Category Archives: Vegetables

Beat that Captain Birdseye!

I have had a bumper year for peas. I decided to stick to petit pois and went for a variety called Calibra. I was promised disease resistant high yields and I was not disappointed.

I experimented by starting early and growing a crop in a large pot inside the greenhouse. I planted the seeds on 19 February and we started eating the first peas on 23 June.

By comparison I planted seeds outside on 27 April and have been eating them from early August. Doing it this way has meant a continuous supply of little green gems right through summer.

I would have had even more but I planted some mange tout beside the peas and got carried away when the first pods appeared. After forcing Mr Mac to eat very stringy “mange tout”, I realised one day while weeding that we had been eating the pea pods NOT the mange tout…..oops! One day I will practice what I preach and label things!

Over the two batches I  also managed to freeze some. When shelling them, I was reminded of the old Birds Eye frozen pea advert from my childhood, with the slogan “one hour to frozen”. Apparently this slogan was subtly dropped as the real time had crept up to 2 and a half hours!

I managed from bottom of the garden to freezer bag in less than 12 minutes – beat that Captain Birdseye!

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Finally, the 2012 inaugural tomato eating ceremony!

On the evening of Thursday 16th August 2012, Mr Mac and I were finally able to  pick our first tomato of 2012. It was one of the sungold variety and despite the appalling growing conditions it had, it did not disappoint.

It has become tradition that we share the first tomato each year. So the tomato was picked from the vine, taken to the kitchen, washed, sliced in half and sprinkled with a little salt. This year we contemplated some black pepper (I know – we are just crazy) but quickly changed our minds.

On the count of three we both ate our little half tomato. It was so sweet and delicious it probably did not even need salt.

Sungold really are the sweetest tomatoes I have ever come across and I have a challenge with fellow blogger  Carrot Tops that they are sweeter than his favourites, gardeners delight.

Unfortunately, I had to wait another 4 days before any more were ripe enough to eat and finally, in the middle of August, I was able to go down to the greenhouse and pick my first salad!

Tippety top tomatoes

I think if I could only ever grow one thing, without a doubt it would have to be tomatoes. One of my earliest memories is helping my grandad in his greenhouse and even now, the smell of a greenhouse full of tomatoes on a sunny day takes me back to when I was three years old.

Since then I have always associated gardening with growing tomatoes before anything else…plus I love them!

In the past I have tried growing different varieties with mixed success. Central Scotland doesn’t have the same climate as Naples so the San Marzanos that you see dripping off Italian balconies did not quite live up to expectations. So this year I decided not to be clever and stick with what I know works and tastes good – Sungold, Red Cherry and Moneymaker (my grandad’s favourite).

Having started early, sowing my seeds in February, I then lost all my plants to frost in April. I started again, gutted at having lost my 7 week head start and finally, last week, my boys were all ready to be planted in their final growing spot.

My boys are raring to go.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Last year Mr Mac made me some troughs which I used for growing tomatoes, melons and squashes. The mistake I made was putting weed membrane along the bottom to stop the compost falling through. I did not put in any drainage either and I don’t think my plants were very happy.

This year, I learned from my mistake and filled the troughs full of stones first for drainage then added a layer of our own compost and topped the troughs up with growbag compost.

The troughs were filled with stones and gravel for drainage

They were then filled with a layer of our own compost and topped up with growbag compost.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Then I had to call on Mr Mac to do his special string trick! He thinks he saw Alan Titchmarsh doing this on tv but is not sure. It definitely works though. He runs wire along the roof of the greenhouse. Then he measures a length of string long enough to reach from the wire, down and underneath the rootball of the tomato plant, then back up to the wire. He then plants the tomato with the string underneath the roots and then ties both lengths of string to the wire. It should not be too tight but the tension can always be adjusted by untying the string on the wire and loosening or tightening as required.

The string is under the roots of the tomato.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

This means as the tomato grows you can wrap it round the string and this provides all the support it will need.

All happy in their new home!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Finally, I planted some French marigolds and basil in between the tomatoes to deter whitefly!

And then I had a little surprise when I went to plant some basil…

A little tomato plant is growing in the basil!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I checked my book and last year I planted the tomatoes on 25 April. This year it was 8 June! Now all we need is some sunshine although a friend told me that lining the greenhouse with foil or mirrors can increase the light to help them grow….I would prefer sunshine though so fingers crossed.

ABC Potatoes

Our main crop potatoes (Maris Piper and Pink Fir Apples) should really have been planted at the end of April. However, it was so cold here that we never got round to doing it.

