The cheat

Remember a week or so ago… I dusted off the heated propagator from the shed, excitedly whizzed it upstairs, and planted my first crops of the year: Kale and Tomatoes.

For it was February. Spring is on its way. And these crops can be started early.

Alas, I slightly cocked up on this one. Yes, it’s February, yes, Spring is on its way, and yes indeed, Kale and Tomatoes can be started early. Only not really… You see, there’s just not quite enough natural light yet. The seedlings all popped up, but as soon as they saw a sniff of the window, they scarpered off towards it.

Spindly seedlings

Spindly seedlings

So I’ve ended up with comically long and spindly seedlings that have little or no chance of forming a second set of leaves and growing into healthy, bushy plants.

An executive decision has therefore been made here at Chook Cottage.

I am going to CHEAT!

I know, I know… we all hate a cheater, but needs must. The vegetable plot here is more of a hobby – we’re not trying to live off the land – we just want a couple of fresh bits and bobs to harvest.

So this weekend will find me at the garden centre, snaffling up a couple of trays of veggie plants where someone else has already done the hard work. These will go in the beds, leaving me much more time to chillax in the garden and admire the fruits of my..’ahem’…labour 😉

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Kale

Whoopee! Great news!

The kale seeds only went in the propagator on Sunday, and THEY ARE GERMINATING! We absolutely love kale, and get through bags of the stuff… to be able to pick straight from the plot will be an absolute treat.

I can’t express how excited I am to be growing stuff again.  Spring is most definitely just around the corner, as the mornings and evenings are growing gradually lighter – I love this time of year, as it seems to tingle with anticipation of the start of a new season.

We just need the pear tomatoes to pop up their little heads now… I will be watching them intently!

Kale seedlings

Kale seedlings

Level lawn

The work has officially begun in the garden. Our chap came and built us a decked area earlier in the year, and I dutifully rescued the plants that were in its path… all forty of them! Last weekend we set about replanting these (happy to report there were no casualties) and levelling the lawn.

Decking area

Decking area

The lawn has been a bit of a problem since I moved in. It started life as a scrappy bit of grass with a god-awful slab path chucked down the middle. I got rid of the path and created some borders – but the lawn has always been a bit uneven. This was highlighted when lovely chap brought his man-sized petrol mower over. The beast just tore up anything that was slightly on the lumpy side. He’s not happy about this and seems determined to have a bowling green.

So… off we went to buy sand… a lot of sand… to bring the lawn up to the same level ready to turf in a week or so. A better shape was cut into the lawn while we were at it, and I’m pleased with the result and can see that the garden will look amazing when everything starts shooting again.

Levelling the lawn

Levelling the lawn

Next job was to put some horse muck into the raised bed compartments. The veg in there was pretty much an afterthought last year, but we have big plans for this year. A trip to our local farm later, and a bit of shovelling and raking later, and the beds were ready for the first house guests. 50 onions and 25 garlic plants, which were popped in this weekend.

Last up, we fired up the heated propagator and we’ve planted cherry tomato seeds and kale.

Bring on the spring… we’re ready for you!

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

Carrots for Christmas

A couple of weeks ago I was having a good old chat with a fellow gardener, when he leaned across conspiratively, and asked:

“Have you planted your Christmas carrots yet?”

Slightly bemused but keen to know more, my interest was well and truly piqued… surely it was way too late to be putting carrots in: mine have all just been whipped OUT of the garden!  He went on to explain that carrot seeds sown in a deep pot in the greenhouse now,  had a good chance of being ready in time for the Christmas table.

Carrot seedlings

Carrot seedlings

I’ll have a go at most things garden related, so off I went down to the greenhouse, filled my deepest pot with compost, and duly sowed a thin layer of seeds on the top. And do you know what? They’ve only gone and germinated. They’re still very tiny, but plenty have popped up already. When they’re a wee bit bigger, I’ll thin them out to give them a bit more room to grow. As our greenhouse isn’t heated, it’ll certainly be interesting to see when they are ready to eat.

