Friday 31 January 2014

Chitting potatoes

Having bought my seed potatoes last weekend, my mind has turned now to chitting..

Seed tubers of "Pink Fir Apple"

"Chitting" is the process whereby prior to planting, seed potato tubers are allowed to form short sturdy shoots. My reason for chitting the potatoes is that it may lead to an earlier crop - I say "may" because this point is hotly debated! Some people also say that it you remove all but about three of the shoots that appear on the seed tuber you are likely to get a stronger plant and fewer but bigger potatoes. I like to grow my potatoes in pots, and I would rather have smaller plants and more (smaller) potatoes for cropping, so I leave all the shoots intact.

I hasten to add that chitting is not strictly necessary. Potatoes will grow well enough without being chitted, but it is one of those things that experienced gardeners do in order to improve their crops a little. One of the reasons that I do it is that my Dad always used to do it, and it seemed to work well for him, so I have adopted the technique too. I know that my daughters are already doing the same thing and I'm pretty sure the tradition will continue to at least one more generation...

Photo of  granddaughter Lara in 2011

Seed potatoes have one end which has most of the "eyes" which will produce the new shoots. Many potatoes are a sort of pear shape, and in this case the end with most eyes is usually the "blunt" end.

When chitting it is normal to position the potatoes with this end uppermost. A convenient way of achieving this is to use an egg-box:

It is not vital to use egg-boxes, so if you haven't got any (or enough), just lay the tubers in something like a seed-tray, ensuring that they are not too crowded and that there is plenty of room for air to circulate. Then leave them in a cool place (approx 10C is ideal), and somewhere where they can have some light without being in direct sunlight. I keep mine in our garage, next to its side window. If you are chitting several varieties, don't forget to label them.

How long should you leave them? Well, it depends. It depends on lots of things - such as the potato variety, the temperature, the light etc. I would say that six weeks is about normal. I'll probably be planting mine in mid- to late-March. However, if you don't get round to planting all your seed potatoes at the "official" time, don't throw them away. Look at this:

Two years ago, I had six "Charlotte" tubers for which I didn't have enough space, but I kept them for several months, and the tubers themselves gradually shrivelled up whilst producing the most amazing chits. Subequently, when some of my Spring-planted potatoes had been harvested and thus released their containers for re-use, I planted the spare tubers. They went on to produce a small but very welcome crop of beautiful blemish-free potatoes:

Right, I'm off now to buy some more eggs (egg-boxes!)...

Thursday 30 January 2014

Purple Sprouting Broccoli

Is it just me, or is it a bad year for PSB? I have done the same as I usually do, but this year's plants seem small and unenthusiastic compared with normal. If I'm going to get a decent crop they need to get a move on.

I sow my PSB seeds in April, grow the seedlings in pots until late Summer and plant them out into their final growing positions usually some time in August. They then slowly grow bigger during the Autumn and Winter, and deliver their crop over a period of 4 - 6 weeks in early Spring (Feb - April, depending on the variety). This method has worked well for me for many years. I always grow PSB, despite the fact that it occupies space for a long time, because we love eating it so much, and it deteriorates rapidly after picking, so the stuff you buy in shops is never very good.

Last year we had a bit too much broccoli (if that is possible!). As well as the PSB, I grew some "Tenderstem" broccoli, which is much faster-maturing, and grown in Spring / Summer. Mine matured at the same time as the later varieties of PSB, so we ended up with a bit of a glut. This year I have grown 4 PSB plants instead of the usual 6, but I fear it may have been a bad decision because they have not grown anything like as big as usual. I'm not really sure why. I can only think that it is something to do with the bed in which they are growing. I rotate my crops every year, and they all take their turn (except the one which hosts the Asparagus). The bed with the PSB in it this year is the one furthest from our house, so nearest to a big conifer tree in our neighbours' garden. I suspect that the roots of this conifer tree reach under the fence and grab much of the moisture and nutrients from the soil in my garden.