Last week’s heat wave saw an initial flurry of activity. Lots of blue Scottish people rushed out into the sunshine for a freckle top-up and within 30 minutes were rushing back inside to lie down in a cool room because it was “too hot”. We’re never happy.

Over the week Mr Mac and I managed to get two large jobs done, one of which was getting the maincrop potatoes planted. The easiest way we have discovered to grow them is in bags. In the ground the worms eat them. Bags can be emptied whenever you need potatoes, they can be moved around the garden and they can more or less be forgotten about.

Even though we were late planting them they had been sitting in the greenhouse happily chitting away. For the uninitiated (like I was 3 years ago!) chitting involves sitting the tubers in a box, such as an old egg box, with the growing end facing upwards – recognisable by the cluster of tiny buds (“eyes”) on it. When the shoots are about an inch long they are ready for planting. This gives them a head start, although many people say you don’t need to chit maincrop potatoes because they have a longer growing season!

Here is what we did:

Maris Pipers, chitted and ready for action!

We saved empty compost bags which are the ideal size. They were all washed in a big bucket filled with water, bleach and washing up liquid to kill the bugs. Then they were left in the sun to dry.

Turn the compost bags inside out and then roll down the outside. This way, when you need to add more soil the bag can be unrolled to accommodate it. Add some compost to the bottom of the bag.

Place two seed potatoes in each bag and then cover with more compost.

Work out where to put them all!

We were all ready to place them around the garden when this happened…

Rain stopped play! At least we did not have to water anything.

We put the bags under two trees where the only things growing were the weeds.

Finally, pierce some holes in the bottom of each bag for drainage and wait for the potatoes to grow!

The great big giant parsnip experiment

We love parsnips. I have a fantastic recipe for curried parsnip soup which we eat all winter and there is nothing better than picking your own parsnips and brussels sprouts for Christmas dinner. Parsnips roasted with honey, black pepper and olive oil…yum.

The only problem is that our ground is very stoney and while we do pull up the occasional monster parsnip, most of them look like an octopus.

We were watching a gardening programme last summer (think it was Beechgrove Garden, BBC Scotland’s answer to Gardeners’ World) and one of the presenters was planting his parsnips seeds for competition. He was using a really tall bucket and had various “top secret” blends of compost, the details of which he was not going to share with the viewers.

Mr Mac suggested we try and do the same thing with the broken water butt lying at the bottom of the garden…so we did!

We filled the bottom with gravel and crocs for drainage then filled it to the top with our own compost. Mr Mac made seven holes right to the bottom with a broom handle and we filled the holes with sand. We planted two seeds in each hole with the intention of thinning out the weaker seedling (which I never did…oops!).

Now this took place in August last year, in hindsight probably a bit late. The seeds germinated and then were forgotten about over winter. I started to water them again in the spring and the leaves were growing taller and taller. I thought if the root was half as long as the leaves were tall we were in for a treat.

Then this morning we were having a look at them and decided to pull one out to see how it looked. Here it is…

Disappointed, we pulled out another couple and they were no better. Somehow I don’t think I’ll be trotting off to the village hall to pick up my “best in show” rosette!

We have left the rest of the parsnips in the water butt to see if they grow any bigger. I’ll keep you posted!

Take the lettuce leaf challenge!

Now that the weather is (supposed to be) getting warmer, thoughts turn to salad rather than hearty, warming soups. However, it breaks my heart having to buy lettuce, especially when I know my own will be ready to start eating next month.

I was looking at the price of bagged lettuce in the supermarket. Prices range from 80p to £2.00. I go through a couple of bags a week  so if I spend an average of £3 per week on lettuce from April to September, that works out about £72!

(I do realise I could spend less on an actual lettuce and cut it up myself…but I’m lazy!)

Now I have never had much success growing whole lettuce, whether it be cos, little gem, iceberg or butterhead. However, lettuce leaves of the “cut and come again” variety, thrive.  I believe even the most neglectful gardener would find it hard to kill them off! You don’t even need a garden to do this.

For less than £10 you can have an endless supply of lettuce leaves on your windowsill, at your back door or in your greenhouse, all summer long. All you need are some pots, some multi-purpose compost, crocs for drainage and a selection of seeds.

I use Suttons “speedy veg” lettuce, some of which can be ready to eat in as little

"speedy veg" - ready in 3 weeks!

as 3 weeks, some rocket, spinach and perhaps lollo rosso for some colour. Make sure each packet of seeds contains around 500-1000 so it will last all summer.

Put some crocs (broken crockery or gravel) in the bottom of a pot and fill it with compost. Next, I get an egg cup and open each packet of seeds. Pour a little from each packet into the egg cup, mix together, then sprinkle over the surface of the compost, cover lightly with some more compost and water in.

