Grow at Home: Potatoes

About the Potato

Pink_potato_flower

Potato flower

Potatoes can be so cheap to buy, so why bother to grow your own?

One reason is taste – the chance to get tasty tatties that are full of flavour is not to be missed. Another reason is to try a different variety.  The shops stock a limited range and often bag them without even telling you what variety you are buying.  As a result, even if you liked it, you couldn’t guarantee to get it again.  Go to your Garden Centre and your eyes will be opened to all the varieties of seed potato available.

The best reason for me though is the plant itself.  Far from being a dull and functional plant, it has lush green foliage and delicate white or pink flower.  One of the prettiest flowers in the garden and loved by pollinators so winning on all levels.

Types of Seed Potato

There are three sorts of potatoes based on when you plant and harvest them: First Earlies, Earlies and Maincrop.  The titles are fairly explanatory but basically the First Earlies are ‘new’ potatoes, small potatoes harvested as early as June followed by Earlies and Main Crop which produce larger potatoes later in the season.

Plant in Garden Plant in Containers Harvest
First Earlies Late March Late Feb / Early March June/ July
Earlies Early/ Mid April Late March/ Early April July/ August
Maincrop Mid/Late April Early/Mid April August/ October

 

Chitting

Chitted potato with face drawn on

As soon as you buy your seed potatoes lay them out on a tray or in open egg boxes in a cool, dry, light position to allow them to sprout.  This is known as chitting.

Believe it or not there is a ‘right’ way up for potatoes.  The ‘rose’ end or the end with the most eyes and dimples should be placed uppermost.  The debate is ongoing as to whether chiitting is needed at all though, so I doubt getting them the wrong way up at this stage will have a significant effect.  The chits take about 4 to 6 weeks to grow.  However you may find that your seed potatoes have started chitting before you buy them.  They are ready to plant when the chits are about 1″ (3cm) long.  On early potatoes, rub off the weakest shoots, leaving three per tuber.

To ensure that you don’t get a glut of potatoes you may wish to chit enough for one planter (3 or 4) leave it 7 to 10 days and chit a second batch etc etc so that your potatoes are planted and harvested over a period rather than all being ready at the same time.  Our  Potato Planters come in a pack of 3 so you can do the bags one at a time to achieve this easily.

Where to Plant

The first choice to make is where you want to grow them – in the ground or in containers.  This depends on what space you have and how much digging you want to do.  Containers are by far the easiest way but if you have lots of space and fancy the exercise then growing directly in the ground is an option.

Planting in containers

Take a large 40L Potato Planter or if you want an even bigger crop a Vigoroot Potato Planter that will air-prune the roots.  

Pour about 5cm of good multipurpose compost into the bottom.  Place your seed potatoes – 3 or 4 per planter- onto the soil making sure that your chits are facing upwards.  Cover with a further 5cm of compost.  Water and wait.  That’s it.

Earthing up: containers

In Containers – earthing up couldn’t be easier.  When the shoots have reached 10cm pour more soil into the planter until the tips of the plants are just covered.  Keep the soil moist and continue to cover as the shoots grow. Maincrop potatoes benefit from a nitrogenous fertiliser around the time of the second earthing up.  The bag will be full by the time you are finished.

Harvesting

Early potatoes take between 12-15 weeks to mature, main crop take about 20 weeks.

Once they have finished flowering and the leaves start to die back your potatoes are probably ready to harvest.  To get the best results, and potatoes that will store really well, leave it 2 weeks after the foliage has died back to harvest. If frost is expected within two weeks while plants are still green and vigorous, you can defoliate the tops in order to kick start the skin setting process. The best way to do this is to shred the leaves and stems of the plants so that death is gradual rather than sudden. If the plants die suddenly (including death to hard frost), the tubers may be discoloured.

The skin on mature potatoes is thicker and firmly attached to the potato.  To check if your potatoes are ready you can delve into the bag with your hand and find a potato.  Rub the skin with your finger and if it comes off really easily they are probably not ready yet and need a little longer.
Once you are sure they are ready you can harvest.  Simply turn the bag upside down on a plastic sheet, into a wheelbarrow or a corner of the patio.  Shake the soil from the roots and you will see the potatoes which you can gently remove.

Curing & Storing

After harvesting, potatoes must be cured. Let them sit in temperatures of 7-16C  (45 to 60 F) for about two weeks. This will give the skins time to harden and minor injuries to seal. Store your cured potatoes at about 4 C (40 F) in a dark place.  A jute Veg Sack is ideal for this and will keep out the light that would turn them green and make them poisonous.

Planting In the Garden

If planting outside make sure that before you plant the potato bed has been turned over well then warm up the beds by placing mini poly tunnels over them a few days before planting.

The traditional planting method is to dig a narrow trench and place the tubers with chits facing up between 4” (10cm) Earlies and 8” (20cm) Maincrop deep.

Leave about 12″ (30cm) Earlies and 15″ (37cm) Maincrop between plants and 24″ (60cm) Earlies and 30″ (75cm) Maincrop between rows.

Finally, replace the poly tunnel to keep the soil warm, give them a good start and protect from late frosts once the shoots break through.

Earthing Up: outside

When shoots get to around 9″ (23cm) start ‘earthing up’.  Basically, make small mounds of soil around them, covering the leaves creating a ridge about 6″ (15cm) high.  As the stems grow, repeat the process. The final height of the ridges will be about 12″ (30cm). This will protect the plants from frost and keep the light from the developing potatoes which makes them go green and poisonous.

Harvesting

To harvest potatoes, you’ll need a spade or a fork. You can harvest just for supper i.e just what you need right now.  However, it is quite stressful for the plant so be as gentle as you can.  To do this drive your fork into the soil at the outside edges of the plant. Carefully lift the plant and remove the potatoes you need. Set the plant back in place and water thoroughly.

