Back to Nature

When I first started this site, I made some very private revelations about myself in a very public way. Apart from friends and family, I have tended to not want to talk about mental health problems for a number of reasons – the main one being that it makes for some uncomfortable conversations. But as I am now in week 13 of isolating at home, I have to admit that it has been a struggle lately.

Since lockdown began, my husband and I have been keeping a relatively low profile in compliance with the regulations. I started a new job the day before non-essential workers were told to stay at home, so I have spent the entirety of my new position away from the office. In order to keep my professional and personal lives separate, I have made a makeshift office in our converted, yet windowless, garage. While this has been great to comply with shielding from coronavirus (and I am happy to do this for the protection of my community) it has really started to take a toll on me mentally and emotionally. I haven’t seen friends in ages and I’m sad about the thought that I won’t be able to see my family for a while to come. On top of that, the weather took a turn for the worse, so we were unable to do any real work in the allotment for a couple of weeks.

I have to admit, I have slipped into a bad spell lately and I’ve really started feeling that familiar shadow start to appear. Dark thoughts and paralysing fear have kept me from sleeping well at night. Waking up every morning to slog downstairs and commit myself to a fixed-term contract job really hasn’t helped. As a result, I’ve been feeling rudderless. It is when I have these moments of feeling anxious, depressed, and disappointed with myself that I have to find something – anything – to redirect my energy into a healthy and productive way.

It is usually in the low times like these that I try to look for something to keep my head above water – something that offers even the tiniest ray of hope or sense of promise in the future. I needed humanity and nature. Thankfully, I was able to find that recently.

I was really longing for a sense of community and familiarity. I am lucky to live in a very friendly and active neighbourhood which can help me feel connected, but there was something else I really needed. I really needed to be outside.

So on an overcast and rather dismal Sunday, my husband and I went to Crook Hall. If you live in the Durham area or are ever planning to visit, I cannot oversell it. Tucked down a quiet lane next to the River Wear, Crook Hall is a historic home with medieval, Jacobean, and Georgian buildings that is situated amongst 5 acres of beautiful gardens. They recently built a cafe, but their afternoon teas in the house are definitely a highlight. The gardens are divided into separate nooks (like the Walled Garden, the Georgian Secret Garden, the Shakespeare Garden, the Maze, the Orchard, etc.) which give it a secluded and romantic feel.

This special place is a slice of absolute paradise in the centre of Durham – it also has a very special place in my heart. It was there in the late summer of 2017 that my husband and I decided to get married. It was there that we were married in January of 2018. And it was there that I spent a few blissful months volunteering and helping to design their new gardens. Crook Hall recently purchased a 4 acre field adjacent to their land and they asked the community for ideas of what to do with it. I submitted a proposal and detailed layout for a medieval physic garden in an attempt to recreate what the original gardens at Crook Hall may have looked like when it was constructed in the early 13th century. Surprisingly, my design won!

Afterwards, I became involved in much larger and more immediate projects. I sketched a few different designs for a winter garden, redesigned the expanded vegetable garden to facilitate a potager, and researched how to restore the Shakespeare garden. While this was happening, I was also volunteering some of my spare time to helping in the garden itself. There was one day in late January when my back was aching from lugging the leaf blower, my shoulders were sore from digging out the mole hills, my fingers and ears were frozen from the wind, and I was covered in what I hoped was dirt. Then, as I was on my knees cleaning the beds, the sun came out. I sat back for a moment, my face tilted to the sky. I could feel the heat of the sun on my skin and inhaled the fresh air. I understood what Alan Titchmarch meant when he said there are moments in the garden when you sit back and think of all those people toiling away in offices. You give a little chuckle and you thank your lucky stars that you’re not one of them.

It was pure magic.

My volunteering abruptly stopped, however, when I was offered my current job and the lockdown meant the temporary closure of Crook Hall. For the past few months I’ve been thinking of what had happened to all those seeds I had sown in the winter, the plants I had stored in the greenhouse for spring planting, and how my detailed plans for this year’s vegetable patch were progressing. I was absolutely chomping at the bit to get back!

Finally being able to go back through the gardens and up the newly acquired fields was the closest thing to a spiritual experience I’ve ever really had. It was incredible to see everything in bloom and growing and continuing on despite our long isolation. I truly believe that nature is so much greater and more important than us – we are just one element in its existence, not the other way around. We live in its world, nature doesn’t live in ours. It allows us the opportunity to think we can tame it, but in the end it keeps rolling on even as we are stuck battling ourselves.

I am so glad that I went and I encourage you to find someplace that makes you feel the same way. Somewhere that brings you back down to earth and makes you stop and smell the roses.

Growing Brassicas: A Lesson in Ingenuity

I must admit that there are few things more satisfying than the taste of freshly grown sprouting broccoli or the tremendous feeling of pride you get when hauling a huge head of cabbage home from the garden. Because of these rewarding moments I have endeavoured to grow brassicas, despite the numerous challenges this group of veg presents to an allotment gardener.

Our first year on the plot I was so excited to get growing. The allure of full heads of calabrese and ripe buds of Brussels sprouts presented an easy way to get my plot started – or so I thought. I had heard the occasional warning from fellow growers about cabbage moths or club root or cabbage root fly or root rock, but I figured it was just one of those things that might present itself. Hopefully, it was just something that happened in theory rather than in practice. As with most of my growing experiences, I was very quickly proven wrong!

It turns out our site is inundated with cabbage moths. Within a few short days, my entire crop of broccoli and Brussels sprouts were wiped out – and I mean, annihilated by these greedy little insects. I quickly started researching these flying destroyer of plants and found out that, when presented with a delicious member of the brassica family, cabbage moths (also known as cabbage whites) lay their eggs on the underside of the broad leaves so commonly associated with this plant. The eggs then hatch and the little larvae consume the leaves for sustenance. If you have a really bad infestation – like I did – your crop can be gone within a matter of days.

That first year we had set up the most rudimentary of protection against these moths by laying a bit of (what we thought was sufficient) netting over the crop. It didn’t reach the ground to provide complete cover and the netting ended up resting directly on top of the leaves, allowing cabbage moths the perfect opportunity to lay their eggs. ‘Next year,’ I remember thinking, ‘next year, I’ll be ready!’

Sort of.

When we went to plant next year’s crop of brassicas I reused the same netting (first mistake) but this time ensured that the netting reached all the way to the ground. I put upturned bottles on the top of the bamboo canes to keep these from sliding between the holes in the netting and placed bricks along the ground to secure the netting. While this theoretically worked (we did get a successful harvest) there were other problems that presented themselves.

The netting situation last year – it wasn’t tall enough to accommodate this sprouting broccoli and constantly removing the bricks to gain access kept ripping holes in the net.
  1. Weeds grew through the netting before I could get to them. These would then get tangled and rip the nets, creating larger holes and proving to be a sad deterrent against the moths.
  2. The netting wasn’t tall enough to protect larger crops like sprouting broccoli which ended up growing to about a metre high.
  3. We used a lot of bricks to hold down the netting, which meant that if we wanted to do anything to the crop, it would take a lot of effort to move everything just to access the brassicas beneath.
  4. The holes in the netting proved to be too wide, meaning it was almost useless against moths and butterflies. It turns out we had mistakenly bought netting that was more suited to keeping birds, rather than insects, out.

After a moderately successful crop, I was determined to not make the same mistakes this year. To combat this, I used the most powerful weapon in my gardening arsenal to ensure my brassicas would be fully protected from these flying jerks – I got my overly neurotic, hyper analytical, and cynically-minded husband involved.

Those little bastards didn’t stand a chance.

I unleashed my husband and got a brassica fortress!

We decided that the best way to grow brassicas for this year would be to address each problem individually and find the best solution. To counter the weeds that would constantly grow up through the netting, we removed the need for weeding at all by placing a sheet of black mulching plastic on the ground. In all honesty, this isn’t the most green or environmentally friendly approach, but I figured using this to ensure a good brassica crop outweighed the cons of eating broccoli that had been shipped from halfway around the world.

We bought better netting – and lots of it! Our whole allotment experience has been based on growing as inexpensively as possible – saving money is one of the many perks of growing your own – but we do occasionally spend a little if it means we’ll get a lot in return. It turns out that we hadn’t been using butterfly proof netting, so we went for a much finer and more appropriate type of barrier. We also spent some money on new wooden posts to hold the structure in place and, instead of using free bricks that we had dug up on the plot to hold down the netting, we bought metal u-shaped pegs to hold it all in place. To secure the opening, we bulk bought clothes pins from a discount store – I think it was £1 for a pack of 50. We used zip ties and string to tie everything else in place.

