Vegetables for your Christmas Dinner

There is nothing quite like the satisfaction of eating your Christmas dinner and knowing that earlier that morning the vegetables had been growing in your garden. If you have room to raise chickens or turkeys, you can even raise your own meat!

It is very easy to grow a wide variety of vegetables which can be harvested over the winter. Certainly, Brussel Sprouts, the traditional Christmas vegetable, are one of the easiest and most rewarding. Sow the seed and sit back and wait. Harvest your sprouts from the bottom up and when you have run out of sprouts, the tops can be used for Spring greens.

Apart from Brussel Sprouts, you can also harvest Kale, Cauliflower, Carrots and Parsnips at Christmas. (If you have planned ahead, you will also have home grown Peas and Beans in your freezer. What more can you want? Well, potatoes of course. You will already have these stored.

It is easy to store potatoes. When you harvest your old potatoes, then make sure they have no blemishes and are perfectly dry, then just put them in a dark sack or bag. They need to be stored away from light and heat, although they do not want to be frozen. They will last months like that. New potatoes are treated slightly differently. These are stored iin dry compost. Again, they need to be kept cool but not frozen.

If potatoes see light when they are growing or even after they have been harvested, they go green and green potatoes are poisonous. They will not kill you but they could give you a nasty stomach ache.  If they are stored too warm, they will sprout and go soft. Not what you want in potatoes.

If for some reason, you want to harvest your root vegetables early, then they can be stored in a cool, dark place in sand or dry peat. Make sure they are not damaged in any way before storing them. They must be dry or rot will set in and any damage will rapidly spread  throughout the crop. Check all your stored vegetables from time to time to ensure they are not being attacked by any pests or diseases.

Peas – the children’s favourite vegetable.

Peas are almost every child’s favourite vegetable, with good reason. Together with sweet corn they are among the sweetest tasting of all vegetables, and when grown in your garden they taste even sweeter. I always eat my first pod of peas uncooked, just to savour the flavour.

Although there have always been a wide range of varieties in peas, this year has seen two new ideas in Thompson and Morgans seed catalogue. The first is a tall variety (6 ft tall).

This is a Mangetout/snap pea called Golden Sweet.

mangetout-pea-Golden-Sweet

It has mauve flowers so will look decorative as well as providing peas. Picked and used in stir-fries or just plain steamed, mangetout peas  straight from the garden are much sweeter than any of those brought from shops. This is because, like sweet corn the sugar starts to turn to starch as soon as the pods are picked. You should pick mangetout peas very early, before the peas start to swell.

The second new variety offered by T & M is Maro  ‘The Mushy Pea’ .

Mushy Pea - Maro

Mushy Peas have suddenly become fashionable again, probably due to celebrity chef’s using them. These peas are stored by drying them after you have harvested them. When you want to use them, you just soak them overnight, then boil them with a little salt and sugar.

Most pea varieties are between 18 ins(4cm) and 3 ft (90cm) tall. They need support, although some varieties are advertised as self supporting if grown in blocks. I do not find this very satisfactory as they become unkempt and difficult to harvest.  Peas grow best if they are kept weeded. You also have to bear in mind that small rodents and birds love peas. Net tunnels will solve the problem.

When sowing peas, they should be sown in rows with two peas sown every 6 ins. In fact, because peas are so beloved of small rodents, I sow them 3 seeds in 3″ pots and plant them out in rows with the pot contents touching each other. I just dig a small trench and plant the peas in them. I also put in twigs as supports at the same time.

You should try to sow peas in succession so that you never have too many at one time. You can start sowing in March (February under cover)  until May or even June. (I actually sowed some in the middle of July last year and although they were not wonderful, I did get some peas. ). If you do have more peas then you can use at one time, then they freeze very well, losing none of their flavour in the process. Try to freeze them as soon as possible after you have harvested them.

Like all vegetables, peas are very good for you. Mangetout peas are high in potassium and all peas are a good source of Vitamins A , B1, C and folic acid. Peas also help remove cholesterol as they contain soluble fibre.

