Seen at the Festival of the Tree

...if you would be happy all your life, plant a garden ~ Chinese proverb

Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Tippety Top Daffy Down Dillys

Regular Veg Plotting readers know I'm rather partial to a bunch of Cornish daffodils at this time of the year. I find January and February really hard going, so they're one of the ways I ensure there's some sunshine around no matter what the weather's doing outside.

I've been uneasy about the daffodils for sale nowadays as they're displayed in boxes rather than the vases of water they'd been in previously. The shops concerned have tried to reassure me everything's OK, but I've had my doubts a) because the flowers don't seem to last as long in the vase as they used to and b) the flowers on sale quite often are showing a touch of yellow, rather than remaining tightly in bud.

One of the great things that's happened since the flower farmer day 2 weeks ago, is they're having a regular forum on Monday evenings between 8 and 9pm on Twitter. I'll miss most of these as I'm at choir, but this week I was able to join in:

So there you have it. Not only did I have my question answered within minutes by two friendly flower growers, I've also had an insight into the way they treat their flowers and I know exactly what to look for when I buy my next bunch of daffodils :)

If you can't join in or follow the #britishflowers conversation on Monday evenings, then it's also worth looking out for Georgie's blog the day after or so. She puts up a summary of what's been discussed, together with topic suggestions for the next get together. I may not be a flower farmer, but I'm learning loads. I usually prefer my flowers to be outside in the garden, but I'm encouraged to try and bring them indoors a bit more from now on.

Monday, 28 January 2013

Seed Tin Giveaway 2013

I've been having a bit of a sort through my seed tin and have plenty of in date packets of seeds which I know I won't be able to use this year. So, I'm having a giveaway here on Veg Plotting to find some good homes for them - always a popular move :)

All you need to do is look at the lists below and tell me if any of them take your fancy. Please restrict your choices to a maximum of 5 packets, so plenty of readers have a chance of bagging something they'd like. Let me know in the Comments below what you have your eye on - this will give everyone an early warning of what's been grabbed already.

Then, email me at vegplotting at gmail dot com with your name, address and choices. Note: when I have your email I'll allocate your seeds to you and not before. I've had seeds reserved via the Comments in previous years by people who've then not proved contactable and I'd like these packets to go to those who really want them. Sorry, this is only open to UK residents, owing to higher postage costs and customs restrictions re sending seeds abroad.

NB If nothing takes your fancy (or as well, maybe), then don't forget I have a discount code for Sarah Raven's website until the end of January (i.e. this Thursday). Simply enter VP10JAN in the Apply Coupon area on your Shopping Basket page.

I'll update this post as soon as I can with what's been grabbed already. Anything left over will be going to a local seed swap in March, so you have first dibs! Here's the lists:


  • Antirhinum 'Constantine'
  • Canterbury Bells - mixed
  • Foxglove 'Suttons Apricot'
  • Nasturtium 'Kiki's Kiss'
  • Scabious 'Perfecta Blue'
  • Sweet Pea 'Fragrantissima'
  • Sweet Pea 'Statesman' mixed
  • Miriam Rothschild's Wildflower Meadow Mix
  • Beetroot 'Boltardy'
  • Beetroot 'Cardeal'
  • Carrot 'White Satin'
  • Chard 'Fantasy'
  • Chard 'Five Colour Silverbeet'
  • Chilli 'Basket of Fire' (2, 1)
  • Chilli 'Ember Explosive'
  • Kale 'Curly Scarlet'
  • Leek 'Lyon 2'
  • Lettuce - mixed
  • Radicchio 'Palla Rossa Precoce'
  • Radish 'Mooli Mino Early'
  • Salad Leaves 'Bright and Spicy' mix
  • Tomato 'Gardener's Delight'
  • Tomato 'Moneymaker'
Update: All gone by 11.38 am - it's a record! See you next year :)
Update 2: Fellow Wiltshire blogger Damo has some fab looking vegetable seed choices on offer. Why not head on over to his place and see if anything takes your fancy?
Update 3: Seeds were despatched on Saturday 2nd February :)

Sunday, 27 January 2013

Book Review: The Wild Things

Last Monday saw the start of a new plant-related series on Channel 4 called Wild Things. I haven't yet caught up with my recording of it, but in the meantime I've been thoroughly enjoying the accompanying book tie-in :)

The programme and book are looking at the changes found between 2 major botanical surveys of the British Isles conducted in 1962 and 2002 respectively. The 1962 survey resulted in the first ever Atlas of the British Flora, a collection of plant distribution maps which meticulously documented over 7,000 plant species and where they were found. As a result of these maps, a modern version of the research discipline biogeography was born.

The second survey, using the same methodology* has enabled botanists to see how our plant populations have changed in the last 40-50 years. Naturally, there are winners and losers and its the colourful stories about some of these which Wild Things brings to life.