To harvest the whole crop, first test them for maturity by digging up one potato and testing its skin as outlined above.  Especially important when digging up potatoes is making sure that you don’t scratch, bruise or cut them. Damaged tubers will rot during storage so these should be first in the pot.  Work through the bed as methodically as you can, feeling round the roots so that you don’t miss any potatoes.  Potatoes should then be cured and stored as detailed above.

Growing potatoes is very rewarding and you may find yourself bitten by the bug and refilling your potato planters immediately after harvest to grow your own potatoes for Christmas!  In the meantime why not try this delicious Potato Scones recipe?

Pests and Diseases : Red Spider Mite

What are Red Spider Mites

Red spider mite are so small (less than 1mm) they are almost invisible without a magnifying glass but they can wreak havoc in a greenhouse or on houseplants.

Spider mites reproduce rapidly especially at in conditions with high temperature and low humidity.

At 25°C, a freshly laid egg will hatch, grow into an adult mite and lay more eggs after only 10 days – At 30°C, it’s  only 7 days!

Females can produce up to 150 eggs in their life, laying around 10 eggs per day. These are 0.14mm in diameter and transparent at first. Eventually, they turn white to light yellow.

What do they look like?

Confusingly, for most of the year of the year they aren’t red in colour at all as their name suggests.

They begin life as a greenish-yellow, and only turn red in the late summer/early autumn. The first you know of them may be what looks like sandy coloured ‘dust’ moving around the growing tips and undersides of new leaves.

What do Red Spider Mite Do?

Red spider mite suck sap from plants through foliage.

They will attack almost anything in the greenhouse, in fact, very few plants are fully resistant to this mite. They will feast on fruit and vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers, as well as flowering plants, like fuchsias, pelargoniums and orchids, and many more besides.

How to prevent and treat Red Spider Mite

  • Keep a regular eye on all you plants to look out for the early signs. On leaves, you’ll see subtle marks and mottling, and, if you have your reading glasses on you may be able to see the mites themselves underneath the leaf
  • You may also spot white shedded ‘skin casts’, and sometimes tiny round eggs as well. In severe cases, you will see very fine webs near the top of the affected plants
  • It is important to be vigilant and look out for bleached, unhealthy looking leaves, often with yellow or brown speckles. If under continuous attack, leaves will dry up and fall off and the host plant can become severely weakened
  • Red Spider Mite like hot, dry conditions so keeping the greenhouse well ventilated will help to deter attacks
  • Damping down can help to keep the atmosphere humid – which the Spider mite hate. Spray water from a hose or can onto the greenhouse floor and under the staging to keep the air moist – the plants will enjoy it too!
  • Washing leaves with a mild soap solution can be very effective if done regularly
  • Encourage ladybirds and other predators into your garden – they will feast on mites and aphids in your greenhouse. Other biological controls include the predatory mite phytoseiulus persimilis Which can be introduced once temperatures in the greenhouse reach 21 degrees
  • Spider Mites can remain dormant once the temperature drops for up to a year so good hygiene and thorough washing of pots and equipment at the end of the season is a must

Grow at Home – Sweet/Bell Peppers/Capsicum

What are they?

The Bell Pepper (Capsicum annuum) is also known as the Sweet Pepper or Capsicum and is originally native to the Americas.  As its name suggests, it is sweet rather than spicy.  This is because it does not produce capsaicin, the chemical that creates a strong burning sensation that makes the other members of the family such as chillies taste ‘hot’.

Botanically speaking, like tomatoes, bell peppers are fruits.  However, when cooking they are considered a vegetable and despite their sweet taste no one is going to thank you for adding them to the apple crumble!

Colours  Multi_coloured_peppers

They come in green, red, yellow, orange, brown, white, purple, lavender and black.  Red peppers are ripened green peppers, the exception being the Permagreen pepper which is still green when ripe and will never turn red.
The sweetness of the pepper depends on growing conditions and how much it has been allowed to ripen.  So a ripe red pepper will be sweeter than the less ripe green one.  Peppers that have ripened on the plant will also be sweeter than those that were picked and allowed to ripen after.  Not something you can change when buying them but if you grow your own then you can ensure they are as sweet as possible by leaving them to ripen on the plant.

There are many varieties but I would choose a hardy, early variety such as Yellow Monster or Lipstick to get the best results.

Sowing

Peppers are easy to grow from seed and have a high germination rate.  Sow seeds 1/2″ (1cm) deep inside in Rootrainers, pots or seed trays from mid-February to end of March.  They will take 2-4 weeks to germinate.

Peppers like it warm so so use a propagator and aim for a temperature of around 18-21°C (65-70°F) or place on a warm windowsill, with plastic bags over the pots to keep the heat and moisture in.  Of course if you have used Rootrainers then they come with their own lid so you can just pop this on for the perfect environment.

Transplant into 3″ (8cm) pots when two true leaves have formed.  Handle the seedlings by the leaves to avoid damaging the delicate stem.

If you don’t want to grow from seed then most Garden Centres will sell plants.

Planting

Position

If growing in England this crop is much better being grown in a greenhouse or on a windowsill for as long as possible.

If planting in the ground space the rows 18″ (45cm) apart with the same distance between plants.  The more you prepare the bigger the yield you will get so dig in some well rotted manure.  You may also wish to cover the ground with a  Easy Poly Tunnel  to warm the soil before planting.  Once your plants are in position keep them covered with a cloche or a tunnel as they like it warm, but remember to take it off or open it for periods to allow pollination.

Peppers grow well in containers and can also be grown in grow bag planters or in the garden as long as it is in a sheltered, sunny spot.  Ideally a South or West facing brick wall or fence.

Potting On

Once the roots fill your 3″ (8cm) pot transfer plants to 12″ (30cm) pots of good compost.  Do this in mid-May (heated greenhouse), late-May (unheated greenhouse) or June if growing outside.

Pinch out the growing tips of chillies when they are about 12″ (30cm) tall to encourage bushiness.