Elsewhere in the greenhouse, the caterpillar damage seems to be coming to a halt, and I’m now harvesting masses of red chillies. We can’t possibly eat the amount we have, so I’m drying some out. After threading some chillies onto a length of cotton, I’ve hung them up to dry in the utility room. In about three weeks or so they should be completely dried out, at which point I’ll whiz them up in the mini chopper. This will give us a good supply of chilli flakes to use throughout the year.

Tomatoes ripening

Tomatoes ripening

The tomatoes are also coming in thick and fast. To help them ripen, we’ve snipped off a lot of the lower leaves so the light and air can get around the fruits. My lot aren’t actually all that keen on tomatoes, so I’ve had to be a touch creative with using them up. Lots have gone into soups, and at the weekend I even made my own pizza base topping: I added peeled, chopped tomatoes to a pan with a squeeze each of tomato puree and garlic puree, brought it all to the boil and simmered the mixture to reduce it down. Delicious.

In other news, we have exciting developments from Cluckingham Palace.
After a good six months of Maud not laying anything, she now appears to be having a mid-life crisis. She thinks she is ‘hip with the young chicks’ and is laying like a trooper. Which makes for a lot of eggs: and a lot of cakes and quiches.

We can’t complain though – after all the sweat and toil we’ve put into the plot, it’s great to have so much produce to show for it.

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 19 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 19 September 2013

The Hinckley Times 19 September 2013

Saving seeds

Part of the pleasure of growing your own has to be the smug feeling when you saunter off down the garden or allotment and busily harvest free produce. But what if you went one step further, and actually produced your own seeds… for FREE?

Saving seeds to plant next year is fairly straightforward, but there are just a couple of things to bear in mind before you start. First off, the type of plant you collect seeds from will determine the end product of what actually grows.

For example, if you collected seeds from a ‘heritage’ variety of plant, the odds are you’ll grow something the same or very close as the original plant. Heritage varieties haven’t been genetically modified or mucked about with in any way, so on the plus side they retain their original features. On the minus they may be less hardy to certain pests and diseases.

If the original plant was an F1 (hybrid) variety, this is a man-made species that’s been created from a number of different varieties to incorporate the best from each. So the plant you grow could be very different to the one you harvested the seed from: it could take on the characteristics of any of the plants in the mix.

Simple seeds to begin with include:

Parsnips and carrots – these will flower the year after they have produced the root and greenery. Just leave one or two in the ground for the next season, and they should throw up a flower spike. Simply leave this alone:  after the flowers fade, bunches of seeds begin to form. Once these have started to turn brown, cut off the flower head and place upside down in a paper bag or envelope. Leave in a cool, dry place and the seeds will all dry out and drop off.

Garlic – when you’ve harvested your garlic bulbs for the year and dried them out, set a couple aside for seed.  In late autumn/early winter, simply divide the bulbs and plant each clove about 6 inches apart and just deep enough so the top is showing.

Beans and peas – leave a couple of pods on the plant. At the end of the growing season these will mature and then begin to dry out. Once dry, remove the beans and peas and dry completely on some kitchen towel. Store in a cool, dry place ready for next year.

Salad crops – lettuce and radish can easily ‘bolt’ during the summer, and throw up a flower spike. Just leave it alone until the seed pods begin to form, cut them off and dry upside down in a paper bag or envelope.

Tomatoes – Remove the fleshy insides of tomatoes and wash the pulp off through a sieve. Dry the seeds on sheets of kitchen paper, and once dry, store as above.

So there you have it – with just a little time and effort, it’s possible to grow next year’s crops… for nothing.

Parsnip flower head

Parsnip flower head

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 15 August 2013.

 

 

Runner beans are up to speed

As the world went slightly hysterical over the coming of the new royal baby, I was having a smug little moment to myself down on the patch with my own little arrivals.

After runner bean-gate of a couple of months ago… you know the one… I put them out too early… they got clobbered by Jack Frost so I had to plant some emergency ones…yes, that’s the story…

Well, I am delighted to be able to tell you that not only have these grown almost to the top of the arches, but I have beans dangling in abundance all over them. When the plants do reach the top, I’ll pinch out the tips to encourage sturdier growth further down. I have three varieties in all – White Lady, Pantheon and a rather startling little number called Selma Zebra. This was an impulse buy heritage variety, and I’m so glad I tried her. The flowers are a gorgeous pink colourand the beans are mottled with purple. I’m pretty certain these will not be ‘available in a store near you’ any time soon, and I will definitely be leaving a few on the plant to dry for next year’s seeds.

