the whole thing!

I’m going for:

Longest runner bean (in good condition)
I’d earmarked my first born beans for this prestigious award, but although they grew long and straight, the pods have now dried out and the beans inside will be seeds for next year. Not to worry though, I have a couple of fine contenders on the ‘White Lady’ plant which I’ll whip off and measure in the morning.

Four runner beans
We’ve been pretty bean-less at the dinner table of late, as I’ve saved all I can on the plant. I’ll pick them tomorrow, and pick out the four best ones of the same length and look. I may well weigh them all too – you can’t be too cautious about these things. If there was a category for ‘curliest runner bean  or ‘runner bean that’s skinny one end and fat at the other‘, I’d have a few winners for sure.

Four potatoes
Three plants came up in the week, and I sorted them all out into size order. I’ve currently got two sets of four – no harm in having some stunt doubles to hand – under some paper in the shed. I’m aiming to dry out the skins slightly before cleaning them, in the hope that the skins will stick to the spuds and not come off in my hands.

5 a day
An arrangement of five kinds of vegetables you’ve grown. Not really sure about this one to be honest. The plan is to rustle off down the garden first thing, harvest anything that looks half decent, and plonk it in an arrangement arrange it artistically and beautifully.

Cross stitch picture
I’m actually entering this twice with the samplers I did long ago for my two babies. Well, one was actually only finished a couple of years ago (13 years after the grand event) as it sort of got put in a cupboard and forgotten about.

Cross stitch samplers

Cross stitch samplers

So there we are – six entries at 20p each, with a potential of winning £3 forfirst prize, £2 for second and £1 for third. So we could be having a takeaway tomorrow night. Or we could be having non-winning beans on toast.

Wish me luck!

Spuds galore

This week I’ve harvested my first crop of new potatoes. The flowers have just begun to form, and yes, I know you shouldn’t dig them up until they have finished flowering, but I just couldn’t wait to see what was under the ground. I was delighted to find enough decent sized spuds to slap around our evening meal: I’m probably biased, but they were truly delicious. Now my curiosity has been satisfied, I’ll leave the rest alone for a couple of weeks.

Potatoes, peas and beans from the garden

Potatoes, peas and beans from the garden

We’ve also had our first crop of peas. True, there was only a small spoonful each, but they were fresh and tasty and looking at the forming pods, we will be in for a few more.

And that’s not all. Turning my attention to the rest of the plot, it all seems to have suddenly gone bonkers. I’ve got cabbage leaves coming out of my ears, so much so that I couldn’t physically make and store that amount of soup – so the chickens are receiving cabbagy treats. Which they love.

The first tiny courgettes are also beginning to form, as are the broad bean pods. I reckon we will be sampling those in just a couple more weeks. I’m also thrilled to report that some of the runner beans are now as tall as me, and look as though they may burst into flower any time now.

The greenhouse has produced the first tiny tomatoes, and I’ve been watering those and the cucumbers with comfrey tea.

To make the tea, I stuffed a load of comfrey leaves into a couple of old pop socks, tied up the tops and dangled them in the water butt to stew for a couple of weeks. I think the solution is ready to use, purely by the smell of it. Comfrey tea is funny stuff. You think that it’s pretty harmless, but once it’s out of the watering can, the stench jumps up and near on slaps you around the face. But it’s full of good stuff for the plants so I’ll have to get used to the greenhouse smelling like rush hour on the tube. Whilst on the comfrey theme, I’ve tucked a handful of leaves into the top of each grow bag hole. These should rot down gently and give the plants another vitamin hit.

All this feeding and tending is now for a purpose. I’ve had my programme for the Earl Shilton Town Show on 31 August at Age UK. There are loads of categories up for grabs including onions, beans, courgettes, cauliflowers and tomatoes –and that’s just the vegetable bit. There are sections for flower arrangements, home produce, crafts and a whole raft of things that children can enter. Programmes are available from Earl Shilton Town Council, and at only 20p per entry, watch out… I’m going for gold.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on 4 July 2013

The Hinckley Times 4 July 2013

The Hinckley Times 4 July 2013

Slugs and spawn

Hear ye, hear ye… I have an announcement to make. But I will say it in hushed tones: “I think spring may finally be here.”

I don’t make this claim lightly – I’ve been gathering evidence. Out in the garden there are a number of things that suggest that we may finally have shrugged off the winter coats, and will soon be skipping around in our next season.