Watch the plants as the fruits begin to grow.  If fruit becomes heavy then stake and tie plants in to prevent breakages.  Also, if growing in a greenhouse the leaves can become scorched so watch out for this and open vents and shade as appropriate if the temperatures start to soar.

Feeding & Watering

As with all plants regular water is vital so make sure you keep the moisture levels as constant as you can.

Once flowers form start feeding with a fertiliser suitable for tomatoes e.g. a high potash liquid fertiliser with seaweed.  Feed every 10 days as you water.

Harvesting

Harvest August to November.  Expect to harvest between 3 and 8 peppers per plant.

Start to pick the fruit when it is large, green and has a glossy sheen.  If you prefer sweeter peppers then leave it on the plant to mature but this will reduce yield.  If you still have peppers on the plant when the frosts arrive then dig up the whole plant.  Hang it upside down in a shed or greenhouse to allow the fruit to continue to ripen.
Once harvested, if kept cool, bell peppers can store for up to 3 weeks once picked.

 

Pests & Diseases: Asparagus Beetle

Asparagus beetle (Crioceris asparagi) is a small beetle that affects vegetable asparagus, but not ornamental Asparagus species.

Symptoms

common_asparagus_beetle

Affected plants may have crooked spears and chewed bark and foliage which can dry up and turn yellowish brown.  You will also see the beetles and/or their grubs on the plant.  The beetles emerge from the soil in late spring and lay their eggs on the stems and leaves.

They are most active from May to September.  Even if the infestation is after the cropping season, action is needed as the damage they do can weaken the plant and affect the crop the following year.

Eggs

The eggs are black and elongated and attach to the both spears and leaves of the plant by their end.  The eggs will not harm the plant but he more you can get rid of, the fewer beetles will be produced.  They hatch in about a week.
Size:               1/16″ (1.5mm) long

Grubsasparagus_beetle_grub

The grubs are creamy black in colour with 3 pairs of legs toward the head. There are two generations between late spring and early autumn.  They feed on the plants for around two weeks before falling to the ground and pupating in the soil.
Size:               3/8″ (8-10mm) long

Adults

After pupating in the soil for about a week the adults emerge.  The adults are easy to spot as they are black with 6 creamy white patches on their wing cases and a reddish thorax (see photo above).  The beetles overwinter in the soil and they can fly so will re-infest the plants from nearby if not disposed of.
Size:               1/4″ (6-8mm) long

Control

A light infestation will not affect future cropping and it is perfectly possible to pick the grubs and adults off by hand if you have a smallish asparagus bed.   Drop the beetles into a bucket of soapy water so they drown.  Going forward, cut back the old stems in autumn and burn them to get rid of overwintering beetles.  Also, clear up the bed so there is no leaf litter for them to live in.

In the unlikely event that you have a severe infestation and can’t combat it with hand removal then it can be sprayed with the organic insecticide pyrethrum.  Avoid doing this when the plants are in flower though as this can harm pollinators such as bees.

Other Asparagus Pests & Diseases

Crown Rot  If you don’t support the foliage, then as the wind blows the stems they can create a funnel shape in the soil around them which channels water to the crowns and can lead to crown rot.  So if weather is particularly windy you may wish to watch out for this and support the leaves.

Spotted Asparagus Beetlespotted_asparagus_beetle

(Crioceris duodecimpunctata) Like the common Asparagus Beetle the Spotted variety lay eggs on asparagus, feed on it – often on the berries – but they do less damage.  They arrive in the garden slightly later in the spring, so the adults have less opportunity to feed on the spears, and they only lay eggs on the foliage. Because the larvae feed mostly on the berries instead of the foliage, it doesn’t affect the plant’s health as much.

Violet Root Rot  This is very bad news.  It is a distinctive purple looking mould and there is no known cure.  The only solution is to burn affected plants.  Wet soil exacerbates this fungus so improve drainage in the bed before considering replanting.

Slugs & Snails These can nibble the tips as they come up so use the usual methods such as Slug traps to keep them away.  If slugs and snails are a real problem then check out our recent blog post on them Pests & Diseases: Slugs & Snails 

Aphids Both the Potato-Aphid (Macrosiphum Euphorbiae) and the Melon-Cotton aphid (Aphis gossypii) are fond of asparagus.  Try to remove them if possible as they will weaken the plant and may even infect it with Asparagus Virus.  The virus has no obvious symptoms but it weakens the plant and makes it more susceptible to other pathogens

Growing Tips

For more tips and tricks on growing asparagus have a read of our Grow At Home: Asparagus blog

Grow at Home: Asparagus

What it is

Asparagus (Asparagus Officinalis) is a perennial flowering plant species in the genus Asparagus. It is long lived and once established the plants can last for 20 to 30 years.   Its young shoots are a much sought after spring vegetable.

Types

Asparagus_spears_in_soil

Asparagus is either male or female. The male plants produce more plentiful and larger spears so gardeners often prefer them.  The female plants expend a huge amount of energy producing seeds and so provide less for your table.

In the past all asparagus varieties produced a mix of male and female plants. However, ways have now been found to effectively propagate all-male varieties of asparagus.  So look out for all male varieties such as the Jersey Series when buying your seeds or crowns.

Timings

Asparagus is a vegetable for the patient gardener.   It can be grown from seed or from mature crowns bought from a garden centre. The plant needs to establish a strong root system though so, if grown from seed, the shoots will not be ready for harvest for 3 or even 4 years.  Even if grown from a crown, the shoots should not be harvested until the year following planting.  In short, asparagus epitomises the saying “Good things come to those that wait”!

Seeds

IN GREENHOUSE/ WINDOWSILL:             February
Depth: 1/2″ (1cm)

TRANSPLANT OUTDOORS:                       April to June

Crowns

SOW CROWNS DIRECTLY OUTDOORS:   April to June
Depth: 6″ (15cm)

Both

DISTANCE BETWEEN ROWS:                     30” (80cm)

DISTANCE BETWEEN PLANTS:                  20” (50cm)

HARVEST:                                                    May and June – (once plant is mature – see Timing above)

Planting

Asparagus does not like to have its feet “wet,” so be sure that your garden bed has excellent drainage.  Raised Beds are a great place to plant asparagus and mean a lot less digging.