Growing Sweetcorn and Popcorn

Every year we are invited to choose different varieties of vegetable seeds and this year there are three very noteworthy additions to the sweetcorn range in Thompson and Morgan’s seed catalogue.

The first new variety is Red Strawberry.Swetcorn Red Strawberry

This has been bred especially to produce Popcorn with the minimum of fuss. The plants produces 3-4 ears per plant which are only 2 inches (5 cm) long. They have tiny red, kernels. You simply pop the whole cob in the microwave and watch it explode. You then have ready-to-eat, fluffy white popped corn.

The other two new varieties are designed to be used  as ‘baby corn’  in stir-fries, salads and as a vegetable. You harvest them before pollination, just as the silk tassels are beginning to show. These are called Snobaby and Minor. They are both F1 Hybrids.

Sweet Corn you have grown yourself tastes so much better than any you have bought that it is worth the extra effort you put in to grow it. This is because sweet corn starts to lose its sweetness as soon as you pick it. The sugar in the kernels starts to turn to starch. In fact the very best way to eat sweet corn is to boil the water to cook it , next to your vegetable patch, pick to cobs and drop them into the boiling water. Cook for 7 minutes, then eat! They are so sweet and juicy they need no butter.

Germinate sweet corn indoors at 21 -24C (70-75F). This means you can sow them in the  cold greenhouse in April. Sow 1 seed per 3in pot in compost and wait until they are the size of a pencil beforel you plant them out. Then plant them in a block – not rows – at least 3 plants by 3 plants square. Anything larger is great. But try to make them  in as near as a square as possible. This is because they are pollinated by wind. The flowers are at the top of the plants and the cobs half way down. If there is no breeze when the flowers are covered in pollen (it is large enough it see), then gently shake the plants so that it falls onto the emerging cobs – and their neighbours). This will aid germination. If it is at all windy, you do not need to do this, nature will do it for you.

You know the cobs are about ready to harvest  when the silk tassels go dark brown. All Sweet Corn freezes well so is a useful vegetable for keeping. Although you would think that a sweet vegetable like sweet corn would have loads of calories, in fact a typical cob has only 100 calories so can be used in salads in a diet  designed for weight loss. Cobs are gluten free and are a good source of fibre and Vitamin B.  All in  all, a very useful vegetable which is worth the efort to grow in your garden.

Crop Rotation

Crop rotation is a very useful and old method of growing vegetables to give the maximum use of nutrients in your soil and to prevent the build up of pests and diseases.

I use a three year scheme (pretty general) and this is how it works. First, all vegetables and divided into groups. The first group consists of Potatoes, carrots, beetroot, persnips, onions, leeks, garlic, tomatoes, courgettes, marrows, pumpkins, celery, Florence Fennel, aubergines, peppers, cucumbers, melons, celeriac, salsify and scorzonia. You can also include Hamberg parsley in this if you do not grow it among your herbs. With this bed you start by double digging incorporating manure in the upper and lower levels plus two handfuls of blood, fish and bonemeal. Then grow as many of this group in this patch  as you want.

Group two of vegetables are Peas, beans of all types, sweetcorn, spinach, swiss chard, lettuce, chicory, endive and globe articholes. I grow Runner beans on wigwams or in a double row in another part of the garden, leaving more room in this bed. To prepare this bed, single dig it and apply blood, fish and bonemeal three weeks before sowing the first crop of the season.

The third group of vegetables are brassicas – Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, calabrese, broccoli, kale, swedes, turnips, radishes and kohl-rabi. The bed is prepared with single digging but no extra nutrients. (This depends upon your soil – you may need to apply some lime to bring the PH level to 6.5 – 7.0. if your soil is acid)

At the beginning of the second year, you move all crops along one bed. So the Beetrot, parsnips etc get grown where the beans were and the beans are grown where the brassicas were, the brassicas being grown where the Beetroot etc were the previous year. The third year, move all crops along to the bed they have not yet been grown in and the fourth year you start again from the beginning.

There are some vegetables which are permanent crops and these require a bed of their own.  These are Globe Artichokes (Although these can equally be grown at the back of a flower bed), Jerusalem Artichokes (these could be grown as an annual hedge) seakale, asparagus (although most people grow this in its own bed) and herbs.