In 3 to 4 weeks you can start picking and eating the leaves. The “cut and come again” type should last a few weeks so every 2 or 3 weeks sow another pot and by the time the first one is finished you will have a new pot all ready to tuck into.

I have used one side of a small growbag. These are the seeds I started last week. In a couple of weeks I'll sow some more in the other half of the growbag.

Keep the pots in a bright sunny place close to the kitchen.

Keep the compost moist, never let it dry out.

Keep a look out for slugs and snails.

Sow little and often .

Think of what you can buy with the money you’ll save!

Enjoy!

Mr Mac is growing chips!

One of the first things we did in our garden when we moved here was plant loads and loads of potatoes because they are good for breaking up the soil.  Mr Mac had experience of growing potatoes but when he started talking about seed potatoes, chitting, first earlies, second earlies, maincrop and haunching I realised there was slightly more to growing potatoes than I thought.

It sounded complicated and for a while I buried my head in the sand and just let Mr Mac get on with it. However, this year I decided to “face the fear” and work out what it is all about. After all, everyone else seems to be doing it so it can’t be that hard!

So here is my quick guide to growing potatoes:

  • Seed potatoes are not seeds but commercially cultivated tubers which you buy in bags from garden centres.
  • Potatoes are classified according to the length of time they spend in the ground. “Earlies” are ready for lifting first, then “second earlies” and in late summer, early autumn, “maincrop” varieties.
  • Potatoes will be ready to harvest sooner if the seeds are encouraged to develop shoots or sprouts before they are planted. This is known as “chitting”.
  • As potatoes grow, draw up earth around the stem so only the tip is exposed. This is known as “earthing up” or “haunching”.
  • First and second earlies are ready for harvesting when the plant flowers and the foliage is still green.  For maincrops, once the plant has gone brown and died completely, cut it down to ground level but leave the potatoes in the ground for another week. This allows skins to harden for storage.
  • Maincrop potatoes should be lifted on a dry day and left on the surface for a couple of hours to dry. They should be stored in a cool dark place in a hessian sack which allows moisture to evaporate.
  • Crop rotation is important.  Never plant potatoes in the same place two years running.

What we do

That first year we had so many potatoes we could have put McCain’s out of business! The purpose of growing so many was to break up the soil, which it did, but it also meant we were overrun with potatoes. We have never managed to store them successfully and the other major problem we had was worms. Probably 75% had been eaten by worms. We know worms are good for the soil which is fine as long as that is where they stay!

We had the same issue in year 2, even though we grew them in another part of the garden so Mr Mac decided all potatoes must be grown in a worm free zone. The solution? Compost bags turned inside out, a half whisky barrel and some deep pots.

We roll the compost bags down, put compost and one or two seed potatoes in the bottom and cover them. When the plant starts to grow, cover the stem and as more depth is required, just unroll the bag.

With the barrel and pots, the same applies. Start shallow and allow enough depth to keep adding compost until the potatoes are ready to harvest.

You can harvest one bag at a time by simply turning it out and collecting potatoes. There is no risk of stabbing the potatoes with a fork and they can be left in a quiet corner of the garden or kept inside and moved out once the risk of frost has passed. Easy!

Our favourites

This year we have planted a first early variety called “Foremost”. It will be ideal for new potatoes and salads. The other two varieties we love are both maincrops. Maris Pipers are good all-rounders and perfect for chips.  Pink Fir Apples have a pink knobbly skin, a waxy texture and nutty flavour, perfect with just some salt and butter mmmmmmmmmmmmmmmm.

Foremost first earlies being grown in a deep pot

The Foremost are well on the way.

The Maris Pipers and Pink Fir Apples are happily chitting in the greenhouse.

Maincrops chitting away

And finally…….

Mr Mac has an acquaintance who told him about an ingenious method he had devised.  He did not have any growing space in his garden so he used old car tyres and just kept piling them up and filling them with compost as the plants got taller. Apparently his mother was moaning about the tyres making the garden look untidy and had told him they had to go. His reply was, “They can’t go. I’m growing my chips in them”!

It’s the brassica X-Factor!

We have been blessed with a few days of unseasonably hot weather. It has been 23 degrees this week which is what we would class as a good day in June, July or August….but it is still March!

While the shorts got a rude awakening being pulled out of their winter hideaway 2 months early, the hot weather has put a spanner in the works as far as work in the garden goes.

I had planned a week of potting on my flowers but it was too hot to work in the greenhouse – 38 degrees at one point on Monday. It was too hot to dig, too hot to wear wellies and everything is confused. My fear is that many of the flowers may die off with the frost that will inevitably arrive (probably in June the way things are going!).