How to plant

Firstly, clear the bed and make sure there are no weeds.  Then, work in a 2″-4″ layer of compost, manure or soil improver.
Prepare shallow trenches about 12″ (30cm) wide and 6″ (15cm) deep.  You might want to make these slightly deeper if you have sandy soil (8″/ 20cm) or slightly shallower if you have heavy soil (4″/ 10cm)
Space the crowns 15″ to 20″ (38-50cm) apart in rows that are 30″ (80cm) apart. Spread the roots out in the trench with the buds pointing upward.
Lastly, once planted, completely fill in the trench with soil.  In your grandfather’s day many people used to gradually fill the trenches with soil as the plants grew but no one seems to do this anymore.  When the trench is filled, add a 4-8″ (10-20 cm) layer of mulch and water regularly.

For the first year, just let the asparagus grow to give the crown a chance to get well established. If growing from seed then repeat this for the next 2 to 3 years! The following spring, remove the old fern growth from the previous year.  You should see new spears begin to emerge.

Pests

Though not a huge threat, the main threat to your asparagus is the Asparagus Beetle – read more about this in out Pests & Diseases: Asparagus Beetle Blog

Harvesting

Only harvest from established plants – see Timings above.  Allow the shoots to grow to roughly 6” (15cm) then cut it 2” (5cm) under the ground with a sharp knife.  This will give a partially blanched stem where the lower stem has had no light.  The French, who are great lovers of asparagus,  like to grow it under mounds, blanching them when the tops peek out.  They then cut them 10” (25cm) under the ground.  So if you prefer your asparagus white then this is an option.

The spears grow quickly so leave it no longer than every other day to check for spears ready to harvest.  They will quickly become woody and inedible of you miss your window,

Once an asparagus spear starts to open and have foliage, it’s too tough for eating. Stop harvesting spears when the diameter of the spears decreases to the size of a pencil. At that point, it’s time to let them grow and gain strength for next spring.  

Immature plants will have a season of only 2 to 3 weeks. With proper care though this will extend to up to 8 weeks for established plants.

When the harvest is over let the plants grow into fun leafy plants. Always leave at least one spear.  Keep the area around them weeded to keep the plants strong. Cut back the asparagus to about 2″ (5cm) above the ground in autumn when the foliage has died back and turned yellowy, brown.

Lastly, before cutting back, mark the bed well so that you don’t accidently dig up your precious plants.  Otherwise your patient waiting will have been for nothing!

Storing

Asparagus does not last for long, best to eat the spears as fresh as possible. It has to be one of the main benefits of growing it yourself to pick it straight from the garden to eat the same day.  You can of course blanch them and then freeze them, but they are never as good.

If you do need to store them then the best way, if you have enough space in your fridge, is to  treat them just like cut flowers and place the spears in a 2-3″ of water.  Alternatively, bundle the spears together, wrap the stem ends of the spears in a moist paper towel, and place the bundle in a plastic bag. Store in the salad drawer of your refrigerator. 

Eating

Simple is best.  Lots of melted butter or a simple Hollandaise Sauce are perfect accompaniments.

Grow at Home – Chilli Peppers

 

We’ve enjoyed a bumper crop of chillies this year and have dried and stored the harvest to use in oils, sauces and recipes throughout the year. If you’ve never grown chillies then make this the year you do!

When to Grow

Sow from late January – this is one crop that really enjoys being given an early start and plenty of time to ripen before the end of summer.  Many varieties can be grown outside, but most benefit from protection and do best undercover, in the greenhouse or a windowsill at home.

Sunbubble is a great alternative to a greenhouse for a little extra growing space under cover.

If you’re growing inside then early sowing is idea. If you plan to move plants outside eventually delay until March or April to ensure the temperature will have risen in time for transplanting.

How to Grow

Scatter seeds thinly across a tray of compost – Bamboo Seed trays are a robust and sustainable alternative to plastic – and cover them lightly with compost or vermiculite.

Water well and place in a warm location such as a propagator or sunny window sill.

Keep the soil moist and seedlings should be large enough to transplant after 2-3 weeks. Vigoroot planters are ideal to encourage healthy compact plants.

If you’re growing your plants outside, place them outside for a few hours at a time to harden off until you feel confident to leave them out overnight, avoiding frosts. Choose a sunny, sheltered spot with well drained soil and expect a smaller and later crop than any in a greenhouse.

Water regularly for a bumper crop and once the first flowers appear a fortnightly feed with a general purpose fertiliser will keep the plant cropping well throughout the season.

Encourage the fruit to set by gently spraying with tepid water and although chillies are self fertile, a gentle shake of the flowing stems to release the pollen can help them along.

Harvesting

Chillies can be ready to harvest from late July depending on the conditions. By early Autumn the fruits will have developed their rich colour, full flavour and heat if that’s what you’re going for.

Snip the chillies from your plant and cut a little way up the stem to leave the green cap and a short length of stalk intact. Avoid any imperfect fruit, as any blemishes will quickly worsen in storage and may turn rotten, infecting healthy fruits too.

Storing

Dry thin-skinned chillies, like cayennes and jalapenos, to hang up in your kitchen and use as you need them through the winter. Any thicker-skinned types, like habaneros, are best frozen whole – chop them straight from the freezer to use in your cooking.

Thread a large needle with strong cotton or fishing line, then poke the needle through the fattest part of the stem of each chilli. String them together side by side – If you angle the needle at 45 degrees to horizontal, the chillies will sit in a spiral, like a bunch of grapes – the traditional Mexican way of hanging them up, known as a ‘ristra’.