To make our brassica cages (or as my husband likes to call it, ‘Lydia’s Play-Pen’) you will need the following materials (please note this is to make two of them, just half it or double it where necessary if you want to make more or less):

  • Black Plastic Lining, approximately 4m x 1m in size – don’t buy the fabric kind as you will want to make holes in it
  • Box Cutter (or a similarly sharp knife)
  • Scissors
  • Six 2m wooden posts for the corners and middle
  • Thirty bamboo canes, approximately 1.5m-2m long
  • Two Butterfly Proof Nets, approximately 5m x 1m each
  • Saw
  • Sledge Hammer or Mallet
  • Zip Ties
  • Twine
  • Clothes Pins
  • Metal U-Shaped Pegs

The assembly may take up the better part of a day’s work in the garden, so set aside some time. Once it’s up, there’s very little maintenance to do afterwards.

  1. Start by clearing the area where the cage will go of all weeds and previous crops. Give the ground a good turn and rake to a fine tilth – you’ll thank yourself later for this extra step!
  2. Lay down the black plastic and place something heavy in the corners to keep it in place for now.
  3. Saw each of the 2m wooden stakes in half, so they are each 1m long.
  4. Hammer each of the stakes in place – one on each corner and two in the middle for extra support.
  5. Assemble the bamboo canes to the stakes with zip ties so that it makes a frame (see the above picture).
  6. For the more dexterous gardener, begin assembling the net (note, this will take up most of the assembly time and I found it helpful to do this on the ground and then bring it to the cage). Lay one of the nets in a u shape, so that it mimics three of the sides of the cage (the two longer sides and one shorter). Unravel the other net and place it so that the end aligns with the shorter side of the first net and the longer sides match up with the longer sides of the first net. Using the twine, ‘sew’ it so that you connect the two nets together – you will basically be making a 3D box shape from the netting.
  7. Lay the completed netting over the top of the cage so that it covers the frame (the stakes and bamboo canes should be on the inside).
  8. Using more zip ties, attach the netting to the bamboo canes and stakes.
  9. Take the metal pegs and, wrapping the bottom of the net around more bamboo canes, pin these into the ground so it makes a firm seal.
  10. Take the clothes pins and the excess netting from the unsown side and pin it closed so it can act like a door.
Another angle of the cages.

Now that this assembled, it’s time to get planting! Don’t worry – growing brassicas is much easier once you have these basics covered.

Using the box cutter or a pair of scissors, make a hole in the plastic approximately 15cm in diameter. Using a hand trowel or a fork, loosen the soil to a fine tilth, removing any stones or hard clumps of soil. Stir in a bit of compost or well-rotted manure in the hole.
Place the plant in the hole (here I’m planting cabbages) and fill the soil to just under the seed leaves. It is important that brassicas have a very firm and strong planting to protect the roots from wind. Too much disturbance to the root system can cause root or wind rock which harms your crop.
Place a ‘collar’ around the plant to protect it from cabbage root fly. I recycle 2L soda bottles for this job, but I’ve seen people use PVC pipes, pieces of agricultural felt, strong wool, carpet, or wooden frames for the same purpose.

Water your brassicas well and feed with an all-purpose high nitrogen feed every 2 weeks throughout the growing season. If you have butterfly proof netting then you shouldn’t have to worry about cabbage moths, but feel free to pop in the cage occasionally to check the underside of leaves, just in case. Also, ensure you sew up any holes and make sure there are no possible ways to get in the cage. Curious small birds have been known to get trapped in netting, so please make sure there is no way they can get in and harm themselves.

A successfully grown and moth free cabbage!

Apart from watering and the occasional feed, there is very little for you to do. The black plastic will take care of the weeds, the netting should keep out pests, and the collars will protect from any root borne problems. All you have to do is sit back and dream of cabbage!

Spuds, Glorious Spuds: Growing potatoes

My husband loves potatoes.

No, love isn’t strong enough a word. He loves me, his family, our pets…

He is besotted, devoted, passionate about potatoes! Potatoes are his oxygen, his joie de vivre, his safety blanket, his constant in a chaotic and ever changing world. When I first brought my husband to Texas to meet my family, our American sized potatoes were the thing that captured his heart in the Lone Star State – oh yeah, and the family were ok, too. As soon as we acquired the allotment, I knew I would have to grow potatoes – and lots of them!

Aim to find someone who looks at you the way my husband looks at potatoes.

My first true experience of seriously growing potatoes was last year. It all seemed fairly straight forward and, while we had huge harvests off some of the varieties, there were others that really failed to impress. The variety ‘Red Duke of York’ – although lauded for its reliability – was a bit of a disappointment. Hardly any of this variety were able to thrive and those that did produced scabbed tubers. To be fair, some of this can be attributed to a steep learning curve and my lack of experience at the time – not hilling up properly or protecting before late frosts, incorrect chitting techniques, not allowing enough room between tubers, etc. These are lessons which I’ve really taken on board for this year’s potato planting.

To accommodate my husband’s insatiable love of potatoes – and my love of trying new things – we decided to plant eight different varieties this year which are a combination of some old favourites and some new experiments. In all honesty, I did overestimate how much space I had dedicated to potatoes (again) so we ended up giving the excess seed tubers to a friend’s allotment, but I am very hopeful for good results this year! We’ve planted two first early varieties (Rocket and Arran Pilot); two second early varieties (Charlotte and Purple Eye); and four maincrops (King Edward, Maris Piper, Pink Fir Apple, and Kerr’s Pink).

In this post, I’m going to discuss the techniques we use – and the ones we’ve tried in the past – to get a delicious crop of fluffy, tasty, carbo-licious potatoes!

Even with the occasional crop failure, last year’s harvest was a roaring success!

The most cursory glance at this blog will tell you one thing – we have heavy clay soil and I have dedicated a lot of breath to moan about it! While this type of soil is great for retaining nutrients, it makes for an absolute backache to dig. It can also be tricky if there are any extreme variations in the weather – too much rain and you have a clumpy, sodden, muddy mess and too little rain will result in dry, rock hard, undiggable soil. I am often asked how to deal with this type of soil and I’m afraid that the answer isn’t what people want to hear – you just have to dig it, condition it with lots (and I mean, LOTS) of organic matter, and give it time. The best patch on our plot which has the closest thing to a fine, crumbling texture took 3 years of digging and planting to get the soil so workable, but even then it still requires effort to break it up.

If you’re not gardening on a budget, then you can always assemble raised beds and buy in loads of sieved topsoil and compost. Others rely on the no-dig method. I do really like this style of gardening and think it has a lot of benefits: however, the main downside for us would be the sheer amount of compost, mulch, and topsoil that we would need for a plot our size. Without the ability (or space) to make that much compost, we would also have to spend money to supply this. As we are attempting to do the allotment as cheaply as possible, we’ve just relied on the longer, more old-fashioned methods.

The even bigger question to come out of the soil conundrum: how do you plant potato tubers in heavy clay soil? Luckily, we’ve come up with a solution that has worked for us so far (fingers crossed).

Most advice says to plant the tubers in a trench approximately 8-10 inches deep. Some fellow gardeners on our plot use a petrol powered tiller to do this but – as we are trying to do this on the cheap – we’ve had to adapt this slightly. To accommodate for our heavy soil, we only dig about 6 inches deep – this keeps us from running into the extremely compacted and nutrient poor subsoil while still utilising the best of the more fertile topsoil.

You can tell by this picture what kind of soil we have – the pile on the left-hand side is what we’ve dug out to make the trench.

We then line the bottom of the trench with about 1-2 inches of well-rotted manure and/or compost. When I first started planting potatoes, my farm raised father-in-law told me to ‘Throw a bunch of sh*t on it.’ At the time, I thought he just meant a lot of stuff. No – he literally meant manure. And boy, does it work! Not only does it help feed the potatoes, but the earthworms love it and they’ll happily process it to better condition and soften your soil.

Once you have lined the trench with manure, place your chitted potatoes in the trench approximately 8-12 inches apart, depending on variety. While you don’t necessarily have to chit maincrop potatoes, I would definitely recommend doing it for first and second earlies. It allows them the chance to make healthy sprouts and the beginnings of good root systems before being placed in the ground, giving them a strong head start. To chit your potatoes, put them in a cool but sunny spot – for example, we use the counter in the utility room. Don’t be tempted to use your old potatoes from the pantry with long stringy shoots – these are not what you want!

The healthy shoot in the above picture is a perfect example of what you’re aiming to happen – you can even see some leaves developing and the different buds which will become separate potatoes! There is so much promise and potential in such a small and insignificant thing. Feel free to use to use this time to ponder the wonders of nature.