1.    I’ve found the first slugs
Whipping the cloche off the broad beans, I noticed tiny holes in some of the leaves. A good old rummage around at the base of the plants revealed slugs. No bigger than a fingernail, but they are there nonetheless. I’m hoping if I catch them early enough, they won’t mature into stonking great specimens, so I’m trying a couple of cunning plans this year. As well as setting beer traps for them, I’m sprinkling roughly crushed eggshells around the stems of any small plants. I’ve read that slugs find it hard to glide over the rough surface. We’ll see.

2.    We have frogspawn
The pond is alive with froggy love at the moment. Wherever I look, they are … ahem… ‘at it’. Coupled with that, there’s a massive clump of frogspawn in one corner. Now, going back to Point 1 above:  I thought that having frogs in your garden cut down your slug population. I’d heard that the frogs go out at night in search of tasty sluggy snacks. Our frogs evidently had other things on their mind this week. I will say no more…

A live sex show, courtesy of Mr and Mr Frog...

Froggy loving in the pond

3.    The greenhouse is going bonkers
Seeds that I planted months ago are finally popping up. I’ve got five kinds of tomatoes (one of them a mystery as the packet got wet and unreadable), courgettes, celery, cucumbers, runner beans, borlotti beans, chillies and aubergines. All very tiny at the moment, but they are there; they are healthy, and hopefully I can keep them all alive for the season.  Exciting times indeed.

tomato seedlings

Five varietes of tomatoes – including a mystery one

With all that extra growth going on in I’ve also been making sure that things don’t get overcrowded. I’ve split up my celery, onion and leek plants and replanted them in trays to give them a bit more elbow room. Some of the onion plants were a fair old size, so out they went into the garden. And they are not alone! The first of the raised beds is now full and complete, so into that have gone a row of purple sprouting broccoli, and two rows of cabbages. I’ve left room for some broccoli and cauliflowers that are in the greenhouse but are not quite big enough to go out yet.

Brassica raised bed

Brassica raised bed

The other two raised beds are now filled with a layer of rotted horse manure and yet more compost, and are now ready for some potato planting. I’ve been holding off doing this as the ground was simply too cold, but this week I’m going to bite the bullet. The spuds are going in.

Raised beds

Raised beds

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 18 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 18 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 18 April 2013

Sun starts action to start planting

This weekend I peeked out of the window and spotted a strange orb-like light in the sky. Hoping that North Korea hadn’t gone mardy with the rest of the world, I had another look. Happily, we didn’t seem to be on the brink of a nuclear invasion: the light in the sky was just the sun. I just didn’t recognise it for a moment.

With not a minute to lose, I shot off down the garden to crack on with some jobs. I’ve had the cloches on the soon-to-be legumes patch (peas and beans) for a week or so, to warm up the soil, so decided to plant some of these first.

Broad beans in toilet rolls Bunyard's Exhibition

Broad beans are ready to go in

My broad beans were a good old size, with a decent root structure, so two rows of these went in first, complete with their toilet roll plant pots. Next up were the Douce Provence peas that have been camping out in an old grow bag in the greenhouse all winter. I dug a hole the same dimensions as the grow bag, and managed to get them all out of the bag and into the ground, soil and all. As the weather isn’t quite tropical yet, I replaced the cloche tunnels to protect the plants from any nippy nights.

Douce Provence peas

Douce Provence peas

At this point, the other half joined me to carry on with Operation Raised Beds. In what seemed like no time at all, the last two frames were made and ready to be anchored in their final positions. I was quite prepared to just whack them down in a ‘rustic’ layout, but oh no… the Virgo in him reared its head. The path had to be moved three inches to the left, and the beds had to be in line with each other and an equal distance apart.

I do have to admit the meticulous approach paid off, and the raised beds look rather good – I can’t wait to get stuff growing in them. Wanting to get at least one of them in action, I set to work emptying the compost bins. Before long, I’d shovelled out two hefty barrows of compost, which went straight into one of the frames.

The raised beds

The raised beds

A quick trip to the garden centre, and four bags of topsoil later, and the first raised bed was complete. This year, this bed will be planted up with brassicas. I have a couple of rows of cabbages and purple sprouting broccoli that are ready to go in, but these have so far been in the greenhouse. Not wanting to shock them, I’ve put them under the cloches so they can get used to the change in temperature gradually, before I plant them up outside.

It’s still a bit cold to plant potatoes – the advice from others is that when it’s warm enough for weeds to start growing, it’s warm enough for spuds to go in. I know spring has been late arriving this year, but I do have high hopes that everything will catch up eventually.

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

The Hinckley Times 11 April 2013

Potato perfection

Last year my spuds were a tad disappointing. Yes, we harvested enough to scatter around a few meals, but not the bumper crops we were hoping for.

