However my confidence has been shaken by a series of terrible growing years. Recently, things I have always grown using tried and trusted methods have failed to produce any results at all.
I find myself skulking around the vegetable beds, seed catalogues remain unopened and a stray cat has taken up residence in the greenhouse. I may never bother growing another tomato again - ever.
I feel lost, wary and a bit shouty about it all.
Tentative plans are forming in my mind. Words like perennial vegetables, edible weeds and errrr. That's it really. Just those words.
So it happened that while I was potting up grass (another story - another blog) I noticed three or four little rosettes growing in the vegetable bed. They looked organised and healthy. On those qualities alone I ate a leaf.
Mustard. Peppery. Fresh. Blimey.
I confess to not being 100% sure what they are. I believe I come close if I tell you they are of the Family Brassicaceae and Genus Cardamine. Bittercress. When it comes to species there are a couple of contenders. Hairy C.Hirsuta, Lady C.pratensis and Wavy C. flexuosa In fact they could be any one of a very long list.
A sun filled afternoon spent floating round the veg beds with a rustic trug and a dreamy smile may not be achievable when harvesting Bittercress.
These are small low growing plants. Depending on the species they may be annual or perennial. I hope they are perennial, it's one of my important words. Regardless of species they all share a common method of seed dispersal. Seeds are held high in dehiscent pods and can explode when touched scattering far and wide.
I start moving the Bittercress around and replanting them in rows. I want to tame them and make them mine. I cover them with a garden cloche in the hope those explosive seeds bounce back and land where I want them to grow. My eyes are drawn to the species list and I wonder at the possibilities of Cardamine amara - Large Bittercress and Cardamine scutata - chamsur, Kathmandu,Nepal (Leaves used as vegetable). I make tentative searches for 'better' weed seeds than the ones freely available to me.
How far can I push this? When will 'eating the weeds' become 'growing vegetables' and will I reach a point where I look back and wonder where it all started going wrong.
Other common or country names include lamb's cress, land cress, hoary bitter cress, spring cress, flick weed, and shot weed (or lambscress, landcress, hoary bittercress, springcress, flickweed, and shotweed). As Old English stune, the plant is cited as one of the herbs invoked in the pagan Anglo-Saxon Nine Herbs Charm, recorded in the 10th century.
'I have a fig tree in a pot - approximately 3 feet high. Suggestions please for the right type of soil to use. It is in it's original pot and has hardly grown in two years, so is probably desperate to be moved! It has survived the winters well and has just the beginnings of some tiny figs, so I guess these will need to come off?
Jocelyn was the son of Major L.H. Chase who formed the company in 1912 – apparently he started making glass and wire cloches to protect his lettuces from the industrial grime that existed during that era. His cloches successfully protected his crops from the pollution as well as improving growth and the cloches became a commercial success. Jocelyn took over the company during the second world war when his father died following which it is claimed that Loftus Tottenham, one of the co-directors of Chase, came up with the famous ‘Dig for Victory’ slogan. Through Jocelyn’s innovations and hard work, the company expanded rapidly over the next two decades, employing hundreds of workers, with ventures into market gardening, trial grounds, seed cultivation and the increased manufacture of cloches.
Chase soon acquired large areas of land around Chertsey including half of the high street! Jocelyn sat on the early councils for the Soil Association and organic methods of horticulture were applied throughout the business with composting holding the utmost importance. Composting became a crucial element for successful growing with the cloches since Jocelyn worked out that compost would improve water retention in soils and allow lateral movement of water through the soil to the plants undercover so that the cloches need not be lifted for watering.
The method hinges upon the use of a herbal activator made from a combination of 6 common herbs and honey. The inventor of the QR method, Maye E Bruce, was one of the founder members of the Soil Association and over the years the relationship between Chase and QR composting grew. In 1947, with the permission of Miss Bruce, Chase began manufacture of the QR activator powder and they are still making it to this day. Composting and cloches had become perfect partners.
Through my own experiences I have found that hop manure (uncomposted) and compost are also excellent partners providing excellent fertility and can increase soil temperature when they are mixed and added to the soil creating a ‘hot bed’ effect (certainly very good for growing pumpkins and tomatoes).This useful reaction would be further enhanced by the placing of cloches over the hot bed area.This could be useful in spring and autumn for strawberry growing perhaps but may cause overheating in soils during mid summer.
Should you wish to read further about QR composting or the Chase ‘organic empire’ then I suggest you obtain a copy of my book ‘Quick Return Compost Making – The Essence of the Sustainable Organic Garden’ Written to raise awareness of this marvellous and easy to use method of composting, the book provides precise and full instructions along with an insight into its history and its remarkable inventor.
This book is an excellent aid for the gardener who strives to achieve a successful and sustainable organic garden.
Available online from www.qrcompostingsolutions.co.uk or by phoning Andrew on 01434 672594
Charles Dowding advocates picking individual leaves off the plant and this has many advantages. You can harvest the lower leaves as they become big enough rather than wait for the whole plant to mature which gives a constant supply and avoids the glut problem.
Cloche protection will ensure good winter growth, protects from frost and snow and will also keep the crop clean and free of mud splashes.
I have grown Celtuce this year with great success. It forms a thick central stem which can be peeled and tastes like cucumber. However the main benefit comes from the crop of leaves which are long and have a sweet nutty taste. It is slow to bolt in warm weather and so far has proved hardy against frost though there is little data around on how hardy it actually is. It germinates well and grows quickly. You can start picking the leaves about a month after sowing.
Celtuce has earned it's place in my 'must grow' list of crops and is doing so well in my November vegetable patch that I have had to raise the cloches on bricks to provide extra growing height.
In November our windowsill is home to a selection of squash ready to be cooked into a favorite winter dinner, Squash and Feta Cheese Risotto(ish). This vegetarian dish makes use of many easy to grow vegetables and scores a massive 'Home Grown' score of 4 / 6. I love the fact that while you are cooking and enjoying this you are already planting your Onion Sets and Garlic for next year. A few more months and you can even start germinating your Chilli Pepper seeds.
We have grown Kabocha, Acorn and Onion Squash and find these have the best flavour. You can often buy them from your local grocer or supermarket and it is easy to save the seed. Germinate indoors in April / May and plant out when all danger of frost has past and harden off under cloches. Plant anywhere. They will trail along the ground and provide great ground cover if you have a lot of growing space. Otherwise pop them in your flower border or container and they will grow quite happily.
We can't all grow Mammoth sized onions but luckily a small onion baked whole in its skin is delicious. There are two main planting times for onions. Overwinter onion sets or seeds are planted Sep - Dec for harvesting early summer / autumn. Read our guide here. Maincrop onion sets or seeds are planted April / May for harvesting Sep / Oct and storing for overwinter use.
Onions will grow anywhere and are perfect for border or container growing if space is an issue.
Garlic is planted between October - December as it needs a period of cold to encourage the cloves to divide and form a bulb.
A really easy crop to grow and it can either be dried or frozen for use all year round. Plant anywhere, they need little space and fuss. Read our growing guide here.
The best thing about January is that you can start sowing your Chilli pepper seeds. Sow indoors under cover and only plant out when warm summer days are underway. These are great plants to grow indoors, the flowers smell lovely and the chilli peppers look very ornamental as they grow. Dry or freeze to store and use all year round.
Recipe Serves 4 - 6
4-6 Small Onions
1Pack Feta Cheese 200g
Rice Long grain
1 Vegetable Stock Cube
2-4 Cloves Garlic
Salt & Pepper
Chilli Flakes or Powder
1)Half or quarter the squash and scoop out the seeds. Place the squash skin side down on a flat baking tray and sprinkle your chopped or crushed garlic over the squash flesh. Season with salt, pepper and chilli to taste. Drizzle some olive oil over the top and bake in a medium / high oven for 30-45 mins until the squash is soft but still holds it shape.
2)Grab a handful of small onions, rub any loose dry onion skin off but do not peel. Trim the roots and stalk off and place on the baking tray with your squash, sprinkle with olive oil and cook for 30-45mins with the squash.
3) Cook enough long grain rice for 4 - 6 people in the usual way. Add a vegetable stock cube to the water. This is not a true Risotto style rice and we are not using the classic method here. The aim is to cook the rice so it absorbs the available water, is cooked but still moist.
4)When the squash has cooked and is cool enough to handle scoop out the flesh into a large shallow oven proof dish. Take care to capture as much of the garlic and chilli as you can.
5)Drain any excess water from your rice and add to the squash. Mix lightly.
6)Chop the Feta Cheese and sprinkle over the squash and rice mixture.
7)Take your cooked onions and carefully squeeze the cook onion out of the skin on top of the mixture.
Pop back in the oven and bake for about 20 mins and serve. The Feta cheese should just start to turn brown in places. Take care not to over cook at this stage or the rice dries out and goes hard.
Cooks Notes. We tried Butternut squash with this dish but found it did not taste as good. We have also experimented with different cheeses and found cheddar and blue cheese really did not work.