Aim for a string of chillies about 60cm long – any longer forces the chillies together, making it difficult for them to dry. Hang your chillies somewhere warm and after a couple of weeks they will have dried completely. Then use them to pep up your cooking or to make flavoured oil – a great present for keen cooks.

 

Try this delicious chilli recipe to add a kick to your winter veg!

 

Tips and Tricks: Seed Germination

Germination

Germination is the process by which an organism grows from a seed or similar structure and develops into a new plant. Three key environmental factors are important to trigger the seed to grow. We are going to call these the Germination Triangle and these factors are :

  • how how much water is available
  • the temperature
  • the planting depth of the seed

A careful balance is needed between these three factors.  How dependent the seed is on them varies depending on the plant.  Some seeds will grow anywhere (and we wish they wouldn’t!) whilst some need infuriatingly perfect conditions to germinate.

Stagesseeds_in_bowls_pre_germination

Water is key as the first stage is for the seed to fill with water in a process called imbibition. The water activates special proteins, called enzymes which that begin the process of seed growth.

First the seed uses the carbohydrates and proteins stored inside to grows a root (radicle).  The root accesses water before the next stage begins: sending up a shoot above ground. As the shoot develops there will be secondary root formation and branching of the roots.

By now the seed’s reserves are running out so the next stage is to grow leaves to harvest energy from the sun. The leaves continue to grow towards the light source in a process called photomorphogenesis.

etiolated_seedling_post_germination

 

Light is very important at this stage.  If there isn’t enough light this causes the plants to become etiolated. This is a natural adaptation to help the shoots elongate quickly to break through the soil and reach the light.  However, if it takes too long to reach light the resulting plants will not be strong.  The seedlings will become elongated, spindly, leafless and pale with a poor root system.

 

 

 

 

 


The Germination Triangle

Water

The amount of water has to be just right for optimum growth.  Too little and the seed won’t grow.  Too much and the seed will be unable to access the oxygen in the soil and won’t develop.  It will basically drown.
With careful watering, this balance is simple to achieve when you germinate your seeds in seed trays or pots.  If you are sowing direct outside preparing the soil ahead of planting will help you get the water balance right.  Ways you could do this include:-

  • Keep off the soil to prevent compacting – if you have to walk across it then lay long planks to use
  • Aerate the soil – if there are no air gaps then you can create them by aerating the soil with a garden fork or machines that do the job can be hired easily
  • Dig through a balanced fertiliser to break up and improve the soil
  • Use a Raised Bed – the easy way to do it but remember not to walk on it and compact the soil
  •  If your plot is very waterlogged adding a ditch or seasonal pond at the lowest part of the garden for excess water to soak away will be helpful.  This has the advantage of creating a habitat for slug eating frogs and toads which you can read more about in our Pests & Diseases – Slugs & snails blog.

Temperature

Temperature is also an important factor. The temperature a seed needs to germinate will often be determined by where the plant originates.  Those that come from Northern climates will often germinate at cooler temperatures than those native to the tropics.  Of course there are exceptions to any rule but many seeds will only germinate when the weather reaches spring temperatures. This can lead to confusion in plants when a freak warm spell causes them to germinate too early leaving them vulnerable to frosts which should be over.

Some seeds only germinate after extreme temperatures, such as after a forest fire or an extended cold period but there aren’t many of these plants in your average veg garden.

The best way to judge soil temperature is to test with a metal thermometer.  Insert it 3 or 4 inches into the soil 3 or 4 days in a row.  The soil can be warmed by the sun later in the day so morning is the best time to test.  If the soil isn’t warm enough then warming it with a Seedling Tunnel is a good option to allow you to start planting earlier than your neighbours.

Charts are available online to tell you what temperature a particular plant may prefer.  From an optimum 40 degrees for a pea plant to 70 degrees for a tomato.  Once you feel the soil is warm enough, check the long range weather forecast for expected cold snaps and you should be safe to plant.  If the forecast fails you then methods such as or using Bell Cloches or Poly tunnels to shield young seedlings are foremost in the gardener’s armoury to start successful germination.

Planting Depth

Planting at the right depth improves the seeds chances dramatically and will increase your germination success rate.  The seed will only store enough energy to sprout and reach the light so planting too deep may mean it does not have the energy to make it out of the ground.  If you plant it too shallow then it may fall prey to birds or dehydrate preventing germination.

Generally the seed packet will clearly show the planting depth so is simple enough to achieve.  But what if a friend gave you the seeds, you harvested them yourself or just lost the packet?   You can look it up on the seed company’s website or check out similar packets at your garden centre.  Or you could try and work it out yourself.

To calculate it yourself, the word on the allotment is that seeds should be planted no deeper than two (or three – opinions vary!)  times their diameter.   This may differ from what’s on the seed packet which too often seems to be 1/4 of an inch.  So experimenting planting some at the packet depth and some at the calculated depth might improve germination rates.

Shallow planting

Some seeds actually need light to germinate e.g. lettuce and dill.  These tend to be very tiny and should be placed on the surface of the soil and not covered.  The challenge with these is to keep them moist as they quickly dehydrate without a covering. If growing in seed trays  – cover with plastic to prevent the water evaporating away. Or cover with a fine layer of vermiculite – a soilless, mineral growing medium – which is porous and lets light shine through, while keeping enough water around the seeds so that they remain moist.

Deep plantingRootrainers_with_seed_gemination

Those that need to be planted deeper can benefit from Rootrainers where deeper cells can be chosen for plants that need the extra depth and moisture can be retained by using the integral cover.

Position

The final piece in the puzzle is where you plant them.  Some seedlings such as carrots do not like to be transplanted so it is important to sow these in the position you want them to grow.  Others can handle being moved so give you an opportunity to make the most of the short growing season by starting them off inside and transplanting them into growing position the minute growing conditions are right.

table_of_veg_

I hope that this has given you some tips to increase the germination success rate in your garden.  Given the delicacy of the balance that needs to be struck for healthy robust seedlings to germinate and grow you can only marvel at how the self seeders in your garden manage so easily what gardeners work so hard to achieve.