For instance, many of us are aware of the threat to our native bluebell by its ability to hybridise with its non-native Spanish cousin. Looking at the 1962 and 2002 distribution maps, initially all looks well for our native species, as its presence is still strong. But then comparison with the changes in the Spanish bluebell population in the past 50 years and the threat becomes clearer. The maps can't say how the population levels within the distribution have changed, but it allows scientists to focus on that question going forward.

I was fascinated to read how the salt laden gritting of our road network in winter has enabled Danish scurvygrass to spread far away from its usual coastal habitat to many points inland. Our railway network and thousands of tiny seeds per plant has enabled Oxford ragwort to widen its distribution in a similar fashion. There are escapees from our gardens like the rhododendron; changes in farming practises affecting the poppy; threatened habitats like chalk grasslands which affects whole plant communities; and many other factors to consider.

It's a great read which adds real insight into our changing British flora. At the back of the book is a list of ways you can get involved with current and future work of this nature through The Botanical Society of the British Isles (BSBI), Plantlife, The British Lichen Society and The British Bryological Society (BBS). To those organisations I'd add your local Wildlife Trust, which often has projects at the more local level, that are no less important. Also, OPAL have a simple survey that you might like to join, which uses various lichen species as a major indicator of air quality.

I believe it's books/programmes like this one which illustrate the continuing need for the botany degree at our universities. With it no longer on offer in the UK, where will the botanists come from to re-survey and interpret the data in 10, 20, 50 years time?

* = The entire country is divided into 10 kilometre squares which are then surveyed and the species found in every one of them recorded - imagine the amount of work involved!

NB The second programme in the TV series is on tomorrow night at 8.30 pm on Channel 4.

Disclosure: I received a review copy for honest review purposes.

Friday, 25 January 2013

Salad Days 2013: Propagated Peas

Peas ready for their propagator experiment. The left tray has the beets I told you about on Monday

Last year I grew pea shoots for the first time. Lots of them. I found a small tray of thickly sown peas (either sourced from shop bought or the remains of a seed packet) were sufficient to form the 'base layer' with added sprouted seeds and microgreens to make a hearty salad for two.

I see from last year's notes it can take up to 6 weeks for the pea shoots to crop during the darkest months. Later sown crops steadily grow just that little bit faster week by week, until growing them takes around four weeks in March. I was therefore keen to explore if growth time could be speeded up in some way.

Experimental peas doing their stuff
We spotted during last year's 52 Week Salad Challenge that a sharper cold spell could check indoor growth almost completely for a while. Temperatures can still fall quite sharply at night behind the curtains, even when the windows are double glazed.

I had a bit of a 'light bulb' moment over the Christmas holidays and decided to press my new propagator into service to see if its protection would affect pea shoot growth in any way. I could use identical trays, with the same amount of growing media and peas added - 50 per tray and pre-soaked so they germinate more quickly. The trays could then sit side by side on my south facing bedroom windowsill with and without their lids. I left them sitting there quietly and had a look each morning with notebook in hand to see what was what.

Here are the results:

The lidded peas appeared a day earlier than the unlidded ones, on day 4 (7th January). Both trays of peas reached their maximum number of germinated seeds on the same day, day 10. Whilst the germination rate of the tray with a lid is higher, I don't think it's sufficiently high enough to be significant as both sets of peas had a relatively poor rate of germination (38% for the lidded peas and 30% for the unlidded). This is probably because the packet of seeds I was using up was right on its sow by date.

However, the better performance of the lidded peas has continued post germination. The lid was left on until some of the peas reached lid height on day 13 (15th January). I measured the height of the peas in each tray and found an average of 88 mm for the unlidded grown seeds and 105 mm for the lidded ones. This marked difference in growth has continued. On Tuesday this week (day 20) the peas' average heights were 104mm (unlidded) and 143mm (lidded).

Peas waving happily at the snow
If this difference in growth continues, then it looks like I'll be harvesting the lidded peas 2-3 days earlier. This might not sound very much, but it means an extra crop of pea shoots could be squeezed in over an autumn/winter/early spring growing period. I'll update this post with actual harvest dates later. As you can see, (unlike the beets next door) the peas haven't suffered from the dreaded damping off disease this week.

Therefore using a lidded propagator could be a useful way of bringing on windowsill grown pea shoots a little more quickly for no extra outlay, assuming you already have one. I'm saying could because I need to see if these results are repeatable rather than a one-off occurrence. It'll also be interesting to see if the observed difference in growth rates changes with increasing light.

I'm beginning to wonder if peas are a suitable small crop for this time of the year because their very nature is to be leggy, unlike their beet cousins grown alongside. These were looking a tad stretched before they succumbed to damping off. I'm also pondering whether the height of my bedroom windowsill is key to a successful early crop at this time of year. A comparison with a tray grown on my kitchen windowsill downstairs could be interesting. So, the experiments will continue :)

In a future post I'll be looking at another useful technique for producing earlier crops without needing a greenhouse or polytunnel to do so. It does however, require much more space than my windowsill...

How's your salad coming along? Either let me know in the comments, or leave a link to your salad filled blog post in Mr Linky below:

Monday, 21 January 2013

Of Beetroot, Experiments and Damping Off

This post is for Bren, to reassure her that I haven't forgotten my promise to her to write about my experiments with growing beetroot for leaves during the winter...