After you’ve placed your potato babies snugly in the ground you’re going to top them with – you guessed it – more manure! We cover them up so that none of the shoots or spuds are visible, so an inch or two above the tops of the tubers. What this has done is surround your potatoes with fertile and loose material with which to strengthen and grow. This allows them a much better chance of survival than having to immediately contend with breaking through harder, heavier soil.

Once you have finished this stage, now comes the time consuming part. Either by hand, with a soil sieve, or with some sort of tool, break up the dug pile of heavy clay soil as best as you can. It may seem tedious, but trust me, this is worth the time.

It took the two of us approximately a half hour to break as much as this up by hand as possible for two rows of potatoes – and as you can see from the picture on the right, it still isn’t that great. This is why cocooning the tubers in several inches of soft, loose organic matter like well-rotted manure is so important. As this stage can be rather tedious, I would recommend downloading a good audio book to have in the background.

As always, water them well every other day in normal springtime weather – everyday in hot, dry weather – until the plants start to appear above ground. Depending on the variety, this can take anywhere from 2-4 weeks. Once they start to get well established, begin feeding with a general purpose fertiliser like Growmore once a week to help them develop.

When the green shoots are approximately 10-12 inches tall (or the weather forecast predicts frost) you can start to hill up the potatoes.

Hilling up accomplishes two things. Firstly, it protects the growing and swelling tubers from receiving any sunlight underground. Exposure to sunlight is what turns potatoes green and produces solanine, a poisonous chemical that effects members of the deadly nightshade family like potatoes, tomatoes, and aubergines. In fact, the genus to which the plants belong (Solanum) gives its name to this chemical. Although you can just cut off the occasional green patch before you cook them, too much of this is poisonous for human consumption. Fortunately, hilling up or mulching the emerging potato plants keeps light from filtering through the soil and turning the tubers green.

Secondly, hilling up protects the tender leaves from any late spring frosts. Covering the shoots and leaves completely with more soil or mulch may seem counterproductive and like it would slow down or impede their growth, but it actually does just the opposite – it encourages the potato to keep reaching skyward and thus grow even bigger and stronger.

As you can see from the two photos above, you need to cover the plants up as much as possible, especially if frost is forecast. Don’t worry that this process will injure the plants – after another week or so, they’ll have grown significantly taller. The below picture was taken yesterday approximately two weeks after we hilled up the first earlies at the top of the plot. As you can see, they have already come through again!

You can keep your pristine knot and cross hedges or elegant rose gardens – to me, rows of uniformly planted potatoes is a thing of beauty!

When it comes to harvesting your potatoes, it really depends on the type you’ve planted. First early potatoes are usually ready to harvest when they’re about the size of a hen’s egg or when the flowers have appeared. Second early potatoes are usually ready a few weeks later and you can tell ripeness by the same methods as first earlies. Generally, it is best to wait for maincrop and late maincrop potatoes when the flowers have died and the foliage has started to yellow and wilt. If in doubt, dig up a corner and see what you have. Even if they all seem ready to dig up, it is perfectly fine for them to stay in the ground longer – they’ll only just get bigger – so feel free to dig them up as and when you need them rather than all at once.

It is said that the best time to harvest potatoes is in the morning – although this is usually the best time to harvest or cut most plants. The idea is that you rub off as much dirt and muck from the harvest tubers and lay them in the sun to dry, allowing the skins to toughen up in the process. Later that evening, lay the potatoes in a cool, dry space and evenly spaced apart. This will allow them to dry out even further. If there are any with bruises or nicks, eat these first as they won’t keep for very long.

For the remaining harvest, store them in a cloth or hessian sack once they are completely dry – these can be bought fairly cheaply online or in garden centres. Do not put them in a plastic bag as this can sweat and encourages mould growth and rotting. Also, do learn from my mistake and sort them according to variety – it is so frustrating to find a type of potato you really enjoy and not be able to remember the species for next year! Check them periodically and remove any that are beginning to rot or have problems that you may have missed. If kept properly, you should be able to eat roast potatoes at Christmas that you harvested in late-September.

Get planting!

Curly Kale: Three delicious recipes for breakfast, lunch, and dinner

It is often said that in Britain, we do not have a climate – we have weather! And boy, is that true of this year!

This past winter was one of the wettest and mildest on record. We barely had any true frosts – not great for autumn planted bulbs like garlic which rely on frost to help them split – and the torrential floods left most of the ground a sodden and undiggable mess. The rows of winter lettuces that I planted in October, for example, quickly rotted away before they were allowed the opportunity to flourish. After the rain came one of the driest and sunniest Aprils on record. If you ever have any doubts about climate change, ask a farmer or gardener.

I planted some delicious rows of curly kale in October which I was planning to enjoy through the late winter and spring – but the series of extreme weather fluctuations had other ideas. The non-stop rain followed by the recent heat waves caused my whole crop to have stunted growth in the winter and then a quick bolt in the spring. This resulted in it going to seed far quicker than I expected, so I had to harvest as much as possible in a short time. Although I wasn’t able to enjoy this plant for as long as I wanted, I did manage to get a delicious crop off the stalks before it went completely to seed.

As is usually the case, I now have a glut! Needless to say, kale is making an appearance in all of my meals for the next few days. Fortunately, kale is one of those extremely healthy and delicious ingredients that you can add to almost any meal for a quick shot of nutrients. 100g of kale has more calcium than 100g of milk (150mg compared to 125mg) and boasts an impressively high amount of vitamins A, C, and K. So if you’re looking for a quick, easy, and inexpensive way to add some additional nutrients to your day, here are 3 recipes which will help you stay healthy and satisfied.

Breakfast: Kale Smoothie

Prep Time, 5 minutes / Assemble Time, 2 minutes

  • 1 cup kale leaves (stems removed)
  • 1 ripe banana (peeled)
  • 1 cup almond milk (or semi-skimmed milk if you don’t have almond)
  • 2 scoops of protein powder (chocolate or vanilla works well)
  • Handful of ice cubes
  • Dash of cinnamon

Assemble all the ingredients into a blender (minus the cinnamon) and pulse on high for 1-2 minutes, until everything is well incorporated and it is a thick, creamy consistency without any lumps. Once it is well mixed, pour into a large glass and top with a dash of cinnamon.

Lunch: Mixed Greens and Kale Salad

Prep Time, 10 minutes / Assemble Time, 2 minutes

  • 1 cup kale leaves (stems removed)
  • 1 cup of mixed lettuces (the more colourful and varied, the better!)
  • 1/4 cup carrots, chopped or shredded and peeled
  • 1/4 cup cucumber, diced
  • 1/4 cup celery, chopped
  • 1/2 of a yellow pepper, chopped
  • 1/2 cup of cherry tomatoes, halved
  • 1 stalk of spring onion (scallion), chopped
  • 25g walnuts, chopped
  • 25g raisins
  • 25g feta cheese, diced
  • Vinaigrette of your choice

Place the cut carrots, cucumber, celery, pepper, tomatoes, spring onions, walnuts, raisins, and cheese and place it into a bowl of mixed lettuce and kale leaves. Top with your dressing of choice and give it a good toss.

Dinner: Kale and Three Bean Soup

Prep Time, 5 minutes / Cook Time, 20 minutes

  • 1 tbl olive oil
  • 1 red onion, diced
  • 1 whole carrot, peeled and chopped
  • 2 celery stalks, chopped
  • 3 garlic cloves, crushed
  • 1 tin of mixed beans in water, strained and rinsed
  • [optional] 2 cups of frozen Quorn chicken pieces (can use real chicken but I’m vegetarian, so I occasionally use this instead – it has the same amount of protein and a fraction of the fat)
  • 2 cups of kale leaves (stems removed)
  • 4 cups of vegetable stock
  • Sprinkling of dried rosemary and sage
  • Dash of salt and pepper

Pour the olive oil into a saucepan over medium heat and add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic to make a mirepoix. Let it cook down until the onions start to be translucent and occasionally stir to keep it from sticking. After 5-7 minutes, pour a few tablespoons of water into the pan, allowing it to deglaze the cooking veg and oil without adding more fat to the mixture, and then pour in the tin of beans.

Allow the beans to cook for a few minutes before adding the ‘chicken’ pieces. After these have cooked for a few minutes, stir in 4 cups of vegetable stock.

Allow this to cook for a few more minutes until everything is well incoporated and bubbling away. Lastly, add the fresh kale leaves and chopped dried herbs – I used rosemary and sage that I picked and dried from the winter – to add a bit more flavour. Sprinkle with a bit of salt and cracked black pepper to taste. Let the soup come to a rolling boil and then turn it to low for about 5-10 minutes.