Even if you use a deep bed system, you should still try to use crop rotation. The digging will be much easier, in fact barely necessary in the third bed, but you will still need to add nutrients and move around to avoid pests and diseases in the soil.

Sweet Peppers and Chillis

Peppers are fun to grow. I use them both for cooking and for decoration. They are easy to grow and very rewarding. I find them very useful in cooking also. I use my Capsicums (sweet peppers) both raw in salads and also cooked in all manners of ways and dishes. They are not particularly hot but add a certain piquancy to dishes. For heat you need chilli peppers. Both types are decorative and can be kept in pots in the house as decoration and used as wished.You can also freeze peppers and chillis for use when wanted.

When choosing sweet pepper seed, I generally choose two types. The first is a heavy cropper such as Jumbo Sweet F1 Hybrid or Gourmet ; and the second type is more decorative (although still useful for eating) such as Summer Salad. This variety produces a mixture of colour peppers (only one colour per plant) from Purple through to yellow, red and orange. These look good on the plants as well as in salads and other dishes. They are thick and thin walled so have a variety of uses.These varieties come from Thompson and Morgan Seed Catalogue but the equivalent can be found in any vegetable seed catalogue.

Choosing Chilli pepper seed is very much a matter of personal preference. Chillis come in all manner of heat and depending upon your personal preference you can choose one to fit. They are all easy to grow amd will grow indoors or outside.

When growing Peppers and chillis, I always start them off indoors. I sow them in 3″ pots (2 seeds to a pot). Then when they have germinated, I prick them out into individual 3″ pots, gradually potting them on until they are in 2 litre pots. At this point, all danger of frosts are over and I can plant them outside if I wish. If  you are growing them purely for decoration, then you can stop with the size pot which suits you. The smaller the pot, the less pappers you will get and the smaller those peppers will be.

As with Tomatoes, peppers and chillis want good soil to grow in. Compost to start them off and then grow bags or home made compost is great. They will also need feeding after 6 weeks.

Because chillis and Capsicums look so good on the plant, they can be grown in flower beds in a small garden – or even a large one. Beacause I am growing them mainly to eat, I grow  most of mine in the greenhouse. This means they are not reliant upon the weather and therefore will ripen more readily. I also take some indoors when the weather starts to cool down and let them ripen there whilst still looking good.

Red and Green Capsicums are a very good provider of Vitamin C whilst Red Pappers are rich in Vitamin A also. So besides looking good, and tasting good, they do you good. What more can you ask of any plant!

All about Tomatoes

I like to grow my tomatoes in my cold tunnel. They are more reliable that way and do not rely upon the weather quite so much. Having said that, if  the weather forecast is that the summer will be a particularly hot one, I will put some outdoors to ‘hedge my bets’ in case those inside get scorched from too much heat.

There are a number of types of tomato plants and you need to know what type you are growing as you treat them differently. Because I grow my tomatoes indoors, I tend to grow cordon tomatoes. These take up less room and are easy to crop and to ripen. They need support and side shooting regularly.The next type is indeterminate which can be treated much like cordons but supposedly produce more trusses when grown under glass. Personally, I do not stop my cordon tomatoes, so I have not noticed any real difference in the amount of trusses so it depends upon the variety you want to grow.

There are two other types of tomato plants, semi-determinate varieties which are quite prolific in their growth and require some trimming. If you don’t trim them, they will get totally out of hand and produce very little fruit. The other type is Bush which require the least attention since they are predominately self-stopping and do not require side shooting.

If you ask gardeners how they grow their tomatoes, you will get a different answer every time. However, the one thing they will agree on is that it is not a good idea to grow tomatoes directly in the ground under glass. because they can suffer from root rot and other viruses which stay in the soil for a long time. Grow bags are a very good idea, however I have found that I get a better result if I grow them in deeper pots. One good method is to take a grow bag and cut it in half. Then stand it on end so that you get quite a deep bag to grow your tomatoes in.  Even if you are growing them in grow bags (or even, like me in home made compost), you will still need to feed your tomato plants after six weeks.

