Blog, Growing

Make A Fresh Start

bean-plant-2348098_1920Mustard and cress, sunflowers, peas and beans sprouting in recycled coffee cups—remember those happy times back in nursery? Getting your hands dirty, desperately waiting for the first little shoots to pop their heads up, then carrying your plant home in grubby paws to present it to your family?

Things were so much simpler back then. Life, with its tests, exams, debts, and deadlines forces us into a hamster wheel of tail-chasing, day after day. We’re already a quarter of the way through the year. Can you believe it? Where did the time go? New Year’s Resolutions to take it easy and have more fun are a distant memory (although one resolution came back to surprise me last week—you can read more about that here).

Time flies when you’re busy, and we’re all busy all the time these days. If we’re not wrapped up in earning a living, we’re on line helping other people to earn theirs, by shopping or clicking. Why not take some time out during this holiday weekend to rediscover your roots? Take a break, abandon the rat race and re-live those times when you were a lot closer to the earth— physically, as well as mentally. It’s easy to forget that until the supermarkets and their needs turned food production into an industrial process, our food was almost all local and seasonal. It wasn’t all that far back. The first supermarket arrived less than thirty years ago in the market town where I grew up.  Before that, tinned pineapple, new potatoes from Jersey or fresh mandarin oranges at Christmas was as exotic as it got!

Home made bread and homegrown salad, just waiting for a poached egg…

Reclaim your independence, if only in a small way. Make a fresh start this spring. Grow some sprouting seeds, or cut-and-come again salad  in a tray on your windowsill. If you’ve got room outside, get the biggest container you can find, and grow some beans. Scarlet runners or climbing French beans will scramble up a wigwam of canes. They make a great show in a small space. They aren’t frost-hardy, so you’ll need to wait a week or two before sowing them direct in your container, but you can make a start indoors earlier than that. At this stage you can do your bit for recycling—start saving the inner cardboard tubes from toilet rolls to make your own plant pots.

There was a big fuss a few years ago about possible hygiene concerns when handling toilet roll inners.  Take care, and wash your hands thoroughly after every gardening session, and again before you eat. There shouldn’t be a problem. If you’re still worried, stick to reusing the cardboard tubes from the middle of kitchen roll, gift wrap or baking parchment.  Each one of those will make several small pots.

Bees love sunflowers, while birds (and bakers) love their seeds

Obviously, watering will make your bio-degradable plant pots soggy and they’ll break down quite quickly, so only use them for the early stages of quick-growing things like beans, peas and sunflowers.

To give your home-made pots stability, pack them into something waterproof, such as a plastic box. I use old takeaway containers. Although we eat healthy food every day, now and again it’s hard to resist something ready-made! Fill the pots to the top with seed compost (garden soil is too rich, and full of weed seeds). Firm it gently, then push one big seed into each. Add enough water to make the soil nice and moist, then put your container close to the glass on a sunny windowsill.

Wean your baby plants onto the outdoor life gradually. First, put them outside only on mild days. Bring them back indoors at night for the first week. After that,  only coddle them if there’s likely to be a frost. Once they’ve been planted in their permanent container, water them regularly and peg a sheet of newspaper around them at night if frost is forecast. Once your plants start to climb, they’ll be unstoppable. They’ll take as much water as you can give them. As the pretty flowers turn into beans, keep picking the pods to encourage your plants to keep producing. Don’t let them become has-beans. If you do, the plant will think it’s done it’s job. It will transfer its strength into maturing seeds and the beans will become tough instead of tasty.

RED_KALE_-3100694_1920Your bean plants will be killed by autumn frosts, but by then you’ll be hooked and looking forward (I hope) to planting up your container with some sprouting broccoli or red kale. The frilly leaves look good over winter, and you’ll be picking home-grown shoots next March, when they cost a fortune to buy from the supermarket.

Growing things helps me cope with modern life. It keeps my feet on the ground, encourages me to plan, and keeps me looking ahead. What’s your tip for staying optimistic, despite all the fears and frenzy of modern life?



Blog, gardening

March Towards Spring?

It feels more like we’re backing into winter!

I was planning to tell you all the things I’d be doing in my garden during March. Today is officially the First Day of Spring here in the UK.

Then The Beast From The East met Storm Emma.snowyshed 2

That sounds like a Fifties B-movie or a wrestling bout. Instead,  it’s a combination of weather systems fighting it out over Europe. The UK has practically ground to a halt. Countries who see snow every year are having a good laugh at our expense. I don’t blame them. Many of our main roads impassable. People have been sitting  in their cars for up to seventeen hours, stuck in endless traffic jams. Airports and trains have been at a standstill from the second snow began to fall.