Grow at Home: Leeks

What are they?Leeks_in_soil

Leeks, which are famous as the Welsh national emblem, are related to the onion but easier to grow.  They have flat overlapping leaves forming an elongated cylindrical bulb which together with the leaf base, is eaten as a vegetable. They generally mature in autumn/winter and hence are a tasty addition to any winter stew or soup such as your classic Leek and Potato.

Types

As with other plants there are three main varieties – early, mid season and late. So decide which ones you want to have or get all three. I would just go for one variety as I want as many different vegetables growing in my patch as possible. It depends how many leeks your household gets through…

Planting

SOW SEEDS IN GREENHOUSE/ON WINDOWSILL:       February to April

SOW SEEDS DIRECTLY OUTDOORS:                            March to April

TRANSPLANT OUTDOORS:                                             May to July

DEPTH TO PLANT SEEDS:                                               ½” (2cm)

DISTANCE BETWEEN ROWS:                                         12” (30cm)

DISTANCE BETWEEN PLANTS:                                       6” (15cm)

Soil Type

Leeks are tolerant of a wide variety of soil types but prefer firm, well drained soil.  A safe bet is to dig well rotted garden compost into your soil.  Freshly manured soil is not suitable.  There will be too much leaf growth and the resulting leeks will be coarse, tough and no good for eating. 

When to Plant

There are 3 sowing dates for leeks – if planting from seed they should be sown in Rootrainers before planting out

Variety Sow Plant Out
Summer and Autumn (Hannibal)

 

February Mid April
Autumn & Winter(Blue-green winter, Northern lights)

 

Mid March Mid May
Late Winter (Blue Solaise)

 

Early May Early June

It is usual to start the seeds off in containers or a seedbed before moving them to their final position once they are established.  This is because sowing them directly into their final position takes up a lot of space which could be being used for fast growing crops such as lettuce. Leeks are perfectly happy to start off in the greenhouse or windowsill and move when your salads are done. 

Growing from seed is easy and germination rates are high.  Sow your seeds into Rootrainers or small 3” (8cm) pots.Germination should take from 14-21 days.
Start thinning the seedlings out straight away.  Thin to about 2″ (5cm) the first time as some of the plants may die, and then thin again when everything seems to be going well, so that the plants are about 4″ (10 cm) apart.

If you don’t want to plant seeds you could also let someone else do the work and buy established seedlings and plant out as the weather permits.

Planting Out

When the leeks are about 8″ (20cm) tall, plant them into their final positions. If possible plant when the weather is showery, if not then water them well. Keep watering well until they are really established.

To ensure you get lovely blanched stems make a deep hole around 6″ (15cm) to plant the leek.  Fill in with an inch or two of soil and allow the remainder of the hole to fill up with soil as it is washed in with watering.  This will ensure some white stem on your leek which many think is enough (both white and green parts of the leek are edible).  If you want more white and less green though, see the section below on Blanching, for how to use collars.  

Where to plantContainer_Leeks_in_snow

When choosing the site to sow leeks make sure you consider that you might want to leave them in the ground to be dug as required during the winter months, and you could leave them in the ground for a year or more.

It is not advisable to grow leeks in the same place year after year as there will be an increased risk of pests and diseases such as Leek Rust. 

In crop rotation, leeks follow lettuce, cabbage or peas.  Many people leave planting their leeks until immediately after lifting early potatoes. However, do not plant them where the potatoes were as the soil will be too loose and disturbed and leeks do best on a firm soil.

Feeding

Leeks need food and will benefit from a sprinkle of something like a seaweed feed around the roots. This will increase the thickness of the leeks. Don’t feed overwintering leeks after August.

Blanchingpulled_leeks

The leeks you buy in the supermarket will have long white stems.  To increase the length of white stem in your home grown leek, blanch the stem by gently drawing up dry soil around the stem in stages.  Start this process in August. 

If you have your leeks growing in a trench, gradually fill the trench in with soil to the bottom of the lowest leaves each time until the plants have finished growing, which will probably be around mid to late autumn. You are aiming for 4-6″ (10-15 cm) of blanched stems. Use dry, fine soil to do this as wet soil will cause rot to set in and lumpy soil wont keep out the light properly.

If your leeks are growing in a flat bed or container, push the soil up around the plants increasing the soil depth by about 2″ (5 cm) each time. You can keep the stems free of soil by using collars.  Secure them around the leeks leaving around 5″ (12.5cm) of leaf showing. 

Collars

Get your recycling hat on for this bit as many materials are suitable to make a collars. For instance, sawn lengths of plastic piping, the middle of toilet rolls and wrapping paper, or brown paper tied up with string or rubber bands. Whatever type of collar you decide on the minimum diameter should be 3″ (7.5 cm) and 12-15″ (30-37.5cm) long. Attach the collars before carrying out the earthing-up process.  The collar will keep the light out and the soil will stop it blowing away in the wind.  As the plants grow, draw up more and more soil adding another collar if needed.

This will increase the amount of the plant that is edible and improve the flavour.  Keep the soil from falling between the leaves otherwise you will have a lot of cleaning to do or risk gritty stew!

Harvesting

HARVEST: September to Mayfrosty_baby_leeks

Harvest your leeks by lifting gently with a fork, either as pencil thin baby leeks or as fully grown 3” (8cm) diameter ones.

If you want to eat them then do not let your leeks flower as the leek turns into a woody stem once the plant flowers and is too tough to eat.  Leek flowers are a very decorative addition to the garden though so you might want to let some of them flower as they will produce seeds that you can happily collect to use the following year.

Eating

Leeks will stay fresh for 1 to 2 weeks if stored in a cool place. Once harvested they are delicious in soups or stews or try them in a white sauce covered in cheese and grilled.  A perfect side dish for your Sunday roast and a lovely vegetarian lunch in its own right..       