Before I blame said conifer tree too much though, let it be said that the Cavolo Nero growing in the same bed as the PSB has done all right, so maybe it's the PSB that is wrong, not the soil? I planted 10 Cavolo Nero plants around the edge of the raised bed. They have done well, and given us a nice crop, although they are nearly finished now. The majority of the big leaves have been used and the little tufts of leaves at the tops of the stalks make the plants resemble miniature palm trees! Flowers are just beginning to form too.

 My 4 PSB plants include two modern varieties - "Red Arrow" (x2) and "Red Spear" (x1) and the other is an old variety called simply "Early Purple Sprouting Broccoli". The strongest and biggest of the four is the Early one, though even that is not as big as I would have hoped / expected.  As far as providing nutrients is concerned, I think I have given them every possible assistance: I dug some home-made compost into the soil; I added some pelleted chicken manure; and just a couple of weeks ago I tried to give the plants a boost by giving them a good dose of "Growmore" multi-purpose fertiliser as a top dressing.

When all is said and done, I have to admit that my experience shows me that with vegetable-growing you sometimes win and you sometimes lose, despite all your efforts. Maybe this time it's down to the weather, since have had a very mild but wet Winter? Is anyone else who reads this growing PSB? If so, how is yours doing this year?

Tuesday 28 January 2014

Hors d'Oeuvres

"Hors d'Ouvres" - known in our house simply as "Nibbles" (sounds like the name of a cat) - is a French term that means literally "outside the work" [where "work" is used in the sense of "the main event".] It is the term frequently used to describe a selection of goodies provided by the host to whet guests' appetites before the main meal begins. We certainly use it in this way, and we often sit down with a plate of Nibbles and a cocktail while dinner is cooking. It is a sociable activity, helping us to relax and catch up on what each of us has been doing during the day.

Here is a typical example, presented on those beautiful Faience de Gien plates that Fiona and Juan gave me at Christmas-time:

On the plates here we see two types of Saucisson Sec (the French equivalent of Salami); some Cipolle Borretane (Italian-style onions pickled with balsamic vinegar); some Silverskin cocktail onions; and some mixed olives - plus my latest favourite garnish, the Celeriac leaf.

And here's a photo of another, more Summery, selection, taken some while ago:

That one has Cornichons (small gherkins), Kalamata olives, and home-grown Radishes and cherry Tomatoes.

Here's another option - Extra Virgin Olive Oil, with bread for dipping, and more Radishes, with salt for dipping them in

More Radishes...

Without a doubt the best Nibbles, from the gardener's point of view, have to be the home-grown ones, like these crunchy finger carrots:

Or a bowl of bite-sized tomatoes:

Perhaps some of the very tiniest new potatoes with some black pepper and a knob of butter?

Or maybe just some fresh peas, picked moments previously in the garden just outside our door?

Can't you just hear the soft "pop" noise as you snap them open??

So friends, what is YOUR favourite nibble? Please tell me!

Monday 27 January 2014

Harvest Monday - 27 January 2014

This past week I havested the very last of my "Matsuri" minature broccoli. Oh Boy, was it miniature!

That's a cereal-bowl they are in, by the way, just to give you an idea of their size. Anyway, I mustn't complain because "size isn't everything", as they say.

I have also picked more of my Winter salads:

In that bowl are one Batavian (or broad-leaved) Endive, one Radicchio (red chicory), one Curly Endive, and one "Sugar Loaf" chicory (top right of photo). None of them is big, but bear in mind you are looking at the hearts only - the tatty outer leaves have already been removed. All this lot is edible.

This is it after washing...

The salad was served alongside a couple of lovely tender Sirloin steaks from our favourite Linkway butcher's shop, and accompanied by some "new" potatoes cooked as chips in the trusty Actifry machine. Sounds unenterprising, but I tell you it was a GOOD meal!

That's it for the week, I'm afraid. A very meagre harvest!  Why not go across to Harvest Monday on Daphne's Dandelions to see if anyone has done better...?

Sunday 26 January 2014

Hampshire Potato Day

Yesterday I went for the first time to a "Potato Day" - in other words an event at which people buy their seed potatoes. Why I have never been before I don't really know, but it is exactly the sort of thing I like! So much so that although I don't have any photos (well, only a couple) I feel inspired to describe it in words because I think this type of event deserves to be more well-known.