It is cooling down slightly now and after much consideration (ie what would be the easiest!) I decided to pot on my brassicas.

This  year I am growing red cabbage, white cabbage, cauliflower, brussel sprouts and brocolli. I am trying new varieties of white cabbage and cauliflower this year. I have gone for a variety of white cabbage called “Minicole” which produces a smaller head and can be left in the ground longer. The problem we had in the past was that all the cabbages were ready at once and they were huge. We would be eating them all week and had to give most of them away.

I am also trying an all year round variety of cauliflower and will try planting seeds periodically to extend the eating season. Again, there is only so much cauliflower cheese you can eat in a week. “Why don’t you freeze it?” I hear you ask. I tried. I freeze things then forget about them, find them 2 years later and throw them out! I need to start keeping a freezer inventory so I remember what I have.

My next problem is I am too successful! Most of the seeds sown germinate and I have struggled in the past with getting rid of any plants. I pot them on then try to give as many away as I can but then find we are left with 30 or 40 plants which is just too much for two people.

This year I decided I had to be brutal. Only pot on as many as we will need with a couple of emergency plants in case we lose any. So I found myself holding X-Factor style auditions in the greenhouse, examining every seedling for signs of healthy stems and leaves and I even found myself lining up several specimens to see who had the best roots. Only the best made it through to the finals!

I have kept 9 red cabbage, 9 brussel sprouts and 18 brocolli. The reason brocolli were shown some favouritism is because my friend is taking some but last year the brocolli stems were very spindly which meant we maybe had enough for 3 meals (from 12 plants!). I love brocolli so I decided to grow more of it.

I used pots rather than seed trays to germinate the white cabbage and cauliflower seeds and was not very successful. I think something ate the cauliflower. I only had 3 cauliflower and 4 cabbage seedlings to pot on. I have sown some more today so fingers crossed!

Here they all are in their new 3 inch pots.

As I write, Mr Mac is laying slabs on which my coldframes will sit so by the time he is finished, these guys will be ready to go outside to harden off.

What he does not know yet is that I plan to grown them in a new raised bed…….which he has still to make!

 

Carrots should be orange!

We have quite stoney ground so I have always grown carrots in a variety of deep pots. Today I planted my first batch of main crop carrots.

My method

Old square flower pots are ideal for carrots

I use these square-ish flower containers as they are deep enough for the carrots to grow and it can be moved around the garden.

I put crocs (bits of broken china, bricks and stones) in the bottom for drainage, fill with multi-purpose compost (or some of my own when it’s ready), add a thin layer of seed compost, water, sprinkle the carrot seeds over the surface then cover with a thin layer of seed compost.

 

I will keep them in the greenhouse until there is no more risk of frost and then I sit the pot up on blocks in a sunny spot in the garden.

I have always just sprinkled the seeds on top of watered compost and let them grow. You are supposed to thin them out but I have never bothered – just don’t sow too many seeds and they will all have plenty of room.

It is also suggested that you sow seeds every 2-3 weeks to provide a continual supply but I have found that as long as they are in the soil they will last for months. There is nothing better than nipping down to the bottom of the garden and pulling some carrots to have with dinner. I will probably plant another pot in 6-8 weeks and that should see me through to autumn.

Purple Haze and Autumn King 2

Last year I grew Purple Haze and Autumn King 2. I mixed the seeds and planted them together so it was always a surprise which colour came out of the pot. It is a good mixture and they look great on the plate.

I still have seeds for both varieties and will continue planting them until I run out.

Now I know that carrots were originally purple and it was the Dutch that changed the colour to orange.  I admire Jamie Oliver for trying to bring back traditional varieties of vegetables, in this case Purple Haze carrots. However, purple carrots MESS WITH MY HEAD and I’m not sure I will grow any more once the seeds have finished.

They look like carrots and taste like carrots but they are purple. Sometimes you just want some nice orange carroty loveliness covered in butter without confusing your brain. Life is too short and the novelty has definitely worn off.

Early Carrots

Early carrots planted in a rose container

This year I read that to get an early crop of carrots use a deep pot, such as a rose container, and bring seeds on in the greenhouse. Here are some I planted on 18 February.  I will let you know if they are ready to eat any earlier than the main crops planted today.

Interesting fact about carrots

If you are planning to grow carrots, keep them at least 18 inches above the ground. The reason? Apparently carrot root fly grubs cannot fly!

 

Keep them well watered during dry spells as this stops the roots from splitting.

Wait until the carrots are in the kitchen before tearing the tops off. The smell of bruised foliage attracts carrot fly.

To store them over winter, any soil should be removed and they should be kept in sand in a cool dark place.