After it has been left to sit on low, ladle it into a bowl and tuck in! This recipe should make about four servings and will keep in the fridge for a few days.

Enjoy your homemade bowl of nutritious comfort!

I hope these recipes will help you to see all the possibilities of kale and encourage you to seek creative ways of integrating this nutritious vegetable into your daily meals.

Gardening in Lockdown: How to have a productive plot during Covid-19

If there has anything that we have learned from the current crisis, it is that we as a collective group can accomplish amazing things. Although we are living in uncertain and frightening times, we have been fortunate to see some of the best of humanity. This past week Captain (now Colonel!) Tom has raised over £32 million for the NHS, TV adverts and programmes are full of inspiring messages of collaborative hope, and essential workers are bravely continuing to keep our society moving by tirelessly working on the front lines.

The best thing that we can do in these circumstances is to fully cooperate: we need to stay home, follow the guidelines, and stay focused on keeping ourselves and our communities safe from this atrocious virus.

The shortest perusal of the internet will show that people are getting pretty creative during the quarantine. As most business are closed or only selling essential items, most are having to make do or invent new ways of carrying on with everyday routines. This is especially true for gardening!

As most of our outside time is limited to our back gardens, this is definitely the right time to flex your green fingers and soak up some vital sunshine. Now more than ever, it is important to keep yourself mentally and physically healthy – gardening is just one great way to do this! Fortunately, allotments have been exempt from lockdown by the UK government. According to the government and England Police, attending an allotment is a valid excuse to leave your home (see the link here). However, as many garden centres are closed and the surge in home deliveries means longer wait times, a little creativity can go a long way to supply your veg plot with everything you will need to make it productive.

In this post, I’m going to present a few different ideas to keep your garden afloat.

Running low on compost: This seems to be one of the biggest problems, especially because it can be a hassle getting large bags of compost delivered to your front door. There are a few easy solutions which can stretch your dwindling supply or to help quickly make your own.

The first thing I would recommend is to stop using straight compost for seed sowing if you’re running low and instead mix it with something else to keep the supply going. My recommendation would be to use plain top soil with something like vermiculite or perlite to beef up your compost – it’s relatively light and compact so easy to deliver – and a little goes a long way. I make a mixture that is even parts top soil and compost with a handful of vermiculite.

Mix this all together is a bucket or spare seed tray and then scoop it into individual pots.

If you’re in the precarious position where you have absolutely no compost or seed starting mix, then it’s time to start getting a bit more creative.

Take kitchen scraps – vegetable peels, finely crushed egg shells, coffee grinds, and strips of newspaper or non printed paper towels work perfectly. Chop this all up together so you have a fairly fine mixture without any large lumps. Ideally, use something that has rotted down or decayed a bit, but it’s fine if it hasn’t. To speed up the process, make a large batch of this and put it in something like a bucket or spare bin, add some water and a sprinkling of soil, and cover. You can cover it with a plastic bag or bin bag to really help keep the heat and moisture inside. Now place it in a warm sunny spot, occasionally giving it a shake without removing the cover. After a week or two you will have something that starts to look and smell a bit funky – it may not look like well-rotted, ready-to-use compost but it’s something!

When you’re ready to start planting or sowing seeds, throw this mixture in with equal parts top soil – if you don’t have any bags of sieved top soil, just dig up a patch from your back garden, remove any weeds/grasses, and try to get it to a breadcrumb consistency as much as possible. Then use this to sow seeds or pot up veg. It’s not perfect, but it will supply some nutrients and help to get things going if you’re really in a bind.

If you are able to leave your home, then one of the best things to do is look on social media – Facebook marketplace or a neighbourhood group is a good spot for this! There are often people selling compost/top soil or even some that are just trying to get rid of theirs for free. Just ensure before you do anything like this that the person is a reputable seller and that you can arrange a collection or delivery safely while complying with all current lockdown rules! It’s not worth getting this disease or risking spreading it to others for a bit of soil.

We recently acquired lots of well-rotted horse manure while still complying with all the current rules – as I have asthma, this is especially important for me! A local woman who owns horses and a paddock advertised free manure on my local neighbourhood Facebook page. In order to obey all restrictions, she ensured that the gate to the paddock was open, so we were able to drive straight on in our car without touching anything. The manure pile was several metres away from everything and we brought our own buckets, bags, and tools to load it up. Doing it this way ensured that we had no direct contact with each other but were still able to collect manure. We were able to get 45 bags (!) each about 12-15 kg for FREE! She is eager to get rid of the stuff, so we’ve shared this with other plot holders and friends who have since collected some themselves. This was a great way to still get what you needed, but without risking you, your loved ones, or strangers.

We got about 700 kg of well-rotted horse manure for FREE! We just shovelled it ourselves into old soil and feed bags we had sitting in the shed.

Planters and Pots: We are fortunate in that we have loads – and I mean, LOADS – of spare plastic plant pots and seed trays from years of buying plants and plugs from nurseries. Apart from a couple of propagator trays, we have never had to buy small pots or seed trays – instead, we wash and store all of the pots we have collected over the years so they can be reused. I really hate the amount of plastic we use and I am so conscious of how much destruction single-use plastic is causing to the natural world. As I know that it is really difficult to go completely plastic free, I try to just reuse as much as I can rather than buying even more plastic. One way to ensure that you do not have to buy more plastic items – and thus necessitate their constant production – is to spend a day in the autumn washing, drying, and properly storing any plastic pots, containers, or trays you may have. Treat it like a rare commodity.

For those who do not have loads in their shed like we do, there are many other ways that you can make pots from items in your house by reusing things in your recycling bin.

Toilet Roll Tubes: If there’s anything that we should all have in abundance right now, it’s toilet roll! Over the past year, I have been meticulously saving every empty cardboard tube and storing it for future use. It may make me look like a crazy person when I’m swiping used toilet tubes, but it is one of the most useful things you can do! If you don’t have any spare empty tubes right now, just go to that unopened 24 pack of toilet paper you have stored in the garage (Costco shoppers, I’m looking at you!) and gently pry the cardboard from the inside of the roll. Spoiler alert: you don’t actually need the tube to still use the toilet paper! It will still hold it’s shape and be able to sit on a roll dispenser without the tube in the middle.

Plastic tubs, cartons, and bottles: Another thing that I also collect over the year are 2 litre plastic bottles. My husband is a compulsive soda drinker, so these are always in supply in my house! I usually save these and use them to put on the top of bamboo canes when I have to drape netting or insect mesh over a bed (see below). I also use them in my brassica bed when protecting crops from cabbage root fly by making them into a cuff or collar which surrounds the base and roots of the plant. PVC pipe also works well for this, but I find reused plastic bottles works just as well.

I put them on the top of bamboo canes to keep the nets from breaking on the ends of the bamboo and to keep the sticks from slipping through the nets. This keeps the nets off the plants, ensuring their growth is not restricted and that birds can’t pick at the delicious veg or fruit beneath. If you want it slightly more attractive, do the opposite of what I did and remove the plastic labels first – lesson learned!

You can also use plastic bottles as pots! Remove the outside label and, using a pair of scissors or a sharp knife, carefully cut the bottle in half crosswise to make two pots. For the bottom portion of the bottle, make several holes in the bottom to allow for drainage. For the top portion of the bottle, remove the cap for drainage.

Feel free to rummage around in your recycling bin for other potential pots. Empty margarine tubs, plastic milk jugs, yogurt pots, empty tissue boxes, and egg cartons also make great containers for growing seeds. Anything that is made from cardboard can go straight in the ground with the seedling once it’s time to plant out: just ensure it is very wet before you stick it in the ground – this helps ensure it will rot away and not impede the plant’s growth. One of the best things about an empty margarine or butter tub is that you can use the lid as a water tray! Simply clean the tub, let dry completely, poke a few holes in the bottom, fill with soil and seed, and set it on the lid to catch excess water.

Even household items can be used as pots. For example, if you’re throwing out an old dresser simply remove the drawers, drill a few holes in the bottom, throw a bit of outdoor paint on it, and you have a new planter. If you have some old broken wash buckets, plastic or wooden bathroom bins, or storage boxes you’re no longer using, just punch a few holes in those and you can also use them to hold plants. Don’t be afraid to get creative! Almost anything can serve as a seed tray or plant pot if you just use a bit of imagination.