...I speculated last year that seeing my autumn-sown leaves were doing so well - despite the frost - that maybe winter-sown ones might perform in a similar way to the previous successes I've had with pea shoots. Alys Fowler thought they wouldn't - when I asked her here - but I resolved to try a little experimentation for myself anyway.

Armed with a fresh packet of 'Bull's Blood' seeds and a sparkling new propagator, I set to on 3rd January and made a thick sowing onto some seed compost. I covered them, then watered sparingly with a mist sprayer, added the propagator lid and left them on our bedroom windowsill to go about their business. As you can see, germination went well and I soon had lots of bright stems and leaves at the microgreen stage.

However, it's been a different story the past few days as the seedlings have gradually been succumbing to the dreaded damping off. It's the first time this fungal disease has happened to me, so I guess I'm lucky I've not had it before. Having had a bit of a #saladchat on twitter, it could be due to a number of reasons: too thick a sowing of seed; the type of compost I'm using (seed in this instance); the damp, humid conditions under the propagator; or any combination of these.

@saralimback also asked why I was growing my beetroot in a propagator because they don't usually need one. I explained I'm also experimenting with seeing whether a propagator can be used to bring on salads for an earlier crop over the winter. My pea shoots take around 4-6 weeks to crop at this time of the year, so anything which can bring them on more quickly is welcome. I'm also wondering whether a propagator might be a protective help for windowsill growing. Night time temperatures can still drop significantly behind those curtains during cold weather and thus slow down growth for a while. Perhaps I should be using the lid until germination and then only for any cold nights afterwards.

Despite these setbacks I'm not downhearted and I'll by trying this experiment again. My pea shoot experiment sitting alongside the beetroot one is quite different in its results so far. More on that on Friday.

My thanks to @saralimback, @miss_beehivin and @simiansuter for a great #saladchat on this topic yesterday :)

NB The first of this year's Salad Days is on Friday (25th Jan) - stand by to update Mr Linky with your posts!

Sunday, 20 January 2013

Product Review: Everyday Bird Seed

This is the second (and final) post in the run up to this year's RSPB Garden Birdwatch (26-27th January) where I'm reviewing relevant products which you may find useful.

The birds are going mad on the feeders at the moment. It's not surprising after Friday's snow! So it's a 'thumbs up' (so to speak) from them for the Everyday bird food I'm trialling from Nottcutts. As you can see from the above picture, it's pretty similar to other bird feed mixes available on the market.

The main ingredient is wheat, followed by the black sunflower seeds, then kibbled maize, red dari (the commercial name for sorghum apparently) and white millet (reminds me of feeding my pet budgie when I was little). Vegetable oil's been added to get the calorific value up to 404 per 100g.

To be honest the birds are going for the peanut or sunflower seed only feeders first, then turning their attention to the mixed seed ones. At particularly busy times then everything on offer is popular. According to the packet, the seed mix is deemed most suitable for feeders (followed by tables and just a single star rating for ground) and is claimed to attract the widest variety of birds*.

In the past I've found quite a lot of the wheat gets missed by the birds and germinates to grow under where I have my bird feeders. To remedy this I also had a go at making some 'fat balls' by adding the feed to melted lard in a 50:50 ratio. I re-used the mince pie cases from Christmas to hold the resultant mixture, so the description 'fat ball' is rather tentative. The birds don't seem to mind though and it does seem to be reducing the amount of seed spilt. Thank goodness the chaffinches are around to hoover up what does reach the ground!

Overall verdict: the birds seem to like it, though I can't really see how this version differs that greatly from other similar mixes on the market. Therefore, it probably boils down to price and availability on whether this bird food is the choice for your bird feeders. I was going to give you details of an online discount voucher so you could try some for yourself, but I see Notcutts are revamping their website and sadly aren't taking orders at the moment. I'll put the details up on my Offers Page ready for future reference as the code is valid until June 2013.

* = listed as tits, bramblings, finches, bunting, dunnock, sparrow, linnet, nuthatch, siskin and yellowhammer. I'd say the blackbirds, thrushes, robins and pigeons round here don't turn their beaks up at it either ;)

Disclosure: I received a 1kg sample packet from Notcutts for independent review purposes.

Related Post: last week's review was of the identification guide, Birdsong.

If you're looking for guidance on how to make your garden more attractive to birds, you may also like to read my review of The Birdwatcher's Garden.

Friday, 18 January 2013

Everything in the Garden is Lovely

There's often a debate raging on whether 'gardens are art'. With the latest exhibition at Pound Arts in Corsham we now have 'art as gardens'.

The photographs I took on Monday night don't really do this exhibition justice. Judging by the excited reaction from my fellow choir members, I'd say it's a must see. Catch it if you can from now until February 23rd.