Grow At Home: Mushrooms

Mushrooms_in_basketDespite being a much used ingredient, mushrooms are not an everyday crop in your average garden.  If you are nervous of wild foraging but long to harvest mushrooms then growing your own gives the reassurance of getting safe, delicious mushrooms without the chance of the poisonous or mind altering effects.

Mushrooms are perennial organisms that can live for decades, and have two distinct parts.
Underground, a web of threadlike hyphae known as mycelium cover an often huge area, absorbing nutrients and powering the fungi.
Above ground is the visible fruit which is the reproductive organs – the bit we eat.

Which Variety of Mushrooms to Grow

If you have been given a mushroom growing kit for Christmas then the choice of which mushroom to grow has already been made for you.  However, if you are planning your own mushroom growing adventure then what variety do you choose?

If you’re a beginner, start out by growing Oyster Mushrooms (Pleurotus ostreatus)  The Oyster Mushroom mycelium grows vigorously and will survive a wide range of temperatures so it is easy to grow.

Another great choice is Shiitake Mushroom (Lentinula edodes). These are both easy to grow and taste great and will save you ££££s at the supermarket as they are often sold dried and a little more pricey than your ordinary button mushroom.

Your methods and materials are other factors to consider. You can grow mushrooms on manure, wood, straw, paper or compost.  Certain species do better on certain substrates, and matching them up is essential to a good crop.

Timing

Plant: all year round but temperature should be between 10° and 18° Beyond this the key consideration is when you are planning on starting and harvesting. Different mushrooms fruit in different seasons, so matching your mushroom to its preferred season will give you the best success.

Method

There are different ways of buying the spawn but the basic steps for growing mushrooms are the same for all

  1. Choose your substrate – dependent on your mushroom variety.
  2. Add the mushroom spawn – known as inoculation.
  3. Moisten and keep at the correct temperature for the mycelium to start to grow.
  4. Change the environmental conditions to trigger fruiting – usually by dropping the temperature and increasing the humidity.
  5. Wait until fruits are big enough and harvest.

Spawn

You can get the spawn in a number of forms.

  • In plugs or impregnated dowels – hammer these directly into a piece of wood.  You can not use old wood.   Cut the logs to use fresh (within 6 weeks) from disease-free healthy living trees. Logs should be around 50 cm or 1 metre in length with a diameter from 10 to 30 cm.  The type of mushroom chosen dictates how wide your log needs to be and how many plugs you’ll need. The instructions that come with your plug will guide you.
  • Grain – sprinkle this onto manure or between the damp pages of a book.   (A great way to recycle your Yellow Pages!) before wrapping in a plastic bag until the mycelium start to grow.
  • Blocks  – planted in the ground, particularly good for under trees.  These can be planted round the roots of trees or under a patch of turf in your lawn.  You will not be able to mow there and it should be an area where there is little traffic as the mycelium don’t like compacted ground.
  • Mushroom growing kits – these are a great way to start and come with the appropriate growing medium.  Often this is on straw which has been pre-sterilised so that you know the only fungus you are growing is the one you planned to grow.  It may even be pre inoculated with the mushroom spawn or you may have to add this yourself before moistening and keeping warm until the mycelium have started to grow.

Where to Grow

Mushrooms_two_whiteMushrooms grow in the shade in buckets or shallow planters, in the green house or the shed, or outside in the lawn, beneath trees or on the edge of the compost heap.

Many people think that mushrooms need to be grown in the dark.  This is a myth and the truth is that mushrooms lack the ability to use energy from the sun. They do not have chlorophyll so are not green plants.  Therefore they can grow in the dark or light as their energy does not come from the sun but from its growing medium.   They do however, need to remain moist, not wet or dry, at all times and it is easier to achieve this in a shady spot.

 

Mushrooms are a great source of non animal protein, very low in calories and a great addition to many recipes.  They are also a lot of fun to grow so well worth trying.  For a tasty way to enjoy them why not try this recipe?

War Time Mushrooms

Cut up one clove of garlic and add it to a frying pan of melted butter.  Cut up a large handful of your home grown mushrooms and add to the pan.  Fry until brown, tip onto a piece of toast and eat hot.  Simple but delicious.

Pests & Diseases: Slugs and snails

Slugs & Snails: what are we dealing with?

Snails

There are around 120 species of snail in the UK.  These range from 1mm Dot snails (punctum pygmaeum) to the Roman Snail (Helix pomatia) which has a 5cm shell and is good with garlic butter.  Some of these species are specific to geographical areas so not all will turn up on your plot.  The main one we are interested in is the European Brown Garden Snail (Helix aspersa) – a terrestrial gastropod mollusc.

These Gardens Snails have a life span of 2 to 6 year.  They can produce up to six batches of eggs in a single year, and each newborn will take one to two years to mature.

Slugs

Snail_slug_on_broom_handle

Slugs evolved from terrestrial snails, they are basically a shell-less snail.  A tiny number of species still have a small shell and the remainder have a vestigial shell inside them.  There are around 40 species of slugs in the UK.  No consolation when they’re eating your lettuce but only a few of these are pests.   Many species perform a key role in composting though releasing nutrients back into the ecosystem and helping your plot to grow.

A slug can lay between 100-500 eggs in groups of 10-50, generally sheltered in a hole it digs. Slugs can produce up to two generations per year.  They live between 9-18 months depending on the species and conditions.

Feeding

Though it may feel like they travel in packs, slugs and snails are lone operators.  They feed by licking your veg with a cheese-grater-like radula and can cause a lot of damage while your back is turned.

Ways to control them

So we have established that they are a nuisance in the garden and can devastate your veg patch in a very short time but how do we deal with this?  There are many ways, some of which involve total eradication.  What the gardener should aim for though is control rather than a complete purge.  What you are looking for is a balanced ecosystem within your space.  Complete obliteration of every slug and snail will take away the good things they do like composting and lead to a vacuum which in time will draw more of them to your plot.