There are so many tomato varieties you are spoilt for choice. You just have to decide which one you like best and what suits your needs. It’s no good growing cherry-type tomatoes if you are going to use them mainly for making sandwiches.  You can now get tomatoes in other colours than red, so you could grow these for colourful salads should the mood take you.

For newcomers to tomatoes, I have found that Alicante and Shirley are good reliable varieties, full of flavour and without to tough skins and for cherry tomatoes, it is hard to beat Gardeners Delight.

Like all plants, tomatoes have their own variety of pests and diseases. One of the problems of growing tomatoes indoors is that if you do not water regularly, then you can get what’s known as greenback which is a nasty black patch on the bottom of the tomato and its makes it inedible. There are varieties which are resistent to this problem, but regular watering solves it anyway.

Other pests and diseases include potato blight, so if your growing your tomatoes outdoors, don’t grow them next to potatoes. White fly can also be a problem. You can repel these by planting marigolds close to the plants.

Tomatoes take a bit of looking after, but the results are well worth the effort. Home grown tomatoes  always taste better than those bought in shops – you know how they have been raised, what chemicals have (or have not) been used on them and they will certainly be much less expensive.

French Beans – Dainty and Delicious.

French Beans, in my opinion, are one of the most delicious of the beans. There used to be only one type, that are now called bush beans or dwarf beans, but now you can also grow them as climbing plants.

Climbing plants make considerable sense, particularly for people short of space. Growing upwards means you get a larger harvest for a smaller ground space. However, they are later to crop than the shorter varieties.

I always sow bush beans indoors and plant them out when they are a couple of inches tall. This ensures I am not feeding the mice. I plant them about 6 ins apart which means that when they finish growing they are touching each other. This saves work weeding. However, it makes harvesting interesting. – you’re sure to leave a few pods by mistake. I harvest when the pods are small. Although this may not give me the largest harvest (this is in doubt as the more you harvest, the more pods grow) the beans are beautifully tender.

With the diferent colour french beans available now, a patch of bush french beans can look very attractive. One of the benefits of growing french beans as apposed to runner beans is that they do not need bees for pollination so that in cold weather they will produce pods rather more readily.

There is one other bean which is now available as seeds. This is a fairly new addition  and is the Haricot bean. I have never grown this, but I note that Thompson and Morgan offer it as a dwarf plant or a climber. It can be used young as a green bean or podded and stored as a haricot bean. Useful particularly in soups.

Runner Beans – A must grow vegetable

Not many years ago, the only bean seeds you could purchase were broad beans, runner beans (climbing beans with red flowers) and French beans which were bush beans.  The choice is much wider now. You can still buy broad bean seed although there are more varieties, they are basically the same. However, Runner Beans are now to be found in red and white flowered varieties and even bi-coloured flowers which makes them much more versatile.

I have, for a number of years, used runner beans at the back of flower beds as a useful screen and backdrop. Indeed, in the early years of my married life my garden was too small for a separate vegetable patch and I grew a number of vegetables among my flowers. With the recent additions to the varieties, runner beans are certainly attractive enough for this use.

Sometimes runner beans can have pollination problems. To improve the chances of their beingvisited by pollinating insects, I grow sweet peas close by. If you are growing them in a line at the back of a flower bed, then you could alternate runner beans with sweet peas. Remember to leave easy access though, because you will want to be visiting them often.

Like all beans, runner beans are best harvested whilst they are still young. They are much more succulent then and are stringless. If you find you have more runner beans than you can eat, they freeze very easily and retain their texture and taste very well. Simply prepare them as you would for coking and pop in a freezer bag and freeze. No par-boiling, or water involved.

Runner beamns are gross feeders so you should prepare the site befor you sow them. You do this by digging a trench one spade deep and at least 2 ft wide and break up at the bottom, half fill it withcompost, manure or even old newspapers screwed up and soaked in water ot liquid manure, then replace the soil and allow to settle.

As already mentioned the biggest problem you have growing runner beans is setting of flowers. This is aided by ensuring the roots are kept moist during the season.