There'll be more from the bees in the next Muse Day :)

Update: Here's the promised closer look at those Subversive Bees :)

Wednesday, 16 January 2013

A Quiet Revolution - With Flowers

According to the biodynamic calendar, Monday was a 'flower' day *. It also happened to be the chosen date for the first ever gathering of flower farmers, so it was an apt, definitely auspicious choice.

I'm not a flower farmer, but having followed Georgie on Twitter, read her blog and happily sported a corsage or three of hers, I was keen to find out more about this side of the horticultural trade. It seems to me we've been having a quiet revolution over the past year or two, where many people have spotted the threat of imported flowers can actually be turned into an opportunity**.

The UK's flower industry is worth a whopping 2 billion pounds a year. It isn't all petrol forecourt and supermarket flowers either***. How about some scented, floral confetti for your wedding? It's a memorable way to get around the ban many churches have imposed on the paper version. Or how about some Pick Your Own flowers alongside those strawberries? I was struck by the many inventive ways the flower farmers I met have spotted (relatively) lucrative gaps in the market. Gaps which they're more than happy to fill.

I also learnt the term 'farm' isn't necessarily the familiar one we picture in our minds. Yes, some flower farmers are found there, but many are using much smaller patches of land for their business. I was also struck how many of them had started very simply (often with a few buckets of roadside flowers) and are using relatively cheap equipment in the form of a mobile phone and a computer to enable their business to flourish.

Georgie is well-known for her use of social media and using it effectively to tell the 'story' of Common Farm Flowers. On Monday I finally saw social media through her eyes. It's her shop window, where she tempts potential customers through the door for a chat. That chat may be converted into a sale - not by pressure tactics - but through giving an insight into her world. It also helps having a product which has plenty of eye candy!

Gill Hodgson of Flowers From the Farm highlighted the strengths of British Flowers which challenge the status quo of all those cheap imports. I heard her words - local, seasonal, different, quality and desirable along with the phrase 'days fresher' repeated many times during the day. I thought she made an important point that those there might view the others present as their competitors. However, by working together and learning from each other, they can compete more effectively with the even stiffer competition from abroad.

I came away from the day extremely uplifted. There's so much doom and gloom in the news about the economy these days, so it was great to attend a meeting full of buzz, excitement and 'can do' attitude' and hear how around 80 people are refusing to give up in the face of the competition. Instead, they're exploring new business models and niches in which to not only survive, but thrive.

Which would you rather have, a bunch of petrol forecourt flowers, or a sweetly scented arrangement like the one pictured at the top of this post? It was sufficient to welcome everyone into the reception area of an extremely large barn :)

The choice is yours.

* = according to Cally who knows about these things. Sadly she couldn't attend, so I was also 'wearing her hat' for the day. Lack of attendance doesn't mean she doesn't have a thing or two to say on the subject. Her thoughtful post, Where have all the (British) flowers gone? is worth a read.

** = if you've ever done any SWOT analysis, you'll recognise where I'm coming from

*** = they're probably going to remain the preserve of those imports from countries like Kenya, Ecuador, Thailand and India, though even here there are some notable exceptions. Waitrose and Marks & Spencer now stock some British grown flowers. Which reminds me, it's time to replenish my vase of Cornish-grown daffodils :)

Tuesday, 15 January 2013

GBBD: Orchids

One of my unexpected challenges for 2013 is looking after some orchids. This one - a Cymbidium - arrived just before Christmas and is brightening up our lounge. You may remember I also received an unexpected gift of a moth orchid on leap day last year :)

The main challenge for me will be how to make them flower again. According to the RHS's cultivation notes,  the Cymbidium's flowering is initiated during the summer months and is helped by having a distinct difference in day and night time temperatures. It also says the temperature should be kept below 590F, which could be tricky even in our climate. However, I'm up for giving it a go and will start by cutting the pictured flowering spike down to its base when the flowers have faded in a few weeks time.

The moth orchid requires slightly different treatment. When the flowers faded last year, I cut the flowering stalk back to just above the second node (joint) beneath the spent flowers. Mine hasn't developed the expected side shoot, so I'm taking the RHS's online advice and placing it in a cooler room for 4 weeks (the advice is 80F lower) to see if that'll do the trick.

NB This month's look at indoor flowers doesn't mean there's a lack of them outside, oh no. The Constant Gardener's issued a challenge last week where she asked us to count how many kinds of flowering plants we have in our gardens. Mine garnered a surprising total of 13. How many can you muster for Blooms Day?

Garden Bloggers' Blooms Day is hosted by Carol at May Dreams Gardens.

Monday, 14 January 2013

VPGGB: Sarah Raven Discount Coupon

It's time for leafing through gardening catalogues, dreaming of how the garden or plot will look this year, and then placing orders for lots of seeds, bulbs and plants.

So I'm pleased to announce Sarah Raven is offering Veg Plotting readers a 10% discount off the spanking new catalogue from now until the end of January :)

Go to the website, place your order and then add the magic VP10JAN code to the Apply Coupon area shown on your Shopping Basket's page. You'll find this below your selection of goodies, to the left of the Proceed to Checkout button.

NB This offer is only available for online orders.