Seeds and Plants: Many seed merchants and nurseries are currently inundated with orders, especially since so many people have decided to take up gardening during lockdown. While this is a wonderful thing for our green spaces, it is making it a bit difficult to get anything quickly. Most online seed suppliers have a 3-4 week wait for deliveries and nurseries or garden centres, if they are open, are only able to deliver over a certain amount of money to make it viable. There are a few ways around this if you can’t afford to wait at the moment.

One option would be to go on Ebay, Gumtree, or other similar websites to see if local sellers have any seeds available that they can get to you in a shorter amount of time. Neighbourhood groups on certain social media sites like Facebook are starting to set up plant/seed swaps. Plan ahead with your neighbours to collect or share excess seeds or seedlings to ensure no person-to-person contact. For example, have them leave the items in a secure place and you can then collect it at your leisure. I would definitely recommend wearing a mask and gloves when handling anything and sanitising it with wipes before you use it with your bare hands. Be sure to wash your hands very well afterwards.

Nurseries and garden centres in my area are currently setting up deliver systems to use their seasonal goods. Now is a great time to help support these local businesses who are being economically impacted by the current situation. Most of these have set up delivery systems – understandably, click and collect is not allowed for health and safety reasons – but they usually have a high minimum spend amount to make it worthwhile for them. One local nursery in my area, for example, has a £50 minimum spend to deliver within 5 miles. Don’t be put off by this, however. What I would recommend is to ask neighbours, friends, and fellow gardeners if they would like to order something with you. Have one person in the group place the order and put down their contact details for the delivery address. The other people in the ground can then go and collect it from the front of your house in a rotation system to keep everyone physically distanced. Most nursery or garden centres have Facebook pages now, so if you’re having trouble finding someone to join your order but don’t want to buy £50 worth of plants, get in touch with other people on their page and see if you can join their order.

Just because we are living in unusual times doesn’t mean that you can’t continue to garden, grow, and produce lovely things outdoors. The current restrictions just mean that you have to be a little more creative at times, especially since growing your own food has never been more important than ever! With the borders closed to the seasonal immigrant workforce, British growers are having difficulty finding workers to help pick crops. A substantial amount of produce is likely to rot and go to waste because there simply aren’t enough people to help (or willing to help) feed the nation. If you are currently furloughed or unemployed and looking for work, I would highly recommend you visit the site, Pick for Britain. It is a government and agricultural partnership that is trying to address the current job and produce situations by allowing those who are currently unemployed to be in direct contact with growers who desperately need the labour. Please think about joining this or suggest to someone who could benefit from this scheme!

Just remember readers, we can get through this – but we have to do it together.

Keep calm and carry on growing.

All Together Now: The perks of companion planting

When you are first starting out in a vegetable garden, it can be a little intimidating when trying to decide what to put where. Your plot is like a blank page – although it can be scary to start creating, once you get going you’ll realise that the possibilities are limitless and, so too, is your imagination.

Every winter I spend my time designing my plot for the upcoming planting year. Along with growing factors like sunlight and soil type, the main thing I like to keep in mind is how can I produce the most yield while using the least amount of pesticides or unnatural fertilisation methods. This is where the magic of companion planting comes into play!

Companion planting can seem a bit tricky to understand but, with a little knowledge and some planning, you’ll soon realise just how achievable this method of planting can be. The whole idea behind it is to group complimentary vegetables, fruits, herbs, and flowers together to naturally encourage eco-friendly methods of pest control and better crop rotation for healthy soil production. All too often, the health of the soil gets overlooked and instead we tend to focus on plant health, but it’s really simple when you break it down – healthy soil = healthy plants.

To best understand companion planting, let’s look at the simple carrot. It is frequently seen on a plate and is a staple purchase of any trip to the shops, yet the complexities of growing this simple veg is often overlooked. Carrots do not like soil that has been manured within the previous 6 months or so of planting, it needs a rock free planting site, and it is one of the few veg that will not benefit from a good dose of nitrogen (which is often the primary ingredient in many garden fertilisers). They are also notoriously tricky to grow because of the dreaded carrot fly – tiny insects who lay their larvae at the base of carrots who, after hatching, will bore holes through carrots. If you’ve ever grown a carrot with small black holes burrowed through the flesh, you definitely have carrot fly.

In order to appease carrots, gardeners often have to make special growing conditions to get these roots to develop as well as possible, particularly to avoid the dreaded carrot fly as much as possible. The most common advice is to grow carrots in raised beds about 1 metre (3 ft) off the ground, to sow thinly in order to avoid attracting carrot fly during the thinning process (they hone in on the smell), and to cover with insect proof mesh. Last year I was able to grow a fairly respectable crop of carrots – with approximately 10% affected by carrot fly – which is saying a lot considering they were grown at ground level and with no protective fleece. Part of what I attribute to this success is from the perks of companion planting. Interspersed between my rows of carrots were rows of onions, leeks, and marigolds – three plants whose strong fragrance is said to repel and confuse carrot fly.

Other relationships that best exemplify companion planting is the ‘three sister’s’, attributed to the genius of Native American growers. In this example, the ‘three sister’s’ are squash, sweetcorn, and beans. The idea was that you would plant climbing beans and ground roaming squashes amongst the stalks of sweetcorn. The beans would introduce high amounts of nitrogen into the soil – directly benefiting the hungry squashes and sweetcorn – and in return the beans would climb the sweetcorn for support. The squashes would tangle themselves on the ground around the base of the beans and sweetcorn, suppressing any weeds which could have sapped vital water, sunlight, and nutrients from the other plants. In this way, Native Americans were able to use one advantage from each vegetable in order to support and nurture the growth of another – and that is the beauty behind companion planting.

Squashes and sweet corn happily settling in next to each other – and my sweet other half dutifully digging rows of late maincrop potatoes.

Just as some plants can be beneficial to others, so can they be combative. For example, it is important to never plant potatoes with squashes or any similar fruiting plant. Potatoes can often get blight – a fungus that appears as black spots on the leaves and can often ruin crops (think the Irish Potato Famine) – which is very easily spread to squashes. While some potatoes with blight can still be salvaged, blight tends to rots squash plants from the inside out. It is also said that you shouldn’t plant peas next to anything in the allium family (like onions, shallots, garlic, or gladioli) because they can stunt the growth of peas.

Now, this isn’t to say that if you break some of the rules or put peas and onions several feet away from each other that nothing will grow – in fact, this year I have peas and leeks growing quite happily only a few feet away from each other. It just to say that they do not necessarily compliment or assist each other or can possibly make it more difficult to have the best harvest. Even though I try to rigorously follow the rules of companion planting, there are many times when even I have to bend the rules occasionally to allow for the best use of space. Which is why I try to instead think of companion planting as a system for encouraging good bedding relationships rather than an absolute rule, even if that means that sometimes you have to plant some non-companion plants a bit closer together.

The below table is a good reference for what works best together and what to avoid, if you can help it.