In our defence, we’ve seen more snow in this country over the past forty-eight hours than we usually see in a whole month during the winter.

We’re simply not set up for bad weather here in England. It doesn’t happen often enough. OH and I used to fit winter tyres to our cars every autumn, but after years with no problems, we never bothered to buy them when we changed our cars. Snow chains are worse than useless unless there’s a good depth of snow, and in any case the lightest snowfall renders the one-in three lane between Tottering Towers and the country road connecting us to civilisation impassable.

So…there are my excuses. Now, down to work. In advance of the bad weather I travelled 40 miles to fetch a full canister of propane gas for my greenhouse heater. That would normally last for a month at the rate I use it. Temperatures have been well below freezing for days, so I dread to think how fast the gas is being used! I haven’t dared open the greenhouse to check. It’s well insulated, all the citrus trees and overwintering cuttings are clustered close to the heater, but there’s a limit to how much cold they can take.

Paperwhite narcissi, flowering in January. I wish you could experience their scent!

I’m not so worried about my fig trees, which also live in the greenhouse. They’re a bit hardier, and still dormant.  The apricot flowers I wrote about a few days ago may be damaged by the extended cold period. I’ll have to wait and see. The strawberry plants haven’t come in to be forced yet, and at this rate they’ll be staying outside! Once I can get into the greenhouse again I’ll be topdressing all the fruit trees with fresh compost. All the bulbs I forced for flowering at Christmas and in the first few weeks of the new year have been moved from the house into the greenhouse, waiting to be replanted in the garden when the weather warms up.  I’ll give them some plant food this month, to keep them going.

March is traditionally the main seed-sowing time, but they’re safer off in their packets for a day or two. I won’t be sowing anything for a while. There’s no point. It’s too cold to keep them growing, once they’ve germinated. The tomato and lettuce seeds I sowed a few days ago are living on my office windowsill, safe inside Tottering Towers, but they’ll soon get long and lanky. They need moving out into the greenhouse, but they won’t appreciate the conditions out there right now! OH wants me to get electricity in my greenhouse so I don’t need to worry about heating and lighting for my seedlings, but Tottering Towers is prone to power cuts. That’s why I rely on a propane heater.

There’s nothing to be done outside when everything’s covered with snow. The shallots I wrote about last week are snug under an insulating layer of snow. I have seed potatoes ready to plant for an early crop, but I’m holding them back.  A sheet of black polythene has been warming the soil in the kitchen garden for them. It’s been there since New Year, but I’m not going to risk planting them yet.

I need to thaw out  the hens’ drinkers with warm water several times a day, and make sure they are shut inside their insulated houses each evening. I bring the feeders in, as rats would soon discover that easy source of food. Fetching them at dusk is a challenge which means floundering downslope in the snow, then back uphill with my hands full. Alex our mad dog doesn’t help the process, dancing round my feet. One day I’ll trip over him and end up flat on my back in the snow, covered in hen food!

What’s the weather like where you are? Do you have any tips for dealing with wintry conditions?

Blog, gardening

That’s Shallot!


It’s been a long, dark winter. Gardening is a great cure for the February blues, but a cold wind is slicing in from the east. The forecast doesn’t give much hope of it getting any warmer for the next week. The garden is still so wet, walking on it squashes all the air out. That’s not good for either the soil structure or helpful mini-beasts like worms. Despite that I managed to plant some shallots and garlic today, by working off  a scaffolding plank. The old rule of thumb was to plant them on the shortest day, harvest them on the longest. Mid-winter weather isn’t always kind enough for that!

I like these big pink banana shallots, Longor, for roasting whole. Slipped in around the roast or cooked on their own in a mixture of butter and olive oil, within an hour they are chestnut-coloured, stickily savoury, and equally good hot or cold.. They go well in casseroles, too. The round varieties  such as Red Sun fit into jars better, so those are the ones I use for pickling in the autumn. A nice, crisp pickled shallot with cheese and crusty home-made bread makes a great snack.

Shallots do well in the garden at Tottering Towers. Garlic struggles to make big bulbs here, but I keep trying. Whatever size of clove I plant, whichever variety and whether they’re planted in autumn, winter or spring, the resulting heads of garlic are always small-to-medium sized. This year I’m trying the variety Marco. I haven’t grown it before, so it’ll be interesting to see if the results are any better.

Are you trying any new varieties this year?