VPGGB = VP's Guide to Gardening Bargains :)

Update 18th Jan - it seems code isn't working. I've reported it and will let you know when it's fixed. Update - it's fixed - in less than 15 mins :)

Sunday, 13 January 2013

Book Review: Birdsong

It's the annual RSPB Garden Birdwatch at the end of the month (26-27th January 2013), so in the run up to that time, I'm reviewing a couple of relevant products I've received which may help you with your efforts this year.

First up is Birdsong, a lavish coffee table sized book, which features 150 British and Irish birds. Its USP is the incorporation of a speaker, so that the reader can also hear the bird they're looking at. This means the guide can be used for identification on two levels. I quite often hear many more birds in my garden (such as a very talkative yellowhammer) than those on view, so I was intrigued to see how well this book would help with my identification skills (NB not that this would help with the RSPB birdwatch itself as you only record birds which are seen and not necessarily heard).

The contents are mainly divided into bird groupings as you'd usually expect e.g. wildfowl, waders, owls etc. These are prefaced with a brief introduction to birdsong, the key words used to describe birds (along the usual scientific terms lines) and how to operate the birdsong player. At the back of the book are useful lists of further references, bird sound websites and birding organisations.

The birdsong player is simple to use, though the call you'd like to hear can only be obtained by going through the calls available sequentially (either forwards or backwards) like you would have done on tape recorders of old. There's no way of  selecting by the reference numbers given on the bird description pages. I was relieved to see it's possible to change the batteries once those supplied with the book have died.

Most of the book is devoted to the birds themselves. Each species has a double page spread, consisting of a photograph (whole page), followed by the descriptive text. This also has a colour drawing accompanying the common and Latin name titles. The top of the page shows the bird grouping along with the all important recording reference(s) - some birds like the Mute Swan merit more than one, both wing sound and call in this instance.

The book part oozes quality. The photography is superb, the drawings are great and the descriptions are well written. It's a shame the recording part - which is the book's USP - looks like a cheap add-on (though it probably isn't). The speaker quality isn't that great and in some cases the birdsong recording used isn't very long. As a practical guide it doesn't really stack up - there are no illustrations showing male/female or adult/juvenile differences where appropriate. This means many of the birds we actually see can only be identified using this book if they're an adult male or if their call is heard! It's also quite a large book - too unwieldy for taking out into the field to many of the habitats where the birds are found.

Therefore I'm reluctantly placing this book on the 'not for keeping' pile, despite its glossy coffee table good looks. I'll be making do with my usual bird identification guide, plus my Geoffrey Sample CDs (his name always makes me giggle in view of the content) and the RSPB's bird identifier website. The latter has a great birdsong feature which makes me think that the time for Birdsong has passed. The future has to be a bird identification App for phones and tablets incorporating Birdsong's features and more.

Disclosure: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for independent review. Note that my assessment differs from most of the many positive reviewers on Amazon and the quoted reviews on there from various organisations and magazines who have an interest in this kind of book. A lot of what's said by them is correct, but I stand by my review in terms of looking at using the book from a practical viewpoint and in comparison to the resources I already use.

Friday, 11 January 2013

OOTS: Streets Poised To Go Edible

Will some chard be coming to a street near you?
It looks like many more of our streets will be displaying some Travellers' Salad this year courtesy of the RHS's 'Edible Britain' scheme :)

As part of this year's Britain in Bloom programme, ‘Edible Britain' will see community gardening groups creating 2,000 herb and vegetable patches in public spaces around Britain from 8th to 14th April.

RHS registered community gardening groups (currently around 3,000 of them), can apply for free edible-plant seed packets, provided by the RHS. These include chives, dill, parsley, carrots, coriander, spring onions and red frills mustard, as well as edible flowers such as nasturtiums and marigolds. I think it's a grand idea, but sadly the seeds will only be distributed to around two thirds of the gardening groups - wouldn't it be great if all of them got something?

Anybody can set up or join their nearest group by typing in their postcode into this online map on the RHS website.

In other edible news, I was delighted to hear The Edible Bus Stop scheme I saw at Hampton Court in 2012 is set to grace the streets of Bristol this year following their successful collaboration with Cleeve Nursery at the National Gardening Show. I've seen quite a bit of edible planting in the city centre so this seems a natural progression to their activities.

And I'm still giggling over the news about the name of the new London apple introduced as part of The London Orchard Project. The choice of 'Core Blimey' is inspired!

Monday, 7 January 2013

Seasonal Recipe: Pea and Ham Soup

A ham at Christmas is part of the traditional fare in both NAH's and my family, so it's become part of our tradition too. For some reason NAH decided to come home with a smoked gammon joint which weighed nearly 3 kilos. For just the two of us!  So now seemed the appropriate time to make pea and ham soup using the stock obtained when I boiled the ham for our Sunday dinner.

The key to usable stock is to soak the ham for 24 hours with plenty of changes of water along the way (to reduce the salt - this won't affect the flavour of the cooked ham) and to not use cola (as advocated by Nigella I believe) instead of water for the final change of liquid and cooking. If you're still worried about salt levels, you could always use chicken or turkey stock or a low-sodium stock cube instead.