Artichoke (Globe)Cabbages, Peas, Sunflowers, Tarragon
AsparagusBasil, Beets, Carrots, Coriander, Dill, Lettuces, Marigolds, Parsley, Spinach, TomatoesGarlic, Onions, Potatoes
Aubergine Beans, Marjoram, Okra, Peppers, PotatoesFennel
Beans (Broad)Aubergine, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumber, Celery, Chard, Corn, Kale, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, StrawberryBeets, Chives, Fennel, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots, Sunflowers
Beans (Drying)Aubergine, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumber, Celery, Chard, Corn, Kale, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, StrawberryBeets, Chives, Fennel, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots, Sunflowers
Beans (French/Dwarf)Aubergine, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumber, Celery, Chard, Corn, Kale, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, StrawberryBeets, Chives, Fennel, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots, Sunflowers
Beans (Runner)Aubergine, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Carrots, Cauliflower, Cucumber, Celery, Chard, Corn, Kale, Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, StrawberryBeets, Chives, Fennel, Garlic, Leeks, Onions, Shallots, Sunflowers
BeetrootBroccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbages, Cauliflower, Chives, Garlic, Kohlrabi, Leeks, Lettuces, Onions, Radishes, SpinachBeans, Tomatoes
BroccoliBasil, Beets, Bush Beans, Calendula, Carrots, Celery, Chamomile, Cucumber, Dill, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Radishes, Rosemary, Sage, Spinach, Swiss Chard, ThymeAsparagus, Cantaloupe, Climbing Beans, Melon, Mustard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Strawberry, Sweet Corn
Broccoli (Chinese)Basil, Beets, Chard, Cucumbers, Dill, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Mint, Nasturtium, Radishes, Rosemary, Spinach, Shallots, Sage, ThymeAsparagus, Aubergine, Beans (Pole and Runner), Cantaloupe, Melon, Mustard, Peppers, Pumpkins, Tomatoes, Squashes, Strawberry, Sweet Corn
Brussels SproutsBasil, Beets, Carrots, Dill, Garlic, Marigolds, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Thyme Strawberry, Tomatoes
Cabbage Beets, Bush Beans, Celery, Chamomile, Dill, Marigolds, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Oregano, Potatoes, Rosemary, Sage, Spearmint Aubergine, Beans (Pole and Runner), Mustard, Peppers, Tomatoes, Strawberry
Cabbage (Chinese)Basil, Beans, Celery, Dill, Garlic, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Potatoes, Rosemary, ThymeOkra, Peppers, Potatoes, Tomatoes
CarrotBeans (Bush and Pole), Chives, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuces, Onions, Parsley, Radishes, Rosemary, TomatoesCorainder, Dill, Parsnips
Cauliflower Beans, Chamomile, Celery, Oregano, Peas, Rosemary, Sage, Spinach, Tomatoes, SunflowersRue, Strawberry
CeleriacLettuces, Peas, SpinachCucumbers, Pumpkins, Squashes
CeleryBeans (Bush), Brassicas, Cosmos, Cucumbers, Daisies, Dill, Leeks, Marigolds, Marjoram, Nasturtium, Snapdragons, Spinach, TomatoesAsters, Carrots, Potatoes, Sweet Corn
ChardBeans, Brassicas, Celery, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuces, Onions, Radishes, Sweet Alyssum, TomatoesAll Herbs (Except Mint), Cucumbers, Melons, Potatoes, Sweet Corn
ChicoryGreensBeans, Peas
CucumberBeans, Celery, Lettuces, Marigolds, Nasturtium, Peas, Radishes, Sweet CornAll Herbs (Except Dill), Potatoes, Sage, Tomatoes
EndiveParsnips, Radishes, TurnipsPumpkins, Squashes
GarlicAubergines, Beets, Broccoli, Cabbages, Carrots, Cauliflower, Chamomile, Dill, Kale, Kohlrabi, Peppers, Potatoes, Rue, Spinach, Summer Savory, Tomatoes, YarrowAsparagus, Beans, Parsley, Peas, Sage
KaleBeets, Celery, Chard, Cucumbers, Dill, Garlic, Hyssop, Lettuces, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, Potatoes, Rosemary, Sage, SpinachAsparagus, Beans, Carrots, Cabbages, Cauliflower, Sweet Corn
KohlrabiBeets, Cucumbers, Lettuces, Nasturtium, Onions, ThymeBeans (Pole), Peppers, Tomatoes, Strawberry
LeeksCarrots, Celery, Lettuces, OnionsBeans, Peas
LettucesAubergines, Beans, Beets, Broccoli, Carrots, Marigolds, Mint, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Strawberry, Sweet Corn, TomatoesParsley
MarrowBeans, Dill, Garlic, Lemon Balm, Marigolds, Nasturtium, Oregano, Parsley, Peas, Radish, Spinach, Sweet CornPotatoes, Pumpkins
MelonsBeans, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Carrots, Cauliflower, Chives, Garlic, Kale, Leeks, Lettuces, Okra, Onions, Peas, Spinach, SunflowersPotatoes
OnionBeets, Carrots, Chamomile, Lettuces, Roses, Strawberry, Summer Savory, TomatoesBeans, Peas
Pak ChoiBeets, Beans, Carrots, Chamomile, Chard, Cucumbers, Dill, Kale, Lettuces, Mint, Nasturtium, Potatoes, Sage, SpinachBrassicas
ParsnipBeans, Lettuces, Peas, Peppers, Rosemary, Sage, TomatoesCarrots, Celery, Dill, Fennel
Peas (Including Mangetout and Sugar Snap)Beans, Carrots, Cucumbers, Herbs (Aromatic), Potatoes, Radishes, Sweet Corn, TurnipsGarlic, Gladiolus, Onions
Peppers (Chili)Aubergine, Basil, Chard, Cucumbers, Okra, Oregano, Parsley, Rosemary TomatoesBeans, Broccoli, Brussels Sprouts, Cabbage, Cauliflower, Fennel
Peppers (Sweet)Aubergine, Basil, Carrots, Chard, Cucumbers, Garlic, Leeks, Lettuces, Okra, Onions, Radishes, Squashes, SpinachApricots, Brassicas, Fennel
Potato (First Earlies)Basil, Beans, Celery, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Spinach, Sweet CornAsparagus, Aubergine, Brassicas, Carrots, Cucumbers, Melons, Peppers, Raspberry, Squashes, Strawberry, Sunflowers, Tomatoes
Potato (Second Earlies)Basil, Beans, Celery, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Spinach, Sweet CornAsparagus, Aubergine, Brassicas, Carrots, Cucumbers, Melons, Peppers, Raspberry, Squashes, Strawberry, Sunflowers, Tomatoes
Potato (Maincrop)Basil, Beans, Celery, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Spinach, Sweet CornAsparagus, Aubergine, Brassicas, Carrots, Cucumbers, Melons, Peppers, Raspberries, Squashes, Strawberries, Sunflowers, Tomatoes
Potato (Sweet)Beans, Beets, Dill, Parsnips, ThymeSquashes
PumpkinBeans, Marigold, Nasturtium, Squashes, Sweet CornPotatoes
RadicchioGreensBeans, Peas
RadishBeets, Carrots, Chives, Cucumber, Garlic, Kale, Leeks, Lettuces, Onions, Spinach, SquashesHyssop
RhubarbBeans, Brassicas, Columbines, Garlic, Onions, Roses, StrawberryDock Weed, Legumes
RocketBeans, Dill, Lettuces, Mint, Nasturtium, Onions, ThymeBrassicas
Salad LeavesBeans, Beets, Broccoli, Carrots, Marigold, Mint, Onions, Peas, Radishes, Strawberry, SweetcornParsley
SalsifyCarrots, Potatoes, Sweet Potatoes, Swede, TurnipsArtichokes, Burdock, Cardoon, Chicory, Endive, Lettuces, Rampion, Scorzonera 
ShallotBeets, Brassicas, Carrots, Celery, Chamomile, Grapes, Peppers, Strawberry, TomatoesBeans, Peas
SpinachAubergine, Beans, Brassicas, Celery, Leeks, Lettuces, Melons, Nasturtiums Peas, Potatoes, Radishes, Strawberry, Tomatoes
Spring OnionsBeets, Carrots, Chamomile, Lettuces, Roses, Strawberry, Summer Savory, TomatoesBeans, Peas
Squash (Butternut, Gourds, Winter)Beans, Borage, Dill, Marigolds, Nasturtium, Peas, Radishes, Strawberry, Sunflowers, Sweet CornPotatoes
Squash (Courgette)Beans, Borage, Dill, Garlic, Marigolds, Nasturtiums, Oregano, Peas, Radishes, Spinach, Sweet CornPotatoes
StrawberryBeans, Borage, Lettuces, SpinachCabbages, Chrysanthemums, Potatoes, Tomatoes
SwedeOnions, PeasBeans (Pole), Peppers, Tomatoes, Strawberry
SweetcornBeans, Cucumbers, Marigolds, Melons, Peas, Potatoes, Pumpkins, Squashes, SunflowersTomatoes
TomatoAsparagus, Basil, Borage, Carrots, Celery, Chives, Garlic, Lettuces, Marigolds, Onions, Parsley, SpinachBeets, Brassicas, Dill, Fennel, Peas, Potatoes, Rosemary, Sweet Corn, Walnut Trees
TurnipPeas, Vetch
My table of good and bad planting relationships. Although this isn’t an exact science, this information is based on a collection of many different companion planting sources.

In particular, I want to give a shout out to four rock stars in companion planting: lavender, marigolds, nasturtiums, and sage. Not only do these plants encourage beneficial insects like bees, butterflies, and ladybirds to your plot, they also make gorgeous additions to the dinner table!

Lavender is like an all day buffet for bees – I have four large lavender bushes in my home garden and several more in the plot. Without fail, bees are always happily buzzing around and gorging themselves on the bright purple and white flowers of my lavender bushes. Not only do the bees like it, but it also brings a delicious flavour to baked goods like cakes and scones or stewed with peppermint leaves for a relaxing tea. The scent is amazing when left to steep in a hot bath or packed in mesh sacks and put in your clothes drawers. If you don’t have lavender in your garden, drop everything you are doing and go get some – well, keeping within the lockdown restrictions, obviously!

This big, gorgeous bush of lavender makes a lovely meal for hungry bees – in addition to the delphinium and lupins pictured in this bed at home.