Selma Zebra runner beans

Selma Zebra runner beans

As two of the Pantheons are almost a foot long already, I’ve tied a bit of string around their stalks. This signifies that these beans are definitely not for picking: I’ve earmarked them for the ‘Longest runner bean’ category in the Earl Shilton Town Show at the end of the month. With a good couple more weeks of growing time I think they are in with a fighting chance.

Elsewhere in the garden, the greenhouse is flourishingand we’ve harvested the first couple of cucumbers already – which were sweet and delicious. The tomatoes aren’t yet ripening, but I’m sure it’s only a matter of time.

Cucumbers

Cucumbers

I read in the week that a sprinkling of crushed egg shells around the base of tomatoes and cucumbers can give the plants a good boost of calcium. This apparently can help them reach their full flavour potential and also helps the plants regulate their water intake, preventing conditions like splitting and blossom end rot. As egg shells aren’t something that are in short supply around our house, I decided to give this method a whirl, and whizzed out to put a generous handful of shells around each plant. This, together with regular feeds should make for a bumper crop.

The tomatoes I planted in the upside down planters are also doing remarkably well. I have to admit I was dubious about these at the start – it’s just not natural for plants to grow upside down – but they appear to be proving me wrong. The plants are healthy and strong, and a good number of cherry tomatoes have started to form on the branches. Very soon it’ll be tomatoes and cucumbers for everyone!

upside down tomato planter

upside down tomato planter

This article appeared in The Hinckley Times on 1 August 2013

 

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

Don’t let a man name your chickens

A quick word of advice…If you ever keep chickens, and want them to have old fashioned, fanciful names, DO NOT hand over the naming job to the male species. To go with our older girls, Winnie and Maud, I’ve called one of the new hens Nancy.

The others are now called Shaniqua, Consuela and Pammy (because she’s blonde). I ask you…

Four new chickens

Four new chickens

Introducing the new girls to the flock of two went more smoothly than we ever imagined. Chickens have a natural pecking order, so the more established hens will always rule the roost. Putting four in together seems to have worked well as the older hens are outnumbered. Yes, there have been a few girly spats, but nothing too serious.

The only real problem occurred on the first couple of bed times. Winnie and Maud weren’t keen on the new sleeping arrangements and point blank refused to let the new ones in – so they huddled under the house. Every night at dusk, when chickens are naturally docile, I had to crawl around in the run and put all the girls to bed. Happily for my knees, they’ve now sorted themselves out, and are all roosting together.

Another good sign they are settling in, is that they have already started to earn their keep. Peering into the nest box at the weekend I was delighted to find our first two eggs from the new hens. Eggcellent news indeed!

Elsewhere in the garden, I decided to crack on with some greenhouse jobs at the weekend, as the weather was a bit hit and miss. A quick trip to the garden centre resulted in four grow bags and something we’re trying for the very first time ever, an upside down tomato planter.

According to the folks on the t’interweb, growing tomatoes upside down lets more air circulate round the plant, and should keep the bugs at bay. I’m not totally convinced, but it’s worth a go, if only in the name of research.

Grow bags with tomatoes and cucumbers

Grow bags ready for action

Other half whipped outside and installed the hanging bracket on a sturdy part of the fence – the planter will be heavy when it’s full of soil, water and hopefully ood

les of tomatoes. As they will be outside, we’ll plant this up when it gets a bit warmer. Meanwhile I shot into the greenhouse to clear a space for the grow bags. That done, I arranged the grow bags along the floor. Three holes were cut into each, and into them went a total of nine tomato plants of different varieties and three ‘Telepathy’ cucumber plants – all tiny at the moment, but with huge potential.

Looking around, I’ve also managed to amass 20 chilli and pepper plants and 10 aubergines. Together with the squash and courgette collection that will go out in a couple of weeks and the abundance of eggs on their way, I have a feeling it’s going to be a ratatouille and quiche-filled summer.

This one appeared in The Hinckley Times on May 16 2013

The Hinckley Times 16 May 2013

The Hinckley Times 16 May 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