"Charlotte" - photo from 2011

Like many amateur gardeners in the UK, I usually buy my seed potatoes via mail order. This year I very nearly did the same as usual, but I backed-out at the last minute when I saw how much money I was being asked to pay for Post and Packing. Too much! I was also a bit dismayed by the lack of variety offered by most of the "big name" suppliers - about 30 varieties, all told. And of course you normally have to buy at least a kilogram of each type, which may be more than you want. I would rather have a small number of tubers of several different varieties. Enter the Potato Day...

The one I attended was the Hampshire Potato Day, held in Whitchurch - a few miles West of Basingstoke. I think, though I'm not sure that this is the case, that the one I went to is fairly typical of the genre. It was held in a school hall, so there was plenty of space, and plenty of (free) parking. Toilets were available, and refreshments. It was organised by a community group called "Working4Whitchurch", and I must say I think they did a very good job. Everything seemed to be well-organised and very calm (the latter characteristic very unlike some shows I could mention!)

I was very pleasantly surprised by the large range of potatoes available - I would say probably a couple of hundred types. And you could buy them either by the 2kg bag, or individually. For someone like me who only wants to grow a few potatoes it is so nice to be able to buy in small quantity. The individual tubers were priced at 17p or 10 for £1.50, which I think is a very good price! I bought 50 potatoes (therefore I paid £7.50). This price is less than I would normally have paid just for the postage on 50 potatoes!

"Pink Fir Apple" - photo from 2011

Each variety was displayed with details of the potato's characteristics, parentage etc, and a full catalogue was available for purchase at 50p. I had gone along with a fairly open mind about what to buy - just a few general ideas - so it was nice to have a browse and see what took my fancy. And of course you can see the typical shape and size of the tubers before you buy, and you can choose individually if you want, so you can avoid any undersized or damaged ones (which you definitely can't do when you buy by mail order!). Next year I shall study the catalogue in detail before attending and make a proper shopping-list (though I don't promise to adhere to it...). To make things really easy for the buyers, the committee had provided supermarket-style wire baskets, little plastic bags to put your potato choices in, along with sticky labels on which to record their names and even pencils to write with!

"Lady Christl" - 2013

A mixture of types - 2013

I was also pleasantly surprised by the low-key arrangements for checkout / payment. When you had finished shopping, you went to a desk where two people counted your potatoes and wrote the number on a slip of paper. You then went to the tills, presented your slip of paper to the cashier and paid accordingly. There were several tills, so only a very small wait was involved. If you didn't buy any loose potato tubers, you omitted the counting stage and went straight to the till.

Obviously, at a "Potato Day" the potatoes are the chief attraction, but there was a lot of other stuff on sale too. Garlic, onions, shallots, peas, beans etc. The peas and beans were displayed in huge open bins and you used a half-pint beer glass to measure them out into a plastic bag. £2 for a half-pint, which would get you at least a couple of hundred seeds, maybe more! I was wishing I hadn't already bought my beans for this year.

There were also several stalls selling seeds for vegetables, herbs and even some flowers, and there were a few stalls with potted plants for sale - mostly fairly out-of-the-ordinary ones. I was very good and didn't buy anything I didn't need. I only bought one pack of seeds (£1.50), which was for Leaf Celery. I had originally asked for Celery or Celeriac seeds, which I had been planning to grow as microgreens (having discovered the other day how delicious young Celeriac leaves are), but the lady running the stall advised me to buy the Leaf Celery instead. She said it would be more prolific and would last longer. Furthermore you get more seeds in the pack than you do with the expensive Celeriac. How's that for good Customer Service?

Another benefit of visiting this event was that I was able to meet two fellow members of the UK Veg Gardeners forum. I have interacted "virtually" with these two gents for several years now, but never had the privilege of meeting them in person. Both of them are members of the National Vegetable Society, which promotes the amateur production of vegetables, for food and for exhibition.  Here they are:-

Darren (left) and Damien (right)
You couldn't find a pair of lads who are more enthusiastic about veg-growing than these two! Thanks for welcoming me and explaining the procedure, guys! Both of them are bloggers too. Damien's blog is Two Chances Veg Plot and Darren's is Quality Veg Growing.