The next on the list are marigolds and nasturtiums. These brightly coloured and strongly scented blooms may not be everyone’s favourite scent, but they make wonderful additions to any vegetable garden because of their ability to repel vegetable-loving pests and attract beneficial insects to your site. Marigolds attract vital ladybirds, hoverflies, and pest eating mini-wasps as well as attract important pollinators like bees. They are also able to repel parasitic nematodes, bean beetles, and most slugs, so it’s a good idea to plant these next to your more delicate crops like lettuces, climbing beans, and brassicas.

Nasturtiums do an equally important job in your garden. Their scent helps to deter destructive insects like whiteflies, squash bugs, aphids, and cucumber beetles. Along with marigolds, nasturtium flowers are edible and make a lovely addition to salads. They also provide a gorgeous, bright pop of colour to make your beds really stand out. Feel free to grow as many marigolds and nasturtiums as you can and plant them liberally in your beds.

Bright, bushy nasturtiums provide a beautiful splash of colour to the vegetable garden.

Sage – in addition to being my favourite herb for its delicious flavouring of soups, stuffings, and roast dishes – also acts as a beneficial plant for vegetable gardens. Not only does it smell beautiful in the summer sun but it makes a wonderful companion plant for French beans, strawberries, carrots, and brassicas. As sage likes to be in a much looser soil, I would recommend adding it to the edge of your vegetable beds in well-prepared ground or in pots stacked neatly alongside the rows. Sage, along with rosemary, also create beautifully delicate purple flowers that are irresistible to pollinators and make lovely addition to bouquets. In fact, my wedding bouquet had stalks of sage and rosemary mixed in with the white roses, anemones, and eryngium for a romantic and whimsical feel.

As with everything in your garden, have fun and feel free to experiment. The best way to learn is to try it yourself, maybe fail a few times, and develop a system that works best for you and your plot.

Happy (companion) planting!

What to Plant: A guideline for April

One of the most common questions I get from fellow garden enthusiasts is how do you know when is the best time to plant x and y? Unfortunately, there is no real straight answer as so much depends on several factors. These include: are you using raised beds or planting in the ground; have you prepared your soil; what is the type of variety or cultivar you are using; how sheltered or elevated is your site; and so on?

All these factors may seem daunting and can quickly get confusing – this is where good organisation and a bit of research can help!

Just as an example, let us look at broad beans. You can see in the two left hand columns that I have the species (i.e. broad beans) and the variety next to it (Oscar). The subsequent columns stand for each month of the year, beginning with January. Now, the seed packet says these beans can be sown indoors beginning in February but, as we are in the north of the country and these packets are produced as a national recommendation, I automatically tend to add on a few weeks to the beginning of the growing guideline. I have prepared the soil in advance with plenty of compost and well-rotted manure and they will be going in a sheltered but sunny spot. However, I am also planting these directly in the ground, which means the soil will be much cooler than if it was in a raised bed. So, if something says sow from mid-February, I will usually wait to sow it until early- or mid-March, just to be on the safe side and allow the soil to warm up a bit more. If I was planting in a raised bed or in a cold frame, I could definitely sow out from mid-February.

I also do not sow everything at once – this is the surest way to get a glut instead of being able to enjoy these delicious veggies for the entirety of their growing season. That is why I have limited the amount of seeds I sow per session and have them spaced 2-3 weeks apart. My belief is that sowing little and often will always ensure a bountiful and longer harvest period.

Now, back to the calendar! For broad beans, I have it scheduled to sow in 4 plants during the first and fourth week of March, then – as the soil will start to warm and dry from the periods of cold, heavy winter rain – I will then move to sowing them outside in their final positions beginning in April. Note, this is different from planting them out – planting out implies that you are merely moving a plant that has been sown indoors until it’s final position outside – sowing out means you are planting a new seed outdoors rather than starting it off inside. As you can see from the months of April and May, I am still sowing these in gradual stages to lengthen the harvest season.

I also record the time when it is expected to flower (F) – note, this is only really done if the seed packet provides this information, if not I don’t bother to record it. This is just to give me a guideline for the plant’s growth and vegetable development so I can ensure that it is on track and I know to look out for any irregularities. I then also record when I can begin to harvest (H) if all goes according to plan.

This may seem a little OTT, but I promise you can never be too organised when it comes to growing! I usually take advantage of the quieter winter months to assemble my growing calendars for the upcoming planting season, but you can start something like this at any time. Just look at the back of your seed packet for advice and, if in doubt, trust your instincts. If you think it is too cold to plant something outside, then it probably is.

  • If you would like a more general idea of what to plant at this time of the year, this is what I have been up to for the month of April:
    • Vegetables and Fruits Sown Inside:
      • Aubergine, var. Czech Early
      • Drying Beans, var. Kidney Yin Yang, Edamame, Imperio Bianco Cannellini, and Splendido Borlotti
      • Dwarf Beans, var. Concador
      • French Climbing Beans, var. Blue Lake
      • Runner Beans, var. Red Rum
      • Calabrese Broccoli, vari. Monclano
      • Chinese Sprouting Broccoli, var. Brokali Apollo
      • Purple Sprouting Broccoli, var. Red Admiral
      • Brussels Sprouts, var. Continuity Mix
      • Autumn Cabbage, var. Primo II
      • Spring Cabbage, var. Durham Early
      • Summer Cabbage, var. Red Drumhead
      • Cauliflower, var. Chinese Sweet Sprouting
      • Celeriac, var. Monarch
      • Celery, var. Blush
      • Chard, var. White Silver
      • Comfrey, standard species
      • Cucamelon, var. Melothria
      • Cucumber, var. Burpless Tasty Green
      • Kale, var. Black Magic
      • Leeks, var. Below Zero F1 and Pancho
      • Melon, var. Outdoor Wonder and Arava
      • Pepper, var. Jalapeno
      • Pepper, var. Summer Salad Improved Mix
      • Pumpkin, var. Amazonka and Rocket
      • Spinach, var. Amazon
      • Squash (Summer), var. F1 Atena, All Green Bush, and Summer Mix
      • Squash (Winter), var. Avalon, Buffy Ball, Honeyboat, Potimarron, and Sweet Dumpling
      • Sweetcorn, var. Swift F1 Hybrid
      • Tomato, var. Gardener’s Delight and Supersweet
    • Vegetables and Fruits Sown Outside:
      • Beetroot, var. Pablo
      • Carrots, var. Flyaway and Paris Market Atlas
      • Cabbage (Winter), var. Ormskirk
      • Lettuces, var. Lollo Biondi and Red Salad Bowl
      • Mustards, var. Oriental Mix
      • Pak Choi, var. Ivory F1
      • Parsnips, var. Tender and True
      • Peas, var. Petit Pois and Hurst Green Shaft
      • Radish, var. Salad Mix
      • Salsify, var. Scorzobianca
      • Spring Onions, var. White Lisbon
      • Swede, var. Invitation
      • Turnips, var. Milan Purple Top
    • Vegetables and Fruits Planted Outside:
      • Asparagus
      • Blackberry
      • Broad Beans
      • Garlic, var. Flavor
      • Onions, var. Red Baron and Centurion
      • Pineberry
      • Potatoes, var. Purple Eye and Charlotte
      • Raspberry
      • Shallots, var. Red Sun
      • Tayberry

In addition to the fruits and vegetables, I have also sown a number of flowers, like: Antirrhinum, Aquilegia, Aster, Borage, Chrysanthemum, Dahlia, Delphinium, Echinacea, Geranium, Lavender, Linum, Lupin, Marigold, Nasturtium, Poppy, Sage, Shoo-Fly, Stock, Sunflower, Verbena, and Zinnia.

As always, if you have any questions feel free to drop one in the comments section.

Happy springtime planting!

My back garden is growing central!

Crafts for the Garden

If you’re looking for creative (and inexpensive) ways to decorate your veg plot, then these homemade signs will be a fun and colourful addition to the garden. As so many of us are based at home with free time to fill – and often kids to entertain – this is a great excuse to get the whole family outside and use up any extra bits of wood you may have lying around.

I decided to make these after my father-in-law brought a load of mismatched wood from my husband’s family farm. When cleaning out the barn, he came across loads of thin fence planks – about a metre (3ft) long by 10cm (4in) wide. I was really grateful to get them – especially since wood can be rather expensive in this country – but I had no idea what to do with them. After building raised beds, I came up with this idea as a way to use up extra wood paint and to replace plastic plants markers I would normally use, which often break and are very rarely reusable. Making these signs are fun, easy, and relatively cheap to make – what could be better?