Runner beans are also liable to be affected by slugs, blackfly and halo blight. To start with Halo blight. I have never suffered from this, since I buy in fresh seed every year. Halo blight is seed-borne, so be wary of saving your own seed from year to year. It shows itself as angular spots on the leaves surrounded by a lighter coloured halo. Later they turn reddish brown and can ooze white.

Blackfly is a very common probklem in a wide range of plants. If, like me, you are trying to garden without resorting to pesticides or other chemicals, there are two main things you can do. The first is grow plants which will attrect hover-flies, since their larvae eat aphids.  If the attack persists, then you can spray the plants with insecticidal soap. (watered down washing up liquid does well.) The problem with blackfly is not only the fly inself, it produces a sticky honeydew which attracts the growth of soty mould.

Slugs like the young shoots of runner beans, so you can avoid this by sowing the seeds in pots and transplanting into the soil when they are six inches high. (This also means that you can start the beans earlier and get an earlier crop) or you can mulch around the area where you sow your beans to prevent slugs.

Don’t be put off by the number of pests and diseases you MIGHT get. Most gardeners do not sufer from most of them and if you do find you have a problem, then you deal with it then.

Broad Beans – An Easy Crop To Grow

Broad beans generally are very easy to grow. They also freeze very well, losing none of their texture or taste in the process. Abundant harvests make these one of the most useful of all crops in your vegetable patch.

Broad beans have significantly better textures if you pick them young. If you leave them too long they tend to end up a bit like cardboard when cooked. You do not necessarily lose quantity in the harvest by picking early, since the plant will continue to crop after you have picked them. Because they are an early harvest, once you have finished with them, you can clear the site and still have time to grow another late crop of a different vegetable.

If you have trouble with blackfly on them, there are a number of ways to prevent it. The first is to either sow in Autumn in the ground or in pots under cover in early spring, transplanting when they are four or five inches high. Black fly likes young, tender shoots best so you are avoiding this stage whilst the blackl fly are active. The second method is to plant a row of Summer Savory near them as a companion plant. This will deter the blackfly.Planting marigold close by also helps since black fly love marigolds and are more likely to attck them than your Broad Beans. Pinching out the growing tip of the plants once the pods are set also helps deter black fly.

Unless you suffer from gout, broad beans are very good for you. Freshly picked they are packed full of Vitamins A,C and E and also a god source of protein and fibre.

Lettuce – pretty in your flower beds.

When choosing lettuce, you really are spoilt for choice. I like the texture and taste of Cos type lettuce so I always grow a row or two of them. I start them off  by sowing a pinch of seed in a 3 inch pot and when they are large enough to handle, I transplant into rows which are 6 ins apart, leaving 3ins between plants. This means that when they become a bit crowded, I pick alternative plants for salads. Lettuce seed will not germinate if the temperature is too high so you can only do this in the spring. If you want to sow more lettuce in the summer, you must do so outside. Alternately, sow loads in the spring and do not prick them out. Leaving them crowded will stop them growing and you can then plant them out when you want them. You must be careful, though, that they do not become ‘leggy’ because they are fighting for light.

I also grow one of more red lettuces but these I grow in flower beds as well as the vegetable patch.  Last year I grew Ultimate mixed lettuces from the Thomson and Morgan seed catalogue and found them to be  very good.  I used the green round type lettuce as a cut and come again lettuce and this worked well.  However, this year I think I will try Colour shade mix as a cut and come again lettuce and add Lollo  Rosso as a addition. I have grown Lollo Rosso in the past and have found it’s frilled leaves very attractive in flower beds and it also tastes good as well as looking good in the salad bowl. I do not suffer from aphids much (although I do get white fly on my Roses) and the only problems I have growing lettuces are slugs and snails and cabbage white butterfly.

Whilst there are chemicals which will dispose of Cabbage White Butterfly caterpillers, I find that it is really quite easy to dispose of them by keeping a sharp eye on your lettuce and brassicas and killing the eggs before they hatch. The eggs are red  and are laid on the underside of leaves . They are easily disposed of by rubbing them with your thumb.

I use salt to kill slugs and snails. It is better for me and the environment than chemicals. Birds don’t mind salt on their slugs but slug pellets are poisinous and will kill them.