This year I’m hedging my bets and am planting a whopping SIX varieties. I figure that with all that selection, there must be at least one that will do well in my garden.

Seed potatoes are available in garden centres and via the internet now, but I ordered mine online last year. I went for a collection called ‘Allotment favourites’, as this seemed to offer an array of potatoes that would crop throughout the year, were fairly resistant to blight and other critters, and most importantly, had received good reviews from more experienced gardeners and allotment keepers. What could possibly go wrong?

So, a couple of weeks ago, the parcel was duly delivered, and I could hardly contain my excitement as I ripped open the packaging. Sure enough, nestled inside the box were six bags of potatoes.

The spuds I’m giving a bash this year are:

  • First earlies – Orla and Lady Christl
  • Second earlies – Kestrel
  • Early main -Balfour and Sante
  • Late main – Cara

Earlies are normally new potatoes, whilst the main crops tend to be bigger varieties used for jackets and roasting etc.

Before any of them can be planted out though, they will need to have first thrown up a couple of nodules, or ‘chits’. The entire collection of spuds is therefore camping out in my conservatory to do just this – it’s light, dry and cool in there, so should be the perfect chitting conditions.

If you look at your seed potato, you’ll notice that one end has just one mark on it; the other end has a few more (called the rose end). Place the potatoes ‘one end’ down, ‘rose end’ up in egg boxes or crates – the chits will start to pop out from the top. These tiny shoots will help the potatoes get established more quickly once they are in the soil.

Chitting potatoes

Chitting potatoes

I’ve also made an extra effort to label them all clearly. With six varieties to be harvested at four different times of the year, I’m leaving nothing to chance. In the past, I’ve found to my dismay that once they are all muddled up, it’s nigh on impossible to sort them out… they just look like spuds to me.

Apparently all the varieties can start to be planted out during March. They’ll go in the bed that had roots and onions in last year, which I’ve started to dig over in preparation. Lady Cristl is suited to growing in containers and potato bags, so I’ll be trying out some in tyres and some in the old recycling bag that our cardboard used to be collected in.

A quick inspection of the potatoes in the conservatory confirms that little shoots are indeed beginning to form (I chit you not), so I think a planting job may well be on the cards sometime soon. I’m aiming for nothing less than a spud mountain this year…

Hinckley Times 7 March 2013

Hinckley Times 7 March 2013

Hinckley Times 7 March 2013


With the intermittent weather  and the gardening jobs in short supply, I turned my hand to recycling. The handle on our teapot was looking decidedly flaky, and it would only be a matter of time before it fell off completely. We drilled two holes in the bottom for drainage, and voila… it has a new lease of life as a plant pot.

Teapot planter

Teapot planter

I’m already using some old tyres to grow potatoes in. The theory is that each time the green shoots appear, you cover them with soil, and add a tyre. You should end up with a handy container full of spuds. This ensemble is right next to the same variety growing in the soil, so It’ll be interesting to see if there’s any difference in the crops.

Potatoes in tyres

Potatoes in tyres


A handful of people I know are using their old yellow cardboard recycling bags as potato planters – same theory – just cut a couple of holes in the bottom so any excess water can drain away, and Bob’s your proverbial uncle.

I’ve also started off my broad beans in empty toilet roll tubes this year. I should be able to plant them out complete, and therefore not disturb the roots. The tubes will rot down and the beans should hopefully get off to the best possible start.

Beans in toilet roll tubes

Beans in toilet roll tubes

Other household items easily recycled for the garden are:

Tin cans – spray them up to use as planters, or convert them into garden tea light holders. Just fill them with water and freeze. Once frozen, knock holes in the tin to your own design with a hammer and nail. The ice will stop the tin from folding in on itself.

Jam jars – sink in the ground with beer in, to act as a slug trap. Alternatively, make a handle out of wire, decorate them with glass paints and use as hanging tea light holders.

Aluminium drink cans – make great plant labels. Cut off the top and bottom, divide the rectangle you have into strips about 2cm wide, and file the sharp edges. Punch a hole at one end for string and write on them with a ballpoint pen.

Plastic pop bottles – cut off the bottom, and use as cloches in early spring, to protect small plants from slugs and cold.

Plastic milk bottles – cut them up to use as plant labels, or cut off the bottom at an angle to transform into a handy scoop for chicken pellets.

Wooden stepladder – painted up and propped in the corner of a patio makes a cracking place to display pots of herbs.