Block their path

For both slugs and snails mucus is essential for their movement. A gland situated at the front of the foot secretes mucus which is squeezed below the sole and allows them to slide along leaving the silvery trail we know so well. Because they move like this,  putting something in their path to make their progress painful is very effective.  So try one of these to make getting to your plants feel like walking on broken glass.

  • crushed egg shells (bonus that they add calcium to your soil)
  • used coffee grounds
  • food-grade diatomaceous earth
  • sheeps wool round the stems of tender plants
  • Don’t use salt.  It will kill the slugs and snails but will also kill your plants.

Pesticides

Slug pellets: These get justifiably bad press.  They certainly kill slugs and snails but also poison pets, children and the unfortunate predator that eats prey that has consumed one.  I have put them first in this list to get them out of the way and hope that you will be able to find at least one better, more environmentally safe choice in what follows.  Most slug pellets are not organic and even the organic ones are not wise to use: when the slugs die, the predators leave to find food elsewhere – leaving you in need of more pellets.  And so it goes on…

Traps and Barriers

Trapping slugs and snails is a good way to stop them.

Beer Traps:

Slug_climbing_into_beer_trap

This is the method that I use and it is hugely successful.  Haxnicks Slug Buster buried a little way into the ground and filled with cheap beer will have them flocking.  They are attracted to the smell of the yeast in the beer.  Add some oats to make it even more enticing.

The lidded design wins over home made traps as it stops the rain getting in and diluting the beer.  It also creates the nice dark space that both slugs and snails look for.

Hiding Place Trap: Alternatively set up a Hiding Place Trap.  Slugs and snails like to hide in dark,  damp spaces. Find a wet piece of wood or wooden plank.  Place it near an area where snails and slugs are frequently spotted. The next morning, check the wooden plank and get rid of any attached to it.
The same works with an upturned plant pot or hollowed out grapefruit half.  Prop the edge up on a stone to allow them to crawl inside.
Make sure to check the trap in the morning.  Dispose of its residents otherwise all you have done is set up a campsite close to the buffet for the little critters!

Copper: Slugs don’t like to crawl across copper so putting a border of copper is supposed to prevent them.  A variety of products are available such as copper tape to put round plant pots, mats to sit pots on etc.  I have never had much luck with this method but it is widely used so you might want to try it.

PlantingMint_leaves_with_apple

Plant things they don’t like such as rosemary, thyme and all sorts of mint  If you need to cut back a prolific mint plant then you can also dig the clippings through the soil to further deter them.  If you live by the sea then seaweed will also work in this way.

Slugs and snails love Lawn Camomile.  So rather than planting to deter them, plant this to attract them away from your seedlings- especially good if you want to collect the slugs to get them out of your garden as you know where they will be.

The slugs that attack growing potato tubers live under the soil where you can’t see them.  So growing your potatoes in protected Potato Planters that you know are full of slug-free compost rather than in the ground may be an effective way to grow them whilst you get your slug problem under control.

Removal

Picking them off by hand – especially after dark while they are more active –  is a sure fire way to get rid of them.  Search for them under stones, wood and plant pots to seek out their most likely hiding places.

The big issue with this method is how to dispose of them.  Moving them just unbalances someone else’s ecosystem but many find it hard to kill them.  Drowning – in a jar of water, not a bucket as they will be able to climb out – works if you have the heart for it.  Leave them in the open for birds to take.  This will also encourage bird life into the garden.  Ensure you have enough birds interested to do this though otherwise you will be meeting the same creatures every night.

Introduce a predator

Birds:  Birds love slugs and snails so encourage birds into your garden by setting up a birdbath and feeding table.  Or if you have room introduce chickens and ducks as they both LOVE a nice slug.  So, introducing some birds to your plot will be a win win situation.

Nematodes:  This is the quick, effective and easy to do and will create a slug free area for up to 6 weeks. Nematodes are slug parasites.  They are microscopic worms that kill slugs. You use them by watering on to the soil surface, where they search for prey and invade it. Special ‘nematode food’ bacteria, are released and multiply rapidly to nourish them and keep them working. An infected slug stops feeding in about 3 days before beginning to swell. The nematodes multiply inside the slug which starts to decompose and the new nematodes spread and start looking for their next prey.

This treatment is so effective though that all slugs are eliminated. This means that the natural – non nematode predators – also disappear to look for food elsewhere.  The garden now contains loads of slug food and no slug predators.  So once it is rediscovered by the next generation hatching or itinerant slugs they will have free reign.

Frogs and Toads:  If you have room for a pond then keeping frogs in it will sort your slug and snail problem.  Hopefully an obliging frog will come and spawn in your pond – check out local ponds to see if you have any living near by.  If you don’t have room for a pond then you could still have toads as they do not require a pool.  As long as there are enough moist hiding spaces for them round the garden you should be OK.

Other predators you might like to consider building habitat for are:

  • Hedgehogs  – contact your local rescue centre to see if your plot is suitable
  • Carob beetles – eat eggs as well as grown ones so double whammy from these
  • Centipedes – ensure you get carnivorous centipedes as oppose to herbivorous millipedes which will eat your plants

I wouldn’t like to try it with slugs but the Common Garden snail is edible so if all else fails you could always eat them yourself!

Think like a slug 

Slug_on_broom_handle

Water: Snails and slugs need a moist environment.  They are generally more active at night for this reason.  If you water your garden in the evening, you lay yourself and your veg open so they can glide toward your plants at a rate of knots.
If you water your plants in the morning, the sunlight will dry the plants out before dark and make them less attractive to slugs and snails.

Tidy plot: Keep your plot tidy and you can deter slugs and snails.  Don’t leave piles of pots, planks of wood and old watering cans around that they can use for shelter.  Make sure beds are tidy with well spaced plants so that moving between lunch and dinner is harder for them.

It will be an ongoing battle I am sure but hopefully there will be some new ideas here that help you to create a balance in your garden so that your seedlings make it through and you can successfully harvest some unchewed veg.