I've used a mixture of half and half split peas to frozen peas for the pea portion of the soup to keep costs down and to help give the final result the green colour my mental image of it demanded. You could use 100% of either if you prefer - bear in mind a split yellow pea version will probably come out the colour of pease pudding. This recipe would also work with the substitution of lentils (in their various guises) or bacon as appropriate. I also used the green tops of 4 large leeks - again to help with the final colour. You could use 2 large leeks or a large onion depending on what you have to hand.

It's the use of the Christmas ham stock, leeks and comfort-food pulses which makes this a seasonal recipe, but really it's suitable for year-round if desired.

100g yellow split peas
250g frozen peas
750ml ham stock
4 leek tops (washed, trimmed and each one should be 3-4 inches in length)
150g ham
2 tsp dried mixed herbs
Freshly ground black pepper to taste

Adjust accordingly depending on how much stock you actually have. This version makes 4 servings.

  1. The day before making the soup, place the split peas in a bowl, cover with water and leave to soak
  2. On soup making day, skim off the fat from the surface of the ham stock
  3. Drain and rinse through the split peas then add them to the stock and start bringing it to the boil
  4. In the meantime, thinly slice the leeks and add to the stock
  5. Weigh out the frozen peas and also add to the stock
  6. Add the mixed herbs and freshly ground pepper to taste
  7. When the stock comes to the boil, turn down the heat to a simmer, cover and cook for a further 30 minutes
  8. Remove from the heat to cool
  9. Using a hand blender, blend the soup into a smooth liquid. Add a little more water if the soup is very thick, then taste and adjust seasoning if needed
  10. Chop the ham into small pieces and add to the liquid
  11. Reheat and serve
NB If the soup tastes salty, diluting it further or adding a peeled and quartered potato to the hot stock and simmering for 30 minutes can help. The potato should be removed before serving.

Sunday, 6 January 2013

Product Review: Fair Trade Coir Compost

I've been trialling some Fair Trade coir compost lately to see how it performs. As you can see it's different to most other growing media because it comes in a block and needs to be added to water before it can be used. This is quite easy buts needs some thought beforehand.

The block is a bit larger than a house brick and looks a little like a large chocolate brownie when it comes out of its wrapper. This has clear instructions, though if you lose it you'll need to go onto the sales website if you've forgotten what needs to be done.

According to the website the block weighs around 650g - mine was just over 800g. About 6 litres of water is needed to reconstitute the coir to yield approximately 9 litres of compost. The instructions say this can take up to 24 hours, but I found by using tepid water and vigorous stirring from time to time, it can be done in around an hour. The key is to ensure the compost is evenly wetted through before using.

I used the coir as it is to pot up some garlic, so it has a chance to be frosted this week prior to planting out on the allotment when it (the allotment, not the garlic) has dried out. There was just enough to pot up the fattest cloves from my two bulbs of solent wight garlic. Under other circumstances, such as potting up plants in a container for the season, I'd mix the coir with my own sieved compost plus some grit, or with a peat-free multi compost. This is because the coir is low in nutrients and wouldn't be sufficient to keep the plants going for a long period.

I have quite a few thoughts about the coir as follows:

  • Lightweight - it's easy to pick up and carry around
  • Relatively small - doesn't take up much space for storage
  • Reuse - it uses up a resource which would otherwise go to waste as it's a by-product of the coconut industry
  • Reduced packaging - which can also be composted afterwards
  • Ethical - enabling a community in Sri Lanka to to have a better standard of living
  • Holds water well, once rewetted -  reduces the need for watering
  • A different growing medium - it's new to most people and has different growing characteristics to what they're used to. Information on how to use it effectively is hard to find
  • Not usable immediately - gardeners need to anticipate using it, rather than just reaching for a bag
  • Top of compost dries out quickly - thus giving a false impression of actual watering needs. Users need to scrape below the surface to see if the rest of the compost is wet or dry
  • Relatively low nutrient levels - only really suitable for quick growing needs e.g. seedling potting up or as a component of potting mixes in the longer term. NB most other growing media options have fertilisers added to extend the growing life of the product
  • Availability - not usually found in the garden retail isles of supermarkets, garden centres etc., but instead it's available from Oxfam and other retailers selling Fair Trade products. Therefore, most gardeners will have to seek it out, rather than it forming part of their usual shopping routine/visits. NB it is available online and can be p&p free if ordered in sufficient quantities
  • Cost - it's around £2.50 for one 'brick' which makes it the equivalent around £12.50 for 50 litres of compost (the usual size for bagged products, though to be fair these aren't 100% coir). 
The jury's out on...
  • Sustainability - how much does its transportation from Sri Lanka counterbalance the reuse, less packaging and ethical plus points listed above?
  • Product size - it's a suitable amount for a small job, such as potting up a few seedlings, but a couple or more packets would be needed for most tasks. If there are leftovers, these have to be stored somehow (as it's not in a handy bag), or dug into the soil somewhere as an improver (though the latter option is a good use of the product)
Overall verdict

This is useful to have as a standby when you need some growing media and the shops are shut or you can't get there for a while. Unreconstituted it takes up much less storage space than its bagged up counterparts, so it's easy to keep a couple of 'bricks' in the garden shed or garage for use when needed. Relative costs can be kept down if it's used as a component in home-made potting composts, rather than as a 1:1 replacement for bagged growing media. 