Right, back to the scissors and the sticky back plastic…



It starts

Yesterday afternoon I recieved an intriguing email, telling me that a parcel I’d ordered would be delivered today. Racking my brains, I couldn’t remember ordering anything, so deduced that either

  • OH had been let loose on Amazon again
  • I’d been online shopping after wine (like drunk texting – never a good idea!)

Anyway, the doorbell went this morning, and sure enough, Mr Postie was there, brandishing a fairly heavy box with my name on it.

Seed potatoes

I could hardly contain my excitement as I brought it inside, and I eagerly set to work ripping through the industrial staples that held the thing together. Spying the contents, I allowed myself a little internal ‘Hooray!’… the new gardening year is well and truly on its way… my seed potatoes have arrived.

Last year, the spuds didn’t do too well. The ones in tyres never appeared, and I seemed to be forever rescuing the ones in the ground from my ever increasing slug population. That’s why I must have decided to hedge my bets and order not two – but SIX varieties to grow this year. They were marketed in the catalogue as ‘Allotment favourites‘, and I reasoned that with some being first earlies, some second earlies and some maincrop, I may just have a chance at success this year… Oh yes!

The varieties were:

  • First earlies – Orla and Lady Christl
  • Second earlies – Kestrel
  • Early main -Balfour and Sante
  • Late main – Cara

Perusing the planting schedule for each kind, it looks as though the earlies go in during February, and the rest are planted in March. I’ll have to label them up well so I can keep track of what went where, so they get dug up at the right time.

I’ve also decided to try something new this year. Half of the Lady Christl are going to be planted in a container in the greenhouse later on this month. Just to see what happens. If I can harvest some super-earlies, I’ll be more than happy. The greenhouse is insulated, and once the temperature really drops I’ll keep it frost free with my trusty paraffin heater. I’ve got an old recycling bag that the council used to take cardboard away in… so will make some drainage holes in the bottom and plant the potatoes in there. Once the weather warms up (assuming they’re growing), it will be an easy enough job to move the bag to a sunny spot outside to finish off. Plus it will make room in the greenhouse for all the other crops I hope to be growing.

So with that in mind, six of the Lady Christl seed potatoes are currently camping out in the conservatory in an egg box. As it’s cool and bright in there, it should provided the ideal conditions for the spuds to throw up little shoots – or chits. These will help the potatoes get established more quickly once they are in the soil.

Lady Christl - chitting

Lady Christl – chitting

What’s your top varieties and top tips for spud growing?

Our first complete meal

Being on clay, our garden is having a slight issue with drainage. It’s actually reached saturation point now, and the vegetable plot is struggling slightly. Slightly may actually be an understatement… parts of the patch are now constantly under water. I’ve resigned myself to kissing some of the onions goodbye, but thought I’d have a cheeky look at the garlic I planted at the end of last year. The shoots above ground looked healthy enough, but it would only be a matter of time before the water took its toll and they rotted away.

Pulling on one of them, it slipped out of the ground with a satisfying slurp, and I was amazed to find quite a large garlic bulb at the end of it. With no time to lose, they were all up and out of the ground, and they are currently in the greenhouse drying out before I store them. According to the book you can lay them on the grass to dry, but looking at my lawn bog, I think not.

On a roll now, I decided to check on the spuds. I know of people who’ve had their first crop of early potatoes: mine were second earlies (International Kidney) and main crops (Cara) so there was every chance that some might be ready. Sticking my fork underneath one of the early plants, I gently eased one out of the ground, and am delighted to report there were actually decent-sized spuds in there. Fishing them all out and into my bucket, I soon had enough for dinner, and happily took them up to the house to wash them. Whilst doing this, I noticed that some had tiny holes in them, obviously caused by some grub or other. Making the executive decision to dig up the rest of the plants in the row before they all got chomped underground, I shot off back down the garden, wielding my trusty fork.

In no time at all, my bucket was full of lovely new potatoes, and I was feeling rather pleased with my haul. I topped it up with the broad beans that were ready, and plopped a cabbage on the top for good measure.

Swinging my bucket jauntily back to the house, I allowed myself a smug smile, as the day had finally arrived where we had enough produce from the garden to make an entire meal: we have hardly been ‘living off the land’ to date.

The other half and I then set about shelling the beans. As we weren’t due to eat them for another couple of hours, I wondered out loud if we had jumped the gun and they would lose their flavour at all between removing the pods and eating.

“Will they be alright in some water?” I asked.

The other half gave me a sidelong look and replied, “They’ve been in water all summer. I think they’ll feel quite at home…”

Our first complete meal

How’s everyone else doing with their growing? Any bumper crops to report?