I shall be sharing my 50 potatoes with my daughter Emma, because neither of us want big quantities, so actually my year's outlay on seed potatoes will come to £3.75. Not a vast expense, I think you'll agree!
Now I just need to acquire a few egg-boxes to lay out my potatoes for chitting...

Seed potatoes "chitting" - photo from 2011

"Chitting" is the term for the formation of growing-shoots on the seed potatoes, prior to planting them - but that's a story for another day!

"Chits" (shoots) on seed potatoes
Just for the record, these are the varieties I bought:

First Earlies
Red Duke of York
Sharpe's Express

Second Earlies
Blue Kestrel

Pink Fir Apple

Saturday 25 January 2014

Have you succumbed to the urge?

At this time of year most gardeners feel a strong urge to sow or plant something. Anything, in fact. We all know that in 99% of cases it is better to wait a couple of months, but we all want to have a go at something as soon as possible. Well, even if you haven't succumbed to that urge, I have...

I'm fortunate in having a Growlight House, in which I know I can germinate small pots of seeds and grow them on until they are quite a decent size. I shall certainly be using it to start my main crop of chillis and tomatoes next month, but for now I have other plans. I am using it to grow some plants that I am confident I will be able to keep indoors in positions that will get enough light. For instance, I have two pots of Basil, one of which I have taken out of the GH to photograph.

As you can see, I have sown lots of seeds in each pot - far too many for the main purpose, which is to have a couple of plants on the Dining-Room windowsill, as I always do. However, there are two reasons for the multiplicity of seeds: first, I wasn't sure whether any of them would germinate, because they came from a pack of seeds that say "packed in year ending Nov 2009", so I was aiming-off for a high failure rate (needlessly as it happens); and second, I plan to use the majority of them as microgreens.

So I shall leave them all for a couple of weeks (until they are microgreen-sized in fact) before thinning them out.

I just thought I would mention that I have only recently thrown away two Basil plants that were from January 2012. At present I have two mature plants that are from seeds sown this time last year. I have cropped them time and time again, and made loads of pesto, of which we have a considerable quantity in the freezer.

Basil plants from seeds sown Jan 2013
As well as the Basil I have two pots of Parsley (fresher seeds!). These have not germinated yet, but I'm not worried since I know that Parsley often takes ages to come up. Hopefully the gentle warmth of the GH will help. I also have two pots of chillis.

The chillis are a bit of an experiment too. More of a seed-viability test than anything else. I have a bag of seeds saved from a Scotch Bonnet plant I grew several years ago, and I am seeing if they are still OK. I have put 6 seeds in one 5-inch pot, and covered  it with a plastic bag to increase the humidity. No sign of germination yet, but it's early days still because they have only been in there for six days.

The other pot of chillis contains 6 seeds from a very different origin. A couple of months ago Jane won some chilli-themed products (condiments, sauces, etc) in a competition, and when they arrived  four small very dry chillis fell out of the packing material. We think they had just got in there by mistake during the packing process. Anyway, you know what I'm like: I pounced on them and claimed them for myself! Now I am sowing a few of the seeds to see if they are viable. The chillis look as if they might be a "Birds Eye" type. They are certainly very small, (about an inch long) as "Bird's Eye" ones generally are.

The pod I opened had about 25 seeds in it, so if the others are similar I have enough for a sizeable plantation! Do you know, I think it is actually nicer to grow something like this than something from a mass-produced commercial seed packet.

Friday 24 January 2014

The Rhubarb makes its appearance

I noticed a couple of days ago that the first little leaves of Rhubarb are poking through the soil already:

These are from the "Timperley Early" which I planted last year. It's certainly living up to its name!