The Fair Trade industry needs to look further at awareness and supply options if this product is going to take off as a suitable choice for gardeners. I believe most of them will not be looking to Fair Trade retailers such as Oxfam, or online for the purchase of these gardening materials. 

Judging by the comments I've seen in a couple of forums, ordinary gardeners like me need much more information available on how to use coir effectively. Watering and nutrient problems are often cited as reasons for poor performance and why the product isn't used again. Gardeners need to understand how coir differs to the multi-purpose products they're used to and how it can be used in home-made compost mixes. In the latter case, the popularity of ready mixed bagged products means many gardeners no longer have the know how. NB these final remarks don't just apply to the product under review for this post, but to most of the new reduced peat or peat-free products coming to market. In my experience these products don't have much information on their labels advising gardeners on how to use them effectively.

The most useful online article I've found so far which plugs this knowledge gap is this one by Monty Don from 2002 (see the coir information about half way down and a suggested potting mix using coir at the end).

Related article: Compost mixes made and used at Holt Farm.

Disclosure: I received a product sample for independent review purposes. 

Friday, 4 January 2013

Your Year in Salads

I'm starting the year with a shiny new propagator and some salad growing experiments* :) 

Quite a few of you have said you'd like to join in with the 52 Week Salad Challenge this year, so I've put together a guide today to help you get started and keep growing based on what we learnt during 2012. You may also like to look at last year's kick-off post. You'll see the Challenge is about growing salad leaves, what else accompanies them is up to you.

This post is designed to help get you started no matter what time of year or season it is where you are. Just find the relevant place in Step 3 and keep going!

Step 1: Define Your Boundaries

  • Decide what the Challenge means to you. It could simply be to grow something for every week this year, just  like I did. Or it could be to increase your crops (production and/or variety), or to try some new flavours or techniques. It's entirely up to you.
  • Identify where you're going to grow your salad through the year. We've proven salads can be grown year-round in the smallest of spaces, so anyone can join in. Setting aside the space is the start - personally I've found I prefer growing salads in a small space at home rather than on the wide open spaces of the allotment. Picking a bowlful of fresh leaves and herbs 5 minutes before tea is a pleasure!
  • Assemble your resources. If you have a greenhouse or polytunnel, then you're ahead of the game :) If not, then look at the possibilities that windowsills, conservatories, cloches, coldframes and other protection such as garden fleece offer to help extend the cropping season. Decide what pots and containers (if any) you need for salad growing. You may also be able to improvise - I did most of my windowsill growing last year using old supermarket vegetable trays. I didn't have the pictured swanky propagator then...
  • Define your indoor/outdoor growing seasons. What's possible varies widely depending on where you live. The key factors are light (more than 10 hours per day), temperature (minimum 5 degrees for growth and 10 degrees Celsius for salad leaf germination) plus lack of frosts. Those of you in the UK will find my What's the Weather for Salad? post useful to work out the possibilities for where you are.
Tip: I've found even the most expensive way of growing - in containers using newly purchased seed and peat-free growing medium + shop-bought organic feeds - is still a fraction of the cost of buying bagged salads. I'm also eating a wider variety of tastier leaves and I've seen that washed, picked mixed leaves kept in a bag in the salad crisper part of the fridge last much longer than their supermarket cousins.

Step 2: Decide What You'd Like to Grow

Grow what you like to eat, but also don't be afraid to experiment with new leaves and flavours. If you're stuck for ideas have a look at our Tried and Trusted: Lettuces and Tried and Trusted: Other Leaves. All as recommended by 2012's Salad Challengers :)

Tip: Growing microgreens and shoots  are a great way of using up packets of opened seeds from last year e.g. peas, beans, radishes, leeks, coriander. NB these aren't recommended for sprouting owing to the possibility of fungicides and other seed treatments used during processing. Store cupboard peas, beans and other pulses can be used for sprouting and shoot growing at a fraction of the cost of buying specialist seed marketed for these purposes.

Step 3: Your Growing Year

  • You're starting with no salad leaves growing at this point. What you can do depends on the time of the year you're reading this (see the key times below) and the indoor/outdoor growing seasons you've worked out for yourself.
  • Apart from the growing options outlined for low temperatures and light, I'm assuming you'll be growing and picking salads using the picking method advocated by Charles Dowding. This doesn't rely on lots of successional sowing (which I've failed at comprehensively, despite the best of intentions), but instead has a few key times for sowing. It also maximises the cropping period for each batch of crops from a few weeks into several months (e.g. I managed July to early November last year for my 'summer' cropping)
  • If you don't feel picking is for you - or in addition - you might like to try the technique described by Sally Nex for growing mixed leaves in pots. This means you'll continue with your weekly sowings and need a minimum of 3 decent sized pots.
When you have low temperatures and light, such as we get in winter, try indoor growing techniques such as sprouting seeds plus growing microgreens and/or shoots such as peas. Even with windowsill growing you'll be able to produce something for your salad within a few days (sprouted seeds) and you should be able to provide a full salad for two people within a few weeks. Using a mixture of the techniques and a variety of seeds will give you lots of flavour too. The possibilities using sprouted seeds were a surprise to many of us, so you may find my Sprouted Seeds Fact Sheet helpful.

Tip: Try to get into the routine of starting batches of sprouted seeds twice a week (I start mine on Sundays and Wednesdays) and microgreens or shoots on a weekly basis (Sundays for me).

NB: The seed packets of some salad mixtures and herbs claim they can be grown year-round for 'baby leaves'. We had success with growing rocket and Thompson & Morgan's 'Speedy Salad' mix in washing up bowls and similar large containers in 2012. I'm trying out chervil this year and other Salad Challengers are trying Sarah Raven's 'Winter Salad Mix' with some success so far. Therefore, claims found on other packets/seed catalogues are worth a try.

When you have a minimum of 10 hours daylight in late winter/early spring, this is your starting gun for sowing seeds under cover, in earnest. For me this comes in mid February. I won't be cropping from these sowings until late April or May (and then into June/July), so the low light/temperature sowing and growing regime also continues until then. Salads for outdoor cropping can be sown under cover in March/April (early to mid spring).

After your last frost in May/June, (late spring/early summer) you can safely transplant out your carefully nurtured seedlings which will crop earlier than any sowings made outdoors now. You will still need to sow outdoors (or in modules if you prefer not to thin plants out) at this time to ensure you have leaves for mid to late summer and into the autumn.

August/September time (late summer/early autumn) is the key time for sowing salad leaves for winter picking - mainly under protection. This is to ensure there's enough growth to provide enough leaves before low light and temperature levels (late October for me) grinds everything to a halt. My Last Call for Winter Salads post shows you a selection of leaves and herbs which can be grown/picked over winter. 

From October/November onwards (late autumn/early winter - depending on your local climate and light) you should be able to continue picking your summer salads until the first frosts (or later if you can grow under protection). Harvests from these will get smaller and smaller and you will need to increase pickings from your late summer/autumn sowings. Any shortfall in cropping can be fixed by starting the low temperature/light approach as described above again.

And so (or is that sow?) on...

Step 4: If everything fails...

Don't worry and keep going! We had great early success in 2012 and thought April onwards would be a breeze with the onset of the warmer weather. We then watched as it poured with rain for weeks and sowing after sowing got chomped away by a bevvy of slugs and snails. If things go wrong or you miss a key time, you can easily get back on track again by making more sowings and by looking at my Cheat's Guide to Salad Growing to plug the gap. Or, if you have particular plot problems you may find my Salads for Awkward Situations series helpful:
And if those pesky pests or dread diseases do strike, here's a guide to what to do.

Step 5: Good Luck and let me know how you get on! I'll be setting up some Salad Days posts for you to join in, or you can join me over on Twitter for a #saladchat. You may also like to look at my 52 Week Salad Challenge Page for the full list of salad posts I've written thus far. It's a mine of information!

* = I'm testing propagator protected pea shoot growing times vs non-propagator protected ones, plus whether it's possible to grow 'Bull's Blood' beet leaves along the same lines as pea shoots. There's more to come on these experiments in a later post.

Tuesday, 1 January 2013

GBMD: Janus

On and over our garden fence this morning

Image of beauty, when I gaze on thee,
Trembling I waken to a mystery,
How through one door we go to life or death
By spirit kindled or the sensual breath.

Image of beauty, when my way I go;
No single joy or sorrow do I know:
Elate for freedom leaps the starry power,
The life which passes mourns its wasted hour.

And, ah, to think how thin the veil that lies
Between the pain of hell and paradise!
Where the cool grass my aching head embowers
God sings the lovely carol of the flowers.

Janus by George William Russell (1867-1935)

Janus, the Roman god whose name gives us the month of January, presided over beginnings, transitions and doorways and is pictured as a two-faced god, always looking backwards and forwards.

It's traditional at this time of the year to reflect on the previous one and make resolutions for the future, which fits in well with Janus. I've been complying with this tradition over the past few days but after waking to this morning's optimistic sunshine and blue washed skies, writing a massive blog review of 2012 and looking forward to 2013 suddenly felt crass and self-indulgent.

Those details are now safely tucked away in my shiny new diary and a long winter walk beckons. Suffice to say 2012 matched my feeling of excitement at this time last year. I always shut my eyes on January 1st to try and fix on one word which sums up how I feel the coming year will be. This year's word is consolidation. I wonder what's yours?

Happy New Year everyone, may 2013 prove to be everything good you hope for you and yours.
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