Start by sawing plaques to approximately 10cm (4in) x 35cm (12in) and paint these with outdoor wood stain on the front and back. Allow it to dry completely (about 2-3 hours per side) and use a pencil to sketch on the name of the veg. Then, using an acrylic based paint (note: it has to be acrylic to survive the rain) go over the pencil sketch.

I kept an eye on my vegetable bed layouts to make sure that none of the signs were painted the same colour if they were to be used beside each other – this is more me being neurotic than a rule of how to do this!

Once these have dried completely, it is time to assemble. This is roughly what you will need to begin:

Get a few spare stakes or bits of extra wood, a power drill or a screwdriver, a measuring tape, a pencil, and a saw.

I decided to upcycle some of the extra stakes from the garden which weren’t going to be used this year to make posts for the back of the signs.

With a measuring tape and a pencil, mark out where you are going to cut the wood. I decided to cut the stakes at 20-21cm (8-8 1/2 in) intervals, so I got approximately 9 posts from each stake.

Once you are happy with your markings, use a power or hand saw to cut the stakes to size.

Just as a precaution: follow all safety guidelines for using this type of equipment and wear good thick boots, just in case!

One you have sawed all the stakes to the correct length, it is time to assemble! For this I would recommend using a power drill – you can definitely use a screwdriver as long as you’re armed with a lot of elbow grease to help get them in! Considering the width of the stakes and the signs, I used 40mm PZ2 screws, just for reference.

Screwing from the back with 40mm screws ensures that you get through both the stake and the sign, but it is too short to go all the way through and come out the other end.

Keep assembling until all the of the signs have posts on the back. When you are ready to use, simply push the bottom end of the post into the soil or raised bed and voila! You’ll have made an inexpensive and eye catching addition to your garden.

If you have any questions, please feel free to get in touch or comment below.

Happy crafting!

Bare Roots = Cheap Fruits

There’s nothing that says ‘summer’ quite like the first fragrant, sweet, warmed-from-the-sun bite of homegrown berries. After months of waiting and endless amounts of flavourless supermarket fruit, you finally get to pick and eat your own. If you haven’t put some fruiting bushes on your allotment, staked a few raspberry canes in your back garden, or even grown strawberries in hanging baskets or pots on your patio, then now is the time that I would strongly encourage you to invest in these perennial delights!

If you were to search quickly on google, the first thing you might notice that prices for fruiting bushes are high(er) than you might imagine. There are a number of reasons for this – fruit plants are perennials and so will last for years; the bushes you receive are usually at least one year old, necessitating a higher level of care by the grower; and, because unless you’re planning to feed a small army, you usually only need a few plants to ensure a bounteous harvest, so you don’t tend to buy these in bulk.

All of these factors aside, it is still a good idea to want to get a reasonable deal for your fruit bushes. This is where ordering bare root plants can be in your favour. They do require more work, but are definitely cheaper than getting the more expensive plants which come already established in their own pot of soil.

Recently, I ordered three blackberry bushes, three tayberry bushes (a hybrid mix between blackberries and raspberries), and fifteen raspberry bushes (as always, I am a sucker for a deal rather than a realist…). When they arrived, they looked something like this:

It can be a little alarming when your new plants arrive as bare sticks with some roots attached – but please do not be worried about this! The plants may not look it, but they’re actually fine and ready to go. Any bare root plant has been left in a cold storage, which essentially halts all growth and puts it in a dormant state. The plant is brought out of the dormant state when it’s quickly delivered to you. If your fruiting canes have been stored properly, they will probably come tied together in a sealed plastic bag. DO NOT leave these in the bag for too long. If you can’t immediately plant these in their final growing beds, then the next few steps will tell you how to care for them.

Ensuring you follow these simple steps to care for bare root canes, your plants will (hopefully) turn into delicious berry producers before you know it.

Remove the canes from the plastic bag and submerge the roots in water for 30 minutes, at least. We put them all in buckets and left them to soak while we made and ate dinner, just to give you a rough estimate of time.

Carefully separate each plant by sniping any string and unwinding the roots. I would strong recommend having someone nearby to help you with this process as you will want to be as delicate as possible.

Place each cane root down in a pot filled with good quality compost and fill until the compost is at the original soil level. This is usually an inch or two above the topmost root. Remember to label which variety is which as they will all look the same at this point!

Water these well and put in a sunny position. You can store them like this for a little as a day or for several weeks until their foliage starts to appear. This is really just to ensure that they are kept in a healthy state until you are ready to plant them out.

We did this on an overcast day, but I promise they got plenty of sunshine at the bottom of the garden.

When you are ready to plant them out, it is important to space them appropriately, so move the pots around until you are happy with their positioning. Remember, it is always easier to move a plant when it’s in a pot than when it is in the ground.

Notice the tape measure and bamboo canes placed next to the pots! This is to ensure correct spacing.

Dig a hole twice as wide and twice as deep as the pot currently holding your canes.

As you can see, we have heavy clay soil which bakes in the sun – thus we use a lot of manure and compost to help condition the soil!

Ensure the subsoil at the bottom of the hole is loose – use a trowel or hand cultivator to help with this process.

Remove larger rocks but don’t worry about smaller stones as they can actually help to improve drainage.

Fill the hole with compost and/or well-rotted manure. If you are so inclined, throw in a few pellets of Growmore or another similar slow-release plant food to help get them started. Water this mixture well before you put the plant in place.

Gently remove the cane and compost from the pot and place it in the hole, roots down.

Backfill with a mixture of soil and compost, ensuring that you firm the soil around the cane to provide maximum support.

Water frequently over the next few weeks until the plant is established. After that, you only need to water regularly in hot, dry weather.

After I was finished with this, my first thought was ‘Oh great, I’ve just planted a stick garden.’ But try to keep the faith – it may not be impressive now, but just keep picturing yourself eating all those delicious berries and I promise you it will be worth it!

Happy planting!

April Frosts: Surviving the Inclement Spring Weather

There are so many wonderful things happening in the garden at this time of year. The long awaited bulbs planted in autumn have finally emerged, the birds are nesting, the earthworms are squirming into action, and the days are becoming well and truly longer.

This time of the year brings so many temptations for British gardeners to get outside and throw everything into the ground. We are experiencing more frequent warm and sunny stretches in the weather (kudos, global warming) which lull even the most experienced gardener into a false sense of security. But one little cold snap can really put all your springtime hard work to the test.

Earlier in the season, I sowed some dwarf annual dahlias – distinguished in that they are quickly grown from seed rather than the more robust and ever-so-slightly hardier tuber variety. We took advantage of the last couple of warm and sunny weeks in the UK to test a few of them out in the ground at our home garden and in a pot on the allotment – and boy, did that experiment go badly!

The unpredictable and easily temperamental springtime weather struck last night. After days of glorious sunshine and highs of 19 degrees (65F), we had a sharp cold snap. This morning we woke to -1 degrees (30F) and a thick layer of frost. The dahlias really got the worst of it.

RIP, little guys.

So, what actually happened to these plants that did not effect the surrounding lupins, geums, and geraniums? The simplest (and shortest) answer is that these are young, rather than established, plants which are more susceptible to frost. But more accurately, what happened after the frost is just as much to blame.

When a young, tender plant is exposed to a sharp decrease in temperatures and a subsequent frost, the delicate cells inside the plant freeze. Although it was below freezing this morning, it quickly turned into a bright, sunny, and warm day – well, warm for northern England. This extreme change of temperatures in such a short period of time caused these frozen cells to expand too quickly and burst. It’s the same principle behind why a boiling hot water glass will shatter when exposed immediately to ice.

Unfortunately, this is just one of the many realities of springtime. Fortunately, there are ways that you can avoid this same mistake.

  1. Cover tender plants with protective fleece or some sort of cloche made with breathable fabric. An old thick bed sheet or a bath towel would work just as well and doesn’t require a trip to the store.
  2. Move all cold sensitive plants inside, if possible. This is a really good idea for those that are in terracotta pots as they can become extremely cold.
  3. For younger plants already in the ground, cover with a mini polytunnel (if you have it) or something similar. If you don’t have this, take an empty 2 litre soda bottle, cut off the bottom, and place upright over the plant. This will act as a mini insulator and serves the same function as a greenhouse or cold frame.
  4. Resist the urge to plant out tender annuals until the risk of frost has completely passed. No matter how much you have hardened it off – like we did – few newly sown summer plants can survive the unpredictable cold snaps of a British spring.

There is always a chance that these plants will recover with a bit of warmer weather and, thankfully, the forecast for this week looks pretty promising. We don’t have the highest of expectations, but in these uncertain times you look for hope wherever you can find it.

Stay safe out there, little plants. You too, folks.