I bought a pack of two plants from Aldi at a very good price (£1.99), but it may have been a false economy because I'm fairly sure one of the plants rotted straight away. It only produced one spindly leaf which lasted a very short while before dying off, whereas the other one produced several healthy leaves. Anyway, thinking positive, even if it really is only one plant that has survived, I think that £1.99 was still a good price!

Isn't it funny that these two leaves are such different colours? Normally when Rhubarb leaves come up they are a sort of bronzy orange like the one on the left above, and gradually change to green.

My other (two) Rhubarb plants are the variety "Victoria". No sign of them yet, but that's not unusual since it is only January still.

Talking of things making an appearance, THIS has recently appeared in my neighbour's front garden, just next to my back gate:

Do you think this is intended as an insult? Our neighbours are definitely not gardeners. If they were, they would probably be more aware of the damage that badgers can cause in a small garden! Or is it perhaps that this badger model is intended as a badger-deterrent, trying to give the impression that the territory is already occupied? I'll give the neighbours the benefit of the doubt...

Thursday 23 January 2014

Perennial Herbs

We use a lot of herbs in our cooking, and it is so much more convenient to have what you need, growing just a few yards from your back door, rather than having to plan ahead and make a trip to the shops to buy them. So much more spontaneous too! Sometimes I am in the middle of cooking something and I think to myself "This needs a Bay leaf", or a sprig of Parsley, or a couple of leaves of Sage, and I can just nip outside and get it.

In the middle of Winter the soft herbs like Parsley, Marjoram and Mint are less likely to be available (though this year I have surprised even myself by having a reasonably plentiful supply of Parsley), but the woody perennials are there all the time. We use lots of  Bay leaves, but then we have a plentiful supply of those too. This is only one of the two "small" Bay trees (the Big one - their parent - is about 10 times as big!):

Right now the Bay is covered with little tiny flower buds, which will eventually open out into spiky cream/yellow coloured flowers:

The Rosemary plants have gone beserk, and are now so luxuriant that they are in danger of taking over one of my raised beds:

That is just two plants! I have taken cuttings from these, and planted them elsewhere, so there is no danger of us being short of Rosemary for culinary use any time soon. I think the plants pictured above will have to be drastically pruned before long, since their presence is making it hard to get at the next-door bed.

Sage is another herb which we always like to have available in the garden. We don't use it in big quantities because it is very strongly-flavoured and can easily overwhelm other flavours. One time when we do use a fair bit is at Christmas, when it is an essential ingredient for the Sage-and-Onion stuffing that traditionally accompanies the roast turkey. I have three different types of Sage. The purple one and the variegated green and yellow one are mainly ornamental:

The "ordinary" grey-green one is the one we use for cooking. Frustratingly, it also seems to be less vigorous than the others - or maybe it's just because mine is sited in a North-facing border where it doesn't get enough sun?

A short while ago I was tidying up the border, trimming the shrubs, removing dead leaves etc, and I realised that last year my culinary Sage supply had dwindled dramatically. I think this is mainly because the Dogwood shrubs have got so big that the Sage is overshadowed and deprived of light and rainfall. I have therefore taken lots of cuttings and pushed them into the soil near the parent plants, dipping them first in hormone rooting powder to help them form roots. With a bit of luck some of them will grow. Certainly they can't currently complain of lack of moisture - and just look at all those soggy leaves which have already built up around them.

The sticks are to deter cats from digging the plants up!

Although technically one of the soft herbs, Fennel is more like a Herbaceous Perennial. It dies off in the Winter but it springs into life again the next year. Mine is just waking up:-

I love the look of the new shoots. They are like little tiny bottle-brushes!

You can use the Aniseedy-flavoured tender young fronds as a herb, in much the same way as Dill, but we generally don't do this, preferring to leave the stems to mature to produce flowers and then seeds. 

Just for the record I want to show you some of my Parsley. I have had a few plants covered with plastic bell-cloches, which have helped to keep the plants in good condition.

We never seem to have enough Parsley - a herb we like to use in "industrial" quantities - so I have recently sowed a load more in some pots which are currently basking in the warmth and light of the Growlight House. Let's hope they soon grow to look like this: